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.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Rodent Solarium of Death

Okay, I don't usually do a "what am I doing every five minutes"/stream of consciousness/now I'm eating cherry ice-cream/now my car broke down/now I have bowel problems kind of blogpost, but this is an extreme case in the morbid curiosity sort of way.

This morning I was on relief, no not relieving myself, but meaning I have to teach when other teachers pull a sicky and when no-one decides to sleep in, I hang around the office and do admin stuff. Anyways, this is one of those admin days and my girlfriend came out of her class (yes, we work together) to ask me to photocopy some of her students' in-class writing seeing as I wasn't doing much.

We have two photocopy machines at work and both had the Post Man-handled Shits this morning as the paper was constantly getting jammed in the one and the other one would photocopy with this thick, faded unreadable line down the middle of each page. So I asked the IT guy Phuong (he's the closest we have to a janitor/repairmen guy at our school) to sort the one out while I sort out the paper jam one.

I managed to unjam it and about an hour later the photocopy repairman walks in with his toolkit and gets to work on the one that's fading the copies. I'm sitting at the computer when Tom, one of the teachers on his break, calls out" Hey Henno, come check this shit out!"

Nice. Inside the copier, on the big roller part that inks the paper, lies our furry little workspace friend who has tasted his last office crumb. Yes, the office mouse had got into the machine, and nestled in all snuggly probably because of the warmth, and this morning some unknowing teacher happened to tragically nuke him with some ultrahot, ultraviolent ultraviolet rays. It was really gross because the little rodent was all seared and stuck onto the roller and the repair dude at to literally unpeel him.

No wonder the photocopied papers had these funny mouse-shaped faded parts on them!

Monday, April 20, 2009


Well it seems my fears of retaliation for my post last week were not totally unfounded. While I wasn't deported, my service provider has managed to block me from Blogger. I woke up on Saturday without even being able to turn on my computer (which is probably totally unrelated, but you never know). It was literally like "the light's on, but there's no-one home" and after dozens of attempts to kickstart the thing into gear and just staring at a blank screen I finally got it going. Of course, as any decent blogger should, I immediately got to work on continuing the April Photoblog, but Blogger is blocked like a colon after an all-you-can-eat pork rib fest.

Through, the free proxy that let's you surf through their address and bypass any blocked sites, or some technical nonsense of that sort, I managed to get on, but I can only view blogs, not comment or post anything.

This has sort of nipped the daily photoblog for April in the proverbial butt, and any chance of posting or leaving comments so I apologize. At least now you get an idea of what "its" like here.

I hope I can get this sorted, otherwise look forward to some really sporadic posts from dingy Internet cafés!

Friday, April 17, 2009

April Photoblog

I spotted this wonderful Tsunami Warning off Back Beach on Thuy Van Street in Vung Tau. I love the random cut-out collection of joggers casually making their way along the beach, oblivious to the gigantic set of waves about to engulf them. 10/10 to the designer!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Driving Down the Thin Blue Line

For the last three years I’ve been cruising the streets of Saigon on my Honda Future. This is actually my third one. What can I say? I’m brand loyal. Actually, the first one got stolen just before Tet holiday in 2007, the second one was this puke-green colour so I swopped it for a twin of my first one from Mr Hung, the bike dealer/jack of all trades who I rent from.

However, recently the five-oh have been making it harder and harder for me to express my right to drive around licenseless, as rightly they should, as not every Tung, Chim or Hoang can be trusted with a motor humming between their legs. As an article in the Thanh Nien reads, “HCMC police will not tolerate resistance from foreigner drivers found flouting traffic rules without a driver’s license”.

So let me translate that for you: “The HCM fuzz won’t take no more mouth from foreign devils flipping the bird at the (non-existent) laws without at least a 500 thousand Uncle note to oil The Man’s machine. If you do have a license, just nod, smile and continue flouting an’ spouting all you like.” This sucks because in the past I would just get stopped, (usually by mistake as the Whoop Whoop don’t generally speak English so don’t like stopping foreigners) pay a fine or feign total ignorance and go on my merry way. There was no talk of paperwork, documentation, or some such.

