Lisa’s Version of Life in Vietnam

At last I have a computer!!!  After 10 days of scouring for internet access, we now have a laptop each and are starting to organise internet access on a continuing basis.  Unfortunately, there is no cable access here (yes, we have been spoilt!) but the internet services are not as bad as one might imagine.  ADSL is available, and is the probably the service we will have connected.
  Where to begin??????  The last ten days have been crazy to say the very least.  The sights, the sounds, the tastes – this place really is a festival for the senses!  In fact, to the point of sensory overload!  I guess that our nerves were a bit raw when we got here, and therefore, we were acutely aware of all that was going on around us.  Perhaps that is a good place to start ? the adventure of actually leaving Australia.
Read the rest in more……..

Our flight was scheduled to leave Brisbane at 7am, Friday the 23rd.  Roy?s itinerary (which we hadn?t looked at since we received our tickets about three weeks earlier) stated that we were leaving from the international terminal, but flying via Sydney with a 1 ? hour stopover.  On our way to the airport, I decided that I would just check my itinerary to be sure that we were going were we were supposed to.  Surprise, surprise!!  My itinerary said we leaving via the domestic terminal to Sydney where we would then have to cross over to the international terminal. That meant that we would have to do the whole customs thing in Sydney.  We compared itineraries, and sure enough, they were indeed different.  After a moments discussion we decided that since QANTAS does not actually fly into Vietnam, but uses Vietnam Airlines as the carrier, our flight to Sydney was most likely domestic.  OK, so far no problem.  Since we hadn?t had breakfast, we thought we could have a quiet relaxing time in the departure lounge; have a coffee and a bite to eat.  It?s all good!!
We guessed correctly, however, this is where it starts to get tricky.  Being a domestic terminal, we could not send our unaccompanied baggage from this departure point.  OK, still no problem.  Thinking it was an international flight we had a couple of hours up our sleeve.  QANTAS staff sent Roy over to the international terminal to check in the unaccompanied baggage, while I checked us in for the flight through to HCMC with all the baggage we were taking with us.  Thankfully, we had managed to reduce our lives down to two suitcases each, one cabin bag each, and three small boxes.  One large suitcase (Roy?s clothes, of course!!) and the three boxes went as unaccompanied baggage.  So, everything is still under control.  At this stage it is about 6am.  By 6:15 I have checked in, got boarding passes ? all is well.  At 6:40 Roy appears back at the domestic terminal, but alas, he still has the all the unaccompanied luggage with him.  The unaccompanied baggage counter didn?t open until 6:45, and since our flight left at 7am, Roy couldn?t hang around to wait for them to open.  OK ? now the stress levels are starting to rise and we are both getting hungry.  Let?s not mention what was spent on cab fares!!!  We then go back to the counter we started at and managed to sweet talk someone into letting us send this luggage on the same flight, but to collect in Sydney.  We could then take it over to international and send it unaccompanied there.  Sweet ? everything is good again, except by this stage we have no time left to eat, or have a coffee, and only rather hurried goodbyes with Bianca and Emma.  After a few tears, we boarded and got into Sydney with no further adventures.  This period of calm however, was not to last!
The baggage took much longer than expected to come through, but eventually, we collected it and made our way to the international terminal.  This terminal was so busy, I swear every bastard in Sydney was leaving the country!!  Again, we experienced delay after delay after delay.  Forty minutes and $350.00 later, our baggage is on its way.  Surprisingly, Roy started to become quite stressed and I had trouble understanding why he would be stressed now that the ordeal was over, when he had been so calm and collected all morning.  Roy suggested that it might have something to do with the time and I then realised that our flight to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) left in 15 minutes, and we hadn?t even got through customs yet.  Now the panic was on.  As we are going through security I am hearing the ?Last call for passengers Beesley and Hornsby? type messages and yes, you guessed it, our boarding gate was the very last one on that section of the terminal.  I ran most of the way.  Roy walked as he figured that once I got there, they would wait for him ? smart bastard!!!!  So, after all that, we did manage to make the flight, and Roy and I enjoyed a couple of glasses of red at our first opportunity.  The biggest bummer was that we missed the duty free shopping, which meant no decent moisturiser for Lisa, and perhaps more distressing, no supplies of Bundy Rum to take with us ? what a tragedy!!!
