Thursday, October 01, 2009

A new dawn

After much procrastinating, I've finally settled on a name and created my new blog:

I've exported all my links so all of you on my old blogroll are on my new one too. Thanks for reading my Vietnam blog for all these years and I hope you enjoy my perspective of this Australian adventure just as much!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

End of a Chapter

I’m sitting here in our unit sipping on a super strong cup of Trung Nguyen’s Legendee coffee, that famous Buon Me Thuot blend, my last stash of Vietnamese coffee that I brought with and also the best I’ve ever drunk. There’s nothing like a distinctive aroma to bring back memories and enduce a bout of nostalgia. After less than two weeks in Brisbane, coming back to my blog feels like an alien world. It feels like someone I know well or someone I’ve been following for a while’s blog. Actually, it's not dissimilar to that strange feeling you get when something you vaguely remember dreaming actually happens. It should have a clinical name like “Abandoned Blog Psychosis” or something. I guess all things come to an end some time and this is the end for the blog of this four year chapter of my life. I couldn’t just leave it with a “cock fight” on my front page – people would just think I’m weird – so I’m tying up some loose ends, adding some links that I should have added a long time ago, and removing some dead ones.

I’ve also got a special little surprise in the form of a song my friends Henrik (aka squirenetic) Sanjay (blowdart killa) and I made as a farewell to Saigon. Together with Sanjay's girlfriend and of course mine, we all left the country within a month of each other after many years in a place we have grown to love. So we got the fattest gansta beat we could find (think porno sounds and guns cocking) and put our farewell to Saigon into a song. It’s at the end of this post. You may have noticed a proliferation of new links on the left side of my blog, thus, with no further delay, may I present:

See how this blogroll rolls:

Let's start with the South African blogs which have keep me amused for hours: There are some wicked expat blogs, like Sarah's ramblings from Sapporo, Japan, with her quirky sense of humour and killer posts, it's just a pity she's from Joburg... ;P.I love Po's well-written rants from over the ocean, Emm's travelogue, and my buddy Bernard and his wife's totally insanely wonderful year-long honeymoon through Africa. More blogs of note include Chester's Parklife, Helen's lizard obsession (I can't believe you didn't name your cactus Gulliver!), Miss Moss's beautiful art/design/cynicism site, and 6000 miles from civilization who I dig on Twitter.

In Vietnam, as it always goes, some leave, others come, leave again, return again and so the cycle goes. Look out for the imminent return of Our Man in Hanoi, the ever-travelling and aptly named Backpacking Teacher, Cara's expat experience, editor of AsiaLife Tom DiChristopher's blog, Petro's musings, Hanoi Scratchpad, amasc, and also Thomas Wanhoff's blog; his part German part English blog also has its own podcast.

Along with Aaron Joel Santos' fantastic photography, I've also added Julian Wainwright and Justin Mott's photography sites. I've also added East & West Magazine - check out the article I wrote for them about 48 hours in HCMC.

Of course, there's my buddy Henrik's Myspace, a funny football comic strip called Studs Up, some weird emo blog which is strangely intriguing with awesome photos called I wrote this for you, one of the funniest blog I know by Slyde.

Then there are a few writers and blogs I've been following on Blogger/Twitter for a while now, notably Angelina Tan's blog, be happy, Better Than Coffee, I think my tummy hurts, Gorilla Sushi and a design concept site by Uno called Between 10 and 5.

Never fear, as I’ve already got my furry little house elves in a row in my head as to what the next blog will be about, and when…to be continued. Tôi sẽ mất tích Saigon rất nhiều. Tạm biệt.

That should do it for now. Here's the song we made, crank up the volume, turn the bass down to a dirty low, don your hoody, pimp your mouse and listen to Saigon Streets by Da Poo Crew!

Until next time and my next blog. Peace.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Rooster Ruckus

Driving along on an article assignment I came across Rocky and his feathered friend not seeing beady eye to eye. The cockerel had obviously insulted Rocky when he offered to scramble his hen’s eggs for him. Rocky wouldn’t have any of it and asked him to step outside the coop for a minute.

As the waltz began, insults flew like roosters can’t, from the quality of their crows to the colour of their combs. Authorities were called in but were so entranced all they could do was stand and watch as the cockfight began.

Next, followed a game of ‘see who blinks first’. Rocky was first with a flurry of thinly feathered slurs like “Grow some eggs, chicken”. “We’ll see who’s a chicken, you cocky bastard.”

Then it began. Having been raised in a nearby monastery, Rocky was well-trained in the art of shaolin fowlin’.

“What did you say about my mother?” “She a fine bird, Rocky, just fine!”

Submission was never an option, but unfortunately the cockatrice was turned into a capon by Rocky, the far superior poultry specimen.

It was over, as fast as it began. Chums again, Rocky and the cockerel strolled off to the nearest coop, wing in wing, to see which hens they could impress with their battle scars.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Flour Power

Bot Chien is a favourite pre- and post-class snack for Saigon’s school kids and you’ll nearly always find a vendor eagerly parked outside a school or language centre. I first discovered it when I was working at a school up in Tan Binh District about three years ago as I headed outside for a between-class ca phe da. I saw dozens of little backpacked, black heads clamouring around a single steaming cart, elbowing for space and right of way. My curiosity piqued, I went over, towering over the children to see a vendor furiously scrambling, tossing and adding ingredients to a boiling hot stovetop, colours and flavours flying and I decided right there I had to have it.

