Life with a River

We live next to the Saigon River and I mean literally – it is about 10m away and there are panoramic views along about a kilometer of a gradual meander bend (see, Cathie I learned something when I taught Geography for you). Our vista points directly North and hence to the left is West and right East. We don’t see the early morning sun, but the afternoon sun sets behind a row of high rise apartments and produces many a wonderful sunset, shining for only a short time directly on the patio from about 2pm give or take the time of year till about 6pm or so.
The patio is shaded by two palms on either side but otherwise the view of the river is unimpeded. To the West the river bends away a little North before curling back again on its journey to Saigon, to the North-East the river bends past a busy container shipping area, it is this subsequent path of the river we have not seen yet, the other we often see as we catch the boat into town.
The river is wide maybe 200m, I guess I could get exact measurements but exactness is not necessarily always a good measure of the significance of something, so I will try and paint a picture for you. It is a stable river, no waves unless a large boat passes, and flows left and right with the tide, but never at a fast pace, it is clearly powerful but on first glance this is not apparent, it is only so when one hears the motors of the boats straining when running in the opposite direction of the prevailing current. It is not muddy but also not clear, there is quite a bit of sediment but it is home to jumping fish and various other marine creatures, much prized it seems as there are, at low tide, men gathered and diving into the muddy shore line collecting little shell fish, we think.
Rivers in Vietnam have shaped the country, especially in the South around the Mekong Delta. Our stretch of water carries the cargo boats, these move gracefully up and down all day and night, never stopping so it seems. There are large green boats with tall sides and shorter sided boats, and boats that appear almost sunk, these latter boats typically laden with sand, I am told destined for export to places like Singapore. Whilst graceful there is a traditional masculinity about the boats: strong, sturdy, reliable, what you see is what you get, there is no subtly. Many of the boats are homes as well, the washing often prominently displayed, and plant pots and TV aerials can be seen – there are women and children going about the daily tasks, the men can be seen washing the boat will bucks dipped into the river and hauled up – and themselves at times. The captains nearly all have the same pose, it is relaxed, with feet used to steer and resting back – you get the impression sometimes they maybe sleeping.
There is little noise from these boats but the smaller wooden fishing boats can make a putt-putt noise and at night or early evening this can be a little loud. These are small boats about 4 metres long, narrow and fishing boats in the main, but from time you see them burdened down with all manner of cargo. The crowd favorite are the pugnacious tug boats, these are squat, and resemble cartoon depictions of tug boats the type captain Pugwash captained. Their main task is to push against the current and move huge barges about, often empty but often full of sand.
As the boats have a maleness in the traditional sense the river itself is certainly – Mother Nature. There is a dependency on the river it is the giver, not wanting anything in return except some respect and to be treated with fondness. Traditionally this was the case, the rivers were revered and still are but environmental issues are present and growing urbanisation and industrialisation, and farming are starting to cause problems – erosion and pollution being the two main ones, and of course there is the ever present Up Stream damming in other countries.
In the morning the river often welcomes me with a carpet of green and in the so called winter months the green clumps of water hyacinth carry abundant bird life, mainly white storks. The carpet of green drifts with the current up and down and it is not clear where it goes to or where it comes from. Women in small boats drift with the tide collecting bottles and other rubbish that can be sold, this tends to keep the river clean or at least more so that you might expect.
It is a privilege to live so close and to see the goings on, it is truly a life with a river.

Reflection on first year in Vietnam

I started this a year ago and never finished the first line, what follows is a bit of a short summay of the first year.

I have started a new job as Director of Technology at the International School of Ho Chi Mnh City, August 2012. On my own, Cathie will join me after Xmas. Settling in to a new set of surroundings is always difficult, but the only way is to get out and about. On waking I was greeted with the most beautiful sun rise over the wide expanse of the Saigon River, which slowly meandered along past my third floor balcony view…..the school had put me up in a resort next to the school, after a short flirtation with the idea of living in the community, I eventually found myself ensconced in a lovely one bedroom apartment.

The most difficult adjustment for me was simply the humidity, i just resembled a tap and whilst keen to get out and look around i quickly found that I needed to change my approach. To give you an example, I am used to shopping locally at home in Melbourne and whilst there is a small shop on site I wanted to visit the local supermarket, I chose the one across the double lane highway, four lanes each way! I had read that to cross a road just walk out and the bikes will avoid you, I don’t recall the advice including what to do about cars, cement trucks, buses and huge lorries stacked with all many of things. So, i observed for a while, there was a tricky set of lights where bikes lined up waiting for a green light, but this only applied to some many just rode into the oncoming traffic, and when the light turned green, there was much anticipation of this event, the riders would sweep around and across the road in a rather frantic but well organised charge. I then noticed some locals who seemed to share my trepidation, so I sidled up and used what I been taught in Rome to use a human shield to cross the road, well obviously we all made it and by using the more or less walk straight out technique, but not when crazy bus or lorry drivers where in abundance….lesson 1 learnt use common sense.

