Monday, November 29, 2010

{Expat life} Saigon's traffic troubles

Our new set of wheels - a Toyota Innova

I've finally cracked. This week I'll join the countless other expats (and wealthy Vietnamese) in Saigon with their own car and driver.

I know I'll face ridicule from some sectors of the expat (and broader) community, but I'm willing to shrug it off.

Of course nobody says anything directly to your face, but it's there on the blogs and expat community websites where many scoff at those who refuse to travel by taxi or motorbike.

I could fill a book with countless stories of my horror taxi experiences in Vietnam, and that's what has ultimately led me to this point.

From drivers who tried to rip me off with a dodgy meter or deliberately went the long way to get more money (pretending not to understand my Vietnamese!) to those who decided they couldn't be bothered sitting in peak hour traffic and made me get out on a busy highway (that was my favourite!).

When we lived in Hanoi, the initial language barrier and dangerous driving, coupled with the difficulty of travelling with 2-year-old twins on my own, led me to renting a car and driver.

When we moved to Saigon in June, I naively dreamed that we could save money by travelling in taxis (because trust me, the monthly cost of renting a car and driver is not something you want to pay for if you don't really need to!).

For me this was an enormous leap given I know how dangerous it is for young children to travel in a vehicle without a baby seat. There have even been moments, while lamenting Saigon's traffic woes, that I actually considered buying a family-sized motorbike...yes, it's amazing how your point of view warps after a while in this country!

In Vietnam's expat circles, the need for the car and driver is widely debated.

In one camp you have the expats, generally locally engaged or not on a package with bonuses, who grumble that those on the big bucks push up prices and behave like wankers because they choose to live in secure compounds and drive around in a private car.

In another camp there are the expats, generally transferred here by an international company, who are lucky enough to get a housing allowance and a car and driver. Good on them I say. If the company gives you a car as part of your package, why wouldn't you take it?

In between these two camps there are the expats who, regardless of what kind of money and perks they get, think that any foreigner who comes here and still behaves like they're in their own country by not living in a local neighbourhood, riding a motorbike or eating only on the street is missing out.

Then there's us - expats who come here with an international company and get a lot of perks, but not enough to cover everything we feel is necessary to have security and peace of mind.

For us, the choice to live in the secure gated compound (part of which we pay for ourselves), and the decision to get a car when we were in the north, and now, (which we also pay for) has been influenced by our role as parents.

Some would argue that you don't need to live in the gated compound and travel by car, but it all comes down to a matter of personal opinion and how you're willing to live.

Do I want to worry at night that my house could be burgled while I sleep? No thanks. Do I want to have to put up with the abovementioned taxi woes? I tried it...too much bother.

So, once again, we've joined the much-maligned pack of expats who get around town with their own car and driver (except on the weekends when we'll suffer at the hands of the city's taxi drivers!).

Whether this will make the daily battles with Saigon's ridiculous peak hour traffic easier to handle remains to be seen, but for now I'm happy knowing there is someone at my house every weekday morning waiting to drive me when I'm good and ready!

For those of you reading this who've never experienced expat life, and think we're all wankers who need to rely on drivers and housekeepers, just know that most of us would give anything to have a car that we could safely drive ourselves on the right side of the road (that of course being the left side!) . Needing to rely on someone else to get around is, quite frankly, a pain in the ass!

But no, even if it makes me sound like a wanker, I wouldn't give up my housekeeper for anything! I've admitted're jealous...move on!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

{Saigon Snaps} Xmas Vietnam-style

It's not yet December, but many of Saigon's major hotels and shopping centres have started to hang Xmas decorations.

I'm surprised at the number of businesses, in a primarily Buddhist country, riding off the back of what is an essentially Christian tradition. In Hanoi there were a lot of Christmas lights, but nothing to this extent.

Foreigners who've lived in Saigon for some time tell me that the displays will become more prevalent and extravagant as December arrives, culminating in a huge street party in Dong Khoi on Xmas Eve.

Although quite a simple design, my favourite display so far is the concial hat-wearing snowmen out the front of the Legend Hotel on Ton Duc Thang Street.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

{Saigon Snaps} Saturday in Saigon

Oliver's 2nd birthday party!

When we moved to Hanoi in early 2009 and met the Liddell family, Oliver was just a wee little man. How time flies!

Opening presents with Daddy Darrin

A special ladybug cake made by clever Mummy Lotta

Playing pass the parcel with Elliott, Mackenzie and Georgia

Lunch at Loaves & Fishes cafe in Thao Dien

Mackenzie and her very funny balloon!
Delicious chicken quesadillas

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

{Saigon Snaps} Another Vietnam "What the?!" moment

A couple of classic "what the?!" Vietnam moments on the ride to work this morning.

Below is a photo of my taxi driver who thought it was a good idea to multi-task while driving in peak hour traffic along Nguyen Huu Canh Street.

Granted, we were crawling at around 10kms/hour, but the traffic was stop-start so reading the newspaper while moving was probably not the smartest idea!

Just moments before I took this photo we were overtaken by a Vietnamese ambulance - a small, white mini van marked with a red cross on the side. Sadly, nobody seems to pay any attention to these guys, even when they have their sirens on!

As the ambulance passed I saw a guy sitting in the back, wearing a surgical mask, hanging out of the open window smoking a cigarette! (if you look closely at the photo the offending ambulance is in front of the taxi - obviously he had to remove his mask each time he took a puff!).

Not sure whether the smoker was a patient or an ambulance officer, but the fact that he was actually allowed to smoke inside a hospital on wheels...What the?!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

{Saigon Shopping} Charity Bazaar @ The Deck

Saigon's expats came out in force today for the annual  Bazaar @ The Deck in District 2. With proceeds going to various charities, this is one of the most popular charity bazaar's on the Saigon calendar.

Heaps of cool expat-run businesses had stalls at today's Bazaar with loads of items perfect for unique Xmas gifts.

Not only did I come away with bags full of purchases, I actually discovered there are a some very talented AIS Mums who have their own fashion and kids products. (oh to be that creative!)

My favourite purchases at today's Bazaar:

One of the Mum's at our school makes Barbie tents. They come flat packed in 3 different colours - pink, purple and camoflauge style (in case you have a boy who's into Barbies!). Each tent comes with 2 sleeping bags. The tents were selling today for 400,000 VND each. I'll post contact details soon.

An AIS Mum from Sweden has joined with another expatriate to launch their own range of fashion, with material sourced from Vietnam and Dubai. Today they were selling a gourgeous line of clothes for little girls. Georgia and Mackenzie picked out some very cute skirts (150,000 VND each). Visit their website.

I also bought some very funky, handmade serving platters (I think they're made from bamboo?!) that have an attached food cover fly net - perfect for outdoor entertaining. Made in Indonesia, a set of 3 cost 350,000 VND.

The next Bazaar on the Saigon calendar is the Consular Club Charity Bazaar at the Legend Hotel on Ton Duc Thang Street on Saturday 20 November from 11am - 3pm. Ho Chi Minh-based Consulates will sell products from their countries.  I'll be one of the many volunteers running the Australian stall. Hope to see you there!