Monday, 30 September 2013

Mekong Delta and More

Last weekend we went on a tour down to the Mekong Delta. We've sailed the Mekong river before- from the Thai-Laos border to Luang Prabang so I was no stranger to its muddy brown waters. (Read about that adventure here) I have to say it pretty much looked the same.
My favourite part on the first day was the rowing boats. It was so busy- my first ever water traffic jam.

It looks fairly serene here but can you see the craziness up ahead?

So becoming

Being a grown-up. Madonna?

On the second day we visited the floating markets. The sellers bring a boat full of sh*it loads of whatever it is they've got, for wholesale to local markets. I liked that they tie an example of their wares onto a tall stick so everyone around can see. Clever, eh? Then there are smaller boats-mainly for tourists- who attach themselves to your boat to sell coffee, fresh fruit and coconut juice. It's wicked.

Stuff on sticks. I've never seen so many sweet potatoes

Big massive orange-type things

The Mekong Delta is known for its weird animal tastes. Being somewhat of a food pussy I didn't try anything, but had we been more adventurous we could've dined on crocodile, rat or snake. Hell, there was even this lovely looking snake wine. Shudder.

I don't even understand- is it made from snake or infused with essence of??
Like any good organised tour, we got dragged around our share of stalls, shops and factories. We saw coconut candy being made and looked at a huge rice shelling machine in a big barn. As you can probably see from the photos, the weather was overcast and rainy. We got stuck in a huge storm and had to wait it out for over an hour in a tiny shop with the rustiest table football the world has ever seen.

Extreme fussball- tetanus shot needed after game

Lee ready to go

Then after all that waiting, we were dragged out in the rain anyway and forced to go through some puddle lakes just to see rice noodles being made. The joke was that there was no one even working that day 'because of the rain.' So why the heck are we here then?

And finally, our favourite sights from the trip-

Bit blurry but I was being covert- family in rice noodle shack lounging around in front of their flat screen TV

A 'must have' for all those enthusiasts out there

Compensating for something? Seriously

You can't say we're not easily entertained.

That's it for now- apologies if it was a bit of a photo overload. If you still haven't had enough of me then you can click over to my Reviews and Story Stuff sections where there are a couple of new posts.

Monday, 23 September 2013

All about the War

After feeling the strain of our lack of culture-orientedness (new word?), last week Lee and I signed up for a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. The Viet Cong dug thousands of miles of tunnels during the war, including a vast network in the area of Cu Chi, which is just north west of Ho Chi Minh city. Apologies for my immaturity but I couldn't help giggling to myself every time the tour guide said 'coochie' tunnels. Haha.
We were first taken into a big room to watch a film- somewhat of a tradition in these kinds of places I find. The film began by telling of how tranquil and beautiful the area was before the war happened. Now, I didn't mean to be inappropriate, but the video was so unashamedly anti-American that it was just funny. It told the story of one man who did well in the war, and was subsequently named an "American killer hero." I know that any hero in a war is deemed so because of killing the enemy, but usually we dress it up a little. After about the tenth time the film said "American killer hero," or "this small girl was a hero, she killed many Americans!" #insert slightly squeaky and ever so enthusiastic Vietnamese voice-over here# I was about ready to collapse off my seat. Why do I have to find things funny at times like these? Although seriously, how could anyone keep a straight face?
After the video we looked at some Viet Cong booby traps. Not so funny. The tour guide was very keen to show us exactly how the American soldiers were impaled and left to die slowly in the traps. He used a big stick to demonstrate the gruesome snapping mechanisms, whilst telling us in great detail what this would do to the person caught. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad the USA didn't win this unnecessary war, but I also don't relish the idea of nineteen year old Americans dying in such horrific circumstances either. There was a slightly weird sense of pride about the whole thing- like "look how we beat their tanks and bombs with our stealth and bamboo traps." But then again I can't blame them.

We walked through the beautiful trees to the sounds of gunshots from the firing range- see what it's like to fire an AK-47!- which helped to create a rather scary simulated war experience.

We then headed to the tunnels, which we were assured had been made bigger for tourists. 'Never fear Westeners, your fat asses will fit through!' I began to have visions of my bum getting stuck much like Winnie the Pooh when he visits Rabbit's house and eats too much honey, then can't get out.
I started to freak out a bit when I realised (I don't know why I didn't think this through when we signed up for the trip) that we were actually going in the tunnels. Recently I've been suffering a bit from claustrophobia, so I was not at all excited about the prospect of the tunnel.