Ready to roll with the braai on the back

I’ve been stopped at least three times now. The first time back in 2006, when I jumped a red light, as you do here, I freaked out a bit because Old Bill was all official looking in his beige uniform, aviators, baton in hand and gave me a salute and asked to see my license. I broke out in a bedazzling, machine-gun spray of rapid Afrikaans, something like: “Jisoomekskakjammeroomekkitniebedoelomoordierooiligterynie”, which knocked him over and sweeped his hair back for months to come. Lost in translation, which there was none of, he let me off with only a warning.

The second time the Heat stopped me, I was driving in the car lane, perhaps a tad too fast for a Sunday afternoon down Le Duan Street. They caught me off guard, because I was short on cash for their children’s college funds. They usually want between 100 and 200 thousand Uncles from the Tay Bao Lo (which refers to Western backpackers but used derogatorily for any foreigner, cause we’re all tourists aren’t we?). I only had about 70 thousand, showed him my empty wallet, which The Man’s crony wasn’t very happy about, but he took it any way, gave me a tap with his baton and sent me on my way.

The last time was a two weeks ago on my way home from work and that just set me back 100 thousand. It was weird bargaining with The Law as he’d sneakily written down 200 000 VND on the back of a notepad. I shook my head and gave him 100 thousand, which he quickly palmed.

Now the heavies are getting hardcore. I got an anonymous SMS the other night: “Dear Friend! I want to notice to you about the policy of traffic cop in VN nowadays is very difficult. In this week, 2 motobike of mine had been caught by the traffic cop and they keep those for one month and punished 1.8 million VND, so I send you this message to remind you to take care when you driving because you don’t have VN driver license so you shouldn’t run fast, shouldn’t pass the red light, thank you.” Now, despite the bad grammar and the weird warning that I shouldn’t run too fast, the message is pretty clear:

The boys in blue, or in this country they tend to don beige or fatigue green uniforms, are turning up the heat.

My friends in green, sometimes in beige

They wouldn’t accept my mate Joe’s proffered 200 thousand VND, but wanted 500 large ones instead! How rude! The impounding of bikes sucks. They fine you $100, stick your bike on the back of a truck, and keep it for a month. When you get it back, the exterior looks the same but you can be pretty sure the quality Japanese parts inside have been changed for cheap Chinese ones which will cost another $100 to replace again.

The blue meanies are everywhere. I see them around every corner. Yesterday, they pulled some dudes right out of traffic, not having committed any offence, and pretty violently too. I saw them ripping a woman off her bike in peak hour traffic for no apparent reason. So any of you out there cruising around illegally, “Watch yourself, cause Babylon’s out to getcha!”

Disclaimer: Of course I would never write an article of this magnitude against authority of any kind, so this was obviously a guest opinion post written by my friend Kabbalas*, who lives in District 14 and wishes to remain anonymous, in fear of being deported back to Tajikistan.

*Possibly his real name

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

April Photoblog

A photo of an outdoor Vietnamese wedding from the balcony of our room at the Rex Hotel in Vung Tau

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

April Photoblog

Here's a pic of my neighbours eating outside my house during one of our weekly power-outs. I wonder if HCM City's electricity authorities have been taking tips from Eskom?

PS: This is my 200th blog post so thanks to all of you who have managed to read this far, I couldn't have done it without you!

Oops, I think i just tweeted on my branch

Which ever side of thre polemic you're on regarding Twitter and it's various virtues or vices , one thing you can say is that it can be a real boost to your ego when you open your inbox and see this:

Monday, April 13, 2009

April Photoblog (apologies)

I sincerely apologise to my loyal following (of three, consisting of my two alter egos and my girlfriend who occasionally visits my blog out of ego-pity) for the lack of weekend posts but the damn internet was out all weekend, thanks eMedia and SCTV. I knew the "free cable" you threw in with the ADSL was too good to be true. There seems to be a strong correlation between connectivity and the volume of rain falling from the sky, which has well and truly become a daily occurrence again.

