Saturday, January 28, 2012

Fish food

 We had an hour or so at Singapore airport after checking in.
Oh Singapore! Singapore was a little bit difficult for me, truth be told. I was stressed before we left, and Singapore itself is hardly a relaxing place.  I got annoyed with the way the Singapore government seems to be so preoccupied with keeping the traffic moving, that they think nothing of making pedestrians walk for 6 kilometers just to get across the road.
There are shopping malls parked over most of the city subway stops.  So you get off the subway, and then suddenly you are trapped in a shopping malls.  Sometimes, it was as if our holiday was a weird 6-day long version of Mall Rats, with occasional zoo breaks.
We had hot, sore feet the whole time.  Jandals weren't cutting it, so we were wearing trainers a lot. Believe me, you're making a sad choice when you're deciding between sweaty sore jandals, or socks in 35 degree heat.
So at the airport, we fed ourselves to the fishes.

They did a REALLY good job at removing all the horrible dead skin from my feet. (Aren't you glad you know that?) It tickled quite a bit in the beginning, but you get used to it.
Mr Martin liked it too.

 PS: Mr Martin has taken to referring to me as Mrs Grits on the Internet. What do we think of this? The rational is that his moniker is HotGrits, so therefore I am Mrs Grits.  Wondering if I should start calling him Mr Grits instead.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Mr Martin gets a big balloon

On Sunday night we walked from Little India kind of aimlessly until we suddenly found ourselves in town outside the front of the art school. We're in Singapore, and it's Chinese New Year. Sunday night was the night before the first day of the festival, and there was a feeling of calm anticipation in the air.

And then suddenly a woman gave us a giant helium balloon.

 We weren't the only people to be handed big balloons, there were a bunch of them around the place. Im not sure whether the balloons were city funded new year thing, or an art project. But whatever they were, they were a lot of playful fun.

 It was also an opportunity to practice our interpretive dance skills.

 And after all that excitement our balloon led us through some zen-like moments of quiet contemplation:

Earlier in the day we had been lucky enough to see Van Gogh's painting "Starry Night" as part of a temporary exhibit at the National Museum.

I was reminded of the painting as we watched somebody else's released balloon swimming into the murky night between the treetops above us.

Finally just as we were wondering what we were going to do with a balloon so huge that both of us could have fit inside it, we were approached by a pair of young girls who wanted to know where to get a balloon from.

Here's to wishing that your water dragon year is filled with moments of playful absurdity.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Lunchtime at the clinical research unit

We begin by discussing running.  Opinions range from for, or against as a pastime (there is no in-between).

Then we move on to aikido.  Someone has been taking classes.  Pro: aikido involves throwing people for exercise.  Con: all the other participants are little children.

Next, we all discuss nannies.  Pro: Philippino nannies work during Tet.  Con: They demand health insurance.

Someone starts to tell someone else about the diptheria baby who is on a trach but there's no medicine in the whole country for him. And the government won't get it in for just one patient.

Everybody teases everybody else about washing lunchboxes - a serious business amongst the Vietnamese staff, whereas you'd be lucky if the expats dump out their uneaten sandwich crusts.

Then, the director comes in. 

So everyone else starts talking about statistics.  And those of us who are administrators roll our eyes and leave.  Way to ruin lunch break, Jeremy!

We're in!

I still haven't taken any pictures, so I'm sorry that I can't show you our new apartment.

What an awful 2 weeks it has been!  In fact, it's not even 2 weeks - it will be 2 weeks tomorrow.

I was so angry with the Sweethome Apartment manager that I could barely look at her by the time we actually left.  I know it's probably some weird Vietnamese cultural thing, whereby she tells me what she thinks I want to hear, and then I am expected to do whatever it is she wants, even if that is the exact opposite of what she says.  But the woman came to visit me, and said that we didn't have to move at all, and apologised.  And then two days later Martin's company confirmed that actually, yes, we DID have to move.

Plus the whole business with Mr Tony.

Dan, the little wee real estate agent showed us lots of places, but in the end it was a third agent Ms Trang who showed us the winning apartment.  Ms Trang speaks English OK, but doesn't seem to be able to understand spoken English at all - despite the nodding and smiling.  And so there have been some annoying communication problems with her.  Also, it is Tet. And really, all Ms Trang was interested in was collecting her commission in advance of the Tet holiday.  As she eagerly demonstrated with several text messages:

Hi Martin.  Can you confirm you take the apartment and when the deposit be paid so I can collect my commission. 

