Monday, September 29, 2008

Snake Village

Thanks to some friends, I finally got a chance to get out of town for a little while on Sunday. I was ready to go check out a new church, the same one I didn't go to last week, when my housemate, Paul, asked if I wanted to go to Snake Village. Well, of course I want to go to Snake Village - whatever that is.

We met up with Paul's friend from work, Ben, his room mate, and one of his students. This was our ride for the day...
Snake Village turned out to not really be a village, so much as a part of town on the other side of the Red River that has restaurants that specialize in snake. This guy helped us pick out a nice cobra.
They weigh it, then they slit it open and pour it's blood into a beaker with vodka.
The bile from the liver is also squirted into a bottle of vodka to make a refreshing green aperitif.
After that it seemed like the snake dishes just kept coming. There was snake soup, fried snake meat, snake organs with star fruit, snake skin fried like pork rinds, snake bones mixed with seeds and served on crispy flat bread, more snake soup... It was really amazing. I was very surprised not to see the snake's head again.A good time was had by all.Someone ordered french fries for me. After my seafood diner experience, I was more than happy with my fries and a coke.Now, when you eat snake like this, it's customary for someone to swallow the snake's heart. While it's still beating...

Paul gave it a try...

And he did manage to get it in...

He tried again, but never actually swallowed it. He swears that he's really going to do it next time.

And then we all went for a little ride around the countryside. I even got a new hat, and Paul took care of everything as a late birthday present. He may not be much for swallowing snake hearts, but he's a really nice guy.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


You hear all over the place that Vietnam's economy is rapidly growing. People here seem very interested in working hard and getting ahead. Some people work two or three jobs. And, even some of the trees here have jobs.

This one has a gig as a shrine of some sort...
This tree earns its keep by helping out with the laundry.
This one has a full-time job as a barber shop. There are actually quite a few of these. I hesitate to get my hair cut at one of them, because I can clearly see that they have no means of sanitation. I don't want to get lice, or something from a razor that's been dragged across a few hundred faces and carried a little DNA from each one. But there's something so Winnie the Pooh about it that it's kind of tempting.
And this one is probably the most successful of all. It has an interest in this Bun Cha stand. It's wired with an electrical outlet so that it can keep the customers cool with that fan you see there, and it moonlights as a photography studio backdrop. What a work ethic!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Random Observations

- A lot of the toilets are made so that you stand with your feet on either side of the bowl and squat. I haven't had the pleasure of using one yet. Should be a treat.

- I just realized yesterday that there are none of those stupid chirping nextel walkie-talkies in Hanoi. That alone makes moving here worth consideration.

- This country is full of beautiful women... beautiful women that I can't talk to.

- I've learned to love bats and lizards. Every night they come out and start eating the mosquitoes that would otherwise give me malaria, or ebola, or the croup or whatever, and I say, "Go get 'em little guys!"

- The ice cream here sucks. Granted, I haven't eaten it all yet, but so far - bleh.

- The coke is great. Real sugar instead of corn syrup. Delicious.

- The coke floats? They're ok.

- You know why Asian people are thin? Because they don't eat so damn much.

- In the US, little kids have shoes that light up with flashing red lights. Here, they have something similar, but instead of flashing lights they squeek like little dog toys with each step. If you put a jack russell terrier in the right preschool playground, you might actual get to watch its brain melt and dribble out its ears.

- But, there aren't any crazy, annoying, wound-up little dogs here. There are little dogs, but they are all very mellow and sweet. I guess they know that there is a direct correlation between how annoying they are and how tasty they look. (Actually, I think the people make a distinction between pet dogs and edible dogs, but I'm not sure how that works.)

-The Vietnamese wear helmets when riding motorbikes, but I see someone crash about once a week, and none of them manage to keep their helmets on. In fact, I've seen them fly off in the wind.

- We have the idea in the west that capitalism means freedom, and communism means the opposite. True, you don't get to vote for your leaders here unless you're a party member, and the government can spy on you (Actually, since Bush that's true in the US too.) but you can smoke a Cuban cigar in a bar, you can skateboard in the park (Go ahead, do a sick kick-flip. Comrade Lenin doesn't mind!)...

...and you can eat french fries with chopsticks.

And you can do this...

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Ist Day of School

The first day of school is kind of a big thing in the US, but in Vietnam, the first day of school is a HUGE FREAKIN' DEAL! The school that's situated right behind the building I live in has been practicing their first day of school performances for weeks. I wake up every morning to either a drum squad or some kind of singing and/or marching. They do this at schools all over the city and country, along with hanging banners and building stages and setting up sound systems.

