Monday, March 30, 2009


Now, I know Monday are supposed to be pretty shitty in general, but I've even changed my work shifts according to my Monday moods. I used to work from 1:15pm until 8pm on Mondays, but I've changed it so that I finish at 17:30 and rather work late on Thursdays.That's how much I hate Mondays. If I could meet those ancient fools who named the day, I give them an eggflip and a backhand slap in the face. I spit on their shortsighted graves and curse their nether regions. A Monday by any other name much bloody better. Something cute and fluffy, like "Mylittleponyday", or something. Anything. Even better, just omit it all together and jump straight from Sunday to Tuesday. A short break down for the above sentiment - it may be an example of a specific Monday, but the horrors which occur are quite normal to general Mondayness.

It starts, the day that shall not be named (eerie background movie a la Twin Peaks). Sleep in 'till nine, not a bad start. A cup of Trung Nguyen's Gourmet Blend - an even better start. Twenty pages of Orwell's 1984, well this is when I start thinking, maybe this will be the day the curse is broken. Maybe, *shudder*, just maybe it'll be...okay. Bleh.

On the drive to work, in the wrong direction up Dien Bien Phu, I drive past this guy urinating off the bridge into the Nhieu Loc Canal. This, in itself is quite normal, and I shout "Sies, jou vark!" (translation: "Gross, you pig"), which is my standard reply in Saigon to any public siffness I see like loogie hocking, sidewalk pooing and puking, and of course bridge-peeing. However, this guy had some "rebound" going as he was peeing on the bridge-railing too, causing some to deflect and hit my girlfriend and I as we scootered past. *insert disgusted word of choice here*.

To make it worse, we had to stop at the dentist, not for a check-up, but just to make an appointment. Just walking into the establishment of dental horrors, sets my teeth on edge. Dental offices and haunted places of similar ilk should be forced to be closed on Mondays. Think drilling sounds in the background, the sickly clean smell of hygiene, that rhythmic squaking of footsteps down the linolium corridors and the perfect, white flashed smile of the harbringers of oral apprehension, on a Monday? No thanks.

After this, everything went, well, as fine as it can go on a Monday after having been used as an urinary splattering board-in-transit. Until it was time to go home. When, suprise suprise, it had just started raining. Nice. I'd left my helmet on my bike because it's the bloody dry season and there wasn't a cloud in the sky when I arrived at work. It was bloody 36 degrees! With a sponge on my head and water dripping down my back, I just got home, splattered with mud and pissed off (and on). Needless to say, there wasn't any beer in the fridge to take the edge off. What did I expect.


Come tomorrow. Please, come fast.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Weigh me a Nordic bum tea

My girlfriend and I live in a little alleyway just off fourteen-laned Dien Bien Phu Street, one of the main west-to-eat thoroughfares of the city. Every day we open our balcony doors to let in some fresh air as it’s just plain nicer than a stuffy house. But what inevitably also drifts in, are the sounds and calls of the hawkers and recycling ladies plying their trade down our alley. This doesn’t sound like much, until you take into consideration that they come around at a rate of about one every ten minutes in the morning, shouting indeterminable things or making strange noises. It’s always great fun when we have friends or family visiting from abroad who aren’t use to the randomness of it all. Let me break it down for you:

I’m sitting in the living room when suddenly I hear, from a distance, and in an impossibly high and fragile voice: “Weigh a bum me Nordic teaaa!” and then a little closer and a little louder…“Weigh a bum me Nordic teaaa!” Fret not, as it isn’t Thor or Odin asking for the dimensions on your anal excretions, it is but an old conical-hatted lady trollying her mobile bakery of fresh breads, buns and cakes down our alley. This morning I was lucky enough to witness two on the same turf, coming from opposite directions. I thought there might be a showdown, there were tell-tale signs; a glint of a fresh croissant in the one’s pocket, an itchy-baguette finger on the other, a Swiss roll tumbling across the alley. Alas, they stopped for an amicable chat and a taste of each other’s wares.

As they depart, along comes another high-pitched wavering call: “Get ya-ya! Get ya-ya!” Ya-ya? Like the sisterhood with their divine secrets? Not for me thanks. Actually, it’s the recycling lady asking if anybody has any plastic bottles, cardboard or dirty secrets they would like recycled. We wash our own dirty secrets, thanks.

