Friday, 31 December 2010

It's not you, it's me

I ran into an expat friend here, and told him I was surprised to see he hadn't left Hanoi.
"Why?" he said. "I love it here!"
I reminded him that the last time I saw him he confessed to having homicidal thoughts about strangers in the street.
"Oh yeah, sure," he recalled. "But that was the summer."

I, too, love it here so long as I'm not too hot, or I'm not too hungry, or not in too much of a hurry to get anywhere, or not too fussed about treading in an overflowing gutter of poo water. When I do, however, tick one of these boxes, then watch out Hanoi: I'm bringing you down with me.

It's like the city is the ultimate litmus test for your mood. Nowhere is this more apparent to me than in the Botanic Gardens, where I go most mornings at the same time to jog the same route. The only variable in this experiment is me.

When I'm in a good mood, the Gardens are glorious. There are so many trees! And so much green! The lake is magical! Oh, the reflections! Oh, the nature!

But on a bad day, I can't help but notice that the so-called Botanic Gardens doesn't really have any plants in it. Sometimes they shove flowers in these pots to create temporary displays, then the flowers die and the display is discarded, pots and all. And then people - men and women - wee behind these pots. Right next to the public toilets.

Good day: This dragon made of plates is so awesome! And his teeth are teacups! Isn't public art great!

Bad day: A downside to making public art out of everyday objects is that people with an everyday need for them will just flog them. Every day.

Good day: I love that you can just come to the park and string up a net! No need for fancy sports facilities! And these Gardens are so well used and so appreciated!

Bad day: I better put my iPod away. Who knows what kind of people are hanging around in here.

Good day: Look at the blue of the peacocks! So stunning! If I had a pet peacock I would call it Andrew!  

Bad day: There's really nothing more depressing than a caged bird.

 Good day: I love this man-made hill! It's like the only hill in Hanoi!

Bad day: Wherever you happen to find a beautiful natural spot in Vietnam, you'll find these mini jelly cup wrappers everywhere. And they were banned in Australia for choking people. Are there no limits to the evil of the mini jelly cup?

Good day: OMG is that a squirrel! A SQUIRREL! With a bright red tail! Look at him go! Who says there's no wildlife in Vietnam!  

Bad day: They released 1,000 white doves as a grand symbolic gesture for the 1,000th anniversary of Hanoi. The birds made their way to the Botanic Gardens where there's now only about a dozen left. Turns out that white doves are not only symbolic, they're also delicious.

Good day: These hedganimals are so sweet! So much personality!

Bad day: What is that thing even supposed to be?

And on it goes, day after day.

Of course everyone has good and bad days, wherever they're living. But here I seem to hold the city accountable for them. I constantly demand of Hanoi that it prove to me why I should be living here, and I scrutinize every street, and every resident, to measure against my expectations.

Rather than holding Hanoi responsible for how I feel, I'm trying to understand that it's actually the other way around: how I'm feeling that day will determine what kind of Hanoi I get. The city itself is just a bystander to my moodswings.

Over time, I feel the wild alternations between the good days and the bad days - Hanoi the Hero and Hanoi the Villain - happening less and less. I think one day soon I'll wake up and it will just be Hanoi, home.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

On the subject of tourism in Vietnam

I was writing an email in a café when I was approached by two men, maybe in their early forties, both wearing Blundstones, stubbies and t-shirts with beer logos on them. In a city where Australian tourists are always wearing embarrassing and inappropriate things, even they stood out.

“Whoah!” is what I said, with my gobsmacked white face.
“Nah, we don’t mean to be rude or nothin’! I’m Darryl and this is me brother Wayne.”

Darryl and Wayne (could it be more awesome?) had just arrived on a flight from Ho Chi Minh City. It transpired that Darryl had already lost his wallet. He said “lost” but it was probably pick-pocketed at the airport arrivals hall when a dodgy taxi tout bundled them into a dodgy taxi. Would it be unfair to say they looked like easy targets?

