Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Come rain. Or shine.

As an expat living in Vietnam, there are a number of subjects that inevitably arise when talking to other long-term foreigners living here. I’ve compiled a mental list of the top, and sometimes most tedious, subjects expats in Vietnam talk about. I think at this time of year, the weather is probably right up there near the pinnacle. Put it like this, if "expat talk" was Twitter, #rain, #weather, #wet would be trending.

As I sit here in my air-conditioned office, I dread the idea of going downstairs to the canteen for lunch – plainly because it’s absolutely blistering hot outside. And as we know, this heat is a precursor - a sign of things to come, more specifically, of rain. Lots and lots of rain, like pats of warm butter dropped from above. Driving around on your motorbike in this rain is akin to being caught in a battle where big, fat globules are hurled like water balloons from the sky by mischievous gods attacking the mere mortals below.

I’ve been throwing furtive glances at the sky for the last few weeks – looking for that dark presence of a thundercloud on the horizon. Sniffing the air for signs of moisture. I thought Tropical Cyclone Pakhar was it.Watching how high and low the dragonflies are zooming about, estimating their trajectory against the horizon with my thumb and forefinger, squinting through one eye.

This is because it is that time of year when we expats start getting itchy. Very itchy and incredibly nervous. Let me explain why. At this time of year, we start playing a game of one-upmanship with each other by trying to predict when the “rainy season” will actually begin. The winner is recognized to have superior knowledge regarding not only Vietnam’s climatic patterns, but also all things “expatness”.  That's the prize. For the rest of the year, everything this expat says will be taken as the truth and cannot be questioned by other foreigners. When they say: “I think Vietnam’s economy will grow by 6.5% for the second quarter of 2012,” as another expat, you have keep your mouth shut and accept this as fact. Okay, maybe I’m over-exaggerating a little bit, but I think you understand why this title is so important, or it might just be in my head...

Thus, with the first showers of March, only an “amateur” expat (who has lived here for less than two rainy seasons) will utter the prophetic words of “looks like the rainy season has started”. The old-timers (foreigners who have lived here for ten years or more) will scoff at these greenhorn predictions, these young 'uns who think they know it all. They will throw knowing glances at each other. This is because old-timers know that there are at least five or six big showers in March before one can actually say the rainy season has started, even a tropical storm won't throw them off!

Oh, and god forbid those partaking in this unspoken challenge actually ask advice from the locals who have lived here all their life and know the weather like the palm of their hand. This is considered cheating in this game of one-upmanship. You have to state your prediction based solely on your own shrewd observations,  using science, experience and whatever other talismanic trick you have up your sleeve, such as a left ankle that starts twinging when the weather turns or an itchy ear. My grandmother used to start sneezing uncontrollably just before a big thunderstorm. That kind of thing. 

So how do you actually win this game and become the most knowledgeable and well-respected expat of the season? Once you say the words: “The rainy season is here” (beware, there will be groans and moans from others) the unspoken rules state that for you to be declared the winner: (1) it has to rain consistently for at least three days and three nights (2) all major and minor roads need to be flooded under at least three feet of water for said period of time (3) you must know (and be able to produce) at least four people whose motorbikes broke down from flooded engines (4) you must show photo evidence of an intrusion of cockroaches taking over your house.  Then, and only then, will you be crowned winner. 

You are then allowed to bask in your glory (or at least drip in your wet triumph), until late October when the rain slows down and a new game begins: the game of who can predict the end of the rainy season correctly, which is when it all starts again…

Written for Doanh Nhân Sài Gòn - March 2012

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Curse of the Crazy Landlord

It’s inevitable. You move to Vietnam and start looking for a place to live. Nothing fancy. Just somewhere to lay your head at night, really. Lucky for you, a friend of a friend is moving out of this great place in Tan Binh District - a little bit further out than you expected, but it's just what you wanted; a nice two-storey house, with a rooftop terrace and three bedrooms – perfect for sharing with some friends, and it’s not too expensive either  - even though you know you’re being charged foreigner prices. Okay, so there's some fake grass and flowers in the landing of the stairwell, a huge copy of a Dutch pastoral scene - multicoloured tulips and peaceful windmills - in the living room and the furniture is that heavy, dark wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl horses and dragons.Nevermind, it's still a steal.

You meet the landlord and he or she is all smiles, agreeing to purchase some new appliances, buy some nice(r), comfier couches and hook up the cable TV with BBC and TLC. Everything seems fine, but then, just when you are settling in to your new place and discovering the best places to eat in the hood, it strikes. The curse. The curse of the crazy landlord. Crazy as in weirdo, watch you sleep at night, extort you of all your money, make you think you're the nuts one, crazy.

All expats who have lived here for at least a couple of years and in various locations around the city know the curse of the crazy landlord and also know that it is unavoidable. It is like a rite of passage. Like the Xhosa circumcision rite, just more painful and enduring. While not all landlords are crazy – my current landlord is wonderful – somewhere along the line there is always THE ONE you will never forget. The mere mention of his name makes you utter inane profanities under your breath and make little stabbing motions with your pen. And I use "him" loosely here - just as often it's a "she". A she-devil. You identify these malevolent landlords and ladies (such ironic terms!) by their malignant actions.  They are the ones that you tell your friends back home about and they refuse to believe the stories. Like when you tell them you saw the tokoloshe under your bed last night.They're all scoffs and sniggles as their cognitive dissonance kicks in. 

