Friday, 26 August 2011

Can they fix it? Yes they can!

It’s a pretty easy hit to say that Vietnam is a bit shonky. But it is. It’s the kind of country where a newly built five-storey Pizza Hut collapses on its opening day. And I mean really collapses:

And where, given the choice between this Lift Of Death, and the stairs, I’d take the stairs.

The shonkiness is like a spectator sport. You can sit in a cafĂ© and watch construction workers, in plastic sandals, wielding an electric saw, and just hope that they don’t amputate their own foot. Or you can ponder why the entire construction site, held together by twigs and bricks, doesn’t simply collapse in a heap, like a game of Pick Up Sticks.

Construction sites in Vietnam always remind me of Eeyore’s house.

One night, walking down our street, we even got to watch a man balancing precariously on the top of a mound of garbage in the back of a moving truck as he lifted up the huge bundles of electrical wires that were hanging across the street, to allow the over-sized truck, with him on it, to pass underneath. Just grabbing onto those wires with his hands, he was. While standing on his big old moving pile of garbage.

When you are on holiday in Vietnam, it is compulsory to take a picture of the power lines.
They actually check your camera at the airport upon departure to make sure you did.

Foreigners make a sport of complaining about this shonkiness, especially when any ambitious venture like an underground rail network gets floated. I do it too: a friend planning a visit to Vietnam asked me if she should go sky diving here. I laughed hysterically for ten straight minutes and then said “HELL NO”. I personally wouldn’t go grass skiing in Vietnam, let alone sky diving.

But because I’m not simply contrary when other people complain about Vietnam, I’m goddamn holier-than-thou, I’ve taken to responding to all criticisms of this fine nation’s shonkiness in the same way.

Whenever someone says something like “God help us if Vietnam ever builds a nuclear power station”, I quietly think “Note to self: order iodide capsules” but say out loud “Well, you know, if I said to you that you had to transport 50 live goldfish on a motorbike, I bet you couldn’t do it”.

This is guaranteed to stop the naysayer in their tracks, because not only is it a complete non sequitur, it is irrefutably true.

I have stolen this picture from Linuts on Flickr as I have never managed to photograph this breathtaking feat myself. I am usually too busy wetting my pants with excitement when I see one of these motoquariums.

The resourcefulness on display in Vietnam is, I reckon, just as astounding as the shonkiness. (Right here is the point in this post where I feel almost obliged to say “And that is why they won the war”, but I’m not going to say that. You can’t make me.)

It’s like that scene in Apollo 13 where the engineers back in Houston have to work out how to fix the problem on the spaceship using only a wire coat-hanger and a sock (or something like that, right?). A Vietnamese person would have been AWESOME at bringing that shuttle back to earth, I guarantee you.

For example, you need to make a shelf but all you have is a tree, an octopus strap and a plastic basket:

You need to make a portable digital photo printing lab, but all you have is a jerry can, a car battery and a plastic stool:

You need a clothes dryer for winter, but all you have is a gross old air vent and a piece of string:

You need to create a small-scale Hanging Gardens of Babylon but all you have is some empty La Vie water bottles and some wire:

And, my all-time favourite: you need to get some berries off a very tall tree, but all you have is a pole and another empty La Vie water bottle:

If you can’t see it in the picture, what you do is cut the bottle into a little scoop shape, then you jam the neck of the bottle onto the pole and capture your berries by rattling them off inside your custom-made Tall Trees Berry Grabber Offerer (I am patenting it now as I write).

I remember I used to get really frustrated at the lack of egg cartons here. The eggs are sold loose and they just pile them all in a plastic bag, making for a fairly nerve-wracking cycle home from the market. 

One day, the market ladies watched me balancing my bag o’ eggs on top of the groceries in my basket and shook their heads in dismay. They shooed me away from my bike, took back the eggs, and tied the handle of the plastic bag to the handle of another plastic bag, so that the eggs hung inside. They then tied the outside bag to my handle bars, so that while this bag swung around, the eggs stayed pendulously still.

I was awe-struck. I actually gasped and said: "Whoah. Physics." That’s how you transport a dozen eggs if all you have is two plastic bags and a bicycle.

So while I won’t be gunning for the construction of a Vietnamese nuclear power plant, at least you know that come the nuclear meltdown, they'll be able to fix the thing with a plastic water bottle and an octopus strap.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Hanoi mannequins for dummies

The mannequins of Hanoi are a ragtag bunch with a considerably higher percentage of deformities than the rest of the population. They are also terrifying.

