Mar 23, 2010

Moving in with Mum - That Other Vietnamese Thing

Well, Mum moved in with us actually.

The dreaded mother-in-law. Is it all that bad?
Chi and I made the decision earlier this year to sell Mum's house in Binh Thanh and have her move in with us. Chi's mum can't see well and needs taking care of (see Chi's Story). There was only so long we could continue to let her live by herself (albeit with a maid visiting to cook and clean) in a crowded, dirty alleyway. Bless her though she still walked to the zoo every morning with a friend for exercise.We have the opportunity to invest the money from the house into some land, probably out in Cu Chi where grandma lives. I think Cu Chi is nice countryside and not too far from the city. We are hopefully looking at some land by the Saigon River up there next week.

The house was surprisingly easy to sell - took about a month during which time we had various interested parties come and go. I was dubious we'd ever sell it because it is in a 'project'. One day the house will literally be sliced in half to widen the alley that runs down one side of it. It's not that big to start with...the timescale is unknown and even the local people's committee couldn't say when this would happen. Chi was told 'in 20 years' and she thinks that was less than 10 years ago...anyway, the house was sold.

It was a big move - Mum lived there for 28 years having bought the house for 1 tael of gold. I know Chi really wanted her brother to see the place he spent the first year of his life when he returns to Vietnam, but the time was right to make the move. The parks and quiet streets in Phu My Hung are perfect for Mum to walk around and exercise in safety, her diet has improved, and of course she gets to spend as much time as she wants with her first granddaughter. All in all, I know shes more comfortable with us, living a better, healthier and happier life.

A month has been and gone since the move. Along with the mother-in-law comes the necessity of a live in maid..looking after Mum AND Lou and Connections is obviously a little too much for Chi! We had to say goodbye to our first maid, it wasn't working out. Another was due tomorrow but is now not coming, so Chi has arranged the friend of a friend's Aunt...we'll see...

Hmm, the maids - that could be That Vietnamese Thing 3.

Mar 19, 2010

That Vietnamese Thing

Ahhh family.

Or should that be: ARRRGGHHH! Family.

Those of us bethrothed to a lady of another nationality have not only the Mars/Venus collision to deal with but also the at times stupendous cultural differences to hurdle and manage. Understanding women is the holy grail of any man's life. Cultural 'clashes' however are certianly not always down to the wife and the wife alone, the accompanying family can have a large part to play in our headaches ( I will use the possessive pronoun 'our' representing all my bretheren in this situation).

In my experience potentially the most explosive sitauations are tiny misunderstandings. Things so easily get lost in translation, a sea of idioms, facial expressions and lost sarcasm. Never communicate important matters in writing. In the larger, longer term picture - we have to accept that there are some things about the Vietnamese that a foreigner may never understand - and that's not a bad thing either. For some it adds to the mystery and excitement. To others, it mounts into a burden of frustration. I know of many who have split from their foriegn spouses - but statistically we know of the divorce rates in western countries and should image the rate of divorce in mixed marriages is no higher if not much less. This article talks about it a little.

Now add children.

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Our little babies come into the world and bless em they take over our lives and we watch them grow with joy. Parenting is a contentious issue in any household, never mind one that has to share the mindset of two continents. It starts from birth. Vietnamese traditions with regards to the birth of a child are not for the fainthearted and include the mother moving back in with her family, not leaving the house for a month and also not showering. Amongst many, many others. Personally, I think it all a load of nonsense with no basis in reality, but that's an opinion. I would have struggled to go along with it all if I was in a traditional family. Chi is also not worried or concerned with 'traditions' of this nature and although she has a large family, they are not close. Furthermore we had Louisa in England, away from all that cultural interference that, I am sure, just adds to the stress of the new mother who just wants to be left alone with her new baby. For this, Chi was doubly glad. It was a nice start. Others suffer the brutal onslaught of aunts and nannies and grandmothers storming the poor little thing and dicatating the environment and conditions of the first weeks and months. I guess it all depends on your family situation, but I'd imagine most westerners come to a compromise with thier adopted families - as in, when to back the expletive away from my little son/daughter and let me do it.

