Recently, I have been over-run with plenty of work travels, and so it’s great to have been back in Saigon for the past couple of weeks. I love working in this part of the city (in the western corner of District 3) for all the local quirkiness of what’s on offer, as well as the daily hilarity of what goes on in our office…
I went downstairs earlier this afternoon for coffee, only to be confronted by a large brown eel writhing around on the reception floor. It would seem our lunch this week was trying to make a break for it, and had leapt out of the plastic jerry-can it was sharing with its mate by the front door! Eel hot-pot to look forward to tomorrow then….
Saigon is quickly gearing up for Christmas, and we are excited about being here again during the glitziest time of the year, when it is customary for a high proportion of the public (mainly young chain-smoking men) to dress up – really badly – as Santa Claus, whilst everyone else spray paints their shops in festive colours (we had a white spray-painted Christmas tree last year, photo here, and are hoping to outdo this with something even more kitsch next month.)
Our two girls continue to thrive out here. Florence has been swimming for about six months and loves the water. She has started reading, and remains firmly in the “princess ‘n’ arts and crafts” camp, in terms of categorising how she most enjoys spending her time when not at school.
Flo has friends in and out of our apartment all the time and, like most 4-year olds, is never chirpier than when she is going to someone’s party, with the lure of candles, cake and party bags just too exciting to adequately describe. Although this doesn’t stop Flo from attempting to do so, given her penchant for non-stop monologues and her general stream-of-consciousness way of being.
In fact, I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who talks as much as Flo does. In the morning, it would seem the act of opening her eyes (still at 5:30am on the dot each day, much to her parents’ disapproval) sparks the voice box into life, and triggers the motor in her jaw, both of which are then in overdrive until bedtime, about fourteen hours later.
Florence is incredibly independent. Martha is too, however her independence manifests itself in a much more physical way. She is trying to talk – although is mostly screaming and shouting – but her morning triggers are those specifically connected to leg muscles and flailing arm movements.
Martha loves being chased, she loves dancing, and yesterday on the beach up in Vung Tau, she was delirious, running around in circles (a bit like a hysterical and slightly wild animal) and paddling in the sea. We have never seen her happier.
She is the type of child who, at almost eighteen months, thinks she should be entitled to partake in every activity in which everyone else she meets is engaged. She jumps into swimming pools and tries to swim like Flo. She will climb stairs, ladders, ramps, anything going upwards, in order to keep up with the older kids.
Martha adores drinking as well. Not typically content with just water, she always eyes up our iced coffees, and will grab anyone’s can of beer at social gatherings, and insist on trying to drink them (she likes Tiger the best).
At a restaurant, Martha is usually a disaster, as she just wants the food that others have, and when she gets bored in her high-chair (which usually happens thirty seconds after she’s been strapped in it) she will scream until you let her out, and will then run off into the kitchen/bathroom/restaurant garden in search of the most precarious item of furniture, or dodgy example of Vietnamese wiring.
She is our little anarchist in nappies. When I caught her applying my roll-on deodorant on her head, and told her off, she stopped and looked up at me (giving off the impression she was listening to Daddy, and respecting my instructions) before then licking it like you would an ice-cream, throwing it at me, and marauding off giggling.
Suffice to say the kids are entertaining us (some more photos at the bottom of this post for general amusement). And this is, of course, the most sacred thing and something for which we are always grateful for, as we remain busy keeping on top of lots of other stuff at the moment (including selling our UK house – but more on that next time.)
No, my most exciting “news” would be that I rented a motorbike two weeks ago, and am now a fully-fledged Saigon commuter.
Those loyal blog followers from earlier last year may recall a post which reflected how mesmerizing and highly entertaining I used find it watching the millions of bikes each morning snaking around the city, and providing Saigon with its unique pulse. Watch the video in this post (still my fav Saigon video) if you want to feel the buzz for yourself.
To prepare for two-wheeled Saigon commuting, it was probably by watching the traffic as much as I have done over the past 21 months, and also riding on the back of xe-oms (motorbike taxis), that I have some confidence now in how to make a good enough fist of navigating through the organised chaos that awaits me every day.
