Blog Archives

Blogging Made Serious

My day job is an interesting combination of marketing writing, teaching Business English and being on the Community Aid Committee of the wonderful Hanoi International Women’s club.  And of course those tasks get juggled alongside everything else that most women (and yes, some men) deal with on a daily basis – currently that includes moving house.  So it will come as no surprise that I cannot function without a daily To Do List, combined with jottings and slips of paper in a desk calendar, a pocket calendar and electronic calendars all neatly synched between laptop, iPad and phone.  Simply keeping these aide memoires up to date and colour co-ordinated regularly provides endless hours of entertainment (I think that was someone’s catch phrase but don’t know whose?).

In that wonderful way that only the universe fully understands, my various ‘worlds’ often overlap and merge in a very satisfying way (and occasionally collide in a less pleasant manner) and I marvel every time when I’m asked to write an article on a subject that is just the topic I need to know more about at that particular time.

Two recent examples illustrate my point.  The first, more positively than the second, was an article I wrote for an e-newsletter where the topic was how to handle email overload in the office.  I have the Post It Note in front of me as I type:  Do, Delegate, Designate Time and Dump and I have to say, this system works very well for me (when I remember to use it!).

The second article was a longer piece about business blogging – why you need one and how to get started.  Researching this article had me engrossed and I enjoyed writing it so much I even decided to implement some of the advice.  An hour or so later I had a hand written, a typed and an Evernote version of my blog’s mission statement, frequency, editorial calendar and keywords.

That was back in April and since then I ‘should’ have written fortnightly on:

  • Public Holidays in Vietnam
  • Getting a second dog
  • Trailing spouse syndrome
  • Visiting Thailand
  • Staying home alone in a strange country while hubby works away
  • Visiting Phu Quoc island
  • The CAC and HIWC
  • Moving house, what you look for in a home when living abroad
  • Holidays redefined – when going back home is not a holiday

And since April I think, from memory, I’ve posted about two blogs and probably not actually covered any of these topics.  In fact, I haven’t felt inclined to blog at all.  What had been a pleasure that I admittedly didn’t indulge in as often as I would have liked, had suddenly become a chore.  Creating this plan took all the creativity out of the process for me.  What had been fun has now become work.

Three months later here’s what I’ve learned – not all plans are good plans, you don’t always need a plan and – if it isn’t working ditch the plan!

So, hopefully I’ll be back more often and writing about the stuff that appeals at the time of writing rather than following a ‘features calendar’ and hopefully my readers will enjoy the randomness of ad hoc writing.  I’ll leave you with a photo of me and the hubby getting soaked playing splash with an elephant in Thailand – just to bring the fun back into this blog!

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Belle and Sally Sizing Each Other Up

Belle and Sally Sizing Each Other Up

There has been a great deal of circling around each other, nudging, lip curling and lying down in strategic places (like right across the doorway to bar the other one’s entrance or exit). After two weeks our English Whippet/Lurcher and the new Vietnamese Phu Quoc are just about learning that ‘yes’ there is enough: love, food and space for both of them within this family and not everything needs to be turned into a diplomatic incident!

Three Wishes

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.

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.

Shopping

It is no exaggeration to say that I can spend all morning shopping here in Hanoi. Pause a moment while I wait for friends and family to process what I just said. Karen shopping? It will seem unlikely I know but ….

I haven’t yet found a shop that sells everything that I want for a meal so I end up going from shop to shop buying meat here, vegetables there, condiments from a third and bread from – well, the bakery of course! Things aren’t so different here.

Or at least that’s what happened before the fabulous Chi took over the running of our household. Now, at least some of the traipsing around can be alleviated by telling her in advance what I need and waiting for her to arrive for work, happy, smiling and bearing gifts! Well, fruit, veg and/or meat to be accurate but it feels like a gift because the quality and price are far superior to anything that I can manage to buy and I’ve had to make so little effort myself.  When I complimented her yesterday on the quality of the Dragon Fruit she’d bought me she replied, with a totally straight face: “I am a Vietnamese woman. I know how to shop”.  Well quite a few of my friends know how to shop Chi but trust me, they couldn’t buy fruit at the absolute peak of perfection quite like you do!

In the UK I would often trek around one of the big supermarkets, aisle after aisle searching for a product that eluded me only to ask an assistant who pointed to the very shelf where I was standing (who does decide where all those products go by the way?).  Out here my inability to find items is greatly simplified by the clever Vietnamese grouping all their shops by item, especially in the Old Quarter.   Therefore if you need paper you simply go to Paper Street, if you want bamboo furniture head over to Bamboo Corner.  However, even this cunning strategy falls down, from my perspective, when it comes to two particular items:  nappy sacks and tea towels.  I absolutely can’t find them anywhere but I love the idea of Nappy Sack Street so am not going to give up.  Without wishing to further worry my family with talk of all things baby related I was thrilled to find, after only an hour’s searching, Paddling Pool Lane.  The dog (nappy sacks are the perfect receptacle for taking out on dog walks) is in danger of over-heating out here and absolutely refuses to go near water unless it’s a muddy puddle or Westlake where the only steps in and out are about a kilometre from the house and it’s too hot to walk there.  Hence the need for a paddling pool!  Tea towels?  I’ve no doubt I’ll find them when I least expect to and no longer want them.  Until then, I’ll make do with the one that I packed (accidentally I admit!) and await my furniture shipment from the UK.

