28 April 2008

Going, Going.....

It’s my last night in Vietnam. I simply cannot believe that I have been here for two years, nine months. I did spend several months of the past year in the US, so maybe that is why it feels so much shorter.

In the past week I have walked around the neighborhood and said goody-bye to the people I know. There’s the man who pumped up my bike tires every week; the manager of the corner convenience store; the family-owned shop that has delivered my water every single week. All of them were genuinely sorry to hear of my departure. They all wanted to know when I was coming back.

The weather has changed for the better in the past few days. The rains have started a little, which greatly cools things down, cleans out the air, and keeps the skies overcast. It should be clear, though, when I leave for the airport at 6:30 AM tomorrow.

I really don’t need to be at the airport until 11:00, but I have massive amounts of bags and do no want to stand in lines. This is always the worst part of travel for me, trying to get all those bags to the check-in counter. Once they are checked in, I can relax, but until then I am a wreck. Fortunately, a friend has volunteered to go with me tomorrow morning. And the reason we are leaving so early is because the Olympic Torch is arriving just when I am leaving.

Try as I may to find out just what the planned route and timing of the torch-run will be, I still have no idea. Neither do any of my Vietnamese friends. There simply is no news anywhere about any of it other than it gets in tonight and makes the rounds tomorrow.

My hotel room is looking fairly Spartan; bags and bags have gone to charity and my belongings are packed. There are still bits of this and that lying around and I have no idea why I can never get it all done well before the night before a flight. Possibly because leaving a place for good means that you can’t throw things back in a drawer if they don’t fit in a bag. It really is a hideous task and even with all my years of experience, it is no less difficult.

I’ll try to sleep tonight, but I know I won’t. I’ll keep waking up every hour to make sure I haven’t overslept even though I think I have overslept only once in my life. The good part about being in the hotel is that all those strong young men will have to lug my stuff downstairs and into the taxi. And then I’ll have a friend ride in with me to help with the off-load and check-in.

It has been good, but it is time for something different.

22 April 2008

Guitar Music

I had big plans for my six weeks off before returning to the US. That all fell apart when I got kicked out of my apartment. I really tried to settle into life in the hotel, but have never quite achieved that. Mostly, I spend my days watching TV and sorting and packing. I’ve made a few trips into town, but I don’t have the desire to do much of anything other than vegetate. I did have two or three especially enjoyable days watching season 2 and 3 of Prison Break on DVD. I kept telling myself I would take a break, but wasn’t able to kick the habit. And now that I’ve seen all the episodes, I am going through withdrawal. Fortunately, the other night I caught a show on the Reality Channel: “My lover is on Death Row”, so that I could continue on in the same vein. Or maybe that should be ‘unfortunately’. Watching it made me come to terms with the fact that the guys on Prison Break are actors who are reading a fantastic script and that their real life counterparts are not at all sexy, alluring, and desirable.

A big reason I stay holed-up in the hotel is that I have reached saturation point on the traffic situation here. There are no rules. Lanes are painted lines to be ignored, as is the direction and flow of traffic. When I first moved to my neighborhood, it was so quiet and peaceful and you didn’t really need to look both ways before crossing the street. That is no longer the case. Though nowhere near as dangerous as in town, I often fond myself waiting at a corner for several minutes before being able to cross the stree, and even then, some crazy person on a motorbike nearly plows me over, driving on the wrong side of the street and coming out of nowhere. The traffic in town seems to have tripled in the past year and it is simply too nerve-wracking to walk the streets.

The other night my friend and I were walking home after a dinner of pizza and salad. We’d managed to cross the thirteen-lane freeway without getting creamed. Even though there are traffic lights, there are no turn lights, resulting in no safety from those turning right or left when one is trying to get from one side to the other. In Vietnam, trucks, cars and motorbikes have the right of way, and in that order.

As we approached my hotel, we heard loud, blaring music coming from the left of the main street. All I could think was how they were destroying this once quiet suburb. I don’t believe there are any zoning laws here. I thought about how pissed off I’d be if I had spent a fortune building a house, only to have a hotel/café go up next door, and then be subjected to god-awful disco music at 400 decibels, cranking out all day and late into the night. Bad as it sounded, we decided to check out what we assumed was a grand opening of a new boutique hotel.

