Vietnam 2011: General Observations (Part III)

This is the third instalment of my observations from summer’s trip to Vietnam. Before reading, see Part I and Part II if you haven’t done so already. The rest of you – thanks for following! And here we go.

Observation 7 – Got Milk?

Quick, think of a rare liquid that is expensive and hard to come by. If you’re thinking of oil, nice try Einstein, but you obviously haven’t been to Vietnam. The answer is milk. You know, the stuff that comes from a cow and is used for all sorts of healthy and nutritious meals like Kellog’s Frosties and McDonald’s milkshakes? It’s a rare Vietnamese restaurant indeed that will serve this delicious treat in its “normal” form. Sure, you’ll have no problem getting a cup of coffee with sweet condensed milk in it. However, try ordering some fresh milk and you’re soon going to lose your mind as you attempt to explain to the bewildered staff what it is you’re looking for.

Unidentified substance known only by its codename: “Element M”

This hasn’t really been a problem for me, since I’m a sugar junkie. There’s a good chance that sugar represents around 75% of the content of my arteries at this point. Therefore, I quite like the sweet condensed  milk. Katka, on the other hand, doesn’t take sugar in her coffee or tea. But she does like to have milk in it and that’s where troubles start.

As you will see from my upcoming travel notes, there were many episodes where we struggled in vain to get regular milk in Katka’s coffee. We’ve tried any approach we could think of – writing our request down, using words like “fresh”, “ordinary”, “regular” and “just” in front of “milk” and otherwise doing everything we can to get our point across. At some stage I believe I actually pantomimed milking a cow, which was quite uncomfortable for everyone involved (including the invisible cow).

By now I have a sneaking suspicion that many Vietnamese assume milk leaves a cow’s udder in a sugary condensed form. As awesome as that would have been – alas, we’re not that lucky!

Observation 8 – Houses & Paint Jobs

The majority of houses in larger cities are narrow, long and tall. They are often nicknamed “tube houses” (someone had pitched “elongated constructions with disproportionate sides”, but it didn’t quite catch on). One of the reasons for this odd form is believed to be the fact that houses used to be taxed based on the amount of space they took up at the street level. These narrow houses are usually huddled together, which makes for some pretty eclectic sights like this one:

Builders go through great lengths to decorate the front of their house and give it festive colours. It is quite odd, then, that usually no effort whatsoever is spent on making the sides of the house look remotely presentable. There are houses that stand proudly alone and have elaborate designs on the front, yet as soon as you pass by and look at their side you’re staring at an unpainted grey wall.

Sure, I understand the logic. Why bother painting the side of a house if in a few years there may be others growing up right next to it? Still, it’s quite bizarre to witness such contrast between different sides of the same building.

Observation 9 – Noise

I think Vietnam is one of the loudest countries I’ve ever been to. And this is coming from a guy whose regular speaking voice is volume-wise on par with jet plane take off. There’s a sustained level of noise in larger cities, that never seems to subside. Kids playing outside communicate via a series of intricate and deafening shrieks. Cars and motorbikes use their horns to signal anything from “I’m coming through” to “WATCH OUT” to “I’m bored, are you up for some Karaoke?” – it’s often impossible to tell. One usually learns to just tune out the constant beeping.

This neat Vietnamese mobile phone has intuitive buttons and sleek design

Also, it appears that many people don’t quite trust modern technology yet. They just find it impossible to believe that a mic on their mobile phone can pick up their voice and carry it over great distances. This prompts people to raise their voice significantly when talking on the phone. Therefore, every single mobile phone conversation we’ve heard in Vietnam sounded like Christian Bale having a breakdown (minus the constant swearing…I hope).

This part wraps up my general observations. Starting from the next Vietnam post I begin a day-by-day account of our adventure-packed trip. For now, remember you can still enjoy some great pictures from this trip at Katka’s Flickr page.

