Friday, December 7, 2012

Right of way.

   Wild and crazy Domino's openings aren't the only interesting things happening these days.  I'm crossing my fingers as I say this, but I have yet to have a serious accident on my motorbike.  I commute through a dozen kilometers of the craziest traffic on planet Earth 8 or 9 times per week, and while, god help me, I've seen it all, I've managed to avoid anything worse than a quarter-sized patch of skin on my palm being torn off by the pavement.
   Minor accidents, though...well, those can happen any damn time.  Couple days ago, I was out doing an errand.  I've been lifting weights three times a week, and I find that a steady regimen of B-vitamins helps with my energy levels (teaching being a pretty tiring profession, too, amirite?) so I make sure to take some every day.  There's one particular pharmacy pretty close to home that has US-made capsules with every B-number you can think of, so that's where I go. B-1, 2, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12.  I have no idea what they all do, but hey.
   The pharmacy is on a small but fairly busy street--two lanes, as if that means anything in Viet Nam--and I'm always alert when I'm driving in this area.  Too many people, too much chaos.  Chickens and dogs, kids playing in the street, buses and minivans trying like hell not to smash the food-carts or street-sweepers.  Today is no different.  Checking my side mirror, I drift to the center of the road.  I slow down.  Bikes zip by on my right.  I click on my left-turn signal a good thirty feet from where I intend to turn.  I check the mirror again--clear.  As I'm turning in to park, there's a flash of motion.  Something slams into my left ankle.  I see a man and a motorbike flipping over ahead of me.  Sparks, as his bike skids.  Cursing.  Broken glass and plastic.
   I park.  My ankle's throbbing a bit, but seems ok--just a bruise and scrapes.  I check out the other guy, hauling his bike up.  He looks fine, but turns and blasts me a furious stare.  Marching over, he jabs a finger in my face and speaking Vietnamese far too rapidly for me to catch more than isolated words.  Motorbike.  Idiot.  Foreigner.
   It's easy to put on a hard face, and stare him in the eyes.  Foreigners are considered fair game in many ways--I've had people fake accidents to try and coerce me to pay out, had 2 helmets stolen, had someone try to snatch my phone, snatch my bike keys, snatch my wallet.  And I know, bone-deep, that I am not at fault in any way here.
   The guy--he can't be more than 22--keeps yelling.  By now, people are sauntering over.  A pair of middle-aged ladies in a clothing store next door (whom I had noticed before the accident, deep in conversation) perk up and begin speaking to the other driver.  The pharmacist is holding a bottle of iodine, looking hopeful.
   The guy gestures to his feet.  The white lines of superficial scrapes, no sign of blood.  He gestures at his bike.  Smashed mirror, scratched paint, otherwise fine.  He yells something about money.
    "He says you're a crappy driver," a guy says behind me.  Maybe forty-five, he's got a wispy little mustache, cheap cotton shorts, a cigarette, and a surprising command of English.
   "What the hell?" I say.  Not the wittiest reply, but heartfelt.  "He hit me."
   "He says you don't signal, man."
   "Bullshit."  I'm standing right by my bike, still idling.  I point at the turn signal, still blinking.  I point, and then with great deliberation stare at other driver as I turn the signal off and pocket my keys (like I said, I have had people try to snatch them before.  Keep your valuables out of sight in Viet Nam, people.  Even in nice neighborhoods.)  We lock eyes.
   "That's what he says."
   "He hit me.  On the left."  I point to the scrape marks on my left ankle.  "So that's on him."
   "The others say it your fault, too, man."
   "What others?"
   He points at the ladies, and some other people who have come from up the block.  I sneer.
   "They weren't watching.  And maybe they only say that because I'm the foreigner.  Vietnamese side with Vietnamese.  Maybe they wanna see the foreigner pay out."
   "Maybe.  Maybe.  Still," he says, and takes a long drag.  "Just pay him off.  Give him ten bucks.  He goes away."
   "What?  Fuck that."  I shake my head.  "I slowed down.  I signaled.  He tried to pass me on the left, going way too fast.  He was in the wrong lane, and Christ, he hit me.  I'm not paying."
   "They all say it your fault."  He shrugs.  "Where you from?"
   "California," I say.
   He brightens.  "Me too.  Lived in San Diego ten years."
   "Nice city."
   "Yeah."  He takes a meditative drag.  The other driver is playing to the crowd now, gesturing at me, the smashed mirror, the glass in the street.  "There no law in Viet Nam, man.  Just pay him ten bucks, and this all over."
   "Tell him no," I say.
   He jerks his chin at the other driver, who glares at me for a second.  The English-speaking guy says something in Vietnamese.  Again, I can barely catch the gist.  The foreigner says you hit him.  The other driver shakes his head vigorously, rattles something off.
   "He still says it your fault.  He wants money."
   "Is he going to fight if I don't pay?"
   "Nah.  All talk."
   "Then tell him something for me, will you?"
   He nods.
   "Tell him he needs to learn to fucking drive right."
   The guy smiles around his cigarette, fast and sly.  "You all talk, too."
   "Yep," I agree, and go in to the pharmacy.  I notice the other driver scowling.  I look at his feet.  I can see a tiny seepage of red on some of the scrapes.  I buy some iodine.  As I get on my bike, I lob it to the guy.  Startled, he catches it.
    I hear the older guy laugh as I drive off, and still, my heart is pumping fast and heavy, and my hands shake with adrenaline.

