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Wednesday, 25 June 2008

No privacy in the loo. Saigon memories

In Orléans, France where I live days go by with nobody ringing the doorbell. When it does happen it usually turns out to be some door to door salesman. Of course I am allergic to anyone dropping by before 9 o’clock in the morning, better still 10 o’clock. No visitors after 7 o’clock in the evening either. I live in a fortress where unknown visitors are treated with suspicion and known ones are rare. When was the last time the place was full of pretty faces?

One of the good or bad points of living in Saigon was the continual flow of people. There was of course a curfew every night which meant one did at least have some hours of peace. I know there were times when I found this lack of privacy drove me nuts but now I often look back with a certain nostalgia.

Part of it was certainly due to the overcrowding but largely it owed much to the way of living of the Vietnamese. Firstly one had a wife or girlfriend who ran the place. As a man one was never involved in the domestic functioning of the house. Secondly there was always a maid. At one time I had three domestic helps. Odd people, related in some way to the household, would show up from time to time to visit Saigon for a short or long period. They would help with the running of the place, children, and anything else that needed doing. They would sleep somewhere and then one day disappear. At one time I counted about ten people living in my house. I was never asked my opinion, but was though treated as the head of the household and therefore not to be concerned about domestic matters.

One learns in the Far East that if one is in the toilet one does not lock the door. If you lock the door people start hammering on it, and keep on hammering, louder and louder. With quite what intention I never found out. To have peace and quiet one left the door unlocked, if somebody wanted to use it, they would open the door, see it was occupied, give a smile, and go away. If this was in my school it was terribly embarrassing to me. A result of my prudish Anglo-Saxon upbringing. The keys to my bathroom and bedroom got lost. I have a suspicion my toddler son threw them away. Once he invited my brother in law to visit the bathroom to show his father sitting on the toilet. Another time he invited the maid to see his father having a shower. Locked doors were of course very boring.

If the gas canister ran out during the preparation for a meal the maid would finish the cooking on a stove next door. If we were short of plates or cutlery for a dinner they would be borrowed from a neighbor. If we had many guests an extra maid or two would also be borrowed. People would come in and out all day long. Lots of pretty faces. No privacy but never bored.

When I first arrived in Vietnam and had got to know a decent girl it was very difficult to be alone. It was very embarrassing going up to my hotel room with one once when a hotel boy ran up the stairs after us saying I had to pay a dollar for the girl. Upgrading my hotel to the old and venerable Majestic and trying to drop into my room with her after dinner there was always a watchman on the corridor who would come and say ‘no girls in the room’. Years later wanting some discreet liaisons with young women it became more and more difficult to be alone anywhere.

In Vietnam it was necessary to have a house. It was also necessary to have a car. These were at least private. However you had to reckon that all the maids of the other houses and probably the owners as well would know everything about you. Some of it might be true, much probably false. The Vietnamese loved to gossip. They also liked to eat small snacks all day long bought from street vendors. So what better when doing housework (the maid) or visiting or being visited by friends (the wife or girl friend) than to have a snack and gossip? Of course when one ran out of facts one could always use ones imagination to embroider the stories. So apart from no physical privacy there was none for one’s private life.

My time in Vietnam was in two parts. The first when working with the American military and the second in Saigon where I mostly taught. I’m only dealing with the second here. This is because it was the respectable part. The earlier was very wild. One day a friend of my wife saw me down town with a woman. Immediately the story went around that I’d got a new western girl friend. Actually it was my sister who was visiting me and staying at my house. Another time when I was at my school a girl telephoned my home to say I’d got drunk and collapsed in the street. When, completely sober, I got home that evening everybody in the street knew the story and I got hell.

If I wanted to be alone I had to go to the countryside. When in Dalat I would take long walks outside the town. Everyone considered me completely mad. Once taking a short cut through a valley to get back before dark the path I was walking along petered out, at one place there were dozens of empty shell cases, then the undergrowth got higher and higher until it came up to my knees. As I was only wearing sandals I became very worried about getting bitten by a snake. Then I forgot about snakes in my fear of setting off a booby trap set by one side or another.
Of course fear is a very good cleanser. Once one gets back to security one finds all other little worries have been driven away. Mind you, I never did get any girl to go for a walk with me.

So no privacy in Saigon but never a dull moment.

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