As soon as we returned to Nam with our 7 month old daughter under our arm the 'advice' began. Two tendancies the Vietnamese seem to have towards babies. One is to gorge them on food - gigantic bottles of formula milk being shoved into their mouths. When they should be moving onto solid foods (natures hint is the teeth she provides), they tend to be force fed bottles of liquid food as well, even until they are 2 or older. Louisa has been chewing on carrots and eating rice since she was younger then a year old. Concerned aunts seemingly try and grind Chi down by saying that Louisa is 'too thin' just because she is not as 'plump' as all the other babies. You can see them with a big bottle of food and a small towel hidden behind their backs just desperate to shove the whole lot down her throat and fatten her up. Well, she looks OK to me. Proud to say, 100% breast fed till this very day.

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Taking a walk in the park and a Vietnamese father in broken English asks me when Lou started to run around like a maniac, as she was at the time. I told him she started walking between nine and ten months old. Rather pitifully he looked at his 13 month year old son who still could only sit on his bum. 'What kind of milk does she drink'? he asked me, as if all he needed to do was change his brand and suddenly his son would be up and about. Sure, children develop at different speeds, but absolutely no doubt about it, the environment you create for them has a massive impact as well. And this is point number two. We call it mollycoddling. Overprotection. Incessant carrying of the child doesn't help it develop muscles in order to lift its head, then crawl, then grab the furniture and haul itself up and eventually take its first steps. Babies get carried here I feel way too much when they should be left on their backs and then their fronts in a safe space on the floor. It is also, in my opinion, essential that baby smacks his or her head on the table in order to learn that table is hard and it hurts when you smack your head on it. Same goes for eating dirt/flowers/grass/grit/fluff etc. Depriving these sensory learning experiences that wire the brain with a proper understanding of the world impedes development.

I would add my own disclaimer - T.V. This flickering, confusing and noisy instrument has no educational benefit for young children - yes, even if it is on Disney channel. What it does do is interfere with the development of the area of the brain that handles attention - and the ability to hold attention. Whilst the child is staring hypnotised at the machine it is missing out on the more important happenings around it such as watching and hearing the conversations of adults in the room - amongst the many health problems associated with over exposure to TV is attentional disorders and speech problems. Anyone wants a copy of this book, mail me. I digress, TV is by no means an exclusively Vietnamese problem.

Hopefully I've explained some of the pitfalls and tribulations involved in a mixed marriage and raising children within one, and some of the irritations I have come across being a father in Vietnam. All stereotypes within this post must be forgiven for the sake of the whole.

Finally, here's our daughter Louisa, 16 months old, with her latest trick, making herself dizzy when the music comes on...

Mar 13, 2010

Asian Correspondent

The editor at the Asian Correspondent recently got in touch asking if I could write a city guide for Saigon. Here it is...

Ho Chi Minh City - Guide

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest metropolis, is still affectionately known as Saigon by its native southern citizens. Historically the term Saigon refers to a central part of the city, District One, where habitation was begun by Vietnamese settlers early in the 17th century. What was once a marshy market crossroads has been transformed into a bustling, enigmatic cauldron of life – a concrete jungle stretching as far as the eye can see where traditional markets and neighbourhood trading still make up the foundation of everyday life, but where modern influences and development is forever encroaching.

What to do if you have 24 hours

A whistle-stop one day tour should focus on getting a feel for this vibrant city. The main attractions are all central and easy to see on foot or by taxi.

Sample the atmosphere - Most of the city is up by 6am, so this a great time for a wander. Pick up a steaming bowl of Pho, the traditional noodle soup breakfast, from any popular street-side stall.

Ben Thanh market - Although ‘touristy’, most definitely an authentic Vietnam market experience.

City Center -, the streets of Le Loi and Dong Khoi are lined with souvenir shops, art galleries and fashion boutiques.

See the Notre-Dame Cathedral, a replica of the Parisian original, set in a picturesque square in the heart of the city.

The municipal Post Office, directly adjacent to the church and a tourist attraction in its own right, constructed by the French a hundred years ago in the Gothic style.

Reunification Palace, a place with much historic significance being the site of the 1975 hand over of power of Southern Vietnam. War rooms in the basement remain untouched with interesting maps pinned on the walls and a network of offices still furnished with equipment.

Best of the Rest

For those wishing to dig a little deeper, there is much than museums and architecture. The city’s Chinese area, known as ‘Cholon’, is a popular half day trip. Sitting in the east of the city, it is resplendent with traditional Chinese trading shops, markets and most of all, temples. The city offers a number of worthwhile museums, the most notorious of which being the War Remnants Museum – not for those with a weak conscience. Others include the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City (Ly Ty Trong), the Fine Arts Museum (very near Ben Thanh Market) and the beautifully situated Museum of Ho Chi Minh, on the banks of the Saigon River.

