Thursday, 28 August 2008

Week 17 - The Triathlon

Hello everybody, well I could about a few events this week, but one event stands out more than any, and that's simply because it was such an unusual and unexpected event I found myself taking part in. The Tribob 'Vietnam International triathlon' which included a 1500 metre swim, a 40k bike ride, and a 10k run took place on Saturday the 23rd August, and I found myself agreeing to be part of a relay team, meaning I 'only' had to do the 40k bike ride. now I just want to say that temperatures reach the 40 degree mark here and my ride was at 1500, so for those of you thinking a 40k bike ride doesn't sound so bad, think again... I had to drink so much much water for the race to keep hydrated, I could have filled three swimming pools in one trip to the bathroom! Our team, aptly named 'Hallo Motobike' (the single most heard phrase a tourist hears in Hoi An), consisted of Liz (Australian swimming teacher), Me, and Loc, (one of my vietnamese colleagues). Loc was the star as he not only ran the 10k at lightening speed, he ended with a real sprint finish, where I had been waiting after my ride and my free massage. The massage seemed like a good idea at the time, but with muscles so cramped up, I wasn't sure what was the most painful, the massage itself, or the last 5k of my cycle! I think I came 78 out of 100+ in the cycle, which considering my brief 3 week training, wasn't half bad. Some of the professional racers had those special carbon bikes and were obviously well into this kind of thing, so I wasn't too disheartened when several people overtook me on the first 5k of my ride... I had been fortunate enough to borrow a half decent 'racing bike' for the day of the race, and to show how nice people are here, they bike was given to me for free by one of the owners of a local cafe/restaurant, who was friends with a friend of Liz. I offered them some money post race for the bike, but it was so nice that they just let me turn up and use the bike. When I returned the bike the next day, I think the guy's wife thought I had just finished the race there and then, as she instantly sat me down at a table and began wiping my face with a towel, it took me a while to explain that I had actually raced yesterday, and the sweat on my face was just a normal days sweat in this heat!

There was a gala dinner that evening with some awards, which consisted an extortionate mount of food, and ridiculously overpriced beer at a big hotel here. I get a little critical of the dinner here simply because the 10k run had been routed just yards away from the hotel and through the opposing local village where the level of poverty is so low, the cost of one night at the hotel could probably feed a family there for a month... still that's the so called progress through tourism eh?!All in all, the day was fun and I never thought I would be taking part in a Triathlon, in Vietnam or anywhere else!!!
Regards from Vietnam

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Week 16 - 'a little help from your friends' & the kindness of strangers.

Hello everybody,
As this weekend marks the start of the English football season, I could not go without mentioning how relieved I was with Liverpool's 1-0 victory over Sunderland yesterday, and 'come on' Newcastle let's hope you give Man Utd a good beating! Ok, now that's out of my system I'll get back to more Vietnamese matters, not that English football is not a part of life here... almost every game is on, I may never leave here!!!

This week has been a really nice relaxing week and mainly because of the visit of my friend Sarah, (who I have known ever since November 2001, when we were both students at a Hospital near Manchester). Sarah now lives in London, after having some time in North Vietnam, she came to join me for a week of relaxation here in Hoi An. Having another good friend here this week has encouraged me to do more tourist things. So, after a return to My Son (world heritage site of ruins) this time a one-hour motorcycle ride away, we headed out to 'Cham Island' which is an island with a total population 891 people. I think that's what the guide said! The weather was fantastic which made the snorkeling and sunbathing on the beach an even better expereince, and despite a settled sea crossing, one of our passengers ( a Vietnamese girl) was just constantly sick throughout the journey. The other major event of the week would have to have been on Wednesday night / Thursday morning 00:00-04:00, when a meteor shower was reportedly happening. A few of us hit the beach at midnight, and with a cold beer sat for 2 hours watching an array of shooting stars, some quick flashes of light, and some stars left trails of light behind them! Being sat on a quiet beach with only a handful of local people around, and the sea lapping on the shore only feet away, it was yet another memorable experience that will keep my memories of Hoi An fresh in my mind for a long time!
The International Triathlon is just 6 days away, and after a practice 40k ride today on the course I am starting to wonder just what I have let myself in for! The smallest amount of wind on a pretty flat course had me peddling at the speed of a snail during the last 5k. Anyway, with my Australian swimming teacher friend (liz) doing the 1.5 swim, and my Vietnamese colleague (Loc) is doing the 10k run, I get to do the in between 40k bike ride. On today's adventure ride, one of the many locals who like to shout out 'hello' actually drove his motorcycle along with me for about 5 kilometres, and wanted me to stop for coffee with him, mid way through my ride, I tried my best to explain (through the sun-cream sweat that was pouring off me) that I was trying to train for a race! I had to settle for visiting his cafe some time in the next 7 days! hmm...

Another example of random niceness, which I find is sadly lacking from everyday life at home, was again after another Saturday matinee movie trip to Da Nang! After dropping Sarah at the airport I decided to walk randomly to the supermarket, which took me through a park by a lake. Many people were sitting in the shade, under trees, and a few kids were sitting around laughing. One group of kids saw me, and like most locals, they were quick to shout over hello. When I responded with a hello of my own, they asked me over to sit and talk with them. They were a group of University students studying tourism, and despite ranging from 19-24, they looked between 14-18. Still we sat down on the grass and talked for a good half hour about whatever questions they could form in English! It was just another example of how friendly and nice some people are here! Unfortunately any trip to Da Nang is now not complete without the guaranteed full blown 'hostage style' negotiation about the price of a bus ticket. So after another good 20 minutes of shouting, being ignored, being stared at, and finally winning out to pay just 12.000 dong, I was able to finally sit in peace for the last journey home.

To more social matters, I came across a really unfortunate case of a family from the North of Vietnam, who have three children, all of whom are disabled, one boy with cerebral palsy, who cannot walk, and do very little for himself, one boy, who is physically able, but has some developmental issues, and the youngest and perhaps most poorly child is the 2 year old son, who has hydrocephalus. Unfortunately the child has such a large mis-shaped head, that despite a recent operation, the damage caused already suggests that the child will not survive very long. This case was published in an Australian magazine I think... and really highlights the problems people face here because of poverty, and poor access to health care... I did not think it was right to put a picture on here , but those of you who would like to read further I suggest going to the Blue Dragon website at for more information about such cases.
Regards from Vietnam, (oh and please leave a comment if you are actually reading this blog!)

Monday, 11 August 2008

Week 15 - 'Supermarket Sweep'

Hello everybody!
Well another week passes by and finally the weather cools down here in Hoi An, we have even had 4/5 days with rain. Whilst the cooler weather has made our livers easier in Hoi An, I feel I must mention the floods in North Vietnam which have killed at least 100 people in the last couple of days. This is just an example of how delicate the climate is here, only a short burst of rain can cause instant flooding and fatalities, and whilst the same thing happens each year, there is simply not enough money for local people to better there living conditions, or indeed change the location of home to prevent the damage from this annual weather. I'm simply waiting for the rain and floods to come here, which people tell me they inevitable will.
Ok to today's main theme, On Saturday I went to Da Nang, to meet my friend Sarah, who was out here visiting me (and seeing Vietnam). Sarah called me to say that her plane was going to be late by 2 hours, and as I was sat in the 'Big C' supermarket at the time, I decided to check out the cinema there, and ended up watching Hancock to pass the time. To the point now, I was in the supermarket to pick up some shopping supplies for Sarah's visit, and this was now the third visit I had made to this supermarket. There are some interesting observations I have made from these 3 visits to the place. Firstly, there are not so many non-Vietnamese people in this supermarket, so you invariably have peoples attention thrust upon you. Secondly are far more comical is the amount of attention you receive and the level of intrusion you feel. Let me explain... ...As I have alluded to in past blogs, there really is very little privacy here, in all levels of society. Most houses are open planned with full view into homes almost 24 hours a day, street cafes are plentiful and people ask direct questions in conversation including 'how old are you?' 'are you married?' etc etc... so me as a 'youngish' male foreigner walking around a local supermarket I found myself being observed from all angles, by shoppers, staff and kids galore! Every time I reached for an item off the shelf I could see people looking to see what I was buying! I have found some people in Vietnam just go that extra mile when it comes to being nosey, and the supermarket just provides such people with more opportunity to be so. On more than one occasion, as I passed down a random isle, the oncoming families, couples or groups of friends, would slow down, stop next to me, look in my basket, and on one occasion, actually picked up items from my basket and began discussing amongst themselves, the content of my basket!!! On another occasion, 3 staff members and a security guard watched me take 10 minutes to choose a bottle of wine, and then as if some comedy movie, all 4 leaned over in unison as I passed them on the way to paying! I think I need to start putting some really obscure items in my basket to discourage them from rooting through strangers property!!! I am now used to the different level of intrusion here in Vietnam, and am looking forward to returning to my now 'local' (1 hour bus ride away!) supermarket!
I managed to meet Sarah later that day and they'll be more of her visit in next weeks blog!