   The commute home is an interesting time for me to observe life. There's so much of it here, so much more life lived in the streets, in public places, in public view, than in the US. I'm familiar enough with the insane traffic now, and facile enough with the motorbike, that I can spare a bit of attention for my surroundings. 
   I'm usually pretty beat, but I still keep an eye out, because I truly never know what I will see. A fight? A fire? A monstrously large kite, a flood, a family of 5 perched on one motorbike? I've grown accustomed to these things. 
   But yesterday I saw something decidedly odd.  I've been here for almost 2 years, and yet still have these moments of pure 'what the hell?'
   Only in Vietnam does the opening of a Domino's Pizza qualify for the red-carpet treatment. I drive by, and can't count the number of wreaths and floral displays: palm leaves and roses. I see spotlights. Red carpet with deep, heavy pile. Inside, a trio of sharp-dressed men laugh, flashing white teeth. Blue-shirted employees walk about, blazoned with the tilted red, white, and blue square. One of the suited men shoots his cuffs, and even from a dozen meters away (look at me, being all metric) I see a tiny glint. Ranks of champagne flutes wait on a side table. Behind them stand at least 20 bottles of champagne, each nestled in its own silver stand. A deep blue sedan, with DOMINO'S written in white, idles at the curb. It is flawlessly clean. Girls in dresses—almost gowns—are obviously preparing to man the doors and usher in guest. Upstairs a tired-looking white woman drinks from a waxed paper cup.
   Soon enough I pass, heading up onto the bridge that leads from District 4 to District 7, where I live. If a guidebook were to describe District 4, words like 'authentic' or 'genuine' would probably crop up; really, it is poorer, more crowded, and less safe than surrounding districts. Apartments are stacked one atop another, laundry hanging from the bars blocking every balcony (even up to the 20th story, I see the bars.) The streets are narrow, lined with street food carts. People wear more traditional clothing, drive older motorbikes, have the deeper tans that connote manual labor. It's not unusual to see middle-aged men in boxers and flip-flops smoking cigarettes and drinking beers at cheap plastic tables, or a gang of half-naked kids playing barefoot street football, darting into traffic to retrieve a stray ball.
   This gala extravaganza franchise opening in District 4, then, is a bit strange even for Viet Nam.
   I was able to see all this, and have this moment of complete cultural dislocation. This was someone's dream. This opening was prosperity made manifest. Gentrification, jobs, a foreign university education for the owner's kids. The sight crystallized a realization I've had for some time. Why is fast food so popular in Viet Nam? The tremendous diversity of street food available here, cheaper and presumably healthier, would seem to doom places like KFC, Pizza Hut, or Burger King (now with 2 locations in HCMC.) Yet they thrive. Competing brands lace the city, mostly from Asia and the US. Lotteria from Korea, Jollibee, Kichi Kichi (which may not really be fast food...I've never been inside.) It's like a petri dish, with these proliferating franchises competing for space and resources, back-lit plastic signs and corporate logos crowding every large street. Yet walk a dozen feet, and you can get com tam, bun thit nuong, pho bo, bun bo Hue, bananas, sweet soup, iced coffee.
   So why, then?
I'm still mulling this as I drive past again a few hours later, heading out to an evening tutoring session. The floodlights play on the crisp new signs, illuminating the internally-lit words. The telephone number and the word 'DELIVERY' are almost as large as the name of the franchise. A small stage has been set up to one side of the entrance, and someone is exhorting the crowd. The crowd is an odd mix of the well-dressed and the (to me) typical fast-food consumer. Inside, the same mix. Suits here, t-shirts there; champagne and pepperoni pizza.
   What this really brought home to me is something that I had realized much earlier: fast food in Viet Nam has very different connotations than it does in the US. At home, it is indeed fast and cheap, the last resort—too tired to cook? Order a pizza. Broke? McDonald's. Here, though, you can get a fairly healthy, fairly large meal at any number of restaurants or street-food carts, instantly, for pennies. Eating fast food here is exotic. It's a mark of status. The $4 meal that takes 7 or 8 minutes to arrive at your table? That's $3 and 6 minutes more than the bowl of pho next door. Eating fast food says that you have the time, the money, and the sophistication necessary for, say, KFC. It says: middle-class. It says: English-speaking. It is beyond the reach of many.
   On my way home from tutoring, around 10, the gala is over. A woman in cheap printed cotton sweeps up leaves and petals with a twig broom. A couple of dudes lounge on the rolled up carpet, smoking and eyeing the traffic. Twenty or thirty empty champagne bottles line the sidewalk, and as I watch, someone gathers them up, one by one, for the recycling money. It feels like District 4 again.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Teasers and flashbacks

