Thursday, November 4, 2010

Tôi yêu Việt Nam

Well, it might be presumptuous to say that I yêu all of Vietnam. To this day, I am still bothered by cat-calling xe ôm drivers. And there are still no barbershop quartets in the city. But last Thursday I got a big dose of genuine friendliness. Never ever ever would I have had the same experience on the streets of Toronto, principally because I don't look like a foreigner in Toronto. If we Torontonians treated all foreigners like I was treated today, then Toronto would be a much happier place.

My adventure began at the market near my house, where I was going to stock up on fresh fruit to kick the ass of this cold that I have before going downtown to work on my research project. By 'market', I don't mean 'supermarket', but an alley roughly twelve feet wide with women of all ages above 40 sitting behind baskets full of fresh vegetables and fruit and rigged scales (don't quote me on the scales). As I always do, I made my way from the entrance to the end, seeing how many people were selling custard-apple. This gives me crucial information about the number of suppliers of custard-apple - knowing how many people are selling it tells me what my bargaining power is. As I make my way through, I hear cries of "Cháu ơi!", meant to lure the foreigner into paying too much for something. By the time I reached the live chickens at the back, I had decided that paying 2000 VND for two bananas was going to get me farther in life than paying 9000 VND for two custard-apples. The ladies selling bananas always make a whole song-and-dance when I ask for two bananas, because it is apparently such a hardship to take a knife and cut two bananas off of the end of a bunch of fifteen. The (elderly) lady selling me the bananas was so adamant that I not take two bananas that, after we had got the price from something ridiculous to 2000 VND, she gave me a third banana for free.

Oh, and I also got about 300 grams of mandarin oranges. Mandarin oranges are in season in Vietnam right now, so they are very cheap. They have yellow skin, are really small and are easy to peel. You can pop a whole one into your mouth with no problem. They would have been delicious if I could taste them (remember, I have a cold).

As I am about to go downtown, the elderly lady offers me hot tea. It was fairly early (only 8:30 a.m.) so I thought I could spare a few minutes to talk to her. Whenever I buy fruit, the fruit ladies are always so amazed that I can speak the most basic Vietnamese, and they invariably say "...nói tiếng Việt Nam rất giỏi/giỏi lắm/giỏi thế!", and proceed to ask me the usual questions: Have you taken a wife yet? No? How old are you? Twenty?! Too young! I have a niece who is the same age as you. She's studying in university...". They are then so shocked when I say that I will not take a Vietnamese wife because I have a girlfriend in Canada. Maybe loyalty isn't as important in Vietnam as it is in Canada. Anyway, I and this old lady sit, and we chat. There are a few times when I cannot make out what she says, but most of the time I get it all or at least the idea. One thing she said, which I hope I will never forget, is this (and I don't remember her exact words, so I'll have to give a rough translation): Vietnam is poor, but it is rich in affection. She hit the nail right on the head with that one. People earning $3 USD per day have treated me to whole weekends of fun, and it does not seem to bother them one bit that I could easily have paid for everything. People are always working, day and night, to earn money, yet they are generous with the little they have even when those benefitting from their generosity have many times more purchasing power than they do. Even those who don't spend significant portions of their monthly income on me are actually interested to find out about me and my life. Yes, it's because I'm a foreigner. But their curiosity is friendly and has no malice or greed whatsoever. And there is no awkwardness, of which there is so much in introducing oneself in Canada. I admit that I am probably one of the biggest sources of that awkwardness (because I'm an awkward person). They don't talk to me because they have to - they talk to me because they want to. In Canada, in most cases when I'm not talking to any of my friends, I feel like I'm dragging the other person into the conversation by their hair - it's so hard to get real friendliness from other people. Yes, I'm generalising, but Canadians are so scared to ask other people about themselves out of fear either that they'll get an answer that they don't want to hear or that the other person will think they're weird for asking so many questions. I say "To hell with that". People should want to meet each other.

So our conversation ended after about half an hour. I thought for a second about paying for the two glasses of tea that I had, and by the next second I thought that paying for them would express that I didn't see the gesture as one of generosity. I promised her that I would come back from time to time, and I plan to make good on that promise.

Two bananas, a few mandarin oranges and fourty minutes later, I arrived at that building across from the Opera House, and had two of the most-productive hours of my life. As I walked west on Tràng Tiền, a lady carrying two baskets of bananas hanging from a long wooden stick (on the streets of Hanoi there are women, young and old, carrying stuff on these yoke-like contraptions, which are laid on one shoulder) implored me with her eyes to buy bananas. I said "Cháu vừa ăn chuối" (I jut ate bananas - this was true), a sentence which led to her guiding me to a restaurant which, by her account, is frequented by many foreigners. I didn't see any foreigners in there. Anyway, she led me all the way to this restaurant, probably over 300 metres away from where we met, while carrying the heavy load of bananas on her shoulder. Surely she didn't have to incur the extra damage and drudgery. I probably could have found my own nice restaurant if left to myself. But she took an active interest in my enjoying lunch, and wanted to be sure that I would enjoy what I ate. I actually did enjoy my plate of fried tofu. Mmm, tofu.

And as I made my way from the record store (where I bought some CD by Trọng Tấn), I stopped by a cart to buy some bánh mì (baguette). For some reason, I thought that it was appropriate to pay 5000 VND for an ambient-temperature, not-too-flavourful piece of bread. Of course, the older lady selling bread and her slightly-younger friend started talking to me. After about a couple of minutes of shooting the you-know-what, two girls, about eighteen or nineteen years old, walk by and freeze in their tracks from seeing me squatting on the sidewalk, holding a conversation with two Vietnamese women. "He's a white guy. Yet Vietnamese is coming out of his mouth. DO NOT COMPUTE DO NOT COMPUTE" is probably what went through their heads. Vietnamese people love to think that their language is the most-difficult language in the world. There is a Vietnamese saying as follows: the worst storm is not as bad as Vietnamese grammar. Nothing could be further from the truth. Vietnamese is not as difficult to learn as at least three other languages which I have had the pleasure of learning for any significant period of time (English, French and Arabic. Two years of learning Arabic has had the sole result of me knowing how to say "I am eating a watermelon" in Arabic).

These two girls speak to me at lightning speed for a couple of minutes. It was all very confusing and surreal, but I think that somewhere in there word got out that I was on my way to buy headphones. One of the girls spends the next fourty-five minutes with me, standing there while I try on headphones and say that I don't want one with a microphone attached and that "big headphones" does not mean "earbuds". Would you take fourty-five minutes to help a total stranger buy headphones? As per usual, we exchanged phone numbers and promised to hang out at some later point in time. I hope that I'll remember and take the initiative to contact her.

