Santa salute

Oh, that’s a sweet nutcracker

Buffalo Surf caught this Santa on the fly today and as you can see, it was hard to resist his charms. This is why Vietnam can be a fun place to live—it’s highly adaptive. Others would say interpretive, but that’s splitting hairs. If you are in the seasonal spirit but don’t quite have all the fixings, you make do. Out in District 7 this skinny Ray-Ban wearing mannequin greets customers heading into a karaoke bar. Sexy Santa if you will, while the eye takes in the droopy pillow-stuffed belly, that jacket reveals all the reward: “Ho ho ho,” he whispers, “I’m not really a fat bastard. Clap your eyes upon my creamy chest and glistening pecs.” Now Ken here isn’t in possession of any pants (and many aren’t after a long night of karaoke), so he finds himself draped in red fabric and bow, but still keeping it real with that sly model pout. The only thing we’re just not so sure of is if Santa is trying to hail some drunken reindeer back to the sleigh or if he’s dropping a coy Hello Kitty for the cognoscenti. 

Saigon seasonal

Nativity scene Hoang Sa Street, District 1, HCMC

Since the world didn’t end last week, the neighbours have turned their attention from stockpiling tinned fish and rice (and forbidding family members to leave the house) and are instead focussed on bright lights and all things tinsel-y. While some might argue we have short attention spans here, I say it’s Vietnamese pragmatism at its best. No sense dwelling on what did or didn’t happen, just move on.

A few doors down the neighbour who was hoarding salt for the Apocalypse now has twinkling lights strung across a doorway and pious offerings to the ancestors in the form of fresh fruit and dainty cups of tea. Elsewhere flashing Jesus stars pulsate from houses and shop fronts. Red, blue, yellow, green, there is a giant paper star for every personality with matching Bible scenes and varying amounts of tinsel glued to the points. Plug it in and you’re good to go, signalling your alignment with the season and all that is ho ho ho. I’d like one but I’m afraid it will burn the house down.
Decorations include strings of gold beads, plastic wrapped roses and my favourite, honest to god disco balls. Small children dressed in Sana suits are forced to pose in front of baying reindeer pulling sleighs of snow-dusted refrigerators and TVs. It is 36°C and everyone is in Santa hats. Music thumps out of the cafes and clothing stores and there’s a run on tin foil as this is a particularly near-to-the-heart decorating accessory in these parts.   
Around town the church grottoes have become more spectacularly competitive over the years. Nativity scenes have life-size Baby Jesus lying about in his manger looking smug as flocks of genuflecting visitors bring prezzies and apparently, cash. Paper money is strewn all over the place in a seamless blurring of Christmas and the Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tet). These decorations will be up until the middle of February. 
“Come over here, you sit here, no pushing,” says a flustered, but extremely polite Young Pioneer with red scarf tied around her neck. She and other Communist Youth League kids are doing their best to control the church crowds that have turned up to watch the nuns corral dancing angels, mini-Santas in their boob-tube dresses with faux white fur trim and a precariously balanced camel that threatens to go ass over tea kettle into the wee shepherds.  
All this from a nation that is officially atheist with the next nearest “religious belief” (Buddhism) clocking in at less than 10 per cent of the population.  

Tea and driving

Da Bac district, Hoa Binh province

Buffalo Surf spent a week in northern Vietnam doing field visits for work. One of the provinces I went to was Hoa Binh and it reminded me a lot of Vancouver Island where I last lived. Hoa Binh is mountainous and in the winter, rainy and foggy. One night coming out of our small wood hotel’s restaurant, I looked up and thought the mountain range was on fire. A red sheet of light glowed ominously in the fog at the top, but it turns out it was just the spot lights around a giant statue of Ho Chi Minh pointing the way to freedom.


As you can see, there is much poverty in Vietnam that needs to be tackled. There are cook-stove initiatives afoot by the government to reduce the respiratory ailments that come from a lifetime of wood or charcoal smoke in your home. Some kitchens I stood in were so smokey that my eyes smarted and it felt like something was sitting on my chest.
I also thought often of toilets—as I do—because there is much tea and driving when you’re visiting project sites for work. Much tea because the government officials are very polite and refill your cup unhesitating, but there are many officials and many small offices that need to be acknowledged. I was surprised by how many of those offices had such crap toilets, if you’ll pardon the expression. Government workers with no running water themselves. The stench at times was unbearable. 


There is much driving because northern Vietnam is spacious with rough terrain and the people are a little more spread out than in the crowded south. I thought often of rural woman at home with small children having to manage with some of the toilets I saw and used.  

I know why the caged bird sings

Binh Thanh district, Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnamese government hysteria whenever anyone pulls out a guitar is back in red alert mode, with authorities sending two singer-songwriters to prison. 
Vo Minh Tri and Tran Vu Anh Binh were sentenced to four and six years in prison, respectively, on charges of spreading propaganda against the state, said one of the trial lawyers. The musicians had faced sentences of up to 20 years a piece.
Tri was found guilty of criticizing the government’s seeming indifference to China’s increasingly aggressive territorial poaching attempts in the South China Sea. His song video “Where is My Vietnam?” (Viet Nam Toi Dau) has been viewed more than 775,000 times on YouTube. Buffalo Surf blogged about anti-China protests here. Binh’s crime was to write and sing songs about recently imprisoned bloggers such as Nguyen Van Hai (Peasant’s Pipe blog), again using YouTube as a forum in the run up to Hai’s trial, with a song called “Courage in the Dark Prison” (Nguc Toi Hien Ngang). A post about the continuing harassment and imprisonment of writers and bloggers in Vietnam was also posted here.
I realize the title of my post is taken from a memoir of rape, racism and repression in the American South of the 1930s and ’40s (and in turn its title lifted from the poem below), but the cry is the same:
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.   
—Paul Laurence Dunbar, “Sympathy,” circa 1899
Long jail sentences ensue because of an itty bitty guitar waved in the face of an intolerant regime.  

