Tag Archives: Personal

Lazy Schlub Assigned to Weather Channel’s SEA Desk

The rainy season in Vietnam has rolled in right on schedule; we’ve been hit with a series of sodden days. I have yet to witness the more predictable cycle in which it supposedly rains at a predictable time every day.

So when I checked weatherchannel.com to see if Sarah and I would be able to shoot down to My Tho and Ben Tre for a day-long biking trip, I was unsurprised to find a string of thunder cloud icons above every 3-hour time stamp.

However, when I got up this morning to find the forecast for today and tomorrow hadn’t changed, I decided to check the next few days. Turns out the Weather Channel’s way of dealing with weather in Vietnam during the wet season is to slap up a few scattered T-Storm icons and award a 60% chance of humidity across the board.

Who assigned the webmaster’s chiba-huffing cousin to the South East Asia desk?

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Filed under Media, Vietnam

The Dune Warriors

Continued from Nam, the Would-be Dune Guide

Our moment had come. The dune kids were scattered and Sarah had a clear path to Flower Pants. While she slipped away, I waded into the crowd of waiting boys who had been trying hyena-like to lure me away from the table throughout breakfast. It was my fault for having told them my name when we first arrived.

“Tom! Tom! You slide. You slide down.”

Now, as I approached, they seized upon me. “Tom, you slide with me,” said a skinny boy with a baseball hat tilted askew. He grabbed my forearm and led me across the street to the sand dunes. The diversion had worked. There, Sarah was waiting with Flower Pants, the sole girl among the dune kids

In addition to a stroll through Fairy Stream and a daybreak visit to the fishing village, most jeep tours of Mui Ne include a stop at the yellow sand dunes. In photographs posted in Internet cafes and restaurants that double as tour agencies, Westerner’s faces light up with glee as they coast down the golden dunes on plastic sheets akin to over-sized place mats. In the background are the carefree children who rent out the sleds.

Had our visit to the dunes been chaperoned by a tour operator, perhaps ours would’ve been such a joyous visit. Instead, we left with photos tainted by piggish greed.

But as we humped the dunes amongst a cavalcade of pre-adolescents, I couldn’t imagine that those bulletin board pictures were inaccurate. Nor could I make sense of what Nam had told us about the dune kids: that they were a pack of ingenuous, depraved sadists whose sole motivation was greed. Indeed, our friend Phoung had met up with us the day before, and when we asked her opinion on the Japanese tourist story, she conceded that it could be true.

But here were the kids, asking me all sorts of questions, pointing to my aviators and chanting, “Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson.” Now that they weren’t swarming around our breakfast table, my distaste for them faded. I looked back. Sarah was smiling with her coterie of kids, too. Still, I steeled myself against their charm. I handed over my sandals to Crooked Hat when he offered only because I could not think of a polite way to say no.

At the top of the hill, one of the boys asked for Sarah’s camera. “I’ll take picture of you,” he said. I looked at Sarah for confirmation, but she was already handing it over.

Crooked Hat kneeled at the apex and poured sand over the mat. “It slides better this way,” he said. He motioned for me to sit down, and once I had, he grabbed hold of the rope connected to the front of the mat. Suddenly, he lunged backwards, took a few steps, and, stepping aside, let me loose.

I fell off balance and the sled came out from under me at the base. As I got up the boy with our camera began scrolling through the photos he’d taken. I’d expected a blurry mess, but in fact, they were incredibly good photos. He even navigated the camera like it was his.

Up at the top, Flower Pants was trying to get something across to Sarah, but had found a chink in her Vietnamese. Frustrated, she sighed and pulled Sarah’s sunglasses down from her forehead over her eyes. It appeared that Flower Pants had more spunk than we gave her credit for.

Sarah came sailing down, and almost before she had stood, each boy was crowing for us to slide with him next. We ignored their calls and instead just sprinted up the hill and chose a couple boys at random. The boys sent us whizzing down in tandem. Again, they called for another side, but we told them we’d had enough.

The photographer had emerged as the leader, so Sarah got her camera back and squared up with him. She looked in her wallet and found she only had two 100,000 VND bills and a handful of small bills. She handed the boy two of the crisp 100,000 VND bills, and he walked off.