As me drew closer, the music started to sound better. They were playing Latin music and the singer was singing in Spanish and doing a Ricky Martin impersonation. He wasn’t bad. In fact the music wasn’t bad at all. There were two guitars, bongos, and a keyboard. The hotel had a garden next to it that was filled with tables and chairs. Mini spot-lights illuminated the band across the small pond. Guests sat at the tables or milled around the hotel entrance. We were just beginning to get into the music when we were approached by two women in their sixties. One spoke some English and asked where we were from. She then invited us to sit down and listen to the music. We followed her over, took a seat, and soon a waiter came by to offer us drinks. At this point, the singer took a seat and the guitar man did his thing.

He was unbelievably fantastic! Latin, flamenco, and classical music flowed from his fingertips to fill the warm night air. A soft breeze gently rustled the plants around us as a nearly full moon shone from above. It was complete magic and I marveled at how sometimes things can seem so damn dire, and then you are granted this little piece of heaven and realize how lucky you are.

We sat there until they finished and then met the owner and her family. The next day we went back for coffee. Even though it is only half a block from where my hotel is, there is no noise. The garden is beautiful, and there is a constant breeze. Not only that, the food is good and reasonably priced, and the music they play is quiet and relaxing. Too bad they weren’t there two years ago.

I still have a few more things to wrap up before leaving in one week. Today I got my hair colored. I’d already phoned my stylist to tell him how upset I was at the butcher job he had done two weeks ago. He assured me he’d make it up when I came in for color. When I got there, we went through what he was to do which was give me the same deep red streaks of color he had done several months back. I know that the red washes out in about a week, but if applied over the base color, it fades to a copper which looks good.

Somewhere during the processing period, my guy explained that what he was doing was bleaching out the streaks and would then apply the red. I know from experience that this does not work. The color is off and then washes out to a nasty bleached blond. I told him this. He said I was wrong.

I now have two, punk-florescent pink chunks, one of which is my bangs so there is no way to avoid seeing it. In two weeks it will be a really unappetizing rotten-blonde. Oh well, I thought, at least I won’t be paying a fortune this time. Again, I was mistaken. The bill was massive. I know there are people out there who would have argued that since he’d destroyed my hair two weeks ago, and then just done a highlight job that will wash out in two weeks, I should get a serious discount. But I’m just not good at such things.

So this evening I went back to the new hotel/café and ate under the clear skies, bright moon, and gentle breeze. At least at night I don’t look like a psychedelic peacock.


16 April 2008

Shiatsu Nirvanaa

Body massage in Asian countries always sounds like a good plan. All those ancient methods of body manipulation at a reasonable price. But that had not been the case in Vietnam.

I’d looked forward to the incredible head massages that I assumed I would get at any hair salon. I’d gotten used to it in Malaysia. No matter which salon you went to there, even if the cut sucked, you were assured the most incredible head massage when they washed out the shampoo.

The first time I got my hair cut here, I had to stop the gal after one minute. It was not a massage, just some sort of attempt to rub my head and it felt weird, not good. Then there is the shoulder and arm massage that the assistants try to do on you every time you are in the chair waiting for the stylist. I have no idea what they are doing but, frankly, it’s creepy. They sort of just grab a body part and start squeezing. Nothing at all pleasant about it.

Along the streets in the main tourist area, There are lots of young ladies dressed in traditional outfits who approach you saying, “Massage, madam?” and shoving a brochure in your face. I have heard that these are rather questionable places. Out where I live there are two “massage” studios within a block of my house. The young masseuses are either hanging out of the windows, or sitting outside in bright green mini-skirts, midriff and tattoos in full view. I had heard that there really is a legit massage studio in town that also offers courses in body work. But the last thing I want to do is go all the way there, at least forty minutes away, get a massage, and then jump in a taxi to come home. Way to labor intensive for something that is supposed to relax you.

A friend of a friend said she’d found a good beauty salon that offered massage, facials and hair cuts, just down the street from where I live. Assuming it was one of the “massage” places I passed every night, I didn’t follow up. But then the friend went for a facial and came back with a good report. I went over to check it out.

The Sun Salon is Korean owned and it certainly looked like a reputable business. Since no one there really spoke anything but Korean, I pointed to the price list and asked about a Shiatsu massage. I then made an appointment for that afternoon.

When I arrived, I was escorted up to the third floor, having left my shoes at the front door. I was shown into a small changing room with wood, cubby-hole lockers. Then I walked into the massage room. Six beds were laid out in a room with the lights turned off, blinds drawn. Soft, filtered light filled the space along with soothing music; not quite new-age tunes, but restful. One other lady was getting a massage.
I thought I had ordered a massage by a Korean trained masseuse, but the young woman was Vietnamese. I tried to explain the situation and just gave up. Not ever having had a total shiatsu massage, I actually wasn’t quite sure what to expect and figured I’d just go for whatever was to come.

