29
Dec
11

Á-lô, is it me you’re looking for?

A friend linked me to “Foreign tongues don’t always come easy” on CNN’s website with the note “Is this you at all Paul?”

(As a quick summary of the article, the author laments his English-language monolingualism, and makes the following points: Anglophones have it easy because everywhere else, English is the fallback language of dealing with foreigners; and that the best approach is to get over your what you lack when speaking a second language, and work with what you have. But he puts it much more amusingly. Read that article. Maybe in a new window or tab so you don’t forget to come back here.)

I identified quite strongly with the author’s experiences of performance anxiety in high-school language class onwards, and the feeling of frustration when one knows precisely what one wants to say in one’s native language, but lacks the words, the grammar or simply the finesse to express it in another language.

So the quick answer is “yes, this is totally me”.

If you’re bored already, or you came here looking for more “ugly cake”, then this is a safe point for you to stop, without leaving loose story threads. It’s going to turn into a mess of story threads shortly, of course.

On a side-note, “ugly cake” was one of the two Google search terms that led someone to this blog yesterday. If I’m reading the WordPress.com control panel correctly, it was an image search. Sure enough, there on the first page of Google Image Search for “ugly cake” (without quotes), is my ugly cake. And it’s the only ugly cake on the first page, I think. The rest are merely confronting or bizarre. There’s one that appears to be a “Happy Hysterectomy” cake, for example. They do get ugly further on though.

I wonder if this means Google now ranks my opinion highly on matters of ugliness, cake, or merely on the specific topic of ugly cake…

On Sunday (Christmas) I had dinner with my landlords and a daughter thereof who happened to be home. I think they felt sorry for me because I was here in a strange country by myself, and all my local friends had returned to their home-towns for the weekend. I base this thought entirely on the fact that my invitation for dinner had arrived the evening after I mentioned this as being the case to said daughter.

After dinner, chatting with my landlady in very broken Vietnamese — mine, that is. I assume hers is native-level — we touched upon the topic of learning languages. Any conversation I have with a Vietnamese person that proceeds long enough will eventually include the question “Why study Vietnamese.” That seems natural enough a question, of course. Sometimes it’s “why come to Vietnam” but the focus is “Why Vietnam, as opposed to somewhere else”, rather than “Why study a foreign language” or “Why live in a foreign country”. I’ve tested this a couple of times by trying to explain that I wanted to live somewhere else than Australia, where I’d been all my life. The response is usually “Yes, but why Vietnam?”

I don’t really have a good reason for choosing Vietnam specifically. What I have is several bad reasons, bundled together and resold repeatedly until it looks like a single good reason. My own personal reason bubble, if you like. As mentioned, I wanted to go somewhere. Melbourne would have been somewhere enough, but entirely lacking in challenge. And I am certainly one to force myself down the hard path from time to time.

Japan was the obvious choice, given my years of Japanese study and of Japanophilia. However, I’d been warned off the Japanese games industry by a previous boss due to apparently low regard for programmers in their industry, and generally poor working conditions. Adding “foreigner” to either issue was only going to make things worse.

People who’ve read my older posts (the “Vietnam adventures: backgrounder” post specifically) will have seen the process by which I arrived at Vietnam, but the short summary is that I have a friend in Hanoi, and support from a few Vietnam-and-related friends back home, and Vietnam’s games industry is small but growing so I should be able to find work if I need to.

None of these are good reasons, of course. One friend does not a social life make, friends at home aren’t really a good basis for picking a foreign country to live in, and a small but growing games industry in a country economically disparate as Vietnam is from Australia is still not going to be well-structured to support an experienced Australian games programmer in the style to which he wishes to become accustomed. Particularly when the disparity between local and foreigner living costs means that I’d cost the same as any two or three locals simply to maintain equivalent living conditions.

That’s a very rough estimate of living costs, mind you. It’s been cheaper living here than I expected, but I’m still in the honeymoon stage where I’m living in a single room in a house, and haven’t yet seen my electricity bill. Once February rolls around and I’m (hopefully) renting a lovely 3-bedroom house and paying full bills and whatnot, we’ll see just how much cheaper it is to be here than Canberra.

