Sunday, December 28, 2008

Vietnam Vo Dich!!!

New Year's was fun. It's a bigger deal than Christmas around here. There aren't as many decorations, but there are a lot more closed businesses.

But what's even bigger is when Vietnam wins Thailand for the AFF Cup. It's hard to desribe what a big deal this is. I watched the game in a restaurant with a friend of mine who tried to explain it to me several times. I didn't really get it until the last goal when the waiters, customers, and staff all started yelling, jumping, and running around for joy.

As soon as we had seen the team receive the cup on TV, we went outside to watch the mayhem. All of the streets were filling up with traffic heading toward the lake at the center of town. The intersection in front of the opera house was just starting to fill up.

People were honking even more than usual. The preferred technique for motorbikes seemed to be one person driving and one person waving the biggest flag they could find. Of course, flag vendors magically appeared in the intersections as well.

Apparently, this was the biggest football win in 39 years, so some of the young ones needed some training in proper Vietnamese style celebration. Here is a family of 4 on a motorbike. Come on, baby. Wave that flag!
Some lucky revelers had trucks.
Vietnam Vo Dich! Means Vietnam is the Champion! And when they heard a foreigner saying it they went even crazier. It was like having magic words that made people go insane with joy whenever I wanted them to. I tried to use my power responsibly, but I did use it to get a good shot of these guys.
We didn't stay out long because my friend was worried that all of the streets would be jammed. We had to turn around a couple of times, but ended up getting home ok. I drifted off to sleep, rocked gently by a lullaby of honking and screaming.


No time for a real blog entry this week, so I'll leave you with this little gem...

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Christmas cheer has spread around the world, and Hanoi is no exception.

I've been busy sending Christmas cards. Well, postcards actually. I haven't seen any Christmas cards, so I got some postcards and did a little cut-and-paste on them to make them a little more Christmassy.And the kids have been learning Christmas carols at the kindergarten. Here's there version of We Wish You A Merry Christmas that I recorded during class...

As you can see, they were a little distracted by the camera, and just a little distracted in general. So for take 2, the teacher told them that the video would be taken to the police after class, so that the authorities could see who was singing and who wasn't. It worked like a charm.

Who knew that fear and cheer were interchangeable?

So remember, if you know someone who is a bit of a grinch and you want to cheer them up during this holiday season, you can always threaten to report them to the authorities.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ninh Binh

I got to go to a town called Ninh Binh with some friends during the weekend. They have wifi, and ox carts...
...and a lot of ancient pagodas and nice scenery. We took a bus out of Hanoi and rode for about 2 hours, checked into a hotel, and rented some bicycles.One of the major local attractions is Tam Coc, where there are goats (that I heard are delicious)......and boats with elderly people to paddle them. They're actually paddling right through that big rock cliff in the middle of this shot......through a few little caves.When they get tired of paddling with their arms they use their feet.We also checked out some really cool pagodas, and met the nicest guy in southeast Asia. Who showed us around one of the pagodas, told us about the history with a little Vietnamese, a little French, and a lot of hand gestures, played a couple of tunes for us, and even gave some music lessons.
With all of that and some stops for food, it was a pretty full day. When we got back to the hotel, I was out like a light.
On Sunday, I followed Glitter, and Veggies (not their real names) out to Bich Dong. At least, I'm pretty sure it was called Bich Dong. I had some trouble keeping the names of all of the scenic locations around the area straight. They all seemed to be either obscene or unpronounceable.

This was a temple built into a cave...Shot from inside the cave...And, inside the cave there was a passage up through another cave with a couple more altars, that led to another shrine, that had a rocky "path" behind it, that led to this... The view was absolutely amazing. And worth the whole trip by itself.

I snapped a few other random pics during the weekend that I'll post because... well why not? I'm not paying by the picture here.

Incense pot graveyard...
Bird delivery...
Can't get that in the States can you?

