by Cassidy Armbruster
You’re going to have to visit this magnificent post office to meet Mr. Duong Van Ngo, Saigon’s oldest public letter writer. I caught Mr. Duong around 3:05 PM, nearing the end of his 3:30 PM sharp work day. Although Mr. Duong had his plastic bag filled with his treasured belongings to head home, he offered me a seat, and assured me I wasn’t a bother; he wouldn’t leave a minute before 3:30 PM.
Mr. Duong told me he started working at the post office when he was a mere 16 years old. Today, he is 85. Although elderly and delicate, Mr. Duong never fails to ride his bike to work, arriving at 8:00 AM five days a week. He is fluent in French, English, and Vietnamese. Mr. Duong said he was taught French as a boy in school. He stated that he was sent for further schooling by the Post Office at the age of 36. This is where he was taught English from teachers from the United States, but not by American soldiers, he emphasized (although one was a former pilot in the Vietnam War). Mr. Duong warmly explained to me that he writes letters for those that either never learned to write, or for those that need to write a letter to someone in one of the the three languages that, unlike Mr. Duong, they do not know. Mr. Duong has had to write tragic and heartfelt letters, and he keeps certain stories and experiences of those he writes for to himself, if that is what is asked of him.
I politely asked Mr. Duong if I could look at the sign he places next to his small wooden chair every morning to show his purpose at the post office. Fortunately, Mr. Duong misunderstood me, and thought I asked what he carried in his large plastic bag. Instead of pulling out the sign that reads, “public writer” in French, English, and Vietnamese like I asked, he pulled out a worn plastic binder filled with letters that had been sent to him from all around the world. Mr. Duong proceeded to show me hundreds of letters, postcards, and pictures dating back to the 1960’s. Many, he said, he could barely remember, but he spoke with pride and excitement about each letter. Some of the letters were from people he barely met, some were thank you letters, and some were little updates from people he had been acquainted with at the post office, but each were equally meaningful to him.
Mr. Duong explained that he worked in Saigon through very difficult times, including the Vietnam War, but I felt I shouldn’t pry on these details. Suddenly, I noticed Mr. Duong’s eyes veer away from his letters towards the large clock propped front and center of the post office as he both politely and abruptly said, “I’m going to head home Madame.” It was 3:30 PM sharp, so Mr. Duong re-gathered his things, and that was that.