Every morning at dawn, Mrs Ba’s youngest son takes her from home in District 4 to her stall on the footpath in the backpackers’ area in District 1.
There she sits on a worn stool, selling drinks to local people and foreigners, conversing in her native Vietnamese as well as English, French, Chinese and Cambodian.
Mrs Ba’s real name is Tran Thi Dinh and she is considered an ‘Ambassador of Saigon’ because the 88-year-old vendor has been making her living on the footpath and talking to international travellers for about 40 years.
‘Ambassador of Saigon’
She may greet passers-by in French and invite them to buy drinks and then change the language if they respond in English. Some customers are surprised and happy to hear her speak English and seek directions around the area or ask how to visit attractions or beauty spots in Ho Chi Minh City, like Ben Thanh Market, the Nguyen Hue pedestrian mall, or Reunification Palace. They are happy to receive her help and kindness even though her pronunciation is not so clear because she has only a few teeth left.
Dozens of international travellers pass her stall in the heart of the city and she greets them all. She always has a few words with them as she sells her drinks and sometimes has longer conversations about the interesting things to see and do around town.
When asked how she learned four languages, Mrs Ba explained that, ‘When I was young I worked for my aunt in Chinatown and learned some Chinese from the customers and people in the neighbourhood. Then I learned to speak French and English when I provided beauty care services for French and American women. When I was a child I lived with my family in Tay Ninh province, on the border with Cambodia. My parents had a big farm and employed many Cambodians, and I learned Cambodian from them.’
Her Chinese is the best of the four and she can speak different dialects like Cantonese, Hainanese and Fukien. She can only speak them, however, not read or write.
In her younger days, she said, it was easy to make a living in Saigon. Everyone worked hard and hardly anyone was out of work. Many people were government employees and it was easy for her to do business. There were a lot of cars and she could drive because her family had one. People in Saigon were very friendly and honest, and it wasn’t necessary to lock the doors at night.
When customers sit with their backs to the street, she suggests they turn around and look at 23/9 (23 September) Park to admire the green space. ‘The park used to be a railway station surrounded by tall walls,’ she recalled. ‘In those days [before 1975] I sold broken rice and drinks near the station. Every morning I sold three big pots of rice. The shop made it possible for me to make enough money to raise my children. The train station was then moved to Hoa Hung in District 3 [where it still stands]. Fewer customers came to my shop. It was also getting harder because of my age and my children suggested I close the shop. This is why I have been selling drinks here for nearly 40 years.’
Mrs Ba said she used to provide services for some western women and some of them worked for a pharmaceutical company and often gave her medicine. She thinks this is why her health remains quite good. When they returned home to France or the US, some asked Mrs Ba to go with them, telling her she could work as a housekeeper and her husband could be their driver. They promised to give her children a good education and provide her with air tickets to come back to Vietnam every couple of years. But Mrs Ba politely declined, as her parents were in Saigon and her business was doing well. She didn’t feel a need to leave her homeland.
No matter the weather, she sits on her little patch of footpath 364 days a year and sells drinks from early in the morning to about 4 pm, when her oldest son comes to help her pack up and take her home. Her only day off during the year, by choice, is the first day of Tet, the Lunar New Year.
She said she has never had to pay anyone for her spot on the footpath and no one has ever told her to move along. She has also never had to pay to store her things. Some of her plastic tables and stools came from police officers.
Asked when she will retire, she said her children repeatedly ask the same question but she tells them she feels that sitting around the house doing nothing would be the beginning of the end.
There are other vendors nearby. Seeing a woman carrying cakes in a basket, Mrs Ba gave her some money and asked her to give three security guards two cakes each. ‘She sometimes buys something from me and gives it to someone else,’ the young vendor said. ‘Just once in a while she buys something for herself.’
‘I might be the only person in Saigon who, at 88, can still do this kind of job and live a healthy life with a sound mind,’ Mrs Ba said. ‘I can still communicate with foreigners every day in the four foreign languages I know. I sit here all day long without getting tired. Maybe God has blessed me because I have lives in peace with everyone.’
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, has many amazing things for visitors. With a population of around 10 million it’s better known for its hustle and bustle, but its ‘original’ peace, warmth and friendliness can always be found here and there, like at Mrs Ba’s spot on the footpath.