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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!)

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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?

TET Fever

Well, I’m not sure about the fever bit but from this distance the whole Vietnamese new lunar year is very confusing.  I guess it’s one of those where you really have to be there to understand it.

I thought it was one week long celebration with festivities and a carnival like atmosphere everywhere.  Reading Twitter posts and chatting virtually to a couple of friends out there – both expat and local – it seems that actually everything shuts down and the best way to enjoy Tet is to go away!

Next year I guess I’ll ‘get’ it a bit better.  Or will I?!

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.

You’re booked!

Flights booked – check

Fraser Suites booked – check

Furniture sorted – err, no.

Ho, hum, we’re making such a meal out of this ship v. store business that I’m tempted just to bring everything, wastepaper bins and all.  Actually, that reminds me, when we bought a house in Spain a few years ago I had a devil of a job finding wastepaper bins.  So yeah, I guess I will bring them with me!

Everything’s pretty much on hold now while we enjoy our final Christmas in the family home before everything gets removed and the house becomes someone else’s home.  The agent is coming on Thursday to take photos and is really confident about letting it quickly – hope he gives us time to move out!!!  What a strange day to take the photos though – Christmas tree and chaos everywhere but, his choice.

CELTA is finished – yippee.  I’m quietly confident that I’ve passed and will be gutted if I haven’t.  Speaking of passing things, my extremely clever little sister heard today that she’s passed her M.A. with a Merit – well done Zo if you read this 🙂

We had such fun booking our flights to Hanoi because I’d decided that I definitely want to go Air France because it’s the quickest journey time – 14 hours from Manchester to Hanoi with only the one stop in Paris.  Perfect I thought.  Perfect we thought – let’s book it.  And that’s where our problems started.  1st March, two passengers, one way to Hanoi.  Everything going smoothly until you actually click the button to confirm your purchase and then it broke us the bad news (rather brutally it has to be said):  No seats available.  Seriously?  For the 1st March next year?

Okay, we tried the following day, week, month, 6 months ahead.  Nothing would work.  We checked Singapore Airlines (and yes I was sulking at this point – 19 hours.  Quote of the evening from my husband:  Well, 14 hours, 19 hours, what’s the difference? (and him an accountant) – 5 hours I replied.  5 whole hours.  We checked Vietnam Airways, Qatar Air, Aeroflot, South China Air (oh okay, we didn’t exactly check the the last two, but they did come up as options).  The journey time was an issue, the excess baggage charge another ($50/kilo – are you kidding?) and not wanting to stop in Doha another.

After several hours and a lot of frustration I had the brilliant idea that perhaps Air France would work if we booked a return.  Eureka!  2nd March, returning 16th June (for aforementioned younger sister’s wedding) – all booked and paid for, and cheaper than a single flight.

Now it’s just my stepson and the dog to sort – Singapore Airlines here I come.  What’s 19 hours for a youngster getting a free holiday eh!  Actually, the real reason is that you need an airline that does the whole route whereas the first leg of the Air France journey is fulfilled by Flybe.

Paperwork

Well, we’re on Plan C regarding furniture shipment versus storage but at least we’re making progress (baby steps are still progress right?!).

There’s something so intimidating about official documents to my mind.  We’ve just got back our ACRO certificates of good conduct from the Police and, despite both being certified as 100% in the clear, we look like criminals on the photos and the document looks exactly as it would if we had convictions as long as your arm.  Couldn’t they put ‘good’ certificates on different coloured paper or would that be discrimination?  Okay, just a joke 🙂

We’ve got our visas sorted and were just about to send a load of paperwork off to be officially translated by an approved translation agency when it appears that can all be done in Vietnam provided it’s been notarised here, certified by the F&C Office and the Vietnamese Embassy in London.  Seriously?  I can’t help thinking that my husband’s firm is ‘doing things by the book’ but have a sneaky suspicion that 80% of people doing the same move wouldn’t be ticking quite so many of the boxes!  Ah well, we’re keeping a whole army of officials in business I guess!

The dog next – I need to sit my dog courier (okay, stepson!) down tomorrow and explain exactly what he’ll be required to do (as best as I can having never actually done it myself), including possibly needing some jabs himself.  Then I’m ready to get his visa and both their flights booked.

Interestingly, we were due to book our flights last week end and didn’t get around to it.  Not a great sign eh!!  I think  actually booking flights feels a little bit too real but we’re going to need to at some point given that everything else will be booked and sorted.  It would be  a shame to miss all the fun by not having plane tickets!

Procrastinating

Blimey, who’d have thought it was so complicated trying to decide what to do with various items of furniture and personal possessions?  First of all we decided (perhaps being a little cowardly) that we’d just ship most of it out to Hanoi and decide what to bring back when the time comes.  Then, after seeking advice from friends and people in the know, we decided to store stuff that we thought we’d definitely want back here at the end of our Vietnamese adventure.  And now …?

Well, the cost of storing it seems ridiculous and most of it is far too good to just give away but the second hand value of household things and furniture is almost zero and I can’t really be bothered trying to sell items bit by bit – surely life’s too short to go down that road?    I’m exhausted just thinking about it – mind you I am full of a cold and dosed up with Beechams Cold and Flu Remedy so that probably isn’t helping on the ‘clarity of thought’ front!

Think we’re going to end up shipping it out there and then deciding what to do when the time comes to return home – i.e. procrastinating 🙂

Strange thought …

Ooh, I’ve just been overcome by a strange thought that has been sloshing around on the edges of consciousness ever since we decided to try for an expat life:  what if either of my parents die while I’m away?

Now I know, in the rational bits of my brain, that death or the possibility of it, accompanies all of us, all the time and we somehow reach an accommodation with the thought whereby it doesn’t cripple us provided we acknowledge it’s presence occasionally.

But my father is 83, fit and healthy – not that that’s a ‘get out of jail free card’, there are plenty of perfectly healthy people who die!  Maybe my misgivings are around the distance and logistics of getting back to the UK from Hanoi.  As the oldest of three daughters I would anticipate people looking to me for guidance and support and realistically I simply won’t be there for them in those first few hours.

This might seem like a very morbid topic for a post but it’s real and important to think about so as to prepare myself as best I can for the eventuality which – God willing – won’t happen!

I have some processing to do around this issue and will write more if it seems pertinent.  All comments welcome please from everyone who has had to deal with just such an event or at least the thought process around the possibility.

🙂