I have observed the Vietnamese now for just three days from the distance that separates any tourist from the citizens of a place, and I can't say that I have a great insight into their lives. I can say that certain aspects of their lives have made an impression on me.
The Vietnamese are incredibly energetic people. The young generation of professionals, students and the people Australian politicians were fond of calling "aspirationals", know that is the way to get to wherever they want to be. The majority of the working population, the working poor, (now there's a contradiction in terms) have to be more than doubly energetic because the return for their effort is very small. They are weary. One can see it in their faces And in their laboured bodies as they face the same struggle to make a living day after day.
I understand why everyone works so late then. I have just finished dinner ( at 10:15 at night) and all around me everything is open and working. Restaurants, bars (these I can understand) but also bookshops, boutiques, travel agents, shops selling bags, sunglasses and trinkets, street vendors and street food cooks. The people who sweep the streets and remove the rubbish that people deposit on the edge of the footpaths are still working, clad in bright orange overalls and helmets, manually pushing their mobile skips and taking away everything that has been discarded.
Some people have finished for the day (or night) and are just sitting and watching the world go by. Others are sleeping on chairs or folding beds, even in little alleyways and under any little bit of cover. It's hot and humid. The less one moves, the better. Some even manage to sleep on their motorbikes, stretched with impressive acrobatic skill and balance across pillion and handlebars.
Incredibly, little children are still up and active. Some are school age, some are toddlers and some but babies. I have not seen one complain yet. Children are adored in Vietnam, and babies and toddlers, in particular, are always being cuddled, entertained and kissed rhythmically every few seconds. It all happens outside, as their families sit, work and play.
As I sit at the restaurant's outdoor tables, I am offered things to buy by people who have been doing this for at least 14 hours already: cigarettes, sunglasses, reading glasses, bracelets, fans, and, strangely, towers of books wrapped in plastic. The stacks must weigh a good ten or twenty kilos, yet people walk around cradling them with their hands or balancing them on one or other of their hips, a method that makes them walk with their spines bent severely in one direction. It pains me to look at them. (The books, by the way, are pirated: they are photocopied and laboriously bound). I don't make judgments. These people have to make a living and things here are harder than we in the west know. Anyway, the Japanese copied English cars and German cameras after the war, and look at where they are today.
And so I feel sorry when I decline to buy, and watch sadly as the vendors turn from me with a sometimes bitter look of disappointment, and I wonder how I must look to them and begin to question my decision. But I have realized that I cannot buy every trinket, bracelet or souvenir proffered. It would be impossible to carry it back to Australia for a start. I can only try and spread my tourist money as logically and responsibly as I can.