Banal cruelty

Every society and culture has different ideas about an animal’s purpose and treatment. In Viet Nam, a dog’s purpose can range from a treasured family member* to a source of meat. Eating dogs is slowly being unpopular, but there is still an average of 5 million dogs killed for their meat every year.** Dog meat is a more commonly eaten in the north, so I rarely see it here in the south. That isn’t to say that I haven’t seen dog carcasses in the markets; their fur burnt off, their blacked lips stretching their mouths into a permanent growl…

But this isn’t the cruelty I’m writing about. This is about the dogs that live, but are being left. Alone. All day. All night.

Dogs are pack animals; the entirety of their happiness hangs on being with others. When dogs are left by themselves they don’t think, “Terrific, now I can work on writing my novel…” No, their whole world stops when they are left. For them, being isolated is a punishment.

Below is a little Phú Quốc Ridgeback pup chained up on a Saigonese street. I don’t go near strange dogs, they tend to be a little on the bitey-side, but this one looks so dejected that I couldn’t walk past. I whistled at him. He flicked his ears, but otherwise didn’t move at all. I approached him slowly and carefully, holding my hand out for him to sniff. Nothing. A quick scratch behind the ears. Nothing still.

Whatever spirit this pup possessed, had since fled the foot long chain and left behind a sad, lonely little creature.

Phu Quoc Ridgeback pup, far from the island paradise that created it.
Phu Quoc Ridgeback pup, far from the island paradise that created it.

A little pup with an obvious eye infection and limp, chained up outside its house. It was panting and covered in its own saliva. I gave it some water in my bag, it was thirsty and drank more than I expected.

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This is an example of a guard dog chained to a front gate. I don’t think they deter thieves, as much as they make some noise if people come to the door. I see dogs left like this all the time outside homes and businesses.

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Tight chain. No water. No shelter.

These dogs are obviously given food and water, but in all my time in Sai Gon, I’ve only seen a handful of dogs being exercised on a leash. Most dogs walk around the streets by themselves or don’t walk at all. When I’ve asked, people say that they chain up their dogs so they don’t run onto the street or get snatched by dog thieves who sell them to the dog meat trade.

This is reasonable, I suppose. But just because you are protecting a dog from a potential, terrible situation doesn’t mean that you can’t provide adequate care and attention. To say that there are dogs that are treated worse does not mean that dogs shouldn’t be treated better. Being neglected is also harmful.

Pet shop
Pet shop

*There are some really terrific pet owners in Viet Nam look after their animals beautifully and provide them with food, water, shelter, leadership, exercise, grooming, training, veterinary care, companionship and protection. I also understand that not all owners live in ideal situations, but they still do the best they can for their animals. Looking after animals is a lifelong commitment, which can be difficult, time consuming and expensive. But it can also be one of the most rewarding and loving relationships you will experience.

**I understand that meat comes from living creatures that are slaughtered, but while there are regulations for slaughtering cattle, sheep and poultry, there are none for dogs. It is common for dogs to be bludgeoned, burned, hung, or stabbed to death; in full view of a cage of terrifying dogs waiting their turn. There are dozens of examples of it online if you don’t want to sleep peacefully again.

Improv

I stop by the supermarket on the way home from work.

My local supermarket is a fairly standard, western-style affair with air-conditioning and florescent lights. If I don’t look too closely, I feel as though I am back in my country for a few moments as I walk in the door. But as I stride past the aquariums overcrowded with live, gasping fish and rows of pigs’ feet, my nostalgia extinguishes.

I’ve run out of laundry detergent and walk over it find some. There are a bewildering array of options; I settle in and start running my eyes across the brightly coloured bags. A store employee notices that I’ve been staring at the laundry detergent for some time and decides that it must be because I don’t know what I’m looking at. With most products in the supermarket she’d be right but in this instance the pictures of sudsy clothes tumbling in washing machines on the bags leads me to make a deduction I was reasonably confident in. She gestures to the bags of laundry detergent and mimes washing clothes with her hands; I watch for a moment and admire her perfect use of non-verbal communication. I nod and begin to copy her. We wash our imaginary clothes together in aisle 5, smiling at each other in perfect accord. I’ve almost finished washing my make-believe underpants when she is finally satisfied that I understand the use of the products on the shelf and leaves me to my deliberation. I sniff several bags of laundry detergent until I find the one that will make my clothes smell like a wildflower meadow after rain and place it in my basket.