Why did I have such an experience on that day? Surely it's not my own talents - I'm as reserved as can be. The old lady at the market was right: Vietnam is poor, but it is rich in affection. And, in most cases in my experience, it's not a money-grubbing affection.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Bicycle Diaries

Last Thursday, I bought a bicycle. I know! Even I asked "What took you so long?". I had been here for nearly four months and I was still moseying around the city on foot, by bus, by xe ôm and by taxi. I had to get with the way of the future! No longer do I live in darkness. I once was lost, but now am found on Đường Láng four days a week, pedalling the hell out of my two-wheeler.

My new vehicle (the word "vehicle" gives my bicycle the dignity it merits) was made by Asama, a Taiwanese company. It's a single-speed bike, a fact which takes the stress of indecision out of riding a bicycle. I pedal, and the bike moves. No worrying about what the optimal front gear-back gear combination would be. The bike asks no questions, and I give it no answers. That's the way I like it. It's silver, has a built-in lock (yahoo!) and a basket on the front. The basket might give the impression that I look like a joyful little schoolgirl when riding the bicycle. Nothing could be further from the truth. My manly work clothes, my helmet with a flames decal, my legs like tree trunks (see below), my mind-boggling speed, the steel in my eyes, they all say "Step back. This is a real man on the bicycle.".

I had been apprehensive about riding a bicycle in Hanoi because, to an outsider, the traffic looks like hell. What would poor I do without the shell of a car to protect me from the big, bad, unscrupulous motorcycle drivers? But then I started working at Hanoi Community College, requiring me to commute on one of the most-godawful bus routes in the city. The bus never comes, the driver plays the worst Vietnamese music [which is really something, because Vietnamese music as a rule is bad (THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS DON'T KILL ME)] and I have sometimes felt so squished that I feared the atoms comprising my body would implode. Oh, and it would take me over an hour to get to work. On my bicycle, it takes me thirty minutes to get to work, and that includes a pit stop to eat xôi by the river. By bus, it would take me an hour, cost me 6,000 VND (3,000 VND each trip) and force me to walk for ten minutes on a stinky, dusty street. So every workday I save one hour, giving me one more hour to listen to Hard to be Cool (In a Minivan) on repeat.

What is the bike-riding experience like? It is a blast. Riding a bicycle in Hanoi is much safer than riding a bicycle in Toronto. Most of the vehicles around me are motorcycles, which are narrow and can easily go around obstacles. Cars are very wide and the drivers cannot see exactly where the edge of the car is, making the risk of colliding with a bicyclist on the side of the road relatively high. In Hanoi, I have access to virtually one-and-a-half car widths of road space, giving me lots of room to avoid the many potholes, crushed rats and unsightly bumps on the road. It also gives me room to whiz by the other cyclists, who like to take their sweet time on the road as they languish without helmets. I go nearly as fast as the motorcycles, allowing me to go to the left side of the road whenever I need to make a left turn. Sure, the cars honk at me, but, as I said in a previous post, I don't give a shit, because I'm on YouTube, baby! I ain't going to get off the road just because you decide to take one of the modes of transportation least conducive to safety, air quality and just allocation of road space. Of course, when I'm in the left lane, I pedal like hell and promise to buy my legs a beer one day to make up for the trouble I cause them.

On a related note, my use of a bicycle has been wonderful for my legs. They have been transformed from stores of flab into pistons of power. Three months ago, my calves were 8.5 out of 10. Now, they're 15,000 out of 10. I have to get ready to have thighs like those of the Greek gods, because that's where I'm headed. Cream-white thighs, unblemished by the sun and more suited to oxen than to human beings. They lead very nicely into my effulgent, finely-toned, deep-beige calves, which are the marvel of the world over. The colours are so divergent it is as though the thighs and calves belong to two entirely different beings - or, more accurately, deities.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pulling a Fast One

So yesterday was the Day of Atonement, the day when we (you know who you are) atone for our sins in the hope that God won't p0wn us in the following year. Usually I spend this day in the Toronto area, rushing from class to synagogue and driving under the influence of overwhelming hunger. But this year was different. This year, I spent my Yom Kippur in Hanoi. To put it mildly, there is not much in the way of Judaism here. I had to suspend my disbelief a great deal in order to turn the nearby military academy's five-o'clock wake-up horn into the blowing of a shofar. Despite the dearth of other Jews, I managed to participate in some rituals nonetheless. However, my participation was certainly not perfect.

I was looking forward to coming home early on Friday night, as my work activities had ended a bit early that day. I was getting ready to go home when someone I worked with invited me to come to her office and chat with the staff there. I spent about an hour there talking and eating dried fish from Nha Trang. In Canada, this is called 'a waste of time'. In Vietnam, this is called 'important relationship-building'. So I ended up leaving my office at the usual hour. On my way out, I was accosted by one of the college's vehicle watchers and invited to come into his office and talk with him. He is definitely one of those people who thinks that how well someone understands him is positively related to the volume at which he speaks (in Vietnamese). I was practically being yelled-at from a distance of one-and-a-half feet. Maybe I would have understood him better if I couldn't hear my eardrums exploding. He also served me what is quite possibly the most-disgusting tea I have ever consumed in my life. It was nearly cold, too. Blech! I minded the tea more than I minded the fact that a man, in his fifties or sixties, whom I had never met before put his arm on my shoulder and held on tight and touched my leg. I really don't mind that - I mind getting stared-at a heck of a lot more than I mind being touched.

That took me to about five o'clock. I waited about twenty-five minutes before my bus came. When it came, it was jam-packed (as usual) so I ended up taking a motorcycle taxi to get home. Now, I understand that drivers always ask for more than they expect to get. But I was being quoted 50,000 VND for a ride that should be 25,000 VND at the most (I paid 25,000 VND). It annoys me not because they want such a price - it annoys me that they insult my intelligence by quoting such a high price. I figured that I would commit the sin of stinginess because I would atone for it that evening anyway. Would it have been right to accept a price of 30,000 VND, which the drivers insisted was rock-bottom? Who would spend the 5,000 VND in a way that provides greater social benefit? If it buys shoes for their kids, then I should have accepted the price of 30,000 VND and swallowed my pride. But if it buys cigarettes, then I should bargain as low as I can possibly go. Would I spend it in a socially-useful way? Do I have a right to that money in the first place? Which is more important - my pride in getting a good price, or the driver having xôi (instead of nothing) for dinner? I am inclined to say that the latter is more important. But I am not a charity, and I should not be seen to favour some drivers over others.

The sun was still up when I got home. I thought I would be able to sneak dinner in before the sun said goodnight (on Yom Kippur, one is supposed to refrain from eating and drinking from sundown to sundown). Alas, we did not have dinner until eight o'clock, about one-and-a-half hours after the sun set. I was certainly not going to refuse to eat. I wouldn't ever go through a whole fast day without eating dinner first! After dinner I took some big gulps of water to make sure that I would not shrivel up and die from dehydration during the fast day. In Vietnam, it is rather possible to go a whole day without eating (people in the countryside are forced to do it), but it is much less possible to go a whole day without drinking. The heat and the humidity suck the water out of your body like a vacuum sucks dust.

