Tam Thanh: artists’ impressions of a fishing village.

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There is probably no better way to put an unknown place on the map than turning it into a tourist attraction… And tourism is big business, in Vietnam as much as in neighbouring countries in the region.  With a coastline of over 3000 km, that’s a lot of beaches to develop.  A lot of potential to attract tourists and inject foreign currency and investment.

Until two years ago, Tam Thanh was just another small fishing village.  An assortment of crumbling and dilapidated buildings crammed together on a strip of land edging the shoreline.  Most dwellings in dire need of a refreshing lick of paint.  Mould creeping up dank walls, weathered wooden shutters bleached by the unwavering sun.  An eternal battle lost to the unending cycle of nature’s forces.

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Inspired by the popularity of mural villages in South Korea, in June 2016 a group of Vietnamese artists and volunteers joined up with their Korean peers to transform Tam Thanh from an impoverished fishing village to an artists’ gallery.  Under the banner of ‘Art for a Better Community’ they wielded their paint brushes and fashioned tired walls, unseaworthy fishing vessels and enormous, stone water jars into blank canvases, in a bid to improve the economic fortunes of the villagers.  The first project of its kind in Vietnam.

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Strolling through the main street of Tam Thanh, on almost every corner and every wall images of village life unfold.  Locals going about their normal day to day business: a woman sitting on the side of the road selling vegetables and fruit;

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women displaying the catch of the day;

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the local hairdresser (?) posing next to his painted image;

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the weather-beaten face of a local fisherman, on the wall of his house;

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a local girl, averting her pensive gaze away from prying tourist eyes;

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the call of the sea through an open window;

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and fun, of course..

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Upturned boats, no longer suitable for use at sea, have been given a new lease of life and are scattered around the village, adding colour and vibrancy to deserted corners and empty, unused spaces.

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And when I arrive in the early morning, the whole street is lined with painting easels showing off ‘take-home’ versions of the murals, encouraging tourists to not just take their own photographs but buy paintings and put more money into the local economy.

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The village of Tam Thanh is a mere 40 km south of Hoi An – one of the most popular touristy towns in Vietnam – and can easily be reached by car or motorbike.   Just a morning is all it takes to explore what Tam Thanh has to offer.  Although a local newspaper boasts a daily influx of 500 tourists to Tam Thanh, when I walk through the village, it is still early and not too busy.  Coffee shops and restaurants are waiting for customers…  Everyone ready with a hopeful smile.

But what I enjoy most is the fact that Tam Thanh has not yet completely changed.  Just beyond the mural covered houses in some of the side streets and alleys, there are still plenty of remnants of what the village looked like before.  Picturesque in its simplicity and absence of added embellishments… and a place upholding age-old traditions.

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Unwittingly I stumble upon an annual praying ritual performed by local fishermen and village elders at a full moon in the early weeks of the Lunar New Year.   Enticed towards the beach by chanting and music, I watch a group of young men in colourful traditional garb pretend-rowing a longboat on the sand under the cover of a large tarpaulin.  At the front three tables are overflowing with the usual accoutrements of religious ceremonies: incense sticks and food offerings, alongside a model boat.  After the singing and prayers, offerings are made to appease the ‘god of the sea’ to ensure safe passage and return of all the fishermen who go out to sea.  Food is scattered on the sand, paper offerings burnt and a model boat is carried far into the waves…

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The ceremony and formalities finished, the group of fishermen – dressed to the nines –  are all too happy to pose for a picture with me…  How could I refuse???

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Camping in memory of Ho Chi Minh

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Sometimes you just know that you are flogging a dead horse…  No amount of cajoling, coaxing, threatening or inflicting sheer terror is going to breathe life into the corpse.