Within a few minutes, I knew that the masseuse was well trained. It was the perfect combination of pain and pleasure. Most of the time it was wonderful, but with enough discomfort to know that she was doing her job. About the only thing lacking was aromatherapy. I love both western and eastern herbal oils, and none were present. The only part of my body that I would like to have had more work on was my head. Maybe that comes with the 90 minute massage, not the 60 minute.

According to the price list, a shiatsu massage was $20, which was fine with me. They handed me the bill and it was only $10, plus a 20% discount. I couldn’t believe I had just had an hour massage for $8! I also clarified that it hadn’t been the ‘shiatsu’, but a regular massage. When I ascertained that they had been there for ten months, I was rather upset. I am leaving the country in less than two weeks and just now I find the massage studio just down the street? I plan to go back a few more times before I leave.


09 April 2008

Back to the Lacquer Store

Over a year ago I visited a student’s lacquer ware shop. I remember expecting it to be like the little places one finds all over town and finding out that is was a massive operation with high-end products. I went there again today, and this time brought my camera.

What is really nice about her shop is that they first explain the whole process, then give you a tour of a mini-production line so that you can see the artisans at work. It takes up to eighteen separate steps from that first piece of wood to the final product. Depending on the detail of the decoration, pieces can take up to three months to complete. (or was it four months?)

The first worker we saw was giving the final polishing to a wall hanging. You can’t tell from the picture, but it is a combination of hand painting and inlay. The next guy was chipping/cutting mother-of-pearl into small pieces to be used for inlay designs. The next man was constructing a painting using eggshells.

They buy egg shells, I assume broken, and then break them into tiny pieces and assemble them in a mosaic process. Shell bits are burnt to get varying color graduations. Each miniature bit is carefully laid onto a prepared surface, using tweezers and other tools. The man I saw was egg-shelling a baby portrait.

There were two other people painting designs onto surfaces that would end up as boxes, or placemats, or wall-hangings.

The designs and variety of products available are truly impressive. Some are designs I have seen elsewhere, but most are original. I’d love to buy a ton of things, but they are heavy and would use up too much luggage weight allowance on the plane. Also, there are hugely expensive because of the high quality. If I buy any lacquer ware, it will be the cheap stuff that continues to smell like toxic lacquer fumes for at least two years, and most probably takes a year or two off your life.


08 April 2008

Bad Hair Day & Closing Out Accounts

The best thing about living in the hotel is the bed. For two and a half years I have awakened in various states of lower back pain discomfort. After a year, I told the owner that I wanted to buy a new one and they offered to pay for it. The real estate agent said she would take care of it and get me a really good one. That was not the case. I still was never able to sleep-in because it was just too painful. I think maybe it is because Vietnamese traditionally have sleep on the floor, or on a flat wooden platform, with only a straw mat as bedding, so they do not know what a good mattress is. But the bed in the hotel is the most comfortable I have ever experienced. My back no longer hurts in the morning.

However, even though I was comfortable, I couldn’t get to sleep last night because I was so upset about the expensive, botched hair cut I had gotten earlier in the day. About six months ago, a friend turned me on to a fantastic stylist who has a salon both in LA and Ho Chi Minh City. He consistently gave me the most incredible cuts, and did what I’d asked for with a few of his own suggestions thrown in. I’d switched from the other guy I had gone to because he, stylist number one, had starting making executive decisions about what my hair should look like. Just when I would finally get the length and style I wanted, he’d hack off five inches and I’d have something close to a mullet before I realized what had happened. Then I would need to wait another 6 to 8 months before it grew out.

Once again, I got complacent with the constant vigil that needs to be observed when getting ones hair cut in Asia, no matter how well one knows the stylist. I should have learned my lesson five years ago in Malaysia where I ended up with a true butch haircut that was hideous for almost a year. Yesterday, not only did this guy destroy the best haircut I had ever had in my life – which he had done – but the two sides are completely different lengths, and I’m talking about three or four inches different.

My first warning should have been when they told me he had appointments starting at 8:30 in the morning. I knew this was not true because I had come in for 9am appointments and he would run in at 9:30, sweaty and tired. I figured 10am would give him enough time to be well awake to work on my hair.

He came rushing in at 10:20, just having finished his gym work-out. Great, I thought, he just pumped iron for an hour, drove through 300 degree heat on a motorbike, dropped his gym bag and now has grabbed a pair of scissors. I really should have left at that point. But since he was so good, I trusted his trust in himself.

