Posts Tagged ‘Hanoi’

Forgive me readers; it’s been nearly 3 months since my last confession…er…post.  And a lot has happened, mostly along the lines of: Holy crap, we opened a bar! (Or if you speak British, Bloody cheeky shite, we opened a pub!*)  It’s the Red River Tea Room, named after a now-closed bar in Georgia (USA) which was originally opened by Mitchell’s great great great uncle in the 1920s and frequented by Mitchell’s grandfather in the 1950-60s. The name is a holdover from the US prohibition era when many bars adopted names like “tea room” and served alcohol-infused tea to try to work around laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol. That explains the misleading nature of the name (we are not located on the Red River and tea is basically an afterthought).

[*Ok, British people probably never say this, but it’s the best I could do.]

When I say “we” opened a bar, I mean mostly my husband Mitchell and our good friend Jim, who co-conspired to make it happen. For my role, I’m deciding between the titles of owner-in-law and barwife, but leaning toward the latter.  As barwife, my job has consisted mainly of drinking at the bar, occasionally questioning and nagging the owners about their bar-related decisions, and at times dealing with some of the tedious paperwork such as the employee manual and contracts.

When we announced the enterprise to our friends and family back in April, it was as much a shock to me as it was to them. We had, afterall, been making our yearly proclamations that this will be the year for us to bid this lovely city adieu. But, also a yearly tradition, these plans have fallen through yet again. But still, what the fuck?  Where did this come from?  Some background: Mitchell & Jim had joked about opening a bar off and on in the past due to a shared longing for a bar in Hanoi that feels like ‘our bar.’ You know, the kind of place you get attached to and return to all the time – become one of the regulars. Not too fancy, not too divey, just comfortable and welcoming. There are tons of bars in Hanoi and many that we really like such as Barbetta, Tracy’s, Ete, and Fat Cat. While we like these places, none of them quite has the feel of our favorite haunts back home.  I suppose this is a common mission of expat business owners – to bring a piece of home to Hanoi.

When they joked about opening a bar in the past, I just blew it off as drunk hot air. Yes, you two open a bar and I’ll start a polka band composed entirely of flame-throwing, tuxedo-clad monkey robots (wait, who put psychedelics in my beer?). Then Mitchell came home one night and told me that they’re serious about opening the bar. And he was sober. Gasp! I peppered him with questions and then burst into tears, whining something like, “Ohmigod, we’re gonna be here FOREVER! May as well purchase a plot in that graveyard next door and tell our families and friends that we’ll NEVER SEE THEM AGAIN because we’re Vietnamese now!”  You see, Mitchell & Jim had spent many days and nights pondering and scheming about this awesome thing they wanted to do, which is a fun process. Since I hadn’t participated in these activities, I saw the endeavor less like a fun adventure and more like a giant, bar-shaped anchor on the boat that is my life.  Which, to my credit, it kind of is.  It’s in my nature to avoid such life anchors like mortgages, children, and other large investments of money. So yeah, I kinda freaked out.

When my melodramatic display subdued, we talked it out as married people are wont to do.  What it came down to was that Mitchell was clearly excited about this thing, and I didn’t want to stand in the way of that. As for business partners, we couldn’t ask for someone better than Jim, who’s not only a smart and responsible fellow, but also happens to be hilarious and rather amusing.  As for locations, Hanoi is ideal in many ways. It’s relatively cheap and easy to get things done here (if you have Vietnamese friends, but more on that later), and there are still plenty niches to fill.  Taking all of that into consideration, I gave my reluctant approval, still thinking in the back of my head that this thing probably won’t happen.  One week later, they had found a location and a week after that, they had given the landlady a deposit.  Ack! It happened so fast.  It’s hard to believe that this:

turned into this in only two months:


Such is the magic of Hanoi. Seriously, if you want to open a business, direct or star in a play, write for a magazine, design and model clothes, be featured in an art show, be on TV, and/or run a nonprofit, Hanoi is the place for you.  As an expat, it’s infinitely easier to do these things here than it is to do them back home. It’s one reason why many people come here with short-term plans but stay for the long run.

By the time the deposit was put down, I was on board. Getting involved in all the planning and designing helped that along. It’s really fun to help create something like this. Everything from the paint color, sign font, and furniture to the menu and staff were up in the air. It’s been thrilling to see our ideas turn into reality.  Plus, we managed to assemble a fantastic staff, who have turned out to be extremely charming, adorable and dedicated. It’s been great to get to know these guys. Now that the whole thing has proved to be this fulfilling and exciting, I feel guilty for my initial hesitance. Needless to say, I’m now a converted fan.