Anyway, there’s no way I can explain the above five paragraphs in Vietnamese, and they wouldn’t be a particularly good way to respond to a small-talk question anyway. Particularly with an explanatory hyperlink in the middle. So usually I just say “I don’t have any reason” which gets me a knowing look and questions about my girlfriend or wife. This surprised me a little the first time, but only a little because I’d already realised that in Vietnamese culture, people are near-universally getting married (to me) at quite a young age. And the usual conversation partner is one of the early-to-mid twenties Vietnamese teachers at my school. Most of whom are (I assume) happily married and have been for some time, and naturally assume that a 30-something apparently successful man like myself has of course got a wife and presumably a couple of kids in primary school.

I’m assuming I appear successful on the grounds that I was able to wander into Vietnam without a particular plan or apparent concerns about paying for my next meal. That suggests that I’m either sufficiently successful to be able to take myself on the road as I see fit, or sufficiently young that I’m happy to wander off to parts unknown and expect the world to take care of me. And no one’s mistaking me for early 20′s at the language school, since they usually ask my age right after “nationality” and “name”. As opposed to my landlord’s family, who apparently had mistaken me for much younger than I am.

My landlady, didn’t launch straight into discussion of my reasons for choosing Vietnam. Being a 60-year old woman and presumably wise to the world, I suspect she’d leaped to her own conclusions about why I was here, having already met my friend in Hanoi who turned out to be an accomplished and attractive 20-something young woman. Instead, we talked about the importance of learning a foreign language. Her daughter had learnt Mandarin, as well as enough English to not understand much of what I say, but to be able to guess what I mean when I don’t know the Vietnamese word for something.

And I made the point that I thought it was very important that children learn a second language at a young age. Or at least, I tried. I may have been passing commentary on recent attempts by Dolphins to develop a low-energy-cost system for leaving the Earth’s gravity well. Whatever I said, I think my landlady agreed with me.

And it’s a point that I was reminded of when I read this CNN article tonight. But at the same time, apart from the Anglosphere (and I guess the Francosphere) second languages are being learnt by young children. Many nations in SE Asia are making concerted efforts and spending serious money to get English into practice as a second language of fluency in their populations.

Then again, it’s a bit easier to do that sort of thing in nations that speak a language distinct to that nation. In that case, the choice of language to put your national impetus is pretty narrow: English, French, or the language of one of your major trading partners.

Oddly enough, while Australia seems to feel that Chinese is the important trading language to learn (supplanting Japanese’s 90′s position), the feeling in SE Asia appears to be that English needs to be the language of international communication, perhaps to act as a counterbalance to China’s ever-growing strength. This might reflect a differing set of priorities, mind you.

On one hand, the Anglosphere isn’t worried about learning an international language, they already speak English. So they default to “large trading partners”. However, you don’t see the same level of national focus behind Chinese fluency in Australia as you do in countries like Vietnam, Korea or Malaysia in getting English fluency into their populace. You certainly don’t seem to see it in primary schools. My younger sister studied Indonesia in primary school, but I don’t know how long, and it was certainly not a subject of emphasis. 15 years earlier, I did French after school for a little while. And when I went to high school, language was compulsory for years 7 and 8, although you only ended up doing 18 months of one and 6 of the other choice, and then in years 9 and 10 it was optional (which meant the classes were smaller with less people who didn’t want to be there, so it was an improvement). But the important thing was there was really no particularly higher power telling us “it’s going to be really important to know a second language”. I was just interested in Japanese because I wanted to grey-import Japanese video games. Then I discovered anime and Japanese girls, and my decision tree became much clearer, although not really any better supported.

Compare this to Vietnam’s (ambitious) English 2020 program, which aims to have High-school graduates speaking English at a B1 level on the CEFR. That’s 350-400 hours. For reference, my Vietnamese course at the ANU is 75 hours a semester, so after a three year major (six units) I’d be hoping to fall between B1 and B2.

On the other hand, Australia has a wide selection of languages to choose from, so nationally focussing on one would be difficult anyway. Assume they don’t want to focus on another “international” language, that leaves major trading partners. In Australia’s top 10 trading partners I count six national languages — in order: Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Thai, German and Malaysian — where China and Japan make up about an eight each of total trade value, and English-speaking countries in that list (including Singapore) in total make up about a quarter.

On the gripping hand, Australia also has a large population who don’t speak English at home. It might be a good idea to consider the languages of that significant (10% or so) population group. As of 2006, the languages that show up in the top 10 LOTE spoken in the home in each state are (alphabetically): Arabic, Australian Indigenous, Cantonese, Croatian, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay (assuming Malaysian and/or Singaporean here), Macedonian, Mandarin, Polish. Samoan, Serbian, Spanish, Tagalog, Tamil, Turkish and Vietnamese. National totals from the 2001 census suggest that the significant languages are: Italian, Vietnamese, Greek, Cantonese, Arabic and Mandarin.

