A new species in my "Sleepers" series. The Sleepus Sidus Motorbikus Singlus, or side motorbike sleeper on a single bike, is seen only rarely in his native Saigon habitat.
A new species in my "Sleepers" series. The Sleepus Sidus Motorbikus Singlus, or side motorbike sleeper on a single bike, is seen only rarely in his native Saigon habitat.
I snapped these pics at a rest area on the way to Mui Ne in January.
A silhouette of a gangster-type guy in a fedora seems to be the universal symbol for "man" on restrooms in Vietnam. Sometimes he's puffing a smoke in a manly way, sometimes not. It always gives me a chuckle.
The symbol for "woman" has a little more variation. Here she's wearing a floppy hat. It's little things like this that keep life perpetually interesting in Vietnam.
I wonder if it looks like this one in the pic at right? Or maybe this one?
I saw this guy while eating dinner with the VietnamWorks Tech Team in Vung Tau in April. He and his buddy were traveling from restaurant to restaurant singing romantic songs and selling trinkets. His enthusiasm and passion were contagious. I got the feeling that he didn't care a whit if they sold anything, he was just thrilled to have an audience.
Another reason I like this pic is because it shows well the Vietnamese love affair with massive, over-the-top audio amplification.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Vietnamese can -- and do -- sleep anywhere, anytime. Here's a few more snaps of more sleepers I've stumbled across during my daily activities.
This guy was impressively sprawled across three motorbikes -- my first observation of a sleeper of this type. Time: about 1pm.
Another guy balanced on his bike, in the more conventional "spread-eagle" position. Time: about 4pm.
Christmas has come to Saigon once again. This will be charvey's fourth Christmas in Saigon. The first was five years ago during my first ever visit to Vietnam. Christmas struck me then as totally, completely, utterly nutty. Well, 2003 was nothing. Over the ensuing five years it's gotten even nuttier. This year is head and shoulders above last year -- the decorations are more elaborate, the crowds are more frenzied, there are more tiny children in Santa suits. The Vietnamese love pageantry and parties. They have embraced Christmas and made it their own in a special Vietnamese way. I love it.
Last night I went out for a walk on the main drags of Saigon. I took some pictures and an eight-minute video tour (narrated by charvey, of course). Enjoy!
Here are the pics:
And here's the video:
Every morning the VietnamWorks South sales team gathers for the "Chicken Dance". It's a great and fun way to start the day -- everyone gets a kick out of it. I like to show my solidarity with the sales team by dancing with them everyday, but the biggest reason I dance with them is that it's goofy and I just plain enjoy it.
Last week I shot a video of the dance. It's pretty much like this every morning. I love it. One of my big objectives is to foster a working environment that is enjoyable and fun, where people can feel free to express their personalities. Kudos to anh Trọng for having the idea and implementing it with the team.
At the end you can hear the dance leader ask "Các bạn khỏe không?" ["How is everyone?] and everyone shout in unison "Khỏe, rất khỏe, rất rất khỏe, oh yeah!!!" [Good, really good, really really good, oh yeah!!!]
Yet another wacky Christmas in Vietnam. The Vietnamese have adopted Christmas and made it their own. They've also added unique Vietnamese Christmas traditions. One is dressing up little kids in little Santa Claus outfits. Another is the Christmas Eve Cruise, where pretty much everyone in Saigon gets on their motorbikes on Christmas eve to take in the spectacle and create magical Christmas traffic jams. Yet a third is blinking Christmas lights suspended over the street and *everywhere*. But the absolute weirdest thing I saw took place about two weeks ago. I was walking to work one morning and saw two tandem bicycles (bicycles built for two people, where one rider sits behind another) sail through a busy intersection piloted by four men and women dressed in full-on Santa suits, pedaling away madly under the tropical sun. I'm totally bummed I couldn't get my camera phone out in time to snap a pic, because it truly was surreal.
Christmas is in full swing here in Vietnam. The office staff have gone nuts decorating their spaces with Christmas stuff -- trees, lights, snowflakes hanging from the ceiling and even a giant stuffed Christmas bear. The Tech Team even built a walk-through "ice cave" decorated with lights. Not really sure about the Christmas relevance of the ice cave, but it *is* consistent with the winter theme. It sorta reminds me of my hometown of Burlington, Vermont USA. It's cold like Russia there in the winter. Every few weeks I check out this webcam to see what the weather is doing in Vermont, real time. Looks freakin' cold. Funny how I never thought that freezing cold that will kill you in an hour if you are unprotected was unusual when I was growing up.