I don’t mean to suggest that everything has been easy peasy, of course.  I’ve found that Hanoi is a place of contradictions, one being that often things that seem like they should be difficult turn out to be simple, while other things that seem like they should be very easy turn out to be complicated messes.  We’ve been very lucky to have a circle of trusted and competent Vietnamese friends whom have helped us tremendously. We couldn’t have done it without them with our sanity still intact.  The rumors about opening a business in Vietnam are generally true. To get from point A to point B, one must navigate a path that is anything but straightforward.  There are all sorts of twists and caveats and players along the way that you have to account for. As Americans, we have expectations about the way things “should be,” while Vietnamese have entirely different notions of the way “things are.”  And the disconnect can prove maddening.   I believe the epitome of frustration came from a bizarre and unexpected negotiation with our landlady, Han (pronounced “Hun” who we first were calling Honeypie and now Honey Badger after this youtube gem).  We expected the process to last 1 hour maximum, but it expanded to an excruciating 3 hours of talking in circles and arguing over minutiae. Our friends were doing the bulk of the talking while we had to sit around bewildered and wondering what the unfolding drama could possibly be about.  It worked out obviously, but oi zoi oi. We’ve grown to like her, but Honeypie has been a source of some difficulty. Why? Because Honeypie don’t take no shit!

Overall, though, all the hiccups we’ve faced have been pretty minor. We all still have our normal fulltime jobs, so it can be a little exhausting at times, but since it’s a labor of love, it feels a lot less like work. Given that we’ve never done this sort of thing before, there’s admittedly been some bumbling around. It’s been a work in progress that has almost, but not quite finished developing yet.  Each week, we accomplish or add something new. It’s crazy to think how far it’s come since the first week – when the first customers came into the bar who weren’t already our friends, we first cowered in fear, shoving one another to go talk to them and running around in circles before serving them a drink (You go! No, you go!) Yes, we’ve come a long way indeed. Now, we generally go to the bar to relax and socialize. We’re there in case the staff need us, but as they grow ever more independent, the more superfluous we become. Which is a good thing. Basically, we seem to have accomplished our overall goal of creating a place where we can hang out. A fort for grownups.

Shameless plug: I can’t finish a blog about the bar without shamelessly promoting it, can I?  Some (but not all) things on offer include:

Beer!  Including mainstays like Carlsberg draft, Tiger and LaRue as well as some harder-to-find brews like Cooper’s Pale Ale and Stout (from Australia), Leffe Brune and Blond (from Belgium), Moa (from New Zealand), Suntory (from Japan), and Zorok (from Binh Duong, how can you not try a beer named “Zorok”?).

Wine! Three house reds and three house whites as well as some finer (aka fancy pants) wines for those with more refined palates. All of the wine comes from France, Chile, Australia and the US.

Spirits!  Whiskey and gin and vodka, oh my!  Some of our favorites are Baker’s 7 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Zubrowka Vodka from Poland, Bombay Sapphire Gin, and Cruzan Rum.

Non-alcoholic stuff! Milkshakes, organic tea from Betterday, espresso and coffee, juice, smoothies, etc.

Food! Pies and pasties from The Cart, Vietnamese food from Dieu’s Cuisine, Cielo pizza on delivery, and Joma ice cream.

In sum, come to our bar! Although we can’t ensure you money, fame or happiness, you are guaranteed to leave a better human being.

Address: 25 Đường Ven Hồ Tây (street just below Xuan Dieu, lakeside. Right next to Dieu’s Cuisine.)


  • Monday – Thursday: 2pm – 11:30pm
  • Friday – Sunday: 11am – 11:30pm

Email: redrivertearoom (at) gmail (dot) com

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Photo & Flyer by: Julie VoLa (http://www.julievola.com/)

A couple days ago, I did something that was quite out of character for me and for that reason, very, very terrifying.  I know it’s a cliché to fear public speaking, but oh do I.  Given the choice between a delivering a speech in front of 1,000 people or getting a permanent neck tattoo of a butt (or a butt tattoo of a neck), I might choose the latter.