Bot Chien is basically fried rice flour (bot gao), mixed with a bit of normal flour, salt and water. When it firms up, it’s cut in lego-sized blocks and fried in a super hot pan. Nui, or macaroni, is added for that extra carb hit, tossed with chopped shallots and onions and an egg is cracked and swirled in to add some consistency and colour as well as to hold it all together. It’s served on top of shredded radish with chilli sauce (tuong ot) and soya sauce (nuoc tuong) for flavouring, and yes it needs a lot, but nothing a bit of saucage overkill can’t cure.

This is a great hold-over between meals, when your stomach is just groaning for some carbs or, more importantly, a greasy hangover snack. From a parental point of view, it will ensure your lovely, darling child will turn into a lucky little Buddha faster than you can say ‘cholesterol issues by age 18’.The friendly vendor in this photo fries her trade outside Marie Curie High School in District 3 and the price for a non-Beer Lao t-shirt wearing foreigner is 10 000 Ho’s, VND.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

An Ode to the Raiders

A ragged bunch of mercenaries, battle-hardened warriors, drawn together from the far corners of the globe troop onto the field at the National University in Thu Duc District every Sunday in Saigon. A South African, a handful of British and Irish, Aussies, Scandinavians, Yanks and Europeans, all gleaming with the iridescent glow of sweat, toiling in the tropical heat or ubiquitous afternoon downpour, fighting for their pride, their fraternity, their band of brothers. Boots are laced up, shirts are pulled on and old war injuries strapped up as they enter the field of battle in high spirits. Staring down the opponents as the referee blows the battle horn. Commands and the call to arms are shouted from the stoic defence as speedy wingers and sharpshooting strikers take control, always against the odds, of a dire situation and slot goal after goal beyond the hapless and helpless opposition goalkeeper, and come out triumphant week after week.

Yes, it is the Saigon Raiders, the Saigon International Football League’s (once) premium football outfit.

Yes, that is one way to view these fine athletic specimens of sporting men. Another way would be looking at them as a dozen hungover, balding, aging expats chasing a round ball on a bumpy pitch in a foreign country, struggling with their weight and to keep their breakfast down. Haphazard defence tries to shore up errors from a midfield who have run half a sao (360m²) and couldn’t be bothered getting back to help their red-faced brothers. Strikers take potshots from 40 yards out and manage to put 2 metre tap-ins over the bar and blame it on poor passes. Arguments break out, either with themselves, their teammates, or the referee (oh, who would want to be a ref in a Raiders game!). Grown-ups act like children and stomp off, players fall over (dive) dramatically and howl in simulated pain, others try to decapitate the opposition with Cantona-esque flying kicks. A flurry of yellow and red cards are handed out, more shouting ensues. Litres of water are poured over simmering and steaming bodies amindst much coughing and spluttering. And that’s just the first half! Yes, the Raiders, languishing in mid-table of the SIFL for the past few seasons.

Yes, the Raiders! Oh, the multicultural team of my heart! How I love your fighting spirit, albeit sometimes amongst ourselves! How I love your witty banter and bold self-confidence! How I love our lack of aptitude and innate inability to score! Forward Raiders, as we sail our troubled ship towards the brighter tomorrow! May our crew steady the ship and trim the sail as we head towards the Arcadian shores of future pillage and success! I shall miss you (once I’m gone), Raiders of my heart.

A byword: If you’re interested in playing footy with the Raiders, as I’m sure you are after reading this glowing ode, let me know and I’ll hook you up!

Sunday, July 05, 2009

An Ode to Mr Wobbles

Yesterday some of my friends came over for a garage sale that wasn’t in a garage and it wasn’t a sale. I basically gave what’s rest of my house away to my friends and Ms Sau the cleaning lady who comes in twice for a few hours. Her name literally means Mrs Ugly in Vietnamese – some people have this tradition of calling their children ugly names in hope of the opposite becoming true or for good luck, methinks. Correct me if I’m wrong Vietnamese readers? I can’t think of any other reason for calling your daughter ugly. Off the point, basically I gave away heaps of clothes, furniture and appliances and kitchenware. I also gave away more random objects like a scorpion made out of bicycle chain and scrap metal and….Mr Wobbles, our cat.

Mr Wobbles is our street cat that we lured into our house when we first moved in nearly two years ago. I think he had another semi-home but he digged our place much more (did it have something to do with the fact that we feed him Whiskas and tuna instead of rice? Possibly.) so he’s moved in permanently.

Now, besides giving Mr Wobbles a loving home, we’ve also given her a massive identity crisis because she’s female but we didn’t know that then and the name Mr Wobbles just seemed to fit so well as this cat is seriously fat. I’m talking send her to kitty fat camp fat. We thought for about 6 months that she was pregnant and everyone around us was convinced too, except for the mysterious fact that she never gave birth. Turned out she had a massive infection in her uterus when Mr Wobbles started “leaking” from her nether regions. Yuck. Copious doses of antibiotics didn’t work so one night the vet came over for a “home operation”.

*Insert Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde clip* Cut to lab scene with ominous tools, lightning, an operating table, eerie music.

