Tuesday, 24 April 2012

You wouldn't read about it

One of the most enjoyable things about living in Vietnam is never having any idea what's going on. My eyebrows are permanently knitted at the inexplicability of it all. 

As part of my ongoing quest for answers, I read the Vietnamese news sites, which are undoubtedly another of the most enjoyable things about living in Vietnam. 

Nothing unknits your eyebrows more quickly than headlines like "Your husbands are gays!", or "Rotten tripe source meant for restaurants uncovered" (featuring a villain known as "Tuan Pig's Intestines"), and especially, "Goat penis bacteria adds to food safety scare". 

Care to know more?

"Ho Chi Minh City destroyed nearly 1.5 tons of goat penis contaminated with bacteria Wednesday in the latest chapter of Vietnam's food safety saga, which has seen putrid pork and rotten beef flood local markets. 
On Sunday, district inspectors found NDT Company in Tan Binh District had imported large quantities of the product from Australia. 
The shipments were labeled as inedible and not for human use. 
Nguyen Thi Thu Nga, chief inspector of the HCMC Animal Health Agency, said the products were contaminated with bacteria, including Salmonella and E.Coli, and also failed to meet other food safety criteria. 
However, inspectors said 47 of the 72 boxes imported had been sold as food."

And right there, you have the problem with the Vietnamese news: it raises more questions than it answers. Australia exports goat penis? Seriously, do they really mean 1.5 TONNES of goat penis? And DID I EAT ROTTEN GOAT PENIS FOR LUNCH?

While reading the Vietnamese press is a pursuit which reaps daily rewards ("Illegal sperm trade booming in Vietnam", featuring the choice quote: "If you don’t want to pay for the expense of artificial insemination, I can implant my seeds in some hotel"), there are some stories I've enjoyed following longterm. 

For example, late last year there was a string of reported hypnotism-induced robberies. There was the gold shop - "Owner hands robber $200k, hypnotism suspected" - and there were the "dark-skinned" foreign thieves at the Vietnam Airlines office - "Plane ticket seller hypnotized, taken $350". This article from 2010, which reports a range of other hypnotistastic crimes, suggests that "In reality, hypnotizing people to steal from them is not a new phenomenon. It was first reported in Viet Nam in 1975, according to Khong Nguyen, a kungfu teacher. The trick, originating in the southern provinces and HCMC, has now spread all the way to Ha Noi."

WTF Vietnam. W.T.F.

Another long-running story is the near constant hysterical mass fainting of school girls. According to this article, "mass hysteria is a psychological disorder that can occur among young girls who have a physical or psychological imbalance", cured by drinking hot tea and taking a rest. Another article suggests mass fainting can be fixed by "readjusting seating assignments". This article pins one school's fainting problem on student claims that "a toilet inside their dorm is haunted and they have seen ghosts". 
The haunted toilet block.

But for me, the most compelling running news story is the many versions of the tale which can be summarised as "Vietnamese farmers rush to meet demands of Chinese traders, catastrophe ensues". 

For example: Vietnamese farmers abandon rice to grow sweet potato for Chinese traders, and now have no rice to eat. Or: Vietnamese farmers hack up lychee trees to sell dry leaves to Chinese traders, destroying the productivity of their own orchards. Or: Vietnamese farmers start breeding leeches to meet demands of Chinese traders, and then end up infesting all their fields with leeches.
Leech. Available at discount rate.

All of these articles have the underlying theme of the "enigmatic", "mysterious" and "dubious" purposes for which the products, such as 500 kilograms of leeches (!!), are being bought by China. And, it turns out, their suspicion is well-founded.

Behold, my favourite Vietnamese news story of all time, called "The wicked tricks by Chinese businessmen". 

The article is actually a history of all of the stories of the type "Vietnamese farmers rush to meet demands of Chinese traders, catastrophe ensues". Yellow snails were bred for food, and then ate all the rice; corn silk was suddenly in demand, leading to the destruction of food corn crops. And then: 

"Chinese buy cats, mice destroyed crops 
The biggest “rat pandemic” occurred in 1997 and 1998, when all the cats were sold out to Chinese businessmen. 
At that time, Chinese offered high prices to collect Vietnamese cats. This prompted Vietnamese people to trade cats by collecting cats from Vietnamese families to sell to Chinese businessmen.  
Just after a short time, no cat was seen in the whole northern region. The absence of cats led to the appearance of mice. The harvests were destroyed, while rice at families was eaten by the mice. People wished they had not sold cats and they were burning to kill rats.
Only in 1999, when the first industrial cat farm was established in the north, while people could create new species of cats, did the “rat pandemic” begin easing. 
Chinese collected buffalo’s toenails, a lot of buffaloes were killed 
Chinese businessmen also hunted for buffalo’s toenails, offering high prices for them. Especially, the toenails from four legs of a buffalo could be sold to Chinese businessmen at the prices which were well higher than the value of a buffalo. 
As a result, Vietnamese farmers rushed to cull buffaloes to get toenails, though they had to bargain away buffalo meat. 
No one could count how many buffaloes were killed at that time. However, it was clear that the buffalo massive sale led to the fact that farmers did not have buffalo to plough rice field."

