Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bacon sarnies

This is what I'm having for lunch every day this week:

We're still in Vietnam - and yes -it's December!  OMG this process is taking too long!

At this point, I have had my visa application approved. Mr Martin's visa is waiting approval, and we are told to expect it next week.

Tomorrow is my last day of work, and on Monday the movers are coming for our stuff.
We've decided to go to the beach at Mui Ne for a few days until the visas and flights come through after our stuff is gone.  So, we're really going...

Thursday, October 31, 2013

New shit every day!

While I'm busy being punctuated, I thought I should take advantage having an extra few weeks in Vietnam, but making an extended goodbye through the blog.

As any expat here will tell you, there's a lot of the 'same shit, different day' about living in Vietnam. For example, the intercom to our apartment doesn't work. It has never worked. And I presume that it never will work.

As we do far too regularly, last night we ordered online takeaways. And when our food was delivered the security guard decided, to ring the intercom. What happens then, is that intercom phone rings, and Mr Martin picks it up and yells come up! come up! come up! into it.  And presses the buzzer few times.  None of this seems to work, because a little while later it rings again, and repeat, and repeat and repeat until either the security guard just lets the guy up anyway, or the guy rings us on the phone and we tell him to come up.

Every time.

But when you tell the security people that the intercom doesn't work, then you get a great procession of security guards coming through the apartment, and ringing the phone and pushing the buzzer, until eventually one of them concludes that the intercom in fact doesn't work.  Problem solved! not at all.

Every time.

However, one of the great things about being here is that every day you get to experience something new. And yesterday I learned that arrowroot is not just a kind of boring biscuit.

 It is also a kind of boring vegetable that gets boiled and then eaten by the Vietnamese as a healthy snack.

It looks a bit like a parsnip, or maybe like ginger.  It tastes of pure starch, with the added bonus of stringy bits that get stuck between your teeth.   I asked my friend if it supposed to be dipped in something, and she said, no - you just eat it as it is. For health.

But, according to Wikipedia, arrowroot flour will prevent crystals from forming in homemade ice-cream.  So it's probably really the best thing ever. Actually.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


We're getting ready to leave Vietnam; we're going to Saudi Arabia in few weeks time.

And that, my friends, is how to use a semi-colon.  Last year I ordered printouts of the Oatmeal grammar posters and stuck them on the inside door of the ladies' loos at work. Now, a whole generation of female Vietnamese scientists are really really good at punctuating.

That's about where I feel I am right now, too - at the semi-colon.  We haven't quite put a full-stop at the end of Vietnam, and we haven't put a capital letter at the front of Saudi Arabia either.  We are stuck somewhere in between, waiting for the visa.

Or rather, waiting for the documents we need the Vietnamese government to provide us so that we can submit the visa application.  It's an extremely arduous process. Right now, we have been waiting for 4 weeks for the justice department to provide us with a police-check document for Mr Martin.  Ever sexist, the Saudi Arabian government only requires the police check for the man - even though the main applicant for the visa in this case is a woman.

Speaking of Saudi Arabia - did we all see this video this week?

Update: Mr Martin just reminded me a Dan Baird's brilliant lovesong - I Love You Period.
The chorus:
I love you period
Do you love me question mark
Please please exclamation point
I wanna hold you in parentheses

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Arup Sudi

The Vietnamese call it Arup Sudi. At least, that's how it sounds, no idea how they spell it...

I'm going to visit Saudi Arabia in a couple of weeks time, as I've been offered a job there. I can't talk about the details here, but suffice it to say that I've promised everyone I will make my decision after I've been for the look-see.

I'm naturally a very decisive person, so I am finding the self-imposed limbo quite challenging!

Today I'm in Hanoi. I was scheduled to come up for a work trip today anyway, and lucky that was so, since I also have to visit the Saudi Embassy to get my passport stamped. In Hanoi, like in Saigon, most of the embassies are on on the same street, so in the taxi I drove slowly along until the next gate said Saudi Arabia on it.

Yesterday, I called to ask what time the embassy opened, whether I needed to make an appointment, and what the fees were. The guy on the phone spoke almost no English. I asked "do you speak English?" And he said: "Visa, 10 o'clock. Visa! 10 o'clock!" at increasing volumes until I said "OK!" and hung up.

I sent an email to the address on the website and got an error message: this email address does not exist.

