In Vietnam: The Ride to Work

It’s very hard to live in Vietnam without a motorbike or scooter to get around. When I first experienced the apparently chaotic traffic of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), I felt it would be crazy to get a bike. So I used taxis for a while, which are cheap by western standards. Buses in HCMC are also quite good, and very cheap – the average fare is less than $1. Then I tried Grab Bikes and Uber Bikes, which are basically motorcycle taxis, summoned via a phone app. At first, it was terrifying to ride on the back of these bikes, but the drivers are highly skilled and mostly quite conservative drivers – their livelihood depends on keeping clients alive.

When I left HCMC, I was hoping to find a city where I could get around on foot or push-bike with the occasional use of bus and taxi. Da Nang is a city about the same size as Adelaide, and just as spread out, if not more so. The bus routes do not seem to have a pattern designed to get people in and out of the city in any logical manner, at least not from the area where I live. There are no Grab or Uber bikes, though there are Grab and Uber taxis which are relatively cheap. An English teacher’s timetable here usually involves working a few hours each weekday evening, and then weekend mornings and evenings. In other words, multiple trips for relatively short working hours. Using taxis is inconvenient. They are not the most reliable and you have to build in a time buffer to allow for situations where the taxi can’t find you or just doesn’t show up.

So getting a motorbike was probably inevitable. You can rent one for about $50 a month which is what I’ve done. For that, the company will come and fix it for you if it breaks down, and service it for you every two months. The traffic in Da Nang is nowhere near as chaotic as in HCMC, though it is crazy enough. My ride to and from work in the city can be quite breathtaking, in more ways than one. But in particular, the ride over the Dragon Bridge at night always thrills me.

Once you’ve ridden for a while, you pick up the unwritten rules: peripheral vision is paramount; nudge forward at intersections and roundabouts until the traffic from your left stops, then proceed; don’t tangle with trucks or buses, their drivers take no prisoners; use your horn all the time to let vehicles around you know you’re there; at intersections and roundabouts, try to ride in a pack and keep downstream of other bikes, using them as a barrier between you and oncoming traffic; don’t expect indicators to be used; don’t bother with road rage, nobody else does; don’t be shocked by anything you see, such as babies sitting on wicker stools between the driver’s legs, children with no helmets, women riding side-saddle, constant use of mobile phones even in the heaviest traffic, seemingly impossible loads of crates, boxes, building equipment, ladders, pipes. Having said that, I’ve only seen a handful of crashes, none of them too serious, and people generally have a co-operative and tolerant attitude towards other road users.

So here’s a recording of my ride to work on a relatively quiet Sunday evening.

Tip: click on the Settings icon and change the speed to 2x, then click on the full screen icon. If you want to skip the suburban commute, the Dragon Bridge to city bit starts around 7 mins 15 secs

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— Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017

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Film Review: “I Am Not Your Negro”

 

James Baldwin was a writer of short stories, novels, poetry and essays, perhaps best known for his semi-autobiographical work “Go Tell it on the Mountain”. This astonishing documentary is an insight into his thinking about racism in America. The title comes from his searing statement:

What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I’m a man. If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question.”

Baldwin suffered the loss of three of his heroes, murdered in the pursuit of racial equality: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. King wanted peaceful resistance, Malcolm X active resistance. Evers mounted legal challenges against racist institutions. They were all assassinated, presumably because any kind of questioning of the status quo was seen as a threat to  white dominance. Baldwin sought to confront and challenge white attitudes and white ignorance with his written words and his eloquent and passionate speeches.

His words are at times spoken by Samuel L. Jackson, or taken from footage of his speeches.  One prime source is a debate at which he spoke in front of what looks like a completely white and, given the setting, upper class audience at Cambridge University. These segments are interspersed with historical and more contemporary footage of racial incidents such as police brutality in America. This interweaving of words and images highlights how prophetic Baldwin’s words were and how racism is perhaps even more established in the U.S.A (and Australia) now than it was thirty or forty years ago.