For the first time in two weeks, I woke up after 5:30 AM. I decided that Yom Kippur would be a day of true rest (and atonement). After waking up at about 7:45, I just lay in my bed. It was the first time that I could truly relax. I really had nothing to do or to worry about doing - not even getting up to eat. By 8:30 I was on the floor, also laying and taking doing nothing very seriously. Between 7:45 and 2:00 I lay in my room accomplishing a whole lot of nothing (and a bit of reading, and a bit of atoning). This Yom Kippur was the first one during which I actually atoned. In Yom Kippurs previous, I just went to synagogue, did the whole fasting shtick, slept, etc. But this time I committed the act of atonement. To do this, really-religious Jews will take a live chicken and swing it around above their heads as they recite each of two prayers three times. If I wanted to, I could have used a live chicken. They can be easily bought at the market or pilfered from somebody's property. I have seen live chickens hanging out in front of a café that I go to often. I don't think anybody would miss them. But it was easier (yet more costly) to use money instead of a chicken. Money doesn't scream or try to peck at you. But it probably makes the experience much more intense. "Please God, this is my exchange, this is my atonement, I will do ANYTHING to get this chicken to stop attacking me!" is probably what goes through the heads of most Chasidim. But now I actually have to part ways with the money. That kind of sucks. But the money doesn't belong to me anymore. It belongs to those who need it (NOT xe ôm drivers).

The hunger was a nice feeling. I hadn't felt it in a long time. As the period of hunger drew on, my body felt more relaxed and seemed to clean itself out. I'm not referring to elimination. Parts of my body felt like they were freeing themselves of some kind of heaviness and dirtiness.

In the afternoon I decided to brave the moisture-sucking sun in order to go to the park to stretch. That venture was mostly a failure, because I really felt more like sitting on the bench than stretching. I did a few feeble stretches and enjoyed a view of the lake in Nghĩa Dô Park. To be honest, I do feel like I took the Day of Atonement a bit too easy. It's all about mortifying one's flesh and one's sense of pleasure in order to be granted a good year by God, am I right? But this is Hanoi, not Toronto. I was missing the awesome (as in causing awe, not as in cool) experience of communal atonement in synagogue. Then again, I also missed the communal chit-chat during the service. I definitely did not miss that. It is so rude and ruins the service. I don't care if I am committing the sin of whatever the opposite of mercy is - anyone who persists in chatting during the service, after being told to be quiet, should leave the sanctuary voluntarily or be forced to do so. I'm not talking about people who ask their spouses every so often what time it is. I often wonder the same thing when I have to wait until sundown to eat. I'm talking about people who talk about how sick their aunt is, how many diseases she has, what medications she has to take for them, how she is too stubborn to move into a nursing home already, how things would be so much better if her husband wasn't in the hospital, why her husband is in the hospital, how many diseases he has, how many medications he has to take, etc.

I was looking forward to doing some more sleeping at home but I was accosted by some construction workers sitting outside the site on my street. They're building some kind of tower which, according to the artist's rendition pictures on the outer boards, will only have white people in it. I had to go through the same questions: how old are you? are you studying here? have you taken a wife yet?. I was talking to a group of three people, all of them sitting close to each other, yet each of them asked me the same questions. Some other workers came by to look at the Tây, and they in turn asked me the same questions. I would like to forgive them for annoying me, because their curiosity is friendly. But I am not that good of a person. Yet.

As I came in the front door of my house, ostensibly to do some more sleeping at home, my host dad offered to teach me some Vietnamese after showering. I had planned neither on showering nor on learning Vietnamese that day. Many people wash themselves on Yom Kippur because they have to be in close proximity with other people in synagogue. I do not wash because not washing helps me feel like shit, which is what I am in comparison to God. I somehow managed to wash and dry myself in twenty minutes and learn how to greet different people in Vietnamese. I knew how to use the vast majority of the titles beforehand, but the lesson itself clarified some things. I also successfully picked up some new words! I do not know if he knew how exhausted I was, or if he thought that my hunger might preclude me understanding what he was saying to me. Luckily, dinner was right after the lesson, at six o'clock. The sun was still up, but I didn't care because I would rather eat than be a jerk.

So I had twenty-one hours of fasting. It's not quite twenty-four, but it's better than nothing. And I learned something about how being in a room full of people magnifies the intensity of the religious experience.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Falling Down the Stares

Last Saturday, I had my first haircut since leaving Toronto. It cost me 30,000 VND and was done on the sidewalk. Admittedly, it is one of the worst haircuts I have ever had. But I have had good haircuts in my life. And this haircut even came with bugged-out eyes (see photo), free of charge! But I get enough bugged-out eyes from other people here in Hanoi. Yes, folks, I get stared-at. I should have known it was coming, and I did know that it was coming. What I didn't expect is the degree to which it bothers me. I don't get bothered because it's rude (staring isn't rude) - I get bothered because every time I get stared-at I feel like the starer is calling into question the validity of my existence. Their eyes ask questions like "Why are you here?" and "Why should I respect you by averting my eyes? What respect do you truly deserve?". For some reason, when I ask myself these questions, I don't get nearly as frustrated as I do when other people ask them. Maybe that is because I'm soft on myself.

When I catch someone staring at me, my first thought is "It's on, baby". I stare right back at them uninterrupted as I walk by. My next thought is "Oh my God, are they going to chase me down?". By the time I have had that second thought, I am a good distance away from the starer. I don't know what my eyes express as I return the stare, but I hope that whatever they express is fearsome. Being stared-at is really exhausting, and I hate having to do it.

For the past two days, I have tried something new: averting my eyes as soon as I catch someone staring at me. Here is why: whenever I return the stare, I get really, really, really worked-up and inclined to carry out violence. I remember hearing years and years ago (see, I'm old, see) that dogs consider being stared-at in the eyes as an act of aggression. I get the impression that being stared-at releases something in my animal nature. It feels as though a wave of anger and defensiveness courses up my spine, and I instantly get into this zone of fear and aggression. Averting my eyes keeps other people from staring into them, and thereby keeps them from sending me into the animal zone I just described. I feel much happier as I walk to and from work. My mood is spoiled much less often. Besides, the zone is a very exhausting place to be. After about five times of getting into the zone, I feel really worn-out and as though I need a vacation. I don't want to spend my placement tired and angry, so I have taken action.

