About 6 weeks ago (I can't remember exactly when) I changed my facebook status to something like 'is there a more boring city than Saigon?!?!'. At that time I was unhappy with my work and feeling pretty negative towards life in Vietnam. However, as they say, time is a great healer and after a month my attitude has almost turned full circle and spending the foreseeable future here may not be completely out of the question or such a daunting prospect. Perhaps the title of this posting might be misleading, but I've been surprised how one aspect of my life changing has lead to me gaining a completely outlook on life here, and many of the things that I found boring before are leaving me a great sense of enjoyment and satisfaction!
This weekend has been a lot of fun! First, for those of you not familiar with the concept, karaoke in the East isn't the same as the embarrassing, drunken, attention seeking as 'Karaoke Night' at home. In fact, Karaoke in this part of the world is an essential part of any party. Here, people love to sing. I'm not sure why, but very few lads and ladies are embarrassed or nervous when it comes to performing in front of their friends. Maybe this is because there are specific Karaoke buildings with private rooms for one to prove they don't have the voice of an angel. These rooms can accommodate 20 people comfortably (probably more but you wouldn't want more) and you can sing, eat and drink your heart away! The more liquid lubrication you get, the better the night becomes! And on top of that, most Koreans and Vietnamese can sing pretty well! It might be because there songs generally don't use the same range that many English songs do, but I can't help but be impressed by them - especially after I humiliate myself trying to sing epics which are way out of my modest talent and capability.
Bars / Pubs / Street Drinking
Ok, there's a slight alcohol bias so far, but bare with me. After Karaoke on Friday, I headed to a pretty western style pub. On my arrival I was greeted to a rather depressing cricket score (I don't want to give the Aussies any satisfaction by stating the score) but nevertheless I enjoyed a few beers with my colleagues to celebrate the end of exams. It's was nice to let off a bit of steam after a challenging week of meeting deadlines, moderating and just the logistics of exams. It was my first time round, but I think I settled into my new role of marker and invigilator without too many problems so I could have a beer knowing that my mission was accomplished! It was also nice to talk to some people who actually knew something about cricket as most of my conversations recently have been trying to explain the rules of my beloved sport to the uneducated!
In VN, there are 3 types of places that you will find to relieve stress and unwind. First, there are western style bars. These are very much like home. The prices are also similar to home, which is a little annoying but they are usually very clean, comfortable and have several largish TVs which will generally be showing some 2nd rate movies on HBO or sport. (As a sports lover, I always hope it's the later!) The second venue can be found on the street. Street drinking, unlike the UK where I think it's illegal, is an important part of life in Vietnam. When you think of street drinking, you probably think of a rowdy bunch of teens, walking along the street, swigging a can of Stella. And that's what you'd find at home. However, here it involves sitting on ridiculously small and uncomfortable chairs, with an equally ridiculously low table. If you're lucky, the table might be covered by canopy of sorts. It may sound like your idea of luxury, but it does have its charms! The service is usually very good and fast. The food is always of a decent quality and the beer is drinkable unlike 'Cass' and 'Hite' in Korea. It's always a very social occasion and if you're lucky you'll see a couple of drunken man doing 20 paces at dawn. The third common water holes are restaurant/bars. I'm never totally sure what they're supposed to be. They always have an extensive menu which contains food from America to Europe to all parts of Asia but the establishments tend to attract people who want to have 5 or 6 beers. Again, the food is usually pretty tasty and the atmosphere is generally less rowdy than the street places.
Bowling / Cinema / Random Fun
I don't usually like hanging around arcades with stupid 'Shoot 'em up' video games, but completely unexpectedly I found myself at one on Saturday. And it was great fun! As it was my fiancee's birthday, I decided to take her to the cinema (among other things) to get out of the house. We went to a shopping centre that I believe to be the nicest in the city. While we were waiting for the film to start, we thought we'd waste some money playing some mindless, but entertaining games! To my amazement, it costs 70p for 10 plays! Bargain! It was nice being there with someone who hasn't been exposed to these places too often before as her face lit up and it rubbed off on me. We played 'Street Basketball' and she surprised me with how good she was at shooting hoops. In fact, we liked that game so much we must have played it about 7 times! Other highlights were the whacking 'strength test' where you bash a metal thing with a mallet and the time old favourite, air hockey! In the nearby vacinity, there is also a pool hall, screen golf and 10 pin bowling so it's a fun time every so often! It's also alcohol free fun - well if you want it to be!
Driving around the City
Or 'vong vong' as the natives would call it! This involves getting on your motorbike and just driving around. Ok, usually I hate driving around the city. There are too many bikes, with too many boy racers, Sunday drivers and rickshaws to avoid. The pollution and fumes at times are also intolerable. However, the other day when I was showing a new friend around the city we had an adventure. I have to tell you, it was really terrifying, fun, enlightening, educational and heart wretching all at the same time as you see how the poorest and most affluent of people live. The roads also went from skinny dirt tracks to rickity old bridges to nicely tarmacked and smooth roads. The houses from luxurious 2 bedroom apartments overlooking the river to nothing more than some bricks with a corrigated iron roof that is in danger of (and presumably not for the first time) being flooded by the same stretch of water. I will tell you more about this particular trip at another time when I have pictures which will start to pay some justice to the tale! Usually 'vong vong' just involves driving around the various parks and landmarks of the city. Most of the time, people occasionally stop to have a chat, grab a bite or go for a coffee before continuing on their merry way around the city.
Running and football
To my amazement, I received an email today about an organised 5km run! It's the first I've heard about and I must say that I'm really excited about it! I hope that if this one is a success that they will organise more runs in the future which will give me something to look forward to! Also, although there's little in the way of organised football, one of my students introduced me to his friends and the little league that they've organised themselves. I played with them for the first time yesterday and I ache in areas that I didn't realise were part of the footy process, but such is life! I was just nice to stretch my legs. We played on artificial pitches, of pretty decent quality, and the standard of play was also good!
So all in all I've had a complete change of heart. It all stems from being much happier in my work and now having a schedule that allows me to plan around it. I now run about 3 times a week with the option of also playing football on Sunday evenings! If my housemates and I are bored, we can go bowling, to play screen golf or go street drinking. On reflection, HCMC isn't so bad...