I'm glad that I was already coming to Hanoi anyway, and wasn't making a special trip, as I may have had to - I wasn't filled with confidence.

At the gate of the embassy were two security guards. I arrived deliberately early at around 9:30, fearing a queue and knowing I have other meetings today. The guard said: "10 o'clock!" and "Arup Sudi?". I think they were worried I was in the wrong place, I'm not wearing my abaya today. When I asked if there's a cafe nearby they actually smiled and pointed me in the right direction. Let me tell you- it's not easy to get a Hanoi security guard to smile.

When it was confirmed that I would be going to Saudi, I put up a message on the Saigon expat listserv we like to call Unfair Neighbours.

I have to go to Saudi Arabia, does anybody know where I can get an abaya in Saigon?

And lucky for me, a kind lady wrote back and said she had one she's been trying to get rid of, and I was welcome to it. I picked it up in the morning before work on Monday, and my workmates helped dress me in it, and then took photos.


It made of very light fabric, but it's still hot under an abaya. Luckily I won't have to wear it all the time on this trip, just at the airport, and on the journey from the airport to the campus of the university. On campus it's not required.

I can say one thing about this decision - if I had to wear an abaya all day every day, I wouldn't be going.

It's now nearly 10 o'clock. 10 o'clock! Visa!

UPDATE: "The man who will sign this not come today."

"When is he coming?"

"We don't know."


Well, shoot.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013


A lot of life in Vietnam is sort of hurtling towards death. I don't just mean the motorcycles - though that's an obvious example.  Consider rather the demented bloody-minded ants who are thriving precariously on my kitchen bench.

Or the enormous, at least seven centimeters long, oily cockroach - whose rattling feet are audible on the tiles  even to me* - who was just sitting in the corridor outside my place this morning, waiting for someone to tromp on him.

Yesterday there was a lot of commotion around the canal - and a lot of people fishing too.  Overnight, someone had dumped A LOT of golden fishes - little ones, and great big ones and schools of them in all the sizes in between - into the murky waters.  And they swam! 

It's always surprising when someone pulls a live, usually quite menacing looking, fish out of the canal.  Just looking at that water I imagine that any organic material would dissolve on contact.  These fish were so alive yesterday that they attracted a crowd.  And this morning they were there still, swimming. Mr D slowed down so we could get a good gawk over the side of the bridge. 

What does goldfish taste like, anyway?

*Reverse cookie bite - look it up if you know me in real life.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Weird things people say

This morning somebody said to me:

"Wow!  Nice tan!"

And I went, Really?

And he went, "Yeah - your weekend really betrays you!"

I can only assume he was being sarcastic (though his demeanor didn't suggest as much).  I don't have a tan. I have what the Melanoma Foundation calls skin type 1: pale, freckly, always burns.  I've never had a tan in my life.

Furthermore, my weekend was spent either indoors at the shopping mall or indoors at home. I didn't do anything remotely interesting (hooray!).

What I think he was actually reacting to was the fact that today  I'm wearing no makeup (mascara is not makeup), and this is unusual on a weekday for me.  It's not a tan, it's a natural glow...

Friday, March 22, 2013

Robble robble!

What do I have to say about Saigon today?

This morning on my motorbike commute to work I was reminded yet again about how much driving in Saigon is like being in a video game. You get points for starting at the intersection exactly 3 seconds before the light turns green, and lose points every time your foot touches the ground*.

Last weekend we went to Mui Ne, finally.  If you discount Vung Tau, it's the closest beach resort town to Saigon - and one of its most redeeming features is that you can get there on the train in only 3.5 hours.

Mr Martin says the train is OK

That's Damon sitting next to Mr Martin, there.  You may remember him from such early blog posts as this one.  We had a visit! Damon and Lynne enjoyed Mui Ne too...

At the Russian restaurant, listening to the smooth tones of a Vietnamese one man band rendition of Tie A Yellow Ribbon...

Apparently there's a beach at Mui Ne.  I did catch a glimpse of said beach, but I was too busy trying to dissolve myself in the swimming pool** to be bothered with dry land, even of the sandy variety.  Oh, and they very kindly put a spa pool on our deck at the resort...

Mr Martin says the pool is OK, too...

