In Vietnam : The Market Divided

 

It took me a few weeks of living in this area of Đà Nẵng to discover the Bắc Mỹ An Market. Previously I’d bought fruit and vegetables at the supermarket, where an assistant weighs your produce on a digital scale, presses a button on a computer to calculate the cost, puts it into the inevitable plastic bag and slaps the computer generated sticky price label on it. No doubt about the price, it’s whatever appears on the label.

The Bắc Mỹ An is mostly a tourist and expat free zone. The stall holders speak little or no English. There are no computers or even cash tills. They keep their cash in a bag or purse. They have old-fashioned mechanical scales. Prices per kilogram or per piece are sometimes shown on pieces of cardboard, sometimes not. It’s very useful to know the basic Vietnamese numbers so that you can understand what they’re asking you to pay, decide if it’s reasonable or not, and hand over the correct amount of dong.

I was, and still am, a bit trepidatious about the market. It’s common knowledge that tourists and expats will usually be charged more than locals in markets. I don’t mind that as long as it’s not outrageously more than the local price. But the interesting thing I’ve noticed in Bac My An is that the stall holders at one end of the market, the eastern end, are almost uniformly pleasant, smiling and charge me pretty close to what they probably charge the locals (ok, call me naive). I can’t prove that, without recruiting a local to go around and buy the same as me, and compare prices, but I always feel that the price is very reasonable. However, at the western end of the market the stall holders seem intent on trying to gouge a lot more out of me for the same produce. I stress that this is just my impression, based on a small number of visits and interactions.

Today, at the east end of the market, I bought a hand of bananas (15,000 dong, about A$1), two dragon fruit (25,000 dong, about A$1.50), two mangoes (20,000 dong, about A$1.25), four potatoes and 5 tomatoes (25,000 dong, about A$1.50). All with very pleasant interactions and a few giggles as I tried to slowly translate “hai mươi lăm” and “mười lăm” (25 and 15 respectively, which means the price is 25,000 and 15,000 dong). I’m sure a longer term, more street savvy resident could have got the prices down, and a Vietnamese person would pay less again. I don’t bother to haggle, though I have given the bag back and walked away when I thought the price was outrageous.  To me, the prices I paid today are still bloody cheap, and I’m more than happy to keep buying from those stalls.

A number of times I’ve mistakenly given the stall holder way too much – for instance a 100,000 note thinking it was a 10,000 note – and they’ve given it straight back, pointing out my mistake. Mind you, there could have been times when they kept it and I was none-the-wiser, but I don’t think so.

At the other end of the market, I’ve been charged more than twice as much for dragon fruit, and three times as much for mangoes. I sense, perhaps incorrectly, that there is a more predatory attitude – a sort of “here’s a mark, here’s my chance to make a bit of easy money out of him”. In the overall scheme of things, it’s still petty cash to me, but significant to them, so I can’t blame them for trying. But the end result is that I don’t go back to the west-enders, and I continue to patronise the east-enders. It’s just a more relaxed, pleasant experience.

If my observations are accurate, I wonder how the different cultures developed in this one, smallish market. Do “honest” stall holders tend to hang out together, set up stall next to like-minded people? Do they berate “mean” vendors and banish them to the other end of the market?

On a macro-level, Đà Nẵng people seem to generally be pleasant, friendly and welcoming to foreigners. Friends who have lived in another Vietnamese city, which I won’t name, tell me that people there seem to be mean-spirited, hostile to foreigners and to resent their presence. How does this happen? I have sensed this in other countries too. You can arrive in a town and get a feeling about it – comfortable, uncomfortable, mean, friendly, hospitable, cold, safe, unsafe. This might be down to your first few interactions with people, and, no-doubt, two people can react in completely opposite ways to the same place. I know lots of people who like Melbourne for instance, but whenever I go there I have a sense of dislocation; there’s something about the place, the people, the culture of the city that just always makes me feel out-of-place. I have cycled a fairly short distance between towns in Cuba and sensed entirely different atmospheres. There are towns in Ireland that feel mean and cold, and others that feel warm and friendly, to me at least.