My temperament veers strongly toward introversion (ahem), and while I’ve learned that there are many fantastic benefits to being an introvert, vocal eloquence in front of large (or small) groups of people is not one of them. So when at the last Pecha Kucha night my friend Tabitha jokingly suggested that all of us at the table come up with a presentation for the next event, I just giggled nervously.

However, it did get me thinking.  The presentations we saw that night seemed to have been done by normal people, not the award-winning super heroes or science and art geniuses you often see on TED Talks.  Plus, the format of Pecha Kucha is 20 photos x 20 seconds each, so the presentations amount to only 6 minutes, 40 seconds.  That’s not long at all! Mitchell was also thinking about presenting. We had fun talking about different ideas for presentations, which made us feel smart and interesting, thus building our confidence to do it for real. We signed up. (Then Mitchell dropped out because he sucks. Actually, he got crazy busy, but more on that later.)

I was realistic, though. I knew it would be nerve-racking and difficult for me. But I’m American, goddammit, which means that my life is basically a marathon self-improvement project. Americans are always trying to better themselves, hence Oprah, Tony Robbins, and the increasing popularity of yoga. Public speaking, therefore, represented an obstacle to be conquered. I would preemptively attack it, the American way. True character-building, one terrible experience at a time.

If they can’t help you fix you, no one can! (Source: oprah.com)

After batting around a few ideas, I decided I would try to do a science nerd talk. Science often gets a bad rap. Its findings are denied, and it’s often accused of ruining all the mystery and wonder of life. Even when this isn’t the case, there seems to be a stark disconnect between the scientific community and everyone else. As a result, a lot of people are simply turned off by or intimidated by science.  I think they picture math equations, long words, and piles of homework.  But no!  Science is freakin’ awesome.  And freakin’ weird.  Its findings add whole new levels of awe and wonder to this crazy life, planet, and universe of ours. Oh, how I love it!  Watch out, science nerd quote:

“At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes – an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.” – Carl Sagan

So, how to convey this message?  I recently listened to a Radiolab podcast about the microbes in our guts and how research is starting to show that the bacteria and other creepy crawlies living in our guts are linked with our mental health. Gut microflora appear to influence anxiety, depression, ADHD, chronic fatigue syndrome, autism, and all sorts of stuff.

Some clinical studies have even shown that taking supplements of probiotics may be able to elevate people’s moods. In other words, microbes can make you happy! Who needs prozac when you have bacteria?!  To me, this shows simultaneously how much and how little we know about ourselves.  So, I figured this topic would be a good way to lead up to my final message that science rules, stop being scared of it.  Although, admittedly, I believe more people took home the message: Eat more yogurt.*

As if to prove the research findings, my nerves really did mess with my tummy. I was ball of anxiety for the 5 days leading up to the presentation, imitating the stressed mice I was going to speak of.  When Thursday night rolled around, I thought I might hyperventilate.  The closer it came to my turn, the more my heart tried to escape my chest. This feeling was only worsened by the presentation before mine, given by a rather talented photographer, Dominic Blewett. He presented on the topic of extreme religious festivals in Southeast Asia.  His images included people putting various objects through their cheeks (like swords and umbrellas), running face first into the floor, and beating themselves bloody, all in the name of…er…no idea. The photos were amazing, but they were also quite intense and only exacerbated my state of panic.

Luckily, one of the advantages of introverts is our tendency to wildly overprepare in the face of potential public humiliation. I practiced my speech with my mom, my cat, my dog, my TV, my coffee pot, my alter ego, and my coworkers.  I tried to imprint the timeframe of 20 seconds into my brain circuitry (turns out, 20 seconds is a magical length of time that can seem to last for either the blink of an eye or an eternity in a presentation).  Despite my panic, the preparation allowed me to mimic a recording, and the words just sort of plopped out. Although I felt a genuine choking sensation by slide 19, causing me to make up words entirely (note: microbiotics is not the same as microflora, but fortunately it sounds like it might be), everything basically went as rehearsed.  Well, even.  Triumph!  Relief!

I’m not sure yet if 6 minutes and 40 seconds of triumph is worth days of dread and anxiety, but I’m glad I gave it a shot.  Maybe the next time I have to present research findings at a workshop for my job, it won’t be so bad.