I am collecting pics that capture the experience of Christmas in Vietnam for a later post. If any of my readers have good tips for Christmas-y scenes in Saigon, let me know!
Here's a little tidbit to tide you over -- a Christmas tree, Vietnam-style. Enjoy.
With increasing speed, the run-down, shabby vestiges of a centrally planned economy are being torn down, repaved and painted over in Vietnam. I returned from Hanoi today. The metal chairs in the passenger lounge of the Hanoi airport used to look like they belonged in a Terry Gilliam movie -- all banged up and scratched like a 50 year old bit of retro junkyard kitsch. But today I arrived to find that they had been painted over with a fresh coat of shiny grey paint. Still kitschy, but they looked about a million times better. "Damn," I thought, "I gotta start capturing this stuff on camera before it's gone."
Also, the new international terminal of Ton Son Nhat airport finally opened in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). Now domestic flights have moved from the ridiculously cramped quarters of the old domestic terminal (the airport in my home town of Burlington, Vermont is bigger) to what used to be the international section. When I returned to HCMC today I picked up my bag at the old international arrival baggage claim, then walked right out through the area that used to contain the X-ray machines and customs inpsectors. Several feelings well up at once -- the excitement of my first visit to Vietnam nearly 4 years ago, stepping out to a nearly empty parking lot full of weeds, to a feeling that I'm smack in the middle of big and historic changes rolling across this country. I haven't been inside the new terminal yet, but it looks pretty cool and modern from the outside.
I've also noticed that the crazy, uneven patchwork of broken tile and asphalt is being torn up to and replaced with smart new sidewalk tile in many parts of town. Ah, Saigon, we barely knew ye.... At least I can say that I was here before McDonald's showed up. I heard that McDonald's and Starbucks are on the way soon.
On Saturday I was walking in my neighborhood doing some errands. I always enjoy walking around Saigon -- this city is a feast for the senses. Lo and behold, walking through one alleyway I spied the prettiest little
dog you ever did see. She was wearing a string of pearls and a most self-satisfied and happy expression. She was a little frightened of her foreign suitor, however, and her owner helpfully called her over and steadied her while I snapped the pic. Everyone had a good laugh. Little moments like these are magic.
I found this story in the "Newsvine" feed on the right side of my blog. It's hilarious. Despite the humor, corruption is a real problem in Vietnam. I haven't personally encountered it but I have heard stories. It reminds me of the adage "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Human nature is the same everywhere.
Most Vietnamese cower when a cop squeezes them for a bribe. Le Hien Duc, a gray-haired 75-year-old grandmother, fights back.
Four-foot-nine and weighing just 88 pounds, she'll take on anyone, from lowly bureaucrats to high-level officials. She e-mails, phones, tracks them down at their offices, confronts them at their homes.
"Corruption is definitely an evil, and it is ruining my beloved country," said Duc, a former elementary school teacher who works from dawn until dusk battling graft.
Corruption is perhaps the most vulnerable spot in the country's single-party Communist state — from the traffic cops who pull drivers over for $3 bribes to the Transportation Ministry officials accused last year of gambling $13 million in public money on British soccer matches.
Corruption persists here in part because officials earning $50 official salaries consider it perfectly acceptable to charge kickbacks for virtually any kind of service, large or small.
As a result, the country routinely fares poorly in international corruption rankings. But in Vietnam, where people respect authority, few dare challenge the system. But many turn to Duc.
"Most of us tremble when we have to deal with police," said Doan Van Hung, a delivery man who recently sought Duc's help. "She is incredibly brave."
Hung's ordeal was typical — a policeman stopped him for speeding and threatened to seize his motorbike unless he paid a $3 bribe — more than a day's average wage.
Corruption among "road bullies," as the Vietnamese traffic police are known, is rampant. But most drivers simply pay up and leave.
Duc tracked down the officer who harassed Hung and filed a complaint with the Hanoi chief of police. The officer was promptly demoted.
