Friday, 28 January 2011

The Year of the Cat

It is Tet again, and everything is much like last year. The streets are packed with people buying paper offerings, the Abba "Happy New Year" song is on permanent repeat, and the road is basically one big motorised cumquat tree orchard. 

Unlike in China, where it's the Year of the Rabbit, in Vietnam 2011 is the Year of the Clearly Superior Cat. This is particularly exciting as it's the one example in the so-called "Chinese" zodiac where Vietnam distinguishes itself from its northern arch-enemy.

There are surprisingly few cats in Hanoi - especially given the number of chuộts - and the ones you do see are often tied to strings. This is because, predictably, cats are stolen to be eaten. There is a man who cycles around our neighbourhood with a cage full of mewling cats for sale on the back of his bike, and it's pretty much the most godawful thing you've seen, trumping any childhood caricature of evil dogcatchers. 

Vietnamese cats are called "mèo", they say "meo meo", and they eat:

Aah, so awesome. If only learning the rest of the Vietnamese language were that easy.

Actually, most Vietnamese cats don't eat expensive Me-O imported from Thailand. Like all other pets here, they eat rice. Sometimes raw. There is a particularly telling story to illustrate this subject (from Witness to Extinction) of a captive Yangtze River dolphin being fed rice cakes, and unsurprisingly, not really taking to them. So what did they do? They fed it rice cakes... shaped like fish.

Lucky cats expand their rice diet by eating whatever else they happen to be fed. For example, this is the cat bowl at a nearby pho restaurant:

Show that photo to your cat next time he won't eat his blue-fin tuna Snappy Tom meal, and tell him the cats of Vietnam would be happy to swap.

But aside from eating rice and avoiding the hotpot, cats in Hanoi are pretty much like cats the world over. They snooze in inconvenient places: 

They give you superior looks:

 They act like they own the place:

And do your laundry:


So happy lunar new year to you and your cats, from us and all the cats of Hanoi, and what better way to say it than with a cat licking its bum:

Friday, 21 January 2011

What I see from our window

Every time I have spoken to my mother over the past month the conversation has gone like this:

Mother: How are you?
Me: I'm really cold. 
Mother: Oh no! You couldn't possibly be! Not in Hanoi!

Every. Time.

I guess since I milked the summer months for endless horror stories involving litres of sweat spraying from my every pore, I can't then expect to get sympathy for the frigid, bone-chilling winter too. 

So just believe me. It's not exactly tropical here at the moment.
I have been spending disgusting amounts of time indoors (probably for the best if I'm wearing outfits like that) but I still manage to find ample distraction, such as surveying the neighbourhood from my desk, Rear Window-style.

Most of the activity centres around the bin: people putting things in it, and then other people taking those things out:

This is how waste gets sorted for recycling. I am always particularly interested to see which are the most prized items amongst our detritus, making me feel simultaneously proud ("Ooh! They fished out our old chickpea tin!"), embarrassed ("Hmm, that's quite a lot of ice-cream containers when you look at it from this angle") and violated ("That's our private life being strewn about on the ground there!").

I am not above going through the bin myself. I once pulled out this beautiful spray of orchids which lasted for weeks:

If you’re worried about your rubbish being violated, then you can always set it on fire, like this guy, who burned a whole heap of printed documents, but every now and then would pick one up from the flames and have a last-minute read:

Being from Australia, where we believe that any kind of innocent-looking fire is just one small step away from being a raging inferno that will singe the paws of the nation’s koalas, I find the nonchalant approach to fires in Hanoi a little alarming. Once, while walking to lunch with some friends, we noticed that a large telegraph pole - with electricity wires attached - was on fire by the side of the road. We went into a nearby shop and the most skilled Vietnamese-speaker among us skillfully said “Fire-tree-road” and pointed. The shopkeeper came out, saw the flaming pole and just kind of nodded as if to say, “Yes, you’re right! Fire-tree-road!” Having done our civic duty, we walked away. Very quickly.

Unfortunately, the bin also seems to attract weeing men:

I think France's most abiding legacy to L'Indochine was the weeing man, for nowhere outside of Paris have I seen so much public urination. I have often thought about throwing things at the weeing men from the perfect aspect that our window affords, but I guess I'll save that activity for when I get sick of creepily photographing them.

Then there's the screaming kids who fill the street every evening, often engaged in some kind of hopscotch game that involves throwing your shoe:

Just like children the world over, Vietnamese children find Nathan to be a lovable buffoon, and me completely uninteresting. I always know when he's on his way home because of the howls of "Hello! How are you!" which follow him up the street. I get no such reception. The upside to being uninteresting to children is that small boys don't come up to me, point at my nether regions and then laugh uproariously, as happened to Nathan recently.

Occasionally, I'll see something really exciting from the window. Like, the MSG delivery truck will come:

Or one of the city’s many ridiculous Hummers will park there:

(No need to throw things at it: I get all the gratification I need from watching it have to do a 23-point turn to get around the corner.) 

Or some novel item will be conveyed along:

But most of the time, it’s just taxi drivers snoozing in their cars, or cycling salespeople, or the bin scavengers. If you’re lucky, you’ll get all three at once:

That lady took our old pizza box out of the bin, and after an extremely long negotiation, the taxi driver bought a feather duster for 30,000 dong. I remained at my desk, slippers on my feet, hot cup of tea in my hand, and frog on my head.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Hanoi hotels

I'm a fan of the straight-talking business names that prevail in Hanoi. Ones like this: 

Chic & Trendy. Fact. 

