Tuesday, November 9, 2010

EFL Teaching - tips

Anyone who was been reading this blog for a while, while know that I got into English teaching through my good friend James Hendicott. Since we were teaching English together in Korea, he has been a successful travel writer and has written many articles for countless publications. I was lucky enough to be interviewed by him for an article about English teaching for a popular travel website - Travbuddy. Not only can you learn valuable information about any country that you are thinking of traveling to, but there are interesting travel articles for general information. Visit www.travbuddy.com/blog.

Here are some things I think you should consider if you are contemplating teaching English in Asia.

How do you get into English teaching? What qualifications do you need?

I got into teaching because a close friend of mine was already teaching in Korea. He was writing a blog about his experiences and I was jealous of him. I spoke with him about the possibility of coming over and joining him as I found my job in finance dull and tedious. After that, he gave me the contact details of the company he was working for and I emailed the HR department and after sending them my CV, application and passing the phone interview I was offered a job.

In terms of Qualifications, I just needed a BA Degree (in any subject). However, the EFL market is now much more competitive, even in the 3 years I've been teaching. Now, most schools require you to have an English teaching qualification such as TESOL or CELTA. For many countries in Asia, they require you to have a BA degree to get a work VISA but I'm not sure about Europe or South America. Other qualifications vary from school to school.

What are the best and worst sides of the lifestyle that it brings?

The worst side is usually the working hours. Most EFL jobs in Asia require you to work very odd shifts. For instance, in Korea, if you work for a privately run school for adults, you will generally have class before people start work (6-8am), during their lunch breaks (noon-1pm) and after they finish work (6-10pm). These splits can be difficult to deal with as burning the candle at both ends isn't the easiest thing to do over a prolonged period of time. In Vietnam a lot of jobs require you to work 6 days a week. This makes traveling difficult as you don't usually get 2 days off in a row. Of course some jobs have really good schedules and give you the weekends off, but in my experience the minority of people enjoy that here.

Any tips for those looking to get into the job?

The most important thing you should do is think about whether you have the ideal personality for the job. You must be flexible in terms of the hours that you hours that you work, patient when explaining language to students as they often don't understand things that you perceive to do really easy and be willing to embrace a new culture.

How much time do you have to travel?

There isn't really a lot of time to travel. People tend to think that we just work for a couple of hours and then have endless amounts of free time to explore, but this isn't the case. In Asia, companies don't allow you to take so much holiday time (maybe 10 days a year would be standard) and with working 6 days a week, it's difficult to travel. However, rather than visiting many different places, I've really managed to learn an awful lot about the cultures I've been exposed to. I lived in Seoul for 1 year and I've now been in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for 2 years and I think I've learned so much about the food, the life style, relationships and social etiquette that I would never have been able to do if I was only here for a week! After a year, the city you are in really starts to feel like home and you consider yourself a local which is much better than just passing through a place.

What advice would you give a first time teacher?

Two things that I've found useful, though not everyone would agree with me, is to be honest with your students and to lose your inhibitions in the classroom. Firstly, if you're not sure on a grammar point or spelling, check it or take a note of it and tell them in the next class. I don't believe it makes you lose face, and I think you gain respect for it. Obviously you shouldn't do this too often, but English grammar is very complex so don't be ashamed if you don't know the difference between how we use 'while' or 'during'. Secondly, don't be scared to make a fool of yourself in front of your students. When I explain new vocabulary, I'll often mime or fall dramatically to the floor to show the meaning of new words. It will make them laugh and they are probably more likely to remember it! Other than that, when you start, careful planning is a must and try to predict problems that the students might have are. The best way to do this is ask teachers who have been in that country for some time as typical problems vary from country to country.

Tell us about your best and worst moments on the job since you started...

My best moments have been in the relationships I've built with my students. I've always taught adults and I now have friendships that are incredibly strong. Some schools may disallow this, but I often go for dinner or class parties (usually ending up at karaoke bars) and these are the memories that stand out the most for me. Other than that, just helping students to achieve a goal is an incredible feeling. Take this, I recently received an email from a former student telling me they had been accepted onto an MBA programme in the US and they thanked me for my help in their interview preparation. You can really make a difference to someone's future with study, promotion or just developing their confidence when speaking to foreigners.

My worst moment was in first ever class. In walked in all prepared, and stood in front of the class (a group of 7 business students). Unfortunately I lost the ability to speak! I felt like a deer caught in headlights. I just stood there. I looked at my notes, and spoke so quickly that the students couldn't understand me. After 2 minutes, I excused myself and gathered my thoughts. I tried to find my manager but he'd gone home so I went back into the class. Then the students said 'Mark, are you ok?'. 'No, this is my first class, and I don't know what I'm doing' I blurted out. After that they just laughed, told me to relax and we chatted for half an hour about their reasons for studying and why I had come to Korea. Then, with confidence restored, I taught the remainder of the class. At its conclusion, the students told me they'd had a good time and they all came back the next time without complaining or mentioning the incident to my manager!

Do you suffer and difficulties resulting from working in a different culture to your own? How do you deal with them?

Cultural differences manifest themselves in many ways. One of the biggest problems I've faced have been from pet hates of mine. For example, I'm currently teaching in Vietnam where people don't queue. It's survival of the fittest and you just push your way to the front. I really dislike this and it annoys me more than I think it should! Another one is that Vietnamese time is about 30 minutes later than ours. When I arrive to meet people for a beer or coffee at 6, I expect them to arrive at 6:05 by the latest but in VN, you'll often be waiting 20 minutes for them to proudly announce they're on time! It's a touch irritating at times but you just learn to live with it. Other problems include things you miss from home. In particular, I miss good English Tea and desserts which are extremely difficult to find here. The only way around it is to either substitute the things you miss with the next best alternative, or just over indulge it your cravings when you find them!

However, I think the biggest problems can come in terms of relationships. If you end up falling in love overseas, especially in Asia, you need to be careful of different expectations and the nature of family. For example, relationships are expected to end in marriage. There's not so much of 'let's see where it goes'. Also, what the parents say goes. If the parents don't like you, then it's likely your new girlfriend will finish with you. This could be anytime in the relationship. Of course, this would be very difficult to deal with so stay cautious.

There's no magic button or solution to cultural problems though. You just learn to accept them and adapt to them. This is why having the right personal qualities is really necessary. If you can't adapt to your environment you'll have a miserable time. If you're worried about it, I'd suggest start teaching somewhere closer to home, in a culture more similar to your own. If you can successfully adapt then try moving further afield. Just come with an open mind, remember you need to adapt to your surroundings, not the other way round!

What kind of cultural insight can you get from teaching?

A lot! The answers students give you are incredibly honest! This is probably because their language often isn't good enough to be more diplomatic and they are just trying to get their point across. A good illustration is when I asked a student to describe me and they said 'short and fat'. Nice! You just have to laugh and not take it personally. Other things you learn are what it's acceptable to ask people on a first meeting. For example, in Korea, many students would say 'Are you married?' and when you reply 'No, they say 'Why?'. Now, this wouldn't be acceptable in the UK as it breaks social rules but you quickly learn that there are not many questions you won't be asked from your relationship status to your salary. You also learn about interaction between people. For example, if there is a class with a manager and employee, you quickly learn that the manager (or student in the more senior position) will dominate and the employee will wait to speak until his/her manger has finished. Of course there are many things you can learn but these stand out to me.

If a traveler would like to become an English teacher, how would you suggest they go about it?

