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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!

Ode to a corner cafe 22 May 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Vietnam.
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I, like all other Vietnamese I’ve met, have a favourite cafe. In fact, it seems the Vietnamese have a favourite just about anything.

Let me take you to the best pho street stall in Hanoi.

You can buy cloth elsewhere, but don’t let anyone make you an ao dai other than the 2 by 5 metre shop I go to. It is the best in Hanoi.

I could have a coffee here, but let’s go across to the other side of town to the little old lady with the basket. Her coffee is the best in Hanoi.

And so on.

A friend of mine theorised yesterday that it must stem from the plethora of choice that is available in this city. The overwhelming choice makes you go to one place, try it, if it’s good, it’s not only good enough, it is the best in Hanoi, saving you the anguish of ever having to try it anywhere else.

There may be some truth to that, but I also think there’s more.

I won’t go as far as to say my local cafe is the best in Hanoi, but I am certainly very fond of it.

It is, in fact, located directly next to another cafe, which I have also been to, but which I don’t like as much.

On the face of it, the cafes are identical. Both are an open room, with near identical umbrellas and wicker chairs outside on the side walk. Both serve coffees, juices, smoothies, salted pickled apricots in syrup and coconuts in summer.

Yet one day, early on, I came to realise that at one cafe, coffees were 15,000 dong per glass, whereas the other only charged 12,000. Their coffees tasted identical to me, so adopted the cheaper one.

So the initial choice was callous, a financial incentive (nominally only, as 3,000 dong is in fact around 15 cents). Nothing to be too fanatical about.

But then, it became the place where they know everything about me but my name: every day they would smile, nod, humour me and my language abilities. And ask questions.

Age, height, nationality, marital status, if I have children.

They are happy to see me. They like it when they see me go past. They noticed the one time I ran home.

And then it no longer was an unemotional decision for me. I started going for the familiarity. The wonderful woman running the shop (whom I call younger auntie) knows my usual orders.

And I have become a favourite after the day I came with a Vietnamese colleague who swore black and blue that the other shop had better coffee. To settle the matter of where we went, we had a very public rock paper scissors match, which I won. So she loves me, too.

The coffee has gone up in prize. But I still go to the same shop, because we have a rapport.

So perhaps that’s why people want you to come to their favourite shops. It’s the place where everybody knows your name.

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!

Blossoming Hanoi 18 April 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Life, only in Vietnam, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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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.

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.

Hoo-Ha Explained 16 November 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Life, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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Yesterday’s post caused a bit of a ruffling of some feathers, which was completely unintentional!

The post was meant as two things:

1) I discovered this other city, called HCMC, in Vietnam, and I liked it.


2) I am still incredibly happy to live in Hanoi, because it has given me so much.

I am surprised that people read it as a big ol’ whinge from an expat. Yes, I admitted to finding Hanoi difficult to deal with sometimes. However, I put this down to what someone told me on one of my first days in Hanoi:

Hanoi will be the same every single day, the only thing that changes is how well you deal with it.

Yes, I am spoilt here.

Yes, there are aspects of my life now (travel, standard of living, etc.) that are far better than before.

But yes, there are still things that I find difficult, too. BUT that is part of the adventure, part of the experience. I did not mean to complain. I am blessed and thrilled to be here.


Hanoi Boogie 16 September 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Art, Happiness, Vietnam.
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The wait is over, guys. I know you have all been on tenterhooks since I said “watch this space” at the end of June.

But it is finally here – the Hanoi Boogie – with yours truly singing backup vocals.

So go and check it out, and because I cannot help myself, I think you should also go and learn the dance that comes with it!

It’s theatre, my dear 8 August 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Art, Life, Vietnam.
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I spent Friday and Saturday night backstage for a wonderful set of short absurdist plays this weekend. They were put on by the Hanoi International Theatre Society (HITS) and they were amazingly fun.

My contribution was but small – I baked cookies and applied make-up. Hopefully, I also prevented the spread of a very nasty case of pink-eye.

But yet again, I find myself in awe of the people that do get out on that stage, and bare it all for the world to see. There must surely be an element of exhibitionism to doing theatre. But there is also that willingness to entertain, and to through those means, make others… feel. To entertain the audience, make them laugh. To share with them.

And the talent available in the expat amateur theatre community in Hanoi never ceases to amaze me. The actors (most of whom, I must admit, for the benefit of transparency, I can probably count as friends) had developed their respective characters into believable, exciting and entertaining (often funny) personalities.