And this little fella was our waiter. He helped us pick something from the menu...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Attitude Adjustment

Unfortunately, my motorbike has been giving me trouble from the day I bought it. I got a flat tire within the first few days of getting it. As long as that needed to be fixed, I decided to have the tires replaced. They were due. I also bought the bike without working turn signals and wanted to get those fixed. It turned out that the signals didn't have sockets for bulbs, and the bike didn't have a decent battery in it. All of the wiring needed to be replaced too. I had the wiring done at the same place that put on the new tires. I figured they did a decent job with the tires, so I'd give them some more business. They put in a new horn, battery, and turn signals. But they lost the air filter cover. In the picture above, it's the blue thing just below and behind the handle bars. They replaced it with one that they "custom made" from a can of coolant.
Of course, the lights and horn went out not long after they were installed. Then, on the way home from teaching one day. I ran out of gas. Which was odd, because I was sure I had plenty in the tank. Luckily, (I thought) there were some corner mechanics right there to help me out. There are guys on every other block that just sort of hang out on the sidewalk and wait for someone to break down. It seems like anybody with a handful of tools can call themselves a mechanic and go into the business. So they put some gas in the tank from a jug that they had on hand. It immediately drained out of the bottom of the tank through the fuel line that had come loose. They stuck the line back onto the tank and poured in a little more gas, but the bike still wouldn't start. In hindsight, that's when I should have gotten my bike away from them. But I let them try to fix it. They pulled out the spark plug, destroyed it with a wire brush, and put it back in. Then tried without success to push start it. After some negotiating over their fee (shouting) I paid them for the gas and their work, and pushed the bike home.

Luckily, (for real this time) I got in touch with Andrew at VIP Bikes, and he fit me in there. VIP Bikes was set up by Blue Dragon to provide vocational training for Blue Dragon kids who want to become mechanics. The apprentices at VIP bikes are the best mechanics I've come across in town. They got my bike running again, replaced the spark plug, fuel line, and ignition switch that was ruined by the dumped gas, and Andrew actually gave me a small set of hand tools. So I can open my own sidewalk shop I guess.

Unfortunately, they gave her a look over and she could use a lot of work. It hasn't been idling since then either. I found the choke (I think) that is now being held by a wire.
And it explains why there is no choke cable connected to the controls.So I could get a cable and attach it, or adjust the choke at the carburetor in the mean time, but I'm not going to. The fact that it dies whenever I let go of the throttle has turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because the ignition broke and letting the bike die is the only way I have to shut it off.

The bolts that held my back seat to the rack worked themselves loose from vibration a few weeks ago, and I lost the back seat somewhere between a couple of evening lessons on Thursday night.

So I was looking her over and thinking about getting rid of her and just renting a bike for the rest of my time in Hanoi. Or maybe buying something else.

The white plastic fairing is cracked too.

So I decided to do what I could to fix what I could the other day. I washed the bike, took off the fairing and taped it up, took the back rack off completely (To cut weight. It's really more of a racing bike anyway), and reconnected the loose wire from the horn.

At some point, I remembered working on my BMW back in Chicago. I had to do everything out on the street, which was a huge hassle. If I needed to go in to grab another tool or something, I had to take everything with me because I couldn't leave anything out on the sidewalk. I remember wishing that I lived in a ground floor place that I could ride my bike into so that I could work on it inside. And that's when I realized two things. First, that my dream home is a garage. And secondly, that I actually have what I wanted back in Chicago. I have a great place to work on my bike...And a bike that is constantly falling apart. It's a dream come true!

When I buttoned everything back up the horn worked again, and as if by a miracle, so did the turn signals. So I've added a couple of items to my little tool kit......(the switchblade and tootsie pop don't come standard), and I've just decided to enjoy the ride.
She still cleans up nice don't she?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Self Improvement

The place where I teach in the evenings has a deal with a gym down the block. We teach English to 5 of their employees, and we get 5 memberships. I went 3 times last week. I really like running on the treadmill because I don't have to dodge motorbikes. It would be nice if I could stand up straight in the locker room, but it doesn't cost me anything so I'm not complaining.
With the help of Ambassador Iroquois Dandelion , I've finally found a place to go for services. I've been going to a few different churches on Sundays and checking out this and that. I've liked a couple of the churches, but I've really been interested in practicing and learning more about Buddhism while I'm here. Unfortunately, most of the pagodas are really touristy, and local Buddhists don't have Sunday morning services. Everything revolves around the lunar calendar. Without speaking Vietnamese, and without even having a lunar calendar, I can't do much more than go to pagodas, take pictures, and be hassled about buying postcards like the other westerners.

But last week I started going to morning meditation at a zen place that has everything in English. They don't have anything going on on the weekends, and I can't go to any of the evening stuff because I'm teaching in the evenings, but I'm free on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings at 6:30 (who isn't, right?), so I can do that. There is also a reading group that's been on a break, but I plan to attend that when it starts up again.

It's in a neighborhood with some of the nicest architecture...
...and the biggest dead rat I've ever seen.I really wish there were something in that shot for scale. That thing was huge.

