While You Were Sleeping

The finest hour I have seen, is the one that comes between, the edge of night, and the break of day, it’s when the darkness rolls away – Nanci Griffith.

While You Were Sleeping

Be still, my loves,
Let sweetly dreams of fancy unfurl you
Elsewhere, whilst
Clicked shut our iron gate and running free
Through Saigon hems,
Weaving versions of past night-time jaunts –
Familiar neon shop signs and
Fragrant food-cart smoke,
Snaking shadows beneath
Sprawling high-wire silhouettes –
Cocooned inside this secret urban labyrinth
– I glide –
The purr and putter of market produce scootering by.

Be still, my loves,
Soft respite gains on moonlit quilt,
As my strides quicken with the breaking dawn and
I reach the water’s edge.
Beyond horizon,
Past horizon further,
Others whisper fond farewells,
Their last small patch of glowing orb ablaze, setting,
To manifest and transfix now in front of me –
Yellow white sparkles dance like needle shards,
Bedazzling in the ferry’s wake.

Be still, my loves, be still some more.
Beyond this turning point,
Backlit with today’s first sunbeam,
I fear only this –
As deep a contour and familiar now as the
Creased faces of street-vendor –
That time is lost.

With fingertip precision,
The keystrokes of our waking hours
Consume and safeguard
Daily beats, to which we all adhere,
And for which our spirit harkens.
Around that corner, over this bridge,
One’s salt-lipped search for answers
Makes for another’s
Truncated journey
To a higher stratosphere of meaning –
A life’s trajectory that comes in all forms,
Restless, stirring make-believe.

Be still, my loves.
In the end, there is only this.

A ‘funny thing’ happened to me today


This morning I went out running and an unusual thing happened to me whilst I stopped to buy water – a toddler took a leak on my foot.

Unusual, perhaps, as I stop to buy water in Saigon most days whilst running, and in fact at least twice a day I’m likely to buy something from a street vendor, yet not in the 6.5 years since living here, has a toddler peed on me during any of these transactions.

In fact, I’m 99% sure this is the first time anyone has urinated on me in my life.

I was as angry as I was crest-fallen during the experience – albeit an experience which lasted just the few seconds until I noticed what was happening, prompted as I was by another customer astride a scooter pointing it out to me. I was angry at the person selling the water – for it was her toddler. And crestfallen at the incongruity and farcical parameters which framed this, now documented, episode in my life.

To accuse a one year old of a roadside crime is clearly nonsense. Surely, I told myself just 20 metres away after marching off with my drink, this was a fluke coincidence of nature. A toddler needs to relieve himself and there, tree-like, stands a leg and a bright yellow trainer to take the hit.

However, once 50 metres away, I then recalled how, only moments before the act, the young chancer had tugged at the two inner soles I was carrying (my shoes were rubbing in the humidity and I’d removed the inners) but I’d refused him the chance of taking them from me. Perhaps then this was his way of having the last laugh, given I’d curtailed his advances on my tongue shaped slices of rubber?

As I’d marched off from the stall, snatching my change (and utterly losing face in the process, of course) the vendor yelled at the boy and started towards him. I started my run again but sure enough, as this quandary of speculation buzzed about in my head, I briefly turned to see the little guy bawling his eyes out, tottering about and looking just as confused as me about what had taken place.

So naturally I then felt the guilt of even stopping for the stupid bottle of water in the first place. I wished instead that I’d smiled more at both of them, found some empathy, rather than screwing my face up into the all-too-familiar incredulous ex-pat look, which somehow tries to convey, in one eyebrow scrunched-up stare, the words “seriously?!”

I invoke the “seriously” pose a lot in Vietnam – usually at 4×4 vehicles, driven badly or parked inconsiderately, however the pose is very adaptable, and works in restaurants, bars, taxis and generally in most walks of life out here. And each time the pose is deployed, I usually reflect afterwards what a waste of energy it (along with, now and again, some additional fist-pumping and gesticulating) ends up amounting to.

Another frequent “thing” concerns local dogs and their owners. I’ve often tried to take up roadside debates with dog owners here, as their mangy muts come hurtling up to me, yapping and biting at my heels.

Only this weekend, I was sprung upon by four dogs at once during a run, and the dog owner in question wouldn’t even look me in the face whilst I attempted to engage in a discussion about why they weren’t calling their dogs off me. Instead, the owner just swept their door-step. Their tactics and logic, I had to conclude, being that if they didn’t look at me they didn’t need to acknowledge the fact that I was stood there, with one of the snarling hounds attached firmly to my running laces, asking them to discuss their rather obvious lack of interest in disciplining their own dog.

