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.


  1. I once saw a whole bunch of guys playing cards when one of them got up with the whole pack, and threw them in the air. I am still not sure whether it was because he won or lost, but I am sure there was gambling involved.

    I have a picture of people cycling together (two persons pedalling together. I could share that one with you?

    Oh, and the giant plugs are bombs they used against tanks. The prongs at the front are the triggers, which make the bomb detonate when they are pushed in (against a hard surface such as a tank). So it is basically a suicide mission. The things you learn at the revolutionary museum.

    1. gambeling in VN is not iligeal in vietnam

    2. To be honest, gambling is illegal. There are some legal casino but of course gambling was consider illegal. However, if they just go with small amount of money, or just a bunch of hot-tempered head, people choose to ignore reporting to the police

  2. This is the answer for you mystery #4:

  3. For the electric wires, yes they are there to add lighting in at a later time. Usually these are not on the ceiling but on the side of the wall, they could be use for decorative lighting, an extra side fan(very pop) if it's too hot or maybe an AC later( since many people spent all their savings on the house and don't have enough for a fancy AC right away)

    Mystery #3: I guess it can go back to childhood since a lot of kids just do it as a trick. Also when they stop their bicycle somewhere like when they're chatting in front of their school after class ended and need a seat they usually sit in the back since it's lower than the front seat.

    Mystery #1: since they're playing on the street corner and it can get windy maybe that's the reason why? Also since cards are so cheap and most like with new deck, they usually don't bother pick up their cards after they're done playing at a street corner.

  4. Meke: Thanks for your comment! It seems that cards are thought of as disposable, which is hard for me to understand since I have the opposite attitude - if you lose one card then the whole deck's ruined so you must treat them all like precious gems!
    Re: the back-seat cycling, I also have some photos of the two people synchronised pedalling but it's the lone back-seat cyclist that really confuses me.
    And thanks for the info about Power Plug Guy - I really do need to actually go to some museums here. Oh, the shame.

  5. Anonymouses (Anonymice?): Thanks! I think we can declare Mystery #4 SOLVED. Turns out Power Plug Guy is a hardcore suicide tank-bomber, in a natty argyle vest.

    Mystery #2: Oh, this pleases me greatly because this is what I thought it was, but Nathan said it couldn't possibly be the case. Ha! (Although I don't get why they can't just drill a hole in the wall?)

    Mystery #3: Really? Just a trick? Have these children not heard of wheelies?

  6. Mystery #2 followup question: They can't just drill a hole in the wall because nobody knows where the wires are once they've been placed. Or how to cut off the power to them. Don't touch that wire. Could easily be live.

  7. Mystery #3 followup question: Don't you need to build up speed to get a wheelie to work? Isn't that impossible on Vietnamese roads? Also: those bikes are made of cast iron and ground yeti bones. Weigh a ton.

  8. I'm from Hanoi and I can answer all your question:

    #1: So many people play cards, so guess how many set of cards out there. And in Vietnam, it's windy, the houses are not sealed in with A/C, so it's easy to loose 1 or 2 cards, which make the whole set useless. Then kids start throughing dis-cards around like in a kungfu movie.

    #2: Those are just wires for some electrical equipment and the equipment got broken or not needed any more. So they just leave them there as a spare. Once they repaint the wall, the wires got painted too.

    #3: Try riding a Harley motocycle to see how comfortable that position is.

    #4: Those are anti-tank shaped charged. Made by the French in WW2. If you are good enough to poke the tank with all 3-plugs at the same time, it will stick there and explode after few secs. If not, you will be blown up together with the tank. Those are the memorial for the suicide squad that defend the country.

    #5: Just the people around that area observed an accident and put the objects in there.

  9. added: for #2, you can see the 2nd picture, theres a pipe line together with the electrical wire, you can gues that's for a washing machine

  10. Tabitha...after a rough morning, this brightened up my day! Yay!

    I was so excited to see you describing him as power-plug man, because that is PRECISELY the same moniker I have given him to myself, as I drive past, and wonder why on earth a city would build such a spectacular statue to glorify mr powerplug man..!

