Saturday, January 29, 2005

Everything fits on a motorbike

Everything fits on a motorbike

Photo thanks to Mark Lowerson's brilliant photography skills while travelling on the back of a motorbike! Harder than you might think.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Sooty in the lands of corn and Christ

Winter entered its thaw this week. The sun flashed in a sky so unused to accompaniment that it shocked us to see blue in it again and we decided to take to the roads around the city for a stretch of the legs.

Over the main bridge from town, the river runs below you as a reddish brown strip cut with barges and long river boats running back and forth and up or down it. At its middle, a wide stretch of brown, buttery, rich-silted soil sports corn crops. On either side the banks have been mapped out with small plots growing an assortment of vegetables and plants. Start to cross and it's a hustle of maddening traffic, but you then get into the country even before you've made it half way.

On either side of the river run two large dykes to prevent flooding and the main roads along both sides run atop these. The city side is a busy four lane or more throng of trucks and bikes that threatens at every moment to completely entangle you in the crisscrossing tentacles of its traffic. The other side, running south, is a homely two-lane stretch of concrete and gravel that is randomly homicidal in the casual way of farm machinery.

The roads running off of the countryside dyke diminish rapidly into thin concrete strips in the villages close to town, and rutted dirt roads that heave you about with carnival ride abandon on their way to farm plots or dumping grounds. It's true though that even in the city you can find dirt roads that weave about through the rougher parts of town. Those muddy patches take off suddenly from the main roads, shooting down brief openings between a pair of buildings. They slither on between narrow low houses and past shuttered doorways, curving back and forth over uneven ground only to burst out again on the other side of the city to join another main road. They give the opinion of having been opened up overnight by industrious locals capable of shifting buildings and parting concrete, or having simple started off as cracks between paving stones on footpaths that have progressed with time to become common paths and will eventually become roads in their own right. They make you think that perhaps all the roads had been created in this way, as the city cracks and expands like clay in the sun.

It wasn't far out of town that we came across a small village whose centrepiece was a large church. The church was built in 1913, according to its front, and had the flowing, curling embellishments of a pagoda, draped like the tails of a dragon about its traditional rectangular block and towering spire. They bordered the sides and slid across the front without overwhelming the Christian design. Down each side of the building, rows of palms trees had also been planted. Behind the church and down one side, a woman was drying corn kernels on the flat concrete, taking advantage of the sun while it lasted.

In fact the entire village there was corn and Christ. The former spread for drying wherever we looked and the latter represented by crosses over doorways and on rooftops. This, and the heady embrace of Christmas we had witnessed over December, made a mockery of the US State department's 90 day warning given to Vietnam for abuses of religious freedom over Christmas.

Before we left the village Kate got a glimpse of a dog being roasted on a bed of hay. We went back so that I could see, but by then it had been covered up and the new hay was ready to be lit. They did offer to share but we declined. The dog was no bigger than a suckling pig.

On our way back to town we came across a charcoal maker building bricks from wet soot. He had taken a mass of this from his barrow as we approached and, combining it with sawdust, he pushed it into a mould that he pressed down by hand, to turn out round bricks with holes in the middle leaving them to dry in the sun. His hands and feet were pitch black from the work and he had made a few hundred of these round burners that make up the majority of the cooking fires about town. He didn't mind our attention, though perhaps found it a little peculiar to find himself in the spotlight all of a sudden. This was the first time we had seen anyone doing this and Kate took her new camera out and took some great photos of him.


tintinbomb copy, originally uploaded by MJE.

Tin Tin works some magic over a piece of unexploded ordinance - All apologies to Herge

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Too cold to sleep on the desks

Today the mercury hit its highest mark at 7 degrees. A bare and thrilling temp that had us hopping about on the tiled floor of our house. At eleven, my boss rang to inform me that the little kids wouldn't be coming to school today, it was just too cold.

Children here tend to go to school for about five or six hours a day. They go in the mornings or the afternoon, and at lunch they, like the rest of Vietnam, take a nap for an hour or two. In winter when it is too cold to sleep on the concrete floors, they sleep on top of the desks. On very cold days when the temperature gets below 10, they get to have the day off if they want to.

The schools, as I mentioned, are concrete. At lunchtime the sound is incredible. The reflective concrete resonates any noise, and the constant screaming and screeching of children playing, fighting and shouting booms over the neighbourhood. It seems as if you have come across a caucus of parrots in full voice, the voices boom out into the air, scaring rain from the clouds and real birds from the trees. Put a hand up against the outer walls and you can feel the foot thick concrete moving in and out like speakers. Children living in this world develop thick calloused eardrums and voices that can drill through sheet steel. The standard of building used to construct these schools was honed by bomb shelter makers during the American war and can withstand a nuclear detonation.

Speaking of which I don't think I've mentioned the recovery of a bomb from a village in the central highlands last month. It is still not unusual for bombs to be dug up, particularly by farmers, and Hanoi is littered with small and large lakes created by the bombing of the city over thirty years ago. The announcement of a bomb being found would therefore not attract too much notice if it weren't for the size of this particular incendiary. This particular bomb weighed in at 5.5 tons, about equal to 3 Mitsubishi Magnas and a Holden Barina piled up together. Over 3.5 tons of explosive was removed from it, after they dug up hundreds of cubic metres of soil and rock to get to it. To give an adequate comparison, that is about the weight of 35 Westinghouse 520L fridges, that is the hefty size of fridge. The previous biggest was a contrastingly lightweight 1.4 tons. They estimate that there are still 300,000 tons of unexploded ordinance still ticking away here and children and scrap metal workers are still killed by it every year.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Notes on Winter

Winter here came suddenly. Without precursor we went from sweat inducing temperatures of around 25, down to 10 overnight. For a brief time this is where things stayed, while we huddled under our blankets and burnt all our firewood, then it jumped back up five degrees or so and things became bearable again.

