JOB AT HAND

A lot of services, and those providing them, are only found in this part of the world.

By HASHAM WALI on July 11,2017 11:12 AM

JOB AT HAND

Photo: Viet Tuan

We’ve all been there. You’re walking along the street and suddenly you step on a loose paving stone and just like that, there go your high heels. Well maybe we haven’t all been in that exact situation before but there are none among us who haven’t experienced some kind of footwear-related trauma in the past, whether it was the flip coming apart from the flop or a failure to notice canine eliminations on the footpath.

So, what are we to do in these situations? Well, in the West, the three options are either to deal with it yourself, find a cobbler, or consign the shoes to an early grave. The first of these is fine for minor annoyances but for something major, you have no choice but to hobble back to your car and drive home or to the nearest shoe store and pick up some emergency treads. After that either try desperately to find someone that still practices the art of shoe repair and pay through the nose to restore your now deformed shoes back to their original glory or give up, cut your losses, and toss them in the bin.

But wouldn’t it be better if there was another way? If there was someone on every street that was ready to clean, mend and polish every boot, sneaker and sandal? Well, anyone residing in this part of the world is more than familiar with the sight of the roving shoe-shiner. For less than 50 cents these wandering nomads will slip off your shoes, equip you with a pair of ill-fitting slippers and then proceed to disappear for around 15 minutes, leaving you wondering briefly if they’ve done a runner with your shoes, before returning with your footwear looking almost as good as new. They can be a little annoying and insistent at times when all you want to is sit at a street-side café and have a shockingly strong iced coffee, but it’s comforting to know that they are there and when you’re in a shoe-related pinch, help will be at hand.

Sadly, it’s probably true that the profession of roaming shoe attendant may be one that is untenable in the West given the socioeconomic differences, meaning that it will remain a job that only exists in this corner of the world. It is not alone in this respect however, as there are a whole host of occupations that are either entirely unique to this region or just far more commonplace here than in Europe or North America.

A prime example of this would be the near ubiquitous xe om, or motorbike taxis, that are found on every street corner of every city and town in Vietnam. They are cheaper, faster and easier to get than taxis and, at least for now, form an invaluable part of the transport network. It’s no surprise that companies like Uber and Grab do much more business when it comes to bike-shares than car-shares. Motorbikes in general are much rarer than cars back home and motorbike taxis simply do not exist at all. A shame really, as we are deprived of seeing the sight of overweight middle-aged men reclining on the seats of their bikes, cigarettes dangling from their mouths and half-heartedly making unintelligible utterances in an attempt to attract the attention of anyone who might deign to pass by on foot.

JOB AT HAND

Another incredibly common scene along the footpaths of the city that would seem totally alien to those unfamiliar with Southeast Asia is seeing people getting their hair cut on the street. For an inexpensive, quick, no frills haircut there is no better option than going to one of the barbers that sets up shop right on the street. Usually opting to hang a mirror on a tree or some railings, these gentlemen offer a surprisingly good service for a very reasonable price. A couple of dollars will not only get you a decent haircut but also a straight razor shave, a nose hair trim, ear wax removal, and eyebrow detailing. It quite frankly beats the pants off most bricks-and-mortar establishments I’ve been to in the past and the Western world is all the poorer for not having them.

Going back to where we began with fixing things, Vietnam is a country whose people are loath to admit that any mechanical or electronic device has given up the ghost. While most people would consider a smartphone with a smashed and unusable screen or a Bluetooth speaker that could no longer be paired with other devices to be beyond salvage, the Vietnamese see it as a challenge. Perhaps this mentality stems from a time when things weren’t as plentiful as they are now but there is no one better at making broken things work again the people of this country. No matter what type of device, old or new, there is someone here who can tinker with it and bring it back to life. While this is great for the clumsier among us, it does mean that if you buy your devices from anywhere other than a reputable shop, you really have no idea what Franken-parts are inside it, something I learned after the fact when purchasing my last smartphone, which had been completely gutted internally and reequipped with much older bits and pieces.

Finally, it wouldn’t be fair to compile a list of jobs only found in Vietnam without mentioning the smiling ladies that wear a non, or conical hat, and carry their wares around town with a don ganh, or yoke. In Hanoi, they are most prevalent in the Old Quarter, hawking everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to snack foods and flowers. Though they have been known to exploit some backpackers, foisting their yokes onto unsuspecting tourists’ shoulders and then requesting a fee, they are generally fairly easy-going for people who spent vast parts of the day lugging around a back-breakingly heavy device.

When looking at the things that people do for a living here that cannot be found elsewhere, two recurrent themes emerge that encapsulate the Vietnamese experience perfectly. Firstly, there is an undercurrent of resourcefulness running through these professions. Most of these jobs offer services than people need but can’t get elsewhere and people here are more than happy to meet this demand. The other thing that is evident is how many of these occupations involve the street. Whether it’s taking a business out from a traditional location and putting it on the street or taking advantage of the number of people whiling away hours sitting at cafés and tea stands by bringing their goods and services directly to the customer. The recent tightening on restrictions for doing business on the footpath is something of a shame because it is beginning to take some of this away. The true beauty of Hanoi lies in its people and its streets and how the two are interconnected, and that is one relationship I hope will never change.

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