When a class of 15-16 year olds (grade 10…) looks and acts more lifeless than me (after a week of battling the worst bout of gastroenteritis I have succumbed to in just over three and a half years of exploring the great beyond divorce), something is seriously amiss.  Whilst the girls were at least minimally attentive and not shy of some input, the boys were basically overwhelmed by persistent inertia… M’s head immediately settled on the desk upon his late entrance into the classroom and no matter of gentle – or otherwise – prodding got more than a grunt out of him.  Normal behaviour for a teenager, you say… only Vietnamese teenagers buck the trend.  They are, on the whole, a very polite, well-behaved, eager-to-learn bunch and make teaching a pleasure…

In their defence, I admit that watching a Youtube video of daredevil Danny MacAskell enjoying an endorphin high whilst doing awe-inspiring stunts on his mountain bike, may not have exactly produced the same adrenaline rush in the classroom.  Especially as the video was merely a prelude to a reading exercise analyzing tenses such as past simple, present perfect and present perfect continuous…  Lesser things have been known to drive teenagers to distraction and into oblivion in an English classroom.  I should know, I once sat on the other side and I can assure you, we did not even have the likes of Youtube videos to liven up the monotony of conjugations and verb patterns…

‘It’s the ‘camping’,’ H assured me, hovering just above a comatose state.  ‘We’ve been busy getting everything ready at school…’  His eyes glazed over, the mere effort of one sentence sapped him.  We shelved the grammar, my capitulation inevitable.  I relented, ‘OK, tell me all about it…’

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Being a rather nosy specimen of the human race, I already had a pretty good inkling of what ‘camping Vietnamese-style’ entailed…  Only a day earlier, I had witnessed the transformation of the nearby city square and put out feelers about what exciting event was about to unfold.  Normally a quiet, peaceful area, occasionally frequented by teenage cyclists on their way home from school and early morning or late evening exercise fanatics making ample use of the street-gym-apparatus, that day every corner was beset by youngsters wielding massive bamboo poles and erecting intriguing structures…

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Of course, I enquired about the goings-on at the English Centre where I work.  Surely, someone would be able to give me the low-down and all the details…  ‘Well,’ B in the office started, ‘to be quite honest, I have no idea…  It’s the camping… Something to do with 26th March springs to mind.’  It was a start indeed… Like all good traditions in any country, Wikipedia and the internet probably could shed more light on folklore than the locals who live and breathe it.

Surprisingly, even cyber-space was particularly tight-lipped about this auspicious occasion, but as it transpires, the ‘camping’ is an annual event, celebrated nationwide on or around 26th March to commemorate the inauguration of the Youth division of the Communist Party, in 1931.  Founded and initially led by Ho Chi Minh himself, the Ho Chi Minh Youth Union is the largest social-political organisation of Vietnamese youth.

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Participating groups – either in the town square or in schools – pitch up against each other in exciting and fun-filled competitions, such as building the most spectacular and eye-catching entrance to their tent, hence the bamboo poles…  Cooking skills are also hotly contested and there are even prizes for organizing the most exciting game such as tug-of-war, or possibly even for piggy-backing the girls across the square after performing manly acrobatics on bamboo poles under the watchful eye of Ho Chi Minh himself peering out from the inside of every tent… It is camping after all, and after dark, swarms of teenagers circle campfires whilst singing suitable songs and daring a bit of flash mobbing, and at least some of the lucky  ones will be enjoying a sleepover…  Teenage adventure as it should be.

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Although the origin of the camping event may be largely lost on today’s Vietnamese teenagers, it is clearly one of the highlights on their calendar..  And who can begrudge them the fun, because just like their Chinese counterparts, the burden on Vietnamese students to do well, work hard and even harder, and build a successful future is immense.   More classes after more classes, a diet of relentless studying.

So what if the past simple and present perfect continuous send my students to sleep?? They probably earned and needed the rest….  At the end of the day, grammar or camping?? No contest at all!!

No escaping China’s clutches…

I may well have finished with China last summer, but it appears China has far from finished with me…  Am I famous, or is it more a case of infamy???

Only just about two weeks ago, a friend in Hangzhou sent me a copy of a newspaper article…

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‘Look,’ my friend L. exclaimed, ‘your name is in the newspapers in China!!’

‘Hmmm,’ I replied.  ‘It may well be my name… but it’s clearly your mugshot and your husband’s….’

