Monday, 29 December 2014

3 motorbikes, 2 custard apples and a Vietnamese wedding

(written during one or two weeks up to 29.12.2014)


MORE VIETNAMESE MILESTONES/EXPERIENCES/THOUGHTS. Except hopefully by the time I publish this I will have thought of a more original title... (Edit: Hurrah just did. Sing it to the melody of "12 days of Christmas") 

So here goes:

#1. A few days ago I had my first Authentic Vietnamese Elderly Person in Rural Setting -experience (AVEPRS) which was pretty noteworthy. My Vietnamese friend Ph took me to see her grandmother (or older relative, still not quite sure if 'grandmother' meant actual grandmother or not...).

We had breakfast of Bun Rieu, noodles with an exciting assortment of meats in it – I ate and enjoyed all of them (the tofu was surprisingly nice!) except I let the clotted blood blobs be. Sorry mates.
so many colours!
After a surprise pic from the lady who made us the Bun Rieu. Westerners are still pretty rare here...
 Then we drove the 20min motorbike ride into rural BH, down these adorable little alleys that really reminded me of rural Russia, and stopped in front of this house with a big gardeny area outside. There were bars on the gate so it was very secure, and more bars on the front door of the house, through which we could see three dogs which had begun crazy barking.

Ph unlocked the gate, pushed her motorbike through, and then her grandmother appeared at the front door amongst the dogs. She opened the door and the dogs bounded out, barking crazily. “Don't move,” Ph instructed me casually. Oh, ok, or else what?? I thought, a bit panicky, as the dogs rushed to smell me, growl and bark. 

I never got a green light for actually moving again, but decided the threat was over after a few minutes. Apparently, around the dogs everyone must be careful and move slowly so they don't get too perplexed. “So they're not nice dogs?” I asked. “Oh no,” replied Ph. Ok... Well, Mumsie I will reassure you they did nothing evil. And they weren't massively big either. Nice little doggies.
Woofity woof 
Ph introduced me to her 'grandmother'. I successfully managed to introduce myself by saying “Chàu la Emma, I am Emma, instead of “Toi la Emma” (what you'd say to someone your age) or “Em la Emma” (what you'd say to someone slightly older than you) or “Chi la Emma” (what you'd say to someone younger than you). Interpreted by Ph, the grandmother was asking keenly how long I'd studied Vietnamese for since I knew to say “Chàu”. If only I could impress you with other words I know... No.

The house was definitely as you would expect a Rural Vietnamese House to look like. It was dark with many Buddhas and wooden tables, with a few random exotic fruits on various ornamental plates, many old pictures of old relatives, a clear bottle of rice wine on the table along with all the other decorative objects. The two of them explained to me the different things around the room – the Buddhas, who were in the pictures, the old box Ph's great-grandfather used to keep his cigarettes in...

The cigarette box
Ph's grandmother brought us tra da (pronounced 'cha da'), the staple drink of all Vietnamese, iced tea. So lovely and refreshing. Then she brought us an Exotic Fruit each, you pick off the bits on the edge and eat the inside and spit out the pips. I still have no idea what it was. (Edit: Custard apple. Or something like that.)
Guarding the custard apples
The insides of them custard apples (OM NOM)
We had a look in the garden – the palm trees and the mango trees (not mango season atm, unfortunately...) and the starfruit trees and the pepper tree/bush and the banana flower (or something like that...). I was in complete awe. Dude I even saw chipmunks/squirrels in the trees!!

Picking fruits
The only downside was the smaller wildlife. We didn't spend more than fifteen minutes in the garden, after which I counted a nice thirty-three mosquito bites solely on my legs. And I had changed out of jeans during the last minute before leaving the house coz I thought a dress would be more 'respectable' to visit them Elderly Vietnamese People... 

After the grandmother's place we went to see some next-door pagodas, which was also extremely fascinating. We did whatever holy thing must be done in front of Buddha with the incense. You could also do it in front of various other figures, mostly horses. I contented myself with photographing them.