Some of them don’t even have to say anything. There’s the ubiquitous caramba man who comes along on a bicyle with a “sshka sshka sshka” of his shaker. He’s offering cup massages, which leave you looking like a leopard with leprosy, but also a business card with the directions to some other contraband services, or so I’ve heard.

Then, along cycles the Olé-type ice-cream man, who has a car battery hooked up to a looped player with speakers, all taped to his bike and busting out a trademark tune for the kiddies, with a massive cooler box on the back. Those are the modern ice-cream sellers. The old school ones still just pedal along and ring a bell, advertising their chin mau or nine colours of ice-cream with traditional flavours like young rice and green bean.

There’s also the spoon-banging soup lady, fruit-sellers, feather-duster purveyors, various bangers, clangers, shouters, ringers and the one who sounds like a tortured, electrocuted cat that just won’t confess. She's one of the people who walks around with nothing to sell , chanting random slogans or something, which is confusing and slightly unnerving. Maybe she works for the government

Most of the hawkers just sound like they are absolutely insane, that is, if what they said was actually in English.Our favourite is a man who comes along at least three times a day, again with a hooked up, homemade sound-system. “I’ve lost my car! Help me find my car! My Car!” On loop. Every five seconds. Thrice daily. Without fail. Either he is really determined to find his missing automobile or he has the memory of a goldfish. It must mean a lot to him. A lot… We have a chuckle every time he comes along. “Have you seen his car yet, honey?” “No, not yet, I hope he finds it soon.” "Yes, I do hope so." He’s actually selling Banh Chung, a traditional Vietnamese snack of peppered pork and green bean wrapped in leaves, very popular in the period leading up to Tet (Lunar New Year).

According to our friends Dave and Nat, they had a daily hawker come round their alley where they used to live with the creed of “Vagaaaaaiiina! Vagaaaaaiiina!” Wonder what she was selling.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Vietnam's Wine Industry Uncorked

I wrote this article a while ago, had it lying around gathering computer mites and whatnot, so I thought I might as well stick it up here. Even though it’s quite old, most, if not all of it, is still relevant to the country today. I’m especially a fan of Jim Cawood’s philosophy on wine and the trends in the market. He has a regular column in AsiaLife, and his wine boutique Vino (74 Hai Bai Trung) stocks a small but exclusive range.

In a country synonymous with downing cheap, freshly brewed beer and shots of homemade rice alcohol those involved in the wine import industry in Vietnam are collectively waiting for the local market to make the shift from a beer, whisky and brandy-orientated society to one appreciative of quality wines at reasonable prices. The recent economic downturn which has led to uncertainty in the market, however, may lengthen the wait even further.

Surprising to many, Vietnam has a vastly competitive wine import industry, but a schism exists which may take patience and energy to change. On the one hand, the country has a thriving expatriate and tourist wine market, with mid-range to top-end wines from all over the world being sold at five-star hotels, restaurants and boutique stores such as Vino, Red Apron and the Warehouse, usually with US dollar price tags. Yet, the dichotomy of the market presents itself when one looks at the massive, untapped local Vietnamese clientele that traditionally are male beer and spirits drinkers.

Change is the constant in both markets. Within the expat and tourist market, there seems to be a move away from French and Italian wines towards Australian, Chilean and other “New World” wines. Although finding the terms “Old World” and “New World” wines derogatory, Jim Cawood of Vino – preferring the terms traditional and modern wine-making methods – explains this shift.

“The market has changed”, he says. “The philosophy of modern wine-making and the whole process is done in a more scientific way. The styles of the wines are more approachable and young and that’s what Vietnamese people like to drink and they’re just starting to realise that now. French wine is taking a beating because they spent so long dumping bad wines in the market.”

Jim, with sixteen years experience in the wine business, says that Australian wine is shaking off its label as “cheap plonk” in the export market. “It’s so far from the truth of what Australian wine, and Spanish wine, is as well. Spain is probably the most dynamic wine country around.”

Guillaume Blanchard of Celliers D’Asie, one of the main importers in Vietnam, has similar sentiments regarding which wines are becoming vogue.