I am also trying to listen to ridiculous and ridiculously joyful music. Exhibit A, Overwhelming Joy by The Inspirations: Exhibit B, Hard to Be Cool (in a Minivan) by The Oak Ridge Boys: What do both of those songs have in common? Bass singers with ludicrously-low voices. I am disproportionately in love with listening to true basses. It is true that I'm a bass, but only in a limited way. Certainly not like those guys. While I'm talking about basses, I'm going to plug this video ( which features me cranking out Eb2 for roughly five minutes. It's not the lowest of the low, but I don't give a shit, because I'm on YouTube, baby! Hahahahaha!

Monday, August 2, 2010


My dear friends, do not worry about me. The worst culture shock has subsided, and I have periods of happiness and/or excitement these days. I'm not angry anymore at those I've never met, and some people are really amazing. Twice in the past two weeks, I have had my breakfast paid-for and been given lifts to work. I just came back from an amazing weekend (well, from Saturday at about 10:30 PM until Sunday at about 7:00 PM) trip to Ninh Bình. I am busy at work - this is a state of being that I haven't experienced in a long time. Not surprisingly, the eight-month-and-one-week clock in my head has grown much quieter.

Eclectic Shock

The CIL training manual doesn't lie.

Culture shock really does happen.

I found this out one morning as I walked to work (it takes me about 40 minutes, and would take me the same amount of time if I took the bus) totally pissed-off at everyone around me. They didn't do anything hurtful to me in particular – they just were entirely incomprehensible and their very being made me feel like an outsider. So many people stare at me as they drive by, I'm surprised that I haven't caused a traffic accident by now. The catcalls of the xe ôm drivers assault my ears. People who cannot enunciate due to the absence of a full set of teeth or due to laziness speak to me in Vietnamese at roughly a million miles an hour (how the hell do locals understand each other?) and seem insulted when I don't understand. The smell of shit and garbage mixed together will violently assault my nostrils without warning. When I walk from one block to another, people on their motorbikes will cut me off by turning in front of me – throughout the entire turn, their eyes do not move one bit (I have observed). I have been woken at midnight by a cockroach climbing through my hair. The heat and moisture have allowed bacteria or fungi to constantly give me itches on my skin. I was touched on the chest by the dirty, dirty, two-inch-long fingernail of a xe ôm driver (this guy's mind was also filthy). And when I was at my most angry, I suffered being accosted by a local who wanted to practice his English, being watched while I ate breakfast and having to entertain his conversation.

The above are all small annoyances, when taken separately. I should, if I could be absolutely proportional in my feelings, be in an uninterrupted state of slight perturbation. But I was (and probably still am) angry and wanting to leave (due to the small annoyances mentioned above and to larger annoyances that, for various reasons, will not be mentioned on this blog. Since you have doubtless memorised this blog's disclaimer word-for-word by now, you know what I am talking about.). Most of my anger is not at any one annoyance. I am angry that I am an outsider and have to deal with other people viewing me as an outsider, whether they express that view by patronising me, staring at me with cold, dead eyes or laughing at me. I did not expect that I would escape culture shock, but I was fooled by the culture-shock into thinking that it would be a gradual descent. Culture shock is like finding an adult cockroach in your bathroom. You don't expect it, it's ugly, it startles you when it appears and when you spray it with insecticide it smells bad and poisons you.

So now the mental countdown has begun in earnest. The mental countdown is BAD: it prevents those who do it from having fun. Of course, I miss home, and would be a cruel person if I didn't. But there are great things and great people here, and my work will eventually be fulfilling and excellent. I prefer to look forward to those things instead of thinking to myself "Only eight months before you go back home!". I cannot let myself be pissed-off for eight months. I would probably die before the eight months finish if I were to be pissed-off for all eight of them. So I have resolved to forget about the amount of time left, and to replace anxiety with the seeking of fun. I like fun more than I like anxiety.

My feelings and the CIL training have confirmed a suspicion that I have had for years: multiculturalism is a sham. When non-Europeans migrate to Canada, they do not force their cultures upon anyone. Culture is not weird dance, weird food and funny talk. Culture is the totality of what a group of people values, and what they do in the service of those values. It is true that Canada allows people of any culture to live within its borders. But Canada very much has one culture – Western culture. Westerners' attachment to reason (economic benefit?) and disgust at parochialism allow Westerners to coexist with people of other cultures without confronting the value differences between Western culture and said other cultures. Those who are raised in urban Canada and who stay in their particular urban agglomeration (I acknowledge that there are cultural differences between provinces, cities, etc.) do not experience culture shock because of immigrants. I might be a connoisseur of bún (yes, Vietnamese people eat more than just phở) but be unable to stomach Vietnamese norms about personal space (or lack thereof) or about friendship.

I can't think of a smooth way to end this post, so I have put a clumsy way to end it instead.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Low and Wet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hard Times with the Hard Drive

My dear friends,

Today I had a pretty big scare. It did not involve me choking on a too-long piece of squid, or being held up at gunpoint. I was in a tizzy about the state of a box roughly the size of my chest. It's black on the outside and lets people store information on it.

My computer was unable to start. Multiple restarts and attempts at diagnosis and at System Restore failed to fix it. The root cause of the problem was a 'bad patch'. I was on the verge of formatting my computer when I decided that I had to have dinner, lest I starve, and go to an Internet café to email a renowned computer-repair shop in the city. As I entered the alley just outside my hotel, I thought to myself about what would really be the consequences of losing all of the personal information on my computer. All of my reports, both excellent and shitty, all of my lecture notes, all of my photos (of which there are not many, but of which there will be many), all of my music, all of the programmes I never use anymore would be gone. How often do I use these things? Not very. Would it be bad to lose them? Ceteris paribus, yes. I rely heavily on some documents, such as my CV. But most of them are just things that are nice to have. My life could be nearly as fulfilling, as fulfilling or perhaps even more fulfilling than it currently is without all of that stuff on my computer. I could start storing my information in other ways - for example, I could talk to people more, so that information about me could be stored in their brains.

So I walked along Phố Dội Cấn, 5 bpm away from a myocardial infarction. There were other things stressing me out, but those things are not properly part of this post. Besides, the computer issue was directly responsible for most of my stress. I emailed a local computer-repair store to ask for a quote, and enjoyed a bowl of miến gà as little as I possibly could (there were other things on my mind). At the Internet café/three-walls-a-roof-and-children-playing-computer-games (the place did not serve coffee), I spent about twenty minutes. The rate for thirty minutes was 20,000 VND. It was nice to get back 15,000 VND even though I used two thirds of the time I requested. That 15,000 paid for three quarters of the miến gà, which I was unable to enjoy.

I returned to my hotel, expecting to have to do some serious relaxation exercises to calm myself down. Things like this tend to really stress me out. I usually worry about things much more than they should be worried-about, and I usually worry about them for much longer than they should be worried-about. But, lo and behold, my computer finally showed the Windows Vista log-in screen. I was certainly relieved as this, but I remain disappointed that I should be so attached to the contents of a hard drive. I will back up my hard drive ASAP, that is for sure. But life cannot be lived on a hard drive. There is a real world of people out there who would either love, or at least be indifferent to, meeting you and me.