With the pagoda lady/guard/motorbike watcher/caretaker

#2. Motorbiking it

a. To Saigon. An hour's trip that numbs your bum. Went on the back of McK's bike, it was the less crazy route (not that many trucks ready to squish you), and very scenic, but I still think I probably actually prefer buses just due to the bum numbness (or should I just say bumbness). My attire was very appropriate – I just need to sort out a scarf or hood under my helmet and I can completely pass as a local right!?
I kept the man sat near me amused by taking these selfies in the local Lotteria

b. Xeom-drivers never cease to fascinate me. I've realised the ones in HCMC are, well, 'good' – they're reliable, know their way, and don't try and rip you off. (Well, they do, but as long as you make sure the price is decided on beforehand.) 

BH ones are definitely more dodgy. Like the man who cackled the whole way from the bus station to wherever I was going, sometimes stopping to babble to me in Vietnamese, so much so that I had to gesture/tell him to focus on the road, not turning his head to talk to me about stuff I didn't have any hope of understanding anyways.

Or a few days back I got a toothless xeom driver on his seatless and foot pegless motorbike. He was lovely, completely harmless, but definitely a bit crazy. Ah, well, this is what I am looking for in Vietnam. Experiences.
He even agreed to be photographed
c. A new one which I'm adding just today (29.12): MOTORBIKING IT MYSELF. Yes, I have now driven a motorbike. Yes, on roads. Yes, amongst other traffic. Yes, driving towards oncoming traffic to make it onto my side of the road. Yes, to work and back. Oh and yes, managing to park it! (I even had the sense to take a picture of it parked so I'd recognise it when I came back for it...)

How is it you ask? Surprisingly okay. I did have the blink on for a sadly long amount of time whilst driving around town – now I understand the confused looks I got from some bikers driving past. But other than that, nothing worth mentioning.

Now THAT is a definite milestone.

# 3 A Vietnamese wedding
With the happy couple :)
Kim, one of the Tas at my centre, invited me to her sister's wedding. Sounds interesting...
Her friend M in her gorgeous pink dress (Vietnamese LOVE dressing up and have SUCH amazing dresses!) picked me up in her car and took me and her husband to the wedding venue in yet another Rural Setting. A big, like, tent with a mirriad tables packed with the guests. The bride was absolutely stunning in her massive, beautiful light-mauve dress that knocked down many stools when walking past...

Many courses of food were brought to the table – my favourite was this fish/rice thing. I decided not to try the seafood. I am actually a lot better with seafood now than what I used to be, but big, massive, what are they? Prawns? Shrimps? I don't even know! Anyways, I said no to them big massive (hopefully) dead ocean wildlife.
It seemed quite an interesting equal divide that the men drank beer while the ladies drank orange Mirinda. (SO REFRESHING that day, so much so I had to embarrassingly ask my new acquaintance M to find a toilet for me on the way back...) Every five minutesish someone would instigate a 'cheers'-moment, clinking glasses. I was desperately trying to figure out if I was expected to join in with each one.

Oh, and: Vietnam is all about karaoke. Karaoke EVERYWHERE. The guests seem to content themselves to the fact that you can't actually CONVERSE at a wedding. The music is the focus. Still didn't completely understand if the people singing were 'professional' or random guests – I know random people can go up and sing partly due to the astonishingly, er, questionable sense of musicality some people have (not at this wedding, I hasten to add, but you hear many a karaoke song at celebrations around Vietnam...), and also, people kept asking me if I wanted to go up and sing (er, I'm ok for the time being). But then on the other hand, M was telling me that it's mostly the same people who sing each time.
Obviously the bride gets her turn too!

#4 And the language...?

I feel like I'm leading a mini orchestra every time I (attempt to) speak Vietnamese. I just can't shake the feeling of the obligation that I have to show with my finger which way the intonation goes of each word I am trying to pronounce...