‘Don’t you fret…  Your mugshot is there!! On that wall…  We’re looking at it.  Just check it out in the left-hand corner..,’ she carried on.  Or did she mean right-hand corner?  The photographs are far too small and far too grainy for me to recognise my own self in them…

Not exactly thinking rationally at the time, and being in the grip of a definite black period in my life, panic ensued at seeing my name – LIEVE LEE – plastered in several places across the paper.  And did I  spot the unmistakable word ‘FAMILY’ in capital letters?  Somehow the only logical connection I could see was to my rather unorthodox exit from China.  I certainly could not recall any grand achievements that would have warranted the attention of the media.  Maybe my agent was pursuing me after all!!  Or maybe the Chinese mafia were trying to get at me via my family in the UK…  What had I been thinking in the summer?  That escaping the past unscathed would just be a plane ride away?  Although granted, a wanted poster usually features the ‘wanted’ person, and not a handful of  nosy loawai staring at some photographs pinned up on a wall…

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‘On the upside,’ a colleague in Vietnam remarked after studying the photograph, ‘there is no mention of a telephone number to get in touch with the police if anyone was to know your whereabouts and decided to report it.’  But was I really sure??  Do the Chinese use the Arabic numerals or do they have their own unintelligible (to the uninitiated…) characters??  I rued my careless decision not to at least acquire a rudimentary grasp of the Chinese language.  Isn’t counting to ten one of the most basic things we learn in any new language???

The problem was that neither my friend L., nor I, learned a single iota of Mandarin during our stay in China.  So how to get a translation and from whom?  A real Catch-22…  Who to trust?  Would they be friend or foe if indeed the article was less than complementary about my exploits on Chinese soil?  Until I could ascertain the content of the article, it was tricky to decide who would be the most appropriate person to approach to translate it…

After a day or two of some head scratching and digging deep into my list of loyal expats in China, I remembered J from the UK…  A man with a bone to pick with his own agent and well aware of the reasons of my sudden departure from China AND with sound contacts whose command of the Chinese language was undisputed.  I sent him the photograph of the newspaper article and was keeping my fingers crossed.

As expected, a man of his word, he put out some feelers and got the gist of the article to me in no time.  Far from me being added to a blacklist or wanted list, it was all a whole lot more innocent.  The article merely related how J, a Taiwanese friend in Hangzhou, came to the rescue when I needed a lift back home from the hospital after my knee surgery…  Funnily enough, whereas my guardian angel at the time was only referred to as an Australian (???) Chinese member of the ‘family’ – the community where I lived – the journalist clearly deemed it entirely appropriate to add my name in full, just to make sure there was no misunderstanding…  Still, it felt good to have the mystery solved.  I could breathe a sigh of relief; I was not ‘wanted’ after all…

No sooner was the issue laid to rest, than more evidence came to light of my lasting impact on China.  A photograph featuring yours truly is being used by a small Hangzhou-based travel company to promote exciting and adventure packed day and weekend trips in and around the area… Although I am of course flattered, I cannot shift the feeling that, as I was on most trips organized by them between last March and last August, they may have struggled to find any suitable photographs that did not star me…

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Personally??  I would have gone for the photograph below.  I much prefer the incognito look. Wanted.  Dead or Alive.

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Vietnam from the sea to the table.

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Living in the provincial town of Quang Ngai, it can be hard to forget that just a few miles beyond the confines of the city a totally different world unfolds.  As in any urban environment, people’s lives in the city seemingly revolve around providing services: coffee shops, restaurants, clothes shops, the wet market and the supermarket, the local hospital just around the corner.  At peak times, on crowded roads, hordes of motorbikes jostle for space with cyclists and cars, and even a few hapless pedestrians as cafes, food carts and street vendors spill out onto the pavements making them impassable.

The sea breeze, emanating from the South China Sea along the Vietnamese coastline, does not reach here to clear the stuffiness of stagnant, stifling air or ease the closeness of the oppressive summer swelter.  Verdant hillocks beckon in the distance, too far to get to by bicycle and, after my e-bike adventures in China, I am not too keen on braving the traffic on a motorized vehicle…  But the beach is only a bike ride away, one hour there and another on the way back.  Thirty-four kilometers of unbridled cycling freedom, whilst the rush of warm air keeps the worst of the heat at bay.   A treat in the cooler winter months, when cloud cover and occasional heavy downpours made for soggy but enjoyable ventures.  These days, bike rides are more likely to coincide with slathering on sun cream, sporting my wide-brimmed hiking hat and, lately, even a long-sleeved shirt.  Better to be safe than sorry; the wise words of my daughter!!!.  The sun can indeed be relentless.

