Friday, July 29, 2011

Dear Phil - lunch in the Philippines

Our trip to the Philippines way back in May involved lunch at a tropical island.

Being the Philippines, lunch involved meat, with more meat and meat on the side.  And being an island, most of the meat came from animals that live in the sea.  (What do you mean chicken isn't a sea bird?)

Here's a shot of our conveyance:

The two little huts in the background behind me were our restaurant.  This restaurant is extra special for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, when you step off your boat you are ushered towards another hut opposite which features a live seafood market.

Don't you just love the way the gentleman in this picture is fondling his cods while talking to me?

The idea is that you go to the market and pick out the things you like, and they will barbecue them there on the spot.  We were a large group, and our organisers had arranged a set menu, so this part of the experience was really more for show so far as we were concerned. The big ticket item at the market is clearly the sea mantis.  

It looks kind of like a lobster, and probably tastes like it too - but we didn't buy one.  The sea mantises are only put out on the market table when a boat pulls in. As soon as the potential customers have moved they are put back in the water at the shore.  They're not released, though.  The fishermen use 600ml plastic soft-drink bottles to store their catch. They put a split down the length of the bottle, shove the animal in, and let the slit close around it.  Then they put the bottles in a net in the shore.  The fish can't escape, and stay alive until the next boat comes in.

A bag of bottled sea mantises under the water at the shore.

One guy at the market also had a bowl with three or four stone fish in it, which was surprising.  There are quite a lot of different varieties of stone fish, and some of them are very poisonous. I'm not sure whether these ones were poisonous or not - but I think that they are probably not what you would call a sustainable catch.  They were pretty amazing to look at up close - their skin had a mossy green texture and really resembled seaweed.   The stone fish are stored in the same manner as the sea mantises.

I was pretty glad that our set menu didn't contain any of these more exotic creatures. I'm an adventurous eater but don't really like to eat (or buy!) endangered species. Our food was really delicious.  Definitely one of the freshest most delicious barbecues of my life.

As memorable as the food was - probably the most fun part of this restaurant was the fact that it doesn't have a floor. Instead, the tables and chairs are just plonked directly into the sand - and in the high tide, that means in the water.

The waterlogged beach was like quicksand, so for the first few minutes you gradually sink until a kind of equilibrium is reached. After our meal, we just walked out into the water for a postprandial snoozy kind of swim.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


I needed some pegs.  Lots of my tshirts have wide necks and they kept slipping off the hangers when I put them out to dry.  So off I went to the Big C - which is where I tend to buy all my plastic crap.

At first I was annoyed, because they didn't seem to have any normal pegs.  Vietnamese people seem to love things which are overly fussy, so all the pegs were weird shapes.  But then when I went back to the plastic crap aisle I decided to suck it up and just buy the weird shaped pegs. And then I looked closer.

Huh.  Those are actually shaped like little birds.  Like little hipster birds. And they're kind of cool colours.  I like them.

So I bought two packets. And when I got home I played with them for a while. 

I am suddenly a sucker for weird-shaped plastic crap. I think I'm turning Vietnamese.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Does this make you want to flop 'em out?

What do you think of this image?

Hint: It's not from a fashion catalogue. 

Let's zoom in:
Why is this child wearing a bathing suit that gives us a weird x-ray view of her kidneys, bladder and colon?

Actually, the picture comes from Tuoi Tre News who have a reasonably good article today about how malnutrition is causing stunted grown in around 30% of Vietnamese children.  The government is blaming this problem on a lack of breastfeeding, and products being sold to Vietnamese parents a nutritional supplements that are very poor quality - specifically: infant formulas.

The image used in the article is odd - but the article itself is good and points at a big problem in the Vietnamese infant feeding market. You might think it strange that I'm talking about infant feeding as a marketplace, but that's exactly what it is.  Every Vietnamese supermarket I've been into has an entire aisle devoted to infant formula products.

Daycare centers and kindergartens are easy to spot, because they all seem to be sponsored by infant formula companies which paint colourful cartoonish murals on the outside walls.

This article from 2009 describes the aggressive push by infant formula companies in Vietnam.  The law here is clear, that breastfeeding should be promoted and that marketing infant formulas in hospitals and the like is forbidden - but it is not well observed. The situation is unchanged now in 2011 - probably worse.

When she heard my mother was coming, my Vietnamese friend asked me to get my mother to bring cans of infant formula for her 2 and a half year old daughter. Vietnamese people are suspicious of the quality of the formulas they are feeding their children, and yet steadfastly believe that they should be feeding their children special formulated foods.  The irony of this is that an adult Vietnamese diet (assuming the family are living somewhere above the poverty line) is rich in vegetables, fruit and fish. Many Asian people cannot easily digest lactose and do well to stay away from milk, cheese, ice-cream and yogurt - and yet still get plenty of protein from tofu and soy-based products, as well as some calcium from fish and small animal bones and other items that are not part of a typical western diet*.  If the toddlers were eating what their parents ate - instead of over-boiled rice mushed with thick infant formula - they would most likely have a much healthier diet.

A further irony is that these formula products are favoured by Vietnam's growing middle classes.  They are very expensive to buy, and have been successfully marketed as somewhat of a luxury item.  This may explain why parents are so willing to pay such a premium for them to feed to children who are well past the age of being needed to be bottle-fed.

If there's something that really astounds me about the problem of breastfeeding in Vietnam, it's that breastfeeding is something that - on the face of it - is well respected here.  There are many many artworks and public monuments depicting breastfeeding mothers. 

The aptly-named "Unfinished Suck" from the second floor of the Southern Women's Museum shows a woman reaching for her gun. She has been interrupted whilst feeding her baby. This is a terribly affecting piece of work - as the expression on the faces of both the woman and her baby make you think that perhaps it is too late.


The detail in the image below is the central focus of another huge painting on the same floor.  It shows a baby attempting to suckle from a woman who has been killed a battle.

And here is the whole painting (click on it to see a bigger version):

Here is another depiction of a woman soldier breastfeeding, but it is much more tenderly evocative. I look at it and imagine that the artist was drawing a woman and a child he knows and loves - perhaps his wife was the model? This one is in the Fine Arts Museum which is not far from Ben Thanh Market.

Breastfeeding also plays a part in literature any myth, whereas, I can't think of a traditional children's story from the West that talks about breast-feeding.  Take the milk-apple, for example.  According to myth, it is named for breastmilk.  Once upon a time, a naughty boy ran away from home. His mother waited for him to return under the leaves of a tree. When he never returned, she became the tree - and its fruit is the milk-apple - still waiting for him to feed him when he comes home.

Maybe the success of the infant and toddler formula market in Vietnam is a allegorical of the triumph of commercial advertising over art, or over propaganda (or both). But it is heartbreaking to see children who are genuinely loved, and whose parents want only the best for them literally dying from malnutrition - even those children who don't feel hungry.

I don't know what we as expats in Vietnam can do. Surely using all those same strategies to promote breastfeeding that are used all the time in the West is a good idea - breastfeed in public, encourage new mothers to breastfeed, if you are an employer - make sure any breastfeeding mothers on staff have time and space to feed or express milk.  Maybe don't buy formula for your friends' toddlers.

And finally: Don't demonise or ostracise those mothers who do choose to use formula to feed their infants.  Remember that infant formulas save very many more babies than they kill when the mothers can't or won't breastfeed for whatever reason. Breast is best, but I would rather a woman who doesn't breastfeed gives her baby infant formula than rice soaked in cow's milk and porkfat - wouldn't you?  Unless of course you're trying to make zombie babies:

*Soymilk in Vietnam is usually served fresh and therefore not fortified with calcium the way it is in the west.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A lot can happen in a month

Today is the 22nd, which means it's been almost a month since I've signed in here to give you all an update on my wee life.

Actually a lot has happened.  First of all, Mummy and Nana finally came to visit!

We failed to pose for a family photo, of course. This is the best I've got of all 3 generations together.

It was quite the family reunion with my grandmother coming from Abu Dhabi and my mother coming from Hamilton in NZ. 

We went to Hoi An, which meant walking in ruins:

My mother wore this orange t-shirt, which was wonderful because she kept wandering off and it made her easy to spot.
I suggest if you have a toddler with wanderlust that you clothe them entirely in day-glo.


Going on a boat:

Some beach time:

And psychedelia with geodes at the Marble Mountain gift shop:

Nana was spotted stuffing dong into the pockets of the girl who was leading her around the gift-shop.  As we were leaving the girl said to me: "Your grandmother very good!".  It was a mutually rewarding transaction - Nana says the Vietnamese are very friendly.

We learned that Mr Martin never naps during the day, much as he'd like to.  Poor dear.

We had a few days in Saigon too.  There was some eating:

Some marketing:

What is this? Spotted at Benh Thanh market. Is it sea slugs?  Is it food?

And of course, a cyclo ride:

On the cyclo, Nana was urging the driver to "Go faster! Go faster!" - so she ended up way ahead of us.

My Nana is 75 years old and managed just fine getting around considering that Vietnam is a challenging environment even for young, fit people.  Of course, the heat was difficult, and we had booked a tour to Cham Island not realising that getting on an off the boat was going to be too much of an ask for Nana's knees, so unfortunately she couldn't come along that day.  However, she was quite happy to have a day resting in the air-conditioning and cafes of the hotel.

Hoi An was the perfect place for us all to go and relax, as the streets are easy to walk on and there are plenty of cafes and shops to stop in where the staff have very good English and are used to dealing with older tourists.  We were very well looked after for the entire course of our stay - especially by the staff of my own apartment building who really went out of their way to make sure they were looked after.  A celebrity in my own neighbourhood, I have been asked by complete strangers in stores and on the street about how my parents are doing, and am still being asked now, 3 weeks after they have left.

My mother is still young and so the trip was not physically too much of a challenge for her, and she seemed to love every minute of it. I think we will probably see her again - maybe next year!

If you have parents or grandparents thinking of coming but who might be worried about it being difficult - encourage them to come anyway.  I am too young to remember the Vietnam War, but my mother and grandmother both do remember (and my Great-Uncle served 3 tours here for the Australian army) and I think for them seeing the recovery in the country and experiencing generosity and hospitality of the Vietnamese was really amazing. And I really can't stress enough how much care and attention my grandmother received from the locals - there was no chance of anything going wrong!