Thursday, 23 February 2012

The joy of shopping in Hanoi

At any given moment on Tạ Hiện street, you'll find a tourist photographing this window for the Creative Oriental Crafts Kingdom
Image from here.

[Since my innocent post on cockfighting ended up on a website for penis healthcare, I cannot wait to see what exciting opportunities arise from this one.]

This sign is clearly no accident, but an excellent business strategy, as confirmed by the store-owner in this blog

It plays to an already well-established practice of tourists taking photos of Vietnamese signs, usually featuring the words "hung" and "bong" and "dong" and "dung" and "phuc". Once you become familiar with Vietnamese pronunciation, these signs sadly become less amusing. But rest assured, I'm not entirely above it all:
You'd think that after 2.5 years of enjoying Vietnam's premier ice-creamery, Nathan would have gotten sick of "Fanny" gags, but no, he hasn't. Every time we go there - yes, sometimes for all-you-can-eat Fanny - I have to hear about how he's going to put his dong into Fanny, etcetera. Never gets tired.

Maybe these stores all buy their signs from here:

Shop names in Hanoi seem to run along a number of themes, much like the hotel namesThere's the straight-talking ones, pretty unambiguous in promoting their products:
Or their sales channel:
Hmm, not actually, though.

Or the kind of customer they're after (presented in ascending order of nattiness): 
If you're wondering what "men on TV" wear, it's this:
Damn straight, that's a leopard-print tuxedo jacket.

As with the hotels, there are also the stores which employ the "irresistible adjective" technique:
For when you need something, you know, classy and fabulous, to wear on a date with, just for example, a man on TV.

But the irresistible adjectives adopted by store owners sometimes take a strange turn, like this:
And this:
"Mysterious" isn't a quality I tend to look for in fashion. However, I can imagine some mysterious clothes being teamed quite nicely with something from here:
Then there are the shops which, through no real fault of their own, just can't help but play right into my puerile hands:
Coffee does that to you too, huh? 

And also provide a lesson in why attempting wordplay in a second language is a very risky thing indeed:
Oh, Fartshion, you're my absolute favourite. No business strategy in the world could contrive to come up with that.

Monday, 20 February 2012

And now, a post about bears

It's one of those universals about living overseas that you'll end up with more friends from other countries than from your host country. This is not something to complain about. In fact, it's probably one of the best things about living overseas. 

In Vietnam, I've been thrown in with a whole heap of folk from walks of life that aren't my... usual... walk. Whatever, they're awesome.

For example, I got to meet Charmagne, who was resident jazz singer at the Metropole for three months. I don't know what excited me more: the fact that she got to live in the Metropole and have French onion soup delivered to her room for breakfast every day, or simply knowing someone with a sentence in their bio that reads "She performed at Sean "P Diddy" Combs' 3rd Annual All-Star Festival in Cancun". 

I also got to meet Falk, who has the best job title in the world: Bear Manager. BEAR. MANAGER.
Falk manages bears at the Animals Asia Bear Rescue Centre in Tam Dao National Park, which we finally got to visit in December to celebrate Nathan's "bearthday" (see what I did there?). And it turns out that Falk may not have just the best job title in the world, but the best job too.

As you would imagine, bears at the Rescue Centre have been rescued, coming from the most horrific conditions on bear bile farms, where they are kept in tiny "crush" cages and the bile pumped out of their gall bladder for use in traditional medicine. 

So when one of these bears is freed at the Rescue Centre, how do you reckon they feel?
Pretty damn happy.

It really does seem like they're the happiest bears alive. Oh, except for this bear:

Thanks to the Bear Manager and the other centre staff, this is bear paradise. 

Their food is all prepared in the Bear Kitchen, which looks like this:
Bears like cabbage, sure, but can you see what's on that shelf there? Baked beans, sweet corn, jam, Nutella, coconut cream, peanut butter... Turns out that if a bear drops around to our house for dinner, we are already well prepared. 

These treats are part of a frighteningly well-organised programme (did I mention Falk is German?) to keep the bears stimulated:
They even get special bear popsicles:
Their food is hidden about their enclosure for them to sniff out like a treasure hunt, which is just as much fun to watch as it sounds:

They then get to spend the rest of their time loping around with their friends and playing on their bear playground:
Long gone are their days of imprisonment and torture. Now their only worries are like when the tyre-swing breaks under their enormous, furry, Nutella-loving weight:
Bummer, dude. 

The bears are so teddy bear-like and bumbling and adorable it's easy to forget that they're actually, you know, ferocious bears, which is why they have this:
Oh, to have a workplace with a Bear Escape Alarm! 

I wanted a bear to escape so it could give me a big old cuddle, but Bear Emergencies are a serious business. Check this out:
Yes, that is a blow-gun. A BLOW-GUN. And that is Falk's wife, wildlife vet Leanne, demonstrating how to use it. Did I mention that I've met some awesome people here? 