But whilst MY trips to the beach focus on relaxing with a Vietnamese coffee, indulging in Ban Xeo (rice pancakes), dipping my toes in the gentle waves and building sand castles on a whim, the locals are busy making a living from what the sea has to offer.  With a coastline extending to the full length of the country, and plenty of deltas, waterways and lakes inland, it is no surprise that Vietnam’s fishing industry is buoyant.  Not only is the sea exploited to provide much needed protein – sumptuous seafood and fish – to supplement the diet of the local population, Vietnam is also a major exporter of shrimp and other seafood delicacies.   And as is still often the case in the developing world, the work involved is backbreaking and arduous.

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Beaches are littered with fishermen’s paraphernalia.  Of course, there are the usual fishing boats, elongated in their shape with a distinct bow and stern, but circular tub-shaped boats are equally common.  Many of them are equipped with battery-run lighting for nighttime trips out to sea as fishermen take to the deeper waters along the coast to cast their nets.

Later, taking advantage of the force of the incoming tide, two lines of men and women, patiently and laboriously, tiny step by tiny step, draw in the nets from both ends, hauling in the catch.  Groups of villagers, or tourists, flock out of nowhere to inspect or photograph a (hopefully) abundant yield, whilst the workers carefully sort the various species brought ashore ready to be dispatched to fish markets and stalls.  Local housewives or restaurant owners come along to have the first pick of what the tide turned in.

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On another occasion, we watch three people trawl the shallow waters edging the beach.  They plod on slowly and doggedly, dragging an unusual tool just below the sand.  Every now and again, one of them stops dipping a hand under the water as the metal bar at the bottom of their pitched wooden fork clangs.  They are collecting a type of shellfish, buried in the sand just below the sea surface…

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But spare a thought for the makeshift scuba divers, earning their keep by scouring the seabed for shrimp or baby lobster…  We never found out what they were really looking for; a mixture of the obscurity of my photograph and translation problems…  It just seemed a lot of risk for a handful of shrimp…

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Initially my curiosity was piqued by bobbing heads breaking through the waves in the shallower water and the humming of a battery perched on some slippery rocks near the water’s edge.  Attached to the battery was what very much looked like a garden hosepipe, supplying air to one of a team of snorkelers and scuba divers who were locating and collecting the precious seafood.  At least they were kitted out with wet suits and snorkeling masks but it is difficult to underestimate the damage the excessive air pressure must cause to the divers’ lungs…

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Maybe it is befitting to give thanks to the Vietnamese fishermen, as well as the Almighty, for ‘giving us our daily bread’ and seafood….

 

The Pavement Food Culture of Vietnam.

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‘Vietnam is not like China,’ the young bartender assures me.  I guess he must be somewhere in his mid-twenties…  I have taken refuge in a bar, to savour a cool beer and escape the crushing afternoon heat of Hanoi in August.  Inevitably our chit-chat turns to my recent past as we linger on my reasons for being in Vietnam and my less than favourable feelings about China.  ‘Unlike China, we know what goes on in the world, and can freely browse the internet, ’ he continues. ‘Not that long ago, there was yet another war between China and Vietnam.  Maybe it was not reported to the outside world, but it definitely happened…’  Uncle Ho may well have courted China in his bid to win the Vietnam War, but the love has long since been extinguished and replaced by unwavering distrust and suspicion, if not enmity.

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The young man speaks surprisingly good English, although he admits that topics unrelated to food leave him rather lost for words, English ones that is.  Whilst he has lived in Vietnam all his life, he has a younger sister (or maybe half-sister, I did not probe too deeply), born and raised in Germany.  As she does not speak Vietnamese and the bartender has never felt the need to learn this European language, their Skype conversations depend on the one language they have in common:  English, and the one passion they share: food.  His rather limited vocabulary suits me, I love food too and have been told by Vietnamese friends in China that street food in Vietnam is the way to go, it is absolutely the best…  Did I detect some bias here??  And what about hygiene??  Best to avoid the empty looking restaurants  and stands and head for busy, well-attended eateries ignoring the mouth-watering waft from tender and tasty pork morsels, chicken pieces, flavoursome mince cigars using betel leaves…

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True to my friends’ and the bartender’s words though, food is everywhere in Hanoi.  On the pavements street vendors and shopkeepers flaunt their wares, a cornucopia of bright colours fresh from the field (I hope) and exotic, tantalising fruits to tempt passers-by.