Monday, June 28, 2010

So Long, Hạ Long!

"...south Detroit"

- Steve Perry, in Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'"

This past weekend, I, one of my friends and a friend of that friend travelled to, through and from Hạ Long Bay. The trip through was the most exciting of the three trips. Yet again, the tour was with AST (for those with short memories, AST is the name of a Hanoi tour company, and that name stands for "Affable, Safe and Trustworthy"). Our guides were just as safe and probably just as trustworthy (although I didn't tell them any secrets, so I cannot confirm this) but definitely not as affable. They weren't mean, but they just weren't...affable.

You probably want to see some pictures now. Here we go!

I don't know what expression I was going for in the last photo.

The bus ride from Hanoi to Hạ Long City took about four hours. After getting our tickets, we boarded the boat which was our home for the subsequent twenty-three hours. Lunch was nice - rice, prawns, vegetables with meat, cooked greens, cooked salad (yes, my friends, the kitchen staff made an iceberg-lettuce salad then sautéed it until limp) and pineapple. I was very disappointed to be seated at a table with forks, spoons and knives set up. I had intended to go my entire placement without using a fork. But my travel companions sat with the other Westerners (French, in this case) on the boat, and those Westerners sat at the table with the Western eating implements. All of the other guests on the boat were visibly of East Asian descent, and were seated at tables with chopsticks. To ask for dôi dũa (a term more elegant than "chopsticks") would have been ridiculous. So I suffered as the prongs of the fork lacerated and impaled my pride. I will just have to go for nine months and two weeks without using chopsticks.

Really, all there is to see from a boat in Hạ Long Bay is the rock formations. You can say that they look like anything you want them to look like. I said that they reminded me of the background of the Mushroom Kingdom in Super Mario for SNES. I don't know if you get that sense from the photos that I show here, because it is impossible to see in them the whole panorama. Maybe you can see some cool shapes in these rocks:

After a while, once you've seen one rock in Hạ Long Bay, you've seen them all.

Our first stop was the Surprising Cave. I'm not sure who was first surprised by the magnificent formations in this cave - French people or Vietnamese people. They would most assuredly have been surprised by these garbage cans:

Like the rocks on the outside, one can make anything of the rock formations in Surprising Cave. Check it out:

Wait a second...those formations in the last photo look an awful lot like people! How improbable that millions of years of erosion would create such life-like protrusions!

Ladies, savour these next two photos. Men, leave the room:

THAT is how excited the first person to discover the cave was when he first entered it.

After the cave was kayaking. Kayaking is one of the most amazing things to do. It's fun, puts you outside, gets you semi-wet and gives you a great arms workout. I was in a kayak with a twenty-four-year-old owner of a bar in Sai Gon. She liked the strength of my paddling but complained whenever we had to turn our kayak sharply. She always made me turn the boat by myself. But she and her companions ended up treating me and my companions to some beer and some seafood. One of those companions and I talked for a while. She taught me a bit of a Vietnamese song which sounds really pretty when sung without accompaniment, but somewhat cheesy when sung by Mỹ Tâm in this video:

That night, I slept in this room:

The night went mostly without a hitch. At around midnight, gas filled my room because the motor was being revved constantly as the crew tried valiantly (seriously) to restore power to the boat so that guests could have air conditioning. My room must have been the one closest to the motor. Anyway, we went along, and I took more pictures the next morning. They look very, very similar to the ones I took the previous day, no?

That morning, I stayed on the top deck of the boat, took pictures and slept hardcore. It was great to spend three-and-a-half hours on the top of the boat. At lunch, I witnessed a Heimlich maneuvre! One of the Australian/New Zealander (I couldn't tell) tourists from our return trip had a string of something lodged deep in his throat and was choking on it. One of his companions had to do quite a few pumps on his abdomen. His ordeal lasted for about one minute - I was really worried that he wasn't going to make it. I'm glad that all that resulted was a bit of vomit on the floor and some lost appetites. I was all for continuing to eat, because we should have been celebrating the fact that this person was saved, and we should have been celebrating it by eating.

All in all, the morning was great. I realised about half of the way through the bus ride back that I had forgotten to put sunscreen on my feet. I was wearing sandals, so this is what I saw when I got back to my hotel room:

The camera's flash makes it look a little bit worse than it actually was. Only a little bit.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

There Was a Hosing at the Market Today...and it Wasn't to Clean the Vegetables

Today I paid 50,000 VND (roughly the equivalent of $2.75 CDN) for one mango, one dragonfruit and four sapodillas. That might not seem like a travesty to those in Canada, because these fruits are a thousand times fresher than they would be if sold in Canada and because $2.75 gets you maybe half of a dragonfruit in Canada. But deplorable it was. Why? Because I could have paid much, much less. I did not pay much, much less because I am a wiener. A true Austrian wiener, aged for twenty years.

Let me explain. I was quoted 30,000 VND for the mango and the dragonfruit, a quotation to which I responded that only 25,000 VND would be forthcoming. The lady/ladies (they all seemed to blend into one entity of older-lady devilishness) said (in Vietnamese, and it is to my credit that I understood) that the fruits came from the North of Viet Nam. If I'm getting really, really fresh fruit, I should be willing to pay a premium for it. But I paid 15,000 VND for two disastrous pears that probably were not even grown in Viet Nam (being grown outside of Viet Nam, the transportation costs to the seller would be higher than for fruits grown within Viet Nam). So to pay double that for domestically-grown fruits is terrible. And my Westernness and my docility are to blame. But I did not walk away. I agreed to pay the first price that they quoted me: 30,000 VND.

Here is how my Western logic led me to pay far too much for those fruits: I had chosen the fruits, so the lady/ladies put them on the scale for me. To balk at the price and walk away would a) be very rude by itself and b) be a waste of the time and effort they put into measuring the weight for me. In Canada I (and probably many others) have been brought up to respect the time of others. Wasting time is a bad thing, according to the logic of respecting others' time. In addition, I am not a confrontational person. It is hard for me to just walk away from somebody entreating me to do something. I might continually refuse to fulfill the request, and I might do it more forcefully each time they ask, but I will almost never walk away from somebody. It is extremely hard for me to do that. Because I cannot walk away, I am paying too much for fruit.

This haggling thing will take some time to get used to. I can't bear to make someone appear mad, and walking away makes the fruit vendors put on sad faces and start yelling. It's all a show. But in the moment, it is hard for me to forget that their lives would be nearly just as well (or unwell) whether I walk away or not.