I, trusty assistant nurse, helped sedate the cat, tie her feet to the kitchen table legs and hold her still, while the vet shaved her fat tum, cut it open and pulled ALL her insides out and plopped them on the table next to her. She found this big fat infection, cut it out together with god knows what other essential innards and proceeded to poke all in intestines ‘n things back with her fingers and sewed her back up!!! I’m still mentally scarred and have done 657 Hail Mary’s to purge my guilty conscience for being part of this horror event. And it didn’t even work as she’ still a little leaky but we put a blanket down for to sleep on and I don’t think this infection will kill her.

Other than the obvious flaw in her internal workings, she’s a fantastic cat who is more like a loyal dog as she waits at the door for us to come home and greets us with lion-sized meows and follows us everywhere in the house. Other than that, she just sleeps and eats and can’t catch anything and poos in our bathrooms sometimes, erm yes. She absolutely loves Mrs Ugly who talks to her constantly and Wobbles follows her around on the days that she comes in.

I didn’t know what I was going to with Fatty, as she’s now known (so we’ve given her a weight complex too), after I move out tomorrow as we couldn’t just leave her to fend for herself. Luckily Mrs Ugly offered to take her, so come tomorrow Fatty’s going for a drive out of the city to her new home in Thu Duc District on the back (or possibly the front) of a motorbike! Go Eval Fatty Knievel! Whiskers in the wind! Woohoo!

Sarah and I will miss you Mr Wobbles. You are a wonderful (and fat and lazy) cat. We will get another obese feline in Australia and call him/her Mr Wobbles II. You have left a legacy.

Friday, July 03, 2009

What's going on?

Okay, since I last posted anything a lot of things have been going on. Firstly, the total inventory of our house was literally shoved into a corner; punched, pinched and prodded, stood on and shoved until it fit into 2.5m³. Okay, the bed and big bulky things stayed, but the rest – including 15 paintings, a bunch of clothes, millions of CDs, bric-a-brac aka miscellaneous goods from Nepal, Myanmar, Borneo, Thailand, Cambodia, South Africa, Oz and of course Vietnam, including all my maps (yes, I love maps and I have a huge bunch of them) all got abused into the corner like so:

The kind folks over at JVK movers came around and in about an hour everything was bubble-wrapped, boxed, taped and wheeled away. Like so:

I must say these guys did an impressive job, Chris Honour, who is the manager, was pretty good and relaxed about it all – and that’s hard for me to say because he’s also the manager of the heathen enemy – the Saigon Saints. Grrr. The name evokes fist-clenching, bowel shaking memories of blue-clad, pasty Englishmen running around trying to kick the opposition instead of the ball. They are no saints. You’ll need to be a Saigon Raider to understand the feeling towards these beastly characters. I hope I get one last chance to get at ‘em before I leave. Breathe…

Oh, we also had a kickass party at Le Fenetre Soleil, which was a farewell for us (more for Sarah because I’m still around until August) as well as an au revoir to everyone’s main man MJ. We got some Wacko tunes on the iPod and the night was spent grabbing our crotches whilst shouting “Hee Hee, Shamone!” It was a fitting tribute, I just wish we had a monkey.

What else? Oh, lots of eating. Yes. The Park Hyatt’s Prosecco Brunch on Sundays. An experience not for the faint of heart – literally – you’ll die from cholesterol poisoning if you have a cardiac condition. It’s also not for the narrow of tum. From shaved parma ham with rock melon, to seared tuna and a mountain of fresh oysters and smoked salmon.To racks of lamb, roasts and pork loin. To Caesar’s, pasta salads, shrimp cocktails, a bevy of imported cheeses with fig jam, nuts and freshly baked bread. All washed down with an endless waterfall of Prosecco bubbly until you’re distended and keel over sidewards and slither across the floor to the nearest taxi, leaving thundering burps and crumbs in your wake. Yes, it’s that good.

This was all followed by a number of nights where we ended up at he outrageously themed and façaded “Crazy Buffalo” over numerous bottles of tequila to such a degree that the staff felt like they needed to thank us for single-handedly launching their new bar/chillout/sanitorium’s profits into the stratosphere by giving us each…wait for it…a Crazy Buffalo t-thirt. Erm…grand.

Now I’m here on my own as my heart has flown to Brisbane and I have 5 weeks of soulless meandering and thoughtless wondering to do until we’re reunited in Brissy as the locals like to refer to it. I’m catching up on my Aussie slang too and reckon I’m doing a fine job of it. It’s not hard, all you have to do is add a –zza or –o suffix to nearly everything.

As in – “My mate Wazza and I were feeling a bit crook one arvo so we decided to pick up a goon bag at the bottle-o to wash away our sorrow’s and had a bloody’ rippa!” Sorted. Oh and you have to be able to smoke buckets, a Brisvegaz specialty. I’m still working on that little nuanced skill so if you haven’t heard from me in a few weeks you’ll know I’ve succeeded and mastered the fine Queensland art of bucketeering.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Vietnam views

Just some random shots from around the southern part of the country. These are the kind of pics you don't really know what to do with so they just lie around in a random folder until you have about five or six of them and then you're like *ahaa, let's make a little blog post out of them".