I actually asked him to cut off an inch, and he said I only needed half an inch. That was simple enough. My already short, one length, blunt cut, with a few long layers, would be easy to trim up. He had started in when his cell phone rang and one of the assistants handed it to him. He popped it between his ear and shoulder and kept cutting and talking. This happened three or four times. At one point while he was on the phone, I watched in horror as he angled the scissors and chopped the side portion of my hair at a severe angle. I started gesturing with my hands and he seemed to understand. The rest of the time I was talking and thought he was doing a little more snipping than he should, but it has been a long week and I was not on my game. When he finished, I looked in horror at the results; he had cut short layers all over, lopping off the long layers by four inches. Worse, the sides were drastically uneven. I pointed this out and he snipped a bit more. It wasn’t until I got home, washed all the mousse out of it, that I saw how bad it was.

Apparently at the point where I told him to stop with the angle cut, he did. The left side is blunt cut. Now I am faced with leaving it lopsided, which makes me feel better since only one side will need six months to grow out, or having to part with four inches so it matches the right side. The worst part is all the short layers which are ok in the heat and humidity of Vietnam where my hair is full of body, but fall straight and look like a dead chipmunk in the cold and damp of the San Francisco Bay Area. It has been years since I have been this upset with a haircut. As I always say: hair grows. I think what bothers me the most is that he was so fantastic and, previously, so consistent, but then went into a brief state of dementia while cutting my hair. And folks, his prices are very high. This was the first time in my life I did not leave a tip.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, towards the end of the scissor-wielding atrocity, my old hairdresser walks in…… I sort of figured that they would know each other, seeing that they were Vietnamese, had gone to Los Angeles in their teens, and had owned salons there for years before returning to Vietnam, but thought better than to ever bring it up. I turned to first stylist and said, Where have you been? I have been trying to reach you! Total lie, but what was I to do? At least the stars were on my side for this uncomfortable situation; he had been in California for three months.

I am still deciding what to do. Do I call and say “you totally trashed my hair”? Do I wait for another two weeks because I do need him to color it and then say, “you totally trashed my hair?” Do I trim it myself? Do I go back to cutter number one to fix it and color it?

I really am beginning to think that I have completely screwed up something since the karma ain’t been too great these past few months. There are those who swear that you bring negative circumstances to yourself. But I just can’t quite get my head around what I did to self-inflict bad landlords and bad haircuts. I’d do a deep meditation on it but really, why bother? The apartment is gone and so is my beautiful hair cut. So I’ll look like a rodent who’s been freed from a trap for awhile. I’m hoping the winning personality will see me through the dark days to come, until I look like I spend money on my hair and not like someone who cuts it with toenail clippers.

But that was yesterday, and after a night of checking my hair in the mirror every five minutes, I resolved to never look in a mirror again for three months. I even thought of dumping my handheld mirror so I couldn’t see the back, which is the worst part. My resolve dissolved as soon as I awoke. But I had things to do this morning, mainly wiring most of my bank account to the US and closing out a second account.

I left the hotel at 7:30 and it was already steamy hot. Fifteen minutes later I was at the first bank which didn’t open until eight, so I continued down to the second bank. By the time I got there I was dripping with sweat and decided to stop by Highlands Coffee, the Vietnamese answer to Starbucks, to get a frozen coffee drink. As I sat there, I looked across the street to the new mega-mall going up.

As with everything in this area, nothing was there five years ago. If you look at a picture of my neighborhood on Google Earth, it is all pretty much empty acreage. I still can’t figure out who will utilize all these new shopping centers, and who is building all the expensive homes. Everywhere you go, you see people who earn $60 to $150 a month, yet to look around at the building going on in my section of town, you’d think you were in the US. There are still a few reminders that there are rivers and jungle-ish landscape, but I fear that it will soon be a thing of the past. A lovely river bordered by twelve lanes of modern highway.

After once again feeling revived and cooled down, I walked the block back to the bank. It was dead easy to get the bank transfer and only cost $28. I then needed to truck back to bank one and close my account that had maybe $2 in it. That took nearly forty minutes. Had I known that I only had $2, I probably would have forgone the bother.

One last stop before heading home, and that was to the supermarket. The worst part of hotel living is no kitchen, but I do have a small fridge. I bought canned beans, tuna, a few sodas and soy milk. I already had carrots and cucumbers. I think I can survive for three weeks without having to eat out for every meal. The only problem is that even though I wash all eating utensils as soon as I finish with them, I have an ant problem.

