Under the huge vaulted roof of the Saigon Central Post Office, a French colonial building, I met an old man who has been sitting there for over 25-years.
I decided to go to Vietnam on a whim. I had a few days of work at Singapore and I extended that to a short vacation in Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City (I prefer calling it Saigon – more romantic).
This city on the banks of the muddy Mekong has been historically influenced by an onslaught of the colonial French, the socialist movement headed by Ho Chi Minh and by the nasty American occupation under Nixon. It is extraordinary to identify remnants of this heavy history hanging over the city as I walked the streets guided by a podcast. I reached the Saigon Central Post Office.
The Post Office was designed by Alfred Foulhoux. But it is often erroneously credited as being the work of Gustave Eiffel. The structure was constructed between 1886-1891 when Vietnam was part of French Indochina in the late 19th century. The architectural style has Gothic, Renaissance and French influences. At the far end, there are long wooden desks where you can sit and write letters to your loved ones in France, the United States or anywhere in the World. And if you don’t know how to write, there is always Mr. Duong Van Ngo. Mr. Ngo is a public letter writer who has been working at the post office for the past 27-years. He has been writing letters for those who have been unable to write for themselves. The podcast has a section on Mr.Ngo and I had to meet him.
This small old man sits at the end of these long wooden desks beside a sign that says ‘information and writing assistance’. He is known for his ability to translate ideas into appropriate writing styles in foreign languages. He can translate and write letters in French, English and of course Vietnamese. He writes five to seven letters between 8 am and 3 pm. He charges 10000 Vietnamese Dongs (about 30 Indian Rupees) per page. Translation is completely free. He has carried a big black bag every day to work. It contains a magnifying glass, English and French Dictionaries, pens and notepads.
I sat next to him, introduced myself and played the podcast while he listened with a big smile on his face. Later, he talked about life during the occupation, Vietcong and now. While I was getting ready to leave, I asked him if I can buy him lunch, a coffee or anything at all. He says making him hear the podcast was a bigger gift than anything money can buy.
Saigon reminded me of Calcutta of the eighties – forgotten monuments, art deco colonial buildings with socialist propaganda, bars with incandescent light circles on a red carpet and mirrors on the wall where decadence hangs in the air with thick cigarette smoke (like in a Guru Dutt movie) and beautiful people who rise above all.
Mr. Ngo was the perfect epitome of this city called Saigon. He is Saigon.