“’New World’ wines are increasing, especially from Chile and Argentina, they are more competitive and affordable, as the quality is evident and they’re crowd-pleasing wines,” he says.

Nikolas Prehn, General Manager of the Asia-Pacific branch of Rudolf Prehn GMBH, Spanish wine specialists and distributors based in Hong Kong, likens the foreign market in Vietnam to a well-established Western market, with buyers deciding on price and quality.

“Many of the top hotels have well-trained foreign wine buyers, such as Juan Costa Ribas from the Caravelle, who will strive for a diverse high-quality wine-list covering all the major wine producing countries,” he says.

It seems as though the foreign wine market is highly competitive and also saturated. With a number of wineries, suppliers and distributors trying to get a foothold in the market, especially in the mid- to top-end range, for smaller brands trying to establish themselves it is proving to be difficult.

Maria Noble, Vietnam’s representative of the Grupo Garvey, a Spanish distributor to local import clients, explains the problem. “The problem with targeting the foreign or expat market is that, for example if you go to a place like the Park Hyatt or the Caravelle, they have, say 70 wines, and the chance that they are going to choose your wine is so small, unless you do a lot of marketing,” she says.

Maria says that: “With wine, unlike spirits, the margins are not that big and there are many, many offers so actually, unless it’s a really huge international brand, promoting one brand is not really worth it.”

Jim of Vino agrees that this market is probably oversupplied as you can get wine from anywhere in the world. “The market is getting bigger, but in my opinion a lot of that is being driven by the importers. I don’t think the food and beverage side of the trade is really pulling along the market so much. Getting those wines out there and into the marketplace and getting people to try them requires someone to sell them,” he says.

“There’s a million people knocking on my door trying to get me to buy wine from overseas, but then it sort of hits a bottleneck when it gets to the restaurant because there’s no-one really selling wine and that’s a really important part of the whole market,” he says, referring to the limited number of places with extensive wine-lists. He says: “No-one wants to have too much money tied up in wine sitting on the shelf, but I’m also a firm believer, as far as restaurants go, the more wine you have, the more you sell.”

All seem to agree, however, that the market is expanding, yet there are also a number of setbacks, not least of which deal with the logistics of importation and the imminent recession which can play a large role in both markets and it is still uncertain what the long-term effects thereof will be. Similar to restaurants and retailers, suppliers are not going to overstock so the distribution and supply side is always on the limit, says Guillaume of Cilliers. He lists a number of problems, from traffic jams in Europe that cause a cargo of wine to miss the ship to Vietnam, to customs officials running out of tax stamps on a Friday afternoon at the docks and waiting until the next week to unload the wine.

“That’s why people work with suppliers and don’t import themselves. People want to work with distributors who are reliable, that can bring in the product on a regular and consistent basis, and can find winemakers and that have reputable brands,” he says.

Logistics are not the only hurdle to surmount, however. Fluctuating currencies, method of payment, as well as taxes also cause importers to have sleepless nights. Taxes range upwards from about 60%, depending on import agreements and the level of alcohol. Maria Noble says that at the moment the euro is very strong so a bottle that could sell for about one euro in France or Spain could reach a retail price of six or even eight euros in Vietnam if the importer wants to realise a decent profit.

Regarding the industry, the potential definitely lies in the unexploited local market, which is slowly but indubitably moving towards a Western-style wine culture. Most experts in the industry will tell you that this is where the long-term growth of the Vietnamese industry lies.

Yet, at the moment the Vietnamese wine-drinking mentality seems to be more status-orientated than genuinely wine-appreciative. Maria says currently Vietnamese are buying wine “by the look of the bottle”. “They pay attention to the label and the shape of the bottle. The main things, are presentation, price and product in that order,” she says.

“The market is so fashion-orientated here,” says Guillaume, “and some people just like to walk around holding a glass of champagne, it’s a status symbol.”

Jim Cawood agrees: “Expats look for something that’s good value, from a Western point of view, trying to find a bargain. That’s our mentality, whereas a Vietnamese person’s mentality is ‘does it look like it costs a million bucks?’ because that’s important. It’s got to look expensive, it’s got to be expensive. Still, for Vietnamese people at the moment wine drinking is a lifestyle upgrade.”

“That’s why whisky is so popular,” Jim says. “It has known value and it looks expensive. Champagne can do similar things, because it has known value.”