I was invited to be one of the guests for an opening ceremony at a brand new school in a district just west of me. It was at 7:00 AM, and I almost begged off, but I was glad I didn't. There was singing and dancing and drumming and marching and speeches... I was actually told that they wanted me to give a speech just after I arrived. They had written something for me. Then I was told that they had forgotten to bring it and I should make something up. The teacher who invited me had to leave a little early, so I was handed over to another teacher who would be my interpreter. Here's a little clip of the show...

Ok. So the kinds look a little bored in this clip. But for the most part they were pretty excited. I was sitting and watching and making a couple of comments to my new interpreter/friend and writing my speech in my head while I waited. But, it turns out we went a little long. And I got bumped by the local supermarket chain that donated a bunch of supplies and scholarships for kids that needed it. The poor kids were paraded onto the stage and each given a sack of supplies. More speeches, a final musical number, and there was nothing left but to wait for the reviews.

I was actually a little disappointed that I didn't get to give my little speech. Even though I'd only been told about it a couple of hours earlier. But then we visited one of the classrooms and the kids practiced saying hello, and asking me how old I was, and then they all wanted to have their pictures taken with me.

Yesterday was the opening ceremony at the kindergarten where I teach a couple of days a week. It was a much smaller production, but just as much fun. Here are the ten little Indians about to go on in their meticulously true-to-period traditional construction paper skirts...
I had been helping work on the big ABC number for a couple of weeks. Here's a shot of that...

Unfortunately, the timing was all off and let's face it, some of these kids don't take direction well. I didn't want to say anything in front of the parents, but little heads will roll when I get back on Tuesday. Oh yes they will...

And last night I was invited to dinner by the schools director along with all of the other teachers. Now, as a general rule, I don't eat meat of any kind. But, I hadn't told them I was a vegetarian because I wouldn't want them to make any special arrangements for me and there is almost always something I can eat even if it's just a bowl of rice. But it turns out that there was no rice and the only non-meat items were french fries and some sort of vegetable that I don't know. So I never would have gotten away with just eating the garnish. Also, you don't really just order or take what you want. The stuff sort of gets portioned out. On top of it all, I'm like a toddler in this situation and I had to have someone show me how to eat this stuff. For example, when you get a great big prawn, you eat it's head but not it's legs. Oh heaven's no. That would be gross.

So I had 2 kinds of muscles (I think), something that was deep fried (which was the easiest thing to eat because even deep fried hair would probably taste ok), a few big shrimp faces...

The final course was eel. It was served dead and sliced from head to tail like a loaf of bread. You put it in the boiling water, and 5 minutes later, out comes bowls full of eely goodness.
They also served what looks to me like some kind of packing material, and it all gets washed down with red bull. This was the first time I actually enjoyed the taste of red bull. So today I feel like I've got a sack of wet cement in my gut.

Now, all that said, I'm still not going to turn down any dinner invitations. It's not like this stuff is going to kill me (I hope) and these people went out of their way to make sure that I was included in what was for them a special, delicious dinner. It's so easy to feel like an outsider when you're new in town and you don't speak the language and don't know what's going on half the time. And a lot of time I feel like I'm just there to fulfill some requirement, like a contractor or something - not really part of the operation. But this meal was for staff. It was for the people who are really part of the school, and even though I've been there less than a month they decided that that included me. They served me a 5 or 6 course meal and probably would have chewed it for me if I needed it. So my stomach is feeling a little taxed, but it did my heart good.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The One Month Mark

A lot of people like to say that they are "spiritual, but not religious." It's usually meant to express the mistrust of organized religion while still allowing for the understanding that there is something larger than any one of us that lives in all of us. Generally, I think this is a pretty healthy attitude. It takes a person's spiritual life out of the hands of institutions and places it firmly within each individual's grasp. And I think that's healthy. Spirituality should be about a personal journey. Between you and God.

But, especially as a minister, I'm a bit of an anomaly. I like to say that I'm religious and not spiritual. I'm more of the "We make our own destiny" school of thinking. I believe in the importance of ritual and community as a way to remind us of what's important and keep us on the right path, and I don't have a whole lot of belief in the magic side of things. My current brand of faith has more to do with the faith that I can go out into the world and try to make a difference and then let go of it. The faith that we have the power to change the world if we try. The faith that it will mean something and it will have an impact, even if I never live to see it. That said, I always try to leave the door cracked for that "experience of other" that seems to be the difference between philosophy and religion. It's the thing that seems to breath life into ideology.

I like to have my tarot cards read every once in a while. I don't really think that they connect me to some other world or that they hold any mystical power. I think that people can see what they need to in the cards. Kind of like a spiritual Rorschach test. And for many years now, whenever I find a playing card face-down on the sidewalk, I pick it up, flip it over, and look up the divinatory meaning when I get home. At worst it's a silly little thing to pass the time - like a fortune cookie fortune. At best it's a reminder of something that I might need to think about at the moment. I get red Jacks much more often that should be probable.

