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?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Time for a new passport

I am due for a new passport in 2012; something I am looking forward too. Firstly, I hate my 2002 photo. I have travelled quite a bit since I got the passport so I am reminded of the photo quite a bit.

Secondly, immigration officials, especially in Vietnam, seem to question if it is actually me. Each time I return I get inquisitive looks. One time recently I got the full work over. An older man wearing glasses grabbed my passport, looked at my picture and gave me a stern look. His face didn't move, his expression unchanged. All he did was repeatably roll his eyeballs from the picture back to me. I watched his eyes go back and forward between me and the picture at least four times.

I smiled. He didn't budge. I didn't know what to do so I looked away. The whole situation was getting a little awkward when he finally stamped the passport and gave me a suspicious look. I could feel his prying eyes burning the back of my head as I quickly walked away.

Damn passport photo.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Halong Bay

No one in sight

A visit to Vietnam usually requires a stop at Halong Bay. It is probably the number one tourist attraction in the country and locals and foreigners a like flock there in numbers. Within the expat community the Halong Bay stories I have heard have usually been ones of disappointment; tours have been overcrowded, the service has been rubbish and any other number of reasons have resulted in an average at best experience.

Part of the local fishing village

The only glowing reference I received was for a company called Eco Friendly Vietnam. We took our friends suggestion and used these guys a few months ago. The trip was amazing. With my Mum and younger brother in town I had no hesitation to use these guys again. Generally I hate taking tours. I like authentic experiences and most tours rarely offer that. They take you to the touristy places with a bunch of other tourists so you can do touristy things.

Tim catching a few rays

These guys offer only private tours. They pick you up from your house in a van and drive you to Hai Phong. From there you take a fast ferry to Cat Ba island. The ferry is about 45 minutes. Once on Cat Ba island your tour guide meets you and takes you too your boat. When you board there are no other boats around. The main idea of their tours is to take you away from the masses. You spend the remaining day, that night and the following day until 2pm on the boat. In that time you come across maybe a handful of other boats, most from their small company. We spend the two days navigating around the limestone karsts, stopping at secluded little beaches, kayaking through caves and swimming in beautiful clean water. You really get the feeling you are in a relatively untouched part of the world. It is hard to believe that not too far away thousands of people cruise around the same area with boats connecting side up side at night.

One of the small beaches we stopped at

We slept in a cove surrounded up steep imposing cliffs. There is not a sole in sight when you wake up in the morning; a perfect opportunity for an early swim. The food on the trip is delicious with massive servings; predominantly fresh seafood, purchased from a nearby fish farm. The trip is relaxing and the crew leave you too yourself, also giving you the option to choose how you want to spend your day; swimming, kayaking, visiting caves and/or small uninhabited beaches are some of the options.

Mum writing

For three people it costs $128 per person. If you have four people in your group the price comes down to $110 per person. For what you get I think it is definitely worth it. I don't even bother looking at other options.

The old lady and my younger brother were very impressed with the trip, comparing it to some of the most beautiful landscapes they had ever seen. They left content and relaxed. I am not one to recommend tour companies but if you are heading to Halong Bay and want to get away from everyone else while seeing some magnificent scenery then I suggest getting in touch with these guys.

For my previous post, and trip to Halong Bay, which follows the same thought see It pays to pay Halong Bay

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Two Weeks in Vietnam

I have just sent the old lady and my younger brother back to Sydney after a few weeks in Vietnam. I sent them to Hoi An for a few days where Tim, my little bro, negotiated flood waters with a local expat. They rode through knee deep water on a mission to find a drinking session with a bunch of local policemen. They partied into the early hours. While in Hoi An they went to the local tailors and got suits and shoes made. You can grab a high quality suit for under $100.