I've had one or two happy moments where I've been understood first time, and literally one or two where someone has responded to me in Vietnamese, expecting my language skills to be more talented than what they are, but most of it is still just very, very blank looks. For example, I was telling a Vietnamese guy in Saigon that I'm living in Bien Hoa. He had no idea what I was saying, even when I repeated it a few times. Then I took a moment to think about which way the accent goes on 'Hoa' (down), and I said it again, appropriately intonating (is that a word) it down. “Ah, Bien Hoa!” he said. Yes. Well done.

And that's that for the time being munchkins!!!

Hopefully will be writing a TINY bit more often...

It's one of the most exciting experiences in my life and I am being VERY lazy at recording it... I apologise. (mostly to myself)



Sunday, 14 December 2014

A less fun Viexperience

Last week I spent in Saigon again due to our company's epic CHRISTMAS PARTYYYY. I arrived on Monday and this is how it started off...
Very well, right? 
Last photo taken as a smart phone owner... </3
After an amazing cocktail at the epic View Bar (which has, trust me, a view), we walked out onto Bui Vien, my beloved backpacker street, the first one I ever discovered in Vietnam, remember? I was with four guys, and three of my friends were gonna meet us later on, so I took out my phone and started texting Tristan that we're leaving the View now. 

Was walking down the street, texting, got about half way through my text, when suddenly my phone was gone. I screamed, but I don't think I even had time to think anything. I looked up, a motorbike had just gone past with two Vietnamese lads on it. The passenger was holding something in his hand, he looked back at me – a sort of serious, concentrated expression (can you say concentrated when it's not about orange juice?), turned round and then the motorbike accelerated and sped off down a side street.

Knowing it was of no use, I half-heartedly ran down to the side street, but obviously they were nowhere to be seen. My friends caught up with me. “Shit,” was the comment, “Did your phone just get stolen?

Yes it did, yes it did...

My love for Bui Vien has gone down slightly.
Old photo... but this may actually be the street the motorbike disappeared down
Analysis: Okay, I say I was a silly vulnerable tourist, but in all fairness, I feel I am one of the more less-likely-to-be-targeted people, because I am CAREFUL. Whenever I can avoid having any sort of bag, I don't – I wear shorts or trousers or skirts with pockets especially when I'm out at night. But I was less careful with waving my phone about publicly. I guess I usually consider myself aware enough of my surroundings to be able to, I dunno, tighten my grip if I feel threatened by a pickpocketer... Well, obviously as a silly stupid vulnerable naïve tourist, I didn't think of the motorbikes that regularly speed past inches from you especially on small streets like Bui Vien.

Coincidentally, the next day Lorraine experienced an attempted mugging – and one of them serious, dangerous ones, where a passing motorbike tries to pull off your purse/bag which is around your head and one shoulder. In those cases, the muggers would have to pull you quickly so that they could grab the bag from around your head, or, alternately, pull so hard your strap breaks. That does not often end well for you since they don't care if you injure yourself or not. Lorraine was fine, whacked them off as she does, she also has special metal something-or-others to make sure the strap can't be ripped off. Anyhows, she has now switched back to having a backbag.

And I, what have I learnt. Well, I was adamant I'd learn from my experience. It's horribly frustrating and annoying and the HATRED I felt for that thief guy... (I spent an hour in one bar ripping off beer labels and shredding them into little bits, telling D which family member of the mugger's I am currently ripping apart...) (Then I started feeling bad, and now I am trying to convince myself that my mugger was actually on the verge of starvation or his wife was about to be murdered for a debt or other... so he just needed to get money from somewhere. Or maybe... his wife had just been run over by a motorbike and he didn't have a phone and no one would lend him a phone so he just had to steal one... So, basically, letting him steal my phone saved a life. Yes? Yes? Yes?)