You have the bald ones:

(Nobody wants to think about cancer while clothes shopping, do they?)

You have the amputees:

Or, in this case a whole family of amputees!

Then there are the she-mannequins. My, what a lovely strong jawline this lady on the right has here:


This one's not just any old man in drag. It's clearly Dean Pelton from Community:

Incidentally, there are other celebrity mannequins too. Like Fergie:

And Kevin Bacon:

He hasn't aged a bit.

There are also zombie mannequins. They look like they were once normal mannequins, much like you and me, but now they WANT TO EAT YOUR BRAINS:


They do not make me WANT TO BUY YOUR CLOTHES.

Even more alarming than the zombies are the freaky child mannequins.

Their necks are disproportionately large, their arms disproportionately short, and their facial expressions disproportionately off-putting:

See, I told you!

This one is doing Beseeching: 

"Help me, please, I can't reach my tiny arms to my mouth."

This one is doing Constipated: 

This one is doing Yo Homey Whassup:

And this one is just doing My Head In:

The stuff of nightmares, that is.

Since a mannequin's sole function is to make clothes look good, and since Hanoian mannequins do exactly the opposite, it's kind of baffling why they exist.

It's also baffling why there are no Vietnamese-looking mannequins. Weirdly there are more mannequins "of colour" here than you'd likely see anywhere else, despite there being next to no black people:

I was also baffled why so many mannequins have embarrassingly left their flies open:

Until I realised the reason why: the Vietnamese-sized jeans are so small that they don't actually do up on a standard-sized dummy. The mannequins are actually TOO FAT for Vietnam. They're not alone.

For answers to all my mannequin-related questions, I went to - where else - mannequin street.

It's an alarming place, where men sit among mounds: 

And boys will be boys:

It was a gruesome place:

Where I witnessed unspeakable horrors:

The freaky child mannequins, which I assumed were cast-offs from a bygone era of freakiness were actually for sale brand new here: 

And, terrifyingly, it seems they'll soon be joined by a new breed of alien child mannequin:

It also turns out you definitely can get Asian mannequins:

But they're few and far between even on mannequin street (which is not entirely dissimilar to what I imagine the inside of the Playboy mansion looks like):

Surrounded by these pert-bosomed specimens, in possession of lustrous locks and all their limbs, it was obvious that there are plenty of attractive, able-bodied mannequins in Hanoi: the new ones. The ones who haven't weathered the physical strain, the grime and the hair-matting humidity that the city inflicts on them, and... on all of us.

My bosoms might not have been so pert as theirs when I arrived, but I was as fresh-faced and sparkling clean as these residents of mannequin street/Playboy mansion. After the make-up slid off my sweaty face, my nice clothes went mouldy and I realised that hair styling and bicycle helmets aren't compatible, I too started to look pretty rough around the edges. It's basically the reverse of that film from the 1980s where a mannequin came to life, as I come ever closer to resembling a Hanoi mannequin (but with bigger pants). I guess when my arms fall off I'll know it's time to leave.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Hanoi is turning me into my mother

It’s hard to know how to follow last week’s blog post. If you ever want to see your inbox filled with hundreds of messages sending you warm, fuzzy feelings, then I recommend getting engaged. Nathan has been riding high on the glory of the proposal all week, and me on the unbridled smugness of being snaffled by someone who would propose so well.

My mind has been on weddings and shared futures and families. These thoughts lead to one blog topic, and one blog topic only: mothers.

There’s an anecdote about my mother that goes like this. Once, when she was being introduced to someone for the first time, she said hello, then paused, and then said, for absolutely no reason, “I had salad for lunch”.

This wasn’t particularly out of character for her. She raised me to believe that it’s better to say something strange, than say nothing at all. 

Until now, I have always been lucky to work in jobs that don’t seem to mind me saying strange things at inopportune moments. In fact, I noticed that this was often characterised in the corporate workplace as “shooting from the hip”. Excellent, I thought. If inappropriateness is valued here then soon I will be CEO.

Here in my current role of Trailing Spouse, however, I think this particular skill might not be in the job description. At my first official function I stood dutifully alongside Nathan, as someone important from somewhere important made her way along the meet-and-greet line, shaking hands as she went, until she got to me.

