A Travellerspoint blog

Culture shock

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I flew back to Bangkok on Friday the Thirteenth. I'm staying in the shopping district and agonising over whether to splash out on a digital SLR. Given the number of photos I take I think it ought to be done, but the prices here are comparable to those on line in London, and I wouldn't trust a warranty. I'll probably wait until Singapore.

Some things jump out after Vietnam:

  • they drive on the left.

  • no-one uses the horn.

  • most people wear shoes instead of flip-flops.

  • the Thais – at least the affluent in the shopping centres – are significantly fatter than the Vietnamese. Coconut milk, second only to polar bear milk in fat content, may have something to do with it.

  • the watches and clothes on sale in the Siam Paragon are genuine! More interesting is MBK, which is like an indoor market with a younger clientele. Some of the shops on the periphery of the floor sell an 8GB i-pod nano for the official price of 7,590 baht. The stalls in the middle purport to sell the same thing for 1,000-2,000 baht - less than the price of 8GB of flash memory. How can both co-exist in the same market? The answer must be heterogeneous consumers who select themselves into different price bands. For the separating equilibrium to sustain itself in the face of such a price disparity, the cheaper product must be significantly inferior. Which means it can’t be the real thing: a fake, with pirated software. I intend to find out.
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The USSR under Gorbachev began to reduce aid to Vietnam in the late 1980s. It dried up completely in 1991. Around that that time the joke went as follows

Message from the USSR to Vietnam: “prepare to tighten belts”. The reply: “send belts”.

On which subject, I am reminded of a remark I once heard attributed to JM Keynes, although I have not been able to find it since.

There are two ways to tighten your belt. One, tighten your belt. Two, eat more.

  • **

More French words in Vietnamese:

  • Pho mai, cheese

  • Ga, station.
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I hope someone will tell me if I’ve mentioned this before on the blog; I am becoming increasingly confused between conversations and the blog. Who Wants to be a Millionaire airs in Vietnam (and in Thailand). One of the questions had the following answers: (a) tau, (b) tau, (c) tau, (d) tau. The words were differentiated only by tone.

  • **

In northern Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam, it is the rainy season. Most days, it rains heavily for about an hour a day; the rest of the time it may be cloudy or sunny. Yet almost every day the BBC weather forecast for Saigon and Bangkok gives 'rain' as the predominant weather feature. Rain for an hour a day is not a predominant feature; nor is a forecast a useful guide to conduct when it says the same thing every day.

Posted by Wardsan 10:55 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Great expectorations

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I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned this before; I've written quite a lot, very quickly. When the Vietnamese sniff, they do not merely sniff: they attempt to move all fluid from the nose, ears and sinuses into the throat, with perhaps a touch of cerebrospinal fluid if they try violently enough.

And when they spit, as they do frequently, they do not merely hawk, they try to slough the lining of their throats, and maybe even cough up an organ or two with it.

It’s perfectly normal. You often pass a young couple sitting on a bench, looking good, but both parties snorting and gobbing as if they’ve just been waterboarded and then tear-gassed.

They eat with their mouths open and smack their lips when they eat, in a way that I have previously seen only on The Life of Mammals. I find it deeply offputting.

On the other hand, we lick our fingers and we lick stamps. Southeast Asians find that disgusting. Minh Mang, emperor in the first half of the nineteenth century, used to call westerners “barbarians”, and given the state of the average backpacker in Saigon you can see why.

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I mentioned that the Rue Catinat had been renamed. It turns out that the street was named after the ship that was named after the admiral. The ship destroyed the Vietnamese forts in Tourane in 1856, a few years before France established its Cochinchina colony. So it’s understandable that they renamed the street.

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I spent a couple of days recently on an absurdly cheap tour of the Mekong delta. The Mekong splits into two in Cambodia and subdivides further in Vietnam, where the Mekong serpent has nine heads. At Mỹ Tho, on the Lower Mekong, the river is a mile wide. It does not look like a lake or a sea, but it differs so far from the mental model of a river that the brain does not register it as such; simply as something else.

The turbid river carries immense quantities of silt; you can see it flowing miles out to sea on satellite maps. The silt markedly increases the fertility of the land in the delta, as it does in Egypt. I don’t know how this effect works since it’s just quartz and feldspar dust. A lot of barges carry sand up a canal to Saigon, perhaps to feed the infinite appetite for cement. I don’t know where it comes from; could it be reclaimed silt?

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The delta is a waterworld, with 3,000 km of rivers and canals. They are building bridges in some numbers – all to an identical template, it appears – but you still need to get in a boat to get to most places conveniently.