The supermarket called Metro is a wholesale place, and for businesses, but as an expat I got in after much gesticulation and by handing over my drivers license, i am always wary handing over cards of any sort for fear I may never see them again! I need not have worried as the card was returned with a huge smile and a delightful and respectful ushering towards a lady dressed in traditional dress who scanned my card and who instructed me in perfect English…don’t lose that and show when paying….ok I said.

I love a good shop, and the place had aircond – putting aside environmental concerns as to where the power came from – I had a ball looking around and buying some cheap local beer, some wine and nothing to eat. I then set off back across the road back to my apartment, about 30 minutes, and it is something I have never done again: dangerous and dehydrating ensuring the beer was quickly consumed.

I have since discovered taxis are excellent and affordable, there is free bus and a boat into the city, And also a bus service that goes to the aforementioned Metro, all included in the rental charge, which I must admit is tad high, but then I do have a bar 10m away out my back door: there is also a pool, gym and tennis courts, I did venture into the gym once, no twice, the first time made ill and the second confirmed the feeling, so,I adopted Oscar Wilde’s suggestion …when I feel the urge to exercise I rest on a bed until the urge passes…seems good advice to me.

The first days at school where uneventful, I have seen it all before, I was asked to talk briefly to the staff and I did so, only person to do so without a bloody powerPoint, One person came up latter and said to me..thanks for your nice little talk we were reassured…she left it at that, and I was a bit perplexed as to whether I had reassured the staff I was another IT dick head or somebody that was about meeting their needs, thankfully it turned out to be the latter. I won’t go into details, but the year turned out to be one of fixing things e.g. Network, getting new servers, doing a budget and starting the process of accountability for expenditure based on clearly stated educational and administrative objectives, qualitative and quantitative ones..the idea of objectives and plans did seem to strange to many it seemed. Apparently it had been a case of, if you want something fill in a PO (purchase order ) and you get it…i said that is not budgeting or planning is it? Anyway, much was achieved in the first year and all of the credit goes to the highly skilled IT team, by far the best I have worked with by a country mile.

I tend to use colloquial Aussie language with a liberal sprinkling of rhyming slang picked up mostly from Dad, and also wise sayings I learnt from a Yorkshireman who told me when I was computer sales rep..if you want to know how somebody thinks find out how they get paid..i will return to that idea in a subsequent blog about Budgeting and Planning.

The IT team operates as a respectful family, this is their core value, we help each other and I quickly learnt that what was important was the outcome not necessarily the process, Vietnamese have there ways of doing things and these work, well mostly, but ways certainly do not work all the time either!

I have taken it upon myself to try and explain a few of my sayings, this is usually meet with much laughter and obvious …what is he talking about…., here is an example:

Running with the hares and hounds….this necessitated a discussion of the practice of the upper landed classes in England fox and hare hunting, in the end the general idea of two bob each way or having your cake and eating it, was understood, and yes there are always plenty of examples in schools, deputy heads responsible for staff welfare, for instance, rarely stand up to the Head, in fact one of my pet hates is bosses who will not disagree with their boss or bosses.

The year ended and for some reason know only to the good Lord or rock spirit or the cat fish the parent company decided it would install a new admissions system during the June and July the busiest period, do a timetable without reference to room numbers or student choices and to cap it of install a new student admin system the week before school starts without the timetable being complete. Dick Head Andy pointed out, I must say it was one of my better direct missives, that this was all likely to end in tears, put people under undue stress, against all principles of IT projects and straight bloody idiotic, possibly the last word was what got the powers in a flap, who knows and I don’t much care.

The above necessitated a new saying … there is whiff of dick head in the air … Seemed to bring much mirth to a few people I used it with.

Fortunately because of pure luck, the professionalism of the teachers and the remarkable tolerance of the kids, othe kids are in classes happy and being taught, the IT staff worked three weeks straight including weekends otherwise this fairy start would not have happened.

My dear wife tells me I have an ability to predict the future, in so far as that maybe the case, it is a curse rather than a blessing as they say.

The following blogs will concentrate on our many trips and all the wonderfully positive things we have experienced, I hope you get some enjoyment reading each…there will be pics too! Love to all.