The intersection of these analyses appears to be Mandarin again.

But taking a step back, would a single “national second language of importance” really be a good thing for Australia? If, as the experts I’ve been listening to appear to believe, English is to be the language of international communication in some form or other, then a national effort to develop competency in a second language isn’t particularly useful for Australia. If it was, the same reasoning would probably have put Vietnam on a “Chinese 2020″ program instead.

Perhaps the best approach is to try and develop a “national importance of second language” program, and emphasise that a second language (of any kind) is as important a life-skill as mathematics, and should be treated accordingly, curriculum-wise. I personally feel that to be the best approach. Not everyone is going to need to use probability theory in day-to-day life, but having had frustrating discussions with people who’ve apparently never understood it, I feel it’s important that everyone have the _opportunity_ to understand it.

Similarly with language, there’s definite advantages to being bilingual from a younger age. (Wikipedia is not so clear-cut on the advantages of bilingualism, if you want some alternative opinions on the matter.)

As a programmer, I can see clear value in knowing multiple different programming languages, even if I never work in them. It lets you see with a slightly more structural view, and lets you look at the program, not just the code. And when you do need to work in a new language, picking up another one’s quite easy. I’m hoping that natural language will work the same way, once I can get my head around a second language.

I don’t actually pay any attention to the news, so it’s entirely possible Australia already has such a policy in place. That’d be nice, but it’s 30 year too late for me. And policy or not, where ever I end up, I intend that any children I have grow up bilingual or better. Parental languages, any thing else that catches their fancy, and C++. No one ever suffered from knowing too much C++.

tldr; The short version ended much earlier.

18
Dec
11

Communism: Inconceivable!

Vietnam is a land which challenges many of the assumptions I grew up building, e.g., water is drinkable and precious; showers come in cubicles; everyone pays the same price for things; a “sunny” day means unobstructed view of the sun.

Here, water is plentiful but only special water is potable. This is apparently true for lots of peole in Hanoi, not just the foreigners. I believe the Hanoi water company’s 2020 goal is to have potable coming through all the taps. Foreigners will probably still neec to boil it, but for different reasons.

I’m actually still not sure if I’m showering correctly. There’s a shower-head, a bucket, and a floor drain, but no clearly delineated area for showering or way to keep the water from covering the whole floor. Either that or I’ve overlooked something and now my landlords think I’m a total grot…

Pricing is a whole topic of it’s own, but every foreigner here who comes from a non-bartering culture has a blog post about it so I won’t bother until I have something interesting to write.

It’s probably just Hanoi winter, but last time I saw the sun I was above the cloud cover. The other day I was thinking “Gosh, it’s sunny today,” only to look up and realise it was still solid cloud-cover, but somehow lighter… So I _think_ I can tell a sunny day from a cloudy day from a going-to-rain day, but I also thought that in Australia with about as much accuracy as a weather-rock.

More importantly though, Vietnam challenges my assumptions about Vietnam. Specifically, about communism.

Growing up, all I knew about communism was that it was the direct opposite of America, and some vague images of people queueing to buy bread and toilet paper. I think I somehow built the idea that communism was a system without money: When you were hungry, you were fed. When there was work to do, you did it. When you were tired, you slept.

Having just written that out, it sounds like either childhood or slavery. Hobbes would be proud. And having read “The Stainless Steel Rat gets drafted”, I now suspect I’d actually started to recreate Marxist economics from first principles.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t a particularly nuanced understanding. And one I thankfully grew out of. Mind you, I don’t know if I grew into a more accurate understanding, or simply a more influenced one. My current understanding of communism is it’s like a committee system of government, as opposed to a partisan system like the Westminster system of Democracy, and the state’s welfare is held in greater importance compared to individual liberties than in a system like America’s, where the state is seen as a neccesary evil rather than a collective vehicle of the people.

In Vietnam, this idea, combined with the apparent basic Vietnamese values of community and entrepreneurship, seems to have produced a system where everything is privatised, but some things are owned by the public sector (government or the military for example). Some markets (education, for example) are tightly controlled by regulation but not closed, but the oddest thing is when the government competes, it’s on a (roughly) equal footing.

