the overripe custard apple slides from my grasp, slithering out of my hand like an eel making its escape.
"Uh-oh," Hai chuckles, looking down at the piece of fruit on the pavement. Its creamy white flesh is now blackened with dirt and sand. A tangy sweet scent hits my nostrils as I lick my fingers in disappointment.
This little café that Hai runs is on the ground floor of a fifteen-year-old reinforced-concrete apartment building. The café consists of nothing more than a few cheap resin tables and chairs set out at the edge of the street. It's a nice place to relax because it's off the main thoroughfare, a short distance down a quiet side street that gets only occasional traffic. The apartments in the building above have no balconies but large windows. The tenants leave their windows wide open all the time, confident that the iron bars fitted over them will protect them from intruders.
In the morning, along the same side of the street, a variety of food carts offering noodles, rice dishes, and sandwiches set up shop for locals to come fill their empty stomachs. Since so many people make it their custom to buy breakfast from street vendors, this is the time of day when the place most bustles with life. Once the carts have served up their food, they pack up and leave, not to be seen again until the following morning.
Hai's café is the only place that stays open all day long and into the evening. Since it's also a general grocery store, and my apartment is right across the street, I'm a regular. But I've learned to examine things carefully before I buy them. Among the products available in the cluttered, poorly lit storefront are seasonings and canned goods that are a year or two past their expiration dates—and sometimes even more. A pastry I bought once turned out to have a small colony of mold growing on it.
I live across the street in an older building that's supposed to be for Vietnamese citizens only. As a general rule, foreigners in Vietnam can't live anywhere they please; they're required to find housing specifically licensed for non-native occupants. But properties with such licenses charge much higher rents, which is why I live where I do.
My landlord is a quiet middle-aged man who lives with his family on the second floor. On the first floor there's a store that sells baby clothes; the only way for residents to enter the building is through this store. It's never very busy, except during special sales, and I sometimes see the young female salesclerks taking naps in the store's dimly lit interior. They stretch out on the sofa intended for customers or spread reed mats on the floor without the slightest qualm, right in the middle of their shifts.
I often get home after the store closes, so it's dark when I walk through it to my apartment. I could easily steal something if I wanted, but needless to say, I don't. I have no use for baby clothes.
When I come up to the second-floor landing, I peek into the landlord's living room, which is always left wide open. I often used to see his ghostly mother and father standing quietly inside as I passed by. Just once, they beckoned me in and asked me to join them for a cup of tea. Their movements were like those in a slow-motion film. Time seemed to pass even more slowly for them, in their little realm, than for the rest of Vietnam.
The old woman died not too long ago, and the funeral was held in the store downstairs. As is customary, I went to offer up a stick of incense. The man with whom she had shared her life was not present. My heart hurt to think how he must be feeling.
My own apartment is on the fifth floor. I like being on the top floor, where I have a nice view, but the one drawback is that the building has no elevator. The stairwell is dark even in the daytime, and very dusty. Right next to the stairs on the top landing is a messy pile of discarded furniture. When I first moved in, I helped myself to a TV stand and a chair.
The building has two doormen who work in alternating shifts. The first has a brusque manner that discourages any attempt at conversation, but the other is an affable fellow who wears milk-bottle glasses. He always seems to be drinking some kind of cheap booze when he's on night duty; it looks to me like pretty nasty stuff. When I come home, he often invites me to join him as I pass by his station.
Behind the store is a small parking lot for bicycles and motorbikes. The back door leading to the lot has no doorman, so any time I go out that way, I have to make sure the lock is secure. Given the high incidence of theft here in Ho Chi Minh City, a momentary lapse could lead to long-lasting regrets.
The lot isn't really quite big enough for all the two-wheelers it has to hold, so at night even the center aisle fills up. If you park at the back and need to get away early the next morning, you wind up having to do a lot of shifting—moving the bikes out one by one to open up the aisle, then putting them all back again after you get your own bike out. It makes for a whole lot of extra trouble. To avoid that, you need to be thinking about the next day when you decide where to park. But unfortunately, if you park in the spaces closest to the entrance, you're more likely to get your bike stolen.
Adjacent to the building, right outside the back door, is a small, dilapidated wooden house where a man who drives a cyclo—the Vietnamese equivalent of a pedicab—lives with his family. The structure looks like it could topple over at any moment. I often see the driver waiting for fares on the corner of the main street; anytime he spots me coming out the door, heading to the nearby market or bakery on foot, he immediately calls after me, "Take a ride, miss?" When he's not out driving his cyclo, I sometimes see him in the alley behind my building, sorting through mounds of empty tin cans and scrap metal that he's gathered.