The U.S.A. now has a president who defines himself by his whiteness, whose followers are aggressively defensive of their right to be racist. Similar trends can be seen in Australia, where senior ministers defend “the right to be a bigot”. This documentary raises the basic question: Why do we (the dominant whites) need to create and subjugate an “other”, whether that “other” is people of a darker skin, refugees, Jews or people with a different sexual orientation?

 

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017.

In Vietnam : the Dumpling Man – “Bánh Bao Đây”

In Vietnamese cities, there is always something happening. The streets hum all day and into the night. People are on the street cooking and selling food, eating food, drinking coffee, drinking beer, playing cards and Xiangqi (a draughts-like board game), riding motorbikes and bicycles, selling lottery tickets; on the move or just hanging out. There’s nearly always a background buzz, a babble of voices, a drone of engines, a beeping of motorbike horns, a clatter of construction activity, cocks crowing, dogs barking, geese honking, people shouting, call and response.

One  of the first things I noticed was the regular amplified announcements from blokes on motorbikes. At first I thought these were party political slogans on behalf of the communist party, and I think some of them might be e.g. reminders that the capitalist imperialists were defeated, or that a party meeting is coming up.

But the more common announcements, night and day, are those from the motorbike mounted dumpling (bánh bao) and soup vendors. They drive around the city streets with great metal pots strapped to either side of the backs of their bikes. A wood fire underneath the pot keeps the dumplings and soup hot. I dread to think of the results of being involved in a collision with one, but that is only one of the hazards of driving a motorbike in this country.

Until about 10 years ago, they would cycle or motorcycle around the city streets, shouting out their pleas for people to buy their hot food: “Bánh Bao Đây” (Dumplings here). Being heard above the constant din of Vietnamese city streets would have put a great strain on the vocal chords. So someone had the idea of rigging up a loudspeaker and a looped, pre-recorded message powered by the motorbike battery. Now the amplified, nasal recorded call can be heard several streets away, until the early hours of the morning. They all sound like the same announcement to me, and I wonder if they all use the same recording, and if the originator gets royalties!

I used to curse these characters, especially if they woke me up just as I’d fallen asleep. But after a bit of investigation, I came across this wonderful mini-documentary by Angus Ashton. Angus is an Australian photographer who has obviously spent quite a bit of time in Vietnam. His short film tells the story of one such dumpling seller, in Hue, just north of Đà Nẵng. It reminded me of what a hard life many Vietnamese people have, and how privileged I am to live the easy life I do. Like many Vietnamese people, the dumpling sellers work bloody hard just to survive, and to give his children a better life.

I haven’t sampled the dumplings yet, my vegetarianism being the excuse for avoiding them. But when I go to Hue, I will search him out.

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017
except documentary: © Angus Ashton 2013 http://www.angusashtonfilm.com

 

 

In Vietnam, things are not always what they seem – Part 1 – The Birdhouse

Swiftlet

I’ve moved to Đà Nẵng, a lovely and bustling city on the mid-coast of Vietnam, roughly half-way between Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon/ HCMC) and the capital, Hanoi. I found a teaching job fairly quickly at VAS (the Vietnam-Australia School), and when I was sure this is the place I wanted to be, I started looking for a place to live. Having lived in hotel rooms and bed and breakfasts for nearly 2 months, I wanted a bit of space, where I wouldn’t spend the days and evenings sitting on my bed, with my laptop balanced on my legs, where I would be able to cook my own meals when I wanted to, and make my own tea and coffee. But the biggest challenge in Vietnam is to find a place that’s not right next to a construction site, with jack hammers going 12 or more hours a day.

When I came across an apartment on the 2nd floor of a small block, in a quiet back lane near the beach with lots of locals around, and not surrounded by expat high rises, I snapped it up. One of the things I especially noticed was the birdsong, which is not common in Vietnamese cities, and the large number of small birds flying around the vicinity. It seemed all very promising.

