Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Brush with Asia #1

Advice for travellers: If you are travelling to Asia try to do as much of any possible paperwork in the UK before you leave home because ............... YOU WILL LOSE THE WILL TO CARRY ON IF YOU TRY TO DO IT IN ASIA.

Deep breath ..............calm ..................ommm................ummmmm ...........aah

In the UK we are used to getting a list of requirements whenever we have to fill out forms or attempt any kind of administrative procedure with shipping companies, passport offices, visas, tax and customs, birth and death certificates, credit card companies, investments etc. etc. etc.

After we have filled in the form there is usually a handy little check list for example:

Before you seal the envelope please check that you have:
a) used black ink to complete the form
b) included a passport sized photo taken within the last 3 months
c) attached a cheque for your membership fee made out to "Helpful Club Ltd"
d) enclosed a photocopy of your driving license
e)etc. etc. etc.

Having completed all the tasks, included all the necessary documentation and the fee, you can send off your envelope feeling failry sure thate everything will be processed and your membership card, passport, goods or whatever, will arrive without further ado.

Here is the Asian version..............

1. Hello Ms. Your goods have arrived. Please send copy of shipping invoice.
This, of course, you do in a matter of minutes.
2. Two days go by.
3. Hello Ms. Please supply translation of invoice. First find your willing translator and then email it across (two days plus a weekend go by)
4. Hello Ms. please send prepare customs clearance. Again, a quick shuffle through the computer files and you send the form entitled 'Customs Clearance' that was required by ethy shipping company in Manchester.
5. One day later......
6. Hello Ms. Please enquire repair English speaker on telephone. Will be easier.
7. Next day - ask the girl who did the translation to please speak to Nghyen Nhat.
8. Girl - THINKS- maybe I should go to the airport for the customs office. Same afternoon dash across city to airport to do - not quite sure what.
9. Inexplicable communications with telepathic customs officers, taxi driver, security guard, police, taxi supervisor, receptionist, office supervisor, parking lot attendant, gate keeper, Domino's Pizza girl, two anonymous people on the phone with taxi driver and one piece of green paper later....................
10. Face to Face (in a very seedy part of the airport hinterland where rooms are rented by the minute and even the taxi driver looks nervous)  - Hello Miss - thank you but customs officer gone home - maybe we can see if he accept green paper tomorrow.

Now, you see.......... if only they had said at the start:
Before you can receive delivery of your boxes they will have to clear customs. To do this you must supply:
1. A translation of your shipping invoice
2. A translation of your TNT customs clearance form
3. A green customs form from your port of entry ( airport for example)

BUT NO................................ it's as if every procedure is a new learning experience for them as they feel their way through each job, neither learning from the previous occasion they did the same thing nor passing on any advice or experienc to make this job easier than the last. I expect their are no Asian words for 'efficiency' - except in Japan of course where they completeloy redefined it for the entire world!  Kaizen!!

I have a feeling this may not be the end of this saga. I have just had an email to say thay have opened my boxes and I feel almost certain they will find something inadmissable in there. Keep your fingers crossed its not the watercolour paper, the lino, the books or the sketch books, the knives and stapler or the broken laptop (brought for a cheap Asian repair fix jobbie). 

One sleepless night ahead I fear.

Monday, 24 September 2012

A day in the life

It's Monday morning. Jo left for work at 7.15, Chloe Mai just left for school at 7.45 and it's my turn to get ready to leave. It's a lovely sunny day which means it will be very very hot. Everyone says I should wear long sleeved tops to keep the sun off my arms and stop the skeeters biting but I just don't feel comfortable so I have taken to sleeveless tops and always carrying an umbrella and a lightweight shawl.

This is my lovely big bedroom. I have put the little desk under the window and. I sit there writing my emails and the blog. It faces north (approximately) and overlooks the open air pool of the a private French school beyond which I can hear the buzz, clang and drone of the high street of this little suburb on the edge of the city. The city centre is only 1.8 miles away; if this were England I would be walking into college every day.

Here is Nigel waving goodbye as I leave for college. "No need to get up Nige babe".

Ollie is there to see me off as walk down the charming little street where we live. "Good boy Ollie"

At the end of this street I turn right down a little rural lane that once must have been rice paddies and perhaps banana groves. The fields have become overgrown now they are not tended but the banana graves still remain. you can tell that this was cultivated land because there is a collection of four graves on the left as I walk by.  the Vietnamese venerate their ancestors and bury them in ornate graves, sometimes amid a beautiful garden that usually forms an island amid the family rice paddies. In this way, the living exists side by side with their ancestors every day.