Hi Martin. Please ask your company to transfer the rental because the landlord don't receive any information from your company. At least, please let her know when they transfer. She want to know to make sure about your company before she goes back to Hanoi tomorrow. Thanks, Trang. 

Hi Martin. You shall talk to Ms Thao (the HR Manager at Martin's company) about transfering the rental. Because the end of the day, the landlord don't receive anything from you and your company. She calls me many times to ask but I don't call Ms Thao yet, maybe she is very busy. Please let know now and send the receipt. Thanks. 

These are just the ones that came through to my phone - not even Martin's.  I like the way she changed her tactics, to make it sound like the pushing was coming from the landlords end.  But Martin spoke to the landlord's daughter (who has perfect English) and also to Ms Thao and the landlord was in fact happy with the arrangement we had in place.

Because of the urgency of our situation, and also because of the fact of Tet, and because of the need to deal with Martin's company for the contract and paying the deposit etc - we had all agreed that the contract would be signed on Tuesday (which it was) and that we would move in on Wednesday (yesterday).  But, because Ms Thao needed 2 signatures to get the payment activated, the bank transfer couldn't be made until late on Wednesday or maybe Thursday morning.  The landlord asked me to give her a cash gratuity which she will return to me when the full payment has gone through - so I gave her 2 million dong (about US $100) yesterday, and she will give it back to me when she gets back from Hanoi after Tet.

I think that Ms Trang maybe didn't understand any of that, and so was hassling the landlord, the company and us to try and get us to speed things along - which we couldn't do.  Ms Thao was very fed up with her and not answering her calls, and it wasn't until Martin called the landlord again last night that she finally has backed off.  Anyway - I think the payment will have gone through by now, and so we'll probably not have to deal with Ms Trang again.

It is surprising to me how expensive accommodation is in Vietnam.  The rent on our new place is US $1,100 per month - which is more than double the average Vietnamese educated office worker's salary.  Serviced apartments are much more expensive, and unfurnished apartments are a little bit cheaper - but not by much.  Most Vietnamese people own their own homes and live together with their extended families - with women moving out to join their husband's families, and young men buying their own homes usually before they get married. I think most Vietnamese people if they had to rent could probably afford to pay about $100 a month, and I shudder to think what quality of accommodation that would be.  Probably a very small room and maybe a toilet room with a shower over it and a very small, possibly external kitchen.

We are living in relative luxury - a luxurious apartment even by NZ standards. It has 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and a massive open plan living room and kitchen area.  There are some things about it that are not to western tastes - no oven in the kitchen, and not many drawers - no bookshelves - fluorescent lighting tubes in every room (eek!).  But it is by far the biggest and nicest place we have ever lived in (though Sweethome was nice too), at 150 sqm. 

There are some things to get used to (traffic noise! It's unserviced - no maids so far...) and some things that are a huge bonus (supermarket on the ground floor - enough space for dancing).  I will give another apartment update after we've been there for a couple of weeks, and try and get some photos for you all.

My next focus now after the unpacking is finished is our trip to Singapore.  We are still going - leaving on Sunday this week and coming back next Friday.  I have been told that Singapore will be crazy busy with Chinese New Year activities - so hopefully that will actually be quite fun!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Today - worse than yesterday

Today has been another day of apartment hunting. Dan picked me up on his motorbike at 9 am and showed me at least 6 apartments.  

I still double-take sometimes when I notice the size of Vietnamese people.  Dan is a tiny little guy - he is about the size of an 11 year old boy in my mind - and I'm not even exaggerating. 

He is just tiny, but he drives a great big motorbike. I don't know the brand of bike but its kind of sporty and new looking with fluorescnt orange mag wheels.  A very desirable bike in Vietnam for young men.  

A few of the apartments we saw were ok, but Martin and I couldn't agree on any this afternoon so we are still nowhere.  Mr Tony keeps emailing me reminding me that the landlords here want me gone.

This is a complete nightmare situation for me.  To top it all off we're out of milk. And water. And bread.  No, I don't want to go shopping. 






Thursday, January 12, 2012

Comedy - good husband quality

Text conversation with my husband:

Got hold of Dan the apartment guy.  He will txt you about seeing places tomorrow. 

