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Vietnam gets under your skin 30 April 2013

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I saw Anh Do’s stand up show last night, in which he draws on his experiences to make an audience laugh and choke up in equal amounts. It was a rather strange experience to see a comedy show (?) where the comedian himself was touched to tears talking about his family. It was strange, but warm and close. And strangely familiar.

Anh Do came to Australia from Vietnam as a refugee many years ago. He identifies as Australian, and is proud of Australians that faught, but his story is so interwoven with Vietnam that he is still distinctly ‘immigrant’, too. His accent is but faint, but still very much there.

Snapshots from Vietnam were shown on a screen behind him, and at one stage he played a traditional Vietnamese song over the top of some images. Instantly, I could feel the oppressive heat, the smells (and stenches), the blossoms. The noise, the motorbikes, the food, the language.

Vietnam has got under my skin. And I missed it so much last night.

It is indescribable. I have been thinking about it all day – that longing that Vietnam conjures up in me that I had never envisioned. Never.

I now have a fascination with the country that I never thought I would have. I devour all news related to Vietnam, I read books about it. Books I never read leading up to going there or while I was there.

What a mysterious, magical country. No wonder the Vietnamese are so proud to show it to you.

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Vietnam – at the forefront of gay equality in Asia? 3 August 2012

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Life, only in Vietnam, Vietnam.
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Source: Interweb

It has been a full year since my return from Vietnam. It has been a good, but difficult year for me, and not a day goes by without me thinking about Vietnam and the amazing time that I had there.

I have become one of those annoying people who has a million anecdotes, ready to share with anyone who will listen. Many people are interested, of course, yet I am sure I bore some. So I loathe to spend another post on this love affair of mine with the long, slender country of Sout East Asia. I know some of you are fed up with my constant talking about it.

But the recent news (and I found this through the Daily Beast) caught my eye, because either things have truly changed in Vietnam since I left (very possible, considering how quickly the country develops) or I underestimated the country significantly. Or perhaps there is yet again a disconnect between news outside of the borders and what is happening on the ground. But all the same, it’s an interesting development!

Vietnam is having its first pride parade this weekend in Hanoi.

I was fully aware of a vibrant gay community in Hanoi, of course. I even knew a few gay (Vietnamese) men. Yet the idea of same-sex couples possibly being considered for legal marriage, has surprised me.

I have had vivid conversations with Vietnamese denying that there are any gay people in Vietnam. One of my best Vietnamese friends excitedly told me that she had seen “Hanoi’s Gay” one day, and when I pressed her on it, she explained that she had in fact seen a cross dresser. The poor man was classified in her mind as the only gay in Hanoi, a city of about 6.5 million people. I tried to explain to her that this was, of course unlikely, as there were probably quite a number of people in Hanoi that were gay. And just the fact that the man was a cross-dresser or a transvestite did also not necessarily mean she was gay at all. My friend just stared at me blankly.

Time and time again would I have discussions as a variation of this one. Maybe I attracted people who were curious in general, but for a population that did not think gay people existed, they sure were curious about gays and being gay. Sexuality is not something that is discussed much, and vibrators and dildos are banned from being sold. Many of the public policies portray a country in denial about sex, yet statistics show that there is plenty going on, with marriages and babies happening a lot (especially in this fortuitous year of the dragon) but also with the huge number of brothels and “karaoke” bars available. It’s always interesting the first time you go to a non-family karaoke bar and it clicks…

But I digress. To hear that there is a gay pride parade in Hanoi this weekend makes me wish I were there. I would have liked to go to show my support. Any type of demonstration is usually frowned upon, and gay pride can not be easy in a conservative country like Vietnam. And I suppose the gay community still has a lot to fight for, with their second day‘s tag line being “Different, but not deviant”.

But good on them. I will be thinking about the men and women who will participate, and hoping that it will all remain positive.

Good luck!

Reverse Culture Shock 6 June 2011

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A wonderful friend of mine, who recently returned to Australia after 10 months of living in Hanoi just wrote an email to me. She’s back in Brisbane, noticing things about Australia and Australians that she’s never noticed before.

Her time in Amsterdam, also about 10 months, did not have the same affect, maybe because she had left the Netherlands frustrated with the bureaucracy and the never ending “niet mogelijk” (not possible) that she was met with all the time. But partially, of course, because the Dutch are not that different from the Australians, culturally.

But this time, returning after Vietnam, has left her a bit shaken.

