Thursday, June 23, 2011

Don't forget to tip your waitresses. They have families and bug problems of their own.

I used to think that I was the kind of person who was not bothered by bugs and crawly things. I'm not the kind of squealy girl that goes all stupid just because there's a moth around the lightbulb. And really, apart from slugs, I LIKE bugs (and stuff. Technically – slugs are not bugs. But you know…).

I even bit the abdomen off a fried wing'ed thing once. On purpose. You hold the wings and then just nip its belly off with your teeth. It was Thailand, 15 years ago and I was under duress but still...  that gets me points, right? (Tasted kind of like a salted peanut. Maybe a bit squishier.)

Except praying mantises. I thought I liked them.  They are kind of fascinating. They do exist in the south of New Zealand but not like in the numbers in a wet Auckland summer. And one time, I was on the bus in Auckland and I noticed a praying mantis - a big one - clinging to the back of the seat in front of me.  I tried to ignore it. Because - you know - I'm COOL with bugs. (Did you know praying mantises are carnivorous? Don't click that link if there are small children nearby. You were warned.)

It was a really FULL bus.

I had a window seat near the back of the bus and there was a young Asian student sitting in the seat next to me and his girlfriend was in the seat in front of him and the aisle was crammed with people and backpacks and that unfortunate tight feeling you get when you're in a crowd and there just can't possibly be enough air for everyone.

And then the mantis locked eyes with me. Have you ever really studied a mantis's face?  They have the steeliest gaze of any creature alive.  I tried to look away but it had me like Medusa and there was no escape. I moved  my face towards the window - my face moved but my eyes stayed locked with those evil green ovals and that is when it chose to leap.

I emitted an involuntary, visceral kind of groan - like the sounds that people make when they are having nightmares. A REALLY  LOUD involuntary, visceral groan. And the poor boy next to me proved that he was truly a hero by slapping me right on the tit and squishing the bug between his fingers. His girlfriend turned around - everybody on that bus turned around - to see what the commotion was and he held up his hand to show the green smear like some kind of awkward open-handed, snot-covered  victory fist.
I'm not an idiot. I like bugs, but I don't like bugs that might bite me. That includes mosquitos and sandflies and anything with an obvious stinger.

Oh and millipedes? I get that you're a marvel of nature, and have successfully tiptoed across the surface of the earth for a gazillion years but really - I prefer you on TV and not in my garden. I mean - have you ever picked a pebble out of the soil and then recoiled in horror as it unwound itself, all of its hundreds of little legs waving in the air? At once?

And can we please also exclude caterpillars and pretty much all creatures in their larval form? Especially those weevils that made a mass exodus that time from my pantry to my ceiling when Mr Martin was away on tour and it was night and the only defense I had was the vacuum cleaner and sometimes when you try to vaccum a crawling weevil off the ceiling it drops down  and lands in your cleavage? (And of the same era - Barney - I'm really sorry still about that time I invited you over for dinner and watched in horror as you spooned a live wriggling weevil out of the ground chilli.)

Just what is it with you insects and my cleavage anyway? Remember that time there was a shootout on the motorway and the armed offenders squad were surrounding our house and the woman was standing on her garage roof shrieking and while I was looking up at the helicopters circling overhead thinking "I should probably go inside," and that wasp came out of nowhere and stung me on the boob! I mean really.  As if there wasn't enough drama going on that day.

The other day my husband invited to come and look at the really interesting beetle that had blown up onto our balcony in one of these storms we keep on getting and was now stranded on its back and it was a FUCKING COCKROACH.

All of my memories of the Philippines are prefaced by this sentence: There was a LEECH on the bathroom floor. “What if there are leeches somewhere else? Are they in the bed? Strip the bed! I said STRIP THE FUCKING BED! Why are you laughing at me?!”

And now I am engaged in a kind of war where I am the only one fighting, and the only way I can win is if I clean up my shit because the ANTS. Who sent the goddam ants? Martha Stewart?