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Seventeen million people live here, slightly more than live in Holland. It is one of the most fertile regions on the planet, so it has always been densely populated. (They were smelting metal here centuries before metallurgy reached Europe.) The region produces 14 million tonnes of rice – in three crops a year - out of the national total of 36 million. That is about half of what Vietnam eats, I think, so in principle the region could support a much larger population. If that were the case, the entire region would be under concrete and there would be no rice. You can see that effect on the outskirts of Saigon. The population of Saigon is currently said to be around 8 million people and 5 million motorbikes. Both numbers are growing. Every peripheral plot is a building site. The city is spreading at what would appear to be hundreds of yards a year – and the land being built on is some of the best arable land on earth.

In fact it will be interesting to see whether the increased rate of return on agricultural land will reduce the rate of substitution into other activities. I suspect it won’t slow it at all. The value added for each square metre of urban land in Saigon is probably many times that added by a square metre of rice, even at today’s high prices. If so, concreting the paddies around Saigon is economically efficient.

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Some of us stayed in a stilted bamboo bungalow a half-hour boat ride from Cần Thơ.

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By this time we were running over two hours late. We had had to change bus twice and were delayed by the rush hour on the ferry over the Bassac. Beer-deprived, I was cross.

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The proprietor introduced himself when we arrived: “Hello, I’m Hung.” “Lucky you.” Well, someone had to say it.

I went to sleep under a pink mosquito net to the sawing of cicadas and the occasional tut-tutting of geckos.

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A few of us went for a walk at 6 am. The motorbikes were passing on their way to town so there was no way to sleep.

Things are changing fast in the delta. Until two years ago the track was just a path that could not take motorbikes. All the residents worked locally as farmers. At the same time as the path was upgraded to a track, a new concrete bridge was built over the canal. Suddenly the residents had fast access to the nearest town, Cần Thơ, and now all but the very young and the old commute to jobs in Cần Thơ by motorbike. They earn a lot more there, and the buildings are being upgraded from bamboo to brick.

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On our early morning walk we stopped at a small local market. It operates from four until eight in the morning. On sale, as well as the usual fruit and veg: live fish, eels, frogs and ducks; marigolds for praying to Buddha (giving long life); banana flowers, pumpkin flowers.

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I picked a clump of kapok overhanging a shack. They used to stuff pillows with it. It feels like cotton wool.

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Later in the morning we visited a floating market. Bigger boats come from elsewhere to sell their goods. Buyers and tourists float between them in smaller boats.

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In a tour group you see the world through a bubble. I have less curiosity about what I am seeing than when I am on my own, and the impact of the surroundings is attenuated. In a large tour group – 32 of us - the notional object of interest barely registers, and most of the fun comes from talking to the other tourists. To be honest many of the sites are not much in themselves: a family making coconut candy; a rice husking factory (closed); a family making rice noodles.

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To make the coconut candy they leave the flesh to dry; slice it finely in a machine; squeeze the milk out; add sugar and milk and leave for 45 minutes; heat until it turns into caramel; pour into metal moulds; chop and package on site. No part of the coconut is wasted: the wood make the pillars of the house; the leaf provides the thatch; the hairy nut makes matting and soil for bonsai trees.

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More interesting is the landscape itself. Water coconuts overhang the creeks, and coconut palms grow behind them.

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This is a mudskipper, a living record of how animals conquered the land. At least, according to the Guinness adverts.

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Everywhere you go in the countryside, and in many places in the cities, you see loudspeakers atop telegraph poles. Every morning and evening the loudspeakers amplify the Voice of Vietnam - a news station.

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Electronic amplification over public loudspeakers, carrying a hectoring voice that you can’t switch off or turn down. An Englishman is legally obliged to use the word Orwellian here – and indeed I have done so in a previous post.

I asked Hung about it in the Mekong delta: why? He seemed slightly offended that I asked: it’s very useful, he said. People like to listen to it. No-one minds that it starts at five because everyone is already awake.

Posted by Wardsan 19:01 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Zoopark

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Yesterday I visited Saigon Zoo. I didn't mean to: I thought I was buying a ticket to the History Museum, but ended up in the zoo and stayed. My inner culture vulture is disappointed with myself, but at heart I'm more interested in animals than in Cham sculpture.

The Lonely Planet guide says "We strongly recommend against visiting the poorly kept zoo animals". This is the same Lonely Planet that publishes a guidebook to Burma. The Vietnam guidebook is not shy of issuing ethical instruction and I for one do not appreciate it.