Actually, I have a cleaning-room problem. As one of the only foreigners I know that never hired a maid, I was sort of looking forward to having other people clean for me. There really isn’t much to do other than dusting and cleaning the bathroom. The first day here, when all my bags were all over the place, I told them not to bother. But then no one came day two so I asked that someone do the bathroom mostly because the shower drain was clogged and the ants had invaded the trash can. I was gone a good part of yesterday, yet no one touched my room. I had to go downstairs and explain that I did want my room made up; it had only been the first day that was an exception. I got one of those “Please Make-up Room” door cards last night and when I left this morning, I hung it on the knob. I also asked the maids to clean my room. When I came home, the young lady at the reception made sure I knew that my room had been done. I was thrilled, until I walked in. They had emptied the trash and given me clean towels, and that was it. Damn, I’d been hoping they would fluff pillows and wipe off the inches of dust and clean the bathroom floor. This is one of the main reasons I never hired a maid. If you want it clean you have to do it yourself.

Tomorrow’s a shopping day; like I really need to buy anything more. I know I have already exceeded my luggage allowance, but I really need to have fun for the next few weeks and that may involve retail therapy. Who knows if I will ever again get back to Vietnam.

Time to take out the garbage.

07 April 2008

Time To Leave

I have been in Vietnam for two years and eight months. Generally, two years in any one place, or at any one job, is my limit. For various reasons, I seem to have overstayed my allotted time here. I had already made the decision to go, but these past few months, and especially this past week, have cemented my resolve. I still like the country, and like the people, and love the weather, but it is time to leave.

Before I ever rented an apartment, I had been warned about sleazy landlords; that they could kick you out whenever they wanted, and to just assume that your two month deposit was a contribution to their private bank account as you would never again see it. But I lucked out with owners who were wonderful. They fixed any problem, didn’t raise the rent, and left me to be the excellent tenet that I am.

Then, in December, the owner called me to tell me that she was selling the apartment. I totally freaked. This had happened to so many of my colleagues. It generally meant that you would have to move in a few weeks so that the new owner could move in. Or equally as bad, if not worse, is that you could stay but that your rent might double. I was still paying the same as I had for two years but knew that the apartments in the area where I live were now at least $250 more than I was presently paying. This was not good.

Within 24 hours I had people knocking at my door claiming to be real estate agents wanting to take pictures of my place. One guy even said he was the owner’s son, which I knew he wasn’t. A day later a couple who had lived in the penthouse above me, and who I had met before, knocked at my door.

Kelly, Vietnamese and seven months pregnant, stood next to her British boyfriend, Dan, a hulking 6’2” twenty-something. She told me that they had just put down a deposit on my apartment and could they see it. I balked but then Kelly assured me that they didn’t want me to move out, that they were happy to keep me as a tenant. So I let them in and gave them a tour.

The next day I heard from my landlord who confirmed that Kelly was buying the apartment but that she, (original owner), had made an agreement that whoever bought the apartment would have to honor my contract which ended in September, 2008. I knew I was going in June, so told the owner that I could be out of the apartment by June 15th.

Sometime towards the end of January, when all the sales papers had been finalized, there was the final turnover of contracts and February’s rent to the new owner. We all met at my apartment.

While Kelly and my old landlord were discussing things in Vietnamese, Dan turned to me and said that I would need to leave “a bit earlier” which would be April 15th. I said that he couldn’t do that. To which he said he “could do whatever” he wanted and if he wanted me out, he would get me out. I quickly interrupted the women and repeated what Dan had told me. The old landlord said that if Kelly and Dan broke the contract, they would have to pay me my deposit plus two months rent, a substantial amount. We all agreed to keep the June date.

Since I would be going to the US in a week, where I would stay for a month, I explained this to all in the room. I also said that a friend would be staying in the apartment for the entire month. She actually would be staying only ten days, but at this point I had begun to become very mistrusting of the new owners. We ended the conversation with assurances that I would leave a set of keys with the new owners before I left. (I changed the lock the next day and left them with the old keys, which is perfectly legal.) (and they did try to break in when I was gone.)

While in the US, my friend who was staying at my place was constantly harassed by Dan. He would call and knock at the door demanding to know what she was doing there, swearing that I had told him nothing. He further told her that the police might come around and she needed to give him money so that he could do the paperwork necessary for her to stay there. (No, none of that was true.) No money was handed over.

An hour after I returned from overseas, my phone rang. It was Dan, wanting to know if I would agree to leave in April. I explained that I had just arrived from an arduous trip and that I would call him later. His excuse was that he thought I had returned the previous week, even though I had written the dates down for him.

