Sunday, June 27, 2010

Here comes the rain...again!

I woke early this morning to the sound of a thousand blaring horns and the rumble of a million motorbikes outside my bedroom window (ok, possibly a slight exaggeration!). Welcome to District 1, the heart of Saigon.

This week we’re staying in a serviced apartment close to the city centre, providing me with a glimpse of what would have been had I chosen to live in the middle of Hanoi – yep, total chaos and lovin’ it!

Later this week we’re moving to a compound in District 2 – only a 15-minute taxi ride from the city centre. We chose our new neighbourhood because it's close to the international school for Georgia and Mackenzie, as well as the strip of shops in Thao Dien catering to westerners who like their comfort foods from home.

Unlike our former compound in Ciputra, we’ll be a lot closer to the city and office, and thankfully closer to the action.

When researching our move from Hanoi to Saigon, a number of expat forums mentioned the increase in petty crime (and some not so petty!) against foreigners, particularly in District 2. Everything from drive-by motorbike handbag and mobile phone snatches, to people breaking into your home during the night while you sleep.

But the most awful crime, and the one we fear more than someone entering our home to snatch the laptop, is the increase in dog-napping.

Numerous expats can recount tales of waking to find their dog missing. They had to get their household staff to ask around the neighbourhood to see who saw what with the end result being the lucky dog owner reunited with their family pooch, of course, after parting with cash. Unfortunately, some have not been so lucky.

To me this smacks of dodgy household staff in cahoots with criminals, but not willing to take that risk we’ve opted to pay more money for an apparently secure compound. Time will tell.

Needless to say Wally will be inside 24-7! Not something we really had to worry about in Hanoi.

I'm sure as the weeks and months go by I'll be able to bore you with countless differences between Hanoi and Saigon. The whole dog-napping epidemic being just the first of many examples.

But one of the major differences between Hanoi and Saigon, and one at the front of mind for tourists planning a trip to Vietnam, is the weather.

In a snapshot - year round Saigon is either hot, or hot and wet! Hanoi, and northern Vietnam, on the other hand, experiences four seasons. Needless to say the boxes of winter clothes currently in transit from Hanoi won't be opened!

Southern Vietnam's monsoon (rainy) season lasts from May to September, but unlike the rain in Hanoi which seemed to last for days at a time, in Saigon it is mostly a short, heavy thunderstorm lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or more. I am reliably informed that this can occur anytime in the afternoon or during the middle of the night.

A tip for tourists - carry an umbrella in your handbag/backpack at all times and try to avoid the flooded streets!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Goodbye Hanoi…Hello Saigon!

Tay Ho (West Lake) - our home in Hanoi
The hotel checkout dramas and miserable, drizzly weather on our last day in Hanoi was a fitting end to our stay, as well as a timely reminder of the many frustrations we’d experienced over the past 16 months.

I say timely only because over the last month, feeling conflicted about our move, I'd started to idealise our time in Hanoi. I was conveniently forgetting some of the trickier moments we’d had early on.

I've grown to love Hanoi, and now don’t even bat an eyelid at much of the local behaviour I initially found so frustrating, but that wasn’t always the case.

In early 2009, new to both the expat life and the role of unemployed, stay-at-home Mum of almost 2-year-old twins, I was surprised and disappointed at how little patience I had with the cultural differences and my new life abroad.

Before children, I’d travelled to some pretty tough countries, including a six-month stint backpacking around South America in the late 90’s before it became a tourist hotspot. I’d rationalised that my ability to deal with new cultures and experiences was quite high.

When we first announced our move to Hanoi we were greeted with a range of responses, but the most common was “how will you cope with babies in a country like THAT?” I was indignant, and oh so na├»ve!

With my backpacking days far behind me, and now a Mum in her mid-30’s more concerned about germs, gastro bugs and impending toilet training than street stalls and tourist sites, I initially found life in Vietnam a tough adjustment.

Had I gone a few years earlier my outlook and experience as an expat would have undoubtedly been different. This caused me a lot of frustration early on as I tried to balance day-to-day chores and life as a mother of young children with the desire to explore. 