How strange that is, the notion of culture shock. Isn’t it funny that we adjust to norms of society (albeit slowly). Things that astounded and perhaps even bugged you when you first arrived, have become normal.

Instead of walking around with wide eyes, I walk with confidence into traffic, knowing full well that I will (most likely) not be hit. I’ve noticed that reading back through my initial posts from Vietnam in 2008, I am smiling at the marvel that comes through. There is just so many things to learn, too many to understand at first.

And people always tell you different things – the sage advice from an expat who has been in Vietnam for four years is completely different from that of an expat of 6 months or that of a local.

Granted, sometimes being from the outside may mean that you have a better view of certain situations. For example, a Vietnamese person who has been to Thailand might give you a better explanation of something that puzzles you in Vietnam than someone who has never had the chance to go abroad, and can’t imagine doing things differently.

Cultural differences can be funny:

I once asked a group of Vietnamese who had been to Thailand what was different culturally about Thailand, and one of them said “In Thailand, people wait in line. Even to use the toilet.” Another straight away piped up saying “that’s because they don’t all have diarrhoea.”

Frighteningly, some expats seem to become experts on Vietnam by merit of having been in Vietnam for “the long haul.” Never mind “I have no Vietnamese friends, I speak hardly any Vietnamese, and I don’t enjoy any things the Vietnamese enjoy”; I am an expert.

I am not absolving myself in saying this. I do not know nearly enough Vietnamese people or language to claim I understand living here in the slightest. I am still baffled all the time. And just as you start getting one aspect of life here, you are completely wobbled over by another. But I am also sure that some things that used to confound me are now starting to make sense.

And there will be things that I will find strange going back, including traffic rules and issues of personal space. Paradoxically, perhaps my experience in Vietnam has not made me an expert on Vietnam, but it will give me a chance to understand Australia and Australians better.

Charming Hanoi 6 May 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Life, only in Vietnam, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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Hanoi is a seductress – and she is putting on the charm.

She knows I am leaving in two months’ time. She knows I am looking forward to starting a new chapter in my life. She knows this and she is not happy.

So she is putting on the charm.

I can smell flowers (for the first time in three years of living here).

The weather is mild, clear, sometimes sunny, but not hot or sticky yet.

The people seem extra friendly; the neighbours are nodding and smiling to me.

I don’t seem to be getting ripped off in taxis or at the market.

I suppose I am projecting. I know I am leaving, so I am enjoying every moment of it. I am still being told that I am fat, tall and a westerner. Yet I am also being told that I am beautiful, which hardly ever happens.

I know going back home, I will miss all the things that have in the past also driven me nuts. The traffic, the noise, the constant people around me.

I will miss the way the Vietnamese spend their lives on the side walks, how they meddle in everyone’s affairs, and how they can be quite in your face.

I am sure there are things I will not miss. But they are already by far being outweighed by the things I will miss.

So I am making lists for all the things I need to/ want to do before I leave. Seeing this museum and that landmark (the famous B52 is a must) eating the last bowl of that food and seeing those friends one more time.

It will be hard to leave.

Most of the time, I am not so bad with goodbyes, because I never feel that it will be “for ever” – a globalised world means that I can keep in touch with the people who matter, and I can see them if we are ever in close proximity again.

However, leaving Vietnam will feel different. Many of the people I know here might never travel, or even own a passport. I feel that unless I return to Vietnam, I truly might not ever see them again. Luckily, they all have Facebook…

So, lovely Hanoi, you are succeeding. I will miss you. But first, I am getting all I can out of the next two months!

Cycling the Mountains 5 May 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Life, only in Vietnam, Traffic, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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Last weekend, I went with a friend into the mountains to see a part of Vietnam that I had already seen, but in a way that I have been wanting to see it since I have arrived.

Disclaimer: I am Dutch. I like bicycles. How stereotypical.

When I was 12, my family went on a cycling holiday (riding from our house to the boat, take a boat to Germany (Kiel) and then cycle through the north of Germany to the Netherlands, covering around 50 – 60 km a day).

Many members of my family cycle for sport, transport and fun.

Several uncles, aunts, and cousins have racing bikes and cycle a lot, including for competitions.

My uncle decided that upon retirement (64 years old) he would join a tour from Istanbul to Beijing, riding a bicycle the whole way. What an awesome thing to do, right?

