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Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

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.)

Hours:

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

Email: redrivertearoom (at) gmail (dot) com

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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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I recently sent the link to this blog to a Vietnamese friend of mine, Huong.  We started hanging out about 6 months ago, and in that time I’ve grown to heart her oh so much. She’s amaaaaazing, and even though we haven’t known each other too long, I consider her to be a close friend, the near and dear kind.  Despite this, I was somewhat reluctant to inform her of this internet alter ego.  The blog is public and everything, it’s no secret.  It’s just that, when I began writing it, I was writing it with the mind that only my friends and my future self would read it. It took a long time before I even told my parents about it, still feeling like a teenager who could get caught doing something naughty.

I took it for granted that my friends and future self know and love me and would most certainly give me the benefit of the doubt if and when I write things that seem naïve, thoughtless, or downright idiotic.  (Although future Sarah is not always so kind to past Sarah, often embarrassed by her).  Also, they already “get” me, so my sense of humor would be easy to interpret, and I wouldn’t have to incessantly write “Just kidding!” to inform them that I was making a hapless attempt at being funny and/or sarcastic, and no, I don’t actually believe the bizarre thing I just wrote.   That seems to be the tactic employed by this South African sign holder, who felt the need to qualify his sign with “sense of humor” in order to prevent his countrymen from rioting against those darn kidnappy American ninjas.

Taken in Johannesburg by Lanette! (http://backinjoyburg.blogspot.com)

This vague set of people also hold most of the same general assumptions as I, and therefore, I do not need to explain myself all that well; I can make half-assed, lazy assertions and they will accurately fill in the blanks to understand what I meant.  Once I began to learn that a few strangers were also reading my blog, I thought it was exciting, and I didn’t immediately adjust my style of writing.  I reasoned that well, ok, they’re not my friends, but the fact that they’re reading my writing at all means that they must be exactly like my friends, so yay!  But of course, that was a silly thing to assume, wasn’t it?  Yes, Sarah, it was.  Perhaps you should be careful about what and how you write and explain yourself for Jebus’ sake. And maybe refrain from writing to yourself. Righto.

This is something to take into consideration any time you write online, particularly when you make no effort to hide your identity.  But writing about living in a foreign country – especially one with a history and culture very unlike your own – can be a recipe for disaster.   When you add a tendency towards flippancy like mine, you significantly increase the odds of writing something that can be interpreted as stupid at best and offensive or racist at worst. I’m a statistician, kind of, I would know. P-value = like, 0.000001. (Nerdy sense of humor)

It has only rarely crossed my mind that Vietnamese people would read my writing. A mixture of language barriers, the blog’s insignificance, and just lack of interest are sufficient enough obstacles by and large. Had I imagined a Vietnamese audience, I would’ve written in quite a different manner, if not consciously, then subconsciously at least. And I know I still would’ve fucked up sometimes.  That said, when I sent the link to Huong, I felt the need to include a long, self-conscious list of caveats and explanations.  I wrote the following in response to her saying that she was excited to see what I think of Vietnam:

One thing I’ve worried about with any reader, but especially Vietnamese readers, is that some of my sense of humor will not get through. At times I’m being sarcastic, so I actually write the opposite of how I feel. For example, I once wrote something like, “Vietnam Women’s Day doesn’t have anything to do with women’s empowerment or any such nonsense.”  It may sound like I think women’s empowerment is “nonsense”, but actually, improving women’s position in society and women’s lives is one of the things I care about the most.  It concerns me that women in Vietnam are still treated/viewed as inferior to men in many ways, although I recognize that this still happens in Western countries as well and that there are many empowered, independent women in Vietnam.  But instead of going into all of that, I chose to write some short, snarky statements and move on.  Basically, I want it to keep it light-hearted, but often these issues come through anyway (somewhat inappropriately).  

