Archive for January 2009
Saigon: alive with flowers during Tet and everyone seems to be either buying, selling or transporting flowers.
I’ve got a great subject for a blog post (not that I lack for things to post about here in Saigon) but I’ve had to pay a few hundred dollars for the privilege.
Last night (I wrote this post just prior to heading off on holidays but forgot to post it) I went out to District 1 with a friend to pay for our tickets to Siem Reap in Cambodia. In town celebrations for Tet (Lunar New Year) were in full swing. Thousands of people were on the street out having a good time looking at all the flowers and lights on display. Saigon is normally a good looking town but round Tet it goes all out …. Christmas and New Year all rolled into one.
So tickets paid for we went for a stroll through town and down to the flower markets. Stopped there briefly to feed on some street food … crocodile skewers, pleasant enough if a bit chewy …. and a thing that looked like papyrus but turned out to be sliced, dried banana pressed into a paper like form and then heated over a brazier … quite delicious.
After the markets we felt like a coffee so headed off to the Rex hotel (famous for the Vietnam War’s 5 o’clock follies). At the entrance a huge crowd had formed for some official Tet ceremony. In the crowd people started jostling quite aggressively, a bit worried I went to check my pockets and, slightly surprised, I found a hand in my left pocket obviously coveting my passport and phone. I grabbed the hand and then checked that my phone and passport were still there.
They were and in the meantime the pickpocket had wriggled free. I checked my other pocket for my wallet only to find it missing 😦 So I chased after the scrawny bastard and caught him. Police soon approached, attracted by the commotion and I explained what had happened. Just then some other bloke turns up with my wallet and tells me he saw the scrawny thief drop it. The new bloke looked Vietnamese and spoke Vietnamese and then introduced himself as Vinh a policeman from the USA. Perhaps I’m too suspicious but I smelled a rat as this bloke quickly appeared on the scene with my wallet sans money but with all my credit cards intact.
In any case I was happy to have the wallet. At this stage the police loaded the thief on the back of a ute and had my friend and I climb in the front. All this by the way occurred in front of a crowd of thousands who had gathered for the Tet ceremony. Not quite Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame but at least 5 minutes of less than prurient interest from the gathering crowd.
So we were rushed, actually more like a slow crawl through the crowd, to the local police station. The perp sat in the back of the ute unaccompanied but made no move to do a runner.
At the police station the police were efficient and friendly and with the help of a few police station bystanders I was able to get my statement translated into Vietnamese. Throughout this interesting event I managed to takes few snaps (which, as I am a guest in this country I have decided not to show here on this blog). The police station was quite bare bones and basic. A cabinet filled one wall and contained a bullhorn, umpteen dozen walkie talkies and….. an AK47…… as you do I guess.
I left the police station with smiles and shrugs and some advice to look after my pockets a bit better … yep … got that lesson. The annoying thing was that I lost more money than I normally would have. My school had underpaid me and then to make it up had given my the balance, several hundred dollars, in cash – which of course was in my wallet.
In all all though an interesting night. My first ever pick pocketing, an insight into Vietnamese policing, a ride in a police truck – and I still have my credit cards, passport and phone – I’d have to chalk that up as a good night. Not one I’d like to repeat but certainly an experience that I’m glad I had (would have been nice if it was a bit cheaper but hey … you can’t have everything).
Just had a fantastic evening out. I’d been talking to one of my Vietnamese colleagues at the school about language lessons and we’d agreed to go book shopping in downtown Saigon (commonly known as District 1). Leaving school she made a joke about eating snails for dinner and then we went off to town.
In District 1 we parked and then walked down the street to the local Fahasa bookstore. The selection of language training books was quite poor and we didn’t end up buying anything with my colleague deciding that she would have a look for a book when she returned to Hanoi for Tet (Lunar New Year) next week. Without any luck book shopping we joked about dinner and the subject of snails came up again. I’d eaten snails years ago in a French restaurant in Sydney and remembered a slightly rubbery and garlicky experience. Nonetheless I said that I was willing to try – that’s what I was in Vietnam for after all, to try new things.
She laughed as we headed off to the markets and asked if I really would try anything. I nodded, thinking she was still talking about the snails. We wandered down the main street of Dong Khoi, past the splendid hotels and Versace stores until we came to Ben Thanh Market. Outside the market we came upon a mixture of market stalls and hawker stalls the like of which you find throughout Asia. We looked at a few menus until finally we settled outside a stall with bowls of fresh seafood and snails piled up high out front.
My colleague asked again, in passing about trying food and I, still thinking about the snails and feeling all brave, said I would leave it up to her to order. She laughed and ordered. Whilst waiting for our order we chatted about her time living in Paris. I’d ordered a freshly squeezed sugarcane juice and was sipping on this when the a yellowy, vaguely egg like shape, but with spidery veins and dark bits hanging off the side, appeared before me. I recognised it at once as the half formed embryo in an egg similar to the smaller quail sized one I’d eaten the other night.