Back in Hanoi we cruised around West Lake, visiting cafes on the water and eating away from the noise of the city. We stopped at pagodas and walked the streets near my house. We enjoyed the local Vietnamese coffee, cafe sua da, along with an assortment of Vietnamese specialities. We ate Pho Ga, Bun Cha, Bun Bo Nam Bo, Nem, Banh Cuon, Chau and many others. They were easy guests in that regard as they loved all the food on offer. Surprisingly, Tim's favourite food was Banh My Pate; a simple sandwich.

We went around the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum, Presidential Palace and One Pillar Pagoda. A day was spent walking the streets of the Old Quarter, eating food and buying presents. My Mum bought more in a week than I have in a few years. With silk and lacquer, hand made artifacts and propaganda posters packed away they then took it upon themselves to relax with a well deserved massage. They decided on Just Massage, a company that employees vision impaired staff. They left with glowing reviews.

We visited the Temple of Literature and Craft Link, a handicrafts store aimed at helping the disadvantaged. Tim came and sat in on a few of my classes to see if I had any teaching skills; you will have to check with him as to his thoughts. We rode around the Opera House as well as Hoan Kiem Lake.

Tim was on the bike after a few days and proved a natural. He was able to take the bike on a two hour ride over Long Bien Bridge. We wanted to get out of the city and see some rice fields. The old lady has not been on a trip for about 10 years and handled the hustle and bustle of Hanoi very well.

We did a lot of walking, took countless photo's and ate continuously. We explored a good portion of the city giving the guys a decent feel of life in Hanoi. With only a few days left on the trip I decided to take them to Halong Bay. A relaxing few days seemed the best way to end a two week holiday in busy Vietnam.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Photo of the Week # 8

Put your hands in the air like you just don't care

H'Mong Village Life: Living with the locals

Ker's House

Ker and her family live in a village of about 500 people; houses scattered around a few kilometre radius, sitting on hilly terrain, surrounded by rice fields. There are two other houses that could be considered close neighbours. Ker lives with her husband Hung, their two kids, Hung's younger sister and Hung's parents. Following tradition, Ker lives with her husbands family.

Surrounding rice fields

About 5 kilometres out of Sapa we turned off the main road onto a rocky dirt road which wound up, down and around hills, through running streams and over bamboo bridges before arriving at Ker's village. It was a tricky ride. It was slippery and muddy and at times Celine had to get off and walk. It was only a few kilometres from the main road but the trip lasted 45 minutes.

Ker lives in a traditional H'mong house. The house has one main room and 3 small rooms. A ladder leads up to a second floor. This is used for storage. The main room, about 6m by 8m, is for cooking, eating and socialising with friends and family. The small rooms, about 2m by 2m, are for sleeping. Hung's younger sister gave us her room to sleep in. The family cooks from an open fire cut into the ground. The earth floor is hard like clay and uneven. As Celine mentioned, leftover food is thrown on the ground for the animals to eat. This may give the perception of a dirty place but this is not the case.

Our bedroom

The main room has a small table and some homemade benches. A light globe is the sole source of light and it is moved often from the cooking area to the eating area. Washing hangs throughout the main room. There are stools, spades, pig food and cooking pots in one section of the room. Bags of rice sit under a calender, a clock and a collection of old but happy family photos.

Family and friends enjoying a meal

The small sleeping rooms have a wooden frame bed and an area to hang clothes. There is a small side room to wash the dishes and prepare some of the food. Much of their work is done with little to no light. There is no running water and the toilet is the nearby trees.

Cooking dinner on the family fire

The families rice fields are nearby and Celine and I helped for a few hours. It is a completely manual task, harvesting the rice with a sharp curved knife, putting it in piles to dry. They harvest about 600kg a year which is all for the families consumption. They have two different types of rice. Ker earns the money for the family as a tour guide. As she is recovering after the birth of her second child, Hung does all the work. He is a helpful and caring husband; even when he receives a bit of lip from Ker. They don't own a buffalo, they can't afford one, so they borrow a friends. In return Hung will help other families when it is time to harvest.