They were in a flap - if you can have a very slow, laidback version of a flap – about the wallet and wanted to know how Darryl could call his wife at home in Tasmania. I suggested he use my Skype, which is the kind of comradely thing that one white face will do for another in a foreign land.

I didn’t have headphones, so Wayne and I (and the other patrons of the café) got to hear the whole painful exchange between Darryl and his wife, who we know only as “Bubs”.

It was clear that Bubs was not particularly amused by Darryl and Wayne’s great big Asian adventure. I reckon she had a pretty good idea of how this trip was going to pan out right from the get-go. You could practically hear her eyes rolling.

Darryl: I’ve lost my wallet.
Bubs: Did you check your bag.
Darryl: Yes.
Bubs: Did you check the hotel room.
Darryl: Yes.
Bubs: Did you check Wayne’s bag.
Darryl: Yes, we checked everywhere.
Wayne pipes in: We did! We checked everywhere.

Something told me that Bubs had been through this kind of thing before.

Bubs: Well, what do you want me to do about it.
Darryl: Can you transfer some more money into the account?
Bubs: What happened to the $1500 I transferred one week ago?
Darryl: Oh, we spent that already. We booked a tour.
Bubs: Right. Well when do you start the tour?
Darryl: Tomorrow. It’s all organized for us. We don’t have to pay for hotels or meals or nothing.
Bubs: So why do you need more money?
Darryl: Yeah, I guess I don’t. Yeah, I suppose I don’t need any money.
Bubs: Good.
Darryl: Yeah, good. Okay then. Well… I better go!

Something told me that Darryl had been through this kind of thing before.

Darryl and Wayne had been saving up for their two-week holiday to Vietnam for three years. They were completely overwhelmed and confused. Wide-eyed and astonished they said that in Saigon they kept getting approached by “ladies”. They said they loved Asian food back home but here they didn’t know what anything was or how to order it. They said the currency had them baffled, with all its zeroes.

“And we keep getting ripped off!” they added, unnecessarily.
I reassured them that everyone gets ripped off here. "I reckon it's because you're so friendly!" I said, cheerily.
“Nah,” Wayne said. “I reckon it’s cos we’re stupid!”

Poor Darryl and Wayne, those loveable larrikins, they really were stupid. And Vietnam was no place for them.

My encounter with Darryl and Wayne was particularly striking as at the very moment they turned up at my table in the cafe, I was writing these words in an email to Joe:

"The faces of the tourists here say it all. Defensive, harried and exhausted by seeing their dreams of the promised mystical orient dashed by every rip-off taxi driver and every formaldehyde-laced beer."

It was like they were waiting in the wings.

So I was pretty much beside myself with excitement then when they made another appearance in my life the following day. I was at the bank when I heard their distinctive voices trying to ask the teller if they could withdraw money from their Bendigo Bank account without their ATM card. They probably needed the cash for an amazing, too-good-to-refuse deal on tailored suits. I could hear Bubs sighing from halfway across the world.

I decided to let them fend for themselves. They had another week left in Vietnam and they needed more help than I could offer.

Friday, 10 December 2010

You're The Voice (can't understand it)

The name of this blog is not just an hilarious play on words that Nathan came up with, it’s for real. Hanoi is a city of early risers (and grumpy, sleep-deprived foreigners).

There are many things that can lead to you never sleeping in. Surprisingly, it's not usually the rumble of motorbikes, which becomes background white noise after a while. Kind of like the restful sound of the ocean. Yes, and the honking just becomes the sound of dolphins playing in the waves.

Instead, it's likely to be neighbourhood roosters crowing, or a cháo seller loudly spruiking their fish porridge, or construction workers getting started before the heat of the day, or the tinny tones of the "Lambada", which is oddly used as the warning sound of reversing trucks here (oh, will I ever get a lifetime of amusement out of Nathan - whose youth somehow skipped the "Lambada" completely - trying to tell me that the song was "a traditional Chinese tune"). Or it could be something worse: seeking peace and quiet one of our friends moved to Tay Ho, the leafy North Shore of Hanoi, only to be woken most mornings by the sound of a pig being slaughtered. They don't go quietly.