I’m very happy to have discovered the lovely people at the east-end of Bắc Mỹ An, and to be in a city where the atmosphere is one of openness and welcome, rather than suspicion and hostility.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017
Advertisements

In Vietnam: APEC Upheaval

APEC 2017 has finally descended on  Đà Nẵng. Well it’s been descending for weeks, with never-ending motorcades, police motorcycle outriders and blaring sirens hooning up and down the beach road near where I live. Trump, Merkel, Putin and others are about to, or have arrived and will be staying in the most upmarket of hotels and resorts. Unfortunately, the city has been hit by a typhoon in the last week, and is not looking its best. The efforts of the city elders to install new toilets and rubbish bins, to screen off unsightly wasteland, and to generally spruce up the city, have largely been undone by days of damaging winds, torrential rain and high tides.

The schools are closed for the next two days (Friday and Saturday 10th and 11th November 2017) in honour of APEC. Tonight was to be my last class until Sunday, but I didn’t make it into the city, because the authorities decided to close the three main bridges over the Han River during rush hour, presumably to allow APEC limousines to carry their precious cargo to their plush hotels without having to wrestle with Đà Nẵng traffic. After an hour or so scooting back and forth. along with thousands and thousands of other confused  Đà Nẵngians, trying to find a way across, I eventually gave up and went home. But I can now look forward to 4 of the next 5 days off and hopefully a return to normality next week.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017

In Vietnam: The Pharmacy – Nhà thuốc

There are pharmacies on most busy streets in Vietnamese cities, sometimes several. They are usually small shop fronts with a counter or window opening straight onto the street. Unusually for Vietnam, they usually have a small number of staff on duty. I say unusually, because most shops have numerous staff. A smallish bakery might have half a dozen staff serving. Pharmacies tend to have one person in a white coat and one assistant. Customers will sometimes ride straight up to the window on their motorbikes.

I was once waiting to be served in Ho Chi Minh City, when a guy on a motorbike pulled up right in front of me (queuing is not a custom in Vietnam), and asked for one condom. The girl behind the counter duly got out a packet of three, opened them up, tore off one condom from the strip, and served it to him. As a friend of mine said “not a long-term relationship then”.

The same applies to other products. You can buy a strip of paracetamol instead of the whole packet, or you can buy x days supply. They are happy to cut off the required number of pills from the blister pack or count out loose pills from a bottle.

Anyone can buy antibiotics or other medications without a prescription at these Nhà thuốc.  Vietnamese public hospitals are overcrowded and of questionable quality. Vietnamese people tend to self-diagnose and self-prescribe, and often they will self-prescribe antibiotics. I recently went to a Nhà thuốc because I had a cold and wanted something to relieve my sinus congestion and sore throat. The first question was “do you want some antibiotics?”. Unsurprisingly,  Vietnam has a very high incidence of antibiotic-resistant infections.

The white coated staff members may or may not have some sort of qualification. I’m guessing  most do not. They are, however, almost always helpful and attentive, and will do their best to find what you are looking for or an equivalent. Google searches have been done almost every time I’ve called in. The range of drugs available is limited however. There are some drugs I have prescriptions for from Australia, that I can’t get here.

Everything is securely locked in glass cabinets, probably to prevent theft. This can mean, for non-Vietnamese speakers like me, a lengthy process of pointing to various packs on shelves “no up, left, down, right, yes that one” in order to retrieve something that may or may not be what you are looking for.

Apparently each pharmacy has to be registered to a qualified pharmacist, but there is no requirement for the staff to be qualified. The white coat probably means little. If you’re worried about drug interactions or correct dosage, you’d better check that yourself.

The pictures here are a couple of typical pharmacies, close to where I live in Danang

 

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017

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

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