Sunday, December 19, 2010

In defense of Saigon Zoo

We are having a very gentle introduction to Vietnam. 

Today is our fifth day.

On the first day we arrived at night time, and stayed up as late as we could then slept.  The jet lag has been very good.  Most people coming from New Zealand wake up at 3am, but we haven’t been doing that.  We’ve been sleeping a solid 8 hours each night, from 10pm to 6am.  The last couple of nights we managed to stay up a bit later and wake up a bit later, but we’re out of  bed by 7:30 each day.  I have been tired though, and when I wake up I have dark marks under my eyes and generally feel hung over even though I haven’t been drinking at all.  

Tip for anyone flying to Vietnam from NZ – don’t get a Vietnam airlines flight unless you have a lot of time in the changeover in Australia, or not much luggage.  We carefully weighed all our luggage to be sure we were under the 30kg limit that Vietnam airlines has, only to be pinged by Qantas for excess baggage at something like $70 a kilo because they have no agreement with Vietnam airlines, and the weight limit is actually an (unadvertised) 20 kg per passenger.  Very annoying.  Also, there was a very short time between when our Qantas flight arrived in Sydney and when our VA flight left, and our luggage didn’t make the connection.  So on our first day, we had no luggage except our carryon.  

So our second day was spent waiting for luggage to arrive, and swimming in the pool and playing with the kids.

Our third day, (in fresh clothes!) was spent in the city. 

Saigon gardens was once one of the finest botanical gardens in Asia, so the guidebooks say.  The French were interested in collecting rare species and developed these gardens close to the centre of the city. If you know what you’re looking for I’m sure you can spot lots of amazing botanical treats – but we didn’t have a clue.  We enjoyed the tall trees, and the bonsai forest, and the animal shaped topiaries.  I have heard a rumour that the gardens are going to be demolished to make way for a motorway, but I’m not sure if it’s true. 

The garden contains a zoo. So, the thing is:  this is not a Western Zoo.  We adjusted our expectations accordingly, and so we enjoyed our visit. I know that others have not had such a good time at the zoo because they conditions seem barbaric in contrast with the standard in Western countries. To be fair, the Vietnamese government seems to be treating this zoo as a conservation effort, and not as a circus.  I am sure they are doing the best they can with the resources they have.    

Some of the animals were very friendly indeed.

The cages are old and out of date.  It is not particularly clean (there are rats running around), though I have seen worse. With the exception of perhaps the orangutans, the larger cats and the large birds, the animals did not seem to be under any distress and overall the zoo was not smelly.  All the animals appear friendly.  Although there are signs in Vietnamese asking people not to feed the animals, all the animals seem to expect to be fed.  I wouldn’t feed them, but I think on my next visit I might take some toys for the otters.  Their enclosure is old-fashioned though not terrible, but they looked a bit bored. 

In the same grounds there is also a museum and a temple.  The museum is the Vietnam History Museum.  It features antiquities and art objects from pre-historic times until the early 20th century. There is a good textiles collection displaying beautiful handcrafted hilltribe clothing – showcasing the intricate embroidery that they are famous for.  Sadly this section of the museum is not airconditioned or protected from the light, so it is probably very difficult for them to preserve these artifacts as carefully as I am sure they would like to.  

This vase was interesting to me.  Doesn't the pattern around the top remind you the patterns you find on tapa cloth from the pacific islands?
Here's a close-up:
Actually from Vietnam c. 18th century

The rear wing of the museum contains the oldest objects and this section of the building has been modernized.  Somebody has done an excellent job of curating this collection- objects are well labeled, and carefully and artistically displayed – in logical order.  The rooms are airconditioned and smaller objects are protected behind glass and well lit – though thankfully there is no natural light. This section contains lots of religious artifacts from the pre-buddhist era – including an impressive collection of phalluses.  We couldn’t take pictures inside the museum so I can’t show off the row of cocks, sadly!

Opposite the museum is a temple. I had expected to walk in and see a collection of Buddha’s at the back, but there wasn’t even one – which shows the difference between Vietnamese Buddhism and Thai Buddhism.  The lovely attendant there told us we could take one or two pictures, but they both came out blurry and we didn’t want to abuse the camera privilege!  The steps leading up to the entrance of the temple are guarded by a pair of brilliantly painted dragons.  The photo doesn’t do them justice. 

There are lots and lots of butterflies in Vietnam – even here in the middle of city. I have seen at least 20 different varieties float past either singly or in pairs.  I can’t imagine what a paradise this place must have seemed like in the days before the big smoggy city and Agent Orange must have taken care of a great chunk of the natural biodiversity in the region. 

Oh, and before I forget - last night I saw a bird catch a lizard's tail. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

We're here!

Dreadful flight! 

But it is now the next day and we are well-rested - staying with Martin's boss's family.

We are planning a nice quiet day for today - a short walk and a swim and writing to family.  And hopefully our luggage will arrive this afternoon...

Will post again later with photos - I promise to take some!

Monday, December 13, 2010

One and a half more sleeps

We have two more days left in Godzone. 
It is now very early on Monday morning.  I am awake but no one else is.

