Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year from Hoi An

We're spending new year's eve in Hoi An with Vince and Julia.

We love Hoi An, especially this time of year where it's not too hot and we can enjoy riding pushbikes through the little streets. There are still quite a few too many tourists, but we can't complaint too much... here, we are tourists too. We've done a lot (a LOT) of shopping, as you do in Hoi An, I think the shopping will deserve a post of its own, we've sampled every specialty possible and this time around, we've visited some ancient houses and museums which we didn't have the courage to have a look at last time because it was just too damn hot.

I think Hoi An is the prettiest little town in Vietnam, the old walls especially are stunning and the whole place just feels artsy. It's inspiring for photographers and painters to walk the quaint streets of Hoi An.

Happy New Year to all and love from Hoi An


Walls of Hoi An

If you like taking pictures of walls then Hoi An is the place to visit. We are spending New Years here and have taken the opportunity to grab some photos of the amazing architecture in this cool little town.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas festivities

On the 24th we had a champagne lunch with Ben and Lanette and then went home for some Christmas movies, rillettes and cheese.
On Xmas day, I taught in the morning and then started the festivities nicely with some champagne with Ben and and Lanette at home, followed by a lovely ‘chase the rat’ session. Yes... we have a rat. We were exchanging gifts and happily chatting about our upcoming trips for New Years– we're going to Hoi An and Ben and Lanette to Hong Kong, when I saw the rat trotting away in the living room, not at all phased by the four people laughing and talking loudly 3 metres away. We all perched ourselves on our chairs, and I ended up running upstairs while the other three chased the rat around the lounge. They found the animal in under the sofa, with a pile of breadcrumbs so big it must have been accumulating for weeks… from upstairs, all I heard was screaming, bangs, laughing and more screaming.

Xmas lunch was nice, we went to an all you can eat buffet with our good friend Nam. I had tons of sashimi , some clam chouder and grilled lamb. That’s the closest to a Christmas meal I could achieved in this very much Vietnamese restaurant, and even though it was not your traditional Xmas food, it was delish.
Nam was fun as always, it’s impossible not to have a great time with him. I couldn’t believe his ‘Xmas surprise’ though, he’s getting married in two months! I congratulated him and asked him if he was happy, he said not really because he’s not ready to get married but he’s reaching an age where he just has too… Nam’s 27 years old. I call that quite young to get married, but hey, it’s a different culture. Nam loves his girl, so it’s all good.

The afternoon was spent drinking Russian champagne (a weird reddish mixture) and Skyping with families. Something I learnt from this Skyping session: chatting to your loud family on Skype with a poor internet connection and almost no voice because of a bad cold is fun, but tough, and you will lose the little voice you had left. True story.
It was a quiet Xmas in the end, quieter than last year and hopefully than next year too, a lot of our friends here have gone already, a lot of the remaining friends were at work parties , I was sick and the weather was miserable. All the reasons why we kept it low key this time. We’ll have to compensate next year in Bangkok, by, I don’t know… going clubbing all night I guess.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas spirit

Lanette feels that this year, Hanoi is showing a lot more Xmas spirit and decorations than last year. I didn’t really see the difference, probably because I was sick for most of it so not really out and about, and also because I’m working in a Vietnamese school now and they don’t even close on Christmas day.
I went Xmas shopping around the old quarter a couple of times and it’s true there were plenty of Christmas trees and fake snow all around the shops. Here are a few pictures to give you and idea.

This year, Santa brought me some MAC make up (pretty stylish dude, this Santa), an ink stamp with my name on it, a chick flick DVD, a scarf, a facial mask, a bowl, books and a trip to Hoi An! I bougth myself the whole ‘night hunter’ DVD boxset, which none of you will know unless you grew up in France. (En Francais: Nikki Larson)
Dan got a pair a jeans, lots of boxer shorts, 10 DVDs, a stamp with his name on it, a feet spa cream for smelly feet (thanks Lanette), a bottle of wine from his students and a trip to Hoi An also.

Merry Christmas guys, thanks for reading and posting comments, love to all and a special thought for Dana: we missed you.

Christmas in Hanoi

You can’t avoid Christmas in Hanoi. Stores are covered in decorations, Christmas trees stand at the front of restaurants and lights, especially in my part of town, cover bars and shops. Christmas CD stocks must have run out because ever café I go to has bad Christmas carol remixes blasting away. The waitresses wear Christmas hats and often hum away their favorite tunes. Many restaurants have put on Christmas menus so whatever your traditional feast; you are bound to find it.

