Thursday, February 23, 2006

Attribute your sources

I would like to thank my father. He's the one who sent me the BBC URL Vietnam bans fruity website name. I built a blog post around it, but forgot to mention his role in things. That's not good.

Sorry, dad.

Second Hand Books

NV Tours
179 Phạm Ngũ Lão,
Phạm Ngũ Lão Ward
District 1, Hồ Chí Minh City
Việt Nam

Sometimes, I just want to thank those organizations who have made my life here better, and NV Tours are one of them. Their main purpose is, as the title suggests, a tourist centre providing tours for visitors. How good are these services? I don't know. I've never used them.

I come for their second-hand book section. You can't miss it. The shelves start behind the main desk. Here are the detritus of (I guess) 10 years of novels either unwanted or forgotten by travellers. To be honest, there's a lot of crap there - you can see several shelves devoted alone to mass-market junk like Tom Clancy and John Grisham. (We can't forget Dan Brown either.) But the joy is finding the gold among the gravel. I've found a few Iain [M.] Banks novels, and the odd Elaine Peters. But you won't find much John Le Carre or Len Deighton - I've depleted them of their stock. There are several other authors I've discovered that I wouldn't mind looking up when I eventually return to Australia.

(I'd also like to say that NV Tours is about the only reason I come to Phạm Ngũ Lão these days - period. There are many reasons, but an important one is that I no longer work near it. There used to be only one restaurant that I frequented, and their food went downhill once they changed the management. Oh, and it's backpacker hell, with own scamming mafia attached.)

My appreciation is born out of scarcity - but is none the less genuine. There is still a lack of good English language bookstores in this town. Part of it is due to economics - you have to get the books assayed by the local censors, and I have no idea of what import tax needs to be paid. It's probably substantial. But clueless management has something to do with it. Fahasa (one of the big bookshops here) has lots of the Asterix comic books - in the original French. But did they ever realize that the English translations could be hot sellers as well? (And with better puns.)

They did open up a new shop in the last few months. It was in Saigon Tower, wasn't it? Or Saigon Square? Or possibly the Saigon Tax Centre? (Most of the shopping centres have interchangeable names, as you can see.) I did see lots of books on graphic design, which would make my wife happy. But much of the fiction on hand was those "Oxford Learners" series - literature simplified for the English learner. I have no wish to read them again, having experienced their "edition" of The Big Sleep. I prefer my prose uncut. For that reason, I return to NV Tours once a week to see what they offer.

(What is the price? The answer is "negotiable". Don't ask for prices in dollars - that's bloody stupid. Try in đồng, and try starting at 35,000 or 40,000 and work your way up. They may print a price, but they could lower it. And now is as good a time to practice your Vietnamese.)

UPDATE: Some readers may be confused by the last line: "And now is as good a time to practice your Vietnamese." I could have given the impression that it's a monolingual operation. NV Tours is run by Vietnamese, but it provides much of its services in English. It's what you'd expect from an operation on the backpacker strip). However, a lot of prices in the country are negotiable, and speaking Vietnamese may help you get a lower price for books. And the staff seem to like it that way.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

L'Affaire Grapefruit: In Your Pants

There's this thing we call "Language Interference" in the English Teaching biz. Person X is a native speaker of Language A, and is trying to acquire language B. Unfortunately, habits from Language A continue to interfere with the production of language B words. One common example is when people from Spanish or Italian backgrounds pronounce English with an odd staccato rhythm. That's because those languages are syllable-timed: every syllable is pronounced with the roughly the same length. English isn't like that at all. It is stress-timed: the time between stressed syllables is roughly the same, and unstressed syllables are shortened accordingly. 

You can test this at home, folks. Try reading this out at home with every syllable the same. ("Try rea ding this out at home with e ver y syl la ble the same.") Now read it in your normal voice. Do you hear a difference?

Language interference happens when people learn other languages, especially tonal ones. English has its own intonation guidelines: raise the pitch at the end of  yes/no questions, but drop the pitch at the end of statements. People are able to vary the pitch to express emotion or irony, but it won't change the meaning of the words. Now imagine a English speaker learning Vietnamese (or any other tonal language) - habits learnt in a lifetime now obscure what they are trying to say. Odd as it seems, that's why I found one of the hardest tones to handle was the "không dấu" tone - or no tone at all. My natural tendency was to dip it at the end, which wasn't correct; I had to train myself to keep my pitch completely flat. 

