At age 84, Duong Van Ngo may not be the oldest cyclist in Ho Chi Minh City, but there may not be many older than him. Mr Ngo is one of the fascinating characters that Saigon can still offer. He is the last letter writer in the Central Post Office in District 1; if you haven’t seen him, it is worth to drop by and observe him at work, as if he came from a different time. Everyday, his thin legs push the pedals of his bicycle to cover the two kilometers from his house to the Post Office, where he has been doing this job for the last 25 years, since he retired from his previous occupation as a Post Office employee.
“Some call me the last of the mohicans because nobody does this job anymore. I do this because I like it and it allows me to earn some money”, he says in French, the language he learned during his younger years. “Now nobody learns it anymore, but it is good to know both French and English”, he explains. Talented for languages, he learned English from some American pilots during the war, at age 36, and now he offers his services as a translator. Everyday at 8 in the morning he walks to his table and hangs the sign that says “Public writer” in Vietnamese, French and English.
Some tourists, surprised to see someone doing this anachronistic activity, ask him to write a postcard in Vietnamese to impress their relatives back home or they pay him to get a picture with him, but most of his clients are Vietnamese who really need his translation services. They hand him the letter in Vietnamese and he translates it into French or English, depending on the needs. It could be formal letters addressed to companies, such as airlines or travel agencies, or personal love letters, in most cases of women who fell in love with foreigners. “Love letters are the most difficult ones”, he protests.
His eyesight having become poor because of age, he needs to use a magnifying glass to decipher the calligraphy of his clients and to scrutinize his old yellowing dictionaries from French and English to Vietnamese. The pay is not high, but he is happy to do it, “if I stayed at home I would get bored”. At 3 pm, after seven long hours of work, he organizes all his papers and books and rests for a few minutes before taking back his old bike and pedaling back home. His body has been becoming weaker in the last few months and work feels harder, but he doesn’t plan to retire: “People still need me and there is no one to replace me”.