While I was aware of this effect already, it was brought home to me this morning, waiting to catch the train to Hải Đương. That train (run by the state-owned national railway) includes two privately-owned carriages. They cost more per ticket (most expensive is almost double the cheapest public car ticket) but are air-conditioned. Maybe this is normal in other train-based societies? I saw something like this in a book series I am reading (RCN by David Drake) so it might just be me this is an unusual concept to.

It seems like an obvious idea, of course. If you can sell more expensive tickets, to cover the cost of the carriage and the price of having it pulled, then it’s a good business idea; albeit a long-trm one. I expect a train carriage costs a lot, and the “expensive” ticket was forty thousand dong (about AU$2), although that’s not the entire length of the line.

The taxi to the station cost 125 thousand dong, for comparison. But it was almost 7km, as this train doesn’t stop at my closest station except for the first and last runs of the day. Early enough and late enough for working commuters, although why someone would live in Hà Nội and work in Hải Dương I can’t imagine…

Another thing that is challenging my assumptions (or maybe my basic character) is the total orthogonality of business and friendship. One of the reasons I’m a terrible businessman is that I feel really weird taking money from my friends as if they’re customers. It’s probably just me, not my culture, but I find business an adversarial, uncomfortable process. Here, it’s a natural part of life — everything costs something, and so you pay for things, but it’s not like you feel like you shouldn’t have to pay.

My first two experiences of this were actually last year. Firstly with pay-per-use public toilets, and secondly (and more importantly) at my friend’s wedding.

When I and a whole bunch of western friends-and-relations showed up for the wedding, we were picked up in a minibus which we were told belonged to a cousin of the bride. However, at the end of the day, he was paid off like a hired-driver. This got me thinking… If a cousin of mine needed help driving guests around, I’d be fine with doing it. A little bit of fuel money would be nice, and perhaps free lunch if it was an all-day thing, sure. But that’s not how the Vietnamese attitude runs.

Here, if you do work, you should get paid. Cousin, friend or stranger. The more I look around in this framework, the more I see it. Or the more misinterpret what I’m seeing into this framework. I can’t say for sure.

This is pretty much the opposite of what I expected from communism. But it does seem to suit my own ideals of egalatarianism, and a fair reward for fair effort.

And I think it’s a culture which will help me get over myself, and become a better, more detached businessman. Or at least a poorer-but-wiser businessman.

And that’s one thing I’d never have assumed a communist country would teach me.

13
Dec
11

A week in Magic Kindergarten

Dear Princess Celestia,

CC: Anyone else reading my blog.

So I’m a week into my course now, more than one seventh of the way to magic Vietnamese fluency. Or something like that. Between work, classes, minimal homework, and an annoying head-cold, I’ve been pretty much flat out, which is lucky as I don’t have any other plans or commitments. (Or none I can’t procrastinate away, rather)

Magic Kindergarten has been an interesting experience. As a mature-age student at the ANU, I was generally taking classes where the lecturers were pretty senior, and therefore much older than me. However, here I’m confronted with the fact that as a foreign-language student (equivalent of the English course at ANUTech, I guess) I’m actually working with fairly junior teachers. Specifically, junior to me. My oldest teacher is three years younger than me, and the youngest is… well I suspect she’s actually only just graduated from my current creepy dating range. (Bet that’s not how you thought that sentence was going to end…) This actually caused my one main personal pronouns flub, as I hadn’t realised she was my teacher, and called her “em”. In my defense, she’d called me “anh” and herself “em” first, so I took my cue from that. That’s been the weirdest part, actually, as my main technique for dealing with personal pronouns was to simply guess until the native-speaker used some, and reflect them. Apparently that’s not a viable strategy.

For people who aren’t familiar with Vietnamese personal pronouns (like myself ^_^), the system is generally age-based: people your age and older up to your father’s age are “anh” and “chị“, people younger than you are “em” and people older than your father are “ông” and ““. There’s a couple of exceptions to the age rules, such as “thầy” for male teachers, “” for female teachers and women slightly older than your father whom you think it would be safer to call “auntie” than “grandmother”. I’m not sure exactly how that last one works, I think it’s supposed to be for unmarried women only, but I call my landlady cô when I can bring myself to vocalise properly and she seems to get a laugh out of it. The age rules also have more complications, e.g., apparently my friend’s eventual children will be “anh” and “chị” to his younger brother-in-law’s already born child as the parent’s ages override the children’s.