I remembered seeing a program a few years previously about bizarre foods where the presenter ate a similar thing called balut in the Philippines. I also distinctly remember at the time thinking I’d never eat something like that – not in a million years.
Well – here it was before me and actually looking at it I realised it didn’t look all that bad and certainly looked vaguely edible. My colleague laughed and refused to confirm what I was eating. I dug in and ate away. It was actually quite tasty. It was quite soft and the yolk with the accompanying sauce disguised the taste of the actually embryo which was soft and without any strong taste. Funnily enough the white of the egg was exceptionally hard and inedible. After eating my colleague confirmed that it was Trung Vit Lon aka Balut aka something we don’t ever think about eating at home.
Following our starter of Trung Vit Lon we had snails that we sucked directly out of the shells. I have to say they were quite delicious although the accompanying sauce was a slightly bland coconut, white sauce. I imagine they would be superb with a spicier sauce. The highlight of the meal were a slightly spicy, delicious shellfish in long, sugarcane like, shells. We finished off with raw oysters the size of a shoe and while I am no big oyster fan these were fresh, smooth, slightly meaty and delicious with the accompanying soy and wasabi sauce.
I would not consider myself an overly adventurous eater, something confirmed by me when my colleague talked about trying spider, the size of her hand, whilst in Cambodia. I’ll have to see if I have the courage to try that when I visit there. I did however enjoy putting my eating fate in the hands of my mischievous colleague. We had a great evening trying out, for me, new foods and chatting about travelling. After dinner we wandered the street looking through the market stalls before heading off home. All in all an absolutely memorable and enjoyable evening. Another Saigon highlight for me.
International teacher recruiting season is on and my school like many others has begun recruiting. Whilst a lot of recruitment can be done by directly contacting a school there is also the ever popular recruitment fairs. This week I’ve come across two excellent blog posts on the do’s and don’ts of recruitment fairs and have linked to them both here.
The first is Jeff Utecht’s post here U Tech Tips » The international recruiting season has begun!. Jeff is based in Bangkok and has obviously been through the process several times.
The other post is by Julie Lindsay (moving from Qatar to Beijing) who helps to keep the recruitment fair meat market in perspective http://123elearning.blogspot.com/2009/01/international-teacher-recruitment-for.html
At this post on my blog you can also find a more Australian centric post on finding international teaching jobs.
If you are looking for a job in Asia and want to find out what the salary packages are like then see this post which has a comprehensive survey of the salaries paid by international schools throughout Asia.
This week I rented a Yamaha Nuevo scooter. The cost for this is about 1,200,000 dong per month (about USD$70) and includes a regular monthly service and emergency repairs/call outs. I love the freedom of riding a bike although I don’t have more than 5 days riding experience over the course of about 20 years. I did however want to be able to get around Saigon and experience it the way the locals do. I also wanted the freedom of my own wheels and as renting or buying a car is not an option here for expats the only way I was going to do this was by renting a motorbike.
Everyone gets around Saigon in a scooter. There are more scooters in Saigon than cars and you frequently see scooter jams. This would be ok except for a few things. The first is people ride the scooter predominantly on the right hand side of the road but are not averse to driving on the left i.e. coming right at you. The second is that no one uses indicators (or if they do it doesn’t necessarily imply that they will be turning in the same direction as the flashing indicator). The third things is that traffic lights are seen as an option – if you wish to stop feel free but you don’t have to. Last, but by no means least, no-one and I mean no-one, waits for anyone. So if you need to turn across three lanes of traffic (as there are between my school and my apartment) you need to be prepared to run the gauntlet of oncoming traffic. Remember the old computer game Frogger? Well that’s my morning commute.
I love riding in Saigon. It is exhilarating as only a motorbike can be. The wind in your hair as you rush down the road brings a visceral rush of freedom. The insane traffic that causes your every nerve fibre to be switched on and every sense to be working at its highest level makes for a scary rush. I love riding in Saigon.
This is a picture of the bird that I had for a snack the other night.
The local brew, note the ice in the glass. Makes the full strength beer taste quite weak but it is refreshing.
Dropped in at school this morning and went to check on what paperwork I’d need to submit. I was calmly advised that along with the relevant bits of paper I would need about twenty passport photos. 20! It seems that every official form here needs an accompanying photo. Luckily down the street, and a fair bit of traffic dodging later, a fellow teacher and I found a new sim card for her and a photo shop that could do twenty photos without blinking. Most amusing for me was not the photo taking but that the photo shop was full of dresses. It took me awhile to figure out that the dresses weren’t for sale but for people to get dressed up in when they had their photos taken. Now I’m no dress expert but these were frilly numbers, some white that looked like wedding dresses and many bright pink, yellow and green dresses. Who knew you could play dress up at your local photo shop?
Traffic on the way to the photo shop and a picture of the local seafood place next to the photo shop.