Sunday is my favourite day of the week
When in Saigon
I woke up abruptly at 4:58am to the deafening sound of the funeral band in my neighbourhood. “This is much earlier than I had planned to get up,” I thought to myself, quickly recollecting that I had intended to wake up earlier than usual. Today is burial day. I wanted to be part of the procession – only the first half – because it felt like something I should do. I had hugged Ng. and Th. yesterday, fully masked, and told them how sorry I was for their loss. We played badminton and shuttlecock kicking together as kids. We barely talk now. That’s usually how it goes.
My mum and dad were also up. We quietly did our morning routine together, alone. Mum briefly joked about how unnecessary it was for us to set the alarm for 5:45. Dad randomly told us about someone he knew from Phú Yên, where he is from, who apparently just turned 80. He was a little annoyed that mum did not know who the person was. I sipped my coffee, trying to wake up and look presentable. I contemplated changing out of the black and white striped t-shirt I wore to sleep last night. No one would care, I decided, not in this part of the world. A pair of pants is usually the most important item for respectful attire. As long as my knees are covered, I would not offend anybody.
The band started playing again. Mourning music is awful – not just because it is always played at an obscene volume, but also because it is hardly played as music. The band would always pick the saddest songs, with the most miserable lyrics, and blast them on whatever amateur instrument ensemble they can gather. Yet to the untrained eye, a Vietnamese wake seems almost joyful. A wake should never be quiet. If not the thumping noise of instruments battling themselves out masquerading as music, then the sound of young women laughing and middle-aged men arguing over one too many beers would liven the free-flow meals that are there to not only mark the occasion, but also say thanks to visitors, whose appetite should be tickled in the face of mortality. You only die once, after all.
Out came the fat monk after the final chanting of passages that were going to guide the deceased onto his next life. It was a sign that the coffin was going to be shouldered out of the house by four young men donning black suits that fit neither them nor their surroundings. The fat monk, standing just outside the door and among the procession, teased Nh. about his freakish height. It’s not every day that you see a 1.92m tall Vietnamese man; not when you’re a fat monk, you don’t.
Out came Ng. and Th., walking backwards. You are not supposed to turn your back against the deceased; the living knows not where the dead goes, so they cannot lead the way. The journey ahead seems lonely enough: we keep our eyes on what’s remained for as long as possible. Ng. and Th. are both married women – it is radical for them to lead the procession, Th. carrying their father’s portrait and Ng. a large joss stick bowl. Many families, in the absence of a son, would delegate this important duty to their eldest distant nephew. Or a godson. Or their sons-in-law. Not having a son to carry your own portrait when death comes knocking is a true source of anxiety shared by many Vietnamese fathers. Being survived by their wife and daughters is probably their worst nightmare. And yet, like many other places on this green earth, Vietnamese women outlive Vietnamese men – by eight years on average.
I got on my scooter and drove. Since I came home, I had not had the chance to cruise Saigon on my bike at 6am on a Sunday. Pham Ngoc Thach street is particularly pretty, deserted on a chilly Sunday morning. It reminded me of Year 12, when I used to drive my Honda Cub 50 to school every day. I drove by the Opera House; when I came home for Christmas break last year, they held a public concert in front of the opera house every Sunday morning. Not anymore. Even when I’m in Vietnam, the spectre of COVID is still omnipresent. I wondered whether it would be worse to lose someone to COVID. I wondered whether there was any real difference to begin with.
My soundtrack to driving around Saigon recently has been random Suboi tracks, starting with this song. I taught her in every Asian pop culture class in Melbourne and Singapore over the past years as an example of Southeast Asian hybrid modernity, to the fascination of students from various parts of the world. There is something fearless about her almost comically ultra-Saigonese accent that I appreciate. Lately I’ve come to admire honesty, especially the kind that gets you into trouble.
I took my scooter out again at night. Driving around aimlessly in a city that never ceases to churn out people from all directions is the only exercise in freedom that connects the urbanite’s past to their present moment. Their dreams in exile and the sights they now diligently collects, as they is thrown into the material immaterialised. Their longing for home and their anxiety for staying in it.
Everyone I know in Saigon explains the volume of traffic on any given street at any given time of the day based on any set of criteria. Don’t get out between the hours of 5 – 7 pm on a Monday unless you want to get stuck in traffic for hours; 4:30pm is sometimes OK for a weekday but if you’re going into District 1 then don’t even bother. Why is it so crowded on a Saturday morning? Must be all the goody two-shoes who never go out on Friday nights looking for a brunch spot to feed their Instagram, accompanied by the out-of-towners who want a taste of the big city. Traffic on Tuesdays is always better than on Mondays for no real reason. You’re in real trouble if you find yourself alone in downtown Saigon on a Thursday night; maybe COVID has really wrecked this city. But if it rains on Thursday night, then all is forgiven: Saigonese do not like to wait, so they would rather stay home than getting stuck in the rain.
And so it was on a Sunday when I rode my scooter into the crispy, thin air of Saigon morning at the start of the tropical depression. Even though Sunday mornings are usually less busy, one would not expect to drive along Pham Ngoc Thach alone. And yet there I was, having the quiet street to myself. In the evening, even as the rain came pouring down, people were zigzagging out of each other’s way, wrapped in ugly branded rain ponchos. It is almost as if there is no clean-cut explanation for the everyday life. It was on a Sunday that I was finally home: my isolation was over. I am tethered, once again. “Of course that happened on a Sunday,” I could hear my friends explain to me, “it’s the only real day off of the week.”
“It’s the only day when you can hear yourself think. Sunday mornings are the best. Of course you’re home, dummy. This is the one home you don’t have to make. It’s yours by default.”