What does that have to do with my earlier Grapefruit post? Enter "Buddhist with an attitude" who confesses "Sorry for the blog whoring but check out my blog on the same subject." So I added her to the blogroll.And I just have to quote the last two paragraphs. They're a cracker:

I'm posting this text from Reuters as a joke, but any Vietnamese reader would tell you that the situation is not that simple. «'Buoi' can mean either a grapefruit or slang for penis» says Reuters. Well, actually, no. 'Buoi' doesn't mean anything in Vietnamese. A grapefruit is «bưởi» and a penis is ... uh.. look, all you need to know is: it's not spelled «buoi». Same thing with pigs and vaginas: not only are the tones different, the spelling is completely different. The real problem is that the domain registration system is based on the Latin alphabet and therefore cannot accomodate languages like Vietnamese that use a modified romanized system of writing.

But I've got to admit, learning to recognize and reproduce accurately the different tones is not an easy task for people used to non tonal languages. During the Vietnamese/American war in the 60s, the national TV station in Saigon used to broadcast a show hosted by American «advisers» who would laboriously read the daily news in Vietnamese. The show was very successful, if only for its comical value, because once in a while, the poor anchormen would use the wrong tones, with hilarious results, of the pigs = vaginas variety. I remember one of their most frequent mistakes was to pronounce «quân» neutral tone (troops, soldiers, etc.) as «quần» third tone (pants), so they would announce that the pants did this, the pants did that, we're expecting more pants next month, etc. And hilarity would ensue in Vietnamese households.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Degradation on the Installment Plan

What is it about "Frey"s and The Smoking Gun? I'm not talking about James Frey, but someone worse: one Travis Frey, "a 33-year-old Iowa man who is facing charges that he tried to kidnap his own wife (not to mention a separate child pornography rap)." From The New York Daily News:

When Ruth Frey tied the knot with her husband, she told police she did not expect to be tied to a bed, sexually assaulted and asked to sign a sick contract that conferred weird sexual obligations on her.

Travis Frey, a 33-year-old Iowa father of two, has been charged with first-degree kidnapping and assaulting his wife three times after allegedly tying her to a bed with a rope. Ruth Frey told Council Bluffs police her husband was angry with her for taking their two daughters to church.

But the case turned even more bizarre when prosecutors produced a four-page "Contract of Wifely Expectations" they said Frey had wanted his spouse to sign. The document, a copy of which was obtained by, stipulated that Ruth Frey was to do "anything and everything" her husband wanted.

The Smoking Gun does indeed have a copy, and you can find it under Sicko "Marriage Contract" One For The Ages. The link is bandwidth-heavy, with each of the four pages including a scan of a separate sheet for the contract - which the wife never signed, in case you are wondering. There isn't much commentary from The Gun. "While we normally point out the highlights of most documents, there are so many in this demented, and very graphic, contract, we really can't do it justice. So set aside ten minutes--and prepare to be repulsed." You have been warned.

(Thankfully, it doesn't contain much in the way of naughty graphics. However, the document uses one font with Kama Sutra-esque figures in the capital letters. Evidently, Mr. Frey thought it was appropriate for section headings. But pretty much all obscenity here is textual.)  

What do I think will happen to Mr. Frey? The New York Daily News continues: "In Iowa, kidnapping is a class A felony and carries a life sentence without the possibility of parole." My feeling is that Travis Frey is going to get himself a lifetime behind bars - preferably in solitary. I am no lawyer, but the "contract" sounds like it is admissible evidence to me, and the jury will definitely be dismayed by it. Lines like "On demand means what I say, when I say, where I say and how I say" makes Travis Frey out to be a sexual predator, and a domineering asshole indeed. 

Sunday, February 19, 2006

No "thank you", please. We're Vietnamese

This was found via Virtual Doug: a post from Six Months in Hanoi with the title of Never The Twain. I quote:

No Thank You

The constant need to say thank you is deeply ingrained in the Western brain (maybe especially in Canadian ones). There are casual thank yous and then there are heartfelt ones. I completely understand how absurd the casual thank you can appear to the Vietnamese. When we are at a restaurant we say thank you when the waiter brings the bill. But why would we do this? This is all part of the waiter's expected role, not some kind of personal mitzvah. Besides, why would you thank someone for asking for money? Ditto with the kind but wimpy way Westerners tend to deal with hawkers pestering them on the street. I've heard tourists proudly use the literal Vietnamese translation of "No, thank you". Thanks for what? Seeing me as a source of income? There is no rational reason to thank people for merely fulfilling roles.

What are my thoughts on this?

The first is that I seriously doubt you are going to lose many friends if you say thank you too often in almost any culture, and that includes Vietnamese culture. I did hear this story from one acquaintance: one day, her maid said "You don't need to say thank you all the time!" That was after six months straight service, mind you. The only drawbacks I forsee are perceptions of weakness, insecurity or insincerity, but a lot of this would have to do with secondary behaviour. Do you sound sarcastic when you say "thank you"? Are you unable to take "No" for an answer? Do you apologize a lot for the smallest things? (The last is an old problem of mine.) Work on those problems first, I say.

The second thing is obvious, but it needs to be said. A lot of us say "thank you" because it was the way we were brought up. Otherwise, we'd get told off by our parents, or sent to our room, or had our tongues washed with soap (or lye) or something like that. It's not a "mitzvah" (?), it's a habit - and unlike smoking, not really one to lose.

Third thing third: Mark is absolutely correct in saying that the Vietnamese don't bother to say "thank you" as much as Westerners. That's the culture, and I'm fine with that. But they do say "thank you" when they sit in restaurants. They say "thank you" when the waiters bring the menu, and they also say "thank you" when they serve the food. However, the customer is not expected to say "thank you" when the bill is paid; that's what the waiter should say. But many waiters/bartenders/etc. do appreciate the customer thanking the server even if he is being paid at the same time.

Fourth: Mark thinks it's "kind but wimpy" to say "No, thank you" to hawkers and Xe Ôm drivers in Vietnamese. Me? I find it the best way to get them off my back. Just look at them in the face, and say the phrase. After three years here, it's almost automatic. Smile as well. Treat them like a human, not like a "role". Others things help, like the (Southern?) Vietnamese gesture for "No". (Both palms out and facing the listerner with all fingers extended, then rotate up and down.) Generally, the would-be-seller beams back and walks or drives on... all within seconds. It breaks you out of your assumed "role" as a "westerner", and thus automatic cash cow.

(Occasionally, you get the odd seller who persists. Do you think it's rude in Western culture? That's good, because my impression is that it is also perceived as rude in Vietnamese culture. In such cases, it is both justifiable and wise to ignore them. Learn to shut them out. You've tried your best.)

My final point, and it needs to be said: my observations are based on living in Sài Gòn. Mark's are based on living in Hà Nội. Both cities are Vietnamese, but the "cultures" are slightly different.

"Thank you" (Cảm ơn or Cám ơn) is a good phrase to learn, as is "No, thank you" (Không, cảm ơn or Không, cám ơn). If you can only learn a few Vietnamese words, learn those. They will not do much harm, and they will do you a world of good. They worked for me.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Bad Grapefruit (two more Vietnamese words, etc...)

BBC:Vietnam bans fruity website name:

A website hoping to promote grapefruit in Vietnam has been banned from using the fruit's name because of official fears of a mix-up with a penis.

The Vietnamese for grapefruit, buoi, sounds different from a slang word for penis, but without special accents it looks the same. Vietnamese regulations say website names cannot include "sensitive" words.

The site, set up to market a grapefruit wholesaler in Ha Tinh province, was told to find another name. "We have to refuse the website name of because the word for grapefruit, buoi, without a proper tone marking can be misunderstood," Thai Huu Ly, of the Vietnam Internet Network Information Centre [VINIC], told the AFP agency.

But will it be misunderstood? Will your average Vietnamese think "" has something to do with the sex industry? Will they think the site is about selling citrus fruits? To find out, I wrote "" on a piece of paper, and showed it to a few Vietnamese men I work with. I didn't explain what the URL meant. (Hinting that it had something to do with "fruit" would have been a giveaway, and biased the results.) After a minute of puzzlement, they ALL opted for that non-scatological Vietnamese word for "grapefruit": bưởi.

