A polyglot public letter writer in Ho Chi Minh City bridges different worlds — connecting people across the planet with his fountain pen. His profession may be dying, but in his 60 years on the job, he has created many marriages.
Fiona Ehlers in Spiegel:
Duong Van Ngo, a wiry 77-year-old man, parks his bicycle in the shadow of the sycamore trees, whose trunks are painted white as if they were wearing gaiters. He greets the post card vendors and shuffles through the archway with the station clock. It’s eight o’clock on a muggy February morning, the start of his workday.
Ngo sits down at the end of a long wooden table underneath a mural of Ho Chi Minh. He produces two dictionaries and a directory of French postal codes from his briefcase. Then he slips a red armband over his left sleeve to make sure he’s recognized immediately. He sets up his sign: “Information and Writing Assistance.”
The first person to come to his stand is a man from the Mekong Delta. He’s got a letter with him, addressed to a businessman from Europe. He’s his chauffeur, and he’s been driving him to business meals and meetings for a year. He asks in writing if the man can get him health insurance and asks for a $200 advance. Ngo translates the letter into English. “Dear Sir,” he writes with his fountain pen, “might I politely request, sincerely yours.” Or would it better to say “affectionately”? No, that’s too intimate. The man hands him a bill. Ngo slips it between the pages of his dictionary without ever looking at it.
Ngo is a mediator between worlds — a professional letter writer of the sort that used to exist in the old days. He chooses each word carefully, formulates cautiously, polishes the style of the letter. He knows how important words are and what harm they can do. Ngo doesn’t just translate. He bridges the distance between people, advises and comforts them, discreetly and with perfect attention to form.