27 September 2005

A Room With A View

Yes, this is really the view from my new living room! Or it will be my living room by the weekend.

After all the one-room garbage heaps I was shown in various parts of town, it is quite unbelievable that this place will cost the same amount. After all the mental turmoil of not wanting to live out in Phu My Houng, I am now really glad for my decision. After all, I am only a 20 minute bus ride from the real city, and now I can sleep without noise and with security.

That real estate agent I found turned out to be the best deal in town. The others seemed to mean well, but just never followed through or had me taking expensive taxi rides to places that were not even to be considered.

I think I mentioned before how odd it seemed that all the agents were so young. But when I thought about it, I realized that real estate, with the foreign market in mind, is relatively new here. So of course it would be the young who adventured out into it.

My realtor is probably in her early 30’s. (looks younger, but I worked it out according to what she has done in life.) At 19 she left Viet Nam to work the cruise ship circuit. The wages were low, but tips pretty high. Before she turned to real estate three years ago, she had applied to Carnival lines, but after passing all their tests, and waiting six months, she still hadn’t been hired, so found a new career.

Now I have never had the desire to go on a cruise for a myriad of reasons. One of those being that all the ships leaving US ports are registered in foreign countries so that they don’t have to pay the help decent wages, and can work them to death in pretty foul conditions. Turns out it is even worse than I thought. Know what Carnival pays its people? $50 a month.

I need to pack,

24 September 2005

Wasted Saturday

I got up early so as to meet a new real estate agent and view two more apartments. I was encouraged because this agency would pay for the taxi, and the woman on the phone assured me that what she had was really nice.

My taxi arrived at her office and as I prepared to disembark, she hopped in. I looked at the meter; I’d already spent enough for the day. As she gave directions to the driver, I got a bad feeling that I was going to be stuck paying the full fare.

I overheard her tell the driver to go to Le Thanh Ton street. Wait, I said, I was just there yesterday and all I saw was horrible housing. She assured me that there were really great places to live and she would show me.

My heart sunk as we stopped at the exact corner I had been by the day before. I’ve already been in all of these buildings, I said. She pointed at one down the ally and asked about it. No, but it was next door to one I had been in. She got out and I started to pay the driver. “Oh no, he will wait for us”. Isn’t that expensive? She just kept walking. Shit. But what could I do?

The room/apartment turned out to be in a normal house that hadn’t been sub-divided, although it was jammed between other houses on both sides, front and back. It even had a balcony. But that was the only window. A small door opened into a 2x5 foot kitchen, and one step took you through to the bathroom. Not a bad place, but still more than a beautiful apartment in District 7. And there would be no privacy here. This was a family’s house, and you entered through the front gate just like everyone else. It would mean no wild nights with young handsome men.

We got back in the taxi and headed to District 4, on the other side of the river. (on my map it is called Ben Nghe Arroyo, (go figure), and branches of the Saigon River. Going to District 7, you drive through 4 and then over another Arroyo. Coming back through there the other day, I thought it might be a good location because it would be closer to work. But it did look a bit down and out. When I’d asked the cute French guy about living there he said, (again, imagine the French accent and intonation), “But you cannot live there! It is not safe. It is where the gangsters live!” I mentioned this agent.

“Oh no, that was in the past. Now there is a lot of new, expensive development.” I looked out the window as we crossed the bridge. Both sides of the Arroyo river bank were lined with picture postcard, shanty-town houses of corrugated steel and salvaged wood. Dilapidated boats on muddy banks had clotheslines out and people milling about on the broken decks.

On the other side of the bridge, I kept my eyes open for the New Development. We drove on a torn up road passing block after block of squalid housing, vacant lots brimming with discarded toilets and garbage, dirt and dust. I would not want to be in this area alone. And I kept looking for the “good” section, which I had been told was just over the bridge from District 1.

As we drove along with the river on our right, I asked her where, exactly, was this place. She pointed ahead to a monstrous structure shooting into the sky, about a kilometer up the road. I should have just told the driver to turn around.

Where is the supermarket? I asked, now seeing nothing but garbage and junk along the side of the road. “There are none out here. But you can buy fruit and vegetables at the market. It’s very cheap”. I didn’t bother to ask where the market was since I didn’t even see any people.

We arrived at the building, actually two buildings, surrounded by barren land and garbage. We got out of the taxi, and walked into the totally disserted, cavernous ground floor entrance. We rode the elevator up to the 3rd floor and got out to wander down a long hallway of empty apartments and echoes. Once more, I was very glad I was not there alone. I think there were people living in maybe one unit on the entire, immense 3rd floor.

Inside the apartment it was evident that it was still not quite finished. Light and sunny, three bedrooms, and not one item in there; no refrigerator, nothing. Apparently, the landlord would furnish a bed. I looked out the window to better view the decrepit panorama and desolation. I had to get out of there.

The agent tried to convince of how this was a much sought after location. But there is nothing here, I said. “But soon there will be. The government is putting a lot of money into improving the area.”

Back in the taxi, I had him drive us to the center where both the agent and I got out. She didn’t even attempt to reach for her wallet. I was past getting upset about the taxi fares of the last week, and just forked over the cash.

What I needed to do was get my hair cut. I had wanted to put it off until I had gotten my apartment sorted, but I needed to feel good about at least one thing, and my hair won out. I pulled out the card of the salon I had dropped by two weeks ago, and went in search of it.

I thought I knew, more or less where it was. I walked and walked, but I couldn’t find it. I showed someone the card and they said it was way far away, that I needed a taxi. That didn’t make sense. I looked at the card and realized that it wasn’t the card from the salon, but probably from their second salon in a different district. I continued walking until I got to the Hilton, sat down in the shade of their front steps, and called the number.

I had been right; they did have a shop close by. I asked the woman for the address. She repeated it three times and I thought I had understood. Unless I already know the name of the street, it is very difficult to understand addresses. I looked at the map. It wasn’t too far away, but I’d been walking too long in the midday sun, so grabbed a taxi.

He drove around for way to long, and finally pulled over and I again called the salon and handed the phone over to the driver. Soon we were on our way. He eventually stopped in front of some other salon, insisting it was the address given him. I am sure it was. I just don’t know why their business cards had been left at a salon of no connection. I looked at the meter and almost choked. How could it be so high? Again, what can you do but pay? I got out and started to walk.

