One aspect of life abroad that can be both fascinating and frustrating for expats is that of Public Holidays.
Here in Vietnam there are nine weekday holidays, of which we’ve so far had 8.
Having arrived ‘post event’ in 2012, we decided to stay put for TET this year, despite the hugely conflicting advice about the wisdom (or otherwise) of such a decision, particularly given the proximity of our house to Phu Tay Ho – the main temple in Hanoi which is dedicated to the Mother Goddess. Changing date in accordance with the Lunar Calendar, TET this year was celebrated between 9th and 14th February and the whole area around the temple was turned into a cross between a carnival and carnage. Next year we will be going somewhere quieter – anywhere that doesn’t recognise this as new year.
On the 19th April we had a day off for King Hung’s day to commemorate the first King of Lac Viet and this week we enjoyed a two-day break. 30th April was Vietnam Victory/ Reunification/Liberation Day (depending on your affiliation/geographic location) to mark the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam in 1975. And yesterday, 1st May, was International Worker’s day which celebrates the economic and social achievements of workers throughout the year (not sure how these achievements are measured or whether they’re just assumed?).
Unlike in the UK where all Bank Holidays (apart from Christmas and New Year) are shifted to the nearest Monday – public holidays fall on the ‘correct’ day here so it is not unusual to have a Tuesday and Wednesday off – as we’ve just witnessed.
The reason that I find these holidays stressful is because they are completely alien to me. I can’t always work out what is being celebrated. I’m conscious that sometimes even the name of the holiday can be cause of contention – as in the case of Reunification/Liberation Day. And it’s extremely hard, as a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language, to work out how the Vietnamese celebrate or enjoy said holiday.
I’m reminded of my first Introduction to Islam lecture at the University of Manchester when the lecturer posed the questions – which Islam, when, where and for whom? His point being that, like much in life, there is no one ‘right’ answer – Islam is many different things to many different people. So too is the way of celebrating national holidays.
TET is the big one – similar to the Western Christmas – with presents, food, food and more food, some alcohol, spending time with people you don’t necessarily see the rest of the year, rituals, traditions and an enormous amount of pressure. It is, for the Vietnamese I’ve spoken to at least, both expensive and tiring and something approached with very mixed feelings. Sound familiar?
The last two days have felt like a weekend and so today must be Monday, which for some reason everyone else is calling Thursday! Hubby was off work but you wouldn’t have known it thanks to the constant beeping of his Blackberry and because he works in an international consultancy firm with colleagues around the world blissfully unaware that he was ‘on holiday’.
Which brings me onto the topic of how expats celebrate public holidays in their host country. Many, particularly the more seasoned foreigners and those with children, simply flee. Hanoi in particular engenders this desire because whilst it’s an amazing and vibrant city, it can drive you crazy with its constant noise, dust, humidity and general air of disorganisation. Depending on the length of holiday many people take the chance for an adventure exploring parts of Vietnam they haven’t previously visited, others head for a beach or 5 star resort and recharge their batteries beside a pool. Some friends of ours took advantage of one of the great deals offered to foreign residents and enjoyed a ‘staycation’ at a beautiful hotel on the opposite side of town to where they live and work.
We seem to be a little slow on the uptake and have so far been here for every public holiday. Now that we’ve enjoyed experiencing them – in that strange twilight zone between not being a local and not being a tourist, we have both agreed that we’ve ticked the box marked ‘Experience Public Holidays in Vietnam’ and will, in future, take the chance to be tourists in another city, enjoying everything that that entails. Staying put has meant that we’ve paid more for pretty much everything we’ve bought as local shops and restaurants all raise their prices at holiday time and we haven’t been able to enjoy the fresh ingredients we’ve become used to because, for example, the dairy producing the milk we like was closed for the holidays and the markets and small traders we usually buy from simply didn’t bother opening.
So here’s to our next public holiday, Monday 2nd of September when we’ll be celebrating Vietnamese Independence Day on a beach somewhere, or maybe even in Cambodia, Taiwan or Japan.
I wished I didn’t have to walk the dog so many times every day in Hanoi.
I got pneumonia and was housebound for two weeks.
I missed going out with the dog.
I wished the incessant drilling and banging would stop on the construction site next door as my neighbour builds a new house.
We had a power cut for 6 hours during which time I missed a work deadline in the UK and nearly roasted to death.
I missed the noise next door.
