Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Sorrow of War

The Sorrow of War is probably one of the most famous works of literature to come out of Vietnam. It is a harrowing, tragic story of suffering during the American war and of one soldier's lost love and lost innocence. Please click here to read my review of this book.

We've had our own little sorrow in our neighbourhood recently. I found out this information on Tuesday evening, when I bumped into Thuy as I came back home from a run. She was walking Happy, and we passed one of her friends, a maid from another house, who was out on her bicycle. "Their dog is lost", Thuy told me. It had been lost all day and this woman had been cycling around and around looking for it. The next day I asked Thuy if the dog had been found yet, and she said no. "It will be stolen, and made into dog meat", Jessica suggested.
Surely not, I said.
"Yes!", cried Thuy, "it's true".

At this time Jessica was sat on the floor cuddling her own dog Happy, who has not been well recently. She is lethargic and disinterested all the time. Thuy told me she had taken Happy to see the vet, who diagnosed that Happy is 'too old'. My diagnosis is that the poor dog is miserable because she is fed a diet of rice and vegetables. Jessica thinks she just needs love.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Cô Giáo Amy

Today has been my first effort as a Cô Giáo- teacher- at the Anh Linh free school, which I visited and wrote about last week. I'd been feeling very nervous in the run-up to the two-hour class, worrying about how I would keep the kids entertained and engaged for a long period.

In the midst of the sticky midday heat I cycled from my home in Phu My Hung into the heart of District 7, where the school is located. The drastic change of scenery over such a small distance is quite remarkable. The wide boulevards of affluent Phu My Hung suddenly become narrower roads, bustling and colourful with markets, manufacturing and retail on both sides, looking much more like a typical neighbourhood in Vietnam than from where I had come. Crossing between the two areas I suddenly became an unusual part of the landscape and received a few second-glances.

I arrived at the school early and sat talking to a few of the children, who told me that the headteacher was having a nap until 2pm, when the class started.When she appeared we led the group of twelve up to one of the classrooms and with the help of Thuy, an English teacher who translated for me, I explained to the children that they were going to do some self-portraits with the aid of a small mirror that I placed on each of the tables. We spent about an hour painting. After some hesitation the children engaged themselves in the activity and mostly seemed interested.

One little lad sat looking at his paper until Thuy told me that he didn't know how to draw a face. I asked him to look in the mirror and begin by drawing the shape of his head. When I came back he was very neatly drawing a building. But eventually we got him on track and he produced a painting just as the others did. In fact, a few in the class were very skilful. One girl spent a long time working on a very neat and beautiful self-portrait, continuing long after the others had finished and returning to her work later on to continue painting carefully. Another, a cheeky lad called Bảo who signed his name as King Black Bảo, was also very good, quickly getting down to work and producing a great portrait of himself with his round face, stylish glasses and blue school uniform. I praised him for his work throughout, and when he had just finished, with cocky pride he added two pigtails to his head.

We spent the second hour of the class playing ball games and Duck Duck Goose outside, and Pictionary, Seven up and Chinese Whispers back in the classroom. By four o'clock I was the most exhausted of everyone. I'm glad that I had nothing to worry about- I am pretty sure that all the kids enjoyed themselves and didn't become bored- yet I will have to stay on my toes to think up new things to do every Tuesday and Friday from now on. Another challenge will be remembering all the kids' names, particularly as they are often very difficult for me to pronounce. This will all be very good experience for me. And I now appreciate the hard work that teachers do- after a meagre two hours I felt in need of a tall gin and tonic!

Saturday, 23 February 2013


I've been having some lazy days since Lily left on Tuesday. There isn't much on my schedule for the next month; my next landmark to look forward to is a visit from my mum at the end of March. To fill my time and keep myself sane while I plough on through my project work I've been really getting into my Zumba classes and have made some good new friends through it. Last night we had a Zumba 'party' at the Tavern bar in Phu My Hung. A live band had been put on and our class of Zumba girls performed a couple of dances during the band's break. A few of the dances were ones I'd never done before and had to try to follow on the spot. It was all good fun. Today some of us met up for dinner and drinks in  Phu My Hung. Some were more suffering more than others from the night before. I was also lucky enough to get some tips from Emma and Michelle, both teachers, on how to keep my children engaged entertained when I begin my volunteering at the Anh Linh school on Tuesday. Michelle told me how to dye rice different colours and where to find the best craft supplies in Ho Chi Minh City (district 5, near the market), whilst Emma demonstrated her scary teacher face. I never thought I'd become involved in something like Zumba but it's become a fairly big part of my life in recent weeks and I'm really enjoying it.