Somewhere along the route I stopped in a café for a soda. So far, I had spent almost two hours trying to retrace my steps to find the salon. I knew I had a price list at home, and just hoped it had an address, or I would be totally screwed and never again find it. I took one more swipe at it before finally giving up and taking, yet one more, taxi home.

When I got to my room, I pulled out the price list and saw the address. I had been within half a block and may have even passed it. Anyway, I called Tony, who will do my locks tomorrow morning at 10. And after that, I’ll go back to District 7, to two different realtors, and see even more apartments. I am quickly getting used to the idea of a really fabulous apartment, in a really horrid, (albeit seriously safe), setting, rather than vice-versa. The fates will decide for me.
I really don’t mind the total isolation I feel at times like this. I have the internet, which makes it all relatively easy to deal with life in the bizarre. But I would like to know if people are really reading this and following what’s going on, or if I am writing into a void. Again, that would be ok. But I do have a request. If you are reading this, could you please click on “comments” and just tell me you read it? No names necessary. (anonymous /fictitious/ -also ok)

23 September 2005

This Can't Be All There Is

Let me tell you about the hellholes I was shown today. They equal the $2 dumps I have looked at in other developing nations, yet the average price here seems to be $400 a month.

As you may recall, I was to meet a realtor today at 2PM. I t was only after I had been given the address that I realized it was with the same company where I had been a week ago, and that had proved to be an awful experience.

I should preface all this with pointing out that I just got a new cell phone and hooked up my voice mail. I’d already sort of figured out that the Vietnamese populace does not use voice mail. They just call, hang up, and figure you will return your ‘missed calls’. So one is reduced to calling and saying, “I got a call from someone at this number.” But I specifically told all realtors that I teach, so please leave me a message.

I checked my voice mail when I got home form work, and there was nothing, but I did have those two missed calls. Had I not been waiting for apartment calls, I would not have dialed those numbers, but times are desperate. Not only did I have to call and say, “Did you call me?” I had to ask who they were, then thumb through my messy notes trying to match them up. This was greatly compounded by the fact that they sometimes have very heavy accents, and they can’t always understand me.

But back to my story. I called the first of the two numbers and it was the agent who was calling to confirm the 2:00 appointment. He said to meet him at the office. From my last few outings with realtors, I have learned to tell them ahead of time that I will not ride on the back of their scooters. When I said this, he replied, “Fine, we can take a taxi, but you have to pay”. (it has cost me a small fortune in taxis this past week.)

Not wanting to run into his colleague, and not wanting to go out of the way to get to the office, I said I would meet him at the apartment. “I’ll call you back to see if I can do that”, he said. An hour later, at 1PM, he had still not phoned, so I called him. “Can we meet at 3?” he asked, “and you’ll have to pick me up in the taxi at the office.”

I was about to cancel it all – bad vibes- but, as I’ve said, I am not in the position to turn down any possibilities. I agreed to meeting at the office, but at 2, as previously planned.

At 1:40, in the taxi, my phone rings. It is not the guy I was going to meet, but his co-worker, the jerk, from my first visit there. “Hi, this is DC, my partner can’t make it so I will show you the apartments.” Shit! I’d been bamboozled, or so it seemed. To late to turn back.

We picked up Mr. DC, and drove to an area that is just a few blocks from where I always drink coffee and walk, however, it seems I'd missed these few blocks. It’s full of expensive little restaurants and shops catering to the ex-pat crowd. It would be a great place to live, I thought as we got out of the taxi. Then I followed DC down a dark alley that lead to a maze of interconnecting alleys, all lined with attached buildings rising high into the sky.

The structures where so close that the balconies had about two feet between them. No sunlight fell onto the pavement as it was blocked by concrete. It was dirty, and dank, and frightening. I could not believe he had brought me there. I started to notice sign after sign of “Rooms for Rent”. I knew these types of places existed in the backpackers area, but didn’t know they were also here. I kept seeing more and more foreigners, all white males, walking in and out of the alleys. Obviously, this area also catered to the tourist/English teacher.

Finally locating the building, we were taken up to the fifth floor of a house that had been divided, then divided once more, into little rooms. They showed me a place that is smaller than my room at the compound. It had one window opening into an airway between buildings. The space was filled with a bed and a desk, and closet. You needed to walk sideways to get around anything. The price? $600.

On to the next. Up to the sixth floor, through a door into a small space with two more doors. Again, the cut and divide method of apartment building. This place was more horrific than the last. Smaller than the smallest hotel room I have ever seen, grimy, smelly, one small window. This one was only $450.

I left DC to take a scooter back to his office saying I couldn’t possibly live in places like he’d shown me, especially since I knew I cold get a brand new, sexy flat in District 7. “Well, if your budget wasn’t so limited…” he said. F-ck you! Is what I wanted to say knowing damn well he either lived with family or paid $50 a month on rent.

After he left I decided to walk around and check out some of those rooms for rent places. Oh My God! I didn’t think it could get worse, but it did.

Mr. Long showed me several rooms in two buildings, in amongst the maze, but at least the front entrance had a little space between it and the back of the building in front of it. I had hope. That soon disappeared as we started up the stairs that had been jury rigged into a house that had been subdivided into about 30 rooms. The width of the staircases was about two feet, and there were two of them going in different directions in a house that is only one normal room wide to begin with. He led me through passageways that had been cut through walls and were less than five feet high. I was getting more claustrophobic as we wended our way up and over and through, to get to the room.

I must stop to point out that the interior, as insane as it was, was immaculate. Maybe there was hope for the room. Wrong. Tiny and dark, and dingy and scary. Thank goodness he was with me or I would have been lost getting back to the front door. Earthquake or fire in there and your chances are less than zero.

We then walked four doors down to another building where there was a bigger room with a balcony. This place was less of a maze, but the room was nasty and tiny, even with the balcony. I just don’t understand why all these tiny rooms have queen sized beds. And a good proportion of Vietnamese sleep on straw mats on the floor. Maybe that is why. Maybe they assume all the foreigners would rather have wall to wall bed than open space.

