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.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


The flood waters have receded, I'm back to a normal schedule, and we finally got to have Halloween in my English class at Blue Dragon. Thanks to some construction paper and several pounds of candy that mom sent from the States, a good time was had by all.
I've also been able to go out and do a little bit of shopping. Shopping is kind of a big deal here. Tourists love to shop in the Old Quarter for bargains and souvineers. Vietnamese people love to ask people how much they paid for everything. And expats like to exchange info on where to get the stuff they miss from back home. I got to fill someone in today on where to get full-sized stick deodorant, and I got a good lead on where to get tortillas.

My dress shoes were soaked in the floods, and I tried to clean them up a couple of times, but they kept getting all moldy. I eventually tossed them because I didn't want to get some kind of foot rot. So I went shopping for some new ones. My friend Paul took me to a place where he got some shoes and hooked me up.
They were 350,000 Dong. Which is pretty good considering they were designed by Italy.
I mean, if an entire country put everything on hold to design a pair of shoes, they gotta be worth $21.58. Plus they're slip-ons, which is handy around here.

There are all sorts of bargains to be had in Hanoi if you know where to look, and there are lots of interesting products too. For example, hygene products named after America's fattest president.
And you know how people like to point out that "Evian" is "naive" spelled backward? Well here they spell it right.
You can get women's beauty drink...
...young rice, green tea, and peanut ice cream......American ginseng drink......Batman 5......and moon cakes with "Chinese sausage", "fin of fish", and "gac oil" on the list of ingredients among a lot of other things. I still haven't found any Ben and Jerry's ice cream. It's probably not going to happen. But this week I have found contact solution, my favorite hot sauce, and a can of cranberry sauce that I'm saving for Thanksgiving.
So, it was a good week for shopping.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


It rained all night Thursday night, and it was still raining Friday when I got up to go teach my first class. On the way there, I got to a main intersection that was flooding pretty badly. The streets to the right and left were flooded out too, so I eventually decided to just go through the water. It was over the tailpipe, but I managed to get through.

I like this shot because you can see the traffic cop, in the raincoat and helmet, in the center of all the mayhem just waving everyone into the water.
Two brave students came to class, so I didn't go all the way down there for nothing. The trouble was getting back. It hadn't let up at all during class, and when I got back to that intersection again the water was up to the seats of most motorbikes.
I stopped for a while and just watched as person after person rode their bike into the water...
...looked surprised when the engine died in the water, and pushed their bike out the other side.
Cars and trucks were having the same problem by now because the water was above hood level. There were dozens of bikes on either side of the water with people waiting for one of the "mechanics" (any guy with some hand tools) to dry off their spark plug and help them out.
I actually saw a couple of guys with their bikes up on the center stand on the curbs and tilting them back to pour the water out of the tailpipe. As it turns out, engines won't run under water. A lot of people seemed to think that their engine would be the exception, but I wasn't one of these people. I went back to the school, waited a few hours, and tried again - still flooded. I eventually parked at the school and walked home, wading through mid-thigh deep water, along the way.
And the rain kept coming. Classes were cancelled. The office staff in the house where I'm staying had trouble getting home and one person stayed overnight. It rained more-or-less all weekend. the office didn't open Saturday morning. A friend of mine had her house flood and advised me to buy food, which I did. According to news reports 18 people in the city died. Even this morning I had to walk and wade again, but I managed to find a way to ride back and I've got my bike home. The worst of it seems to be over and I shoudn't have to do anymore wading.

On the plus side it's nice and cool here now. It should be getting down into the 60's at night. The locals have started talking about how cold it is, which makes me chuckle every time I hear it.