I suggest speaking to someone who is already teaching in the country your thinking of going to. They will be able to tell you about their experience and what qualifications (if any) you need to get a decent job there. I would recommend doing CELTA or an equivalent to gain some experience and to open doors. Also, if you have friends who are teaching, ask them if you can go to one of their classes to see what they do. You can gain a valuable insight into their methodologies and rapport with their students. For me, taking my first job where a close friend was working made the settling in process much quicker and I felt more comfortable than I would have otherwise!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

5 Rules of driving in Vietnam

Being someone who enjoys driving anything and everything that has wheels, it was only a month before I bought a bike when I came to Vietnam. For those of you thinking of coming here to live, the motorbike is the only way to travel! It's much faster than a taxi on most occasions and isn't actually as dangerous as you might think. Here are my top 5 tips for driving in Saigon!
1) Green lights don't mean shit!

The basic principles of traffic lights in VN are: Green means GO. Yellow means GO AS FAST AS YOU CAN AND PRETEND IT WON'T TURN RED. Red means GO, HONK YOUR HORN and HOPE THAT NOTHING HITS YOU. Okay, may be I'm being a little unfair. On most major roads and junctions the laws of the lights are observed. However, on other roads the lights may as well not be there. Those running the red light honk for all they're worth, alerting people to the fact that they are there. Contrary to England, honking means that you're there and don't hit me! In England honking is usually the action of the innocent party, not the one breaking the law. Anyways, be careful when you approach traffic lights. Just because the light is green doesn't mean that traffic perpendicular to you is stationary or is indeed going to stop.

2) Don't follow directly behind the bike in front of you


This is common sense really. If you are directly behind someone, how can you see? The answer is you can't! Therefore you should drive slightly to the left or right to the person in front of you. This will, of course, improve your visibility but also allow you to see any potholes, uncovered manholes or roadkill on the road. I put a hole in the oil tank of my bike when I went over a raised manhole because I was directly following another bike, he swerved to avoid it and I didn't have enough time to react. Furthermore, if it's raining you really don't want the spray coming into your eyes. For one, the roads aren't exactly clean, and obviously is quite dangerous!


3) One way streets aren't really one way

Expect traffic to come in both directions on your side of the road, especially if you are driving curbside. As previously mentioned, those traveling in the opposite direction to the flow of traffic will be honking, but again, that's just to tell you they are there. The basic principle here is 'so long as I get to where I want to as quickly as possible, other people's safety doesn't matter. Therefore, if I have to go the wrong way down the street, so be it!' It isn't only young boy racers who this, it's everyone to grandmas to parent's who decide having an entire family on a 125cc scooter is a good idea! Sometimes driving in this city feels like one of those handheld games machines that where popular in the early 90s where you where dodging traffic coming in the opposite direction!

4) Indicators can't be trusted!


Blinking yellow lights should be suspiciously treated at all times! Indicators generally mean that the vehicle in front is going to do something, but exactly what you can't be sure. A signal could mean that the bike is going to stop, turn left or right, or might simply be someone forgetting to turn it off after previously turning. Also, non indication doesn't mean that the transportation in front of you is going to stay straight either so you need to keep your wits about you at ALL times! Expect the unexpected! Watch the traffic carefully and be ready, waiting and willing to take evasive action at any time!


5) Don't worry about what's going on behind you

One of the only rules I hold to steadfastly is that of not worrying too much about what's going on behind me. The mirrors on the vehicles are nothing more than an instrument to check ones makeup or pimples! On the motorbikes they are generally to small to see anything out of anyway, and they are missing from most cars in previous collisions. If something is traveling very quickly it will generally be honking frantically to let you know its coming. You can generally tell the different between the size of the vehicles by the pitch, depth and duration of the sound! Turning around for a second means you might miss someone circumstances changing in front of you so you just have to trust your ears for what's behind you, and your eyes for what's in front!

If you follow these core concepts in HCMC, you should have few problems negotiating the roads of Saigon! Happy Driving!!!!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Our First Wedding Anniversary

If you were expecting a peaceful dinner with a few of our closest friends, then you would've been thinking the same as I was at 5:45pm 9 days ago when I was driving to a respectable party hotpot party venue in district 3. However, 2 hours later we were wondering what we'd just walked into. Fortunately it didn't end in tears or shattered relationships, but things were certainly dicey, but all in good time my friends.

It had all started so promisingly. Hanh and I arrived at about 6, knowing full well that our guests would be at least 30 minutes late to arrive. We sat down, ordered a couple of pepsis (we wanted to have something to eat before tucking into Saigon Redd) and waited for our invitees to arrive. We weren't sure how many people would show up as I have a horrible habit of not keeping tabs on exactly who I'd spoken too. After an hour, most of our guests had arrived, we'd started on a few beers and the food was being ordered and promptly demolished by hungry bellies!


So what happened next? Well, the hotpots arrived, which was the beginning of the end at this particular venue. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that someone (obviously after a few Saigon Reds too many) was having an increasingly heated argument with one of the staff. This quickly escalated into a full on brawl. Now for those of you not used to Vietnamese style drunken 'bar room' brawls take note. It makes England seem positively tame! Please bare in mind that non of our party where involved in anyway in the resulting melee.

Before we knew it, our table was overturned, the staff had run into the back to pick up table legs and chairs as weapons, glass bottles were taken from our table and things kicked off. Now, we have no idea what triggered the incident in the first place, but what ensued wasn't pleasant and will stay in my memory for a long time. The drunk guy who I will label as the instigator, wasn't alone and had a few friends. The two lines drew up against each other and some over exuberant thug threw the first punch.

From then on it's a blur. Glass bottles were smashed and thrown, chairs and table legs wrapped around people's heads and terrified customers running into the back, ducking and running for cover. Unfortunately, there was no where really safe to run. Inside the 'restaurant' was safe as the staff were as much to blame for the violence as anyone else and glass bottles were being launched inside. Running outside wasn't really an option either as you'd have had to go through the fight to get outside. So we just had to wait it out, hope things died down quickly and pray that one got hurt.

Fortunately, things died down relatively quickly. I have no idea how long things lasted for or why/how they came to such an abrupt end. We were lucky that no one got hurt and amazingly, sauf a few bloodied faces, no one seemed to be seriously wounded or injured during the battle royal. Needless to say the wreckage and debris was alarming and wasn't really fitting of the evening we had envisaged. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures to show you. However, it didn't finish without a couple of notes of comedy. Firstly, one of my friends Vo, casually walked to the only upright table at the end of the brawl, sat down and continued to eat. Additionally, another said to me that we should leave immediately without paying. I completely agreed with the first part of this statement but after seeing the staff so armed and ready to use such implements I wasn't willing to take any chances, so I got the bill, paid and we went to karaoke.


Karaoke is where I think we'll try to remember the party from. Following the conclusion of the meal, several of our guest had decided to call it a night. I can't say I blame them either. I was a real shame as the party had only really just got going. We had 3 groups of people who didn't know each other so it started a little slowly but by the time the fight had broken out, the ice had just about been broken which made the interlude even more upsetting. Anyhows, we arrived at karaoke and quickly got into the swing of things. I sang Elton John's 'can you feel the love', we ordered a crate of beers and some food and away we went!


A good time was had by all after that. Lots of 'Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo!' (1,2,3 Cheers), '100%!' and '50%' toasts were made. The singing varied in quality from the terrible to the vaguely audible but no one seemed to care about that! Obviously the more drunk we became, the more ambitious we would become in our song selection, just at the time when we should've realised we were not professional performers after all! Finally, common in all karaoke sessions, the dancing came out and we knew the party had been a success!

After Karaoke, we moved to district one. A few brave soldiers decided we'd have a few more at a bar and Vietnamese nightclub. It was fun and relaxed which was a fitting end to a night full of drama! I'm sure it's one we'll never forget, I've got this blog entry to make sure of that and I hope that next year will be just as eventful, but obviously in a less violent way! Married (in the eyes of the family) for 1 year, 1 week and 1 day, who'd of thought!!!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Movember - Are you man enough?