About a week ago, I was out with some new friends and I found a card on the ground. It was a Jack of Hearts. I told one of my housemates that I seem to get them a lot. When I looked up the meaning online and it said that someone who cares about me was thinking of me. "That's nice," I thought. Staying in contact with family and friends since my trip started, I also knew that it was true. I found another card a few nights ago. All by itself, face-down. When I picked it up and flipped it over it was another Jack of Hearts. Those are pretty long odds, and it sent a little shiver down my spine. The next day, and the day after that, I found cards on the ground face-down, and I just kept walking. It seemed a little too spooky to pick them up. And come to think of it, it was a pretty decent analogy for the spiritual journey. Sometimes you learn things that you might not feel ready to know. If you're doing it right, it's a little scary.

Today marks exactly one month that I've been in Vietnam and all that time I've been looking for a good Cuban cigar. I envisioned women walking around with huge bundles of Cohiba Robustos balanced on their heads and selling for a buck piece. But they turned out to be a lot harder to find than I expected. I got some information about a part of town that should have some, but I went there and asked around and they didn't. I got the address of the only licensed distributor of Habanos in the country, and found that it was only an office or some kind of storage facility with guards that didn't speak English, didn't know anything about any cigars, and weren't about to let me wander around the building. I went looking for a hotel that supposedly had a nice bar and a good selection of cigars, only to find it wasn't where it was supposed to be on my map, and the entrance was boarded up and they were in the middle of remodeling. (You can't see the plywood in the picture, but trust me, it was a dead end.) And, I got a cold so and gave up the search for a while. No point in a good cigar if you can't really taste it.

So today, I finally found the first good Cubans I've seen here. They turned out to be at a really pricey hotel that I've walked past a few times. But they had a selection of exactly 2 different cigars, the humidor wasn't properly kept, and they wanted almost $40 US per smoke. I'm not a heavy cigar smoker by any means, but I've had quite a few of the best over the years from all over the world and not one came anywhere near being worth $40. I moved on, and after dinner tonight I decided to canvass every luxury hotel I could find and get a decent cigar or give up for good. I walked quite a few miles today (cigars are only bad for you if you forget to factor in all the walking) and finally, I found a really nice hotel bar just south of downtown with a good selection of reasonably priced cigars. I selected a Montecristo #3, got it cut, took a couple of boxes of matches from the bar, and went out to take my new cigar for a nice long walk.

Tomorrow is Vietnam's National Day. Sept. 2nd is their version of Independence Day. There were six kids in my class today that usually has about 25, and if the day didn't seem different than usual, the night sure did. On my walk back with my cigar, I found this..
Why are all of the audience members for the hoola-hoop girls on scooters? Because the stage is set up on a traffic island in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in town. The entertainment is something nice for people to stop and watch and honk at as they rush home to make last minute Independence Day preparations. There were cars and bikes all over the streets and the sidewalks with vendors and pedestrians climbing over and around them any way they could. The streets were Bedlam. I stopped to enjoy the show and I had a woman that sold me some really overpriced postcards once before tug on my arm and give me another pitch. Her kid wanted to try my cigar. Another guy wanted to sell me some "marijuana" (people have tried to sell me "pot", or "weed", or "smoke" before, but this was my first "marijuana" salesman). I didn't buy anything but as an English teacher I appreciated that he used the proper terminology, and I talked and joked with the postcard lady, and I encouraged her son not to smoke, and for the first time I was comfortable in all of this mayhem.

I saw a car go by that was flying an American flag and I saluted. I bought Vietnamese flag t-shirts for everyone in the house on the way home to celebrate the second of September tomorrow. The red Vietnamese flag t-shirt with the gold star is the obligatory souvenir around here. I've been thinking that it would feel weird for me to wear that shirt, but I decided to do it anyway. After all, I saw a local just yesterday with an American flag on his shirt. I talked the t-shirt lady down to just over $2 apiece for 4 shirts partly, I think, because I was able to negotiate the sale in Vietnamese. I strolled toward home, and I felt at-home for the first time in this city.

Along the way I found a playing card, all by itself, face down. I was in such a good mood that I picked it up and turned it over. It was the Jack of Diamonds. "Jack of Diamonds" is an old Tex Ritter song that my Dad used to sing every once in a while when I was a kid and we were riding around in his truck. I was in my twenties before I knew that he didn't make it up himself. In my mind it's always been Dad's song. I felt like the first two cards were telling me something, and that the last one was telling me that I got it.

I still don't necessarily believe in cards as a way of communicating with the beyond or anything like that. But sometimes along the way, when you keep your eyes open, you find just what you need to find, just when you need to find it.