I went to a few more of these places and decided I was just depressing myself. If even one of them was as large and light as my present room, I might consider it, even without a kitchen. Oh, and the price? $250-$500 a month. District 7 is looking better every minute.

I spent the next hour or so walking around and bought a watch. My fake Swatch that I’d had for over three years, finally bit the dust. I now have a beautiful, turquoise blue, TAG Heuer, Formula 1 watch. ($650, for the real thing and this sure looks real to me.) Hope it lasts a few years.

I have sorted out the photo problem of yesterday. So today you get District 7, Barbequing, plus today’s sights. The pictures from today only look bright because of the flash. And will someone PLEASE tell Sony there is a major design flaw in their DSC-P41 digital camera? Part of my hand is always in the picture!

Everyone cross your fingers and light candles to the apartment gods for me.

22 September 2005

Autumnal Equinox

Today is the Autumnal Equinox. Good things happen. I just talked to a realtor and may have found an affordable apartment, right in the center of town. After I hung up, I looked at the clock; it was 6:23pm, exactly the beginning of the equinox! And then I checked the address of the realtor’s office, and it was the first place I’d gone to last Friday. The place where the sick guy was hacking all over me, was rude, and swore he had nothing under $600. This should prove interesting. At least it has given me a glimmer of hope. I would like to move out on October 1, and time is getting short.

Earlier in the day, I went out to Phu My Hung, or District 7. It is the new development of HCMC. Through the city, over the river, and straight into American living. It was SCARY! There aren’t even any Vietnamese living out there.

Mostly, I saw row after row of massive housing blocks and deserted streets, with the occasional group of Korean or Japanese housewives, some with young children in tow. (One lady was carrying her baby and I noted that she had outfitted him with knee pads.)

I was shown three apartments, all affordable, and almost brand new. The first was actually the only one that I would have considered – lots of light and a pleasant interior design. However, the three buildings under construction right below the living room and bedroom windows knocked that one out of contention.

It’s a real dilemma; District 7 would be close to work, but what is the point of coming to Vietnam to live away from the city and the people in a totally prefabricated lifestyle? Then again, if it is the only thing available….. Or at least that was my thinking until that last phone call. I doubt anything in my price range in District 1, where I want to live, will be as nice, so I am setting my expectations quite low for tomorrow’s trip into the depths of HCMC apartments.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, apartments are not readily available in Vietnam. Most people rent the typical, tall narrow house, and I could get one for $300. But what am I going to do in a three story house all by myself? Also, I would not feel safe. Other than a house, you can rent a room in one of these houses, but that would mean all my present dissatisfaction plus who knows what other creeps. Apartments that are available have been built for the foreigners with handsome housing allowances, not the English teacher on a restricted budget. I still contend that my apartment is out there waiting for me to find it.

After my trip to the nether regions of Saigon, I had to stop off downtown for nourishment. I went back to this little café that has the best pastries. I’d been there the other day and had spoken briefly to the manager about where to buy a cell phone. He was a very nice looking guy, very helpful, and I swore he had a French accent.

Today, after I finished stuffing myself with a food and cake, and a doggy bag of apple strudel, I again spoke to the manager. After a few sentences I asked why he had a French accent. He said, (and you will have to use your imagination for the accent because I refuse to write in accent), “You can tell I have a French accent?” It was enough to make one offer sexual favors just to hear a few more words.

Turns out he and his family moved to France form Vietnam when he was 16. He is here for two months working in his cousin’s café. I told him my story of woe re the apartment hunt, and he offered all sorts of suggestions. Then he wrote down his email so that I could send him mine, and he would write if he heard of anything. I looked at his last name. But this is French? Did you change your name when your family moved there? “No, my grandfather was French.” Ah-hah! That explained the really pretty features. I had thought it was just that accent, but it was also genetics.

After that, it really was time to get back to the compound. I walked in and could smell the smoke from the kitchen. I knew from prior experience that it was barbeque night. Swear to god, I walk into the kitchen and there are coals on top of the stove, cooking away. After they get hot, they go into a hibachi. And yes, this is all done inside! The stair well was so thick with smoke I could barely see the stairs. I jumped in my room, slammed my door, opened the windows and cranked up the a/c. Aren’t there always warnings about barbequing indoors?

I'm up again too late, and that 5:15 alarm comes way too early. There are suppossed to be pics to go along with this posting, but my camera/laptop are not cooperating, so you get the post office.


20 September 2005

Cat Dang

There are coffee shops on every block in HCMC, sipping coffee and chatting being a major form of entertainment here. It’s just that they don’t look like what the term coffee shop conjures up in my mind.

On my first outing to a coffee shop with a young colleague, I was expecting a little café with a few outdoor tables. What I got was a Disneyland ride without the track.

The Cat Dang coffee shop doesn’t look like much of anything from the outside. You enter through a maze of motor scooters parked on the side walk, go through a glass door, then up a dingy stairwell. At the top of the stairs you enter into a tropical wonderland.

I stepped out onto the upper floor seating area that is a rectangular mezzanine overlooking a wall-to-wall mini-lake on the ground floor. This area is wide enough to have tables both along the sides and bordering the low latticed wall at its edge. Everywhere you look, there is tropical foliage; banana trees, orchids, hanging and potted plants.

I think it is best to sit at a table right at the edge, where you can peer down at the lake. In the middle of the lake is another seating area with a few tables under large trees. To get to there you must walk across wet, slippery logs. (Not something I would ever try). In the lake, there are canoes loaded with pineapple, pomelo, shrimp traps, and oars. The water is a murky green-grey, but you can see fish swimming around in it.

The ceiling is a glass dome with retractable panels for severe weather situations. When I was there, they remained opened, letting in sunlight and air. It’s never too hot because of the water misters and fans. However, if you would prefer a/c, there is an enclosed area on the ground floor surrounding the lake.

After you order you coffee, or juice drink, or a bite to eat, the waiter brings you iced jasmine tea. They keep refilling your glass the entire time you are there. And you can order just one cup of coffee and sit there for hours. In fact, that is what most people do.

The only negative side is the music blasting out of speakers every few meters, and the huge TV’s set up so that you can not avoid watching Jackie Chan, Star Wars, and an endless array of action films.

