Hao felt the snoring in her bones before she heard it. There was no window in the room, and the air was as warm as baked bread. She propped herself up on an elbow and squinted at her watch. Three-fifty. Almost time. Other women in the room, the older ones, were beginning to stir. Hao rolled her thin sleeping sack down until it was around her ankles. She tiptoed over the bodies on the floor, making sure not to disturb any of the women whose eyes were closed. In the communal bathroom, she washed her hands and face and put on a fresh blue shirt and loose-fitting black trousers. When she was done, she used a belt to tie her belongings together in a bundle and placed them in a plastic basket. Nobody stored their clothes or sleeping sack in the windowless room.
Hao’s three wicker trays waited near the front door. Tucking them under one arm and the plastic basket under the other, she walked the seven flights down to the ground floor and caught her breath. Her bicycle was chained to another in the cool concrete corridor that led out into the street. It was an old bicycle with a paint job worn to the bone, but it was sturdy and Hao could rely on it not to break down. She turned the key in the lock and threaded the chain through the spokes. The women always chained their bicycles together at the end of the day as part of a buddy system. Her buddy for the week, Chi, would be down soon to claim her bicycle. She used it to transport flowers. Hao hung the plastic basket containing her belongings from a hook at the rear of the bicycle and secured the wicker trays to the front. She made sure her nón lá was tied securely under her chin and wheeled the bicycle through the corridor to the street.
In the dawn light, Hao cycled through old alleys and thoroughfares that still slumbered. A few scooters flitted between buildings like sonic butterflies. This was her favourite part of the day, the only time she truly cared for when she was in the city, so far away from her family. She was not yet visible. Nobody called out to her, took photos of her, looked at her clothes with disdain. The city smelled of moisture and concrete and restaurant kitchens, and for now the air was free of the petrol fumes that stuck in her throat. Small groups of men and women sat on small plastic chairs in front of stores that never seemed to close. They played cards and made jokes that ended in soft laughter while they ate bowls of rice noodles with dipping sauce that sent tremors through Hao’s stomach.
She left her basket of belongings at the kiosk of a friend, who gave her a glass of lukewarm tea and hoped her day would be profitable. Then Hao rode for twenty minutes to the wholesale market where she bought her goods. It was already busy. The market’s customers, vendors mostly, walked from stall to stall and made deals with the wholesalers. Women carried bags of fruit and vegetables and slung them onto bicycles or loaded them onto pans at either end of a bamboo shoulder pole. Hao edged her bicycle between the stalls until she found a food cart. She bought a bowl of congee, paid the man and sat at a plastic table to eat. Although she took small bites, it didn’t take long to empty the bowl. When she was finished, she used a toothpick to clean her teeth and washed her hands, and then it was time to buy her goods. After cleaning the wicker surfaces of her trays with gel, she loaded the medium- sized one with limes, the small one with melons and the largest with green mangoes. The surplus went into two plastic bags which she hung from the hook at the rear of the bike. Limes were quicker to sell, but fetched a smaller price. Melons were the most difficult, but made the most money. Mangoes were popular with tourists.
The first few hours, when the bicycle was at its heaviest, were always difficult. Hao had to take care not to hit any bumps as she pushed it in the direction of the old streets where she would find the most customers. Although she used elastic cords to secure the trays to the bicycle frame, they weren’t completely stable. Once, perhaps the second or third time she’d come to the city, she had tripped and all of her vegetables had tumbled into the road. That was all it took. Since that day, she had only surrendered a small amount of stock to carelessness. It meant the difference between being able to return to her village and having to stay for longer in the city to make up for what she had lost.
The cafes, shops and households on her route were awake. Between sips of cold coffee with condensed milk, men set out plastic chairs and tables on the pavement and women prepared food at kitchen stations. Families ate congee and phô on the street. Hao always went to this neighbourhood because it was quicker to come to life than others.
Before the number of vendors in the city had started to increase, she had been able to sell out her stock in five or six hours. Now she usually had to work nine or ten before her baskets were empty. Occasionally she returned to the high-rise with a bag or two of fruit left over.
She called out her items as she walked, making sure to linger in the spots where her regulars lived and worked. Men bought limes from the tray for their cafes. They squeezed each one before handing over the money. A woman in a rumpled suit asked for two mangoes and told Hao to keep the change when she paid. Hao chatted with a few locals who knew her and asked her about her family. One shop owner encouraged her to sit for ten minutes to drink a glass of tea. It was a good start to the day.
By eleven o’clock, the air had started to weigh on the streets like a damp towel. Hao’s arms ached. The streets were clogged with scooters and taxis and people, and it was difficult to manoeuvre the bicycle around the obstacles. At a traffic light, she leaned the bicycle frame against her, removed her nón lá and wiped her brow. She looked at the trays. Half of the limes were already gone, but she hadn’t sold a single melon. She knew a restaurant that would take a few off her hands, so she changed direction, fighting against foot traffic for a block until a ramp allowed her to bring the bike down onto the road. Scooters buzzed close enough to make her trousers ripple.
The restaurant was spread across three floors and had a neon sign strung out like mah- jong tiles. It was switched off during the day. The doors and windows on the ground floor were open. Under the canopy outside, a man in a white vest used a cloth to clean some tables, so Hao walked past the restaurant and called out her items in a slow, clear voice. The man looked up for a moment and then back at the table he was buffing. Hao stopped, rested the bike frame against her body, and called again, but the man ignored her. The restaurant always wanted melons for its desserts. She frowned and watched the man. It would be impolite to ask why he didn’t want anything. When he looked up again, she smiled. His lips tightened and he shook his head. He pointed over his shoulder. They already had melons. Another vendor came by earlier. Hao thanked him and retraced her steps.