I am so lucky to have been able to have been involved in some way. Thank you all!

Thanh Hoa Adventure 22 June 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Travelling, Vietnam.
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So, we rented a car for the weekend, and drove south.

Hanoi has been hot and sticky all week, with brilliant days of sunshine, and blackouts plaguing the office. So we decided that on a fantastic weekend like this, we might as well try to find a beach to hide away at. Taking an extra day made us able to make it into a longer trip, too.

We drove south past the city of Thanh Hoa, to a little beach called Hai Hoa. The directions we had were “drive until you were in this and this town, then take the first left after the post office”. The post office was spotted, and we took a left, but unfortunately it was the second left, not the first, which we had missed.

But the second turn off led us south along the coast for about 10-15 kilometres, into a fishing village where we got to see the locals make dried fish and fish sauce. If you have ever been anywhere that makes fish sauce, by the way, you will instantly recognise the smell of fermenting fish – slightly repugnant, and incredibly strong.

The locals were clearly not used to seeing foreigners, and it was fun to see their reactions, we were waved at, and laughed at, lots of people would have a chat, and it was generally quite a welcoming feeling. The village had little windy roads along the coast, but no real beaches to speak of. We eventually asked about the way to Hai Hoa, and realised that we had gone the wrong way, so we turned back.

Back at the town, we realised we had overshot the turnoff by ten metres, so we had not been that far off.

Hai Hoa has a beautiful little beach, with fishing boats dragged onto the sand, and two main hotels on the ‘strip’. We ended up going for walks, eating lunch in deckchairs on the beach, napping during the hottest part of the day, and reading our books. When the day wore on and the harshest sting was out of the sunlight, we ended up strolling along the beach and starting up a conversation with a group of local fishermen.

They were assembled to head out to sea, where they spend their nights from 6 at night until 6 in the morning, working. They offered us their special brew (some sort of alcohol which we politely refused, as it looked a bit like moonshine, despite the assurances from the fishermen that it was fine French champagne) and spent loads of time chatting with us. They were friendly and open, and all of them loved the fact that my partner speaks Vietnamese so well.

We sat at the beach with a beer watching them go out to sea, and as it got darker, the entire horizon was dotted with squid lamps. We headed back to the hotel to try and find a place to watch our respective teams play football, but could not find anywhere showing it apart from the reception. So we watched it in our room.

Strangely, we could not get the aircon to work, so we ended up trying to keep the windows open for a draft to come through. Sadly, our idea worked, and it ended up slamming one of the windows into the wall outside, breaking the glass. So by that stage, the aircon would not have actually been very effective anyway.

We had a most wonderful spread for dinner on the beach, including huge prawns, mackerel fish, squid, morning glory and deep fried corn. Then, after an extremely hot sleep, and mosquitoes biting me to death, strange sounds and a touch of karaoke, we decided to move along to another destination.

Driving north, we took a random right turn off the highway in search of an adventure. The first turn was a bit of a sad one – after only a couple of hundred metres, the road just ended into a dirt track, meaning that we had to back the car up past the rice fields and the skittish cows again. The locals here just stared – they must have thought we were insane.

The next right turn was a much bigger success, it led to the delta of a small river, and lovely landscape and houses that we passed. But the most wonderful was the beach that we found. Not a single building on the beach, and the only other people we saw were two fishermen and two ladies walking in opposite directions. The fishermen were happy to have a chat, too, and show us how to fish. They showed us their catch, and told us why they did not keep certain fish. The water was cool, and it felt like summer in so many ways – nowhere to be, nothing to do, having a yack with randoms.

We ended up driving a little further north to Sam Son after that – a beach touted as the second nicest beach in Vietnam. (Something I may have to disagree with, especially due to having just seen that wonderful, deserted beach just above.) It was all very Vietnamese, and some of the things offered there for ‘entertainment’ were not after my taste (down to the little white horses painted with black stripes, which you could get a photo with dressed as a cowboy…) but it certainly had a bit of a ‘Miami’ feel to it – a strip of hotels, food stalls and stalls selling knick-knacks that no one really wants. It also had cyclos and golf carts to ship the (Vietnamese) tourists around, and ice cream on every corner.

There was also a little temple on top of a cliff, and it was quite a neat little set-up. We stayed at a beautiful resort way up the other end, which allows for some more privacy if you wanted it, as well as a walk along the beach going north, where there were no more buildings. We swam in the ocean, then went for a dip in the pool. I spent time walking up the beach with the camera, trying to capture the lives of the local children and women looking for clams in the sand.

