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

.

— Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017

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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.

—–

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

 

 

Poem a Day 2015 #30 – Not for You

 

Poem number 30 for April 2015. The final one. I’ll miss NaPoWriMo, because it makes me write every day.

Like many people, I’m very uncomfortable with the exploitation of patriotism by politicians, and the selective commemoration of some wars but not others. On Anzac day in Canberra, an aboriginal man was prevented from marching. He had a banner saying “Lest we Forget – The Frontier Wars” (referring to the people killed in undeclared wars between settlers and the aboriginal population). He is an ex-serviceman and wanted to march in commemoration of his dead colleagues, but also in commemoration of aboriginal people killed in the frontier wars. A policeman told him “this day is not for you”.

The Australian War Memorial website says that Anzac Day “.. is the day on which we remember Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.”

Poem now submitted for publication

 

 

Read more at  New Matilda

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015

Poem a Day 2015 #27 – Inherent Vice

Poem number 27 for April 2015. Over the weekend I watched a very strange and very (to me) amusing film called “Inherent Vice”. It’s based on a Thomas Pynchon novel and features Joaquin Phoenix (great actor) as a spaced out, hippy private detective operating (I think) out of a dentist’s surgery, or maybe it’s a gynaecologist’s, I’m not 100% sure. Anyway, I marvelled at some of the dialogue, which is presumably Pynchon’s. I’ve taken several quotes from the film, and messed around with them to come up with some loose sort of arrangement of words.

Inherent vice

He was insulated
by secret loyalties
and codes of silence
until she arrived
like a bad luck planet
in his horoscope

she lay on him
a heavy combination
of face ingredients
he couldn’t read

her appetites ranged
from epic to everyday
he became
a hippy-hating mad dog
of Flintstone proportions
a little shit-twinkle
in his eye

gazing on her like
a precious cargo
that couldn’t be insured
but she was working
with a dark crew

by winter
she had removed
every trace of soul
he once had

His last words:
“It’s groovy being insane man”

 

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015

Pashtun Podcasting

Pashto Landay – Afghan Women Poets from Franco Pachtoune on Vimeo.

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. I found an app called Stitcher, which you can load onto your smartphone. It allows you to search by topic and will return any matching podcasts it can find. You can then listen on your phone whilst out walking, running, at the gym or relaxing on the couch. I tend to listen whilst at the gym – lets me feel I’m getting some mental stimulation as well as a physical workout, takes the mind off the tedium and mostly blocks out the terrible piped music that they blast out (despite the fact that 90% of gym goers are, like me, listening to something else on their phones).

Anyway, the Poetry Foundation has a great series of podcasts and one in particular grabbed my attention. It was about a form of poetry handed down orally from generation to generation of Pashtun women. Anybody who thinks that Afghani women are timid, conservative things should listen to this. The poems, called ‘Landay’ are often bawdy, angry, rebellious and downright hilarious. The word ‘Landay’ can be translated as ‘a short, poisonous snake’ – which tells you that the poems can have a bite. For example:

You sold me to an old goat father
May God destroy your home, I was your daughter

and

You wound a fat turban around your bald head
To hide from me your age and that you are nearly dead

and

Slide your hand into my bra
Stroke a red and ripening pomegranate of Kandahar

The landay is a two-line poem, of 22 syllables. Though I think this applies to the original Pashto version, because the English translations are not necessarily 22 syllables. There is a detailed description of landays here.

The podcast I listened to was an interview with Eliza Griswold, who collaborated with photographer Seamus Murphy to document Afghan life through the prism of these landays. Above is a beautifully shot short film made by them, which provides great insight into the lives of Pashtun women.

Revolting

 

On Sunday I took part in the “March in May” demonstration in Adelaide, from Victoria Square to State Parliament. There were marches all over the country, protesting against the Abbott governments budget cuts to health, education, pensions, the ABC, and any other sector you care to name which Abbott does not like. The Murdoch media, predictably, was dismissive. The Sunday Telegraph headline was “The Ferals are Revolting”. Clearly the reporter had not noted the broad cross-section of Australian society represented by the demonstrators: school children, teenagers, parents, grand parents – every age group and every walk of life. Abbott has succeeded where Labor had failed – he has re-mobilised those who believe in a progressive Australia.