The ants don't care if they lose large numbers of troops. It doesn't bother them at all.  No matter what you clean if you leave a crumb out they will find another way to get there because as far as they are concerned that is their crumb.

I should really be celebrating the fact that the first 4 months in our apartment were almost entirely ant-free, but instead I woke up the other day having a nightmare where there was a thick trail - several ants wide - on the wall, and that when I spray’n’wiped it they scattered and pretty soon there were ants covering every surface. The walls and the bed and the cushions and there are so many of them that you can kill a million and it won’t make a dent.

(Hi Nana. There aren’t actually a million ants in my apartment. I promise they won't crawl in your ears while you're sleeping. Can't wait to see you next week!)

Does this mean that I have turned into that kind of shriek woman I am so contemptuous of? Probably. Butterflies moths and beetles are still mostly OK. The non-disease-bearing ones in their adult forms, at least. For now, though, I am cleaning as I go and my kitchen positively glistens.

Probably my mother-in-law would be proud.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Dear Phil - it's lychee season!

There are lychees in the market. They don't seem to be anywhere else - just in the market, so the other day I took myself off for a walk to buy some.  I don't really like buying from this particular fruit seller because she ALWAYS charges me more than the going price and ALWAYS tries to give me the bad stuff. Very annoying.  So after lots of bossing around and forcing her to give me the exact bunch I wanted I came home with a big bag of lychees.

Mr Martin was excited at having a New Fruit in the house because it's a chance to play with the camera.  I was grumpy (it's too hot outside!) and concentrating on eating the new fruit while not wearing pants. So I granted permission for him to film this video so long as only my hands appeared:

Can I have a bit?


Oh! Why not?

Peel your own.

Oh stink.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Bishop Making Ceremony

This is not related to Vietnam, but I was going through some old photos today trying to make room on my laptop and found this:

About a year or so ago I was invited to attend an ordainment ceremony for an Anglican Bishop. I went along expecting a bit of pomp and men in dresses and wasn't disappointed.

Afterwards at home we conducted a little ordainment ceremony of our own, and Little Ted became The Right Reverend the Lord Bishop Little Ted.

Frogdog, who is an abomination (the Lord made frogs, and the Lord made dogs. The Lord did not make frogdogs) was allowed to observe but not participate, on the condition that he covered his head and concealed his hideous marks of the Devil. (The Devil being a 6-year old brother Joseph who was going through an arsonist phase).

Yes, Frogdog, Big Ted, Little Ted and Mr Rabbit all did come to Vietnam. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Helping Hand Saigon Book Day

Book fair!  Good quality second hand books in English (and other languages) for sale!

25th and 26th of June.  9am-3pm.

Serenade Cafe, 84 Huynh Van Banh Street, Phu Nhuan District.

I have been working closely with Helping Hand Saigon on planning and getting funding for the Star Scholarship Program.

One of the regular fundraising events that Helping Hand Saigon hold to fund these scholarships is a book fair. I went to the last one and was delighted to see many (like four or five tables FULL) of English language books - both fiction and non-fiction.  And the price was very reasonable - from 25,000 to maybe 70,000 dong per title depending on the size and quality of the book.  I get a lot of books to read electronically on my iPod, but sometimes I still have a craving for paper.  If you're like me - I suggest you get down there and scoop up a few choice reads. 

It looked like this - but more.

 The Star Scholarship is a really great program all about giving scholarships to groups of disadvantaged children in remote areas.  The idea is that by helping many children from one school or area, we can hopefully enrich the whole school community - not just the individuals involved.  Because of what our funding allows right now, the scholarships are relatively small at around 500,000 dong per student per semester, but they are large enough to provide a contribution towards school fees, and purchase school supplies and small gifts for the children involved.   While primary education is compulsory in Vietnam it is not free, and significant numbers of children (especially in remote areas where there are many barriers) simply do not get even basic education. Even though they are small, the Star Scholarships are significant enough that they can allow children to continue to attend primary school.