Celine the harvester

Everyone is incredibly friendly in the village. I successfully made at least three kids cry. A tall, bald, white guy with a big nose must be a daunting image for a little one. If the kids weren't crying they would stare in complete amazement. I really enjoyed walking around watching everyone live their simple happy life. They didn't have or seemed to want much but were content living their village life, growing their crops and living with their families. In saying this, technology is not lost on Ker and her village. Most have a mobile phone and three days before we arrived at the village her neighbour had a TV installed. With a DVD player to go with it the locals were hooked. As we waved goodbye about 30 locals were sitting inside the neighbours house watching a Kung Fu movie. It was a contrasting image.

Ker's closest neighbours

We left very happy, enjoying a truly authentic experience while at the same time catching up with a friend and meeting her family.

H'Mong Village Life

Our friend Ker

We went to Sapa again a few weekends ago. We’d been there in February this year, and became friends with our H’Mong guide, little Ker. In the last 8 months we talked to her on the phone a few times, and she’s been keeping us updated on her pregnancy. She’s only twenty years old but she has been married three years, and she already has a two years old little boy. When she was our tour guide, she explained a lot to us about H’Mong traditions and customs, one of them being getting married very early on… in February, she had just been to her little brother’s wedding celebration, that week. He was fourteen years old.

The new arrival - one week old

I actually am starting to know quite a bit about the H’Mong love customs, from seeing a documentary at the Cinematheque, the week we arrived about the H’Mong love market, then from talking to Ker a lot in February and finally from reading Liz Gilbert’s “Committed” book. So, being familiar with the Love market custom and the whole kidnapping business (when a H’mong boy likes a H’mong girl, he and his family go and kidnap her. The girl then spends three days in the boy’s family and at the end of that period she can decide whether she wants to marry him or not. Most of the times, it’s a yes, and the girl moves into the boy’s house, and village). That almost happened to Ker.

Looking at a photo album

Unfortunately for her maybe-future groom to be, Ker had already met the boy she loved, Hong (her current husband) when a whole delegation of men came to her house to kidnap her. Her father was in the secret, which he didn’t keep very well as he killed a pig when the men arrived to his house, and started exchanging tobacco with them, which is a sure enough sign of future wedding cahoots. Seeing this, Ker called Hung to the rescue and he discreetly took her out of the house and hid her at his aunt’s house. Then, they ran away. The men and Ker’s father looked for her all day but she was hiding with Hung in the mountains. She didn’t want to marry some boy she didn’t know. She wanted Hung.

Ker, Hung, their two kids and Hung's younger sister

When they returned, they were quickly married. Ker’s father was pissed off, although H’Mong are good natured people and his wrath was only manifested in this way: he took her mobile phone and purse, and hid them. Ker’s mum came to the rescue after a couple of days and retrieved the mobile phone and purse from under the dad’s pillow.
When Ker was telling us that story, a few weeks ago in her little mountain house, Ker, Dan and I were sitting around the fire laughing our heads off. That story really has a happy ending, they are now married with two kids and Ker’s father has grown to love Hung as he helps him on the farm a lot. :)

Ker & Hung at the local market

Anyway, the weekend was amazing, we spent it in a H’mong village which practically never sees any tourists, in a wooden house with no floor (if you don’t finish your rice, throw it on the floor, the dogs will eat it. That is inside the house I mean), no running water, one light bulb for the whole house, which they move from one end to another depending on what they need to do, kids running around pant less, friends visiting at any hour of the day, cats, dogs, chickens in the house, a lot of rice wine flowing, corn hanging from the ceiling and pigs just outside grunting away day and night.


The best home stay you’ll ever experience.

