Sunday, 27 March 2011

Hanoi says it with flowers

One of my favourite things about Hanoi is the flowers. Not the temporary potted displays that appear on the median strips when there’s a Communist Party shindig on - although I like those too - but the cut flowers, sold from bicycles:

Our weekly household flower budget is about 80,000 dong (four dollars), for which we can get enough bunches to fill the house. Shopping for flowers is about the only time when I’ll really haggle, because the flower-sellers are theatrical and good-natured about it, and I’m usually pretty confident about the fair market price. I’ll hold my ground while they stamp their feet, turn their back in mock disgust, shake the petals in my face, saying “Vietnamese price! Vietnamese price!” until they inevitably relent, hand over the goods, and praise my excellent Vietnamese (well, yes, I'm pretty good at the numbers...). 

They strap the bunches to your bicycle for you using newspaper and twisted strips of bamboo, which works better than any bag-tie, and looks very rustic (a trendy, inner-city florist elsewhere in the world would call it “shabby chic” and charge you extra):

Let me tell you, when you're cycling about town on your pink Asama City with a huge bunch of dahlias in your basket, it's pretty much the best thing ever. I recommend it to lift any mood.

Because of their low price and availability on practically every street corner, Hanoians buy flowers for their home as routinely as shopping for fruit and vegetables. They also have to frequently replenish the fresh flowers on altars in their house, at work or at the pagoda:

As a result, Hanoians are throwing away flowers as often as they’re buying them, and they can afford to be fickle about it. Come evening garbage collection, the gutters are strewn with slightly wilted posies, most of which I’d still leave in the vase for another week. The trashed flowers are, in a way, as much a part of the city as the fresh ones:

It gets particularly crazy after Tet, when the peach blossom branches - kind of a Tet Christmas tree -  start littering the streets approximately five minutes after the festive season is over:

This is a pre-emptive measure that I now completely understand. I'm still finding wayward petals all over our house from when our Tet branch spontaneously exfoliated, obviously after being kept inside past its use-by date. When I carried it to the bin, I left a river of blossoms trailing all the way down the stairs.

I guess this is why there’s also quite a penchant for low-fuss fake flowers that will forever meet the exacting standards of the Hanoi home-maker:

Since flowers are usually an everyday purchase, you really need to up the ante if you’re buying them for a special occasion (and there is twice the number of special occasions in Vietnam, where men can receive flowers as happily as women). And nothing says special like glitter:

The bedazzled flowers here are really a cut above anything I've seen before. You basically get more decoration than actual flower. If you think you can pull apart the arrangement to liberate the flowers, you’re wrong: they’re actually only on five-centimetre stems that are stuck into foam and presented atop a stick:

A couple of days after any floral-centric event (the biggest of which is International Women's Day, celebrated in Vietnam not with street marches but with flowers, because, you know, chicks really dig flowers), the streets are littered with discarded bouquets, with their decorations and wrapping perfectly intact: 

The same goes for the elaborate standing displays that are given to newly-opened businesses. The first sign of a drooping gerbera and they’re in the bin, holus-bolus:

(Just what Hanoi needs - another shop selling tiny denim shorts!)

A friend of ours actually fished some of those wicker floral display stands out of the bin to use as very fetching pedestal tables in her house, thus confirming my theory that Westerners and Vietnamese have very conflicting ideas about what does and does not constitute rubbish.

In this same topsy-turvy world gerberas – relegated to cheap petrol-station bouquets in Australia – are here regarded as a premium flower, symbolising money and good fortune in business (and not just the petrol-station business). And yet roses are a dime a dozen (or actually, about a dollar a dozen). I like to tell my Vietnamese friends the price of roses in Australia just to watch their eyes widen.

And where does all this leave Nathan, who used to buy me so many - and such extravagant - bouquets from Erskineville Florist that the guy who worked there knew him by name? He still buys me flowers here too, and even though they only cost a dollar, they're still just as beautiful.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Positive spin

My dad was once disparaging the Australian ski-fields (ambitiously called the Snowy Mountains) to a Canadian ski instructor. The Canadian replied that while Australia might not be renowned for its mountains, it's still one of the only places in the world where you can ski amongst the gum trees. I guess you call that positive spin.