When you learn to drive a car in the UK you are advised to anticipate how traffic and pedestrians might behave. ‘Someone is crossing the road ahead – will the car in front of me suddenly have to brake?’ – might be a typical scenario back home. Over here, the anticipation formula is multiplied ten-fold, given the sheer numbers of different vehicles, people and objects on the roads.
A more accurate take on how to anticipate things in Saigon would go: ‘I can see seven bikes all within three metres in front me, and there are a couple flanking me on each side….any of which may suddenly either brake, U-turn, or swerve at the last minute to avoid that rubbish cart coming in the opposite direction’.
In the UK, when you indicate to turn left, most of the time those behind you will slow down/edge over to your right hand-side. Here, I am finding more often than not that a left indicator switched on can often encourage the bike behind you to pass you…but rather inconveniently on your left hand side!
To address this, when turning left, I have now taken to adopting a second strategy of extending my arm out, and pointing with my finger in the direction of where I am about to turn. This is a technique I have seen used before by locals when they realise they need to turn left far too late in proceedings, and so have decided to sharply drift across about six “lanes” of traffic in one sweeping manoeuvre – a particular technique known better in the trade as “kamikaze”.
Fortunately for me, Vietnam does have some formal procedures to ensure people riding bikes are suitably screened and checked. This is a process orientated country, as many of you will know. With motorbike driving, you must follow two processes to get your licence – unless of course you are prepared to pay extra money to short-cut these (and then there is a process for that, too).
Firstly, you have to take a health test, and second you need to take your driving test.
Lou has already passed her test (mine was supposed to be yesterday but I don’t have my passport at the moment, and this is required) and so I can only talk from her experience about what this is like.
To begin with, you are expected to bring your own bike along to the test to practice on, which kind of gives away the fact that there may be one or two people in Saigon who are driving bikes without Vietnamese licences – like me, currently, for example.
Next, you are then expected to ride a bike around the test course, staying within tramlines on the floor, doing figures of eights, hairpin turns, and things like that. The course itself is not hard, but you have to perform your two minute audition in front of all the other riders booked in to take their tests that day.
Now, Lou doesn’t fail much when it comes to tests, but she did say it was quite intimidating having fifty pairs of enquiring eyes trained on a foreign woman on a motorbike, navigating orange and white cones. She was offered some small comfort about her own skill levels as, at one point, she watched, gobsmacked, as a guy lost control of his bike, shot off the course, and drove into a tree.
So, I am looking forward to actually taking my driving test, particularly as there does at least seem to be a degree of actual testing being carried out. The health test, on the other hand, which I took the other week, is not exactly thorough, and it won’t take me long to describe the full breakdown of what happened to me for this particular “examination”. It went something like this:
Health checker (aka random lady with a stethoscope): “Hello sir, health test?”
Me: “Er, yes, please”.
HC: “Sir, are you tall?”
[I am thinking to myself…in this country = yes, I am; out of this country = no, not really….however, instead I just say “how about you measure me?” and nod to the wall in front of us, which has various centimetre measurements red-penned on it.]
I was then weighed on some scales (which were bright yellow with ‘Angry Birds’ stickers on them) and was told I was 70kgs. This was possibly the best moment of my week, as I know for a fact I’m much closer to 80kgs, and that her scales were not working.
The lady then picked up her stethoscope, and I sensed the session was poised to move into more medical territory. She put the end of the stethoscope lightly on my collar bone for possibly a tenth, maybe a twentieth, of a second – not even enough time to listen to see if I was in fact alive (which I think was her main motive for using the ear-piece).
She then quickly put a third tick on my health form.
It was eyes next, and I had to sit on a small wooden chair and read out three letters from an eye chart. Done. Tick number four.
Little did I realise at the time, but a grand todal of five ticks are all you need to pass your motorbike driver’s health test in Vietnam.
But what could this fifth and final requirement be? A urine sample? My blood pressure taken?
HC: “Sir, hands”.
I showed the lady my hands. She duly nodded, and returned to her form….tick number five.
I passed with flying colours, and was good to go. The conclusion being that, provided you are alive, are in the possession of hands, and can read three small letters off a screen (regardless of your height or weight) you have all the right credentials for taking on the city’s roads.
I am officially ready for Saigon, the question is whether Saigon is ready for me.
In the meantime, some quick family snapshots…