The daily cir­cle of sound

You can set your watch by the ac­tiv­i­ties of an al­ley in Da Nang

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence A Bolt To The Bridge In San Fr - AL­WYNE SMITH

IT is not what you’d call pretty, this laneway in Da Nang, our new home in Viet­nam.

It’s func­tional and bare, a meet­ing place, a thor­ough­fare and, para­dox­i­cally, a park­ing lot, a work­shop, a soc­cer ground. It’s noth­ing to write home about, just a short, grey, nar­row, con­crete stretch. Only a few hints of green­ery hang over a cou­ple of bal­conies; there are no pots of plants such as those found beau­ti­fy­ing other, more af­flu­ent, al­leys.

A tattered blue awning reaches from the house walls on one side al­most to the other. It’s sup­ported by a fold­ing metal frame­work and shel­ters a pair of match­ing plas­tic ta­bles, typ­i­cal of cheap street cafes where men hang out and drink. The same tarp ex­tends over the spot where the neigh­bour to the left ( that is, the south) has his mo­tor­bike re­pair work­shop.

Kids from the ex­tended fam­ily on the right (north) side play with their plas­tic soc­cer ball just out­side the front door in the nar­row empty space of about 5m be­tween us and what seems to be the lo­cal Com­mu­nist Party meet­ing hall, where Un­cle Ho and a bust of Lenin gaze at rows of empty seats and a folded wheel­chair.

At the mouth of the lane, where it opens to the main street, it is par­tially blocked by a street stall cabi­net sell­ing chew­ing gum (Juicy Fruit and Dou­blemint) and very small bags of potato crisps, the emp­tied pack­ets of which some­how find their way to just out­side our house. We are in­structed (by ges­ture) to pick them up by the next-door grandma, to show our sol­i­dar­ity with the lo­cals in keep­ing the area clean.

The other end of the lane is a rub­ble waste­land of razed build­ings, pref­ace to a new bridge over the Han River planned fur­ther down the av­enue.

Like so many oth­ers, this is a dusty, nar­row thor­ough­fare, easy to over­look, with no sav­ing graces. Even its ad­dress is generic — just K99, a letter and a num­ber bor­rowed from the main street. Ap­par­ently it is un­de­serv­ing of its own name.

But it is nonethe­less unique and what gives it def­i­ni­tion and re­veals its in­di­vid­u­al­ity are the sounds. The rel­a­tive quiet of the evening con­trasts with day­time bus­tle when the homes come to life and the busi­nesses rev up (lit­er­ally). Sounds re­flect the com­ing and go­ing of sea­sons, the changes in the rhythms of the lu­nar calendar. Sounds also re­veal the in­hab­i­tants, from those who are very ev­i­dent to some rarely seen.

Night gives way to dawn. Cao Dai gongs from the tem­ple just over the lane break gen­tly, ethe­re­ally, into the dark about 4am. Traf­fic out on Phan Chau Trinh goes from noth­ing, apart from the oc­ca­sional speed­ing hoon, to a con­stant, dull roar punc­tu­ated with sharper, more ur­gent beeps of warn­ing. An adult and a child start stir­ring at 5.30am, their voices clear but not yet rau­cous, still re­spect­ing the peace of their neigh­bours’ dawn.

By 6.30am, the gloves are off (well, ac­tu­ally, they’re on — on mo­tor­bik­ers, that is) as they ride into the lane to park and leave their bikes, to be at­tended to by the south-side neigh­bour. The noise ramps up as the neigh­bour, with re­peated revving of mo­tors, checks out the worth of his labour af­ter much tap­ping, screw­ing, dis­man­tling and re­assem­bling.

Out the back win­dow, the neigh­bours we’ve never ac­tu­ally seen start the chink­ing of crock­ery, which sig­nals the end of the morn­ing meal.