Have to work in the morning, can't sleep, kind of sick. Answer: blog!

Remember what I said about the apartment being so big that if Dave and I wanted some private time, we could simply avoid each other for weeks at a time?

I just saw him for the first time in three days. A lot of this is busy-ness on my part--between work and a woman I'm dating waaaay on the opposite side of the city, I haven't been home much. But still, I bet you all thought I was exaggerating--which, of course, I never do.


Teaser time: I still have like 1 or 2 more posts about the Dam Sen water park (and I may be going again this weekend, with the woman I've been seeing; not sure yet.)

I have more pics of the apartment to post--rather, I have to take them, and then post them.

I have an Very Interesting Second Date story (not the women mentioned above, but another.) Pro tip: bringing up marriage on the second date, even in the abstract, is a great way to ensure there's no third.

I also have a long post I've been scribbling in my notebook about Tet, with tons of pictures.

Last, I have a post about all kinds of random little stuff that does my head in.

Stay tuned; it's only gonna get more interesting.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A multi-part post...

in which Yours Truly once again risks life, limb, sanity, and soul braving the howling maw of Tet-related HCMC fun and Vietnamese pop culture.

I went to Dam Sen Water Park today, and wow. I'm too tired to get into it much, but I want to preview this odyssey by simply stating that there were two stages in this water park. It's not very big, with maybe a dozen water slides, and a further dozen assorted other water-esque attractions, but even so, the designers felt compelled to have two stages for...what, exactly?

Both stages were in continuous use the whole five hours I was there.

I should backtrack here and say that the Vietnamese cannot seem to resist the urge to American Idol-ize any vaguely appropriate place. Toy store? Boy band! Mall? Dance squad! Water park? Two stages with resident pop stars!

The first stage, I get. It's right when you walk in, and bam! You can see a pair of ten-year-old girls dancin' up a storm. Or the group of women in traditional Vietnamese clothing shakin' what God give 'em. Or Dam Sen Water Park's own resident pop star (!) Tranh Huy! singin' and shimmyin' and breakin' hearts. (I find leaving the terminal g's off my continuous-tense verbs adds sass, and I like sass.)

It's the second stage that baffles me. It's at the far end of an enormous wave pool. Who does this? Aren't people going to be busy, you know, playing Marco Polo and swimming? Who puts a stage at the deep end of a wave pool?

The amazing minds who designed Dam Sen water park, that's who.

Modern scienticians assure me the conversation went something like this:

"I dunno…I feel like there's a lack of something…some zazzle, some get-down-to-funkytown element just isn't all the way here yet."

"We could throw in another stage."

"Perfect! Where do we already have a bunch of people standing around, not doing anything?"

"Let's put the second stage at the deep end of the giant pool."

"No, no, people in the giant pool are gonna be playing Marco Polo and, I dunno, swi--YES! THE GIANT POOL--"


"Yeah, because recycled American pop tunes sung by jazz-handing tweens, and dance moves performed by wholesome yet still vaguely sexy adults, are just, just better when a metric ton of water is slapping you in the face every 8 seconds."

"God, I admire you."

Or am I Americanizing things too much?

More to come.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The apartment--excuse me, the Penthouse.

I've been known to exaggerate from time to time, and I should add that I'm also a world-renowned master of understatement (I read this on the internet, therefore it must be true.*) Thankfully, I don't need you to take my word for it when I say that the penthouse--or perhaps, le Penthouse --is probably the coolest thing on Earth since Jesus wielded Excalibur to fight off the invasion of the moon-dinosaurs.

Enjoy the pictures. And seriously, if these don't make you all want to come visit me here, then I might have to cry. You wouldn't want that on your conscience, would you?

First, the first floor. Appropriate, no?

Behind that door on the left is the laundry area, garbage chute, and a bathroom, for some odd reason.

Down that hall are two bedrooms--one of the guestrooms, which have incrrrrredible views, and my bedroom with en suite bathroom...even a tub! Though the tub is only big enough to wash one leg at a time, it's still the one of the only tubs I've seen in Vietnam. And no, it's not a bidet, it's just built for an Asian woman. Which, come to think of it, is okay.

