|With time getting short I wanted to see Nguyệt’s accommodations in Sài Gòn. After all I am paying the rent. I knew it was a hole and did not worry about that much because I had lived in holes in my own college career but was unprepared for the true extent of the holeness of the hole. The neighborhood is not too bad as student ghettos go. The street is a bit narrow and two motorbikes make navigation tricky.
Nguyệt was living there with her older sister and her brother and a couple of cousins, all students. Lý, her sister, also has a job and is the only other support for the household besides the stipend from me.
The whole place measures out to about two hundred square feet on two floors. Downstairs is the living room, kitchen, and benjo- that would be bathroom in your house or my house but here it is just a rickety toilet behind a curtain in a tiny space with almost no room for the user’s legs.
There is no shower and water is from a tap on the end of a pipe that sticks up through the benjo floor. Bathing was taken care of in facilities at the university for the two girls and their cousins who are university students. Little brother Thương, who is going to a trade school, had to wash out of a bowl.
The ground floor is where the girls sleep and they must share it with four motorbikes and a bicycle. At night vehicles must be sequestered inside or they will disappear. The boys sleep upstairs and risk their physical integrity
every time they ascend. There is no rail around the access hole in the floor above.
The kitchen is a simple shelf with the ubiquitous two burner gas hotplate on it and a water bottle on a stand. There are no cabinets. Everything must be stored beneath and food preparation was mostly on the floor. At least the floors are tile and are washed thoroughly before time for dinner. Food storage is nil. There is no refrigeration but for the most part refrigeration is rare in Việt Nam yet. The day’s food is bought at market each morning and is fresh. Stored food is things pickled and preserved in big jars.
There is one window upstairs and the doorway downstairs for light. Inside there is one electric outlet on each floor that sometimes is live. “Hết điện” – outage- occurs often.
The beds are straw mats that are rolled up against the wall in the daytime. Sleeping on mats on the floor or on a Vietnamese bed, which is a sleeping platform with no mattress, is much better than with a mattress when there is no A/C and it is 100+ degrees Fahrenheit. A thick soft mattress is an excellent insulator and is miserable in hot weather.
I am glad I got to see Nguyệt’s house finally. I wish I had seen it sooner but, of course, I was half a world away until a month before. Hearing about it is not nearly so impressive as seeing it up close. Nguyệt has been living there for two years, Lý for five. I knew immediately on seeing the place that it had to change.