Aside from myself and Dominic, other presenters were:

  • Arno Baude, a funny artist and photographer who has an affinity for Hawaiian shirts and tarp suits.
  • Monique Gross, who did a playful and poetic piece about 1,000 English phrases.
  • Guim Valls Teruel, an advocate of electric bicycles, who has convinced me that they are even more awesome than my Super Cub.
  • Joe Ruelle, who did a funny piece about Vietnamese food slang. I’ll never look at organic vegetables, chôm chôm fruit, or bánh mỳ in the same way.

If you’re interested in doing your own presentation, the next Pecha Kucha event in Hanoi is slated for after the summer.  You can email the organizers Colin, Gareth and Van Anh for more details: pechakuchahanoi@gmail.com. Many thanks to them for organizing the event and thanks to the other presenters for their insight and entertainment.

If you want to learn more about the gut-brain connection, here’s a good start:

*Sidenote: I feel the need to clarify. To my understanding, participants of the clinical trials demonstrating that probiotics can elevate mood were given supplements with very high levels of probiotics.  You won’t find these in an average cup of yogurt.  So, don’t blame me if you still feel crabby after eating yogurt for a month.

The Crab Nebula is a six-light-year-wide expanding remnant of a star’s supernova explosion. Japanese and Chinese astronomers recorded this violent event nearly 1,000 years ago in 1054, as did, almost certainly, Native Americans. This composite image was assembled from 24 individual exposures taken with the NASA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 in October 1999, January 2000, and December 2000. It is one of the largest images taken by Hubble and is the highest resolution image ever made of the entire Crab Nebula. Source: hubblesite.org

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One perk of living in Vietnam is that, if your bosses are as kind as mine, you get time off for two major holidays in a row: Christmas/Hanukah/etc. and Tet (Lunar New Year).  Just as I was adjusting back to normalcy after the post-Christmas hangover, Tet was already upon us.  I love the buildup to the holiday.  Hanoi’s already hectic energy ramps up a few notches, a feat previously thought impossible.  However, the frenzy and traffic gridlock is somehow made bearable by the explosion of colors and smiles throughout the city.

I’ve developed my own Tet tradition of taking copious amounts of photos of kumquat trees being transported on motorbikes and bicycles.  One photo just isn’t enough:

This year we decided not to follow our expat brethren who tend to flee Vietnam en masse during the Tet break.  For most of us, Tet means an opportunity to bask on a beach somewhere.  It’s an allure that’s hard to pass up.  In years past, a few people told us that we should stay in Hanoi.  It’s so calm and peaceful, they’d say.  But Hanoi has no beaches, we’d reply.  Leaving Vietnam during Tet is practically sacrilegious among the Vietnamese, so it can be difficult to explain why we are usually so eager to leave when given the opportunity.  Travel is our religion.

However, not this year.  The trip home for Christmas left us a little exhausted and lazy.  The appeal of doing nothing trumped the appeal of exploring another place. There is much to be said for doing nothing, and we generally don’t do nothing enough.  Plus, a part of me has always been curious to see what Hanoi is like during this period of reverie.  I pictured shuttered doors, deserted streets, and an absence of honking.  I bought what felt like loads of groceries to prepare us for the shutdown.  (They only lasted through the second day of Tet, confirming Mitchell’s assertion that we’d be among the first to go during the apocalypse.)  Most expats who stay in Hanoi lament over the closing of all their favorite spots, but in a way I was hoping everything would be closed.  This can’t be a normal week!  Convenience be damned!

What actually happened was that most places were closed, but enough were open so we didn’t starve.  People were still in the streets, but not nearly as many as usual. The first day of Tet was even busy as people left their houses and flocked to the pagodas.  A friend told us that if you wake up very early on New Year’s day, the streets truly are empty.  Although we didn’t experience this ourselves, we spent a day being tourists in a less crowded Hanoi.  This meant visiting pagodas and actually reading the history and descriptions about them, gawking at old buildings, taking excessive photos and walking aimlessly through the Old Quarter.  While people were still out and about, most things were closed and the traffic was reduced to a trickle. It felt like seeing the Old Quarter for the first time.  In general, it’s easy to feel like a tourist in this city, no matter how long you’ve been here.  It sort of never loses its mystery.  You peel off one layer only to find dozens more.

