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.