The bicycle taxi hurtled at a perilous pace through Ho Chi Minh City. It was the day of the opening of the first pizza restaurant and there was a buzz about town. At the time there were very few cars, the street was seething with bicycles and pedestrians. You may, like me, have taken a bicycle taxi in a big Western city, safely ensconced in a pram like structure behind the cyclist. Not so in Vietnam where the passenger sits up front, acting as crash zone for the driver. Makes more sense in a way. The driver is already proving his usefulness whereas the passenger might have nothing to contribute to the world.
We were off to another business meeting. A most formal affair in that place at that time. The local guy briefed me on a few key points of protocol around seating arrangements (them on one side of the board table, us on the other, nobody at the head of the table), meeting time (exactly one hour regardless of whether the topic requires three hours or 15 minutes), the correct way to give and receive business cards and so on. The meeting proceeded without a hitch as far as I could tell – but uncouth Westerner that I am, who knows how many etiquette transgressions I committed. They were too polite to mention them in any case
We were discussing the possible introduction of bottled gas into the market. The kind you might have used when camping. Most cooking was done over wood fires though there were some hotplates around for those who could afford the cost of electricity. Lighting was often kerosene lamps with their accompanying hazards of fire and inhaled smoke. The kerosene was mostly sold by the side of the road in old pop bottles. There were lots of reasons – environmental, health, efficiency, safety – why gas would be a good introduction.
But in meeting after meeting the decision makers were very concerned. A gas cylinder is basically a bomb they explained to me. And the war was a recent memory. They expected fear, incomprehension and nervousness from the people it was supposed to help. There was no clear decision on what to do next.
I asked them to organize a few outings for me. We went down to the Saigon River at sunset, we hung around the food market, the kitchenware market, some cafes, the port. Everywhere we went, thanks to our brilliant local translator we had conversations, mostly with the women, about their current cooking arrangements and what they disliked about them (plenty!). And we explored their fears and prejudices around this strange new idea of bottled gas. At least that was the intention.
As it turned out, everybody already knew about it. Those with the right friends had smuggled in tabletop gas cookers ready. Sometimes they could get hold of bottled gas on the market. Nobody understood why it wasn’t available already and hoping against hope that one day they would be allowed to have easy access. The poorest women in the fish market were well ahead of the smartly suited men in the boardrooms and there was no reason to delay a moment longer.