Riding into town today I saw a Vietnamese guy fully dressed as Santa zooming along on his motorbike. The schools have Christmas parties and depending on the place has either Christmas Eve or Christmas day off. For us it is Christmas Eve so tomorrow morning we are off to work. In my school, the kids are being taught Christmas songs by their Vietnamese teachers. They are more than happy to sing to me when I come to class.

For two years now, I have somehow been roped into being Santa. I had avoided that role for 26 years but it seems in Vietnam there is no escaping it. I had to play Santa for 1,200 kids last year which was a nightmare. This year my neighbor asked me to be Santa for a kids party at her house. I arrived home from work to a house full of screaming kids waiting for Santa. I was quickly transformed into my Santa suit and slid into their house avoiding their prying eyes. I walked down their stares to the bottom floor to deafening screams from around 30 kids. Their parents were all taking photos. It was a random experience. I said my “Ho Ho Ho’s” and gave each of the kids a present. Many of them took the present with apprehension; a fearful expression on their face. I am not sure if it was the white beard or big nose that scared them. In any case, they were mostly happy and excited. It is very clear that the Christmas gimmick is alive in Hanoi.

Today we are having lunch with our flat mate and her boyfriend. It will be a multi-cultural affair with representations from Australia, France, South Africa and America. Celine has suggested trying something traditional from each of the countries. So I guess that is frois gras and smoked salmon from France and maybe ham from Australia. I am not sure on the other inclusions yet. Tomorrow, after working in the morning, we are heading out for Christmas lunch with one of our Vietnamese friends.

I am waiting for Celine in a café, listening to Silent Night. Celine is in Toy Street, buying the last of the Christmas shopping. When I dropped her off it was packed with Vietnamese buying last minute gifts for their kids. She is braver than I am because than did not look like fun. I am not a big fan of shopping.
This will be our second, and last, Christmas in Hanoi and it has definitely been interesting to experience how the Vietnamese celebrate it. I am not sure where we will be next year but I can only hope my Santa days are over.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Merry Christmas

Christmas is coming again. In our fair regions of the world, we are cruelly aware of how little of a deal it is here… this year much more than last, as this time we both work in Vietnamese schools and listen to this: they don’t close on Christmas day. So… I’m working from 8.00 am to on the 25th, which prevents me from going out and getting drunk on Christmas eve, and then I have more classes from 6pm to 8pm,which prevents me from going out and getting drunk on Christmas day!
I guess I’ll eat a lot but I won’t drink too much eggnog, then.
Meeeerrry Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Occupational Health & Safety in Hanoi

Dong Da lake; the good days

I currently work for two different schools in Hanoi. One is right next to Dong Da Lake. Celine and I visited the lake in the first few days after we arrived in Hanoi. We walked around it, had a coffee by the water and took some random tourist photos.

A few months ago they emptied the lake. Not long after, the rubbish started piling up and all the men eating at the lakeside restaurants used the emptiness as an easy access toilet. I ride by the lake on a small road for about 100m before taking a hard right down a small alley, soon reaching my school. As a passed the restaurants the stench of stale urine would waft through the air tattoeing itself in my nostrils. I guess I can understand the laziness of pissing in the most practical and quickest place, which in this case happens to be an empty lake, but I can't comprehend how these guys can eat through that smell.

Rubbish in Dong Da Lake

To keep up with appearances they filled the lake for the 1000 years of Hanoi celebrations. All the rubbish was collected and the area once again looked nice. As soon as the celebrations were over they emptied the lake and plans were underway to build a train station in its place. Now, the rubbish is back and the locals again have a toilet (although I am pretty sure they use the lake when it's full). Big concrete pillars have been put up around the lake. My small 100m dash along the lake now resembles a war zone. I don't really know what they are doing but workers are digging, and piling and generally causing a mess which makes my short ride somewhat of an obstacle. On either side big holes have been dug, large pipes removed, concrete and dirt piled. Men, covered in dirt with a dodgy electric power drill in hand, stand a meter deep working intently on what looks risky and unsafe electrics . All this was happening in peak hour traffic as bikes were flooding in each direction. I could have, and often considered, patting one of the workers on the head as I passed. I decided it was more important to concentrate on the road in front of me.

Sometimes the traffic is horrendous. As I crawled along the now dirt and dusty road I would wait for the cause. More often than not it is two cars at a stalemate, meeting each other in opposite directions with only enough room for one car. With no organization on the roads it takes a while to sort out the mess before you can find a small gap to pass and continue on your way. All this is happening as the road is being pulled up, holes dug, electrical work done while men are happily drinking, eating and pissing.

