Wednesday, January 26, 2011


The real estate agent (we call him Mr T) who brokered the deal for the apartment we are living in, has worked out some kind of arrangement with the landlady.  The details of the exact arrangement are somewhat shaky, but for us, it means this:  we get a bicycle and gym memberships as part of the rent, which is paid by the company.  While the rent goes to the landlady, Mr T looks after the bike and gym membership aspects.

So last Thursday, I got an early morning call from Mr T.

"Mrs Martin?  Your husband company has paid so now today we go to buy a bicycle.  I will meet you in 15 minutes, ok?"

This is how I am finding all my interactions with Vietnamese people are - I get maybe 5 minutes warning if I'm lucky, and then they show up on my doorstep.  Actually, most of the time I get no warnings.

However, I was excited - shopping for a bicycle!  Yay!  So I put on a dress and even some makeup and went downstairs to meet Mr T.

"You look more beautiful today."  He said.  Mr T generally can't take his eyes off my, ah, front

"We will go on my motorcycle, ok?"

I explained that I don't really have any motorcycle experience, which he completely dismissed and gave me his spare helmet.

And then I tried to get on the back of his bike and realised that in the dress I was wearing it would hardly be seemly.  I had to rush back upstairs and change into jeans.

Motorcycling was fun.  We didn't go far - only a few blocks, and we didn't really go on any busy roads.  Actually, I wasn't driving the motorbike of course but all the traffic makes a lot more sense when you're part of it, than when you're standing on the curb trying to figure out how to cross the road.

Traffic at an intersection near my house. 
Actually, I wasn't going to use this picture because
the traffic wasn't busy enough to show the actual average chaos!

I don't know anything about bikes.  The last time I rode one regularly I was about 15.  So when we got to the bike shop and he said - choose whatever you want - I felt like a bit of an idiot.

After a couple of test rides a bike was chosen - and then it was the Great Basket Debate. I wanted a basket on the front.  But everybody shook their heads.  No - it is impossible, because of the gears.  (I still don't really believe that.  But I can investigate it at a later date).  So then I suggested a basket on the back.  There is a clip on the back that I figured a basket could be attached to. Mr T, ever accommodating, then dragged me down the street to another shop to look at baskets.  There are 3 kinds of baskets in this shop, all obviously designed to go on the front of bikes.  And after much discussion I am instructed to choose one (my choice was based entirely on colour) and half of the men from that shop follow Mr T and I to the bike shop to discuss the attachment of the basket.

There is much shaking of heads. 

Mr T is determined that the basket can just be clipped on the back, there is no need to attach it with screws and things.  Bike basket shop guys are not convinced that this will be ok at all.  I can't speak Vietnamese, but I understood perfectly their concern.  When the basket is just clipped to the thing, it kind of rests against the back of the seat.  And the basket shop guys are all shaking their heads and glancing at me and basically saying "But there will be not enough room for her ample cheeks!", and the bike shop men are all looking at me and obviously saying, "Is the reason that she just wants it to clip off because sometimes she's going to to carry another person on the back?  Because this bike is not made to carry two people her size."   And Mr T is refusing to translate this entire exchange but keeps saying to me with a smile, "I think it's OK."

A tiny bit of overhang at the rear

It was funny, of course.  Most bikes in Vietnam generally carry two or even three people, but most people in Vietnam are a lot smaller than me.  Like - half the size. I made a joke to Mr T to let him know that I knew what they were talking about, after which everybody relaxed, and I promised not to carry Mr Martin on the back and we all agreed to just clip the damn basket on for now.

And then Mr T said: "You can ride it home now and I will meet you there."
And I went, "Um."
And he said, "You know the way right?"
And I pointed and said, "That's the road there, isn't it."
And he frowned and said "Actually there is the road," and pointed in the other direction.

So then Mr T drove very slowly home and I very gamely (I thought) followed him through the traffic and several intersections and we all lived to tell the story.

The ass will carry his load,
but not a double load...
~ Don Quixote
Later that night Mr T came round with our gym membership cards.  It seems I have undergone a name change.  I am now even more glad that I didn't change my name to Mrs Sutcliffe upon getting married - it would be too confusing for everyone.

Mrs Martin Castrina. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Dear Phil

Today we went to see the pink cathedral:

Sacratissimo Cordi Jesu means the sacred heart of Jesus.
And afterwards we were hot and thirsty and maybe a little bit hungry too so we stopped at a restaurant across the road for lunch.

We were in for a nice surprise.  Expecting an average pho place (see how spoilt we have become?  Now we talk about 'average' pho places.  We have almost completely forgotten the forlorn bathwater that is pho in Auckland), we were surpised to find a menu full of delicious looking dishes from the Vietnam province of Hue.