My football team the Saigon Raiders were out for a tournament on Phu Quoc Island about 6 weeks ago and these kids watched all the matches from their high perch. They couldn't have been more than fourteen, but they already had all the makings of football hooligans; jeering and cursing every missed shot or mistake, smoking cigarettes and pulling faces. Sure they'll grow up supporting Millwall.

One of the first, but by now not the last, "safe sex" shops around town. I doubt they have these up in Hanoi (any of you Northerners seen them?). No whips, chains or spiked rubber gear, just condoms, which is a great start. The little sign in the bottom right-hand corner asks explicitly for a male shop assistant as "we don't want to offend and tarnish the pure minds of our delicate females". Okay I made up that little quote.

This is one of the queerest things I've seen around anywhere. It seems to be a monument to capitalism in Socialist Vietnam. A family, with the kid in a trolly, out shopping, forever etched in stone outside Maximark Cong Hoa Hypermarket. The number one quirkiest bit of architecture I've ever seen was also at Maximark, now sadly removed. It was a Ferris Wheel, built right through the inside of this gigantic shopping centre, running from the basement, through the cosmetics and toiletries aisle and out through the roof!

An interesting and innovative bit of artwork in the "Year of the Buffalo", as the Chinese zodiac "Year of the Ox" is called in Vietnam. Actually, there's quite a bit of quirky art and decor out at Van Thanh Park in Binh Thanh District. Nice restaurants and a patch of grass for a pick-up game of cricket (and not so nice managers when you want to skateboard and ollie down the steps or chase each other around in their little pedal buggies).

Just off Pham Ngu Lao, near the Saigon Central Bus Station, stands this old bust up tjorra. I wonder if one of those green buses behind it had anything to do with it. Knowing the way those black-smoke belching behemoths take over the road I wouldn't be suprised.

And on the other side of the spectrum, this procession of beautiful Beetles out in Vung Tau for the International Kite Festival in March. They're from the Saigon VW Club who are based in Thu Duc District I think.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Thing's I've eaten

With time running out in the country I’ve come to love with a smirk on my face and a tasty banh mi in the hand, I’ve started reminiscing on the things I’ve seen, eaten, and experienced, places I’ve been, people I’ve laughed with and at and all the fillings in between that make everything just, well, bloody good. Now, I’m not trying to compare myself with Andrew Zimmern, but I think it would be worth diarising, before I forget it, some of the random things I’ve managed to put in my mouth, but not always managed to keep down. Caz and anyone who hasn’t experienced the crunchy, juicy goodness of a feathered, baby duck foetus crackling between their molars look away now. From the top.

· Snake. Cobra snake. Head to tail. Bile and blood in shots and crunchy bones. All of it. It had beady eyes so it had to go.

· Fried black scorpion. Tasted like bacon.

· Ox penis. Cartilagy grossness.

· Goat hotpot with pig’s brains. Erm, well, in hindsight I’m not sure the brains needed to be added.

· That fermented duck egg with the little baby (beak intact) inside – hot vit lon it’s called around here – and the worst part, the part that hits the gag reflex, isn’t actually the bits with substance, it’s the sauce that floats on top when you crack it open. It’s like the eggiest omelette you’ve ever had. Like a hundred eggs concentrated in one – very potent.

· A big duck head.

· Fried chicken feet. They chow these in South Africa too – in Kayamandi they call them walky-talkies because you can tie a string around them and wear them around your neck.

· A nice cup of intestine and innards soup. I’m not actually sure what animal it was though.

· A few metres worth of grilled eel. My friend Danga actually has a bit of a thing for these eels and tends to order them whenever they’re available. As well as fish. Lots of them. Jesus can be glad Danga wasn't around when he pulled that stunt with the bread and fish cause disciple John may have had to omit that certain miracle from the good book if he was.

· Frogs. Crumbed and fried in butter, they taste like fishy chicken.

· Some kind of fowl. We’ve actually had this twice at a local restaurant around the corner. The waiter brings it live to the table to make sure that THIS is the bird you’d like to have slaughtered (quite unnecessary, really) and then about an hour later the poultry dishes start arriving. First the heart, liver and kidneys, then then some other random bits and then the rest of it. Not my favourite.

· There were also a few beery nights of quail eggs and pigeon.

· Wild boar and deer, grilled at your table, by yourself, seasoned in five secret spices.

· Some random tropical fruit like durian – which Sarah says taste like meat and onions and even gets the before-mentioned Bizarre Foods host squirming. It’s an acquired taste. My mate alan wasn't a fan either as far as I remember. Now that I think of it, I don't know anyone who's really a fan.

· A variety of crustaceans and snail, round and corckscrewed, thumbnail size and fist sized, raw and cooked, slurpy and very slurpy, funky and funkmeister G.

· Bits and pieces of crocodile, kangaroo, lots of rabbit and I don’t know what else. And that’s just in Vietnam! That’s not even including the salted grasshoppers in Thailand or the yak butter, steak and cheese in Nepal, etc.

