Tuesday, December 23, 2003

There's an old Christmas card in an old rusty trunk...

Frankly, I’d rather see Rudolph seriously injured than sit through Jim Carrey’s Grinch.
Cam dug that one out of a box at the DVD store, and showed it to me, cocking his head to the side in jest, as though either of us would entertain the idea of passing Christmas with a perverted version of a Christmas classic.

We didn’t find the real Grinch, nor did we find Scrooged, or It’s a Wonderful Life. Who knew there was a place on earth that didn’t force that one on you several times during the holiday season? They did have Die Hard, though. Now, while my parents watch that every Christmas, I have a severe hate-on for Bruce Willis. Especially in a grimy wife-beater.

Instead we settled for TV series on DVD, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Our Majesty’s Secret Service, Comedian, Citizen Ruth and All the Real Girls. No Christmas music, either. Not even my perennial favourite, Jim Reeves. I think this is my first without him. No matter, I can regale Cameron with all of the words anyway. They have been committed to memory long ago. No doubt he’ll commit me after bearing the umpteenth rendition of Senor Santa Claus.

So what are we doing for Christmas then? What does anyone do? Eat.

Cameron really had no preference after he’d put a big bottle of Coke in the shopping basket so I went to work for the both of us. There were no Nuts n’ Bolts, no cherry cake from Mom and no Cheezies or Bugles, so I had to make do. We bought decent chocolate, Pringles—not the Vietnamese “Mister Potato Chips” facsimile either, in the suspiciously similar cylinder packaging with an eerily similar and mustachioed pitchman on the front. I got coconut white chocolate balls, vanilla wafers, very Vietnamese sweet sour apricots (already consumed) and soft toffees. I will pick up mandarins on the way to work today off a lady on the street. And we’ve got a friend working his connection to get us a good deal on some smuggled whiskey. What is Christmas without bootleg hooch, I’ve always said.

We’ll go out for a nice, fancy dinner on Saturday, to avoid the not-quite-like-we-remember Christmas dinners put on at the hotels on Thursday.

So essentially, we’ll stay in at home this year, watch the Sopranos and gorge ourselves on treats while downing whiskey.

Family and booze. See, you can celebrate Christmas just about anywhere.

Have a great holiday!

Love, Tracy

10:29:00 PM

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Things that are getting me down:

Crying all weekend for no apparent reason.

The Canadian dollar. The irony is that it is strong for the first time in recent memory and I am being paid in American dollars. When I send money home to pay my bills, guess what currency doesn't go as far as it would have any other time in my life?

Work is a total bitch. "Reporters" i.e. translators making the same mistakes; the same stories over and over and over -- that would never be stories anywhere else in the world; management being completely incapable of doing anything; hours that are creeping up on us because we're short-staffed; hours that are lasting much longer because the city is hosting a huge sporting event and management didn't see that coming... it goes on and on.

Our monthly outing to the bank always involves shouting. This time they took some of our money because it was counterfeit. (Cash we got from our wages) Cam had them photocopy it so we could take it into work and demand that money back. The woman at work said we must have gotten it somewhere else and wouldn't pay us. Cam had to strong-arm her into it. Why are we the bad guys here? Should we get one of those little counterfeit detector machines to check our wages before we take them home?

Frivolous concerns:
1. I don't think my laundry should come back smelling of mildew.
2. Jackhammering from three construction sites next door to our apartment SHOULD NOT start at 8am.
3. I was sooooo looking forward to getting tons of clothes tailored. Why, Co Tailors, did you shatter my dreams and quote me such a huge amount for a blazer. (about $35) And I bought the material myself!

Things to be grateful for:

1. My wonderful husband-to-be. I'm not just saying that.
2. When he makes me scrambled eggs.
3. The other tailor I went to, who is charging me a quarter of the price I was first quoted. Now I just need to see what kind of job she does.


10:51:00 PM

Friday, November 14, 2003

Dear Harry and Sophie,

How was your Halloween? What did you dress up as? Here in Hanoi, people don't celebrate the holiday, except for a few Westerners who go out and act all crazy. Some people did dress up. They were Britney Spears, and men dressed as ladies, or they wore wigs, whatever they could get their hands on over here. Being an EXPAT, you don't have much stuff here--you probably packed just a suitcase or two but you probably didn't put a costume in there. And if you were like us, and you came over here on a TOURIST VISA and then later get a BUSINESS VISA and needed to trick the authorities into thinking you were just staying a little while, then you took hardly anything at all. Then you start missing things like my converse, or the iron, or my little green stapler.

Our days are pretty normal. Like your mom, we start work late. Unlike your mom, we spend our mornings sleeping in and then I read and Cameron plays a video game on his laptop. I make some green tea in the morning, but then we are hungry, and because there's never any food in our apartment, we go out. It's actually cheaper that way too. So we walk about a block and guess what we have for breakfast? Soup! We eat a big bowl each of chicken or beef slices with rice noodles and green onions. And we put vinegar in there! It's called pho and it's very good.

We tried bun bo the other day, which is a bowl of beef, a different kind of noodle, vinegary vegetables, basil and peanuts. Sounds weird, I know, but it's delicious. We always eat with chopsticks. It's easy and I bet you could do it too.

So, once we leave our apartment, we walk downstairs and say hello to the girl who cleans our apartment. She is making lunch for the family outside in the courtyard in a big wok. They will probably have rice and fried spinach and maybe some fish. Then we walk by the building next door, which is always under construction. Every day we wake up to the sound of rat-a-tat-tat. Jackhammers and regular hammers and I don't think it will ever be built. We walk by and they are hauling a basket of bricks up into the sky by a rope and they stop to watch us.

Once we hit the street, a guy sitting on his motorbike asks us if we want a ride. He is like a taxi, but the kind of taxi that is always stopping and the driver is getting out or calling yoohoo to you from across the street---MADAM? SIR? WHERE ARE YOU GOING?

