Friday, June 29, 2012

Postage and package included… sometimes.

Today a delivery receipt arrived on my desk at work that said a package had arrived for me at the local post office. I was absolutely ecstatic. The reason for my elation was not because my parcel of clothes which I had ordered from an online t-shirt had finally arrived (thanks for the new threads, Threadless). I was relieved because of the fact that the package had actually arrived. One of the main gripes expats who live here have is the inconsistent and incoherent postal system in Vietnam. Let me explain.

For a foreigner, the Vietnamese postal system is as strange and unfathomable as rocket science would be to a sixth grader, or the rules of cricket to a Vietnamese farmer (the term Kafkaesque springs to mind, with the impending sense of doom replaced by a sense of inevitable extortion). For all we know, there may be a hive full of little post elves somewhere behind closed doors in the Saigon Central Post Office. I imagine they sit on piles of unopened packages, wearing little Bưu đin uniforms, doing little jigs while licking stamps, making paper envelope airplanes, sorting the post, and deciding not when they want to deliver the letters and parcels, but if they should deliver it!  

See that little elf on that box? I rest my case.
(photo from
Too many times I’ve heard stories of people’s parcels mysteriously disappearing into the “postalsphere” (I’m sure those elves had something to do with it). Go onto one of the online expat forums like Phu My Hung Neighbours, and on any given day you’ll find complaints and concerns about letters, gifts and parcels not arriving. In my experience there are basically four scenarios when awaiting post in Vietnam. 

Scenario 1: Your post never arrives. This is a very possible reality so don’t be surprised when this happens. Like a lost love, don’t dwell on it. Forget about it and move on – life’s too short to worry about that Kit-Kat or Crunchie chocolate bar that went missing in the mail. 

Scenario 2: Your post arrives…sometime in the following year. This often happens. I think the people at the post office just keep your post, hoping that you will eventually give up on it or forget about it (or maybe it’s those mischievous elves again?). This is especially annoying if you’re expecting a package containing food or goods which expire. I once had my parents send me a package from South Africa containing all my favourite specialities – chocolates, boerewors and droewors, spices and condiments (Mr Balls Chutney and Ina Paarman’s Spices), and a bottle of good South African wine (Springfield Estate Wholeberry). It arrived months and months later (even though they had sent it express mail) and everything had expired and become inedible – even the dried meat. The only thing which was still good to consume was the wine, which had actually got better with time! 

Scenario 3: Your post arrives, but it’s been tampered with. This is the most likely option. Two years ago I sent myself a package from Australia containing clothes, English teaching materials and books and some other personal items. Eight months later, the package arrived, squashed, ripped open, then taped closed and torn open again, obviously having undergone a thorough inspection by the authorities. Everything was there…except for a few English teaching books. I was upset for a while, but at least I knew that there were some post office workers (or maybe a couple of post elves?) who are now speaking English fluently thanks to my “gift”.

Scenario 4. You post arrives, but it costs an arm and a leg to collect it. I once received a receipt from the post office to collect a package which cost me eight times more to pick up then the contents was worth! One thing I’ve learned is if you want to make sure that the post office doesn’t overcharge you, make sure the price of the goods is clearly displayed on the package. Also, don’t send anything dodgy (like English books) or god-forbid some exciting and foreign like a vuvuzela. A colleague at work just had to pay the equivalent of $600 for a care package sent from Korea as it had to undergo a “culture check” (I think that means the elves had a look to see if there was anything interesting they could eat or sell). 

Scenario 5. Your post arrives on time, in one piece, and unaltered. Don’t worry about scenario, as it is never likely to happen. 

"Not delivering your shit, since 1978"

These seem to be the general experiences most expats I’ve spoken to here have regarding the postal service. Many foreigners these days just ask their friends, family or others visiting from overseas to bring something with them on the airplane to avoid the hassle and heartache of dealing with the postal service. Of course, I understand that you can’t  expect things to be the same as it is back home – but sometimes you just have to complain to get it off your chest. And after all, what else can you do? Write a letter of complaint addressed to the post office, hoping they will receive it?  Yeah, right...

Originally written for Doanh Nhân Sài Gòn

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Value of Green Space

A few months months ago, before the incessant daily downpours had dampened my spirits like a dead fella dressed in red hanging limply from my chimney on Christmas morning, some mates and I decided to celebrate the sunshine by spending the day in the park. Said celebrations in South Africa or Australia usually include packing a mountain of food and beer in a cooler and spending the day on the grass or on the beach, barbecuing, drinking and kicking a footy or playing some pick-up cricket. Why then not do it the same way here in Saigon?

