Hungry in Hanoi?

29 Aug

Pho

South East Asia Backpacker Magazine have published a post I wrote on my favourite street food in Hanoi.

http://www.southeastasiabackpacker.com/hungry-in-hanoi-top-eight-street-foods-to-try

Unfortunately no beating snake hearts or hind legs of dog feature but do have a read – it might help you navigate your way around the street food scene in Hanoi!

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Guide to Backpacking Asia

21 Aug

Crossroads

A website called Travel Tips and Hacks published a post I wrote on backpacking round Asia.

http://www.traveltipsandhacks.com/home/ultimate-guide-to-backpacking-around-asia/

Have a look for some handy tips!

How Much is that Doggy in the Window?

12 Aug

dog meat

As a Westerner moving to Vietnam, I was very apprehensive about arriving to the country and being confronted with caged dogs on every street corner, awaiting slaughter. I also had a fear of being served dog meat by mistake or, even worse, as a cruel substitute to whichever meat I thought I was eating. While it remains popular, it is not as prevalent in day to day life as I had envisaged before arriving here. And there is certainly no chance of being served the meat ‘by accident’ or eating it unknowingly, as it is arguably the most expensive meat in Vietnam, with one kilo costing at least $10.

It isn’t illegal to eat dog in Vietnam and, actually, traditionally it is believed to bring good luck and virility to men if eaten at the end of the lunar month. In order to live in a different culture, it is imperative to accept alternative traditions and beliefs. I do understand that.

What is difficult to comprehend is the popularity of dogs as pets here in Hanoi. Throughout the city there are vast amounts of families with healthy, well looked after dogs. A popular choice is the Chihuahua – they are everywhere and can often be spotted perched proudly on the back of a speeding Honda Win. It is extremely unnerving when restaurants selling ‘Thit cho’ have three little pink-collared Chihuahuas running around on site.

dog

As a Westerner, it feels morally wrong to mix your pets with your dinner and I can’t help but shudder every time I pass a restaurant displaying barbequed dog carcass, with teeth and features still intact. However, while I won’t personally be chowing down on hind leg of dog any time soon, it is something that I must learn to co-exist alongside while living in a different culture.

That said, there is unfortunately a more pressing issue than my personal beliefs that dogs are ‘mans best friend’ – the supposedly booming trade in illegal dog smuggling, coming across the border from Thailand into Vietnam. Animal rights activists say as many as 200,000 live dogs are smuggled per year, each destined to end up on a plate in a Vietnamese restaurant.

caged dogs

Reportedly the dogs are held in inhumane conditions with up to 1,000 at a time squeezed on to the backs of lorries. Even more horrifically, a common belief suggests that fear stimulates a hormone in the dogs which improves the taste of their meat, meaning they are often intentionally held in stress cages with restricted movement. Often the dogs are bludgeoned to death and even skinned alive.

This news makes me feel significantly more justified in my feelings of physical repulsion every time I see a dead doggy for sale. It is no longer about my sheltered Western beliefs and whether it is wrong or right to eat dog meat. This is a brutal and illegal trade worth millions of dollars per year and something must be done to stop it.

Sources:
CNN World News
Soi Dog Foundation
Aljazeera News

Travels with my Mother

8 Aug
During one of our more 'swanky' evenings

During one of our more ‘swanky’ evenings

When my Mum told me she was booking flights to come and visit me in Vietnam, my first reaction was one of sheer elation. I literally did a dance. I have always been extremely close to my Mum and Sister and the thought of not seeing them for a whole year was one of the main contributing factors towards the tears streaming down my face as I traipsed through security in Glasgow airport, with the demeanor of someone being sent off for a jail sentence, rather than the trip of a lifetime.

After my initial excitement at the prospect of a visit from my Mum, the secondary feeling was one of worry. This may sound strange but after first settling in Hanoi, it had taken me some time to get over the feeling of intense homesickness I experienced most days.

In the beginning, while traveling round SE Asia, every day was so action packed and full of new experiences that I had no time to worry about what I was missing at home. Upon our return to Hanoi, it really hit me that we were going to be away for a long time. Trying to find an apartment and a job, in this crazy city, was difficult and I started to wonder whether the experience was right for me. It took time but upon finding a nice room and a job that I gradually felt decreasingly nervous about with every lesson, I managed to stop missing home every day and really began to enjoy living in Vietnam.