    The back seat driver malarky is one which has likewise perplexed me for years - the kids around Cuc Phuong frequently adopt this odd looking pose (and they're all country kids, so they're not very tall, which makes this even more perplexing!). I think I must disagree with Anonymous-from-Hanoi - whilst driving a Harley in that position might be comfortable, I can only imagine that the gizillions of $$ which have gone into Harley ergonomics have long since moved beyond the sharp wire in the bum design of the bicycle rack, so I feel that this mystery must remain, as yet, unresolved (in my mind, anyway).

    and my final comment - with regards Mystery #2 - while these occur all over most houses in Vietnam, in my mind there is no more scary thing than a protruding wire in a bathroom, particularly one of those ubiquitous bathrooms where you simply shower onto the floor, and the entire room is saturated 99% of the time... yes - we have one such wire in our house, and it TERRIFIES me! (xin lổi, that was not so much an 'answer' to your question as an addendum...).

  11. Thanks for all the comments!

    Katrina: You clearly have more common sense than me. It never occurred to me that those wires are dangerous! Now I have something else to worry about.

    Hanoian Anonymous: I think the wires are put there on purpose, because we have them in our brand new flat. But you might be right about the cycling being for comfort - so many bike seats here are so crazily low you can only stretch your legs properly from the back seat maybe?

    Leanne: Despite knowing his true identity, he will forever remain Power Plug Guy to me (and probably you too).

  12. Very nice post. I have discussed some of these issues and many others over the years with many expatriates in Vietnam. What we tend to agree on is that it's all in the framing of the question. Specifically, don't ask "Why?" but rather, "Why not?"

    It always works when you are confronted with a perplexing issue such as being told that certain foods will make you hot inside or that you will enjoy a three hour dancing performance.

    The next time you entertain a visitor and they ask why playing cards are strewn on the street, you can always say with complete sincerity, "Well, why not?"

  13. cards,from what i heard: they throw away "old" pack and use new if they lose too much money (usually the dealer/bank). They think it brings bad luck.Also some players are experts in cheating so another reason is to minimize cheating.

    back seat cycling: more comfortable in many cases. try it.

    objects in holes: so people dont fall in them. especially when it is rain the hole is not visible.i have seen lots of people fall in holes like these.

  14. To add to mystery #2, when people move house they take any extra appliances with them. Ceiling fans, aircon units, those pretty light up clocks that take up half a wall. So all those things had to be powered and you get what's left. We currently have not only the plugs but a switch for the ceiling fan that could be ours if we wanted (and by if we wanted I mean if we went out and bought a new ceiling fan).

  15. Jon: as she said, she knows why they do it, but wonders who does it.

    Tabitha: I wanted to add a pan-asian flavour to the wires in the wall thing. I was very puzzled in Singapore by a common system of running the wires outside the walls. When you visit our house, you'll see a bunch of white plastic tracks running along the walls with which our wires and aircon pipes are scantily clad. Why don't we have these in my homeland, I wondered? Because we put the wires inside the walls. What if we want a new power plug or aircon? We generally put in enough power plugs (forward planning), and aircons are usually installed at building or not at all.

    Amusingly, when we had our aircon put in, the guy needed to run some pipes all the way across a ceiling of our living room to get to the outside. We suggested he just popped them through the roof, ran them along there, and popped them out on the other side. "But... I would have to go in the roof!" he said, looking bewildered, then sheepish as he realised this must be common practice for electricians where we're from. "I'm... scared I'll fall through."

  16. I was so excited that, upon accepting your challenge to find a random wire in the room I'm presently occupying, I did indeed find one. I'm sure I will see them now everywhere.

    Some mysteries appear to be better left unsolved as power plug guy is way better than anti-tank suicide bomber guy. The latter just doesn't roll off the tongue.

  17. No. 2: I'm definitely a follower of the 'There was once a useful electrical item mounted there that has since been removed. If you look at these random wires, you’ll probably see old screw holes where the appliance was once mounted, or an old rusty pipe where the old water heater (etc.) used to be.
    Question: Did they bother to disconnect it at the fuse box? Answer: What fuse box?

