Monday, December 08, 2008
BIKES, BEEF SOUP, AND THE BALINGKINITAN RATIO: Ho Chi Minh and the Concept of Scale
The Vietnamese idea of scale and proportion is small. It’s not a bad kind of small. It may be similar to our idea of “tingi” and the sari-sari store, which is all about just enough, nothing in excess. I stayed for 3 days in Ho Chi Minh 2 months ago and the main thing I brought home from that trip, aside from the coffee and coconut candies, is the realization that big is not a natural imperative. In Vietnam, balingkinitan seems to be the norm. In that place, where the buildings weren’t too tall, the streets were just wide enough to accommodate more bicycles than cars, and the people were no bigger than I was… in 2nd grade… there seemed to be no need to go large scale.
The people, the streets, the buildings all share one thing—they take up the least amount of space possible. Balingkinitan. Little and willowy. There really is no other word to describe them. The main highways are half the size of EDSA. The streets of Ho Chi Minh feature clusters of narrow buildings that look like concrete reeds of varying height but never reaching the kind of heights that buildings here do. And they don’t have malls and shopping complexes a la Megamall or Trinoma. Think Star Mall. Much of our shopping was done in the stores along the side streets of the city, which sold different goodies at half the price the same products were being sold for in Ben Thanh market, the central market that was supposedly the place to go for good buys. Supposedly. My friend, Claire, bought a pair of shades at Ben Thanh for the equivalent of 300 pesos. Naturally, we would later spot a side street store selling shades for as low as the equivalent of 100 pesos. I reckon it sucked to be her, at that point.
The people in Vietnam are all smaller than me. I never saw one Vietnamese larger or even at least as large. There was this one Vietnamese salesgirl who was probably already their idea of “fat”, and she looked like she was the same size I was in fifth grade. The strange thing is, though, when it came to food, they served pretty big portions. Claire and I had dinner in this eatery that serves only beef soup. We each ordered one. The owner put a huge bowl in front of me filled with soup, vermicelli, and about twenty thin slices of beef, with a plate of assorted vegetables on the side. I couldn’t finish all of it. You’d think I’d be able to finish a big bowl of beef soup. But, I guess, where Vietnamese beef vermicelli soup is concerned I’m a figurative lightweight.
I wonder where they put all that beef. Or the pork. They’re fond of pork too. We had lunch at a place that served shredded pork as a side dish to… pork. So, I actually had a pork-on-pork meal. I know where all the food I eat goes. I actually look like I like to eat. They look like freaky health fanatics who consume only 10 calories a day. Times like these I find myself asking fundamental life questions, like, “What the hell?”
But I couldn’t bring myself to resent the Vietnamese. They seemed so sweet and innocent, never mind the Viet Cong and their wily ways that led to the defeat of the US Army. Which brings me to another point, you know those underground tunnels that the Viet Cong built to aid them in their guerilla warfare against the American imperialists? I like that word. Imperialist. Reminds me of Mark Twain and his anti-imperialist essays. And of that French guy in the Highlander series who said, “Imperialist! I spit on the ground you walk on.” Who in turn reminds me of John Cleese’s French Guard character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the one who kept mocking King Arthur and said, “I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”
I love the French, especially when they’re all… stereotypical… But I digress…
As I was saying, those underground tunnels were really tiny too. And narrow. Bawal ang malaki, to rephrase that Clusivol commercial. You won’t fit inside the hole if you’re as big as G.I. Joe. In fact, the tour guide said that the Viet Congs’ small frame helped them evade the American soldiers, some of whom would actually try and stick their massive bodies into these small holes, to no avail, obviously. (This reminds me of the late American comedian, Chris Farley, who got laughs stuffing his huge body into David Spade’s coat, and singing, “Fat guy in a little coat…”).
Roads and streets in Ho Chi Minh are all relatively narrower. Certainly, they don’t have a main thoroughfare like EDSA. Not that they really need one. People don’t drive much in Vietnam. They ride motorbikes instead. To get an idea of how many bikes traverse the streets at any one time, imagine the number of cars along EDSA vis a vis the number of motorcycles. Then, imagine the reverse. That’s how it’s like in Ho Chi Minh’s roads. It can be crazy-making trying to dodge all those bikes zipping past you. It’s like a thousand mechanical lemmings coming at you. One of them makes eye contact just before that moment when you’re sure you’re about to get hit by a bike in Vietnam. And then, in a split second, the biker tilts her hips to the left, or to the right, slanting away from you with only a tiny increment of space between you and her. It’s all quite cozy and intimate, these brushes with death. What do the French call it? Le petit morte? The little death. Of course, they were talking about something else altogether, but that same phrase applies here. It’s very suave the way the Vietnamese avoid collisions. They wouldn’t be able to do that, avoid hitting someone with only an inch of space in between, if they were big-boned, muscle-toned, fat-framed types.
In Vietnam, being balingkinitan makes a lot of sense. It helps you evade the enemy and eventually defeat them. It also helps you cheat death several times on the way to work.