Friday, August 29, 2008


I love this picture. The commie-tubbies...

It's one of the many murals on the walls of the courtyard at the kindergarten where I teach a couple of days a week. I took over for my former room mate Ollie, who's in this next pic.

It's pretty fun because it's easy to give into the mayhem. I help teach the ABC's and names of fruits, vehicles, and family members etc. And then sometimes I just let them climb on me.

5 nights a week I'm at Children's Palace. This is kind of my bread-and-butter volunteer gig because they take care of my housing. The way they run the place is taking some getting used to. Sometimes there is a Vietnamese teacher in the room to tell me what material they're working on. Sometimes there is no other teacher and I just ask the kids what I should teach them. Sometimes I start teaching and a Vietnamese teacher comes in 15 minutes into the class and asks me to go to another classroom where there are a bunch of 14 and 15 year olds who have no text or lesson plan and are playing video games. There is a schedule, but I don't know if there has been a day yet when I taught in all the classes that I was scheduled to teach in. So, I'm getting better at coming up with lesson plans on the fly and just going with it. Last night I had a group of young teens with no other teacher, no lesson plan, no book. So we just "rapped" "Welcome Back, Kotter" style for the first half of class. And wrote a group story and played a vocabulary-building game for the last half. I think the most important thing is to get them speaking in English and keep them using English with a native English speaker as long as I can. And it ended up being a lot of fun. Here's a hallway to one of the classrooms where I have to duck to keep form hitting my head on the ceiling...

I'm not one to use marijuana myself even though I think it should be legalized. However, I do support the school's strict bong ban. These kids are just too young for that.

This is probably my favorite classroom. The others all have dry-erase boards and, I don't know if it's the climate or what, but a dry erase marker lasts about as long as an accidentally dropped dollar bill around here. The low-tech chalk is much better.

The real attraction at the school is the courtyard area. There are always kids playing badminton or doing martial arts. And there is a carnival going on every day with bumper cars and other rides. One of them uses the exact same recording that we use for car alarms in the US. So basically, there is a car alarm going off all night, every night when I teach there. I thought I was going to snap and start teaching the kids pig latin the first week, but I don't even really hear it anymore. It's kind of like living in Roger's Park again.

And sometimes the courtyard is full of fabulous, twirling, sparkly, balerina-princesses that swirl round their parents like sea water around dock posts as they get ready for their big performance.

I got a chance to stop by Blue Dragon Children's Foundation this week and get a little tour and meet the director. I seems like a really amazing place and I'm looking forward to whatever I end up doing there. I might be teaching English. I might be doing something with theatre. I'm going to start by just showing up and hanging out with the kids in the drop-in center and seeing what's up.

And Friday I got to drop by Hope Center, which is a school for kids with developmental disabilities. The staff were really good, and I was struck by how nice and well-behaved all of the kids were. They were so patient and happy. This little guy was psyched about the clay pig we made together.

I think all kids should be retarded. They're so much nicer than those "normal" kids.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


There are more scooters on the streets of Hanoi than all other modes of transportation combined. There are quite a few bicycles...

But everyone wants a car. When I think about staying in hanoi long-term, that's the main reason I wouldn't want to be here in 10 years. This is a big intersection at rush hour...

Can you imagine if all of these motorbikes were replaced with cars?

Or the parking lot at the supermarket?

They don't seem to have any real concern about pollution here.

(That's right, he's peeing into the lake.)

I live right by this lake. There are always people fishing in it, but there are also always dead fish floating in it. I sort of wonder why they don't just grab the ones floating at the top and call it a day. It's the same lake that McCain crashed into during the Vietnam war. I actually have a little more respect for the man now, knowing that he survived that water. But it's still pretty at night.

Air pollution is pretty thick here, and some people wear masks to filter the fumes. Thousands of idling cars are not going to improve the situation. I don't even think the streets would be passable with cars parked along both sides. I see people ride up on the sidewalk to get around traffic as it is. But it seems like a lesson that they're going to have to learn the hard way.

It seems funny to me that they don't see the problems we have in the US and want to avoid them. But 4 wheels means success here. I think it's just human nature. In the states, we knew that burning gas was causing problems and that it was running out, but people still seem surprised that gas prices are so high. I think it's ironic that they want cars to imitate western culture, while we're all trying to downsize. So if you can't find a place to trade in your SUV, you might try Hanoi.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


I've decided to try and focus on one topic per blog entry for a while, in order to make some sense of things. The whole world is brand new to me, but talking about everything all at once seems like a bad idea. I'm also going to try and post something at least once a week. So, this week it's food.

These were my first food purchases on the day I arrived. I wanted something that I could just have on hand for whenever I got hungry, because I didn't know what the meal situation was yet. So I stopped at the supermarket and picked up some Nut House brand nuts and some sort of preserved fruit called Omai, and pronounced,"Oh, my."

The nuts were just ordinary cashews. The Omai was a little bit more of a gamble. They turned out to be little apricots (or something) sprinkled with chili powder. On their own they're not so good, but they happen to be good with cashews.

Other things from the Fivi-Mart...

Pumpkin chips...

Canned Iced coffee. Which was also one of my favorite things in the US. These have some sort of recycling like logo on them, but I'm not sure what it means. I havn't seen any evidence of a recycling program anywhere yet. And, their little triangle is a little different. So I'm thinking it signifies recycling in a more esoteric sense. These cans will be "returned to the land."