I remember that I’m down to one roll of toilet paper at home and head in the direction to get some more. I stop suddenly when I see my new friend next to the rolls. Probably best to skip that particular improv session; I’ll come back for them tomorrow.

This is not to say that I didn’t really appreciate that woman’s efforts to help me and everyone else that has gone above and beyond to aid this hapless stranger in a strange land. I’ve lost count of the number of times people communicated with me through stilted English and French, mime, pointing, drawing, and once, animal noises. Thank you for learning more of my language than I have of yours and for your patience in the face of my ignorance.

Thanks Saigon!
Thanks for all the peace signs, Sai Gon!

Weighty issues

Travel guides usually include a charming story about some foreigner going to Viet Nam, the locals look them over and promptly proclaiming them fat. The foreigner takes great offense until they are told that being fat is wonderful and a considered great compliment. ‘Just one of numerous, hilarious cultural misunderstandings you can expect in Viet Nam.’

This is bullshit.

Well I should say that this story is bullshit now. It was a compliment in the past; for many years, the average Viet person struggled to get enough nutrition. Only the wealthy and connected could afford to get plump and everyone else stayed thin. So yes, for a long time being a little husky was considered a good thing, but not now and certainly not in Sai Gon. People in Sai Gon, especially the youth, have been soaking in a heady mix of K-pop, Hollywood movies and Vogue magazine. Being lean is most assuredly ‘in.’ So unless you are somewhere particularly rural, poor or isolated being called fat isn’t the admiring comment it used to be.

Don’t get me wrong, foreigners will still probably be called ‘fat’ quite often. I was talking to a Vietnamese friend of mine about a mutual acquaintance and the conversation pretty much went down like this; “I know (that person), she is fat…oh yes, so fat.” The person in question is a little on the heavy side and my friend employed typical Vietnamese forthrightness and just told it how it was.

Now, this acquaintance doesn’t actually have the silhouette of a walrus with an underactive thyroid, far from it! But that is the tyranny of comparison. Vietnamese people are small in proportion; even the slimmest, western foreigner will usually look large  standing next to them. Hell, even the clothes manikins can’t zip up the Vietnamese-sized jeans they are modelling.

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Maybe go up a size?

I should note that plump babies and children are still considered a very good thing in Sai Gon and everywhere else in Viet Nam. Parents want really chubby babies and there is much hand-wringing when a kiddy doesn’t have a good couple of rolls on their thighs.

Goodnight Sai Gon

Some nights there is no sleep to be found in my restless city; sometimes it is the heat and humidity, occasionally it is the flashing neon lights. But usually it is the noise. Most of the sounds are familiar to me now, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the power to keep me from falling asleep. The sleeplessness gives my mind time to wander and compose childhood inspired verses.

Goodnight motorbikes, goodnight cars,

Goodnight tourists drinking in bars.

Traffic

.

Goodnight rats, goodnight bats,

Goodnight street children asleep on mats.

.

Goodnight boys sweeping the street,

Goodnight yowling cats in heat.

Cat

.

Goodnight woman selling her bread,

Goodnight monks praying for the dead.

Funeral

.

Goodnight mosquito in my ear,

Goodnight men drunk on beer.

.

Goodnight roosters trained to fight,

Goodnight workers at the building site,

why do you work so late at night?

Cocks

.

Goodnight geckos that go ‘cheep,’

Goodnight taxis that constantly beep.

.

Goodnight karaoke in the air,

Goodnight Sai Gon noises everywhere.

Overload

I’m not the best person to hear tourists’ “I saw the craziest thing on the road today” stories. For one thing I probably see the same thing or more disastrous almost daily and I don’t feign surprise or interest well. And worse, I’ll probably share one of my own inconceivable stories that comes from a solid year on the Sai Gon streets. Either way, I’ve robbed their ‘four people on a bike’ story of its magic. I don’t like this part of my personality and I’m really trying to work on it.

