My train left Saigon at 7 pm.
Knowing what the traffic was like, especially around rush hour, I got a taxi at 5.
My driver was an elderly man, in his mid 60′s I guessed. We agreed on a price – $3 was the standard fare – before I got into his beaten up old Toyota.
He spoke fluent English; that in itself was striking. Normally, if anyone in Vietnam spoke good English, it was likely to be a younger person.
In the case of the taxi driver however, there was a problem as far as conducting a conversation went.
I’d been up late the night before, drunk too much, and I was tired. And what’s more, I had a stint as an English teacher behind me. I was feeling a bit jaded. I was happy to sit there on the back seat like a vegetable and stare into space.
My taxi driver had other ideas.
He started talking about soccer and his favourite club Arsenal. It didn’t make any difference that I wasn’t interested in sport, something I mentioned at one point rather emphatically. He just kept on about soccer and Arsenal. And there wasn’t much driving to distract him from his obsession, either. The traffic was a solid wall of rumbling machines pouring fumes into the warm, still air. Sometimes the wall moved, metres at a time, and sometimes it didn’t. When it didn’t, the taxi driver turned the motor off to save petrol – and kept talking.
At one point, he mentioned that he liked to practise speaking English.
I told him that he didn’t need to do that because his English sounded pretty good to me (hint, hint).
The whole country wanted to learn it or practice it – and tourists provided the locals with the perfect opportunity to do so. No matter where one was, one could always expect to be accosted by Vietnamese – especially the teenagers – keen to practice their English.
The night before in my hotel room, cruising through the twenty odd channels on the TV set, I found an ESL programme – ESL meaning: ‘English as a Second Language’.
In my inebriated state, memories came back to me of the two-year course I had done in The Netherlands to qualify as an ESL teacher. During that course, I was confronted by the reality that although I was a native speaker, I knew nothing about English grammar. It was quite a learning curve having to sit down and plough through grammar books and learn by heart all sorts of rules. Amongst other things, I learnt to analyse sentences and break them up into their constituent parts (adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, relative pronouns, conjunctions, subject, verbs etc).
I watched the ESL programme for a while and was interested in what the teacher (an Australian) had to say about conjunctions: that, which, who, and, or, nor, but, if – the so-called ‘joiners ‘used to connect different ideas in order to form a single sentence, eg:
The cat is black.
It is ten years old.
It likes fish.
The cat WHICH is black AND ten years old likes fish.
In an attempt to break out of the soccer/Arsenal mould, I asked the taxi driver where he had learnt his English (the TV programme in mind).
‘I learnt English during the war. That was when I began working as a taxi driver. All my passengers were Americans. Sometimes I got jobs working as an interpreter.’
I achieved my aim.
The taxi driver stopped talking about Arsenal.
Instead he started talking about what he called ‘history’.
What he meant by this was: his history.
He did so with such a single-mindedness that it made Arsenal pale in comparison.
It was good to be able to speak English now he said.
It wasn’t always like that.
When the Americans left in 1975 and the communists occupied Saigon, the life of English speakers became very risky, especially when they had worked for the Americans. It was a serious crime to be in any way tainted by U.S. imperialism. He was sent to a gulag or so-called ‘re-education camp’; he survived, but many others didn’t.
The taxi driver spent a lot of time talking about the 1980′s.
The 1980′s were very bad he said. Vietnam invaded Cambodia, an adventure which a poor, underdeveloped, war-ravaged country could ill afford. There was an US enforced western embargo on trade with Vietnam. The country became dependent on the Soviet Union. Russian became the officially sanctioned second language of all Vietnamese and was taught in the schools and universities. If you were overheard speaking English or seen reading an English language book, you were in big trouble. The quintessential definition of dictatorship: not to be able to speak the language of your choice.
In order not to forget his English, the taxi driver listened to the BBC world news service at nights in the little room he shared with his wife. This was his private resistance against the Marxist thought control regime.
‘We had to keep that radio turned down real low’ he chuckled.
The 1980’s: everyone learned Russian. A hard-line Marxist regime, the same one which banned English, unleashed a witch-hunt against anyone suspected of being a capitalist. Speaking English was a sure sign of being a capitalist or a spy.
In the meantime, there was widespread starvation. He talked about that.
‘Only the farmers had enough to eat’ he said, ‘for the people in the city, it was hard just to get one decent meal a day’.
The 1980′s: I thought about it. These were the years when hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese tried to escape the country on leaking fishing boats; when the term ‘boat people’ became a term understood all over the world.
The communist collectivized agriculture couldn’t produce something as basic as food. It seemed as if pointing a gun at people’s heads wasn’t enough to get them motivated.
Having worked the 1980′s, the taxi driver moved on to the 1990′s.
Since the early ’90′s he said, things had got steadily better. The hard-line Marxists had been replaced by pragmatists.
‘Communism’s got good ideas’ he offered, ‘but they don’t work in practice’.
Did he really believe that communism had some good ideas?
Or was this just the expression of a long ingrained habit of being careful about criticising the government?
I said: ‘good ideas like mass starvation?’
He didn’t answer that.
Instead he just rattled on. There was high economic growth and increasing tourism.
‘Every year more tourists. That’s good! Vietnam’s opening up to the outside world! Many of Vietnamese who fled the country during the 1980′s, they’re now coming back…they got money, they got education these people…’
Before we knew it, we were approaching the station.
We drove down a long street lined with tall trees. Behind the trees were lots of tiny stalls and shops.
‘It’s good to talk to someone about history’ he told me, ‘I can see you like to talk about history….’
Talk about history? I hadn’t actually done much talking. Asked a few questions; no more.
As we pulled into the station, he talked about his two children and his grandchildren. His son and daughter both had good jobs he said. Often the grandchildren practiced speaking English with him. The young people in Vietnam were very keen to learn English, he said, it was the international language. His grandchildren were lucky because he could help them.
There was only one problem.
‘The kids these days, they don’t want to dwell in the past. Their lives are in the future and that’s how it should be. They want to use the internet and buy mobile phones and play computer games. I don’t know anything about these things, ha! too old! I talk to them about the football. They’re not interested in history, not like you. They don’t want to hear about the bad old days.’
In the waiting room of Saigon Central, I thought about the taxi driver and his need to talk about what he called ‘history’.
In Vietnam to be in your mid 60’s or older meant that you were a survivor: an old person carrying around with you a weight of memories.
People of that age were conspicuous by their absence. Many of them died during the war or afterwards, during the years of hardship and starvation. And then there was the population explosion. Like so many developing nations, Vietnam did not have a problem with the greying of the population. My taxi driver was a member of a generation which was swamped by youth. 65% of the Vietnamese population were under 30.
In the modern Vietnam run by the pragmatists, the Vietnam of runaway economic growth and tourism, an old taxi driver was free to speak as much English as he liked but he had no one to talk to – unless it was about football.
No one, least of all the youth, wanted to hear about the bad old days.
So he liked to speak English to the tourists when he got the chance, especially when he had them in the back seat of his taxi on the way to Saigon central in rush hour.
It wasn’t a matter of practicing his English; it was matter of unburdening himself of demons from the past.