And I've always been a big fan of animals that enjoy being eaten. These ones come right out and say it. They are so happy have their throats slit, be sliced up and formed into tube shape, and be tossed into your child's backpack to be consumed or traded for something better later, that they just want to say thank you.

How's that for an attitude of gratitude, huh?

I'm sure I'm missing the stuff at the supermarket that would seem the strangest to me because I just don't know what half of the stuff there is.

But at least once or twice a day I've been eating real homemade Vietnamese food prepared by the woman who does everything around the house. It's all fresh. It's all delicious. And, there's always more than I can eat. You can tell these eggs came from real chickens.

I've always liked bananas, but I swear they taste even more banana-ey here. My room mate thinks it's because they pick them ripe. But my new favorite fruit is Dragon fruit. Especially if it's been in the fridge for a while. I could plow through pounds of this stuff.

Of course, there's a reason we don't have such fresh fruit in the states. I had an apple tonight, and while I was eating it, this little critter came crawling out...

As soon as I saw him I spit everthing that was in my mouth on the floor, and then laughed at myself for over reacting. Until I cleaned it up and there was a worm on the floor that had apparently just been in my mouth. I guess that's why Mom always said, "Don't forget to irradiate your food!"

Still, I'm really liking all the fresh food for the most part. And, it didn't dampen my sense of culinary adventure. I went right out and got an avocado shake at a bakery/restaurant down the street.

Mmmmm... Smooth creamy weirdness.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

First Impressions

So this is a shot of my 'hood from across Ho Truc Bach. "Ho" means lake. So roughly translated "Ho Truc Bach" means "Lake Truc Bach". Yeah, I know. I pick things up pretty quick huh? The house is under the tallest radio tower somewhere. More about this lake later...

I heard that scooters and motorcycles were big in Vietnam, but I've only seen a handful of motorcycles. The scooter reigns supreme here. It's a mod's paradise.
They talk about how quickly the economy is growing in Vietnam and they've made a believer out of me. I became a millionaire within hours of arriving. $100 USD comes out to about 1,660,000 VND or "Vietnamese Dong". As a currency, it's great. It not only makes you feel rich, "Dong" roughly translates to "set up for 1,000 jokes".
The school has arranged for the woman who takes care of the house here to feed me twice a day. Which is pretty great. It took a while to communicate that I was a vegetarian, but everything she makes is great. The meat is for my room mate, Kickflip (not his real name).
Here is the school. It's about a 15 minute bike ride or 30 minute walk from the house. It's not in great shape, but the kids are curious and generally well behaved. The teachers are really nice and they make you feel a little like a celebrity just for showing up.

I got a lead on where I can find good cigars, and I plan on celebrating the end of my first week tonight with a nice Cuban, and a real Coke made with sugar. Delicious Communist sugar...

Saturday, August 2, 2008


Thanks to my new friend and housemate Kapow! (not his real name) I can now post pics.

I got to the airport Wednesday night (thanks to my supercool cousins) and flew out at 2:00 AM Thursday morning. I arrived inTaipei on Friday morning, which was about 14 hours later, and the sun never came up on Thursday.

Taipei is in Taiwan, which is in China, I think. I'm still a little confused about whether it's a country in it's own right, or a territory of China, or what. It's part of China somehow, and I found that China is a very nice country, with an ample supply of fire extinguishers...

I met an American woman on the plane who was returning to Thailand. We hung out for most of the layover. It was really comforting to have someone around who seemed to know what was going on.

I was really thirsty and wanted some water, but I was advised not to drink it from the taps or fountains. There were vending machines with bottled water. They cost 25 each. 25 what? I don't know. We did find a free wireless connection really easily though. I thought it was funny that I had no trouble at all getting a wifi connection, but that I couldn't figure out how to get water. Eventually a little restaurant opened up that took visa and we got a little something to eat and drink.

The gift shop had a bunch of familiar magazines with unfamiliar writing that I couldn't make any sense of. I also had a headache from sleeping in a weird position, or dehydration, or caffeine withdrawal, or all three. If you've ever had a concussion, this is exactly what the whole experience was like. General disorientation, no sense of time, and nice strangers taking care of you. (Everyone is a stranger when you've just had a concussion.)

I caught my next flight and got in to Hanoi 3 or 4 hours later.

I made it through customs, which was a big relief because when I checked in for the flight they told me that I might not be let into the country without a return flight and made me sign a waiver that said they weren't responsible if I was rejected. They let me in though, and after waiting for about an hour, I got my bag and met my coordinator, who took me to the house where I'm staying.

Shot from the balcony...

So I've been settling in since then. I've seen the school, met most of my housemates, seen the local grocery store, bank etc. So far so good.

So far so good and bad...

I'm having some trouble figuring out the computer situation here. There is a computer in the house (which I'm obviously using now), but I can't figure out how to hook my laptop up to the internet. And, when I put things on a flash drive, I can't get the computer here to recognize that there is anything in the USBport. So for now, I'm stuck with just typing and no pictures, which is really really boring.

So for now, I don't have a whole lot to show. But I have learned 2 things about Vietnam so far.

#1 Hanoi Sucks: The traffic is absolutely insane, it's noisy, everything seems to be in some state of decay, I can barely find my way through the tangle of street and alleys, and I can't get my computer hooked up at the house.

#2 Hanoi is Awesome: It's vibrant and colorful, the food is great, the people are friendly, things are really inexpensive, and there are a thousand of years of history under your feet wherever you go.

So far I'm mesmerized by what a fascinating place this is.