Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The show must go on

One thing about living in a town like Hanoi is that you go to a lot of housewarmings and a lot of farewell parties. Sometimes you go to multiple housewarmings at the same house, one for every time it’s refreshed with new set of expat tenants. The hosts look surprised when you tell them you’ve been to their “new” house before.

“I was here when this house was built, Sonny Jim”, you say.
“Who lived here then, Grandpa?” they ask.
And just like at Grandpa’s nursing home, the answer always is, as you look off into the distance, “Oh, they’re all gone now”.

Another thing about living in a town like Hanoi is you inherit a lot of cast-offs when people leave. They tend to fall into these categories:
  • Items you are hoarding for no reason. Despite only having a toaster oven, we now own more baking dishes in Hanoi than we do in Sydney (and by "in Sydney" I mean, "in boxes in Erika and Ben's cellar"... Sorry guys!). We did not buy any of these. I hope to acquire the whole colour spectrum eventually. And then... give them away when we leave.

  • Items that prompt people to ask "Why do you have that?". When they left, Jon and Meryl recognized that only a person of Nathan's calibre could appreciate their metallic-finish dinosaur collection. And, well, you can't look a gift-stegosaurus in the mouth.

  • Essential items. At some farewell parties, you get to walk away with any un-drunk booze. Nathan always makes sure to stay to the very end. And to bring a bag.

  • Things with faces. We already have two potato-peelers, but could you say no to this guy? No, you could not.
  • Items that appeal to your inner Freegan. If you help people pack up their house, you basically get dibs on their pantry goods, especially if you say things like, "I guess you won't be using these lasagne sheets now you've given us your baking tray, right?

As with the housewarmings, some of these items have known many expat owners. Oh, the stories that potato-peeler could tell.

When our friends Claire and Greg left Hanoi, they raffled off their unwanted household items at their farewell party. I won a hideous polyester tie that Claire had previously won herself in a raffle of some kind. I gave it to the waiter at the restaurant, who seemed pleased, but maybe he was just pretending. I was just glad I didn’t win the Santa hat with “Claire” written in black texta across the front.

While I enjoy the parties and the free metallic-finish dinosaur collections, the transitory nature of the expat community can be trying. Our first question now when we meet new people isn’t “How long have you been here?” but “When are you leaving?” Followed by, “Can we have your metallic-finish dinosaur collection?”

My abandonment issues weren’t helped by discovering that the AYAD programme which initially brought me here, actually has a special designation for people like me, and it is - wait for it – a STAYAD. That sounds so awful! Like we’re those people who are hanging around at the end of the party and just won’t leave, even though the hosts start loudly cleaning up all the beer bottles.

And the recent departure of our friends/neighbours Rhino Simon and Rhino Sarah has left me particularly bummed. They were the kind of friends who make you a pangolin-shaped birthday cake:

Or give you 21 squeaky rubber ducks as a present (see: Items that prompt people to ask "Why do you have that?", above):

Or who, after you express horror slash delight upon learning of the expression “drinking from the furry cup” make you:

A furry cup. Mum: Don’t look up what that means.

Before they left, they made us these t-shirts so they could stay in our lives forever:

As you can see, poor Nathan is so bereft he can hardly stomach his eggs benedict. Either that or he’s just enjoying the proximity of Simon to his nipple.

Most expats in Hanoi are here for a good time, not a long time. Friendships are quick to form, and intense. It’s like the kids who do the high-school musical together. You might not have much in common but for a brief time you have this, you have Hanoi: The Musical. So what do you do after the after-party (assuming it’s not, as R.Kelly says, the hotel lobby)? 

I guess like all showbiz veterans, we wait it out for the next season. And then we’ll enter stage left, in our roles of Seasoned Expat 1 and Seasoned Expat 2. The good thing is, we already know all our lines by heart.