I had a late class last Friday which starts at 7.45pm. At this time the roads are much quieter and the workers have stopped. My little stretch along the side of the lake is quite peaceful at this hour. It is still dusty but there is no traffic. But, there is also no street lighting and virtually no lights from the nearby houses. There is definitely no "Road Works" signs or warnings about all the work that is going on. The street is small and a little bendy at points and I nearly rode right into a one meter ditch. I didn't see it until the last second. I swerved and continued on the bumpy, semi-destroyed road until my turn. The lack of safety is comical, that is of course unless you get hurt. I have avoided any serious injuries so far, touch wood, but I would not like to see the local census on workplace injuries; both for employees and members of the general public.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bad Vietnamese wife

It’s hard to be a good Vietnamese wife, they set the standard pretty high. Me, for instance, I’m French, but I live here in Vietnam and I am a wife, which unfortunately makes me, to all my Vietnamese friends and neighbours anyway, a Vietnamese wife by default.

Let me give you a few examples.

I’ve been trying to cook more. I mainly cook for Dan as I myself am ultra careful with what I eat and can you really call making white rice with green vegetables broth ‘cooking’? hmm… not really. But I make stir fries, meats in sauce, all kinds of pastas and braised vegetables for Dan. I find cooking almost therapeutical, it calms my own cravings and allows me to handle all kinds of food even though I won’t be able to eat it (Ok, I always have a taste).
Anyway, because I am in no way considered a Vietnamese wife by the sellers at the market (meat price is doubled as soon as I approach the stalls), I’ve asked our cleaning lady Hien to buy me half a kilo of meat everyweek. I explained why I was asking her, that it would make it much cheaper for me etc… I asked her to buy chicken one week, beef one week, pork one week and at any time she could just buy whatever she liked best that week, it didn’t matter.
She didn’t seem to follow. I was quite confused, I mean she speaks English and we usually understand each other very well. But it’s not the form she didn’t get, it’s the content of my request. She explained that it would be unthinkable to buy only one kind of meat per week for my husband and what kind of wife would I be?? How could such a thought even cross my mind??, “poor Dan!!” she lamented.
“No, but… Hien…” I objected, “the meat is not only for Dan you know, it’s for both of us, and I cook it in different ways everytime, with different sauces and vegetables on the side, so you know it won’t be always the same, don’t worry”
But the truth is that I had lost her at “different ways”. She believes in cooking each meat the same way every day, with soy sauce in a saucepan. She raised her eyebrows again and informed me she would buy me a bit of beef, pork AND chicken every week, because any other option would be crazy. Then she went her way, muttering something sounding a lot like “poor Dan”.
I was left with having to abandon most of my meats-in-sauce and steak ideas, as she now dices the meat for me in ways I don’t quite know what to do with, freezes it that way and sometimes she even cooks it without my ever asking her to do so, and when she cooks it, it’s with soy sauce and Vietnamese herbs. It’s very nice and all, but still ruins my plans for a stew, you see.
Once, she saw Dan cooking for me and told him how much of a good, good good boy he was, while glaring at me a little, unworthy wife me working on my computer while the man of the house is making pasta.
Once, she practically threw me out of bed and made me go help Dan who was busy fixing the door. She called me a lazy wife, which only made me laugh I mean, what are you going to do? In her world, I AM a lazy wife, and she’s 50 years old, I’m not about to question her whole world and set of values to try and explain ours, am I? So I went and helped Dan, who kicked me out for trying to give advice on things I don’t understand, such as fixing a door. Well, I know I don’t understand that, don’t I? I’m trying to keep peace in my house here, but not giving Hien a panick attack, that’s all.

I don’t mean to rant about Hien, I love Hien. What I’m ranting about, is being mistaken for a Vietnamese wife all the time… I could never reach THAT standard, believe me. I don’t clean well enough, cook well enough or make babies on time. I’m also not a 48 kilos bombshell with a perfect tiny body and big black eyes. Most young wives are, here. Talk about standards.