Putting on a happy face as we head in
But I took a deep breath and went for it. And I can now report that, just as I had expected, it was terrifying. On my hands and knees in a convoy behind Lee, the stone walls a few inches away, I tried hard not to panic. Especially when the sheer mass of bodies blocked out all light and then the convoy came to a standstill as someone in front took a picture. Now is not the time, asshole, get a frickin move on!
Needless to say, I came out at the first exit and can now cross 'crawl through an underground tunnel' off my list of things to do but have no intention of ever doing again. Yey me!

One of the exits- now if that's not scary, I don't know what is
 In keeping with our learning about history vibe, the next day we went to the War Remnants Museum (actually the right one this time!). I really liked the museum- if you can use the word 'like' with regards to graphic information about war and death.
The 'highlights' included:
Pictures of opposition to the war- it's amazing how many countries marched to protest the war, and even more amazing that America refused to listen.
War crimes- this part nearly had me in tears. Out of three million Vietnamese killed in the war,
two million were civilians. The US army were taught to hate all Vietnamese, and trained to 'kill anything that moves.' There were graphic pictures and stories documenting massacres that took place as a result of this attitude. Most famously in the village of My Lai where hundreds of unarmed men, women and children were brutally murdered.
Photographers who died for the cause- Photos showing pictures from both sides, all from people who died whilst documenting the war. 
Affects of Agent Orange- this was perhaps the most sickening part of the whole thing. The chemical weapons that were used by the U.S to deforest whole areas of the country caused many casualties through first hand exposure and through it being passed down through genes. There were some horrific pictures of children born with no legs, no arms, oversized heads, siamese twins, blind... the list is endless. And to this day Agent Orange is causing deformity in newborns. You can see the effects in Ho Chi Minh every time you leave the house here.
The USA has offered its own war veterans compensation for damage caused by Agent Orange. In the museum was a letter from a Vietnamese victim to President Obama, asking that he consider sending aid to help those here that continue to be affected. The letter was humble, forgiving, compassionate, and as far as we know, unanswered.

In case you felt like reading it

And on a further shocking note, the company that brought you Agent Orange is none other than Monsanto- the biggest provider of crops and GM food products in the USA today.

Well, I hope you enjoyed reading yet another post of horror and misery from me. I like to think of it as a public service. Hopefully next time I'll have something slightly more amusing to say!


Wednesday, 18 September 2013

That's it, I quit

If you read my last post then you'll know that Lee and I have packed in our job here in Ho Chi Minh. And now, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I present to you my reasons why.

The boring stuff/list of grievances regarding the job itself include:
  •  medical insurance that only covers you for death or hospitalisation (the NHS never looked so good)
  • No sick pay. 
  • No paid planning time. 
  • No system for sharing lesson plans, creating a situation where hundreds of teachers are reinventing the wheel with each day, at great cost to their time and effort. 
  • No paid bank holidays. 
  • Only two lifts in a building with 14 floors, so at the weekends you have to walk up floors and floors of stairs over and over because the kids are using it to go from floor 1-3. This sounds trivial but walking from floor 3-9 in your break to get to the staff room, I think takes the piss.
  • Boiling hot classrooms. Don't these people know how much I sweat?
The crux of the work related issue is that we felt we weren't told the whole story at interview, and the truth of the job just didn't sit right with us.

And now we come to issues with the city itself, or should we say 'dealbreakers.'
We were picked up from the airport by a friendly South African girl from the company. Tired, sweaty and ready for bed, we got in the taxi, so glad to have arrived. Then SA girl begins to tell us things. Scary things. Sure, it's nice and probably necessary to be warned, but still these were things I for one didn't want to hear during my very first moments in Ho Chi Minh.

"Two teachers from the company died this year, they think from poisoned fake alcohol. One of them was found dead alone in his hotel room. Don't drink the spirits."
Right. What, anywhere? Ever?

 "I never carry a bag because there are so many bag thefts by scooters on the street. If you're lucky they'll rip it right off you, if not they might drag you along the road with them. I keep my money and my phone in my bra, and that's it."

We weren't sure how seriously to take this- for all we knew she was a bit paranoid. Could Ho Chi Minh seriously be worse than, say, Bangkok? The thought seemed ludicrous. 
But since that initial warning we've met at least four women who this has happened too. (And bearing in mind we've been here for three weeks, I think that's quite a lot.)