In the evening, coincidentally, I watched a gripping documentary called “The Square”, which happened to be about political demonstrators gathering in another square:  Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011. The documentary tracks four or five participant in the demonstrations: a Muslim, a couple of young activists, a singer and an actor Khalid Abdalla, who starred in “The Kite Runner”. The demonstrations led to the overthrow of the oppressive Mubarak regime, only to see it replaced by brutal military rule. They then forced the end of military rule to see it replaced by the rule of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Again they forced the end of Morsi’s regime in 2013.

It is an incredible insight into a complex situation, which I had barely understood before. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Rotten Tomatoes gives it 100% and describes it as “… an immersive experience, transporting the viewer deeply into the intense emotional drama and personal stories behind the news”. You can watch the whole film on the net here and here.

I took some quotes from the film and, with some minor alterations, have combined them into a sort of collage:

 

The Square

They will take you away

for dreaming the wrong dream

 

The rich don’t demand freedom

Because they already have it

 

They made two ballot boxes

One for the killers

One for the traitors

 

We are not looking for a leader

We are looking for a conscience

 

Religion is not in a book or on paper

Religion is in your head and your heart

 

They are gassing the hospitals

Even the doctors are dying

 

The good and free are called traitors

The traitors are called heroes

 

The Square united us all

 

© Mike Hopkins 2014, except for quotes from "The Square"

The Suppository of All Wisdom

“No one, however smart, however well educated, however experienced, is the suppository of all wisdom” – Tony Abbott, Liberal Party leader, August 11 2013-08-12

 

I,

the Suppository of all Wisdom,

have been secreted

in the warmest, moistest,

darkest place

by the carefully manicured

vaselined finger

of Rupert Murdoch.

I will be hidden

in Rupert’s passage

until election day.

In the meantime

the role of ‘wisdom dispensers’

will be filled

by newspaper editors.

Ultimately,

he will void me

into the vitreous.

Tony and Australia

can then depend entirely

on Rupert’s wise counsel.

copyright Mike Hopkins 2013

 

 

The Artist Is Present

Many people eschew Facebook. (I don’t.) It’s a useful tool if you use it properly (I don’t).  If you’ve got a few interesting Facebook friends (like my friend and performance poet Robin Archbold), who share interesting videos with you, then it’s all worthwhile. Thank you Robin for passing this one to me, with the words “sometimes words are obsolete”. So of course, I immediately reached for a pen.

The background story:

Marina Abramovic and Ulay started an intense love affair in the 1970s, performing art out of the van they lived in. When they felt the relationship had run its course, they decided, in 1988, to walk the Great Wall of China starting from opposite ends. Ulay started from the Gobi Desert and Marina from the Yellow Sea. After each of them had walked 2500 km, they met in the middle and said good-bye, never intending to see each other again. In her 2010 MoMa retrospective Marina performed ‘The Artist Is Present’ in which she spends a minute of silence with each stranger who sits in front of her. Ulay turned up unexpectedly.

Present

She sits

waits

eyes closed

lips moist

breathes.

Footsteps.

Opens.

A stranger.

Looks deep

drinks in a face

acknowledges

respects

attends

closes

breathes.

Foot steps.

Opens.

A stranger

acknowledges

respects

attends

closes

breathes.

Foot steps.

Opens.

A stranger

another

another

acknowledges

respects

attends

closes

breathes.

Footsteps.

Opens.

It is him

opens wider

opens wider

wider

wider

shockwaves

breathes, breathes, breathes

no air

tears

breathes, breathes

he sits

exhales

a nod

a  smile

tears

she leans

pushes her hands

he smiles

he leans

first touch in twenty years

whispers

tears

leans back

he is gone

closes.

Footsteps.

Hope.

Opens

not him

closes

opens

not him

closes

tears

he is gone.

Fixing his face

behind lids

breathes.

Opens.

Looks deep

drinks in a face

which is not his

acknowledges

respects

attends

closes.


copyright Mike Hopkins 2013.