The former backpacker was keen to get out of the house, tasting new foods and learning about the culture by immersing myself in a local neighbourhood, but the responsible parent couldn't quite adjust to the concept of riding around Hanoi with two toddlers on a Xe Om (motorbike taxi) or living in a local neighbourhood without footpaths and safe streets, let alone a reliable electricity supply.

Instead of immersing myself in the local culture I immersed myself in the safety of the expat enclave of Ciputra, well away from the bustling city centre of Hanoi. This made me feel angry for not having the balls to embrace my new world order, but the responsible parent, of course, won the battle.

My next move was to dig myself even deeper into the expat versus locals’ psyche by renting a car and driver. After many futile attempts travelling in a taxi with two toddlers, mostly without working seatbelts, I grew frustrated at my ability to get around Hanoi.

Of course I wasn’t stupid enough to attempt a motorbike, but if I couldn’t get around without my children jumping all over the backseat while trying to open the taxi doors how the hell was I ever going to leave the house?

While the former backpacker waged an internal battle with the responsible parent, I had more pressing issues to deal with on a daily basis - for example, finding essentials such as milk for my toddlers.

The first three brands of local milk I bought literally smelt like someone had done a fart in the bottle before screwing the lid on. This may sound like a pretty trivial matter but when you have two children screaming at you for their nighttime milk it becomes somewhat of a priority!

Shopping for those daily essentials was trying and would inevitably turn into some kind of drama with language and cultural differences reducing me to tears on many occasions. 

My standout memory was a trip to the Metro supermarket on our second weekend in Hanoi - a market I’d been told would provide us with all the western necessities for toddlers.

After a frustrating 20 minute taxi ride with the girls, we arrived only to be told that we couldn't enter with our children. “You what?” Was I supposed to leave them sitting in the taxi while I shopped?

The shop assistant couldn't speak English so she unhelpfully pointed to a height chart that showed my children were too short to enter!

Of course with no explanation for the reason behind the rule I was outraged. (I later discovered that children under a certain height were at risk of getting run over by the forklifts that buzz madly around the store!)

And on and on these negative experiences built up to a point that I started to question our decision to move here.

Fast-forward 16 months and now I can’t imagine life after Vietnam – not for another year or two at least!

Of course there are days when I crave a taste of home or the ability to walk into a store, speak English to the salesperson and leave with exactly what I wanted, but thankfully I've grown a sense of humour.

It’s not for me to push my ways of life, language, customs or morals on the locals – I’m a guest in their country and if I can’t find exactly what I’m after I just have to get over it.

I've also adjusted my expectations of the expat life. Before arriving I had naively dreamed of a lifestyle better suited to a young professional without children – not to be – but during my time here I've found other ways of experiencing the local culture such as spending time with my driver and his family which gave me the opportunity to visit a lot of places off the tourist trail.

Of course, the fact that my children are now almost three-and-a-half and have a better understanding when I explain to them that I can’t find what they want, life in Vietnam gets easier by the day.

So now it's our last day in Hanoi, but thankfully not our last in Vietnam, as we move to phase two with a transfer to Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon.

I’m looking forward to getting to know a new city and friends, as well as catching up with old friends who made the move from Hanoi before us. I’m also looking forward to going back to work when I start a new job in just over a week’s time (scary stuff!).

In the meantime, I promise to share more of the experiences we had in Hanoi, and for those of you considering a visit here anytime soon (hint,hint!) I'll give you tips on the places to visit, as well as a regular snapshot of our adventures in Saigon and beyond.

Goodbye Hanoi...Georgia (l) and Mackenzie at Nobai Airport, Hanoi

PS: family and friends planning a trip to Vietnam constantly ask me about the weather and the best time to visit. A hard question to answer because the weather varies from the north to the south so you can't really visit the whole country in one trip without running into different seasons! As a newbie southerner I’ll try to provide regular updates on the weather in Saigon (when I remember) to give you an idea of the seasonal changes.

Weather watch: on the day of posting, Saigon had a minimum temperature of 24 degrees and a maximum of 32 degrees with average humidity of 88%. We had a cracking afternoon thunderstorm with the loudest thunder I've heard in my life!