After a rocky start, when nothing, and I mean nothing, worked in the apartment, I eventually settled in and am very happy with the place and especially the lovely area. I’m a 2 minute run to the beautiful My An beach, a 1 minute run to the local gym, and a 5 minute stroll to some great coffee shops and cafes. Plus the motorbike ride to school is only 10-15 minutes. Good choice, and I was enjoying the bird song.

Early on, I opened all the windows to let the cool sea breeze give me some natural aircon, when in flew 3 small birds, circling the living room  at enormous speed and depositing droppings on the walls. This happened a couple of times before I realised why the previous occupants hung makeshift curtains across the open windows – to discourage exactly this eventuality.

I thought not much more of it, until last weekend when I had a much appreciated visit from fellow ex-TESOL students: Gaby and Nicholas who came by train from Hue, and Victoria who flew up from HCMC. Walking back from the beach one evening with Victoria, I mentioned the bird incident and  the fact that the birds seemed particularly attracted to the strange-looking apartment block just nearby. We observed that the apartment had no proper windows, no balcony and generally looked more like a bunker than an apartment. Then Victoria suggested it might be a “bird house” – a place built to attract swiftlets in order to harvest their nests for bird’s nest soup.

 

Victoria was right. The bird song which attracted me to the apartment is actually a recording of swiftlets, pumped out through a loudspeaker, to lure the birds to the birdhouse, where they will then build their nests. The nests are harvested to make a medicinal soup. The bird saliva is said to have great healing powers. Nests can fetch up to $2,000 per kg, which is big, big money in Vietnam.

Birds-nest-in-Vietnam.jpg

Now that I know the bird song is a recording, it somehow doesn’t seem quite the same. In Vietnam, what you see and hear, is often not be quite what it seems to be.

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016 except for dried bird’s nest pictured from Pho Yen, 86-88 Ham Nghi Street, District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City, Asia Life Magazine as per link.

 

Kurdiji 1.0 is making progress!

Kurdiji 1.0

Thanks to the generosity and support of thousands of people, including volunteers, advisers and financial backers, Kurdiji 1.0 app is underway. We have spent one extended period in community and have a very rough working prototype. Our crowdfunding campaign brought in $250,000 – only $30,000 short of our original (very ambitious) goal. And while we have stopped campaigning for now, you can still donate via the GoFundMe page at http://www.kurdijiproject.com

kurdiji mockup .

While we can’t upload our prototype until we have permission from cultural owners, we can show you the first of our landing pages – the emu is, of course, the dark nebula in the Milky Way, the cosmic emu which is sacred to all Australian Aboriginal people.

We all head back on country in 3-4 weeks and, at this stage, we are hoping to have a complete first version of the app completed by early January – and to…

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Award Winning Australian Writing 2017 – I’m in it

Dear Mike,

I have the greatest pleasure in informing you that your piece, ‘My Father’s Blood’, has been selected for inclusion in Award Winning Australian Writing 2017.

Your piece will be proofread in order to adhere to Melbourne Books’ House Style (e.g. em-dashes, single quotation marks, etc.), but no major editorial changes will be made.

We will publish your work on a non-exclusive basis, meaning you are free to publish it elsewhere if you wish. You retain all rights to your work.

The launch will be held on 30 August. More details will be sent out shortly. We hope to have some people reading extracts from their winning work at the event, so please let us know if you like to be one of them.

In the meantime, keep up to date with Melbourne Books’ Writers’ Hub and AWAW on Facebook. We might post excerpts of your work on our Facebook page, so remember to Like us and share our posts with your friends. Please let us know if you’d like us to share any video or audio recordings of you reading your piece.

Thanks for being part of this exciting collection! We will be touch again soon.

Kind regards,

AWAW 2017 Editorial Committee

 


The poem, about my late father, won first prize in the Salisbury Writers’ Competition in 2016. Read it here: