Sunday, September 6, 2009

Random blatherings...........

.....mellowing as I type this at a really nice cafe I first visited in April 2008 on the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, smoking a 555 and drinking a Singapore Sling.

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Ya gotta love a shampoo, conditioner, scalp massage, facial scrub and a haircut, all in air-conditioned bliss......all for 50,000 Dong.....

....or, $2.84 USD.

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Was beginning to write this post at home in Hai Phong a week or so ago when, in mid-sentence, I heard the bell clang repeatedly......

......'member the first time that I had heard this bell - it was my second day in Hai Phong. I was living in a classroom at the school that I used to work for.

"Oh...right fucking on!" I exclaimed. I ran and got my Dong and ran outside. "Cool! Man, I could use some Ice Cream right about now...."

It actually was the street-sweeper.

Street-sweepers here are NOT semi-automatic revolving shotguns, nor these tall, squat white slow-moving vehicles with these big-ass brushes on the bottoms of them. Rather they are just what the name implies: They're these women dressed in lime-green industrial coveralls with a hand towel wrapped around their faces who push a cart around and carry a primitive-looking broom who walk around and sweep the streets for part of the day (hence, WHY the Vietnamese litter EVERYWHERE at EVERY AVAILABLE OPPORTUNITY), and, for the other part of the day, they roam the alleys in front of residences ringing a bell to advise people to hand them their trash. There is no set day or set time - they come by my house, like, three times a day or so.....

......for this privilege, I pay the staggering sum of 7,000 Dong per month.

Thass 40 cents to you and I......

.......I still cannot bring myself to litter - to this day, I'll carry something with me when I'm out until I happen across a street sweeper (usually in less than two blocks or three minutes).

This is an incredibly thankless job, and, from what I'm told, The Government pays 'em absolute shit. So, whenever they ring the bell in my alley, if I've got trash, I'll hand it to them and toss in whatever pop and beer bottles and cans that I've got (usually several) 'cause they can cash 'em in. For Tet, I'm gonna toss 'em a tenner inside the customary red Tet gift envelope (A TEN DOLLAR BILL - NOT a 10,000 Dong note).....

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Vietnamese bill payment is yet another bizarre concept that I've encountered. But, much like the street sweepers and the refusal to go to automation, everybody here has to have a job. So, for your Internet, electricity, water, and garbage collection - you don't get a bill in the mail.

Nope not here.

They come by your fucking house in person and collect it! (Well, no - not THEM personally....but their representative....but still.....).

I had first encountered this shortly after I had moved into my new house back in April. I was walking down my alley towards home when I was approached by this old lady walking a bicycle. She handed me something printed offa an antique dot-matrix printer that I couldn't quite understand.....

....Tam was with me, and she snatched the form out of my hands and stated - "Oh. This is your water bill."

I just kinda stood there for, like, three minutes with a Jerry Brown-look on my face.

Finally, I snapped out of it.

"Uhhh....doesn't that come in the mail? I, who is this lady? She doesn't even have a water company uniform on, and...."

"What do you mean, 'come in the mail?' I don't understand....."

"Uhhh....well, like, your utility company sends you the bill in the mail, and you either write out a cheque and mail it back to them, or you pay it on their Internet site, OR, if you are feeling particularly ambitious, you go to their office and pay it in person."

"Really?" came the stunned response.


"Oh...well...there aren't many people who actually HAVE chequing accounts in Vietnam....and the same with credit cards. And (as I noticed from the number of people who ALWAYS cut in front of me in the checkout line at Metro and think absolutely nothing of it at all) we don't really like queuing at the water company's office, so this way is more convenient for us."

"Errmmm....yeah....I guess that makes sense....just weird, though....."

This works out to be a bit iffy with me, though, 'cause I don't wake up until, like, 10AM at THEE earliest, and then I'm often off traveling somewhere or at school teaching a class or contrast, somebody is inside a Vietnamese household about 99.7 percent of the time.

For smaller bills (like 100,000 Dong and below), the bill-collecting bicycle lady will pawn your bill off on a neighbour, who will pay it, then the neighbour will give you the receipt when you get home, and you pay them back.

The first time I had encountered THIS, I was like - "WTF? WHY is the next-door neighbour handing me this dodgy-looking piece of paper and asking me for money???" But, again - it's just how things are done here.

Larger bills (Internet, electrique, etc.), the neighbour is NOT gonna fork over two-or-three hundred thousand Dong and hope to catch up with you shortly in hopes of recovering it. Naw, you is on your own for that one. I found THAT out the hard way when, after allegedly trying to catch me at home for two weeks after my broadband bill was due, they shut off my Internet ONE DAY after FINALLY leaving a note telling me to pay the monthly tab of 388,000 Dong at FPT's central office.

HOWEVER, the next day after FPT shut off my Internet, they came by AGAIN and finally caught up with me. I forked over the buxx and within, like, four hours, my Internet was up and flying again - no re-connect fee or late fees or ANY of that bullshit.....kinda really liked THAT......

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And, on the topic of collecting money, I was on Minh Khai and I had bumped into a Vietnamese friend of mine that I hadn't seen in a couple of weeks. He runs a bit wild and fast, if you know what I mean, and generally is not the sort I'd want to hang out with on a daily basis.

We had sat down at a coffee shop and, over a few Singapore Slings, we were catching up with each other. I had been deathly sick for a few days last week and had been very busy with the school. He was telling me how he was either at MDM or The Sound Club every other night this past week (which are two of the six Hai Phong nightclubs that blare irritating-ass techno-disco bullshit from every corner of the building). This is a lot less impressive than it seems on the surface, since every business in Hai Phong is required by law to shut down by midnight.

We went on, and I was telling him about how I had to turn down an offer to teach a small class at a prominent local school because they really wanted Tam and I to teach two classes a month (on fucking SUNDAY, can you believe it - leaving me essentially TWO days off per month) at 500,000VND for both of us per 90 minute class - three hundred thousand Dong less per class than they were paying now at another English language center (and we are better quality instructors than what they're getting now). Tam was willing to do it simply for the exposure for our school......but I had told Tam to politely explain to them that, on Sunday, we don't even wake up for less than 800,000 Dong.......

My friend also told me his tales of the week, about how a mutual acquaintance of ours was deathly hungover all day today from too much ecstasy and booze from the night before....and he showed me pictures of his daughter on his iPhone, when I had asked him:

"So ______, what is it that you do for a living again?" (because I never really asked him before).

"Oh, I loan money to people" came the reply.

"Oh! So you work for a bank?"

"No....I just personally loan money to people" he explained "and they pay me back with much more money."

"Oooooh.....OK.....gotcha - you're what we in The West call a loan shark."

So I asked him - "So, doesn't that get the police on you? I mean, isn't that not legal here in Viet Nam?"

He mis-understood the question - "Không. WHY would it get the police involved? I mean, they are borrowing money from me, not from the if they don't pay it back, I will take care of them, not the police......."

"Whaaaa....? I'm sorry, _____: I don't follow......"

"No, I mean, that I and my friends will take care of things if the person I loan money to does not pay me back.....not the police."

"Right right'll kneecapp ' THAT part....but what is this about the police and banks?"

"I do not understand. Sorry?? 'kneecapp?' What does this mean?"

I then explained to him the time-honoured American tradition of private money lenders taking a 18-inch metal pipe (or other suitable instrument) swiftly and quickly to the knees of the delinquent lendee.

"Vâng! Vâng!" he stated with a very faint smile.....

"Right. And in most Tay nations, what you do for a living is not legal" I explained. "What I am asking you is if what you do is allowed in Viet Nam?"

"I do not understand - the police do not care about me and who I lend to because I am not a bank."

"Right. But what are you talking about?? I mean, do the police care who the banks lend to? Now I don't understand......"

"What?? Of course the police care about who the banks lend money to."

"Huh? Why??"

"Because if the person who get money from bank does not pay bank back, the police have to know where that person is to find them."

My drink almost fell out of my hand.

"GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!! Are you serious??"

"Of course. So they do not care at all about, I give person money, they don't pay me back, me and friends find them, not the police. So bank give someone 50 million Dong, that person pay bank 60 million Dong. I give someone 50 million Dong, that person pay me 85 million Dong."

"No shit? see, in America - you borrow money from the bank, and do not pay it back, then the bank says bad things about you to others on your TRW. Then, the next time you need money, and you go to borrow from another bank, the other bank will not give you any money because you did not pay the first bank back."

"What is the 'TRW'?"

"It's kinda like our version of your National Identity Card......."

(ed. note - from what I understand, the police take a sweet kickback for providing this "service" to the banks)

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I was walking down my alley last week when I had caught, out of the corner of my eye, a rather weird looking fellow. Not weird-looking at all to
me, but he looked like he didn't quite fit in with the surroundings and people in my alley....exception being that he wore the older Vietnamese male costume of a white wife-beater tank top and a pair of light blue boxer shorts.......but, wait - something was weird.....did a double-take and finally figgered it out......

....riiiiiiggggght! Right. He didn't LOOK Vietnamese.

I clenched my fists and locked my teeth and spat! What the fuck was THIS??!?

Basically, I do NOT live on Minh Khai (thee place where Hai Phong's twenty or so Westerners live and hang out at), and my alley (pictured below) is a bit hidden and about as non-
Tay as they get....and, Goddammit, i LIKE it that way! These are MY Vietnamese.....and I AIN'T gonna share them wiff another Cracker!

My alley - facing East - my house is the pink one next to the bookstore and across the alley from the tarp-shelter covering the pain-in-the-ass tea shop where the unemployed guys sit and hang out and bullshit all day literally four feet from my front door...

Same alley - facing West.....

I mean, I'm sorry, but I am a strict adherent to number 71 on the list! I mean, Christ - WHY do you think I always eat at Chinatown restaurant on Murray and Walker in Cedar Mill (besides the simple fact that the food KICKS ASS)??

Found out later that this guy's name is Eric and was a buddy of my friend Finchy. Met Finchy out for pints one day, and Eric was there. Really nice guy, actually.....but he said that he'd be heading back to New Zealand soon forra while, possibly for good.......

....fine by me - now, can I please have MY alley back???

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Hadta (once again) escape the skull-crushing boredom that is Hai Phong , so I woke up one morning a couple weekends ago and decided to piss off somewhere.....but where?

Hanoi? Naw...been there too many it too well....

Cat Ba Island? this fear of accidentally jumping on the slow boat again.

Bai Chay? Nope - was just there with Tam recently.....

Ho Chi Minh City? And what? Hop on a plane for a trip lasting a day-and-a-half? Don't think so....and besides - too many Crackas there.

Well, shit: Where, then?

Time to grab the Vietnam road atlas.

All right - so, I look down the coast for some place that has a little beach-umbrella-and-sunbather icon on it (indicating a beach of some sort....though the quality of these beaches varies greatly). Figuring that wherever I pick cannot be more than 160 kilometres from Hai Phong (again, got, like, a day and a half to spend away from Hai Phong - so, realistically, it'd be maybe a three-hour ride at most), I notice this one site on the map in small print called Thinh Long.

"Damm, that looks kinda out there" I figured to myself. But I figured, since I'd been to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City enough times, and I reside in Hai Phong, that it would be a good time to finally see The Provinces.

The Provinces are basically considered to be ANY AREA outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Hai Phong, Da Nang or
Cần Thơ. In America, The Provinces would be called "The Sticks", "B.F.E." or "Wyoming."

So, analyzed the atlas, figured that I'm not looking at more than three hours each way riding hopped on the scooter and took off South.

No worries! Hey....should be 5/8th of the way there when I hit the City of Nam

Well, thass when the worries began.

For starters, the road atlases of Vietnam don't have blown-up pictures in the corners of the pages showing a city IN GREATER DETAIL (like Western atlases do). Add to this the fact that in Nam Dinh, a city of about 200,000 inhabitants, there are DEAD-FUCKING-ZERO signs indicating what street you're on OR the direction to other nearby towns and cities. Well, that's OK....the locals know where they're need for signs of any sort!