My favourites are the hotel names. There are hundreds of mid-range hotels in Hanoi, which are all pretty much identical. They're all around the same size, they all have clocks behind the reception desk showing the time in London, New York and Tokyo, and they all serve triangles of Laughing Cow cheese with a white bread roll for breakfast. 

There's only one way to differentiate yourself in this crowded market: an irresistible adjective.

When I was taking that photo outside the HANOI AMAZING HOTEL! the guy from reception came running out to shout "Rooms only ten dollars!". Amazing! I thought. It was almost enough to make me park my bicycle and check right in. 

Of course, all of these names lend themselves oh-so-easily to the comedy consequences of the oversell:

Buck up, buttercup! You're the doorman at the happiest hotel in town!

Similarly, it's not hard to imagine guests of the Impressive Hotel or the Charming Hotel throwing those adjectives around in more ironic tones after they discover that the shower is a hand-held hose above the toilet.

There are, however, some names that you just can't argue with:

 And then you have the ones which kind of cross the line between "oversell" and "fraud":

That's some pretty luxurious barbed wire there. I wonder if the room decor was done by these people:

 There is also a trend for familial hotel names. So, you get places like this:

Which is fine. And then you get places like this: 

Which is unusual, but also okay (plus their logo is pretty much the most awesome thing ever).

But then you get this:
 Which is instantly not okay. 

I put the Bro & Sis Hotel in the category of "names that may actually be negatively affecting your business", along with: 

Although maybe they were accidentally delivered the sign for a hotel in Marrakesh. There's now a hotel somewhere in Morocco called the Indochina Lotus. 

And no discussion of incongruous business names is complete without this shoe shop, which brings me untold amounts of joy whenever I pass by:

It gets me every time.

The final genre in popular hotel names is the precious gems and metals range:

There are too many Diamond Hotels and Sapphire Hotels and Emerald Hotels and Golden Hotels and Golden Ruby Sapphire Hotels to photograph. So if you want your hotel to get noticed in this genre, you really need to pull out the big guns. This is how you end up with:

Sure, it sounds like a combination of "demented", "demanding" and "mongoloid" but you can't argue that it's one rare gem.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Things I Loved About My Office

(Or How To Turn Your Facebook Status Updates Into A Blog Post)

Things I love about my office #1: We have an office turtle.

Things I love about my office #2: The open can of condensed milk in the fridge. Much better than a vending machine.

Things l love about my office #3: My colleagues have titles like Javan Rhino Specialist and Coral Triangle Bycatch Strategy Leader.

Things I love about my office #4: A traveling salesman today sold everyone in the office special furry ear-muffs to attach to their motorbike helmets. I bought fake leopard-print ones for my bicycle helmet. Rawr.

Things I love about my office #5: The Finance team play music that I can hear whenever they open their door. Favourites include “Listen To Your Heart” by Roxette, “Winds of Change” by the Scorpions and “To Be With You” by Mr Big. Their repertoire does not seem to extend past 1992.

Things I love about my office #6: My colleagues instruct me, in all seriousness, that the best way to keep my shoes dry in the pouring rain is to tie plastic bags around my feet.

Things I love about my office #7: Summer has come early to Hanoi, so my boss bought us all young rice ice-creams on sticks to eat at our desks.

Things I love about my office #8: This conversation.
Me: Why are you taking binoculars to lunch, Nicholas?
My colleague Nicholas: I want to look at a plumbeous water redstart I think I saw in the park.

Things I love about my office #9: Explaining the story of Easter to my Vietnamese colleague. When I finished dramatically with Jesus rising from the dead on Sunday, he asked "And then what?" Indeed.

Things I love about my office #10: A sunny day spurs the entire office to run outside and buy cups of silken tofu curd from a passing street vendor, who scoops it out of a bucket using a big, flat mother-of-pearl shell, and tops it with jasmine syrup. Cost of delicious curdy goodness = 30 cents.

Things I like about my office #11: This conversation, which occurred while correcting a Vietnamese to English translation my colleague had completed.
Me: What do you mean when you refer to a “night cat”?
Colleague: You know, it’s like a cat, but at night.
Me: Hmm, like a… puma?
Colleague: Maybe! It’s like a cat that comes out at night.
Me: Show me a picture of this so-called night cat on Google Images.
[Colleague then shows me.]
Me: That is an owl.

Things I Like About My Office #12: My desk. One of these things is not like the others...

Things I love about my office #13: We have (inexplicably) acquired an espresso machine. My colleague asked where you put the condensed milk.

Things I like about my office #14: Discovering that the Vietnamese word for “seahorse” and the Vietnamese word for “walrus” is the same word. No good can come of this.

Things I love about my office #15: I brought back Haigh’s chocolate bilbies from Australia as gifts for my former colleagues.
Colleague: They are chocolate rats.
Me: No, they are not chocolate rats! They’re like very special, small, furry… marsupials.
Colleague [looking at the big bag of chocolate rats in my hand]: I see. So, do you have any other animals in there?