We were out having a drink the other day and we met with a girl we knew who was quite drunk. We walked home with her, with the view that this would keep her safe. As I've mentioned in a previous post, in this city there are no proper pedestrian crossings, you simply have to go. I walked with drunk girl across a big, deserted road. A scooter was heading towards us and I was trying to work out if they would go in front or behind. They seemed to be aiming for us, it was weird. Most scooters, aware that you are moving forwards, head behind you, but this guy with friend on the back came infront. Very, very close. All too late, I was like 'shit, they're gonna hit us,' then they veered into drunk girl and I heard a BANG! 
I thought they'd hit her but then seconds later I realised (as did she) that they'd pulled her handbag clean away, the strap making the noise as it broke away from the bag itself.
And then they were gone.
To experience it up close like that was shocking to say the least. Drunk girl was in utter shock, we all felt terrible for her but didn't really know how to make her feel better. And then there was that deep down selfish part that thought 'thank goodness it didn't happen to me.'
This is not the life I want. The constant vigilance at all times of day and night for bag snatchers, or making Lee carry everything, hence relying on him in much the same way I did in Saudi.
Maybe I'm being melodramatic, I don't know. All I know is that it's not nice.  
The next day we were warning a hippy couple, who promptly came back with the story that the guy had been recently held at knife point and mugged in Nah Trang up the coast. Talk about trump your story! But apparently that was OK, because 'They won't actually stab you here, not like back home in Australia.'
Oh, yipee! Now I feel thoroughly at ease.
The day after that we told a senior teacher at work what had happened, to which she promptly showed us her arm scars. 'I got dragged about 20 metres before they let go.'

Unfortunately these are not just rumors, they are all too real and I just don't like it. 

The last point I will discuss in my blog post of pure joy and happiness is scooter accidents. The roads here are crazy. It's organised chaos, organised I believe on because the Vietnamese people have been scootering the streets here since they were born. But for a foreigner, how the hell do you navigate your way across a cross road where everyone just filters constantly like sand. You've got to have eyes in the back of your head.
There is no way on earth I am buying a scooter.
Although we seem to be pretty much the only foreigners that feel like this. Square? 
On our first night, South African girl showed us the massive scar on her foot (and later we found out she also skinned her chest) from a scooter accident. On that same night we met a guy who'd broken his collar bone.
We've heard stories of handle bars being yanked, people being flung, we've seen scars and cuts and bruises. And it's enough to put us off for life.
And the big problem with writing off having a scooter is that Ho Chi Minh doesn't work without one. Taxis are slow and expensive, and walking is a gauntlet.

So in conclusion- 'That's it, I quit, I'm moving on!'


Saturday, 14 September 2013

On Being a Bad Traveller

I wouldn't actually say I've ever been 'travelling' as such, but I have definitely spent a fair amount of time in typical backpacker destinations such as Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. I've worked away for long stretches of time with lots of holidays in between, meaning that I'm often masquerading as a traveller as I blend so effortlessly in with those bright young things. I've suspected for a while now that I'm not really traveller material; I remember in Koh Pangan in southern Thailand (home of the 'full moon party' or 'British and German students go a bit crazy on the beach' as I like to call it) when a young whippersnapper told us that three days was the longest she'd spent in one guest house during her three month jaunt. The thought of doing such a thing filled me with horror. When I'm dragging my bag/lugging a backpack up a hill or down some precarious looking stairs, the only thing that keeps me going is knowing that we will be setting up camp for a few days. Take the room we're staying in now for example- it's up four flights of stairs! As if I'll be leaving in a hurry. 
So that's the truth, I'm lame. There's no point hiding it any longer.
Wherever I am, I like my home comforts. To me there's nothing better than watching a film in a hotel room and ordering a pizza. Not very adventurous I'll admit, although we do get to try out some weird and wonderful variations on the Pizza Hut classics. In Taiwan we probably broke the record of how much crap and unhealthy chain food we could eat in one week. I think it was somewhere along the lines of Pizza Hut (2), Mcdonalds (2) KFC (1) Burger King (1) and countless 7eleven hotdogs- they're so cheesy and yum! Don't judge me.
So there you go, my secret's out. Don't get me wrong, I love trying different foods, especially anything noodle or soup based. I think the problem is I find the whole act of going somewhere local and ordering from a menu you don't understand pretty traumatic. I still haven't forgotten the time me and a friend accidentally ordered chicken feet in a restaurant in Korea. And street food takes me ages to acclimatize to- right now after two weeks I'm slowly beginning to edge my way towards the pure unadulterated ghetto stalls on the side of the road.
Having said all that, last night we did eat at a street side restaurant. In the rain. With a small dog between my legs for a vast majority of the meal. We perused the scary menu options several times. Was it frogs or pigs liver or squid teeth you wanted, dear? After some deliberation we finally settled on boar. So there. How exotic are we? (it was weird and a bit gross).