We ordered fresh spring rolls of the usual variety - wrapped in soft rice noodles and stuffed with fresh herbs and minced pork.  And hue spring rolls, which are a similar sort of thing, but instead of being wrapped in noodle they are wrapped in lettuce leaf - so they're soft, but they're crunchy and they feel light and delicious and you think you could eat a million of them.  And presentation counts.  This place had tied the lettuce leaf spring rolls up with little strings of some sort chive, that were flowering.

I ordered fresh coconut juice with tapioca. And was surprised when the tapioca pearls each contained a tiny little bite of hard, fresh coconut meat - a little crunch and flavour to temper the softness of the jelly, all bathed in sweetest coconut juice.

But the star of the show was the pork skewers.  Actually, these were also spring rolls, we realised after we ordered them. Because they came with rice paper and lettuce and huge pile of herbs and a delightful yellow dipping sauce.

You pull the meat off the skewer, then wrap in a leaf, or paper, or both
and pile it with herbs and peanuts and garlic and sauce - then dip.

I would have gotten more photos, but Martin insisted that I put the camera away so that he could start eating them immediately.  The little piles in the foreground are a daikon radish and carrot salad, and fingernail thin slivers of fresh, raw garlic. You might also be able to see that the whole lot are coated in crushed peanuts with crispy strips of fried shallot.

Of course, I think it can't be a coincidence.  This seems to be just an unassuming restaurant on a busy road, but we should have known it would be good with this guy standing over it:

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst
after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Service announcement: Crackbook

Facebook is banned in Vietnam.

For a while I was able to access it through, but now that has been blocked too.  People have also been able to access it by changing their IP addresses, but now that doesn't work either, as the Vietnamese government has made a direct block against the IP addresses at Facebook.

So, until I hear news of how to get onto Facebook again, I'm (obviously) off it.

I know lots of you have been accessing the posts by clicking through from Facebook - but now I can't actually post the blogs up on Facebook anymore -  so if that's you - then you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed, or just save the blog address as a bookmark and check every now and then for new posts. Or, if you are someone in NZ or somewhere and you can get Facebook and you want to put my blogs on Facebook for me as I post them, drop me an email.

If you want to be informed of new posts by email, just let me know, and I'll email a link to you each time I put a new post up.

Thanks all!

The tyranny of Babelfish

Before I start, let me apologise if I sound too much like a Mormon Housewife.  I read this article on and have wasted several hours reading Mormon Housewife blogs since.  I promise I haven't started putting on makeup and changing my clothes so that my husband can be greeted with my delightful visage when he gets home from a hard day at work.  Nor have I purchased a hot glue gun.


So, a condition of the rental agreement when we moved into this furnished apartment, was that they change some of the furniture in the second bedroom.

Specifically, that the great big heavy king size bed be shifted out of the room and replaced with a sofa bed. This is only a two-bedroom apartment, which suits us just perfectly - we don't want anything bigger. Actually, it's not that easy to get a decent two-bedroom apartment in this town.  Most people seem to want more room, or to want to live in houses in the ex-pat compounds. We have modest ambitions and not a huge amount of stuff, so a two-bedroom apartment suits us perfectly well - so long as the second bedroom can be used as a study room.

I think our Vietnamese landlady thinks we are mad.

Anyway, they brought us a catalogue, and we chose a sofa-bed design.  And they brought swatches of fabric and we chose a silver fabric.  The options were not many.  Most of the fabric swatches were heavily patterned or bright colours.  There is patterned silver and black wallpaper on one wall, and gold curtains, so I didn't want to add another colour - or another pattern, and there were no black fabric swatches. So we chose silver.

The resulting sofa looks nothing like the picture in the catalogue, of course.   Having said that, it is perfectly fine for what we need and we have now been liberated of the second big bed. I have draped the sofa with the pashmina my Nana gave me, which is black with gold threads, and it looks pretty good, though I'm a hopeless photographer and can't get good pictures.


It's actually really nice in here at night time, because the lighting is really well designed, and the wallpaper and lampshades kind of shimmer.  Bless the Vietnamese love of glitter!

Can you see the glitter?

After the workmen had been and gone, the receptionist girl gave me a note she had prepared earlier.  It is the second time she has shown me a note, but the first time I didn't get to keep it - she took it with her.  The first note was after the bath was fixed.  It said:  All done.  Tell her she can use it in an hour.

This is the sofa-bed note:

Everybody loves getting letters!

It says:

How to use the sofa:
The first three legs spread and break the back
seats back seats pull down the three stars which
will become a bed to sleep if she wanted to
re-sit examination of three drag position. 
Three can do try.  Thanks her. 

Have a nice day. 

It was pretty funny, but I promise I didn't laugh until after she had left.  I smiled and said "Oh!  Wonderful!  Thank you!"