Don’t be evil

Halloween hangovers abound—for some too much sugar; for others still trying to remove the Dracula face paint; and for the rest, the next day regrets of how much a wig or mask can transform one’s self, even the most reserved among us, if just for one dark spooky night.
But all the ghosts and ghouls got me thinking. Living in Vietnam can produce a shed-load of daily negativity and well, that’s beastly: the news reports of fake doctors; endless rip-offs; corruption; turf warfare; scary economics; do we really need to mention the traffic again; moaning expats; and WTF moments that can reduce a grown man (or, on occasion, woman) to tears. So when an offering in solidarity and peace comes along, you snatch at it, like greedy Gollum and his Precious.
A friend (and—full disclosure—former roommate) recently caught the eye of a national television station and its weekly show Impressive Vietnam
Catch Stu on TV being, perhaps, not like the rest of us hobgoblins.  
Note: for those who are time-challenged or impatient start at 3:37 into the video and don’t worry, there’s great subtitles.


Transcending duality

My day timer for work really is just a notebook. I tend to pile through quite a number of them so I’m not fussy about size and colour as long as it’s coil-bound. My current notebook charms me because this is what it says on its plastic front cover:
Thank gravity
Let me meet you
Gentle lovely woman who makes my heart
Naughty me crazy cute woman
Makes me beautiful women cute red
Gently lovely woman who makes my heart
I moved a transparent
The bottom right hand corner has a photo of a take-away coffee cup and chocolate bar with a talk balloon full of musical notes that says “Hot! hot ouch”
Zen koans ain’t got nothing on Chinese manufacturing. 

Bad karma

A monk-like substance?

Buffalo Surf has blogged about fake food and toiletries, the country awash in fake alcohol and cigarettes, fake household goods and name-brand clothing, and fake art and electronics.
Copyright in Vietnam is a loose translation at best and more frequently observed as “right to copy.”
Thus the story of the village with the “special job.” A news outlet uncovered a village in the northeast of the country where the day job of choice is being a fake Buddhist monk. The monks roam the streets and communes of the province selling overpriced incense, performing divination and taking up donations for Buddhist temples. The more determined cheats wear shorn heads and apparently have the new houses to prove how lucrative business is.
One more hazard to navigate on the highways and byways of Vietnam.

Wicked plot of the hostile forces

A police officer blocks photographers at a July anti-China protest in front of Hanoi’s Opera House (Reuters/Nguyen Lan Thang via Committee to Protect Journalists)

I missed a part of this story when Buffalo Surf was on leave this summer.

Vietnam has tried and sentenced three bloggersto long jail terms.  According to Reporters Without Borders Vietnam continues its race to the bottom to be among the world’s most restrictive countries for freedom of the press and speech, ranking 172 alongside China (174), with North Korea (178) and Eritrea (179) placing dead last. There are only 179 countries ranked.
Blogger Nguyen Van Hai, who writes under the name Dieu Cay (The Peasant’s Pipe), was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Hai wrote about Chinese repression in Tibet and Beijing’s claims on the Paracel and Spratly Islands, which Vietnam and other countries also claim. Ta Phuong Tan, a former policewoman turned activist, received a ten-year sentence for blogging about, among other things, the mistreatment of children and illegal land confiscations by the authorities for resort developments. She was charged with disseminating “anti-state propaganda.”
The third blogger, Phan Thanh Hai, a legal activist blogging under the name Anh Ba Saigon, pled guilty and received a four-year sentence in return for his promise to have “no further contact with anti-state people.” 
But the story Buffalo Surf missed was the anguish of the mother of the policewoman (and Communist Party member) turned blogger, Ta Phuong Tan. Tan had been detained since January and in protest and despair, Tan’s mother set herself on fire in front of a municipal building in Saigon in July and died. Less than three months later her daughter was sentenced. 
The Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, defended the harsh prison sentences because the government was so clearly up against a “wicked plot of …hostile forces.” He also ordered civil servants not to read the blogs. He offered no comment on the horrific self-immolation of Tan’s mother.
Vietnam cannot hope to leverage its liberalized economy with the world while it continues to shackle the media and jail journalists.


Photograph: David Shrigley

I have recently discovered a peculiar British illustrator who makes me laugh. Buffalo Surf always welcomes guffaws—the big braying ones are best. The illustrator is David Shrigley and he has a new book out called How are You Feeling? At the Centre of the Inside of the Human Brain’s Mind which is as good a title for a non-self-help book as any other, I guess. He’s an odd duck and so are his pictures, more of which you can access here. Shrigley offers up common sense aphorisms disguised as noodlings that are sure to annoy, but the DIY vibe is just-right messy and irresistible.  

Random 9

Hanoi (click picture for more ducks!)                                                        

Traffic is never far from one’s thoughts in Vietnam because, well, it’s just so in your face. But on occasion, the frustration and complaining is replaced by outright laughter. 
VietNamNet News brings you a photo essay about the “performing ‘circus’ on Vietnam’s roads.”

Hat tip to the sailor in Halifax who pinned me this traffic related photo