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Eating water

Image: Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia Commons via National Geographic

As Vietnam heads out of its rainy season, my thoughts turned to World Water Week, itself also winding down. Held annually in Stockholm, the international conference issued a dire warning over profound water scarcity in the near future. 

Every single thing we eat needs water to be produced. The groups gathered in Sweden illustrated that with some simple arithmetic. To produce one hamburger (say, bun, beef patty, tomato, lettuce, onions and cheese) consumes around 2,389 litres of water, compared to 140 litres for a cup of coffee and 135 for a single egg. To make a quick stir fry of rice, beef and vegetables requires about 4,230 litres of water, while a juicy steak, regularly gobbled in rich industrialized nations, clocks in at a whopping 7,000 litres.
Yet, fully a quarter of the world’s freshwater is used to grow food that people waste outright. That water, together with the billions of dollars spent to grow, ship, package and purchase the food, is literally poured down the drain says the Stockholm International Water Institute. The Institute urges reducing food waste as the simplest and fastest way to relieve pressure on water and land resources, meaning better water security for all, let alone addressing the shameful fact that hunger and famine still stalk this planet. 
Still not concerned? Flushing that dump you took this morning after last night’s steak-fest used as much water as the average person in the developing world has for an entire day’s cooking, washing, cleaning and drinking. 
Our mothers were right—we are what we eat.

Vengeful backwardness

Yue Minjun, Pointing (circa 2003)

Three members of the punk band Pussy Riot have been sentenced to two years—in a prison colony—for participating in a protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in February. They were convicted of “hooliganism” motivated by religious hatred. But that’s not quite it. What the three women—two of them mothers—were actually doing was protesting the decreasing lack of freedom in Vladmir Putin’s Russia and their disgust with Putin’s intention to return (and return and return) to politics, despite the country’s constitutional limits of Russian leaders serving two consecutive terms. 

The New York Times noted that “even by Russian standards, the trial has been roundly mocked as a farce, complete with barking dogs, a judge who feigned deafness when the defense objected, and denunciations of feminism as a ‘mortal sin.’”

Thus the women’s “punk prayer” was a political swipe at an increasingly tyrannical government (not a religiously motivated hate crime) that yes, happened to take place in a church, but that was because the Orthodox Church takes its orders from Putin, not God. Clever Putin, while the world’s attention was on the three women behind bullet proof glass, criminal charges have been laid against the popular opposition activist Alexei Navalny and one of the few opposition deputies in the Russian parliament, Gennady Gudkov, faces arrest.  
Authoritarians and dictators have no sense of humour because they are famously thin-skinned and paranoid. Agitprop with giant fabric penises, feminism in rainbow-coloured balaclavas, scruffy political satire, obscenely funny graffiti, stand-up comics howling into a mic—this is what they fear the most.


Hat tip to Michael Idov

Moving day

Back to work now and this week a new home to move into. Yay! This is what it looked like in our old alley:

We needed two (!) of these nifty motorcycle-carts and they were full. But two years ago, our last move looked something like this—a cyclo driver and his bucket seat plopped up with gear and goods. If I remember correctly there were two drivers, but I think you can probably guess where I’m heading with this.
It’s all a far cry from when we first landed in Saigon with the equivalent of some hand luggage.

Oh, the tyranny of stuff!

Summer journeys 3

Eiffel Tower, Champ de Mars, Paris, France
There is a connection between France and Vietnam that’s not just colonial. It’s the engineer of this lovely edifice above. While Gustave Eiffel originally turned up his nose at early sketches of the proposed monument (“giddy, ridiculous tower,” added the critics) he ultimately came on board with the whole puddled iron business and then made a name for himself erecting iron latticework structures all over the world. In Vietnam that meant bridges in Dong Nai province and the central post office in Saigon. However, he is also given (unconfirmed) credit for Saigon’s Hôtel de Ville (now the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee), the Truong Tien Bridge in Hue and the Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi. 

There’s even an American connection to tie into the last post below. Eiffel also engineered the interior structural framework of the Statue of Liberty—France’s gift to the United States to commemorate shared notions of freedom and independence. Which given the two countries later respective history with Vietnam apparently wasnt applied in equal measure.


Summer journeys 2

Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

It’s the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 that was fought between the United States and Great Britain. The Treaty of Ghent finally brought peace and also established the international boundary between America and what was then called Upper Canada. The border cut through Niagara River and its two falls—Bridal Veil (New York state) and Horseshoe (Ontario). 