The grandmother of eight intervened in another recent case involving school officials who had apparently been pocketing school lunch money for years by making cafeteria staff cut back on the kids' portions.
Local government investigators confirmed the scam. But when the evidence was brought before Hanoi education officials, they did nothing.
Frustrated parents had read about Duc in the newspapers and turned to her for help. She took the case straight to the top.
She said she called the office of the education minister, Nguyen Thien Nhan, about 30 times.
When her messages went unanswered, Duc managed to discover the minister's cell phone number and called him. He promised to have the department's internal investigator look into the case.
"She always knows whom to call," said Nguyen Tan Tien, chairman of the school parents' association.
In Vietnam, most grandmothers stay home and look after their grandchildren. Duc buries herself in the fight against graft.
"Someone must stop it, for the sake of justice," she said.
Duc has spent a lot of time investigating where government and party leaders live and work. If they won't meet her at their offices, she just shows up at their homes.
"Whenever we see her, we know there is a problem somewhere," said Pham Van Tai, an Education Ministry official. "She has pushed us a little too hard."
Duc runs her crusade from her narrow, three-story home in Hanoi, where her desk is covered with stacks of mail from people seeking help from all corners of Vietnam. She spends about two-thirds of her $80 monthly pension on the Internet, phone calls, photocopying and motorbike taxis.
Her work has made enemies.
Last month, people came to her house and told her to butt out of the school lunch money scam.
"Drop the case or start saving money for your coffin," they shouted.
Her children wish she would give up her work.
"She is too old and weak to protect herself," said Pham Minh Hai, Duc's daughter. "She should stay home and play with the kids."
But Duc has no intention of quitting. She says she is following the example of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary hero of Vietnam's government.
Like many others of her generation, Duc joined the revolution as a young woman. During Vietnam's war against French colonialists, she spent years in the jungle, decoding messages for the army.
"We gave our blood, sweat and tears," she said. "There is no excuse for anyone to abuse their authority. I cannot stand seeing corrupt officials bully people."
Tonight I was taking a xe om (motorbike taxi) to meet my friend for dinner. I like to take xe oms instead of driving myself because I can look around and check out all the action. People watching in Vietnam is always excellent since so much life in Saigon happens on the street. It's also better than a taxi because I have a 360 degree view.
I was at a stoplight when I hear a friendly "hello!" about 50 cm to my right. I look over and perched comfortably on a motorbike is a young family -- dad, mom and a little girl not a day over 3 years old. The dad said "hello" again and smiled. The girl looked at the foreigner shyly, somewhat intrigued but unsure what to do. "Chào cháu!" ("Hello, youngster!") I said, but still she just looked at me and blinked. We all had a good laugh. I think I was part of an impromptu English lesson. That actually happens a lot.
There are so many charmers here in Vietnam. Especially the kids.
In other news, it looks like Vietnam Idol has hit the scene. You thought I was kidding in my post last month, eh? Well check it out in all its glory here. There is no doubt the show will be a huge hit in this karaoke-crazed land.
The Vietnamese are a sentimental people. This is especially apparent in popular music. Romantic themes in music skew heavily to unrequited love, love lost, or two lovers separated by circumstances beyond their control.
I learned several Frenchie songs in a college French class and I still remember them. Music is a powerful way to learn. "What a golden opportunity," I thought, "I'll learn some Vietnamese classics. Not only will I learn some new words, but it'll come in handy during the obligatory karaoke sessions with the staff."
Choosing a song dripping with the "love lost" themes above was easy. I just picked one at random. It is "Vầng Trăng Khóc" (The Moon Cries). I plugged the lyrics into an English/Vietnamese machine translator at vdict.com to get the general meaning of the song. It's sung as a duet by two people who once were lovers. For a reason I'm unable to determine (the song may not say) they are separated and their love has faded. They sing achingly for the love they once shared and for what might have been. Click to listen.
One line in the song I've seen elsewhere is "Em và anh mỗi người một nơi." Translated literally, it is "Me and you, each person one place." More figuratively, I translate it as "Everyone has their place, including us." The idea is that time and circumstances have separated the lovers, but they must accept it because everyone has their own destiny. It's kinda poetic.
