23 March 2007

Construction Begins

I had six weeks of total quiet at my house, which was sheer heaven. The last house across the street was finished six months ago, but the crazy neighbor in the penthouse above me kept his renovations going until mid-February. Two weeks ago, they started a new house.

Compared to jackhammers above your head for six to eight hours a day, the building being done outside is nothing. And the only really bad part is when they bring in the tile cutter and you have to shut the windows and crank up the music to block the high-pitched, ear-shattering whine. Everything else requires mostly manual labor so the noise is livable.

I have always been fascinated with the way in which they build houses in Vietnam, and this time I am photo-documenting the entire process. I get up every morning, lean out the window, check out the progress and snap pictures. This is the fourth house I have watched go up and is by far the most professional job I have seen.

A few months ago, a crew came in to build the piers which are later sunk into the earth. The frames are built from steel wire that is hand made. There must be wood involved, but I can’t seem to remember how they do it. Once the forms are laid out side by side, the concrete is poured. You see rows of these piers on empty lots all over my neighborhood.

Two days before they sunk the piers, a pile driver and truck with a collapsible arm were brought in, along with about fifteen immense blocks of concrete. Then at 6am, they day construction started, I looked out my window to see two small tables set up with offerings to the god that the land belongs to. There were flowers, and rice and what looked like a grilled chicken. I counted about seven people milling about. Of all the houses I have seen go up, I had never witnessed this before. I quickly took pictures, then took a shower, and rushed back to the window to see if there was going to be some sort of religious ceremony. Much to my surprise, the tables were empty, and the grilled chicken was being taken away by a man driving a motorbike; right hand driving, left hand grasping a greasy chicken. I thought maybe this was a service that you could hire to set up a blessing ceremony, and as soon as they finished, they gathered the supplies and rode on to the next house.

I watched for two or three days as the truck with the crane arm lifted these multi-ton blocks onto either side of the pile driver. It would then swing around and someone would attach one of the piers. The pier is then placed inside the metal frame and pounded into the earth. It is really scary to watch these men hanging off equipment three stories above the ground, and ducking out of the way of the stabilizing blocks.

The next day started with the crew digging out around the piers, probably about three or four feet deep. Then, with sledge hammers, the knocked off the concrete that was exposed. It was at this point that I realized that this was to be a double wide house.

While this was going on, they had also started to build the shack that the crew will live in. Even though this is a very professional crew, larger than most, and all with uniform shirts, their hut is not very good. I have seen everything from a lean-to, to something close to a mobile home. This is somewhere in between.

Phase four was digging the foundation, six feet down, with only shovels, about two days of work. The holes were lined with bricks then filled with concrete. I didn’t see them pour the concrete so don’t know if it was from a truck, which it usually is with large patches. Smaller areas are down by hand mixing the concrete.

This is the dry season so drying concrete is usually in no danger. Except that this year, the weather seems a little off. Just a few hours after the concrete had been poured the rains started. The crew ran about covering over the fresh pour. And it was pouring, for four hours straight.

Today they are busy hand building more steel concrete frames and placing them in various spots on the foundation. They are working at a rapid pace, so they should be done in four or five months.
I wonder how they will ever build the houses that are to go on either side of this one. With this house, they used five empty lots to maneuver the cranes and trucks. They will have zero space to do that with the other houses.

Updates to follow.

10 March 2007

Lion Dancers

Finally, I was able to see the elusive Lion Dancers of Ho Chi Minh City. I became addicted to Lion Dancers when I lived in Kuala Lumpur. There, I got to see them on a fairly regular basis. But here it has been a different story. Every time I’d hear the beat of their drums, I’d go running over only to see them packing up the truck and driving off.

With Tet being over, and having arrived at the truck pack-up stage at least five times, I figured I was out of luck. But then, miracles of miracles, HCMC hosted a five day, Chinese cultural fair, right in the middle of the city. I also finally learned that these festivals take place in Chinese communities world-wide, always on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year.

Two huge parks in the center of town were blocked off to traffic. The parks became restaurants and exhibition halls and stages, while the streets became performance venues for Lion and Dragon dancers. Red lanterns, suspended from wires, hung across the streets and around the parks. Everything was a wash of red and gold and pink.

The festival ran from 9:00 in the morning to 7:00 at night, the evening being the time when the majority of the people went to participate in the events. The Lion Dancers performed from 9-11, and again from 5-7. Obviously, I went to the morning shows which were not too crowded, but darn hot.

I have no idea how many Lion Dancing schools they have, but judging from how many participated during the times I went, there are a lot. One school would set up their equipment and do their thing. Before they had even struck the street stage, another group began to set-up.

This is no simple parade-around-the-crowd in lion costumes. It is done on top of a line of pillars of varying heights, the highest being about ten feet off the ground. The crew first brings the pillars out in about four sections and then bolts them together. Then one of the dancer’s jumps up and, going from pillar to pillar, checks for stability. Below, the crew bangs in wood wedges to stabilize it.

Before the lions make their entrance, the drummers start to beat on large drums with short, thick, wooden sticks, accompanied by gongs and cymbals. Then the two-man lion prances out and dances around for the crowd, still staying on the street.

I am always amazed at how quickly you forget that there are two people inside the costume. The dancers are all young men, probably not more than 20 years old. They are small, but have more strength and agility then seems possible. One guy is the head and front; he bats the eyes, wiggles the ears, and opens the mouth, all to the beat of the drums. The guy being the lion booty must have the hardest part. He is bent over, hands secured on the waist of the front half, which means he does not have a lot of clear vision, not that it is easy to see through a giant lion head. They walk around, wink at the crowd and shake their lion butt, then suddenly the back guy lifts the front guy up to his shoulders, creating a very tall lion.

