Every morning, the Saigon Central Post Office opens up to throngs of people, inviting all the hustle and bustle of one of Southeast Asia’s busiest cities. Amidst all the chaos, it would be easy to miss the man who holds the true beating heart of the place, a steadfast presence in this building for over 75 years, and Vietnam’s last remaining public letter writer. His name is Mr. Ngo.
Duong Van Ngo took a job at the post office when he was just 16 years old, holding various responsibilities before settling in as a public letter writer. His office is makeshift: a taped sign reading “Public Writer” in French, English, and Vietnamese, hung on a panel next to his wooden table.
Over his many years there, he’s written hundreds of letters, translating his customers’ words into a new language, expressed in beautiful, well-practiced calligraphy. And for a man of such consistent presence, it comes as no surprise that his needs are consistent, too.
Every day, for the nearly three decades he’s spent as a public writer, he’s brought the same black leather bag with him as he bikes to work. When he arrives, he unpacks his English and French dictionaries, pens, notebooks, and a magnifying glass — everything he’ll need to serve his customers well.
If you’re lucky enough to see inside his dictionaries, you’ll find decades-worth of scribbled notes in the margins, marking his own expressions and meanings next to the words. Within those notes are fragments of all the letters he’s written, full of adventure, friendship, and love. But when taken together, those fragments come together to tell a single story: Beautiful Saigon, told through the eyes of Duong Van Ngo, Vietnam’s last public writer.