And the best of all that, is that we were amongst friends, I mean we really went to see Ker and her new baby, we planned it with her over the phone, she was happy to see us and spend time with us. It was a great feeling.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Exams are over

The last few weeks have been rather hectic. A lot has happened and I have been very busy. We went on an amazing trip to Sapa to see our friend and her newborn baby, saw the arrival of my Mum and younger brother for a few weeks trip in Vietnam and did my best to cram for my exams. I am studying abroad here. I am finishing off my BA in Finance from an Australian University. I sit my exams at the British Council; an English language school. I have now sat 4 exams and each time I have been the only one in the examination room. A lady sits with me while I do my exam. She is a sweet lady in her thirties and takes her role very seriously. Any thoughts of paying her a little cash on the side so I could bring my book in was quickly squashed when she followed the exam regulations to the letter.

Each time I had to turn off my phone and place it face up under the table. Usual story for an exam. Then she proceeded to read me the examination rules. Each time she would read "No talking in the exam", "No copying off other people in the exam" and "Don't disturb others while sitting the exam". This made me smile and I would reply with some stupid response that she didn't completely understand. She has read the rules to me 4 times now and each time I humour myself with a little joke. Maybe next time I won't be the only person in the examination room and the rules will have some degree of relevance.

It is very chilled sitting and doing the exam on your own. My lady helper fills up my water bottle when I am empty. Now that is service. But now, most importantly, the exams are over and I can relax and spend my time showing the family around.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The party is over

After 10 days of celebrations the 1000 year party for Hanoi has ended. I am not one to shy away from a party at the best of times but for me the past week has been one of avoidance. I did this for two reasons; 1. the traffic and 2. the uninspiring list of events taking place.

The traffic, as I mentioned before, was a nightmare. Streets were often closed, with the ones open a mass of bikes crawling centimetres at a time, spewing fumes and generating heat. As the heat grew the sweat came. This went on for an hour until I got to work, arriving dirty and clammy, hot and bothered. Yes, this is a bit of a whinge but my predicament comes in part to the organisation of this event. And by organisation I mean lack of. Thousands upon thousands of bikes would pack the roads, kilometres at a time. There were very few police and the ones that were out on the streets didn't seem able to manage the traffic. I didn't envy their job. As I got increasingly frustrated the Vietnamese stayed the same. They were not deterred and persisted without concern. On one particular occasion, after an hour creeping along the road I found a major source of the latest traffic jam. A car, dressed as a tank, was making it's way up a one way street (the wrong way). This car, that had a wood frame attached so as to resemble that of a tank, was making it's way to a practice rehearsal in preparation for the main celebrations on October 10. The car/tank happened to take up most of the road. Bikes, that stretched back kilometres were slowly, in ones and twos, slipping around the side of it. When I passed the car/tank had another 50 or so metres to go to get to the end of the one way street. With one policeman directly a thousand bikes coming the other way I figured the tank would be late for practice. No one seemed alarmed by this and continued on. By this point I had to smile. Welcome to Hanoi traffic.

The events for the party celebrations really didn't interest me. They were not tailored to the international market which I feel was a missed opportunity. After living in the culture for a year there were still many events that I didn't understand and others seemed boring and outdated for the modernising Hanoi. I understand that this is a party for the people of Hanoi but how about selling the city for what it is today using the ideal media opportunity that was on hand?

Instead they spent 63 million dollars covering the city in lights (which did look quite nice in places), dressing up a few areas, putting on a big military style parade and blaring music from loudspeakers that cracked as if playing back in the 40's. They put up TV's across town, as well as impromptu stages for some song and dance. Flags wrapped the city. Fireworks were originally planned throughout the city but most were cancelled late, with the money instead going to victims of the recent flooding in Central Vietnam; an important thing to do.

If the party was not intended for a western audience then of course that's ok. The important thing is that the locals enjoyed their chance to have a goodtime and celebrate their city.
I have heard mixed reactions. Many of my Vietnamese friends either stayed at home or left the city not wanting to get involved in the celebrations; mainly due to the traffic. Others thought it was a waste of money. Some were very happy, enjoying the lights and the chance to share the moment with friends. We decided to leave to Sapa to see a friend.

