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

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Model making

Fashion comes to Puku. Note random hanger-on in foreground wearing army style cap - seemed to be part of the necessary 'lounging, but doing nothing' quota necessary at such events

Puku is already known for it’s art and photography exhibitions, but today as I sit on it’s roof terrace it is now acting as host for a jewellery fashion shoot. Male and female models are crowded in, along with stylists, photographers, film crew, make-up artists, general liggers and hangers-on. The place is cluttered with video cameras, lighting rigs and people wearing self important neck badges, frowning at the light, tweaking folds of clothing, and chattering into mobile phones on speaker setting while models waiting their turn gaze blank faced at the chaos surrounding them. I’ve now got a bloke wearing a stripped shirt with a floral pattern undone to the waist sitting just to my right as the camera man sits precariously on the edge of the balcony. All very strange – the whole shot seems to revolve around the every day existence of Puku as kitchen staff and waitresses clamber over silver boxes carrying iced coffees and toasted sandwiches. I remain ignored and unmoved in the centre of it all, as though I am a lump of inanimate matter (not entirely ignored, as just about everything else up here has been turned into a prop, no matter its previous function – I’m just waiting for the laptop to requisitioned). They’ve yet to ask me to move, but it must be just a matter of time. The shoot is being organised by the one of the owners of Puku, who also owns a jewellery shop, and it’s her items that are being advertised. Quite handy, I suppose to have a café that can double up as a fashion shoot venue. They now have perched a female model on a high stool just behind me, while a whole camera crew looks just past my shoulder – it’s quite disconcerting! Especially as they’ve just turned a massive lighting rig on, with it’s sudden increase in brightness and temperature…they’ve changed angles again, I’ll put that down to the light – I have to worry about health and safety as the model looks like light breeze might knock her over the edge! Oh well, makes a change from the usual I suppose…

Now where did I leave my mobile phone?

Storming Hanoi

Sunday has become our day of repose, where we recharge the batteries for another assault on the working week. Recently however, our peace has been disturbed by some rather enthusiastic builders who seem intent on breaking through the wall adjoining us…it began about a month ago, with the gentle tap, tap, tap on the wall which we naively put down to somebody putting shelves up, or attempting to hang a picture or curtain rail.

It soon escalated into what sounded like the entire Murphy’s construction fleet engaged in major demolition work. The tapping had turned modern with a pneumatic drill doing it’s worst from 7.30am to 9pm everyday. The drilling and tapping is now accompanied by the sound of rubble falling from the walls, down what sounds like a shaft between the our building and the construction site.

However, last Sunday was a bit different, as the major building work turned into a minor irritant compared to our new internal water feature.

Rain storms are a fact of life in Vietnam. It is after all a tropical country, with wet season (summer) and dry season (winter), but what you soon realise it that these ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ descriptions aren’t entirely foolproof.

Winter brought us continual cloud, mist, drizzle, condensation, and our own interior weather system (see the foggy dew); while summer has brought a huge drought to the north of Vietnam (so much so that the reservoirs have now almost reached the official ‘dead’ level, which means that it’s impossible to power the water turbines – leading to power cuts on a random basis throughout Hanoi).

The now the very dry ‘wet’ season, still possesses the ability to surprise.

As we relaxed on a muggy Sunday afternoon, we realised that a storm had moved over Hanoi…after the recent ‘Great Storm’ that had brought down trees and had flooded large parts of Hanoi we thought there wasn’t too much to worry about. It certainly was raining, and eventually the rolling roar of thunder could be heard, followed by the neon blink of lightning, but we were home, what could possibly go wrong?

Having seen some amazing storms in Cuba we peered out onto the courtyard outside our house, watching as the landlady’s house next door lost the battle to contain the rainwater building up in it’s guttering, cascading down the side of the house, and doing a first rate impression of a waterfall. I shuddered as I recalled being stood underneath the impromptu waterfall only a few weeks ago as I struggled to open the gate and bring the bike in during the Great Storm. We smiled congratulating ourselves at being tucked away safely this time…then the TV channels started failing, their digitised pictures pixelating, freezing, then disappearing altogether.