We ignore him and watch the traffic as we walk. We have traffic lights and intersections, but a lot of drivers don't care about PEDESTRIANS. There's not as many cars as there are at home, because everyone is on motorbikes! Sometimes three people at once, and with a baby in the front holding the handlebars! People drive side by side, and fast, and there are few rules. Sometimes people just go through red lights, or go the wrong way down a one-way, or just drive on the sidewalk if it's a shortcut. Sometimes, when a car or bike is driving down a street and wants to turn right, he'll make the turn from right in the middle of the street, instead of getting into the right lane. It is very funny.

So we keep walking by the many EMBASSIES and the guards who wear guns. We walk past the many little restaurants with Harry and Sophie-sized plastic stools that adults sit on. Past fabric markets, and people cutting up meat, and stores selling very small washers and dryers, and women picking lice out of each other's hair. Then we might stop to buy a pear or a loaf of french bread from a woman who carries her wares in two baskets balanced on a stick over her shoulders, but now she is squatting on a street corner for awhile to sell her stuff. Once, with grapes, a woman asked me for 40,000 DONG (that is our money here) a kilogram and I laughed! She gave me one to taste and I nodded to say it was good, but the price was too high. I said 10,000 and she shook her head. I looked CRITICALLY into her sack of grapes. She said 30,000. I frowned. We were silent for awhile. We agreed on 25,000, which I thought was too expensive, but she complained bitterly to a man nearby so we got a good deal, I guess. That is called bargaining.

Very close to our work, we pass some primary school children out in their school's covered compound. They are lined up in their uniforms, white shirts and blue pants, and one of the young girls is ordering them to perform exercises. She'll yell one thing (in Vietnamese, of course) and they'll bend down, then they'll reach their hands up. I guess that's like their gym class. Do you wear uniforms?

Then we get to work and the lights are out in the office, and the girls are sleeping, each curled up on two office chairs put together, their arms flung over their eyes. Everyone here takes a little lunch and sleep break from about noon to 2pm. They get up so early and work so late, that is what they must do.

And then we work. Work is another letter.

Can't wait to see you guys next summer. I am so excited Sophie that you are going to be my flower girl! And Harry, you must be so big now! And in grade two!

Cameron can't wait to meet you both. He can play chess with you.

Take care, and write me a letter if you'd like to.

Love, Auntie Tracy
10:53:00 PM

Saturday, November 08, 2003

It's hard to find good gaunch these days

How can I be frustrated with the maid for never scrubbing the bathroom, when she leaves new bananas for us almost daily, brings us a few fresh roses, and folds my panties just so?

Then the clincher this morning: One pair did have a small hole, and I found it had been mended.

I could get used to this. There's a motherfucking sparkle on the floor.
12:15:00 AM

Friday, November 07, 2003

There's banking. And then there's Vietnamese banking.

We work for the State so we can send money home to the man.

That's what we did this month: wire transfer a whole heap o' money to pay my and Cam's visa bills, student loans, computer payment, car lease, our souls.
We bit the bullet and chose to wire it home, because a money order was not that much cheaper. All said and done, it cost us about $60 to transfer that pile of cash into one bank account. And it wasn't easy...

We walked into ANZ bank with piles of Vietnamese dong packed mostly into Cam's now particularly well-endowed crotch. Our pay is in US, which is then exchanged into dong. There is 15,600 dong to a US dollar. Needless to say we are local millionaires and we have obscene stacks of bills at our disposal. At least, for the day or so after we're paid.

At the bank, we told them many times we wanted to wire money to our accounts in Canada and we were met with blank stares. Apparently, this is a highly unorthodox procedure. We managed to convey our message, after they ascertained we worked here, but we were told to get some documents supporting we weren't just laundering money, and come back. It took some time to get to that point, and by then, as Cam is unpredictably and occassionally apt to do, he stormed out in a little mad fit.

The next day, we went back in prepared. We had a fresh letter from work, which we couldn't believe they typed up so quickly, certifying we were employees, stating our salaries and our passport numbers. It was written on letterhead and stamped in RED.

"Do you pay tax?" asked the teller. Yes, we said.
"That's not in the letter," she told us.
"What?"
"Are you paid in cash?" they asked, for now there were more of them.
"What do you think this pile of dong is?"
"That's not in the letter," they said.

And so it went. This time was my turn to get mad, and in my usual way, my eyes welled up with tears, and Cam took care of it while I sat down. God should fear the day we both get frustrated.

After 40 minutes of loud voices and ridiculous "sorry for the inconvenience"s, we took off, completely drained.

On the third day, we had gotten the required paperwork but being North Americans, we wanted to cash in on the ol' 'let's take our business elsewhere.' We had heard HSBC was popular with expats, and Cam found their website upon which was written "WIRE TRANSFERS MADE EASY."

It took us about 45 minutes to walk to HSBC. When we got to the address it was a state bank. We asked the guard if HSBC was located in this high-rise. He shrugged and showed us the foreign exchange. They told us HSBC was upstairs.

So up we went, to the 13th floor.

"Not much street presence," I said.

Sure enough, down a hall and into a small room, we found their corporate office. We were informed they had no branch in Ha Noi, just in HCM City.

We decided to give the state bank a try. We asked at reception. They told us to go back upstairs, to floor 2. We did. We asked a security person where to wire money. She pointed to counter 52. They told us to go downstairs to counter 90. We went downstairs.
Counter 91,92,93...1,2,3... No counter 90. We tried at 91.
"We don't wire money here," we were informed. "Try upstairs on level 2."

We went back up the elevator for the third time. We asked at a random counter.
"Do you have an account?" he asked.
"No," we replied, exhausted. "Then try at counter 52."

We decided we had no choice but to go back to ANZ.

You'll never guess. We now had a brand-new, super-official letter from our employers certifying: we worked there, what we were paid, that we were paid in cash, that the employer was responsible for our taxes. It was signed. It was stamped in RED.