I saw people playing chess, people with laptops, people just talking, but all enjoying their time. I hear that at night, when lit by red lanterns, it is even more beautiful. Hopefully, I will get there one night.


18 September 2005

Apartment Hunting & Salons

It has been decided: I will move out of the nut-house-compound I am living in and get my own place to go with the new job I should start next month. Now, all I have to do is find affordable housing.

Just yesterday I heard that one could rent a really nice, furnished apartment, with security, and at least some, if not all, of the amenities, for around US$300. That meant I really could afford my own little peace of sanity. “Look in the Viet Nam News and find a real estate agent. It’s easy.”

After checking online and in the newspaper, I came up with what I had thought was the agent who would have the most listings. This morning I called and made an appointment for 11am.

Walking into the office, I looked for what I had assumed would be a man in his 40’s. (why I had thought that, I can’t say). But the one-room office was filled with a bunch of 20-somethings. One of the youngsters walked over to me, hacking and wheezing. I backed up. You’re sick? I asked between his convulsions. “I have the flu”. Oh great. I’m in a small, sealed room with a desperately ill, contagious human. I backed up even farther so that he wouldn’t even think about extending his hand.

Aside from that slight distraction, I couldn’t help but notice his totally, un-real estate agent attire. The man did not inspire confidence in his t-shirt and flip-flops. Were that normal here, it would be a different story.

His first question was, “What is your budget?” Around $300, I said. He scoffed. In a country where a whole lot of people make less than $100 a month, I didn’t think $300 on rent was anything to scoff at.

“And what are you requirements, 2, 3 bedrooms?” It’s only me, I explained. Something small is fine.

He didn’t bother to check with a list, or ask any of his colleagues, just said, “I have a very good, apartment in a new building for $600.”
I can’t afford $600, said I. He didn’t believe me. “What, you are a volunteer?” he asked. No, I’m an English teacher.

“But this is a very good place. All new, serviced, swimming pool.”
I can’t afford it. He leaned back in his chair and threw up his hands. “That’s all I’ve got.”

I thought about asking if anything might come up in the near future, but he really wasn’t anyone I wanted to deal with, even if he hadn’t been afflicted with the black plague. I left feeling very dejected. I had planned to spend the morning viewing possible homesteads. Instead, I ended up feeling like a complete looser because I couldn’t even afford the cheapest of the cheap. Nothing to do but go for a walk since I was already in near my downtown walking area.

Somewhere along the way, I got a sandwich, then hit another café for cake, then ended up at the coffee house I frequent. Being Saturday, early afternoon, it was crowed with both tourists and locals. I noticed something that I had noticed on my last trip there. Now, I could very well be wrong, but I think they might be running hookers out of the café. Since most of the presumed set-ups take place inside, and I always sit outdoors, I haven’t been able to do the careful research required to come to come up with conclusive evidence. But I’d put money on it.

After leaving that odd scene, I wondered over to the main post office, a behemoth constructed by those Size-Is-All, French. It really is impressive, especially as it is in pristine condition. I even took pictures.

It was time to head over to a DVD stand I always passed. Six weeks here and I am just starting to miss TV. One can only email and write so much before desperately seeking other forms of entertainment. DVD’s are only about $1 a piece, so I splurged and bought six. I even found the one that I had been watching on the plane ride over, and which China Air had rudely shut off, two thirds of the way through, because we had to land or some such nonsense.

It was now time to head back home and try some other agents. Walking up a side street, I noticed a beauty salon. I walked past it. Stopped and came back. It looked quite chic and there were foreigners inside. That may sound like a bit of a snobbish way to pick your stylist, but it isn’t. My hair and Asian hair have nothing in common. Unless you find someone who has experience with hair other than heavy and dead straight, you are in for a disaster.

One of the stylists opened the door for me, and all but dragged me in. I told her I was just looking and she insisted on carting me around the salon to show me the products they used. I asked about pedicures. (you can get them on any side ally booth, or even on a stool on the sidewalk, but that wasn’t what I’d wanted). It was then that I decided to employ the only sure way of checking out a salon in a foreign country; I walked up to the western woman with wet nails and hair and asked if she came there often.

She went on and on about how these folks were the best in town with hair, nails, and massage. She’d been going there for over a year. Then I asked her about apartments for rent and she gave me some leads on realtors. Maybe I didn’t get an apartment today, but I got a stylist and nail person. I will return in the near future.

Back in my room at the house, I tried calling another few agents and either got no answer or the same, disgusted tone when I said I could not even pay $700 a month. Why do people make you feel totally embarrassed that you cannot afford $1200 a month for rent? My last call may pan out, though. Apparently, there is something for $500, and it is “negotiable”. Still, I find it hard to believe that in a city this size there are only one or two apartments available for under $500 a month. On Monday, I will continue the search.

But now I am going to watch a movie.


17 September 2005

Moon Cake Festival

This year, the Moon Cake Festival falls on the full moon of 15th day of the eighth lunar month. Gregorian calendar: 18 September. Since I have arrived, the streets have been filled with moon cake stands and lanterns for kids.

It is believed that the festival dates back to an ancient Chinese ceremony, when offerings of fruit and cakes were laid out for the Moon Goddess in gratitude for a bountiful harvest.

Of all the folklore surrounding the Festival, this is a brief description of one of the stories:

One day, the Emperor of China awoke to a wickedly hot day. He looked up and there were ten suns in the sky. He immediately called on his top archer, Hou Yi, and had him shoot down nine of the suns. (up until this point, everything I have read is in agreement with the above.) Now, Hou Yi was either married to, or offered in payment, Chang Er, who was his wife/became his wife. For Hou Yi’s deed of dispensing with those unnecessary suns, the Emperor gave him a magic immortality elixir. And maybe Chang Er stole the potion, it’s not clear exactly how she got it, but she did. She drank it and found herself on the moon.
There she built a palace and lives to this day.

In the month or so leading up to the Moon festival, Moon Cakes are sold on almost every street, in temporary stands in front of bakeries or just on the side of the road. I have had weeks to get photos of said Moon Cake stands, and here it is, the full moon just starting to pick through the darkened sky, and I have no pictures.

