I Am Watching…

Every newcomer to Saigon has a honeymoon experience. The people are positive, hardworking, and friendly. The energy is good. The country is booming. There is an emerging middle class. The food is good. There is no violent crime. The taxis are cheap, and there is no winter. The honeymoon seems to last about six months.

There is no defining event that brings the honeymoon to an end. It could be an encounter with the government bureaucracy or an emerging awareness that people around you seem to know what you’re doing before you do. Eventually, you realize the everyone knows your business. That’s when someone tells you about “the watchers.”

The conventional wisdom is that every street has a watcher – someone who watches the daily comings and goings of all the neighbors. It’s so stupid but then again no one says that the government attracts the best and the brightest – maybe the ambitious, the corrupt or the lazy but not the best and the brightest.

The guy with the piercing look and the Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt is an enigma to me. I have passed him every morning and every afternoon for almost a year. He never smiles or says hello, and I get a perverse delight in giving him a big smile and xin chao on my way to and from the office. I get nothing but this stare in return. Everyone else on the street is amused and delighted to play the game, but this dude is not playing. There is nothing covert about his watching. It’s hard to believe, but he sits in his plastic chair on the sidewalk from sometime before 8am when I walk by until after 5pm when I walk by going the other way. The Vietnamese prize light skin. Women go to great lengths to cover themselves so that no skin will be exposed to the sun, but this guy is the George Hamilton of Saigon. He sits there in his little plastic chair all day long as the sun passes overhead – watching life go by. He never moves, at least I’ve never seen him move.

In Vietnam men are the weaker sex. Women do all the hard work – from hauling and mixing concrete to running small enterprises on the sidewalks and keeping their families together. The men sit in their little plastic chairs and drink tea until about 4pm when they switch to beer. During the day they gossip and at night they gamble and get loud. I haven’t figured out how the guy in the picture fits in with all this, but maybe he’s a retired watcher and doesn’t know how to do anything else.

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