New people have moved in to Simon and Sarah’s place around the corner. We call them New Simon and New Sarah, which I’m sure they don’t find unnerving at all. Maybe Nathan can distract them while I scope out their possessions for things to bags when they leave. We really do need a new cheese grater.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Chicken Moments

My friend Julianne, who has supplied the material for so many of the best stories I know about Vietnam, was not the first person to have a Chicken Moment, but she did unwittingly give it its name.
She was in charge of running a field-trip for a group of Vietnamese journalists, to educate them on serious, important issues affecting Vietnam. She spent the whole weekend striving to keep her charges happy and working to convince them to be advocates for her cause. When it was all over, and she was on the chartered bus back to Hanoi with them, she was exhausted and glad to be heading home. 

It was at this point, dear reader, that she heard a distinctive clucking coming from the back of the bus. Now, whether or not you think it's appropriate for someone to bring a live chicken back from a work trip is by the bye; the point is that it was the chicken that broke the camel's back. 

I heard about what happened next from a Vietnamese colleague who was there to witness the Chicken Moment in all its glory. In her telling, Julianne leapt up from her seat - her face bright red, steam probably coming out her ears - and roared at her VIP passengers: "RIGHT. WHO. HAS. A. CHICKEN. ON. THE. BUS." 

The passengers looked on in horror as, right there in front of them, the Crazy Tây Lady then completely lost her rag, and also, her mind. 

When, on Monday, I unsuspectingly asked my colleague how the weekend trip went, the first words out of her mouth were, "Oh my God. Julianne go CRAZY".

And thus the Chicken Moment was born. 

The essential ingredients are: 
1 Culture Clash
1 Crazy Tây
A handful of Aghast Vietnamese Onlookers
1 Aftermath of Intense Embarrassment.

Chicken is optional.

These short-legged chickens live near our house. Every time I see them I sing, in homage to Flo Rida, "Chicken got low, low, low, low, low, low, low, low". They like it. 

The circumstances of the original spark, the Culture Clash, are not really that important because under the right circumstances even the most accepting, culturally-sensitive, open-minded and assimilated Tây can snap at the pettiest of things. For one brief moment - indeed, the Chicken Moment - you reach the maximum capacity for cultural understanding.

The Aghast Vietnamese Onlookers are actually just as important to a Chicken Moment as the Crazy Tây themself. They're Aghast because, being Vietnamese, the Culture Clash doesn't even register to them. Often they have absolutely no idea why the Tây is even going Crazy. Plus, in face-saving Vietnam, it's not okay to lose your temper at small things. The only justification for the kind of display you see in a Chicken Moment is if the phở shop next-door is poaching the customers from your phở shop, in which case you should go at them with a meat cleaver. 

And so imagine how it looks: a Tây, frothing and seething, violating all the tenets of public decorum that you know of, shouting - pointlessly - in a foreign language, about you-have-no-idea-what. I don't think I need to go into why there's an Aftermath of Intense Embarrassment.

Most chickens in Hanoi are not low, but actually very tall and rangy like this. They don't get a song. I would say the average Australian chicken falls somewhere in between the height of the Vietnamese low and high chickens.

I too have had a Chicken Moment. 

It happened as I was cycling along and a passenger in a parked taxi unintentionally opened their door into me. As I was going at my usual tootling pace of about three kilometres per hour, I wasn't flung through the air, or thrown over my handlebars. Instead, I just flopped into the arms of the teenage parking attendant standing nearby. 

The reaction of the people in the taxi, the teenage parking attendant, and the people at the surrounding food stalls, was to laugh. Because not only was it solid gold slapstick, but the typical Vietnamese reaction to anything a bit awkward is to laugh. And a big fat Tây flopping into a teenage parking attendant: that's a bit awkward. This is in comparison to the Western reaction to a pratfall, where you ask if they're okay, they pretend they're okay, you walk around the corner, and then you laugh at them behind their back.

So there's the Culture Clash. And now, the Crazy Tây. 

Not in the wildest stretch of anyone's imagination did I suffer a flop-related injury. But I guess I got a bit of a shock (look at me trying to justify my behaviour!). Anyway, the Crazy Tây (ie. me), while flustered and still disentangling herself from the teenage parking attendant, then did a deranged, sarcastic laugh back at the onlookers - "HA HA HA HA HAHA" - followed by that classic tantrum line, "IT'S NOT FUNNY" (there was a swear thrown in there too, but I have edited it out, due to the Aftermath of Intense Embarrassment).