The neighbours regulary pat my tummy, always when I’m busy handling the bike or carrying 1000 things so I can’t slip away, and are all very disappointed that they never feel a baby bump. I’m clearly a bad wife with that, too. I get pity looks, sorry comments and even advice on how to make it happen. In fact, I've been given everything short of traditional medicine concoctions to help me get pregnant, which by the way is not yet in our projects but I definitly can’t explain that one here. It must be said though that one of our neighbours, a funny grandma, always gives DAN advice on how to perform better in the baby making department, so I love her, because with her it seems that DAN is the bad husband, ooh relief for me. Plus, her advice usually make us laugh a lot, so it’s all good.
Life can be tough for some real Vietnamese wives. As soon as they get married, they have to move in with their husband’s family (not always though, it depends of whether the husband is the first son). I understand that once there, they hold the last position in the family hierarchy, and more than one conversation with young wives have given me a pretty good idea of how small their place is in the new household. For instance, I hear that their mother in law makes them cook and clean and boss them around. In return, the grandparents look after the baby while the wife is at work. Also, they are expected to produce a baby within a year, or at least to get pregnant within a year, or women from both families gather to discuss the problem and produce medicines to help. My neighbour Hanh told me that if a new couple was not pregnant within a year, the whole neighbourhood would be talking about it and worry together.
Talk about culture clash. We westerners live together before we get married, or at least most couples do, which is very rare here and not at all looked kindly upon, and after marriage most of us wait a few years to have kids (if we even do get married… or if we ever do have kids…).
Please understand me: this kind of cutlure shock does not shock ME, I go and live in a foreign country, far from me the idea the judge their ways. But where it becomes difficult is when my own life is judged using these criterias, criterias that were never mine to start with. That’s when I find myself living and thinking in a way that can not be reconciled with anything around me and I am pretty much shocking anyone who takes an interest in me, because I don’t follow the vietnamese family common law inside my marriage. I don’t cook the right meats, I don’t help my husband when he’s fixing the door, I don’t make babies… I’m a terrible Vietnamese wife, I’m a disapointment to my neighbours, to my Vietnamese friends and definitly to my cleaning lady.
Tough crowd….

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Un peu de lecture - 2

Livre lus depuis mon dernier post sur le sujet (Mai):
Une collection encore une fois un peu éclectique, et a noter: trois re-lecture dans le lot: Millenium tome 3, que j'ai relu il y a deux mois, quand la version traduite en Anglais est ENFIN sortie (pauvre Dan, il attendait depuis deux ans), les deux premiers tomes de l'assassin royal de Robbin Hobb (parce que maman les avait pris avec elle quand elle est venue me voir ici, j'ai deja lu toute la Saga - environ 20 livres - il y a 5 ans, en France) et les Twilights, re-lus il y a trois mois pour la... je sais pas, peut etre quatrieme fois :)Et je n'ai pas honte de le dire, donc tant mieux pour moi. Ma serie culte c'est Buffy, je n'ai pas honte de dire ca non plus. Enfin, la plupart du temps je n'ai pas honte... mais dans les diners intellos ca casse l'ambiance...

Monday, December 6, 2010

My mum and sister came to spend two weeks here in Hanoi, which was great. I went back to Halong bay on the same wonderfully peaceful tour we took the first time, and Dan and I also went back to Mai Chau to introduce the girls to Mme Linh, one of our favourite person in Vietnam, and to the beautiful landscapes around Mai Chau.

In between those two trips, we just hung out in Hanoi, training the girls on the Vietnamese way of things. By the time they left they could say quite a few things in Vietnamese and were even able to find their way around the Vietnamese money...

We spend most of our time in Hanoi eating traditional Vietnamese food,

and walking around the old quarter (oh so full on) and around West lake (Oh so quiet). We visited Pagodas and the Temple of Lit (first time for me, incredible as it sounds, as it's right next door to where I worked for a year).

We also went to the Water Puppet Theatre show, again a first for me. What else did we do? We enjoyed quite a few strong coffees and quality massages and facials all over the city. :)

The weather wasn't that great but we saw the sun a couple of times in the second week. They didn't mind what we call 'coldish' here, as right now in France... well, it's snowing eveywhere, and 'coldish' here, still means 20 degres Celsius of warm humidity. I can't even feel it anymore, but my mum and sister really did.

It was a good trip for them I think and we had a lot of fun. Catching up with family is always nice, when one lives so far away from them for such a long time. I left France in 2001, it's starting to be a while...

I hope the girls will come back to visit me wherever I am next, and help me remember where I come from and who I am, with everything they say and do.

A Question for the Vietnamese? Part 3

How do you actually make ruou or rice wine as it is called in English? I have been drinking the stuff for a year and half, when encouraged by Vietnamese men, but still have no real idea of what goes into it. With the way I feel the next day it is probably better I don't know.

I know it is rice wine and I know a lot of it is home made. My neighbour for example makes rice wine with geckos. When I raise my eyebrow at the idea of drinking it he tells me with conviction that it is good for my health. He said the same thing about the duck embryo. I have seen rice wine with snakes, lizards, worms and bugs. By this I mean a bottle of wine with a dead snake in it. There are of course others that are just plain old rice wine with no added animals. These are the ones I drink most often, usually in the country side, when socialising with Vietnamese men.