I talked to him the next day saying that my plans had changed and that I was leaving at the end of April. I then asked that my two month deposit be used for March and April’s rent. He said he needed to “check the contract”.

Over the next week I got one text message after another saying that they had prospective buyers coming to see the apartment. It had become evident that they had bought the place to flip it, since prices were going up at about $15,000 a month. But the clients kept canceling, and I had to keep rearranging my schedule. One of the messages said that they had agreed to use the deposit for the last two months rent.

One evening I got a call from Kelly asking if she could come over in ten minutes to talk to me. (They lived in another apartment complex a block from mine). She came in, sat down, and spent an hour telling me her life story.

She had been from a poor family and had worked in an upscale hotel starting at the age of 16. There, she had met a well-to-do, older, Taiwanese businessman and married him when she turned 18. By 19 she had one child, and another followed two years later. Eventually, they split, she was left with the penthouse, and her kids now lived with her mother in an expensive apartment she had bought just down the road. Dan had rented a room from her while she still was living in the penthouse. He had come to Vietnam to work in “investments” although he had no university degree or much other training. One thing lead to another, she got knocked up, and now he was helping her to buy and sell properties in an attempt to take advantage of the skyrocketing prices.

She said the reason she was talking to me was to apologize for all the hassles that Dan had caused. She didn’t trust him and was sure he was after her money. She told me how he was pressuring her to marry him which would give him 50% of her assets. She made me swear I would never talk to Dan again or give him any money; that she was the owner. She told me that there would be no problem with the rent and that my deposit would be used for March and April. I only needed to give her enough to cover the final bills. Just before she left, she asked if she could take the bed I use as a living room sofa. She said they needed a second bed in their apartment because the baby was due in two weeks. I said I would get back to her.

The next day, March 11th I got a text message asking if they could come over to get the bed. I replied saying no, that I needed it. That was followed by a text message saying that since I would not give up the bed, I would now have to pay the rent for March. (Remember, we had already agreed that the deposit would cover the rent.) I then called and when Dan answered I told him he was being unreasonable. He proceeded to scream and yell at me saying since I hadn’t “helped them out”, the rent was due. I hung up. I then got a text message saying that they were canceling the contract.

I called the real estate agent who had originally rented me my apartment and told her what was happening. She said not to worry, that she would handle it. The next week went by with no further harassments and I was really enjoying life.

Last Saturday, at 11am, the power went off. After thirty minutes I decided to check with the neighbors and saw that they had power. I immediately knew what had happened; the sleazy landlords had cut my utilities. They cut water, electric, internet and long distance phone calls. The water was easy enough to handle. I simply walked out into the hall and turned the water main back on. The electricity was not so easy. I spent hours calling the electric company and the previous owner and the real estate agent. While at the realtors, Dan showed up, yelling at me that I had broken the contract and I needed to get out. At 7pm that night he showed up at my door saying I could either vacate in two hours or pay him $800 by the next morning. If not, he would physically break down the door and throw me and my belongings on to the street.

I had been calling all my friends for suggestions on what to do. One of them had a list of lawyers supplied by the Australian Embassy. I got the list and, at 8PM, called the first lawyer. He said he would be at my place the following morning, Sunday, at nine. I also talked to the president of the owners association in my building. He said it was illegal to throw me out and that the police would be there the following morning. Another friend said she would be my moral back-up.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep. This is the hottest time of the year. I can live with out air conditioning, but not without a fan in a stagnant air, 100 degree apartment.

My friend arrived at 8, and at 9:00, Dan arrived. Using the security chain, I opened the door to tell him he was not coming in until my lawyer and the police arrived. He then stood in the hall and made phone calls saying he “was about to kick down the door.” He disappeared about the time the lawyer arrived. (apparently the police were never called by building security, because they never showed.)

Although I had all the text messages that had agreed to letting me use the deposit for the last two months rent, I didn’t have it in writing. My stupidity. I had become complacent after all that time with honest landlords. The lawyer spent the next two hours calling Kelly, who would agree to something and then say, “Let me call you back.” She was obviously conferring with Dan, as she would call back and say something like I needed to give them $700. At this point, I just wanted to get the hell out, but I most certainly couldn’t pack all my belongings in a few hours, and could not work without electricity. The refrigerator had really begun to smell. The final agreement was to meet the next day at 3PM. It was also agreed that Dan could not be there since he was not the owner. And I found out that Kelly’s mother, not Kelly was the real owner.