To purge myself, I’m sharing some of my best/worst photos of overladen vehicles and improbable cargos. These photos are a simultaneous testament to people’s ingenuity, pragmatism, craziness, and desperation. Generally these people and their cargo are trying to make a living or just getting from one place to another; just stand back with your faces set to stunned.

An entire pottery shop on a bicycle.

Overload cups
If this was my bike, there’d be broken pottery just everywhere.

A lot of people train their dogs to ride on their bikes with them; small mixed breeds, terriers, pugs, etc. This guy gets his Great Dane to squeeze itself in front of him. I ran down the street after them.

Overload Dog
My 9kg terrier used to get the entire backseat of a sedan to himself and still managed to find something to complain about.

Another mobile shop; if you can’t find the basket that you want here, then it probably doesn’t exist.

Overload baskets
You don’t even have to get off your motorbike to buy that gourd you needed!

So many plants on this mobile nursery, that I couldn’t see the rider.

Overload florist
Just a palm tree taking some orchids on a ride.

I think it is only sheer willpower and good intentions that is keeping this motorbike and cargo together. Maybe some rope too…

Overload Garbage
You can’t imagine how uncomfortable this is.

Tourist cyclos (most tourists call them tuk tuks) do double duty taking cargo around town. Saigonese people are daring and skilled motorcycle riders, but not ‘four queen-sized mattresses’ talented.

Overload Mattress
Note the garbage collector to the right of the picture also – this is what hard work looks like. 

These are light, plastic containers but the size of this cargo alone makes riding extremely difficult.

Overload plastic
I walk past the woman that owns this motorbike most mornings, we’re ‘waving buddies’ now. 

Sadly, this is the best example I have of long poles being transported on a motorcycle. I never seem to have a camera when I’ve seen full-length street lights being transported this way; one on either side of the bike for balance. Maybe one day.

Overload Poles
You don’t want to be riding next to them going around corners.

Almost colliding with 30kgs of water spinach is a typical, early morning event near a traditional open-air market.

Overload veggies
Vegetables that are so keen to be sold, they drive themselves to market.

This is my best/worst photo of an overloaded Saigonese vehicle. He could barely reach the throttle to start moving and his riding looked pretty wobbly. Even the Saigonese native standing next to me couldn’t believe what we witnessed. This is why your stories don’t impress me.

Overload last

Cargo witnessed, but not photographically recorded.

  • Lobster tanks with water oxygen system – fixed to the back of a motorbike.
  • Small refrigerator – held by a motorcycle pillion passenger.
  • Box of live tree snakes – fixed to the back of a motorbike.
  • Small mahogany armoire – held by a motorcycle pillion passenger.
  • 60 live gold fish in bags – hung from frame on motorbike.
  • 1.5 metre, potted mandarin tree – strapped to back of motorbike.
  • Live, baby black bear – dragged in a cage behind a motorbike to advertise a circus during Vietnamese New Year traffic (the worst, craziest and loudest of Vietnamese traffic). I’ve never seen a more terrorised and frightened creature in my life.

Shuffling

I both love and resent to the wet season. I enjoy the cool change the afternoon rains bring after the oppressive humidity of the late morning and the way the water washes the city clean and dampens down the pollution. But with these good tidings come the daily flooding of several districts and being periodically soaked to the skin regardless of how many umbrellas and rain coats you carry around. Seriously, I partake in an involuntary, impromptu wet t-shirt competition every evening when I’m working home.

Ever damn afternoon
Ever damn afternoon

As I spent a great deal of my childhood on the East Coast of Australia, my version of wet weather gear was shorts, thongs (flip flops) and a t-shirt. The temperature was never that cold, you wore less clothing so you would dry out quicker. This antipodean thinking was easily transplanted in Sai Gon, where the temperature even warmer than Australia and the drying out happened quicker.

But the one thing I couldn’t reconcile was the layer of mud I was covered in all my waking hours. From my feet to above my knees I was speckled with globules of muck. I even knew what was causing most of the splashes – my thongs where flicking mud onto the backs of my legs. Sure, I tried wearing closed shoes but that resulted in waterlogged feet and shoes that wouldn’t dry out.

