Published: January 25th 2009January 25th 2009
Last night, I fell into one of those fitful sleeps caused by too many celebratory Saigon beers (there’s no such thing as alcoholism once you are a teacher, it’s just called R and R and I‘m on Tet holidays) and the ominous howling of neighbourhood mongrels, interspersed with squabbles between them for meagre bits of food. The steady persistence of a low-rolling drumbeat, the sounds of inflating unidentifiable animal cadavers and my new additions to my growing collection of mosquito bites forced me awake this morning. And, as if to remind me I’m in Vietnam, right now I can see from my apartment, what appears to be a mass of balloons, so many you can’t see the man holding them (not even his feet) ‘walking’ down the street. All around, on the streets and in living rooms, perhaps because it is a national holiday, men are playing a very popular game of Chinese chequers. They sit on the floor or on the street and if they’re indoors they gamble and have beer. Semi-naked. I’m not sure when all this became ‘normal’ and not in the least surprising. It’s amazing what you can adjust to. You tolerate much more, especially in a
developing country. Your priorities change discreetly. You only know the place is changing you when you write a blog to ‘normal’ people back ‘home’ in the ‘real’ world.
For instance, as the only person in HCMC who stops at the ‘traffic lights’, I have more time for aimless thinking. The other day I caught myself deciding what preferences I had when it came to being in an accident on my new scooter. Never in a million years did I think I’d drive when I initially arrived in this lunatic asylum of a country. To be honest, I thought crossing the road was going to be my most satisfying achievement. Never did I dream in my developed homeland of lanes, road markings and unquestioningly law-abiding county-men, that I would prefer a collision with a converted motorbike/rubbish container rather than with a xeom driver or taxi. The laws of physics deem both as likely as each other. You just develop an instinct for what would be more pleasurable; my favourite collision (favourite isn’t the right word but it’s the first word that comes to mind) would have to be with one of those guys selling ice creams to the sound of
preparing for tet
I'm not sure what this guy was doing but it looked as though he was shaking rice for sharing with friends over game of chinese checkers
some music akin to the original Nokia ringtone. For some reason, when compared to the possibility of an accident with a lifelong taxi driver with anger management issues, it’s an easy choice. A choice I didn’t even knew I had the capability of making in my ‘safe’ life in Ireland. The ice cream guy would be like doing the high jump onto a new bed with springs and shock absorption. You have the added bonus of perhaps silencing one nokia-ringtone-ice-cream-vendor-machine forever if you're skillfull enough. Driving also allows you a glimpse into a quintessentially Vietnamese experience. As you hum along with hundreds of others, coughing up your lungs due to the pollution a billion bikes producce, using the brave/certifiable xeom drivers as barriers on either side of you against a sea of engines, a feeling close to belonging arrives unexpectedly. You almost believe that the bike is powered by the energy of all other bikes around you; you surge forward in unison and the momenteum is controlled by a combined force of those surrounding you, not your engine. Although my speedometer is defunct, being able to go above 20kph is a rarity and even if you have an open road,
after 35kph you start eating and being sporadically blinded by bugs and overhanging electrical cable so you rapidly de-accelerate. Anyway, you don’t want you get lost in the potholes here; there is no map to get out, it’s just luck if you return to the madness. As one tipsy Vietnamese comrade advised me outside a jazz club last week, 'chom chom' is the Vietnamese way (closest translation: 'slowly slowly' but he could have just been choking or something...).
As I am learning to brake and accelerate with my hands, my brother is somewhere in Malta trying to learn these skills with his feet. To make matters worse he is in control of a four-wheeled car, with an innocent but clearly suicidal driving instructor next to him. At his mercy. Tune in next month to see how one man can bring Maltese society crumbling to its knees in terror, pleading for tighter immigration laws… Having my own mode of transport gives me the freedom to get dismally lost in district 10000001 of HCMC. My second day on the scooter and I got lost in Benh Thanh district which could possibly be the most sprawling monstrosity of haphazardous and spontaneously created
dusty roads. There are very few street signs indicating one way and an absence of any identifiable landmarks. After being reduced to singing the ‘Fields of Athenry’ for the tenth time in two hours (my anthem of choice for when I’m scared and confused - it seems to work for Munster), having crossed three duel carriageways/bridges with nine ‘lanes’ of traffic, I blocked a man from leaving his home and shouted ‘quan mot?…quan nam?…quan anywhere but this hellhole?’ To which he replied ‘khong…quan benh thanh’ (no, this is the district of Benh Thanh) Having wasted two hours of my life getting lost and sunburnt this wasn’t exactly epiphany inducing news. He did, though, point me in a general Southern direction and one hour later I spotted tourists and, truly reader, I nearly cried. Although they probably thought I was out to mug them, these anonymous travellers brought me back downtown (never trailed anyone before and it’s much harder than in movies) using their lonely planet map. I promised myself to never leave home without a map or, at the very least, to burn the district of Benh Thanh from that map to prevent future excursions to such a god-forsaken land.
Today is New Year’s Eve or Tet Nguyen Dan, so I’ll drive downtown and participate in a national pastime of taking photographs next to giant buffalos (2009 is the year of the buffalo) and amazing floral displays that adorn all the touristy sections of the city. They have only put away the Christmas lights but again the city looks fantastic with exotic flowers, red flags with the ubiquitous yellow star and happily snapping Vietnamese. After that I may just have a cocktail, come home and wonder why continuous drum playing seems out of place not only in Cork and Ireland, but anywhere except Vietnam…Chuc mung nam moi to all of you for the second time this year.
There are more photos below