All went well at the meeting. The mom was very sweet and agreed to turn on everything as soon as she left. She agreed to return the rest of my deposit, and agreed to give me until Sunday to move. I was relieved until it got to be about 4:30 and I still had no power. Calls to lawyer and power company came back with the fact that no one had called to re-establish power. There was some BS story that it would be on my noon the next day. So one more god-awful day in the apartment.

It was not turned on the next morning, and all parties, Kelly and her mom and brother, refused to answer the phone. This was four days with no power and I knew they were not going to comply with our signed agreement. I went to the power company with the signed paper. They were horrified, as was every other person I had told this too. They said they would have it on by the afternoon, even if the owners continued to not answer their phone.

The electricity got re-connected at 4PM, but I never did get the internet. And as far as the owners are concerned, I never got water. I spent that night, Tuesday, and the following two days packing. Friday morning I moved my things to a hotel two blocks away.

I have a lovely room with a balcony and open space in front of me. Since it is on the main drag, it is a bit noisier than what I am used to, but better than being in town. Also worrisome is that the building does an earthquake rock and roll every time a big truck rumbles by. I figure since I am in the 5th floor, if it collapses, I might have a chance.

So my plan for a peaceful last six weeks in Vietnam did not quite turn out as expected. There are a lot more details to the story, but it gets tiresome to listen. It all seems so unnecessary. Everyone keeps saying, “But they can’t do that!” The fact it that they can and they did. Maybe if I had lots of money I would take them to court, but I don’t. The expense of lost deposit, hotel cost, and lawyer fees adds up to about $1000. I can’t afford anything else, either financially or emotionally. I would really love to hire some gang bangers to pound on Dan, but that would be stooping to his level and might seriously mess with my karma. I have no doubt, whatsoever, that he will get his in the end, and it will come from some source not related to me or my situation.

I think I am close to being in a relaxed state. I still have to try and get my deposit back from the owner. There is little hope of that, even though I have a legal document, but I’ll give it a go at the end of the week.


10 March 2008

Simple Pleasures

Sometimes life gets in the way and one forgets about the simple pleasures that lie all about; like just walking around an exotic city in South East Asia, where I just happen to live. So that’s what I did today.

My first stop was the main post office where I went because I actually had to mail a letter. It seems such an archaic way of communicating. Long, long ago, when I first lived overseas in Brazil, letters were the only choice. I would write four, five, and six page letters in my teeny-tiny script to friends and family. Then it was two or three weeks before the mail to arrived in another country. And then, if people even did respond, they would wait several weeks. Letters to me took anywhere from seven days to three months. Basically, from the time I sent a letter until I got a response, it could be two months.

This was also back in the day of no satellite TV. And I certainly couldn’t have afforded a television, even if I’d wanted to watch the three local channels. I also never had a phone in any place I lived. Added to that, the cost for international calls was prohibitively expensive and of crackly quality. One really was cut off from the outside world. Looking back, I am grateful for having had that experience. My entire life was Brazil. I learned the language and lived the culture in a way that today would be impossible to do.

I live in Vietnam, but I live in a nicer apartment that I have ever lived in, in the US. I wake up in the morning and turn on CNN or BBC. I turn on the computer and check my emails. I am instantly in touch with anywhere I want. I know about disasters and weather and politics in real time. And although I did enjoy those years of pre-technological isolation, I wonder if I would still be living overseas if email and cable TV hadn’t come along.

I remember when I got my first Hotmail account. I swore I would never give up writing letters; that sending a type-written email ‘just wasn’t the same as handwritten words’. I got over that pretty quickly. Instantaneous communication beats weeks of waiting for a reply.

While at the post office, I picked up a free tourist magazine; one that I had never seen before. I pulled it out as sipped coffee at an outdoor café. There was an article about the only Hindu temple in Ho Chi Minh City. Indian temple? Here? It must be in some far off corner of the city, I thought. But no, it was right in the middle of it all, not very far from where I sat.

But first, I was off to explore a few clothing boutiques that I have passed zillions of times, but had never gone into. To get there, I walked down the same streets of shoes and bags that I have walked down since arriving here, but had never stepped into. Today I did. I fruitlessly tried on a few pairs of shoes; all three sizes too small, but it didn’t matter. I was having fun. I spoke in my piss-poor Vietnamese which seemed to please everyone. I walked in and out of the upscale, made-for-foreigners shops. Can’t say I was really impressed with any of the overpriced items for sale, but it was enjoyable.

My next stop was the linen fabric shop. I ended up with meters of lovely cloth, most of which I hadn’t planned on buying. I may come into a fabric store with an idea of what I need, but always leave with a whole bunch of new ideas and a very heavy bag. It is so much more satisfying than clothing stores.