Sadly, you can't ski in Hanoi, but I was reminded of this story while jogging around our putrid little Truc Bach Lake recently. It might not be much, but it's probably one of the only places in the world where a jogger can know what it's like to have an old lady launch a teapot of sodden tea-leaves at their knees as they pass by. It's very cooling on a hot day, really.

Our first year in Hanoi, we found the idea of exercising outdoors abhorrent. At home we were used to running around bays, down empty suburban streets, and across the Harbour Bridge. We thought the amount of pollution we'd inhale here would surely counteract any positive gain from the exercise; we thought that people would stare at our red, puffy faces; we thought there physically wasn't enough room in this town to run.

Several months and kilograms later, we're out running on the road, breathing that exhaust deep into our lungs, waving to the cat-callers as we pass by. I won't lie: it's not ideal. But like the ski-fields in Australia, the experience is at least unique.

Joggers in Hanoi aren't relegated to the footpath like some second-class citizen. They get to run on the road, with equal reign to any motorbike, and sometimes they even get to outpace the cars. Pounding that black tarmac, you can imagine you're running a marathon in a city where they've shut down the roads to let you pass gloriously by. Except in this case, the road hasn't actually been shut down. Win-win, right?

In Hanoi, joggers don't just blend into the masses of virtuous lunch-time exercisers, they get to be the star of the show. Nothing really turns the heads of the parking attendants, the fruit vendors, the old coffee-drinking men, the construction workers, the local school children, or anyone really, than a beetroot-red, sweating, hyperventilating, foreigner wobbling past. Best of all is when two men on a passing motorbike are so taken with your athletic prowess that they'll actually stop their bike a bit ahead of you, crane their necks around and cheer on your approach with shouts of "Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello!". They're like your personal support team! If only they passed you little cups of Gatorade too.

And while you might look (and feel) like you're about to keel over from a heart-attack, don't worry, Hanoians are there to help you! Not one lap around the lake will go by without several enticing offers from xe om drivers of a motorbike-taxi ride. Nor will street vendors think that being engaged in vigorous exercise precludes you from buying their produce. "Yes, I would love to buy some bananas!" you say, and then you tie them to your ankles as leg weights.
And then through one nostril you breathe in the exhaust, in the other, the aroma of rotting fish; you skate along on a discarded corn cob for a while, then leap gracefully over an open sewer, landing softly in a pile of old roses lying in the gutter; you're temporarily blinded as you run through the smoke from a bun cha grill, but then a street-cleaner drives past and restores your sight with a delicate spray of Hanoi's finest H20; a free-range chicken gives you a high-five as you complete your third lap, and on your fourth, the guys who sell pirated DVDs form a guard of honour; and you think to yourself, if only all those people doing the Bay Run right now, as the sun sets on the harbour,  could know what they're missing out on.

Friday, 11 March 2011

At Chau Long market

Back when I lived in Newtown, the most upsetting sight in my day-to-day life was the wind-up frog that was on display in a bucket outside the two-dollar shop, forever swimming but going nowhere.

Nathan and I used to talk about stealing him, and setting him free in the canal. 

There are frogs here too, in the market where I go almost every day. But they don't wind up, and they're not so lucky as to have a bucket.


I guess at least they have company, right?

There's also dog meat (I'll spare you the photos), and buckets of unidentifiable offal. 


Mmm... offally. 

And yet, the market is one of my favourite places to be. Sometimes I wonder what kind of mental contortions I must be putting myself through to get by here without giving in to my usually all-pervasive blubbering sentimental side.

But with my blinkers firmly on, the market is always a scene of wonder. Visitors doing cooking courses at the Hanoi Cooking Centre actually tour this market for an "authentic" Vietnamese shopping experience. Like kids playing shop, they are furnished with a laminated picture of their target produce - like baby corn or quail eggs - and 50,000 dong with which to acquire it. It makes me feel quite smug that they're paying good cash money to "experience" my daily life. I wonder if they'd like to "experience" any other bits, like being extorted by shoeshine boys, or cycling slalom amongst the rat roadkill, or discovering your boogers have turned black from pollution.