The baffled, horrified look on the faces of all the Aghast Vietnamese Onlookers is burned into my memory. As I cycled away, I transformed into one giant, pedaling cringe.

And I haven't even told you the worst bit. This happened on our street. I see that teenage parking attendant every day. And every day he must think to himself, "I better watch out, there goes that Crazy Tây".

The mascot of the 3rd Asian Indoor Games, held here in Vietnam, was this chicken. I salute whoever designed this poster. It's not easy to illustrate a chicken who can swim, bowl and dance with a fine lady chicken, let alone play chess, e-sports and vovinam (click on the image to see all of the chicken's skills up close).

Thankfully, most people only have one Chicken Moment, although it's a well-acknowledged fact that a Tây who stays in Hanoi longer than three years is liable to have more (this is why Nathan and I are firmly committed to leaving Vietnam two years and nine months after we arrived). I've been collecting the Chicken Moments of others, and there are so many mortifyingly great stories. A lot of them seem to take place at the airport. Maybe this is because of the abundance of opportunities for queue-related Culture Clashes there, or maybe, so tantalisingly close to international territory, a Crazy Tây just can't hold their cultural sensitivity together for one minute longer.

But the best Chicken Moment didn't happen at the airport. It is Emily's Chicken Moment, which took place at the public pool where she was teaching a Vietnamese colleague to swim. There they were, splashing about, when a mother, standing on dry land, walked her toddler, also on dry land, over to the edge of the pool, so he could wee, from dry land, into the pool. The pool Emily was in. Picture the frothing, bright red, gesticulating, screaming Crazy Tây, but now, in the water. An Aquatic Crazy Tây. 

Now, you might be thinking that directing your child to wee into a crowded public pool isn't a Culture Clash, it's Just Wrong In Anyone's Books. But here in Vietnam, children's wee isn't seen as gross; it's as pure and delightful as the finest champagne. I have watched the ten-year-old over the road stand on his doorstep and wee fountains of sparkling champagne right onto the footpath outside where his family sit and cook. I have seen a mother assisting her child to wee enormous puddles onto the floor of a public toilet, right where people were standing, because the cubicles were occupied. 

And so, as defines a Chicken Moment, Emily's Aghast Vietnamese Onlookers had no idea what the Crazy Tây was carrying on about. Was she drowning? Was she having a seizure? Either way, her tantrum was for naught. Vietnamese children will be peeing into that pool for many years to come.

And what of the Aftermath of Intense Embarrassment? Surely Emily stood by her reaction, right? I'll just say that soon after the Chicken Moment, Emily's colleague told her she had found a new swimming instructor. After all, who wants to put their life in the hands of a Crazy Tây.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Hanoi summer rainbow

This post is dedicated to all the wintering Australians whose status updates about the cold and the rain and the grey are clogging my Facebook news feed. Suffer in your jocks, friends.

This is the tree outside our house, which Debbie correctly predicted would get red flowers. But saying it like that makes it sound like a mere botanical fact, when it can only properly be described as a Goddamn Botanical Spectacular. Every day I would take a photo of it thinking that surely, this is as OTT as it’s going to get, but no, it just kept on going. I guess they don’t call it a Flamboyant for nothing, eh? 

It did eventually reach a pinnacle of redness and floweriness, at which point I assumed it would just explode. But instead, like the poignant end of any great Flamboyant’s glory, some wild winds blew up (see: Orange, below) and carried the flowers off down the street. It was better to burn out than to fade away, dear tree. See you next June.

I’m still suffering post traumatic stress from last summer here, even though the new summer has begun. But as I keep telling everyone, like the insufferable old-timer that I am, this summer has nothing on that one (very important qualifier: yet). The difference is that we’ve been enjoying some pretty awesome, cooling storms in the evenings (the photo is of my bicycle poncho drying, by the way, for those who don’t wear ponchos in tropical storms on a daily basis like we do). 