I have, however, partaken in the eating of the Moon Cake. They are small, crust covered, filled cakes, about three inches in diameter. The dense filling is made of coconut, lotus seed, red bean paste, sweetened ham, (yuck), and other mysterious ingredients. And in the very middle is a nasty, salty, egg yolk, representing the moon. If you remove the egg, most of them are really good. I try not to think about the additives inside; they must have a shelf life greater than that of Twinkies. They sit out, baking in the street side stands for weeks on end and look and taste as fresh as the day they were made. The modern miracle of preservatives.

Everywhere you look, especially in the past week, people are stopping their motorbikes and cars to jump out and deliver boxed packages of Moon Cakes. The packaging is as pretty as the cakes. And it seems there is really only one major producer of the product. This is definitely that bakery’s high season.

It is also known as the lantern festival. Lanterns in the shapes of swans, rabbits, helicopters, butterflies, and ships, to name a few, hang suspended from the front of every third store. They are made of thin strips of bamboo, red cellophane, and decorated with paint. Children attach candles to the inside and will light them tonight, (hopefully, with full adult supervision). I bought a large sailing vessel, but will dispense with the candle lighting.

I had hoped there would be some large event to attend, but was told it all takes place in peoples homes with a big family meal. About an hour ago, a colleague from work called to see if I wanted to go to one of the large pagodas to watch the lantern lighting. Too little notice and I am too tired after a day of walking around town. I will put my lantern out and gaze at the full moon, and just possibly howl. Then again, I may just hold of for the autumnal equinox in three days.

In praise of the Moon Goddess,

11 September 2005


To date, I haven’t written much about the other American teachers who live in the same house as I do, and with whom I teach. Mainly it’s because I have this desire to remain anonymous, and fear that I might be found out. But with over a million blogs out there, and probably a couple thousand in Vietnam alone, the chances of THEM finding mine are relatively low. And at this point, I no longer really care.


Part of my contract includes lunch and dinner, cooked by a lovely woman who also cleans and shops and does the laundry, seven days a week. She puts the food out for the teachers and reserves some, but not a lot, for the four or five Vietnamese people who also live here, and always eat after us. In other words, the leftover teachers’ food feeds quite a few more mouths.

These other teachers arrived two weeks after I did, so I had been used to quiet meals with the people of the house. Now, I just try to avoid meals with the teachers and am sometimes lucky enough to eat with the other folks.

Tonight was a typical night. At around 7pm, I went down to eat assuming that the others had finished. I walked into the dining room/kitchen to see a table littered with empty plates and one of the teachers with his dirty feet resting on the only available chair. “You’re late”, said one, “we finished all the food”. They all laughed.

My cook friend, having gotten used to this scenario, had a stash of food which she keeps aside for the others. She came in and brought me the various dishes. I don’t usually eat beef, so left it in the dish and ate fish. As I was eating, the one who’d had his feet on my chair, got up to get a clean pair of chopsticks. He grabbed the full bowl of beef and proceeded to eat straight from the serving dish. I left the table as he was eating the last piece. That had been dinner for four other people tonight.

It’s not as if we had not eaten today. We had all been invited to a wedding, where five separate courses had been served. The wedding was that of a Vietnamese co-worker/teacher. It was a large affair, and must have been quite costly. Teachers here make very little money, and I wondered how many years he had had to save up for his wedding and this occasion.

It is customary to give money as a wedding gift. I asked around and was told that between 100,000 and 200,000VND was the going rate. That’s around US$6 - $12: a lot for the average Vietnamese, but nothing for Americans even we English teachers who are at the bottom rung of the foreign, professional workers market. One of the teachers, in the car to the wedding, needed change saying that “50,000VND is all I can afford”. That’s around US$3.

When we got home from the wedding at around 2pm, I went immediately to work on my lesson plans for the week. I assumed the others, who were watching DVD’s, had yet to even look at the upcoming weeks lessons, as they simply don’t see the necessity to do so. This is what happens when you hire “teachers” who have had a five week training course. Lesson plans? Professionalism? Caring about anything other than being a tourist with a salary? Never.

Knowing that they are inexperienced and under qualified, I have offered my help on countless occasions, with no takers. As some of the others teach the same high school grades as I do, I thought it would be a good idea to share my plans with them. Last week I spent hours writing out lesson plans geared for a new teacher, did it on word and printed it out. The result? They looked at them and walked out of the room.

Down at the dinner table tonight, it was what I had expected. They were discussing what they should teach tomorrow and where were they going to get photo-copies at 9pm, Sunday evening.

If these insensitive, garish Americans, were simply your run-of-the-mill, quick-course English teachers, I might not be so upset by their behavior. True, I would still loathe being around them, but whoever hired them would know what they were getting and know what to expect. But these individuals are here on a “mission” sent by some evangelical group to enlighten the masses, or some such crap. They are getting fairly well paid, yet refer to themselves as “volunteers”. They only teach part time, nevertheless complain that an extra “hour” is not in their contract. They spend their money on restaurants, Karaoke bars, water parks, and DVD’s, yet cannot afford an inexpensive wedding gift for a fellow teacher who has nothing.

Where is their generosity of spirit? Where is their compassion for their fellow man? Where is their concern for humanity and the world in which they are now living? I have yet to see one instance in which they thought of someone else before themselves.

I will stop the ranting and raving now. I DO NOT want to get emails from people who are “worried” about me. I am having a wonderful time here. I go out, do my thing, teach my classes, and hang with the local people. I live in a huge house, have my own large room, and when I shut the door am completely cut off from the hypocritical weirdoes.

In the big picture, those who are a positive force in this world know who they are. Some of us don’t have a religion, and some of us do. Some of us hold conventional beliefs and some of us don’t. What matters is that we care. What counts is that we contribute to the betterment of this world, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. If we are to be “judged”, then let us be our own adjudicator. Let our actions be the measure by which we are held accountable.

I, for one, will sleep well tonight.

10 September 2005

New Addiction

I don’t usually drink coffee in the US. It gives me a headache. For some reason here, it doesn’t. But maybe that’s because what I drink here isn’t your basic latté.
Ca fe sua da, (and believe me, if I could get the blog site to work with me, I’d have the correct accent marks), is ice coffee made with sweetened condensed milk. It’s really good.