The machine translation yielded some especially excellent lines. One is "There Will by you love you forsooth giblets." No idea about that one. Two others are "Stoutly when new hornbeam retrevial," and "Because aching suffer prestissimo the two of us asteroid separates." I am not making this up.
I'm listening to this song over and over while reading the lyrics so I can carry the tune and nail the pronunciation. On Monday I'll review the lyrics with my Vietnamese teacher so I understand the meaning of each line. Look for me on Vietnam Idol.
Happy New Year, or "Chuc Mung Nam Moi!" The Vietnamese love a good party and have adopted the Western new year as their own. Crowds were out in force last night and the streets decked out in holiday finery.
I tried to capture a bit of the magic in this pic, taken on Le Loi Street at about 12:30am on January 1, 2007. Those little white lights above the streets are snowflakes.
VietnamWorks is ushering in 2007 with a spanking new office to house our crack team of Tech, MIS, Sales, Marketing, Customer Care and Product specialists. Pic taken Friday, December 29.
A few of the advance guard waited impatiently for the movers to deliver the tools of the trade so they could get back to work crushing our competiton.
I've got a new gig. No, it's not running a modeling agency (although I heard of a guy who founded one in Shanghai to meet girls but wound up with a hugely successful modeling agency). It's as a judge on a "Apprentice"-like reality TV show in Vietnam. I'm representing VietnamWorks.
I'm tapping out this entry from a hotel in Hanoi where the show is being filmed. Today we followed the candidates around as they tried to sell postcards to passers-by on the street. Just like The Apprentice, it included lots of personal drama. Some candidates are rivals, some are bossy, some are more passive. No Omarosa though, which kinda disappointed me.
All the candidates are young women from 22 - 28, to increase the show's appeal to the sponsor's demographic. I can tell you, the future of Vietnam is assured in the hands of these young people. They are kickass go-getters, smart as a whip and totally eager to learn and compete. One candidate was so wound up, she fainted tonight when we announced her team won the competition. Oi, the drama!
It warms my capitalist heart to see these young people honing their business instincts and strutting their moxie. I have no doubt they all will go on to do great things.
And for those of you wondering -- I'm gonna try to sneak in a "You're fired!" on the show even though that's not part of the program.
My life in Vietnam is rendered in brilliant Technicolor by a host of card-carrying characters that populate it. Here are some of them.
Hung, the motorbike parking kid
I see "em Hung" (literally, "younger brother Hung") every morning when I park my motorbike in the lot next to the Thai Van Lung Street movie theater. He's about 17 years old. He just thinks it's hilarious that a foreigner parks there and always tries out a few words of English on me. One time he saw me talking with one of the girls in the office who parks there and teased me about having a girlfriend. It's always a good idea to make friends with the giữ xe guy. He's a good kid.
Chị Kim, my cleaning lady
Chị Kim (literally, "big sister Kim," about 55 years old) is another character. She speaks slightly more English than I do Vietnamese, so we usually communicate in a mishmash of the two languages. She scolds me for being messy and feels free to give me plenty of unsolicited but concerned advice whenever she sees me. She really gave me a hard time when I came back from my trip to the USA because I didn't bring her anything. So I made sure to bring her a trinket from Bali this time. I'm finally cluing in that it's quite impolite to travel somewhere and not bring back small gifts for people. In the US it's not expected but of course people like it when you do. In VN they expect, oh yes.
Em Hue and em Dan (Dang?)
These are the "Little Neighbors" I wrote about in a previous post. They live in my little "hem," or alley. Hue is about 12 years old and her little brother is an early 3 I think. When I have my outer door open they sometimes come right up to the door and peer in to say hi. I think they think I'm funny looking, which I guess I am. Sometimes little Dang rides around in his tiny electric car, the kind I coveted when I was his age. I gotta get a pic of that because it's quite funny.
Cô Vân, the cigarette lady
Cô Vân (literally, "aunt Vân," pronounced "vuhn") is about 60 and also lives in the hem. She has a cigarette cart that is always parked at the entrance to the hem on the street. She's like a watchdog -- no one gets past cô Vân without her given you the once-over. I introduced myself about a month ago (as Lâm, of course), now we always exchange the friendly nod when I enter or exit.