The tastes are always different and the after effects as well. Sometimes I wake up spacey like on drugs, others dizzy but rarely ill. So I wonder how is it actually made and what is used to make it?

What have I been drinking for the past year and a half?

Hanoi Water Puppets

I went and saw the water puppets show a few days ago. It is one of the main tourist attractions in Hanoi and it has taken me a year and a half to get there. It is very popular and the theatre was sold out. Water puppetry is a form of traditional theatre that has been around Vietnam for a long time. Celine's mother bought me a ticket so I happily went along.

The show lasts for about 45 minutes and as the title suggests, it is a puppet show in a waist-deep pool of water. To the side is a small orchestra who either play musical instruments or sing and give commentary throughout the show; all in Vietnamese I might add.

The show is ok. The backdrop is a pagoda and behind a screen men and women puppeteers stand in the water directing the puppets. The puppets are wooden and sit on the end of large rods. I can only hope the water is cleaner than the lakes of Hanoi. Either way it can't be the most enjoyable job.

The show follows a theme of Vietnamese tradition with many key symbols of their society appearing in the show. You will see dragons, rice fields and their workers, buffalo's and cows, conical hats, festivals, fishing etc. All these things make up a part of the Vietnamese culture; especially rural life.

The performance won't blow you away but the theatre is right in the centre of town and only costs $2 so it can easily be factored into your day. Make sure you book ahead because every other tourist in town is also planning on going.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Helping the Kids of Vietnam

Three little ones at the orphanage

A few months ago when Celine and I were travelling through Vietnam we came upon an orphanage in a town called Kon Tum. There are many orphanages in the area and most have little or no support. We were directed to a particular orphanage on the outskirts of town. It took us a while to find the place but we finally did, up a dirt road on a small piece of land. There we met Teresa and a bunch of the kids at the orphanage. Teresa looks after the kids 7 days a week with the help of three sisters. She herself grew up in an orphanage in the area and is now dedicating her life to helping out others in need. She is a wonderful person. The kids are great too. They are happy and for the little they have are well looked after. This orphanage is not written about in any of the guide books and Teresa said we were only the second lot of foreigners to visit in the past year.

Teresa teaching away

We gave the orphanage a few small things; a bit of money and some food which is what anyone would do in the same situation. Celine and I left the orphanage wanting to help out; not just in a small one off way but over the long term. We have been thinking of ways to do this ever since.

Playing a skipping game with the kids

Why do they need help

There are currently 73 kids at the orphanage with only 58 beds

They eat two meals a day. They eat rice and vegetables, many grown in the fields. They don’t eat fish or meat. They are sometimes given food from the market but this is the old stuff that is generally unsalable.

They are often running out of medication. Recently many of the kids had an eye infection but they didn't have enough medicine.

The kids sometimes go to school, mostly by foot because they don't have enough bikes. The few bikes they do have are old and run down. Teresa, when she can, teaches them subjects like English and Maths at the orphanage. She has a blackboard in the main room that she uses.

The kids have one school uniform, a T-shirt for at home and a set of warm clothes. When we visited most of the kids were wearing dirty clothes.

Structurally, there are a lot of things that need to be done around the orphanage. They have a well that someone made for them but it is very unsafe for the young kids running around. The storage room that hold the rice and other important things is in bad shape. They have electricity but they can't afford to use it.

Hanging out with some of the kids

How to help

I have been in contact with an NGO operating in Danang who has been supporting disadvantaged kids for a number of years. After discussions with them it looks like they are going to work with me to start a project working with the orphanage in Kon Tum. For me this is great news. I want to put in place a long term solution, one that continues when I leave Vietnam. I am confident that we can work together in helping the kids have a better quality of life. If I can provide funds for the project they will source and distribute everything that is needed.

How can you help

The first and most obvious is to donate some money to the cause. A few dollars from everyone I know would easily cover the most needed things; that being a decent meal, adequate medicine and quality clothing. That is what I want to achieve first but I have many ideas for the future. I am still finalising the best way to collect the money so for the time being this post is to create awareness. I want people to know what I am doing and why I am doing it. Forward this post onto your friends and get people involved.

If you would like to help out please leave a comment on this post with your email and I will soon provide updated information. If you want more information, please get in touch with me and I can answer any questions you have. If you think this is a good idea please send this onto your friends and use social media to get my idea out there. Anyone that has been to Vietnam will know that many are living a hard life. These kids are born into this life and deserve our help. I have heard some terrible stories about the plight of young kids, often newborns in this area. This orphanage has provided a chance at life for many of these kids; a chance many before them never had. They have this chance because of wonderful people like Theresa who dedicate their life to helping others. I want, in a small way, to help too.