Luckily, we live in Phu My Hung which is dotted with parks (they make up nearly half of the overall area, according to the PMH Corporation). In great anticipation, we packed a killer picnic including a smorgasbord of snacks, meats for the braai, drinks and a footy to kick around. We lugged the barbie down and also had some music and speakers. Just as we had set up shop for the day, security guards told us that not only were we not allowed to have a barbeque, but we couldn’t have music and weren’t allowed on the grass! After some very unsuccessful negotiations, which resulted in a fleet of PMH security guards suddenly appearing from behind every tree and from every side street, we gave up the fight and trudged back to our small apartment where we had to celebrate this day of outdoor fun, indoors. What am I getting at here, you may ask? The severe lack of green space in Saigon. 

Let's get technical: "Green space" can be defined as a natural area of vegetation in or around a development to provide a buffer for noise, such as a recreational area or a wildlife haven, all intended to increase general quality of life in the area. All great cities in the world have at least one world-famous green space to lure tourists and families out of the shade of the skyscrapers on sunny days. Think about London’s Hyde Park, Albert Park in Melbourne (although the noise buffering doesn't work that well when the Formula 1 circus rolls into town) and perhaps the most famous of all – Central Park in New York. Parks are just one form of of green space. Greenbelts, greenways and other environmentally-orientated designs, such New York’s renowned High Line – a disused lifted railway that has been transformed into a wonder of a green space – are essential for maintaining the integrity of a developing city, ensuring the safety of certain natural areas and increasing the general quality of life for its citizens.

These kinds of green spaces are important for both adults and children. Parks, reserves and botanical gardens also create safe areas for children to play, away from traffic and other dangers, where they can partake in active and less sedentary activities at no cost. Turn your attention to the current "fun" areas for children in  Saigon: horror-show merry-go-rounds with ear-splitting techno, badly-maintained, creaky spinning sea-shells and elderly aunts who smell funny having a gas bag when they should be watching little Anh slipping out of the malfunctioning seatbelt on the Tornado.Let's not ignore the water-parks with their murky waters and concrete surfaces where wet little imps run around unsupervised. Compare these with a grassy embankment where kids can run around to their little hearts' content. It's incomparable really.

Although you often see early-morning exercisers in the parks in Ho Chi Minh City - mostly old timers engaged in a spot of tai-chi and calisthenics - and late afternoon badminton games happening, these all tend to congregate on the concrete footpaths around the actual park, bordering the busy streets, and not on the grass itself. It is important for older people to have somewhere to do their exercise and rest too, away from the frenetic whizzing of motorbikes and exhaust fumes, and with adequate and safe facilities.

Kicking back in Hoang Van Thu Public Park

Green spaces are essential for businesses in the city too, but their benefits are less tangible. According to a local publication, a report released by HCM City’s Department of Transport a few years ago said that over a decade (from 1998-2008), the city had lost about 50% of its green spaces to residential and commercial developments. This meant that citizens of the southern metropolis had less than one square metre of grass or vegetation per capita – significantly below the World Health Organisation’s minimum requirement of nine m² per person – and lower than much historically supercrowded cities like Tokyo (with three m²). One gets the impression that in those ten years, city planners have thought little about the long-term future of this great business centre, the health and well-being of its citizens, or developing sustainably. Instead, priority seems to go to expansion (with the new "urban centres" of Thu Thiem and Tay Bac), short term-profits, impressive, yet mysteriously half-empty high-rises and making a quick buck. Property firms also seem to be flouting the rules regarding mandatory green spaces in new developments with little or no punishment. 

By looking at the development of HCM City, one gets the feeling that the urban developers haven’t realised that in today’s environmentally conscious world, green spaces add commercial value to entire blocks, neighbourhoods and cities in various trickle down and knock-on effects. There are numerous examples around the world where green spaces have added value to properties. There is also tourism value, direct use value, community cohesion value, and the removal of air pollution and health value.

What is done is done, however, and I don’t see any buildings being demolished to create a botanical garden in this city, but one can take heed for the future. One solution is the implementation of strict regulations regarding new development and specifying the minimum amount of green space each project must include with strict punishment for those who flaunt the rules. Maximising space with underground parking and commercial facilities, vertical and rooftop gardens and parks, are also viable options. I know all of this is utopian, but its either that or a dystopian reality. Children (and adults) must be allowed to play on the grass, not only around it on concrete, and adequate facilities such as restrooms and lighting need to be built for safety. In a tropical country with such a wonderful sunny climate, there is so much opportunity to spend quality time outdoors with friends and family in a healthy and active way, but if nothing is done about this situation, I’m afraid this urban jungle will remain a concrete playground without a hint of its original state when the Khmer settled on the verdant banks of a wide and meandering river all those years ago.

Originally written for Doanh Nhân Sài Gòn

Sources consulted:  
British Forestry Commision
Official website of Columbia, Missouri 
Washington State Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development 
Sefton Council (UK)
Vietnam Business Forum 
The Trust for Public Land