The daily circle of sound
You can set your watch by the activities of an alley in Da Nang
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.