The first item on today's agenda is literally herding cats.  They all need to be rounded up and boxed and driven to the cattery.  We are planning on a breakfast time ambush. There are four of us and three of them.  So I figure that it will be one grownup per pussy cat and maybe we can get Oliver to hold the doors of the cages open. William is really good at non-passive resistance when it comes to cat-cages.  He does that thing where three legs are rigidly gripping the perimeter of the opening and the fourth is aiming directly for your eyeball, claws extended.

The afternoon will be dedicated to banking, printing tickets and the Final Pack.

Tomorrow is the drive up to Auckland, dumping the dog on the way and sending everybody off on their flights.  Ours is at 8:30 am on Wednesday. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

O Brother where are thou?

In a book I read just the other day (Notwithstanding, Louis de Bernieres) a man is swindled into buying a black dog.  In the scam, he is told that he is buying a golden labrador, and that they are all black when they're born and they turn yellow when they get older.

Today, Jess attempted a different version of that swindle.  She's a golden lab, but when she came home from the river she was black. Labradors really do love to roll in disgusting stuff.  She's in coventry now.  She won't be allowed back in the house until all the black stuff has dried up and fallen off and she no longer stinks like a corpse.

Blondes have more fun.

Jess put us all in a bit of panic earlier this week - though it's not as if it was her fault.  This is a busy time for our family.  Not only are Martin and I off for our adventures, but my mother is going off for an adventure of her own.  Only a few hours before we leave for Vietnam, Mummy is leaving for 3 weeks to visit Nana in Abu Dhabi.  Of course, this means that all the animals need to find holiday accommodation, too.

Mother rang the kennel to confirm the online booking she had made for Jess, and they said: "What now?  NOPE.   Never heard of Jess.  Sorry.  No room at the inn."


For about 3 hours we were all very worried.  And then we found an alternative kennel. And then Mummy parted with A LOT of money.

The moral of this story, children, is:

Next year Brother Joseph is coming home for the holidays.

The only thing missing
from this picture is a DOGGIE

Saturday, December 4, 2010

10 days till lift-off.

Most people who know me, know that I spent most of 1997 and the early part of 1998 in Thailand. And so most people - and this perhaps most foolishly includes me - might think that I would therefore be prepared for this.

It's true that I've lived in Asia and there are some things that I am prepared for:
  • I know what a rambutan is.
  • I know how to eat noodles with chopsticks.
  • I have ridden on the back of a moped.
  • I know how to be modest with the soles of my feet.
  • I know to beckon with my palm faced down.
  • I know to duck my head.
  • My brain has learned an Asian language once before.
  • I have been vaccinated against TB.
  • I can competently and unsqueamishly use a squat toilet. 

There are some very significant differences that I'm not sure I am prepared for - but at least I am aware of.  Most importantly:
  • Thailand is not Vietnam
  • 1997 is not 2011
  • Exchange student is not expat wife
  • My mother has Skype

The things that are frightening me now, though - that are keeping me awake at night and making me burst into tears at any time of the day are all of those things that I am not prepared for, and that I know I have no idea about.  I don't know the answers to any of these questions, but I get asked them almost every day:
  • What are you going to do in Vietnam?
    This is the most common question I get, and it is usually served with meaningful emphasis on the 'you'.   I don't know - is the honest answer.  I like to tell people that I am going to "drink during the day!" or "complain about the heat!".  I recognise that I have an opportunity now to find something interesting and inspiring to do with my career.  I am terrified that I won't find anything, to do or anyone who likes me, that I will spend my days in Vietnam chasing geckos off the walls and swearing at CNN, that the pinnacle of my career would have been and gone already, that the most interesting thing I will ever do might be some mundane thing I have already done and the rest of my life will be spent waiting for my husband to get home so that I can have someone to complain to about how the air conditioning wasn't working properly in the last taxi home from the shopping mall. 
  • Where are you going to live?
    The company are going to help us find accommodation. The problem is, that I have so little idea about where we are going, and what kinds of places are good to live in there, that I don't even know what to ask them for.  Should I live in an apartment, or a house.  What do those words even mean in Saigon?
  • Are you going to get a maid?
  • Are you going to ride a motorbike?
  • Is it easy to be gluten-free in Vietnam?
  • Are you going to learn Vietnamese?
  • Can you get good medical care?
  • What about dental?
  • Are you going to wear your hearing aids?
    I'm a bit deaf. Just a bit - not like post-deaf. I don't really understand speech I am not actively concentrating on but I can hear a lot of stuff.  I do have hearing aids. They sit in a little box, usually in a drawer, but now in the lid of my suitcase.  I haven't worn them for at least a year. Currently, they don't even work properly.  My mother frowns at me almost daily at the moment and says unhelpful things like: put your lugs in. Will I be able to cope without them?  This is my greater worry: will I be able to cope with them? A deaf life is quite peaceful. Because I have been deaf my whole life I find the unamplified world much easier to interpret.  I am afraid that I will struggle really badly with communication and making new social connections once I get to Vietnam because of my hearing loss. Hearing aids might help. Hearing aids might make it worse.
  • Will you have enough money?
  • What will you do when this assignment ends?
  • When are you coming home?

A year ago I had sort of an idea of what my life would be like in five or ten years time.  But now I don't. I don't have sort of an idea of what my life will be like in five or ten weeks time.  I have a lot of hope, and I firmly believe that going to Vietnam is a good decision for us, for our careers, for our relationship.

But make no mistake: Vietnam is giving me the shits.