Wednesday, February 16, 2011

(Not really very) Desperate Vietnamese Housewife

For a while there, I was a working wife with a stay-at-home husband. Now the tables have turned, and I am stay-at-home wife. Wifing is of course not my whole life, but there are some things that have now become routine.

In the mornings we get up and have breakfast together. Almost every morning I manage to do this – to get up and set a breakfast out on the table of hot coffee, and fruit and bread and yogurt. The format of the breakfast is always the same, but the content varies quite a bit. While Martin would probably be quite happy to eat exactly the same thing every day, I like variety, so I try to make sure there’s a different fruit each day, at least. Often the bread is varied, too. Sometimes it’s thick slices of toast, and other times it’s a pastry of some kind. On special days it’s our favourite bready treat – chewy sesame donut balls. Crackballs we call them. Delicious.

We have a housekeeping service, so cleaning is a minimal concern. If there are dishes left unwashed in the kitchen the maids will insist on doing them. This bothers me a tiny bit but I wouldn’t say I lose sleep over it. Sometimes I leave the dinner dishes for the maids to do the next morning. Mostly, I try to do the dishes myself. The maids don’t do laundry (although sheets and towels are provided), so that is my job. I wash the clothes and I hang them on the balcony to dry. The airconditioning vents are on the balcony too, so they blow warm air over the clothes and everything dries quickly. I iron. Much more than I did at home – all the line drying and hard water makes everything come out looking pretty terrible from the wash, and ironing softens the fabric and smoothes the tiny surface creases. I iron everything except underwear, standing in front of the tv in the early afternoons, when the Korean soap operas are on.

What we eat is my responsibility. Early on, we ate almost exclusively at restaurants, but that loses its appeal after a while. It is cheap to eat out. We can get dinner at the restaurant on the corner of our street for under 150,000 dong for both of us (USD 7.50) including drinks, and an appetizer. But once I got the hang of shopping, I’ve learned that I can prepare a similar meal at home for less than 50,000 dong. But cooking means shopping, and every day or every couple of days I venture out to the market to buy what I need for cooking.

I am still learning how to shop here. There is a big market about two blocks away from our apartment. I love going to the market, but it is still intimidating at times, because of the language difficulties. And I can’t (or rather, won’t) buy everything that I need at the market. The market sells all kinds of fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and seafood – but the only foodstuffs I buy there are fresh fruit and vegetables. I still worry about hygiene and packaged foods are cheaper at the supermarket. There is an indoor market that has pretty much everything you need for your kitchen or home – so long as you know how to ask for it.

I am getting to be quite good at sign language and have managed to purchase a mortar and pestle, a spray bottle, noodle bowls, a can opener and one of those basketspoons that you use for deep frying to fish stuff out of the oil – all without the use of language. They always seem to have what I am looking for, but it seems like I can never see the things I want in their stalls, they are so full of stuff. When I mimed the can opener, the woman ran off to a neighbouring stall in a different aisle to fetch one for me. When I gestured crushing herbs in a mortar and pestle, the woman crouched down on the floor and started fishing out a variety of them from underneath the bottom shelf of her stall.

There is a big local supermarket chain called the Coopmart – pronounced kwopmart. I suspect it’s probably government owned. The first time we went, on our first night in the flat to get supplies we were overwhelmed by screaming Vietnamese women and narrow aisles and pushing and jostling. I remember that I couldn’t get to the soaps because there were women just loitering in front of the soap aisle, sniffing the packages and taking forever to choose which one they wanted, as if it were some super luxurious makeup counter they were at. And even by Vietnamese standards, soap at the coopmart is not expensive – but Vietnamese people seem to enjoy taking their time, and having something to choose for themselves. I like to think that this behaviour is a post-communist response to choice (yes, Vietnam is still a communist country. But in a capitalistic kind of way, these days) – it helps me to sympathise and remain calm!

It was a Saturday afternoon, then, so we rationalized – must be a bad time! All the workers have the day off, so they’re doing their shopping now. At a different time it will be better, less chaotic. We went again on Sunday night and had an even worse experience. I have since been to that coopmart a handful of times, at different times of the day, and it is always the same. Curiously, there is another coopmart store that is actually closer to where we live, and I have never been overwhelmed by people in that store. In fact, it can be quite quiet in the middle of the day. I’m not sure why this is – I think it’s just slightly smaller than the other store, but it still has all the same stuff. Now, when I need to visit a supermarket I go here, or else I go all the way into the city and use the supermarket at one of the department stores.

I use the supermarkets to buy heavy things, and boring things – like cleaning products and cooking oil. I also buy yogurt and milk (awful UHT milk. I have taken to putting sugar in my coffee to disguise it) and cans of lemonade and packaged foods like pasta, and chips.

You can’t get decent chicken here, it’s always stringy and tough. But I have found a decent butchers shop and buy pork loin and beefsteak there. I buy bread and pastries from the bakery. Sometimes I go to a patisserie to find little cakes for dessert. At any one shopping trip, I can only buy as much as I can carry home on my own. The coopmarts and the supermarkets at the shopping malls have trolleys, but you can’t take them out the door, so I need to be able to carry my stuff to the taxi, and from the taxi to the apartment in one go. I walk to the market and bakery despite the heat. It’s not far, and I like the exercise, even though it’s not much. It’s easy to get exhausted in the heat.

So all this running back and forth between stores and markets, and figuring out what I need to buy and where I need to get it from takes quite a bit of time. I don’t do a weekly shop anymore, it’s more like a daily shop – of one sort or another. If I get a job I will need to change my routine, but at the moment it is working out just fine.

I have been cooking about 3 or 4 times a week. We both like to eat at home on nights when Martin is working, and we like to eat out at the weekends. We might eat out once or twice during the week, but its really easier just to eat at home. Martin works quite late, so I like to have food ready for him when he gets home, so we can sit and have a meal together and chat.

I only have one gas ring and a microwave. No oven. No other elements. There is actually an electric ceramic hotplate installed in the kitchen but it doesn’t work, and never has. Because I do a lot asian style cooking though, anyway, I find that one pot is enough. I have been provided with 3 pots and a medium sized deep frying pan – I would like to get myself a proper wok. I keep forgetting about this desire when I’m out and about, and only remember when I realize that I’ve overloaded my pan again and need to cook in small batches to stir-fry effectively. With a bigger wok it would take half the amount of time to cook.

I have a rice cooker. And I bought a toaster. There is a small electric kettle, and I boil filtered water in it for coffee (not tap). Our shipment of stuff is arriving soon, and I’ll do an audit of what I have after it gets here before I buy any more large kitchen equipment. But I remember that I didn’t pack much kitchen stuff, because I realized (correctly, as it turns out) that while I was waiting, I would need to buy a whole lot of stuff to use during the wait period. I only packed the things I loved, so we’ll see what comes out of the box on the day, and whether or not I still think I love it!

The only other domestic responsibility I have is to supervise any workers that come into the apartment. They come quite often. There’s always something going wrong with the plumbing, or lightbulbs exploding, or the internet going down. The water delivery man. The window washers. The other morning I had literally seven people in the house for 3 hours, tending to various things.

The domestic duties and Martin’s work schedule have created a routine for us, and we have found it really quite easy to settle in, and slip into this new life. Things will happen that will make our routine change (especially if I start working), but at the moment it is simple, and I like the gentle pace and the gradual introduction to Vietnam as a life lived, rather than as a holiday from a life somewhere else.

1 comment:

  1. Loving your blog! such an interesting insight into you new world! I envy you, would love to live in Asia (for a little while - not sure how long I'd last, but I suppose I'd look local).... Soriya