It WORKED. Have a nice day, she said.

And we did.



11:17:00 PM

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Hanoi Rocks

The Vietnamese don't celebrate Halloween. That's fine: the politics are spooky enough.

We had a pretty good Halloween anyhow. We worked from 2pm to our normal 9-9.30. We planned to meet colleagues at a bar a bit of a distance from here, to take in a band fronted by one of the paper's former subs. Cameron and I are so stubborn about paying for transportation, we insist on walking everywhere, and so we set out on foot. The flyer with directions claimed that if you hadn't been there before, it would be rather hard to find, but no matter, we thought.

We got to the edge of the part of town we're familiar with, and looked in the vague direction of the Hong Song, the Red River. We couldn't see it, but we knew it had to be over there somewhere, somewhere past that forbiddingly busy overpass. (or as they say here, fly-over) We walked around it to a point, knowing we'd gone too far and backtracked. Cam pointed out an off-ramp we should take, and I was preparing to say there was no way in hell I'd walk up that in the wrong direction. But I did intend to indulge him and take a closer look at the speeding, onhead traffic until I made my declaration.

Turned out, I didn't need to put my foot down and prove myself a snivelling girl. We watched some locals cross the busy stream of motorbikes and emerge onto the other side, right in front of a pass-point. See, we needed to cross then scramble over the high overpass wall.

Well, we followed the local route, and sure enough there it was: a tire hanging from a rope. Well, we just put our right foot on the tire, grabbed hold of the railing overhead and hoisted ourselves up. Easy as that. We took the stairs down. Apparently the stairs were built there to get over the wall on one side, but I don't suppose the tire was government-issue infrastructure.

Once we were on the other side of the overpass, we were really on the other side of the tracks. The roads seemed made of compacted mud, it was much darker, and our really Halloween-inspired moment came when we crossed under a bridge and watched a little girl riding the only working carnival ride. Up and down she went in the swinging seat, as an empty tune played and a bulbous, cheerful elephant's head winked above her. There are several decommissioned amusement parks here; this was the most eerie of all.

We walked on, asking occasionally for directions and not getting very far with them. We turned one particularly dark corner only to find people more surprised to see us there than we were. A table full of boys saw us coming and stood up, some calling hello, but we kept our pace. I was uncomfortable. We turned another and a teenaged girl took one look at tall Cam and gasped and walked away laughing excitedly, her hands clasped over her mouth.

Just as I was insisting we call it a night of defeat, a motorbike driver pulled up.

Sir? Madam? Motorbike?

We always say no, but we were rather desperate. This guy, however, was one of the many drunk drivers on the road. No thanks pal.

Phuc Tan Bar? he asks.

We asked him where it was, he waved in a general direction, and sure enough we found it about 100m from where we stood.

Inside we watched the band--a trio--cover some Clash songs. One girl dressed as a housewife in curlers, presumably her costume, and two guys, all Westerners, tried to rock out in the middle of the open floor, but their sound man suffered from fairly typical incompetence. The guy ended up yelling at him in Vietnamese over the microphone. When they could get it together it sounded pretty good. I think the girl leaned punk, but the clean-cut guys had their hearts set on metal, and the Czech guy polished off their set with some Eastern European heavy shit, which brought down the house comprised of their friends. You could only dig the mix of nonsense.

Back in the further reaches of the bar, one of the only ones open past 11pm on account of paying off the police, the scene unfolded. Expats of every variety, some in costume, sat at small tables or hit the dancefloor, greeted friends with double pecks on the cheek, and waved at the others, calling them over to share the latest gossip.

It was a lovely club, with two levels of open-air, covered terrace lined with plants and strung with red fabric lanterns overhead, and an amazing view of the Red River.

We drank our beer and left after a time. We picked up some baked croissants for the morning and had no trouble finding the route home, making our way through the dark, muted streets of Ha Noi.
12:38:00 AM

Sunday, October 26, 2003

No more hotel life for us--we have our very own apartment!

I called up a rental agent on Monday night, and met with Tien on Tuesday. I've been through the drill before: you give him some parameters about what you want, he shows up on his motorbike and you climb behind him, hold onto the seat and watch the sites go by as the two of you streak through this mad-traffic city. Tien showed us a couple of places( Cam had to be driven after me), and I liked them both. The second had more character, but it was being renovated so it was hard to visualize finished, plus the bathroom was a little grotty. Girls, do you not agree that creepy bathrooms will just not do at all?

So, we both liked the first one better. We saw it on Tuesday and moved in Wednesday morning. Easiest move I ever made. Usually my moves require recruiting parents and friends, hiring a van, and puffing up and down three flights of stairs in my old character building without lifts. Moving for years has included the hoisting of an akwardly-rolled futon, but not this time! We packed up our two suitcases, got a cab, and there we were.

Our apartment is US$300/month including laundry and cleaning. Utilities are minor but extra. It's a small little place, but not too bad. We have a big bedroom with wardrobe, desk and chair, a living room with couch and chair, shelf, TV (soon to be with cable) and fridge. We've got a little kitchen with sink, kettle, hot plate, and just yesterday we came home and there were kitchen goods there! Yay! Chopsticks, bowls, plates, and a tea infuser and BODUM! These things are precious here, you have no idea. Now if I can just manage to not break it like I have all the others... Have I mentioned all of the floors are a lovely cream ceramic tile? We have an oriental rug in the living area, and a bathtub in the bathroom! Also a luxury.

There are windows in every room. They are shuttered, then screened, then dark wood french-panelled with frosted glass, patterned squares. The doors are also dark wood with frosted glass panels. Crown mouldings. Ceiling fans are integral. We haven't used the air con yet, but I assure you we will.

We had some people over last night for a little housewarming, and we sat out on our private terrace. It's very cute and we took our mother-of-pearl inlaid (classy!) coffeetable outside, along with those teenytiny plastic stools we bought in the oldquarter and drank our big-bottled beers and whiskey.