So, anybody got any ideas about how to use the sofa?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dear Phil

Do you remember the scenes with the Maenad in the second season of True Blood?

Her house is constantly filled with luscious piles of fruit and flowers.

So's mine:

Monday, January 17, 2011


Right now, I am sitting in my home, and my home is full of people whose job it is to look after me and my possessions.  I feel quite odd about it.

There are two young women who are cleaning the apartment.  We have only been here for two days, and in my opinion all that was really needed was a sweep of the floor and wipe the tables and empty the bins.  All things I could easily have done myself, but I knew the girls were coming – and it is their job. They need their jobs. 

I thought they would be about ten minutes but they have been here for an hour already.  The bathrooms have been completely cleaned and the bed linen changed.  I stopped them from changing the linen on the spare bed which nobody has slept in. The floors have been swept and mopped, the bins emptied, the breakfast dishes washed, dried and put away.  The tables have been wiped and all the surfaces polished.  The place is gleaming.  A natural slob I have never lived in such cleanliness.
There has been a problem with the bathtub.  Instead of draining down the drain, it drained onto the floor.  So as well as the cleaning ladies there is also two plumbers, a handyman, the receptionist and the building owner in the apartment.
Meanwhile, I am sitting on the couch trying very hard to be invisible.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Paradise - unpaved

It’s not ALL war and food and homelessness – though there’s been a lot of all that.  We have also had a few weeks of honeymooning.  Or as much honeymooning as we could fit in between urgent, um, comfort stops.

We spent most of the first day of our honeymoon getting pissed in the lobby of the Sheraton in Nha Trang while we waited for our ride....  To Paradise Resort!  

That is the determined yet confused expression of a man
trying to suck tequila up a swizzler stick.

The car ride to Paradise Resort took 55 mins in driving time and at least 7 months of life-expectancy. 
How to summarise Paradise Resort in one sentence?  

Think of it as the bastard love-grandchild of Basil Fawlty, Hi-De-Hi, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and Germany’s next top model, under the management of Obelix

Oh, look!  It's beautiful!
We had beach bungalows, and swimming in the waves.  I had the topology of my right breast thoroughly surveyed by a drunk local.  The server girl, who also seemed to do all the cooking and all the cleaning and all the communication with guests was deaf – and her deafness was more useful than anything else – she was the easiest to communicate with non-Anglophone Vietnamese I have dealt with yet.  We gave her D100,000 ($5) when we left and she nearly gave birth to a chicken she was that chuffed.

Just before we left we got a sniggering shot of the fridge in the kitchen of the Paradise Resort Kitchen:

Shopping list?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Shoot it, Conan!

Martin tells everyone that I was looking at him as if he was a barbarian. My perspective on this is that barbaric actions warrant dirty looks.

These two little kittens have lost their earmuffs. 
Mittens: still intact.

But, my how the Vietnamese are proud of winning the war! This whole country is pasted with reminders of the American War, but the attitude is not the same as the 'lest we forget' pacifist sentimentalities that are expressed on the WWI and WWII war memorials that are scattered all over New Zealand. It's more a 'lest you forget' sentiment. More a 'we'll kick your ass all over again' kind of sentiment.

I remarked to Martin at one point that Ho Chi Minh had a few qualities in common with Ghandi – he was fiercely dedicated to his country, and to unifying his country. He stood for the common man and the peasants, valuing those at the bottom as much as those at the top. A working class hero, Ho Chi Minh famously wore the same sandals that the commonest peasants wore – fashioned from old tires. But as Martin pointed out he also had some extremely un-Ghandi-like qualities – Ho Chi Minh would never have sat down when he could have had a scrap instead.

Don't worry: if the Americans invade again, Martin knows just what to do.
We went for a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels – one of the tunnel systems famously constructed by the VietCong during the war. The area where these tunnels were constructed was jungle, and the earth they are dug out of is hard clay and sand. You can find out more about the tunnel systems here - but I'll spare you a history lesson.

The site at Cu Chi is really very good. It is managed by the government, and very well maintained. You really notice the government influence on the site in two ways:
  1. When you arrive, the first stop on the guided tour is a compulsory propaganda film screening:

  2. There are a few food stalls and a restaurant area and the prices are not inflated at all, and there are no hawkers at the site. This is common for the tourist attractions that are government managed – the government actually does a very good job of ensuring that the tourists don't get ripped off. In fact, I think they should probably, for their own sakes to less of a good job. At the government owned attractions like the tunnels and the zoo and the museums, the ticket prices are ridiculously cheap – the most we have paid to go anywhere was around 80,000 dong, or USD $4. I think they could charge a bit more and use the revenue to maintain some of the sites.
The paths are cleared and well maintained, and because it is jungle the area is well-shaded, so even in the heat it is quite pleasant to walk around.