Three words: Industrial. Cat. Farm. Two more: Buffalo. Toenails.

To ask whether this article raises more questions than it answers is like asking whether the Chinese like leeches. I don't even know where to begin. It seems to suggest that the "wicked Chinese businessmen" are inventing a completely false market demand to purposefully destroy the livelihoods of Vietnamese farmers. But this seems so… I don't know… ridiculous? But maybe they are! Sitting up there, rubbing their fingers together, plotting what they can buy next. "What about buffalo toenails! Mwahahahahahaha." 

All I know is that Vietnam has been a very poor country for a very long time. The lure of what are essentially get-rich-quick schemes is obvious. You can just imagine how rumour of one farmer's success with cats or snails or leeches would spread to other farmers as quickly, and as desperately, as a hysterical fainting spell amongst school girls. It's also a country which has only known peace as brief spells between wars. That hardly fosters long-term thinking. 

But apart from that, I know nothing. I return to my state of wonder and flummoxment. And I have news to read. Today's headline: "Vietnam cracks record for world's smallest egg".

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Fear and self-loathing in expat land

This post first appeared on Crikey, and features a couple of observations from previous blog posts. Sorry for the rehash - I hope to post properly soon!
To the Vietnamese who live around me, it’s clear where I fit in here: I don’t. The differences between us are as plain as the enormous nose on my big fat face.
In Vietnam, I am, and always will be, a Tây.
I can hear the call of “Tây-Tây-Tây-Tây-Tây” in any market as vendors announce my presence to each other, making it pretty much synonymous with the sound effect “ker-CHING!”
I’m not offended one bit by this label. Not even when I had new passport photos taken and the shop filled in the “Mr/Ms_________” section on the little receipt with “Ms Tây”, and filed it away under T.
Because I am a Tây. Even if they would let me, I would never try to pretend to the Vietnamese that I’m just like them.
However, before I moved here, I envisioned making for myself a perfectly authentic, local Vietnamese life. I was sure I would assimilate beautifully. I was very much the kind of person who would travel to Asia and scoff at tourists eating pizza. “What’s the point of even coming overseas if you’re just doing what you do at home, eh?” I would say, indignant and unbearable.
Now, my favourite café in Hanoi is run by a Melbournian and serves soy chai lattes. I like Vietnamese coffee very much, and drink it often. But you know what I like more? Soy chai lattes.
I don’t care any more about my street cred or my authenticity, or being pleased with myself for being the only foreigner in a local coffee shop. That soy chai latte doesn’t lessen the Vietnam-ness of my life here; in fact, it makes it better, offering me enough comforting familiarity to better enjoy the rest of my very Hanoian day.
When visitors from Australia ask me to take them to my favourite cafe in Hanoi, I know better than to take them to this place, my real favourite café. The one and only visitor I’ve taken there looked around and said, “Hmm, there sure are a lot of foreigners in here”, and there was judgement in them there italics.
To me, this is like going to a Chinese restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown and complaining, “Hmm, there sure are a lot of Chinese people in here”.
The formation of communities with shared ethnicities and cultures is the most natural thing in the world. Liberal-minded, politically correct, cultural relativists like myself love them for bringing “diversity” and “colour” to our neighbourhoods. Yet those of us who move overseas seem to think we’re above needing the familiarity of such communities ourselves. We’re sure we’ll just slot right in to our new home because we’re so open-minded and adaptable.
No, we won’t become your typical "expat". Now, there’s another word with its own synonymous sound effect: one of retching.
“Expat” conjures up two stereotypes, both of them unseemly: one clad in white linen, drinking gins and tonic, and oppressing the natives; the other sunburnt, overweight, subsisting entirely on baked beans and whinging about the locals. Both images emphasise that the expat is stubbornly, wilfully, unassimilated.
It’s a word with such awful colonial overtones. All at once it projects cultural superiority and barbarism. And for a word which is supposed to be all about someone moving to a new and different country, all it does it emphasise where they’ve come from: it seems you’re only an expat if you’re from the developed world, otherwise, let’s face it, you’re an immigrant.
It’s because of these connotations that people, like me, try to dodge the dreaded expat label. But despite my best intentions, I have become just another expat. I might not have a white linen suit, but I’m still a Tây who hangs out with other Tâys and does your typical Tây things.
So every one of my soy chai lattes could taste just like self-loathing, or I could just get over myself and own it: I’m an expat. I’ll still say it with teeth gritted against all those historical connotations, but I’ll say it: I am an expat.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Hanoi Moments

I was recently asked to write something about Nosey in Newtown, my old blog, which saw me sifting through its contents, three years after I stopped updating it. 

I came across these, which I photographed around Newtown, and which are still as awesome today as they were in 2008:

I love, love, love this idea of memorialising the sites of significantly insignificant moments in your personal history, and associating them with the place where they happened. 