Because it was a bit of last minute decision to go to Mui Ne, the only train that still had seats left to bring us home on Sunday night was the 10:35 pm one.  Which would have got in at around 2:30 am, and factor in another half hour to get home from the station would have equalled a very late school night indeed.  So we hired a car and driver instead - and I can recommend Saigon2MuiNedotcom if this is the kind of thing you'd be interested in pursuing.  It only cost $105, which divided between 4 of us was a bargain, and it was a really nice car and the driver drove as safely as he reasonably could.

Which leads me to: Vietnam's roads are such a nightmare.  We saw the aftermath of two different crashes on our way - both involving trucks and motorcycles, and neither I think resulting in positive outcomes for the motorcyclists.  As in - I'm pretty certain that at least 4 people died on the same road we were travelling in our comfortable car.  And I'm very grateful that we are so rich that we don't have to ride motorcycles on the highways.

Vietnam's roads explain some of Vietnam's religious practices perfectly:

 This from the street corner outside our apartment building.

*Mr D had to put his foot on the ground for - oh, about a millisecond? He was VERY ANNOYED about it, and emitted a small grunt.

**I DID manage to dissolve my sunglasses so that the cheap black plastic stuck to my face and I looked like the Hamburgler - but that's another story...

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On promo girls and blisters

Mr Martin recently bought me a new phone, because I lost my phone on my trip home last month. It's a nice smart phone with a decent camera, and wish I had had it a few weeks ago when the Payless Shoes stores had its grand opening in the Vincom Center.

This is the Vincom Center:

It's a very fancy multi-level shopping mall in the centre of Saigon. It has all kinds of shops that most Vietnamese people can't afford to shop at, and most foreigners don't want to shop at.  It's a mystery how they manage to stay open, and an even bigger mystery how they found enough demand to open another almost identical shopping mall across the street: the Vincom Center 2. 

A further mystery is how Payless Shoes got a shop in the very fancy shopping mall - but I have no answers. 

Payless Shoes is just as it is overseas - rows of cheap shoes displayed in the box and arranged by size.  The largest size available for women's shoes is 38 - so tough luck if you're taller than the average.

Like, say, a promo girl.

For their grand opening, Payless Shoes had approximately 20 girls in slutty orange dresses and too much makeup wander around the mall wearing their shoes and carrying shopping bags with their logo emblazoned on them.

I happened to be at the mall towards the end of the promotion.  About a dozen girls were gargoyling in a row by the MAIN ENTRANCE to the mall.

This is a Vietnamese gargoyle. They can sit like that for hours.
And they do...

They all looked unhappy, wearing their slutty dresses and with their orange bags heaped on the floor, and they had all kicked off their cheap shoes and were rubbing their blisters.

I can't think of a better advertisement for Payless Shoes, than 12 promo girls with blisters - can you?

Monday, March 18, 2013


There have been some changes at our place in 2013.
First off, we’re hardly ever there.
In January we travelled to Bangkok, then Mr Martin went to Seoul for a few days, then we both left for our annual trip home in early Feb.

I say annual trip home, but actually it was my first trip home – since last year’s trip coincided with starting my new job, and I thought it wasn’t exactly a fabulous idea to start work and then leave on holiday a week later.
Going home was weird only in that it wasn’t. It was as if I had just been away for a weekend, rather than for two whole years. Some things had changed at home – but mostly it was just exactly the same as I had left it, and in no time at all I was driving my mother in law around just like any other weekend.
I took the opportunity of being at home to schedule some medical appointments and ended up staying an extra week – so I was basically absent from Vietnam for all of February.  That means there is no Tet madness post here this year (phew!). 

The big news in our house is that I finally bought a countertop oven when I got back.  It’s a bit crap – but that’s ok – all the countertop ovens in this country are a bit crap, I think. 
Shopping for the oven was interesting.  I visited lots of places (OK, 3 places) and found only 3 different brands available:
They are all basically the same: glass door, rotisserie thing, fan for “convection”, ticking dial that tells you it’s on.  You can get big ones or smaller ones, and my kitchen is small so I got a smaller one, and the cheapest one – though only really because that was the one in the third shop we went to and I didn’t think it was different enough from the others to go back to a different shop. 

So long as you turn the heat up to blasting, it works OK, and so I’ve been cooking stuff that can only be cooked in ovens for the past week. I haven’t tried baking anything yet, but watch this space!