Get involved guys. A little help can go a long way. I will send an updated post once I have confirmation from the NGO on how we are going to proceed. In the meantime, tell others about helping the kids of Vietnam.

For my previous post of the orphanages of Kon Tum CLICK HERE

Truc Bach Lake

I just got back from lunch with the inlaws on Truc Bach Lake. On one stretch of the lake is a line of Hot Pot, or Lau in Vietnamese, restaurants. I am not usually a hot pot fan and Vietnamese people have warned us away from these particular restaurants, citing bad quality, but I enjoy the experience. It is a good way to spend lunch on a cold and otherwise disagreeable day. For a beef hotpot it costs around 200,000 VND. You get a plate of meat, vegetables and some noodles. With the hotpot sitting on a small table you sit on the ground and gradually add ingredients as you wish.

The setting is very peaceful and you have picturesque views of the lake. My only suggestion is don't look down. Sitting right on the edge of the lake you have the unplesant first hand view of the filth that is Truc Bach Lake. At the edge of the lake are dead fish among other things. If the fish aren't dead then they are not far off. You see many flopping around at the surface, struggling to stay alive. You can see the layer of pollution on the surface of the lake and rubbish is scattered around. At other parts of the lake I have seen Vietnamese guys happily and frequently relieve themselves leaving a rotten stench whenever you walk past.

The areas around the lakes are great and the city is lucky to have them. The locals, in my opinion, need to make more of an effort to conserve the lakes and reverse the years of abuse they have suffered through continuous pollution. Truc Back Lake is where John McCain, US Republican politician, was shot down during the Vietnam war. He landed in the lake. I can only hope for his sake that the lake was in a better shape back in the late 60's. I would not like to be the person who had to get into Truc Bach today.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Birthday Leg

A big happy birthday for the beautiful Celine. We are spending the day in Hanoi with Celine's sister and mother. We started the day at the gym which is a pretty good effort for a birthday morning. After a swim we dug into some French delights; criossants, madeleines and some pain au chocolat. We washed that down with a few cappucinnos.

The girls are spending a half day at Thu Cuc; a spa and massage place. After a few hours relaxing in the afternoon we will have dinner at a seafood buffet restaurant.

I hope you have a great day Leggoy :)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Hitting the Gym

So it has taken me 28 years but I have finally joined a gym, albeit only for a month. A new gym, Elite, has opened up in town not far from our house. It is very impressive and I would assume matches any top class gym going around. It has an abundance of choice with brand new facilities including cardio equipment that has a TV and Ipod connection. There are heaps of weight machines and free weights. They have classes running everyday including yoga and a bunch of other things I really have no idea about. The spin class looks fun. Celine is taking me for my first yoga on Monday so I will see how that goes.

There is a heated pool with a retractable roof and a sauna and jacuzzi. I also think there is a spa opening soon. The drawback, of course, is the price. It is more expensive than Sydney and costs a few hundred a month. As part of their grand opening they offered one month memberships for guests of a current member. Because of this I signed myself up for a month for about $30 and thus have my first gym experience.

I started going on Monday and have been back everyday with the exception of yesterday. I am really enjoying it. The good thing about the price is that no one else goes so the gym is virtually empty. I work out on the bike for about 30 minutes before hitting a few weights. The weights room, which consists of about 30 odd different machines and a whole free weight section, is usually completely vacant so I don't have to look like an idiot lifting 20kg weights :) After that I try and do a few laps of the pool. Celine and I try and go together so we motivate each other. As I only have a month I want to try and get the most out of it; meaning get rid of my beer gut.

I don't know how they make there money but I am happy with the quiet atmosphere.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Question for the Vietnamese: Part 2?

Note: This picture is not a reflection of the length of the Vietnamese nails. The nails I have seen are around the 5cm mark

Often I see Vietnamese men with one or two exceptionally long and immaculately clean fingernails. Now, I have been told a few conflicting things. Some people have said that this is a way of showing society that they are not workers doing manual labour. Others have said it is a fashion statement. The guy that shaves my head once a fortnight has two finger nails on one of his hands that are about 5 centimetres long. Any girl would be proud of how well they are kept. I have seen other guys with one nail that is impressively long and others with four or five long fingernails.

So, in my quest to understand all things Vietnamese, I want to get to the bottom of why the men do this and why do some only grow one fingernail and others two, three, four or five.

Any thoughts?

