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 café 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.


  1. Request photograph of egg physics bag thingamee bob.

    Was never good at grasping physical laws purely by explanation alone. This is why my husband insists on me holding the railing (hah! Vietnam! What railings!) on stairs as if I was 82 years old with only one original hip.

  2. I'm totes using that plant in a bottle thing. Pinterest is going to lose it's sht.

  3. Katrina: Yes, completely agree. I will endeavour to recreate the miracle of eggs physics and add the photo.

    Jodeska: Vietnam basically invented upcycling.

  4. my dad also shares this clever, yet ugly, resourcefulness!

    did macgyver ever make it big in vietnam?

  5. Seriously. I think about that egg problem, as if it was the Goldbach Conjecture every single time I see eggs at the market. Which is daily. I am tortured!

  6. We got some cool shots of the power lines in a favela in Rio de Janeiro (similar to your pic but a ginormous tangled mess!)


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