The other word - the one that VINIC was worried about - is buồi, which is North Việt Nam slang for Cheney. Its usage in Sài Gòn appears to be negligible: my wife hadn't even heard of it. When I showed her the BBC page, she had absolutely no idea how one derived "penis" from unaccented, diacritic-lacking "buoi". She was scornful about how VINIC had even thought that. In the end, I had to find that word in my (very fallible) English-Vietnamese dictionaries and show her. It didn't twig her memory at all. She still had never heard of it, and remained unimpressed with VINIC's actions. 

In the end, VINIC is a government organization. Perhaps most of its members saw "buoi" as nice, honest grapefruit... but then one saw the alternative interpretation, and it could have been embarrassing. So they put the kibosh on it. I think it's a shame. Those greengrocers in Hà Tĩnh (which is in the North) probably weren't thinking scatological thoughts; they just wanted to sell fruit. Perhaps they could rename their domain "" (from nhiều quả bưởi: lots of grapefruit). It would be better still if domain names were internationalized altogether (permitting the unambiguous "www.bưở"), but wide scale implementation appears years off. 

On the other hand, obscenity is generally in the eye of the beholder. I feel that if you have to explain in great detail and with a lot of effort why "" is rude, then it's probably not that rude at all.

Monday, February 13, 2006

What a Dick

Dick Cheney, that is (but I'm being redundant). According to AP, he went on a quail-hunting over the weekend, has a bird in his sights, turns around to track it, and sprays a companion (Harry Whittington) in the face and chest with shotgun pellets.

Not only that, but it happened in a game farm (link courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). The animals in question weren't wild quails. They were raised in pens (along with some mallard ducks), and then let out just before the hunters came. 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette  reported today that 500 farm-raised pheasants were released yesterday morning at the Rolling Rock Club in Ligonier Township for the benefit of Cheney's 10-person hunting party. The group killed at least 417 of the birds, illustrating the unsporting nature of canned hunts. The party also shot an unknown number of captive mallards in the afternoon.

"This wasn't a hunting ground. It was an open-air abattoir, and the vice president should be ashamed to have patronized this operation and then slaughtered so many animals," states Wayne Pacelle, a senior vice president of The Humane Society of the United States. "If the Vice President and his friends wanted to sharpen their shooting skills, they could have shot skeet or clay, not resorted to the slaughter of more than 400 creatures planted right in front of them as animated targets."  

What a fucking waste of God's green earth. Did they hunters eat all of the quails they executed? I doubt it somehow. 400 divided by 10 gives you a little more than 40 inedible lead-and-hamburger corpses each. Not only unsporting, but a little bit sociopathic. Would you like killing 40 birds in a row? I wouldn't. I'd rather do what my father does: watch them with binoculars.

(Links courtesy of Firedoglake and Steve Gilliard.)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Raindrops keep falling on our heads

It's the third day it's happened this month. I'm about to leave a place to go somewhere, when I notice the metallic light of an imminet thunderstorm. There's a few drops on the ground, and a few cyclists have put on their raincoats, but the worst is yet to come. Five minutes later, the heavens will open and water comes crashing down in a torrent. The first time I avoided getting soaked (a quick stop at a local Internet cafe); the third the same (instanteneous change of plans - let's have a coffee). It's the second time where I wasn't so lucky. Pitter-patter at 60 seconds, pealing rain at 120, and parking at 180.

It's definitely been an odd February for Sài Gòn, and I'm not the only one who has remarked on it. The locals seems really put out about it. The collective memory of the locals is that the rain peters out around November, and doesn't really return until May. That's backed up by climate data (courtesy ClimateZone). Torrential rain past Tết is almost unheard-of.

La Niña is probably to blame for this, according to

"The bigger picture is this: There is a developing La Niña condition in the tropical Pacific," the Pagasa-DOST weather branch chief said. According to him, La Niña’s signature is a "cooler than normal sea surface temperature in the Eastern Pacific covering the coasts of Peru and warmer than normal SST over the Western Pacific including the Philippines.