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Fish, painfully heaving to catch their final breath, vie for attention with large slabs of pork, pink and succulent.

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Others peddle their goods from baskets suspended on their bicycles, moving on and attracting customers along the way, or visiting their regular clientele.   And who can miss the hard-working sellers eking out a meagre living carrying quang ganh (two baskets on either end of a long bamboo stick) on their shoulders, weighted with an abundance of  household goods or produce.  For many, life in Vietnam is still tough; progress and development has far from reached all echelons of society here.

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In the meantime,  the bartender, eager to practise his English, proves an excellent source of information.   He is local and directs me to a rather unusual restaurant where they cook poussin (baby chicken) in empty drinks cans.  Talking about taking recycling another step further…  My curiosity piqued and Google-Map enabled, I set out to find out the street.  ‘Mind you get there before six or seven in the evening,’ the bartender calls out as I am ready to leave. ‘Vietnamese people eat early, and they may have sold out if you get there too late.’   I make it to the shop before the rush, plenty of hapless chicks still on display.

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I cannot say that looking at those pitiable blackened feet and wretched heads works wonders for my appetite as I watch the cook prise one ready-to-eat bird from its container.  To the contrary, I have tried chicken feet in China and, no thank you, I am not quite ready to suck the brains out from a baby chicken’s head… I go in search of more familiar, and to me, palatable dinner options:  fish baked in banana leaf sounds more like it… and some Vietnamese spring rolls.  Delectable.

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Exploring the world, Google-Map-wise.

20171002_114702_001I was never an ace at reading maps, my children can vouch for that.  Scales on a map eluded me and translating the logic and sense of a carefully drawn, colourful map to the real world was mostly beyond the realm of my capabilities…  Needless to say that some of our most memorable holiday anecdotes chronicle my shortcomings as the family’s navigator on our trips abroad.   Nevertheless, had it not been for my gross underestimating of the distance between California’s Interstate 5 and the Sequoia National Park, we may never have set eyes on the famed General Sherman Tree,  the largest known living single stem tree on Earth.  The fact that it added an extra five hours to an already overlong drive from Yosemite to Los Angeles whilst  running low on go-go juice on a stretch of road that had not yet been discovered by McDonalds, was by the by…  It isn’t called the ‘scenic route’ for nothing.

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But with the advent of smart phones, readily enabled with Google Maps and generously fed with data, even an ignoramus like me has been given wings to fly and explore towns and countryside safely in the knowledge I will arrive at the expected destination, at some time…  I only recently joined the army of technology savvies, for a long time firmly clinging to the belief that a phone’s purpose in life was to facilitate spoken language.  You punched in some numbers, which prompted some bleeping, tinkling or musical interlude at the receiving end and, all being well, a human voice would reply and a conversation ensue.  China changed this forever!  In China, life without a smart phone was just unimaginable, so much so that, last year, on the occasion of my brand new phone malfunctioning and refusing to share any information with me, I was at my wit’s end.  A catch-22 situation, if ever there was one… I needed to get my phone fixed, but to locate a nearby repair shop I needed my phone as only with the help of Google Maps (using a VPN, of course) or MapsMe would I be able to find my way around town…  Lo and behold, I had to rely on an old fashioned printed map.  Since China, I have grown very fond of Google Maps.  It has guided me across Hangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing, Tokyo and Kyoto, Penang, Langkawi and Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi and, as cars these days come equipped with phone charging points rather than cigarette lighters, even the UK.  In other words, an absolute  must for the modern globetrotter.   My phone lavishly loaded with data, I feel ready to conquer the world and venture into the unknown…

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I chose my current job on account of its location, just a pinprick removed from the beach.  The fact that in reality, I am still about 16 km away from the sea did not seem a big hurdle at the time.  What is 16 km??  But Vietnam isn’t India, and the taxis here are definitely not as cheap as India’s rickshaw drivers.  Neither is public transport as convenient and ubiquitous as in China…  In Vietnam an early morning trip to dip a toe in the salty water starts at 6.15 am when the bus trundles past my road; actually this would be considered rather late for the Vietnamese locals, who rise early and make it to the beach by 5 am. But a later bus would mean not leaving until almost mid-morning when the heat makes a trip to the coast almost unbearable.  However, most people weave across town on motorbikes: a sign of progress and a step up from the humble bicycle.  With my e-bike ventures in China still fresh in my mind, and a healthy dose of scepticism about Vietnamese traffic rules, I have opted to stick to a bicycle.  Maybe slower and more effort involved, but I do get exercise, plenty of it…

