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.


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!


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.


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.


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!!