Careless whisper

It was only recently that I heard Viet Nam’s national anthem and it was up until that point that I thought the anthem was probably George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper.’

Viet Nam loves Wham!’s music in a deep and enduring way – ‘Last Christmas’ plays all through November and December, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ is fun to dance to, but Careless Whisper is a perennial favourite. I don’t think a day goes past that I don’t catch the melody floating out of a car window or from a radio in a café. It is played everywhere, all the time.

I know every single lyric and am in the grip of a Stockholm Syndrome relationship with this song. I catch myself humming Careless Whisper in quiet moments; it has become the screensaver of my mind.

I was in a taxi rattling down Ha Ba Trung Street when it came on the radio, the driver joined in and naturally so did I. In those two and a half minutes I was harmonizing with a complete stranger and we were both completely into it. We arrived at my destination and I stayed in the car until we finished the chorus.

That isn’t to say that every Careless Whisper experience has been positive. In Viet Nam, being considered good at Karaoke isn’t so much based on singing ability, as much as sheer volume and enthusiasm… I’ve experienced some Careless Whisper renditions so loud and awful, I was half expecting the sound equipment to develop sentience and fight back against its torturers.

George Michael
“Tonight the music seems so loud…” I know George, it’s giving me a headache too. 

One of the items on my Viet Nam bucket list is to learn the Vietnamese version of Careless Whisper (included for your interest below), sing it at staff karaoke night and redeem myself for my appalling rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody at our work New Year’s Party. It doesn’t look too hard… right?

Careless Whisper

Mọi điều với anh sao quá mơ hồ

Nắm đôi tay bước lên sàn nhảy

Âm nhạc dường như đang tàn phai

Mọi điều trông thấy nơi hàng mi

Lại khiến anh nhớ về màn bạc

Mọi thứ thật buồn khi chia ly

Anh không bao giờ còn nhảy nữa

Nơi gót chân tội lỗi chẳng thể nào

Còn theo kịp vần điệu diết da

Dẫu anh vờ như chưa hề biết

Hẳn em đã không còn ngây ngô

Sẽ tốt hơn khi dối lừa bản thân

Để rồi gắng trở thành bạn em

Không màn đến những điều được trao

Anh sẽ không bao giờ nhảy nữa

Không còn nữa, được nhảy cùng em

Thời gian không thể nào trở lại

Lời vụng về nơi bạn tri âm

Gửi đến con tim và tâm hồn

Hững hờ có khi lại là tốt

Hơn cả sự thật lắm phủ phàng

Sau những điều em từng trông thấy

Mọi điều xen lẫn nỗi đắng cay

Giờ đây, anh sẽ ra sao đây

Khi con tim lấp đầy trống vắng?

Đêm nay tiếng nhạc mãi ngân vang

Hay lòng anh đang phải gào khóc

Anh chỉ muốn thầm nguyện ước sao

Không phải đứng trước đám đông này

Có thể điều đó sẽ tốt hơn

Khi những lời nói vô tình trao

Khiến ta tổn thương đến nhau

Đôi ta lẽ ra sống bên nhau

Những vũ điệu đam mê còn mãi

Nhưng giờ đây, ai nhảy cùng anh?

Xin em, hãy quay bước về bên

Giờ đây hẳn mọi điều đã hết

Chẳng thể nào nữa, phải không em

Như ngày xưa đôi ta có nhau…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Anh đã làm điều gì sai sao?

Khiến em phải bỏ anh cô quạnh…

Advertisements

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.

DSC02890

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.

DSC02874
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!

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.

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

Sleep for lunch

If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Sai Gon is the city that never sleeps in. The place wakes at dawn, people are out on the street; working, cooking, shouting.

This is not to say that people go to bed early, in fact, I’ve been awake in this city at all strikes of the clock and there is rarely a time when there is noticeable reduction in the number of people out on the street. I’m not just talking about the tourist areas, in the actual residential areas too. There is always someone on the street selling drinks and food, demolishing buildings, parking motorcycles… just being outside.