I mean he'll txt you soon. To organise seeing places tomorrow. Loves. 


No. His name is Dan.

A few minutes later:

9:30 am for me and Roger


Roger, Clarence.

And yes, folks - that does mean that we are DESPERATE, for a break in the misery as much as for a new apartment.

Oh the melodrama.  There has been tears. Many many awful angry-cry tears.

On Saturday, we went looking at apartments with Mr Tony The Untrustworthy.  He showed us two apartments, and while the first one smelled of mould and had no window in the second bedroom, the second one was perhaps acceptable.

There was a small swimming pool on the ground floor, and access to the roof garden - which is much better than the facilities at Sweethome.

But the kitchen was just a tiny kitchenette on one wall - ok for tea and toast, but even less functional than the kitchen I currently have.

We almost said yes to that.

On Monday, Martin told his office HR person what was going on and she got on the phone to our apartment manager, who immediately came to see me and suggested that I just stay where I am.  Don't move out. Don't move to the other apartment.  Oh, and by the way - did I realise that they asked Mr Tony before signing the contract with the other people what our plans were, and he told them we were moving out?

But by Wednesday that deal was off again.  We fired Mr Tony (of course) and are back to square one, with even less time up our sleeves than before.

We are meeting with two different agents this weekend. This Dan guy (not Roger) and another woman on Saturday.

Please please please let me find somewhere nice. And soon. And let moving house in Vietnam be less bitchy than in NZ.  When we moved from NZ to Vietnam we got packers to come and pack up our stuff and move it all for us.  I'm DEFINITELY doing that again this time...


As I was negotiating the new contract for my job, there was really one thing on my mind. 

And that was my arse.

For the whole two months that I was working previously, I had to sit in a horrible ordinary meeting-room style chair. 

(No photos because I'm THAT GOOD a blogger).

Not even any wheels on my chair.  So I said to my boss that I would only come back if they got a new chair for me.

And she agreed!

On Tuesday my chair was delivered, and it's the best office chair I've ever had!  The back and the seat are all one molded piece, so there's none of that horrible wobbly seat back that standard office chairs get. 

And the seat has a nice fat bum, just like me.  And - even better than all that - my chair has little arms.  I've never worked in an armchair before, and I've gotta say - I like it!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

One foot out the door.

Last night I was driving home from the orphanage and feeling quite happy with my life. I have work for this year - though not full time, it is good, interesting work.  I get to cuddle babies regularly. I have found a tailor near my house who will make dresses for 300k dong (around $17 NZ). I have an iPad, and a haircut, and an electric piano. 

And then, when I walked into my apartment building feeling all contented, the receptionist asked to talk to me.  She pulled out a calendar and pointed to a date circled - Jan 20th. That's when the people they have leased our apartment to are moving in.  When am I moving out?

They've leased our apartment to someone else, and given us 10 days notice!

Just to be clear - we were NOT intending on moving. 

Our dodgy real estate agent, Mr Tony tells us that "I think they are OK.  They like you, they say you are very nice and kind."  As if that was supposed to make the sudden eviction notice all right. 

So, we are now apartment hunting, with some urgency.  Thank goodness my job is only 2 days a week at the moment, and I will be able to dedicate some time to this. 

We had intended to go to Singapore for Tet - (Jan 22 - 27), now I am worried that we might not be able to go. 

So please cross your fingers for me that we'll find something easily that won't be too expensive. 

As a side note - we're pretty certain that Mr Tony is complicit in the whole thing, so we don't really trust him all that much.  We will be looking at some apartments with him today, and then we will be looking for another agent as well.

PS: Mr Martin says: "I like how you've got an electric piano and everything else and you don't mention a loving husband. Just saying."  So now I'm homeless AND my husband is mad at me. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Shopping in Vietnam

When I started my job, the one thing that had me the most worried was the groceries. How on earth was I going to manage the job AND the supermarkets? Tabitha in Hanoi looked at me incredulously when I told her this.  Her opinion is that shopping in Vietnam is EASY. Way better than at home, she says.  Just go to the market! she says.

Well fine.

I DO go to the market.  Where I buy fresh fruit and vegetables. That's the easy part. If you think walking through blood puddles while dodging malevolent motorcyclists and hoiking grandfathers and carrying heavy bags of mangos and Thai basil in 35 degree heat is easy.

