Thursday, July 22, 2010

Low and Wet

(The following post refers to the Hà Nội flood of Tuesday, July 13. It has not been posted for a long time because my Internet access between then and now has not permitted me to post this. Imagine that it's a new post.)

On Tuesday, we had the flood. When I awoke, I heard the sound of rain hitting the buildings and the ground and I thought that it would just be another crappy day. An hour later, dressed in jeans, running shoes and a raincoat, I made my way down to the hotel's front door. The water's level arrested me – I judged that it was about knee-high (maybe eight or nine inches). The hotel's landlady said something to me in Vietnamese (I don't know what it was), motioned for me to either roll my pants up or to put shorts on, and said "dép" ("sandals"). So I changed into crappy shorts and from my shoes into blue rubber sandals that had engraved on them "South Africa 2010" (they belong to the hotel), and ventured into the sea. Yes, the water was dirty, but it was fun powering my way through it. This is what I powered through (imagine the about two or three inches higher than it appears to be, because I took these photos after the rain had stopped):

I finally reached Phố Ngọc Hà, which was higher ground. The road for vehicles had flooded a bit, but the sidewalk was passable. My goal was to get the nearest breakfast possible. I found it at a place I had eaten at a few times before. I saw an interesting-looking beef this time, so I asked for my soup to contain that. It was wonderful – I liked it much better than most other phỏ bò I had previously had. Under normal circumstances, I would have returned to my hotel, but I went out further into the flood in order to buy my own sandals.

Further south of my hotel, Phố Ngọc Hà was flooded. People were sitting in front of their shops, watching and waiting for the water to recede. A few locals smiled at me, either in mockery of the Westerner totally shocked by the flood (an image that doesn't coincide with the reality at the time) or in empathy with the foreigner who must navigate his way through his first flood. I often (usually at least once per day) pass by a restaurant across the road from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Sometimes, one of the staff members (let's call him Dũng, for the sake of privacy), who is probably three or four years my junior, calls out to me and says stuff (in English) like "Hey! Come drink bia (beer)!", and invites me to go into the restaurant. This baffles me, because I don't think that he is working for commission. I always respond that I'm full, which is usually true. Anyway, by this time, he and I had come to recognise each other, and I knew his real name. As I moseyed around in the floodwaters, he came up to me and invited me to go into the restaurant. I told him that I had to go buy sandals. He insisted on talking more to me, and I was happy to indulge. After trading a few more sentences, he said to me "You are beautiful". I doubted that I could really be beautiful when I was all wet, with soaked hair, a rain jacket, crappy shorts well above my knees and blue rubber South Africa 2010 sandals. I really was touched. But I don't think he meant "beautiful" in the way that Aphrodite was beautiful. I think it was a linguistic misunderstanding. In Vietnamese, "beautiful" is "đẹp". "Handsome" is " đẹp trái" ("male beautiful"). I'm not sure he realised that what he said really, really sounded like either a sexual advance or an admission of deep, deep admiration, and I assume that he meant neither. But hearing "you are beautiful" really picked up my spirits and gave me faith in myself once again. That faith lasted for about ten seconds, after which I realised I was knee deep in the feces of other people.

As soon as I reached Phố Dội Cấn (I needed to buy sandals), I saw how bad the flood really was. The water had reached about three or four inches above the sidewalk, which is about three or four inches above the road. I had no idea where the sidewalk ended and the road began, leading me to nearly fall face-first into the water. That would have been rather disgusting, because there was probably human excrement or the pathogens therein in the floodwater. Luckily for me, the highest level on my body that the water ever reached was just below my groin. Ladies and gentlemen, being short (by Western standards) has its advantages, but it certainly makes floods more disgusting and fear-inspiring than they would be for people of average (by Western standards) height. I think that many short (by Vietnamese standards) women had it a lot worse than I did.

Anyways, Phố Dội Cấn was awful. People were driving their motorcycles at a good clip along the sidewalk, where the distance between the top of the water and the ground was lowest. Cars and motorcycles were stuck on the road. The water was so high that I became mortally-afraid every time a car drove by – the cars would create tidal waves that would make wet previously-unsoaked parts of my legs. One bus, of which the normal route goes along Phố Dội Cấn and which usually charges 3,000 VND per ride, was taking passengers for free. This bus was going along at something like 7 km/h, and the water was barely below the steps at the doors of entry and exit. Because of my surfeit of height, my brown hair and my aquiline nose (i.e. because I'm white) the bus driver stopped the bus, opened the door and had the ticket agent (under non-flood circumstances, fares are collected by ticket agents) invite me to go in the bus for free. I had no idea where along the street I would find sandals for males, so I declined. Man, that bus was crowded. I don't know where all of those people had to go to – the power was out and nothing was open.