I wished I had remembered the old adage: Be careful what you wish for, it might just happen.
Do you know, I’ve been delaying writing a new post until I’ve got time to write about something interesting.
However, I’m so busy having adventures here that I’m not finding or making time to write anything. I came onto WordPress this morning to check the link address to send to a friend and then thought – go on, write a post, even if it is short and sweet.
So, here I am! We’ve had a ‘rat in mi kitchen‘ (reference to UB40 song which if you haven’t heard its ace, and if you have heard it you’re now going to be singing for the rest of the day! By coincidence the link I’ve given for YouTube is a live version from Cardiff – my home town!) for a week or so, ever since my neighbour started demolishing the house next door. Finally this morning I got it trapped in the sitting room and called the landlord to come and remove it. He duly arrived armed with a broom and a cleaver. After several frantic minutes chasing around the sitting room with Sally (the dog) leaping about encouragingly on the other side of the glass wall/door, said landlord emerged proudly holding up an inert rat. Probably sleeping but possibly a little more permanent than that, I do feel the very slightest twinge of guilt that the rat might have been a mummy or daddy and has a family back home awaiting its return. However, remembering the mango, banana, dog biscuits, oyster sauce and bread it’s managed to chomp its way through I rather feel like the days of a free meal at my house are justifiably over.
Okay, short but not so sweet! Until next time,
One of the things I knew nothing about before moving to Hanoi was the reality of the climate here. Speaking completely personally, and no, I’m not an expert (!) – it’s awful! We’ve been here almost a full calendar year having arrived at the very beginning of March 2012, February is the only month we haven’t experienced yet.
Apart from November which was a lovely month (am I biased because I had friends to stay and it was my birthday?), no weatherwise it was pretty good, really every single month has been a challenge for me. When I first arrived I was pretty soon struck down with Hanoi Hack (a medical term folks, I’m not making it up for dramatic effect), that took weeks to clear up before a short period of respite and another bout of coughing, bronchitis, sinusitis …..
Add to the challenge of keeping my body healthy with all the pollution here, the climate itself and really I’m amazed I’m still here! March was very grey, April started to brighten up, May – August were so unbelievably hot that going up a flight of 10 steps inside the house seemed like a gargantuan effort. Oh you get the picture …
One of the things I love about the Vietnamese, and expats now I come to think about it, is their willingness to share information. And this is particularly so when it comes to medication. I have drunk all sorts of herbal concoctions and teas which were absolutely guaranteed to cure a cough (and no, I don’t know what was in them but they looked horrid enough to perhaps work!), I’ve spooned down all sorts of hideous syrupy liquids, taken tablets, antibiotics, anti histamines …. However, I think all of this has been a waste of time and my latest venture – to a Vietnamese lady who practises traditional Chinese medicine – pretty much sums up the state of play.
After listening carefully to everything I have tried so far (and to be fair, only giving the very faintest of smiles), looking at my tongue, taking my pulse and blood pressure and then feeling around various key parts of the body she gave her diagnosis: My body was fighting itself, it is not in harmony and really the fighting is too much. So, I must start yoga, only eat food that is fresh and in season, gargle and sniff sterilised salt water twice a day, take exercise, relax more and stop struggling against my own body but let it find it’s own path to healing.
And the bill? A big fat Xero. She said there was no charge for her advice because really it was just common sense that I had forgotten and there is nothing wrong with me that my body won’t sort out for itself if I just give it a chance and lay off all the medicines.
A tip here that could result in some impressive savings for the National Health system in the UK perhaps?!
But I don’t know which one to tell you. Should I tell you about eating dog in Vietnam? Or the experience of being Country Table Coordinator at the HIWC Charity Bazaar (which looks set to be a record-breaking fundraiser this year, having taken $115,000 by the end of the day), or maybe I could talk about attitudes to Christmas here in a Communist/Buddhist country? Or how about the trip to Cinematheque with my book group to meet LeLy Hayslip?
Okay, I’m going to talk about the cinema trip – if you want to hear about the others send me a message and I’ll oblige. I belong to two book groups out here and am planning to start another. Both are through the Hanoi International Women’s Club (HIWC) and both are very different in character and membership. The lunchtime group is older women (oh okay, more my own age) – generally women who aren’t working, American, British, one Indian lady and a Scottish lady who has lived in Geneva for years. We host the group in turns and the host provides lunch – either home cooked or bought in. We meet from 11.00 – 1.30 and never have any problems talking about the book and veering off into fascinating discussions sparked by the theme. We’ve read and discussed books such as ‘The House of Velvet & Glass’ and ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ and are about to meet to discuss ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ (which is short stories – a genre I would never choose and I’m loving them). Choosing books always feel a little like pulling teeth and there’s only one or two of us who suggest any – not sure why!