You’ll see adults, children, and babies up and around at all hours during the weekdays. I’m not a parent, but I know what a godless, thankless task it is to get a sleepy child fed, dressed and out the door to school. Why would so many parents here, choose to inflict that waking nightmare on themselves? And why would they want to be exhausted themselves?

I played with the idea that there might have been some sort of night and day shifts. The city being so populated, maybe people job-shared, house-shared, or bed-shared, swapping everything with another person on a 12 hourly basis*, which I’ll admit now was pretty ignorant.

In fact, they’re all the same people; they just work extremely long hours. A street seller will wake up early, push their cart around the streets all day and go to bed late. This is the only way they can earn enough money to live. Taxi drivers, parking attendants, construction workers, etc. all work similar mind-numbing, punishingly long hours. The children are up with their parents or grandparents because there isn’t anyone else at home to look after them.

These people are exhausted and to make up for the lack of sleep during the night, they take naps during the day. They’d steal a bit of sleep during the day to offset their sleep-debt from the night before. You see people napping everywhere; curled up under their food stall, in hammocks strung from poles or trees, at their desk, laid out on seat and handlebars of their motorcycle taxis… I mean it – everywhere.**

Other reasons for lunch time napping are;

  • the oppressive, southern Vietnamese heat that melts brains and muscles;
  • two cups of rice for lunch can push even the strongest of us into a carb coma; and
  • they can be damn refreshing, and help reset your brain for a long afternoon.

I can’t say that everyone in Sai Gon has an afternoon nap; it seems to occur on a needs basis. If you’re tired, then have a little sleepy. If not, then don’t. There is no judgement either way. From my own experience; I work in an office building with regular business hours and just after lunch, the computer screens and lights go off and some people slide back in their chairs and close their eyes. Other people go out, go for a walk or get a coffee and a cigarette. I quite like this enforced quiet time with no emails, no phone calls, and no meetings. Like the best things, you look forward to it and it doesn’t last long.

*If anyone is interested in entering into this sort of agreement with me, please contact. Be aware that as you would have to speak and act exactly the same as me during your shift, you will be required to undergo extensive training; brainwashing if you will.

**You’ll notice this post doesn’t have any examples of sleeping people; this is for a couple of reasons;

  • I’m all about people’s privacy and I wouldn’t want some stranger taking a photo of me slumped over at my desk at work, let alone sharing it with the rest of the World.
  • I think that people are so vulnerable when they’re sleeping and it would be too much of a violation. I’m happy to infringe the privacy of this dog though…
Sleeping dog
Belly out to catch a cool breeze.

A tale of two bridges

One day I woke up at 3:35am to catch a flight from Tân Sơn Nhất Airport in Sai Gon. I flew to Cà Mau, Viet Nam’s southernmost town, nestled in tip of the Mekong Delta. I was met at the airport by local officials and taken into the town. It was my first time visiting, but I didn’t have time to look around; we had a bridge inauguration ceremony to get to. We drove south, through Cà Mau and when the road turned into a mangrove forest, we took a boat. Over the next hour, the wide river turned into smaller and smaller inlets until the sides of the boat were brushed by palms fronds and water hyacinth.

We arrive and I see for the first time with my own eyes the bridge that I’m here to help open. It is made from concrete, painted white and covered with flags. It is narrow but functional; it can hold both people and motorbikes; there are no cars in the village so its width isn’t a problem. It is solid and dependable; it won’t wash away in the annual flood waters… and it kind of looks like an overgrown bridge that escaped from a Claude Monet painting.

The new bridge was built to replace one of the village’s traditionally built bridges made from wood and rope. The traditional bridges have a bothersome habit of breaking up and washing away during the floods of the wet season, stranding one side of the village from the other. People tend to dismantle their bridges before this happens and reassemble them after the wet season, but they’re without a bridge all the same. This isn’t a small inconvenience; no bridge means a two minute walk turns into a 15 minute boat ride, or not crossing at all if the current is too strong. Motorbikes and cargo don’t travel too well on the village’s minuscule boats; so many people can’t actually go anywhere when they get to the other side. Getting to school and work is hard.