Nathan and I, however, are tormented by only one sound: The Voice.

The Voice starts at 7:30am, Mondays to Saturdays, and goes for half an hour, announcing community news. She BOOMS throughout the island via a series of strategically-placed loudspeakers, her words bouncing off the buildings at such a bone-rattling volume that it seems she is actually inside your house. With a megaphone.

Hanoi is filled with these loudspeakers, and each neighbourhood has their own announcer and their own tailored community messages. The Voice isn't piped from some central headquarters; she's somewhere on this very island, BOOMING live every morning. Every now and then The Voice isn't there (oh happy day!), meaning, I guess, that she had something else on, or she wanted a lie-in.

On our old street, Quan Su, it wasn't so much about The Voice as The Song. In that neighbourhood they favoured a rousing Vietnamese tune every morning to begin their broadcast. It would be the same song, played every day over a period of several months before being changed for a new song. At one point I was convinced the words to The Song, a particularly jaunty number, were "A hotpot in my car" repeated over and over again.

And that's exactly the problem (well not exactly the problem, although you should definitely not take a hotpot in your car): we can't understand The Song, or The Voice, or, in fact, anything that's going on around us.

For example, last weekend a series of dirt piles mysteriously appeared in our street.

No doubt The Voice had been foretelling the appearance of the dirt piles all week, but to us it was yet another bewildering occurrence in our constantly bewildering lives. So, unfortunately, the way we discovered their use was this: We went to bed at 4am on Saturday night, after Nathan's birthday party (which was a great success, not only evidenced by our late bedtime but by the receipt of a text message from our landlord saying he was worried the number of party guests would cause the building to collapse), and were woken four hours later by what sounded like a pub during the Melbourne Cup.

The dirt piles had been turned into little fenced rings, and our street had been turned into a cockfighting tournament:

That is the view from our kitchen window. It lasted for three days.

Now, I am no fan of cockfighting, but one of the greatest things about living here is that it's always surprising. Our natural state is one of utter bafflement. We receive a flyer under our door and I'll ponder it intensely - "What is this for? What does it mean?" - or we'll notice that one day paper horses are inexplicably being burnt on every street corner, or we'll be cycling home after dinner one night and see this:

Two guys performing on a stage, erected on a busy road, with an old man in a beret watching on intently from a plastic chair, while the rest of the audience is just motorbikes passing by, stopping for a minute or two.

And that's why I'll curse The Voice every morning (especially Saturdays), but I love her all the same. She reminds me of how little we know, and how many adventures are to come.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

It's getting chuột in here

You know how Eskimos supposedly have hundreds of words for “snow”? Well, by extension, you’d think the Vietnamese would have hundreds of different words for “rat”. Surprisingly, they only have one word, “chuột”.

Chuộts in Hanoi look much like this, only about forty times larger.

Even more surprising, there is also only one word for “mouse”. And it is “chuột”.

It turns out the Vietnamese have the exact opposite problem to the Eskimos: they don't have enough words for their rodent friends.

This has prompted the repetition of the following conversation with many Vietnamese friends, colleagues, and our Vietnamese teacher:

Me: Rats and mice are different animals.
Them: No they’re not. They’re the same animal, just different sizes.
Me: Actually, they are different species.
Them: No they’re not!
Me: Yes they are!
Them: They look the same!
Me: No they don’t!

But no amount of waving around Wikipedia articles will change their minds. We are dealing with a language here where the word for “blue” and the word for “green” is the same word.

The confusion surrounding rats and mice does not, however, explain the following:

It gets worse. Hamsters are also called “chuột”.

This does not, however, explain this sign in the pet shop:

It is technically illegal to own a hamster (or probably any other chuột) as a pet. They were outlawed in 2008, the Year of the Rat/Mouse/Hamster, when the government evidently feared a plague of escaped pet hamster bears would rise up and use their insane cuteness to take over the city.

Dreaming of the chuột revolution.