You can also join the discussion on another all important Question for the Vietnamese

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Back to the French

After a 6 month break from my French studies I have re-enrolled with the only French language school in town; L'Espace. I am now studying level C and so far enjoying it. The school has changed the books used to teach students which I think is an awesome idea. The new book is a big improvement from the last one. Also, my teachers are motivated and friendly; teachers can be a hit and miss at this school.

The facilities are very good for the price you pay and this point follows on from my last post; services among other things are very cheap here. An 8 week course, studying three times a week for 1.5 hours, with both French and Vietnamese teachers costs about $70. That is incomparable to anywhere else I know. It is more expensive for the Vietnamese to study English in language schools in Hanoi than for me to study French. In Sydney an 8 week course, 4 hours a week, at the Alliance Francais will cost you $575.
It is such a great opportunity learn a language at an affordable price. Now that I am back I am a bit angry at myself for not continuing the whole time I have been here, but I also had to concentrate on my Uni studies.

In a few weeks Celine's mother and sister arrive in Hanoi and as always I boast about my French skills; without much to back that up. I hope I have improved enough this time to have a decent conversation with them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cost of Living in Hanoi

You need to leave Hanoi, or I guess Vietnam, to realise how amazingly cheap it is to live in this city. I recently got back from Seoul where a basic green tea was about $4. (Note from Celine: actually, yes Seoul is more expensive than Hanoi, no doubt about that, but regarding that green tea, our friend Diana who lives in Seoul clearly told us we got ripped off as green tea should cost between nothing to $1.50)I can get 40 green teas in Hanoi for that price. yes I said 40. A beer in Seoul is from $3-6 in a restaurant or bar. Most places in Hanoi won't be more than a $1.5. Last night I stopped to get dinner on the way home. I bought Xoi Ga, which is sticky rice with chicken, for $1. I also bought 3 cans of beer for $1.5 in total.

I get my head shaved once a fortnight, in a salon, for $1.5. If I want a head massage and a face wash (not really my thing) I will have to fork out an extra dollar.

I hire a motorbike for $40 a month spending $3 a week on petrol.

A smallish one bedroom apartment close to the city will be around the $300 per month mark. We live in a 5 story house with four bedrooms for $800 per month. You can share with a few friends and split the cost but even the whole amount would easily be manageable with the salary you earn. We don't want to live in a big house on our own so we share with one of our friends.

In Summer with the Air-con at full strenght all day and night, electricity bills come to around $50 a month. $70 includes all other bills as well; water, telephone, Internet and what ever other small random bill gets delivered to our door. In winter the amount we pay drops quite a bit.

You can get a massage (not the dodgy kind) anywhere from $3 per hour. An hour massage in a decent place, often frequented by foreigners, will be around the $8 to $10 mark.

A smallish trip in a taxi (make sure you ride in a decent one) should only be a few dollars.

In short the cost of living in Hanoi is extremely low. Food is very affordable; to the point where it's cheaper to eat out than cook at home, services are generally inexpensive and to counter all this the salaries are good. This low cost of living with an OK salary leads to a good quality of life. Any western comfort such as cappuccinos or a decent gym will cost you a lot more, but if you are willing to live like a local it will cost you next to nothing.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Korean or Vietnamese street food?

Street food stand in Seoul

Personally, I don't think there is a better way to sample the food of a culture than sitting on the street with locals. I love eating street food in Vietnam and do so most days. I was very happy to find a similar culture, albeit in a different kind of set up, when I went to Korea. Koreans won't sit down and eat street food like in Vietnam, instead eating as they walk or standing at the stand and eating it there.

My top street food eats in Seoul are:

Tteokbokki - I kind of rice cake stew swerved in an orange sweet and spicy sauce. I loved this stuff but man it was spicy sometimes.

Kimbap - Korean Sushi. Delicious and cheap.

Odeng - boiled fish cakes on a stick. Does not sound that appealing but was a good, quick and easy snack.

Noodle soup - not sure of the Korean name but a big bowl of think noodles in a steaming but light tasting broth with chill paste was perfect for a cold evening. For only a $1 who can complain?

Ggultaraeyeot (Yongsuyeom) - Korean sweets made from honey and corn flour. The sweets were ok but seeing how it was made was very cool.

Making the candy in the Insadong district; the boys were funny which was the main reason we bought some

Dalgona Bbopgi - Candy on a stick. Celine loved this.

As with the sites of the city, when it came to street food we were only able to sample a few of the many options. From what I tried I was very impressed. I miss the food already.

In Vietnam we sit on the street, on small plastic chairs, or occasionally take the food away.