Moreover, this city has a drainage system that removed water from the streets of the city after a 60-minute downpour about as well as the Yugo provided reliable, safe transportation. So this resulted in several detours.

90 minutes later, I gave up, pulled my GPS out of my backpack, turned on the compass feature, and, ten minutes after that, I was headed out of the city going southbound., I hop on to the road going towards Thinh Long. The atlas showed the road from Nam Dinh to Thinh Long as a secondary road. Now, what the atlas shows as primary roads are the ones that I take from Hai Phong to Bai Chay, Hanoi, etc. and have no worries on., based on that hypothesis, the secondary roads would maybe be equilivent to Route 5 from Clarence to Batavia, or Highway 6 from Banks to Tillamook. Cool.....

As Bender said in
The Breakfast Club - "Not even close, Bud!"

Only half of the distance to Thinh Long was paved (and I use the term "paved" veeerrrry loosely, as there were potholes that would swallow a car in places on this thing). The width of this road was such that two cars going in opposite directions would take about 35 seconds to pass each other. When a bus was coming at you, you basically pulled your bike off the road into the rice paddy so that the bus could pass.

I was warned in Nam Dinh NOT to take the road to Thinh there could be Viet Cong guerrillas behind any bush lying in wait to ambush me.

The remaining 50% percent of the road to Thinh Long was basically ungraded dirt and some gravel.....ALWAYS a treat to ride on.

Two bicyclists on the road towards Thinh Long.....

It was 110 kilometres from Hai Phong to Nam Dinh, and fifty kilometres from Nam Dinh to Thinh Long.....NOT counting time spent getting lost in Nam Dinh, it took two hours to get from Hai Phong to Nam Dinh.......and two hours getting from Nam Dinh to Thinh Long.

Made it to Thinh Long......

The skooter on the outskirts of town as I approach Tinh Long........

.....didn't know WHAT to expect. Figuring that it was the only beach for miles, there would prolly be a fair amount of activity around this town.

It was bizarre - a lot of these folks had never seen a
Tay (foreigner) before, and as I rode my skooter down the beachfront promenade (where there is a string of, like, forty hotels and restaurants), people sitting out front were literally almost attacking me - "Khong, Khong! ở lại đây....tốt hotel, tốt hotel" ("No, no!! Stay HERE....nice hotel, nice hotel").

Judging by the severe lack of people about, and the desperation of innkeepers for me to lodge at their establishments, it looked like I was not only the first
Tay that they had seen in a long time....but also the first tourist!

Beach was decent....not Oregon standard by any stretch......but I'd say equivalent to Bai Chay and a LOT cleaner than Doson. Still, like any place in Vietnam (or Southeast Asia, for that matter) that attracts tourists (or, in this case, that THINKS that it will attract tourists), there were hookers. BUT they weren't out and openly about like in Doson.

I had discovered just WHERE the hookers were by quite an embarrassing misunderstanding. I had just gotten back to my hotel around 9:30pm from walking the promenade and sitting on the beach after a late dinner. I had noticed that my skooter wasn't out front where I had parked it. I had used the grunt-and-point to the hotel manager/check-in guy/whatever person to ask him what's up with my skooter. He then replied something back to me and showed two fingers and I THOUGHT (with my absolutely piss-poor understanding of the Vietnamese language) I understood him to say something like "We got you're skooter inside and it's twenty thousand Dong for parking it inside" (which is standard in Vietnam). To this, I stupidly nodded my head and gave the thumbs-up sign.

Well, ten minutes later.....imagine my surprise when a scantily clad girl knocks at my door and walks in and starts rubbing my Dong.

Oooooh........Oooooooh.....OK - NOW I get it - he was telling me that, for two hundred thousand Dong, I could have a girl sent up to my room......ahhh.....right.......

So, thee only way to get rid of this girl was to shrug my shoulders and pull out my pockets and try to explain in my horseshit grasp of the Vietnamese language that I haf no money.....

