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A Vietnam Memory

July 15, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Over dinner recently of small chicken pieces in bow pasta tossed with minced garlic, asparagus tips and mushrooms (yet another Maui meal with all ingredients from outside Maui), I told spouse C. and daughter, back from college, about an experience during lunch in Hanoi, the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

I met a fellow American working for a U.S. high tech firm and after I arrived at his office, he took me outside to an al fresco restaurant.

I can’t recall what I ate for lunch (although I do remember calling Room Service at the Hilton Hotel – no, not the infamous POW prison where Senator John McCain was held, but a real Hilton Hotel next to the Hanoi Opera House where Ho Chi Minh suddenly proclaimed a new independent Vietnam at the end of World War II when the defeated Japanese forces were leaving Vietnam and French troops returned to continue colonial rule – and I distinctly tried to order “Chicken Pho”, the ubiquitous Vietnamese rice-noodle dish in a hearty broth, and the Room Service woman responded sadly: “No Chicken, only Beef” – since this was during the “Bird Flu” epidemic in the mid-2000s in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong).

Although I don’t recall the food, I do remember a young man coming to our table and speaking in Vietnamese to my contact, who took off his shoes and put his feet in slippers offered by the mysterious stranger.

I asked “Why did you give your shoes to him?

The American expatriate responded that while we were eating lunch, the young man would clean and shine his shoes, and by the time we were into dessert or asking for the bill, the shoes would be returned.

And so the shoes were returned to my contact, after our lunch (that I can’t recall the food). Ah, I thought, an entrepreneur making a buck (or a dong, in Vietnamese currency) of diners sitting at a restaurant for 1.5 hours -- you do this over and over, and soon there is real money (with probably a cut to the restaurant).

But as Vietnam “modernizes” (in a shorter time compared to now-post-industrial countries) I could see the young man, who probably moved to Hanoi from the countryside to make a new life, would move into another business, and his children, with a technical education, would enter software engineering out-sourcing careers or hospitality or manage new jeans factories. There won’t be a replacement shoe-shine person at the restaurant, I am sure, if I returned there next week.

In the 1960s I recall as a boy I encountered men still in the shoeshine business at various downtown Honolulu places, even at the lobby of the now-gone Alexander Hotel. There may have been a shoeshine corner at the old Liberty House (now Macys) in downtown Honolulu (now slated to become a Wal-Mart) or at the Ala Moana shopping center, but I am not sure. My point is that when an “older” city evolves into a fast-moving one with money and opportunities flowing around quickly, shoeshine places disappear (along with small, personalized shops in general, perhaps catering many years ago to cigars or tailor-made suits).

Shoeshines reflect a time when people moved more slowly, ate more leisurely meals, read more books, and spent quality time talking on many topics with people who were waiters or barbers or couples sitting in the next bench in a park.

Moreover, few men (or women) in 2013 own quality-made shoes that lasted for decades and like a vintage car, they used to invest in new heels every several years and . . . shoeshines.

See for background my Vietnam visits: Recalling Hanoi the Capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam


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