Throughout the years I’ve peppered Vietnamese people for details about Tet, and as far as I can tell, they do the same stuff we do for the winter holidays. That is: go to “their countryside” (i.e., hometown), eat, spend all their money, eat, cook, eat, nap, eat, drink alcohol, eat, visit friends, eat, visit a pagoda, eat, watch fireworks, and eat.  I don’t know if they also follow the Christmas traditions of bickering over politics, nagging at family members to get married/have babies/lose weight/find employment, posing for awkward family photos, and embarrassing one another, preferably in front of a new love interest.  I can only hope they aren’t deprived these time-honored bonding activities.

Like Thanksgiving, Tet comes with special food.  I had nearly the exact same meal 4 times in 5 days, which includes chicken, fried spring rolls, bamboo noodle soup, “frozen meat,” and bánh trứng (sticky rice cake wrapped in banana leaves).

What’s frozen meat you ask?  The Vietnamese name for it is “giò thủ.” It was explained as being meat from a pig’s head (or chicken) mixed with mushrooms and then frozen into a lump.  (Find a better explanation and recipe here.) It kind of looks like meat jello.  My American tongue cringed a little at the sight of it, and my body gave off survival signals along the lines of “do not put the strange thing into your mouth, better safe than sorry.” But I overrode these alarms and tried it, and it’s actually not bad. All in all, Tet food is delicious quá.

"Frozen meat" or gio thu. Source: http://www.theravenouscouple.com

We didn’t stay in Hanoi the whole week, though, as we visited a friend Chi at her grandmother’s house in Bac Giang.  The house was on a small hill in the countryside.  Chi’s family was very hospitable and generous from the start. The warmth and open-heartedness of Vietnamese people never ceases to surprise me.  If you’re in their house, you’re family. Period.  It’s humbling.  Chi’s grandmother is 92 years old and tiny.  She smiles often.  While she lives alone, Chi’s aunt is right next door and numerous other relatives are close by. There were many animals around as well. Chickens, dogs, piggies, kitties, birds, and cows.  It’s nice to see the Vietnamese countryside.  I often forget that there’s a lot more to Vietnam than Hanoi.  Hanoi has a way of occupying one’s attention.

While it was difficult to pass up the chance to travel, I’d recommend staying in Vietnam for at least one Tet holiday.  Indulge your sedate side.

Chúc mừng năm mới!

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Dengue Fever on the Electric Mekong Tour

There is one less thing I’m allowed to complain about in Hanoi these days: music shows.  See, back in my day (i.e., way back in 2008) the only live music that my admittedly-clueless-and-inexperienced self knew of was Minh’s Jazz Club, karaoke bars, the water puppets on Hoan Kiem Lake, and that guy who plays the flute with his nostril on the streets.  Music shows would happen on occasion and would serve as an impromptu expat Mecca for a weekend.

My, things have changed. These days, you can find live music every week at places like Hanoi Rock City, 21º N Club, and Ronaldo’s.  What you hear can be a little hit and miss, but the number of good performers either in or coming to Hanoi seems to be ever-growing.  We were rather spoiled over the last 2 weekends in particular.

First, there was the Electric Mekong Tour with Dengue Fever.  When it comes to music genres, I’m at a pre-elementary level of understanding.  When I hear there’s a music genre called “Crunkcore,” I assume it has something to do with porn featuring Lil’ Jon.  There’s also “cuddlecore” – porn featuring teletubbies and care bears?  “Cybergrind” – enough with the porn already.  “Cowpunk” – cowboys with mohawks?  Ok, point being that I know nothing of the world of music genres and subgenres, but Wikipedia tells me that Dengue Fever combines Cambodian pop music with psychedelic rock.  A combination that works rather well.

Crunkcore, cuddlecore, cowpunk

I had attended a wedding earlier in the day, where the bride and groom somehow convinced me to ingest high volumes of strange alcoholic concoctions. Like I’m going to argue with love. So, by the time I ended up at the American Club, I was miles ahead of much of the crowd, excitement- and inebriation-wise.  And what’s the first thing I saw?  Two enormous condoms – well, people dressed like enormous condoms at least. (I will refrain from making enormous dick jokes).  This strange sighting occurred not due to the correlation between sex and rock and roll, but because the event was sponsored by the American Embassy in Hanoi and PEPFAR – an aid program with a long name that gives money to combat HIV/AIDS around the world.  Of course I drunkenly stumbled up to the condoms and demanded attention from them. (Luckily, I wasn’t quite drunk enough to demand they let me wear their costume.)  To get rid of me, they directed me to a table with free condoms and HIV prevention information, including the materials below, which after a few hard blinks, I shoved into my purse:

By no means do I disapprove of these materials. Quite the opposite. I am, however, amazed at the level of explicitness in them.  For one, Vietnam is pretty conservative when it comes to icky sexy stuff. Also, they were funded by my country, and as an American, I realize how prudish and backward my country can be regarding sex, particularly gay sex. Props to PEPFAR then.