The first few days in Ho Chi Minh City were amazing.  We arrived in the middle of Tet, which is a national six day holiday to celebrate the Chinese New Year.  Very few shops or markets were open. Enormous value is placed on this holiday period, since it is a time to celebrate with family members.  The streets and parks were adorned with yellow flowers (yellow being the colour for happiness) and Dong Khoi Street, which is the street we were staying on, was laced with bud lighting and looked not unlike a massive iridescent spider?s web.  Each night, the streets came alive with parades, marching troupes, colour that defies description and noise that simply must be heard to be believed.  The constant noise is the one thing I have come to accept, although not easily.  With the exception of the few hours between 11:30 pm and about 5:00 am, this city is a constant cacophony of noise.  There are thousands upon thousands of motor scooters that pour along the streets in a never ending stream while the footpaths are lined with people selling their wares, or services.  Everything from produce to meat, to key cutting, to motor bike repairs, right down to manicures, pedicures and haircuts ? and yes, they are generally all jumbled together somehow!!!  I find the noise the hardest to cope with at late afternoon.  Between 4:00 and 6:00 is the evening rush hour and everyone on or in a vehicle feels compelled to use their horn at leat every two meters they travel.  For me, this is a time when I like to relax and wind down a little, and the noise can become overpowering.  Last night when Roy and I were walking down the street we found this really nifty little bar and it didn?t take a whole lot of decision making processes to realise that this place would provide us with a moments respite ? the cold beer didn?t go astray either!!  Thankfully, where we live is far enough from the street to reduce the noise to a kind of background level that is no longer offensive ? its just there. 
On the Sunday after we arrived, we decided we try and find the Underground bar ? it is ?the? expat bar, and never got around to finding it last time we were here.  We managed to locate it with out any trouble and so in we wondered.  I can see why it is so popular with the expats ? very well done and I am not sure that I could even begin to imagine how much money they must make in that place.  I will save the story of who we met that night another time, but there is a funny story that I have to share.  Before we left the hotel, I had cleaned the inside of my platform shoes with eucalyptus oil as the inner soles were looking a bit grubby, and as Roy suggested, ever so slightly smelly.  Ok, shoes all clean ? off we go to the Underground bar.  We only had to walk about 100 metres from where we were staying to get there, so it wasn?t a huge walk.  After a few drinks each, a meal, a chat with some people and a couple more drinks, we decided to head back to the hotel.  The only problem is that as I got down off the chair, one of the straps on my shoes gave way.  I bent down to look at it and gave it a bit of a tug to see if I could slide it back in to where it belonged, and it came adrift from the other side!  So here I am, holding a strap of my shoe in my hand and wondering what I should do with it.  Roy thinks this is rather funny, but no problem – the shoe had another strap, and if careful, I was sure I could make it back to the hotel shoed.  As I got up and took another few steps, the other shoe started to fall apart, only this time both straps broke on one side.  By this stage we have made it to the front door and are now standing on the street and it is around 10:30pm.  One shoe is totally useless, so I am holding it in my hand wondering what I should do with it, and the strap from the other shoe.  I decided to put the dead shoe and the ?spare? strap in my handbag, and hobble with one shoe on, and the other heel raised, so it looked as though maybe I had a sore foot.  Well, that great plan lasted for another two steps, when the final strap on the remaining excuse for a shoe broke.  By this stage Roy & I are in fits of laughter, remembering that disasters are always funnier when you are half pissed!!  So, late at night, with garbage all over the streets, rats jumping all around, Lisa walks through downtown Saigon in bare feet!  You should have seen the looks I got from the concierge when we walked back into the hotel!!!  What happened was when I cleaned the shoes with eucalyptus oil, it dribbled down underneath the sole through the slits where the straps are inserted.  Being the marvellous product that it is, the eucalyptus oil dissolved the glue, and the straps simply gave way once they were put under stress.  Now there?s a trap for young players!!!  Must remember that for next time!!
The weather has been very bearable.  The nights have actually been quite beautiful ? very balmy, very tropical.  Of an evening Roy and I make ourselves a cool drink, climb the three flights of stairs to our roof top garden and just sit and talk with each other for a while.  It is incredibly peaceful, and something we have come to enjoy.  It gives the James Taylor song ?Up on a Roof? a whole new meaning!!!!  However, I will say that I have come to love the air-conditioning and the room we have set up as an office is so very civilised!!!