To complicate things a little further, I was taught in class that one’s self is “tôi” until one is close to someone, in which case you refer to yourself as they would refer to you, and vice versa. I believed that was keyed off the more senior person using the personal pronoun for themselves, but haven’t really tried that out. So far I’m sticking with “tôi” for everyone I meet here who hasn’t told me to use the personal pronoun. (Which has actually been no-one here, but certainly my bilingual friends have told me to use the personal pronoun from the outset. It doesn’t clarify matters that I’m “anh” to pretty much all of them, limiting my sample size.) I’ll take a being deliberately a little stand-off-ish over unintentionally insulting for now. Call it a little “Gaijin Smash” if you like.

Here’s a “primer” on Vietnamese personal pronouns if the above wasn’t clear.

I’ll gladly receive corrections to the above in the comments, of course.

Speaking of Gaijin Smash, one of my lecturers was telling me that one of his students used to get out of traffic fines and such by simply repeating “I don’t understand” in Korean until the officer gave up. However, many police officers now speak English, so I can’t really rely on that technique, and I doubt I’d get away with it if I tried Korean. Apparently French might work unless I get an older police officer. If anyone knows the Gaelic expression for “I don’t understand. Do you speak Gaelic” feel free to post in the comments? Perhaps wildly mispronouncing “I don’t understand Vietnamese” in Vietnamese will work. “Thuy khon hieeeuuuuu thing Vietnam”. Actually, simply trying to say that normally would probably be enough to warm them off.

If any Vietnamese police officers are reading this, this is of course hypothetical.

I briefly considered explaining the term “Gaijin Smash” to my lecturer, but decided against it. We lost enough time trying to explore the abstract concept of “half-past”. It seems Vietnamese doesn’t have such a concept, but does contain a grammar rule that depends on it. (The correct use of “kém” in reading time) Another longer-than-expected discussion was “a little far” being not quite as far as “far” in Vietnamese, while meaning “just too far” in (Australian) English. I don’t know if this is direct translation (“hơi” is the adverb “a little”) or if that’s a different English dialect. This turned into a discussion of Australian indirect expressions (“How are you?” “Not bad”; “How was the test?” “Not great”) which at the time seemed related, but on reflection, maybe not.

So… back to Magic Kindergarten.

It’s Kindergarten because the first lesson was dedicated to my placement test. I did so poorly and slowly on it that my second lesson (and the homework inbetween) was also spent on the placement test. That’s not encouraging. I described myself as being sent back to magic kindergarten because I was initially enrolled for level B, but am currently “reviewing” the level A-2 book. The fact that all my lecturers are younger than me didn’t become apparently until later in the week. I don’t know if I’m psychic, lucky, or if the universe really does rearrange itself to match my subconscious. In which case I need to have a few discreet words with my subconscious on a number of topics.

I guess University’s not Magic. But certainly Vietnam is. I kept telling people that I was coming here because simply from sheer population size, there are as many attractive young women in Vietnam as there are women in Australia. Turns out I was actually right about this; which is a bit of a surprise ’cause I was simply covering the fact that I didn’t have a good reason to be here. I have several poor reasons, so I’m relying on the aggregate. Think of it as a motivation bubble, where I rebundle bad reasons until they look like they’re worth a single good reason, and then sell it to someone who is being insufficiently critical. This is one aspect of reality my subconscious has done a terrific job of, no complaints at all.

And everyone’s so industrious, I don’t feel so bad being a workaholic. I dunno what my landlords do during the day (they’re usually out) but given the huge amount of UPSes and Huawei equipment in an insulated and shielded room on the roof, and the two company signs on the door, I suspect there’s two or three businesses going on here. Particularly when every bedroom in my home has a LAN cable, and when I pointed out that the one in my room had been cut off, the “son-in-law who speaks English” (Mr Quy) produced a crimping tool and RJ-45 cable head and expected that I’d know how to use them.

Having done this, and bought a USB multi-card reader to read the CF card driving my Alix 2c2 router, I installed OpenWRT on it and now have a private WiFi network in my room. And decently fast Internet, even if Facebook is DNS-blocked. (But Google’s DNS service is not. If you’re a Vietnamese official from the relevant ministry or bureau of public safety, that’s hypothetical.) So now I’m no longer paying $1 per 40MB for 3G data.