However, this control over my homesickness was a fairly recent development with my emotions generally seeming to teeter on a tightrope, easily tipping over and falling back in to remission if missing a particularly exciting event or occasion at home. I worried that this small slice of home, in the form of my beloved Mum, would set me back a few stages in the homesickness chart (FYI. There are five official stages). Despite this worry, I was obviously completely thrilled to have her come and visit me and started planning what we should do during her 14 days in Vietnam. How exciting!

Alas… this planning led me to my second set of trepidation. I began to question whether she would enjoy the country and its strange ways. It’s a very long distance to come for a two week holiday and the flights were by no means cheap. What if she didn’t like it? Although she assured me that she was primarily coming to visit me and would be happy sitting drinking cups of tea in my kitchen every day, I couldn’t help but feel responsible for her enjoyment of the trip.

One of the quieter crossings we had to navigate together!

One of the quieter crossings we had to navigate together!

The whole time I have been travelling and living in Vietnam, I have kept in regular contact with my friends and family (particularly my Mum, speaking regularly on Skype and daily on whatsapp and email). She has been kept informed of my impressions, descriptions and feelings towards this country, the food, the people and the scenery. After building up an image in her mind, based purely on my experiences, it became a concern to me that perhaps it wouldn’t quite live up to her expectations. In no way is my Mum a fussy or judgmental person, but living here has been something so separate from anything or anyone back home that the thought of someone from ‘real life’ sampling it for themselves made me start to analyse everything. What if she hated the local food stalls that we eat lunch at? What if it isn’t quite as hot as I had made it out to be? Does it rain more than I’ve articulated? Is it as charming as I have described it as being? Maybe the traffic will be too much for her to handle? Or perhaps, I have built it up to be worse than it actually is? Is it really THAT bad crossing the road in Hanoi?

Living in Vietnam, and this whole journey, has always been a completely separate world from my life back home. And now the two were about to meet. I desperately hoped they would get on.

Enjoying beers in the 'gutter' in Saigon - getting on just fine!

Enjoying beers in the ‘gutter’ in Saigon – getting on just fine!

Arriving off the plane, my Mum looked surprisingly fresh and awake after her impressive 30 hour journey. It was wonderful to see her and it felt completely surreal as we took the taxi ride from Noi Bai airport to Tay Ho, where we live in Hanoi. After lots of hugging, the first night was spent catching up and showing her around our local area. We went for some food nearby and then disaster struck – her Wontons were BELOW ROOM TEMPERATURE. And CHEWY. Oh god, I was getting nervous. Maybe the food in Vietnam is rubbish? Why did I tell her it was good!? Have I just gotten used to it? (Of course, she wasn’t bothered about this in the slightest but I was so focused on showing her the best of Vietnam that I genuinely felt distraught at the substandard wontons.)

One thing that soon became apparent was that I needn’t have worried that I had built the insanity of the traffic up too much – she was terrified every time we crossed the road. In the beginning, I was quite seriously concerned that she might have a nervous breakdown every time I had to physically drag her across the road, in front of oncoming cars, motorbikes and lorries. I tried not to get frustrated, after all we have been in Asia for 7 months now and it really takes some time to get used to the differences in day to day life.

After the first day exploring the Old Quarter and surrounding areas, it was clear that I perhaps needed to rethink some of the activities I had lined up for us. It turns out that, what I hadn’t accounted for, was what a ‘swanker’* ( see definition below) my Mum is! Here was me, visualizing things to do each day that involved drinking 5 pence beers at the side of the road (or the gutter, as she jokingly (?) liked to refer to it as) and eating food sloppily served to child size plastic chairs and tables, when all she really wanted was to frequent swanky roof top bars for cocktails! Living in Vietnam has really skewed my perception of what is expensive. On her first day, we sat down at the Metropole hotel in the French Quarter and looked at the cocktail menu. I almost vomited upon looking at the prices of drinks and reassured her that we could just make a break for it if she wanted (even though we had already used their freshly steamed white face towels, presented upon arrival). My Mum looked at me as though I was insane and reminded me how much the drinks actually cost in pounds.