Two of our friends are risking the 30 million dong fine to keep an illegal hamster of their own. He is called Captain Alfonso Giovanni (named by – you guessed it – Nathan), and he often comes over to our house to sleep in our wine rack or play Settlers of Catan:

[Identities concealed for their own protection.]

And as if three meanings for one word wasn't enough, there's one final chuột: the “dưa chuột” or rat/mouse/hamster melon. Known to you and me as the cucumber.
If you were to take this quiz called "Rat or Mouse?" (on which I scored 100%, just for the record), you would note the distinct lack of cucumbers.

Monday, 22 November 2010

At the supermarket

Going to the supermarket - in any country other than your own - is always rewarding.

Here in Vietnam, I would make the trip just to see this:

It reminds me of Hugh's story of his first week at university, when a classmate offered him goon, to which he replied, "No thanks, I don't smoke".

And then there's this:

Which needs no comment.

And this:

Isn't it funny how "Dove" is an okay name for toiletries, but "Pigeon" is not. Plus, she looks like she's washing her face with a pigeon.

I also enjoy this:

Because there are so many words, like "Cuddly", "Fluffy", "Snuggles" etc, which convey so well the lovely idea of fabric softener. "Hygiene" is not one of those words.

You can also learn a lot about the priorities and predilections of a culture by browsing their supermarket shelves.

This is the fish sauce aisle:

Here is a fraction of the implements for deep-frying:

Here are the toothpicks:

Here is the mind-boggling array of plastic bowls, which you require when you do your cooking and washing on the footpath:

Here is cheese secured in custom-made metal security cages:

(Who's laughing now, cow?)

From this photo, you might think that Vietnamese people are also very fond of tennis:

No, they're fond of electrocuting insects with tennis racket bug zappers. These are banned in Australia. That's the nanny state for you.

It is almost impossible to buy many utilitarian household items free of cutesy-poo decoration. For example, if you want some hooks, the choice isn't about how much they cost or how much they hold. It's about what novelty feature you prefer:

Ditto for toothpick holders:

This is why we have in our life a bathroom bin that looks like this:

Consumer marketing is a relatively new field in Vietnam, but in the supermarket there is one winning tactic which has really taken hold. It's where you sticky-tape a free gift to every imaginable product.

Glassware is a particularly favoured free gift. So you'll get a free bowl with your toilet cleaner:

Or your yoghurt:

Or you can choose between a bowl or a toy car to go with your drink:

The gifts are usually items from the same supermarket, still bearing their price-tag from before they became a free gift. They are appended to the promotional item in such a shoddy way that it just looks like the two items have somehow randomly come to be sticky-taped together. It's kind of like that mouse with the ear attached to it.

The relationship between the two items sometimes makes sense:

And sometimes doesn't:

Although, since different baby brands are giving away oil, maybe it's just a relationship I can't understand:

Maybe baby formula is deep-fried in Vietnam.

Really drawing the consumer's attention to the fact that sanitary pads are like nappies, you can get a free pack of pads with your Mamy Poko Pants:

Or why not one disposable razor with your shampoo:

Some MSG with your noodles:

Some Marine Boy with your Choco-Pie (awesome!):

Condensed milk to go with your cow milk:

Or, naturally, to go with your juice:

And, best of all, with your laundry detergent a free gift of washing-up liquid that is actually called Gift:

Now, that's marketing!

When it comes to paying at the supermarket, you are in for one final treat. The supermarket is the only place where your bill doesn't get rounded to the nearest thousand Dong as, despite there being some 200 and 500 Dong notes, the 1,000 Dong is the smallest note in common circulation.

So, what does the supermarket do when they need to give you change from a total of, say, 317,623 Dong? They make up the difference in lollies:

The lollies are not just another free gift, no! They are kept in the cash register, and you will get none, one or two lollies depending on how many hundred Dong are owing to you. A friend of mine once proved that the lollies are indeed valid currency by actually paying with a stack of lollies she'd accumulated in her bag as if they were small change.

What does that reveal about Vietnam? Nothing less than that it's freaking awesome.