But, I’m digressing because it’s actually a book that I’ve been reading through evening book group that I want to talk about. Evening book group is younger women – i.e. women who work or are still active mums (as opposed to me whose kids are back in the UK and aged between 18 – 26 years). We take it in turns to choose a book and the ‘chooser’ hosts. We usually get together in the host’s house at around 7.30 and enjoy wine and nibbles whilst having some very lively debates! We’ve read books like (the fabulous) The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman and The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhharta Mukherjee (a biography of Cancer which is brilliantly written, easy to read and absolutely fascinating). Our latest book was ‘When Heaven and Earth Changed Places‘ by LeLy Hayslip. Not entirely by coincidence, this was chosen because we felt we should read some Vietnamese literature and this won out over other suggestions as LeLy was scheduled to visit Hanoi in December.
Several of us are members of a delightful independent cinema club called Cinematheque Hanoi who tend to have themes and special screenings, including Q & A sessions with the author or director of a film when possible. (They’re about to start a week of David Lean films, including the first showing in Asia of the new HD version of Lawrence of Arabia – I’ve already booked my seat!). LeLy Hayslip’s book is about her experiences growing up in Ky La, a village near Da Nang in central Vietnam – caught between the Viet Cong and the Republican Army. Her graphic account was made into a film in the 1990s (I think) by Oliver Stone. She was at the screening, having prepared (with some Buddhist monks) a fantastic vegetarian buffet supper for all guests and then conducted a Q&A at the end.
So, 6 of us met up at Cinematheque for supper and a bottle of wine, all confessed that we hadn’t finished the book but were enjoying it. We met LeLy and were blown away by the film – a little Americanised for sure but great nonetheless. The Q&A was fascinating and LeLy was so open, honest and friendly it was hard to equate her with the traumatic life of the character on the screen. She donated all proceeds on the night to a charity she established in 1998 to help to heal the wounds between America and Vietnam following the war – East Meets West Foundation. What struck me, sitting in a red velvet seat, in a 90-seat capacity, independent cinema, sipping my glass of wine, with friends was how unbelievably lucky I am to have these opportunities. Where else could I meet such an inspiring woman in person, and enjoy her food, life-story and company among friends.
And where was my husband at the time? Out with a group of French friends enjoying an evening at L’Opera Hanoi listening to a Jazz concert featuring Vietnam’s most famous saxophonist. Sometimes the choices we are having to make about how to spend our leisure time are almost absurd. I’ve always said that I wish I could have two parallel lives – one with the choices I do make, and one with the choices I didn’t make. Never has this been more true than here in Hanoi where on many occasions we’re having to choose between almost impossibly fabulous events. In the end it usually comes down to which one we’ve said yes to first! Ah, it’s a great life eh!
“Today madam we should pay our respects to the landlord’s mother” announced Chi. Great I thought, having been bitterly disappointed that we missed out on the actual funeral a few days earlier. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not somebody who delights in death or bearing witness to another’s sorrow. In fact I have probably caused more harm along the way with my complete horror of causing pain to another person – with the things not said and the actions not taken – than any mischief I might have carried out intentionally.
No, my delight is because I am intrigued by how others do things. How they conduct the rituals of life and how we learn what is expected of us simply by ‘being there’. And what better way to observe, at least a small part of, the rituals surrounding death here in Vietnam than by going along to pay my respects to a lady I have never met, for a man I never knew?
Despite being acutely aware of how little I know about Vietnamese societal norms, one thing is for sure – I can recognise a mother’s pain in any language and can think of nothing worse than the raw agony of losing your child, no matter how old they are.
Chi explained that we should take fruit and an envelope each on which we must write some words of condolence. It was agreed that I should write what I would in the UK to someone I didn’t know and so, conscious of the need to translate it too, I opted for a rather bland:
We are very sorry for your loss.
Warm wishes, Kevin and Karen
Into the envelope we were to put 100,000 Vnd per person (i.e. 200,000 in my envelope and 100,000 in Chi’s – which she refused to let me pay)
At 2p.m., which Chi considered to be the right time to visit, she called our landlord and landlady and, getting no reply, set off next door to find out what time would be convenient.