The bus stop for the 88 into town is just opposite the end of our little lane. It is 9.15 and boiling hot and am standing on the edge of the road with the umbrella up to get some shade.

Taxi drivers toot their horns as they go by to try and attract my attention and get themselves a fare into town. The bus appears round the bend a quart mile down the road and the                     88 comes trundling into view. The buses only stop for a nano second as the conductor reaches out an arm to hoist you aboard. Everyone on the bus always stares at this white woman swaying down the bus. "White people normally get taxis don't they?" the taxi fare into town is about 150,000 duong whereas the bus is only 4,000. ( £1.50 as opposed to 13p) well, I am from Yorkshire after all!

Saigon is changing shape at an alarming rate and the signs of modernisation are everywhere. Most of this once thriving high street is now a demolition site. It's proximity to a brand new bridge into the city has turned it into prime development land.

more and more of these fragile little dwellings and shops are being flattened every day. In their place spring up roadside restaurants, fruit stands, motorbike repair outfits and convenience stores under the shade of tarpaulins and umbrellas. Local neighbourhood people are being replaced by construction workers who need feeding, need their bikes repairing and need a cool drink in the middle of the day. The Viets can set up business anywhere.

At the end of the high street we turn right onto the shiny new dual carriageway to the new Saigon  Bridge from which you can see the city skyline taking shape. 

I get off the bus only two stops after the bridge and I am already right in the heart of the city only two city blocks from the American Consulate.

There always seems to be a bit more breeze in the city and it is certainly more comfortable to be on the move than sitting on the bus. I look forward to turning the next corner because a lovely breeze always blows down the shady avenue that leads up to college. Along the way I pass lots of street kitchens preparing all kinds of delights for lunch for local school and college kids. One old guys sets up his stall to do nothing but barbecue sliced of marinaded pork all morning.I bet he's been doing it for years.

Here I am at college. Like all city colleges it's a pretty plain set of campus buildings.

 I walk up these steps right to the top floor ( level 4) to my classroom every morning. It's 90 odd degrees and there's no lifts. It's a cruel start to any day.

Please notice the main difference between  buildings in the tropics and those in the uk. Here, the corridors are on the outside and the classrooms are in the shaded interior.

Here is my lovely air conditioned classroom - look no windows............

Here is our lovely Vietnamese teacher.

Here are three of my class mates. From L-R, Julie is an Auditor form Paris, she has come to join her boyfriend who is setting up 'Amazon Vietnam' a joint venture with a local company. 
Charlotte and Zed, also from France have just arrived from 3 years in India. Charlotte was a Director of a French Design Institute in India and Zed is a Furniture designer ( same as me) who taught in the same Institute. They married in Bombay earlier this year.

After class, Julie and I head for the cloth market so i can buy  some linen to get some trousers and tops made. We stop at a little roadside kitchen to try the food. I have to say this was the best I have tried yet. I had some sticky rice with shell-on crispy prawns fried with chili and spices served up with some wilted spinach or watercress or something and served with a complimentary bowl of a cleansing cabbage broth. ( In the green bowl).

Here are the chefs on the pavement 

Here is our friendly waiter whose English was a little better than our Vietnamese.

Now to the cloth market.  In the narrow little passages ( sometimes only 2' wide, I found a lady who is selling really good quality linen in lovely plain colours for 70,000 duong per metre ( £2.25 !!!) In England that fabric is about £30 per metre!!! I used to make lots of my own clothes but I simply cannot afford to do it any more in the UK because a jacket would cost me £70 odd in fabric and then there is the pattern, thread, buttons and lining to buy on top. Here I can afford to have someone make it for me.

OK - well it's time to go home. Julie takes a taxi - well she's French and I walk to the bus - here it comes.

Everyone is amused ( again) as I jump on the bus and am thrown towards the back seat. then half the bus wants to now if I am on the right bus and where am I going.  Now that i can actually pronounce my address properly they are all quickly calmed and we are on our way. 

here are my fellow passengers on the back seat.

Back home again - at about 3pm ans Nigel rushes to greet me as usual! I should be thankful that he's not actually still in the same place as I left him this morning.