My favourites street foods in Hanoi are:

Pho Bo - Noodle soup with beef

Xoi ga - sticky rice with chicken

Banh Mi Pate - A pate sandwich with strips of pork, cucumber and some type of sauce with chili. Simple but i can't get enough of it.

Bun rieu - crab noodle soup

Kebab - I know, not very Vietnamese they are all around the city and at under a $1 I just love them.

I wrote an article on Street Food in Hanoi a while back giving a bit more information on some of the foods available. Have a read

What street food is better?.........That is a tough one.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The sites of Seoul

Seoul by night

Seoul is a great place to spend a few days. We stayed with our friend Diana, a teacher, in her apartment not to far from the city centre. Diana lives in a small block of flats on Metro line 4. It is a simple apartment but you can still see the modern, technologically based life the Koreans live; she has no key, using a touch pad to enter the block of flats and her apartment, and her floors can be heated. I am not used to that. If you want technology come to Seoul.

We spent the days travelling around the city, catching up with Diana in the evenings. We walked Diana's area which is around Sungshin Women's University. There are shops, a high street, restaurants, shopping malls, street food and generally a buzz everywhere you go. We found that in many other places as well.

Around the palace

We checked out the shopping area of Myeongdong, the foreign district of Itaewon, the cultural and arts area around Insadong, the parks around the Seoul Tower and the main palace of Seoul, Gyeongbokgung. We also explored the area around Hongik University and around City Hall. My favourite place was Insadong and the parks around the Seoul Tower. Insadong a neighbourhood in Seoul has one main steet with a heap of small alleys feeding off it. There are art galleries, traditional shops and local markets. This area has a real soul (no pun intended). On a clear day the Seoul Tower is a great place to go. The veiws of the city are amazing - appartantly sometimes you can see over to North Korea. Surrounding the tower are public parks; a great place to walk and get away from city life. The park was really beautiful this time of year.
Views from the tower

We bought a Seoul hop-on-hop-off bus ticket; the same concept as the one we did in Kuala Lumpur. It was just as touristy as the last one but is a great way to see the city when you have limited time. For 10,000 Won or about $10 it is a great deal.

Autumn colours

Seoul is a mega city, home to around 12 million people. There is so much choice and we both found Seoul a truly impressive city. Seoul is surrounded by mountains and the autumn colours are in full force this time of year. It is getting cold at the moment.

We left content after our short trip in Seoul but felt it was definitely not enough. There were so many things we didn’t get to see. We would both love to go back.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

First impressions of Seoul

We arrived in Seoul for a 5 day trip, catching up and staying with our crazy friend Diana. It was time for a visa run so we decided to head up to Korea and see Diana while checking out Seoul at the same time.

Seoul is ultra modern. The city is clean and has a bustling atmosphere. There are things happening everywhere. There are shops and things to do and see everywhere you look. Each area of town has an abundance of choice for shopping, eating and many different tourist attractions. They are big on skin-care here (Celine's observation, not mine) and spend a lot of time hanging out in the countless chain stores. I must have seen a hundred Dunkin Donuts, Lotteria and Starbucks throughout the city. There are many other ones as well; every street has at least one so they are hard to miss.

The train travel is very efficient and pretty cheap. You can travel most places for about a dollar. The Metro is massive but never seems super busy which makes it a nice may to travel.

Koreans are very trendy and fashionable (I look like a bum here). Technology is important and is part of the Korean fashion statement; on trains and in the street I- Phones and other high-end gadgets are everywhere. I merge into the crowd here which is a welcome relief to Vietnam where they stare. The Koreans don't seemed fussed at all about foreigners, oblivious to us and anything we are doing. In saying that, I must say that the Koreans are super friendly and helpful. Anytime I have pulled out a map someone has come and asked if they can help.

So, first impressions are good; it's a busy, exciting city with lots to do. The food is tasty and the people are friendly. It is easy to get around and each neighbourhood has its own charm.

We have a few days to explore the city which should be fun. It is getting cold this time of year so I have to wear shoes for the first time in months; not to happy about that.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Question for the Vietnamese?

Why don't you paint or render the side of your house? For the typical long, thin and tall Vietnamese houses I often only see the front painted. The sides, which take up a much larger section than the front are concrete. I have seen this throughout the whole of Vietnam. Sometimes a lot of work and I would gather money goes into making the front look good to be contrasted with a big long ugly concrete wall. I just don't understand the logic.

A short walk from my house finds many examples. It is obvious to see so I wonder why the whole house isn't painted. Is it a money thing or an assumption that another house will go up next to it hiding the side?

Does anyone know?