Have you ever thought an unknown street vendor can become famous and “sell like hot cakes” thanks to this repute? This is totally possible with the popularity of information technology and social networking websites, especially Facebook. And the way the society reacts to the story also evokes some thoughts on humanity.

Tamarind man - Hinrich scholar
The tamarind man and his wife (the women behind standing next to a traffic sign) happily selling tamarind to a passer-by (Photo by Thuy Ho).

The power of social media

In the magnificent Sai Gon with skyscrapers and luxurious shopping malls, there are still a lot of miserable plights struggling to earn living, but not everyone can be as lucky as the old man who sells tamarind at Ton Duc Thang Street next to Bach Dang harbour.

The story started from a post on Facebook attached to a picture of an old man in shabby clothes sitting mournfully with bunches of tamarind and a rusted scale. The appeal for help to a 60-year-old man who still had to climb tamarind trees on Saigon streets to take care of his ill grandchild made many people feel sorry for him. Accordingly, the post quickly received a large number of likes and shares. This old man suddenly turned from a silent hawker on a busy route of Saigon into a “street celebrity”, attracting a lot of sympathy from passers-by as well as attention of reporters.

Tamarine man 2
Tamarind-climbing has been a way to make a livelihood of this old man for about 30 years (Photo from an article on kienthuc.net.vn).

Once again, his information and images invaded online newspapers and caused a stir among netizens, but in an opposite response. It was said that he was taking advantage of the society’s kindness because his situation was not that tragic. Actually, there was no ill grandchild and he himself was addicted to drugs and gambling. As a result, he had to do a job that was not for a person at his age. Many readers got irritated due to the feeling of being cheating on.

I remember a caricature demonstrating that we have been viewing the real life through the telescopes of social media such as Facebook. Consequently, in spite of the same character, just “bending the pen” a little can drive the public from pity to dudgeon. Facebook is a social network platform, not an official news site, but it can spread the word like wildfire. Therefore, news senders should be responsible for communicating information while receivers need to have critical thinking before advocating any information.

The livelihood of tamarind man

I met him in a beautiful morning, one year after stories about him on social networks. He was more joyful and open than what I had imagined. Seeing a customer, he was hospitable and actively shared his story just after some questions as if he had been used to it. His wife also sold tamarind nearby, sometimes smiling slightly when seeing me take photos.

“I have been doing this job for about 30 years,” he said cheerfully. “First, I used to climb tamarind trees to pick fruits for contractors with a subsistence income. After that, there were no contractors buying tamarind, so I picked fruits and brought to pavements to sell for passers. Gradually, tamarind-climbing has become my career.”

Only after listening to his sharing, could I get an insight to the hardship and danger in the job of the aged man who should have been at rest and in care of descendants.

“I wake up at 3am, going about Saigon’s streets in District 1, District 3, and District 8 to find trees with heavy fruits,” he told me while weighing tamarind for another customer. “Then I bring fruits here and sell. When nearly selling out, I go picking fruits for the second time to sell in the afternoon or for my wife to sell while I am looking for fruits in the next morning. At 3pm, we pack up and go home. We earn about 100,000 to 200,000 dong per day. Sometimes, we may get 300,000 to 400,000 dong for one day thanks to the support from people who know about me through information on the internet.”

When I expressed the intention to by some tamarind and give him some extra money, with the typical mind of a merchant, he quickly doubled the price of another tamarind bunch (compared to his first offer) and invited me to buy.

“We have children but they settled down to married life instead of living with us, because we do not have our own house,” he replied to my question about his children. “They are workers, so their life is not comfortable to support us. I rent a house in District 9. Our children usually take their kids to visit grandparents on Tet holiday (Lunar New Year).”

“Since many people knew about us, our business has been doing well. Gradually, we have saved enough money to buy a motorbike for transport, so we no longer take buses or ride bicycle to find tamarind as before. This helps reduce our strenuousness a lot,” the tamarind man said.

The lesson in kindness

Observing him and his wife, I did not think they were feigning poverty to arouse compassion as reflected in some newspapers. They talked about their hard life but the voice was still tinged with happiness at the chosen career. More importantly, they make money on their own instead of sponging on society or cheating on anyone.

Saying goodbye to him, I saw them beam with pleasure when a young man gave them a loaf of bread. Suddenly, I felt warm and found that it was one of the most beautiful weekends I had. A weekend was not for staying in bed late or going out for coffee with friends, but for seeing the smiles of sad plights lighted up by small acts of community.

Perhaps many people used to see the tamarind man sitting there, but quickly passing by if there were not a post about him on Facebook due to hastiness or hesitancy to stop on a crowded street. And also many of us have neglected similar plights with an excuse “It might be a cheat.”

We have attributed the insensibility to the crisis of faith caused by the increasing number of rogues under the cloak of disadvantaged people to exploit the society’s empathy.

However, the life is colorful with both grey and bright colors. Kindness should not be wasted but it is not something far-away. A sincere smile or a small amount of money is also enough to relieve the difficulty of miserable people.

About the author – Thuy Ho

Thuy Ho

Thuy Ho, based in Ho Chi Minh City, works as Export consultant under the Developing Country Export Assistance Program. Thuy graduated from Hanoi Foreign Trade University, where she earned a Bachelor’s of Business English. She is now a Hinrich Global Trade Scholar attending Hong Kong Baptist University majoring in International Journalism.