March 31, 2004

A month here already?

Christine here - it seems like ages since I've written an update, but hopefully Toli's colorful stories have kept you all going! Ever since my mom got here last week, it's been one activity after another - from visiting my grandparents' villages to shopping for silk scarves to visiting the many wonderful friends we've managed to make during our short stay here. I can't believe that we're almost leaving. Today are the student presentations, and Friday is the final examination. I feel like I've barely made a dent in all the things I've wanted to do here. Toli's talked about coming back next year (I'm amazed he enjoyed himself that much!), so hopefully there will be time in the future to visit Halong Bay and do some of the touristy activities that Hanoi has to offer. It's funny - I came here wanting to live life like the locals, and we pretty much got to do so and missed a bunch of the tourist stuff. (Except for the shopping part, that is, I couldn't miss out on that.)

The hard thing about this being our last week is that I feel like we've just started getting comfortable living here. We've settled into the routine of each day, discovered our favorite breakfast and lunch spots, figured out the hours of our favorite snack vendors, and learned the lay of the city and the local bus routes. Even better, the daughters of the family we're staying with have finally gotten comfortable with speaking in English to Toli, so the last few nights have been full of laughter and stories.

The other day, Toli had a little spare time, so he uploaded some of the pictures from the cheesy "fashion" photo shoot of me and Xuan (the girl who lives downstairs). He ran some noise reduction software to make the photo look clearer, and then Xuan asked very innocently if he knew how to add text so he could put her name in the photo. So Toli opened Photoshop, and from there, the whole family gathered around to watch him work, as if he were doing some sort of magic. The next thing you know, Toli's adding text to a wedding picture, recropping a picture of the youngest daughter, and everyone is laughing uproariously as he makes the occasional mistype. It's hard to describe it in words, but it felt so warm sitting there and watching the entire family squeeze onto the couch into the living room around Toli, observing every move he made. He totally relished the attention and started bringing out pictures we took over the last few days - of him riding the water buffalo, trying on a Vietnamese military hat, anything that could and would spark laughter. I told him later on that he was like the storytellers and mendicants of auld who would travel to families and entertain them in exchange for food and shelter.

Other than that, Toli has monopolized all the good stories in his last two entries and has already laid claim to some he wants to tell in his next entry, so I don't have a lot more material to share! Just wanted to check in and let you all know that we're here and still having a wonderful time.

Posted by Christine at 03:12 AM | Comments (0)

March 27, 2004

Vietnamese Rodeo

[This is the second of two entries composed over the last two days.]

What a day! Woke up at 7a, and headed for a village where some part of
the family lives (the half-siblings of Christine's mom). Things got
interesting from the get go, when a high-ranking military officer in
full uniform enters the hotel lobby and heads straight for
Christine. Turns out, he is a cousin, but Christine poured out a
couple of buckets of sweat till she figured it out.

Then 11 of us pile into a little minivan. Minivan here means "a van
for Mini Me's". God knows how we made it all in. There were the
driver, Christine's mom and aunt, Christine and me, the cousin and his
wife, another cousin and his wife, and his two daughters (the younger
one sported the cutest yellow outfit with the inscription
"Go/Best's/You ast/like the winter"... don't ask me what that
means). But I shouldn't complain because if I sat sidewards, there was
enough room for my legs; and there was no smoking at all.

So off we go to the village. Driving on Vietnam highways is a true
nightmare come true.

  • The (one and only) divided highway (American-built from the war
    days) is sort-of OK: two lanes in each direction, though lanes are
    optional: one must always be on the lookout for the car (or bus or
    motorbike) next to them deciding to snuggle up.

  • But then we went onto regular highways. Like lane switching,
    there is a solid line down the middle on the road but it has no
    meaning: if somebody is coming the other way, just blow the horn loud
    enough to scare them off the road. If they are a motorbike, they are
    easy prey... if they are a bus, then honk louder to intimidate the car
    to your right (going the same way as you) to slow down so that you can
    squeeze back in. If honking doesn't work, give them a dirty look (but
    for Heaven's sake, don't look at the bus ahead). Of course, before
    even honking to go right, the natural thing to do is accelerate
    towards the oncoming bus in order to pass the car to the right and end
    up in front of them.

  • Next, we have the rural roads: there is enough pavement for one
    car, but that doesn't affect the speed limit it seems. Just drive the
    right wheels on the rice paddy and you can fit a bus and a truck going
    opposite directions at full speed just fine. Better yet, try a minivan
    and water buffalo (who should have license plates in my opinion, given
    how many of them are on the road).