Second floor, with a view of the atrium.

And now the guest rooms. The layout of both is the same, just as with Dave's room and mine.

Third floor solarium. I need to wait for a clearer day and take pics of the view and the rooftop terrace.

Given how Vietnam isn't big on zoning ordinances and so forth, my semi-serious idea was to open a night club. I mean, tons of Vietnamese run businesses out of their homes, right? We have no next-door neighbors right now. Throw in a hot tub, get some tables and chairs, a DJ, a minibar or two...bam! We'd be rich!

...okay, Blogger and/or my wireless are pissing me off, so I am going to post more pictures later of the 2nd floor, rooftop terrace, master suite, and so on. But this should give you an idea of what $800/month will get you in Vietnam. For real.

*Even if I wrote it myself. QED.

Happy Birthday to Me

Yesterday was my 32nd birthday.

I have nothing funny or particularly interesting to say about it, and most of you knew this already. I'm also not trying to elicit happy birthdays and whatnot, since most of you already did wish me such on Facebook or email.

Simply, birthdays make me think. What has been going on since my last birthday, what have I been doing, how do I feel; these sorts of things. Taking stock, I suppose. Perhaps it's because my birthday is also close to New Year's--especially this year, in Vietnam, when the lunar New Year happened to fall on Feb. 3rd--I also look at the world as a whole, and the slice of it my family and friends occupy.

Without going into detail, 2009 was the worst year of my life. 2010 was much, much better. 2011 will be, I hope, incredible, one of the best years of my life, as it has proven to be so far...I owe it to my family and friends, to those who helped me get through that year from Hell.

Instead of wanting birthday wishes, I want to say birthday thank-yous.

Thank you, Mom. I lack the words to convey how grateful I am, so I will have to hope that these three words will serve as a substitute until I can find some more effective way of communicating my gratitude and appreciation: I love you.

Thank you, Dad and Mary. Thank you, Marcella, Rob, and Fred. Thank you Brian, and Christine. Thank you, Fran and Laura. Newton famously said that if he'd seen far, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. If I am capable of finding happiness, success, and a way of giving back, it is because I have leaned on my family, and you have held me up more than I deserved.

Thank you, Grandma. We all need unconditional love. I get this from Grandma, as well as one other source.

Thank you to my other source of unconditional love--my nephew Karl. You're too young to read this, but I hope your Papa will remind you how much I love you and miss you. To you, I'm not a flawed human being--not yet--but a source of love and fun. Family, as it should be. Being your uncle has made me a better person. The hardest part of leaving California was knowing that I would not be seeing you for a long time.

A special thank you here to Dave, who both motivated me to get to Vietnam, and helped me accomplish it. I wasn't stagnating in Willits--it was a crucial time of rest and retrenchment for me, but it was also not where I wanted to be in the long run. Whether or not Saigon turns out to be that place, I undertook the biggest and giddiest move of my life in large part because of you.

Thank you, Bri. Family encompasses also those who are not bound by blood, but by mutual respect, friendship, and love. You've shown me all of those things, even when I did not feel as though I deserved them. Perhaps that is what friendship is, ultimately: a grace we can never hope to truly earn, but only to reciprocate.

Thank you to Christine, Geoff, Bryn, Jenny; all my friends, near and far. In small ways or large, you have helped me and I have been blessed--there's no other word for it--with your friendship.

Thank you to all my Clarion West friends--you're family, too. You helped me stay connected to the world outside my own head, as well as to better times, when I needed it most. Special thanks to Douglas, and Chris and Maggie. Your guys rock. I can't wait to see you all.

Thank you to Codi, Dick, and Gina. Your friendship also meant a tremendous amount to me, and kept Willits from stifling me. The opportunities I discovered through you also made my leap across the Pacific financially possible.

Thank you, Sherwood School: Shauna, Luna, the children and their families. What we give, we also may receive. I found that I like teaching, and kids, for that matter, because of the months I spent there. If all goes according to plan, I will be back for a visit later this year.

And it may sound corny, but I also need to thank the dogs: Cheza, Zak, Norton, Bogart. Simple companionship is what dogs do best. They take us out of ourselves, or perhaps take us to parts of ourselves we rarely visit on our own. I wish I could send 'em all soup bones, or take 'em for a long walk. Ah, well--next October.

So, yeah. The things I wanted most for my birthday I found I already possessed. I hope you all will come and visit me here. I love you all. I miss you all.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Brief note

I may be editing these posts from time to time, so if you come back and find things subtly different, this is why.

Or just possibly you've fallen into an alternate dimension where things are almost the same as you remember...almost.