So far I have managed to make it to the coast by bike four times…  Not that much, you think, but Vietnam is still in its rainy season and the weather is at best unpredictable, if not on occasions hostile to the cyclist.  Heady winds surge in from an overcast sea, often accompanied by prolonged spells of dull drizzle or sharp bursts  of heavy rain.  Although I took a few trips to the beach by bus in September,  I first biked there before the Vietnamese winter properly took hold.  We left indecently early to be ahead of the blaring sun and were back well before lunchtime… On this occasion, I did not need to call on the advice of Google Maps as we were accompanied by one of the old gang, the ones who cycled to the beach quite regularly and clearly knew the way.  It seemed child’s play.  Just keep  on going straight…

The next time, I ventured out all on my own, armed with a phone buzzing with data and Google Maps.  What could go wrong?  A flat tyre just as I had crossed the bridge…!  I had meticulously followed all instructions and kept on going straight, dismissing vague memories of a right turn as a mere figment of my imagination.  Luckily, I had only cycled a few kilometres and a helpful motorbike-taxi rider pointed me in the direction of a bicycle pump owner..  With my tyre just solid enough to make it back to town, I had no option but to find a bicycle repair shop.  Not too difficult here since they set up shop on the pavement in full view…   And once the mechanic had quite literally crossed the road on his motorbike to purchase a new inner tube, he gave my bike the once over.  With brakes tightened, chain freshly oiled and a fully inflated tyre, I set off again on my way to the beach, this time taking heed of Google Maps.  I knew it wasn’t going to be a case of ‘keep on going straight’, as I was leaving from a different part of town…

Feeling I had mastered bicycle trips to the beach, I went again the next week…  Overhead, clouds were threatening, but it didn’t look too bad.  At least Vietnamese rain is usually warm rain!  I did not consult Google Maps, I was confident that I was fully capable of ‘going straight’.  I passed the bridge, I passed the paddy fields, I passed more paddy fields with  water buffaloes lazily grazing the rice stubble… but where was the hill with the pagoda and where was the little village I was meant to pass through…?

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Time to have a look at Google Maps, I decided.  I was indeed ‘going straight ahead’ in the wrong direction!  Rather than closing in on the beach, my journey took me further away than ever…  This right turn I had been imagining?  Definitely not a figment of my imagination.  But, of course, Google Maps had a shorter route for me in mind to get me back on the right track.  Having added on already a fair few extra kilometres to my trip, I wanted to save time and … my legs…  I obediently accepted Google Map’s advice and followed the suggested direction… straight into the muddiest road I have ever cycled through… In the end, I dismounted!  Better to ruin my white canvas shoes than falling face down in the mud and ruining all my clothes as well…

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I still made it to the beach!!  Muddy and thoroughly soaked by a sudden downpour, I thought the only way to brighten up the day was to plough on regardless …

And as for Google Maps…   Maybe better taken with a large pinch of salt and liberally sprinkled with old fashioned common sense…

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Living the Life of a Millionaire in Vietnam.

Becoming a millionaire happened instantly, or almost.  No effort involved.  Not even the buying of a lottery ticket.  How we all have mused about how we would spend these millions if we ever were to win the big draw… How our family and friends would bask in our generosity, charities of our choice would prosper,  just keeping enough for ourselves to see us through the rest of our days in reasonable comfort and luxury… Working would just be a pastime to stave off the boredom, no longer a necessity of life.

I was finally elevated to the Millionaire Club at an airport, Hanoi airport to be precise.  Having slipped out of China like a thief in the night, pockets and bags stuffed with the proceeds of several  months of relatively hard graft, Chinese renminbe (RMB for short ) would not get me very far on these new shores.  It was a neat little stash, admittedly rather decimated by my summer travel exploits, but when stacked up in one pile, it looked quite impressive…  It certainly helped that the highest denomination of a Chinese banknote is merely 100 RMB, roughly the equivalent of a tenner in the UK, so it takes a fair few notes to make a decent amount.

