Thursday, June 24, 2004

2004-5 Compilation and some nostalgia

It's not just money - July 4, 2005

Cross cultural relationships are always interesting, exciting, and sometimes complicated. Of course, one can learn about dating, marriage from books and conversation, but let me give you my 2 cents. This is insight from a foreigner living in Vietnam, a viet-kieu (vietnamese overseas). While I am a foreigner having lived 99% of my life in the U.S., my outward Vietnamese looks does not permit me a free pass to be ignorant to local culture and I even am somewhat expected to understand certain Vietnamese nuances of romantic relationships and marriage. My insight is based on living in Hanoi and Saigon so not the entire country of Vietnam or Vietnamese living overseas.

Marriage and money: While you might come into a relationship thinking that you are independent and control finances, this is not the case in Vietnamese marriages. The money always goes to the wife. Eventhough there are exceptions to the rule, couples are becoming more equal, this is how it's been and what women want. What she does with the money of course varies from family to family. The bottom line is that husbands usually make the salary and hand it over to the wives to control. There is rarely the 50/50 bank account as in Western style relationships.

Independence and dependence: While I come from a country that was founded on independence, Vietnamese are quite the contrary when it comes to love, friendships and most of all family which is the base of all relationships. I do not contend that the “American Way” is better, but this can certainly pose conflict in relationships where women can expect full financial support from their boyfriends or husbands. While women’s independence, self empowerment through education and work is more prevalent in Vietnamese society (primarily cities), there is still a socioeconomic gender inequality.

Personal favors: The Vietnamese are amongst many things very warm and helpful. Helping someone is human nature and the strength of Vietnamese society relies heavily on dependence. In Vietnamese society there is also an underlying non written and non verbal trade going on. It is a trade of favors. Some cultures perceive personal favors at face value while other cultures consider favors unethical or even as bribery. While I do not deny that Vietnamese can be unselfish and generous, you must not be blind to the fact that a favor taken might be a favor owed later on. Simply put, I scratch your back so you scratch mine.

Saigon is so hot… - Jan 23, 2005

1. You have industrial size fans blowing on you when sitting outside at cafes cooling you down to a not so fresh 95 F, (35 degrees celsius).

2. You desperately search for that patch of shade when coming to a stop light on your motorbike.

3. Going to the swimming pool is not so refreshing.

4. You take a sip of your ice coffee, a quarter of your drink has sweated through and wets your lap when you reach for your glass.

5. Wearing a denim jacket in the blazing sun is something you might try.

6. Feeling the cool breeze when passing the Saigon Tax Center with its doors wide open and air condition blowing out doesn’t seem like a waste to you.

7. Sleeping from 12-3 PM doesn’t seem like a waste of your day.

8. Waking up at 5 AM to exercise seems less crazy, but you still won’t do.

9. Those cold mini towels that they serve you at restaurants are the next best thing next to duct tape.

10. Eating hot soup really cools you off!

Sublime Reality - Nov 18, 2004

There are certain subconscious moments a foreigner in Vietnam experiences that are felt without planning ahead. Between the reality of the city clamor and disbelief that you are actually in Vietnam is a sublime reality. It is this moment that defines what it’s really like to be living in Vietnam.

When the ominous clouds encroach on the orange sweltering sun and the humidity is as much as you can possibly bare, you hear a low rumble that adds to cacophony of the city’s beeping motorbikes, honking cars and the high pitched chatter of pedestrians.

A calmness then suddenly overcomes the city and there’s a minute of silence that everyone observes as they feel the cool air brushes over and the light dims in anticipation of the imminent moment you have been waiting for. A few light warm rain drops touch your head to which you are aware, but unbothered by. Then the drops contact your arm discretely telling you to take heed.

In the blink of an eye the city transforms from dry fire hazard conditions to a tropical forest flood state. Motorbike riders calmly and carefully pull over to the side of the road in mass to do a race car style pit stop and transform themselves from their daily wear by blanketing themselves with a varying array of rain panchos. Without missing a beat, they are quickly on their way and seemingly unbothered and unknowingly calmed by this event.

Narrow Alleys - Sept 9, 2004

In the middle of the steaming hot bustling activity of Ho Chi Minh City you can get away from it all by turning off a major road into one of millions of the city’s narrow alley ways whether you intend to or accidentally got lost. It’s amazing that people confidently buzz through these passages that are sometimes bearly shoulder width on their motorbikes and are busy with people going about their routine activities.

When navigating these tight corridors you'll be suprised to see so much activity from people sitting on stools eating noodles, people playing a full court game of soccer, and vendors selling anything from cigarettes to clothes.

One sure way to end up in these alleys is trying to find a place such as a friend’s house or a restaurant for the first time. As you enter on of these various mazes you can easily lose your orientation which makes getting out later on another adventure. What’s amazing about these alleys is not only the narrowness, the endless turns, but also what you find in them. Contrary to the danger you imagine when you think of the dark alleys in Hollywood movies, alleys in most of Saigon are just thoroughfare that are bustling with daily life..

Head over wheels in love - June 24, 2004

Vietnam has its fair share of restaurants, bars and cafes, but when most local couples head out, it’s not so they can stare love struck over shared iced lattes. In a time-honored ritual, they are off cruising.