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Vietnam 2011: General Observations (Part II)

You may recall that a few days ago I’d started the process of converting my Vietnam travel notes into blog posts. 85% of my 3 currently active subscribers were overjoyed and screamed “more please!”. Since in all the years of high school I’ve never truly learned to resist peer pressure – here goes the second instalment. It will pick up right where Part I left off, so if you haven’t read that part yet you may want to do it first. While my blog isn’t strictly a travel one, you’ll probably see these Vietnam posts pop up rather frequently over the next months – for better or worse, but mostly for better. Onwards…

Observation 4 – Rats

Granted, Vietnam is home to a lot more exotic and noteworthy animals than good old common rats. However, it’s the rats that live in shadows close to most bodies of water. They come out at night in swarms to hunt human prey…or just, you know, hang out and mind their own business.

The first time we started paying attention was one evening in Hue. Katka was taking some night shots of the Truong Tien Bridge. The bridge had been wired with more lights than a Christmas tree at Central Park, which made for a pretty mesmerizing sight. Somewhere between setting up the night program and trying to find a good angle Katka let out a muffled shriek and jumped a few good metres to the side (Olympic athletes – take notes!).

Because she wasn’t in the habit of performing this sequence of actions on a regular basis, I figured that something was wrong. Oh yeah, I’m excellent at spotting subtle behavioural patterns. Upon a more thorough inspection, i.e. walking closer to the water and squinting my eyes against the dark, I discovered dozens of rats running sporadically back and forth along the shore.

Since then we have noticed this being the norm anywhere around lakes and rivers during dark hours. Once while sitting in an outside cafe in Hoi An and then later again in Dong Hoi. Here we were in a somewhat fancy restaurant, which had its own artificial lake around the perimeter. Rats were sneaking near this lake and paid occasional visits to our table. They were basically co-existing peacefully with the restaurant staff, Ratatouille style!

“Hmmm, is it just me or are these eggs a tad undercooked? Anyways, what brings YOU to Vietnam?”

Observation 5 – Propaganda Speakers

Mostly in the Northern part of Vietnam you still find propaganda speakers scattered around. Some of them don’t seem to serve any function at all, other than looking like outdated relics that they are. But in certain places the speakers are very much alive.

On several occasions we were woken up at around six in the morning by monotonous chatter of some anonymous dude. I assume he was talking about the latest achievement of the Vietnamese government and encouraging people to work harder for the common good. However, I know very little Vietnamese. Now that I think of it, “arigato” might actually be Japanese, which means I know zero Vietnamese. So the “propaganda man” may actually have been telling jokes, in which case he may want to work on his delivery.

These speakers were even present in a tiny village of Viet Hai tucked away on a remote part of Cat Ba Island, reachable only by boat or a super-human trek. We had rented a basic bungalow there, in the hope of having some peace and quiet for a few days, but the joke-telling speaker guy had other plans in store for us. Each morning he launched into almost one-hour tirades and every 15 minutes his comedy routine was interrupted by a song, usually involving a high pitched female voice singing something vaguely patriotic.

“All day, all night, all day, all night, all day, all night…..WHAT THE *BEEP*?!”

And speaking of singing stuff…

Observation 6 – Karaoke

No Asian stereotype is complete without an image of a man/woman singing on stage at the top of their lungs in a crowded Karaoke bar. It’s as typical as the image of a Russian/Ukrainian wearing a fur coat, fur hat, felt boots and zig-zagging through the streets drunk with a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka sticking out of the coat’s pocket. Now, this may be exactly how I look on some festive occasions, but that doesn’t mean it applies to all of us all of the time. What I’m saying is – beware of putting people into boxes or putting labels on them (Not literally of course. If you’re literally putting people into boxes and putting labels on them, I’m quite sure the police will catch you soon enough, you sick bastard).

However, it seems Vietnam is quite happily living up to this particular stereotype. We’ve seen a multitude of places with live Karaoke performances during our three-week long visit. Our hotel room in Hue was actually right next to a massive multi-floor Karaoke establishment. That specific night was “amateur night” of some sort (when is it not “amateur night” when it comes to Karaoke?) with many hours of performances from audience members. Performances ranged from “utterly tone-deaf” to “almost not horrible”, with the audience cheering for each and every one of them. I’m guessing the winner was whoever made others bleed from their ears the least.