I bought watermelon from the little fruit stall at the end of our little lane on the way home so it's time for a shower to cool off and slice up some of that delicious red fruit for everyone coming home.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Java java java

I have a new addiction. 

Have you ever wondered what condensed mild was invented for? When we were growing up, there were always tins of Nestles condensed milk in the cupboard and my mother used to spoon it straight from the can and lick it from the spoon. I would sneak a taste myself when no-one was looking and although it was delicious, it was soooooooooo sweet it almost burned at the back of my throat a bit like sherbert can.

Well, after a lifetime's wait I have now discovered that it was invented as the perfect accompaniment to Vietnamese coffee ............ spelt Ca Phe of course! 

Last week, Vincent taught me the dark art of brewing and mixing the perfect glass of iced coffee and I can honestly say that I have never tasted such delicious coffee before. Watch the video to find out what a Phinn filter is and go to  

And, on the subject of Ca Phe; where do you go with your work mates to have lunch or maybe a ca phe?.................. a can tin of course!

Thursday, 13 September 2012

A mixed bag

I have been out and about, shopping in the famous Ben Thanh Market, people watching in the central Post Office, wandering in and out of bars and cafes to use their free wi-fi ( some very nice; some distinctly shady) and I think I have mastered the art of crossing the road with confidence. Have a look at this video......   nevertheless, I was very happy to get the assistance of the city's Tourist Security officers when trying to cross the road near the cathedral the other day. Sometimes when buses, taxis, scooters and bicycles are all bearing down on you it can be a bit unnerving! 

Jo's home seems to be a magnet for artists and designers. Her lodger, Vincent (French)is a product (industrial) designer  who has recently been developing a range of designer toothbrushes. He is also a craftsman in his own right. He has built some small pieces of furniture and hand stitched the beautiful leather seat on the solid aluminium vintage Honda moped he has been restoring. Can anyone tell me what model it is?  

Two of Vincent's friend's have recently arrived from a few holiday in India; Zed, also French, is a Furniture designer ( quelle coincidence!!) and his girlfriend is a linguist. They have persuaded me to join a Vietnamese ( as a second language) course at the local city college which starts on Monday. So, for the next 40 days (and nights) I will be in class every morning trying to get my palette around this language!! Considering it's the rainy season that seems quite apt don't you think! I have my first text book and CD and a student badge to wear and I can't wait to get started. It will be good to be able to say a few words instead of just gesturing at people hopelessly.

Zed and Charlotte came round this afternoon to pick up a small black, fine grained hide which they are going to turn into a messenger bag with the help of a local laser cutting technician, some Adobe software and few lengths of cat gut. Leather work seems to be quite the thing around these parts.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Via Dubai to Saigon

As you know, I was very impressed by a large piece of work I saw at the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. It has inspired me to do a similar work but in embroidered pieces instead. The theme is ‘Patterns of Saigon’.
I have started the first piece which depicts the ubiquitous Lotus, found in ponds and gardens, parks, temples and commercial logos throughout South East Asia. It is even more ever present than the white rose of Yorkshire.  

The second piece was inspired by the lights of Saigon as I flew in on Thursday evening.

The warm humidity that coats you with a satin gloss of perspiration seemed a welcome reduction in temperature after the searing furnace of Dubai where it was 32˚c at 4.30 in the morning. In Saigon, a cool 23˚ was a relief.
The new house is closer to the river so a pleasant breeze blows through the garden every evening.  The ceilings are high and a light well plunges through from top to bottom over a garden in the living area. I guess this echoes the traditional old houses that had an shaded inner courtyard where there would be plants, water and fish. In this house there is a 5’ x 2’6” fish tank in the wall of the lounge with a collection of tropical fish swimming amongst a thatched cottage, a ruined castle and a Constable-esque water mill. 

This welcoming home is filled with light, there will be no problem finding somewhere to set up the easel here. The floors are tiled and edged with black granite. The different levels are connected with a black granite staircase. Here and there, niches on the walls and ceilings are decorated with arrangements of slate, stone, mosaic and other textures.  A bougainvillea overhangs the table and chairs in the garden at the front where an orange tree and pink frangipani grow in huge pots.

Sounds heavenly doesn't it ............... but ................. last night we had a violent storm that knocked the power out and we a dripped in our beds without any fans or air-con. I haven't yet found a micro sim to fit my schmancy Nokia phone and internet access is beginning to feel like a luxury.

Anyway, it's time for my first Viet Nam siesta. I wonder what the local word is for that.