L-R: Amanda, me, Gretchen, Ly, Nguyen, Thuy, Nga, Emma, Katalin (our teacher)

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Goodbye Lil

Today has been Lily's last day of her five weeks of travels in Asia, and she has been dreading it. I'm very glad that she's enjoyed herself and made the most out of her trip. It's been lovely having her here. She was not to leave until the evening so we could at least make the most of her last day. We started early with a morning yoga class, which we both found very hard work. And as a consequence I have a sore neck and back from attempting to balance on my head. In the afternoon we went to the outdoor pool so Lily could soak up the last of the Eastern sun before her return to wintery England. Finally, we met up with Jessica who took us out for a very nice last meal in town. Thuy was sad to see Lily go as we loaded her up like a packhorse with her rucksack and the additional bag she bought to accommodate all her souvenirs. I'd become very used to having Lily around after so long and it's sad to say goodbye to my best friend for another three months. But I know there are a lot of people at home who can't wait to have her back.

A very happy Jessica with her soufflé

Ta-ta Lily

Sunday, 17 February 2013

A visit to the Anh Linh school

Lily's last weekend in Vietnam has been fun, and laid-back. On Saturday morning we took to the local pool and I ended up getting very sunburnt. In most areas of my life I will learn from my previous mistakes and move on. When it comes to protecting myself from the sun, I never seem to learn. The cost of my stupidity has been painful red shins and feet all weekend. In the evening we went out with my new friend Gretchen. We went to the Bitexco sky-bar, where Lily and I went on Friday to take pictures, and had a drink, watching as the sun set and the city lit up fantastically. Then we had a nice Vietnamese meal followed by some beers in Pham Ngu Lao.

Amazing views over the city


Yesterday Lily and I ran the Saigon Hash. This was Lily's first introduction to a 'real' hash as last week it was only a bar crawl in the city. The walk was about five and a half kilometres, but the terrain was difficult as it was mostly sandy. As ever, the walk/run finished with a circle and people of different nationalities were called forward for 'charges' held against them for offences during the run or for scandals in world news. For example, the Dutch, German and French runners were charged with supplying horsemeat to Britain and Ireland, and so, of course, had to down a jug of beer each. It is all very silly and it was a totally exhausting day.

The walkers set off

Villagers gave us curious looks

Doing the down-down

The ice block: a punishment for misdemeanors

This morning I went to visit the Anh Linh free school in District Seven, where I will be doing some voluntary work. The school has been running since 1990 to provide education and care for children who cannot afford to attend mainstream schools. The school's website explains:

In Vietnam, education is free, but the cost of supplies, uniforms, books, meals, and medical attention are borne by the families of the students. This can amount to $15-25 per month. There are no scholarships or sliding scales. We serve children who don't have families or who live with a single mother or grandmother. Many of the families we serve cannot afford to pay public school fees. As well, many of these children are too old for public school or don't have the required birth certificates. As a result these abandoned children have little hope for a future that is anything different than continued economic and social deprivation. They are at risk for being sexually or commercially trafficked.

I was shown around by Kim Ngoc, the school's headteacher. The building was clean and bright and the children looked happy in their smart uniforms. The majority of the 240 students that attend this school, aged between seven and eighteen, come from the countryside and live in rented rooms near the school. Twelve girls are housed in the school's dormitory. Often the students will sell lottery tickets or small items such as lemons and chillies in their spare time to earn a little money for their families. Sat outside in the school playground I met a group of secondary school students who were making beaded keyrings in the shapes of dogs, lizards and bears. They are packaged and sold in the school's name to make some money to go back to the children. These students would start their classes in the afternoon.

All of the children study maths, literature, biology, history and geography. Secondary school students also study English, physics, chemistry and IT. The school has twenty-eight computers but is in need of another ten to match the class sizes of thirty-eight. There was also a well-stocked library and around ten sewing machines, used to make the school uniforms. I will be running an after-school art class from next week for a group of ten to fifteen primary school students. I really enjoyed my visit to the school and am looking forward to getting started with my voluntary work there. To donate to the school or to sponsor a child, please visit their website: 

Maths class

Friday, 15 February 2013

Serenity in the city

Tet has come to a tentative close and Lily and I have made the most of the re-opening of businesses by spending around twelve hours in town today. All day the city was blissfully quiet, which is perhaps why we were able to walk around for so long without wanting to tear our hair out, a sensation I often feel when walking around Saigon for too long, and especially at rush hour. We set off early to see the War Remnants Museum in the morning. No matter how many times I visit, it never ceases to be heart-breaking. But I was glad that Lily was able to visit this great museum during her trip.