More 'swanky' cocktails in the roof top bar of the Sofitel Hanoi - magnificent view

More cocktails in the roof top bar of the Sofitel Hanoi – magnificent view

When you are used to living here, eating local food and drinking local beer, you can’t help but compare everything to these ridiculously low prices. In comparison to local bia hoi, yes the cocktails were expensive. In comparison to what you would pay in the UK for a cocktail in a five star hotel, it was nothing short of a bargain.

As well as seeing the sights of Hanoi and nearby Halong Bay, we traveled to centrally located Hoi An, and Saigon in the south. This was the second time I had made these journeys south of Hanoi but the experience was a very different one. The thought of getting on a Vietnamese night bus with my Mum did actually enter my head at one point. I quickly (and wisely) dismissed it at an early stage. The experience of flying around the country was such a massive improvement to the hideous night buses that we had to endure when we were backpacking through the country. I felt like a real person, as opposed to an unwashed and sleep deprived traveler. And it felt good.

Mum enjoying the sights for Halong Bay

Mum enjoying the sights for Halong Bay

What is key here is that holidaying and traveling are two separate entities. As a backpacker, great joy is found in spending as little as possible on beer and street side food. The joy of coming on holiday here is perhaps different. Don’t get me wrong, we did our fair share of street food and cheap beer but, understandably, when coming to the country for two weeks it is desirable to live a bit of the high life in rooftop five star bars and stay at hotels that would be out of your price range back home. By paying a little more, you can have some fantastic experiences at a fraction of the price in more developed countries. Another factor I often overlook is that my Mum is actually a ‘Mum’. As well as being a great friend she is a parent, with a good few years on me and differing priorities. As we are so close, it is easy to forget this and assume that she wants to go to full moon parties and drink buckets with the best of them. Enjoying cocktails with a nice view is generally more appealing to a parent than the satisfied feeling of only paying 7pence for your beer. (It should be noted that said beer usually comes in a glass of questionable origin and one of the perks is having to stand up and move your chair off of the road every ten minutes, when the police patrol past. Inconvenient? Slightly. All part of the charm? Absolutely.)

View from the Sheraton, Saigon

View from the Sheraton, Saigon

Anyway, after managing to get my head around this I was able to embrace it fully, believe me. I was perfectly happy to be hanging out at five star bars, drinking cocktails and going for massages and manicures. (I think I must be the only female to travel SE Asia and not have a single spa treatment done, up until now – thanks Mum!) Oh, and taking taxis. What previously had seemed like an expensive luxury, was put firmly in to perspective for me and we started getting taxis everywhere. As much as I love a ride on the back of a scooter, or even a walk along the death-trap roads, there is nothing like good aircon and leather seats. The initial idea that myself, my Mum and John would all navigate our way around Hanoi on the back of our Yamaha Nouvo was a ridiculous one and it is a blessing for our safety that this didn’t go ahead.

Strolling in Hanoi

Strolling in Hanoi

It was interesting to hear someone else’s comments and first hand views on a country that is very full on. From talking to many travelers and people passing though, it is a country that many either love or hate. Vietnam tends to evoke strong reactions from people. During my time here, it must have grown on me more than I realized because I could feel myself becoming defensive in response of the smallest criticisms from my Mum. Of course, this was absolutely ridiculous as they were the exact same criticisms as I myself had made when we first arrived. There is no doubt about it, the toilets ARE disgusting.

My Mum loved her time here, particularly our trips to Halong Bay and Hoi An, which is just impossible not to love. My initial worries were completely unnecessary and overall, I think we managed to find a nice balance of sampling the local street food and beer that Vietnam is famous for, while allowing ourselves to enjoy several luxurious drinks and views over the bright lights of the city. And, my Mum helped me regain my love for shopping! (Something that she was later to regret when packing her case to go home…)

Shopping in Saigon

Shopping in Saigon

It was amazing having her here, it really was. I was worried it might cause a regression in to feelings of homesickness but, in the end, I was so grateful that she made the tiring journey all the way out to see me and felt nothing but happiness that I had been able to see her during my year away from home. Most people aren’t given that opportunity when on a trip like this.

I had to give myself a stern talking to after waving her off at the airport. I allowed myself to have a small cry and then pulled myself together as I walked past the throngs of tourist taxis and made my way to take the local bus back in to Hanoi.