Oh and for the record, I’m not a fan of munching down feathered little friends, but I did it and I burned some joss sticks to Uncle Scrooge and the Duck Tales cousins after that little incident to atone for my heartless curiosity. My mate Christoff took the easy approach and just puked in the nearest pot plant.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Things to look forward in Oz No.1

I'm moving to, officially, the fattest country in the world. I'm looking forward to putting my investigative journalism skills to the test by uncovering some of the reasons behind this phenomenon. Hey, I've already started, look what I found: The Bogan Burger! If you don't know what a Bogan is - check out this site dedicated to their ilk (they're sort out like the Aussie version of karavaankinders or someone from Hobhouse or Boksburg). Anyways, the Bogan Burger is "a big Turkish bread roll stuffed with a steak, a chicken schnitzel, a potato cake, bacon, egg, cheese, onion, pineapple and beetroot and stands 13cm high". I'm getting more excited about moving every day. This is going to be great!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Back on track, sorta...

Woah! It's over *double-tap high five myself*. Yes, sorry again for the absence but that Celta course was intense but now it's done. I'm pretty sure Sarah and I both passed and did okay but we haven't got the results yet. If any of you teachers out there have sado-masochistic tendencies and are thinking of putting yourself through hell for the sake of professional develeopment, I can highly recommend the Cambridge course. You really do learn a lot about teaching and communication in general. Vietnam is also a good place to do it as the course is much cheaper here than most places. We had people who flew in from China, Japan, Europe, the States, Australia and New Zealand to come do it here due to the price and the affordable cost of living here.

I wish things would slow down a bit, but after a short weekend break, it's back to work at my school later today and I've got three articles to write: a piece on Saigon Horse Racing Club, which if you've never been there is good fun, and two restaurant reviews. Anyone know any good Middle-Eastern places in Saigon? I know of Warda and Byblos but are there any others around? Let me know!

We're also busy buying things to send to Australia. The relocators are coming on Saturday to pack up our measly two and a half square metres of stuff. Actually, you can fit quite a bit in that space if you pack well, and pay quite a bit too! So it's off to Dogma/Saigon Kitsch, Saigon Quilts, the tailors and many more this week!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

'Scuze my not being around, but...

Just a short note to apologise for not blogging actively these last two weeks. This behaviour might continue until next week when this course from hell ends. I'm currently shackled to second conditionals, partnered with pronunciation and married to modal verbs. You'll find me in the dork section of the geek handbook in the nerd library. What the hell is 'realia' anyway?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Spontaneous Prose

As time is the essential thorny bat that ends each day with a solid thwack, and a training course of monstrous proportions (and slippery contortions) attempts to envelope and bear-hug the life out of any sense of belonging and individuality left to embrace with my Freudian self, I shall attempt a short, yet thoroughly encompassing literary review of my secret idea-words based on Jack Kerouac’s 30 essentials to spontaneous prose. And, as that stealer of seconds’ padded flops echo throughout the hallways, I shall cut 30, as an inate cynic of Guiga, to 18, being a natural number.

1.Conglomerates – they’ll stifle it, so hide them in the closet, under the silky Christmas boxers
2. Steal words, but take them out of context
3. Congregate essentially with like ilk, drink, be merry and then meet the others you can’t handle sober
4. Source things from underneath things. Those pennies you find under the couch aren’t the only flubbertucks around
5. Lack of vitamins can lead to definitive prose and lying through your teeth but not necessarily in that order
6. Sixteen may be more than is warranted, given the current economic flibbergy
7. Keep you mind cocked, you never know when the wordthief might attempt a sneaky Pete at your grey jewellery
8. Puddles are made to splash
9. Don’t let the suede suck you in and lure you away from the hard-bottomed seat of tick tick tick, bang – fireworks; you’ve got it
10. Say it ain’t so, then explain why, with as much conviction as possible even if you don’t necessarily believe that conviction starts with a you
11. Close your eyes, open your ears, hold your breath and listen deeply
12. Wake with the swan of your soul fluttering the sparkles from its dewy back
13. Love it
14. Read and feed and nourish within
15. Stand up, stretch, and remember that coherence is the others’ problem
16. Sixteen might be too few when 15 gets itchy
17. Control and be controlled by the little mites that mold clay and rubber but trickle down your arms in spurts to drip onto pages
18. And alas, once plagiarised, attempt never to get drunk outside your own house

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Life, the universe, and everything I don't have time for

Is having a social life overrated? Do you find having friends annoying and seeing them a tedious chore? Is free-time a taboo subject? Do you consider going home before sunset a definition of laziness? Well, then I've got just the thing for you: The Celta Teacher Training Course!

This fantabulous course is guaranteed to allay any fears of what to do with your you won't have any! It'll ensure any choice of what to do tonight is taken care of for you immediately - it's always homework. Love studying grammar, phonology and getting bumsores from sitting in a stuffy small classroom in a rock-hard, small chair all day? This is it! Love making a fool of yourself and seeing your self-confidence crumble to dust in front of 12 students and six, staring grown-ups? Sign up now! Enjoy writing out course outlines for two to four hours every night? What are you waiting for?! The Ceeeeelta *insert catchy jingle here*!

If, however, you are a fan of actually not BEING your job, of actually interacting with people OUTSIDE of work, of having time for YOURSELF, of having a DRINK, kicking your FEET UP at night and generally justing CHILLING OUT. Well, mosey on by then. Nothing to see here, folks.

Yes, dear readers, in a malicious and evil attempt at getting me to do some honest work I've been conned into doing a CELTA course at ILA here in HCMC for one month! That's right, four weeks. That's 674 hours. The devestation it has caused upon my social life in just three days is beyond retelling. It's the social faux-pax equivalent of your friends catching you making out with your hand or dry-rooting your teddy as a kid.