To really know a place, to have a relationship with it, is to walk amongst these associations and memories. They’re not necessarily important or noteworthy to anyone but you - like those commemorated above - but they forever connect you to where you are. When your collection of connections is large enough, you have yourself a home.   

My Australian home, Newtown, is thick with spatial souvenirs. As I walk down any street, I pick my way through reminders of all the other times I’ve trod the same footpath: each year when the cement under my feet is cushioned by the fallen Jacaranda flowers, it’s a reminder of the last.

Hanoi is crowded with connections too now. I could plaster my own paper plaques all over this town...

This was where we debated how much money we’d have to be paid to swim across Truc Bach lake:

This is where I misunderstood the silken tofu seller and started bargaining, fiercely, for a higher price than what she was actually offering: 

This is where the bus stopped and the driver opened the door so he could watch the Vietnam – Singapore soccer match on the café’s television:

This is where I watched a beautiful orange butterfly floating through the traffic, until the driver in front of me snatched at it, crushed it up in her fingers, and wiped her hands together to scatter its golden dust:

This is where I first met up for a coffee with a brand new person, and by the end of the cup, I had a brand new friend: 

This is where I was horrified by the sight of a large, furry animal - maybe a bear? – tied on to the back of a bicycle in traffic, but as I got closer, I saw that it was a large, furry stuffed toy dog, with button eyes and floppy ears:

This is where Nathan and I had a competition to see who could stay on their bike the longest without pedalling:

This is where a particularly long dog is sometimes chained up, prompting Nathan and I to both shout “LONG DOG” as we pass:

This is where a schoolgirl cycled up to me, said hello, reached over to shake my hand, asked where I was from, said goodbye, and cycled off:

This is the spot where I stood when I knew I would spend the rest of my life with Nathan:

The thing about memorials, even those made of paper, is that they’re forever. I know that if I ever return to Hanoi, no matter how much it has changed, I’ll feel right at home. 

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

On the road in Vietnam

This post was first published on Crikey

The Vietnamese spend so much time on their motorbikes I expect that eventually they will evolve into two-wheeled centaurs.

If you pitted a 40-kilogram, stiletto-wearing Vietnamese girl against a burly Aussie bikie in a test of motorcycling skill, I know who my money would be on. But I’m not going to say it, in case I get shot.

But say the test of motorcycling skill was being held out of town, and you had to take a long, bumpy bus ride with the contestants to get there, for the love of God, sit next to the bikie.

The Vietnamese ride through the market, never getting off their bikes even as they prod the produce and haggle over the price of pomelos. They’ll swathe their steeds in swinging bags of meat and fruit and eggs, then drive to a roadside food stall where, like a lo-fi drive-thru, a bread roll with pâté, or a little crème caramel, can be bagged up and hooked over their handlebars, without them ever having to leave their seat.

On their motorbikes they can smoke, and send text messages, and carry a brimming bowl of noodle soup one-handed. Probably all at the same time. Children do their homework riding pillion, and toddlers fall asleep while standing up, wedged between their parents’ legs, their head resting on the handlebars.

But because the Vietnamese pretty much drive out of the birth canal on two wheels, they miss out on a formative experience we take for granted: adapting to four-wheeled transport. As a result, no long-haul bus ride in Vietnam is complete without at least half the passengers vomiting into plastic bags, tying those bags up, then flinging them out the window throughout the entirety of the journey. It’s a case of projectile vomit turned vomit projectiles.

These little exploding parcels of spew litter the highways of Vietnam. So, say you are going to watch this test of motorcycling skill on a motorbike that’s travelling behind the contestants’ bus, then keep a wide, wide berth. Unless you want to receive a high-speed bag o’ vom in your face.

Just as the Vietnamese are, on the whole, inexperienced car passengers, they’re also inexperienced car drivers. This is changing at an incredible rate, with growing wealth resulting in more and more Vietnamese people buying their first car, and taking their first driving lesson.

Hanoi is not the ideal place to earn your driving stripes. The streets are narrow, and already filled almost to capacity with motorbikes. The learner drivers of Hanoi travel at a trepidatious crawl, as if they too are transporting brimming bowls of noodle soup, and maybe they are. They go at speeds so slow that I can easily overtake them on my bicycle at little more than a dawdle.

Taxi drivers are often learners themselves, shuddering along in third gear at speeds that barely make the speedometer twitch. Once, late at night, I’m pretty sure Nathan and I were the inaugural customers of one taxi driver. With his emergency lights and high beams on, we crawled along the deserted street for a few blocks. Then the windows all fogged up; the driver panicked, mounted the curb, and said “Okay!” as if we’d just arrived at our destination, and everything was completely under control.

The all-too-experienced motorcyclists take advantage of the lumbering learners, swarming around them in all directions at intersections, as if the car is merely a fixed obstacle, which can be avoided like a traffic cone.

But there are more cars on the road every day, the result of a furious upward mobility that will, eventually, lead to a traffic standstill when simply no more cars can fit. Vomit missiles will become a thing of the past, and so will all the learner drivers, but no-one will be going anywhere.