    Number 3, There's no way in hell it's more comfortable. But it totally IS the way to look uber-cool while cycling to work – particularly if you can’t afford a funky, retro style low rider.

    Number 1 and 5: I got nothing.

    As for number 4: I thought it was a cattle prod (???) So based on my obvious confusion regarding this item, you can probably ignore all I have written. It’s Friday and I’m already hung over. But your posts always provide a few sweet moments of amusement in an otherwise dreary Canberra work day. Thanks

  18. #2: Houses are built but not necessarily lived in by the people who built it, but to be rented out or to be sold later. But the electrical wiring has to be done before plastering and painting the wall and they don’t know what kind of lights the next tenant/owner would want so they leave the wires out so that you can put your own light in. They do this for AC vents and wires too.

  19. Well Tabitha, I am surprised and delighted to see that not only have you had so many comments in only 3 days, but that the comments have been so similar and informative. For variety, I feel I must add my 2 dong's worth. (a very small sweet that you may find in change I imagine...)

    1. Those dis-cards are escapees. They are trying to make a break from the grimy city streets to a better life elsewhere. Think of Alice in Wonderland. There is a more interesting life for them somewhere else, so why shouldn't they try to get outta town?
    2. The wires are booby-traps for imperialist foreigners who may one day rent a good communist house. Watch out! See also Number 4.
    3. Its a fetish. Not telling you why I know this, but trust me, ok?
    4. Don't believe a word those so-called natives of Vietnam have said about anti-tank suicide weapons. He IS Power Plug Guy. And he is warning you. Be careful, all foreigners! There are bare wires in every room just waiting to remind you that the West lost the war!
    5. Those pot-holes were not deliberately filled. As you said yourself, public safety and concern for others does not rate highly in Vietnamese culture. The rubbish in the holes is simply that, rubbish. It was thrown into the street (nothing new there) and gradually found it's way to the lowest point by accident. Accident being the operative word here, just another accident waiting to happen...

    For anyone offended in any way by my explanations, please keep in mind that I cannot provide accurate sources or in fact any proof at all for the above.

  20. For the back seat cycling: Case 1 - the one on the back seat pedals, the one in the front navigates the bike. Reason: The front cyclist gets tired and another one just continues the work. Case 2 - Both share the pedals and cycle at the same time. Reason: for fun or share the hard work. I'd been cycling back and forth between my house and school and extra classes every day, four times a day in my high school days. This is how my fellow and I coped with the stifling summer weather and long distances travelled daily. Cycling in the sun when it reaches around 30 celcius degrees is not an easy game. Sometimes we cycled together for fun, as I mentioned above.
    Pot-holes: these pot-holes are normally the result of a huge sewage pipe system being under construction or under repair. Normally the workers have to put a sign and some stuff around the hole as a warning. These may be small conical poles painted in white and orange horizontal stripes as what you can see around a part of a road being built next to the main road already existing. If they don't, you'll see unprofessional warning signs with a tree branch or an old car or motorbike tyre or whatsoever an unknown common person could find to put in or around the hole with the same purpose. You foreign folks might think public safety and concern for others are nothing in Vietnam. But for workers - that's responsibility and work safety regulation. If they were irresponsible, one of common people will do that. Why? Because accidents might happen to if not themselves (who knows that is the only time they went along that road),then someone else, the one in their neighborhood, their friends, or children, or whosoever passing that way. Who can assure them none of people related to them will not encounter that lovely pot-hole at some point? Very practical and selfish if that's the way you see it.

  21. So I see all of Hanoi's great mysteries have been solved, or sort of solved. Perhaps I could add one though...namely...why did all the fish in Truch Bach die? all of them, simultaneously, on one day last year. You'll probably remember as they were not retrieved for about a week and instead left floating on the surface...delightful.
    PS There is at least one pothole in Hanoi that does not have A Thing In It yet. I know because I cycled into it whilst trying to find the cinema....

  22. How about the mystery of the single sandal laying in the middle of the street. Seems to find at least one/day. Always wonder what's the story behind it hehehe

  23. Haha nice post :D
    Great blog, keep it up. I love reading it!

  24. I m so excited to see this this is outstanding really great work you have done i loved it colors combination.... Well done


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