Soon the lion is on top of the pillars, jumping from one to the other all the way to the end, and then returning. Along the way, they do fancy foot work, almost flying between pillars. The scariest part is when the back guy hoists the front guy on to his shoulders and jumps forward, dropping the front of the lion onto another pillar. The show lasts about 15 minutes, with the crowd cheering, especially the kids. Just watching, I feel the 80-something degree heat, even in the filtered shade of the tall trees. I have no idea how they manage not to get heat stroke up there in full lion costume.

As one school clears out their equipment, and another school starts to set up, the dragon dancers come out. This time it is nine guys holding long poles attached to the dragon body. They loop in and out of each other as the drummers bang out the beat. At some point they converge with the ends of the poles touching at a center point. Now the next part I am not too clear on because I always miss it but somehow, four of the dragon men end up in a prone position, suspended on their poles as the others spin them around in a circle. I also have never been able to get a picture.

This was, absolutely, the highlight of the Tet holiday for me. It was not only seeing the great performances, but being in a crowd – and not too big of a crowd - with mesmerized children and people of all ages enjoying the atmosphere.

I certainly hope I do not have to wait another year to see the next show.

09 March 2007

New Passport

Today, three and a half weeks after applying for my new passport, and a week and a half after they had said it should be ready; I have it. Getting into the consulate takes time and, if I go by taxi, gets expensive. It gets more complicated because you can only go to the citizens service office between 8:30 and 11:30, Monday through Friday.

I started calling them last Monday to check on the status of my document. I just don’t trust this, “we’ll call you”, especially when cell phones in Vietnam do not have voice messaging. When I called on Wednesday, a woman told me “it is on the way”, and that I could come in on Friday to get it.

How they actually make the passport is by sending all the info electronically to DC, where they print it up and FedEx it back to Ho Chi Minh City. What that means is that my beautiful, six-hour fashion shoot hairstyle/make-up was going to loose definition. Actually, it already had been degraded because when I went to apply for the passport I found out the size was wrong. And when I went back to the photo lab they had already deleted my pictures so had to scan the prints I had before enlarging them.

I arrived at the consulate at 8:30 and noticed that there were no lines of people. Oh no. Then I talked to the guard at the door who asked if I had an appointment. Double oh no. But hey, the woman on the phone said I could come in Friday so that was an appointment to me. I went through the security stations, handed in my cell phone, and then on in to the office. In the waiting room, normally packed to the rafters, there was only one, older couple. It was then I figured out for sure that citizen services only operates three mornings a week.

Even though there were only two other people in the room, I took a number from the machine. I was number 2. I could see that only one window was open and although I could hear voices from behind the five inches of protective glass, no one seemed interested in actually helping the waitees. After another woman came in and walked directly to the window and was helped, I started to wonder if waiting patiently was the right move. Apparently so did the older couple because they got up and stood in front of the window until someone helped them.
I followed suit when they finished.

A Vietnamese employee asked what I wanted and I said I was there for my new passport. “We are closed today”, she said. I explained that I was told to come in. She ran off behind a large partition to talk to someone. A few minutes later she returned to my line of vision and started searching through a file, then disappeared again. Eventually she came back and said that although my passport was in, it had not yet been processed and that they would call me next week. I explained that I worked and couldn’t get in during the hours they were open. Then I asked why I couldn’t get it now. “We need to run a security check”. This was really getting tedious. I asked if I could speak to the State Department Officer, or whatever they are called. She told me to have a seat, and then once again disappeared, I presume to talk to said individual.

Another five minutes, and I had my new passport and my old passport, now punched with holes. I sat down to look at the new one. Yikes! The picture is so blurred-out that I wondered why I had bothered to get the ‘touch-up’ at the photo lab. The few red, and I mean real red, highlights are no longer noticeable because my whole head looks punked-pink/red. I also have a nose twice as large as the real one. I am thinking of taking one of the really good photos and glue-gunning it on top of the DC issue.

One accomplishment for the day and I was bound and determined to make it two. I walked down to the Vietnam Airlines office to, once again, try to get credit for the ticket I wasn’t able to use when I wanted to go to Malaysia. This would make my fourth trip there.

The day after my failed flight, I went to my travel agent and was told, “It’s not our problem”, and that I had lost the ticket. Then I went to the Vietnam Airlines main office and was told the same thing, but that it would be looked into. A week later I got a call saying that they would only refund the tax on the ticket. Then I wrote a detailed letter and took it back to Vietnam Airlines and had it delivered to the managing director. And today, I went again to check on the status of the ticket.

It is always a bit of a problem when I go because I have to explain the entire situation, to three new people, who have limited English. Their office has around twenty-five service counters and three million agents just to add to all the confusion. Nevertheless, I sat down at counter eight, pulled out my slips of paper listing everyone I had talked to so far, and slowly rambled off my tale. The agent needed to go into the back to check.

She came back to tell me that the validity of my ticket had expired on March 11th. I started to say, “But I have been coming in and phoning since February 13th”, but wisely shut up. It seemed the agent was aware of this. Talking to her further, it seemed that half of Vietnam Airlines was aware of my situation. She told me that she would re-book the ticket, but would need to send all the info to the head office in Hanoi for the final ok. I will have to wait two or three days to find out if I really do get a new ticket, but it looks very, very good. She also did say that the fault for the entire mess-up was that of my travel agents and not mine.

A fruitful day indeed!