A few days into the celebration I drove past the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where locals would take pictures under a script by Ly Thai To, the emperor who founded Hanoi in 1,010. This one particular time I saw a very old man dressed in what must have been his finest black suit, accompanied by a black top hat. He was old and frail but standing on his own. Next to him was a little girl, around 5 years old, who I took as his grand daughter (probably great grand daughter). They were posing for photos. He looked terribly proud standing in Ba Dinh Square (where Ho Chi Minh declared independence in 1945) with probably the newest member his family. It was a nice image. It made me think this city has seen a lot, just over the last 100 years, so hopefully the cynicism towards the events was not the overwhelming feeling. Hopefully there is a good lasting memory for the people of Hanoi, otherwise that 63 million could have been put to much better use.

Friday, October 8, 2010

En Francais, pour les Francais

Dans un mois, les cours de Français à l’Espace Français d’Hanoi reprennent, et Dan va passer en classe 3 ! En fait, les niveaux sont des lettres, donc Dan va passer à C. L’autre jour il discutait avec ma dentiste, Trang, une jeune femme Vietnamienne mariée à un Français, qui prends aussi des cours de Français à l’Espace. Il était tout fier de passer en C, et l’a dit à Trang, qui lui à repondu qu’elle même etait en F.

Il m’a regardé avec des yeux ronds, surpris je pense qu’un tel niveau EXISTE.

F ??? mais c’est encore 3 classes après C ! Ca va jusqu’a quelle lettre Godness ??

Le Français est une langue difficile, pour les Anglophones et encore plus pour les Vietnamiens vu que la langue Vietnamienne ne s’embarasse d’aucune grammaire ni conjugaison. Tout se passe à la troisième personne et il n’y a pas de temps. Il suffit de rajouter « hier » ou « plus tard » dans sa phrase au présent pour faire passer une notion de passé ou de futur. Alors vous pensez bien que le passé composé, les verbes intransitifs, les compléments d’agent etc... c’est du Chinois pour eux. En fait, non, c’est une expression mal choisie, parce que le Chinois est en fait très simple grammaticalement, aussi.

Bref, Dan a arrêté ses cours il y a plus de 6 mois et s’inquiétait un peu de reprendre à froid en classe C, franchement un peu difficile pour lui. Donc depuis deux semaines on fait de la remise à niveau, deux fois par semaine. J’ai choisi ici un petit medley de choses qu’il me dit pendant nos lessons en tête à tête... J’ai vraiment pris des notes à donc ce medley est authentique et véridique :

Celine : Traduis : 14th, 15th ?

Dan : Qwatorzieme, Quinerzieme

Sur le sujet : nationalité et pays

Dan: Je suis Finlandaise (oui, il à du mal avec les genres), et j’habite en Finnishé.

Celine : USA ?

Dan : Leziti younis

Celine : Traduis « a bottle »

Dan : Une crevette !

Celine : The morning.

Dan : Le matin.

Celine: Good... The night.

Dan: La noix.

Celine: The window?

Dan: La fassiette

Celine: What's a BOULANGERIE?

Dan: (en Anglais) c'est l'endroit ou on joue a la petanque.

Et mon préféré... après avoir triché en allant voir sur un site web des phrases françaises section « couples », Dan m’a dit tout content : « Je suis la femme la plouz ereuze du monde ! »

Alors ca va, si elle est heureuse.

Photo of the week # 7

Fishing early morning in Mui Ne

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Nose Picker

Teaching kids is a lot of fun. At times they can be naughty and it is often hard to control the class but generally it is a fun experience. You really don't know what you are going to get from them each lesson which makes it interesting.

I have started teaching a few classes of little ones; 6-8 years old. They are just starting out in English so it is basic stuff (even I can grasp it). I only have them for 20-30 minutes so I play a game, introduce new vocabulary, drill as a class and then individually before another quick game at the end.

As I drill individually, I often have to squat to meet their eyes. Yesterday, as I squatted to a small girl or 6, I asked her to say the words I pointed to in a book. I pointed to a picture, which happened to be for the word "SMILE", however she read it as shove my finger up my nose. I had a little snigger and asked her again. She proceeded to dig deeper into her nostril but to her credit managed in a soft, unassuming tone...."smile", which sounded more like "SMI". I left laughing, moving onto the next kid, as she continued to navigate her nostril.