Gotta go to work! More later.
12:51:00 AM

Sunday, October 19, 2003

I've had a nice Sunday so far. I woke late, had some fruit salad, then took a walk to the hairdressers that had been recommended to me. I got a shampoo, cut, blowdry and straightening for about $4.50. Someone finally cut the shit out of my hair, and I mean that in the best way possible. I asked them (well, showed them a picture, as they didn't speak much English) for a cut with a lot of shag, and they cut my hair faster and better than I've ever had it done before. I think it's rather rock and roll. Next time, I'll get a face massage, too and bring along the fiance. We'll take a pic of Jude Law for that one. Well, Jude Law pre-balding phase that is. Did you know Sadie Frost and her camp are calling him baldie? Just what the hell is Sadie's claim to fame anyway?

I was reading all about those two in the latest edition of NW. At least I think that's what it was called. Some folks from work brought in Australia's answer to People magazine (except slightly more trashy, and devoid of those insufferable "common man triumphs in the face of adversity" stories. I mean, who wants to read about some overweight mom with a cache of kids when we could look at snaps of celebs?) Magazines are like gold here. English mags, anyway. I am dying to read more English books, mags and NEWSPAPERS! The latter is the one I miss most. I miss my coffee (I went from 4 cups a day at home to none here) and paper on Saturday. I think you can get a Bangkok Post somewhere but it's not nearby and is likely pretty expensive. I have gone through a few books and I only have one or two left. That's when the trading with work colleagues will kick in. There is a good shop here, but I haven't made it all the way over there yet. Maybe when we start renting bikes next month.

The rest of my day was spent wandering the old quarter, exploring for good finds. Each street has historically been named after and known for a particular trade. So Hang Bac, my street, is silver street, and you can find many jewellery stores along there. I found streets dedicated to zippers/ribbons; motorbike seats/tailors specialising in denim/army surplus bags; high fashion; tombstones; plastic ware. All markets are in demand. When a street such as coal street no longer finds itself useful, that's when it becomes the new district for wedding cakes.

I found a cluster of stores selling wedding invitations. I might look into that if I can choose a card more understated that one with red hearts and pink satin.

Well, that's it for me. I finished my probation at work and it looks like I'm being kept on. It doesn't hurt at all that someone else quit. Everything really does work out in the end. Now only if he were leaving the country and selling his DVD player for dirt cheap...

Luv, TC
Please drop me a line. I'd love to hear from you.



2:44:00 AM

Monday, October 13, 2003

Surf and the State

We reached the beachside resort in utter convenience, taking the bus reserved for work outings. That's what's great about editing at a newspaper considered an arm of the State, (State, Government always capitalised): you may have to compromise your journalistic ethics, but you enjoy a few perks.
One of the other sub-editors had invited us to his second wedding, the first having taken place a few weeks ago in his native India with family, this latest one being celebrated in Viet Nam with hers. About 20 of us made the trip 3 1/2 hours south, seven subs, the rest Vietnamese translators. They are the ones who take the Vietnamese press stories and translate them for us to rewrite. The stories need a lot of work:

"The first time doctors have corrected the broken arm for a 3-year old boy at the Viet-German hospital" becomes "Doctors at Viet-German hospital have successfully reattached a three-year-old boy's forearm, the first such surgery performed at the institution." That one was easy. Usually, it takes a lot more detective work to glean what they've intended to say.

So, we pull up to the family home of the Vietnamese bride. (I still don't know the name of the beachside town. People have repeated it, slowly, for me, but until I get a handle on this language I can write little and speak less.) A portable tent was set up on the sidewalk, its colorful fabric walls flapping in the breeze. We were greeted by the groom, in a dress shirt, and the lovely bride in a traditional, pink silk ao dai. Her family invited us to sit down at a long table, at which the food promptly began to arrive. Bite-size chicken pieces, neither boneless nor skinless, fried spinach with garlic, shredded cucumber salad with peanut, warm squid with dill and mushrooms, soup, flavoured sticky rice, pork wrapped in banana leaves, crabs, jumbo prawns to dip in fish sauce. Watermelon pieces for dessert. Beer and sodas aplenty.

We spent about an hour and a half to get through this feast. Apparently that's much longer than most weddings last. People typically just get in, eat, get out. Once that wrapped up, we took our government, oops Government, vehicle to the beach, where we all checked into big rooms with balcony views of the sea. I took a walk with two Aussie colleagues and a recent grad from Columbia in NY alongside the beach, through the deserted streets of this resort town, now in low-season. We came across a pagoda and hiked along the cliffs of Tonkin Bay in the South China Sea.

Dinner was another long table spread with rice, fish, calamari, soup, spinach, clams, omelette, etc, ordered by our Vietnamese colleagues. Room-temperature, bottled beer was set on the table alongside an opener and an ice bucket. Beer on ice is an unexpected pleasure.

I have occasional moments of clarity on living in Viet Nam, when I marvel at where I am. I think my seaside trip was best punctuated by a "Holy, I'm living in Asia" moment, when I was forced to use a squat toilet again and keep the door closed by propping a big stick against it.

We capped off the night by sitting under one of the tarpulins covering the many cafes on the beach. We pulled up deck chairs, listened to the rain overhead while drinking split-ice cooled Johnny Walker Red, courtesy of the groom. Jon, known as Mr. Australia, passed around a cigar and even the tiny Vietnamese girls took big draws from the smoke.

Ha Noi has not been without its difficulties. Work visas, job security, and a lack of a permanent home has been tough. I have since gotten my visa, my job looks good, leaving only one to go. And soon enough, I hope I'll be able to tell you where in the hell I went a couple of weeks ago. And I'll be able to pronounce it, too.
3:17:00 AM

Packing 'em in

We never did make it to our favourite Ha Noi restaurant that night.