The animals were indeed kept in poor but not absolutely barbaric conditions. The zoo is probably like London Zoo was about thirty-five years ago; our expectations and sensibilities have changed rapidly. Nevertheless, the large mammals in particular were kept in enclosures that were far too small for them. The worst examples: a gibbon kept in a tiny cage; a hippo sat motionless in a small, vile pool.

In both cases, it is a relevant question whether you are doing more harm than good by visiting and paying the dollars. In the case of Burma, I prefer to follow the advice of Aung Sang Suu Kyi; this avoids what would otherwise be an agonising decision. In the case of the zoo, there is at least some chance that the money will contribute to improving the facilities. I do not hold out much hope, though: although the people who run the zoo will be aware that conditions fall short of those expected in the west, the majority of visitors are Vietnamese, and they could not care less as far as I can see. So there may be little commercial incentive to improve. Many of the visitors delighted in harassing the animals. Some also fed them anything that came to hand. Another reminder that attitudes to animals here differ sharply from those in northern Europe; even from mine, and I'm no animal rights activist. I came close to hitting one fat moron, teaching his stupid fat son how not to behave by harassing and feeding sweets to the bears.

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But I stayed anyway, of course, because I love watching animals. The one species that you are supposed to feed at the zoo is the goats:

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This is a white rhinoceros:

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Leopard, lioness, lion:

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Asiatic black bears:

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An ostrich:

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Siamese crocodiles:

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Estuarine crocodile:

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A green iguana:

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Smooth otters:

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A unicorn gemsbok:

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A blesbok, perhaps:

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And an orang utan:

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Posted by Wardsan 14:13 Archived in Vietnam Tagged animal Comments (0)

Rain stopped play

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It is pouring in Saigon and I have repaired to a wifi cafe in the Pham Ngu Lao area. There is a building on fire just across the street and there is a fair bit of smoke in the cafe. It is yellowish and a little acrid but it smells better than cigarettes. Excited people are thronging the street. Two fire engines have just turned up but I expect the rain will put it out anyway.

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I may have given the impression in the previous couple of posts that I don't like Saigon. On the contrary. Neither the French nor the Americans bombed the city and there are quite a lot of ochre colonial buildings.

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Most of them make use of a motif that I call the false arcade. There's probably a real name for it - blind arcade perhaps. You would walk past them in Europe without troubling to swivel your eyeballs, but here they are worth looking at. They are hotels, restaurants and company headquarters. Verandahs are common. The municipal buildings such as the old Hôtel de Ville and the Post Office are classical in design. Here is the complacent facade of the Hôtel de Ville.

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And here are some shots of the Post Office, which retains its old telephone booths and even the old maps on the walls. One is a map of Saigon dating from 1892.

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In between the large old buildings are streets full of the usual Vietnamese city buildings: narrow but deep plots, each building touching but built without reference to its neighbour, all built at different heights. On a bus I saw some old trading houses, like those in Hoi An: narrow, wooden, with the pitched roof that is never now constructed. And sprouting fast are the glass and curtain wall towers of the oilman and the insurer. This juxtaposition of old and new is arguably a precondition for architectural greatness. It's certainly what makes London - that and the 300 languages.

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Of the little that I have explored so far, my favourite part is the Dong Khơi area near the river Saigon. Dong Khơi means 'uprising'; it is also the name of a street in the area, previously and much more romantically known as the Rue Catinat, after some old admiral. In this district it is not unusual to be able to walk an entire block without having to step into the road – a unique experience in Vietnam.

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And the traffic is no worse than Hanoi’s; I had been expecting worse. Admittedly I have been hit by a motorcycle here. I was crossing at traffic lights, the green man illuminated, when cold cocked by a motorbike turning left and cutting every inch of the corner. But I probably weighed as much as rider, passenger and bike put together, and no party suffered damage.

In fact, after becoming very fed up with Vietnam recently, I’m delaying heading to Bangkok. Not because there are things here that I really want to see, but because there are things here that I really want to eat. I could easily get into a way of life here that would involve a sunset drink on the 23rd floor of the Sheraton followed by a good meal. Surprising that I should delay going to Thailand, one of the gastro glories of the globe, but there we are. One of the more interesting dishes of the last two days was snails in coconut milk and coriander. These were not French garden snails, but more conical. No extraction equipment was provided; you just had to suck violently and that was part of the fun.

Another dish was a green papaya salad with sliced pig's ear. The pig’s ear looked like raw streaky bacon, crunched cartilaginously and tasted of little. Not a success. Another example of the importance of texture in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine: the more slithery or crunchy, the better.