So I have a very romantic notion of bikes. I have been wanting to explore Vietnam on a bike. But I have not had the guts or the company to try (my partner is more into the motorbikes, which I admit are good fun, and faster, too).

So when my friend called and said that there was a spot that opened up on a tour that she was signed up for, I realised this would probably be my only chance! And having a follow vehicle made it a very good, easy first try, to see if I would even enjoy it.

Friday, we left on the overnight train for Lao Cai.

Once arrived, we were served breakfast, and loaded into the bus to Can Cau (120 km north) to see the local market with the Flower H’Mong. We then cycled back to Bac Ha (about 20 km) which was mostly downhill trough beautiful countryside.

That afternoon, we cycled with our guide through the countryside surrounding Bac Ha, and seeing a local village nearby. (Total of about 6 km).

The weather was glorious, slightly overcast, dry, warm but not hot nor humid.

Sunday, we explored the Bac Ha market (which I have blogged about before), had breakfast, and then set off back to Lao Cai.  By Lunch, I sent my partner a giddy message that I had already done 45 km, and only had 26 to go. The first 30 of those had been mostly downhill, and I only got nearly killed by oncoming traffic once.

After lunch (at some random food stall along the way with a marvellous spread of awesome, wholesome Vietnamese food, which we knocked back in no time) we continued, and about 10 km out from Lao Cai we stopped for pine apples, loaded up the bikes onto the truck, and did the rest of the (more busy) roads in the safety of the car. We stopped off at the river crossing to China to take a photo of us standing in front of China, which was pretty nifty, and obviously a very popular thing to do.

Conclusion? I loved it. But next time, I would want to do it without the guide, as it was like travelling with someone on a schedule, and I often felt pressure to keep going even when I wasn’t ready to.

But what an amazing way to see the country side. Half of the people we encountered smiled and waved. The other half were wondering why on earth we would want to ride a bicycle.

Most of the locals were so welcoming and friendly! A young girl, maybe around 14, decided to ride and chat with us in Vietnamese for a while. Most of them had never seen foreigners that spoke a word of Vietnamese, which was amazing. One lady looked so proud and happy that we had taken the time to learn her language, she clasped her hands together in front of her chest and just asked me lots of questions, then hardly charged us any money for what we wanted to buy.

It was a wonderful adventure, and even though I only rode 80 something kilometres over two days, it is something I really enjoyed doing, and wouldn’t mind doing more of…

Now I just need to convince my boy that he should come with me next time.

Youth say the darndest things 21 April 2011

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Many moons ago, I blogged about one of the kids in the centre where I work that used to scream “chicken!” whenever he saw me. He is a real charmer, that one.

Recently, he was standing next to me, complaining that I was doing too much work. He clearly wanted me to drop everything and chat to him… so I did.

He had a new piece of jewellery – two rings hanging off a chain around his neck, so I asked him about it. He told me the rings were too small for him to wear, so he put them on the chain. As I laughed and said “they are not THAT small” I placed one on my pinky finger, to show him he could still wear them. He exclaimed:

“Now you are my wife!”

Laughingly, I quickly removed the ring and told him to save them for his real future wife, and that he was far too young to get married (I believe he is 18 in Western counting).

But no. He no longer calls me chicken. He now calls me his wife.

“My wife!” makes people look just as much (or even more!) as “chicken” used to do. Funny that. I think I may have to explain this one, though.

Blossoming Hanoi 18 April 2011

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A couple of weeks ago, when it was still quite cold in Hanoi, I caught a whiff of a wonderful smell. It was not the typical smell of Hanoi in summer (urine, dust, sweat) nor the smells that sometimes bubble up to the surface when the autumn and winter rain causes flooding (sewage, garbage, filth).

It smelt like flowers; sweet, slightly syrupy. It smelt like spring.

It certainly did not feel like spring at this stage, but it smelt like it.

Looking around I saw no flowers anywhere, and as it had been a passing whiff, I started to wonder whether it had been a scent memory. You know, the ones you have when you all of a sudden think you smell your grandmother’s house, but when you try to smell harder, the smell vanishes into thin air.

Perhaps it wasn’t an actual smell at all. After all, this was my third spring in Hanoi, and I had never smelt anything quite so wonderful before. I drove past the same spot some days later, and did not smell it again. I must have had a little hallucination or something, I thought. Maybe it was someone’s perfume.