There is a spectacular demonstration of booby-traps that were laid in the ground. The strategy seemed to be to take them out one man at a time. From what I can tell, the strategy worked pretty well, though it must have been gruesome.

The folding chair trap.
Imagine that the bamboo pole sticking out of the top
right corner is an American Devil leg.

And then there are the tunnels themselves. They are impossibly small and horrible. It's not like wandering around on North Head with a flashlight hoping to discover a secret stash of Spitfires. A small section of tunnels has been preserved for the sake of the tourists. It is 100m long, and has been widened enough so that someone my size can get through on hands and knees. There are exits every 20m and we took the first exit, along with almost all of the rest of the tour group. It was really horrible being in the tunnel even only for a couple of minutes, and I can't really fathom the desperation that would have led the soldiers that worked in the area think that these tunnels were a good defensive option. You expect tunnels to be cold and clammy, but these were hot and the walls seemed heavy, with what little air there was sticking to the sides of your lungs like a phlegmy soup. The people of Cu Chi starved during the war, and at the tunnels they demonstrate this by feeding the tourists boiled tapioca and crushed peanuts mixed with salt – the staple food at a time when there was no reliable agriculture in this fertile land. Food that could be gathered from the forest.

Even our camera lost focus when presented with
tapicoa and crushed peanuts for lunch.

The firing range felt kind of sick to me. Barbaric. Lest we forget.
Great big bloody pile of spent shells at the firing range.

Dear Phil

We said from the beginning that we were coming here for the food. And we have eaten of the food, and found that it was good.

Vietnam is such a lush, rich, fertile country. It is difficult to believe that this country was crippled by famine in the 1980s because the country is so alive. Everything is growing. When you drive through the countyside, it seems as if they crops are all growing faster than they could possibly be harvested. Little plants shoot up through every crack in every pavements, and wall, and roof. And we have certainly seen no evidence of famine now. Though I am sure there are people in this country who are starving, it is economic starvation – due to a lack of distribution and not to a lack of abundance.

So, there is food everywhere you look. And Vietnamese people understand flavor. Vietnamese people are not going to settle for soggy chips and over-boiled vegetables.

Let's start with the sauces. At every table there is a little jug with fish sauce, and usually jars or bottles of soy sauce and chili sauce. The more expensive cafes and restaurants will have their own sauces, and the cheaper ones will have bottles of stuff you could buy in a supermarket. There is sometimes salt and pepper at the table as well, if they are expecting foreigners, but not always. Salt is a problem in this climate – it is hot and damp and the salt always clogs up in the salt shakers.

When it comes to dipping sauces, one is NEVER enough!

Usually at the table you will also be given a moist wipe for cleaning your hands. Vietnamese food is often intended to be eaten with fingers. In a more expensive establishment you sometimes get a real facecloth, which is folded nicely and moistened and chilled.

Unlike in NZ, water is not always given at the table, and I have occasionally had the server look at me like was a nut case for requesting water. Ice is not a concern – most restaurants buy ice that is made from filtered water and is perfectly safe to drink. Quite often they serve sweet iced green tea for free, in the same way that NZ restaurants would give you a glass of tap water.

The food that we have eaten the most regularly has to be spring rolls – in various forms. Fresh, thick rolls filled with rice noodles and fresh herbs and slices of pork, or prawns, dipped in sweet chilli and vinegar based sauces. Smaller, deep fried spring rolls filled with minced beef or vegetables. Do-it-yourself, deconstructed spring rolls – where you are served with a plate of herbs and meat or fish and crispy circles of rice paper the soften as you dip them in the fresh sauces they are served with.

Spring rolls from Hoi An -
we went back to this cafe 3 times!

And then there is the noodle soup. Martin is beginning to fall in love with pho. It starts off so simple, a bowl of rice noodles and broth, with a few slices of beef. But then on another plate you are given a fat pile of herbs – usually basil and mint and mung beans, and other things I don't know the names off. And a few slices of chili. And wedges of lime to squeeze in. And then the sauces – fish sauce, and soy sauce, and chili sauce if you want it to bite. Then you add as much or as little of the herbs and spices and sauces, and push it all under the broth with your chopstick and spoon and let the flavours infuse. Martin is always impatient with this step, wanting to eat it straight away, but it's worth taking it slowly and letting the flavours mature in the broth.

And don't forget the salads – my favourite. Tart and fresh long shredded strips of green mango and papaya, mixed with lime juice and mint and dried shrimps. Fish sauce and chilli and sugar. And beautiful fresh seafood tossed through it. Served with thick slices of cucumber to cleanse and cool the palate.

So we're eating well.