Right, let's do it! I've heard enough about it and the time has come! Gentlemen, get your razors ready. Why?

What is Movember?

This is an annual month awareness drive to raise money for men's health. Participants are required to clean shave on November 1st and to grow a moustache for the remainder of the month. This 'mo' will be to us the ribbon many women wear in raising breast cancer awareness. The purpose of Movember is to raise awareness for prostate cancer, which is the number one cancer that affects men.

For more details go to www.movember.com

Calling all Saigoners

Now don't be nervous, shy or attempt this half hearted. I know I look ridiculous when I grow facial hair as it just looks like fluff! Don't be put off by the Mrs saying is feels horrible when you kiss her. And remember why we are doing this! As men, we don't often talk about our health, let alone go to the doctors/hospital when we know there's something wrong with us as we are afraid or too manly to seek professional medical advice. So let's raise awareness of health issues affecting us and grow a mo!

Therefore, I make this challenge to all men in Saigon: Grow a mo and gloat on a beer on Movember 30th after successfully growing a full on moustache! Who knows, you might even like it!

You will be able to follow my progress on here (Kinda my version of twitter!)! I will upload the first picture tomorrow on the commencement of my task, and every few days watch my face become increasingly unrecognisable!

Good luck one and all! Let's do it for men's health!!

Day 1 - It all begins Freshly shaven.....
Day 6 - And nothing much to report as of yet!
Day 11 - Some little rootlings of a mo have started to appear! - the joys and woes of having a baby face!

Day 17 - It's almost starting to look respectable

What's the point in Halloween?

Right now I'm sat in Ben Tre visiting the inlaws. I decided that this weekend would be a good time to visit because I didn't have any sports events organised and that I wanted to escape the mulitude of Halloween parties in HCMC.

I hate Halloween. I mean, I really don't get it! Surely it's a case of globalisation gone wrong! Why do we need to celebrate supernatural nonsense that has no bearings on reality? Endless horror movie marathons on HBO and Star movies from the 1st of October started to lose their appeal midway through the first week when I realised just how bad most of the movies made to coincide with Oct 31st are truly awful, not scary and poorly acted. Moreover, the stupid Halloween specials that most TV shows are generally cringable with horrific plots and predictable storylines. Bar and pub owners decide to hang up Pumpkins and get their staff to dress up in costumes....original! But what do I really dislike so much about Halloween?


1) Teaching children to become beggars

Now, I feel sad and sorry for the countless homeless people around the world. Their circumstances vary significantly but generally they are desperate, hungry and battling for survival. These people need to beg for money.

Now, children, mostly coming from well off families, dress up in costumes as skeletons, witches, devils and zombies and knock on peoples doors begging for candies or money! Great, let's teach the future generations that they don't need to work hard in the future and they can just ask for anything they want! That's really smart.

To make matters worse, what's with the whole 'trick or treat?' thing! If you don't give us something you're mean and deserve to be punished? Adults supervising the children looking disapprovingly at those who don't give their offspring gifts. Quite pathetic if you ask me! Also, on the rare occasions where the 'trick' in implemented, it often causes a nuisance and inconvenience at the minimum, to those, who like me, don't believe in this nonsense 'holiday'. At worse, tricks lead to damaged property or injuries. Now, how can anybody condone this?

2) Grown adults spending hours pouring over fancy dress costumes


Dressing up is fun. I like doing it and yes, I'll trapse around markets and shops trying to find those small accessories so necessary to putting the icing on the cake of the outfit. However, why do it at Halloween? For one thing, the timing isn't exactly original. Prices will be inflated as they always are around public holidays. Everybody generally has the same ideas of dressing as Angels and Demons, Satan or Frankenstein. If you reflect on the parties you went to last night, how many people did you see as the afore mentioned? I'd wager a few.

Additionally, the countless conversations about what you'll come dressed as or being made to feel like you're 'odd' for not getting into it become a touch tedious. It's good to be excited and have something to look forward to, but I do feel that many do go overboard, spend a lot of money on something that they'll only wear once and the competitiveness of trying to have the best costume is quite amusing!

Anyways, my sour grapes moment has now passed. Sorry if I've offended anyone but I really don't get the whole Halloween thing and I certainly won't be attending any parties this weekend!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Things I hate about VN - Powercuts

Living in the U.K. for most of my life, I've been blessed that I could take having non-stop, 24 hour a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year electricity for granted. If I'm cold, I can turn up the heater, if my phone is out of batter, I plug the charger into the outlet and if I buy a months worth of frozen food, I can be sure that it won't thaw and go bad. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of Ho Chi Minh City.

Now, I'm not overly sure how the power works out here but from gossip and hearsay I've made out the following:

1) The power to the city is hydroelectric. (which is great as it saves the planet)
2) The reservoirs run dry at the end of the dry season. (this leaves insufficient supplies to generate enough power, which isn't so great)
3) The government (presumably) rations the power and allocates cuts to different districts of the city. (which is damned inconvenient)

So, what are the effects of this on my life. Well, we've been having powercuts on and off for about 3 months now, with the latest being yesterday for 5 hours. As you know, the South of Vietnam is pretty mild. In fact, I'm not sure if it ever falls below 24 degrees C. Therefore, especially when I'm sleeping (with a heavy head), the last thing I need to wake up in a pool of my own sweat. Thus, a potentially refreshing, nourishing nights sleep turns out to compound the destructive, dehydrative force of beer. Without beer I usually feel pretty bad when waking up after a powercut so with alcohol you can image the state of my head!

Furthermore, as the powercuts generally last for about 5 hours, food, in particular frozen foods, tend to become inedible, due to thawing or refreezing. It's inconvenient, costly and once caused me to have food poisoning as I once ate refrozen ice cream thinking that my iron stomach could handle it! As a consequence I rarely buy frozen foods as I can't be sure that we are not going to have a powercut.

Other results from Saigon's lack of power is the inability to iron my shirt and trousers before work, having to go to a coffee shop to use the internet and charging my phone as the outages invariably happen with I have low battery!

I guess I'm just used to living in developed countries where having constant, non-failing electricity so it's more of an inconvenience for me than it is for those who are used to it. However, I find it really annoying, especially as half the time they are unannounced. Hopefully in the not too distant future, we will have non-stop power, but for now, I just have to pray that they come on mornings when I wasn't drinking the night before, or when I've just stocked up my refrigerator. And for your information, both of these things happen last time!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Things I hate about VN - Queuing (or lack of)


It's been a while since I last posted, but life, lack of inspiration and various commitments have all left me sort of time to put my thoughts onto paper (or computer!) Now that I have a bit more time on my hands, I can catch up on my favourite theme of my blog, which is the downsides of living in Vietnam. For any first time readers, I don't hate living in VN, far from it. There are just various aspects of life that I would like to change given the opportunity, so please don't get offended or upset if any I say anything that seems a little harsh.

Being British, I love queuing. In fact, I'll join a queue even if I don't know what it's for! Queues make sense. If you arrive to pay for something first, you get served first. If someone is infront of you, you stand behind them patiently and wait your turn. You don't push in and if you do push in you expect to be chastised for it. In this system, everybody knows where they stand, and whilst some people can get frustrated and feel put out, they can't argue that it's unfair.

Now, I don't hold steadfastly to this rule. Sometimes I will let someone infront of me. For example, if I have a full trolley of shopping and the person behind me only has 1 item I will let them past. Why? Because I'm reasonable. However, in Vietnam, this doesn't happen. The only place I've really seen queuing (except at places where foreigners frequent) is at the international airport, and even then the locals seem to resent it.