Which brings me to our house.  Before leaving Australia we made contact with a real estate agent (via the internet) and the first day after the Tet holiday we met her and went to look at a few houses.  This process is in itself quite a remarkable one.  The owner of the house is always present to greet you.  On each occasion it was the wife that conducted the business transactions, however, the husband was always in attendance, as were some of their children.  Generally, they would all try to speak at once, and since they felt it was important that we were aware of the cable television, it also was always on and the male of the household frequently changed channels so that we could know how many choices we could have with our television viewing (hmmm? men and remote controls ? some things cross cultural boundaries!!).  So perhaps you get a bit of an idea of the chaos that surrounds everything that happens here.  As fate would have it, the first house we saw is the one that we chose as our first preference and after a little strategic negotiation, we ultimately ended up moving in to. 
The house is very comfortable and is fully furnished (or as the ads say ?fully furniture?.  If in a cul de sac, property is described as ?nice house in dead end street?).  Most everything we need is here, and the extra desk and office chair was kindly provided for by the landlady.  We are now working on a bookcase and an extra shelf in the kitchen!!  The house is on three levels.  Main living areas downstairs (just off the street!) with a maid?s room behind the kitchen, two bedrooms (each with their own bathroom) are on the second level, and on the third level is a large room (set up as our office) and a roof top garden.  This probably sounds a little more luxurious than it really is, but several people have told us that we did very well, and most all at uni are amazed that we got ourselves organised so quickly.  So, by day 6 we had moved in to our house, organised bank accounts here, and negotiated our way through a somewhat complex process of hiring a housekeeper to start a few days later.  She is not as young and nubile as Roy had fantasised, but hey, that?s life, and a bit of bad luck for him really!!!  Our address is 337 / 14 Nguyen Dinh Chieu St, District 3, HCMC.  The street is pronounced ?nwin din chew?.  Gradually I am working pronunciations out!!!
The afternoon we moved in we made the obligatory trip to the supermarket to obtain a few supplies (toilet paper being one of the ?must have? items).  Another mind altering experience!  The supermarkets here (which are few and far between) are called cooperatives and the amount of stock, and variety of merchandise is boggling. The food section takes a bit of working out as very little is labelled with English, but we managed with the essentials, and although food is so cheap here, it is still nice to be able to sit in your own space sometimes and have a home cooked meal with quiet conversation.  In fact, last night was the first night I cooked in the longest time.  I made a delicious bruscetta which we enjoyed with a most pleasant bottle of French red wine.  It was the first time in 9 days that I actually knew what I was eating!!
There is virtually any type of food you would wish for available here, but like in most places in the world, if you choose to live like a tourist and not a local, then you will pay accordingly.  At the end of the street/laneway that we live on there is an amazing array of commerce, and during the course of the day, the food vendors change.  Early morning you can get pho (pronounced ?far?, which is a noodle soup and great for breakfast!); throughout the day fresh juices are available, which are chilled by chunks of ice that are broken off a huge block that is sitting nearby in a bucket.  Of an evening, it becomes a kind of open air restaurant that is very popular with the locals, and does a roaring trade.  After a stroll early this evening we decided to eat there since it is always busy (food can?t be too bad) and the people have been very friendly towards us and always smile, (they even helped us get some of our suitcases down to our house).  The food was excellent ? I have absolutely no idea what I ate, but it was satisfying, tasted great, and all for the bargain price of 8 000 dong each (about AUD 0.64c). 
While we were out on our stroll we found a tiny convenience store (for the want of a better description) where we were able to find dark rum.  Dark rum is like hen?s teeth here (more about chickens later!) and since we missed our opportunity to acquire some supplies of Bundy Rum, we thought we might just have to give it a try.  We were even more amazed when we found out that it was only AUD$2.00 for a 375 ml bottle. That would mean that a 700ml bottle of rum costs less than AUD$4.00, whereas a bottle of Bundy costs around $28.00 now.  The 1.25 lt bottle of coke to go with it cost AUD 0.70c.  When we got home and looked at the bottle of rum we discovered this delightful little drop is 64% proof.  What a bonus!!  All this bettered only by the fact that the rum does taste quite good ? not as good as a Bundy rum, but good. The other thing we needed was a power board to plug all our computer equipment into.  Just across the road we spotted a TV shop (well, kind of ? let?s just say there were old crappy TVs, TV intestines and TV entrails sprawling out on to the footpath) and we thought we would just see if maybe they also sold power boards.  As luck would have it, the shop next door sold all types of electrical components, and yes, there was the power board we needed, complete with power surge protector and overload cut out.  The price??? ? about AUD$4.80.  All in all, we considered it a most successful shopping expedition!!! 