If you have books to donate please contact (English on the phone is OK).

Hieu To: 0906 850 358
Suong Nguyen: 0934 005 224
or email:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Dear Phil - the okra show

At the moment I am a little bit in love with okra (not to be confused with being an expert at cooking it (understatement)).

At Mekong Delta, they had okra growing in the garden. I had never seen an okra plant before.  I don't know what I expected it to look like, but not like this.  Maybe a vine along the ground like pumpkins?

Anyway, the real okra plant kind of reminds me of this:

Not that that's a bad thing.

Mekong Lodge does little cooking classes, and one of the things they showed us how to cook was stuffed okra. I haven't got any pictures of the stuffed okra part of the cooking class, because FIRST, they showed us how to make little spring rolls, and my photographer was off 'taste-testing' the spring rolls during the okra stuffing bit.

The stuffed okra were delicious and I have successfully recreated the dish at home since.  Basically, you make a little rectangular hole down the edge of the cleaned okra, rip the guts out and fill it with whatever you want - then shallow fry.  Mekong Lodge's recipe for the filling involved minced fish meat with spices. Mine involved minced pork meat with spices.  Tonight I'm going to try stuffing with rice and egg. I have lots of leftover Indian spiced rice with peas. Waste not, want not!

But I don't think okra is an easy vegetable to cook.  I can do this stuffed okra thing now that I've been shown it - but every time I've tried to cook it as part of a stir-fry or whatever I've ended up with a gooey gluey mess.  So if you have some tips maybe you could put them in the comments? I think perhaps I'm overcooking it.

Finally - the okra here are really big, in comparison with what we can get at home. They are about 10cm long - the ones I used to see at home were closer to 5cm long. It finally makes sense why they were ever called lady fingers.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Have you had your bag snatched yet?

If there's one thing that really bothers me as a white woman living in Saigon, it's the bag snatching and petty crimes against foreigner women that are often accidentally quite violent.  It's not losing stuff that's the issue - though losing stuff is inconvenient and upsetting.  It's the fact that people are often injured as their assailants try to make a quick getaway.

  • Like my friend who told me about getting her bag ripped from her shoulder by a motorcyclist as she walked down Ham Nghi. And then dragged along the road. 
  • Or another woman who wrote about having her bag - again - taken by a motorcyclist, this time while she was riding a bicycle, and being pulled head over handlebars onto the road. 
  • Another friend of mine was not injured but very shaken and upset when her bag was cut from her person in Pham Ngu Lao.  Here to work as a volunteer for three weeks, she cut her trip short and left for home early after losing all her money, her camera and her phone.

As is often the case with crimes against women, the victims all blame themselves as much as their attackers. "I shouldn't have carried my bag like that." Or, "I shouldn't have had so much stuff in it". "I should have been more careful".

And while it's true that there are some things we can do to minise losses when - nobody deserves to be attacked in such a way. Furthermore, while holding your bag differently might give you some protection, the real beacons for these scum are the things about us we can't change -the way we look, the way we dress, our very foreignness.

So far, I have been lucky and nothing bad has happened to me. But in my head I think - nothing bad has happened to me - YET, and that it is only a matter of time. And so, I am often afraid to walk around the streets alone and very nervous about my bag, and my manner - careful to stay alert.  And it really, really bothers me that this has to be the case.

Downtown in the tourist areas there are police absolutely everywhere, and yet these crimes are happening every day and nobody is doing anything about it. The tourist police on the street corners help pretty, skimpily dressed Korean girls cross the road and completely ignore fat older people like me.  Outside the Tax Centre the other day there were 6 different fake Mai Linh taxis lined up, and police standing on the corner watching hapless tourists getting ripped off.

It all makes me very grumpy because I genuinely love living in Saigon and really wish I didn't have to feel so paranoid every time I leave the house.

