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

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