As we began to follow him, the rest of the kids surrounded us and started demanding their share. We told them that we paid the photographer, but they responded that he wasn’t with them. This, we knew, was a crock, but by this time, he had walked over a ridge and out of sight. Desperately clinging to their lie, the kids became downright rotten, calling us liars and cheats. We walked on ignoring their taunts, but then, Crooked Hat hit my last nerve.

“You don’t pay me, so I keep your shoes,” he said.

I kept my eyes averted from Crooked Hat, searching for the appropriate response. What I wanted to do was pick him up and shake him. A ten-year-old had me over the barrel. I didn’t want to get nasty, but I didn’t want to give in to this snotty little brat either. My outrage was stoked by the fact that I knew we’d given above and beyond what most tourists paid. I kept walking until I found a response.

“It’s okay,” I said. “They weren’t very expensive.”

“Okay, fine. You don’t pay me. I keep them.”

“Okay,” I said.

The kids continued to protest, and eventually Sarah gave a boy the handful of small bills, which amounted to less than a dollar. “That’s all I have,” Sarah said, simply wanting to be rid of them. Suddenly, realizing that his bluff had been called, the boy who’d taken the bills gave them back to Sarah, insisting that she buy herself a water. The mood changed like a sudden parting of rain clouds. Crooked Hat handed me my sandals and bid us farewell.

Immediately, we knew what had happened. We’d fallen for a trap they’d probably laid a hundred times. Seeing independent tourists, unaccompanied by a tour group, they’d lulled us to the far end of the dunes where we were hidden from view. We followed. They’d let their friend the photographer take the money and then feigned being ripped off by the alleged free agent. My sandals provided the collateral. Chief among our mistakes, we hadn’t set a price before sliding. My stomach might’ve continued to roil, but I knew we’d allowed ourselves to be duped.

We later found out from Phuong that the going rate is 5000 VND per slide.

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Fire Drill, Saigon Style

We were enjoying the fire drill just fine until the maintenance men started screaming at us. Students and teachers alike had ambled down the stairway at a leisurely pace, but once we reached the ground floor of the ILA building, the blue-shirted Vietnamese jabbed their fingers violently towards the main entrance as a steady column made for the basement garage.

I was happy to escape an afternoon of English Language Acquisition methodology training, so when one of the men locked me in his frantic stare, I heeded his command. But as I rounded the glass-walled reception desk, I noticed that the massive, open frontage was draped in a curtain of water. Outside, there were no fewer than 3 high-powered hoses firing at the building. I stopped dead in my tracks and turned to find everyone behind me staring ahead as well, clearly thinking the same thing: Do they expect us to run through that?

Out came the blue-shirted madmen, keeping up their ruckus. Question answered.

People emerged from the building, drenched to varying degrees, depending on their individual abilities to duck, weave, and keep their footing on the soaked marble steps. Almost everyone turned to stare up at the building. Had an actual fire broke out prior to the scheduled drill? Had they set fire to the building deliberately?

Neither was the case. Unless ILA is given special treatment as Saigon’s premier English-language school, fire drills in Vietnam are not solely staged for building occupants to practice evacuation, but for the fire department to get in some target practice.

Living in a culture far removed from one’s own, specifically one behind the curve on modernization, you quickly learn that while some things are lost in translation, others are lost in adaptation. This occurs in a number of realms.

Take the realm of staple cuisine. As the Vietnamese develop an appetite for American and European fare — the Italian coffee fad is gaining traction — its common for non-tourist restaurants to offer a few staples from Western menus. More than anything, it seems, the dishes are added for a stylish little touch. Sometimes, however, style doesn’t translate into substance, such as when I ordered fish ‘n chips at a nice, mid-range restaurant and received a plate of fish sans chips.

In the case of the fire drill, I don’t mean to suggest that the West is the fountain of all things rational and modern. Nor do I have any special insight into the origin and development of fire safety procedures or their history in Vietnam. But generally, it’s safe to assume that modern procedures travel from modernized spheres to modernizing ones.

And on that note, someone needs to have a sit down with Saigon’s top fire warden.

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Filed under Ho Chi Minh City, Ideas, Vietnam