Anyway, this is what I do to protect myself and my possessions on the street.
  • Men's clothes have pockets, so boys can much more easily get away with not carrying bags. But - I have LADY POCKETS. 
 No - that is not me! I'm a brunette, remember?
  • I usually have my money in one and my cellphone in the other. So that I can get home, and call someone in an emergency. And amuse taxi drivers. Maybe you don't have enough  room in there for a cellphone and so I prove there are advantages to being a bit of a fatty. Geez - I could practically fit a cellphone from 1992 in mine.
  • And that's another reason why I like the slightly padded t-shirt bras - not so many edges show. 
  • I carry ugly bags. Like backpacks. I know beautiful bags are cheap here, but it's an extra temptation - the bag itself becomes something to steal. 
  • If it has a long strap, I wear my bag around my body, and keep one hand on it. 
  • When I remember, I carry my bag on the shop side - not the road side.  It's actually not easy to keep away from the roads in Saigon so this tip is of limited value, but it's just another thing to do. 
Actually, probably these precautions do very little to reduce the likelihood of something happening to me, but it makes me feel better and more confident going out on the street.

Finally - we are here to live - not to hide!  Don't let them win. GO OUT. Live your life.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Who do you think you are?

Our names have gotten us into trouble again.

My mother in law (bless her soul) sent us a much anticipated care package.  It contained some clothing items we can't find here, and some small gifts.  My sister in law (hello anonymous) posted this package for my mother in law through the courier company DHL.

DHL contacted Mr Martin when the package arrived:  They have the package. The package is addressed to:

M & K Sutcliffe

Who are they?  To the Vietnamese - M&K Sutcliffe sounds like a business name.  And therefore we have some explaining to do.  What is this illegal, unregistered company?

There was much passing of the telephone to helpful people who can speak Vietnamese.

Mr Martin had to write a letter, explaining that his name is M Sutcliffe and that the "& K" on the address is me - his wife, whose initial is K.  It is complicated by the fact that I am not K Sutcliffe (duh, I'm Mrs Martin, aren't I?), so there is no proof.  I believe he sent copies of our passports and marriage certificate.

Then, a couple of days later he was told that he needed to send the letter in Vietnamese as well as English. Which is a pain because - you know - we don't speak Vietnamese.  So Mr Martin was  trying to find time to get a friend to translate his letter.

And then when I arrived home a couple of days later (the package had now been in the country for a week) the receptionist in our building told me that DHL had been, with a package, and were ready to drop it off if she would pay the whopping customs charge of 2.1 million dong - which is around $100 US.  Which is a lot more than the petty cash that our reception office carries. Which is actually none.  Ocassionally the office girls have paid small bills for me when I am out (like, 20,000 dong) out of their own pockets.  But 2 million is ridiculous.  And I wasn't here, so she had to send him on his way again.

Maybe they got tired of waiting for their Vietnamese letter?

But my receptionist was very conscientious about the whole business. She got a tracking number and a phone number and other useful information off  the delivery man, and so when I got back I was able to get her on the phone to him again.

The 2 million dong is because of the value of goods that was written on the customs declaration form that NZ Post sticks to packages. There was nothing we could do about that, unfortunately. 

And I had to explain very painstakingly the naming convention that had caused our names to be written as M&K Sutcliffe to the receptionist, so that she can explain it to DHL. I thought that she had it, but then she came back to my apartment and asked me - "What is the company M&K Sutcliffe?" and I had to start again.

The irony here is that of course in Vietnam everything is backwards.  In my country, combining the names of a married couple like this is a way of simplifying the address, and also a little bit more formal.  By writing the names together like that, my MIL would have intended that either Mr Martin or myself could then easily receive the package.  But here in upside-down land, that attempt at formality/simplicity actually complicated things quite a bit. 

And actually, our names were only shortened like that on the customs form attached to the package - not on the address label itself.