It takes times to turn things around, however. Nikolas Prehn says that, in his experience, it takes three to five years for a market to turn. “In other words, as incomes increase, the Vietnamese palate is exposed to more and more wine and will eventually learn to choose on quality rather than on the basis of shiny golden labels. We have seen the same happening in recent years in Singapore and Hong Kong and in the 1980s in Germany and the UK. I am confident that Vietnam, in five years, will have a growing, diverse market for wine.”

Everyone is trying to get their slice of the pie, yet it’s not easy. According to Guillaume, whose company’s current market share consists nearly solely of the foreign market, the answer lies in awareness and education. He says it’s different to spirits where you can spend a lot of money on promotion.

“Wine takes a bit more time, you have to get the trust of people, you have to teach them how to appreciate wine and that’s the goal right now. Working, doing trainings on a monthly basis at different establishments, holding, perhaps, tastings but not with the expats, with the local Vietnamese and getting in touch with them. Finding that connection and bridge is the challenge,” he says.

Jim espouses a more natural approach to things. “Essentially, at the moment everyone is waiting for the switch away from whisky towards wine. Everyone’s really pushing the market to try and grow as fast as it can. Which is good, but it can only grow in an organic sort of way. You can’t create a market in the same way you can for beer or whisky because wine is about choices and having lots of choices and not about promoting brands necessarily.”

Maria also thinks the future lies with the local consumers. She says that seven years ago when she arrived in Vietnam, there weren’t a lot of wines. “Now there is a lot. For the foreign market it’s difficult because it’s very competitive. But I think there is enough of a Vietnamese market for everybody,” she says. It seems that with a bit of patience as the country’s economy struggles through the economic downturn, wealth distribution grows, and a slight push in wine education, Vietnam’s wine-drinking future could well head in the right direction, with the search for wine-knowledge and appreciation being the driving forces for the industry’s growth.

*Photos courtesy of Nicholas Prehn

One of those things that make your day...

I was checking out Sticky Rice, one of my favourite blogs by far, when I found this little beaut in the comments. So maybe I enjoy toilet humour, like a good fart, and have the mentality of a five-year old, but stupid things like this give me a chuckle and make my day. Let me be.

Who calls themselves "male penis"? Isn't that a bit of tautology? Male. Penis. What, as opposed to a female penis? That's like calling yourself "Doos Steve Hofmeyer", or "Idiot Bush" - no need for the repetition. I mean, I understand if it was a spam ad, or a comment on a porn site or something, but this is a serious, albeit grammatically uncouth, comment about blogging on a post about a bloody omelette. I love it. Sorry about that.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The sad state of affairs

Many of my friends back home, especially those who studied journalism with me, often ask me why I’m first and foremost a teacher and not plying my intended trade full-time. What they don’t realise is that being a foreign journalist in Vietnam is far from lucrative and, unless you’re an editor (possibly deputy-editor), you’re probably in need of an alternative source of income. Nowhere in the world is the industry a well-paid one. Rewarding? One of the most. Able to retire at the age of forty? Erm…think again.

You can’t really work as a “part-time” or freelance newspaper journo in Vietnam, and full-time pays an obscenely small amount, so your options are limited to online media, magazines and the occasional guidebook, as there is no domestic English radio station. The infrastructure and support for English freelance journalists is non-existent; no development training programmes, fellowships or anything of that sort, so you’re flying solo here.

Thus, for example’s sake, let’s say you work for magazines – and trust me the plural is necessary as just working for one will see you sleeping in the gutter begging for banh mi crumbs in no time. This is unfortunately out of most editors’ hands as English magazines are usually distributed freely to businesses, hotels and restaurants around the country, relying heavily on advertising and publicity (I know this last part is by no means a localised feature of the magazine media industry). The publications in Vietnam include The Word, AsiaLife (previously Saigon InsideOut), East & West, Pathfinder, The Guide, and some English in-flight magazines like Heritage, the majority of whom I’ve worked with at some time or another.