We had just gotten off a long flight and both crashed at about 5pm instead, ruined by jet lag. Cam, trooper he is, managed to sleep through the night. I, on the other hand, was subject to my familiar new-time-zone induced sleeping pattern, and woke up at 1.30am to take in most of What's Love Got to Do With It? on STAR MOVIES. Happy at rolling the dice well on this one, knowing with STAR, I could have gotten Airbud:Seventh Inning Fetch or The Good Son (offerings I have since been forced to watch out of desperation), I marvelled at Angela Basset's biceps. We managed to drag ourselves out of bed and spend a lazy day, buying candy and grazing at the Internet. On returning to our hotel, we noticed the miniscule tourist soap in the middle of the floor. Strange, we thought. I figured it must have gotten stuck on my shoe. Then something else: "Did you finish my candy?" I asked him. "No," said Cam. I knew I hadn't polished it off, but there it was--an empty bag. Someone's been in the room, we realized. "It was probably rats," I offered tentatively, knowing Cam thought me far too sensitive when it came to the critters. Sure enough, I saw something in the corner of the room, and when we pulled the fridge away from the wall, there were a couple of the candies underneath. I shivered.
"You're not going to be able to sleep here," Cam said.
"No kidding. I'll go see if we can change our room," and I went back to reception.
The hotel was full, the same hotel we'd stayed at when we were just tourists in Ha Noi in July, but she'd change our room for us tomorrow. In the meantime, could I borrow that packing tape, I asked?

I handed Cam the scissors as he stood on a chair and taped the wall's paneling from ceiling to floor. We stuffed some of the bigger gaps with plastic bags and taped it all up. I was able to sleep soundly.

We did change the next day. In my haste, I forgot precious cargo in the nightstand drawer: 13 rolls of unused film. This is the same film work colleagues had given me upon leaving the first time. When I left for India in May, I took the 200 ISO, hoping I could have it hand-inspected, but in the event agents would refuse, I could have it go through x-rays without too much potential damage. Agents had no trouble hand-inspecting all of it.
So when I left again, this time for Hanoi, I knew I'd have no trouble with the 400 ISO. I asked for it to be hand-inspected in Calgary, LA and Kuala Lumpur. They all obliged. Now, this precious film I had gone to so much trouble to safeguard was lost forever. I only thought of it about a week later, and by then, either other tourists or the cleaning staff had swiped it. I guess I should be glad it wasn't exposed. Of course, friends and family are probably disappointed it wasn't.

"You do have a very keen sense for the varmints," Cam said.
Yes, I would very keenly like to destroy them all. Damn varmints. Candy and film. They've struck at my very heart.

2:36:00 AM

Saturday, September 06, 2003

Back on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

I betcha thought (for those two still reading) that because my last entry detailed how I got engaged, and I haven't written since, that I'm all "Well, that's it for independent pursuits. I's a married lady now, I'm done." It's all "We think," this and "We plan to do," that from now on. Well, bullocks to you. I've just had a lot on my mind.

When we step on a plane in a few days' time on September 10th, we will have been back in Canada for exactly a month before taking off back to Asia. Cameron and I are taking jobs in Hanoi, Vietnam.

This month has been filled with initial inertia, followed by gluttony, anxiety and errands. We've picked the location for our wedding ceremony, reception, got some idea about a marriage commissioner (I should book Monday), researched and booked a caterer, researched and booked a photographer, made guest lists, tried to sell my car, rushed visas, arranged a flight, talked to all those institutions that like to keep tabs on you, saw family and friends, and watched a lot of tv.

I plan to write more, and on a regular basis, once we're settled. i.e. not homeless. Please cross your fingers for us that it all works out. We're really excited by this, but are completely flying by the seat of our pants. i.e. poor.

Talk to you all soon. Maybe I'll know some Vietnamese then, aside from mastering how to order noodle soup.

Love, Tracy
5:06:00 PM

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Nha Trang, Vietnam, July 24, 2003

Tomorrow was the deep dive--the big plunge.

Our advanced open water course now allowed us to go as far as 30 metres, and tomorrow would be the first time anywhere near that. The depth comes with some dangers, though: you run out of air much more quickly , you can get lost more easily because it's darker, and your chance of decompression sickness, or the bends, increases. In the face of this, I explained to him my fear:
as you ascend at the end of the dive, your buoyancy control device (like a lifejacket) expands with air as pressure decreases. It seemed that on a couple of previous dives, I'd float too quickly to the surface and the insturctor would have to grab my fin to yank me back down. You don't want a runaway ascent, particularly on a deep dive, because of the greater chance of the bends.

"Keep your eye on me, " I pleaded to Cam. "Don't let me get away."

And so we dove deep, to 27 metres and had a good dive, even sharing air with the instructor, Xuan, and a more experienced diver, Maire-Claude, with great comfort. The ascent was a gradual one and while I felt in complete control of my buoyancy, Cam kept a close watch over me.

We got back on the boat for a required surface interval before the morning's second dive. Over coffe we spoke with Marie-Claude, who while in France, dove once every couple of weeks and did it on her own. She was working towards a goal of 20 deep dives before her 50th birthday. Her husband had been on the boat the day before and tried diving for the first time, eager to understand what attracted her to it. He liked it, but didn't want to do it again. Marie-Claude explained to us she'd been diving for three years and loved it underwater--"It's so peaceful down there," she raved.

It is peaceful--quiet, calm, meditative, even. You hear little more than your own breath in and out, bubbles on the exhale. But Cam and I have discovered it together, learning a new skill, growing more relaxed. Marie-Claude's husband is missing out.

Time for thumbs down and air deflators up, we went underwater again for our second dive of the day. Cam laughs at the surface, just before the descent. "What," I ask. "You look cute in your hood, " he smiles. The hood is new for me, and while highly functional, tends to make me look like a seal.