So what happens here? Chaos. Survival of the fittest or pushiest. I hate shopping here or doing anything that involves waiting in line. This extends to waiting to get into a car park to park my motorbike, buying vegetables at the supermarket and paying for utility bills.

Let me give you some examples. When buying carrots at Lotte Mart (my favourite store), I waited patiently behind a young mother. At the supermarket you bag up your veggies and price them in the produce department in contrast to weighing them at the counter in England. She was buying tomatoes, peppers and onions. By the time she had finished, I'd been relegated to 4th in the line. I wasn't quite sure how that happened! I politely waited and never seemed to progress in the queue. Various people were coming and going, with me being the only person staying. In the end I gave up. No carrots for me.

Another time, I waiting to go in a bike park. Two lines had been formed in front of the 2 ticket attendants. Then some cowboy drives straight down the middle and pushes in near the front. Nobody seems surprised or angry. The next thing I know everybody breaks ranks and a melee ensues. Therefore the average time for everyone increased due to some impatient and ignorant youngsters.

It just annoys me and makes me angry. Now I exclusively shop at places that I know there is a queuing system. No one can possibly argue that it's not the best method to promote fairness and equality. It's just common decency. Surely?!?!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A tribute to sweet food

Now, who can deny the wondrous power of sugar? Who can tell me that you can have a perfectly good meal without it? Well, after reading this, if you can successfully argue against me, I'll buy you a custard donut! Whilst this is meant in jest, and there's a history of diabetes later in life in my family, I love all sweet food and can't bare to imagine a day when I'm not allowed to tuck into a sugary treat! When I feel low, I eat ice cream or cake. If I have no energy and feel tired on a night out, there's Jagerbombs. When the I get hit with a cold, sweet tea soon brings my spirits up! Therefore, let me tell you about my life long addiction to sugar, in all its glorious forms.

I can't pinpoint when my love affair started, you'd have to ask my mum about this. And if she's reading, if she could offer any insight I'd greatly appreciate it. My earliest memories are of frequent trips to the cake shop which was about a 2 minute walk from the flat we used to live in. I recall that Belgium buns were a particular favourite of mine. Whether it was sickly icing or the glacier cherry on top I can't work out, but my mouth is watering right now just thinking about them! Now, at this time my mum was a prolific baker (okay, perhaps I'm bending the truth a little but it was a while back so I can't clearly remember) and sweets were her specialty with biscuits, scones and buns with jam in the middle coming fresh out the oven most frequently!

Following this early induction into the world of cake, I discovered tea. Now, whilst tea is a touch on the bitter side, biscuits soon sorted that problem out! Custard creams, digestives, bourbons, short bread and chocolate hobnobs to name but a few! Early memories involve me dipping digestives into my tea for a fraction too long, and having to scoop out the debris with a spoon. However, custard creams will always be my favourite, and I happily eat a packet at a time, similarly to how others eat crisps!
The next phase in the sweet food relationship started when I started earning as I could start to regularly visit Monica's Patisserie. Now, if you worked there, you probably hate cakes in all their variety, but for an indulger, it was like heaven. Cream cakes, pastries, cookies and buns in all shapes and sizes. In sixth form (grade 12 and 13 for those not in the know) I took daily visits to the cake shop and would often eat 3 cakes for lunch (this may explain my belly) with caramel chocolate shortbread and paradise slices being my favourites.

These of course would be washed down with sugary goodness in carbonated drinks and hot chocolate! And sod's law being as it is, I have never had any fillings or problems with my teeth!!



Afterthoughts

Other desserts that tickle my taste buds are trifle, apple pie/crumble and custard, cheesecake, banoffee pie, pancakes, Christmas and wedding cakes to name but a few. However, what meal is complete without sugary goodness? Curry goes hand in hand with peshwari naan bread, a Sunday roast needs pudding and custard, afternoon supper requires biscuits and a bacon sandwich in the morning comes with a tea and 2 sugars. Now, I'm off to put the kettle on and have some banana bread.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Things I hate about VN - Footpaths

The UK

Sidewalks, pavements, footpaths or whatever you like to call them, should have one thing in common. Namely, that it's safe for those traveling by foot, pedestrians to you and I, to walk on them. In England, almost every road has an accompanying pavement. Here I can walk to my friend's house, local corner shop or to the train station with my music at full volume not having to worry about motorised vehicles. Sure there is the odd skateboard, bicycle and buggy to worry about but they are hardly life threatening.

Vietnam

In Vietnam things are a little different and, as a result, I seldom walk anywhere now due to the lack of footpaths, their terrible quality and the sheer fact they are seen as merely an extension of the road!

To start, most major roads have a sidewalk of some description. However, they are mainly narrow and full of obstacles. Perhaps these are to make traveling on foot more exciting but it's just annoying. Firstly, motorbikes are generally parked in front of the stores. Due to the tiny nature of the pavements, pedestrians are forced onto the roads which are generally teeming with traffic. Secondly, food or drink outlets often litter the side of the road so the unsuspecting walker has to shalom in and out of plastic chairs and stools to avoid playing 'chicken' with the motorbikes. Finally, the paths are generally seen as an after thought. No real consideration is taken for pedestrians. Most people in VN travel by motorbike. Whether this is to avoid prolonged periods in the heat, habit or fear of walking I'm not sure. But what I do know is that the sidewalks are not designed to be walked on. They aren't smooth so people regularly stumble, the drains are largely exposed so vermin can be seen everywhere and the poor drainage system means any period of rain deems them useless.

However, most annoyingly, motorbikes can often be seen mounting the curb to use the pavements as a shortcut! I'm not sure if it's illegal but it's mighty dangerous. The thing is, it's not just young boyracers, it's full families on one bike, old women and delivery guys. In short, everyone's at it! If you're walking, you're beeped at for getting in the way! They don't even slow down. You would think that some consideration would be shown for pedestrians as presumably they know what they're doing is probably illegal, but also really dangerous! But alas, this moral conscious is often lacking as people just want to get to one place to another as quickly as possible.

Maybe I'm being a little unfair, but I used to love walking from place to place. Plugging in my iPod and going for a run around town was a past pleasure of mine. To do that here I have to take a significant risk as footpaths, the home of human powered transport, is merely an extension of road in VN. Please Saigon, keep the pavements the home of pedestrians!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Golf Weekend in Mui Ne

Last weekend, a group of 8 lads descended upon the unsuspecting town of Phan Thiet. Our mission was to complete 27 holes of golf, have giggles and maybe sink one or two beers. So, how did it all go?

The bus journey there

At 5:30 on Friday, Danny and I finished work, filed our paperwork and left for Phu My Hung. I parked up my motorbike and we joined the rest of the lads who were waiting for us at a cafe/bar. At 6:30 our mini bus arrived, we collected 8 pizzas and I went to the off-license and emptied their beer fridge for the journey. We were all set to go!

The bus was ample size, surprising as most of my experiences in Vietnamese transport has been cramped, uncomfortable and claustrophobic. In addition, the driver was ace. He overtook at any given opportunity, and not in a scary way as is customary here. At one point I think he even outdid a Porsche Carrera, although I could be wrong as my knowledge of cars is pretty minimal.

However, the highlight was the company. I don't think I've ever laughed so hard. Everyone, some more than others, was the butt of one or two jokes and I think the only time there was silence was when we were eating! Some other points worth mentioning were DJ Jobe's tunes which entertained us in the second half of the trip and the frequency of 'pit stops' for those with weaker bladders who shall remain nameless for now! To quote Danny, 'He's no camel!'