The nice, docile Josh is gone. If you want me to pay you double what everyone else is paying for your lychees, then you can go to hell. And because I'm going to be such a bastard from now on, I'll see you there.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Smells Like Fun at the Perfume Pagoda

On Saturday, I and four WUSC Students Without Borders students went on a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda (Chùa Hương) complex at the Hương Tích mountains. I was to be at the Hanoi Sports hotel at 7:45 AM. After getting ready to be in public, I realised that I had very little time to get to the place where I and the students were to be picked up. So I caved and took a xe ôm (xe ôms, also known as motorcycle taxis, are rather expensive, considering that the buses are usually at least six times cheaper) to the hotel where I was to be picked up. The bus did not leave until about twenty minutes after that. As a result, I had the opportunity to get some breakfast. Being the clueless foreigner that I am, I bought two bánh giò. Little did I realise that bánh giò is simply a rice-flour dumpling, filled with pork and saturated with oil, wrapped in a banana leaf, dripping with oil. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Việt Nam's Double Down Sandwich, disguised as quaint ethnic food. It wasn't bad. But as a Westerner heretofore on a perpetual health kick, the very idea of such a thing frightens me.

So much for my breakfast. Our tour guide, a recent graduate of Hanoi University's tourism programme (he had finished his final exam two weeks before), was sincere and lovable. His English was bad enough that I wasn't able to make out everything he said, but that didn't matter. He truly wanted us to enjoy visiting his country, and was proud to show it to us. It is perhaps no coincidence that he works for the tour company AST, AST standing for "Affable, Safe and Trustworthy". If only Toronto tour companies were so optimistic about themselves. My ticket cost me only 364,800 VND, which as of June 20 is equivalent to $19.71 CDN. It included transportation (bus and boat) there and back, the food of lunch (drinks were extra) and the guidance of the tour. The trip fills your whole day without forcing you to get home at an ungodly hour. Toronto tour companies give you two-hour tours of the city, no food included, for no less than $30 CDN. Something's got to give, and it's not Việt Nam.

I took two photos of the rice fields that I saw on the way to the Perfume Pagoda. Here is the better one:

Once off the bus, we are advised to buy hats if we did not have hats already. I had forgotten my very expensive and very nice hat in my hotel room, so I paid 20,000 VND for a hat that looks natural on a Vietnamese farmers but really touristy on me. I do not have any photos that show me with the hat - however, my travel companions do, and I will try to get their photos so that I can post that photo. After getting hats, we boarded the boats. These boats were not motorboats. They were boats propelled by the sheer force of middle-aged women. Us visitors sat in these boats for about fourty minutes as the women rowed, rowed, rowed their boats gently down the stream (also known as the Yen River):

Here are some photos of what lay by the river:

The swastika surprised me until I remembered that the swastika is a symbol of good things in Buddhism.

After lunch, and after an inordinate amount of steps, I and a few others took a cable car to the Perfume Temple, the main attraction in the complex. The Perfume Temple is a cave, and was first used as a temple in the 14th century. It was great feeling the coolness of the air as I descended the steps to the cave - natural air conditioning! The weather in Hà Nội had been really friggin' hot - 38 and 39 degrees Celsius were not uncommon - so the cave was a nice change.

I did not take pictures in the temple not only because there was a sign exhorting visitors to not take pictures, but because what lies within the temple should be awesome (in the biblical sense). It is not awesome (in the biblical sense) when seen in a photograph. I will say that there were splendid arrangements of lights and statues, burning incense and cool stalactites.

After visiting the main temple, I and some others walked all the way down the mountain to the second (and final) pagoda on the tour, the Thiên Trù pagoda. Here are some photos of that:

And it turns out that I do have some photos of me wearing the touristy hat. Exhibit A:

I swear to God, folks, this is the best one on my camera.

And some photos of the boat ride on the way back:

There's a thunderstorm right now, so I'd better sign off before my computer gets fried. Thanks for reading! I hope that we'll meet again soon.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

D.O.A. (Delighted on Arrival)

Dear friends,

I have arrived safely in Hà Nội. The absurdly-long flight was worth it. Those who wrote me messages of wishing well are very gracious. I cannot respond directly to them, as Facebook does not work on my laptop. I expect that it will not work for the next ten months. It'll be nice to take a break from the ol' blue-and-white and live a life in the 3-D, technicolour world. Email and Skype are the best ways to reach me.

In the area where I am staying, there are very few Westerners. I am a curiosity, and have received stares ranging from blank ones to frightened stares to good-humoured stares. Today I was taken to see a bit of Hà Nội (actually, just Hoàn Kiếm Lake) by a girl only a few years younger than me, and I was getting death stares. I presume this is because people thought that we were dating. Some people say "Hello!" to me as I walk. For the whole day, I did not see the innocuousness of this. All of those who said "Hello!" to me, except for one woman, were on motorcycles, so I thought that they were just trying to sell me a motorcycle ride. I told most people "Không, cám ơn" ("No, thanks") when they said "Hello!". That was Josh's Western fail #1.

On my first night, I stayed in, and organised my stuff REALLY SLOWLY. I tend to be a slow mover, but the slowness of my movement yesterday was ridiculous. The heat, humidity and resultant sweatiness make physical and mental vigour difficult for new arrivals to maintain. Perhaps early-morning exercise is the answer to my problems of lethargy. Whatever the case may be, my room's air conditioning is set to sixteen degrees Celsius, and it will stay that way for a long time. Even at 16 Celsius, the sweat comes and comes. To get rid of the sweat, I indulge in the greatest way in which one could possibly clean himself: the bucket shower. It uses SO MUCH LESS water than the average shower in Canada does. All one needs is soap, a pot with an extended handle, a reliable water source and (optional) a shower head connected to a water supply. People here don't brag about taking bucket showers, but they really should because it's the 'green' way of doing things. Canada needs a massive social-media campaign in favour of bucket showers.

Following my bucket shower was a fourty-five minute session of getting lost in Hà Nội. I had set out to look for some breakfast and realised soon after leaving that I did not know the way back. Key to my getting lost was my ignorance of the ngách. The ngách resembles a street fairly well. All of the houses and establishments have numbers. But all places in a ngách have one address on the same street. I was going from ngách to ngách frantically, seeing the name of my hotel's street and looking for its number, only to find families having breakfast or deserted alleys. I might not have done it so frantically if I did not have to go on a tour at 10:00. Anyway, by sheer luck, I found my way back by about 9:00. Relieved, I went to find some breakfast. I was a hungry boy because I had not eaten a meal since around 2:30 PM the previous day. The first phơ establishment I saw was good enough for me. My order was executed mainly through pointing, but I got some Vietnamese in there. Once the vendor understood what I wanted, I was invited to sit on a stool, about eight inches high, across a table from a local police officer. He seemed to me like any regular local. He was really nice, asking me questions and tolerating my stuttered, extremely curt responses (in Vietnamese). The fact that he is a police officer did not make him any less welcoming - I was just a bit freaked-out because I did not want to have any run-ins with the police on my first full day in Việt Nam.