After that encounter, I fantasized about picking up said dog, and hurling it into the canal opposite their owner’s house, only to then again wrestle with the guilt of doing such a thing when clearly, as pets, dogs who lunge at any passing stranger are probably reacting out of fear and might be being “disciplined” daily – in perhaps the same way that the young boy this morning experienced: more corporal punishment, than pastoral care.

What to do about something (whether you might believe I’m rightly or wrongly laying judgement down on these individuals) that is beyond your individual control or influence?

Well, social movements have proven to influence and changes norms, and are usually initiated and inspired by small numbers of people, so one answer to this question is to start a movement against….against what exactly? I am asking parents not to hit their kids and dog owners not to beat their dogs? Well, yes, and….

Cultural and social norms are clearly so pervasive that they remain complex tectonic plates to shift. Unless, perhaps, inside of a respective society there are consensual agreements about some of these topics and behaviours, shared by all. Schools, governments, civil society groups, employers, parents – a united front is required to make certain things really become binding. You’d think. But we know of course that just because a country signs on to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child doesn’t translate necessarily into all children NOT having these rights taken away from them.

And me living in a different country, thinking one thing and carrying my own set of values, does not translate very effectively (I’ve learnt) into me and my “way” having any credence or traction with other people living here.

Agree to disagree, move on and let it be? Maybe that is one answer, but it’s not really working for me (says the man who would throw a dog in a canal to win an argument).


At a recent meeting with a local Saigon NGO, a colleague there talked very plainly about growing up in Vietnam.

“I was never allowed an opinion as a child” she explained, “not at home and not at school – kids here aren’t expected to have a view on things, or be listened to by their elders. So, I never did really talk to adults, except to do what they told me to do.”

Funny, how in this “modernising” part of Asia – labelled as such by many because of the region’s accelerated construction projects, bustling coffee chains and fast-food franchises, catapulting the middle classes into new and exciting public spaces, which will empty their wallets and fatten their waistlines – funny, how this changing face of Asia is, at once, scarring the streets of cities like Saigon, with an ugly new frontage of brands and plastic products yet, at the same time, does perhaps modernising bring with it a helpful scythe across the ankles of existing cultural and social norms, which may just be in need of some updating?

‘Funny’ indeed.





Sunset on Dili beach, Timor-Leste
I double checked the meaning of Wanderlust – which turns out to be the “strong desire for, or impulse to, wander or travel and explore the world”.

Since running off to Uganda when I was 21 years old, in the absence of having any more concrete a plan for how to handle life after university, I’d say my Wanderlust levels have remained piqued ever since.

No doubt some genetic influence from my parents helped fuel my appetite for getting out and “seeing the world”. In reading Dr Suess poems to my daughters (as well as flying them off to different countries almost every school holiday) I suppose instinctively it feels appropriate to want to pass on that particular piece of DNA, connected to wandering, to them also.

Over the past five years, even without that DNA, the travel I’ve undertaken as part of my job has secured for me a schedule for which any aspiring “Wanderluster” would have been thrilled.

As someone working in international development, I can’t quite settle my mind about how conflated my footprint and actions in the world are. Choosing to direct my career into finding better ways to serve the poor, whilst simultaneously responsible for emitting more carbon in an average month than the output my entire family back in the UK manage in a year (ok, Mum and Dad are relatively guilty on the carbon too, but I wanted the analogy to sound extreme!)      Continue reading

Springtime in Saigon

Even washing lines look better in Spring

It’s 2015. It’s mid January. And spring is here in Saigon.

In what has become my annual celebration of just how pleasant a time of year it is over here, when so many other parts of the world are either sweltering in their own juices, or snow ploughing their way to the office, I can’t resist once more in proclaiming the bleeding obvious: life is so much easier when you have the weather on your side.

Biking into work these days you are struck by the golden light, the intensely perfumed scents of the orchids and bogainvilleas, and the breeze. The fact that there is a breeze is enough to be thankful for, given Saigon’s notorious humidity track record. The New Year marks the lowest temperatures Saigon will experience until next January – somewhere in the mid 20’s – perfection in my mind, although many locals are already donning their puffer jackets and scarves in protest at the chilly starts to their days.

2015 – no resolutions for me, a year instead to appreciate all that comes my way and to embrace the here and now. I am grounded in Saigon until a UK visit next month, hosting as I am a regional workshop here at the end of the month, and enjoying the novelty of “routine” after a fabulous Christmas break, involving some long weekends away, and plenty of indulgent moments of sheer fun with Florence and Martha.