Anybody who has been here to visit knows that I actually adore the market, smelly bloody mess that it is, on a tourist basis. It's when I have to go to the market because I have no choice that I kind of hate it. A bit.

Martin insists on muesli for his breakfast (some poo-related reasoning, that I'll spare you the details of). And we like milk. And decaffeinated tea. That means the fancy western supermarket.

We eat meat.  That means the Metro - a half-hour cab ride away. Of course I can get meat at all kinds of places, but I have thing about refrigeration. And requiring it on my meatstuffs. I can only shop at the metro if I bring a copy of my passport. The metro doesn't give you shopping bags. The taxis are at the other end of a sloping car park. There are speed limit signs painted on the ground of the car park 5kph. As if I could keep my bulk purchases laden trolley to less than 5kph.

Buying any kind of fresh item at the supermarket, or the metro means queuing at the scales to get a barcode. Queuing in Vietnam means getting shoved around, ignored, and occasionally yelled at. Pushed in front of.  Lots of silent disapproving pointing from supermarket staff.  Apparently I don't wrap my vegetables in enough plastic.

Repeat for meat.

Once I'm through that section, my internal supermarket monologue goes like this:

Where is the goddam toilet paper?  Out of stock? Really? Of toilet paper?

Shampoo.  Cannot access shampoo.  5 Vietnamese women opening and sniffing every bottle.  Why won't they move? Oh she's moving.  No. No she's not.  Maybe if I smile at her. I'll beam. Nobody can resist my beaming confused foreigner face. BEAM.  Why won't they move?

Bitches! They've stolen my trolley again!  How can they just dump the stuff out of my trolley like that?

What is this stuff?  Is is nuts? Is it seeds? Oh. It's MSG.  Right. There are VARIETIES of MSG? 

17 aisles of MSG and no salt.

Why has the cheese got a padlock on it? Are people that desperate for cheese? It's not even the expensive cheese.  It's the Vietnamese cheese. Steal the expensive cheese!  There's like, roquefort right there and you people are stealing the Vietnamese cheese?

Ooh look!  Weird kitchen implements!  What's this for?  What's this for?  Do I need a strainer?  Pegs!  No, I don't need a strainer. Wait, what about a lemon squeezer.  Ooh! Whisks.  I like whisks. 

Plastic cake plates.  Are they nice or are they awful?

Which one of these is rice wine vinegar?  How many things can you make vinegar out of anyway?

Teabags.  Hm. Ok. Fine. Lipton yellow label spew tea it is.

So, if I buy this deodorant I'll get a free towel, but if I buy that deodorant I'll get a pudding bowl.  Pudding bowl, towel. Towel, pudding bowl. Can't decide. No deodorant.  Why can't men buy their own deodorants?  Dammit. If I don't buy him deodorant then I'll have to hide mine.  Fine. Towel.  Why does deodorant come with a pudding bowl?

Ooh look!  If I buy this bottle of fish sauce I can get that huge bag of MSG.

Is that pigeon or chicken?  Oh. It's frogs. Ooh!  Chicken foetuses!  Gory!


Sore feet.

So, the smallest number of toothbrushes I can buy is 3.  I know, I'll buy 12 toothbrushes.  I could set up a business selling toothbrushes on the street.

I'm hungry. Do they have any of those cakey things with the coconut inside?  There is hardly ANYTHING in my trolley.  What did I come here for anyway?  What does it say on the list? Toilet paper. Salt. If I don't find any toilet paper how am I going to wipe my arse?  Have I got any tissues at home?  Maybe some wet wipes.

OK. I'll just get one of those whisks and then I'll queue.

Queue.  Don't push in front me don'tpushinfrontofmedon'tpushinfrontofmedon'tpushinfrontofme. Look dude, I get that you're only buying one bottle of whisky and a pack of cigarettes but DON"T PUSH IN FRONT OF ME?  You're only like, 14.  Go back to school!  Fine. You go first.

She's waggling the sponges at me.  I'm not allowed to buy these sponges?  FINE THEN.

One million, seven hundred and eighty four thousand, eight hundred and forty dong. That's a ridiculous number. When is it going to stop sounding like play money? Oh look!  She gave me a lolly! 


