A blog of my time spent in Vietnam working for Bao Nhan Dan.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Phew! (part I)

Well that was an extended exercise in debauchery! Over the last 3 weeks we seem to have been inundated with visitors to Hanoi. First off, we had Rachel and Andy who came and experimented the food, culture and shopping offered by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Having caught up on all the London gossip we proceeded to trawl around every café, restaurant and bar that would have us. Museums featured highly on the agenda, but without a shadow of a doubt, the key consumer items were purchased in the Propaganda shops. Rachel and Andy managed to spend $80 on posters alone!

Propping up the propaganda shops
The best bargain of the trip had to be had at the authentic Vietnamese propaganda shop we visited right towards the end of their stay. A wizened old woman, stood in front of her glass case containing all sorts of goodies. As we approached she started pilling up baskets full of every kind of Communist propaganda you could imagine. Hanging from the walls of her shop were every type of flag going – from the trade union federation (red flag, yellow and blue badge with hammer and hand wrench), the Ho Chi Minh Youth League (red flag, white circle with a hand clutching a red flag with yellow star), the agricultural workers union (red flag, with a rather gigantic and somewhat phallic, bright yellow corn cob), and in recognition of the forthcoming 30th anniversary of the unification of the country; a flag of the southern National Liberation Front – horizontal light blue and red bars with a gold star. In the end Andy and Rachel decided to buy pretty much everything!
The star item had to be the hand stitched Ho Chi Minh Youth League banner. The whole kit and caboodle cost about 250,000VND, which works out at about £8. Andy’s most treasured possession was purchased at the Propaganda Shop – must have been made with the Food Standards Agency in mind – was a mug with a picture of a Vietnamese woman chopping fresh vegetables, imploring us to strive to look after food hygiene! Genius! Andy’s other top items included the de rigour dark green pith helmet with Vietnamese Army badge (which was often worn), and a fully working toy boat with oil powered engine.
One of the other highlights of the trip, although slightly windy, was sitting on the top storey of a block at the north end of Hoan Kiem Lake with a view across the city. Many attempts were made to capture the perfect moment when the wind gusted across to fully extend the Vietnamese national flag just behind us.

A Food Standards Inspector Visits
The food highlight of the trip was the visit to Cha Ca La Vong – A must for every visitor to Hanoi. Cha Ca as I’ve mentioned before is banana fish (whatever that may be!), with turmeric, dill and oil fried in front of very eyes on a charcoal burner. Wobbly piles of rice noodles are added to the mix, along with fresh herbs – coriander, mint etc, with peanuts and chillies. Andy unfortunately decided to pay a visit to the toilet at Cha Ca La Vong and found the kitchen staff preparing the plates of food on the floor in the kitchen just next door. Not the best sight for a civil servant working for the Food Standards Agency!

Weight a minute
One of the things that I’ve always wanted to do while in Hanoi is try out the mobile weight and height machines. These are something of a phenomenon in Hanoi. No matter the hour, no matter the place, men will wheel around these machines playing tunes such as ‘twinkle, twinkle, little star’ or Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’ or the all season classic ‘we wish you a merry Christmas’. The Vietnamese seem obsessed by their weight and height. Young and old can be seen clambering onto the scales to see what their current physical state is. Contrary to the west, their main concern is often to add weight on. After years of malnutrition, many Vietnamese find it hard to add weight (we heard a story about one woman who had to put on extra woolly jumpers when meeting her prospective in laws so she didn’t look too thin!), although you are beginning to see rather plump kids.
Back to the scales – These machines both weigh you and measure your height. To get your height, a flat disc descends from the top of the machine and bonks you on the head. The machine then proceeds to electronically announce in a HAL9000 voice to the surrounding streets just how heavy you are! This is of course all in Vietnamese, so for all we know it could be saying: ‘OW! OW! GET OFF YOU FAT BASTARD! YOU’RE CRUSHING ME!’ You then receive a small dated slip giving your weight in kilos – 88.4KG - the mystery continues as I’ve no idea what they are in stones and pounds!
Of course to finish off Rachel and Andy’s stay we had to have one last night on town, which perhaps in retrospect wasn’t such a good idea…I awoke to hear the sounds of moans as bodies moved around in the half light of early morning. Rachel however, was on top form after getting over her ‘pre-flight’ travel sickness, by throwing up twice in Hanoi airport before boarding.

Of course Rachel and Andy’s journey home was a smooth experience, with no hitches at all on the long flights back to Britain. It was however a bit typical for them to find after travelling thousands of miles that the only hitch in their journey was when their train back to Harlington was cancelled. Doh!

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Bring the noise!

No, I haven't gone all Public Enemy on you, it's just something I've been meaning to write about for ages - the noise of Hanoi.

I've been here now for something like seven months, and I sometimes think that I've cracked Hanoi. Then there are other days when you either scream your head off or hide under a duvet. What is the cause of these behavioural extremes?


Now, I'm a born and breed Londoner, I smiled at the sight of tourists or country folk visiting London and complaining about the noise and dirt, but now I think I can see what their problem was.

Hanoi's charming buildings, serene lakes and friendly people can sometimes not be enough to make up for the racket.

Firstly, there's the continual beeping of the traffic, from the parps of the ubiquitous scooters, the roars of the huge buses, the elephantine trumpeting of the cars, to the ringing of bicycle bells.

Then there's the Vietnamese approach to home improvements. The banging of nails into the wall in the building next door at some ungodly time in the morning, the scraping of the roof to the back of your house in the middle of the night (why?), the minor engineering work that seems to sound like a dentists drill...all these sounds can drive you distraction - not to mention the starting up of motorbikes in the alley below your bedroom window.

Ah, yes, I almost forgot, there's the wonderfully useful community announcements made over the (t)annoy system on our street - I suppose I should treat it as a wake up call, and turn a negative into a positive. It does also help with your social diary, as on important dates, such as Vietnam Teacher's Day or Women's Day we get to hear a dose of patriotic music to get the spirit soaring and the blood flowing to the brain...

There are sounds however that will always be a part of my memory of Hanoi.

The sound of a lone woman cyclist, on a deserted street in Hanoi at 2 in the morning, liltingly calling out her produce for sale; or the soothing sound of a store girl singing a Vietnamese love song under her breath as she stacks shampoo bottles onto a shelf; or even the murmuring sound of chanting coming from a pagoda...

I feel better already...though I'm sure my feelings will change again at the start of the essential 4am roof scrape