Back to music!  Last weekend was Go!Go!Japan!, a rock concert featuring Japanese and Vietnamese bands.  When I found out it was being held at the National Exhibition Center on Giang Vo St, I knew I had to go. I drive by this place every day and have been repeatedly awed at just how glitzy and hideous a place of this size could be, particularly on event days.  It takes the “bigger, brighter and more rainbowy are always better” approach to decorating.

Of course, the other major lure was the music lineup.  I had seen Okamoto’s at a previous CAMA event and like the rest of the crowd, I fell in love with the band and the Japanese Mick Jagger-like stylings of the lead singer.  They are apparently “psychedelic garage rock,” if that means anything to you.  To say this band is energetic is an understatement.  The vocalist is constantly running and shaking and bobbing and crawling and fainting and swaying and telling you to speak Japanese.  The drummer and guitarist are also enthusiastic.  But the bassist. No, he serves as the counterpoint.  Dressed in nerd chic, he calmly stands in place, practically bored.  Someone must be responsible.

Okamoto's - Charisma

Before Okamoto’s was the Electric Eel Shock, a “garage metal” band.  They were also very entertaining and quite good, even playing some “Brack Sabbath” tunes for us.  My favorite part of this band were their power moves, particularly those of the drummer.  He played with 4 sticks, 2 in each hand.  Occasionally, he would raise his fist, 2 sticks in a V-shape, and slowly move them across his face.  Think Pulp Fiction dance move.  Other times he would dramatically stand up and point at the crowd or the sky. I missed it, but someone told me he was playing the drum cymbals with his shirt at one point. And I heard that he usually plays in the nude.  Yep, he’s awesome.

Electric Eel Shock

Electric Eel Shock - note the power move

This band also instigated a mini-mosh pit of sorts.  The mosh pit was composed primarily of tâys, who tore off their shirts, ran into each other a lot, jumped on one another’s backs and unsuccessfully attempted to crowd surf.  I turned to Huong and said, “The white people are embarrassing us again.”  But that was a joke. The group never got overly obnoxious or rowdy, stayed relatively confined, and was almost as entertaining as the bands.  Another fun spectacle was the young Vietnamese metalheads (?), who with joined arms, were bent over and swaying rhythmically for most of the night.  Not sure if this is what they were going for, but I found them adorable.

Other bands included the Vietnamese “progressive rock” band, Ngũ Cung, also known as Pentatonic.  They were clearly a big draw for many of the young Vietnamese concert goers, many of whom were wearing the band’s t-shirts.  I wish I had more to say about them, but all I can remember is that at one point, they sported a keytar, and they performed a few 80s hair band reminiscent power ballads.

Ngu Cung, and their keytar

Other bands that were there but that we didn’t see were Molice of Japan and Rosewood of Vietnam.  They’re probably worth checking out.  Thanks CAMA and Japan and US Embassy/PEPFAR and music extraordinaires!

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Typhoon Nalgae, from http://www.wunderground.com

I found the following message in my inbox yesterday:

U.S. Embassy Hanoi

Message to U.S. Citizens

September 30, 2011



Tropical Storm Nesat…Typhoon Nalgae…danger danger…blah blah blah.

Thanks for the heads up, Uncle Sam. Like how I’m supposed to warn other US citizens and ignore everyone else?  Hope your embassy sends you an email, Finnish guy down the street. And that the loudspeakers are informative, Vietnamese neighbors.

Ever since the 2008 floods (which I was obviously not prepared for) we’ve had a lot of false alarms about flooding and destruction that are supposed to set upon Hanoi.  Although I’m beginning to disbelieve the dire predictions I’m told every time it rains heavily, we followed the email’s advice to stock up on food.  I believe that in 2008, I had only a jar of peanut butter and packet of soy sauce, and it kind of sucked.  So, we bought the following:

Were it not for the broccoli, bananas and carrot, you’d probably assume that we sent a 4th grader and a college freshman to the store for reserves.

