It is the simplicity of rural life that Walter Pearson loves — and the low prices don’t hurt either.
We have no air-conditioning. Electricity is only for fans and fluorescent lights. Our power bill is about VND 350,000 a month. We cook with gas and have a solar water heater. We only drive motorbikes. I am very proud of our family’s small carbon footprint. However, I doubt if anyone in our broader family knows what that is. Worse, I don’t even know how to say it in Vietnamese. So I can’t boast — except in English, like I am doing now.
Anyway, the solar water heater started to leak. The man came out from Binh Long to our little hamlet, three kilometres away, crawled up to the heater perched four metres above the ground, and fixed the leaking pipe. It cost VND 80,000. No fuss, no bother, next to no cost. All very simple.
Clothing is very straightforward in these parts. When I get up in the morning, I just slip on a pair of shorts. I could go days without ever having to don a shirt, except sometimes it does get a bit cold in the evenings. A pair of plastic flip-flops do for shoes. When I go into town I do have to dress up a bit. Which means putting on a shirt.
Dressing for special events like weddings is also simple. A pair of long pants, shirt with long sleeves — tucked in of course — a pair of sandals, no socks. Easy.
And there is a shop for everything. I don’t have to go to a big hardware store and wander up and down the aisles till I find what I want. I just go to the shop that sells rubber straps, springs and screws, buy what I need, then go to the shop that sells plastic sheeting, and so on.
Once I foolishly bought some material at the An Dong markets in District 5 in the city and paid VND 1.3 million. I bought the same amount of similar material here in the bush for VND 600,000.
I rarely spend more than VND 30,000 on labour for bike repairs. Sometimes it does take hours, but I can’t complain.
Although it is nice, it is not just the costs in the countryside, but the simplicity of doing things, that makes life here so appealing. Grandma Thao has a breakfast joint we eat at regularly. It is just down the dirt road from our place. I slip on some shorts and we take my son down there on the bike sans helmets, just soft caps. People would laugh at us if we wore helmets, according to the family.
Vietnamese call this type of eatery a tiem. It consists of three stainless-steel folding tables, 15 or so plastic stools, a makeshift wood fuel stove and a serving-cum-presentation-cum-money-taking stand that has been slightly elevated by a rough extension to each leg. Only the serving and preparation area has a tiled floor. The tables are under the roof on the dirt. It is a very simple low-capital business.
If Grandma is a bit busy when we arrive, my wife will help by clearing the tables or getting the green leaves for the soup. If the hu tieu is gone, there is always bun rieu — no wimpy pho for breakfast out here in the wild borderlands.
Dogs and chickens wander around the tables. Used napkins and toothpicks are just thrown under the table. When the morning’s serving is over, the tables are folded up, the ground swept and a chain link makeshift wire gate pulled across the front.
The soups cost VND 25,000. They are nutritious and tasty. And in all the time we have been eating at Grandma Thao’s, I’ve never gotten sick from this humble little kitchen.
My wife wants to go to Australia and open a tiem selling Vietnamese soup. She says people will love them. She’s right, but she has no idea just how complicated and expensive that would be in Australia. To her, this simple and inexpensive life we lead is the norm. To me, it is the dream.
Walter Pearson is an Australian expat, tour guide, former journalist and war veteran. He lives with his family in the small town of Binh Long.