31 December 2007

The End of Another One

In a little over an hour, it will be 2008
in Vietnam. This is my third New Years
Eve here. Two years ago, I walked my
ghost town of a neighborhood, hoping
to find something going on. There was
nothing. This year, although it is not
Times Square, there are people out, and restaurants open, and maybe I will
even hear some noise at midnight.

Not having any New Years type pictures, I have picked a few from the files.

Happy 2008 to all! Kate

25 December 2007

What's Right With This Picture?

Every year, about 13,000 people die in traffic accidents in Vietnam, the majority while riding motorbikes. HCMC has around 25 deaths and 100 brain trauma cases per day. You can do the math on additional bodily injury. Or at least that was the case until December 15th, when the new helmet law went into effect.

When I first arrived here, I rarely saw anyone with a helmet. There was a law for riding on the freeways with a helmet, but not within the city. Still, the majority seemed not to be wearing them. Or you’d see people with plastic yellow hardhats, (not US quality ones – more like kiddie toy hats), which, of course, had no chin straps. Even those with decent helmets, more often than not, left them un-strapped. Whenever the police would set up a ‘helmet trap’ on the freeway to nab non-compliers, people came up with interesting ways to avoid a ticket. There was the simple turn-back-take-another-route. There was the wait-it-out. And my favorite, the guys who set up helmet sales stands at the entrance to the patrolled area. You drive up, rent a helmet, drive past the cops, and return it to his partner on the other side.

Try as one may to convince people that helmets really were necessary, it was mostly a lost cause. Complaints of discomfort, heat, and ugly, were among the most common. And this from women who routinely wear full-length gloves, jackets, hats, facemasks, and sunglasses so to avoid any hint of sun exposure to their skin.

The helmet law, overnight, changed all that. I simply could not believe that from one day to the next, everyone was wearing a helmet. The reason? The fine. Don’t wear a helmet and you could fine yourself paying a $10 fine. When you only make $100 a month, that is substantial. Hell, even if you are making $200, that is still a lot.

I hear that within the first week deaths were down by two thirds. Those that were dying were mostly wearing either inferior helmets or not buckling them. Helmet quality is a problem. Apparently, a year ago, about 40% of the helmets sold did not comply with safety standards. Now that is down to 20%. It seems things will only improve.

‘Tis the season and I intend to get up early tomorrow so as to be able to watch White Christmas at 6am before heading off to work.

14 December 2007

Soap Operas

I started watching General Hospital when I was in high school. You can’t beat daytime drama for camp-ness. I remember that at one point I made a family tree of all the relationships: who had married whom; who had been divorced from the brother of the father of the third wife’s oldest child; which woman had a split personality, manifested as loving wife to the thoracic surgeon/trailer-trash hooker; and a long list of missing family members who always showed up at the most inopportune moment. I’d go years without seeing an episode, then flip on the TV one day, thrilled to see that I could still follow the story line. About a year ago, I found out that General Hospital is shown on cable in Vietnam. Granted, it is last season’s episodes, but since I had been out of the GH loop for at least ten years, it didn’t matter.

A typical day finds me arriving home from work and turning on GH. It is total, mind-numbing escapism, that frees my spirit of all the stress of work and life. Nothing like the non-stop pathos of life in Port Charles to take ones mind off the everyday hassles of life n HCMC.

And to catch up with all that has happened in the years since being a regular viewer, I thought I would see if there was a website. Well, of course there was, filled with bios on all the characters and the actors, and its own little interactive family tree. Even after all these years, many of the same characters, played by the same actors, were still part of the show. Then there were all the new people and story lines that I got hooked into within a few weeks.

So why, you ask, am I writing about an American soap opera while living in Vietnam? Let me backtrack a bit; it’s December but it is hot and humid. So when people ask me if I feel any sort of nostalgia about being in a non-Christmas country, away from family and friends, or if I plan to go to the US for the holidays, I say no. It simply does not fell like The Holidays.

Today I turned on General Hospital and was elated to find out it was The Christmas Show. Every year, although I certainly haven’t seen it in ages, they have an episode centered in the hospital’s children’s ward. There is Santa and presents and everyone in Port Charles seems to show up to join in the festivities. The highlight of the show is the telling of the Christmas story to the children. For years, the story was read by Dr Steve Hardy, Chief of Staff at GH. The actor who played the part for about thirty years, died around ten years ago. This year Dr Alan Quartermaine, the current Chief of Staff, and played by the same actor for the past thirty years, told the story to the kids and families and friends, surrounded by Christmas trees, gifts, and people all bundled up in winter clothing. As the camera panned around the room it stopped for a second on the hand of someone taping a picture of Dr Steve Hardy to the nurse’s station counter. I am embarrassed to say that I got teary-eyed. That feeling continued as a Christmas soundtrack accompanied shots of other, previously feuding characters, resolving their differences for this one day, hugging, smiling, and joy-ing to the world.

All those sorta goofy sentiments dissipated as soon as the show was over. Now I am back to life without all the holiday fanfare and, frankly, am happy for it. I can’t wait until next Monday to see if Courtney actually sleeps with Jax, or if she finally finds out that the child she is carrying really is Nicolas’; if Jason ever gets all his memory back after the brain surgery; if Sonny hooks up with Emily, who is still not legally divorced from Nicholas even though he, Nicholas is now engaged to Courtney; if Alexis is successful in defending Manny, who was a psycho-gangster-murderer, but just had emergency brain surgery and they found he had a brain tumor that had caused a life-time of aggression; or, of the utmost importance, if Laura ever comes out of her catatonic state and returns to Port Charles so that I can at least see what she looks like after all these years.