The golf

I don't really care too much for golf. It's long, frustrating and to top it off, I'm just no good at it! I try to play it with a cricket stance and swing and I don't hard the ball very far. Add this to the fact I was playing with 6 relatively competent golfer meant my patience would be severely tested due to my competitive nature. How long would I hold out? 8 holes to be precise.

It all started so well. I got up early enough for breakfast and filled my face with a 4 course breakfast. I had an English breakfast followed by Coco pops! Next came the fruit course proceeded by pastries. Needless to say I had as much tea as they would serve me and I was good to go. I wondered down to the range with Carl and Kevin and hit a few balls. On the previous Wednesday we had gone down to the driving range and I had hit the ball pretty sweetly so I was a touch concerned when I could barely lift the ball from the mat! Regardless, after hitting about 20 balls, I made my way to the first tee.

The first 4 holes

Before I start talking about the golf, the course is stunning. Ocean Dunes is by far the most picturesque place I've ever played golf at. It's a challenging course offering plenty of opportunities to lose balls. As commented by Dan Malone 'we took those opportunities'. I've posted a few pictures throughout this entry, partly to stop you getting too bored of my musings, but also to wet any golf lovers appetites who think this might be up their street. Yes Dad, I'm talking to you!

The first four went so well. I hit a few crappy shots, but on the 3rd and 4th I scored boogies which I was really happy with. I played a few good shots off the tee, so irons went a reasonable distance and my chipping when putting me within range of holeable putts. Feeling pretty happy with myself, I sat down at the drinks stop think that this golf malarkey isn't that hard and that I was going to enjoy the next few hours....

Toys out the pram time

The fifth is where it went downhill. It was my honour off the tee for the 2nd time and until then I'd hit my tee shots pretty cleanly, but more importantly accurately down the fairway. 3 iron out of the bag, swing, water on the right. Opps. After Kevin and Carl had followed suit, it was up to Danny to save us the embarrassment of all four of us hitting the water hazard. He swung and immediately it looked great. It was going along way....in the air and dangerously close to the water. After an eternity....plop!

So, I decided to take another tee shot and put it back in the water. Bugger. But at this point I hadn't lost my cool. It was just one bad tee shot and I'd soon snap out of it. However, after taking a drop onto the fairway, I found the water again! 3 times in 3 shots! I couldn't believe it. I think this was the first time I uttered 'I hate this f***ing sport!'. Anyhows, damaged done I took a gentleman's 10 and moved onto the sixth. The tee shot barely left the ground and traveled about 10 yards into the fresh sand/soil in front of me. Hmmm. Taking more shots to get onto the fairway I could feel my blood pressure starting to rise. However, I played out the remainder of the hole hitting some decent shots.

By this point my partners had shaken off their hangovers and rustiness and had started hitting big drives, crisp irons and some decent chips. This added to my woes got at me a bit as I hate being that much worse than other people at sports. So at the 7th and 8th when I messed up off the tee again the toys come out. Once on the fairway I took the putter out of the bag, pushed the ball about 50 yards down the carpet, picked up the ball and threw it in the lake. Game over.

As we had hired clubs, I was getting more down on myself and I wanted to wrap my clubs around a tree I think I made the best call. Therefore I took on the role of photographer.

The back 9 and highlights

On the back 9 I made sure I took photos and videos of everyone playing. Fortunately I managed to take some decent footage and I'm pretty impressed with the quality considering my camera isn't particularly flashy. At this point the other pair had decide to follow Malone and Jobe's lead by hiring golf buggies. We already had caddies, but to speed up play (please consider the heat and humidity factor in VN) they thought 4 wheels would allow us to get more holes in. Some of the highlights of the golf were Danny's birdie at the 9th and Matt Cowan hitting a gorgeous approach into the 13th green after modestly telling me, on camera, that's exactly what he was going to do spring to mind but some cracking shots along with some average strokes were seen. Big Kevin won the 18 so congratulations to the big hitting American!

Texas Scramble

The 18 must have finished at about 2:30. By then I decided I wanted to play again. As we had unlimited golf for the day, I thought I should at least attempt the back 9. For those of you who don't know Texas Scramble (as I didn't) it works as follows. You play in a team. Each of you plays a shot from the same point. You choose the best ball and each of you plays from that point. Each person must hit a predetermined number of drives. I was paired was Big K for obvious reasons. We choose to play to back 9 again and each partner had to use at least 3 of their drives.

As the pressure was off my from the tee, I played much better. I hit some decent tee shots, reasonable approaches but the best aspect of my game was my touch around the greens. I can't hit the ball a long way, but I have a pretty decent judgement of pace and weight around the putting surface. Our partnership was probably the best fit of the 7 of us playing. Kevin can hit very long, allowing me the opportunity to attack the pin with my short game. This was nice as usually I don't get the chance to try to make par or birdies as my tee shots and irons aren't big enough. Therefore I had a lot of fun in this format. Kev and I hit 5 over for 9 and the other pair and trio hit very good back 9s, though I can't remember their tallies.

Off to Mui Ne

At about 6 we had wrapped up the golf. The rain had set in and we were just thankful we could complete our game as on the 15th we could see ominous lightning strikes in the distance. After settling our finances, we went to Mui Ne to find our accommodation, have a shower and get changed from our rather smelly golfing attire! From the hotel we went to the Sailing Club to enjoy some of the best food I've had in VN. It comes a very close
second to Louisiana in Nha Trang. Then we went to see the best of Mui Ne's nightlife including Wax and DJ Station where Pete Harrold, the worlds best dressed non-golfing golfer owned the dance floor.

Home

The trip home was pretty uneventful. The traffic wasn't too bad but it still took us much longer getting back as it did getting there. The conversation had moments of brilliance but as most of us were shattered from the golf or hungover from the night before we were somewhat muted. I could go on for hours about what happened, but needless to say it was up there on the best weekends I've had in VN. A big thanks must go out to Big Carl Day for organising an event that I'm sure will live long in the memory!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Things I hate about VN - Paying utility bills


Most of the time Vietnam is a wonderful place to live, but some things get rather tiresome. Therefore, I'll be writing a series of entries about some of the negative or 'different' ways of doing things in this part of the world. And the first is paying utility bills.

In England, you generally receive your bill and are given a month or two to pay it. The companies allow you to set up a direct debit so that you don't have to physically give them cash so there isn't generally a problem with keeping up with payments (unless of course you're bank account is a little deflated.)

However, in VN, things work a little differently. I'll give paying for the internet as an example, but I've had identical experiences with the water, electricity and television.

Usually, a man comes around the apartment block some time during the day when both Hanh and I are at work. He knocks on the door, waits a few minutes, realises that no one is home and slides the bill under the door.

Next, I come home at about 6:00pm and put it on the speakers and wait for Hanh to return as I can't read Vietnamese. It usually says we have 2 days to pay it and we should come to one of their offices. The office is open Monday - Friday between 9-5. What's more, the bill usually arrives on Thursday or Friday and if we don't pay by the Monday we'll be cut off. Nice

Well, I know from experience in the UK, these threats are rarely carried but in VN they mean it. If we don't pay within the 2 days we are cut off. We've got through days of no TV (during the world cup), no power or internet. Half of the time it's because Hanh had no time to go into town to pay them. The other half is that we receive the bill AFTER the deadline. i.e. we get CUT OFF FIRST and then receive the bill. Whether this is because the bill collector just can't be bothered to deliver them or the company is understaffed isn't really the point, how can they justify this!

Additionally, we can't even set up a direct debit so we have to pay in cash. The bill collector comes when most people are working, so I'm sure a lot of people share similar problems! Also, I don't tend to carry too much cash around, so even if I am at home, I don't usually have enough money on me to pay.