I then wandered over to my favorite little café that has cozy sofas instead of tables and chairs. Although the weather isn’t hot-hot quite yet, it is still a good idea to re-hydrate after every purchase. I opened up the magazine with the Temple story and asked the young women sitting behind me if they knew where it was. I only had a three block walk.

Seeing the outside of the Mariaman Hindu Temple, it did vaguely look familiar; like maybe I had passed it in a taxi a few hundred times. I thought I would find an empty temple but was surprised to find quite a few Vietnamese placing incense in urns and praying to the gods. Inside the central alter area where three men, sort of officiating. I walked up and asked if pictures were allowed. The one man, who was Indian and in his 50’s, said that I could take pictures anywhere except of the central alter where the goddess stood.

He seemed welcome to questions, so I asked. He wasn’t sure of exactly how old the temple was, but his father had come to Vietnam in the 1920’s on business, and it was already there. From what I gather, there was a fair amount of trade going on between Vietnam and India at the time. His father stayed and married his mother, a Vietnamese woman. The man I spoke with said he had spent the past thirty years in France, and had returned a year ago to help his mother care for the temple. There are still a few Indian/Vietnamese around, and then there are all the foreign Indian business people who are working here. I looked around at all the Vietnamese praying and asked if they were Hindu. No, but they believed in the gods of the temple. He said the people come to ask for help, then return to give their thanks.

I walked around, inhaling the peace and tranquility, incense and jasmine. I do so love Indian and Chinese temples. They take the mind and body to such a calming place. I stayed for awhile, put a donation in the box, then replaced my shoes as I was about to leave. The man I had spoken with called me over. He handed be two tangerines and a small string of jasmine flowers; a gift from the temple to place in my house. Tonight I have the goddess watching over me.

Just now, I looked at the article about the temple. Oh my gosh! The photographer had taken a picture of the main alter! The man I spoke with is standing in front of the statue of the goddess blocking it from the camera lens, while two of his helpers are desperately holding up their hands in a “don’t take a picture” gesture. Yet this journalist had warned visitors to take off their shoes when entering the temple.

Even though my bag was getting a bit heavy, I still had the shopping energy to make a run through the big market. Fortunately, being around noon, things were rather slow inside. I found my sewing supply stall and bought safety pins, then quickly made a run through a few other favorite areas. I picked up a couple more items before walking out to catch a taxi home.

You can live in a city for the longest time and still be surprised when you find something new. You can go to old haunts and wonder why it had been so long since your last visit. And most of all, you can get away from the seclusion of your little apartment that, inside, is no different than living in the US, and realize – Wow, I live in Vietnam!


28 February 2008

Return to Hot Weather

After a month in the cold of the San Francisco bay area, I arrived back in Ho Chi Minh City to lovely warm weather. I remember this time of year being very hot, although that may still be a few weeks away. But I don’t remember it raining and that is what it has done several times in the past week. It wasn’t a lot of rain, but I don’t think there is supposed to be any at all for several months.

The taxi ride back from the airport was my all-time highest fare paid. The reason? The traffic. In just one month the amount of motorbikes and cars has noticeably increased. How is that possible?

And then there’s the view from my window; when I moved in two and a half years ago, I didn’t even know there was a river not far from my apartment, because all I could see was green jungley stuff. In fact I used to go out on my balcony to try and spot the helicopters I heard at night, only to finally figure out that they were boats chugging down the river. But all that lovely greenery is gone and I have a straight view of the river and the houses on the other side.

They have also been clear-cutting on the land that I pass on the way to work. A river tributary runs along a section along the highway. Walking by it, I had noticed these little square platforms with low, three-foot walls, perched on poles, with a walkway connecting them to the bank. I couldn’t figure out what they were; thought maybe fishing shacks. Then, one day on the way to work, I noticed a man seated inside and stared at him, trying to see if he had a fishing pole. Something didn’t seem right. I then looked straight ahead and noticed a woman standing next to a parked motorbike. That is when it hit me that these were public outhouses and the guy was taking a leisurely dump as his wife patiently waited, and semis rolled by. I planned to bring my camera and take a picture next time I walked by.

Well, I finally did have my camera with me the other day, but it seems the toilets have been removed. However, there was a new sight to behold; men fishing in the river/sewer. Several guys were wading up to their waist in this nasty water and grabbing fish. And as it is in Vietnam whenever there is something different going on, people were stopping their motorbikes to get out and take a look. As soon as one person stops, more pull over. No one was even curious at my stopping to take pictures.

Never eat river fish in Vietnam.