The mother was there but about to go back to her own house along the alley. A few minutes later and Chi’s ‘phone rang to signal that we should set off. Walking Sally through all the inter-connecting lanes on a daily basis, I already knew the house to which we should make our way but the landlord’s 23-year old son was waiting at our gate to escort us.
On arriving Chi pushed me forward saying: “You are older than me, you must go first”. So there I was, straight into the front room as is typical in Vietnamese houses. The grieving mother looked to be in her 80s but I find local people incredibly difficult to age accurately.
We were handed a plate on which Chi arranged our envelopes and the fruit (grapes the size of golf balls because as Chi said: “They will be offered to other visitors and everyone will know that they were brought by the ‘tay’ – the foreigners”) This she then placed on the altar where we stood side by side with hands raised, flat together in a symbol of respect and prayer. We dipped our hands three times before the photo of the deceased, made a small bow and sat on the hard wooden chairs beloved of Hanoians, to chat about the deceased take tea and eat fruit. (I learned that the Vietnamese way to eat a banana is to snap it in the middle and delicately unpeel one half at a time eating it as you unpeel. My rather ungainly and faintly obscene ‘Western’ way had me cursing the previous visitors for not having had the foresight to have taken grapes too)
The mother, my landlady and the deceased’s sister all sat with us chatting, with Chi translating, bridging the divide and asking all the questions I longed to ask but would have felt to be impolite even if I could speak Vietnamese. (They have no such qualms and to say that they ‘call a spade a spade’ would be under-emphasising just how blunt they truly are). The old lady started to cry and kept saying “Cam On” (thank you) over and over. Chi explained that she was so moved that I had taken the time to visit and that the whole family are most grateful to Kevin and me for caring about them. I confess I felt slightly guilty at just how fascinating a pleasure this visit was for me and muttered the obligatory platitudes, you’re welcome, it’s nothing …..
And so to the deceased. He was the youngest of her children born in 1969, making him 42 at the time of death, which everyone agreed was far too young. He was diagnosed with throat cancer 6 months ago and had whatever treatment could be offered here. Towards the end he was ‘so sick he could not eat rice’ Chi confirmed solemnly. Anyone who has been to Vietnam will immediately discern just how truly dreadful was his condition as, for most of the population rice is eaten and enjoyed three times a day, every day. He was conscious when he died but very weak having existed on just water, yogurt and milk for several weeks. His illness did not unfortunately take away his appetite and he begged for food right up to the end, knowing as he did so that he could not possibly swallow anything with any substance. Surrounded by his entire family; mother, brother, sister, nephews, nieces and the collective spouses, he passed away peacefully on Monday.
We all agreed that this was a blessing, that he was a very handsome man and that he had a lovely smile.
Chi explained that the family must continue to feed him for 49 days which was slightly disconcerting until I realised that this is done by leaving his meals on the altar for him to enjoy, along with his favourite brand of Hanoi vodka, soft drinks and cigarettes. Prior to his illness, he had been a heavy smoker so his relatives must ensure that during this mourning period he enjoy a continuous supply of cigarettes, lit for him and placed between the incense sticks in a manner that seemed sickeningly close to a replica graveyard with its burnt out stubs sticking into the air almost mockingly.
During this 49 day period the daughter and daughter-in-law will take turns on alternate days to feed the mother before she moves in next door permanently on the 50th day.
With the niceties over we took our leave to more ‘cam on’ing and squeezing of hands and, once outside the door the sister invited Kevin and I to her restaurant, just near where we all live and my landlady begged me to teach her English in exchange for Vietnamese classes from her.
The son escorted us on the return trip with Chi confessing that she had not been that way along the alley before (despite admitting to me earlier in the day that she had lived not 5 minutes walk from my house for 10 years during her marriage!) and the son laughed and said that everyone knows me because I walk through there every day with my dog. As she opened our gate Chi said how lucky it was that the deceased had no children of his own. Thinking how difficult it would be for them to lose a father I agreed with a sympathetic nod only to be brought up short when she said “The landlord must now look after his mother and if there were children he should pay everything for them too, at his own expense. Yes it is very good, I think so, that he had no children. Very luckeeee.”
Well now I would never think of not having children as being lucky, although I can see her point. Even in death, life must go on.