Perhaps a suitable 2015 resolution after two months absence from this blog (I’ve been peppering the sister site – http://www.definitelymaybe.me – with musings on development issues over the past few months instead) would be to post a bit more regularly.

Let me see…

Meantime, a lazy capture of the last quarter of 2014, which saw me travel extensively, can be found below in the form of pictures. I took to instagram last year, so check out @saigonsays on that if you are similarly hooked.

Wishing you all a very prosperous New Year to come.

September 2014

View over Bangkok on a work trip home
The Kowloon ferry, Hong Kong. I was speaking at a CSR Summit. Check out the post: http://definitelymaybe.me/2014/09/17/the-future-of-csr/
Happy 6th Birthday Florence!
Martha back at school and in a new (big girls) kindergarten class!
Back in Islamabad with work. Mountain top dinner! Check out the post: http://definitelymaybe.me/2014/09/29/what-can-care-do-for-business/

October 2014

Speaking at a conference in Singapore. Post here: http://definitelymaybe.me/2014/10/13/true-power-lies-within/
A weekend escape to Sapa
Dawn during a tea plantation visit whilst on a work trip to Sri Lanka. Post here: http://definitelymaybe.me/2014/10/31/sri-lanka-preparing-for-a-future-without-international-aid/

November 2014

Back in Bangkok traffic for more workshops
Saigon Raider’s football tournament in Phnom Penh (me, German Alex and German Daniel and a crate of beer Lao in a tuk-tuk)
Tacloban project visit, the Philippines. Blog post here: http://definitelymaybe.me/2014/11/20/tacloban-exposing-middle-income-country-realities/
Back in Singapore for more conferences. Clearly I hadn’t washed that morning.

December 2014

Lemonheads gig at Cargo, Saigon, with “Sluke” and Issy
Back in Hong Kong for Awards event (and some dim sum)
Hanoi for long weekend with the Suarez family
Myanmar work trip, project visit in Lashio. Check out the blog here: http://definitelymaybe.me/2014/12/13/myanmar-bringing-about-change-in-a-frontier-market/
My final Bangkok immigration queue of 2014
Pre-Christmas swinging at Saigon Outcasts
A trio of poseurs at Saigon Outcasts.
Christmas 2014 is here. Woohoo! Flo with Sarah from the UK
Skater Girl
Scooter Girl
Mui Ne white dunes with Issy and Luke
Last holiday sunset Coco Beach, Mui Ne
Last balcony shot of the Christmas holidays

Welcome back

ImageMonday.  Day 3 of being 38 years old, and it’s good to be back on saigonsays after a brief leave of absence.

By popular demand (from both readers) I am endeavouring to spruce up this site with thoughts, images, and anecdotes from the quirky old city of Saigon.

For anyone with real sleeping issues, I started up a more ‘thinky’ blog site in January – www.definitelymaybe.me – which has got off to a slow start, but now that I have recovered from the sobering occasion of being 38 (or, “nearly 40,” as my brother likes to describe it) I’ll step the pace up a bit and actually write something more, well, thinky.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, warm (that’d be around 39 degrees today) greetings from Vietnam and lots of cheeky hellos from Team Flo and Martha.  More soon…



March journal

2 weeks have already past since Lou, Flo and I left the UK, and so here’s a few lines about what we’ve been up to so far…

It’s fair to say that our final week in the UK was chaotic.  But thanks to Lou’s organising powers and steely resolve, and the help of various family members and friends, we made it on to the plane in one piece.

Lou’s hypnotherapy sessions helped to calm her nerves whilst in the air and, as Flo was over-excited the entire time we were on a plane about watching Mr Men stories on DVD, and taking her headphones off and on, we seemed to make it to Bangkok, via Dubai, without too much agro at all (although none of us actually slept.)

The whole journey to Koh Chang (2 flights + a 6 hour taxi ride) took about 24 hours and upon reaching our top notch hotel in Koh Chang, and being hugged several times by a beaming Derek, we never looked back!