This is a good example of some of the different cultural norms here that still baffle me. The neighborhood is beautiful, but there is garbage in the streets, and there are tangled masses of wires overhead that don't seem to go anywhere. People will often hand me my change with both hands instead of just one, in order to be polite. But then they'll stick a finger into their nose up to the knuckle and root around like Bill Murray on a gopher hunt. Practical strangers strike up conversations and offer to show me around the city, but people will bump into you on their motorbikes and not even bother making eye contact, let alone saying "xin loi" (sorry). Still very odd to me. And I'm sure I'm doing weird and offensive things all the time too. I just don't know what they are yet.

Getting up so early for meditation has shown me a part of the city that I didn't know existed until now. There are probably a couple of hundred people in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum before dawn each morning, getting their morning exercise. I think I only saw 2 runners in Hanoi before this last week, and now I know why. They're all done with their daily exercise before 7.

Through the house room mates, I got an invite to a Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday.

There was eating......simulated dancing......and simulated napping...
Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. But I already had a great Thanksgiving in June, which included all of my favorite folks and food, thanks to Don and Jen. I even got to bite a toddler. So I wouldn't have felt like I was missing out, but it was still good to have a proper Thanksgiving closer to the actual day.

It did seem a little odd though. It's December now, and the forecast high today was 80˚ F.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Teacher's Day

There are some things about Hanoi that I just don't like and I'll never get used to. For example, the traffic. How bad is it? It's bad enough that sometimes I have time to take my camera out of my pocket and take pictures while I'm slowly working my way through an intersection.
The only thing that I've come across so far that's really frightened me was this. Notice anything strange?... All that tape and NONE OF IT IS DUCT TAPE! Dear sweet Lord, what kind of godless heathens don't have duct tape?! If duct tape isn't holding their society together WHAT IS!?!?!

Not as scary, but twice as funny is the fact that Vietnamese people get cold when temps drop below 75˚ F. This is one of the students at the language center where I teach in the evenings. She's all bundled up and ready to head home after class. I checked the temp online just before I took this and it was 70˚.Though, she does have snacks in both hands. Which is kind of nice.

Another nice thing they have here is Teacher's Day. It's a pretty serious holiday for these folks. They give gifts to teachers and some people even visit old teachers to pay their respects. I got a couple of plates from two of my favorite students at Blue Dragon.(I made the aluminum foil candle holder myself. If you like it, make me an offer.)

And I got flowers from a couple of my other students. Which was pretty nice.The whole thing reminded me of one of the teachers that made a big difference in my life back in the day, so I decided to get into the spirit of the holiday and send her a little thank you email.

So just when I get annoyed with some of the less attractive elements of life in Hanoi, something like teacher's day comes along and makes me really appreciate the place and the people.

And the food's pretty good too.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Into the Jungle

This last weekend I went to Cuc Phuong National Forest with a dozen other nice folks. We rented a bus and were headed for a stilt house in the forest.
The stilt house wasn't exactly what I expected. The "stilts" were concrete, and there was a restaurant in the base. There were also around a hundred young college kids. Hanging out on the garbage-strewn grounds.Some of them asked me if I could speak Vietnamese, and when I managed to say, "I'm an American." in Vietnamese they actually cheered. They couldn't have been sweeter. Which made it all the easier for me to scoop them up and carry them off to my cave, where I gobbled them up like popcorn. We went on a 7k walk around the forest, saw some beautiful scenery...
and got to act like Tarzan.That night there were not one, but two bonfires. At some point a girl from the school group grabbed me and brought me to a coconut or something that was lying on the ground full of straws and who knows what else. I put my lips on one of the straws to mime a drink and thanked her. The next day we saw a cave, a monkey sanctuary, a turtlearium (I just made that word up) a pagoda, and a church. There was a tight spot in the cave that was a kind of exciting.At the turtletory (probably not a real word either), we came across one of these really cool walking sticks. and then accidentally stepped on it.Kind of brings a new meaning to that whole "Leave nothing but footprints" thing.

We found a secret lair where we could take a break for lunch, make evil plans,...get a Flintstones style workout...and watch a preying mantis have a post-coital snack.The last stop before sunset was a 17th century Catholic pagoda/cathedral.Seeing the temple dogs replaced with saints, and the dragons replaced with crosses was pretty fascinating. The buildings and grounds were beautiful and they knew how to draw a crowd too. The evening mass was standing room only.