One of the things I was particularly looking forward to about moving to a completely new place was the feeling that I would suddenly have more time. Back in the UK I managed to fill all my time – with a combination of work and leisure activities – so that I never seemed to have the time to take on anything new or even ‘enough’ time to do some of my activities to the extent that I wanted to.
In Vietnam though I felt that things would be different. For one thing I wouldn’t have friends and family around and although I love spending time with them all, without their presence I should, in theory have spare time.
Five months in and that just doesn’t seem to be the case. My husband reckons that the day I die I’ll still be complaining that I haven’t got, or haven’t had, time to do everything I want to do. Maybe he’s right, maybe I am just one of those people who is constantly dissatisfied. But I don’t actually think that’s what he meant. I think he meant it as a compliment. He often says that I have an insatiable curiosity and interest in life, a thirst that can never be quenched. Hmm.
So what exactly do I do all day?
Well let me see:
Monday – free in the morning to catch up with marketing writing and other bits of admin related to owning property that’s rented, pensions, general ‘stuff’. The afternoon I try to meet up with my writing buddy to do a couple of hours of creative writing. Walk the dog – which takes the best part of an hour and a half made up of walking for around 45 minutes, cooling her off and feeding her and showering and changing clothes. Often I cook on a Monday but Chi will have acted as sous chef so not usually too much prep to do. The evening is spent chatting to hubby and watching one of the many series we enjoy on DVD. Bed and read either one of the book group books or something I’ve chosen.
Tuesday – 9.30 – 12.00 – teaching English to a Vietnamese lady. Sometimes on the way home I’ll stop at a shop to buy some of the Western groceries that Chi doesn’t buy. Chi works all do so usually cooks on a Tuesday. In the afternoon I walk the dog earlier and then go to Lacquer class from 3 – 6p.m. Home to finish off the supper and eat with hubby.
Wednesday – 9.30 – 1.30 – Play Mah Jong with a group of International Club ladies followed by lunch. In the afternoon as I’m in town I will do any admin or buy items we need from shops in the centre. Today for example I went to find and pay the tour operator we’ve booked some forthcoming trips with. Home to walk the dog. Catch up on marketing work and keep in touch with friends/family. Cook supper and evening with hubby.
Thursday – a.m. teaching Vietnamese lady as Tuesday. If I haven’t made it to my writing buddy on Monday I go in the afternoon. Otherwise I prep for a Business English class tomorrow, read a Book Group book if I find time and play some learning sessions of Mah Jong. I do ad hoc writing work for clients in the UK in addition to retained work so often fit this in here. Walk the dog – of course. Evening – Chi works all day so cooks. I might need to do a bit of prepping but otherwise – evening with hubby.
Friday – 8.10 – 2.00 I go to hubby’s work where I teach all the Vietnamese staff Business English, followed by lunch with hubby and colleagues. Home to walk Sally followed by cooking supper if needed. Sometimes we go out on a Friday night but not always.
Saturday and Sunday – 9.30 – 12.30 on both days I teach the Vietnamese lady’s 2 young children.
So, in between these ‘set’ activities I belong to the Hanoi International Women’s Club and go to coffee mornings or other events they run; belong to two book groups and a writing group. We swim at least once a week and go probably three times a month to the independent cinema club to see a film. On average we eat out with friends once a week and I try to meet a friend for coffee or lunch once a week. We are about to buy a bike each to go cycling at the week ends and so I can do my short run journeys by bike instead of needing a taxi to get everywhere. I knit in the evenings and we sometimes listen to a story on CD but hubby usually falls asleep and I get fed up having to listen to the same chapter the next evening x about four before I refuse to hear it again and we give up! Once a month we’ll go to a cultural event – at the English book shop perhaps or a wine tasting. I write a journal and occasional blog!!!
I’ve just volunteered for a role in the HIWC Charity Bazaar annual fundraising day held at the end of November. It sounds like a pretty big role but in all honesty the work hasn’t started yet so that isn’t taking my time.
Now, what don’t I do that I want to?
Go to pilates classes every week; go with the ladies to the orphanage to teach the girls to knit/spend time with them; more creative writing; join the weekly ‘hash’ walks on a Saturday; baking; cultural things with a friend – visit more museums, pagodas etc.; some time with absolutely nothing planned; more trips and week ends away.