Traffic is most assuredly not like traffic in Toronto. Cars are rarities on Hà Nội strees. The way of transportation taken by the vast majority of people is the xe mô tô (motorcycle). Taken together, they drive on both sides of the road in both directions at all times. This means that pedestrians have to be careful about stepping on the road, which they have to do because sidewalks are often blocked from storefront to curb by parked motorcycles. This might seem like it is nerve-wracking, but it is for the most part not so. One just has to use his judgement and recognise that most drivers will take pains to avoid colliding with other people. Crossing the street is a precise art, even where pedestrian crosswalks are painted on the road. Those who have seen me cross the street know that I want to be on the road for as little time as possible, and that I run across as fast as I can. All of that short-distance dashing has given me good practice for crossing Hà Nội streets, where such a thing is not paranoid, but necessary.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It's a Date!

Dear readers,

I regret my recent lack of updates. To give myself some practice in taking notes for research, I took notes on my recent training in Montréal, and I intended to turn those notes into wonderful blog posts. But a nasty cold has overtaken me, and I haven't had the strength nor the will to write about that training. I have found out quite a bit more information about my placement, so I will share that, and some of my feelings on it, with you.

My expected departure date is June 10, 2010. Finding out the date of departure has really changed my feelings about the placement. Before finding out (last week), I knew that I would be leaving and that I would be leaving those close to me (and those not close to me) at some point during the summer, probably late in May. But knowing the date has tempted me to count down the days to departure and to drive myself nuts over worrying if I'll really have taken care of everything I'll need to have taken care of. I'm currently consoling myself with the idea that I will conquer my placement-related affairs once this cold is gone.

Alongside the worry has come excitement. I am prepared to have an amazing time doing amazing things for ATEC and for HCC. I'm excited to be able to carry out intellectually-engaging (i.e. more complex than "Where is the bathroom?" and "How much to take the taxi to the embassy?") conversations in Vietnamese. I'm excited to have a heck of a lot of new types of food. I'm excited to make new friends and acquaintances - not that current friends and acquaintances are not good enough. I'm excited to do social research. Of course, I am expecting that the novelty of Việt Nam will wear off. There will probably be some things that are challenging to deal with. I hope that I don't Occidentally make any cultural mistakes. But I will appreciate the wonderment while it lasts. There's no point in agreeing slavishly with the assertion in Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun. To do so would take the fun out of discovering new things.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Việt Diet #1

This is the first in a series of posts about my experiences with Vietnamese food and about the events surrounding such experiences. I hope that I can elevate these posts to something greater than ramblings which exoticise and pornographise Vietnamese food. God knows we have too much exoticisation already.

A couple of Saturdays ago, three of my preschool (no, "preschool" is not a typo - I'm that smooth) friends and I went to Phở Việt, a Vietnamese restaurant near the intersection of Warden Avenue and Steeles Avenue East, to chat and to catch up. I had an ulterior motive - I wanted (and still want) to become as familiar with the food which I might be eating a lot of in Việt Nam. I say "might" because it could very well be that the food commonly eaten in Việt Nam does not include phở or beef with chili-lemongrass flavour or satay chicken. Regardless of whether I learn a thing or two about Vietnamese food, the net result was not negative. We did have to go somewhere to eat, after all, and Phở Việt carries out the function of serving food just as well as most restaurants do. I was also given the chance to practice writing Vietnamese - certainly a useful skill. (sidebar: writing Vietnamese is pretty much like writing English but I had to figure out a way to write "ơ" and "ư" gracefully. I can do "ơ" when writing in block letters and when writing it at the end of a word written in cursive. My "ư" still looks pretty awkward except when it's at the end of a word written in cursive. The main trouble I have is that with making the horn stick out enough that it doesn't just look like one corner of the letter is embossed, while making sure that it doesn't just look like a stick jutting out from the letter. It is a horn, my friends. A horn should look dignified and self-assured.)

I want you to know that I wanted desperately to have photos of our dishes posted directly on this blog. I also want you to know that I just spent fourty minutes trying to stick a minuscule adapter into inputs which are clearly not meant to accommodate it. It was all in an effort to bring you my raw, unadulterated footage of our dinner last night. To my dismay, I could not transfer the photos from my cell phone to my hard drive. You will not have evidence that my friends and I actually ate this food. But, now that we've gotten to know each other fairly well over these past few weeks, I think it's time for our relationship to go to a whole new level. You will have to trust unconditionally that the following consumables are what my friends and I ate, and that I did not just select items from Phở Việt's website ( to impress you or to lie to you.

Don't cry! Don't turn red with anger! I have provided links to the relevant page, in the menu on Phở Việt's website, where you can see the restaurant's photo of the dish described. To see the photo for a given dish, hold your cursor over the dish's name on the menu page. And, by God, I will bring my camera next time.

When we entered the restaurant, the only other patrons were a Caucasian man and a Caucasian woman. This had me a bit worried, because it was 7:00 PM (the dinner hour) and there were not only no East Asian patrons (indicators of the quality of a restaurant purporting to serve food from an East Asian country) but there were very few patrons at all. My worries were quickly dispelled by chạo tôm (shrimp paste rolled around batons of sugar cane) and by gõi xoài tôm [mango salad with shrimp (on the menu, this appears as "gõi xoài tôm hoặc gà" - "hoặc gà" means "or chicken". The dish can be ordered with chicken instead of with shrimp. We ordered it with shrimp!)] (the photos for both appetisers can be found at - chạo tôm is number 11 and gõi xoài tôm hoặc gà is number 03). We imagined that sharing these appetisers among us four would go smoothly. That hypothesis held true for the gõi xoài tôm, because eating that is just a matter of taking one's chopsticks to sticks of mango. But sharing the chạo tôm inevitably involved sharing a whole lot more than chạo tôm. This was the case for two reasons: 1) sugar cane is very tough to cut through (a fact which forced us to keep them as two batons); 2) getting the most from chạo tôm requires sucking on the sugar cane. While my crack at a virgin baton of chạo tôm was very tasty, I enjoyed the food much more with the addition of Jeffrey's saliva. There's a certain complexity of flavour which only salivary enzymes can impart.

In short order came our main dishes. I had had phở twice before, and I intended to get familiar with a variety of Vietnamese dishes, so I opted for the cơm cá xào xã ớt [fish (cá) in a chili-lemongrass sauce, with cooked rice (cơm) and with cooked vegetables on the side] (number 81 in the list at I have no wacky stories to tell about this one. But I can relate that it tasted very good. I just wish that the fish wasn't deep-fried before going into the dish. The deep-frying gave it a strange texture (for real. This is not my inner health freak hiding behind culinary elitism).

