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Saigon's Mobile Laminators Preserve ID Cards, Licenses, and Occasionally, Memories Too

How much would you pay for a memory? What is it worth to ensure that you’ll forever be able to recall a certain moment of happiness, important gathering, or achievement? What if I told you that all you need is a couple of bucks and some good timing?

It begins with a chug, then a whirring, the twirling viscera of a combustion engine churns, the machine’s rollers turn and in moments a once-vulnerable memento has been given greater permanence. Saigon’s mobile laminators are one of those gloriously commonplace pieces of everyday life that usher in a multitude of meditations: street-level economies, scrap and scramble methods of hustling out a living, the essence of human civilization.

A stand-in for the human condition

A mobile lamination cart in Saigon.

I love the city’s mobile laminators, but it's difficult to articulate why. On the surface, there is an inherent novelty to any ingrained practice that doesn’t exist where one grew up. A degree of nostalgia-by-proxy exists when I hear the fond memories of friends and their childhood experiences with laminators. Pondering how there could be so much demand for lamination that one is able to make a living off it allows me to reflect on how little I know about local household needs and document habits (one should confront their utter lack of knowledge as often as they wash their hands, after all). Perhaps my shoddy memory compels me to appreciate efforts to do what my own brain so often fails at. It may be connected to the lopsided sadness that fills me whenever I walk across a discarded photo on the street that’s been laminated, or rummage through old papers and find a laminated document well past its expiration date.

This special contraption preserves memories (and other important documents).

But like many things I prize, a whimsical strangeness lies at the core of mobile laminators. Humans have taken a very technical, mechanical device — whose invention was dependent on the trial-by-error wisdom of countless individuals — and put it on wheels so as to make it more efficient for the storage of scratched-down glyphs that we can make meaning out of. Powered by the sludge of millennia-old organisms, the lamination process helps to prove that authority has been granted to me to inhabit certain parcels of land or operate exceedingly complex configurations of steel at stupefying speeds. As a material, plastic is strange enough, but heating it to encase tatters of paper that only have value because we have deemed it so is just simply strange. If mobile laminators don’t serve as stand-ins for the human experience as a whole, I don’t know what does.

From tattered paper sheets to covered keepsakes.

Sometime in 2020, I had the idea to see my love of laminators manifest by embarking on a personal conceptual art project. The premise was straightforward: every time I passed a mobile lamination machine, I would have something laminated. It could be a receipt in my pocket, a page from a book in my backpack, an expired coupon, or even a banknote. My humdrum daily existence would thus be chronicled. Perhaps some future archeologists would find my work and be surprised to learn life in the early 21st century involved great pleasures exceeding those afforded by Egyptian empires, yet they were taken completely for granted.

The project got off to a smooth enough start: I laminated an advert from a theatre production I’d attended, an old business card, a passport photo that had been flatteringly Photoshopped, and a blank strip of paper that had been a receipt, but apparently the heating needed to activate the adhesive in the lamination process removed the ink, so I now have no proof of my 7-Eleven onigiri and Saigon Specials.

A budding art project.

Lamination as a timeless trade

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic scrubbed the streets of sidewalk barbers, roving recycling collectors and mobile laminators. I worried that once the city re-opened, the mobile laminators would be gone. After all, seemingly more infallible enterprises never resumed business in my neighborhood, and routines are different post-lockdown, as exemplified by the increase of people working from home or shopping online in Saigon. So would the laminators be back?

Unlike brick-and-mortar shops whose Facebook pages I can check or food stalls that I can drive past, assessing the survival of mobile laminators is a difficult task. Their schedules can be irregular, and prone to whims or conflicts. If I didn’t see the mobile laminator stroll past my house on any given day, it is impossible to know if I had happened to be away during his route, if he had taken the day off for some personal reason, or if he’d given up the trade entirely.

Nguyễn Thị Hoàn is among many of Saigon's laminators. She shares that the trade helps her make ends meet.

It was thus a great joy to not only see my ward’s regular laminator roaming again, but also notice the woman who set up her lamination machine under a bridge near my home was back. Saigoneer paid her a visit to satisfy some of our lingering curiosities about her trade, as well as the industry’s adaptions to societal changes.

Nguyễn Thị Hoàn was born in 1967 in a small village in northern Vietnam. Everyone in her community was a farmer, but long ago many of them decided to move south for economic reasons. Curious to explore a more lucrative profession than farming, they originally began traveling around neighborhoods with scales to weigh residents. People who lived in Saigon two decades ago will likely remember the loud cân điện tử as accompanied by a pre-recorded jingle spoken in the northern Vietnamese dialect.

Thị predicted rightly that the mobile-weighing industry couldn’t last forever, and she and her fellow villagers looked for a similar skill to pick up. One of them had learned the relatively simple job of lamination and passed it along to the others. This was the same reason that ear-piercing and bike helmet repair is included in the cart’s services; they are united only by the fact that somebody knows how to do them, and that they are fairly easy, in-demand, and require little overhead.

Not only can you get your stuff laminated here, you can also have your ear lobes pierced and your helmet fixed.

Besides a cornucopia of bike horns and car engines, Thị chatted with us about the life of a laminator. She doesn’t regret her decision to take up the profession, but also isn’t so enamored with it as to have hoped her adult children took it up. She is frank when describing it as a decent way to make a living that isn’t as physically demanding as farming. This is especially important considering her husband, who joins her, suffers from several health ailments that make walking difficult. His condition and their age explain why they are stationary and not mobile laminators. She originally strolled with her cart through neighborhoods near where she lived, but moved to her place beneath a major bridge when it was opened over a decade ago. She has been there long enough now to attract repeat customers and people that drive by expecting to see her.

To respect Thị’s time we had brought a random smattering of items to have laminated: a postcard, a polaroid, a birthday card, a bookmark, a ticket stub from a cat show in Kyiv, etc. Gathering them reminded me of my more ambitious plans for what my art project might include based on the policy of laminating whatever I had with me: caution tape from when my apartment was sealed for COVID-19 protocols, sliced cucumber from a bánh mì, a sock off my foot, a seashell from Quy Nhơn. What was the strangest thing she had laminated? Nothing very odd; mostly important documents and various official identification cards, certificates, photographs of loved ones, and the occasional lucky fortune from a temple.

If mobile laminators don’t serve as stand-ins for the human experience as a whole, I don’t know what does.

“If you go to work, there is work to do,” she says regarding her schedule and any changes in demand she has seen over the years. She went on to liken the laminating market to fishing in the sense that there are good days and bad days, and rain often serves as a spoiler. Of course, lockdown was disproportionately difficult for street vendors, but she received financial support and groceries from the ward and other charities to provide for her family. She noted that during the time spent “between four walls,” she was eager to get back outside and continue her work, as much to have something to keep her occupied as to make money.

A selection of laminated works.

In the coming weeks, I will likely restart my lamination project. Maybe it will be so meta as to include this article printed out and given to Thị to make it more permanent than the slippery tubes of the internet could ever do. But while such piffle may keep me entertained, far more pertinently, when I announced to the Saigoneer office that I was going to the mobile laminator, two fellow writers handed me insurance cards they needed laminated.

Rain or shine, Thị is waiting on the side of the street for customers.

A few days later, our photographer was distraught over needing his driver's license to catch a flight, but the paper was so tattered that removing it from his wallet one more time may have resulted in complete disintegration. The solution? Send it to Thị. The fact that he will be able to cruise at 500 miles per hour, 30,000 feet above the earth thanks to a former farmer who rolled her machine to a shady spot beneath a bridge is all the explanation I need for why I continue to love Saigon’s mobile laminators.

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