My general routine is to order at the café patronized by tourists and foreign workers. They always bring me the drink already mixed and in a glass. Today, I stopped off at a coffee shop that is well off the tourist route. I even impressed myself by ordering in Vietnamese. When the waitress returned with the goods, I realized that they serve it differently to the locals.

She set down a cup of ice, then a small glass that had about two inches of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom. On top of that glass was an aluminum filter, coffee dripping into the glass. She had also brought a cup of iced jasmine tea, which I have come to learn is something that is always served with your order.

I waited a minute or two, but the filter was still slowly dripping away. Getting impatient, I tried to get the cover off the filter which I immediately realized was a mistake. Metal conducts heat. I waved to the waitress who came over and pried off the lid. It was still full of water. So I waited and waited, and stirred the grounds with my spoon and debated just dumping it in as it was.

About that time, I remembered that I’d been told people go to coffee shops, order one drink, and sit for hours. I really didn’t want to sit there quite that long, letting the filter slowly do its job. The next time I saw the waitress, I beckoned her over.

She asked if I just wanted to pour the concoction over the ice even though it wasn’t quite ready. (or at least I am assuming that is what she said.) I nodded, and she removed the filter, setting in the upturned lid. I picked up the freed glass and made to pour it over the ice. She all but shrieked! I set the glass down. She lifted it up, took my spoon, and proceeded to gently stir the contents. I swear, she was at it for at least a full minute. Finally, she gave me the OK to dump it in.

A few minutes later she appeared with another small shot of coffee, worried that I had felt shorted. Since I had heard about how strong the Vietnamese like their coffee, and since I come from the land of intolerably strong coffee, I thought I’d do a taste test. Yeah, this stuff is on par with Peet’s coffee for black, acid consistency.

Suggesting that you all should try the above recipe,

Shoes, Books, & #19

I have really, really have been searching for shoes for the past several days, and it seems I am on a mission to frustration.

I know exactly what I want, having seen a young woman wearing them last week. OK, I know that sounds idiotic, but I figured I could get something similar. And actually, there are about two other styles I would bow to. And within those three major categories, I could really be flexible. However, so far I have been astonishingly unsuccessful.

Several problems exist. The first is the shoe size. Size 8 American doesn’t seem to be very popular here. In fact, no sizes other than the shoes you happen to be looking at, at any given time, seem to be available. I’ve seen plausible choices in a number of different stores, but when I ask for a different size, I am led to believe that the pair in my hand is the only pair available in that style, and wouldn’t I care for the three inch heeled ones that look the same? Don’t even try asking about a different color.

After searching through the local neighborhood shops, a colleague wrote out directions to the Shoe Plaza, which houses about twenty different stores inside one building. Mostly, there were stiletto heeled sandals or pointy-toed slip-ons. (where the point extends an extra two inches beyond the end of ones foot.)

I walked on to another shopping area I had passed in the taxi last week. In one store and out the other. Either totally nonfunctional shoes, or flip-flops, or trekking sandals; not something I could wear to work. And once again, only in the size displayed. I’ve given up for this week, but will venture out again in the near future.

As long as I was, by now, back in Tourist Central, District 1, I thought I should pay a visit to the Continental hotel, where it is said that Graham Green hung out to write the book “The Quiet American”. Unfortunately, the veranda restaurant he frequented is now enclosed. I looked in the window to see fancy tables with tablecloths and stemmed water glasses filled with folded napkins. Not my kind of place to eat. I peeked at the menu at the door. Not my kind of price range.

Still, I wanted a copy of his book. I already knew that there weren’t any bookstores with English language fiction in town, and was debating having a copy sent from the US. I then remembered all the street vendors and their cut-rate copies of Lonely Planet and other guide books. (after that trip to the school book store, I knew the score). Hey, I bet they’d have a copy!

The first purveyor I came across had his stand set up in front of an expensive store. I bent down and said, Graham Greene? He reached over and pulled out a copy of "The Quiet American". I sat down on the steps to look at what else was available. A few Gabriel Garcia Marquez-es, “Geisha”, lots of Vietnam War stuff, and an excellent selection of books by various Vietnamese authors who had fled the country and were now in the US. Of those I bought three. I now have enough depressing literature for the next five years.

There was still one other Place of Interest to visit, and that was a restaurant called, “# 19”. During those conflict years, it had been the UPI news bureau, or at least that is what I read. I have no way of verifying this info, but it came from a credible source, namely PBS. Then again, another place they’d mentioned does not exist, so who knows? I went into the small restaurant, packed with the local lunch crowd. I was the only foreigner. I ordered soup and tried to tune into the war correspondent vibes. I guess it was too noisy. I couldn’t pick up on anything.
The food at the surrounding tables looked quite tasty. My soup was not good at all. The MSG hit me even before I left; numb tongue and light-headed. So much for unearthing the ghosts of the past. Perhaps if I make an appearance at a more quiet time, the spirits will speak to me.

I have a book to read,

09 September 2005

Opening Day Ceremony

Tuesday marked The Opening Day Ceremony for the high school where I teach and, I believe, all the other elementary and secondary schools in the country. It was my understanding that the new school term had actually started two weeks ago, but I could be wrong. All I knew for sure was that I’d received a formal invitation which included a listing of the events. Enclosed was a small sheet of paper translating the order of events; A speech of the Principle, A speech of Authority, A speech of the Parent, a speech of a student/ A buffet lunch.

Leaving the house at 7:30 AM, I passed in front of the local community center which was hosting an Opening Day Ceremony for an elementary school. Two rows of boys and girls, each dressed in blue and white school uniforms, white gloves and hats, flanked the entry way. Several had drums suspended from straps around their necks. As one dignitary or another entered the gauntlet, the drums began to roll, and little hands saluted.

I was thankful that the morning was overcast and relatively mild. I knew that the ceremony would have to take place in the open courtyard of the high school, with over a thousand students and who knows how many teachers, staff, et al. I didn’t relish sitting out under the tropical sun for several hours of speeches.