See? I bet you didn’t even know what you were missing.

08 December 2007

The Carnival Traffic

First time I am trying a video attachment. Since I can't seem to change font, or do anyting else, I will leave this as an experiment.

Gotta love this traffic!

December Carnival

After a few Decembers in Malaysia, and now three in Vietnam, I no longer am totally astonished by the sight of Christmas tress, Santas, and fake snow in tropical countries that have a very limited Christian population. Oddities in Malaysia included Muslim girls and boys sitting on Santa’s lap and wearing Santa hats, in the middle of a mall with a massive Christmas tree. Here, the downtown stores have decorated entire building facades with styrofoam snow, lined streets with blinking lights and moving reindeer, and there are Santa suits on sale from street vendors.

My apartment building has not been spared the holiday make-over. The circular palm tree garden has been transformed into a blue-lit holiday tree. First, they trimmed the group of four palms, then bound the fronds together into a point. (looked painful). Over that was placed a wire frame, to which thousands of tiny blue lights were attached, a big red star at the top. We also have blinking wreaths with holiday greetings on all apartment block entrances.

Knowing that around this time of year, in the evening, it gets rather insane with spectators and revelers downtown, I have avoided it. This year, however, I decided I really should get some pictures and maybe get some sort of idea why this is all happening.

I knew the place to start was the Le Loi street and Saigon Center, which is a corner building with high-end stores inside; high-end coffee shops on its outer edges. This time of year they put up a massive Disney-type display of elves and trees and reindeer at the main entrance. You need to walk through Santa’s house to enter the mall. On the sidewalk in front, there are at least thirty vendors, each with a tub of kiddy toys that sparkle and glow with flashing lights and sounds. Another ten or fifteen people sell bright, Mylar balloons. Then there are the professional photographers just waiting to capture you and your family in amongst it all. The folks mill around with their kids, take pictures in front of the display, buy toys and snacks.

Being in the middle of it all, for the first time, (previously, I would do anything to get away from the massive crowd), I got it. It was a carnival and people were out to play. Simple as that. And I dove right in buying silver plastic tiaras with flashing lights that my friend and I wore the rest of the evening, much to the delight of all those that passed us.

Suddenly, while we were in the middle of absorbing all the merriment, the vendors lining the outer edge of the sidewalk next to the street, jumped up grabbing their wares, and high-tailed it away. Within five, I kid you not, five seconds, there was not one vendor on the sidewalk. Having seen this in other countries, I knew it was the police coming in to crack down on unlicensed sellers. As soon as someone notices the police, the call goes out, and it is a domino effect of pick-up-and-leave. We carried on down the street noticing the entrepreneurs and their goods standing across the street, waiting to return.

The next corner was the mall called the Tax Center. I have no idea why it is called this, because it is simply a huge building with lots of independent up-grade stalls inside, though prices here are reasonable. The bottom floor is electronics jewelry, and cosmetics. Floor two is clothing, and three and four are souvenir shops.

Now, the Tax Center, this year, had really gone all out. The entire building, which wraps around a corner, was covered in snow. Along the sides of the building, they had placed white benches and trees and mailboxes, so that you could sit and have your picture taken. Several of the benches had ‘actor-manikins’ dressed in…..actually, I was not sure of why they were dressed the way they were. One woman was totally pained in silver and stood frozen next to a silver tree. Another guy looked like something out of a 1940’s South American novel. On the sidewalk two men were chalking out snowman scenes, while people either avoided or stepped on their work. We took a quick peek inside to look at the dancing and singing show being performed by little girls in white, glittery outfits. Back outside, I saw that they even had a machine on the second floor, spewing out something that resembled snow onto the crowds below.

Continuing another few blocks, we turned right onto Dong Khoi Street, the really, really, expensive strip in town. Palm trees covered in those blue lights, (which must have just come out this year), and the mechanical reindeers made of tiny white lights, lined a block. Sides of building were draped in Astroturf-like fabric, bedecked with more blue lights. Locals posed in front of the displays and snapped pictures.

Walking back along Le Loi after dinner, I noticed that the streets seemed much more chaotic than usual, but put it off to the carnival. I had been told that that is the way it gets here in December. Then we started noticing young men on motorbikes waving huge Vietnamese flags. Hmm, maybe there was something else up, possibly a football game. As we walked, the motorbikes with joyously screaming riders, increased to the point that traffic barely moved, and this is on a massive, center-divided, French-built boulevard of about eight lanes. The drivers were now coming up onto the sidewalk to get through. It was getting a bit perilous. Also, there is no way one could get a taxi or, even if possible, where would it go?

Finally, after walking away from the main drag, we got a taxi. And yes, it had been a football match that added to the celebrations. Vietnam had beat Laos. Driving along, we passed hundreds of young people parked on the side of the road, watching all the traffic. I kept the windows down to take pictures and wave at people who smiled and waved back. (those tiaras were still blinking). It was so uplifting to see people having so much fun just driving around and being part of the whole.

Definitely a marvel of an evening. I plan to go back in two weeks to see the big city park that I hear is even more insane than Le Loi Street.

Peace on Earth