Thus, I'd like to apologise for my inactivity with regards to blogging. I'm sure you get the picture. Thanks for understanding. Until later. Ciao.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Leaving Lagos

Over the last two years in Vietnam I’ve been curiously following the fate of the Nigerian community in Vietnam and have had some contrasting emotions and reached divergent conclusions.

In general, Nigerians living in Vietnam have been ostracised by not only locals but other foreigners alike, due to nefarious behaviour a number of them are involved in. I know this is not a localised opinion, from South Africa to England where Nigerians are seen “almost the world over as potential criminals and potential fraudsters”, according the country’s own Minister of Information and Communication, Professor Dora Akunyili, in a BBC podcast “This Week in Africa”. For example, type in ‘Nigeria’ in Google and the tenth most popular pre-emptive search option is ‘Nigeria Scam’.

This view is such a pervasive and global one that the Nigerian government have initiated a national “rebranding campaign” to try and reverse the negative perceptions held by others of the country’s people, by various plans and means such as targeting internal problems first, like corruption and other financial crimes.

Prof Akunyili is known as a strong and defiant woman who has faced similar uphill battles like taking on massive drug cartels in her stint as Director General of NAFDAC. The plan faces a lot of opposition after the “Heart of Africa Project” of the previous regime didn’t have much impact and the opposition argue the money could rather be spent on more immediate problems. On the other hand, journalist Uche Nworah debates well in favour of the project in the Daily Triumph, pointing out Nigerians should not “let others define who they are and how they relate with one another”.

Whether it will be successful is still debatable, but I’ve experienced first hand the way Nigerians are treated in Vietnam. It’s the tale of two Chris’: Let’s call them Chris D and Chris O.

Both are from Nigeria (both of the Igbo tribe I believe) and were lured to Vietnam by career prospects – Chris D is a 22-year old football player and was looking to break into a league where he could get some experience on his CV and make enough to get by to possibly be offered a trial in England with a decent club, and thus be able to provide for his remaining family in Lagos.

Chris O came as a businessman, vague as his “business intentions” were, I think he came looking to purchase fabric or clothes wholesale and ship it back to Nigeria, either to family or business partners to be sold at a profit. The reason I assume this is because I’ve spent some time talking to some Nigerians on numerous nights over a beer down in the Pham Ngu Lao area trying to pick their brains about what they do, without coming over offensive, as I was just genuinely interested in what they were up to. It seems a lot of the Nigerians here, as far as I understand, are of the Igbo ethnic group, and are attempting the get into the import/export textiles game. It’s difficult as their initial capital is low and they have to wait many months after sending the goods, usually clothes like pallets of jeans and t-shirts, home for a return on their profits due to the shipping time, having to wait for the clothes to be sold in Nigeria and money sent back to Vietnam to purchase the next batch.

The pitfalls are numerous, however, and what often happens is that a well-meaning business venture turns into a life of crime. I have a few theories as to why this happens. It doesn’t help that some Nigerian schemers make a quick buck out of luring fellow countrymen to Vietnam under false business pretences and then run off with their cash. Boo on you.

Another problem is the work environment. For example, what many Nigerians (and other Africans, Latin Americans and Eastern Europeans) would do in England when faced with financial and job problems is take up menial, unskilled or low-skilled jobs, such as security or dishwashing. However, being a cheap developing country the unskilled labour market in Vietnam is saturated by Vietnamese who work for extremely basic salaries; there aren’t any labouring or street cleaning jobs available. Even new university graduates work for a monthly average of about $200. Even if some of these jobs were available, a lot of Vietnamese are quite xenophobic and racist regarding black people, as I’ve found out over numerous classroom discussions and explanations with and to my students. If not themselves, they relate stories to me of other Vietnamese who discriminate against blacks in HCM City in various ways such as drivers not allowing them on their buses or restaurant owners banning them from their restaurants.

Peer pressure may also play a role as there is a large Nigerian community, possibly even two or three around HCM City, who live in the same neighbourhood, share houses to cut costs and are usually “in business” together or help each other out in tough times. Both Chris D and Chris O lived in one such community with over 50 Nigerians in Thu Duc District. When faced with capital that had dried up, the lure of becoming part of a “gang” or nefarious enterprises probably had a much stronger attraction than giving up and returning to Nigeria empty-handed and a few thousand dollars lighter. A Nigerian friend who used to live in Vietnam (and went back to the UK because no-one would employ him) used to actively avoid any of his countrymen for this reason.

Most times in turns out that Vietnam is not the ‘promised land’ many of these Africans believe to be when they arrived. Whichever way things go, what often happens is that lack of a fluid income and real business opportunities, very little or no chance of menial work, and a thriving and welcoming “fraternity” of Nigerians can pressure many of them in Vietnam to turn to criminal intent, as happened with Chris O. Chris got involved in drug smuggling, with the help of a Vietnamese woman who was later caught on the Vietnam/China border near Lao Cai Province for trafficking. God only knows what happened to her, as heroin smuggling is punishable by death in both countries, but Chris O was forced to flee to neighbouring Cambodia and hasn’t been heard of since.