Payment is either per word, per published page or per article. An average magazine per-word story pays between 500 Vietnam Dong (VND) and VND2000 per published word (note, it might get edited to shit and shreds). An average per-page story gets you VND300 000 to VND500 000 and a 2000-word feature article between VND700 000 and VND2 million. Okay, so US$1 is about VND17 000 (or R10.50 for the Saffas). The majority of magazines work on the per-word basis, so let’s make our calculations according to this payment method.

For me, writing a thousand word article normally requires approximately 3-4 hours of research and 3-4 hours of drafting, writing and editing. So that equals about 6-8 hours of work for an average of VND1 million (or about $60). This doesn’t even include my own travel, accommodation and food/drink expenses when I’m writing restaurant reviews or need to travel out of town - I'm not a fan of chequebook journalism. Some publications do make allowances up to a certain (pitiful) amount for these expenses, but by no means all of them.

Let’s put this in perspective. I teach on average about 24 hours a week. Add about 6 hours of preparation time and that makes a total of about 30 hours a week. To make writing articles what I make teaching in a week, I’d have to churn out ten 1000-word articles a week, which equates to between 60 and 80 hours of work a week.

Now, I don’t know about the rest of you and call me lazy, but I’m not so sure I’m willing to spend two-thirds of my 120 hours a week working as I need at least 40 hours of sleep in order not to maim or kill anyone with my violent whirlwind of bad moods caused by sleep deprivation. It is a truly sad state of affairs. I’m not asking for millions – well actually I am if you’re counting in VN Dong – just enough to get by! Thus, my heartfelt plea to those paying the salaries in the media industry in Vietnam: Pay us more and don’t mess with my sleep, trust me, it doesn’t pay.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I just found this jewel up on the notice board at school. It's from the Viet Nam News English daily from 16 February. The editors of this paper are notorious for their "ambiguous" headlines.

It's the headline for an interview with the director of the Department of Social Evils (no, I'm not making this up):

"Government inspectors get hard on prostitution, vow stiff fines".

'Nuff said...

Thursday, March 05, 2009

How to get an Australian visa Saffa style

Yesterday I got a call from the kind folks at the Australian Consular General here in Ho Chi Rock City, informing me that my application for a spouse/partner visa has been approved. Now this is pretty killer for two reasons, one being it came much faster than expected and I don’t even need to go in for an interview with the immigration officer, and two, all the effort of months of paperwork, planning and effort finally came to fruition.

So, for those of you thinking of moving to the land of Vegemite and flies (not even to mention sulking cricketers) in similar fashion, here’s my "No-fail sure-fire visa guide for Saffas":

1) Use your good looks and bubbly personality to charm a beautiful Aussie lass. Erm…easier said than done, especially if you’re blessed with an alluring and totally seductive Souff Effrican accent.

*Mental pick-up line picture*: “Howzit maai cherry, smaak ‘n tjop and dop at maai porsie? Oh sorrry, I forgets you call them a baarbie.” Okay, that’s a bit extreme, in some cases and geographical regions of SA (read: everywhere south of the Vaal River).

2) The next step involves convincing her that the two of you should move in together. A dozen Long Island Ice Teas, duct tape and a big hessian bag should do the trick. When she wakes up, you’ll need one of those Men in Black memory-erasing neural neutralizer and Bruce’s your uncle (make sure you’ve got some strategically placed photos of the two of you together around your pad).

3) Now it’s time to convince her that your relationship has moved to the next level and you should move to that historical haven of thieves, murders and general up-to-no-goods (not Parow – the other one). If all else fails, produce a list of successful South African emigrants who have moved to Oz and promise you’ll be topping that list in the future.

4) Sharpen those scissors because it’s time for a little bit of bureaucratic tape snipping. Before you apply, you guys need a few things.

a) Certified copies of every bloody piece of paper that has your name on it. This includes passport, ID, bills, notices of eviction, ransom letters and any graffitied material with your tag on it (remember scratching your name into the underside of grandma’s coffee table in Standard 5?).

b) Proof that you’re not a complete idiot, vagrant or fugitive. Thus, copies of any qualifications you’ve earned/bought and criminal clearance checks from every country you’ve lived in for more than six months. If you’re not in possession of any of these and you’re living in South-East Asia as I am, a quick trip to Khao San Road in Bangkok, the world capital for all your nefarious shopping needs, will suffice. For a fistful of Baht you can pick up uni degrees (under- and postgraduate) and police clearance certificates to your black little heart’s content. While you’re at it, arm yourself with a International Driver’s License, Reuters Press Card and PADI Master Scuba Diver certification.