We had some delicious pho for lunch at a cafe modelled on a street in Hanoi's old quarter, and then spent the day shopping. At around 4pm we were too tired to walk further and stopped for coffees and to review our purchases. I love shopping with Lily. We next went up to the bar on the 52nd floor of Bitexco, the towering jewel of Saigon's skyline, just to take some photos. The staff were very accommodating considering it was clear we weren't really going to buy any drinks. I have been up here before but only at night. During the day the view was equally impressive- the now low sun dazzled the endless urban sprawl that spills out to the horizon on all sides.

Fantastic pho

Lily enjoying lunch

Me beneath a 'candyfloss' tree, Nguyen Hue street

Saigon river from the 52nd floor

We went out for tea at Khoi Thom, a colourful Mexican-Vietnamese fusion bar and restaurant, where a Cuban band normally plays on Friday nights. Unfortunately, they had gone back home this week and the place was deserted. We enjoyed our meal though, and when happy hour was through we headed to Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker district, for a little more nightlife, sitting on plastic seats in the road supping 12,000 dong (40p) Saigon lager and watching life go by.

Tasty BBQ chicken salad at Khoi Thom

Lily ate turkey enchilladas

Street life in Pham Ngu Lao

It's been a lovely, relaxed day. Poor Lily is becoming very sullen about her time in Asia coming to an end in only four days; I think she has found a new home.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Love in the air

No Valentine's cards for me today- I hope that this is because the post has stopped for Tet and not because I have been forgotten! I was sneezing this morning and Thuy told me that somebody must be thinking about me. I was surprised that she'd heard this one before, and I hope she was right!

I spent (a non-romantic) Valentine's day with Lily, reading books in the park and wiling away the hours in a cafe in Phu My Hung, where pink heart balloons were being attached to the trees. I hadn't expected Valentine's day to be celebrated in Vietnam, particularly not on a year when it falls during the Tet holiday, but perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. Vietnam is a romantic country and it has a very young population. Kids in Saigon always seem to be in pairs, riding motorbikes around the city and cuddling in parks. On our way home the bridges were lined with couples sat on parked bikes looking out over the river, and the funfair, usually deserted, was teeming. I am no great believer in Valentine's day but it seemed today that the romance in the air put me and Lily in good moods, even if we weren't participating ourselves. Or maybe it was just the spring sunshine.

We hope that tomorrow most shops and museums will be open again and we can do some sightseeing after what has mostly been a lazy week.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Pancake Day

In the midst of the Tet holiday, it's been quiet in my neighbourhood. Luckily we've been having unseasonably good weather, with blue skies and low humidity. Yesterday felt like the weekend although it was only Tuesday. Lily and I met up with Gretchen, who I met at my Zumba class last week, in Phu My Hung and we celebrated pancake day by ordering some delicious mango pancakes for a late breakfast. The tranquillity of sitting outside in the sunshine, enjoying our treats and listening to a Beatles playlist was only broken by a boy racer noisily ripping up and down the street, obviously at as much of a loss of something to do as we were.

Pancake day, Southeast Asia style

Lily, me and Gretchen

We really struggled to think of what to do next as most businesses are still closed, and so ended up going straight for lunch afterwards. Lily and I passed a pleasant afternoon having a massage at the only place we could find that was open, then taking a long stroll home, stopping off at the local mall for some window-shopping. Our day culminated in me giving Lily a cycling lesson around the park and a few drinks at an expat bar in Phu My Hung where we were entertained by a middle aged man telling us drunkenly that 'everyone's the same, it's all about peace and love', and so on. It was a nice day and as much as could be expected from such a quiet time of the year.

Me over the Saigon River, Phu My Hung

Lily, Tet flower decorations at the Crescent Mall

Today Lily and I joined a Sinh Cafe tour on a day trip to the Mekong Delta. I have done this tour three times now and it followed the same structure as ever: multiple stops for retail opportunities interspersed with boat trips. Today it was particularly crowded and our tour guide was in fact leading two bus loads of people- around eighty in all. Surely this was to do with Tet, and the poor fellow did a good job of keeping his flock of sheep herded, but even so it was not a good situation. I enjoyed myself though, appreciating the nice scenery and warm weather.