It probably reflects my poor communication skills that I got my Internet connection because I was trying to borrow a screwdriver. ^_^

Nonetheless, that particular interaction as well as the discovery of a street full of computer shops nearby cheered me up quite a lot. A belly full of Cháo and nem chua rán helped too. I’d been feeling rather down that morning (partly because I’d just discovered the night before that I’d misread the above-mentioned 3G data plan, and partly because of the heavy cold I was suffering) but by the end of the day, being back on the Internet for real, I was feeling much more like I had arrived somewhere magical.

Then again, perhaps it’s simply that a sufficiently different culture is indistinguishable from magic?

For those who don’t consider the mere ability to walk down the street and be stared at by attractive women to be magical, there’s also the fact that I can buy Steam games at US prices on my Australian credit card. So hit me up if you want something gifted, for a small appreciation. ^_^

If none of the above strikes you as magical, or at least amusing, you might be at the wrong blog. Or you’re hoping to hear me report about the magic of friendship, in which case you’ll have to wait for a later post, as I’ve experiments to run, there is research to be done, and a forgotten but returning ancient evil to thwart.

tl;dr: I feel FANTASTIC and I’m still alive.

Your Faithful Student, TBBle.

06
Dec
11

Shoppin’ ain’t easy.

Advice for my past self: Just because you told your bank you were in Vietnam once, won’t stop the fraud department blocking your Visa card this time.

They won’t object to you pulling cash — up to your surprisingly still-extant daily limit — but as soon as you try to buy a laptop, it’ll fail abnormally. (That was the actual error, “abnormal failure”.)

Once that’s happened, even after you burn a few dollars on international calls to unblock the card, Vietnam’s Visa system will reject you all afternoon.

Also, just ask the girl at the counter where you can buy Vinaphone recharges. (Not Vinaphone Sim cards. That’s a different thing they don’t sell…) Four laps of the store won’t reveal anything more than the Vinaphone recharge sign over the women’s clothing isle told you the first time.

Speaking of asking girls, the Sony Centre shop assistants _can_ ignore you for a half hour without making eye contact. Don’t try to outlast them.

Once you’ve gotten all that done, paid for half a laptop with many laughs on the way (you may even get to participate if you listen closely) make sure you show the taxi driver the address written down. Even if he repeats it back to you, he can still take you to the wrong university.

Also, don’t forget to post this blog entry when it’s done, not three days later.

02
Dec
11

The Time Traveller’s Afternoon

Is blogging about lacking Internet access like treating methodone withdrawl using heroin?

I’m writing this offline, as circumstances conspired with my lack of organisation to leave me needing an Internet connection to find out how to activate my 3G, and the WiFi signal to my room is insufficiently powerful.

However, I believe I’m having dinner with my landlords later, so I should get better signal then. I’m not even sure landlords is the right word. I’ve never rented a single room in a home before. Apparently they are only new at renting to international students too. The main English speaker in the family isn’t here today, but I reportedly have a Korean student across the hall, also studying Vietnamese.

That’s not how I know they’re new at this. I know because the department head where I’ll be studying (VNU USSH) dropped by this evening to welcome me and let me know what’s up. I’ve been trying to remember USSH in Vietnamese all afternoon, with two visitors, and now I’m alone, I just got it: Đại học khoa học xã hoi và nhan vanh. The spelling’s wrong, mind you.

The other visitor today was Trang, an  indescribably cute English teacher I already know. Due to a miscommunication, she rushed over to help translate with my landlords; believing I’d somehow rented a room without a bed. I’d actually thought I’d rented a room without bedding, which was clarified by Trang (There was bedding to come), and therefore thankfully my earlier attempt to go buy bedding was foiled as I found a supermarket (Happomart) and ATM but returned bearing only water and Không Độ.

My earlier shopping trip today was to purchase a Vinaphone SIM. Last time I was here, I had a Viettel SIM, and Viettel turned out to be distressingly competent at blocking Facebook. So this time I preselected Vinaphone, since they have good 3G rates and coverage. However, I forgot to grab the APN details before I came, and my new Motorola ME863 doesn’t have it preloaded. Now I just need to get on the ‘net to look them up…

There you go Matt. A single story, told in a single chronological sequence, with no branching. (Loops aren’t branches…)

Post-script: Welcome dinner with landlords was great. Quy (English-speaking son-in-law) was there, and I was also plied with clear Vietnamese alcohol. My floor-mate came home during dinner, and I called her “Chị”. She’s in her early 20′s and everyone laughed at me. ^_^

I got Internet working when I remembered that my HTC Dream had working 3G last time I came, so I put the SIM in that and Googled up the APN details on it.

