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.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The island

Our new house is on an island in Truc Bach lake.



To get there from mainland Hanoi, you can cross one of two bridges.



As you can see, if you had a good run at it, you could also just jump across.


(This might not be what you had in your mind when I said we lived on an island.)


The surrounds of Truc Bach lake are some of the most beautiful parts of Hanoi, with trees shading peaceful lakeside cafes.



Up close you can see, unfortunately, that it’s also the most polluted lake in the city.



You get the feeling that soon you won’t even need the bridges to get to our island: you’ll just be able to walk across the lake.


Incidentally, it’s also the lake where John McCain’s plane landed after he was shot down during the Vietnam War. How’s that for a bit of history for you, eh?


Even though it’s barely an actual island (maybe more what the French sweetly call a presqu’île), it really does feel different to and separate from the surrounding city. Because despite the dead fish, and the fact it reminds you of John McCain, it’s such a lovely neighbourhood; a little island of – dare I say it? – tranquility only ten minutes away from the city centre.



There aren’t really proper shops on the island, but every street has a corner store, selling everything you need for Vietnamese cooking (oil and fish sauce).



That photo reminds me of a conversation between two older women, Australian tourists, which Nathan and I overheard. They didn’t like Hanoi one bit. “They live their whole lives on the footpath!”, one said. “Yes, and the only reason they go indoors is to watch TV!”, the other added.


The island’s big business is restaurants serving pho cuon, a fresh roll with a rice noodle wrapping. I took these photos after lunch, but usually these joints are packed.



Half the island seems to have a stake in these places, with food being prepared, or chopsticks being washed, or tables being stored, at many of the surrounding houses, or heavens above, on the footpath



There is also a pagoda. Every morning we can hear the gong sounding, usually at the same time as the nearby school beats their drum to signal the start of class.



The island's tranquility is only relative, of course. As with everywhere else in Hanoi, there’s also a lot of construction work going on. Our corner of the island is currently spared, but I don’t kid myself that this will last.


For now, the weather is a ceaseless stretch of perfect Autumn days, we live on an island, and I have never seen so many colours.