The other big news for me this week is not related to Vietnam, but I wanted to share it with you all! I wrote an article for an Occupational Therapy Magazine in the UK, the article was about my time and observations in Romania, and it was published in the OT News Magazine August Edition!

Back to Vietnam, and my training for the 40k bike ride (as part of a triathlon relay team) continues. Unfortunately it still consists of me having to get up at 0500 each morning to go cycling because it's still cool enough to cycle for over an hour... I'm up to around 27k rides, and have about 10 days left to hit hte 40k mark!! The major benefit it that I get to cycle through little local provinces that no westerners pass through, so you feel almost famous, as throughout the entire hourney, there are cries of 'hello' coming from random houses or people in fields... I have perfected a royal riding wave, that doesn't distract me too much!

I hope to return to a more tourist lifestyle this week, and hope that will bring a few more interesting tales for me to share!

Regards from Vietnam

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Vietnam Week 14 - Pigs Brain, Chicken Feet & Local Buses

Hello everybody,
Sorry for the small delay in posting this week's blog, but due to a busy social life, and an equally frustrating battle with my computer (I lost the battle!), this has been the first chance where I have been able to sit down with time to spare and write about my week.

Week 14 has certainly been an eventful one, and perhaps a significant week for me personally. I have eaten pigs brains at my lovely neighbours, as well as going to the beach at 0530 most mornings with my them. I have also agreed to take part in a triathlon relay team, and am preparing to do a 40k bike ride in 3 weeks, and just like in Romania, I have a tale to tell about using local transport! On a personal level I have come to make some realisations about how difficult life can be in a culture where there are many barriers to actually becoming part of the local community.

Ok so to start with, I should talk about some of the activities with my neighbours first of all. As I have described, our house is surrounded by cafes, a cafe to the right, a cafe to the left, and one opposite! We need to take turns to eat at them all, so no one gets too jealous! As I described last week, I went to the beach with my neighbours from Laugh Cafe, and I have continued to do so for most of the week, I even managed to get up for sunrise (see picture). I am slowly growing used to the early nights and early mornings, just because this place comes to life from 0500... After spending more time with Hong and her family, they have begun to ask me to join them for a bite to eat, to time to time. One particular day they were eating lunch and called me to join them. Hong's boyfriend was really keen for me to try some warm white looking thing in the middle of the food... as I was being polite and wanting to eat this thing, a could see the others struggling not to laugh, increasing my suspicions of what the food might be... after taking some small bites I could gather form the gestures my hosts were making, that this was some kind of pig product, and I soon realised I was eating pigs brains... which were surprisingly good, and would have gone well with the pigs ear I ate in Romania! In another food related story, whilst going to eat with some of our staff from work, they asked us if we like to have chicken, as we usually leave the food ordering to them...which on occasion proves to be a mistake.. this was one of those occasions! After tucking into some very skinny chicken pieces, covered by salad, I found myself chewing on some very strange looking spring like pieces. The staff had ordered chicken, but not as we know it! They had ordered chicken bones! I quickly realised I was eating chicken feet... which explained the texture!!!! Not a pleasant moment!