Pretty lotus flower

Making rice paper by steaming

The reality of much of the tour!

Lily in full tourist mode

Our scary-looking but tasty Elephant Ear fish at lunchtime

The tour guide with honey bees. "Take picture quickly, I'm tired! I will drop it and run!"

The perfect pet for children

The brave girl is totally at ease 
Afternoon nap

This little girl helps her mum earn tourist money

Monday, 11 February 2013

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới!

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới- Happy New Year! As we have just entered the new lunar year of the snake. Here in Vietnam, the Tết holiday lasts for one week and Lily and I are being imaginative to find things to do. I met her at the airport on Friday afternoon, where she had arrived from Haiphong at the end of her week's tour of Vietnam. We headed into town to see the flower garden that has been set up on Nguyen Hue street. Sweet instrumental music and the sound of birdsong were being played from speakers, and I contemplated how lovely and appropriate it is to celebrate the new year as the coming of the spring, rather than the continuation of miserable cold, dark weather, as I am used to. The gardens were creative and incorporated some traditional Vietnamese themes such as conical hats and silk lanterns, as well as more abstract features such as a watering-can waterfall. Boys and girls were dressed in their nicest clothes to make for good photographs on the special occasion.                 

In the evening we had hoped to see the new year in by watching the fireworks from one of the city's sky-bars, but sadly it was impossible to get a taxi and so we were stranded at home. Instead, we observed Thuy paying her respects by presenting a modest table of food and offerings in front of the house around midnight. On the stroke of the hour we walked around a few streets to see what everyone else was up to, our neighbours let off some firecrackers and we watched glimpses of fireworks through the treetops out towards the city.     

Yesterday was the first day of the lunar new year and the beginning of the five-day Tết holiday. We wondered what we could do when all the shops are closed and Vietnamese people are spending time with their families. The obvious answer was to join the ex-pat community of the Hash House Harriers, the 'drinking club with a running problem', who join each Sunday for a jog round the country side and plenty of beer. Lily was pleased to find that on the occasion of Tết there would be no exercise involved at this week's Hash, as the day would unfold in the city's bars, rather than out in the countryside. We had a fun day, which peaked at us reaching an Irish bar in district 2 with a pool outside, and culminated at an Australian bar watching the rugby. But as it was rugby union we decided to call it a night before the end of the first half.  

Today we have been on a Sinh Cafe tour to see the large Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh province, described by Graham Greene as "Walt Disney's Fantasia in technicolour", and then the grisly but compelling Cu Chi tunnels. I took this tour by myself in September and wrote about it here. Nothing had changed since the last time, and it was strange to revisit these places that took me back to my early days in Vietnam and the feelings I had at that time.   

I have Lily's company to enjoy for another week before she flies home. We have made some nice plans, and still have a few days to fill, but I hope I can keep her entertained with all that Saigon has to offer.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Rising Dragon

I have completed another book review, of BBC veteran Bill Hayton's 2010 study of Vietnam's recent economic development and social changes, Vietnam: Rising Dragon. Please click here to read it.

I am particularly pleased to have got this one done as it took me a long time to get into writing the review. At one point I thought of giving up, as I hadn't reviewed an academic book such as this one before and really didn't know where to start. Eventually, however, I pushed through and reached my 1,000 minimum words. I hope it will at least be coherent and logical to the reader; I have re-read it so many times that I can't tell any more.

I went to another Zumba class this evening, which was good fun. It's unlucky that I may have found a new hobby just before Tet begins and classes will not be running. Another exercise I would like to start practising more regularly is yoga- I will have to look out for classes in Phu My Hung. I usually exercise by running and occasionally swimming, but am hoping I can replace these two very repetitive sports with something a bit more exciting.

When I got home from the class Thuy had prepared a big bowl of pho (noodle soup with beef) for my tea. I think she may have noticed my interest in eating 'proper' Vietnamese food- we normally eat Taiwanese food (I think), recipes that Jessica has taught to Thuy. But as Jessica has been away Thuy has been trying me with some Vietnamese specialities such as pho, Bun Bo Hue (a lemongrass soup with noodles that comes from Hue), and a special Tet cake made from a greenish brick of sticky rice filled with a few slimy pieces of pork, which actually wasn't very nice at all. For a country with wonderful cuisine, the Vietnamese make some awful festival treats, to my taste at least. I still recall the nasty surprise of being given a piece of Moon Cake at the last big lunar celebration, expecting something sweet and discovering it to be filled with durian, the world's smelliest fruit, and a hard-boiled egg.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013