The market itself seems to be held together by lids from polystyrene boxes, tarpaulins, plastic bags and extension cords. It is always dark, even during the daytime.

I have never been here when it's raining, and I don't think I'd want to. Even during the dryest spells, the ground is puddled with muck. I remember the first time that Nathan and I came here we wore thongs, which was a mistake we wouldn't make again. When we got home to our bathroom, we washed bits of intestine from under our toe-nails.

The market is divided into food groups: veggies, meat, seafood, small-goods, internal organs, and dried and packaged goods. Mysteriously, fruit barely makes an appearance: for that you have to go the ladies outside.

The packaged goods often don't come in the package you expect them to, so I have to conduct elaborate miming routines with the vendors to find out what they are. 


I'll point to an unlabeled plastic bottle and mime squeezing limes, adding fish sauce and the mystery liquid, and dipping in an imaginary spring roll. They'll shake their head, and mime washing the floor. Ah, not rice vinegar but bleach. Good to know.

The butcher ladies sit cross-legged on their counter-tops like meditators in a sea of meat, their cleavers swinging inches from their toes. This posture must be for ergonomic reasons - the butcher's Swiss ball. It seems like an odd choice, but I can't imagine a situation in which I'd get to test it out for myself, not least because if I sat on our counter at home I'd hit my head on the cupboards.

Being vegetarian, I usually skip the meat aisle and just head straight for my regular veggie supplier, Chi Xuan. 

All the expats I know in our neighbourhood go to her. She's cornered this market by giving her customers hugs, consistent prices, and free Italian basil. She also lets you choose the vegetables you want, and in your own good time, a characteristic lacking in most of the other sellers, who, upon seeing a foreigner approach, thrust a cauliflower at you and say "This one!", and then a cucumber - "This one!" - and then a pumpkin - "This one!" - and so on until you flee, bamboozled. Sometimes Chi Xuan does encourage me to buy mysterious vegetables that I have to later Google to identify, but if she didn't I would never have made those delicious taro spring rolls, or that stir-fry made from some kind of flower which she assured me was edible:

Over Tet, Chi Xuan acquired a calculator, which she now brandishes with beaming pride. I'm sure I'm charged a lot more than her Vietnamese customers, but I don't mind having contributed to the purchase of that calculator.

Chi Xuan sometimes also gives me a hand by shelling my peas or trimming my shallots, but there's also a fast-food section of the market where you can buy pre-cooked noodles, peeled potatoes, toasted peanuts, shredded banana flower, and pickled greens and bamboo shoots. 


Of course, like everything else in Vietnam, you can get this fast-food served to you drive-thru style. 
The market item which causes me most wonder is the tofu. It arrives on the back of a motorbike, in individual metal moulds. It's then upended into watery buckets and sold for 1,000 dong a block. 

That's five cents, for what we'd call artisanal produce. Most food here is cheap, but if my job were milking soy beans, I'd want a lot more than five cents.

While in the west, farmers' markets are the hottest ticket in town, the trend in Hanoi is still to knock down markets like this and replace them with malls and supermarkets. I don't blame Hanoians for wanting to do their groceries without wading through intestinal juices, but it's a damn shame: they don't give you hugs in the supermarket.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Learning Vietnamese

The word that most crops up when you ask expats in Hanoi about their level of Vietnamese is “plateaued”. What this means is that they learned how to say 
“That’s too expensive!” and “I am learning Vietnamese!” and then they gave up.

Nathan and I fall squarely into this category. We have given up three times now. Each time we take it up again, we somehow regress even further, so now we’re actually worse Vietnamese speakers than before we left Australia.

When we gave up last time, we were learning the different professions. This was the illustration in our textbook for “secretary”:


There are several stock-in-trade excuses that we use to justify why we keep giving up. The first is that Vietnamese is very difficult to learn. This is true. The entire Vietnamese lexicon consists of just a dozen one-syllable words, placed in various configurations to create baffling compound nouns and phrasal verbs (okay, so maybe it’s two dozen). Yet more mileage is then squeezed out of these same few words by adding an array of accents and tones in different combinations, to completely change their meaning and pronunciation every time.