Taxi. NO I don't want to go on xe om.  YES, I understand that you can carry all this shit on a xe om. NO. 

There are no taxis.  oh look! Here comes a dodgy taxi. Should I, shouldn't I? He'll probably just take the long route, not stop and rape me. Ok fine, dodgy taxi.

Tran Nhat Duat.

Dodgy taxi driver

Tran Nhat Duat.

Dodgy taxi driver

Tran Nhat Duat.

Dodgy taxi driver

Tran Nhat Duat.

Dodgy taxi driver

Tran Nhat Duat.

Dodgy taxi driver

Tran Nhat Duat.

Dodgy taxi driver

Just drive.  I'll point.

Damn. I forgot eggs.

Argh! There's blood all over everything. Can you get salmonella from the chicken juice in your shoes?

Do you see? I HATE shopping in Vietnam. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Baby Jesus could get the ostrich to poop.

Oh the pressure!

So many people responded to my last post that now I feel like I ought to deliver some wonderful juicy piece of trashy gossip for you all - but all I've got is this:

 This is what happens when you call an ostrich an emu to its face.

As Martin says in the video below, nice ostrich - but they need to do something about the top of the fence.

Ostrich really do look like big drag queen dinosaurs.  This guy has nearly sliced his own jugular on that chicken wire.

And also, I give you this: 
 This video is especially for my brothers,
who didn't really believe me when I told them
I drove a motorbike up a blustery mountainside on Xmas day.  

We went to Con Dao Island. For those following along at home: Con Dao is a little speck off the Southeast Coast of Vietnam.  It's about a 45 minute flight from Ho Chi Minh city and populated mostly with stray dogs and foreigners learning to ride motorcycles.  The government there have spent a decent bit on roading - all the better to teach the tays on.  The roads are weird though, because there is what appears to be a whole set of city blocks -grid type thing- with no buildings between them.  Just the grid of streets.  For the tays to practice intersections at, I suppose.

At one intersection I got stared down by a traffic cop across the way.  I grinned my biggest grin and stayed put until he'd passed me.  I could tell he was thinking that he could probably get 20 bucks out of me for having no license - but that he'd need to speak English first, and maybe that was a bridge too far.  This time.

I was more worried about starting with him watching.  You know how when you're learning how to ride a bike you tend to be a bit bit wobbly until you get some speed up.  Turns out it's true for motorcycles too.

Other wobbly moments include going around corners, being pointed at by laughing children, and when your $2 helmet flies off your head in a gust of wind while driving (terrified) along a rocky clifftop precipice, mildly strangling you. (Now I know why Vietnamese people never do the straps up on their helmets.)

Luckily I had Mr Martin sitting on the back the whole time - there to stick his foot out when I tried to do a U-turn, or plop my helmet back on my head in case of galemergency. And pay attention to this bit, Mothers: NOBODY GOT HURT.

Not even a stray dog.

Call it a Christmas miracle!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Building walls

One of the nice things for me about moving to Vietnam has been this blog.  By writing it, I've created a record of a lot of the interesting things I've done, and having the blog to update has given me a reason to go and sort through photos, and an audience to tell stories to.

But the problem with being a public blog is that it's PUBLIC.  The internet is goddamned accessible.  And I'm a little shy.

When I first started writing, I thought nobody was reading it at all apart from a few friends and family. Those early posts had a really different feel to the later ones - partially because I was writing about all the things that were hard and horrible as well as the things that were amazing and fun.

But once I got here to Vietnam, and more and more people I barely knew were reading, I began to feel less and less confident about what I felt I should say online. I want to tell people back home about the people here, but I don't want to offend or exploit people by saying things about them publicly.

I want to talk about my job and my volunteer work - but I REALLY don't want to do that in a public forum. 

So as I've integrated more and more with life in Vietnam, and interacted more and more with people, I've found that what I can confidently say has dwindled. There have been fewer and fewer posts, and now, I am barely writing at all.

But I really miss it!  I want to tell you all about the cool stuff I'm doing! So I have decided to limit the audience.  I love getting your comments and I love having the opportunity to share this amazing life with you.

If you want to keep reading, please drop me a line and I'll add you to the blog. There will be more posts, but you will have to log in to read them from now on. I hope that by having this extra layer of privacy, I'll feel more confident about writing more frequently.

And thanks to everyone who has been reading!  I really appreciate your support!