I ended the email with a statement like, “Sorry if I’ve written anything stupid about Vietnam,” knowing well that I have.  She was probably thinking to herself, “Sheesh Sarah, chill the fuck out already.”  It was overkill since she does fall firmly into the friend category. Plus, she works and hangs out with a lot of foreigners and therefore knows our clueless ways.  But to her I say, read this story about Tabitha’s experiences writing for a Vietnamese website.  Somehow a seemingly benign column about the travails of being a vegetarian in Hanoi elicited a maelstrom of negative reactions from Vietnamese readers.  While I don’t fully understand what happened in that case, I can easily see how it would happen due to the differences in cultural assumptions, ways of thinking/expressing oneself, etc.  Also there’s the fact that: a) we expats have no fucking idea what’s going on most of the time; b) we still have an opinion about it because we have opinions about everything; and c) too often those opinions run along the lines of, “Vietnam, you are doing it wrong. In my country…huff huff huff.”  And then in a full-circle response, expats turn on each other and assert, “No fellow expat, you’re doing it wrong…huff huff huff.”

No stupid foreigner! It's a mosquito net, not a kitty cat net.

So, it can be quite tricky writing about a culture/country not your own.  It’s only natural that we latch onto and discuss the differences between our homeland and Vietnam. When people back home ask me about Vietnam, they want to know how it’s different, not the same.  If I only wrote about how Vietnam and the US are similar, it’d be rather boring (Did you know that Vietnamese people eat and sleep and go to work?!  They fall in love and get married and have babies!!  They like Michael Jackson, Tom and Jerry, and Mr. Bean, too!)  But to some, simply pointing out differences is interpreted as criticism.  For example, if you point out that most Vietnamese people drive motorbikes whereas most Americans drive cars, people may assume that you’re making fun of how poor Vietnamese people are because most cannot afford cars. Which would be an asshole move, but it’s unlikely that’s what was meant. Acknowledging difference does not necessarily imply that something is better or worse.

I know what you’re thinking, though. “Sarah, sometimes people point out differences, and they really are making a judgment.”  Fair enough.  This is where it gets slippery.  Unless you’re a robot, chances are that you’re going to see or learn things about Vietnam that are unpleasant or that you disagree with or disapprove of.  Should you just chalk it up to cultural differences, shut your mouth, and move on?  Or state your opinion, even if it’s not 100% informed?  To give an example: It’s always very difficult for me when people talk seriously about visiting fortune tellers and planning their lives around superstitions.  Do I just nod my head and say, “Very interesting,” or should I say, “You know that’s a load of bunny poop, right?  You shouldn’t waste your money on these scam artists.” (Albeit in politer terms).  I do not doubt for a second that I would believe differently had I grown up in Vietnam, but that doesn’t change the fact that people cannot see into the future, read your fate, or talk to dead people. They just can’t. I wish they could as it would be a really awesome superpower. But seeing that they can’t, it frustrates the hell out of me that people are taken advantage of in this way, particularly people who don’t have a lot of money to throw around.  Is it disrespectful of me to point this out?  I wouldn’t hesitate to point it out to people doing the exact same thing in America.  (And they do.)

It’s one of those things that I think is always going to be hard to navigate. It goes without saying that we foreigners should take care to try to be respectful in these conversations.  We should attempt to take into account not only what the differences are but why they are that way.  This doesn’t mean that you must agree with the Vietnamese way of thinking or behaving, but perhaps just make a greater effort to understand it.  It’d be nice if that was returned in kind (i.e., efforts were made to be open-minded to our crazy Tay ways).  Few people do this well, and I admit that I’m not one of them.   As alluded to above, this blog isn’t really geared towards that.  This entry is the most earnest I’ve written in a while.  And earnestness is good at times, but not very fun, right?  (Aside from the ninja sign and floating cat, you’ve probably smiled zero times reading this.) I write about serious, often heartbreaking issues for work everyday. HIV, malnutrition, and cancer = buzzkill.  Outside of work, I prefer to use the remaining scraps of my brainpower only to scavenge for food and entertainment.  Which of course leaves me a little stumped on how to continue.  The best I can do is to keep on my clumsy way, trying to be honest without  being an asshole.  Poking fun at both myself and my present surroundings in a way that isn’t mean-spirited. And I know I’ll fail sometimes because that’s what I do, but I hope that at least it’s entertaining to watch me do so!