We were down for nearly an hour, practising navigation with a compass, looking at coral, petting a giant moray eel, taking pictures. Cam reached for my hand and we swam side-by-side. We had now mastered our buoyancy and could swim together easily. We'd come so far. Xuan signalled it was time to finish the dive and ascend. I no longer felt anxious: I could control my ascent, plus Cam would look out for me. Cam swam over to the instructor and grabbed her underwater writing slate. I watched him write, sure he'd ask her why we had to head back when we still had air. But when he finished writing, he positioned the slate in my direction.

Will You
Marry
Me
love

I watched those serious eyes behind his goggles as my own filled with tears. We held hands and his question was answered when I made the okay signal. And I nodded just to make sure there was absolutely no confusion. We ascended, Cam not letting me get away. I climbed up the boat ladder after him, and he'd returned from the bow with the ring before my gear was off. He placed the diamond on wet, tanned hands and there were salty kisses, tears, a hug. We'd picked up a lovely ring in Singapore about a month before and he'd been carrying it around ever since, waiting for just the right moment.

It was just the right moment, and it took me by surprise. But this trip has been full of them--speeding by rice paddies on motorbikes in Laos, watching a lightning storm alongside elegant Hanoi's Hoan Kiem lake, dining by the sea in Malaysia, watching the lanterns by the river in Hoi An. The trip has had endless romantic moments--and it's had its adversity. Maybe something like marriage. And as much as we never want this trip to end, we have so much more to look forward to.
4:55:00 AM

Thursday, July 17, 2003

That's Rich

If life can turn on a dime, it seems I'm flush with cash.

I'm carrying pocketfulls of change around, ready at a moment's notice to flip a coin and alter the course of my life.
This week has been momentous, with the weight of my pockets sometimes too heavy with the heads and tails of endless decisions.

We were enjoying the sun and, more gratefully, the temporary shade, of Hanoi, sitting along Hoan Kiem lake, in the centre of a busy and pretty, cosmopolitan city. Halfway through thick Vietnamese coffee and fresh crosissants, I spy an ad for sub-editors at the Vietnam News.

"You should check this out, " I suggest to him.

And he does later that day, strolling over to the news agency's hi-rise building with the hi-polish floors and having a conversation with Mr. Fook. I meet up with him a few hours later, and after I've trolled the city's many art galleries, waking up staff after sleeping staff who sit up startled and quickly flip on lites and fire up the AC when I walk in. I was too gauche at first to know about the early afternoon lunch/nap and then too North American to honour it.

I walk back to our hotel room, the one we've secured for six American dollars a nite, including adjoining bathroom, AC and satellite TV--a deal the city wasn't offering to tourists before SARS.

"How did it go?" I ask casually.
"How would you like to live in Hanoi?" he answers, nonchalant.

And so now for the past five days we've been sizing up our life together: Do we want to live in a foreign country? What about my job prospects? How easy is it to get a work visa? Can we afford to go home and come back? How much is rent?

After five days of fingering the pocket change, we're spent. We've looked at it countless ways and I need to go home. We both have jobs here in September should we want them. It's an attractive option.

We fell in love with this city: couples sit on benches around the cobblestone-ringed lake and watch the sunlight play on the giant weeping willow trees as they hang above the water; pale Vietnamese women don hats and roll flesh-colored gloves onto their arms past their elbows to shield themselves from the sun. Everyone's on a motorbike. Men sit on low plastic chairs on street corners outside Bia Hoi stalls and drink draft beer and slap backs. Women sit and fan themselves or their newborns and eat endless bowls of soup. Loudspeakers positioned on street corners blare, on occasion, what we assume to be communist doctrine.

We have our final meal of the most delicious grilled, ginger-laced aubergine, fried morning glory and sesame beef with citron and chili, and say goodbye, perhaps just temporarily, to our favourite restaurant.

This city has given us more than we bargained for.
4:13:00 AM

Get Me the Hell to Vietnam

A young Lao entrepreneur sits pensive on the floor at home, working the books after a day on the job at the Internet cafe.

"I've got it, father," he cries enthusiastically. "We can boost profits dramatically if we merely raise our rates by 50 per cent and not tell our clientele!"

This is, at least, how I'd imagine the exchange went at home one day. We had been frequenting the cafe in Vientiane a few days in a row. Then on the last day, killing time between hotel checkout and our bus' scheduled departure, we spent two hours dawdling online. When we went to pay, the total was out of sync with what we'd paid before.

"19,000 kip? Why so much this time?" Cam asked.

The shrewd Lao points to a small sign overhead. Overnight, the rate has gone from 100 kip per minute to 150. We are pissed. And yet again our deep-rooted beliefs in proper Western business practises bubble to the surface.

"You can't just change your prices and not tell your customers! You can't up your rates by 50 per cent and not let people know about it," I said sternly.

It seems like a sweet deal to the Lao looking to make some quick cash; but he was already losing customers who heard the exchange, and logged off to go to another cafe down the street, a cafe charging the standard 100 kip/minute.
But try to explain that to him, and you just come off as a surly Western know-it-all. Free enterprise is still working out the kinks in Laos.

Good progress could be made if their entire population got a handle on the three currencies: the kip, the Thai baht, and the almighty American dollar (which hasn't been as strong as usual, to the advantage of our Canadian buck).
While most transactions are seamless, we sometimes come across tears in the fabric: Trying to buy bus tickets at our hotel, I want to pay the $22 American price in kip, Cam in baht. The hotelier says it's too difficult for him, so we take our business elsewhere. Hell, if two math remedials can do it, anyone can, but it's like shifting from one rudimentary-level language to another.

For instance: a beer is 7000 kip. There are 250 kip to a Thai baht, a currency we prefer for the smaller numbers and because it's 30 baht to a Canadian dollar. Seven times four...My nose crinkles and lines form on my forehead with the enormity of the numerical task. Cam's jaw goes slack and his gaze loses focus, vaguely settling on a plane far, far away.

