From street level. Some photos.

These were taken by a friend who graciously let me use them. Neither my photography skills or my camera are as good.

Notice:

– The excellent and safe wiring

– The typical ‘shop front’ house style. Long, thin, tall.

– The amount of houses squeezed into one space

A typical Saigon neighbourhood. Alleys of houses, mashed together, with no room to spread outwards, the only way is up.

The beginning of the end

I’ve been here for a year now and I have one month left. I haven’t even left yet and nostalgia is already sweeping over me like the dirty sewage that floods the streets when it monsoons here. All the things that usually annoy me are becoming endearing and as the end is nigh I am regretting choosing to leave.

I also realised that I spent a lot of this blog just uploading holiday photos and not really any of ‘real’ Ho Chi Minh City, as in the tiny alleys, the street food, the crumbling facades of old colonial buildings, the crowded skyline, the manic streets and heaving roads. So, I pledge henceforth, for my remaining time here, to actually say some useful and interesting things about Saigon, instead of not-so-humbly-bragging about my beach holidays.

So, to begin this new wave of posts. The other day three Vietnamese friends and three other US and UK friends had a meet up. I’ve noticed that when arranging social events my Vietnamese friends are very organised, the day is assigned and events planned, it’s almost contrived, bordering on ‘forced fun’. This particular day we were told that we were going to ‘cook and then chat and then play games from 9am until precisely 3pm. To be frank, beforehand I wasn’t looking forward to it, I was tired and had other things to do then partake in a strictly regimented social session in broken English where social and cultural barriers can hinder a lot of conversations. But I can happily say I was extremely wrong. It was a great day which ended in us scaling the roof of a 30 story apartment block at sunset. Here are some photos one of my friends took on their very swish camera.

Us and the food we made from scratch. My offering was banoffee pie made without an oven, a whisk, proper biscuits or a cake tin. But the Americans and Vietnamese had never had it before so it had nothing to live up to!

overlooking the city from District 5.

I’m not sure why I’m doing the YMCA, in the wrong order, and no one else is.

Looking out into Districts 5 and 10 at sunset.

District 1, 3 and 7 in the distance

The ubiquitous Bitexico tower. The landmark that helps you figure out where you are in the city.

A noteworthy point in the day was a discussion I had with one of the girls. She asked what I studied at university and I told her I’d focused a lot on Vietnamese history. She was really interested and quizzed me about it at length. I have to be really careful when I talk about the war so as not to offend people, especially given that they only ever hear one perspective here. This was SO evident when talking to her. Her family were from the north and her view of Vietnamese history was so entirely one dimensional. You know you hear of people talking of ‘the great leader’ in places like North Korea? And you don’t think people really believe it? Well, she really, truly did. She said she loved Uncle Ho (which is normal, you hear that a lot) and described him as almost super human, she spoke of the Vietnam War as if she’d been indoctrinated. Espousing how Ho Chi Minh was following the great example of Lenin and how people in the South ‘needed’ to be re-educated after reunification in order to think correctly. Some of what she said was opinion, some things were stated as fact but I knew where incorrect. It was really bizarre and a bit shocking, she is so lovely and SO intelligent, she’s in the process of applying for grad schemes with KPMG, PwC and the like. But to hear her talk like that made me so angry at the way history is taught here. She expressed utter horror that Ho Chi Minh was never awarded a Nobel peace prize and believed that everybody in the country wanted to be communist and unified. I understand that the education system is biased here, but I’ve never heard it so extremely. For example I mentioned (sensitively) the famous ‘boat people’ who tried to escape Vietnam as northern forces came down the coast, she said they’d misunderstood and shouldn’t have been scared, I tactfully said they might have been scared because of the massacres in places like Hue committed by those forces, she said that never happened.

We also spoke about the government of Vietnam, and how the people don’t choose their leader. They elect local party committee members, who then vote in regional ones, who then vote in party members, who then choose the leader from the one party. So at lower levels people really get little influence. She believed this was the most favourable way to govern however because the government knows best. It was interesting but I had to be so careful, I was tiptoeing on ice every time I said something for fear of upsetting these deep seated notions. Nevertheless she said she really enjoyed talking about it, as did I, so alls well that ends well.

More updates coming soon!

A humourous anecdote…

I was walking through the corridor of the university last week and I saw a man come out of the admin office. I thought it was one of the men who does the scheduling and who always chats to me. So I said hello down the hall and he approached. We had at least a four minute conversation before I realised it wasn’t actually the person I though it was. I stood their feeling both awkward and guilty for mistaking him for someone else.

Just as I as making a hasty excuse to leave, he said “Great to see you Joanna, have a good time at home in Holland”.

Turns out he thought I was some one else as well. I guess us Europeans all look the same!

As camp as a row of tents

In the words of Forrest Gump when talking about his time in Vietnam:

“One day it started raining, and it didn’t quit for four months. We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin` rain… and big ol` fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath. It rained and rained and rained”

It’s technically been ‘wet season’ since June, but that just meant some short showers a few times a week and we could still go about our daily lives. Over the last two weeks however the downpour has been unrelenting, streets have flooded and I feel a bit like the ark left without me. Leaving the house meant wading through calf-deep water and a snorkel would probably been seen more as an ingenious idea rather than odd.