Oh look!  A shepherd's pie...  You can get purple potatoes here lately. 

I’m working full time now, so I’m slowly coming to grips with the reality of really only having weekends free to do stuff like watch daytime tv and go shopping for cosmetics.  Ms T, our housekeeping lady has been an absolute godsend – if only because we now only need to fight about doing the dishes about twice a week – and I haven’t ironed anything for ages, if you don’t count the tet money. 

I’ve recently learned that Ms T has to pay for parking when she comes to our place – which means that I finally have a use for my huge pile of 1,000 and 2,000 dong notes...

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What's on your desk?

I just read this article in the Guardian. I definitely have the messier desk, when compared with my two Vietnamese officemates. I couldn't tell you if they despise me for it or not...

My desk contains (broadly from left to right):
  • One plastic 30cm ruler - with a deep split in it (woops!).
  • Empty glasses case
  • Almost empty paper towel tube
  • One ill-fitting belt
  • On half empty coffee mug
  • Handcream
  • Chewing gum - a massive pottle
  • Post-it notes
  • One empty CD case
  • Someone else's business card
  • One stolen stapler
  • One highlighter (also stolen)
  • One cheap ballpoint pen (I believe I legitimately own this one - but have no proof...)
  • One used paper towel, containing the last bit of gum I chewed
  • Random papers - mostly useless - though a couple of them I do refer to on a daily basis, so they're where they should be.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Dear Phil - a project!

I like cooking, but I realise that I've been a bit lazy about learning how to cook Vietnamese style food.

I was reading this column by Sheila Quirke and she mentioned an idea she once had of learning about one country in Africa per week - since the number of African countries is similar to the number of weeks in a year.

She failed - but it's still a cute idea. I wondered how many provinces are there in Vietnam?


Close to a year. I could learn one dish from each province per week, I suppose.  But that sounds overly ambitious.  I don't want to fail like Sheila did, just because I set the bar too high!  And, although lots of provinces have their own specialities, I'm not sure if they all do.  I could end up making an awful lot of stringy chicken stewed in lemongrass and ginger, y'know?


Vietnam has a mere 8 regions. And it does seem achievable that I could master one dish from each  region roughly over the course of a year - say, one per month-ish.

Are you hungry, Mr Martin?

Image source:

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Mr D smells.

On Saturday, Mr D txted me in Vietnamese, and asked me to give him a small bottle of perfume.  I suspected a phone jacking. I was going to ask him about it on Monday morning, but he was looking so bedraggled in the rain that I felt too sorry for him to tease him about it.  And he didn't mention it - giving more credence to the phone jacking theory.  I don't know why he let himself get so drenched either - he usually carries a rain cape in the compartment under the seat.

I was hoping that that might be the end of the whole weird episode.  But then on Tuesday night when he dropped me home, he asked me again.  In person. 

I don't know.... of all the things I might ask my boss to give me, a bottle of perfume is just not up there.  He's been working for me now for two years, and has never asked for anything before.  It was such a strangely specific request, that I said yes - I will give him perfume tomorrow. 

I had to speak to him in Vietnamese about it.  Are we all proud that I knew enough to ask him whether he wanted perfume for a man, or perfume for a woman? 

For a man. Specifically - for him.  He pointed at himself.  Perfume for him.

So, since I was home alone anyway, I went out to the shopping mall.  First I looked at the real perfume shop thinking I might be able to buy a little travel size bottle from a proper perfume brand, but they were all too expensive.  I just can't justify spending more on cosmetics for my motorbike driver than I would ever spend on myself*. So then I went to supermarket. Surprisingly, they had about 30 different kinds of cheap men's perfume and I umm-ed and ahh-ed for ages over it. Eventually I chose two similar looking black boxes (each containing a bottle). Behind me there was a boy standing high up on a rickety ladder - as you might reasonably expect in a shopping mall supermarket. So I waved the two boxes to him and asked which one he liked best.  I've never tried perfume, he said - handling the boxes gingerly. A girl came along.  The boy was taking too long to choose and she obviously really wanted to be the one to choose, so he capitulated.  That one - she said. It has a brand. 

The brand is: X-MEN.

So, yesterday morning I gave Mr D the little box of X-MEN perfume.  He tied it to the handlebars of his bike and off we went. 

He seems happy... and no, I can't tell you what X-MEN perfume smells like.  Probably wolverine musk.