Some of these we’ve got planned – we will buy bikes this week end, the hash walks will start up again I guess in September, when I finish the lacquer course I’m going to use that time for the orphanage/pilates/cultural things with a friend and we’ve got number one son coming to visit next week and have two pretty full-on weeks planned of visiting Saigon, Danang, Hue, Hoi An, Hanoi and Sapa.
Is my husband right – do I just want to do more things than there’s time for? Life is for living right and absolutely every component within mine has been chosen by me – how enormously priviledged am I. So none of what I’ve written is a complaint – more an observation that perhaps some of us are born to be dissatisfied – in a good way!
So, we’re back in Ha Noi having spent almost three weeks travelling the length and breadth of England – with a bit of Wales thrown in for good measure!
The three and a half months between arriving in Ha Noi, in March, and going on holiday seemed to fly past and we were just beginning to find our feet when it was time to go ‘home’. Which brings to mind the question about where is ‘home’? Being an ex. pat. you become a little confused I think – home is where we live and that is Ha Noi but it’s also where those we love live and in our case that’s the UK. When we were on holiday we found ourselves talking about Ha Noi as home, partly perhaps because all our possessions are here and Sally (dog) was in kennels. Is home then where you have roots or a tie, or people? If it’s people, is it where the majority of the people you care about live? Maybe it’s wherever your heart says is home. For me, right now I have two homes: Ha Noi because it’s where my husband and Sally are and the UK because it’s where pretty much everybody else that I love and care about lives.
Our holiday had been planned around my youngest sister’s wedding celebration (the original ceremony having taken place in Noosa ) and, happily for me this coincided with Bruce Springsteen’s tour of the UK with the East Street Band. Four of us went to The Etihad Stadium in Manchester on a very bleak, wet, grey evening in June to hear the band play their hearts out for 3.5 hours. Awesome and a lesson for many of today’s ‘celebrities’ on showmanship.
It is not unusual for there to be tension or under currents at family get togethers but, unless I missed them entirely, our day was fantastic – credit to the bride and groom for their thoughtful planning I think! However, in-keeping with wedding tradition, the bride looked absolutely stunning. They say that every girl wants to be a princess on her wedding day and my sister looked every bit like a fairytale princess.
We spent the next two weeks driving like maniacs around the country visiting relatives and friends and enjoying the cool weather (I know, I know, who’d have thought I’d enjoy cool rain so much but after the humidity of Ha Noi it was sooooo refreshing!). By the time we got back on the plane we were both slightly frazzled and ready to relax – thrilled though we were to have seen so many loved ones.
The day after landing back here, we were off again. This time taking up an invitation from some great new friends to join them on a week end cruise to HaLong Bay . It is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world and breathtakingly beautiful. I will try to insert a photo at the bottom of this post.
By the time we got home on the Sunday evening we were fully relaxed having enjoyed a great holiday and a great week end. Let me just tell you a little about the group we went to HaLong Bay with though because it reflects the whole ex. pat. experience perfectly. The man who invited us is Dutch (met hubby at a networking event) married to a Vietnamese lady from Saigon. They had invited us to dinner a few weeks ago and it came out in conversation that the week end we got back from holiday was our 8th wedding anniversary. Knowing that Kevin (hubby) had been having some challenges at work and we hadn’t been out of Ha Noi yet, they suggested we join them on this cruise. Seemed like a great idea and we gratefully accepted. Over the next few weeks it transpired that the trip had been organised to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Dutchman’s sister who would be coming to Vietnam with her two children especially to celebrate the birthday. Great, what an honour to be included. So, the 12 guests were made up of: the Dutch man and his wife and young son, his uncle who was born and brought up in the States, plus American wife, his father and cousin from Holland, his sister and two daughters who live in Curacao plus Kevin and I from the UK. Internationalism at its very best eh! Even if we return to HaLong bay during our time in Vietnam I can assure you we’ll never forget our first trip. And if you haven’t been – check it out and add it to your bucket list
I don’t know why, it’s not as if the inhabitants are little people or anything, but this dwelling always reminds me of The Borrowers. Just before moving to Vietnam we watched a new BBC One dramatisation of Mary Norton‘s classic novel so maybe that’s why it’s near the front of my mind. Like many children I absolutely loved the idea that there might be little people living in our midst who ‘borrow’ all those things that go missing!
However, this picture is in some ways perhaps rather sad – this motley collection of cast offs and leftovers is someone’s home. From what I can gather a family of 6 live here, including two young children, but that could be more because Vietnamese families prefer to live all together and I often see an elderly woman emerging from the front door too.