All of my friends ordered phở, probably because I and the restaurant's name gave them the impression that phở is the must-have Vietnamese dish. Aaron ordered phở dặc biệt (number 20 in the list at "phở dặc biệt" means "special phở". I disagree with the use of such a name, because the dish is indeed not special or unusual. Phở Hưng's phở dặc biệt is much the same as Phở Việt's - it has tripe and tendon as well. Once what's special becomes standard, where is the joy in life?

Faraaz ordered phở tái gân (number 22 in the list at I have nothing to say about this.

Jeffrey ordered phở đồ biển (number 43 in the list at

One thing which has fascinated me about all of the Vietnamese restaurants is the variety and content of drinks available. Devoted readers will have read about my adventures with a durian milkshake, and recall with relish my recounting of the time I spent consuming an avocado milkshake. Phở Việt did not disappoint in the weird-drink department - available items (which we did not order) include eggnog soda and soursop milkshake. Its selection was a bit more limited than that at other restaurants, but that did not affect the quality of the drinks. Faraaz ordered sinh tố các loại sầu riêng (durian milkshake) (no photo available). I was surprised that he did not comment on the drink at all. Durian usually inspires strong feelings, either positive or negative, but he was immune to those. He went to China in the past two summers, so I suppose that durian is as weird to him as yoghurt is to North Americans.

I ordered (and drank too) xương xáo nước dừa (coconut grass jelly drink) (no photo available). This drink was one of sweetened coconut milk interspersed with 1 cm x 1 cm ridged blocks of grass jelly, topped with ice and served with a spoon. This sounds disgusting but it was actually really good. The grass jelly, which was tasteless, made the drink a bit like soup when eaten with a spoon. It did not, however, add to my enjoyment of the drink. But I think that the jelly is in there for a reason. Making the diner chew the jelly forces him to slow down and savour the drink. Without the jelly, that drink could be gone in no time.

After a long bout of conversation (not that conversation is like whooping cough), we left for my house to watch the movie Fanboys. It's about a group of Star Wars geeks who undertake a road trip across the United States in order to steal the rough cut of Star Wars Episode 1 from the Lucas ranch. It was entertaining, but I felt that it was just a series of jokes and of references, given a plot only to legitimise its being published as a movie.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Kidding Myself

About two weeks ago, I discovered just how wonderful children's literature can be. Not only is it exactly at my reading level. It is practically designed for teaching languages. I'm not talking about your 'Young Adults' fiction like The Boxcar Children or Black Beauty. I'm talking about books where the text is more of a footnote to the picture than it is essential content. I refer in particular to The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Chú Sâu Róm Quá Đói) by Eric Carle (translated by Van Nguyen. Granted, my enthusiasm for children's literature as a vehicle for language learning is based on my experience with one book only, and therefore has little to no statistical rigour. To this, my response is: I do not care.

Dual-language children's books are helpful for the following reasons:

They are short and written in large font, so they are easy to read out loud for pronunciation practice. Reading a Vietnamese-language children's story out loud is harder than you might expect. We anglophones tend to emphasise certain words or create certain moods by changing the pitches of our voices. Vietnamese does not give the freedom to do this, because a given set of letters pronounced with different tones produces different meanings. So I've tried to inject life into my reciting by changing my voice's volume and speed. Whether this makes me sound as skilled as Mr. Dressup, I don't know. Overall, I think that my Vietnamese reading sounds like the equivalent of the following said by a freakishly-anthropomorphic robot going through puberty: " ERROR";

Pictures illustrate everything which goes on. This makes remembering the definitions of words rather easy. Whenever I think of how to say "strawberry" in Vietnamese (quả dâu tây) I think of the picture of the four strawberries in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Frankly, the pictures make the book. The caterpillar is so cute! And he chews holes in everything;

The vocabulary is very simple as well. Writers of children's stories do not use words like "gourmandise" or "partake of". This gives me the security of knowing that I can use a certain word to express a certain thing without implying all kinds of other things. If you want to know how to say "to eat" with no fancy-schmancy connotations, look no further than children's literature (by the way, "to eat" is "ăn").

I borrowed this wonderful book from the OISE library (252 Bloor Street West). That library has a big section of dual-language children's literature. If you are a University of Toronto student, want to help yourself learn another language and don't want to pay a lot of money to do so, then you will find the OISE library's children's-literature section very helpful. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is published by Mantra Lingua, which specialises in dual-language children's books. I know that some of you IDSers will be going to Tamil-speaking areas of India - Mantra has English-Tamil books. Others among you will be going to Twi-speaking areas of Ghana - Mantra has Twi-English books.

Up next is the other Vietnamese-English children's book, which I borrowed, titled The Girl Who Hated Books (Cô Bé Ghét Sách).

Monday, April 19, 2010

Caveat Lector

This blog might do any or all of the following:
- give you paroxysms of delight
- be unsafe for work
- bore you out of your mind
- be used as evidence in a criminal trial (let's hope that it's not yours or mine)
- provide the after-dinner entertainment you've always sought
- give your day an little kick (in the groin)
- teach you something you never knew
- awaken your latent passion for painted ceramics

Despite this blog's superb form and functionality, this blog has limitations. Some are practical, some are political and some are personal. Please read the following before developing high expectations of my blog (they'd only be left unfulfilled anyway).

What I write is, first and foremost, limited by the capacity of my memory. I do not blog about events while they happen, unless I blog about my act of blogging. I am incapable of remembering every salient detail of every event, so my accounts are bound to be incomplete. They are also much more likely to contain the things I remember than the things I do not remember.

My readership is diverse, and comprises many relationships to me. These different relationships require different levels of tact and have different expectations as to what is acceptable to divulge. I therefore need to accommodate those who are likely to read my blog. This accommodation might entail omitting certain painful or difficult details or events from my blog. I might not feel comfortable publicising certain events or feelings of mine. If you want to find out more about something, please ask me about it. As above, different relationships carry different expectations - I reserve the right to withhold information which I do not want you to know. I don't think that this will be a problem, because I consider myself to be pretty candid. But if I deny a request for information then please respect my decision, as it will probably have been the result of good judgment.

I will be blogging from Việt Nam, of which the government censors websites, monitors content and punishes those who publish on the Internet anything it considers unacceptable. I will therefore do my utmost to avoid publishing anything which might lead to my blog being censored or blocked, or to me being punished. My job is with an association linked closely with the government, so this blog might be watched. The Vietnamese government's Internet policies govern email content as well, so I will have to be watchful in my email correspondences as well.

I can edit any of my posts at any time. So, if certain posts cease to strike my fancy, if I find that I have worded something poorly or if (God forbid!) I make a typo then I can turn those undesirable things into desirable things. Desirable things might not always be truthful. I do not claim to present you the 'truth'. I can't even pretend to have a claim on the truth, as I am at a tender age.

Be mindful of the above. Stay in school, be a man, watch your back and please enjoy reading my blog! I think that we'll all have a wonderful journey together. Except it won't really be together - you'll be journeying vicariously through me.