At that point the house went quiet and the noise of the water cascading over the building could be heard…as could a new sound, a dribbling, trickling sound, I turned from the computer screen and saw a dribble of water drop from the floor above. My first thought was that the sink had flooded, so I dashed up stairs only to find myself struggling to keep my balance as the tiled floor had a slippery top surface of water. I peered into the bathroom – no overflowing sink or shower there, and then I realised the water was still dropping from above. I ran up the stairs, now acting as a series of stepped waterfalls in their own right. The top floor which we use as a storage space and drying room was completely soaked, flipping open the window I looked out onto the roof terrace. Where once there had been a terracotta tiled floor there now stood a paddling pool, about a foot deep! Water was lapping over the doorstep and the guttering had become completely choked. There was only one way to stop our new interior water feature, and that was to remove the supply now amassing on the roof. I stood next to the balcony, with the rain still bucketing down and attempted to kick the water off the roof. After fifteen minutes of me kicking, and Felicity bailing, the water level eventually dropped enough for us not to worry about it being high enough to cross the threshold. Thankfully the electricity hadn’t cut off and we could dry the house out using fans. Our newly washed and now soaked clothes were popped into the washing machine and soon all was back to normal. It could have been a lot worse, as none of our electrical equipment had managed to get soaked.

The pool was caused by the unique construction feature used on only our part of the roof. The three terraced houses that comprise our block all share the same guttering, all of which empty out onto our part of the roof. In order to ensure that we are the only part of the roof that gets flooded, our part of the terrace is bricked in causing it to form a paddling pool, with only a tiny overflow to let the water drain out! It looks like we will have to speak to the landlady about some minor construction work for future storms. In particular, it will be a complete disaster if we happen to be out if (when) another storm happens again.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Barracudas, bunnies and axes.

A new bar is often a cause for celebration in Hanoi as it’s common to suffer from going out fatigue – were nothing is new and your once unforgettable evenings begin to blur into routine. The re-launch of the Phuc Tan Bar as the Barracuda was therefore greeted with anticipation and excitement. The opening night was also boosted by the appearance of the latest new ex-pat band on the circuit – the Daisy Cult. It looked like an intriguing prospect. The flyers for the opening night were glossy full colour numbers with an excellent piece of graphic design, featuring a cartoon bunny rabbit with axe. Even the font used for the band’s name conjured up the best in indie or dance (I was inclined to think they would be a dance act as they had a DJ support called Prime Cut –I mean come on – doesn’t that sound like it was going to be a little hip-hop or what?). – a deliberate policy maybe, to cover all the bases?

So we made the jaunt over the dyke road to the slightly edgier part of Hanoi, on the banks of the Red River (edgy only because of it being on the edge of Hanoi – it’s not exactly ghetto material – just off the familiar ex-pat hangouts). We arrived around 8.30 and the place was already beginning to fill up. The bar – tucked away somewhat at the top end of Phuc Tan street features a bar room at the front of the building with pool table, and a rear bar with small stage. However the big selling point for the venue is the ‘terrace’. I say ‘terrace’ but really it’s just a small piece of land looking out over the mud flats of the Red River, with a view of the bridges. Even though it really was just a patch of concrete it still constitutes a unique selling point, as most ex-pat bars in Hanoi are gloomy, interior only venues.

By 9.30 the place began to fill – to become the largest gathering of ex-pats I’ve yet to see. The venue was heaving – something I think the bar owners hadn’t anticipated as first the soft drinks sold out, then the beer and finally even the water to the toilets gave up the ghost. The catering wasn’t much better, as Kris and me ordered sausage sandwiches only to receive three chopped up bangers minus the bread for 60,000 dong! Then the band came on. Perhaps we’d been expecting too much, or perhaps the band are consummate self publicists because I think it would be true to say that I don’t remember a single song they played, and I think they’d struggle to get a booking anywhere west of Hanoi. So another venue, another average band, humph.