Thank you for a lovely holiday Mum.

* Swanker (def): ‘Hilarious’ term that we coined for my Mum when it transpired that she was apparently only interested in visiting the bars of 5 star hotels, as opposed to the ‘gutter’ joints I had lined up for us. Oh, how we laughed.

Halong Bay cruise - fantastic!

Halong Bay cruise – fantastic!

Kayaking in Halong - in the POURING rain. Amazing.

Kayaking in Halong – in the POURING rain. Amazing.

Pagoda at Truc Bach Lake, Hanoi

Pagoda at Truc Bach Lake, Hanoi

Mum's photo of speeding motorcycle and grafitti in Sigon - love it

Mum’s photo of speeding motorcycle and grafitti in Saigon – love it

Hectic Hanoi

Hectic Hanoi

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At the 'Hanoi Hilton' aka Ho Lo Prison

At the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ aka Ho Lo Prison

Views over Hanoi from the Sofitel Rooftop

Views over Hanoi from the Sofitel Rooftop

Hoi An wet market

Hoi An wet market

Beautiful lanterns of Hoi An

Beautiful lanterns of Hoi An

A little bit of luxury, Hoi An

A little bit of luxury, Hoi An

...finely balanced with dirt cheap beer, Saigon!

…finely balanced with dirt cheap beer, Saigon!

Published Article

8 Aug

Image

I had my first article published in print this month, in ‘The Word’, a popular Vietnamese English language magazine. 

Follow this link for a PDF copy of the magazine:

http://wordhcmc.com/images/printmag/Word_Vietnam_August2013.pdf

My article is called ‘Salary Gap’and is listed on the contents page, under national.

Very exciting! 

 

Note:

Exchange rate as follows –

33,000 Vietnamese Dong to 1 British pound

21,000 Vietnamese Dong to 1 American dollar

Earning a Living in Vietnam

4 Aug

Last week, I was offered a job at a Vietnamese television production company. As I work in TV at home, I was obviously thrilled by this prospect. I hadn’t considered that there may be alternative ways to earn a living in Vietnam, other than teaching English, and was hopeful that this would open up new doors for me. Upon receiving the good news, I was very excited to accept the offer. It almost seemed too good to be true…

Then came the bad news:

‘First we need to talk to you about money…’ the production manager had said, in a leveling manner that made my heart sink a little.

Aware that the average wage in Vietnam is reported to be $185 per month (that’s around 120 English pounds) I wasn’t looking forward to the conversation regarding salary.

DONG

Explaining that all of their current staff are Vietnamese, the PM tried to soften the blow of their pending offer by padding it out with lots of explanation about pay rates in Vietnam. They made it clear that their proposal was very much a compromise – I was being presented a greatly inflated rate as a Westerner with native English speaking skills.

$300 (approx. 190 pounds) per month to work 8.30 – 5.30, 6 days a week.

That was the offer. Genuinely, it was a generous one when you consider that it is probably almost twice as much as some of their current staff. But, I couldn’t afford to accept a job that would equate to working for around $1.50 per hour (that’s around 90 pence); no matter how interesting it would sound on my CV.

This experience caused great reflection on my part about the huge pay divides between Westerners (working for Western companies or working here as native English teachers) and local Vietnamese. As I had been offered a job at a Vietnamese company, the offer was reflective of their salary budgets for the local workers. Thus, the reason why Westerners are generally not employed by local companies. Ever.

Native English teachers in Vietnam are paid a minimum wage of $20 per hour. It is no secret that foreign teachers are paid generously, earning up to ten times that of Vietnamese teachers. As the country becomes increasingly globalized, English is in huge demand and work is plentiful for foreign teachers with a face that fits. By this, I essentially mean a Caucasian face. I have seen numerous job adverts in Vietnam which state in no uncertain terms that the applicant must be of ‘European appearance’. 9 times out of 10 you are asked to submit a photograph along with your application. In fact, when offered my current teaching job, the employer was not shy about admitting they ‘liked my appearance.’ I don’t think they meant my outfit.