Bits & Bobs & Observations

I’m conscious that it would be very easy when writing about a place where I am very much the alien, to sound like every comment I make is a judgement call. Let me clarify right at the start – the comments I make are observations and absolutely not judgements. Of course, I come from a particular generation, gender, culture etc. etc. and those give me a set of rules by which to live. If I am going to write anything about my time here I simply don’t have the time or energy to qualify every single statement and question whether I’m sounding too negative.

If I intend something to be overtly negative or critical, I will make this absolutely clear at the time of writing – otherwise please do not take offence at anything I am saying. My way of doing or seeing things is no better nor worse than yours or indeed the situations I’m observing. They are worthy of comment simpy by virtue of being different to what I know/expect or because of my reaction to them or whatever – they resonate for me in some way and I’d like to share them with you.

Okay, that’s the disclaimer, now for some of the observations:

Having been brought up as an expat child, moving to Kuwait when I was 8 years old (back in the late 1960s) I was perfectly comfortable with having domestic staff around – an aya (housekeeper/maid/nanny) and a gardener and various other people who seemed to work hard and always be smiling. It’s not a natural state in most British households however so I do have a slight aversion to paying someone to clear up after me. However, it is pretty much de rigeur here among expats and many Vietnamese so I jumped at the offer from a friend to “share her maid”.

I set off to meet said ‘maid’ (whose real name is Phuc but my friend has young children and they agreed it would be better to change her name to Chi) thinking that I was about to conduct an interview. Oh no, not a bit of it. A gruelling 20 minutes later when I had agreed to: paid public holidays, paid sick leave, overtime, a one month bonus at Tet (New Year), pay while I’m on holiday, an annual pay rise and a one month bonus for each year worked when I leave (all perfectly reasonable requests I thought) I found myself leaving with a housekeeper/cook who has agreed to take me on!!!!! I need to spend some time thinking through this interview because there are some serious negotiating/selling skills lessons to be learnt! Anyway, I’m delighted and Chi starts on Monday morning.

Most of the grocery shops that attract the expats have notice boards and they are often teeming with Situation Wanted adverts – predominantly for cooks. It is patently clear, with even the most cursory glance at these advertisements that the pinnacle of achievement for a domestic cook is: ‘Can follow Jamie’. Jamie Oliver, if this message ever finds its way to you my advice is to get yourself over to Hanoi pronto. Okay, Gordon Ramsay might have beaten you to it in television terms but I tell you what Jamie, you have the most loyal following out here – the mere mention of your name literally opens the door to peoples homes. I have applauded the school meal and other initiatives and would love you to know that just by being, by producing your cookery books and I guess by making the TV programmes you are enabling people to work who might otherwise struggle. How fantastic is that!!!

Staying on a house type theme, we move into our new house this Sunday and I am sooooo excited. We will move from a small apartment crammed with furniture to a huge house and barely any furniture. Because land is so limited here in Hanoi the houses tend to be narrow, deep and tall and every inch is used. We struggled to find anything that was built on a human scale – some of the rooms were just so big that even moving from a 4/5 bedroom house in the UK we would fit all our furniture in one room here.

Having been married for 7 years I learnt something new about my hubby during the househunting. Well, I learnt two things – he hates househunting and, more interestingly, he loves modern houses. I had no idea. This came to light when an agent managed to sneak in a viewing to a house that was totally unsuitable but he wanted us to see it – the most enormous, brand new, 7 storey extravaganza I’ve ever seen. I hated it and Kevin loved everything that was new about it. This made me re-think my viewing policy and I realised that earlier that week I had in fact seen a house that he might just love, but that I had discounted without a second glance.

I hastily phoned another agent and requested a second viewing and lo and behold – he absolutely loved it. Here was our dream home (apparently!). To any friends or family reading this – contrary to popular belief I obviously do not wear the trousers in our house because this house was most definitely not my choice. However, it wasn’t complete and we’ve had to wait 4 weeks before it will be ready for us. During this time I’ve walked around the area and watched the house progress and I must confess I’m really taken with it. It’s not a house I would ever buy or could even afford in the UK – 5 floors, a lift, a pool in the basement, a roof terrace to die for and the most enormous sun lounge and balcony. Now that I have Chi to keep it all looking pristine I can just relax and enjoy living in a space that’s completely different to anything I’ve experienced. I love home-making and am really looking forward to turning a relatively blank canvas into a welcoming sanctuary and haven from the madness that is Hanoi. See photo below of the green just beside the new house.

Just before I leave the subject of house hunting I was surprised by the ‘customer is king’ attitude of landlords here as in house after house I was told: we can remodel it for you. If you don’t like that wall there, we’ll move it, want a wall here? No problem, we’ll put one in. New kitchen? But of course. New bathrooms? No sweat. Anything you want, we can do it.