So, if you are in Vietnam and your loved ones at home want to send you pressies, tell them to do this:
  • Come and visit and put the present in their suitcase (Hi Mummy!  Can't wait to see you!).
If a visit is really not possible, then:
  • Spend the extra money on postage to make sure it is handled by a courier company - the ordinary postal service in Vietnam is too unreliable.
  • Make sure a contact phone number and email address for the recipient are included in the consignment note/written on the address label. I would even recommend this for a simple letter.
  • Write names of the recipients as they appear on their passports - as these will be required for identification.
  • Make sure the overall declared price of goods written on the customs declaration is low - like less than $50.  Remember that second hand or reconditioned items have a very low value. Not that I'm encouraging to you lie to the customs office or anything. 
  • Use the Vietnamese alphabet on your address if you can. Remember to include all those accents. 
  • I notice that Vietnamese people have uniformly beautiful handwriting and can struggle to read untidy or eccentric handwriting. It's best to type address labels and print them out, or else write in BLOCK CAPITALS.
  • Finally, be sure to include a consignment note or packing slip that lists the items in the package.  It is a very good deterrent for anybody who might be tempted to intercept anything - because they know that you'll know.
Remember - in Vietnam problems can happen, but they also do get sorted out.  If you have a problem like ours, stay calm and smile - it's the easiest way to get people to help you.

So, if M&K Sutcliffe were a company - what kind of company do you think it would be?


The best part of the Philippines trip for me was the snorkeling.  On the second day, we all went out in boat for an island hopping tour. There is a common kind of tour boat you see in that region. It is not a catamaran exactly, but it has large supports on each side of the hull.  My guess is that they are designed to keep the boat as close to the surface as possible - because the waters from time to time get very shallow as the coral reefs rise beneath.
You can see the coral just beneath the surface in this photo, taken from the side of the boat. 

I am from New Zealand.  Famous for its marine wildlife.  And I am a dyed in the wool rock-pooler.  But I'm from the SOUTH ISLAND of New Zealand, which is also famous for its frigid waters and proximity to Antarctica. And when you combine that with a personality that is distinctly averse to extreme physical exploits ... I've never snorkelled before. And I was DEAD KEEN.

I was so excited that I was gearing myself up to be all disappointed . Because, you know, maybe the sea will be all murky, and all I will see is a submerged coke can and a grimy sea slug.

This is funny: a bunch of people who have never worn them before, trying to put on flippers and then climb down a ladder into the water below - wearing them. Everybody was standing on each others 'toes' and tripping one another up. We looked like a boatload of demented naked penguins.

It was great.  I saw many many fish, and jellyfish and coral. Not one coke can. I am a complete convert/devotee.  Our next long weekend away in Vietnam is going to have to include swimming with the fishes.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Dear Phil - orange juice

Back home, big three litre bottles of orange juice were a regular part of my weekly shop. Vietnam is full of mountains of fresh wonderful fruit, and you can get super delicious fresh fruit shakes and smoothies at almost every cafe in the country.  But you can't buy 100% pure orange juice in the supermarkets. Sometimes, for a relatively expensive price you can buy juices from America or the Philippines in tetrapak cartons. They are always full of sugar and often made up from concentrate so I never bother. I bought a squeezer instead.

Today I bought a big pile of oranges and brought them home to make juice. Oranges in Vietnam all have green skins. Nellie in her blog Head (South) East wrote about this recently - she explains that the green skin is due to the tropical climate.

It's a little confusing because our first instinct on looking at a green orange is that it mustn't be ripe yet - but they are ripe, and very very sweet and juicy. 

The skins on these ones were very thin and perfect for squeezing.  I think these oranges were about 10% skin, 10% pip and 5% pulp - leaving a whopping 75% of pure nectar.  If you tried to peel it and eat it with your fingers you'd end up with juice dripping off your elbows.

Out of that pile of oranges I got exactly one litre and one mouthful of juice. Tomorrow's breakfast!

But where can I get a coyote?

I have always admired Shreve Stockton.  Not only does she have a real live coyote - she travelled across the US, alone, on a Vespa.  What's more - her Nana is a blogger too.