Bus tickets bought, time killed, beer quaffed, we wait back at our hotel for the night bus to pick us up. It's expected to arrive at 6, but we get there at 5 just to be sure. Six o'clock quickly rolls around. No bus. 6:15. Well, things to be lax here. 6:30 and we're nervous. By ten to 7, the bus was to have left the city 20 minutes ago and we've just been fucked over.

"This is BULLSHIT," Cam spits. "I'm going to give that travel agent a piece of my mind." He is livid.

Our hotelier asks if we'd like him to, for a fee, call the guy who is supposed to pick us up. He won't take baht change, we're hesitant to part with our small amount of precious American cash, and as we're leaving the country, we've dispensed with all our kip. We are to understand that if left with Lao currency, you're S-O-L, because no one else will honour it.
Angry but desperate, we break a dollar and have him make the call. The driver forgot us, but is now on his way.

Our hotelier gives us back our change. My wallet is now full with useless Lao kip.

3:32:00 AM

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

I can't seem to string together my thoughts and experiences right now in any measure of cohesion, so here's a list of cool stuff I saw or did or ate recently:

Having Asian elephants snozzle up bananas from my hand and pitching them into their mouths.
Riding elephants.
Never getting enough of the elephants.

Enjoying the misty hilltops along the Mekong River on a 2-day slow boat trip from Northern Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Eating huge bowls of rice noodle soup with loads of cilantro and chili sauce every morning.

Rich Lao coffee.

Thatch-roof and bamboo houses everywhere. Cone-like bamboo hats, too.

Using my umbrella as a parasol as well as, well, an umbrella.

The old man and I rocking the 100 cc motorbikes out to a huge waterfall, alternately stopping to take photos of rice paddies and kicking into TOP GEAR.

Burberry's perfume from the Duty-Free shop.

Fresh fruit shakes made with ice, green melon and coconut cream.

Non-budget accommodation in Singapore with robes, clean bathrooms, TV and leather desk chair!


1:32:00 AM

Friday, June 27, 2003

Wetsuit Sans Seadoo

My hair hasn't been fully dry since last Tuesday. And my calves haven't been pain-free since the day after that. That was the day we went snorkelling the first time, slapping our fins against the turquoise Malaysian water, attracting the intense sun to my fleshy, white, Canadian legs. Snorkelling wasn't enough though, so we took a 4-day course in SCUBA diving, (or The Underwater World, intones the PADI, or Professional Association of Diving Instructors, corporate video, hiding no sense of wonder,) and now we're certified Open Water Divers.

"The only frontier left for us: space," I inform him.

We've now had four dives, officallly logged, in the South China Sea off Tioman Island, considered one of the world's best spots to dive. I can't tell you how much coral and can't possibly list the varieties of tropical fish I've seen in the 28-degree Celsius waters, mostly because I can identify neither flora nor fauna of any sort. I can tell you that breathing with a regulator underwater has become second-nature, (after some sound, initial terror) but I still run emergency scenarios through my mind throughout the day:

MAKE THROAT SLASH MOTION TO BUDDY, SIGNALLING "OUT OF AIR." TAKE HIS ALTERNATE AIR SOURCE. PURGE, BREATHE, CALM.
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DO NOT PANIC.
(But relax, says the PADI textbook, diving should be fun.)

The introduction to The Underwater World is likely the culprit behind the dreams I'm having --ship capers involving villains, plunging off the bow, and Kate Winslet. My main concern, though, is what I look like all geared up. "How do I look in my wetsuit?" I ask. "You look hot," he replies smartly, without missing a beat. And he looks cool, zipper up the leg to the chin, hair tousled.

Meet people, go places, do things, we recite, zombie-like, from the text. We remain unconvinced PADI is not a cult.

When we're not snorkelling or diving, we're lounging or eating: fresh garlic butter prawns, grilled squid, bbq stingray (also spotted underwater, and delicious) red snapper with chili sauce. Breakfasts are standard, but the fresh orange or watermelon juice, put in a blender until frothy and served with big chunks of ice in a parfait cup, are the best I've tasted.

The island is green and lush and plump with flowers and fruit. Ocassionally, you'll hear the crackling of fronds and then a dull thud as a coconut falls from a palm and hits the sand. Strolling anywhere, you hear the Malays call out hello in a sing-song and smile. At sunset, you go for a swim or swing in a hammock with a book. At dusk or just after, you hit a restaurant on the beach and watch the shrieking fruit bats in the trees, or the little kids, tooling around on their bikes, clad in pajamas and ready for bed. Crumbs of banana cake popped into mouths, we make our way back to our cabin right on the beachfront, turn on the fan to circulate the humid air and crawl under the green mosquito net strung from the ceiling.

"Good night, scuba," I say.
"Good night, my little aqua-naut," he replies.

And we dream of the underwater world.
6:26:00 AM

Yes, the Beatles came here

Rishikesh was just the ticket for our final Indian destination before heading off on the second leg of our trip: it was easy.

After spending a night in Shimla, paying outrageous amounts for bad-value rooms, jostling among the throng of Indian tourists wanting photos with us, being sick in a town without water for a night, Rishikesh was perfect. We found a cheap room right away and it was cool and the proprietor was friendly and we had our own bathroom, with water. And Rishikesh is the place I found my yoga pants. Light as a feather, in my favorite clothes color (black), and hanging well, they tend to elicit "those are great pants" remarks from others and make me stop Cam in the middle of the street to tell him how much I love my new pants, and him, of course.
I even had a chance to do some yoga in them. About seven of us turned up for the early-morning classes two days in a row, here in the world's capital for the practice. We followed along with our young Indian teacher, stretching "slowly, slowly" as his eyes rolled up under his lids, showing only the whites. Clad in an orange t-shirt emblazoned with OM in Hindi, he urged us to join him as he chanted in a higher pitch than I was expecting. The girl next to me with the celtic knot tattoo didn't, but I did, trying to harmonize. A regular yogic Sylvia Tyson.