Chris D’s story is very different, and the reason I’m writing this story. He had been playing football with my team, the Saigon Raiders, for quite a while and is actually a very good player (when he decides to pass the ball once in a while), agile, strong, fit and skilful. Off the field he’s a soft-spoken guy, who’s crazy about the English Premiership and is very religious (his ring-tone is a ear-splitting Baptist “Haaaallelujah!” sermon). As I said, he came to Vietnam with the idea of breaking into a team, building up experience and maybe making it big in a Western country. Despite a lot of help from the team; being photographed, videotaped and having a Saigon Raiders ID card made (the only player to ever own one), he wasn’t able to get a trial anywhere decent, as he was just not good enough for the big time.

While the rest of us paid membership and guest fees to play, it was decided Chris D could play for free as it was obvious he had nearly no money. Things were moving along okayish until the police started raiding his neighbourhood, obviously suspecting to find a whole crackhouse stacked with guns, a bevy of whores and generally illegal impropriety. They rounded up all the Nigerians they could find, took away their passports as many of their visas had expired (it doesn’t help when you don’t have much cash or a valid employer who’ll pay for a visa extension and you have to pay more than double what other nationalities do). They put them in a detention centre which wasn’t more than a cement cell until they could organise some money to pay for a flight home.

In the first raid, Chris D managed to elude them but they managed to get hold of his passport and refused to give it back until he showed them a ticket out of the country. It seemed the Vietnamese newspapers, such as Thanh Nien, were also running a kind of vendetta against the Nigerians as every week there would be a story of Nigerians involved in criminal activities such as soliciting women and sexual harassment, illegal immigration, fraud, counterfeiting and assault.

The second time the police came for Chris D he got away too but he arrived for a football match obviously shaken up and exhausted as he had to sleep on the floor of an internet café in his neighbourhood to lay low for a while. By this time the Vietnamese government had issued a “blanket ban on Nigerians entering the country following a wave of anti-social and criminal activities reportedly being perpetrated by Nigerian immigrants”.

Thanks to Les, one of the Raiders’ longest-standing members, we put a kitty together to get Chris D out of the country. He estimated that he needed about $250 to get himself a ticket to Cambodia and to get set-up with accommodation there. We got about $230 together when Chris phoned Les saying they had finally caught him and he was being held at the detention centre. Les went over and took him some hot Western food, some cold drinks and gave him the money.

We’re not sure what happened after that or where the money went but Chris phoned Les to say that he had a flight back to Nigeria. The other day he phoned from Lagos to say he had arrived safely and was staying with some of his relatives in the city. He also wanted to find out whether we won our last football match and to thank all the Raiders for their support. Many of his countrymen aren’t as lucky and are still stuck in Vietnam, hiding or detained in the detention centre with no foreseeable solution.

I’m trying to avoid the stupid apple cliché but its true that a number of bad people really spoil it for others with good, honest intentions. Coupled with xenophobia and unique cultural, economic and social conditions, what seems like gold can really turn out to be a lump of coal sometimes.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Ancient Hedonism

Ahhh the ancient town of Hoi An, not the central jewel in Vietnam’s crown – that privilege belongs to the imperial town of Hue – but definitely one of great history as a trading sea-port for centuries, quite well preserved and wonderfully quiet. I wish I could espouse its distinctiveness some more, but now houses as many lantern shops, tailors, shoe-shops, backpacker dives, travel agents, lacquerware stores, Chinese descendants, monuments and pagodas and yummy restaurants as any of Vietnam’s major cities. Not that I’m complaining when it comes to the eating part, though.

So instead of just making you puke-green with jealousy as I know no-one really reads anything about anyone else’s holiday (at least I know I don’t thanks to a childhood memory of some distant moustached aunty’s endless slides of her Namaqualand holiday), I’ve decided to put things in list form.

So, in no particular order, here’s my list of what I did in Hoi An, and it was so good you may as well take it as a list of the “Top things to do in Hoi An”. Actually, let me rephrase that as “Top things to do in Hoi An on a limited budget, whilst constantly searching for strong coffee or a drink, with a massive propensity for eating and all things hedonistic and a very limited concentration span”, more accurately.

1) Living quarters

We stayed at the prodigiously-spectacular-on-a-small-internet-picture Southern Hotel, also known as Khach San Phuong Nam. To be honest, it wasn’t bad in real life, seeing as we got our room for half the normal price – oh the joys of internet booking! A bit out of town, but with a nice swimming pool and eerie concierges who glare at you in a unnerving manner, if you’re into that sort of Norman Bates stuff.

Poolside non-action at Southern Hotel

2) Made to Measure

We perused the cloth market and found the same lady Sarah had her clothes made at three years ago (such good quality she can still wear all of the clothes to this day). Check out Ly Ly’s shop – they’ve got high quality cloth, speak English well, have everything tailored by the next day, are happy to readjust all the clothes and are way cheaper than the kazillion tailor shops peppering the streets of Hoi An. I got two dapper suits, two shirts and a kimono tailored for about $125! The one suit is a funky pin-striped one-vent suit with slightly flared sleeves and legs, two buttons and an elongated collar. The kimono is just plain porno: full-length dragon-patterned black silk with red sash and lining. Think Triad leader meets the Don meets Ron Jeremy and you’ve got the idea. I hope I don’t pick up weight otherwise it would all be futile…

Inside the cloth market

The fabric of life

3) Don't sell your sole, just get new ones made

We were on a “let’s get random stuff tailored” frenzy so we got some shoes and boots made. I got a pair of work shoes as I’ve been wearing the same shoes to work that I wore to my Matric Dance eight years ago. Flappity flop. Sad, I know. The new ones are nice comfy, black leather slip-ons with white stitching.