Another day of illness, another day spent house-bound and trying to work. An achievement today has been that I have updated my gallery for the first time since November with photos from the past few months, primarily from my journey up and down Vietnam with Chris and my visit to the Angkor temples, both of which took place in December. I try to be very selective with the photographs I add to the gallery as it is a way for me to work my way through my favourite photographs from my travels in the hope that by the end of my time here I will have fifty photographs ready for my presentation evening in August. I noticed that I have been using my camera less and less in my daily activities and I will have to reverse that trend as it is the best way for me to capture the realities of life here, and perhaps make for some useful and interesting photography.

On days such as today, when I am home alone and working on my project, I tend to go out for a walk in the early evening, when the weather is comfortable and the sun has not yet set. But as my neighbourhood is quite small and boxed in by main roads, I find myself treading the same ground. Today I took to Jessica's bike and explored a little further afield, crossing a main road to reach another neighbourhood similar to my own. The road led me to the river bank and all of a sudden, with the main road behind me and few people around, it was unexpectedly peaceful. The setting sun was reflected in the water and I reminded myself again that I must carry my camera around with me. Along the bank a new housing estate was in construction- on one side of the road the pearly white and uniform detached houses were nearly complete; on the other, they were not yet plastered and were an unwelcoming brown-grey, the skeletons of their brothers on the other side.

Around this area there is a lot of empty, overgrown land, some of it in huge areas, and in other places in gaps between a row of houses where nothing has been built yet. Some of this land is reclaimed by local Vietnamese people who appear to have taken the space for private allotments. In fact, near my house is a derelict patch of land such as this, where a woman has claimed a modest vegetable patch and secured a bamboo fence around it. I have seen her before, hunched over and beneath a conical hat, tending to the land. I'm not sure where she comes from; no doubt she doesn't live here. Perhaps she travels here from over the river, or she could be the wife of one of the construction workers in the area. A new block of flats is being built here; a recently completed one is beginning to acquire residents. I'm sure that in five or ten years much more of the abandoned land in the neighbourhood will have been consumed by new housing and apartment blocks as rural-urban migration continues and the affluent middle-class of the city swells. It is remarkable to consider, when walking or cycling around the blocks, that none of this would have been here thirty years ago, when the newly re-unified, post-war country was crippled by inflation and a backward, collapsing economy. So much has changed in that time. Such is the subject of the book I have been reading, Vietnam: Rising Dragon, and which I hope to have written a review of within the next few days.

I really enjoyed my cycle ride and my exploration of new territory. I am often happiest when on a bicycle (or the back of a motorbike). It's really the simple pleasures in life that are the most rewarding.

Monday, 4 February 2013

The book has begun

I've been finding it difficult to motivate myself recently. It's boring being home alone and unfortunately I've picked up a cold and am feeling suitably sorry for myself. I had hoped to go to another Zumba class this evening but decided that the honourable thing to do would be to stay at home and keep my germs to myself. I managed to get a little work done though, in the form of an introduction for my book. One thousand words done and only another 49,000 to go. Still, it's good to make a start on the epic task despite how daunting it all seems from this point. Times like this are testing for me; with no one else to watch over me it's so easy to find a distraction or an excuse not to work, and I find it necessary to keep reminding myself about my long-term goals. I will have to monitor, encourage and discipline myself. Certainly, the satisfaction at the end of a day of getting something done for my project, no matter how small, always trumps the short-term satisfactions that I may experience throughout a day of procrastination, such as beating my high score on Temple Run or re-arranging my books in a 'nicer' way. From here on in the work I have to do will become more challenging and it will take a big change in my lifestyle to get it all done. But if my experience of revising for exams is anything to go by, I know that when the deadline gets near enough for me to feel very scared, the work will begin furiously. I am starting to get this feeling now, with four months to go before I leave Vietnam and seven months until I have to formally present my work in front of everyone I know. Moreover, I am passionate about getting it done. The thought of not completing this project is despairing for me; the disappointment I would feel, as well as the disappointment of the people who are watching over me, is not even worth thinking about. Somehow, it will be done.