Like many thousands of Vietnamese people, this family make their living from collecting, sorting and I guess selling on somehow, other people’s rubbish. Their house happens to be on a piece of wasteland where I walk Sally sometimes so the family now recognise me and wave or say Xin Chao (hello). The children – under 6 years of age – are both fascinated by and terrified of Sally but they do seem to enjoy watching her frolicking around off lead and throwing/catching various bits of ‘treasure’ like an empty drink bottle.
Not usually one for facts and figures I can tell you that the minimum wage here is (supposedly) 2 million Vietnamese Dong (Vnd) per month – roughly £60 and very roughly £2 a day. Sure many things are very cheap here but even so, that is not a lot of money. A paper collector can earn 3 million a month while a surgeon will earn 30 million (an amount that only 2% of the population generate).
The observant amongst my readers will have noticed that there are a) not a lot of photos and b) none showing people. It’s not that I’m not interested in people, quite the opposite in fact, I’m only really interested in people. It’s because I have an absolute horror/dread/fear of taking someone’s photo without asking them first. Yes I have some hang ups about having my own photo taken and yes it stems from my childhood and yes Dad, I forgive you honest I do! There are some stunningly beautiful, tender interactions between people here where the lines between public and private are very blurred.
Many people live out their lives on the streets, in public and the opportunity to observe or bear witness to all of life’s interactons is all around you. When my hubby walks Sally last thing at night he never ceases to tell me how many of the cars and motobrikes were ‘rocking’ on the waste ground which doubles as a spot for young lovers under cover of darkness. (Isn’t that illegal in the UK by the way?!)
Maybe one day I’ll pluck up the courage to ask The Borrowers if I can take their picture outside their home but then how could I explain that I don’t want the picture to gloat or show the world how dreadful it is here – but to show you how happy they seem, the level of teamwork displayed with every single family member pulling their weight and mucking in and how ingenious is their house which withstands the truly awful weather in Hanoi. I couldn’t explain it and have them understand and I don’t want to steal from them so I’ll have to try to capture them in my mind and the occasional furtive picture and hope that that’s okay with them.
I alluded in my last entry to things here not being as they first appear and that doesn’t only apply to the shops. When Chi arrived one morning with these fruit I was particularly delighted because they are everywhere at the moment – every fruit barrow worth it’s salt is laden with them.
Unfortunately I had no idea what they were or even if they were sweet or savoury – the lines blur in this respect here too in Vietnam I think! Anyway I was just on the verge of buying some to experiment on when a bagful arrived with a grinning Chi one morning. “You lie dese, yes I tin so madam” she declared cheerfully and I was able to match her enthusiasm whilst still admitting to my own ignorance. She was completely taken aback that I’d never had them before and declared that in English they’re called Mangosteen.
My enthusiasm, already pretty high, ramped up a level – Mango; my (until that moment maybe?) favourite fruit; and Springsteen; my rock idol. Could things possibly get any better? Oh yes my friends – the taste. Sublime and all the other superlatives you can conjure. Now I don’t know about your household habits but in ours, and thinking about it in my childhood home too I’m pretty sure, there’s an unwritten rule which states that any fruit that needs peeling, cutting or preparing in any way can only be done so by me (or my mother when a child). I don’t remember quite where this rule came from and have always found it rather irritating – come on guys those ‘easy peel’ clementines aren’t hard for heaven sake. Anyway, the world order continues in Hanoi where some form of payback has been achieved. I know what the outside of a Dragon Fruit looks like, I can distinguish between sweet and sour mangoes and yes, I recognise (and know how to ‘unlock’) a mangosteen.
As I prepared our post-evening-meal bowl of fruit, with hubby distractedly playing word games on the computer, I remembered Michel Roux Jnr. exhorting the Masterchef contestants to: ‘Always taste your food. Never serve food you haven’t tasted.’ Who am I to argue with the great man? So I tasted the first mangosteen. Yep, it was delicious. I tasted the second mangosteen, equally gorgeous. Nine mangosteen later, realising I was down to the last fruit a dilemma seized me of epic proportions. Do I: a) eat the last one and hope hubby doesn’t notice, b) declare it unfit to eat, c) put it back in the fridge for later and peel a couple of oranges instead or d) dutifully share ‘my’ last mangosteen with my husband?
Chi: “I like these, yes I think so” (and so does Kevin!)