One solution is that for the TV and Internet we can pay in advance. Hanh and I have completed our due payments for the these essentials but for the water and electric where the bills vary from month to month I'm at a lose of how to solve this conundrum.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

RMIT Sports Events

Recently I've started organising work sports events. They've all been pretty successful, particularly as we've had the involvement of people who wouldn't usually play sport at the weekend. Hopefully this marks the start of a sports culture at RMIT as we are lucky to have some very good facilities and we should make the most of them.

Cricket

Firstly, Dan and I put on a pairs cricket game one Sunday afternoon. Not many people in the office have had too much exposure to my favourite sport, but we thought it would be a good opportunity to introduce our game to everyone. Dan booked the pitch, organised beers and drummed up interest while I worked on the rules we would use and format of the day. Most of the people who signed up turned up on the day which was fantastic. Unfortunately I had made one side much stronger than the other so the game wasn't that close, but I think that everyone had a good time. More importantly, everybody got to bat and bowl so I don't think anybody felt left out. Encouragingly, a few people requested that we do it again, so hopefully, with more even sides, we'll give it another bash in a month or two after the culmination of the rainy season. Hopefully next time I'll get to play, but as we had an odd number of people and someone was needed to officiate, I umpired but enjoyed the ocassion nonetheless.

6 Aside Football World Cup

Secondly I helped booking pitches and referees for a pre-world cup 6 aside football tournament. Apparently the 4 team event was a success which was good. We had a whole load of non-footballers playing which mirrored the success of our cricket game. We had an English, Vietnamese, American and rest of the world team. Again, Dan organised the beer, Pete and John got the teams together and everyone else turned up on the day. I was in Nha Trang as I was injured and decided to see another part of Vietnam which you may have read about earlier. The Vietnamese team, comprising of the staff at RMIT, won the tournament. Apparently, typcially, the English took things very seriously and the other teams were a little more easy going. It was, we thought, a perfect pre-curser to the England v USA game that evening but obviously that game is best forgotten!

Pool Tournament

After plenty of bar talk, I eventually got round to booking 4 tables at a local pool hall. 15 people signed up but due to various incidents, only 9 took part on the day. This changed my initially planned 16 man knock out to 2 groups followed by a semi final and final. We asked the girls who worked in the hall to make the draw and a group of death and group of life emerged. Group 1 comprised of Me, Danny G, Carl and Dewa with the second being John W, Noel, Stephanie, Minh and Trent.

Group 1 was fairly one sided at the top. Dewa, a pool shark from Bali, won all his games only losing 1 frame in the process. Carl, Danny G and myself all defeated one another leading to a final frame shoot out between Carl and I as we had won more frames than Danny. Carl won as I potted the black in a game that was slipping out of my grasp.

Group 2 was more predictable. Noel and John were the favourites after the draw was made and they finished top of the pile. Some highlights of the group were Minh's defeat of John is the final group game and Stephanie taking a frame or 2 off Minh. John finished top of his group having won one more frame than the Irish merecat!

Semi Finals - Going into the semi-finals the favourite was Dewa. However, Noel gave him a good game. The final result was 4-3 to Dewa who rode his luck a bit to win. The other semi between John and Carl was 4-2 to Wheeler. Fitting, both group winners made it through to the final.

Final - Wheeler prevailed 4-2. It won't go down as a classic, but by that time a few beers had been consumed. The highlight of the final has got to be Dewa's clearance from the break, something I had never seen been achieved before. Anyway, congrats to John.

It was a fun day. Hopefully everybody will be able to play next time, but I must admit a preference to the roundrobin group format as everybody gets more than one game. Also, next time I hope not to be asked for rules when I'm playing as at times I was being asked questions when I was down on a shot!

Life's unanswered questions

How do they fill cash machines?

Now, I'm one of life's thinkers, but I can't for the life of me figure out when or how atms are filled. It all came to me a couple of months ago. You see, I was in Nha Trang and I needed some dong. I drove around the town and stopped off at a couple of Techcombank hole in the walls only to find them say 'Out of service - Sorry for any inconvenience'. Now, it's not like they have a lunch break or they need to relieve themselves so I couldn't figure out why there were out of service! And secondly, of course it was inconvenient, I needed money!!

Anyways, a little further a field and I eventually found an TCB atm. Before you say anything, it had to be Techcom as I get charged if I use another cash machine with my Visa card and I resent having to pay to access my own money. I'd much rather waste my time instead! Back to the story, I rocked up to the terminal and selected cash withdrawal. It read 'only 430,000 VND available'. In GBP that works out to be about 15 of the queen's finest. Needless to say I took all of it's remaining cash. I had forfilled a life times ambition to empty an ATM. But how and when would it be filled? And how will the bank be informed?


Ok, the final question is probably easy enough to answer. I'm sure there's a Techcom bank worker who drives around and checks them all every hour every day. He will then call the bank to tell TCB that there machine needs filling. Alternatively it could be done by computer ;-)

But how many of you have seen an ATM being refilled? I haven't. In 15 years (or however long it's been) I have never once seen a cash point having its insides replaced. So this leads me to the following conclusions:

1) Atms simply print new money. Ocassionally it gives old notes, but this is because it wants to trick us all.
2) There is a secret door (when it's in a wall) behind it and a man comes in when nobody is looking to restore it to its former glory.
3) Somehow there's a magic trap door underneath it. Secret passages can be found underneath them and they are filled from underground.

If anybody knows the answer to this conundrum, please let me know!

Driving to Ben Tre

When embarking on the 2 hour mission to Ben Tre yesterday, I thought about the potential risks involved in driving a motorbike on the roads of Vietnam. Due to the engine size of my Suzuki, speed certainly isn't one of them, but there are multiple dangers on the roads here. So, let me talk you through them.

Pot Holes

Vietnam's roads are at best described as patchy. Some of them are long, straight and smooth (though not without their own problems) but most of the time they are uneven with gigantic potholes. Just outside HCMC, on the major highway that connects Ben Tre with VN's second city, there are huge creators in the road. To make things worse, now is rainy season, there is a whole bunch of construction going on and, of course, the sheer volume of heavy goods traffic. Yesterday, there was a pretty heavy downpour with torrential rain and plenty of nature's fireworks. By the time we had reached the highway, the potholes were underwater. This meant we had to guess where they were, and without knowing the size of the drop or the uneveness of the creator it didn't seem like the safest of places to be! However, onwards we went following the people infront who at least gave me a little indication of what was to come!

Aquaplaning

As previously mentioned there are some 'good' roads in VN. Unfortunately they didn't appear to have thought about the drainage. Nguyen Van Linh is a fine example. Here, to the casual observer, is a fantastic piece of tarmac. However, in the midst of rainy season, is has large lakes in the middle of it. Fortunately I had the foresight to put my racksack into a plastic carrier so it didn't get soaked, but the planes of water makes driving extremely dangerous for a number of reasons. Firstly, you can't see any obstacles that may be lurking underneath. Secondly, braking becomes much more difficult and if you have to stop suddenly, the lack of grip makes controling the 2 inches of rubber separating you from the concrete a wee bit tricky. Finally, peoples' driving lines become erratic as they try to find the dry/drier areas of road. A message to the fine local government officials, consider drainage when building roads!

Lack of traffic rules

While Vietnam claims to have traffic laws, they either are recklessly not adhered to or simply not enforced. Apparently red lights don't mean stop. They mean consider stopping if you want to but not feel obliged to. If you're on a one way street, this symbolises driving against the traffic if you so desire, so long as you beep your horn as often as possible. Wearing a helmet is compulsory but there is no minimum requirement of their quality. For me, a lid here will catch my brain should I have an incident rather than offer any serious protection. The rule of thumb here is if you're in the biggest vehicle you have the right of way. To elaborate, if you drive a lorry, you wait for no one! If you're a bus, you stop for HGVs but not for cars. If you are in a car, beware of buses and trucks, but you needn't worry about motorbikes. If you're a pedestrian .... good luck!!