Apparently all is not well at the Barracuda despite the success of the opening night – it struggles with the ever popular Titanic down the road, is off the backpackers trail on the other side of the dyke road, and lacks the necessary bands to cement it’s place as a music venue – something that Hanoi certainly could do with. The venue are now publicising eco-friendly golf driving by giving its patrons the opportunity to whip golf balls into the Red River – nice one…

The motorcycle diaries: Part 2 Nothing is more important than independence and freedom.

Yep. We’ve gone and done it. We’ve been nagged at for months, and finally we’ve taken the plunge – we are now mobile! After months of considerations – should we, shouldn’t we, should we, shouldn’t we…we eventually hired a motorbike on a trial basis. Felicity has to travel to three different work places a day so her Xe Om bills were always high so economically it was a no brainer. So we’ve now crossed the line from being irate pedestrians to irate bike drivers. Now we’re the ones scanning the pavements for parking space, complaining about bicycles and pedestrians – the only difference now is that we’ve gone from disliking car to really hating cars.

I think Hanoi’s car drivers have got to be the most appalling I’ve ever seen. Cars with no lights on will pull out of their parking spaces with no indicators, will drive right up against your tail-lights, drive the wrong way up a one way street (it’s ok for bikes to do this as you don’t block the entire street! Double standards? Yep!), or open passenger doors without bothering to check their wing mirrors. Bicycles are another hazard, often piled up with four schoolchildren, they’ll veer across the street with no discernable pattern, ignorant to anything going on around them, they also don’t have any lights which can be a bit difficult when the light drops.

Anyway, I digress, it is without a doubt one of the best things we’ve done since arriving in Hanoi – it’s a town built for the motorbike…fancy nipping down for a Sunday fry-up in the French Quarter – no problem. Want to go to the Titanic bar at 2am – no problem. Visit West Lake for a coffee – no problem. I do wonder what I’ve done to the gear box however with my slightly ‘crunchy’ gear changes!

30th Anniversary

Saigon 30th April 1975.
Vietnamese tanks smash down the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon signalling the utter defeat of the American backed Southern Vietnamese government.

Hanoi 30th April 2005.
Vietnamese motorbikes roar around Hanoi, as people go shopping on the extended holiday period buying consumer goods. It seems another world away, as 30 years ago Vietnam was finally liberated. Vietnamese TV has been running numerous documentaries on the final stages of the war, but it now seems so long ago. Especially when you consider that 65% of the Vietnamese population weren’t even born in 1975.

A Titanic night out

After a quiet night out at the Polite Pub on Bao Kahn, we eventually were persuaded by our neighbour Chris, to head out to the Titanic bar. The Titanic is something of an Hanoi institution – for a long time it was the only bar in Hanoi that could be guaranteed to remain open long after all the rest. The Titanic is also unique in that it is based on an old river barge. To reach it you have to wander across a wide pedestrian gangway (thankfully nothing as rickety as the gangway used to access a certain Thames houseboat – eh, Bob!). The Titanic is also probably one of the few bars where you have to sometimes get a boat out to visit, as the gangway can get flooded following particularly heavy downpours.

The Titanic despite it’s plus points doesn’t really have much more to recommend it. A dancefloor, a pool table and a few chairs towards the prow the barge are as far as the fixtures and fittings go. I suppose if you have the stamina you could stay up all night and watch the sun rise over the Red River, but I think the my days of doing all-nighters are probably quite limited now. The music wasn’t too bad though – following the ‘traditional’ commercial house music we all know and love, came a hip-hop half hour which did enough to make me think it was probably worth visiting again. What was quite nice about the place is that there seems to be a good mix of different people, with about a quarter of the people being Vietnamese. Having had enough by about 2.30am we left Kris to the delights of the Titanic and headed to the motorbike park (I suppose that’s the word as nobody had parked cars there). After negotiating the slight incline - ie making a pig’s ear of going up a very shallow slope because I was in second gear), we wended our way onto the dyke road. The dyke road is the nearest that Hanoi has got to a motorway, thankfully after midnight it’s pretty much empty of traffic. The main vehicles on the road at that time of night are trucks bringing fresh vegetables and meat into the markets. As we pulled out of the slipway onto the dyke road, a truck pulled off revealing a cream dressed policeman with what looked like a diminutive light sabre, intent on waving us down. Here follows a transcript of our interview:

Policeman: fewouaedrf tyehre thekri lnjout hre?
(My guess: So, you’ve just left the Titanic then, eh?)

