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 


Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Expat extremes

One of the defining characteristics of being an expatriate is the transient nature of your life. What I mean by this is that people are always coming – arriving for a new job on a short or long-term contract – or going – reaching the end of their stint in their temporarily adopted homeland. This has benefits in that you are constantly meeting new, interesting people who have left the comforts of their hometown and own country to experience the wonders of the bigger world and where every day brings a new challenge. Business contacts are made and built up, if that's your thing. This is especially true in Vietnam where “expect the unexpected” should be the official expatriate motto! On the other hand, this transitory lifestyle means that often just as you are getting to know someone and are becoming good friends, either you or them are leaving. It does prevent you sometimes from getting close to people as you often wonder "what's the point?". The life of an expat involves numerous farewell parties and teary send-offs, with promises of "I'll visit you here", or "Let's meet up there", made in earnestness but most often strewn by the wayside of life's busy, well-trodden road.

 In my six-years or so of living abroad - only a 2 or 3 on the expat-experi-o-meter - I’ve had both the ups and downs and have also noticed the very different labels stuck on and boxes people are neatly, but more often untidly stuffed in. This labeling is something I firmly don't believe in, but will attempt to provide my view on the spectrum of expatriatism in Vietnam of which I will try to show the two extremes.

Meet Arthur. On the one extreme , Arthur's the kind of expat the other kind is always joking about over a cheap beer on an even cheaper plastic chair. He’s the guy who lives in his expat bubble in his company-paid villa in Phu My Hung or compound in An Phu. Watching TV shows from home on his plasma flat screen, Arthur rarely leaves the comforts of his villa, and only ventures forth to walk his purebred husky. which he will have to try and sell or give away when his “stint in ‘Nam” is up - "because you, no Western country will receive a dog filled with heaven knows what third-world parasites".  This walk is filled with annoyances - the unbearable heat or incessant, "unpredictable" rain, and taxi driver's trying to hail his attention. If he runs out of milk, he doesn't wander down to the shop - he asks his live-in maid/cook what he pays her a three million VND a month for and sends her down to the shop and reminds her not to forget the receipts (because he has a sneaky suspicion she may be fudging the expenses and stealing from him, but he can't prove it yet)

Arthur has made no attempt to engage in the culture or learn the language, except for the few phrases (in completely the wrong tones) he uses to impress foreign visitors when he takes them for a "cultural tour" around Bến Thành Market or directs his driver to turn quẹo phải or quẹo trái, .   Arthur’s chauffeur drives him to work every day and he only knows a smattering of street names in District 1 like Lợi or Đồng Khởi, as these are where his offices are. He may know where Bến Thành Market is, but ask Arthur where  Bà Chiểu or Dân Sinh markets are and he will stare at you blankly saying his driver will know so no there is no need to learn such insignificant details. Throw him in the middle of Gò Vấp or Tân Phú Districts without his driver, and he will have a nervous breakdown, trying to find a Mai Linh taxi as quick as possible (because the other companies all rip off foreigners, you know, and don't speak English, and besides, he has company a taxi card). 

Arthur has tried phở once or twice, but only at Pho 24 where it is clean, and the suggestion of trying it on the side of the street is just appalling to him. How unhygienic!  Buying a coffee off the street is the scariest. Do you know how or where that ice was made? Mostly, he only orders Western delivery or eats at high-end Western restaurants and occasionally tries Asian food when entertaining business guests, but only in immaculate, air-conditioned surroundings like the Khaisilk group of restaurants. When his one or two-year contract in Vietnam is up, he’ll have some fond memories – mostly of Chamber of Commerce cocktail parties, five-star resorts and good rounds of golf up and down the east coast. Arthur will not know much about the real Vietnam, the people, the culture, the language, but he will feel pleased for his experience in this “hardship post” that his company forced him into, and the kudos this stint would get him around the tie-and-jacket dinner party tables in Hong Kong or Dubai. 

On the other extreme is Jimmy; the expat who assimilates or goes as local as possible. He shares a small apartment or rents a room from a Vietnamese family in District 12 or District 10 for around $100 a month and complains that his rent is too high, and that he shouldn’t be asked “Western prices” because “he’s not a tây ba lô. Jimmy sneers at foreigners who drive motorbikes that are fancier than a Honda Wave, as this is wasting money - showing off and rubbing their wealth in the poor's faces - and he often makes derogatory jokes about Western tourists himself. He eats at the local cơm bình dân daily for under a dollar, hanging out at a bia hơi, quán nhậu or a nearby coffeeshop with his local friends at the weekend and he feels a bit uncomfortable and alienated when he has to hang out with other foreigners, as "we have nothing in common". 

Of course, Jimmy speaks fluent Vietnamese, even knows how to nói lái and knows Vietnamese idioms, endlessly impressing his friends and other Vietnamese, when he busts out his Southern-accented slang. Jimmy knows the latest log standing of the V-league by heart and argues with his friend over whether Becamex Bình Dương can reclaim their former glory. He only shops at the local fresh market and detests driving into District 1. He prefers a weekend away in Vũng Tàu or Bến Tre, fishing, playing cards and drinking shots of rice wine with his girlfriend's uncles than spending too much money at a tourist resort in Mui Ne or a shopping holiday in Hoi An. Jimmy is always arguing with his Vietnamese girlfriend over where the best bowl of hủ tiếu Nam Vang or cháo lòng can be found, and loves the taste of all the things foreigners usually detest, like durian or mắm tôm. He knows all the Vietnamese musicians that are cool at the moment as well as the actors and actresses, and he watched some Korean soapies, but only during the week as he works all weekend at a local English centre.

