Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Borrowers

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.

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A Fruity Rock God

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!)