I found some establishments that are normally shoe stores (remember, I am not at my hotel because I need my own sandals) and I asked those standing outside of them "Có dép cho nam không?" ("Do you have sandals for males?". Please correct my Vietnamese if you know Vietnamese grammar). They all replied in the negative with a mélange of mockery (of the silly Westerner expecting anyone to sell anything during a flood) and defeat (at the fact that they couldn't sell anything, on account of the flood). Once reaching something like 120 Phố Dội Cấn (that was a miracle, my friends), I gave up on finding my own sandals, and turned back.

I want to give a sense of how much a flood slows people down. It cuts the power, taking away the fast pace of business. It makes roads inaccessible to most motorised vehicles, forcing people to walk or to do backstroke (most opt for the former). It physically slows people down, too. I accumulated fatigue quickly from pushing my legs through the water. At least the flood gave me much-needed exercise.

Anyways (I'm digressing a lot here), I was rất vui to find that some of the right-hand side of Phố Ngọc Hà had drained. This made my journey go much more quickly. But, to be honest, I was disappointed that I couldn't wallow in the water. Feeling the water flowing by and surrounding my legs was really relaxing. It forced me to slow down and appreciate the steps that I took. Since the flood, I have a new appreciation for dry ground, over which the only resistance is air resistance. However, due to my overwhelming sense of feeling like the poop hit the ceiling fan (spinning at 100 mph), I was not able to have those thoughts at that moment. After a couple of minutes, I made it to the Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum Complex. To my great surprise, there were people working in there, and the complex was not flooded. But that is of little interest. Right beside the entrance to the complex were what were probably the only two stores in Ba Đình District which were open at the time – the gift shops. In answer to my awkward (and probably gramatically-incorrect) question about sandals, the first shop replied that they did not have. At the second shop, my question elicited from the salesperson a quizzical look. It then elicited a pair of sandals! Hooray! I have the following to say about the sandals: they cost 40,000 VND (just over $2.00 CDN). They were women's size 39 flip-flops. It turns out that women's size 39 is a wee bit small for my men's size 9 EEE feet. They were blue, had "SPORT" written all over half of the sole and were made by a company called Tina's. On the band on top was written "HIPHOP". I wish I had taken photos of them. Alas, I could not pack them (I was scheduled to move to my host family's house on the day of the flood) so I left them at the hotel.

Come lunchtime, I had to venture outside again. This time, I sported my new Tina's sandals. This was the first time I had ever worn flip-flops, and I must say that I looked rather feminine. They emphasised my calves too (not a bad thing, as my calves are at least 8 out of 10. With the hot new tan I've got, I'll bump that up to 8.5 out of 10). Because the power was out, the semi-sketchy cơm bình dân place I went to was cooking its rice with – you'll never guess – fire! Actual, third-degree-burny, Promethean fire. A quick note on what cơm bình dân is: a plate of steaming rice topped with ambient-temperature dishes usually cooked long before consumption. In theory, cơm bình dân is wonderful because it provides diners with nutritional variety not found in most street food. Staples are rau muống (water spinach), đậu phụ rán (fried tofu), pork ribs, peanuts, bamboo shoots (NB: these can taste like heaven or like the Apocalypse), things comprised of copious amounts of meat wrapped by leaves, etc. It sounds unsafe, and it is. The worst that cơm bình dân has ever inflicted on me is near-diarrhoea (if you want details on why I say "near-diarrhoea" then please email me or comment on this post), but that's not to say that people haven't got really nasty things or died from it. My strategy with cơm bình dân is to go veggie. Sure, it bewilders the servers, who have trouble understanding that somebody would not want meat in their meal (meat is big in Việt Nam), but it eliminates from my plate those foods most likely to host pathogens. I'm banking on the hope that Giardia lamblia is a picky eater. At least it doesn't seem to have been in the cơm bình dân which I ate during the flood. Wow. Way to stay on topic, Josh. International developer by day, writer by night? Forget about it, kid.

At the home of my host family (I hope to write soon a post about how wonderful my host family is), I found out that three people died as a result of the flood. I hope that you have figured out that I am not one of those people. Especially if you're my mother.

What have I learned? Well, as I said above, I have a new appreciation for dry ground. I also have a tip for anyone else stuck in a flood: don't invest in rubber boots and waterproof pants. Why? There are three reasons. First, your expensive boots and pants will get cold and dirty. Second, the presence of cars makes the water go higher than you might anticipate. Third, different streets have different capacities to drain themselves. The best attire for a flood is a pair of crappy shorts, a crappy pair of underwear (your underwear should not have crap in it) and a pair of crappy rubber sandals. Bare legs can be rinsed-off and dried, as can rubber sandals.

I'm sorry, folks. I have no epic story about how I saved a drowning child or single-handedly lifted a SUV full of elderly people to higher ground. All I have are memories and a wet wallet. It's high time I replaced that thing. It's really getting to smell.