The other thing I find amazing is that the garbage is collected every morning (I consider this to be a very civilised concept), but no one uses rubbish bins.  Garbage is just placed in plastic bags (often not too well, or else an enterprising dog or rat has got to it) and someone comes along pushing a small industrial bin and picks up the garbage.  If there is too much of a mess, then they generally clean that up too.  What is really surprising is that the point of collection is also the point of sorting.  This person opens your garbage and places paper and cardboard in one section, plastics and glass in another, and food and other crap in the third section.  The degree to which the rubbish requires sorting though, is largely dependent upon what enterprising sorts have already been through it the night before.  Imagine this: It is the first night we have moved into the house.  We have unpacked all our groceries and since we weren?t sure what time the garbage was collected in the morning, decided to put it out before we got too tired and either forgot or couldn?t be bothered.  It is about 8pm, we are both stuffed, lying on the leather couch watching cable TV while enjoying an icy cold rum and coke, when much to our surprise, a very old lady pulls up outside our gate, demounts from her pushbike, and starts to open our bags of rubbish.  She selects the little pearls of value (recyclables), puts them in the appropriate cane baskets hanging off her pushbike, and goes on her way to the next rubbish pile.  The enormity of contrast in those two different spaces in the once space in time did not escape me.  Matter of fact, I see contrasts like that all the time in this city and I am constantly amazed.
I suppose that I had better finish up episode one, even though there is so much I still haven?t shared. One thing I should let you all know, is that for the moment, there is no worry of coming in contact with chicken, dead or alive, in HCMC, as the day after we arrived all the poultry stalls in the markets were closed and all the chickens to be found were slaughtered.  In excess of 3 million chickens have been slaughtered and buried now in South Vietnam, and even if you wanted to eat it, there is no chicken or eggs to be found.  No chicken dishes are available in any restaurants or eating venues.  In fact, KFC closed its doors on Jan 22nd, and reopened on the 29th with a new look menu.  Wait for it ? its the Kentucky Fried concept, but with prawns and fish pieces ? classic shit, huh????  I am not joking ? the story actually took up a quarter of the front page of the newspaper just after we arrived.
Unfortunately, I haven?t yet told you about the people and the experiences we have had with them, but that will be the focus of the next episode.  So, after all this adventure, what do I miss from home??
(in order)
1. those that I love (be they family or friends)
2. those that I love (be they family or friends)
3. those that I love (be they family or friends)
4. Draino and Tish (my two cats)
5. the quiet
6. the sound of the birds
7. sitting out the back of our house late afternoon with an icy cold glass of Australian white wine and good company ? I don?t miss the house itself, but just that space.

And what do I love about here???
Everything, because it is everything about this place that makes it the experience that it is.  As I said before, this is a city of vast contrasts.  There is so much that is so supremely beautiful, yet right next to that, things that are so abhorrently ugly There is crass commercialism, and materialism, yet along side of it, abject poverty.  There is such savvy sophistication, yet the people in many ways are still so close to a peasant culture.  There are women that are so exquisitely beautiful and so feminine, that you could be forgiven for thinking that they have fallen from heaven, yet just as you are thinking that, you see their index finger disappear right up to the second knuckle, up one of their nostrils.  Alternatively, there are women with the most beautifully manicured toenails, yet their heels have cracks in them that could double quite effectively as bicycle parking racks.  There is mind-boggling chaos, but an underlying serenity ? nothing much really matters.
Perhaps what is most refreshing is the people themselves.  They are so tenacious, and so optimistic.  The past has no place in the now, and all they do is look forward.  It really is a land of enormous opportunity, but the best part is that the people really believe that.  It is a dynamic, vibrant, and exhilarating place to live.  I don?t feel tired inside anymore.  I feel physically tired, but I have never felt so alive in all of this life ? tired but wired. Although scary, unsettling, and unnerving, stepping outside of my comfort zone is the best thing I have ever done and something I had to do if I was to become all that I can become.
I hope you are all keeping well and happy and that you are soaking up all there is to experience in this incredible event we call life.
?Til episode two??..
love and huggles
Lisa grin