Arriving at the school, I was thoroughly impressed with the transformation that had taken place overnight. Five giant, blue and yellow circus tent-tops had been suspended over the entire quad. Aluminum poles in their centers, and long cables strung to the second floor of the building, created a cool, comfortable venue.

The entire student body was already in attendance, seated tooth and jowl on small plastic stools. One of those persons of authority directed me and the other English teachers to the red carpet walkway that led to the front of the courtyard and a large stage. Oh god! Were they going to roll drums and salute! Thankfully, we just had to walk through the throngs of students who waved and called out. Upon reaching the stage, we were instructed to be seated to the left in an area reserved for the staff. I tried to make a b-line for the back, but was not quick enough. A chair in the second row seemed to have been reserved for me.

Although it was not yet 8AM, pre-ceremony entertainment was already underway. First were the young women signing a modern, pop tune. Initially I thought they were lip synching, but it was Karaoke tapes, and they were live. Next, and what I am sure will be Vietnams answer to Frank Sinatra, a young man strolled up on the stage. This kid had the walk, the look, the stage presence of a much older performer. He gazed seductively out over the crowd and I heard more than a few audible sighs. The music started, his body swayed to the beat, he looked down towards his feet, then slowly raised his head, brought the mike to his mouth, and launched into a slow, heart felt number. I wanted someone to ID this interloper. No way was he 17.

A few more singing acts and the speeches began. At one point, our attention was directed to an area behind me and to the left. Gym maps covered the stone walkway and were soon filled with karate uniformed students. They performed one of those position routines, flowing from one pose to the next. The next group came jogging out with balloons, and soon the little ones holding the balloons were on the shoulders of the larger ones. Then another student either ran, or jumped, or ran and jumped to kick and burst the balloon. Those flying kicks were within centimeters of various noses and eyes. One guy even did a blindfolded high kick as the balloon was held directly in front of his classmates face.

More speeches followed, and although it was extremely well managed, and everything went smoothly, it was getting a little warm, and I was getting a little uncomfortable in my second row seat. I gazed out over the mass of pupils, all of whom were still seated like sardines in backless stools. I don’t think a one of them was fidgeting. I tried to remain still. Eventually, it came to a close. Someone else came over and directed us to the elevator where we rode up to the 5th floor for the buffet lunch.

Happily, the 5th floor was a massive, covered area, open to the outside. Long tables of food filled one section, banquet tables filled another. I got a small plate of pretty tasty food, but opted out of the beer they were serving. I said hello to everyone I passed, and spoke to several of the classroom aids whom I’d met over the past month. Everyone was dressed in their finest clothes and clearly took pride in their school.

All and all, it was a lovely way to spend the morning and start the new school year.


05 September 2005

Those Ants

When you live in the tropics you just get used to bugs, lizards and their brethren rooming with you. You keep all food in the fridge, or in tightly sealed containers. You hope the big spiders don’t alight on you during the night. And you try not to startle the geckos who sleep in the coffee cups.

Amazingly enough, other than the odd outsized cockroach, the only creatures I have encountered thus far here, are ants. Vietnam Ants. Tenacious little creatures, they are. Teeny-tiny, and light brown, their prowess belies their small stature. They can actually unzip Ziploc bags! After throwing out, on three separate occasions, my newly purchased supplies of nuts and raisons, I invested in screw-top, plastic jars. So far, those have worked. That doesn’t mean, however, that The Ants have ceased and desisted their daily search of my quarters. One only has to gaze at the corners of the room to find their scouts furiously searching for some tasty treat.

Having secured all food items in my room last night, I turned off the light and jumped into bed. About an hour later, my legs started to itch. Damn, it must have been the MSG again, which seems to find its way into the food I am served. It would wear off soon. But I kept itching. Maybe they’d put too much laundry detergent in the wash. But then why wasn’t the rest of me on fire? I tossed and turned, and scratched and rubbed until I could no longer stand it. I got out of bed, turned on the light and ripped of my top sheet.

There, to my horror, were probably 500 Ants, circling near the foot of my bed, no doubt wondering where their midnight snack had gone. I batted, and brushed, and smashed them with the pillow. I shook the sheet out the window then tossed it on the floor. I searched the bed for crumbs and there were none, which is what I’d expected since I don’t eat in bed.

Gingerly, I got back in bed. The clock said 4am and the alarm was set to go off in little more than an hour. No, I never did get to sleep last night. I suppose the one fortunate aspect of the whole Ant ordeal is that even though their bites kill, I don’t get a reaction, or at least not so far.

I’ll try and not let the bed bugs bite

03 September 2005

The Rex Hotel

Continuing my exploration of places noted in those guide books and on-line, I went to the Rex Hotel today. I took the elevator up to the 5th floor, then strolled outside to the roof top restaurant. It was totally empty at 2 in the afternoon, but had a seating capacity in the hundreds.

So this was the place that the CIA, or some such, used to party-down. According to various items I read in various places, it was originally a French garage, then either taken over by, or rented out to the Americans in 1962. US military officers lived there and held daily military briefings, and the Big Boys, needing a place to booze it up, turned the roof into a drinking establishment.

Originally French, then American, then it into disrepair, followed by the government taking it over, refurbishing it and re-opening in 1990. In 2005, it looked awfully kitschy, and seriously empty. I don’t know if that was because it was a rainy, gloomy day, or because it was Saturday, or because it is now September.

Whatever, I sat in a bamboo chair surrounded by plants and empty tables, and tried to envision what had gone on in that very spot not all that long ago. Helping me to achieve that state of connection with the past was the accompanying sound track. It seems the Hotel Rex is still in possession of the cassettes left by the Generals. The worst of the 60’s blasted through multiple speakers.

It was a nice break from the noise of the streets, and probably a great place to read a book, but I wasn’t in the mood to do so. I paid my bill and Elvis, crooning “Love me Tender”, accompanied me to the elevator.

And it’s 1, 2, 3, what are we….


02 September 2005

Music Lessons

Coming up the stairwell at about floor three of the Palace, I heard music. At the top of the stairs, before one headed left into the cavernous expanse of presidential meeting and entertainment areas, stood an open door. I could see that it led into a small room. I walked in not knowing what to expect, and was thrilled and delighted to find young man seated, playing a traditional Vietnamese instrument.