For the next 6 nights we had a blissful time jumping from swimming pool to beach to restaurant to bar, and so on.  Derek and Ru’s wedding itself was superb – various ceremonies on the white sanded beach conducted by Buddhist monks, followed by cocktails, dinner and then traditional Thai dancing and fire throwing!  Lots of great catch ups over happy hour beers with school friends, and all in all it put us in great shape to make our final leg to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, depending on who you are talking to).  We got here on Sunday after a final 2 nights back in Bangkok, and have had quite a busy first few days getting our bearings and sorting ourselves out…

Our first impressions of Vietnam have been really good ones.  It transpires that everyone who advised us beforehand on the amazing food, generous and charming people, and crazy traffic were all spot on.  But more than this, there is a general ease about the city here which is very engaging.  The traffic, despite its proportions, moves apace and you don’t get the sort of gridlock you find in Bangkok, or London for that matter.  There are 6 million people living in HCMC and 3 million motorbikes…which means the number of vehicles is relatively low and so everything moves about quite freely.  By freely, I mean people driving on wrong side of road, in the wrong direction, and when the roads get too congested (which is all the time) bikes just use the pavements.

Nevertheless, it all works, and as a 45 min taxi ride from one side of town to the other will only cost you about £4.50 then it is not so stressful on the pocket.  What you do have to do is put your Green Cross Code learnings into practice all the time.  You look left, right, in front of you and behind you, and then when you realise there is actually traffic approaching you from all sides you just put your head down and go for it, and everyone just weaves around you.

The food is very special.  Fresh ingredients, lots of salads, sauces and the famous Vietnamese “pho” – which is a version of a ramen soup, typically with shredded beef, noodles, chilli and basil leaves.  You can eat pretty exotically here if you want to – Flo and I walked past a tank of snakes and frogs on the way to the loo earlier this afternoon in a restaurant, and there was pig’s uterus on the menu last night.  Out of curiosity I’ve taken to ordering food and drink that sounds interesting (to be clear, by ‘interesting’ I don’t mean snake, frog or uteri.)

Yesterday I ordered a “sapodilla shake” and two dishes which turned out to both comprise of nice juicy fillet steak – one came with a French stick and the other came with chips.  Not what I expected at all, but very tasty nonetheless.  Sapodilla turned out to be a fruit much like a date, which meant I’d essentially consumed a milkshake laxative and two plates of rare beef.  A potentially dodgy combination.

Another good one the other night was ordering the wonderfully titled “beef Jacuzzi” – I just couldn’t resist it.  It sounded to me more like the title of a XXX porn film, but instead turned out to be raw steak, skewers, leaves, raw horseradish and a pot of boiling oil.  It was basically a beef fondu, but you wrapped the cooked meat in leaves with the horseradish and then dipped this in a variety of sauces also provided. Sauces are key here.  That night we had soy, sweet chilli, lime salt and chilli salt – finger lickin’ good indeed (…and yes, there are KFCs here as well as it happens.)

The coffee is really up to the high standards I was hoping for.  Given the country was colonised by the French there remains a lot of great coffee shops serving lush coffees, pastries and the like.  Vietnamese coffee itself is quite a different flavour but bloody awesome (technically speaking) – served hot or iced.

In terms of the important stuff, we’ve registered at the international FV (‘French-Vietnamese’) hospital and Lou has had her 28 week check up, which went well.  The hospital is pretty smart and the dr/consultant Lou saw was a very nice woman. We’ve already been put in touch with other new Mums here who have delivered at FV and I think it will be a good option for us.

We went to the Montessori school here and were really impressed with the facilities and the teachers and so have registered Flo there for 4 days a week (they run an 8am to 3pm day) starting next week.  There will be a week’s settling in phase but Flo seemed to really enjoy being there and hopefully she will take to it well.

Flo has started talking gibberish at times but we think this is her reaction to having listened to people speaking Thai and Vietnamese over the past 2 weeks!  Overall, she has been fantastic with all the changes, travelling and funny environments.  We’re really proud of her.  We need to watch her ego though as literally every single person we walk past stops and stares, dotes and takes a photo of Flo.  She is usually carrying around her doll with her, which all the locals think is very cute.

And then finally, where to live.  CARE have arranged a great little 2 bed apartment 5 mins walk from my new office where we will stay this month, but we’ve been looking at apartments nearer Flo’s nursery this week.  For obvious reasons it is going to be more practical initially if we are based nearer there and I commute across the river into work (about 35-40 mins).  This means we will be living in one of the more upmarket, ex-pat districts, but there is still a nice feel to the area and you don’t feel completely cut off from local life.  The apartments we saw today which are the current contenders also have a shared pool, tennis courts and gym onsite, which will be really useful given the practicalities of Lou getting about with 2 kids in the future.  You can walk easily enough on the roads and pavements, but with 2 kids it makes things slightly more tricksey.

Anyhow, stopping there for fear of this becoming far too long a ramble.  Will be in touch and fill you in on more happenings and the new job, again soon.