So I knew before I came to Saigon that I wanted to ride a motorbike. And I also knew that it's super scary riding motorbikes here.  Or even just bicycles. Or even just being on the road at all.  But I have decided that it's time - and I am going to get a bike and ride it.

I have found a place that will rent me a SYM Attila for 1.2 million dong per month.  Apparently it will be a red one - so something like this:

And I have found a guy who can help me to get a real drivers license.  So watch this space for updates!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sweet William and the Nana

The great thing about pets is that they are something and someone to look after.  In Vietnam we have decided not to get another pet, because we're not sure how long we're going to be here, and also because Vietnam is just about the worst place in the world to import animals to New Zealand from. If we ever went home again with a Vietnamese dog or cat, the poor animal would need to endure a very long quarantine period, and that just doesn't seem fair.

 William's greatest day - the day he brought home a frankfurter.

William really did bring dead animals life to our home, and we miss having him around.  He mostly has settled in well at my mother's place - after those Great Escapes of the early days.  But there is one, quite significant problem.

We got William as a kitten from a state house not far from our flat.  There were a pile of kittens in the window, and I knocked on the door and asked if they wanted to get rid of one.  The people in that house thrust him at me.  The woman said to me "It's best if you get a boy one.  The girls just get more and more babies," as if the creation of kittens was a mysterious process.

Little William stunk. He is a greyish brown tabby, with a white front and paws.  His back legs were a sort of pale ginger colour.  It took me ages to figure out why he was still so smelly - even after a couple of days in the new house.  That ginger fur on his back legs was not ginger at all.  It was urine stained.  All the cats at the house he came from home were not properly litter trained, and Baby Bingle had clearly been walking around a lot in puddles of wee.

That cat was the most difficult animal to train to use a litterbox. And once he got big enough to jump on the bed, he started to wee on the bed.  It was a disaster!  It was so bad, we ended up having to replace the mattress and I was at my wits end. I researched online frantically, and found lots of helpful advice, about keeping clean litter trays, and trying different mixes of cat litter.  One site told me that cats often pee on their owner's clothes or bedding when they are nervous or afraid, or just plain unsettled - because it comforts them to mix their scent with ours.  Which helped explain the behaviour (William was a very nervous cat) but not to solve the problem!

Eventually, I noticed that he kept on going on piles of discarded newspaper when I had it around.  And I finally realised that newspaper is probably what the people in his first house would have put down for the cats to go on - if they used anything at all.  And at last we found the perfect litter tray recipe for William - a few sheets of newspaper, plus a couple of tablespoonsful of cat litter.  Changed after EVERY use.  We stopped calling it a litter tray and started calling it a nappy.  And when he was finally big enough and brave enough to go outdoors on his own we only needed the litter tray for emergencies. Like rain.  Scary, scary, rain.

I would just like to state at this point that my mother KNEW EVERY POINT of this troubled history when she agreed to take William on.  I had called her regularly throughout the years to ask her advice.  My mother was convinced that I was the problem, not the cat.  And that she - as someone who had raised cats all her life - would be IMMUNE to William and his idiosyncrasies.  HAHAHAHAAHAHHA!

Guess who has had to replace a good number of cushions!

You might think it mean of me to laugh, but she was all, "You're spoiling him. You wouldn't have any problems if you didn't treat him like a baby.  Blah blah I'm perfect and blah blah blah YOU SUCK and blah blah blah blah blah."

HAHAHAHAHAHA!  Just wait till we have real children, Mummy!  We're going to send them for holidays at Grandma's!

Poor William.  A few weeks ago Mum told me he'd been banished to outdoors altogether. But my little brother was sneaking him in for cuddles. And clearly he's back in the good books now.  My Nana has been visiting my mother for the last couple of weeks, and Mum sent me this photo:

Sweet William and the Nana. Smooching it up.

Apparently he's been 'smoochy' lately.  And was on his best behaviour for Nana's visit. Quite obviously he's out of coventry. We miss him.