The shoe shine guys
These guys just joined the cast today. I went looking for a shoe shine around lunchtime and found a guy with 3 of his friends hanging out. While one did the work his friend sat on his butt and joked that they split everything 50/50. We spoke mostly in Vietnamese, with me saying quite often "Tôi không hiểu. Xin nói lại chầm chậm" which means "I don't understand. Please say again slowly." Their constant joking and guffawing reminded me of the guys in that movie "Barbershop." They want me to join them for a beer sometime. That'll make an interesting post.
Hilda, the Colombian dance partner
I'm taking a Lindy Hop swing class every Monday night. We rotate partners quite frequently. Some women are really good, some are just hopeless. My favorite partner is Hilda, a tiny Colombian woman in her 50s. She's a great dancer. She follows very well and is so fluid she makes me look good even when I screw up. After class tonight I stayed for a bit and cut the rug with Hilda. She's got this little sashay that screams "South American hipster." I love it.
Figuring out how to type the Vietnamese characters above is making this post take forever. Almost midnight now so going to bed. More characters to come.
As everyone knows, David Hasselhoff is loved in Germany. But the object of Vietnam's affection? Megastar Lionel Richie. Not an evening goes by where I do not hear Lionel's smash hit "Hello" on the local soundtrack or wafting out onto the street from some karaoke bar. Vietnamese love him. Oh yeah, and the Carpenters too. The Vietnamese love this stuff -- the sappier and schmaltzier the better. I gotta admit I've got a soft spot for it too. The other night I did a rendition of "Yesterday Once More" that brought the house down at a swanky karaoke bar. Not quite ready to tackle "Hello" just yet -- crowd might get ugly if I mess it up.
When I first arrived in Saigon I was struck by bizarre sight of strange apparitions riding half the motorbikes streaming through the city streets. These figures were covered from head to toe -- gloves, socks under sandals, scarves over the face, sunglasses and floppy hats. "Holy cow, invisible women have swarmed into Saigon!"
women prize pale skin. They go to great lengths to protect themselves
from the sun's rays. One friend of mine told me that a saleswoman in his
office refused to come back from an office visit one afternoon.
"Why?" he asked her. "The sun is too shiny!" she
At night the gloves come off, so to speak. Out come the minis and revealing dresses, but only for girls who live a fast lifestyle. Most Vietnamese women are quite modest and conservative.
Oddly, pale skin is prized for women, but not for men. I'm not sure, but It doesn't seem to matter much what shade a man's skin. Any Vietnamese members of My Public care to, ahem, shed some light on the subject?
There are so many fascinating images in Vietnam that appear and vanish in seconds. It's impossible to capture them on camera due to their fleeting nature, but I'll do my best to describe an image I saw recently.
It's raining. Pouring, tropical, driving rain. I'm riding my motorbike, peering through the rain with slitted eyes, dodging traffic. I am a stranger in a strange land. I look up and see someone driving towards me on my side of the street, all the way on the edge of the lane. He's a young guy, early 20s. His expression is one of grim determination as he battles the rain en route to his destination. His long-sleeved T-shirt reads, in enormous block letters "DISARM SADDAM NOW." In the blink of an eye he's gone.
There are eight million stories in the naked city. I just saw one of them.
English is everywhere here in Viet Nam. I just noticed the English on this wastebasket in my 1950s-vintage pink bathroom.
I think this is a character from the US comic strip "Pearls Before Swine" (Btam?). Happiness to Everybody, indeed.
By a special guest correspondent, Aunt Jackie.
Jackie here. The traffic in Saigon is chaotic and insane. There are no actual traffic laws, so everyone does their own thing. Traffic lights are few and far between, and they are mostly ignored anyway. Vehicles are overwhelmingly motor scooters, motorcycles, and bicycles. There are some cars, buses, minivans and SUVs thrown into the mix.
The noise is at top level from the engines and the constant horn beeping. I think I have figured out the horn code. It can mean: watch out, I'm coming, get out of the way, leave me alone, or I am here, don't hit/squash me.
Crossing the street is a great adventure, and a test of your fear factor. There is no such thing as a break in the traffic. You must guage the volume of the traffic. When there is a change in volume, you must go for it. Keeping a steady speed is important. No running or hesitation when crossing. Those on or in the vehicles will judge your rate, and they will go around you. It works !!