All I can say is that the experience is nothing like we encountered as landlord’s when renting our home in the UK. Everything was pretty standard and the agent advised us before marketing the property what we should and shouldn’t do and what was expected by most tenants. Also of course, the rent we could expect. Here in Hanoi the rent bares absolutely no relation to the size/style/quality of the house and Kirsty and Phil have no chance here – location is almost irrelevant too in setting the rental price. It is entirely dependent on the landlord/owner. They will charge whatever they want for their property – you pay it or the house sits empty. The Vietnamese are very superstitious and will not carry out important transactions on an inauspicious day. April 15th is a good day to move house – thankfully!

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Not what it seems?

Overwhelm

Having been here for three weeks now I fully intended to write once or twice a week but this has been wildly unrealistic.  Why?  Because there is so much to see and take in as a newbie that just living it is enough without re-living it by writing about it all!!!

I have one of my son’s with me for a couple of weeks so, in addition to acclimatising and finding us a house, supporting my husband when he comes home totally exhausted and trying to get to grips with having a dog in a city that neither of us knows and she hates the constant stream of scooters whenever we set foot outside the apartment – I just don’t seem to have the energy to write.  I don’t want to write when I’m too tired because I don’t want a negative or low-key blog – I’m loving it here and want that to be reflected in what I write.

I have been keeping a list of things I want to write about and I hope to get around to them all at some point but for now I’m going to share with you one note I made that seems to make perfect sense but I can’t for the life of me remember exactly what I intended to say about it!!!  The note reads:  Often messages misleading.

When I work out what I meant by that I’ll share it with you  For now though I’ll just make a couple of comments.  My son and I have just come back from a fabulous street foods tour with Tu from Hanoi Street Food Tours – check out his blog at vietnamesegod.blogspot.com and had an amazing time.  What I felt really strongly though is that I need to start learning Vietnamese ASAP because I’m going to miss so much of what’s happening around me if I can’t converse properly.  Food is a passion and I really want to buy locally and eat seasonally – for that I need at least some words and phrases.  So, top of my To Do list is to get some lessons!!!

The second thing I wanted to share is how tough it is when you first arrive if you have family ‘back home’ because I find myself living in two time zones.  Everything gets translated back into UK time so that I don’t miss speaking to the kids or my parents because I’ve got the time wrong.  Also, I’ve kept a client in the UK so have to make sure that I keep to the deadlines – in UK not Vietnamese time.  This so far has involved me living a full day here in Hanoi and sitting down to ‘work’ at about 7p.m. knowing that I’m still well on target for the UK working day.  That’s not sustainable long term as I’ll be exhausted but for now well, ….

So, all good, more tiring than I expected and things move at their own pace which is as it should be but takes some getting used to for a controller like me!

Have an ace week end everyone and I’m off to sit on the sofa and stroke the dog’s tummy and we can reassure each other that all’s well with our world 🙂

To Let

It’s official, the house is now available to let and I’m busy getting all those odd jobs done that we never quite got around to.  Like putting draught excluder on the windows and doors that previously allowed the gales to blow right in as we shivered inside muttering: We should put draught excluder on that window/door.  Daft isn’t it – £6.95 in B & Q and we’re snug as bugs.  The only thing is we do get a bit of a shock when we open a door and realise it is actually still blowing that gale outside, we just didn’t notice it!!!

Enough about draught excluder.  The To Let board has just gone up outside the house and I feel quite strange looking out at it – there’s something slightly vulnerable about being inside a house that’s advertising the fact that you’re going.  Anyway, we’ve had an enquiry from a family relocating from Austria which I’d love – there’s something really appealing about a family having an adventure here as ex pats while we’re in Vietnam doing the same.  However, sentimental old fool that I am – a rental’s a rental and I won’t insist that the house goes to ‘someone that I like’ 🙂

Christmas was wonderful and we had plenty of time with all the kids which was great – they seem to think that they must spend lots of time with us because we’ll soon be gone.  They do know we’re back on 16th June don’t they?!  Ah well, I’m not complaining, it’s been ace.

This week has been remarkably stressful because I ‘phoned Singapore Airlines, just to confirm the arrangements for Sally and was told that they don’t take pets from the UK.  Panic, panic, deep breaths, scream.  Not to be deterred I emailed them and asked the same thing, only to have a lovely man call me to say yes it can all be done, to explain the process and get her booked in.  Maybe I’m old fashioned but I always like to speak to someone first and really dislike/distrust online booking forms.  This incident reminds me though how important it is to do both – but make sure you’re dealing with someone who does actually know/have the ability to help you.  Avoid call centres at all cost!!!

In addition to clearing the house I’m busily arranging to meet family and friends to say goodbye – only 6 weeks really to do it all and we’re going to Vejer for a week in the middle of it all so plenty to keep me busy.

Oh no, that could be mine!

Whippet runway

This cutting is going to give me nightmares – not only do we have a whippet/lurcher who’ll chase anything, she even looks like this one.

Just off to check she’s in her basket …