Saturday, 26 February 2011

Faux pho

The Vietnamese Government has a Department of Propaganda and Training, and they are very good at their job. Anyone interested in propaganda, or, as we gutlessly call it, marketing, should spend a week  reading the Vietnamese press to learn a thing or two on how to sell the unsellable. It's one of my favourite procrastinatory pastimes.

A couple of years ago, the Communist Party Central Committee launched a campaign with the rousing slogan "Vietnamese people use Vietnamese goods", which, just like the "Buy Australian made" campaign, was no doubt motivated by protecting local jobs.

However, unlike in Australia, where "Australian-made" is a byword for quality assurance, the Vietnamese campaign faced a much harder sell.

How do you convince the nation to buy its homegrown formaldehyde-laced pho? Or cancerous soy sauce from the Mekong Delta? Or delicious vegetables fertilized with genuine Vietnamese human poo? Or locally-caught seafood that's so chock-full of antibiotics that other countries refuse to import it? Or traditional Vietnamese rice wine that erodes your stomach? Or fresh produce so laced with pesticides that the very same farmer who grows it won't eat it himself?

You find a common enemy: China.

And so it goes that the campaign slogan should actually be "Vietnamese people would rather use anything than Chinese goods". Less catchy, I admit.

Hardly a week goes by without the press uncovering another diabolical scam launched by our wily northern neighbours. Since we've been here, we've heard about the toxic Chinese fabric, the toxic Chinese jewelery, the toxic Chinese glassware, the Chinese fake rubber cuttlefish (chewy!), the fake Chinese MSG, the fake Chinese "Made in Vietnam" products, the fake Viagra sourced "from a Chinese man", the fake Chinese cosmetics, the melting Chinese hairdryer, the fake Chinese eggs, the fake spices (CHINESE five-spice, to be precise), the smelly Chinese chickens, and a near-constant stream of horror stories relating to deadly Chinese fruit and vegetables.

Sometimes, there is an exquisite twist, where consumers will turn away from Chinese products and buy only Vietnamese - as instructed - but then it will turn out that the Vietnamese products are actually fakes anyway. This happened with the VIETNAMESE five-spice.

But - Dick Smith take note - it is a phenomenally successful approach. My Vietnamese friends literally will not touch a piece of fruit that is larger than average size, for fear it's been pumped with Chinese hormones. In supermarkets, packaging is carefully scrutinized for Chinese characters, and market-sellers shout "It's Vietnamese!" as their winning sales pitch. Despite myself, I have been completely suckered into it too, rejecting large shiny apples in favour of shriveled, spotty specimens no doubt grown in genuine Vietnamese human poo and sprayed with Vietnam's own toxic soy sauce, which is probably an excellent pesticide. If I'm going to buy carcinogenic apples, then they'll be Vietnamese carcinogenic apples, damn it.

The most recent Chinese scam is probably my favourite, though. For several weeks there had been feverish reports of Chinese plastic rice entering Vietnam, with a newspaper then claiming it had obtained a sample of it for official analysis:

"After examining the rice, Mr. Dao Quang Hung, an official from Horticulture Department under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, commented, “This rice looks very strange. I have never seen it before... The grain length of the strange rice is about 10 mm, 3-4 mm longer than the normal rice, while in terms of width, the strange rice is much thinner. The best rice in Vietnam now is the 5 percent broken rice, while the strange rice has no broken grain,” he said.
And what did this strange, Chinese rice end up being? Basmati.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Our pets

As I mentioned in my last post, Hanoians aren’t really big on non-utilitarian animals. This means that one thing we really miss here is pets, and it shows. Over winter, I began, rather pathetically, referring to our electric hot water bottle as “the cat”. Sure, it warmed your lap and snuggled against your toes in bed, but you also plugged it into a power socket. 
What next, a pet rock?

Nathan is arguably even worse than me. In our old house I woke one night to find him not in bed but in the kitchen in his pyjamas, sitting on the counter perfectly still and holding aloft a broom, his gaze absolutely fixed on the fridge. It was quite an eerie sight, but he “explained” his behaviour, by saying he was studying the habits and movements of the rat who’d taken up residence behind the fridge (the broom was protecting him from the rat, you see). Naturally, this didn’t result in him masterfully exterminating the rat, but instead growing to love it – and all its little habits and movements - dearly.

I was soon won over too. The rat would fish out lime seeds from our bin bag hanging from the door handle, and crack each one to get to the little kernel inside, then discard the husks by placing them in a perfectly straight line on the handle. Then one night he carefully chewed a tiny little hole into a spirulina capsule to create a small, powdery pile of dietary supplement for himself. We felt nothing less than pride, as, after all, he was our rat.*

After then developing attachments to various house geckos (named, invariably, Gordon), and then an enormous furry spider (Ernest), a new pet came into our life quite by accident.

When we visited Cuc Phuong National Park, Nathan - being an excellent and romantic boyfriend - came back from a hike with a present for me of a large and quite beautiful snail shell that he found on the path. I “awwed”, then popped it into my coat pocket for the rest of our stay. When we got home, I put it as a memento on my bedside table, alongside my book.

I know that you know where this is going, but let me just say that it came as quite a surprise to us when we discovered one week later that a good portion of the book cover (Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”, for the record) had been consumed and pooed out into little papery snail poos.

And so, we had a pet snail. 
He lived in our pot-plant, paper was his favourite food, and we called him Ron as he didn’t do-do-ron-ron very much at all. He was also the source of the mortifying shame that we – wildlife lovers that we are – had taken a little creature away from his home. We were no better than our neighbours, with their prized finches, trapped from the wild to live out their days in a cage in Hanoi.

So we packed up Ron into a Tupperware container and sent him back to the forest with a friend heading to Cuc Phuong.

And maybe you can’t understand this until you’ve lived in a city where the dogs cower from cuddles, the cats are on menus instead of laps, and there’s not one single duck to feed in all of the lakes, but I really miss that snail.   

*When Nathan read this just now, his response was “Oh, I miss him! And his crooked little tail!”. I rest my case.