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As Chinese middle class citizens have taken to tourism and travel like oxygen-starved fish to water,  and Vietnam is literally just across the border, I assumed that a money transfer at the airport would not pose any difficulties.  After the first ‘money exchanger’ shook his head and sighed, ‘No, we don’t deal in RMB,’ I quietly began to rue my rash decision of clearing out my bank accounts in China…  Using my Chinese bankcards to withdraw cash had worked flawlessly in Japan and Malaysia…  Maybe I would have been better off using ATMs in Vietnam to extricate my Chinese money, readily dispensed in local Vietnamese Dong.  Luckily, not all money exchange facilities at the airport were reluctant to take the Chinese banknotes.

With an exchange rate of roughly 3500 VND to 1 RMB, my eyes boggled at the numbers…   (£1  roughly equates to 30,000 VND).  Although I thought it prudent not to exchange all my money – airports are notorious for their unfavourable exchange rates – I lost count of all the noughts on the screen…  Millions, loads of them…  Did I have enough room in my bags and pockets to hide all the notes and keep my cash safe??  But when paper money comes in denominations of half a million, it only takes two notes to make a million.  The stack put in front of me was rather underwhelming.  Was this what millions looked like??  It was in Vietnam….!!

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And then it began to disappear, like water cascading through my fingers.   A taxi ride into town set me back 400,000 VND; a local SIM – one of life’s essentials these days – cost another  few hundred thousand (I can’t remember the exact amount)…  Even before leaving the airport, I had already parted with my first million..  A simple Vietnamese coffee cost 30,000 VND in Hanoi and maybe a bit more for the famed Hanoi Egg Coffee (to die for.. ).  Lunches and dinners, sumptuous Vietnamese cuisine, set me back  another few ten- or hundred-thousands each.  I was fleeced by a fruit stall holder and paid 20,000 VND for 4 rambutan; not that I would have been any the wiser about paying an exorbitant price if it were not for the raised eyebrows of another Vietnamese customer.  Still, with no quick conversion to real and equivalent prices in the UK or China, I just handed out the notes like candy…   After all, this was Hanoi and I was still enjoying my last few days of holiday freedom.

These days I try to get by on a million a week…  I know, it still sounds extravagant, but I live modestly.  Eating out is limited to just a few times each week, but some days the long teaching hours take their toll and sap all our energy and it’s even too much effort to pour boiling water over the ubiquitous instant noodles.   Late night pangs of hunger are often sated with strawberry or mango smoothies in the few establishments in the neighbourhood that remain open after 9.00 pm, when we finally finish work.  And on the warmer evenings, we might just make it to the corner café and indulge in a beer, deliciously cooled and diluted as it is poured over large slabs of ice dunked in our glasses..

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What really makes our spending rocket is extravagant Western food tastes and preferences: colourful vegetables and sumptuous exotic fruits such as apples, potatoes, courgettes and peppers; and cheese and bacon and sausages (of some sort) and yoghurt…  I’m not complaining; it’s worth every penny and at least it’s available…  I could of course venture to the wet market and try my luck haggling over the price of garlic, ginger and even cauliflower, and maybe I will… soon… but for now, I stick with the sterility of the local supermarket.  At least here I know that the prices are the same for all the customers, regardless of the colour of their skin…

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But even millionaires can be penny pinchers.  So it was that on a trip to Da Nang several weeks ago I got totally incensed when the hotel staff overcharged me for my room.  ‘What? That is 5000 VND more than when I made the booking!!’ I argued.  Totally befuddled by too many noughts, it seemed a gross injustice.  It was only when I worked out that 5000 VND amounted to no more than around 16 p (UK £), I felt my cheeks flush…  Did I really make a fuss about 16 p?  In the grand scheme of things, would I even notice 16 p less in my purse???

Someone recently suggested that Vietnam should just simply chop off the last three zeros of its currency.   Not a devaluation, but  1,000,000 VDN would just become 1,000 VND with the same spending power…  No more notes of half a million, just notes of five thousand…  It would definitely reduce the number of millionaires amongst us, but at least our piles of cash would no longer feel like a mountain of Monopoly money…

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