The other night, while eating dinner, Nathan and I watched the whipping rain frenzy from our window, noting all our rubbish from the bin as it floated past down the street/river. “Oh look, there goes our lime cordial bottle.” “Oh yes. And our Barilla spaghetti box is now stuck on that floating door.” We then saw two thongs go floating by. “Oh look, some thongs”, we said.  The thongs were shortly followed by a thongless man with an umbrella wading through the overflowing sewer water. He located one of his thongs but the other had sailed off around the corner. Nathan opened the window, shouted “Anh oi!” and pointed where his thong had floated off to. The man gave a thumbs up to the creepy, all-seeing – but admittedly useful – Tâys watching him from their eyrie.

This is pollen drying in the sun. I’m not quite sure what it’s used for (something to do with tea, maybe?). If I was a bee, I would have high-tailed it to this footpath and saved myself a lot of bother flying around to all those flowers.
Every single little patch of land in Vietnam is used, very efficiently, for two things; this one is both a footpath and a pollen drying area/missed opportunity for bees. So you get not just a railing on a bridge, it’s also for drying your rice noodles. It’s not just a shop, it’s also your house. It’s not just a tree with a fan screwed into it, it’s also your hammock holder. It’s not just a hideously polluted lake, it’s also for fishing and for using as a toilet (triple points!). The Vietnamese would not brook nature strips, I can tell you that. They’d have a goat out on them in no time.


The lotuses on West Lake are stunning at the moment, even if they have mostly been picked to sell to suckers like me who are somehow surprised every single time when they die after only one day. But look at them! How could you resist!

The lotus pods are equally beautiful in their minimalist, Vogue Living kind of way, and definitely last longer. 

I think these retail in Sydney florists for about a bazillion dollars per stem (here, about $2 a bunch). Last year I bought a bunch of these to put in a vase on my desk at the WWF office. Every single Vietnamese staff member (including ones I had never even spoken to before) then proceeded to pass my desk and say, “Uhh, you know they’re not flowers, right? They’re fruit. You eat them.” Vogue Living has obviously not made it to Vietnam yet.


When Nathan and I were in Sydney recently we decided to try all the new bars and restaurants that had opened in our absence. Sometimes several in one night. This was not a great decision for our hip-pocket nor our waistlines. Getting dressed for his first day back at work, I thought Nathan’s shirt buttons might actually pop right off. And so, we are now on a fitness drive to get Hot For Summer. We’re definitely some kind of hot. 

This is Nathan at the makeshift boxing gym where we go, after a night of gin and tonics, a 6:15am wake up call, a double espresso, and one hour’s cardio-boxing to the soundtrack of Destiny’s Child and Katy Perry. You decide which one of those things made him look like that. 

And this is Sweat Nathan which he left behind when he eventually got up.

I’m not very clear on what indigo really looks like. Will these mangosteens do? They are, after all, and according to Wikipedia, the Queen of Fruit. Unfortunately for them, this means they’re married to the King of Fruit, which, according to Wikipedia, is durian. Sucks to be you, mangosteen.
Back before we moved here, when we were over-enthusiastically getting Vietnamese lessons in Sydney, and over-enthusiastically following whatever the Wikipedia entry on Vietnamese culture said, we read that if you are a guest to a Vietnamese home, you should bring fruit. So, dutifully, we rushed off to get fruit to take to the home of our teacher. Actually, Nathan was in charge of this task (back when we shared domestic duties, you see… Aah, those were the days) and so he went to the David Jones Food Hall and bought a kilogram of mangosteens, that cost TWENTY DOLLARS. Yes, that is correct. He then bought a gift bag to put them in. Anyway, we then proudly presented the gift-wrapped mangosteens, like try-hards, to our Vietnamese teacher, saying “For you: A Vietnamese fruit!” Our teacher, a Hanoian, answered straight back, “Well, really, a southern Vietnamese fruit”. I can only truly understand now what an absolutely perfect entrée to the real, non-Wikipedia, Vietnamese culture that was. And of course, she then went on to ask how much they were. We lied. She didn’t ask why you’d put fruit in a gift bag, but she should have. In later lessons, she told us not to eat apples from China and that there are no gay people in Vietnam.

This photo is very violet, but I don’t have anything to say about it (except that Flamboyant Tree kicks its arse):

So I will use this. 