Genuinely what the alley behind our house looks like

So what was there to do? The only thing imaginable; we planned a camping trip next to a huge waterfall.

We hired a minibus  (which had a TV in it and the driver insisted on playing 90s love  ballads the whole way, cue Boyzone, R Kelly and Westlife) and 16 of us piled in armed with rain jackets and Hanoi’s finest £1 a litre vodka.

The camp site was in a s resort next to Giang Dien Waterfall. The tents were already set up on wooden platforms with awnings, electricity and even little cupboards inside. They even provided a basket with toiletries and towels.

As already mentioned, it had been a tad rainy, so the usually calm waterfall was what can only be described as ‘raging’. It was also horrendously muddy. So of course we swam in it, having to hold onto branches and slippery rocks to stop ourselves floating away.

Evening came and the rain started with vengence. It was so heavy and the storm was so loud it genuinely sounded like we were being bombed. We were the only people on the whole campsite as it was low season and midweek. Everything was due to close at 6pm, but we managed to convince the staff to let us stay in a lit gazebo until 10pm. Come that time we’d run out of alcohol and didn’t fancy carrying on in the dark in the forest. Out of the group I was the only one who had sufficient Vietnamese for bribery and thus was thrust towards a security guard with a hand full of money. Alcohol is a well known linguistic lubricant and somehow, despite him speaking no English, I managed to persuade him not only to allow us to stay inside an empty restaurant until the early hours of the morning, but also to drive to the nearest town and buy us more beer, spirits and mixers and deliver them back to us. This was my proudest moment so far in terms of language ability and elicited a round of applause from some very drunk and wet campers. To be fair there’s only so many words and gestures you need to state the amount of bottles you want, I think the money did most of the talking.

Apply liberally to vocal chords for maximum language fluency.

My favourite Vietnamese dish.

Forget phở, the ubiquitous Vietnamese noodle soup dish, these wondrous little wraps are the best thing to come out of Vietnam since, well, those really cute pot bellied pigs.

They consist of a crepe style mini wrap, grated coconut, sugar paper, sesame seeds and then condensed milk which serves as glue. They are so much more delicious than the sum of their parts. They are crunchy (sugar paper) but soft (crepe and coconut) and sweet (sugar and condensed milk) but also savoury (sesame seeds). One will set you back 5000 dong, or 15 pence.

 

I caught this man outside a school near our house. I say caught because they are notoriously hard to find. Men sell them from boxes on the back of the bicycles, but these men are never consistently in the same place and I am yet to track down their route. With one notable exception, a man used to sell them at lunch time outside our work, his were bigger and better than any other and he was known around the vast landscape of the staff room. Unfortunately, ‘Coconut man’ as we affectionately called him, has disappeared, much to our dismay. So now we have to settle for buying as many as we can carry any time we do spot one of these magical culinary cyclists.

Moon cake dot com.

About a month ago these strange red stalls started to pop up on street corners.

Now, I am used to odd business ventures rapidly springing up. There’s a roundabout near my house where they sell electronics and Tupperware with the aid of a giant Karaoke screen. Advertising here isn’t always so spot on, near my house there’s also a dentist surgery with a huge picture of Jessica Alba for no reason. Besides it’s in another language so it’s very hard to work out what someone is actually selling. Thus, I thought this was just another new product they were trying to push.

But then the word ‘moon’ started to appear EVERYWHERE. Local bakeries were selling moon pastries, Baskin and Robbins were selling moon ice cream. Something’s going on I thought….

This general moonish-ness carried on for a good four more weeks before I finally asked a Vietnamese person why, coincidentally it seemed, there was suddenly a lot of talk about the moon. Turns out it’s a really popular festival, Tết Trung Thu, which when translated has the catchy name ‘Lunar Mid-Autumn Festival’. It’s also celebrated widely in China, so Cho Lon, the Chinese district here, has been even more packed than usual recently with people buying appropriate festival paraphernalia.

I’ve asked a few people what it’s about and the general consensus is that the full moon is the biggest of the year and people eat this special ‘cake’ and children make lanterns and walk around with them. There’s also some lion-costume dancing. No body could really tell me why. A bit like trying to explain Halloween I guess.

You can only buy moon cakes around this time apparently so they are very popular. Our equivalent  would be Easter eggs, (I’d say creme eggs but it appears they’ve sacrilegiously gone on sale all year round now).

The traditional moon cake looks a little like a pork pie. There are many different varieties but the general trend is some odd-flavoured dense powdery stuff and then a big sphere in the middle of egg, fruit or meat.

 

I apologise, but I am not a fan. They have vegetarian ones; green tea, lotus or red bean flavour to name a few, and in my uncultured opinion they aren’t great! It’s an odd, dry, stodgy mix of bizarre tastes and textures with a less-than-exciting-more-disgusting centre piece.

To counteract my damming assessment of this cultural staple, here are some pretty festival pictures I took from the internet:

 

 

More information about the festival can be found on this ever reliable and trustworthy website http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mid-Autumn_Festival#Vietnam

Also, for what it’s worth, the moon WAS gigantically full last night, ’twas beautiful.