  • Finally, we have the dirt roads. Dirt is too kind a word: mud is
    better. Bamboo growing right up against the car, and the car's rear
    end literally sliding right and left as each wheel slips by different
    amounts. Too busy praying to see the sights at that point. In fact,
    there is so much bumping and swaying that it's practically impossible
    to see anything at all. Add the squeeking of the car's suspension and
    it's a feat for all the senses.

But we made it to a town near the village, where we stopped to meet
one of the half-brothers. He invited us to his home, where I got to
pet two cats (a thoroughly enjoyable experience)! And also check out
the local energy drink, RedBuffalos. Then he and his wife took us back
to our van, we all got in, and then, lo-and-behold, they got in too to
bring the total count to 13.

Nice and snug all together, we went to a nearby shrine. A pretty large
one, actually, dedicated to an emperor who won a major battle against
the Chinese (12th century) and the successors of his imperial lineage
named Tran. Hm... Tran? What's Christine's mom name? Xiem Tran! So
there you have it folks, my wife is a real princess! They are indeed
related, no joke.

The sardine can of a minivan then went to lunch at a nice hotel in
town (nice enough for its reception to have the usual multiple clocks
with time around the world, including Bac Kinh (Peking) and Lon
Don). We took up one table, and then shortly afterwards, a much larger
mass of men came in and took up all the other tables. I couldn't spot
a single women, so I was convinced this was some soft of a bachelors'
convention. Turns out it was a business lunch, and, yes, there were
women, but obviously, men and women comrades are not equal
participants in business affairs.

Then the treck to the village began in the good-old trusty minivan
(and all 13 of us). On the way, we passed these large groups of rice
paddies, dotted with small colorful structures here and there at
random places. Those are shrines to ancestors, and nobody dares move
them: many were built while the place was jungle, and when rice
paddies replaced the jungle, the shrines stayed put. When many shrines
are grouped together, they are called ghost towns.

So we're driving down the road, and then we turn left, heading
straight for the river. And when I say river, I mean the great Red
River. And when I say heading for it, I mean straight for it: no
bridge, no wharf, just a mud slide merging with the water. We stop on
time, get out, and wait for the ferry. Which shows up very soon. When
I say ferry, I mean a wide boat that can fit one car at a time (and
maybe a couple of bicycles), operated by the same family since who
knows when. And when I say the family, I mean everyone, including the
10-year old who drove the boat to the other side.

When we landed, we were surrounded by small white butterflies! What a
pretty sight! Those are what silkworms become if you let them form a
cocoon and metamorphosize (instead of harvesting the silk).

Out of the ferry, back on the muddy road, and into the village where
the road simply ended. Out we all get, and we are initially the big
crowd out of the bus. Until an even larger crowd surrounds us. One of
them (the other half-brother) spoke French, and he took it upon
himself to introduce me to everybody else (all family, of course) as
the professor from Hanoi. What defies description is the people
themselves: skinny, missing at least one tooth, or having red teeth
(the women --- from chewing betel nuts which is what women do when men
act manly and smoke).

We visit the family shrine, pay our respects, and then the real fun
starts! Their house has the requisite farm animals, so we first meet
the pregnant pot-bellied pig (who eventually stopped being shy and
came over to sniff me). Then the chicken and their chicks. Then the
silkworms feeding. Then we eat some papaya fresh off the papaya
tree. And some berries from a berry bush next to a colorful shrine in
the middle of the fields. Then a short walk with the two little Hanoi
girls to buy a balloon (which I inflated for them, and which they
promptly busted soon thereafter), where I feel like I am a Martian who
has just landed on Earth. I was probably the first Greek they've seen
in their lives, which is the same thing. People loved having their
photo taken and seeing their face on the small screen on the back of
my camera; even in Hanoi, cameras are very rare, and digital cameras
virtually nonexistent. The walk ended with me climbing on a
construction site (all houses are made of concrete, and bamboo, not
wood, is used for framing and building supports) to look at the
village from above.

When the girls and I got back, Christine had the absolutely best
surprise for me... she (with a cousin's assistance) had found a guy
who owned water buffalo! And he was on his way to bring them back for
me to pet them. Two huge gorgeous females came lumbering down the mud
road soon, with a calf in tow. Despite the warnings that they are
covered in dry mud and they smell (like me, but it seems they thought
I'm a regular clean-cut westerner), I was very excited to pet them,
and then I even got to ride one! Yiiii haaa! I absolutely LOVED it!
Nope, we didn't go anywhere: I just sat on his back, absolutely
thrilled to be there. By the way, the ride set us back a grand total
of $0.30, and he refused to take it until we insisted.

