Monday, 21 May 2012

Sometimes it's better not to know

In Vietnam there is not much that separates the producers from the consumers. You don’t have to go to a far-flung industrial zone to see where your stuff comes from, you can just walk down the street:
Early on in my time here, I went to a store to buy a green picture frame. They didn’t have the colour I was after so the woman from the store took a black frame outside onto the footpath, whipped out a can of green spray paint, and voila, I now had a green frame. 

My first thought was “Man, this is shoddy”, and hesitated over buying it. But then I realised that if they had originally had a green frame in stock, I would have cheerfully bought it, even though this is exactly how it would have been made anyway. It was seeing how it had been made which devalued it.

This is why in countries like Australia, manufacturers go to great lengths to gloss over a product’s provenance and to eradicate all trace of the human hands that made it come into being. Evidence of the manufacturing process is a flaw: we prefer to believe our stuff just… materialised.

This subject has been on my mind recently, because it’s been staring me in the face:
That is the view from our window. On the upside, we now have a lake view, and on the downside, we now basically live inside a building site.

Due to its omnipresence, Hanoians know a lot about construction, and now, so do I. The noise of things being built and things being knocked down is the city’s soundtrack. The cicada whine of the circular saw; the reverberating hum of the machine which straightens out those big long metal poles; the plink-plink-plink of bricks being stacked; the, umm, jack-hammering of jack hammers.

The construction site outside our window has gone through a number of stages involving all of these sounds. The most exciting stage was probably when we woke up to see a Vietnamese Stonehenge had appeared:
The worst stage was when a truckload of gravel was dumped, and then shovelled down a corrugated iron chute from about 11:30pm till 3:30am. And then again from 6:30am:
Do you know what gravel sliding down corrugated iron sounds like? Like GRAVEL SLIDING DOWN CORRUGATED IRON.

Being experts in construction, Nathan and I know that the worst is yet to come. We watch the site’s daily progress with dread, shooting hateful looks at the gravel-shovelers and the plink-plink-plinkers. Unfair, really, since their lives are much worse than ours. They live onsite, in a crappy humpy that rattles and shakes on a windy night, they work under the baking sun, and while I complain I no longer have any privacy, at least I can close my curtains. These guys can’t have a wee without my beady eyes glaring down at them from on high.

The construction site’s current stage can only be described as a dog’s breakfast:
I look out at it, then can’t help but look around our house, my mind seeing through the paint and plaster walls to its skeleton. Our apartment must once have been just like that pile of poles and planks. And I think, “Man, this is shoddy”. I remember how our landlord once warned us against having a party and the guests all dancing at once for fear of the building collapsing. We laughed this off at the time, but now I’m not so sure. 

For a country with so many fakes, there’s something honest about the Vietnamese mode of production. The part played by the human hand is not just present; it’s in your face. And so too is the knowledge of its fallibility. Now please excuse me, I have some cracks I need to inspect.

17 comments:

  1. Tabitha, enjoyed the post and I think anyone who has lived in Hanoi for any period of time will have sympathy. I suppose the relative speed with which buildings are generally assembled will be of little comfort to you at the moment.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Colin. We're actually grateful we had two construction-free years - that's a lot longer than many people get in Hanoi! We'll be long gone before the building is finished, so we're just praying that they won't reach the cement-pouring stage before then. Fingers crossed.

      Delete
  2. I finally found an upside to the Hanoi construction noise recently. We found a really cheap 5 star resort on Agoda in Siem Reap and went there to find that the hotel had construction going on - hence the cheap room (cheap $5 dessert buffet, $2 pina coladas...). But it was only a few taps and a chainsaw every now and then, so while the other guests complained, we barely noticed it and really enjoyed our stay.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's excellent! Our standard for what constitutes "quiet" has certainly dropped since living in Hanoi. I'm pretty sure I could live anywhere now - the only way is up.

      Delete
  3. When we lived on Phan Boi Chau, there was a beautiful old Vietnamese mansion across the road from our building. Sadly, its day were always numbered. My favourite of the building stages was the earth ploughs that dragged massive steel poles down the street at 3am. Yes, earth ploughs. Metal claws scraping bitumen like fingernails on a blackboard, only magnified 1000 times.

    Lucky you are making the sensible decision and moving.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hahhahahaaaaaah. I love how there are apparently no rules on construction sites here EXCEPT for the one where trucks can only come to the site at night. I love that rule. I love it so, so much. I lie awake thinking about just how much I love it, night after night after night.

      Delete
  4. I'm weirdly fascinated by construction in Hanoi. I have hundreds of photos of it and no idea why.

    Anyway, I feel for you. We have a house being built next door. While its noise has irritated us, I can see you're dealing with a whole new level of noise. Is it Hanoi's way of breaking up with you before you can break up with it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Look, I don't want to say our construction is worse than anyone else's, but it is.

      I do feel Hanoi is sending us some very strong signals. Watching our beautiful tree (our view before we had a lake/construction view) get torn down by a crane was definitely one of them.

      Delete
  5. Ah, but there are rules! No construction before 8AM. No working on Sundays. We did it! We got them to stop every Sunday. I mean we had to get them to stop every Sunday - calling our landlords, calling the owners - there was an incident where water may have gone over the roof of our house...
    4 months of wonderful construction can do something to you.
    I remember being woken up every day by a sledgehammer that sounded as though it would come through the wall...and I wouldn't have been surprised. That bit was especially fun when taking a shower...just centimeters of old, poorly made brick between me and a group of workers.

    My god I could go on. It's great when they are really next door, and sometimes when the building is almost complete they use your rooftop for hanging out...great!

    Ok - ok, done (PS the water over the roof was not my chicken moment, but my roommate's :-)

    Love,

    Julianne

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, Julianne, what if your construction site is a government building, eh? Ours is, so I don't like our chances of reporting them to the "authorities" (HA!).

      Keep fightin' the power!

      Delete
  6. Note I live on the 10th floor of a 20-something floor building. If I die, you can have my bike.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You should read this:

      http://tuoitrenews.vn/cmlink/tuoitrenews/society/elevator-drops-down-during-inauguration-of-vietnam-s-tallest-tower-1.72612?

      Imagine how fit you'll get using the stairs from now on.

      Delete
  7. So free-falling is a safety feature in modern lifts? I had no idea.

    I guess with all this noisy construction going on right in front of your apartment you'll want to spend as much time out of the neighborhood as possible, at places such as Bat Trang pottery village, I've heard that it's a fascinating place to spend an afternoon.

    ReplyDelete
  8. That I think is what sets an Asian neighborhood (I say asian because i've seen similar circumstances in similar parts of the region) apart from say, a typical LA suburb. You always see construction company employees and their heavy excavators and payloaders rumbling through the streets, off to another construction site somewhere near your place. Part of the culture, maybe?

    ReplyDelete
  9. Talk about a whole of construction work right in your backyard. I wonder how you managed to stand up to all the noise of metal parts getting banged into the walls and all the heavy machinery rolling around.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks for sharing very good information.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.