And yup, yup Horseshoe Falls is the bigger, more photogenic of the two waterfalls that form Niagara Falls and what do you know…it’s on the Canadian side. Canada also burnt down the American White House during the war, but that’s another story. The Canadians’ gleeful military excursion is unsurprisingly dismissed in US history books and state tourism videos regularly try to pass off the Canadian falls as the American ones. But that’s OK. We know the truth.

Turning Vietnamese

Adapting to one’s environment is as old as evolution. What makes it interesting in another country is how readily you brag about “adapting” (i.e. “I work well in ‘multicultural’ environments”) or actually admitting to having gone “local.” In other words, there are a few things foreigners do around here that are clear indications they’ve taken the go big or go home approach. A local magazine recently came up with a list, but I think they’ve soft-peddled the “gone native” behavior. Missing from their list includes: 

1. You start dating the first woman who pays you any amount of attention—regardless of the reason—and propose to her one month later. 

2. When driving a motorbike (read: “scooter,” my friend; they’re all scooters), you call it a “motorcycle,” daub silver paint on it and call it “chrome,” and trick it out with ape-hanger handle bars and a chopped muffler for a more authentic bad ass look and sound. Which kinda doesn’t jive with the matching cartoon pink pig helmets your girlfriend insists the two of you wear.  

3. You’ve embraced mixing psychedelic patterns with colours not found in nature, otherwise you’d have to turn up at work naked because a) you only shop off the rack and b) the one white “work” shirt you came with went grey after the first wash. 

4. While you claim to “love” Vietnamese food you haven’t actually consumed any since about three months after you arrived. Delivery for Willy Woo’s Chicken and Waffles is on your speed dial. 

5. And speaking of which (and not really a sign of going native, but) you still don’t know how to hold or use chopsticks and it’s embarrassing watching grown adults put a stick in each hand and attempt to eat by stabbing their food. Which leads to…

6. You prefer to let your girlfriend feed you. In public. (For women see point #4.)

Hence the video below. It’s for the folks who haven’t adapted, but protest otherwise.

Shit Expats in Hanoi Say: A Parody by Ashley and Anemi
Uh, this video is pretty bang on. (Guilty, guilty, guilty for “backpackers” and “Lonely Planet” snorts of derision.) However, Ashley and Anemi’s account of life is way too clean. Down here in Saigon we’d have a far dirtier and potty-mouthed version of self-denial. Note the scarves and boots the expat Hanoians all favour. We’d start by mocking that first. 
Anyway, enjoy. We sure did. And then—of course—we ordered pizza.

Alley spa

Alley 214, Nguyen Trai Street

The rainy season is upon us and enterprising parents chuck their kids outside for a bath—whether they need it not. The downpours bring out the soap and shampoo as naked, lathered-up kids run around in circles, screeching in delight as exasperated Moms and Dads give chase with scrub brushes. 
This boy’s Mom clearly had better things to do than get soaked herself and voilà—bath time outside disguised as play. This happy camper was outside for over an hour and I’m guessing, longer than his normal indoor ablutions.

I cant imagine a better way to spend an afternoon.

Sow royale

Royal Palace grounds, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

This is a very early morning dress rehearsal for the Preah Reach Pithi Chrot Preah Neangkol, the Khmer Royal Ploughing Ceremony. On the auspicious day, specially chosen oxen will carve out furrows as the King of Cambodia watches and waves and ceremonial rice is planted to kick off the new rice-growing season. With the right prayers and blessings, the next harvest will be bountiful. Best of all, after the ceremonial ploughing, those lucky beasts of burden will be fed sweet green grass and whiskey for their efforts.


Lam Song Square, Ho Chi Minh City

This is the North Vietnamese Army’s Tank 843 which smashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon on the morning of April 30, 1975 bringing the long Vietnam War to an end. The day is observed as Liberation Day, while others refer to it as the Fall of Saigon. The compound was swiftly renamed Reunification Palace. Celebrations were decidedly low key for the 37th anniversary, but it seems to go hand in hand with most people’s preference not to dwell on things here and instead just get on with it.

The mood of this year’s poster seems to  capture that perfectly…no images of jubilant soldiers thrashing about or bewildered crowds of civilians in the street. Instead the tank is rendered in sepia tones with an almost cartoonish hand colouring of the Viet Cong flag, like an exclamation. Tank 843 has its pride of place on the Palace grounds to this day, but it has long been rumoured that it’s a replica and the real one is up in Hanoi. Others insist that tank (and any others like it) were salvaged in those austere post-war years as Vietnam still had battles to come with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and border wars with China in the north. But as Vietnam’s attention steadily turns from tanks to trade, perhaps just having a replica or two is not such a bad thing.