And what do you use to distract a bear while you're aiming your blow-dart? Well, what do you think:
How can you look at that shelf of distracting honey and think of them as anything other than big ol' fluffy teddy bears? It would be like shooting a tranquilizer dart into Winnie the Pooh himself.

At the end of our visit, two truckloads of new bears arrived, freshly rescued from a bear bile farm: 
They looked worse for wear, stressed and terrified. It was a sobering reminder that being a Bear Manager isn't all bear popsicles and tyre swings. It's a job that comes out of a really awful, and completely unnecessary, industry of animal cruelty. And the rescued bears actually aren't the happiest bears in the world; those are the ones in the wild. Although this guy comes a close second:
If you'd like to visit the bears at the Rescue Centre, it's best to contact the Animals Asia Foundation in Hanoi to arrange a time for a free (!!) guided tour, by emailing Ms Thuy, their Communications Officer. Try to visit at feeding time for maximum bear awesomeness.

Unlike the wildlife rescue centres in Cuc Phuong National Park, it's easy to get to Tam Dao National Park and back in a day. You can organise a taxi, or catch the bus from My Dinh to Vinh Yen, then change for a bus to Tam Dao town or grab a xe om the rest of the way. The turn-off is at KM 13 near Ho Son, and then you follow that road all the way to the centre, which is in the foothills of the National Park.

Aside from the bears, the centre is also in a lovely little spot with a great view. Bring along some sandwiches and you can even have a picnic on their little patch of lawn. 

You can donate to Animals Asia or sponsor a bear here, because bear paradise doesn't come cheap. 

Friday, 10 February 2012

The last word on weddings

I write this post under some duress. Personally I think this blog, which is supposed to be about my life in Hanoi, is at risk of turning into a wedding blog. And I hate wedding blogs.

But I admit that it would seem weird not to mention on here a certain event which took place a couple of weeks ago, which makes up for its lack of relevance to Hanoi with its exceptional significance to my life overall. Yes, Nathan and I got married. 

Again. I know that's what you're thinking. But the first time wasn't for realsies.

This time was for realsies:

And there was a certain connection to Vietnam, actually, starting with the invitations. 

Last year, Nathan and I had the honour of attending the snappily-named "International Musical Exchange Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Foundation Day of the International Cooperation Department of the Ministry of Public Security (ICD-MPS)". It was a pretty rad evening of song and dance, with my favourite performance being the ladies of the Hanoi traffic police singing a song about being ladies of the Hanoi traffic police. But I digress. 

At that event, we were presented with this pennant: 

One thing I love about Vietnam is that it's very liberal with its laurels. Almost all official events seem to offer take-home commemorative spoils. As someone whose life thus far has been entirely devoid of ribbons and trophies - but abundant in certificates of participation - Vietnam has been a real boon for me. 

And God knows, I'm going to make the most of it:

Our wedding crest was designed by our friends at Crunchy Frog Design here in Hanoi, whose brief was to make us look like those great role models for happy marriage, Charles and Diana, on their special 50-cent coin:
Did their wedding invitation have motherfucking tassels? No, it did not. And that's why their marriage failed.

Once you have your own logo, it's kind of hard not to go crazy with it. So everyone at the wedding got to go home a winner:

Many other components of the wedding came from Vietnam too. Nathan's suit, my dress, and, of course, the heart-shaped moneybox:

Because some Vietnamese traditions are worth importing (Nathan also wanted to import the traditional champagne pyramid. Surprisingly, the venue wasn't that keen).

Our first dance came from Vietnam too. We learned it at our local dance studio, and we practised it in our little flat, before taking it on tour:

Vietnam's Got Talent. But we're not it.

Who knows, maybe we'll be making a star turn on the stage of the "International Musical Exchange Celebrating the 31st Anniversary of the Foundation Day of the International Cooperation Department of the Ministry of Public Security (ICD-MPS)".

The night was all the things that weddings are supposed to be, but it was still surprising just how much fun we had. The most fun ever, actually.

We spent five days in Hong Kong on the way back to Hanoi. Arriving home, we discovered that the cockfighting festival was being held on our street again, pretty much cementing the already pretty solid association between pecking, half-bald roosters and our nuptials. 

As I picked my way through the mud and chicken poo, I couldn't get that Cruel Sea song out of my head. The honeymoon is over, baby.

That night Nathan and I were woken at 3am by sounds that were even more unidentifiable than usual coming from outside our window. I lifted the blinds to see the glow of charcoal on the street below, and, well, I'll just show you what it looked like in the morning:

"What's happening out there?" my new husband asked.
"Oh, they're just spit-roasting a whole cow, on the road", I said.
And the wafting aroma of roast beef sent us back to sleep.

Aah, home sweet home.