Of course, these two fictional expats are the exaggerated extremes at both ends of life in Vietnam, and 99% of us are somewhere in between – mostly crowded around the 50% mark. Whatever the case may be, I think all of us can find some resonance in these characters and wherever expat life may take you, there will always be a Jimmy and an Arthur is some shape or form.

Originally written for Doanh Nhân Sài Gòn - March 2012

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.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What's been going on in the 'Gon

We’ve been back in Saigon for three months and many people ask me what I think has changed in the year I’ve been away. So what’s been going on in the ‘Gon that wasn’t before?

Well, you could just as easily ask – what’s not going on anymore? A lot of restaurants and bars have moved or closed and new one’s have sprouted to try their hand at the slippery food and beverage industry. Take Thai Van Lung for example. I was slightly disappointed to see Alibi has evaporated, but also slightly happy to know that the smug faces of Olympique Saigon’s team photo won’t be smirking down at me from behind the bar every time I order a drink anymore. Bernie’s Bar & Grill seems to be the new kid on this ever-changing block, but some stalwarts like Skewers have weathered the stormy wave of change.

On the other side of District 1, the Old Market (Cho Cu) area is flourishing into the new hotspot. With rent prices soaring in traditionally more sough-after areas, this was inevitably going to happen, with Phatties tapping into this rich vein early. Although some establishments have already disappeared, La Cantina being one, the duet of Gringo’s and Mexican Lindo have jumped up to take their place on this stretch in the shadow of that gigantic joint in the sky; the Bitexco Tower (come on, does it really look like a lotus bud to anyone?!). Other notable newbies include the Drunken Duck and the garish X Club. God only knows what happens in there. I think it’s time for an covert assignment to uncover the social evils of Vietnamese nightclubs ala Current Affair or Carte Blanche – hidden camera in tow – and I’ll report back. 

 The Giant Joint

Of course, the rise of shopping centres would always be inevitable, but I must admit a certain shock at the speed with which certain structures have suddenly, as if overnight, established themselves with a certain authority, as if being long-standing historical members of the city, swathed in culture. Cases in point are the ostentatious Kumho Asiana Plaza and the Vincom Centre. When I left, there was but a massive hole in the ground, hidden by tropical fish-painted construction barriers and just down the road, a little park where all the Parkson staff used to soak up some rays over lunchtime. Fast forward one year and ta da! Hard Rock Café, the much-feted Carl Junior’s and other such nonsense have arisen like the Colossus at Rhodes. I have yet to bring myself to enter either of these Leviathans of commercialism. Oh and Eden Mall’s gone, and the Saigon Square has moved (again).

Around my neck of the concrete woods, the construction of the Crescent Mall in Phu My Hung is bustling along quite nicely, along with a throng of high-rise apartment blocks said to rival Seoul by early next century. Reminiscent of the Cold War arms race sans the hate, the glory of being named Saigon’s “next city centre” is certainly on between PMH and District 2. There’s also the pretty new Phu My Bridge that I have a beautiful night-view of from my apartment. In this dynamic, ever-changing city, one thing remains a constant: construction. A lot of, as my students so often utter. Oh and potholes. Let’s not forget them. 

 Cau Phu My

Other things I’ve noticed is a much-welcomed following of the road rules, in a certain Saigon sense, compared to before. I was at first unnerved by the motorbikes sticking religiously to the right lane whilst blissfully cruising down Nguyen Van Linh Boulevard, wondering whether they’ve implemented Orwellian brainwashing techniques to try prevent (I guess a better word would be ‘limit’) road chaos. Looking around nervously for a remote-activated, hovering eye-in-the-sky camera, I was disappointed to discover that a couple of uniformed Big Brothers spattered along the tree-lined boulevard were the only semblance of authority in sight. Given, last month was “Traffic Safety Month”, and six pairs of stone-faced, aviator-shaded beige-men did greet me every morning on the way to work, but was this the reason for the sudden adherence to the law? Well, September came in a deluge of water, and left in pretty-much the same manner, along with Traffic Safety Month. I woke up on October the first, quite positive (it being a Friday and all) that life in traffic would soon be as traumatic as ever, only to discover that all the bikes and cars were at it, slowly puttering along in their own lanes. Must be something in the water…

Other random things I’ve noticed. The Dong’s sliding oh so subtly toward the big 20 000. Maybe we should hold a big coming of age ceremony when it hits the landmark, but all the fireworks might just get too excited and explode pre-emptively like at the last big bash in Hanoi. The tendency towards the proliferation of yoghurt shops seems to have abated, only to be replaced with a new one in the form of deluxe, multi-storeyed ice-cream shops. Perhaps this worrying trend warrants a post on it’s own, co-authored by the World Health Organisation’s Chair for the Propogation of Child Obesity and Diabetes in South East-Asia.

Otherwise, most things haven’t changed much. Bikes. Dust. Culture. Stares. Rain. Smiles. Yummy food. Noise. Charm. Gloves and toe-socks. Internet censorship. Strange smells. Mystery meat. Apo and Go2. And bucketfuls of uniqueness…