Above: NOT a typical Vietnamese Karaoke singer

Although I must admit there’s something heartening about so many people coming together to celebrate out-of-tune singing (this also goes for Katy Perry’s live performances). I dare you to find a Karaoke bar with a depressing atmosphere and lack of energy in the air. It’s impossible! You have better chances of seeing a Justin Bieber concert that doesn’t end with bottles being thrown at his head.

In Dong Hoi, a city that is otherwise nondescript, there was a street with no less than five Karaoke bars right next to each other. I’m no expert, but it sure seems like overkill, even if you’re really into Karaoke. It would be like having a coffee shop on ever damn corner, it just doesn’t make…wait a minute…well played Starbucks, well played!

The final part of the general observations is now available here. Remember to check out Katka’s awesome pictures from this equally awesome trip! Also, remember to follow me on Facebook or Twitter or even subscribe via email, if you want to stay updated on all of the latest.

Vietnam 2011: General Observations (Part I)

This summer my girlfriend Katka and I went on a three week trip to Vietnam. More specifically we went from mid-July to beginning of August. Even more specifically we went to Northern Vietnam with a “minor” detour to Central Vietnam and then back.

It just so happens that in exactly Northern Vietnam the travel period we’ve picked is considered monsoon season, also known as “holy fuck that’s a lot of water, let me go get my umbre…gulp gulp gulp”. It is essentially the worst possible period to travel through Northern Vietnam, but a great period for local raincoat peddlers – sales are up 247.51% (give or take). Check out the encouraging chart from VeloAsia.com:

“Soooo, those dark clouds are a good thing, right?”

For the record, Katka and I are not clinically stupid travel planners. And no, we’re not weirdos with an overdeveloped rain fetish. Although that last claim is on shaky ground, seeing how we live in Copenhagen – the place where Europe’s rain clouds come to hang out and throw parties. It simply was the only real window in our work schedules for this kind of trip. I know, stupid work. Stupid source of all our income.

Despite the bad timing, we have been immensely lucky to dodge most rain. The trip has been fantastic and full of adventures. Vietnam’s nature is breathtaking and there are stark differences between Northern and Central Vietnam, which made every day of the trip a unique experience.

Over the next few months you will see my extensive travel notes from the trip gradually appear on this very blog, complete with a good doze of unhealthy rambling. These will be in chronological order, because I am both annoyingly structured and not-Quentin-Tarantino.

Today I want to share with you some general observations about Vietnam that I find curious or amusing or…wait for it…both. So, without further ado (and in no particular order):

Observation 1 – Motorbike Safety

There are many, many motorbikes in Vietnam. Without any attempt at applying such concepts as “math” and “logic” I’ll put the number of motorbikes per person at around 5-6. Seriously though, motorbikes are as common in Vietnam as lack of quality acting is in any movie starring Keanu Reeves.

With such a copious number of motorbikes on the country’s busy roads, it is no wonder that safety is taken so seriously. Virtually every driver wears a helmet and many shops sell the latest advances in brain-saving gear. Case in point:

This helmet boosts your social standing AND protects your head from injury!

Thus, everyone’s head is always inside a protective hemisphere! And by “everyone” I mean “everyone over the age of 6”. Wait, what?! That’s right: while seeing a whole family with multiple kids on a single motorbike is a common occurrence, seeing those kids wear helmets is very rare indeed.

There are studies on the subject, showing that while adults wear helmets in 90-99% of the cases, children under the age of 7 only do so in 15-53% of the cases (depending on the study). From my observations the 15% figure is way closer to reality.

Wwwweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

A Dutch couple we’ve met at the end of our travels asked some locals about this. Turns out the main reason this happens is because it’s not mandatory for children under the age of 6 to wear helmets! And if the government doesn’t care enough about your child’s brain to make protecting it a law – why the hell should you?! I can only assume that the price of a kid’s helmet in Vietnam is more prohibitive than the cost of simply making another kid if necessary.

Also, apparently some Vietnamese sincerely believe that wearing helmets is outright dangerous for the kids, because it can “affect their necks”. I would think that head trauma from a traffic accident is a bit more damaging than some unproven voodoo effect helmets have on necks. But hey, I’m no brain surgeon (in case you thought I was).

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