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Memories for a city
By Mai Lan
Tuesday,  Feb 5, 2019,08:35 (GMT+7)

Memories for a city

By Mai Lan

Young Saigonese ladies in their traditional ao dai in preparation for Tet, the Lunar New Year - PHOTO: THANH HOA

Despite its rather young age compared with the country’s long history, Saigon-HCMC has had its own distinctions, some of which have embedded in the mind of Saigonese.

When a child, I often desperately expected the holidays before the Lunar New Year, or Tet, to be picked by my uncle. My house at the time was used as both a fabric shop and a tailoring class on the former Truong Minh Giang Street (now Le Van Sy Street in HCMC’s District 3). My mother was so busy with her shop that an outing which fulfilled my wish was a sheer luxury to her.

My uncle’s residence was a street-front house on Tran Binh Trong Street, now in District 5. I used to take a seat at the front door to watch the familiar horse carts every morning.

I was appealed to the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves steadily knocking on the asphalted road, and the tinkling of the little bell which sounded like that of an ice cream vendor each time those horse carts pulled over to the curb. As soon as the first of these familiar sounds came, I—then a six-year-old girl—would rush out to wait for my aunt-in-law who soon took me to the market. The horse cart was very high, so I was always picked up by the coachman and put onto the seat near my aunt-in-law. All passengers’ shoes were taken off and hanged on the two hooks at the back of the cart. However, on that day I was allowed to keep my red moleskin shoes with me. The coachman might have been so thoughtful because he had known they were new shoes given to me. On both sides of the horse cart were two wooden planks made conform to the rim of the wheels, where passengers put their baskets. I sat in the cart, craning my neck to see the mane of the horse flying in sync with with its pace. Yet I was sometimes startled by the screeching sound of the whip the coachman threw into the air to redirect his horse.

It was the last horse cart trip I could ever take because the then mayor of Saigon would soon impose a ban on horse carts in the inner city after Tet. Then “Lambro 550,” an Italian motorized three-wheeler, began to appear. This was a scheme devised by the authorities of the then Saigon to help low-income people.

The “Lambro” rolled on the streets of Saigon for decades, able to get access to small roads where buses could not and stop anywhere at passengers’ request. The three-wheeler carried flowers and vegetables to the market, transported sand and cement to houses under construction, and even helped to move out of a house. It was very maneuverable and was seen at every corner of the city.

That said, when motorcycles made a landslide in Saigon, the “Lambro” was history because motorbike taxis could take housewives to the market and pick up students from their schools even more conveniently. It could also carry heavy loads and delivery goods to every doorstep.

The high-tech era has crept into every aspect of life. Once again, traditional motorcycle taxis have given way to “hi-tech” ride-hailing companies. The use of information technology has allowed vehicles and their drivers to serve customers at cheaper fares.

Batman kills off the “projector bike”

Like other Saigonese kids, I was also fascinated by a “projector bike,” a bicycle on which a small film projector was mounted.

My neighbor often brought a film projector home on the weekend so that his seven children and the five sisters of us could sit down together to watch movies shown on the wall.

Although we children had enjoyed “big screen” movies every weekend, we kept nagging when a “projector bike” stopped in front of our houses and gave off its hissing sound. To cope with the kids, the two mothers temporarily allowed them to go out for a short time and give them enough money to take turns to watch movies through two holes as small as a pair of glasses. Although the children had to watch the film while trying their best to cover both sides so that the light could not go through, they never gave an inch. It was simply because they wanted to have awful feelings.

Saigon next had its first television channel. When the beautiful voice of singer Thanh Thuy was raised with the channel’s signature tune at 7 p.m. every evening, my mother’s fabric store was crowded with neighbors who wanted to watch TV programs (because mine was one of the first families in the neighborhood to have a television set). After the news, the movie Batman was shown. Wearing a mask and a black cloak, the fictional superhero took action to help the disadvantaged and save their lives.

At the time, the “projector bike” was finally killed off by Batman.

It was apparent that TV programs were to wipe out a local way of watching movies. However, since modern computers and smart phones appeared, children have gradually been detached from the television screen to move closer to ... another screen—that of smart phones and tablets.

However, the “projector bike” has made a surprise comeback in a new form with new technology after 50 years: “Bedtime Shadow Books” from the United States. Seven volumes of this type of activity books have arrived in Vietnam and become the best-sellers. Shine the beam from a source of light through the pages and their pictures will be cast on the wall. Then a mother’s whispering words and stories will turn into lullabies capable of sending kids to sleep with their nice dreams.

Wheels of time

It is believed that time and new technology would erase the images of horse carts, the “Lambro” and the “projector bike” in the Saigonese’s memories. But this has turned out to be wrong. The old images have resurfaced. In some famous resorts or in the gardens of families, you can easily find an old horse cart filled with flowers, lying in the bright sun, or  a horse cart’s wheel hanging on a big tree.

The old “Lambro” is now a chic interior decoration element. At a bistro called “Lambro Tofu” near Phan Xich Long quarter, Phu Nhuan District, the front part of a “Lambro” is fixed to the door. It is the unique memory in interior design that has attracted gangs of noisy young guests. In District 3, there is also a “Lambro” coffee shop, where the trunk is used as a place for making coffee.

A “Lambro,” an old Vespa scooter, a hen-shaped iron, a Zeiss Ikon camera, and the like are becoming expensive and stylish decorative objects that remind many of the lifestyle of Saigon in the old days. I have watched over and over again the movie “The Hundred-Foot Journey” to enjoy Helen Mirren’s acting—her glance, her pensive mood and her trembling gesture as she receives the second Michelin star for her restaurant after thirty years of waiting. No word is needed because her most valuable ones are directly from her heart: food can convey memories.

If food is able to recover memories, a region of land will definitely be. Despite its rather young age compared with the country’s long history, Saigon has had its own distinctions.

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