As a temperature of course it's not very low at all. Nothing to compare with the frozen wastes of the northern part of the continent, or Alaska, or someplace where removing your clothing at all is something they only do before burning your deceased body for warmth. However the bathroom has become uncomfortably like an ice chest in the mornings, and the mornings themselves are fast disappearing before we rise for breakfast. Last Monday in fact, breakfast only came at 4.30 in the afternoon.

Although the women have shown of late a love for knee high leather boots giving the streets a brothel like atmosphere, at nights they dress fairly poorly for the weather here. The women can often be seen hopping about in skirts and stockings with younger girls wearing less, as is the norm everywhere. The men all wear hats, the older men favouring berets and pork pies and the younger men Nike or Adidas beanies. A new jacket I've seen is a type of pea green, elephant corded thing, that looks brutally ugly in a wrecking ball way. It's bulky and lumpy and screams prison issue and has a slight popularity. Nothing in comparison to a Manchester United shirt though.

Winter hasn't stopped everyone from eating out on the streets. As a city, it is set up for outdoors living. Most restaurants popular with the locals are open door affairs or more often no door at all. Most people just pull up a footsool to a plastic table that has been set up on the footpath and eat there. These sorts of restaurants spring up in the early evening or at lunch time and then disappear again until the next day. In the busy areas footpaths often serve two masters, as it were. By trading hours they have a shop front where people park their motorbikes before entering, but by night these footpaths have been changed into restaurants, teeming with guzzling patrons churning their way through steamed crabs or fried tofu with mountains of noodles. Most restaurants will have five or six small tables and one or two persons serving them, however there are also the basket carrying women who sling a whole restaurant on a pole over their shoulders and set up for one or two people at a time, wherever they stop. They keep four footstools in one basket with some plates and a flaming charcoal bricket in the other under a pot of boiling stew or soup. They carry the whole affair around the city, stopping here and there all night.

In people's homes there is very little in the way of insulation from the cold. Most people's rooms are very open and many don't have glass in their windows. To ward off the chill shutters are closed up and doors unopened so that these rooms become little boxes. They must however be cold boxes as they are all concrete, with concrete floors and thin mattresses often sitting directly on the floor. The restaurant beneath us has no bedrooms at all, well actually no rooms other than a dining room, as all cooking is done outside and the only real room they have is reserved for the patrons. At nights the staff roll out a bedroll and sleep on the floor beneath a thin blanket. Most of the staff seem transient and the life is quite hard for them here in the city. What lures them though, is the promise of a better life than in the country, so how grim that can be I will leave to your imagination.

Luckily there is no great wind so, though it is cold, it could be worse. The skies however are a formless continuity of grey. They closed in over us about three weeks ago and apparently won't lift again until March. The bleak mood they purvey is limited to lack of sunlight, with little in the way of rain coming from them.

Coincidentally the cleaner just arrived with a man to deliver firewood. Two heavy cords of wood for 52,000 dong about $4.50 AUD. That should warm things up for us.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The transparently offensive Golden Child

The new teacher has begun to grind on everyone’s nerves. His colourless obnoxiousness, highlighted by a dull appreciation of his situation and the country he exists in, is starting to pull at everyone's reserves of patience. Stalled in the process of becoming a police officer, he had been handed a job at the school by his father's best friend, the coincidental owner of the school. To him, the country is a backwards castaway from colonial times, foolishly thrown away by an ignorant people. It took him barely a moment to distance himself from every person he met. His blunt thoughtless manner did little to cloud a dim wit and a slow mind.

“I think he knows he’s stupid.” someone told me.

“Well, you know man, it’s not something he hides.”

“I think that somewhere in his mind, the old reptile part of his mind, he knows it. And he’s developed that booming voice to cover it up. He just hypnotizes people with it so they don’t say anything back. Like a tiger, you know, roars to keep it's prey from moving.”

“They're like too stunned to talk to him.”


“Well, I know how they feel man.”

The nickname he has is one he was given even before arriving, The Golden Child. It seemed a bit unfair at the time, and everyone agreed not to use it when he arrived, but it turned out to be spookily appropriate.

Stunningly obnoxious, if he had been raised by the KKK they couldn't have done a better job. From Git'ton, Twatsford, or Lower Wanking Tosser, he's about twenty two, thin like plywood and taller than me at about six foot seven. He also has one of those receding chins hermits hide, or that geologists cover with beards. The Police, he told us, put him in a two year holding pattern for training, a somewhat incredible story English friends have said, whose immediate conclusion for refusal by a desperately short police force had been - Ahhh rascist!

So why the hell am I writing anything about him. Well, he might be staying longer. It seems that he's somewhat given up on the Police now, after realising that, to quote "any old Asian woman can get a job in front of me." So he wants to stick around and do more teaching. It's going to get interesting around here soon.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

The Nose Knows

The Nose Knows