Project Minsk

Until two days ago there were three fragile dust-covered and forlorn Minsk bikes scattered across our garage roof waiting to be resuscitated. Soon, these three carcasses of metal will be rejuvenated with a slick of British Army Green paint and lots and lots of love (read new brakes, new clutches, new engines, new everything) and within the next two weeks there will be three hardy Minsk bikes revving along the perilous roads of Vietnam.
What a beauty!

The Minsk, a 125cc two stroke dirt bike, is based on a pre-world war II design and is named after the city it is made in; Minsk, Belarus. It is a popular bike in Vietnam, especially in the more mountainous regions, and apparently in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest from expats and young Vietnamese who are drawn to its retro style. The motorbike can also be found on the dusty meandering roads of Afghanistan and even as far afield as Mozambique. In the Top Gear Vietnam Special Richard Hammond rides a roaring Minsk up the coast of Vietnam while Jeremy Clarkson’s on a lovely dainty Vespa. I tried to embed the video of the special from YouTube but it didn’t really work so have a mooch at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1zfuBgCUqY, even if you’ve seen it before it’s always worth another watch. Not sure if I approve of them spray-painting the Minsk bright pink though…

All three of the bikes on the roof belong to our landlord Neil, and this week, alongside Gareth, two of our flat mates Lincoln and Mark decided to start their own Minsk Club. Neil cut us a deal. The boys can take the bikes into the city to get them repaired, pay for the repairs (about $100 for each bike) and then they can have the bikes rent free for a year. Absolute bargain!

A couple of days ago Mark and Lincoln took one of the bikes into District 1 to get it repaired. Mark rode the Minsk while Lincoln took his normal bike. As Mark’s engine was too corroded and needed a spark plug for it to work Lincoln literally pushed him into town with his foot; an illegal yet effective maneuver. In the end Mark actually arrived some time before Lincoln because the locals took it upon themselves to push him in. In a couple of days Gareth is going to have to make this same 40 minute long voyage to District 1 once Mark gets his bike back. With Lincoln and the locals of Saigon, he’s in safe hands.

The end goal is that on 3rd September, a national holiday, we will take all three of the bikes for a spin to the Mekong Delta for the day. Having the Minsk also opens up the rest of South Vietnam for us (our  wee geared Honda that we rent now just doesn’t have the power we need to really get out and explore) and we intend to visit Dalat for the New Year, an area 185 miles away that has been described as the Alps in springtime, and go camping in the woods there.

Wish us luck!

Bạn có nói tiếng Anh không and other non-useful phrases

This week I had an epiphany; while we’re here we could learn Vietnamese! Since this innocuous idea came into my brain space, life as I know it will never be the same again.
It all started when I stumbled across a brilliant website called Fluent in 3 Months – http://www.fluentin3months.com – written by a young Irish bloke called Benny who, over the last 8 years, since the age of 21 (when he could only speak one language, English), has become fluent in French, Italian, Irish, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Esperanto (a kind of cunning linguist’s language of choice that was made up over 100 years ago and doesn’t originate from any particular country). He is now learning Mandarin, American Sign Language, Dutch and Czech. He does this by immersing himself in the language he’s learning and trying hard not to utter a single English word for three months. It’s a great website and is a must-read for anyone interested in challenging themselves to learn a language fluently.
So, Vietnamese. Quite simply, it is nothing like English. There are twelve vowels to start with; three different A’s, two E’s, one I, three O’s and two U’s (although, English does have 22 different vowel sounds). The language has 6 tones, these are mid-level, high-rising, low-falling, low-broken, low-rising and high broken, which means that there are 18 different ways to say the letter A and not to mention the 39 diphthongs (the sound of two vowels together). Unlike Thai, Lao and Khmer, Vietnamese is written in the Roman script which means we don’t need to learn a whole set of squiggles before we can even read it. But don’t be fooled, it isn’t as straightforward as you’d imagine, for example the word ‘no’, khong, is pronounced more like kom. The word ‘pho’ (need I explain?) is said similar to the English word ‘fur’ but on the ‘o’ the tone starts low, dips a little lower then rises slowly to a higher tone so that it sounds a bit like you’re asking a question. It’s actually written as phở; the two accents on the ‘o’ denote which of the three ‘O’s’ to pronounce and what tone it is said in (see what I mean?!) But why are tones so important I hear you ask, well let’s look at the word ‘ma’. Depending on what tone you use it could mean ghost, cheek, which, tomb, horse or rice seedling. There is also the fact that all Vietnamese names said in a different tone mean something else so it’s important you don’t call the lovely lady at the greengrocers a goat. A boy in one of my classes is called Duc and every time I say his name he replies ‘noooo, my name isn’t Duc, it’s Duc!’ Guess you had to be there. 
This image symbolically conveys the re-birthing process myself and Gareth will endure as we learn a diverse phonological system of tones, idiomatic expressions and the structural rules that govern the syntax of Vietnamese.

We could be in Vietnam for some time. We might even stay until the new year we love it that much, hence learning Vietnamese would be very useful. Last week I got a manicure and pedicure at a nail bar down the road and if it wasn’t for the wealthy Vespa-driving lady next to me having her talons adorned with diamantes, who could speak a little English, then the whole experience would have involved me sitting there grinning like a Cheshire cat as the two women working on my mucky hands and feet giggled and wondered aloud about my age and what a twenty-something western girl was doing in a place like this.

It’s frustrating not being able to show the people I come across on a daily basis my true character and if I do get the chance to speak to someone in English I have to put on a weird awkward British/American accent because there is no way they’d understand me if I spoke in Scouse. Most importantly though, I want to know them, I want to know their personalities and characters not by what I can see through my ignorance but by hearing how they speak to one another. I also desperately want to buzz someone off when I hear them talking about me, ha! Oh, to see their face when I can answer back and give them a good tongue-lashing.   

This image shows me shooting stuff because I’m angry because Vietnamese is so fu**ing hard

And life has already changed. I needed a coffee this morning and we’d ran out of condensed milk so I practiced saying ‘hai sua’ or ‘two milks’ for a couple of minutes, (the U in sua is said in the ‘high-broken’ tone) and when I uttered this impossible sentence to the lady in the shop she repeated it back to me exactly as I’d said it with a look of awe then rambled something in Vietnamese that sounded like a compliment while I just nodded and smiled. It was the first time I didn’t need to point to what I wanted and it felt wonderful.
So, can we become fluent in three months? It’s worth a try like. Although one phrase I won’t be learning is ‘bạn có nói tiếng Anh không?’ or ‘do you speak English?’.

We’re Wanderlust’s Blog of the Week!!

Wanderlust Travel Blog of the Week

As I see no harm in shameless self-promotion I wanted to let all our regular readers know that Wanderlust magazine have chosen our blog ‘How to Eat Pho’ as this week’s Blog of the Week:

As well as the fact that loads more people will read the blog it also means that it qualifies Heading to Hanoi for consideration for Travel Blog of the Year, which will be announced at the London Destinations Show February 2013.
Also, you can all help us towards getting an award for Most Popular Travel Blog of the Year, so please please please keep reading it, and tell your friends to read it because the more hits we get the closer we’ll be to winning!!!
Thank yoooou!!