I couldn’t figure it out. I avoided puddles and tried to walk around the muddiest parts of the street but nothing worked. I started keeping the moist napkins from restaurants in my bag to clean myself off after I’d been out.

Even more vexing was the fact that so many Saigonese people were wearing the same style of footwear as me and managed to stay beautifully clean. I couldn’t figure it out until one day I was drinking coffee on the street and was watching the vendor shuffling around her part of the footpath. I’d noticed that many people seem to drag their feet a little when they pottered about and that’s when it hit me – everyone shuffles because if they don’t lift their heels too much, the back of their shoes don’t flick water back onto their legs. I shuffled home that day and arrived five times cleaner than usual. Such a clever and easy solution; why didn’t I look to local know-how before?

No progress yet on how to ride a motorcycle in the rain without it feeling like a 40km/h cold shower.

Love in a time of Malaria

Sai Gon is for lovers.

You’ll see young couples sitting in parks, cuddling on the backs of motorcycles, holding hands while on two separate motorcycles (this is how I was almost clothes-lined riding down the street), generally just enjoying being in love and being together.

I happen to live just down the road from one of Sai Gon’s more popular date spots – Turtle Lake (Hồ Con Rùa).

Photograph by Gian Thanh Son
Turtle Lake from above, mosquitoes not pictured . Photograph by Gian Thanh Son*

Turtle Lake isn’t a lake, nor is it home to any turtles. It is a concrete pond in the middle of a giant traffic roundabout between districts one and three. The water is stagnant and it has to be cleaned regularly so the smell doesn’t overpower people. It is poorly lit at night, though some illumination is provided by the lamps and fires of the many food and drink vendors. In addition to couples, groups of friends and families with their children also gather to spend humid summer evenings around Turtle Lake. There is a near constant hum of conversation coming from the place. It is free to sit down, there is cheap food and drink and in spite of the crowds of people you can usually squeeze on one of the concert seats without too much difficulty. Mosquito mothers have found Turtle Lake to be the ideal place to raise their own 200 children, so getting bitten isn’t that uncommon.

Turtle Lake
Turtle Lake at night.

I’ll forgive you for thinking that Turtle Lake doesn’t sound like a great place for a date, but it is only because I haven’t given you context.

Vietnamese people still tend to live at home until they get married or move away for school and work. This is partly for economic reasons and because family is the centre of society, so you should stay with family until you’re ready to make a new family. Living at home into adulthood is slowly changing, but you’ll still meet lots of twenty-somethings living with their parents, grandparents, siblings, maybe some Aunties, Uncles, cousins in one house… The expectation of privacy is slim to none. Home is not the place to feel up your significant other on the couch, unless your family is waayyy more liberal than mine. Personally, I don’t think I could manage more than some light hand-holding if my grandmother was literally starring at my date and I, from across the room.

Couples wanting a little alone time isn’t strange or unexpected at all; it is completely normal and natural. If your living situation means that you can’t have that at home, then you’re going to go outside your home. Japan has ‘Love Hotels,’ Guatemala has ‘Autohotels.’ Australia has… I don’t know… beaches, bushland, any flat surface?

What are the young Saigonese people to do when they want some private time? They might go to places like Turtle Lake, whose darkness and overcrowding affords some anonymity.

If they want even more privacy they might take to darkened riverbanks and park lands (watersides seem to be a common theme). They bring a blanket, some drinks, an umbrella perhaps, and settle in for some alone time. One night, I was once walking over a bridge to a club in district four and I noticed a little boat underneath me was bobbing more vigorously than the boats moored around it. A quick glance informed me that the occupants of boat, underneath a blanket, were the reason for the rocking, I moved on quickly.

So yes, spending a significant amount of time next to stagnant bodies of water probably means they get eaten alive by mosquitoes, but sometimes love requires a sacrifice. A blood sacrifice, as it where.

*http://www.thanhniennews.com/education-youth/japanese-activist-shares-greenliving-dreams-with-saigon-youths-47528.html