Me: Erm, yes, what can I do for you?

Policeman: (smiles) fdjier giheir ghieh glsilier papekd he?
(My guess: I bet you’ve had a few to drink eh?)

Me: What’s wrong?

Policeman: (shining torch/light sabre on his watch) teoh ehd lthere oshel d?
(My guess: Isn’t it almost 3am? I think the two of you should be home by now. Haven’t you got work in the morning?)

Me: Yes, terribly late isn’t it? Sorry about that.

Policeman: (Now grinning) dfdu ther iens oghwl ghe!
(My guess: You haven’t a clue what I’m saying have you!)

Me: Thank you very much!

Policeman: (Shaking my hand) foeh bner owerie tghwo!
(My guess: I suggest you drive safely home now!)

Me: Bye! Thank you!

As you can see my Vietnamese has come on by leaps and bounds –ignorance, however isn’t much of an excuse!

40 degrees and rising

I’m currently sitting in Puku, on their roof terrace were three industrial strength fans are attempting to stop a trickle of sweat from dropping into my eyes. Last week the temperature topped 40 degrees in Hanoi and has remained around there ever since, which combined with extremely high humidity had led to a few very uncomfortable days.

The monotony of blazing sunshine can be contrasted to the monotony of drizzle and grey skies we experienced during the winter. I suppose the fact that Hanoi actually experiences a wide range of temperatures and climate adds to the experience of living here, unlike Ho Chi Minh City where it appears to remain in the mid-30s for the whole of the year.

The high temperatures are however combined with huge rain storms on the occasional day, as by late afternoon the humidity becomes so thick you could cut the air with a knife.

Last week we experienced the mother of all rain storms, as by 4.30pm the light vanished as though night had fallen at the blink of an eye. The hot wind began whipping around the courtyard at work, as scooter drivers switched their lights to full beam in the deepening gloom. I had just finished work and was trying to decide whether there was still time to get home before the storm hit, my work colleagues – bless them – insisted that as I lived nearby that I would have enough time to get home – after all I did have the bike with me. I thought it was touch and go but made a dash for it anyway. I whipped down Nha To and hit Hang Bong, as the trees started shedding leaves and buds. About half way home the wind suddenly squalled, showering me with light twigs and branches, and then the rain began…droplets the size of gobstoppers began pounding the streets, releasing a dusty smell into the air…Vietnamese drivers screeched to a halt, leapt off their bikes, donning plastic macs. Instantly the road cleared as everyone dashed for cover, while I stupidly thought I’d still make it home before the worst. I veered round onto the road running parallel to Ly Nam De only to experience the heavens open. Within an instant I was sopping wet; my eyes blurred by the water lashing into me at an horizontal angle. I might as well have stood, fully clothed under a shower on full blast. By this point Hanoi felt like it had gone through some kind of apocalyptic event, as not a living soul was to be seen as the tropical storm raged around me. I screeched to a halt at our alley way, making the women who run our little shop, jump. Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. The storm was so heavy that it had overwhelmed the guttering on our landlady’s house, meaning the roof had been momentarily transformed into a waterfall, a waterfall whose specific aim seemed to be to ensure that not an inch of me should remain dry! Eventually I parked the bike and dived indoors.

I think in retrospect I should consider myself quite lucky, as that evening, after the storm had passed, we went out to find streets blocked by knocked over trees, cars with massive dents from fallen masonry, and apparently hundreds of homes had been flooded. Le Pub had up to two feet of water swilling around it’s bar floor! Over 10 centimetres had fallen in the space of an hour. So any travellers to Hanoi, beware, it may be hot, it can also be very damp!