ANYWAYS, obviously I'd heard a lot about muggings and theft and pickpocketing – 'serious' crimes are not common in Vietnam, but petty ones definitely are. But you don't think it'd happen to you. But, well, it did happen to me. And it made me realise how anything CAN happen. I can be run over by a motorbike, even though I'm careful. So I've decided to take extra precautions especially with that motorbike aspect. I will be more careful. So that nothing worse happens.

As indirect consequences I also missed my British Embassy appointment the next morning to get my important documents notarised. Well, I found an important place on the right street surprisingly on time (turned out to be the People's Committee building or something like that), but after two hours of hassling between different desks at this place (you had to get a number from the machine to see a desk person doing what you need. The first desk person sent me immediately back to the machine to pick a different one. But then the machine stopped working – you could get a number for all the other desks except the one I needed. The man 'helping' me gestured me to go and just wait in queue for the desk anyways. I did. For a long time. And got turned down when I got there and she realised I had no number. So I had to go back to the machine, still not working, still having the man gesturing I should go to the desk, me trying to make him understand they wouldn't let me. In the end I walked back to the desk lady – who at least knew some English – and she told me to wait till all the other customers had gone. Ok... I finally did get something important done to my documents, so hopefully that's saving on future hassle, but I still missed my embassy appointment...), so anyways after two hours here I learnt this was most definitely NOT the place I had my appointment for.

Ok, as one good thing about that visit, I got speaking to an Algerian man who was in the same predicament of me (machine not working), and we spoke lots and lots of French :) :) :)
The post office. Thanks google, this blog post needs more photos.
Oh, and, as another indirect consequence from my phone-snatching, after I had finished at the People's Committee, I realised I did not know Lorraine's address (who I was staying with) – all info like this was on my phone... So, in the end I decided to navigate myself to the post office where I had seen maps the previous day, bought one, looked around the area where they lived, and decided to just bet on one street name. I remembered it started 'Tr' and luckily I remembered the house number... so I got back.

And was locked out of the house. Lorraine was out working. I knew that in the morning, but D (her housie) was supposed to be in, but I gather he'd fallen asleep. In any other scenario, I would've phoned him. But, oh dear, I didn't have a phone.

This predicament ended quite coincidentally nicely, since I decided to check if their neighbour – the lovely Patricia from Portugal – was in. I don't know her particularly well, but she is lovely and super hospitable, so I thought I'd rather wait in her flat than hang in the corridor for an indefinite amount of time. Which I then did, tried to catch up on sleep (the previous night had been a nice two hours, so trust me the whole morning was especially... interesting) on her sofa and read her guidebook for the afternoon.

One of the worst days of my life, but simultaneously so ridiculously surreal and hilarious and sleep-deprived that, well, LOL.
However, having your phone stolen is a perfect excuse to comfort eat THIS <3
I now have a new pink/coral/orange/red phone which I bought for 650,000 (like 20 quid?). It has colour screen but no internet. Internetless life is the most difficult to adjust to. My computer often lives at the school, and since coming back from Saigon I've left it at the school purely so I would not have too much temptation to whittle away my nights online. But the feeling is SURREAL when you have no internet. It's lonely but also very productive. Like, a few days back decided to catch up on my Vietnamese using old worksheets I'd got over a month ago from that one Vietnamese lesson. :)

So much has happened since I last wrote, including two absolutely brilliant Christmas parties, but I think I'll stop here and update more later... I'm at the school and I did plan to do lesson planning, but, well, maybe not. I think I may hear the pool calling my name. Though I also do need to wait for that e-mail from the Embassy about my new appointment...


(I would put a picture but I would probably actually start crying...)


Saturday, 6 December 2014

Vietnamese Milestones so far


So, it's been nearly six weeks. Here are a few things I have finally succeeded in accomplishing...
Six weeks ago I could've been in that aeroplane...

First driving a motorbike! “Make sure you keep your hand on the brake...” Ph, the owner of the motorbike, reminded me frequently...

Not on roads yet, but I have now tried an automatic motorbike and I can confidently say I can drive, turn and brake. So much fun and well exciting! I believe that since I can drive a car as well as drive a bicycle (and have experience with gears on both!) a motorbike shouldn't be TOO overwhelming...