....this worked, but not before she used her version of the grunt-and-point and pointed to her cell fone and wrote down her number on a piece of paper, and pointed at me and made a fone-call gesture with her hand and her ear.

I told her - "Sure thing, Babe....give ya a shout next time I'm in town."

What was creepy though was that, the next morning, for some bizarre reason, I had actually gotten up rather early and had walked down to the first floor lobby. Walking out of a first-floor hotel room right by the lobby, stretching her arms and yawning, was that same girl. Putting one-and-one together and knowing that it wasn't a guest's room because I was thee only guest in that hotel [and prolly in the entire town] that night, I had figured that when she gets a John, the hotel takes a big fat chunk out of that 200,000 Dong and leaves her a little bit and gives her food and lodging. And someone else probably owns the restaurant in the hotel, and for every 100,000 Dong meal, the restaurant operator probably give the hotel owner a nice piece of that for having a place to do business and for providing a kitchen and dining area. about providing in-house services......

Thinh Long was a fascinating place. It's like a ghost town just waiting for the tourists to show up! I mean, the Karaoke bar-cafe-restaurant-hotel room to residents ratio is like 2:1! And this was early September!! Prime season, so it wasn't like I showed up in February and wondered where all the tourists went.

The empty street right near the beach promenade....cafes, Karaoke places and broken dreams in early September.....

One of the main streets of Thinh Long.....

Rush hour on the high street of Thinh Long......

What appeared to be a wonderful restaurant serving such delicacies such as gà, mèo, thỏ, and that ever-popular favourite, chó (I'll let you figger out just what the hell those are).....but, sadly, I just wasn't that hungry.....

But, shit - some decent advertising and infrastructure improvements (like that Goddamm road from Nam Dinh) and who knows?

Actually....naw.....leave it the way it is.....I kinda like it this way......



HRD said...

Dude, you need to write a book about being a Yank in 'Nam. You can get paid for this stuff. Great reads!

Anonymous said...

E -
Wow, what a trip...literally.

Here's to ChinaTown!!

Actually, that corner isn't considered Cedar Mill(Butner and Walker, Murray built much later). It was originally called "Skookumville" based on the Chinook word "skookum" which has a number of meanings. However, the corner was named as to be "first rate, really good or right on, excellent!" (verified at wikipedia). That can describe both your blog and the food at ChinaTown. When I attended the nearby junior high in the late 1970's, there were a few ramshackle storefronts at that corner where ChinaTown now sits. Maybe some of that karma also extends to the multinational corporation headquartered across the street.


-E- said...

Thanx, V - but I feel that some things (like health care, education and decent story-telling) were meant to be rights for all instead of privileges for the affluent elite.

Hacksaw - Yeah....actually, that intersection is a bit too far to the south to be Cedar Mill......good Geography there on your part.....

.....I think you have just replaced Osterberg as the person with the largest mental database of information pertaining to Eastern Washington County. I mean, you knew about Beburg when even John wasn't totally sure about that one...

...funny that it is still listed on a couple online maps like Yahoo Maps still display Beburg but that Mapquest and Google maps and Microsoft Live.Local (now called "bing") and Rand McNalley have all removed that designation.

Still, The U.S.G.S. STILL has it on a 4 1/2-minute quadrangle, and I regard them as authoritative, sooo.....

The food at ChinaTown and the Site Development Gang are both Skookum!

Give my love to Vicki and Peter and Glen and Bernadette!


Anonymous said...

Hey E-
Consider the love conveyed and shot right back!
If you drew a Venn diagram of Osterberg's and my mental database, they compliment each other but mine is far more Beaverton-Cedar Hills centric. I rode my bike from the age of nine to sixteen on nearly every street within a six or seven mile radius after studying any map of the area I could get my hands on. The old Beaverton airport and Cent-Wise Drug store (in the Cedar Hills Shopping Center)had very old people who told me about the way things were during the Great Depression and earlier.

In any event, your adventures are a kick to read! Keep it up.


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