I love it how kids just don't get societies social rules. As a teacher you often get to see and hear some funny things.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Unacceptable Behaviour

Celine was pushed while riding her bike yesterday. She was pushed by a policeman. Whenever their is a VIP in town they are ferried around town by way of police escort. Big black cars zoom along the roads with cops on bikes, sirens blaring, at the front and rear.

These cops were wearing a white uniform, one I am not familiar with, and were obviously in the mood to make their presence felt. First, one of the cops, while riding his bike, veered to the side of the road where a teenager was riding without a helmet. He swung his batton at the kid who ducked to aviod the impact. As you can imagine if he had connected their could be serious concequences.

After that this guys decides that Celine is not out of the way enough so he rides over and gives her a push. I don't know if he knew she was a foreigner or not but it is hardly the point. Treating their own people like this is terrible. It was extremely dangerous, both swinging a batton at a kid and pushing Celine, both while they were riding. I wonder what they would have done if either of them fell off their bike. I can't see them stopping to check on anyones wellbeing. It really made me angry.

If you hear or see a VIP transport coming through the city I strongly suggest getting right out of the way.

Going to the gym

I've been going to the gym everyday since we've been back. Every single day, I exercise for a couple of hours. I'm very proud, it's good for me and it makes me much happier and more active than I was this dreadful summer.

My gym is ultra modern, which is not the best for more spiritual activities such as yoga or meditation, but excellent for cardio, because....

Do you know what’s good about an exercise bike with its own TV screen wired on the guidon? I’ll tell you: it’s pedaling while watching a film, which will get you on the bike for huge chunks of time without you even realising it’s been so long.

Last Wednesday I stayed 45 minutes on there, delightfully watching “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, laughing away. Today, I caught a police investigation movie starring Sandra Bullock and the ever so beautiful Ryan Gosling and watched all of it. That’s over 90 minutes on the bike, pedalling away, starring into Ryan’s eyes. (Yes, he's like... 18 in that film. But love knows no age, and in reality we're exactly the same age. We were born the same day)

When I got off the bike I could barely walk. It will hurt tomorrow, but I’m happy anyway. I had never in my life pedalled for an hour and a half in a gym, I get too bored way before that mark.

And that's why you need a TV screen wired ON your exercise bike!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Hanoi 1000 year celebrations

Hanoi is officially in party mode. Today starts the 10 day celebrations for Hanoi's 1000th year, finishing on October the 10th. Lý Thái Tổ, an empereror back in the day, moved the capital to Hanoi in 1010. Hanoi, and Vietnam in general, have experienced a lot over the years and definitely deserves a party.

So far from what I have seen, lights have been put up throughout the city, mainly on Dien Bien Phu Street and between West and Truc Back Lake. The lights are a big attraction at night and the streets are packed. A lot of work has gone into Ba Dinh square, in front of the HCM Mausoleum, where many of the celebrations will take place. Traditional performances occur on stages on the side of the road; I passed one on my way home from work with about 100 motorbikes stopped, watching on.

Without being the Scrooge of the party I have to say the traffic is a nightmare. When there is a party of any kind the Vietnamese take to the streets in their masses. Driving to and from work, which happens to be where most of the decorations are, is constant grid lock. There is never much organisation of the traffic, despite seeing many more policeman on the road. If the Vietnamese want to stop, they will, even if it is in the middle of the road. Taking the traditional performance as an example; the 100 odd bikes that had all stopped were still on the road meaning everyone else had to ride around them, taking a two lane road down to less than half a lane. Traffic slowed to a virtual stop and we crawled for 5 minutes until past the performance.

I look forward to the celebrations and many people are excited about it but I definitely don't look forward to the frustrations of my daily pilgrimage to and from work.