When I consider that I am working alongside teachers who are being paid up to 10 times less than me for their time, it makes me feel a little uncomfortable. In fairness, it’s not just my white face, I am a native English speaker which is a specialist skill in this country. Nevertheless, there is just something that doesn’t feel right about the set up. It is also a concern that this obvious pay divide strengthens the preconceptions that Vietnamese have about ‘rich foreigners’ and leads to a lot of resentment from Vietnamese teachers towards foreign teachers. In fact, I fear it leads to resentment from locals towards foreigners in general.

money

Even the best paid jobs in Vietnam still barely cover what a Westerner will pay for rent here. Workers in the finance and insurance industries have the highest average salary, at around $260 per month. Admittedly these are averages,and CEO’s of some Vietnamese companies are reported to earn around $900, but this is barely even representative of a minority of the workforce and is a very unusual salary to earn. Interestingly, large pay divides can also be found within these companies and while the CEO earns this respectable wage, administration staff in the same company will often be paid around $100-125 per month.

These low averages raise questions about how the local people afford to live. I am at a loss to understand how they fund their brand new Vespas and smart clothes. What I am perhaps not grasping, is the extent of the hugely inflated prices that we, as foreigners, pay for everything.

market

This ‘foreigner tax’ is one of my main gripes about living in Vietnam (and most who visit the country, I suspect). Westerners are charged grossly increased prices for most things here including food, taxi fares and accommodation. While I can’t help feeling cheated knowing that I have been a victim of severely hiked prices, considering the huge pay gap between Westerners and locals does soften the blow somewhat. Despite this blatant over charging, the cost of living to pay ratio still sits well in our favour. You can rent a nice room in an apartment for 200 dollars per month and a bowl of delicious street food will set you back two dollars, where it might cost a local one dollar.

Another consideration is that most young Vietnamese will stay in the family home long after they are married and have children of their own so, in actual fact, living expenses are fairly low. In no way am I advocating the huge gap in salaries, as I’m sure that living with 10 people in one home isn’t an ideal situation, just trying to get my head around it. Low living costs combined with largely deflated prices obviously serves to make living on these low wages feasible. Unfortunately feasible does not always equal comfortable.

Perhaps I am giving it too much thought. Society here has always been more focused on family than material goods. Vietnam was recently voted the second happiest country on the planet while the UK came in 41st, so something must be working. It only goes to prove that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Fishing by the lake - a nice way to earn a living

Fishing by the lake – there are worse ways to earn a living

Sources:
CNN
Report by Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs
Thanh Nien News
Happy Planet Index, New Economics Foundation

Understanding Fashion in Vietnam – Pyjamas, Ponchos and Pale Skin

26 Jul

Apart from the obvious family, friends and scampi fries; there are many other things that I very much miss about home.

I miss fashion. I miss the physical act of going shopping for clothes. I have been wearing the same six outfits for the last five months and I am beyond sick of them. I will admit that there is something enjoyable about not having to decide what to wear when you get up in the morning – at the moment, it’s a case of whatever is clean will do. But my email inbox is constantly updating with newsletters from Topshop, Urban Outfitters and ASOS and while I find it’s easier not to open them, I can’t resist torturing myself by having a look.

While trying to adopt an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude to trends back home, I couldn’t help but notice that two piece printed items are in fashion this summer. I love this look and if I were at home, this style would be a definite addition to my wardrobe.

2 piece
It turns out, however, if patterned two pieces are my thing then I have most certainly come to the right place. The Vietnamese actually have their own long-established version of this trend. The infamous Vietnamese Pyjamas.

Vietnamese PJs - Often teamed with conical hat

Vietnamese PJs – Often teamed with conical hat

Except here, it really cannot be described as a trend. Residents of most Vietnamese cities and towns have been rocking the pyjama look for years. And I’m sure they will continue to do so for many more. It is a strange sight when you first arrive to the country and the majority of women are going about their daily business, clad in what is clearly a pair of pyjamas. Admittedly, they do come in varying styles ranging from full length ‘button ups’ to matching shorts and T-shirt sets but there is no denying they are all very obviously pyjamas. Curious as to why the style is so popular, I asked a local friend and she informed me that these sets aren’t really considered to be bed wear and fall more in to the lounge wear category. I suppose they are almost the equivalent of a ‘Juicy Couture’ tracksuit back home. Oh, but wait – they DO actually sleep in them as well? So they are pyjamas? No. I’m confused.