The straws are violet, you see.
News from the outside world has filtered through to us that coconut water is de rigueur now. Apparently you can buy it bottled, pitched as a rehydration drink. Here in Nam, we drink our coconut water straight out of the motherf*ckin’ coconut. That’s how we roll. And we roll just like that almost every day, because it’s so incredibly delicious, and we have a lot of rehydrating to do (see: Blue, above).

A few years ago, when I finished an ill-conceived winter-time holiday on the Trans-Siberian Railway, I remember saying to my traveling companion that next time, I would like to go somewhere – anywhere – where I could drink out of a coconut. To me, that just says “Tropical Island Holiday Paradise”. So even when I’m sitting on a small plastic stool, next to an increasingly pungent lake, surrounded by youths talking loudly on their mobile phones, if I’m holding a coconut, then it’s Tropical Island Holiday Paradise time for me. And you can’t get that in a bottle.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Vietnam's greatest unsolved mysteries

My general mindset in Hanoi can be characterised as "wonder" (unless "sweaty" can be a mindset, in which case it's "sweaty"). I'm like the guy in The Gods Must Be Crazy, baffled by every metaphorical Coke bottle that the city throws my way. So I keep a running list of questions in my head, crossing them off as I find the answer:

Question: Why do shopkeepers splash water onto the road outside their store? 
Answer: To settle the dust.

Question: Why do I see people with little white squares on their forehead?
Answer: Traditional medicine.

Question: Why do motorists beep all the time?
Answer: Navigation by sonar.

Question: Why are there so many dead rats on the road?
Answer: Because people kill them in traps then throw their bodies there.

Question: Why would you do that?
Answer: Oh, it's just a thing.

But there are some questions that have stayed on that list for a very long time now. So I present to you, dear reader, my Five Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of Vietnam in the hope that you will provide some answers.

1. The Playing Dis-Cards

You don't have to go very far in Hanoi before you see a playing card lying forlorn in the gutter. Sometimes you'll see a few together, getting run over or trampled on.

Vietnamese people love card games and often play them on street corners or in cafes, but if you love cards so much why are you throwing them under my feet? Wouldn't a love of card games make you want to keep the cards?
My only other experience with playing dis-cards (oh come on, it was too good to use only once) was when my brother and I found some of those cards with nudie photos on them hidden in the bushes in the park opposite our house. I don't think this gets us any closer to an answer, unless someone in this town has a Queen of Spades fetish.

2. The Protruding Electrical Wires

If you are in Vietnam right now, then look around you. I can almost guarantee that the room you're in will have a bit of electrical wire hanging out of the wall. Sometimes it's even tied in a dear little knot.


It could just be an example of the frequently observed "that'll do" approach to construction. But often they're painted the same colour as the wall to conceal them, like they're a necessary evil rather than just slapdashery.

Or maybe they're there so you can easily add an extra light fitting after construction is finished. But if this is the reason then it's the first known example of "planning ahead" ever seen in Vietnam.

I know, perplexing.

3. Back Seat Cycling

I haven't got a photograph of this, because I've never managed to get my camera out in time. I tried to convince Nathan to pose - inspired by the popularity of posts featuring Nathan on his bicycle - but he wouldn't because he's a bad sport.

So picture this: a person on a bicycle. Actually, let's just picture Nathan to spite him. Picture Nathan on a bicycle. He is not, however, sitting on the bike seat in the traditional cycling fashion; he is sitting on the back rack of the bicycle. But he is not the passenger.

If you live in Vietnam I think you will know what I'm talking about. If you don't, you might find this hard to imagine as it seems to completely defy the normal rules of the universe. He's sitting on the little parcel shelf, which doubles as the passenger seat, his arms are ludicrously reaching across to the handlebars and his feet are stretched out to the pedals. He is literally a back seat driver. It looks just as awkward as it sounds

To me, there is only one reason why a person would ever do this and that is because someone has stolen their bike seat and they don't want to be penetrated by a metal pole. I look forward to hearing the other reason.

4. Power Plug Guy

There are two statues in Hanoi, in two different spots, that look like this:

Power Plug Guy! Plugging stuff in since 1975. And doing it in style.

So who is Power Plug Guy? What is he plugging in? And why does he look like he's dressed by Benetton?