The dan bau is a one stringed instrument. The wooden sound base sits lengthwise on a table, with a string suspended about an inch and a half above it. On the left side is a horizontal rod that is attached to the base and the string. The string is plucked with a wooden pick that is held between the thumb and first three fingers of the right hand. The little finger rests on the string. The left hand controls the rod, bending it either inwards or outwards to raise or lower the pitch. The result is a beautiful, soulful sound. I was mesmerized.

When Dung, the young man, finished playing, he moved to another instrument, the trung. This one you play while standing. It is made of various lengths of bamboo, strung together both vertically and horizontally. The shape reminded me of a turtle shell, if you were to view it from the inside out. (one of those sea turtle sizes). It is played by striking the bamboo with mallets, also made from bamboo.

Next, Dung went over to what looked like a bamboo xylophone, except that it had two rows on top of each other. He cupped his hands together, pointed them downwards, and sort of clapped in front of the open ends of the bamboo. The sound produced was a low, rich, echoing tone.

When he finished, several on-lookers walked over and he encouraged them to try it. They clapped their hands and no sound came from the bamboo. I had to try this. Dung helped to position my hands. I clapped, and that is all I heard. This was not possible. Again, he demonstrated. It looked easy enough. We tried again, and nothing. He then realigned my hands and raised them up a bit so that the tips of my fingers were aligned with the openings. I clapped and was rewarded with a lovely bamboo reverberation. Great! I had it, and was eager to try a tune. I clapped my hands in front of a different note and, once again, nothing. Several more attempts, some successful, others not, proved that the klong put was much, much more difficult to play than it appeared.

The room emptied and I started asking questions about the instruments he had played and the others that hung on the walls around the room. I asked about the musical scale used. I believe it is five notes, the same as in China and other Asian music. He picked up a bamboo flute and played several songs with complete virtuosity. I pointed to the dan bau, adorned with inlay work, and asked how old it was. I think he said over 100 years old. Then he invited me to sit down and give it a try. I was a little hesitant to mess around with a valuable antique, but he assured me it was ok.

Dung showed me how to hold the pick and pluck the string. After a few tries, I was able to do it. Then came the left hand bending the rod, which took no skill to manipulate, but it didn’t quite sound like when he’d played it. I could have sat there and played with all the instruments all afternoon, but I didn’t think that was what the other visitors to the Palace had come to hear.

There were CD’s for sale and I asked if he was the one on the CD. No, it was his teacher, a renowned traditional musician. I bought the CD, and gave the money to a young woman who turned out to also be a student of traditional Vietnamese music. Tram then carefully wrote down the names of the instruments that Dung had played, and a few words of description so that I would be able to keep all the names straight. She said she had only been studying a year, but that Dung had studied at the music academy in Ha Noi. I asked if they ever performed. No, but there is a traditional music concert every Saturday night, very close by.

This had been the absolute BEST part of the Palace trip, and I was reluctant to leave the music room. I wish I could have stayed there all day.

With a song in my heart,

Independence Day

2 September, Vietnam’s Independence Day. I got out early planning to walk down to the District 1, and decide what to do once I got there. 40 minutes into my walk, I started to feel a little bit heat exhausted or possibly I was inhaling too much carbon monoxide. Knowing I must be near to my target area, I persevered.

Soon I ran into a lovely park full of ornamental lawns, topiary, and sculpture. I strolled through people engaged in Tai Chi. Others drank tea and talked. Kids ran around being kids.

I spotted an empty bench, sat down, and pulled out the map. I kind of thought I knew where I was. When I next glanced up, I saw a man in a military uniform on his way to the park office just in front of where I sat. I said hello, and indicated my map, accompanied by facial and arm gestures that I hoped looked like: where are we? He took my map and showed me. I was only 2 blocks off! No need for a taxi this time. If I continued to cut across the park, I would run smack dab into the Reunification Palace. That isn’t where I had planned to stop, but it was the in the vicinity of where I had set out for.

Passing in front of the Palace, I realized what better time was there to visit it, if not on the 60th anniversary of Vietnam’s independence from France? So I joined the crowd and went in.

This building is massive, and the grounds it sits on takes up an entire, large block. It was the Presidential Palace until April, 1975, when ruling factions got switched around. Apparently, it has pretty much been frozen in time, since that time. Built in the 1960’s, it’s darn ugly when viewed from outside, but seriously cool – literally and figuratively, once inside.

Once again, tropical architecture and ingenuity rule the Palace, with wide, open, polished stone corridors, and high ceilings on four floors. Presidential scale rooms, often with glass walls, sit off of, or between passageways. Every inch of the structure seems to have clear access to circulating air. It was over 90 degrees today; there is no a/c in the palace, and no need for it. The indoor temperature was extremely pleasant.

I especially liked the Presidents room with the red hotline telephone on the desk. A guard there asked where I was from. “Ah, California”, he said, “Arnold is your governor”. He may have known more about California than I do. We ended our conversation by him singing his rendition of, “If you’re going to San Francisco….”
Next to this room was the “map” room that I had assumed was the war room, what with all the maps and multi-coloured phones. Read the guide book later, and the war room is down in the basement, which is supposed to be very interesting, but I had avoided it because I don’t like underground places.

The roof is an awesome, party-perfect venue, with both open and covered areas. Leaning out over the railing, I tried my damnedest to get a picture of those 2 flags that can be seen from blocks away; one a hammer and cycle, the other with a star. But the flags simply would not unfurl. Then again, I really wasn’t at the right angle to get the shot. I need a super-duper telephoto digital camera for a good many of the shots I envision, but can’t pull off.

By the time I left, I had been on my tennis-shoed feet for quite awhile, and the dogs were hot! No problem, the flip-flop lady was always close by. Not actually one woman, but there is always someone pushing a cart laden with flip-flops. I walked several blocks. She didn’t appear. I sat at a café to re-hydrate and take off my sneaks, but she didn’t appear. I had two of the waiters on the look-out for her, but it was useless. In the end, I had to stuff my feet back in the shoes I came in. I decided I had walked enough for one day, and flagged a taxi.

Tomorrow, I get new, tropical, shoe-debakers.