Sunday, October 28, 2007

Special jobs in Saigon

10:20' 27/10/2007 (GMT+7)

VietNamNet Bridge – In hidden corners of noisy and busy Saigon, there are people who have done unique jobs for decades.

Collecting old money, stamps

For the past 30 years, at a corner on Hai Ba Trung road, district 1, HCM City there has been an old man whose hair has turned white sitting next to an old, small desk to collect old coins, banknotes and stamps.

This man is named An, an original Saigon man. “I buy old money and stamps and then sell them to others. Collecting old money and stamps is a habit but that habit needs money,” he said.

The old man showed off his ancient coins. “This coin was produced in 1,039, in the Dinh Tien Hoang dynasty,” he said, raising a Thai Binh Hung Bao coin dating back to 968-981.

How much for that coin? “Perhaps more than VND1 million,” he said.

“You have to study to play with old money. To buy ancient coins, you must know Chinese, understand history to define the value of them. If you collect Indochinese money, you must know French, English and the volume of Indochinese banknotes remaining in the market. This banknote is worth several million dong,” he said, pointing to a banknote made in 1899.

He has also collected a lot of old stamps from passers-by. In the past 30 years, he has bought hundreds of stamps, including very rare ones, priced at millions of dong.

“How much longer will I sit here to buy and sell old money and stamps?”

“How long in your opinion, when I’m over 70 already? I think just several years more, till the time I cannot stand sunlight and rain like the past 30 years!”

Turning Cinderella into a fairy

The woman who has this special skill is a professional painter named Dung. After travelling to many countries and attending many big carnivals worldwide, she came up with the idea of doing a strange job in Vietnam: making carnival masks and costumes.

Visiting her shop on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai road, one may think that he is in a strange and wonderful world, like in the world of tales, where Cinderella suddenly becomes a princess by means of magic.

Dung’s masks, festival costumes are very colourful and strange. “I guess you wonder: how can I sell these things when Vietnam doesn’t have carnivals? But I can still sell them to students, young people, and office staffs, to use at picnics or parties.”

Besides mysterious masks, Dung designs paper costumes of the 12 animals symbolising the cycle of 12 years, Mickey Mouse, clowns, Santa Claus, flowers, etc.

“Anybody wants to become Zorro, come here and I will satisfy him!” she said.

Writing love letters for 17 years

In 17 years working as a letter writer in French and English, Mr Ngo has witnessed both the sadness and happiness of many clients and has brought many couples together.

The job of Mr Ngo is closely attached to the HCM City Post Office, an old building built in 1886 in the special Asian-European architectural style. Foreign visitors come to the post office not only to see one of the oldest and most beautiful post offices in Asia but also to witness the work of an old letter writer.

At around 8am on a hot day of 2007, Mr Ngo, a thin old man came on a bicycle. He put the bicycle under the shadow of the sung dau trees, said hello to postcard peddlers, and arranged his table to begin a working day.

The table of Mr Ngo is arranged under a portrait of President Ho Chi Minh. He pulled two Vietnamese-English and Vietnamese-French dictionaries and a postal code directory from a briefcase. He pinned a red ribbon on his left hand as a symbol for his customers. Next to the table is a plate: “Instruction and letter writing”.

The first customer of Mr Ngo was a man from a Mekong Delta province. This man had worked as a driver for a European businessman for more than one year. The businessman had returned to his country and the driver wanted to write a letter to his boss asking him to pay health insurance and $200.

Understanding the situation, the old letter writer began his job. The letter was quickly completed in English. Sometimes Mr Ngo opened his Vietnamese-English dictionary to find a word.

Mr Ngo is considered a world connector, the only professional letter writer still working. For every letter he always very carefully chooses his words and writing style. As a professional letter writer, he understands how important words are.

But Mr Ngo is not simply a letter writer; he is a bridge spanning the gap between humans and an advisor to his customers.

Mr Ngo became an employee of the Saigon Post Office at the age of 17. He is now 75. The letter writer said that he had never been absent from work, even during war time. He speaks English and French quite fluently because he studied French at schools and English from American soldiers.

The second customer of Mr Ngo that morning was a young woman. She took a cell phone from her bag and showed Mr Ngo a message in French. Mr Ngo immediately translated the message: “When I met you, you showed me how Vietnam and Vietnamese people are and taught me Vietnamese. I can’t wait any more”. The girl smiled shyly. She got acquainted with a French guy through the Internet. She said she would return the next day to ask Mr Ngo to write a letter for her.

Female customers often call Mr Ngo a love letter writer, a poet and a matchmaker. Mr Ngo said he had been a matchmaker for several couples. “Their love is hindered by distance, language and culture and it is difficult to overcome these obstacles,” he said.

In 15 years working as a letter writer, Mr Ngo has witnessed the pain of many customers, about whom he has pledged to not release personal information. In turn, customers highly praise Mr Ngo for that virtue.

Mr Ngo has received thank-you letters from all over the world. These letters are sent to the “letter writer at the Saigon Post Office”. He has never received electronic letters. He doesn’t like computers and mobile phones. “Words from machines have no soul,” he said.

That morning, many Japanese visitors came to the HCM City Post Office to see the unique architecture and take pictures of Mr Ngo.

Mr Ngo is now the only letter writer in HCM City, and perhaps in Vietnam. His colleague – Huynh Lieng – passed away ten months ago. Mr Ngo has only one wish: that the world will have many more letter writers like him and his friend, Huynh Lieng.

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