Political correctness in Vietnam

 

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I’m one of those weirdo loser types who loves eating alone at restaurants as it gives me a chance to read or listen to podcasts or some other such thing to fill my brain with thoughts that are not my own.  The other day I was doing just this when a girl I’d never seen before randomly asked me if she could join me. It kind of threw me off, being engrossed in a sick and twisted Roald Dahl story about a man who eats too much royal jelly and starts turning into a bee. So yeah, I had to sort of shift gears back into normalcy.  I awkwardly told her she could sit down, and probably regretting her decision, she justified herself by saying, “I’m just looking for a little English conversation.”  “Wow!  How long have you been here?!” I shrieked excitedly.  We were in the West Lake/Xuan Dieu area afterall, which due to the overabundance of foreigners and Western-style eateries could easily be confused for a suburban neighborhood in Florida, but replace all the Cubans with Vietnamese people. When I tell people I live around there, no one seems surprised.  It’s depressing the stereotype I’ve become.  I told my bosslady I was going to a wine tasting at Vine, and she said, “A lot of people like you do that, right?”  Well…I never…what do you mean ‘people like you’…just because I…er…yeah, you could totally say that.

Kind of like a beach in Florida?!

I don’t remember how long my new dinner companion had been in Hanoi, but it wasn’t too long.  Oh, young one, you must have seen how adept I am at maneuvering chopsticks and therefore have come to me for my infinite expat wisdom, have you not? I suppose I can take time out of my busy eating schedule to tell you all about the ways of Vietnam.  –Not really.  If anything, I probably left her with the realization that the state of befuddlement never leaves.  It’s always fun to talk to new Hanoi expats.  Some things they say are like a trip down memory lane: yes, I was terrified of riding a bicycle, much less a motorbike too; to the detriment of my wallet, I used to confuse 10,000 notes with 100,000 notes as well; I know, bun cha is the best food invention ever; oh, the food poisoning – I almost miss the opportunity it gave me to get out of work and to pretend to friends and family back home that I’m living the rough life; yes, it does seem like a good idea to go to Solace/Phuc Tan/other bar even though it’s Tuesday night.

Roughin' it at Saint Honore

While it’s common for senior citizen expats like me to feel superior to our new, inexperienced peers, it can also go in reverse.  With our crappy Vietnamese skills, our bagel-eating habits, and our aversion to squat toilets, newbies will sometimes give us that why’d-you-come-to-Vietnam-anyway-I-hope-I-never-turn-into-you look.  “Squat toilets are part of the experience! Why would I eat a hamburger when I can eat delicious noodles everyday?” they cry.  But give it a few months, and they’ll be asking us for tips on where to find goat cheese or chocolate or an apartment where it’s quiet.  I’m not the only predictable one.

Aside from the memories and getting to pretend to be an expert about something (while not an expert on Vietnam, I am at least an expert on where to find salsa in Hanoi), newbies are fun because they look at Hanoi through fresh, loving eyes.  It’s easier to notice and appreciate the beautiful, weird or interesting things around you when you’re new anywhere.  This can still be accomplished after you’ve been around a while, but it’s not the default mode anymore.  And it’s often replaced by the opposite – a sort of repulsion against Vietnam where it’s easier to notice and loathe all the tedious, ugly or annoying things around you (as hilariously described here).  “Hmmm…,” we wonder, “how did Hanoi turn into this wasteland of annoyance and despair?”  And Hanoi’s wondering the same about you.  We then proceed to intensify the experience through mutual sharing and whining, and I’m certainly no exception.  When I look back, I can mark a period of time that has a sort of black cloud hovering over it. I was just moody for various reasons and lashing out at Hanoi like a psycho. I would then come running back asking for forgiveness.  It’s evident when I read some of my past posts; although I’ve always tried to keep these lighthearted, occasionally that frustration seeped through.

So in this way, I like newbies.  They help me get excited about the little things in Hanoi again.  And they tend to be more open in general.  They do things like talk to weirdos in restaurants for one.  This newbie talked about how in the past, expats would kind of brush her off when they discovered she was just traveling through.  Now when she says she’s staying for a while, they perk up and put on their friendly face.  I think it’s the armor we don to protect our abandoned hearts.  Why should I invest time in you when you’re just going to leave me for another tropical place or home country?  This month marks the going away of 6 friends of mine, so yeah, I’m developing abandonment issues and should be investing in a shrink soon. Or acupuncture for my broken heart (sigh). That is, unless I meet plenty of high-spirited newbies in the meantime.

Summer flowers help too!

It took me nearly 3 years to fully appreciate these beauties

...and nearly 3 years to finally get my very own moto - thanks Mitch!