Loud hawk­ing and spit­ting an­nounces that the morn­ing clear­ing of si­nuses is un­der way and all is well. Then a baby cries. If heard to the right, out the front, it’s a tod­dler; if out the back, it’s the smaller, higher pitch of a newer ar­rival. The iden­ti­ties of chil­dren who take up a game in front of our house be­fore school is ev­i­dent in their voices. We lis­ten for the high, light voice of the gig­gly one; the louder, more bossy tones of the fat­ter boy; and the laugh­ter of the cheeky one who seems to be the ring­leader, press­ing our door­bell in the al­ley to stir the late-ris­ing for­eign­ers into ac­tion.

When the older kids drift off to school, the tod­dler bashes away at a metal pot, try­ing to em­u­late the ex­pert drum­ming of his el­ders at the Au­tumn Fes­ti­val. It is months since the fes­tiv­i­ties cli­maxed dur­ing the Septem­ber full moon; the rest of the city’s chil­dren have ceased their joy­ous clat­ter but this small hanger-on is still en­thralled by noise-mak­ing.

Shower karaoke, sharp, flat and off-key, starts up at 7.30am, but the singer is drowned out when the north­side neigh­bours start work, any­where be­tween 7.10am and 7.30am. They make frames for doors and win­dows; there are short, nerve-pierc­ing screeches as ma­chin­ery cuts through lengths of alu­minium.

By 9.30am, their pre­lim­i­nary work is done and qui­eter ham­mer­ing and sand­ing takes place, un­til af­ter the lunch break, when a few short bursts of cut­ting might be needed to round out a con­sign­ment. What­ever the busi­ness pri­or­i­ties and ca­coph­ony next door, the fam­ily bird — small, black and crested — will be hung out in its wicker cage from their first floor, in front of our bed­room win­dow, to catch what­ever rays of sun are avail­able and to trill sweetly be­tween bursts of noise.

An old man ( he tells me his name is Anh Thimh) sets up at the mouth of the lane each day and some­how sleeps amid the din, the com­pet­ing sounds of his boom­box flow­ing from one end to the other. His taste is eclec­tic, from West­ern 1970s pop to what I guess is clas­si­cal Viet­namese. Any time he is ab­sent, there is a hole in the fab­ric of sound. At 1.30pm, a siren re­sem­bling an air-raid warn­ing sounds down by the river, and is re­peated at 5pm. I pre­sume it’s the sig­nal at the ship­yard for the be­gin­ning and end of a shift.

Late af­ter­noon, the chil­dren re­turn to their skir­mishes, bounc­ing their ball off our metal fold­ing front doors for tac­ti­cal di­ver­sions. Boys gather on the steps of the party meet­ing hall for se­ri­ous con­fabs, like chat­ter­ing mag­pies.

Night falls. In al­most im­poss- ibly black dark­ness, the soc­cer ball bounces off our front door, the clat­ter mak­ing ra­dio and tele­vi­sion news broad­casts barely au­di­ble.

Sun­day is re­cre­ation day. Karaoke starts up, Dad stri­dently off-key, chil­dren more tune­ful. Some­one plays clas­si­cal mu­sic on a piano, the soft tones a sooth­ing mercy in gaps be­tween am­pli­fied tor­ture. By 10.30pm, the traf­fic mur­mur is fad­ing, TVs tone down, dogs with­draw in­side their own­ers’ homes or chase the oc­ca­sional shriek­ing cat.

Si­lence at last, save for the in­con­gru­ous mid­night am­pli­fied call of the corn-seller putt-putting his two-stroke mo­tor­bike up and down nearby streets.

At 1.30am there is a tell­tale peep as a mo­tor­bike with a re­mote con­trol un­locks, then takes off with a quiet thrum­ming. I set my men­tal watch by it. Then, true quiet set­tles un­til the gen­tle in­ter­rup­tion by the Cao Dai gongs at 4am. The daily cir­cle of sound is com­plete.

TOM JELLETT

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