We've been extremely lazy here; we spend our days eating brunch, then dinner. And it seems you go out in search of incense one day and you burn all the time in between. Cam is in search of the perfect grilled cheese. I usually order one, he covets it and we return to the same restaurant so he can order it the next morning. We've abandoned all efforts to eat indigenous; it's full-on Italian for us here. I've had delicious pasta and we've both enjoyed pizza, although Cam is certain he spotted a boy through the window carrying a take-out bag suspicously-shaped like a pizza into the kitchen's back entrance. "They farmed it out," he said, incredulously. It wasn't unlikely: we eat two meals a day, so we're hungry for that second one pretty early, while the rest of the civilized world eats at 8. It appears the kitchen staff isn't on duty until at least 7 o'clock. Which is probably why they kept asking me if my pizza was good--I bet they pulled Joe the Sweeper Boy in off the street to make the pie; the real chef wasn't on for an hour or more.

We spent the rest of our time here watching a new species of monkeys on the tree-canopied path leading to the mad part of Rishikesh; crossing back and forth over the Ganges on suspension bridges; watching the Sadhus in their colorful robes line each side of the walk, one with a prosthetic detached and placed beside him (an image I silently titled A Man and his Leg.)

The last night here I took some photos on the river Ganges. Hordes come here to bathe, with the men and boys wading in fully, stripped to shorts and splashing. The older gents dip up and down repeatedly. The women are on the periphery and scoop water gently onto themselves; only the occasional one will immerse herself fully clothed. Crowds gather on the ghat steps and sing songs; they buy small offerings of marigolds, incense and tea lights placed in little round pie plates and float them onto the river. Little flickering lights in the dusk.
5:28:00 AM

Thursday, June 12, 2003

On the Precipice

Whoever thought I'd come all the way to an exotic place like India and dine on four exquisitely boiled potatoes? (Add salt to taste.)

It may have been one of my most enjoyable meals yet. (Add a lot of salt.) They were even better than the package of biscuits the night before. I'd been feeling nauseous, unsure whether the cause was the altitude, at 3500 metres, or the antibiotics. I had been taking the pills in efforts to rid myself of that most common of ailments of the delicate Western bowel. The pills weren't working. Unless, of course, they were designed to make one feel utterly gastric and hopeless. So the boiled potatoes were just what the doctor ordered, if not for the delicate Western bowel, then for the delicate, nauseous Western stomach. The Lariam, however, while ordered by the doctor himself, did not fit the bill. The strong malaria preventative was disrupting my sleep. I usually have bad dreams, but they don't generally wake me up at night. I was now having dreams stemming from the invasive tactics of our last hotelier. For a girl who likes privacy of turf, I'd found he had simply been around too much, coming into the room unannounced, siring children who liked to lock our doors from the outside, etc. But what woke me one night was not nagging dreams, but the sound of the rodents. We never did see them, so were unsure whether to refer to them as rats or mice, ( I favored mice) but all the guests heard them. At a distance, listening to them rustling about in the attic overhead was tolerable, but it was when I could hear them scrambling in the dark of my own room that I reached the nadir of the trip, here in the Himalayan summits. My whimpering gave way to some terrified yelling. Cam woke up and turned on the lights, didn't see rats, soothed me and stopped my crying . I was sleep-starved, nauseous, hungry, grubby, smacked out on Lariam, and diorrhea-prone. Things could only look up.

Believe it or not, while my interior wasn't at its peak, the surrounds were spectacular. It's been our favorite place in India. The village is surrounded by mountains, adjacent to a mean river, a lot of trees and farmland. I can hear my sister now, as she'll look at my photos some day and ask, "Why did you go all the way to India to take pictures of what looks like British Columbia?" Answer: BC doesn't have yaks, complete quiet, horses carrying ammo for the Indo-Tibetan border patrol, friendly villagers in regional dress of grey woolen hats with jaunty green felt flaps. And you can't vacation there on five dollars a day.

It's a good thing we enjoyed it so much because it was a bitch to get there. We bussed it down from McLeod Ganj, taking an overnight stop in Shimla after ten hours, then getting up in the morning and doing another ten-hour run. We've somehow relegated ourselves to the public buses, rather than the chartered tourist coaches, and as such, cover relatively small distances in disturbingly large chunks of time. It's the worst of both worlds: covering about 30 kilometres every hour and driving like madmen. How, you ask? Steep climbs and many, many stops. The scheduled stops are designed to take on more passengers and generate more money. The unscheduled stops, of which we've had four in the last four trips, are of the bus has broken down or gotten a flat and we'll all stand around for an hour-and-a-half while it's repaired variety, and can only be designed to generate great frustration. The delays have run the gamut: kid decides to deposit his partially-digested lunch on the seat; goats are in need of herding; roads need ad-hoc paving without need for organized supervision; rockslides.

Once we reached our remote location, I wondered what my mother would be most horrified to learn: that the bus rides took place at ridiculous speeds on rutty, one-lane roads cut into the sides of mountains, thousands of feet up, where all corners are blind and involved backing up on narrow precipes to find common ground to let another bus or one of many gravel trucks by after near head-on collisions; or that we were forced to deliberately stick an electrical device into a bucket of water in the usual way of getting hot water, or that I had to receive medical care in the third world, er, a developing nation.

Health care is not a private affair in this country; matters seemingly confidential are not the domain of just patient and doctor. Cam and I arrived at the clinic just before it opened for the day, so we were sent into a room to wait for the doctor. The open door was ostensibly an invitation to my fellow patients to slowly walk by and gawk. And then when the doctor showed, and he and I discussed my symptoms, the entire room crowded just inside the door, and rushed his desk after he wrote out my prescription. ("They may not be USDA-approved, but they work just fine in India.") It was filled by laughing women who recognized the treatment for that common Western bowel ailment, and who laughed and waved away payment when they saw me clutching a 100-Rupee note: payment was one-quarter of one Rupee--less than one cent Canadian.

And who said I needed health insurance?
7:48:00 AM

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