c) Confirmation that your relationship is “true and genuine” (thank god for that brain-numbing neutralizing earlier, huh). Write a few testimonies (in different styles and fonts) and bribe some randoms off the street to sign on the dotted line. Something like “I’ve known blablabla and blehblehbleh for three years and can attest to the fact that they are in a loving and authentic relationship” will do. Next, go to a photo studio with some nice backdrops like palm trees, a jungle and the New York Skyline and get some pics taken. Add some info like “This is us at the Great Wall of China in 2006” and “This is us at the Ruins of Zimbabwe 1998-2009” and make sure to wear different clothes or even cut your hair for the last few photo shoots so it looks like you’ve been together for a while. Photoshop in your families and you’re sorted.

d) Fill-in the application forms. You may want to prepare for this one. Ask your physical trainer for a number of wrist and finger strengthening exercises as you’re going to have to sign your name about 21 gazillion times. Alternatively, get one of these bad boys.

e) Ahhh, the medical (violation) check-up, including a full-body cavity search. Be prepared to be poked, prodded, pricked and provoked by a bevy of white-coated evil people. They check your mental state too, so if they ask you which rugby or football team you support do not under any circumstances, no matter how dear they are to you, say the Stormers or Newcastle United, as you’ll soon be wearing a white coat too, albeit a slightly tighter, less-snug version.

f) With a clean bill of health and all the paper work filled in, all that’s left is to line the pockets of the Man with about AUD$1500 for some more CCTV cameras and research into fire-resistant Eucalyptus trees (or exploratory studies into breeding out retarded pyromaniacs from the gene pool).

5) Okay, it’s out of your hands now so crack open a cold one, sit back and wait for the Officialdom to make their decision – it’ll happen surprisingly fast in comparison to what you’re used to back home. If they come to the conclusion that you’re not worthy to bless their hallowed shores , hide in Andries Bekker’s rugby boots on their next Super 14 trip Down Blunder.

And that, my dear friends, is how you do it Saffa Style.

*Disclaimer: This is all rubbish and I take absolutely no responsibility for any of it. There are proper channels and procedures in place when applying for an Australian visa which will ensure accountability and impartiality on behalf of both parties. I didn’t have to abduct and brainwash my girlfriend, for some indefinable reason I think she actually likes me. Oh, and Aussie cricketers aren’t too bad actually.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


Jacob Zuma interview: BBC Podcast “This Week in Africa (28 March):

On the question of the emergence of an ethnic split within the ANC between Zulus and Xhosas:

JZ: “That is an imagined split. Imagined think. You can’t tell me that. Why should we conjure these things out of no-where. Absolutely imagined. Just imagination. It is wrong…there’s no Xhosa or Zulu or Venda thing. No, not at all. Not in South Africa. It’s imagination.”

I think I'm turning Vietnamese...

I was riding my bike down a side road near the Reunification Palace (I think it was Nguyen Trung Truc Street or something) and I stopped at the traffic light, which in itself is just weird already, seeing as no-one really does that unless they want to be stared, laughed and pointed at.

So I’m standing there deep in thought regarding the merits of either bo kho or pho for breakfast, when these four French tourists coming plodding along. So how did I know they were French? Was it the fact that all four looked like a travelling troupe of stout, Bordeaux oak wine barrels? Was it the proud, red Gallic noses? Was it the much-maligned and scorned sandals ‘n socks combo (although this is a continental European tourist faux pax of note)?

Well actually they came up to me and the stoutest, reddest barrel of them all said something like: “Excusez moi, où est le marché?” Now, my French is a bit like my Khmer which is a bit like my knowledge of the mating habits of South Sea clams: non-existent. My ignorance must have shone through eyes because barrel number 1 dropped in an Anglicised little tidbit that sounded like “Ben Thanh Market”. Ahhh cognisance, the market, okay. So through body language I directed them down the road and on the right path and finally the smallest, palest oak barrel rolled over and with a huge grin which split her face like a melon slice said: “Merci!”

And there I was, in my best Saigonese accent: “Rôi, không sao!”

I think I’m turning Vietnamese…