4) Hobbit treatment

As we were getting our feet measured another girl wandered up and said: “You should get your feet shaved”. No, not in the hobbit sense of the word as I don’t have hair sprouting from my little appendages, but I do have a callous or two from playing football which she wanted to shave the dead skin from. Persuaded and intrigued, we headed over to her beauty salon where, thanks to my sexual security I’m not afraid to say, I received a bit of a foot wash and pedicure followed by the eerily pleasing dead-skin shaving. The old lady who did it joked afterwards that the dead skin she’s shed into a bowl of water looked like chao or rice soup/gruel…erm.

5) Food, glorious food!

Needless to say, my girlfriend and I both having an insatiable penchant for eating and drinking, thus we gluttonised our way through Hoi An. First we called on Morning Glory Restaurant, run by a local celebrity chef called Ms Vy who runs three other eateries of note in the ancient town; White Lantern, Mermaid and the Cargo Club across the road. Fantastic and affordable specialties and traditional fare like the prawn curry that would definitely have had us coming back if we had another day or two in town.

Instead, the bestowed our humble patronage upon Mango Rooms the following night. Fusion at its finest, this place is worth its reputation (and price). We had a nice bottle of the house white with the Tropical Lush Salad to start: seared tuna with orange/ginger/soy dressing, greens and herbs, mustard sprouts, orange slices and watermelon cubes. As a main, I had the pan-seared chicken breast marinated in lemongrass, garlic and curry with a yummy pineapple/tomato/ginger sauce with garlic asparagus. Sarah had the pan-seared tofu cubes seasoned with other yummy local ingredients and both were pretty awesome. Go there. Go there now.

We also tried the local specialties of banh vac (white rose), hoanh thanh (fried wontons with a sweet and sour sauce) and cao lau (a kind of fried pork-ish noodle soup with crouton-like thingies) a few times. The banh vac was similar to southern nem, glutinous rice shaped like a rose encasing a tiny shrimp – kind of bland not bad with nuoc cham (dipping sauce). The hoanh thanh was great as was the cao lau, except for occasionally finding a leafy herb that we unaffectionately refer to as “feet” – a broad, dark green leaf taxi drivers in Vietnam like to put bushes of in the back of their taxis for some inexplicable reason, causing their cars to smell like old, mouldy feet. Unfortunately it also finds its way into some dishes and requires a diligent eye to fish them out before consumption.

A tasty bowl of cao lau

Fried wontons with sweet and sour sauce

6) Learn to cook

We also went to Sakura Restaurant one night and were impressed by their mix ‘n match cooking class they offered and the friendly, personal service of their manager. We tailored a menu of five dishes Sarah wanted to learn to cook (and secretly so did I) and were invited to come learn from their chef Duc the next day. You’ll have to wait for the next post on the results, which were spectacular.

Cooking course in action at Sakura

7) Beach living

We took the bike out to Cua Dai Beach, about 5 kms from the centre, hired a beach chair, ordered some food and a drink, whipped out our books and dozed for a couple of hours. Perfect – except for the food which made both of us pretty sick for days!

8) All-marbled out

We rented a bike early on our last day and headed out to the fabled Marble Mountains – five marble peaks jutting out of the flat surrounding countryside half way between Danang and Hoi An. A difficult climb is rewarded with some beautiful caves, Buddha statues, shrines, caves, views and some quirky and disturbing Hindu statues. Sadly enough, the marble from the area has been exploited to such an extent that the local producers have to order marble from China to sell to buyers!

Inside Marble Mountain

Yes, it was truly three days and nights of Ancient Hedonism. Highly recommended!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rubies in the Dust

There are quite a few hidden little areas around the usually humming and swarming District One, if you know where to look. Just behind the Saigon Bus Station wedged behind the thoroughfares of Pham Ngu Lao and Ham Nghi Streets, is a group of tree-lined roads that seem a mile out of the busy city centre. Look around Le Cong Kieu, better known as “antique street”, Pho Duc Chinh and Le Thi Hong Gam where there are a number of little street-side cafés, vendors and other bric-a-brac shops to explore. There’s also the stained, dirty yellow façade of the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum, which has fallen into some disrepair of late, beckoning a quick perusal and nothing more. Rather head into the courtyard to the Blue Space Contemporary Arts Gallery for a much more impressive example of Vietnamese art. For some more original and highly sought-after art, head to Mantra where the artists' stylish creations range from rare-gemmed jewellery to good-karma inducing yoga mats and leather laptop bags. Stroll down “antique street” and bargain with the shop owners over trinkets or treasures and then stuff yourself at the massive 500-seat Din Ky buffet restaurant.

"Antique" coins from "antique street"

Lost music: Old instruments for sale

Street-side shoes 'n helmets

not all that glitters is gold...

Security guards playing some kickball in fron of the HCMC Fine Arts Musuem

PS: I'm on holiday for the week in Hoi An, Nha Trang and Mui Ne, so I'm not sure any more posts will be forthcoming this week, but look forward to some photos and stories next week, including the awesome Vietnamese cooking course we had today.