*I admit to some duplicity in this sentence - I have, on occasion, spent a king's ransom on cosmetics...  for myself.  Ssshhhhh!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Anecdotes with Mr D

Today Mr Martin has gone to Bangkok for the rest of the week for work.  I have been making lots of jokes about how quiet our bedroom will be tonight, now that there's no-one snoring in there.

Having a xe om driver is a strangely intimate experience.  You sit so close...  Mr D's a bit smaller than me so I can easily peek over his shoulder.  Last night as we were coming home he did a classic Mr D double-take - slow right down, look over his shoulder really closely at the thing that captured his attention.  Usually we only see Mr D double-takes when someone tries to cut us off - but last night he was utterly captivated by fat baby twins, dressed identically and propped up in a double stroller - off for a walk around the front of the Coopmart.   Then he gave a laugh and offered me a thumbs up before zooming around the corner to my front door.

This morning there was another Mr D double-take, but a bit less jolly.  We had to take a detour from our normal route.  At an intersection quite close to the hospital there was a big traffic jam and lots of peachy-uniformed traffic cops - obviously there had been a crash.  The ladies at work told me that they drove past it on the way in and saw the guy lying on the road - dead.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Entering the third year

Oftentimes I have something I think I should blog about, but don't get round to it because I don't have a picture available just now right this second. But then months go by and never a word is peeped.

It is now January 2013 - we have been here for 2 years and 3 weeks already.  Far from the our original position of 'stay one year and see how we like it' - we've moved on to 'stay one more year and see how we like it'.  Huh.  They seem pretty the same, when I write it down like that....

Entering the third year does feel a bit different to how it felt entering the second year.  We are definitely settled now. I can say confidently that we know how to live in Vietnam, and a lot of things that might have bothered us once - well, they still bother us, but perhaps we deal with it a bit better, or something.

Some things bother me now that didn't used to bother me quite so much - I used to be charmed by all the little kids yelling 'HEY-LO!' at me on the street - but now, sadly enough, I get sick of it.  I've been here so long now that I feel like I ought to blend in, but of course I'm just as conspicuous as I always was.

I used to sort of enjoy my xe om ride to work, but now I hate it with a deep resentment.  It's ok in the morning, because nobody is in a rush to get work in the morning, so the traffic is fine.  But at night time, everybody is in a rush to get home, so everybody takes more risks, and the roads are so much more dangerous. I often get little bumps or scratches, but thankfully Mr D is careful and so far we haven't taken a spill - I've even managed to avoid burning my leg (touch wood!).

I think we're reasonably acclimatised - I can comfortably wear jeans most days - but it's still hot.  Part of acclimatisation is just learning when it's a good idea to go outdoors, and when it's not.

We both still get sick all the time.  I don't know if our immune systems will ever catch up to Vietnam. The food poisoning is a constant battle - even good restaurants are sometimes dirty...   But worse are the respiratory infections.  We've never had so many colds and flus and sinus infections. Air conditioning is a factor - and so is general air pollution.  But most of it is simply the fact that there are so many viruses here, and the population is so dense, and we have no immunity - we are still foreigners.

But it's not all doom and gloom.  The great thing about being here has been the people we have met.  We finally do have actual friends - and enough of them that I think we could say we have social lives - independently of each other, too. We have been so blessed to have so many visitors. We've met amazing, interesting, talented people that I think we wouldn't meet or get to know so well if we had just stayed at home.  We have a fairly open door policy for travellers - if you know us and you're in town, then give us a call and we'll give you a bed.  Having people to stay forces us to look at this amazing city through a new lens each time as we show people around.  We are proud to be part of Saigon - in all its filthy bloom.

Our jobs are fabulous.  I am so lucky to have the opportunity to do work that interests me, and that I'm good at, and with people I like.  How many of you can say the same? 

And the travel!  Bangkok is in our neighbourhood - in fact we're off there again this weekend. We've been all over Asia the last couple of years, and we're not done yet. We haven't planned our trips for 2013 yet, apart from a few weeks back home in February - but it's wonderful to be able to pick exotic looking places off the map, and just go if we want to. 

I don't really have any resolutions for the third year.  Maybe to write some more here?  My perspective has changed a lot since those early days, but that doesn't mean there's not still some interesting things to say.