Here are some pics from Hanoi to make up for the short break from the April photoblog.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

April Photoblog

I nearly forgot today's photo! A celebration of Vietnam would not be complete without the ubiquitous Ben Thanh Market snapshot.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Portmanteau, Easter and the Jabberwocky

*I interrupt this April photoblog to bring you a little insight into how my brain works...sometimes when it's working*

Sir John Tenniel's March Hare and Mad Hatter

I've been reading all these blog posts about Easter while I'm up to my Adam's Apple in work, and supposed to be researching and writing a story for the International Kite Festival which took place in Vung Tau two weeks ago. Easter, by the way, is sort of a non-event in terms of commercialism in Vietnam. I do miss all the chocolate bunnies and such, but I appreciate not being bombarded with Easter madness sales at the shops. Secondly, I'm busy reading Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (which incidentally features a bunny who dabbles in madness) and just got to the part where Alice is talking to Humpty Dumpty and he's explaining the meaning of the poem Jabberwocky by means of portmanteau - using two words to make a new one. For example, slithy = lithe and slimy and mimsy = flimsy and miserable.

So all these random facts and things collide in my brain and I've just figured out that if I were to eat liquer-filled Easter eggs until I pass out and the next day I had a hangover, it would be...wait for it...Passover.

Any new portmanteaus anyone?

April Photoblog

A couple of pictures from around Saigon.

The Hindu Temple on Ton That Thiep with the Saigon Centre as backdrop

The Opera House with a poster of the Uncle through a statue

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

April Photoblog

Here are some photos of the kids at the orphanage where my fiesty French friend Manon (pictured below) used to work. I went with one day to play with them and they really did touch my heart with their willingness to trust and just their general cuteness. I can't remember the orphanage's name, but it's in Tan Binh District just off Le Van Sy Street.

Monday, April 06, 2009

April Photoblog

Jungle Beach solitude

Jungle Beach, about 60 kms north of Nha Trang, is the perfect spot to just get away from it all. A secluded stretch of beach (for now, at least) with simple facilities, it is run by a Canadian with a passion for sustainable living and the environment. Spend the day exploring the surrounding area or just laze the day away under a sunscreen on the beach, occasionally going for a dip to cool off, then fall asleep with the sound of waves breaking just off the doorstep of your bungalow. Nice.

Mountain pool overlooking Jungle Beach

*I've decided to add multiple pics to each April photoblog as one a day just isn't enough!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

April Photoblog

Mui Ne is one of the premier spots in Asia for kite-surfing. The cool air blowing off the ocean, mixing with the warmer air from the sand dunes cause a thermal circulation every day like clockwork, which results in an afternoon of blustery conditions perfect for hitching up your kite, strapping on your board and heading out to sea.

Kite-surfer at Mui Ne

Saturday, April 04, 2009

April Photoblog

Some repairs on Mui Ne Beach

Friday, April 03, 2009

April Photoblog

I'll make use of this weekend to post three photos of one of my favourite places in Vietnam: Mui Ne. I've posted about this jewel of the south a few times over the years. Check it out here, here and over there. Sadly it's becoming overrun by mulleted or brushcut Russian tourists wearing socks an' sandals, big-name resorts with big name prices, and multistoreyed apartments on the beachfront spoiling the view. I guess that's what happens when you're a country developing at warp-speed with nothing but the bottom line in mind. I still have a real soft spot for the place and I'd advise anyone visiting to spend at least a long weekend here, lying on the beach with a good book, watching the afternoon amble by, sipping on a looong cocktail, watching the kite-surfers and, well, not really doing much else (except the difficult mental exercise of figuring out which awesome seafood barbecue joint to feast at for dinner).

This is how we roll...or choose not to move...for most of the Mui Ne

A Short Newsflash

*We interrupt this April Photoblog Celebration to bring you a short newsflash*

Despite political jabber and picketed protests in London,

The Toon Army rejoice the
return of their prodigal son.

beauty is censored (for good reason) and plenty of gullible fools are found

should really be banned is seen all around.

An atrocity to squeeze a crocodile tear, from even the most cynical eye,

Yet, we can still see the
funny thanks to that big pie in the sky.

So get ready for a
(fraudster) fight, and don’t let the bed bugs bite!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

April Celebration Photoblog

Lantern Festival at the Saigon Zoo

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

A Month of Celebration

April celebrates the month in which I arrived in Vietnam, bright eyed, eager and wholly ignorant to what the hell was really going on outside my realm of thinking. Coincidentally, a good friend of mine is arriving next week on pretty much the same day I stepped out of Tan Son Nhat Airport, into the steamy heat and chaos of Saigon, planning to visit for one year and staying for three. I’ve decided to fete these three years, and what will probably be my last few months in Vietnam, by making April a daily photoblog month.

Fish drying outside my neighbour's house