And just like that, I am back in the world.

30
Nov
11

Clothes optional: Living from a suitcase

It’s amazing what you think you need when trying to fit under a luggage allowance. I have an enormous suitcase which I initially half-filled with clothes and half-filled with electronics… It weighed 30kg. Oops! I unpacked it all and went back to the beginning.

I was born. Or so I’m told, I don’t remember back that far. I do remember my last holiday to Vietnam though. You, dear reader (or spam-bot scanning for keywords) may also remember the beginning of the trip, until I was too busy, too poorly Internet-connected, too ill, or having too much fun to blog. That’s the brief summary of Saigon, Hoi An, Hue and Hanoi respectively.

So, Vietnam adventure completed and summarised, I returned home well and truly convinced that my newer sojourn plans were quite workable.

I informed my boss (the conversation actually started with my bosses’s wife at her business’s Christmas party) that I would have to be leaving my job as I wished to move to Vietnam. His response was “Oh, I’ve thought about opening a studio in Vietnam. You should do that for me.”

I’ll skip over the intervening months, to leave filler for later posts. A couple of spoilers though:

  • I am not at this point opening a studio in Vietnam, but instead I will be working remotely for BigWorld.
  • I’m enrolled at the ANU taking a Vietnamese language major, and continuing it in Vietnam.
  • I have a visa and probably somewhere to live.
  • I’ve been watching Lauren Faust’s My Little Pony series,and published my first Android App and a couple of PMVs on Youtube.
  • I own a Kobo Touch and much fewer novels than I used to, but just as many video games.

Having done all that, I repacked my suitcase taking all my relevant electronics and doodads, none of my books — except my tiny Vietnamese/English dictionary — and whatever clothing I could then fit. This came out to 23kg and four complete outfits, on the assumption that I’ll either find a washing service quickly, or find a sufficiently large clothing store quickly. That’s a store that sells sufficiently large clothing, not a sufficiently large store that sells clothing.

Hopefully this is sufficient preparation for an indefinite stay in Vietnam. Because it’s too late. Like Caeser, I’ve tossed my rubix cube; arrived in Melbourne with only the clothes on my back and a big suitcase, and will be leaving with the same — except 3kg lighter due to different baggage allowances.

Melbourne’s decided to help me prepare in its own way, by taking my three days here as pleasant (a half-day), unexpectedly hot (spent indoors watching TV and browsing the web), and torrential rain (for my walk to the train station…). I did pack an umbrella, so I’m taking this as a validation, not a warning.

I’m not panicing, and I’m carrying a towel. Today Melbourne, tomorrow Hanoi. And the day after that… probably Hanoi again.

29
Oct
10

Vietnam Adventures: Hit or Miss Saigon

Okay, so “Lunch” turned into “the rest of the Saigon leg”. Funny how “blah” turns into busy.

Anyway, I left off with a plan, baggage and a well-prepared immune system.

I started my trip with a weekend in Melbourne. As is often the case, timing issues meant I didn’t get to do as much catching up as I wanted, but I turned out to need that time for repacking, reorganising and emergency Vietnamese cramming anyway.

I’ll elide Melbourne details, except to say thankyou to all involved, and that I was fed lots of tasty food, priming the pump so-to-speak.

I flew out of Melbourne Airport with Malay Airlines. Due to having done the web-checking, and being relatively early, I arrived at the airport at 10pm and was through checkin, security, border control and duty free by 11pm. I figured I’d upload some photos but the 3G connection in the terminal was awful. Given they charge for Wifi there, I suspect this was not a coincidence… I spent the entire wait trying to upload photos and update my voicemail message.

The flight was pleasant. I managed to get dairy-free meals and slept most of the way. My DS game was “Hotel Dusk”, which is quite good and fairly interesting story-wise. It’ll last me the rest of the trip, I reckon. And if not, Professor Layton awaits. ^_^

Kuala Lumpar airport was an airport like any other, I guess. (In my limited experience) I’ll gloss over that and my connecting flight too. (I managed to sleep for most of the domestic flight too, so I’m not glossing over a lot…)

So I emerged from Vietnam Customs at 10am or so, somewat concerned that I couldn’t see the promised airport transfer from inside the terminal. Turns out most transfers wait where the fencing ends, which was out of sight of the glass doors.

