27 July 2006


In high school, American history class, I learned that during World War II the U.S. government imposed rationing on materials needed for the war, such as rubber and metals. In Vietnam, post-4/30, I don't know what the government tried to do but we had rationing as part of the daily life. With its vast ricefields, South Vietnam was never lacking in rice but under the Communists, rice was among the things that were rationed. No matter what each family wanted, we all were supposed to buy rice from government stores, on certain days of the month. We would queue up at the stores, present our family booklet and get stamped for that month and come home with our loot. Other agricultural products that were previously not used by the South Vietnamese were then thrusted upon us, such as ga.o bo bo, which I have no knowledge of the English equivalent. Supposedly it was rice, just not as good. We started to eat rice mixed with potatoes, and occasionally had noodles, too. Even meat was rationed. I had heard of stories about people trying to sneak meat from the countryside to the cities. Someone actually tied a piece of pork into her body during the trip by bus to the city. The buses themselves would be outfitted with secret compartments to hide favorite passengers' contraband. Of course, with the right amount of bribes any inspections can be avoided.

The rationing situation opened up some economic opportunities for kids. Some families were too busy to go on line to buy the stuff so the neighborhood kids would take up the errands, in exchange for 1 dong or two. A neighbor in the D Block, Mrs. Ty, on the second floor, was widowed and had five or so daughters. The younger ones would run errands for us. At some point, I myself got into the business, but I bought things on behalf of other neighbors. I would keep an ear open for news of things that become available from the government store, like soft drinks, sugar, or rice, and would run to my regular clients. Sometimes they needed the service, other times they didn't. Some days, I would run out buy things for other people while Mrs. Ty's daughter would do the same for our family. One day, I asked my father to let me do the work for us and cut out Mrs. Ty's daughter, so my father told me, "Ba\n tay mi\nh che kho^ng he^/i tro+\i", meaning "Our hands cannot cover the whole sky." He went on to explain that
we were doing OK and that we should let others keep their means of livelihood. I think eventually I went out of that business.

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