Me: “Mitchell! We have water but no beer!  Please fix it!”

Mitchell: “Only if you buy me Fruity Pebbles.”

Me: “Deal.”

Now that we finally have groceries in the house, I managed to cook for myself for once this morning and have yet to venture out to see if Hanoi is under water.  Let’s hope not, but if so, we’re ready this time.

Unfortunately, it looks like the storm hasn’t been so kind to others.


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…50ish more to go! (fingers-crossed)  That’s right, we had our one year anniversary last month.  Despite my tireless efforts to remain indifferent to and therefore above Romcom-esque holidays like Valentine’s Day and anniversaries, I was surprisingly excited about this one.  First of all, our anniversary is easy to remember, which saved us from awkward anniversary-date-forgetting moments. This is because instead of sending Save the Date cards, we sent a YouTube video featuring Mitchell’s students last year.  So, whenever I need to remember our wedding date, I just close my eyes and hear a cacophony of screams from Vietnamese children saying, “Mitcho and Sarah – Save the Date – AU-gus 28! – DAAAANNNCCCEEE!”:



Second, I was super excited to give Mitchell his present, which I will giddily describe for you now. Back story: Over the last couple of years, Mitchell has concocted numerous money-making ventures in his brain, many of them Vietnam-themed.  For example, he and his friend Ben have fantasized about setting up a bia hoi and/or bun cha street food establishment on a sidewalk in their college town.  Health codes be damned!  Another of these schemes has involved a series of expat-or-backpacker-in-Vietnam-themed T-shirts.  He’s been dreaming up T-shirt ideas for a while now.  Knowing that one can easily get customized T-shirts made in Hanoi, for his gift, I decided to make a couple of his ideas a reality.  I’m showing them here at the risk of having his million dong ideas stolen, but we must all take risks in life.



Ho is my Bro

Mitchell was a little concerned that this shirt might somehow be misconstrued as disrespectful to Uncle Ho.  I don’t see it.  In a culture where it is customary to call most people you know either “brother” or “sister,” this shirt only seemed appropriate.  (That’s Mitchell’s White Boy Gangsta Face, btw).


The Backpacker Menu

Goodbye embarrassing moments of ordering nonsensical items like chamberpots to eat on the street.  Now you can just point to the menu on your shirt.


She Likes Zombies

Total inside joke shirt.  Our neighbor’s kid has a toy car that sings a song.  The lyrics are not in English, but they appear to say the above. The shirt that didn’t get made because I had forgotten about it (regrettably) was a T-shirt related to the New Hanoian.  Expats will be very familiar with this website where any and all can review restaurants, cafes, services and basically anything in Hanoi.  As is normal for these types of sites, a lot of the reviews or comments are negative, some understandably so and others to a baffling degree.  Because you must give each review a score (1 to 5 stars), people often dramatically slash stars from their reviews and painstakingly explain why they have done so.   For example, “Minus 2 stars because the staff failed to light my cigarette.”  (I’m paraphrasing but not actually making that one up).   So, the T-shirt would put either real or fake reviews one the front and then “minus one star” on the back.  Actually writing it out makes me realize that it would probably be a stupid shirt to actually make (and may elicit a storm of negative stars on the website itself), but it was fun to think about.

On that note, I encourage you to make your T-shirt dreams a reality.  All you have to do is print out or roughly sketch your genius idea and take it the T-shirt making place on Hang Gai Street.  If you’re facing the lake, it’s on the right.  Sorry I can’t be more specific than that, but it’s not hard to find. Just look for the place with a lot of T-shirts.  Yep.

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Plans: Overrated?

Ask an expat in Hanoi, “So, how long are you going to be in Hanoi?” and expect to receive an answer like one of the following:

a) Didn’t I tell you? I leave tomorrow!

b) I’m going home/other country/to Saigon on April 24th.  My flight out of Noi Bai is at 9:21pm.  I have my 5 year plan on an Excel spreadsheet in my backpack if you fancy a look.

c) Ummm…In a year or two….ish. What was the question again?

d) Leave?!  Psssshhh.