Generations of Vietnamese have observed this dating ritual, the young lovers fine art of utmost interest in going nowhere, as to a degree, they are already exactly where they want to be.

Couched in the arms of a darling, dressed suitably to the nines for the occasion, youngsters putter along the streets, sneaking the kinds of sensual embraces frowned upon at home with the olds.
But where do they come from, and more to the point for quizzical western observers, where exactly do they think they are going?

As the bikes dance through the traffic, lovers nestled cheek to cheek; one thinks of the trusty station wagon and the merits of make spots littered around the world. Yet, while park ups are a part of the play, the quintessence of di choi (simply go out, although not that simple really) lies in its mobility.

Hanoi’s lakes, traditionally Ho Tay, draw thronging masses in an orgy of nonchalant sensuality. Take a spin up the Ho Tay Water Park access road on any given evening and you’re assured of coping a real eyeful.

But hey, as a young man, I am not immune to its charm. I’ve been known to cruise along too, a young lady sitting side-saddle behind me, locked in an embrace that I don’t feel inclined to relinquish to the table and chairs of a café.

Phuong, 29, is a media professional in Hanoi. She openly admits to still loving a good di choi with her husband, although their carefree bike rides have become less frequent since the arrival of their first child. But every once and a while, they leave the baby with their live in mother in law, and hit the pavement nowhere-bound.

“It’s not hard to get privacy at home, but it’s important to get out of the house. Every couple has their ‘spot’, mostly around Ho Tay or on the Red River,” she says with a knowing glint in her eye. “You want a place with a good view and fresh cool air from the lake.”

“You can drive around, park for a while, or stop and get some ice cream. But we don’t hang out in cafes for long. It’s our time to relax together.” Phuong added.

So there you have it. It’s about not heading to any particular destination, just about enjoying one another’s company. So what of those women we see around Hoan Kiem Lake with freshly washed hair and clad in pyjamas? With a snout for a possible singles scene, I leapt on my trusty steed to try to get in on the action.

To my bemused – if solitary – finding, this was another form of relaxation sans groping. There I met Lan, who just fluttered her eyelids when asked any questions. She did admit that in years gone by, her parents, and their parents before them, had been fans of di choi, albeit by bicycle.

Down in Ho Chi Minh City, Kevin Minh set off into the thick of the southern dating scene, where he discovered the rules were truly universal.

Riding on the streets on a motorbike in Saigon is an experience in itself, he reported, but Sunday evening sees traffic jams of couples, motorbikes by the thousands revving amid the bustling city nightlife. Amid the pack, this confusion of open-air privacy on a motorbike allows a few shared caresses, moments of intimacy in the company of a thousand strangers.

The warm body contact, blanketing dewy air, and intimate conversation, that’s what makes this experience so great, and it costs nothing, except to fill up your gas tank.

So there it is, no more excuses for staying home like a wallflower on a Saturday night. You don’t even need to know the place to be, as it is, quite literally, all around you.

Story by Kevin Minh and Dan Kirk, photos by Kevin Minh. Also posted in Vietnamnet

Com Binh Dan - March 4, 2004

‘Com Bình Dan’ pronounced like come bin yaan literally translates to commoners’ rice and can be found on most any street café in Vietnam. The fare is cheap and the setting is humble, usually a restaurant by day that transforms back to a family’s living room at the end of the night.

The variety and readiness compliments Vietnam’s street scene which has had it’s own style of fast food long before the likes of Mc Donald’s. For a mere 3000 Vietnamese Đong (roughly 20 cents USD) you look at the food upon entering and order a plate of steamed rice with whatever is available daily which usually consists of tofu, egg, chicken, barbecued pork, pork, steamed vegetables and fried fish to name a few dishes.

The low cost is very appealing and so is the feeling that most of this food is ‘bình dân’ or common as the name suggests. For local Vietnamese, this is food they would eat at home, comfort food so you find everyone from school kids on lunch break, office crowds, singles, couples, and families eating a laid back hearty meal as they would in their own living room.

The experience of eating com binh dan is the closest thing to eating a home cooked meal while sitting in someone’s living room and remaining an anonymous customer.

You're not F'n Finnish! - September 1996

It was another hot muggy evening when my buddy and I walked into the Emerald Pub in Hanoi. I sat myself at the beginning of the bar with a beer while Tim chatted up the cute bartender.

As I was listening to the gentleman next to me I noticed a British accent so I asked him if he was from to which he replied he's from Finland. With a grin on my face I replied, "I'm Finnish too!" To this remark he loudly exclaimed, "You're not fuck'n Finnish!" At that point I pulled out my driver's license and said in my best Finnish minun nimeni on Kevin Gripenberg introducing myself. I can't remember exactly if he fell off his stool, but the reaction was something like that probably having heard a Vietnamese-looking person speak Finnish for the first time.

As it also turned out this Finn, Sammy, was working in a wine bar not far from my apartment and that his boss was also another Finn in the restaurant business in Hanoi. Every now and then I'd see them around Hanoi and impress them away with my few Finnish phrases like Terve! (hello) or Mitä kuuluu (how are you?). It was a welcomed reaction compared to the usual confused and disapointed looks about my Vietnamese.