Until then, Lily will be returning from her trip on Saturday. The timing is very tight, because that day is the beginning of Tet, the lunar new year and Vietnam's major holiday period, which lasts a week. I have been warned that over this period buses won't be running, shops will be closed and travelling anywhere will be out of the question. At the beginning of the week there will be something to see in town, as one of the city's main streets becomes a vast flower market, but primarily Tet is a family holiday so there won't be much to see. Jessica will be in Taipei and Thuy may go home for much of the holiday, so Lily and I will have to be very organised and imaginative to make sure we don't starve or go crazy!

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Pray for the kitchen king

I tried something new today. Jessica's friend Yvonne has started teaching a free Zumba class at the Taipei school in Phu My Hung after recently receiving her Zumba teaching qualification. Zumba is a kind of dance-fitness class based on Latin and Salsa music, and has taken off across the world in recent years. I never thought I would find myself taking part in something like this and was at first apprehensive, but I'm really glad I pushed myself to go because it was good fun, and I have been invited to another class tomorrow evening. Another reason that I'm glad I went along is that it perked up what was to be a mostly dull day. I have been struggling with a book review that I just can't get into. In the evening, as a diversion, I decided to go for a walk and thought I'd take Happy along to relieve Hanh the burden of walking her herself. But stubborn Happy sat down in the road after 25 metres and refused to continue. I handed her back to Hanh who revealed that she'd already walked Happy. "Happy poo-poo pee-pee!", she exclaimed. So, unable to encourage even the dog to accompany me I took a solitary walk.

I noticed that there was to be a party happening at the end of the street, as a long table with a white tablecloth and covered plates of food had been laid across the front yard of one of the houses. I thought nothing of it, but later learned the cause of the celebration. Yesterday Thuy had received a phone call and explained to me that it was a friend reminding her of an important event. "Tomorrow we pray to the kitchen king". She tried to explain this to me but I didn't really understand. After a little bit of research I found out that the kitchen god is worshipped in Chinese and Vietnamese households on the twenty-third day of the twelfth month of the lunar year. Known in Vietnam as Táo Quân, this god is expected to return to heaven today and report on each family's behaviour over the past year. In three days we will be rewarded or punished. Households pay respect to Táo Quân in the hope of a good reference. This can be done by a modest offering or splashing out on a lavish party as the house down the road have done (could this mean they have more to repent for??).So this evening, to the background music of the karaoke a few houses down, Thuy laid out a vase of flowers and a tray of rice, candles, paper posters and burning incense on the stove in honour of the event. As for me, I hope the kitchen king will be sympathetic to our humble household and will smite the enormous cockroach who occasionally visits us.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Knuckling down

I've been back in Saigon for five days since my return from two weeks travelling in Thailand and Myanmar. It's good to have some time and space to myself, and besides, my neglect of my project work has been gnawing at me during my time away. Lily left yesterday to spend a week travelling around Vietnam; I was going to join her for some of the journey but in the end I cancelled my tickets. I've got back into work now, primarily reading and researching, and have laid my aims and aspirations for February. I hope that by the end of this month I will have much greater confidence in the direction and implementation of my project and will have started work on my book. By the end of February I will only have three months left in Indochina, time which I'm sure will fly by once I have serious work to get done. I am making arrangements for a presentation evening back in Leeds in August to allow me to share my experiences from my year away with friends and family. This gives me a solid deadline by which my work must be finished.

And so, with a strict plan of hard work and self-discipline in place for the month, I must remember to make time for the blog. Jessica reminds me that the purpose of this blog is, by our original project contract, to be a space for daily reflection, rather than a diary of the day's events, which should, if I stick to my work, be quite boring. Therefore I will use this blog to reflect on a day's learnings or to share new information I've found.

Recently I've been reading Vietnam: Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton, a comprehensive study of Vietnam's development over the past thirty years (I will review this book soon). It is very readable and I wish I'd picked it up earlier. I'm sure the information I'm taking from it will be very useful research for my own book, which will cover contemporary social, political and environmental issues in Indochina and their potential solutions, focusing on the work of NGOs and individuals. Today I read a chapter about media censorship, which mentioned a couple of newspapers that were bravely vocal about a case of corruption within the Party in 2006, so much so that they landed themselves in trouble. One of these was Thanh Nien, which, by coincidence, I had looked at online in the morning over breakfast, thinking that I ought to get into reading national news stories. Hayton concluded this chapter by talking about blogging becoming a new medium for Vietnamese to share news stories in a way that is much more difficult to censor. Nonetheless, I sometimes worry about the things I type here. Living amongst the modernity of Ho Chi Minh City and, by default, associating mostly with expats, it is easy to forget that this is a country tightly controlled by those at the top and is still far from free.