"The persistent warmer than normal sea surface temperature around the Philippines may bring more rains in many parts of the country," he said, adding the brewing La Niña condition may last up to the end of the first quarter 2006 when the see surface temperature begins to normalize.

Amid the La Niña and the puzzling climate within the region — above normal rainfall condition in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam while China, Japan and Russia are experiencing colder than normal winter — what is important is for people to be ready and prepared for possible disastrous effects of these unpredictable weather patterns, Cruz said.

Disastrous, perhaps, but I can see advantages. If the rain keeps up past March (which would be really weird) then it may cool the headstroke months of April and May. Those months are truly evil - temperatures soaring past 35 degrees, and the odd 40-pluser among them. On the other hand, it's got to be hard on the local road maintenance crews. They find it difficult to repair things when they're flooded.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Helmets are good

It needs to be emphasized: helmets should be essential when driving or riding a motorbike. Even here, where motorbikes are the main form of transportation. Or should I say especially here?

To be honest, I didn't wear them much until I bought my Protec™ models last November (one for me, and one for my wife). But now I'm a convert. Every time I go out I don that motherfucker straight onto my head.

I should have decided the purchase on straight road safety grounds. People here may be driving slower than in western countries; 20-30 km/h is the norm in the cities. But it's the fall that makes the difference. You're looking at at least a metre and half drop onto the bitumen. If you're moving quicker, then expect serious grazing at least - the roads are like sandpaper at those velocities. I shouldn't forget facial reconstruction. I've taught some students with broken noses. Alas, these are near best case scenarios. To quote the Asian Injury Prevention Foundation:

In Vietnam, nearly 40 people die each day in traffic accidents and twice that number suffer debilitating head injury. This is a result of rapid motorization and modernization, where people have the ability to trade bicycles for motorbikes, creating a highly mobile population. Unfortunately, preventative safety measures have not accompanied this increased motorization. Limited traffic safety education, lack of awareness about the effectiveness of helmet use, and inconsistent traffic legislation and enforcement have contributed to annual death tolls of over 12,000 people in Vietnam. In addition, approximately 30,000 more suffer from severe brain damage or head trauma sustained in traffic accidents.

That's a lot of Death and Brain Damage, and I'm undecided as to which is worse.

Alas, the Vietnamese are a conservative people, in its original sense of  "conservative" - averse to change. They will not change their behaviour if they don't think it will be in their best interest. Vietnamese generally do not think helmets look good on them, and they think they're too hot to wear.  Plus there's a cultural thing: not so much keeping up with the Joneses, but keeping steady with the Nguyễns. I was talking with my Vietnamese teacher about helmets, and why he doesn't wear them with his wife and daughter to support. Well, he only drives three kilometres to work. If he kept bringing his helmet to school, there's the problem that his fellow teachers would think him - "odd" - which is not what you want in Vietnamese society or in your career. At all. I don't face the stigma, because I'm a foreigner, and thus assumed eccentric unless otherwise proven.

A shame, it is. One of my neighbours got himself in an accident with extra head injuries. He's one of the lucky ones - he isn't brain damaged. But now he's up for 20 million đồng (about $1800 AUD). That's a lot of money in Việt Nam.  I don't know how his family can pay up, especially when the father has abandoned his family to follow some mistress in the Delta.

One welcome change is that helmets are now mandatory on highways, and have been for the last year or so. If drivers don't have a helmet, they're likely to be pulled over by traffic police, who generally are extremely avaricious.  Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more.

To repeat, I should have decided the purchase on straight road safety grounds. But I didn't. I bought it for the face shield attached. I do some teaching in schools on the periphery of Sài Gòn, where the roads are dirtier and more dusty, and the road budgets are lesser. The face shield may not ward me from the nitrogen, sulphur and carbon oxides in the air, but it does spare it from the airborne particulates floating there. Of which there is a lot, from carbon caused by dodgy two-stroke motors and diesel engines, to the dust from cracks in the road. Imagine what it does to your pores.  Visualize what it does to your eyes. I wear glasses, which prevent the bulk of the pollution from hitting the corneas, but there's always side winds to blow it there. The result was a lot of runny liquid with black bits and white bits, and lots of Rohto eyedrops to clean it all out. Oh, the face shield has made a big difference to my life, such as a decline in acne. 