5. The Person Who Puts The Things In The Holes

Hanoi has a lot of pot-holes, so the enterprising people of Vietnam have devised a way to alert other motorists to said pot-holes. You put a thing in it:

Often it's a tree branch, but it can be anything, like that chair, and it usually becomes a traffic obstacle in itself,  but at least a visible one.

"Why are there things in holes?" was a question that appeared on my mental list very early on, and was resolved very quickly. Now my question is "Who puts the things in the holes?"

You see, personal safety is not exactly valued highly in Vietnam. And the only thing valued less than personal safety is the safety of others. So who is this selfless Guardian Angel going well out of their way to protect their fellow citizens from pot-hole peril? Is it the first person to go down the hole, in some kind of unwritten rule? Is it the traffic police? Is it an old man drinking tea on the footpath who feels strongly about civic duty? Is it the same person doing all the holes, just traveling around the city, carrying branches, ready to plug up any hazard? Okay, so that doesn't sound plausible but it could be one of those "job creation" jobs, like during the Great Depression when they devised the task of "counting the dogs in Central Park" (which remains, to this day, my ultimate dream job).

Anyway, I'm not interested in conjecture on this one. I want to hear from someone who has actually seen, in action, The Person Who Puts The Things In The Holes.

And so, I struggle on, drinking out of coconuts and eating freshly-cut, sweet pineapple, with the weight of life's great mysteries bearing down on my shoulders. As quickly as one question is resolved, another one makes its way onto the list to replace it, but at least there are always more coconuts and pineapples. There's one thing I do know for sure, though: the day I stop wondering, that's the day it's time to leave.


Thanks to all the commenters I think we can declare these mysteries SOLVED! Or close enough to it, anyway.

1. The Playing Dis-Cards - SOLVED!
In Vietnam, cards are seen as disposable. This is because a pack costs about 5000 dong (20 cents). Also, they ruin easily as they're pretty poor quality. This just completely reconfirms my theory that Vietnamese and Westerners have very different ideas about what constitutes rubbish. In our house, the cards are regarded as precious even though they're very cheap, because misplacing one will render the whole deck useless. This can go too far: growing up we had a whole drawer-full of useless packs missing one card that had accumulated over the years, and yet were never thrown out.

2. The Protruding Electrical Wires - SOLVED!
The popular vote says they're put there by the builders to accommodate the future installation of appliances and lighting by the owners. This makes sense to me now, because here you don't need the involvement of architects and planners and draftsmen to build or renovate your house. You just kind of do it. And then whack in the mod cons afterwards as you wish. So, pleasingly, it's forward planning that results from not having forward planning. Also, the popular vote says don't touch them.

3. Back Seat Cycling - Kind of SOLVED!
Just to clarify, in this mysterious scenario there is no-one sitting on the normal bike seat, and there is only one person on the bike. There is quite a bit of disagreement over whether or not this position is a comfortable one. I think it could actually be more comfortable than cycling with a really, really low seat, which you also often see here. The other plausible explanation put to me was that this position allows you to transport a young kid on the bike with you, by sitting them on the seat between your arms. If this is how you're then used to cycling, you stick with it whether you're toting a kid or not.

4. Power Plug Guy - SOLVED!
He's an anti-tank suicide bomber. Respect. And if he wants to die in an argyle vest, then so he should.

5. The Person Who Puts The Things In The Holes - SOLVED!
It pretty much turned out to be the old guy on the corner drinking tea. It's the responsibility of the people who live around the hole to Put A Thing In It, to protect themselves, their family, their neighbours, and yes, anyone else passing by. Someone also suggested that the reason safety is a consideration in this instance and not others is the tolerance of risk. The probability of falling down a hole in Hanoi is quite high, and represents a considerable risk, so it's seen as worth trying to avoid. In other examples of what I perceive to be dangerous situations, the probability of something harmful happening is lower; the risk is less, so it's not really worth avoiding or preventing. She'll be apples. The Western perception of the level of risk worth tolerating is just very different to the Vietnamese one. This is why I go about Hanoi like a Nervous Nelly, shouting at trucks to secure their load.

Thank you to everyone who contributed through comments, emails and conversations. I'm sure I'll need to call on you again.