We arrived at the small dock outside a waterside village. My interpreter told me that that everyone in the village was going to attend the ceremony and that certainly seemed to be the case. There was a metal frame covered by tarpaulins in the centre of the village; the greatly respected older women had best positions in the front row, school children flanked the edges and everyone else was in the middle. I made a speech and sat through everyone else’s speeches. I didn’t panic during the ribbon cutting ceremony when I realised that the scissors I’d been given were blunt and I had to hack through a ribbon that I can only surmise was made of a Kevlar/Nylon blend.

Then we all crossed over the new bridge to have lunch at a house on the other side of the inlet. As I was crossing, I recalled a conversation I’d had several months before. I was holidaying in Cambodia and found myself sitting in a backpacker’s accommodation, talking to other travellers. These conversations always turn to which are the best places to visit, what to see, what to do. A reoccurring theme was places that were considered ‘authentic, genuine, and untouched by development.’ A lot of the time it seems that travellers are saying that they’re interested in visiting places where people are living in deeper deprivation than places that have gathered some of the conveniences they have taken for granted for their whole lives, ie electricity, potable water, sanitation and refrigeration. I call these the “New Horizon Travellers.” They are the Marco Polos, the Lewis and Clarks, the Edmund Hillarys of the travel set. They want to find that undefiled Eden, experience a lifestyle untouched by modernity, upload a 100 photos of it to Facebook and go home. These are the travellers that have fetishized people living lives of struggle and poverty as being genuine and pristine; uncontaminated by disgusting Western desecration.

“Go to Haiti, people are always smiling, everyone looks so happy. It isn’t too built up like Kenya. Malawi is great too.”

“See Laos before it turns into Cambodia.” And so the conversation went.

These are all great countries, with remarkable cultures, languages and histories, and are wonderful places to visit if you get the chance. It is just that the main virtue these travellers were intoning was that the majority of their residents are living agrarian lifestyles, living on less than $1US a day and have limited access to safe drinking water.

I’m in no way saying that the pinnacle of development is the Western model; based on things like consumerism, competition, entrepreneurship, rational economic calculation, and a profit-oriented ethos. At the same time I don’t think it is a bad thing to have electricity, it allows children to study at night, phones allow communication over long distances and refrigeration is pretty great at reducing food spoilage. So let’s complain a little less when the rural Zimbabwean village you’re staying at has icy cold cans of coke, that means that their shops have refrigeration and so does the local hospital for keeping vaccines in cold storage. Conversely, let’s not whine too much when you don’t get your chilled beverages at the end of a long day of sightseeing. Live vaccines like the heat even less than you do and show it by becoming totally useless at preventing polio… Vaccine cold chain – look it up.

So concrete bridges aren’t traditional or beautiful, but they are great at resisting flood waters and not falling down. They make things a little safer and easier for people whose life can be grindingly hard. A Papua New Guinean village with adequate sanitation haven’t been ruined and isn’t any less worth a visit than the settlement on the other side of the valley with no sanitation, that has been crippled by Diarrhoeal diseases brought on by faeces contaminated water. This is because a country’s unique environment and culture can and should be embraced, celebrated and protected; supporting the country’s most important heritage – its people, doesn’t have to undermine that.

All this flipped through my head on the short walk across the bridge and into the house on the other side. It was a nice walk, a little kid held my hand.

Later I was doing the consultation and evaluation part of my trip, and I asked one of the village leaders what else he’d like to see in his village. He paused for a moment and answered, “more bridges.”

Okay then, more bridges it is.

20130829 Ca Mau & travel to Rach Gai 085
The new bridge behind the traditional bridge it has replaced. The traditional bridge won’t last another wet season.

Please check out a news story on how parents transport their children across a swollen river, link to an English language Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre for the video clip http://tuoitrenews.vn/society/18403/exclusive-video-crossing-stream-in-plastic-bag      (these are not my photos). Schooling is so important that they will put their children in plastic bags, so they don’t get wet and swim them across. This is an extreme case, but it illustrates the difficulty people face then they don’t have transportation options.

crossing 1 crossing 2crossing 3