We tried a divide and conquer approach, where I remembered the vocab, and Nathan remembered how to pronounce it. This resulted in situations like the following, which occurred in a taxi, trying to direct the driver to the train station:

Me: The word for “station” is “ga”.
Nathan: Okay, I will try to pronounce it. “Gà”.
Driver: [Responds as best as can be expected when someone gets in his cab and says “chicken”.]
Nathan: Not that one. How about “gá”?
Driver: [Well, now he’s using the verb “to harbour gamblers”.]
Nathan: Okay, I’ll try “gã”.
Driver: [Now he’s saying “young chap”… A chicken is harbouring young gambling chaps…?]
Nathan: Maybe it’s “gả”?
Driver: [He wants to give away his daughter in marriage? To me? To a chicken?]
Nathan: Umm, what else?
Me: You haven’t tried “gạ”.
Nathan: Oh yes! “Gạ”!
Driver: [And now he’s seducing a young girl. That’s just not right.]
Driver: Station! Yes, OK!

I don’t know about you, but I think the word for “chicken” and the word for “seducing a young girl” should be quite different.

This conservation also illustrates the second excuse that we use for not speaking Vietnamese: it’s actually less painful for everyone involved to just use basic English, or mime, or interpretative dance (like I did in the DVD shop when asking for a yoga video), or in fact any form of communication other than our mangled Vietnamese. For example, I showed this drawing to the ladies in the pharmacy:

They were a bit confused, so I modified it slightly:

And voila, my de-worming tablets for the treatment of smiling worms were handed over instantly. The whole transaction was over in 30 seconds. My bowel movements, on the other hand, were not.

The third excuse is that Vietnamese people simply laugh - loudly, sometimes bent double and slapping their thighs - when we attempt to talk to them in Vietnamese. They point, and guffaw, and sometimes even call their friends over to have a listen, but it’s not because they’re mean and uncharitable, it’s because what we’re saying is absolutely hilarious. I would laugh too if someone used the word “penis” when trying to buy a “pomelo”, which I did so often that I now just gingerly point at the fruit in question, my lips firmly sealed.

It does seem that for every word in the Vietnamese language, only one slight tweak is required to change its meaning to “penis” or “front bottom”. We were introduced to this phenomenon early on in our Vietnamese-learning career, when we were taking a class with the other volunteers. The teacher had created cards featuring different kinds of foods that we had to practice buying, by saying “I like X. Please give me X”. The teacher would cringe and startle every time someone got the card that said, “I like pork. Please give me pork”.  The “pork” card was then swiftly removed from the exercise. Intrigued, we tried our “pork” vocab on a Vietnamese colleague after class. It turned out that what we were saying, over and over again, was “I like vagina meat. Please give me vagina meat” (now, if that doesn’t boost the number of readers coming from Google searches, then nothing will).

The final excuse is that ignorance is bliss. Sometimes you just don’t want to know what’s going on around you, or more particularly, what’s being said about you. My enthusiasm to learn more adjectives stopped pretty suddenly after I learned the word for “fat” (and yet, strangely, my enthusiasm for Choco-Pies didn’t).

Annoyingly, there’s quite a number of expats who do speak Vietnamese, and very well. Their very existence reveals that all these excuses are just that, and my Vietnamese friends will all too readily proffer them as evidence that it’s not as impossible as I try to claim. Damn them, especially that Canadian Joe guy whose Vietnamese is so legendary that they put him on the telly.

And it’s true. The excuse that it’s difficult doesn’t hold much ground when you’re arguing with someone who has themself learnt excellent English, not exactly the easiest language to master. And sure it’s embarrassing being laughed at and telling someone that you like their vagina meat, but you know what else is embarrassing? Living in a country for over a year and not being able to pronounce your own street name properly.

So it’s back to the textbook with its interesting perspective on the secretarial profession. Maybe this time we’ll spend more time on studying, and less on excuses. And really, how hard can it be to learn a language where the word for “clothes” is “shirts pants”.