In the middle of the day it became too hot to work. The bicycle was a dead weight, the fruit basketfuls of rock. Hao went to the home of her friend who ran the kiosk and looked after her belongings while Hao worked. She took the wicker trays inside to find that lunch was ready. They sat together at a small table in the kitchen and drank coffee with ice and ate rice with tofu and pickled vegetables. The friend was alone in the house. Her husband had passed suddenly last year, leaving her to run the kiosk and the household. Her two children were at school. The friend enjoyed Hao’s company more than her neighbours who sat in the street because Hao never thought to pity her.
Hao didn’t have much of an appetite. She thought about her own family in the north and asked herself, as she did ten times a day, how they were coping without her. Her husband farmed pigs, but he made very little money from it. Hao earned more from a month’s vending in the city than he did from his farming in a year. It hurt him to know that, but he tried not to show it. And he didn’t drink like some of the other men in the village. It was the children that kept them both strong. All three were in school, and when they were older their lives would be different. They would not sell fruit on the street. Hao hadn’t seen her family for 25 days. She had been away for longer periods, but each separation, no matter how long, was an eternity. It would be another five days before she had enough money to take the train with its hard wooden seats back to her village. The friend asked her why she wasn’t eating. No need to be polite. There’s enough to go around. Hao nodded and smiled and filled her plate. She glad to have somebody she could speak to. And the food was good.
Hao left a melon, a mango and two limes on the table before taking the bicycle back out onto the streets. The afternoon melted away as she walked her beat and sold her fruit. Scooters kicked up clouds of dust and exhaust, so Hao covered her produce with netting. In an alley crammed with cheap accommodation for foreigners, an American woman wearing a backpack took her picture. Hao smiled and uncovered the mangoes and held one out to the woman. But the woman shook her head and smiled back and pointed at the camera. Then she went into one of the hotels, still looking at the camera screen as she approached the reception desk.
Hao passed three other vendors on her rounds. They barely stopped to exchange a few words. None were selling melons, mangoes or limes, which gave Hao fresh determination. Time was running down. The job became more difficult towards evening. The produce wasn’t as fresh and the restaurants and cafes and locals knew it. A digital sign told Hao it was nearly six o’clock, which meant it would become dark within the next two hours and when that happened nobody would buy from her anymore. She checked her trays. The limes were almost gone. The melons too, thanks to a lucky streak of customers. The mangoes still sat there, unwanted. She hadn’t seen many tourists and the cafes were fully stocked. But she had to sell them.
The street with the three Indian restaurants. That might do it. It wasn’t in her territory and she would have to be quick, but it was her best chance. She nudged the heavy bicycle into the path of oncoming scooters, willing them to stop before they careened into her. She had to get to the street and back before her friend sat down for her evening meal with her children. It wasn’t fair to turn up to collect her belongings after that. She already did so much for Hao without her having to give up her time with her children as well. And Hao wanted to make it to the dorm to pick out a spot that wasn’t near the door. The women often got up to go to the bathroom, and a sleeping mat by the door was the same as a sleepless night.
Hao pressed on through the traffic. Scooters and taxis brushed against her and bored drivers tapped their horns to try to convince her to move. Exhaust fumes tickled her throat. She wished she could drink something to soothe it, but her water bottle was empty. The strap of her nón lá rubbed against the underside of her chin and the soles of her feet were on fire. More tourists took photos of her with their large black cameras. She kept going.
The light was fading by the time she reached the neighbourhood that was home to the three Indian restaurants. As she neared the street corner, two uniformed men, one short and one tall, walked out of a coffee bar, spotted her and blocked her path. She kept her gaze to the floor until they told her to look at them. They showed her their identification cards and after that they started to ask her questions. Their voices were quiet, but firm. Where was she going? Did she have a permit? Was she aware of the government’s hygiene standards for the sale of food products? Did she observe them? When was the last time she received qualified training in food preparation and handling? Hao didn’t answer. The questions were only meant to scare her. She knew what they really wanted. Every vendor knew. When they stopped talking, she took out the pouch containing half of her money and handed it over. Was that it? Hadn’t she made more? Hao pointed at the mangoes. She hadn’t sold all of her produce. The short man smiled in a cruel way and said the women were like sharks. They had to keep moving or they would die. The tall man laughed and said it was true. They told her to make sure her affairs were in order, and snatched a couple of the mangoes. Then they disappeared down a side street.
Hao put the empty pouch back in her pocket. The neighbourhood women were looking at her, but she didn’t pay them any attention. The other half of the day’s money was hidden in a bag around her neck. Sometimes they took that too. Those men had been inexperienced. They hadn’t known.
One of the Indian restaurants bought the mangoes and the last of the other fruit for half of what Hao usually sold them for. She had no choice. As she cycled back through the electric streets, she worked out how much she’d lost. She would have to call her husband that night and tell him she needed to stay an extra couple of days. She could already hear the disappointment in his voice. He was a good man. She guided the heavy bicycle through the streams of cars and scooters. She was tired. She would pick up her belongings, buy a little meat from one of the vendors and eat it on the street. Afterwards, she would return to the dorm and listen to the other women talk about their husbands, their children, their days on the street, their plans for the future. Then, one by one, their voices would fall silent. And the women would sleep.