By Sima Sarraf

photos by David Le

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On the littered, crowded streets of Saigon, between the Ha Hien Hotel, where I am staying, and a high-end swimsuit shop sits an alley. Street vendors clutter the mouth of the alley with their small makeshift stoves perched across the sidewalk. The open fires and com tam (broken rice) dishes invite glances from passersby and entice them to purchase a meal. For any one of these vendors, a sale can mean the difference between buying milk and paying the monthly electric and water bills. Every sale helps them survive.

At this particular corner, high-end stores and nice hotels starkly contrast the beggars and the homeless — who’ve been long forgotten by the government of Vietnam. The downtown city lifestyle of Saigon grows daily. Every day the common people and street vendors try to survive beneath the shadow of Vietnam’s growing economy.

My` Lam is one of these people. She spends most of her days sitting at the mouth of the alley on a red plastic chair meant for a toddler. Her younger sister, who share a cramped home with My`, runs one of the roadside eateries. They, along with My`’s daughter, share the monthly expenses. My` sits with the street vendors perhaps to show her support, but also because it helps pass time during the days; at least, at the curb there is room to move around.

“We don’t want to have to be poor, but we have to persevere. If there was somebody to help, it wouldn’t be so hard,” says My`.

My`’s 10-month-old grandson, Xu Bin, wiggles in her arms and smiles at everything. My’ cares for Xu Bin and his four siblings while their mother tries to earn money by selling gum and lottery tickets on the streets of Saigon.

At 69 years old, My`’s arthritic hands show a life of hardship. Swollen and bent fingers clutch at her young grandson who wiggles in her lap. Xu Bin is the youngest of My`’s grandchildren. The oldest is a 13-year-old boy. He is also the only one in the family who is able to attend school; it would be too expensive for the family to send the others for an education. As the oldest male, he has taken on a patriarchal role within the family. When his brothers and sisters try to play with the tripod and video equipment we have, he taps them on the head to let them know it is not OK.

As the oldest, it is now his responsibility to watch, scold and simply keep his brothers and sisters safe. Motorbikes buzz past their stoop every 30 seconds, just a few feet from the children. The children’s father is no longer in the picture. He left the family several months before, and out of either shame or embarrassment, the situation is not discussed with us further. The other children, who range in age from 10-months-old to 8-years-old, spend their days in the alley instead of in school.
My` spends a few hours talking about her grandchildren, her small home (although small is an understatement) and how difficult it is for the family to survive day to day.

Walking down the alley made me think of a side yard where a family keeps the junk they are getting ready to throw away. But family belongings clutter the fences and walls here, not trash. Clothes hang on fences while bowls and dishes sit on the stoop half a foot above the dirty gutter, and cots rest in a corner until they are pulled out for the night to soften the sidewalk.

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We walk past the clutter of random belongings for 30 or so yards and are met with My`’s small doorway. Her small “home” sits in front of a series of other doorways on a 90-degree corner. As we approach the back of the alley, our eyes meet a row of children leaning against the dirty wall.

The children play, eat and do everything else imaginable in this small corner of a dirty alley. On My`’s stoop, three of her grandchildren squat and urinate. Since the family lacks a bathroom, the children urinate, defecate and shower on the same stoop where their dishes are washed with a garden hose.

The home, which at a quick count boards 12 people, is smaller than many people’s kitchens. Inside it is dark, narrow and empty of the items expected of a home with five children. Realizing there was not a single toy in sight, I immediately felt the muted reality of these children’s lives

The walls substitute for coloring books; the smaller children sit and scribble on top of previous doodles. Upon receiving beanie babies from us, the children’s eyes light up and smiles widen their cheeks. The children clutch at their new beanie babies as Americans might cling to a winning lottery ticket.
The narrow space of their home is piled with sheets, pillows, clothing and other items you would expect in a bedroom or a closet. But with little room, everything the family owns is in piles against the walls, tightening the space further.

I see no beds in sight as I walk over the cardboard lining the floors. The piles of pillows and sheets are pulled down every night and used to soften the concrete below the tattered cardboard and re-piled against the doodle walls every morning.

With very little space, and nothing that truly belongs to any of them, the children surround any outsider, seeking attention or affection.

The five children depend on their mother’s street sales for food. But with respiratory problems that have gone undiagnosed, the sick and burdened mother struggles to feed her children. She confesses that she refuses to beg because she will be shooed away, but on some days selling gum and lottery tickets are barely enough to buy Xu Bin his milk. The family is accustomed to going without a meal.

“That’s just the way it is,” My` Lam’s daughter says.

The bills pile up, and money that is earned will often pay old debts. The only good fortune that the family can speak of is their small, crowded home. It is the inheritance that My`’s parents left her. With rent worries aside, the family focuses on paying debts, bills and feeding the five children.

“I have to support my kids and in order to do that, a lot of the times, I have to starve,” the mother of five says.

In addition to watching over the children, My` sometimes washes dishes for different vendors and restaurants. Unfortunately, this is not steady, and she seldom gets a second job from the same person. With her advanced arthritis, she sometimes struggles to hold onto plates and ends up dropping them. The broken plates are likely added to her debt.

In addition to the family’s debt, they also deal with the neighborhood block captain and police. The extremely tight quarters of the house make it nearly impossible for the family to sleep inside.

At the end of each day, the mouth of the alley that holds the makeshift food stands is picked up, washed down and transformed into a bed for My` and her eldest grandson. The police frequently visit the family due to complaints about the curbside setup. Not knowing what else to do, they simply continue with their routine while trying to deal with the police diplomatically.

“We have so many kids, we have to go out and sell things on the street while the government harasses us,” My` says.

At the end of the day, the sidewalk is where they sleep because they have to; with an absent father and a government that doesn’t care, the sidewalk corner in Saigon is all they have — that and each other.