First bakery experience. With one of my brilliant adult classes. <3 There were six of us and between us we shared seven slices of cake. Tiramisu, cheese cake, chocoholic cake, some other lovely chocolate cake, and the best was, yet another, chocolate cake called Marula I think? Not quite sure what it was, but very scrumptious.

I was actually quite surprised discovering this whole bakery-culture – I was under the impression the Vietnamese aren't the biggest cake-eaters. Well, maybe they're not the biggest dessert-eaters is more like it. Anywise, loved the bakery.

First Westerner-sighting. !!!! In Bien Hoa that is. Were at our 'local' bar but this time on a Monday not the usual Sunday, and some English teachers from another school were there too playing pool! Ok, I complain about the Vietnamese staring at Westerners, but OH MY GOSH how I cannot blame them, I mean, a WESTERNER, such a RARE breed I was in awe! Didn't chat to them then, but bumped one of them later on our ROOFTOP POOL (have I mentioned our ROOFTOP POOL yet? Well, now I have.) which was well cool – my company's teachers are not the only foreigners in Bien Hoa.

(Off topic: One thing I can NOT count as a milestone is managing the Air Con. Dear Air Con, you were on 24 degrees the whole last night and I woke up shivering in my woolly socks and had to get up and turn you off. Now you are on 24 degrees again and the room is steaming. Please sort out your life. Though I do understand now why my room has both air con AND a fan... Dear Fan, at least I understand you. The only problem with you, oh fan, is you are so eager to please that I need to make sure to hide away on odd bits of paper since they WILL fly away thanks to your... vigour. SIGH)

First Karaoke. This happened a while back but I am quite bad at keeping up-to-date, apologies... Covered an adult class, it happened to be their last class so expected to be going through their test and doing some 'grammar games', but ended up on the back of a motorbike of one of the students, arriving at our very own Karaoke Room at a Karaoke Bar, singing My heart will go on and Bad Romance! The class had booked the room for their last lesson. The Vietnamese ADORE their karaoke. And since then I have hung out with some of the people from that class which has been cool both for their English, my Vietnamese and my cultural integration. :)
Me and my 'class' (which aren't really my class, more like friends)

First dress-shopping. It is not the funnest thing in the world getting half-naked in a corner of a random clothes shop with a random curtain pulled across you which keeps massively flapping away due to the fan. In some shops the assistant superkeenly would randomly enter your personal space mid-change and help you with the zip or something.

Quite luckily the dresses I embarrassingly did not manage to get over my bum were in shops where the shop assistant DIDN'T barge in. In one shop I tried two dresses – the first one I managed to get closed with the help of two shop assistants, but it was definitely a size too small. The next dress that I was eyeing up made the shop assistants look at me, the blue whaleish elephant roughly the size of Australia, a bit dubiously. BUT, I was well chuffed when I actually managed to fit in it (granted with a bit of zippy help from them), and they presented me with a pair of miniscule very high-heeled shoes which I guess are the obligatory dress-trying-on-shoes and praised the depness of the dress. (Have definitely used enough of the word 'dep' to last me a short while now, 'beautiful', 'nice', 'pretty' etc) In the end I got it, I have to decide still if it is dep enough to wear to next week's Christmas party...

More and more culinary delights. Number one is at the moment Bun Rieu, which is noodle soup with meat and dumplings/pilmeni/ravioli-type thingies in it. SCRUMPTIOUS. Today I was also introduced to Bun Tit Nuong which is the same noodles with meat and cut up spring rolls, STUNNING. I am bored of rice but all the mirriad different types of noodle soups are gorgeous. <3
Bun Tit Nuong courtesy of google <3
Also, one night had a dinner of street food – little men (or women) behind their little wheely stalls with various balls of funky meat, spring rolly-type things, sausages and general snacky food. Had spring rolls and an exciting green thing which turned out to have some sort of cheese in it, om nom!