Crazy bus drivers

Similar to the point above, bus drivers just don't seem to care about anyone else on the road. If you here a bus horn, you get out of the way as quickly as is humanly possible. Not only do they drive ridiculously quickly, they cut across traffic almost at 90 degrees before breaking far more sharply than an F1 car! There are millions of buses on the journey to Ben Tre so I always feel anxious when visiting the inlaws.

Others

All being said, it's not actually that dangerous. Most of the drive is pretty smooth. The potholes are avoidable and not that deep apart from on one section just outside HCMC, most drivers don't want to die so drive pretty sensibly, and for most of the year it doesn't rain. Of course there are the young boy racers who weave in and out of traffic, fatigee as 2 and half hours on the motorbike is quite tiring, and simply loss of concentration for a few seconds could end in tears. I'm always vigilent in trying to predict what's going on in front of me but it's easy to let the mind wonder!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Murder Mystery Night - Ramona's Birthday

Last weekend, Ramona (a good friend of mine) celebrated her birthday. As it's rude to reveal a lady's age I won't do that, but what I can do is tell you how the night went and why you should organise or attend one if you get the opportunity.

How does it work?


Well first the host of the party will buy a play written by some clever person, a far more accomplished and creative writer than I, and will assign roles to everyone. Before the party everyone should only read their role and dress accordingly. Our theme was 1920 mafia style so we all went to Ben Thanh Market to buy accessories. For me, this was only a classy hat as I already had a suit and white shirt which is all I needed as I'd managed to acquire a hip flask for the occasion. However, many of the girls went to far more effort and should be commended for their attire!


Once the party starts, all of the characters are given envelopes or cards which gives their story line. I had to speak to some of the Mafia bosses to convince them to buy some liquor from me as one of them had bought a tainted bottle of gin from me and had me blacklisted. To suit my character, I had a hip flask full of gin to offer to the other characters. Most accepted, but Notorious Nick, the North side boss who I'd allegedly poisoned refused. I bet he wished he had accepted as during the second act he'd dropped down dead! Anyways, all the characters mingled to try to establish their relationships and to find out some vital information that may reveal the killer later.

After part one, and several pints and pizzas had been consumed, Notorious Nick announced his engagement to another participant before promptly falling down dead. I have to admit it was an Oscar winning performance by Danny and he did his theatre school training proud. After that we were all given clues and additional information so that we could try to identify the murderer.


Obviously, this requires everyone to fully participate and I think everyone got into the spirit of things. People remained in character, shared and elaborated on the information they were given and it was an overriding success. Much credit must go to the hosts, Dan and Ramona, for putting on a well organised and thought-out party. We all had a thoroughly entertaining and wonderful night. At the end of the party, we all had to guess who we thought was the murderer given the information available. And the night drew to an end.


To cap the night off, we sang Happy Birthday to Ramona in Polish, not randomly but because that's where she's from! A big thanks must go to Dan and Ramona again for a splendid and unforgettable evening!

Fun Fun Fun

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Return to normality?

The last month has been crazy. Too much sport, beer and people leaving Vietnam. You won't usually hear me complaining about the first two, but my whole body is aching for a dry spell, especially as I haven't been able to do sport for 6 weeks which means I'm not in the shape I'd like to be.

(Major) Sports (event) overload


As a sport nut, the amount of televised events at the moment is unbelievable! We've had the home nations going to the Southern Hemisphere (rugby union), The World Cup (Football), The Australia vs England ODI series (cricket) and the Wimbledon grass court championship (Tennis). Now of course there has been the European F1 races, Aussie Rules football (which I've just got into) and the State of Origin Rugby League so how is one supposed to do any work! Well it's been quite tricky and I'm sure that Hanh will be looking forward to these events drawing to a close this week. I have almost quite literally been glued to the TV for the last month and the time difference means that I've been going to bed later and later. This isn't a problem for my job because I start teaching at 1pm so I can lie in, but it'd certainly be better if I went to the land of zzzz a bit earlier.

Beer

Obviously, where there is sport, there's often beer involved. And at present, I seem to be finding it difficult to say no to one more! The beer in Vietnam is ridiculously cheap so it doesn't leave too much of a dent in the wallet. I've also developed a liking for Long Island Iced Tea which probably isn't the best thing for the liver! It also means that a lot of mornings have been written off. I fully intended on going to cricket training yesterday morning and to score my team's game today but I woke up on the wrong side of midday on both occasions. On the up, I managed to say 'No' today and just drank a fruit juice after the match so I'm pretty proud about that!

People leaving

EFL is a very transient business. People come and go all the time. Most people tend to stay in one job or country for about a year so the expat community is constantly changing. This can be hard as living abroad your friendships tend to build very quickly. As there aren't so many of us about, those that you get on with tend to become very close to you. In the last 6 months, 3 of my good friends have all gone and it's a little upsetting. Some people working in English Teaching try not to form friendships for this very reason. While it could act a good protection mechanism, I can't understand it myself as our relationships with other people are what we tend to remember and value more than other aspects of life. Anyway, we've had a bit of Leaving Party overload so I'm going to be happy if we get a period of stability. To those who have left us, I wish you all the best in your future exploits!!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Nha Trang - Perhaps the most beautiful place on Earth


I'm not the best traveled person in the world. Not by a long shot. However, I've seen my fair share of stunning scenery and I'd have to put Nha Trang on the top of my list. Perhaps it's because I reside in Saigon which isn't the most ascetically pleasing city, or maybe I'm just a sucker for a nice coast line. Whatever it is, it made me book my next holiday there 4 hours before I had even left. I've never done that before, so it has obviously struck a cord with me, particularly after the ordeal it was getting there.

On first glimpse, you might not think it's the spectacle I've started harping on about, but over the course of a weekend it quickly grabs you, astounds you and leaves you wanting more. For those of you not in the know, Nha Trang on the east coast of Vietnam, about a 9 hour bus ride from Saigon. It's a must see tourist destination in Nam and boasts a glorious beach that most coast of the UK would envy.

Now to start making you all feel jealous. This is the view from our hotel...

I kept the balcony in the second picture to prove that I was inside a room when I took the photograph. What do you think? You'll be even more amazed when I tell you that I paid $13 per night for this stunning sensation. (that's £9). It was also a spacious room in a small hotel owned by a Canadian couple who take great care of their guests. They told me that they could help me organise a private boat tour to a secluded island (with a bbq and snorkeling equipment), a mountain bike tour in the mountains (I'll come to that later) and introduce me to the best restaurants in town. Not bad I think. The name of the hotel is 'Tide Hotel' if you're interested.

Next, I also found the best western food in Vietnam in Nha Trang. To those of you at home you'll be thinking 'Why would you care about that?' Well, after being out of the country for about 32 months you start craving a few home comforts. The chips were crunchy with a substantial amount of potato (unlike the sogginess I'd become accustomed to), the bacon in my BLT was ever so close to bacon at home, and a microbrewery called 'Louisiana' makes the best desserts in the southeast Asia region. Look at this!

A proper Lemon Meringue pie! It was divine! I really wanted to go back to get a couple more to take home but I'm happy just reliving the short minute it took me to demolish it! Besides the food, the beer at the beer house was pretty fine (especially in VN) and the nightlife was pretty buzzing, although I didn't really experience too much of it as I was more concerned with finding somewhere I could watch the world cup in comfort.

If this doesn't tickle your fancy then maybe a slice of history will. You can go to visit the grounds of the last King of Vietnam's residence. It's a fairly understated villa but in a prime location as you'd imagine. There are also various temples you can look around such as the one pictured below.