My next mini-adventure came about when I unexpectedly got a day off last week, due to having no electricity in work, (which is not uncommon) here. So I decided that as the city of Da Nang is only an hour bus ride away I'd do things the local way. My neighbour offered to take me to the bus station, and did so with me sitting on the back of her bicycle, she also spoke with the bus driver to make sure I got charged the local price of 10,000 dong (33pence). So one hour later, I was stood outside the main supermarket in Da Nang, despite the bus travelling at an average speed of 5 miles an hour! I was pleased with my discovery of a bowling alley, and an English speaking cinema at the second supermarket 'Big C'. Having bought some food to finally stock up my fridge with, I headed to the supermarket entrance to find a way to the bus stop. No motorcycle drivers were either willing or able to understand that I didn't want them to take me all the way home. Having been able to find the bus stop with the use of a one dollar bill, and a guy with a bicycle, the bus rolled right up after just 2 minutes. Having jumped on the bus I was ready for a peaceful ride home, especially after seeing some rain clouds gathering above. I'd been on the bus all of a minute when the guy who comes round to collect the fares, approached, he looked at me for a few seconds and then showed me a 50,000 dong note (5 x the local 10,000 fare) I laughed and told him no, and that I would pay 10,00. he said no and returned 30 seconds later with another Vietnamese guy, who spoke a little English. 30,000 was this guys offer, to which I again laughed and said no, trying to explain that I had already done this journey today and was not going to pay more than 10,000. I even had a piece of paper with with an explanation (in Vietnamese) that said I was living volunteering here and please charge me local prices. This had no effect, and they guy's next trick was to pretend that new passenger (Vietnamese girl) had paid 50,000. So he again said 50,000 which just made me lose it a bit, and I began to shout, and bang my seat, telling the guy to go away, because I would not pay him. The other passengers began to watch was what going on, and knew what was happening, but refused to help. This annoyed me further, and when the guy returned with a tourist by his side, who he had overcharged, and tried to get the tourist to convince me to pay more, I really began to shout! I finally just shouted 'go away' very loudly and turned away. The guy finally returned, and tapped me on the shoulder without saying anything and just held his hand out.... I gave him 10,000, and was happy to say very loudly to the entire bus, that I had paid the local fare! I just hate blatant discrimination... it wasn't even done discreetly, that's what ticks me off!!! 1-0 for moral crusade!

Despite spending more time with my neighbours I want to talk a little about how I feel about the culture here, and how it does not really allow for non-Vietnamese people to fully integrate. I have to say that this is simply my personal experience, and may be very different in other parts of Vietnam. Here in Hoi An, there is a constant stream of tourists, and the main trade is the tourist trade. It is quite a rural town, and many people in the surrounding areas are relatively poor, with many people fishing, sewing for the tailor trade, working in cafes or working in the rice fields. Everybody I have met here, is very nice superficially, but as there are no places where both local people and non-local meet, then it is really very little opportunity to spend time with local people. Most locals here go to bed very early too, because they wake up and exercise from 0500 onwards, and the few local people who are awake late, are working in restaurants. It's difficult to know if the difference in costs of living... (many local people would find most of the places here expensive to eat), or the difference in the typical daily routine, or the lack of social opportunities for people to mix are the reasons for this feeling. There is also an element of control from the government that may play a part in this situation. There are government rules about Vietnamese and non Vietnamese people staying in the same room in hotels, or in even private houses. Then on a more local level, this is a very conservative town, and people have their own opinions and suspicions about 'westerners' and what they are doing here. This is a very brief insight into this idea, but one I hope will make you think about the non-local people who may be living in your own society.

Regards from Vietnam