Then, it happened again. This wonderful, sweet scent of pure happy thoughts floated by me on my motorbike. This time, I slowed down, and sniffed, and the smell stayed with me: it was certainly not an illusion. But how could I possibly smell it when I could see no flowers? Why had I never smelt it before? How come I could not locate it’s source?

It was an identical smell to the first time, and I stopped the bike, just to smell the air around me for a while. It was so titillating, so contagious, it instantly lifted my mood. My heart skipped a beat. I felt seventeen again. Memories of stopping next to a flowering tree, pulling the branches towards me to smell the flowers were floating through my mind.

And this weekend I have finally also seen the trees starting to bloom. Orange blossoms are the first ones out of the starting blocks, and the other trees will not be far behind. I still cannot figure out why Hanoi smells so wonderful this time around, but I sure love it. Keep it up, Hanoi, and I will be all the more sad to leave you.

Only in Vietnam #16 16 April 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Life, only in Vietnam, Traffic, Vietnam.
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So, I recently blogged about the lovely young man riding his motorbike along without holding the handlebars, because his hands were in his pockets, which I thought to be the least safe driving I had seen in Vietnam.

Yet only a few weeks ago, this was topped. By far.

I am driving along, minding my own business, when a guy pulls up next to me. He is sitting with his arms crossed, and his left foot is resting on the throttle (yes, that would be the right handle on your handlebar), while his knee is resting on the left side of the handlebar. He is somehow twisting the gas with his toes, while also steering with his knee.

He was a young, perfectly able-bodied man, but he just could not be bothered holding on to the steering of his bike like the rest of us.

At the first opportunity, he cuts me off (he was on my right hand side, he wanted to turn left), to pull in to the perpendicular street. This is in peak hour, and the roads are super busy. Of course, someone is about to pull out of said street, which makes him almost crash into them, so he is forced to quickly sit up and grab his handlebars. Having caught his bike just before toppling over and averted disaster, he has the cheek to throw a dirty as filth look over his shoulder at the other guy that was pulling out of the street! Who was almost standing still! Who was NOT manouvering his bike with his feet… Go figure.

Street Racing 15 April 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Life, only in Vietnam, Safety, Travelling, Vietnam.
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Last night was one of the scariest moments I have had in the capital of Vietnam. After a lovely dinner, and an even lovelier chat with one of the expats we’ve shared our journey with over the past three years, I was driving home around eleven thirty.

The weather was fantastic; fresh, inviting, spring was finally and definitely in the air.

The streets were mostly empty except for the street cleaning trucks that spray water on the roads and the drag racers.

The racers in Hanoi tend to all be the same, and I’ve seen some before, even had near accidents with them. They are young men, often shirtless, helmetless, sometimes tattooed, but always without a care in the world. When it is organised racing, pretty young women are often involved, too, perched as trophies on the back of the bikes.

But these were not the organised type – there was not a suped up vehicle between them. In fact, I believe I spotted a red Honda cub amongst the bikes.

But it was still scary. As I came down Thanh Nien, and hit the big round about at the southern end, the lead bike flew by. Screaming, shouting, leaning on their horns, the others were not far behind.

I was driving quite fast myself, but had slowed down due to the wet roads. They, however, did not.

And some of them would turn and make cat calls at me, acting quite threateningly. There were about 15-20 bikes that flew past on the wet road, overtaking me on the left and the right, hooting, laughing, swerving. There was not a safe manouvre between them, and no helmets.

Finally, as we were about all the way through the round about, they kept going around, as I turned right towards the mausoleum.

My sighs of relief were only short lived, as I encountered the water truck, a fork lift, and more racers in quick succession. There were even two cars racing on the streets. I was happy to be home not long after.

Only in Vietnam #15 16 March 2011

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So, I ignored all warnings about the weather today, and by the time I reached the office, I was very cold.

But I love the Vietnamese – they are known for giving you all sorts of advice.

Today, a lady I have never seen or spoken to before came up to me and told me with a big smile that two layers for this kind of weather was certainly not enough, and I needed to be careful, because no matter how strong (or “healthy”) I was, I would get sick.

I received at least 3 more such comments along the 20 metres that I walk to get to my office from the motorbike.

Isn’t that just adorable, that the Vietnamese care enough about complete strangers to worry about their health! I love this country. I love the people in my street. I am so lucky to be here.

UPDATE: two days later, all wrapped up in a jacket and wearing earmuffs, I see the same lady again, and she points, laughs, and exclaims “that is MUCH better!”