Lee looking awkward on the all too small seat at the all too small table (are we giants?)

Added to all the food wrongdoings in my 'bad traveller' life, there's a mountain of other stuff. We often opt for more luxurious hotels; I was so happy when we arrived at the plush Cinammon Citadel five star hotel in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Their buffet dinner included lobster and there were white slippers in our room! Maybe I'm just a snob?
Here in Ho Chi Minh we've refused so far to catch scooter taxis, opting instead for the safe-albeit much more expensive-actual car taxi. Our reasoning is one of safety, something which seems to unfaze every other westerner whizzing about the insane streets without a care in the world. 
And then there's culture. I like museums and discovering new things, although laziness does often get in the way. Sometimes I think about the 'beer I'm going to have as a reward for all the cultured stuff I've done that day' throughout the entire day. In fact sometimes it's all that keeps me going. And then there are other times like yesterday, when we attempt to soak up some interesting war history, only to find ourselves in the wrong museum. Totally the taxi drivers fault. And try as I might, I just couldn't find it in myself to be interested in old coins, old clothes and old pots. Big fat yawn.  

Who would've guessed this wasn't the war museum?

On an unrelated but rather shocking note, we've quit our job! What can I say, we like to keep on our toes. A story for another time I feel. 
So seeing as we're going to be hanging around for about a month without even work as a convenient excuse for not exploring, perhaps we'll get out there and really see some stuff. Maybe. 

Exploring the swimming pool...

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Monday, 9 September 2013

The Decline and Rise of the Attempted Hobby

I'm currently reading Miranda Hart's "Is it just me?" (it's a rivetingly hilarious read, you should try it), which has got me thinking all about the subject of hobbies. Miranda talks about the change from childhood, where you could try anything and be anything whether you were good at it or not, to teenage years where hobbies were only generally pursued if the person was already somewhere along the road to success in that chosen pastime. And then when you're an adult, you invariably begin to feel bad about your lack of hobbies and therefore endeavour to take some up, most probably leading to embarrassment, feelings of inadequacy, and often downright failure.
This made me laugh so much (and cry a little inside) because it's just so bloody true. I often think I missed my calling on the stage/in a choir/as a concert pianist/artist/tennis star, but can't find it in myself to take any of these things up as hobbies now- except the piano because I started when I was six, but woe betide I think of playing in public. Of course I often pretend I'm in a stage show of Sister Act (a proper one, not the west end silliness with different songs to the original, urgh) but the idea of auditioning for a just-for-fun-no-pressure choir brings me out in a cold sweat.
When I was sixteen I auditioned for a part in the Beatles version of A Midsummer Nights Dream at school. My friend and I (you know who you are) thought somehow that the teacher might catch a glimpse of our innate brilliance and cast us as Lysander and Hermia. But in reality we sucked, were given parts in the choir and forced to stand in the background as hippy clad 'trees' along with a load of year 7's and 8's. Despite being a highly amusing experience, I do believe that this is where my fear of 'giving things a go' stemmed from.
At Uni I tried out a few hobbies. Buddhist meditation was fun for a while, until it got serious. I remember sitting on a precarious tower of three cushions, eyes closed, pretending to be 'focused on feeling the same feelings towards someone you love and someone you hate' (impossible), when my friend and I had a wildly inappropriate giggling fit for no reason. Needless to say this was met with sincere disapproval by the other meditators and it was then that we knew we needed to leave.
After that there was the kayaking society. Whilst I love kayaking on holiday, I had a few issues with the club itself: #1. I didn't want to spend my weekends off at a random lake somewhere instead of in the pub. #2. Practicing in a swimming pool is plain old crap, however you try and dress it up. #3. I didn't want to do the 'Eskimo roll' in front of everyone.
The longest stint in a new hobby at uni was my street dance and tap classes. Despite my dreams of grandeur, both of these things proved that when it comes to dancing I am very much a clumsy elephant. I did, however, force my housemates to come and see our 'performance.' I still have the photos- one of me in legwarmers, the other wrapped in a feather boa, and in both the look on my face is something of pride mixed with intense mortification.
After uni there was circus club, which was full of weirdos- who would've guessed?
In Saudi I was proud of myself for climbing an indoor wall. It was terrifying and painful and I spent the whole time egotistically convinced that everyone was laughing at me. I got to the top, but rather than make me want to do it again, this achievement enabled me to happily retire from the sport, glad that I hadn't embarrassed myself too much, or in fact died.
Lee and I also embarked on a 'trek in the desert' venture in Saudi, all set with good intentions of fresh air and exercise. The reality was, however, that we got a lift with a crazy American man who didn't actually know where we were going so instead just drove us to a random place in the desert somewhere outside of Riyadh. There was a scary moment where he stopped the car, miles away from anywhere and announced that he 'needed to get something out of the trunk.' Convinced that he was going to emerge with an axe or hacksaw, we sat nervously waiting until much to our great relief he pulled out a bottle of (half decent) homemade booze. We then spent the afternoon driving around nowhere in particular, getting pissed and not finding the walking group or indeed getting out of the car. Much more fun in my opinion.
And of course I've also taken up the ukulele, although I'm not very good at it. But then that's exactly Miranda's point- why can't we simply enjoy doing things, without this pressure to be miraculously good at them?


Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City!

What a whirlwind my life has been recently- it's been almost a month since I posted, due to a major lack of time. August was full of fun: seeing family and friends, driving around, going to Alton Towers and London, swimming, attempting to go to the gym, drinking (a lot). And also we were sorting out visa and uni stuff and generally  being slightly on edge about it all.
Now here we are in Ho Chi Minh city, starting a new life….again. We’ve been here for a week now and I can tell you it’s been pretty eventful. In our previous teaching jobs we’ve been babied somewhat in terms of living in the provided accommodation with the other teachers and not having to make our own way to work. In Korea we even had our meals provided! So it’s been quite overwhelming trying to learn the ropes of getting to and from work, navigating the crazy roads and finding decent but not too expensive places to eat. Oh yeah, and of course start a new job on top of all that. The centre we are working at has over 100 teachers, so there were loads of new faces and it was rather hectic over the weekend. On Saturday I taught my first classes, which was nerve racking as ever but turned out fine. Vietnamese kids are much the same as Korean- conscientious, hard working, sweet and generally happy to see you. None of this Saudi give-the-new-teacher-a-massively-hard-time-and-ignore-everything-they-say crap. I just need to work on shortening my lesson planning time as for some reason it took me about three hours per lesson! No one cared what I was doing in Saudi so I used to write a one sentence plan then make it up on the spot. As a result I am a little out of practice. So far my classroom highlight here is that you can write on the floors with board marker and then rub it out. The kids love it and it makes group work so simple. 

We’re staying at a guest house called Hotel California. It’s friendly and has a kitchen and a general long term stay feel. On Friday we moved here from another place, which was an ordeal as outside the front door was a whole load of fresh concrete. The hotel staff had to build a sort of mini bridge for us to get our 30kg bags over! When we got to the Hotel California we were greeted by the sight of a woman plucking chickens in the doorway opposite. Then the next day in the same spot a man threw down a twitching cockrel that he had clearly just killed. Quite a thing to see when you first step out onto the street at six in the morning.
There've been a host of other strange sights- an ‘on the street’ barbers; a gym with a completely open front so you’re basically working out on the street. Shoe shine, dried squid, tai chi in the park, an open air ballroom dancing class, the works. It’s a wonder I haven’t walked straight into a scooter yet with the amount of things there are to look at.
So far we’ve eaten in street side restaurants, mainly the Vietnamese soup ‘Pho Bo’ which consists of beef, noodles, bean sprouts and a whole load of stuff on a big plate that basically looks like the floor of a forest. Needless to say my stomach has taken a battering in the last few days, but I’m sure it’ll calm down soon enough.
The other day we walked the 40mins home from work, taking in the sights of night markets, tons of people eating out on the streets, and of course trying not to die on the roads. If you’ve never been to Vietnam, you should know that the philosophy of crossing roads here is ‘just keep walking at a steady pace and they will go round you.’ So far this had been going OK across the small but fairly busy roads near our guest house. But on the walk home from work we came across a massive street two lanes wide either way, with not a single tiny break in the traffic. We stood at the side for at least five minutes, attempting and failing to pluck up the courage to cross. And then from across the sea of traffic we saw a man step out from the other side with his arm stretched out in front of him, palm out like a stop sign. He began to shuffle forwards and soon it became clear he was in fact blind. Blind! We stood watching painfully; I was utterly convinced he was going to be knocked down by a bus or a taxi or a scooter at the very least. It was one of those moments where you couldn't look, but at the same time couldn't not look. After a tense couple of minutes, through some kind of miracle, the man arrived safely at our side of the road and went on his way. After that, there was nothing for it, we just had to go.
Now that I have more time, I hope to be blogging again regularly with stories of our adventures in our new home, the wonderfully, amazingly insane Ho Chi Minh city.

These pictures are pretty terrible but they're all I've got so far...