  • **

Would performance suffer if Alastair Darling and Raymond Domenech, separated at birth, exchanged jobs?

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It two months since I left Hanoi and I can’t remember now why I disliked it so much. I think it was, first, because I was forced to be there waiting for a visa, and second, the hassle. Well, the hassle continues throughout Vietnam. And Hanoi does have a range of restaurants only matched by Saigon. So I have to reconsider. It’s not so bad in hindsight - just difficult to get around on foot.

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The problem with the Lonely Planet guide is that nearly everyone uses it. Once a hotel or restaurant appears in the LP it no longer has to make any effort to attract custom. Some piously maintain high standards; most profiteer. I mentioned to Michel, my diving buddy in Nha Trang, that I was thinking of buying a Guide du Routard instead. He was dismissive: “Guide du Connard, we call it”.

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Lest anyone think that the single party state in Vietnam is in any way liberal just because it now lets people get on with making money, this is what happens to journalists in Vietnam who do their jobs.

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Of the places I've visited since arriving in Saigon, the following are worth describing further: Reunification Palace; War Remnants Museum; Mekong Delta; Saigon Zoo. The problem is that I want to attach pictures of these places. Editing and uploading the pictures is extremely time-consuming and I don't usually have time both to write and upload pictures. This is why there are long and variable lags between experience and description; there are things in Ninh Binh, Hue and Hoi An that I still want to write about, for example. I suspect most people would rather see the pictures and cut the crap. So now for some uploading.

Posted by Wardsan 12:59 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hey! You!

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I have an idea for the opening scene of a movie. The camera, point of view at head height, moves down Ðe Tham. The camera passes between stationary people who are sitting on a motorbike or squatting. Each head turns to look at the camera. At every step, one of the heads shouts something to the camera. The camera seems to be at the centre of the universe. Perhaps the universe has even been made for the viewer; you could call it Unpleasantville.

(It must be what it’s like walking down a street being George Clooney.)

Except it’s real. People here try to get your attention in different ways: whistling; clapping; ‘hey, man!’; ‘you want motorbike?’; ‘where you going?’; ‘where you from?’; even, more than once, ‘where did you get those shoes?’.

Most of these are inapt to make the recipient receptive to whatever sales pitch follows. One of the most common is ‘Hey. You!’, which sounds aggressive. It isn’t rude in Vietnamese, where there is no distinction between the pronoun ‘you’ (which comes in many varieties) and the honorific ‘mister/sir’. The usual way of getting the waiter’s attention, for example, is to shout ‘em ơi!’, which means ‘You! Hey!’.

  • **

Now I’ve got a cold, the first since I started travelling. I’m surprised not to have had more. Most new strains of viruses appear in areas which are densely populated and in which people live in close proximity to animals. That means southeast and east Asia. I had expected the European immune system to be attacked more often.

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Fishing is a very big industry in Vietnam. The country has 3,260 km of coastline, 2,860 rivers and 200,000 hectares of lakes (which are almost entirely man-made reservoirs). Fishing makes up about 4-6% of GDP.

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Output growth in the last 15 years has been huge; this is mainly down to growth in fish farming. Nearly half of output by weight is now farmed (mainly shrimp and catfish), but there are still over 90,000 motorised fishing vessels. Most are very small. Indeed, most marine fishing is conducted by small craft in coastal waters.

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Vietnam ranks fifth in output of ‘fishery products’ after China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines (I’m surprised that Spain and the US are not on the list); and it is one of the top ten seafood exporters.

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Despite the natural abundance and diversity – Vietnam’s waters host over 2,000 species of fish, 1,600 of crustaceans and 2,500 of molluscs - marine life is under severe pressure in Vietnam’s seas, especially inshore. Stocks are falling: the catch is probably twice the sustainable yield. The government has established closed seasons, banned areas and protected areas. I don’t know whether they are enforced. Although illegal, poisons and explosives are commonly used.

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Fishing is also a huge leisure activity among Vietnamese men. The fish caught do not hit GDP statistics unless they are sold for money, but they do appear on the plate. Overall, fish and seafood are said to provide 40-50% of the animal protein in the Vietnamese diet. Consumption of protein is rising fast, and of fish and seafood in particular. With a couple of exceptions (the noodle soup in Hoi An, the chicken with lemongrass and chilli) all the best Vietnamese food has been fish or seafood.

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Anyway, wherever there is water, you see fishermen. These are fishing at Ho Tay in Hanoi.

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The majority do not remove helmets to fish.

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At the Citadel in Hue.

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On the river at Hoi An.

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On a bridge in Nha Trang.

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Posted by Wardsan 17:09 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

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