The Versatile Plastic Stool

Photo journalism by Jim Selkin

Two things that standout in fast-paced Saigon are how locals travel and how they sit. The usual comments heard from friends and tourists concern the amazement in the numbers of motorbikes. Yet, I have found more fascination in the ever-present plastic stools.

As I train my lens on various scenes, they are ubiquitous in almost every frame. So, I set out to document how this particular piece of “furniture” became such an iconic part of life here. Manufactured predominantly in bright red and sky blue, they range in size from 15cm tall to the standard 29.5cm in height.

First, I found they fit the generally smaller frames of the Vietnamese people. Socializing over a café phin is an art form and the plastic stool is an essential part of the canvas.

Watching the world go by from a plastic tool.

Secondly, for a street vendor, the small stools are easily stackable and portable. If additional guests show up, just unstack some plastic stools and the more the merrier to the gathering. Actually, one can’t legally sit on the sidewalk to drink or eat a meal. So, if asked to move, vendors can easily pack up and relocate the restaurant.

Fruit for sale on a blue stool.
Flower seller puts featured items on stools.

Almost every phase of life here uses these little gems. They are used by schools for ceremonies and games; by mechanics when fixing bikes; street artists use them as impromptu studios; to prop up a game board and shop-keepers use them to display featured items.

Mechanic on stool fixing a bike.
Two men playing cờ tướng (Chinese chess).
Herbs displayed on stool.

Thinking back to the times I’ve sat outdoors at cafes or restaurants in New York or Paris, it has always been on chairs. What will always stick in my mind, is that plastic stools best typify the bình dân way of Vietnamese life – a feeling of casualness or affordability enjoyed by everyone. In my mind, the versatile plastic stool is best used to relax and just watch the world go by.

A bình dân moment in Saigon.

Text and all photographs copyright in perpetuity by Jim Selkin

This article was published in The Saigon Times Weekly Magazine No.8-’20 (1481)

February 22, 2020 (print version).