Hidden Gems

Saigon is a city of hidden gems, the narrow alleyways that make up a maze of urban dwellings, small shops and restaurants are worth exploring on foot, getting off the main thoroughfares.

In a city of such noise and traffic, a green oasis is much sought after – and the residents of HCMC take pride in their parks. One of the best is named ‘Gia Dinh’, a 10 minute ride from the airport. Huge trees, immaculate flower beds and romantic walkways make this one of the best parks in the city. The botanical gardens (also home to Saigon Zoo) is another interesting stroll and a retreat from the heat under various tropical foliage.


The backpacker’s quarter is known by the name of one of its streets, Pham Ngu Lao, but is spread out over the surrounding streets as well. It is home to a vast collection of budget guesthouses and a handful of midrange hotels. Prices here start from $10 per night or less for a single room with a fan, increasing up to $40 per night. Rooms come in all shapes and sizes, and for those traveling with a family there are some real bargains to be had. Mid-range hotels in the area charge from $50-$100 per night and have some facilities available including breakfast.

The city center houses the bulk of the high end hotels, names such as Park Hyatt, Sheraton, Caravelle and InterContinental, as well as Saigon’s more famous colonial era hotels such as The Grand and The Majestic. Prices here starting from $100 at the low end and $200 at the high end for a standard room.

Saigon at night

The city houses a wide variety of cuisine from street food to Spanish Tapas (try Pacharan on Hai Ba Trung), from fine dining to goat stew. Eating really depends on your budget and your desire. Most of the restaurants in the backpacker ghetto have a good combination of Vietnamese and Western items on the menu for a reasonable price - Try CafĂ© 333 on De Tham. The ‘best’ (most expensive) eateries are dotted around District 1.

Entertainment wise, there’s the always reliable and atmospheric Irish Bar, Sheridan’s, with live music every Friday night. Later in the evening, move on to Apolocopyse Now, the oldest and most notorious of Saigon’s nightclubs. For an ‘all-nighter’ you’re best heading back over the ‘The Pham’, the backpacker ghetto, where you’ll find plenty of hole-in-the-wall bars open till dawn.


Almost all shopping centers cater for tourists. The best places to look are in Tax Center (opposite the Rex Hotel, Nguyen Hue St) or Lucky Plaza (also Nguyen Hue). Le Loi street is also a mecca for tourists, popular items including T-Shirts, conical hats, hand carved wooden ornaments, laquerware and art. The art boutiques are plentiful and good value, and most will handle shipping for you as well. Look up and down Le Loi, Nguyen Hue and Dong Khoi streets.


Ho Chi Minh City has become increasingly accessible over the past ten years. Air Asia has daily flights to and from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpar, Jakarta and Phuket. Tiger Airways flies from Singapore and Perth, whilst JetStar pacific flies directly from Darwin, Australia. Vietnam Airways reaches Melbourne and Sydney. From Europe direct flights are available from Moscow, Paris and Frankfurt, otherwise a connection is needed. Vietnam airways also serves North American routes. The city airport is a 20-30 minute drive from the city center. Be careful especially when departing – the airport location is in the midst of the city’s traffic chaos, not a pretty site during rush hour. Two hour standstills are not unheard of.

Getting around the city is best done by taxi – plentiful and cheap. Stick with the reputable companies such as Mai Linh and Vinasun. Motorbike taxis or ‘xe om’ ply their trade on street corners. Expect to pay roughly 10,000 VND per Km (50 cents).

Mar 6, 2010

Bitexco Tower, Ho Chi Minh City

My passing interest in construction and development continues; I have been snapping the Bitexco Tower being built over the last months, and it is nearing completion.

August 10th 2009

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August 29th 2009

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September 19th 2009

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November 14th 2009

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March 5th 2010

Bitexco Tower HCMC

Bitexco Tower HCMC

Bitexco Tower HCMC

Two fellow Saigon Raiders are working on this project, one being the manger of the entire thing. There is a helipad going on the 54th floor (I think 54) scheduled for April. It has been built and assembled in Korea, will be dissembled and shipped before being reassembled piece by piece as it is constructed from the side of the building.

Although it isn't the Abraj Al Bait, but it is already dominating the HCMC skyline!