Unfortunately my camera doesn't do it justice. I only have a point and click job which doesn't have a wide lens. However, I can assure you that it's a pretty impressive structure to visit with 4 or 5 temples to pray/bow to Buddha. It's elevated position gives you some good views of the city and it's just a peaceful place to be.

Finally, for this entry, driving along the coastal road is a lot of fun. Just a few kilometers from the main tourist area is a deserted Russian resort. The manager of my hotel told me they got half way through building it but there was some kind of disagreement with the government so they packed up and left about 2 years ago. We drove to the resort (the cottages below) and it's an ery

ghost town. It felt like you shouldn't be down there and felt oddly threatening. Kinda like the setting for some Teen Horror movie. It was also a sad place as obviously a lot of money had been spent which has been been wasted and as you can see, the place had a ton of potential. Anyways, just round the corner we were faced with this coastal road. It was pretty exciting! I was also shocked. Before this point you wouldn't have expected the road to open out in this way. The views were simply breathtaking and it was hard to keep the bike on the road as the eyes were wondering frantically taking to take it all it.

The final image of Nha Trang I want you to think about is this. Sea and sand in front of you. Behind that a relatively low building skyline with fashionable and modern buildings. In the background lush, green mountains illuminated in a clear blue sky with glorious sunshine. There's so much more I could talk about: the seafood, the friendly people, Vinpearl Land, the mud baths to name a few. But I'll save that until my next trip in August.

Stupid Things I've done - Part 5 - Strawpedo

I don't think this entry needs an explanation. Drinking a beer this quickly can't be good for you!

video

Monday, June 14, 2010

Stupid Things I've done - Part 4 - Traveling to Nha Trang by Sleeper Bus

Right, it's official.... I'm a snob. I've known it for quite some time, but now I'm absolutely sure and I'm ready to face the cold, harsh reality. It all started on Thursday when my wife phoned to tell me that we would be taking a bus with a bed to Nha Trang. It all sounded very promising I thought. Travel overnight and wake up the next morning feeling refreshed and energised. It would also work out much cheaper than flying. Win Win situation, right? So where did it all go wrong?

1. Unrealistic expectations

When I heard that the bus would have a bed on it, I was thinking of a dentists chair. A reclining, leather chair which is comfortable and cushioning. However the reality was more of a rigid, hospital bed with a cardboard wafer between my back and steel rods supporting me.

2. It is designed for hobits

Those people who know me well, know that I a fondness, bordering on an obsession, for the Lord of the Rings. Well hobbits are about the only people who would feel comfortable on this particular sleeper bus. Not only are they too short for the average person (please bare in mind I'm only 170cm, about 5 foot 6), it's also too narrow. Whilst I'm certainly broader than the average Vietnamese guy, I wouldn't say I'm particularly wide. These 'beds' are just about wide enough for your body minus your arms. Now where are they supposed to go? Therefore a night of being elbowed in the ribs was in-store....fun!

3. They are poorly designed


Think about your bed at home. Does it lie horizontal? I mean, is it flat so that you don't slide to the end of it? If you answer no to these questions I'd be surprised. So, surely a sleeper bus should have flat beds? Well if you have a bed in the upper tier they are. However, if you're a novice such as me, you will book a bed downstairs. They slope downwards. As the seats are made from some nasty plastic (pretending to be leather) you slide smoothly down the chair putting a fair bit of pressure on your feet. For me, who has an ankle problem at the moment, this wasn't great to say the least.

4. The bus drivers (in VN) are crazy

Picture this, your driving behind to lorries. A bend is approaching. It's night so you can see the glare of oncoming traffic. You're a bus driver, so you have the lives of 40 odd people to consider. Do you try to overtake at this point? No. You stay behind the lorries until you come to a long straight so you can pass safely. Well not here. They just go for it. It didn't fill me full of confidence. Also, they don't give each other much margin. On coming traffic doesn't tend to slow too much, and buses often swerve severely in order to avoid head-ons. (In my experience this is common of bus drivers in Vn not just this journey)

Overall, I didn't have a great experience on the sleeper bus and I sure won't be doing it again. Maybe I'm just a snob and don't appreciate the woes of a budget conscious traveler. Maybe we just got unlucky and picked a bad company. The company (I think) was aimed towards Vietnamese travelers who are generally of a much smaller frame than me and tend to travel in more crowded transportation than I am used to at home. Maybe they provide a good respite for people who don't have enough time to stay too many days in one place. However, I found it a terribly uncomfortable, overcrowded and sleep depriving way of traveling. Give me a bog standard coach any day of the week!

Cheap it certainly is, so that is a plus. But the overriding negatives have left an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Singapore Zoo

If you've ever been to Ho Chi Minh City's zoo you'll probably never want to visit another zoo again and become an animal activist. Most of the animals live in areas which are barren, not of adequate size and the animals look depressed. However, Singapore zoo has restored my faith in zoo and our ability to look after, help save endangered species and display animals in a relatively humane environment. Welcome, to Singapore Zoo.


Singapore zoo is famous for being named the sister of Australia Zoo by the legend Steve Irwin. Noteworthy praise indeed. I didn't get the chance to go to the Night Safari, but seeing the zoo is certainly the highlight of my trip to Singapore. The animals you can see are monkeys, zebras, elephants, giraffes (all of the favourites) along with polar bears, kangaroos and (my favourite) a pygmy hippo. So let's see some of the habits and other animals on show.

Please bare in mind that I'm not giving you a tour of the zoo. For that you can visit the zoo's website http://www.zoo.com.sg/ . I just want to give you a little flavour of what I saw there and why I think it's definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in Singapore. Also, I can't do the zoo justice as I can't remember exactly what I saw and couldn't take manys photographs as my camera ran out of battery shortly after we arrived.

Of course the first thing we wanted to see were the tigers. They are majestic, muscular and the king of the cats in my eyes. Sure they're not lions, but they don't need a mane to be the greatest feline. Here you can see the greenery and habit built for them. It's quite something. They seemed happy, with freedom to move and do as they please. This is far from the 10 by 10 cage you see in HCMC's zoo. A home fitting for this amazing predator.


Next, some wild boars. I must admit to having a soft spot for them as the Lion King was one of my favourite films as a child. Unfortunately this picture doesn't show you much but you can see it looks fantastically strong and healthy and it again has a large habitat to roam around in and enjoy. This pretty much typifies my opinion of the zoo as all the animals looked healthy and strong with plenty of space to play in with companions to share their time with.

And I've included this picture because they're cute. Please forgive my ignorance but I have no idea what they are!

Unfortunately on the day we rained we were hampered by a pretty heavy shower, and I couldn't walk around easily because of my sprained ankle. In addition we only had 4 hours to go around the zoo as we had a plane to catch in the evening. However, the tram made it very easy to go around the zoo (for those less mobile) so we got to see pretty much everything (albeit only briefly). You need a full day to see everything and enjoy the experience fully. As comes with the territory in this part of the world, the climate is hot and sticky, but once you get over that, you'll thoroughly enjoy all their is to see. Besides the animals, you can also learn a lot about them from the feeders and trainers during feeding times (which happen twice a day per animal), there are plenty of information boards about conservation and finally there are some live some shows.


The show pictured above is about a businessman who has come to the forest to create more space for land. Throughout the show he comes face to face with various animals and conservationists who drive him out of the forest. Apparently the show has the largest animal cast of any show and it's impressive the way they've been trained. Granted, the show is a little on the corny side but it's pretty funny, well scripted and it gets the message across that we should be doing more to protect what we've got.

So, I hope I've wet your appetite enough, and get to Singapore Zoo when/if you get an opportunity. It's well worth it!