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Despite the good experiences  in Hanoi during my sister’s visit, we did flee the capital for the serene and lovely Hoi An.  It’s not exactly off the beaten path as foreigners in the tourist area there match locals in number, not that we cared.  It was my third visit to Hoi An as it’s always on the to-do list when we have family in town.  It’s a pretty, smiley place where you can relax on the not-so-far beach, go temple-hopping and buy a completely new wardrobe overnight.

The Tailors



I cannot resist the urge to get clothes tailored for me here no matter how much I tell myself beforehand that I need to adhere to my cheapskate tendencies.  But the options are so limitless!  One difficulty is that seeing something on a mannequin is a much different story than seeing it on oneself.  Unless you have a very honed sense of style, you can very easily get stuck with something that doesn’t quite suit you or any human form that vaguely resembles you.  That dress may look awesome on some plastic lady with no hips, but appear to resemble a bag of oranges on your more generous proportions.

Another difficulty is choosing the right tailor.  The sheer number of tailor shops is overwhelming.  At times people have bad experiences in their dealings like being pressured to buy clothes/shoes that don’t fit or are of questionable quality and then not being able to get their deposit back.  Something like this happened to Mitchell’s grandmother.  The unfortunate shoe incident.  When I went with my aunt and uncle, a tailor pulled me aside to say that she would give me a special deal because she would be able to overcharge the rich, older folks I was hanging out with.  “Um, does she not realize that I’m with those nice people, actually related to them?” I thought.  It was kind of hard to conspire with her and throw my aunt under the bus on that one.

Overall, most of my experiences with the tailors and shoemakers were positive ones, and the tailors tend to be charming ladies who take to calling you “sister” or “mum” like they would in Vietnamese.  As far as the quality of the clothes, it’s hard to say how you choose the right place for that.  On my first visit, I purchased 6 items from the same tailor, and 2 began falling apart after a few wears, but I wear the other 4 all the time, and they’re great.  It seems that once you decide on something and get measured, the tailor then calls a small army of contractors who actually do the work.  Maybe the pants guy she called is better than the dress lady. I have no real understanding of the process, so I’m just guessing.  It all seems like magic, or if you’re more cynical (realistic?), exploitation.  You can really make me an entire suit in 12 hours?  Are you sure?  Don’t you sleep?  Do you own slaves?  Should I be concerned?  (I’m going to Walmart where the sweatshops are far away and invisible!)  Not sure what to do with those nagging little thoughts.  Again, I know nothing of the labor in Hoi An, so I can’t really speak on it.

That unpleasantness aside, the only advice I can give about choosing the right tailor is to just relax and be patient when things don’t turn out exactly how you pictured them. Don’t be afraid to be assertive about making any changes you think are necessary.  Even if they think the changes are unnecessary/stupid, they’ll make them.  In my experience, minor changes to the clothes made the whole difference.  And go in there knowing as many details as you can about what you want. The Vietnamese have many talents, but mind-reading is not among them.

Buy Something!

Like the rest of Southeast Asia, you’ll get peppered with pleas to “BUY SOMETHING!”  They rarely get more specific than that in the little market.  Not “You like the beautiful, handmade necklace, special price, looks good on you, happy hour, yadda yadda.”  Just simply, buy something.  Straight-talk.  On the beach and in the tailor shops, they butter you up some more.  On Hoi An trip #2 with Mitchell’s family, a beach seller nearly talked us into giving her our debit cards and pin numbers.  By the end of her sales pitch, we were ready to buy her a few drinks.  But I have to admit that by Hoi An trip #3, the pestering started wearing on me.  There were fewer tourists than usual, so the sales pitches were intensified.  We bought some sort of cultural ticket package – 5 tickets that got us into “old houses,” temples, museums and other spots meant to help you appreciate Vietnamese cultural heritage.  The temples were quite beautiful, but the other things were just tourist traps that taught me squat about Vietnam except for local sales tactics.  “So here’s this old thing that no one seems to care about, and over here you can buy a scarf!!  The same fucking scarf sold on every other corner of the entire town, but higher price!!  Don’t you want it?  Why not?!”  I try to have a sense of humor about these things, but I don’t always succeed.  It often just makes me very tired.