Along with me on the transfer bus, a lady named Helen arrived on the same flight and was on the same tour as me. Her friend Lorraine was also on the schedule, but had been too ill to fly out.

Sadly, the transfer bus took us to the wrong Hai Ha Hotel. Once we established this, the hotel flagged us a taxi to the correct hotel, which is no longer named the Hai Ha. (The tour guide told us today it’s now under new management)

Safely arrived, showered and feeling the heat less than I feared, I ventured out for a brief walkabout to locate food and drink. Herein I discovered probably my least favourite thing about Saigon (and probably travelling in general) — people who won’t let me be. My first trip out had me followed for a fair distance by two different cyclos, telling me how cheap it would be to go with them, and showing me recommendations from other Australians.

I don’t mind being asked (well, I don’t _like_ it, but it’s the way of street markets in tourist areas, it seems) but I really don’t being followed and reasked after I’ve said no. >_<

I think it’s one of the reasons I don’t really travel much; I really hate feeling like a tourist, that everyone is looking at you as a transient potential income source. It’s easier in groups, but I find it a little soul-wearing alone.

Anyway, despite (or because) of the above, I ended up back in my hotel room with a Viettel SIM and a bag of bread rolls.

At this point, a note on Facebook filtering in Vietnam, learnt through much more effort than I expected…

The ADSL hotel connection (and hence the free wifi I discover later in the story) simply blocks Facebook using DNS, and only blocks http://www.facebook.com, leaving touch.facebook.com and whatever the Facebook Android App uses operative. This is trivially bypassed by using the Google Public DNS service. On android, in a root shell:

setprop net.dns1 8.8.8.8
setprop net.dns1 8.8.4.4

However, the Viettel 3G connection is much more thorough. All the facebook.com subdomains are blocked in DNS, the IP adresses I found are blocked in port 80, SSH is blocked and it appears they have a transparent DNS lookup proxy as requests to the Google Public DNS servers above reacted exactly like the Viettel DNS servers. I was able to get to Facebook using Orbot, a Tor client for Android.

Anyway, by the time I finished all this, night had fallen, so I thought I’d give Saigon another chance.

This went much better. I didn’t go very far, but I did enjoy where I went more, as there was a distinct lack of cyclos, or in fact anyone paying me more than passing attention. ^_^

Anyway, that evening I retired to my room to enjoy my further spoils (iced tea drinks) and bánh đậu xanh for dinner, and spend some time trying to tune my ear with the magic of television.

Side note: I’m writing this in my room in Hoi An (spoiler: I don’t get mugged and killed in Saigon) and a live commercial has come on, with Mr T dubbed into Vietnamese. It’s fascinating.

I found what appears to be a highschool drama I’ll probably write more about in a separate post.

And I slept well that evening, which was a relief.

On the second day, I rose again (having gotten up early to use the toilet and gone back to bed) sometime before lunch. I was feeling rather demoralised, and wrote the first part of this series.

Just as I was weighing up whether I could hide in my room all day, I got an unexpected phonecall, and was told in no uncertain terms that I should be out exploring the city.

I took the wave of confidence this brought and walked over to the Revolutionary Museum. I didn’t go in, but I did talk to a nice pair of young people who wanted me to take a five minute taxi to meet their sister who was a nurse wanting to move to Austeralia. I declined, and did a lap around the Museum instead. I exchanged a wave with the same pair during the lap, and ended up buying expensive water from a guy carrying a styrofoam box.

I looked at a barbecue place across the road from the Museum, and was pleased that my nativisation had reached the point where I looked at the 100,000 dong price (about AU$5.30) and thought “too expensive”.

So I went to the bakery on the way back, and scored three bready treats for under 50,000 dong instead. I also borrowed a power adapter from the front desk, and saw the free wifi sign around this point, having just bought another 200,000 dong Viettel topup since I’d burnt through 30,000 dong using 3G already.

It was around this point that I realised I have no idea how to entertain myself when visiting a big city, and I don’t remember what I did between this and the initial tour group meeting at 6pm.

At some point during the morning I had been to the ATM for my first million dong, and met a gentleman named Tri who will appear again next episode.

And speaking of the next episode: I meet my tour group, get down and dirty in the Cu Chi tunnels and all dressed up on the Saigon River, and eventually bid Saigon farewell in a blaze of jet fuel.




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