Helmets won't save you every time. Nearly a year ago in Gia Ray, I just avoided observing a fatality by seconds. Some young man drove out in the highway without looking, did a sudden right turn, not realizing there was a minibus just behind him, and well... let's just say "watermelon" comes to mind, with polystyrene mixed in. He was wearing a helmet, but that wasn't going to do him any good under some vehicle's wheels. (This led to a roadside embalming a few hours later, but that's another story.) Helmets are all well and good, but they're secondary to another quality - observation. Alas, that's another thing in short supply here.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Two new words of the week...

Since the last word of the week was dead on arrival, I better provide substitutes. They are:

  • Lồng Tiếng: (verb) to dub.
  • Phụ Đề: (noun) subtitle.

The latter word's become a pretty important word in my life. My wife and I got ourselves a DVD player, as well as the the address of a local DVD rental place (at 2000đ a pop). Being far away from backpackers and "The Ghetto", the place rents almost exclusively to Vietnamese speakers, and the DVD are altered accordingly. The big question is how the DVDs are altered. I want to hear English-language films in English. I do not want to hear them in Vietnamese. So every time I'm off to the video store, I look for those magic words "Phụ Đề" on the covers. If they're not there, the DVD is dubbed, and it's no use to me at all.

I've commented on the dub versus subtitle conundrum before, so I'll summarize: dubbing bad, subtitling good. Unless your your target audience is illiterate... but that's not really a valid assumption in Việt Nam with its 94% literacy rate, is it?

Well, I've been thinking a little bit more about it lately. One important issue is how one measures literacy. This is what the Việt Nam National Literacy Policy defines as being "literate":

A person who is literate has to achieve the literacy skills equivalent to grade 3 out of 5 grades of primary education and to be able to apply these skills in his/her day life.

That's a bare-bones flat-lined definition of literacy indeed. In case you are wondering, "grade 3" here is at the same age as in the West: about 7 to 9 years old. It's not a high measure at all. Nor does it say a good deal about the local "numeracy" rates either. Grade 3 was when I first encountered those exotic mathematical operations called "multiplication" and "division".

Now the question arises: could someone meeting (if not exceeding) the National Literacy Level handle subtitled movies? I doubt it. As evidence, let me bring up the third member of the household, "Mr. B"; he helps around the house in exchange for free food and board and a small income. He's a nice guy, and he's bright, but he never finished high school. He's a few grades above the literacy level of grade 3. Nevertheless, he finds subtitles too hard. Every uttered English sentence is represented by about 8 or 10 Vietnamese words on the screen. He has to read them all, and he has to read them fast. Because if  he doesn't, then he'll miss the meaning a second later when they disappear; i.e., when another English statement is represented by another 8 or 10 Vietnamese words. Understandably, he prefers dubbing.

Now I have a lot of Vietnamese friends, workmates and acquaintances (plus one wife) whose literacy levels are far more literate than that. But remember, I work in a "white-collar" industry - to be exact, the teaching sector - and almost all of my workmates have some sort of tertiary degree. I also live in a very large city (Sài Gòn). But most people in this country do not live in cities, and very few people go to university: 5% of college-age people in 1995. My experience is atypical for someone living here, even if typical for an expat. Mr. B is far closer to the median than my pals. If he find subtitles too hard, then I reckon a lot of other Vietnamese do too. Accordingly, the state TV stations dub any foreign movie they show. They know their target audience.

Interestingly, it has been cable TV that has taken up the slack. They've been subtitle all the time since I watched it (2003 to 2004). The problem is that they service they provided here use to subtitle in Thai - great for the Thailand market, but no bloody use here. Fortunately, some cable executive realized that Việt Nam has a bigger population, if not as rich. Presto - subtitles in Vietnamese, sometime in the last year or so. Now the cable companies are milking it in. Cable is popular here - to be exact, among the well-off who can afford it. That also includes their offspring, some of who I happen to teach. The kids like Discovery Channel. They love the Cartoon Network. And for the love of god, they absolutely adore Smackdown. Due, in large part, to subtitles.