My "one" was Mr Hiep*. At first, he was lovely - a middle-aged ex-pilot for the air force. When we moved in, he bought a new water cooler and hooked up the ADSL internet just as we had asked. He even bought me a miniature MIG fighter plane made from recycled bomb metal and offered me a pack of Camel cigarettes: "From Mỹ (America)," he assured me. 

Mr Hiep lived behind our house with his family, which was fine at first, but this was also where the trouble started. It meant he had a key for our backdoor, which, in turn, meant that he would drop by unexpectedly at unforeseen hours of the day. His favourite time to drop by for a “chat” was 6:30 am on a Saturday morning, while I was inevitably still sleeping after a late Friday night out. I’d wake up from the smell of cigarette smoke (even though we didn’t allow smoking in the house, Mr Hiep always chain-smoked his way through all the rooms). I’d rub my eyes and he’d be watching me as I woke up – no knocking on the bedroom door either – just...kind of...watching with his red, beady, droopy eyes, like two pomegranate seeds stuck in a melting Dali clock. Other times he'd pop by around 10-11pm. He had this crazy landlord sixth sense that told him when the worst and most inappropriate time to visit was – and that’s when he would appear! 

Sometimes he’d also bring his children – and I’m sure he did this just to torture me. Before I knew it, there'd be little hyperactive sugar-fueled balls of destruction whizzing through the house screaming and going through all my possessions. Sometimes he would come over with a few beers, which he drank most of himself, or some food that I'm sure he knew I wouldn't really eat, like durian, moon cakes or nem chua, which he ate most of himself, and told us stories about the war. The drunker he got the worse his bad English got. 

"Fly to Cambodia," he'd recall, toking on a Camel. "Weather, no good."

"Drop maaany many bomb."


I started barricading the backdoor, but somehow he'd always find a way in. One time, when I when we came back from a holiday, Mr Hiep had decided to paint the inside of our house a very disturbing peachy salmon, without asking us. He'd also taken it upon himself to install an expensive and extremely garish water feature in the house, which made smoke come out of a fountain when you turned it on, and had a ball rolling in the smoke and water with disco lights shining everywhere. I could handle this seriously Western decor faux pas (yet what was probably the height of fashion in Tan Binh, Ward 7 at that time); however, what got me was Mr Hiep then decided that we needed to pay for all of it because he had done us the favour of painting the place and installing the smoking water contraption! He also decided to increase our rent by $100 because our house now had “added value”!

One day, I asked Mr Hiep to send someone to clean the air conditioners, I got home to find him sucking on the air-con exhaust pipe, spitting out the dirty water into a bucket. 

The last straw was when my housemate and I started noticing our utilities bills going up every month, even though we didn’t use more electricity or water. It took me a while to investigate, but I finally solved the mystery. Mr Hiep had plugged in his very large aquarium into our power plugs in the backyard. Not only that, but he’d also plugged in his washing machine to use our electricity and water!

We decided to move out to a more honest/sane place. When we told Mr Hiep, he couldn’t understand why, but immediately started showing possible tenants through the house, again at the worse times! I’d be lying in bed on Sunday morning when suddenly and unannounced four people would poke their heads around the corner and start walking through my bedroom and bathroom, expecting the place, poking their head into my closet, turning the shower on to check the water pressure, and such antics.

I guarantee you that if you ask any foreigner living here, all of them would have a story of a crazy landlord. It’s one of those things which makes living here in Vietnam so random and unexpected and one of the reasons I love it so much, even though it is infuriating at the time. We all need our Mr Hiep story.

*This is not his real name for privacy purposes. I also don't want him to hunt me down and find myself waking up in a bathtub full of ice sans three toes and a kidney.

Originally written for Doanh Nhân Sài Gòn

Monday, April 16, 2012

Writing column articles for Doanh Nhân Sài Gòn

Over the next few months I've decided to publish some of the column articles I've written for Doanh Nhân Sài Gòn (Saigon Entrepreneurs Weekly Edition). These are bi-weekly articles for a column called Một góc nhìn khác (From a different perspective) where I give an expats perspective on life in Saigon. I was introduced to DNSG by Jon Hoff, who passed the writing baton (read: responsibility to produce a piece every two weeks) on to me. I in turn, have tried to ease the writing load by getting my mate and colleague Mark Jones involved, as he is married to a Vietnamese girl and has a baby here - meaning he can provide a much embedded view on cultural differences than myself. 

I write it in English and it's then translated into Vietnamese, so bear in mind that the writing is slightly simplified as a lot of nuance gets lost in translation. Nevertheless, I always appreciate feedback - in agreement and against.

Hopefully this can ease me back into some kind of blogging form. Check back later the week for the first article entitled We're not so different after all.