Enough Shopping Already


Despite appearances, Hoi An isn’t all about the tailor shops and shopping.  It probably gets called “charming” as often as Japan gets called “weird,” and for good reason.  The vibe is laidback, and the streets are beautiful.  Plus, the food is fantastic – take a cooking class.  Mitchell and I were talked into one by a charismatic, adorable waitress.  We both had crushes on her by the end of dinner and agreed to join her for cooking the next day even though we are both allergic to cooking.  The class was fun, and I’ve impressed the crap out of at least 6 people with the “fish in banana leaf” dish I learned to make.  This despite the cooking curse I bear.  I’m a firm believer that Tom’s assertion, “If you can read, you can cook,” was designed to make people like me wonder if they might be illiterate or at least dyslexic.

If you happen to be in the area and want to impress your future house guests, the place was called Gioan Restaurant – 94B Bach Dang St.  It’s been too long for me to remember our enchantress chef’s name (I think Hanh, but I’m not sure).  You’ll know when you see her, though.

Cooking genius at work

She’s so charming, she even got Mitchell to wear an apron.

The Crazy Lady Incident

Jeannette, Tom, Mitchell and I stayed in a hotel near the market next to the river.  Walking through the market was the shortest way to get to the center of town, which was entertaining during the day and somewhat creepy at night.  Mitchell and I have developed a fervent faith in the safety of Hanoi, and this feeling carried over to Hoi An.  Jeannette and Tom had no reason to feel the same way, so when we suggested that we walk through the empty, dark market, they seemed less than excited.  Once halfway down the alley, I started getting the same chills, though.  We made it through unscathed every time, except one time, we had a guest chauffeur us – Crazy Lady.  At first, I thought she was a man as she was wearing baggy clothes and had a boyish haircut.  She started following us before we entered the scary, dark market, happily babbling at rapid speed in Vietnamese and laughing uncontrollably at her own humor.  She was in a very good mood and she never once stopped her giddy monologue.  At first, I just didn’t know what to think of him…then her…was she crazy or trying to get us to do something or what?  She took an instant liking to Mitchell and  put her arm around him as we steadily began picking up the pace.  Then I thought that maybe she was trying to pickpocket him, but he had his hands in his pockets and was smiling politely at her.  Once in the dark market alley (probably not the wisest move), Jeannette, Tom and I were clearly uneasy about our new tag along, but Mitchell was undisturbed, joking about how he made a new girlfriend.  Almost on cue, she playfully whacked him in the head, to which Mitchell replied “We’re having our first fight.”  Once out of dark alley, it was pretty apparent that she was just a little “cray cray” but completely harmless.  Mitchell bought her some food and she tried to follow us into our hotel, at which point he had to gently break up with her.

End of scary alley

After Hoi An, Jeannette and Tom had to go back to the US.  Eight days didn’t feel like enough time to properly show them Vietnam – 2 years hasn’t been enough for me to even properly understand this country – and I failed to convince them of the attractiveness of living here.  They both stated something along the lines of, “I really like it, but I have no idea how you can live here.”  From what I can tell, living here is easy; it’s the traveling that appears to be tough.

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The dragons appear to be playing fetch.

After only 2 years of anticipation, my sister Jeannette was finally able to come visit me in Hanoi in November. She came with her long-time friend, Tom.  I was excited as hell, as one should be if they have a sister as flippin’ fabulous as mine, but I was also nervous.  I wondered how I should best go about shining on Hanoi’s assets and downplaying its travel-related difficulties.  It’s not uncommon to run into disgruntled tourists and I remember the confused, overwhelmed feeling I had the first week I arrived – the exact amount of time they would be here.  By the time they achieved a minimal level of comfort, they would be on a plane back to the US. So, this meant:

  • A lot of taxi rides (and blindfolds)
  • Absolutely no street food as my sister is a stickler for cleanliness even back home
  • Earplugs for the cacophony of noises that my neighborhood and house specialize in.  By the way, can anyone recommend a good shop for rooster poison?
  • Protecting them from our ninja-in-training psycho cat
  • Distracting our guests every time a rat threatened to make an appearance and attempting to direct their attention elsewhere when we passed the dog meat place on my street (unsuccessful on both counts)
  • Escaping Hanoi for a few days to see the calmer side of Vietnam
  • Strategically cleaning our courtyard at times when our evil neighbor lady is asleep.  She’s the crotchety lady next door who yells at us when she catches us dumping water in our courtyard.  She complains that the water leaks into the alley, making it “dirty” and smelly, but she doesn’t seem to have a problem with anyone else that waters their courtyard – i.e. everyone, including herself.  We’ve tried cleaning at non-busy hours and even adding soap to reduce any smell, yet the shrill screeching continues.  It felt like a role reversal – You’re whining about the smell and cleanliness?  Aren’t you from here?  Isn’t that bag of garbage in front of your house in this same alley yours?  At first, I was really worried (What are we doing wrong?!!); then pissed off (You a mean water bitch!!); and now amused that I can make snarky, although not necessarily inappropriate comments in English back at her without fear of her head exploding as a result (Nice to see you too! I agree, the morning loudspeakers really should try a different song.  Come by anytime!)  Perhaps she’s just concerned about the neighborhood falling prey to a West Lake-like gentrification, wondering if her house will be converted into a Highlands Coffee or Chipotle.  (Sorry, vent over)