“And where are you from?” she said, meaning “What fancy job has landed you at this event?”
So, naturally, I said, “Oh. I’m from… Nathan’s… wife… closet…”.

She looked alarmed and swiftly moved on to the next, probably much more appropriate, person. Nathan then said he’d like to put me back in the “wife closet” and swap me for a less weird model for the evening.

And thus continues the inexorable march towards becoming my mother.

My agedness is definitely playing a significant role in this, but I think living here is making it worse. This also complies with the first rule of being an expat: above all else, and against all evidence to the contrary, blame your personal problems on Vietnam.

Here are my symptoms.

I have started making loud observations about people within earshot, arguing that it’s okay because they can’t understand me, and they’re probably talking about me too. It’s not okay. I’m sure that one day I will happen upon a taxi driver who speaks fluent English and I will get my comeuppance.

But it’s not just with Vietnamese people. I’ve also started doing running commentaries about Tays. These are the kind of tedious, stream-of-conscious thoughts that don’t actually need to be spoken out loud (at least, that’s what I’m always telling my mother), but I need to take all the excitement I can get here.

One time Nathan and I saw some very familiar looking Tays buying some ice-cream at Fanny. “I think we know them”, I said, and smiled accordingly. They smiled back. Then they left, thankfully, because I immediately realised how I knew them, which is to say, not at all.

They looked so familiar because I had spent an entire evening at a pizza restaurant watching them at a nearby table having an argument, and relaying a running commentary to Nathan. “Now he’s got that what-do-you-want-me-to-do-about-it face and she is shaking her head. I’m seeing a lot of contempt here. And now he’s eating garlic bread. But she’s pushed her plate away. She’s playing with her phone. Ooh, the silent treatment…” You probably haven’t dined with my mother, but I can assure you from years of personal experience, that this is exactly what it’s like.

My mother doesn’t like to leave the house, and if she has to, she doesn’t like to go very far. Considering this genetic make-up, maybe I shouldn’t have moved onto an island. My realm in Hanoi shrinks by the day. I talk about going to the Old Quarter like it’s a day trip: it’s a ten-minute bicycle ride away. I hesitate over social engagements that involve crossing a bridge. I fantasize about being flooded in.

Central Hanoi is just so geographically small and so easy to traverse that is has skewed my sense of scale. If you’re not averse to leaving the house, you can call a friend on the other side of town and say “Meet you in 20 minutes”. In Sydney, you don’t have friends on the other side of town. I don’t like anyone enough to change trains twice. So, Hanoi, it’s your fault. You’re too small, and you’ve shrunk my dominion right down to your size.

One of my mother’s favourite pastimes is meteorological one-upmanship. She lives in the Blue Mountains so she gets great pleasure from scoffing at what lily-livered Sydney-siders call “the cold”. Hanoi winters have provided me the material to beat my mother at her own game. “At least you have heating!” I can say. Or, “You wouldn’t understand what it’s like here! It’s cold and HUMID! I am MADE OF MOULD”.

Disappointingly, this summer hasn’t been very hot, so I’ve missed the opportunity to poo-poo anyone in the northern hemisphere crying warm.

I have also become a Nervous Nelly. I wasn’t exactly what you’d call “risk averse” before coming to Vietnam, but now I’m like a skittish little poodle; like, for example, my mother’s skittish little poodle Susie (need I say it’s true that dogs come to resemble their owners?).

The longer I stay here, the more I think that Susie might have been right. The world is a terrifying place filled with mantelpieces that could launch objects onto you from great heights, and gaps in footpaths that you could fall through, and children with sticky fingers who could pull at your tail.

The longer I stay here, the more horror stories I accumulate about amputations and electrocutions and infections and knocked heads and poisonings and airlifts. The longer I stay here, the more anxious I am not to feature in one of these stories myself.

I now take wide berths around construction sites; I avoid cycling at night-time; I have developed phobias of unstable concrete sewer coverings and of the wobbly power-points in our house; I tut-tut at friends who ride motorbikes in thongs; I’ve become paranoid about bag snatchings; and every day, more and more, I flinch and startle at car horns. There are a lot of car horns in Hanoi. Not long now until I start using expressions like “My nerves are shot”. And then it’s just one short step to: “My sciatica is playing up”.

Well, at least Nathan can’t say he wasn’t warned.

PS. Hi mum!