Vietnamese PJs hanging out to dry

Vietnamese PJs hanging out to dry

The appeal of the Vietnamese pyjama set is fairly widespread but it is an even more more common sight in rural areas. The cities in Vietnam, are globalizing and developing at a fast rate and the fashion sense of the inhabitants is modernizing with it. That said, it is still very popular here in Hanoi. Generally, it is women in the ‘over 35’ age bracket that can be seen sporting a pair of jazzy nylons but it is not uncommon for younger Vietnamese to be spotted running a quick errand in a pair. The main area of difference is apparent in the socio-economic divide. Street hawkers and women working in typically lower paid jobs wear these pyjamas almost as if it were a uniform. One obvious selling point is that they are practical and comfortable and actually, the longer I spend here, the more tempted I am to indulge in a pair…

lady

Another common style favoured by Vietnamese women is the floral ‘sun jacket’, worn to shield skin and prevent it from being exposed to the sun. Since arriving here, I have learned that the most insulting thing you can say to a Vietnamese woman is that she has a nice tan (oops, made that mistake… did NOT go down well). Pale skin is considered to be of the utmost beauty and I often have people stopping me in the street to tell me how lovely my white skin is. (‘White?! How dare you. I have been working on my golden tan for weeks!’) Before buying any sort of beauty products, shower gels or face creams, you should check that they don’t have whitening agents in them. These products are everywhere. Pale skin has long standing connotations of coming from a poor background and so, women go to great lengths to avoid developing any sort of a tan. The distinguishable ‘sun jackets’ provide a capped hood and sleeve that cover the lengths of your hands, to minimize any expose to UV rays. This look is always teamed with the mandatory face mask and sunglasses. On a sunny day, literally every woman you see will be wearing a variation of this combination. How they can bear the heat is a question that begs to be asked.

This jacket, mask and glasses look is everywhere

This jacket, mask and glasses look is everywhere

Clothing and fashion customs in Vietnam can be difficult to get your head around. As the country modernizes and takes increasing influence from the West, a lot of the younger women have started to dress in very revealing outfits. They can often be seen riding around on a shiny Vespa, in patent leather stilettos and figure hugging shift dresses. Hot pants, body con mini-dresses and chiffon shirts are very common. Yet, traditionally, to wear something which reveals the tops of your shoulders is often perceived as disrespectful and this custom is often still adhered to. Confusing.

The shopping scene in Hanoi is actually becoming quite stylish but the physical act of buying clothes can be difficult. I tend to find the feeling of the sales staff literally ‘sizing you up’ to be particularly off-putting. Entering a shop to be welcomed by several employees shouting at you encouragingly – “we have big sizes!” – is not my idea of an enjoyable shopping experience. (I have also made the mistake of venturing in to a ‘locals only’ clothes shop where the owner point blank refused to serve me but more on this attitude later). The shops themselves vary in quality and style. There are some very cool boutique shops with vintage style clothes in the window but when you actually pluck up the courage to go in to the shop, the garments inside often don’t quite live up to those on the mannequins. Or even if they do, they usually only have one size available in each item – tiny size. This all leads to a fairly stressful shopping experience and therefore, I have been avoiding a big shopping trip since I got here.

The traditional 'Ao Dai' are often worn by Vietnamese women on special occasions, particularly weddings


/>Despite the modernization of fashions in Vietnam, it is still a common sight to see women wearing the traditional ‘Ao Dai’, usually for special occasions such as weddings and family parties.

Difficulties aside, it is interesting to observe how women dress in different cultures and the way in which perceptions of beauty can vary wildly from country to country. In the West, it is considered far more provocative to expose your legs in a mini skirt than your shoulders in a sleeveless T-Shirt. Similarly, while I am desperate for a tan, the women here suffer the sweltering heat in extra layers rather than have their skin go even a slight shade darker. Vietnamese women are beautiful and I wish that they would embrace the lovely skin tone that they have, rather than focusing on trying to lighten it.

One fashion item that we do agree on is that of the Poncho. It’s an essential item for RS 2013 (that’s Rainy Season 2013) and a look that, as you can see, I have embraced with open arms.

Poncho and bike helmet - It's a strong look

Poncho and bike helmet – It’s a strong look