This isn’t to say that Jeannette and Tom were idiots – they knew they were traveling to a developing country and have seen a lot of videos and photos I’ve sent.  Tom has actually traveled to over 50 countries, so he probably learned more Vietnamese in a week than I have in a couple years.  Plus, I didn’t want to bore the crap out of our guests, and I wanted to show them a little of what makes Hanoi fun, which meant taking at least one motorbike ride (Mitchell and I playing the role of xe oms), getting delicious ‘street food’ but in the nice restaurant Quan An Ngon, going to some mom-and-pop cafes to indulge in café sua (i.e., coffee crack), visiting areas both inside and outside of the Old Quarter and the like.  I would’ve included bia hoi on that list, and almost did, but that wouldn’t have been too impressive given their distaste for beer.  Neither would the cheapness have swayed them on that front – they weren’t backpackers looking for the cheapest version of every little thing.  They’re, like, grownups with real jobs and stuff.

Unfortunately, at the beginning of their trip, the traffic and noise attracted most of Jeannette and Tom’s attention as they tend to do.  I knew this would be the case, but I was also hoping beyond hope that somehow we could just gloss over the fact that crossing the road can deplete a week’s worth of adrenaline when you’re not accustomed to it.  I forgot that basically, unobstructed sidewalks don’t exist, so there are certain risks you take when just wandering haplessly through a neighborhood, especially when you’re trying to take in all the new sights around you.  Living here forces you to develop a highly specialized filter which enables you to turn off your low-level survival instincts so that only emergency threats get through.  In other words, you learn to ignore the motorbikes swishing around you at all times, unless one appears to be threatening you in that immediate moment.  All the motorbike-dodging, taxi-hailing, photo-taking, and walking – not to mention jetlag – exhausted them the first couple of days.  I was beginning to worry that the noise and traffic would steal the show.

Thankfully, it didn’t.  We ran across some pretty  temples not mentioned in the Lonely Planet Bible, were surprised by how lovely the Museum of Fine Arts is, and they managed to buy half of the available merchandise in the city, nearly gutting Craft Link.  I don’t really notice all the beautiful things on sale here because I’m not fond of shopping as I’m a cheapskate with no taste.  It takes visitors to open my eyes to all the cool stuff there is on sale if you look hard enough, much of it at very low prices.  Jeannette and Tom have a better eye than I do as well – while I beeline for the propaganda posters like every other visitor, Tom finds some awesome little antique and Jeannette gets a tasteful painting.

I was trying to show off Hanoi, and it happily obliged.  People were inordinately sweet to us nearly everywhere we went, and the weather remained pleasant.  Plus, the beautiful babies were out in hordes or this at least seemed to be the case when hanging around my sister.  She loves babies anyway, but Vietnamese babies are some of the cutest around.  In the US, the “Amber Alert” is the Dept of Justice’s alarm system for child abductions.  Jeannette was constantly tempted to kidnap gorgeous Vietnamese babies, so we came up with the term “Linh Alert.”  Every time we saw an irresistible little one, we’d shout “Linh Alert!”  I can only imagine how horrified these kids’ moms would be if they could understand our jokes about abducting their children (example:  “That one’s cute, but too old; he would put up a fight.” – Jeannette).  They seemed justifiably skeptical of our near-obsessive, borderline creepy doting.

A classic example of a Linh alert baby (even he seems suspicious)

Next on the agenda was Hoi An, to be written about next time, in case the billions of other blogs written about Hoi An and its tailors just doesn’t cover it quite well enough.

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