First hairdressers. It finally came to the time that I could no longer ignore my roots, plus, next week is the above-mentioned super-glam CHRISTMAS PARTY which one absolutely cannot attend with rooty hair. But, do I trust Vietnamese hairdressers? I decided to.

One of my favourite Vietnamese people H, who works at my school, took me to her local hairdresser. Now, in Vietnam you should know that there are usually at least three people doing a job I am used to one, max. two people doing. Well, here, at the best of times I had four people doing my hair. One holding, one putting the colour, one doing something else. Or, well, drying hair is quicker with two people and two hairdryers eh!
I was a bit worried when they originally started doing everything else BUT my roots - I commented to Han, who translated for me, and apparently they were going to do the roots later. “Don't worry, they are experienced,” she reassured me. Ok. It's just very different...

So how did it turn out? STUNNING. Dep lam, very beautiful. I have rarely been that pleased after a hairdressers. Even my fringe has never looked so glam before, and as exactly sidey and as exactly fringey as I wanted!!!
The amazingly awkward yet lovely photo <3
They were lovely. I had Mr Sleek and Silent, Miss Lovely and Mr Cheery who, for the whole two hours looked as if he had just gotten out of bed – still in what I am pretty sure were boxers, and his hair constantly floppy and bed-haired. (Try and see if you can identify them from the pic...) But that didn't lessen the charm, I loved them and I would like to think they had fun doing my hair – I doubt dying hair red is on their everyday agenda, this out-of-the-way hairdresser in an already out-of-the-way Vietnamese town.


More Vietnamese words. Especially at the hairdressers H taught me a lot of Vietnamese, she is a brilliant teacher. For example, 'side fringe' is 'mái xéo' (literally 'fringe sloped'), with the intonation going up. (Though, easily to be confused with 'mai xèo' which would translate as 'tomorrow pancake'.) “So 'xèo xéo' would mean 'sloped pancake'?” I asked H over lunch. “You are intelligent,” she said, but then told me that it doesn't actually exist.

Oh, and also. So, the word dưa. It means melon. Like watermelon. (Not waterlemon as one of my teen classes adorably wrote...) But note, dừa means coconut. Confusing? Wait. And dứa means pineapple. It's all about intonation. I could get that printed on a T-shirt. Well, mixing those three up probably isn't the end of the world, I like melon, coconut and pineapple, so that's a safe word to practise on. Other words may be a bit worrying – I still don't completely understand the difference between the translations for 'beef' and 'avocado'. Well, maybe that isn't too serious either – I'm sure even if I mistakenly ask for a beef smoothie they may figure out it's not what I had in mind...
So I googled melon pineapple coconut

Being courageous enough to address people appropriately without feeling that I should be laughed out of the city, the country as well as the planet. Coz in Vietnamese you address the person you're talking to, AS WELL AS YOURSELF, differently depending on who it is you're talking to. So, I am now capable of saying 'chi' to females my age or slightly older, 'anh' to males my age or slightly older, and 'em' to kids... I still keep to silly-ignorant-foreigner-mode when addressing older people (though, technically, respect-wise it should probably be the opposite...) since my vocabulary confidence does not extend to the levels of successfully deducting whether the person you are talking to is classified under the 'aunt/uncle', the 'age of your parents', or 'age of your grandparents'-category...

First notebook. Because how can you NOT buy something with SUCH a powerful message. 

Climatal adaptation. Hahahaha no just kidding. You don't ADAPT to this climate. You just learn to avoid it at its most scorching heat. 

First funky watermelon. And when I say funky I mean funky. 

Ok, there are a few milestones for the time being.

(6.12 Editorial addition: First flick on the nose. This evening we were trying out chicken kebabs and after handing me my Coke the lady flicked me on the nose, laughed, said “dep” and walked away. I guess it's good I have learnt that bit of vocabulary since I understand it was a compliment (well, probably the first compliment I've got on my nose...), an odd one at that...)