For the last few ummm…years…ish, I’ve basically had answer C.  I can’t quite seem to make a concrete, cohesive plan for the future beyond a few months. Instead, I take the tactic of setting a vague departure date, usually at least a year away.  After that hypothetical date, my plans get a little fuzzier, involving things like going back to school, being Mitchell’s sugar mama as he goes back to school, flitting off to South America to see if my brain is as immune to learning Spanish as it is Vietnamese (which I’m learning is an expat living in Asia cliché – darn I believed I had thought of it first), and seeing if Japan is as weird as it appears to be.  It’s rare when I get the itch to move back to the US for the foreseeable future, but when it happens, it never goes beyond me declaring that we would have to move “somewhere cool.”  Jobs? An afterthought. It’s all about location.

My lack of planning skills doesn’t mean that I’m some sort of free spirit, letting the winds carry me and following my instincts through life or some such nonsense.  No no. If I haven’t at least got the next few months figured out, I’m a ball of anxiety tearing my fingernails to shreds and battling my lungs’ wishes to keep me a nonsmoker.  But my futile attempts at planning beyond that timeframe are usually out of a sense of obligation.  One must at least appear to have plans, right?  Therefore, I dutifully devise a plot for my personal movie (which would be in the awkward comedy genre that I love so much), and although it may be half-hearted or ambiguous, at least I get to have an answer for friends and family that is slightly better than the answer C above.

Given that basic strategy for creating a life timeline, it’s not surprising that when said Grand Departure Date starts nearing, I tend to, well, shift a bit.  People seem surprised and demand answers as I fumble to piece together an acceptable reply to the question, “For Jebus’ sake, why are you still in Hanoi, and what are you doing next?”  I end up with the boring explanation: “Well, I have a good job and a couple pets to feed and a nice house. And have you been to that new restaurant near the Temple of Literature?  How can I leave that?”  Many expats know this story too well. They know better than to take my silly plans seriously and they’re rarely the ones asking me for my timeline to begin with.  Others eye me suspiciously, wondering if I’m about to renounce my American citizenship and pitying me for not being able to get my life together.  It may be in my head, but I feel a (mostly) outside pressure to leave Vietnam.  This pressure seems to come from both back home and, oddly, within Hanoi.   As if after being here past a set date means that everything that was once good suddenly expires. Once you cross that invisible line, you are no longer cool for living in a foreign, exotic land but are instead moving into the category of sad people who lack direction and/or better options.  You’re that cousin who, 15 years later, is still working at the same job he’s had since high school. You’re that woman who got a Master’s degree in biochemistry and is working at a Starbucks 5 years later. You’re that drug dealer who’s still dealing pot out of his car to high schoolers instead of moving up in the drug cartel, riding around in an Escalade and wearing some sweet bling.  Or something.

One thing that is starting to wear on me (and the motivator for this rant) is the fact that I get asked future plan questions so often by strangers, acquaintances, friends and family.  I can’t imagine asking my friends back home what the hell they’re doing with their lives every few months.   It would be weird to do so (Hey, when are you leaving Chicago? You’re not? But why?), yet I receive this mini interrogation all the time. I understand why this happens, I really do.  I recognize how natural and innocent these questions are, and hell, I’ve even found myself asking them of my fellow expats.  As much as Hanoi feels like home, at its core, it’s still not.  Maybe it could be, but for now it’s not. So if a person is not home, it’s understandable to wonder when that person will be heading back.  Expat life is a transitional life for most people. So, perhaps these normal questions feel like an interrogation because I don’t have any good answers.  That admission aside, I still reserve the right to whine about people being all up in my business. Dang, let a girl be.

Isn’t it ok to be relatively planless?  Must we always be straining to see the unknowable future, clawing away at it as we tend to do?  It’s already too easy to ignore the present – that which is right in front of our face.  Besides, I hear that we’re pretty bad at predicting those futures upon which we base these plans.  Science says so.* Plus, isn’t Hanoi a city worth living in, not only in the short term but the long term?  A Vietnamese girl asked me the other day if I am bored with Hanoi yet, and it was hard for me to explain to her that, yes, of course I experience the occasional bouts of ennui, but I think it’s due to living a normal, routinized, 9 to 5 kind of life. It’s not Hanoi.  While not as exciting as the first year being here, it’s still a lively, interesting place to be.  It grows and evolves all the time, at times too fast.

To plan or to jump!? (or to hide in a cylinder block?)

*From Freakonomics radio:

Fact: Human beings love to predict the future.

Fact: Human beings are not very good at predicting the future.

Fact: Because the incentives to predict are quite imperfect — bad predictions are rarely punished — this situation is unlikely to change.

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