The next day, we walked along the beach and struck up conversations with the local women peddling wonderfully colourful crabs, and learnt that they go out at 3 in the morning on their boats, and return at 7. Somehow crab fishing must be more lucrative than squid fishing further south. The lady told us she makes about 100,000 dong per day (about 6 dollars) selling her crabs, which is probably why she was so keen on selling them to us.

We headed north to Hanoi again before lunch, to avoid driving after dark. All in all, quite the adventure, and I must admit, I feel like I have been on holidays!

Not for the faint-hearted 22 June 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Life, Travelling, Vietnam.
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I have started and re-started a blog post about driving my motorbike in the streets of Hanoi many a time, but have always been foiled by cliches – nothing I could come up with was new, it had all been said before. There are just so many cliches:

– There are the traffic jams – ever present and sometimes infuriating. Ever expanding in their number and size with no respite visible in the near future.

– There are the count-down clocks on the traffic lights – causing drivers to start their engines and drive when there is 3 seconds left on the counter, and make them keep driving 3 seconds after the light has turned red, creating what a friend of my recently coined as “the four second window of death”.

– There are the accidents – including the minor bumps into the bike in front on busy streets, and the many fatalities which happen every day which I count my lucky stars that I have not yet witnessed a single one of.

– There is the pollution.

– There is the impossibility of crossing the road when you first arrive.

– There are the masks and the helmets that make it impossible to recognise anyone, but which often provide you with something to look at on your way home, including the matching “Burberry” helmets on the young, affluent couple, or the pink pooh bear helmet on the guy in front of you, the cowboy helmets and helmets of any other shape and size (except for yours). There are the slightly unsettling masks with the giant kissy lips or the big grin, which make the wearer look like a cross of a clown and creepy skeleton.

– There’s the embarrassing expat burn on your calf – caused by the inexperience of the poor schmuck who did not know that exhaust pipes are hot, and you need to step off on the left hand side of the bike for that very reason.

– And there are the ‘bikes of burden’ – those overladen bikes that transport everything from live buffaloes and other live stock to cases of beer and mattresses, and the occasional fridge that is not secured. I have even seen full-length railway sleepers being transported by motorbike here.

But as I said – nothing new! Any expat in Vietnam with a blog will have mentioned all of the above.

But there is one thing that I can now say for myself – driving a car in Vietnam is a completely different kettle of fish, and is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Much of it is the same as a motorbike – if your car can fit into a space on the road, you fill it. But at the same time, you need to be so much more aware of everything that is happening around you, and you must assume that people will not act the way that you expect them to. Swerving is a national sport, so driving a car means that you might actually kill someone on a motorbike who does not know you are there. You are big compared to all of them.

On the motorbike, I find that I read traffic like water flow – I do not keep an eye on each individual motorbike around me. It would be nearly impossible to do so anyway, but that is also the way that you can avoid most of the obstacles around. If all the bikes swerve at a certain point, you know a pot hole is coming up. If there is a disturbance in the flow, it gives you clues. Someone might be crossing, or driving up the wrong way on a one-way street. There may be a rubbish collector there, or a taxi is picking up a customer. If you see break lights ahead, you break.

But in the car, you have to be so much more vigilant, and keep track of those bikes around you. There were two behind me, one beside the bus in front. If any go missing, they are probably in your blind spot. You must assume that the people around you on bikes do not know how to drive cars, and will never have heard of a blind spot. And most bikes on the road have no mirrors, so if you are not in front of them, you are in their blind spot!

So beeping is the name of the game. You beep when someone is coming down the wrong way on the high way (and that includes trucks) and you beep when you overtake a bus, so it won’t swerve into your lane. You flash your lights at oncoming traffic to make them move out of the way, or they might not budge. You get stuck behind buses and trucks that think nothing of driving in the middle of the road all the time, only getting into their own lane to let the oncoming traffic pass. Which means you are stuck behind them.

Buses swish past with minimal clearance, with the drivers leaning on their horns. Cars will overtake with no space to do so, ending up with traffic three wide on a two-lane country road. No courtesy is expected, and none is extended.

Strangely, driving was an incredible amount of fun. Another extreme sport to tick off my list. And we both did incredibly well, mainly due to being used to the motorbike in this traffic.

I miss having a car.