I just slept on the way back. Christine, though, had one more surprise
for me when we got home. She handed me a photo book, I opened it, and
I saw my wife in the corniest glamour photoshoot one can imagine. This
is Vietnam, the land of excessive bad taste when it comes to imported
traditions... so a photoshoot consists of them doing your makeup (and
so Christine had these huge fake eyelashes on), and giving you a
choice between many a loud outfit (bright enough to be used as
refective safety gear at night). It was the funnest thing I've seen in
a while... especially one where she posed just like the girl in the
Bia Ha Noi (Hanoi Beer) ad. Great... my own Bud girl! Well, OK, I do
admit a couple of shots are pretty good and sexy despite their

Posted by Toli at 10:06 AM | Comments (1)

Your mom's here already?!

[This is the first of two entries composed over the last two days.]

Almost 4 weeks since we left home. Christine's mom arrived today with
her sister Dung (pronounced Zung). We went over to pick her up from
the hotel, and there she was all in short sleeves. I was wearing long
sleeves, and so was Christine, because it was a chilly day. Yet the
temperature was the same as the first day we landed. Well, it looks
like we acclimated quickly enough to shift our temperature
norms. Though not nearly as close to the locals who wore jackets or
thick sweaters. How cold is cold? Oh, about 65 degrees.

It's not just the temperature, though. It's the fact that my stomach
no longer has the slightest problem with local street food. Or that I
know where to go to eat this or that local dish (or the yummiest
French Vanilla for $1 per pound, which is my serving size). Or going
to school and back without a map. Or understanding some basic words
(though I cannot pronounce them properly to save my life). Or knowing
basic bus routes (though everyone stares at me for taking the bus
since why the heck would a westerner not pay $2 for a taxi... because
some westerners are El Cheapo Greco like me).

Or recognizing strange street sounds such as metal saws cutting tin
sheets or copper pipes smack in the middle of the sidewalk. Or, better
yet, hearing "Jingle Bells" or "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" from a
greeting-card-like beeper mounted on a popcorn machine on the back of
a bicycle; that's the local version of the ice cream man, which exists
here too in the form of another bicycle with a big ice chest on the
back... you can tell them apart because he plays the Lambada.

I still find this craziness absolutely charming. Probably because I
have yet to be run over by a motorcycle. I've been on a couple, from
Xe Om (motorbike taxis) to riding behind Ong Tai (the old school
teacher) and my students (the younger, wilder crowd). Scary as all
hell until you think of it like a ride on a roller coaster without a
safety strap. Look ma, no hands (because I need to hold my computer

Time for short anecdotes...

When Christine had a sore throat, two of my students were kind enough
to take me to a flower shop to buy flowers for her. They drove me to
the shop, and did the bargaining ($0.66 total for 3 roses) too. How
can I not love my class?!

Last Saturday, we went to Ong Tai's for dinner, where we spent some
time with him and his granddaughter. Christine, who is usually the
sensitive one while I am the total baboon of the pair, put her foot in
her mouth when she told the girl how lucky she was that her
grandfathers were both alive because Christine's had passed away while
she was young. Well, the girl had lost her dad a year ago (and we knew
it). Anyway, because her dad died from lung cancer, the girl waved the
smoke from her grandpa's cigarette away as soon as he lit up. That so
much reminded me of littler me, shooing my parents away when they
smoked too. I like that girl! Not just for the anti-smoking side of
her, but because she is very eager to use her English. Sure, she made
mistakes, but she could express her thoughts fluently. We all enjoyed
this short evening together. Oh, and Ong Tai had some French cheese
stashed away and so I had the only cheese I've had in Vietnam! Woo
hoo! No feta though.

We also went to the American Club for lunch, invited by its manager
John. John wanted Christine's help to set up a website for a local
cultural volunteer organization and in return we got a free lunch (a
hamburger, what else, but with Australian beef) But the real treat was
Alf... Alf defies description. White South African, enormously tall,
still fit, age at least 70, missing two fingers, wearing a Green Beret
earned by having faught in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. "I can't
stand those blasted honkers, mon [man]. Why do they keep doing it?
Like those blackie cabbies in Johannesburg. Honk, honk! Ya better be
careful if ya find yourself in those parts, mind ya. They'll knife ya
right there if they want to. It's not safe any more after the blacks
took over the place." That's Alf in a nutshell; oh, and he probably
went through two cigarettes while saying the above.

The strangest thing about the American Club was not Alf, nor John
(another jovial giant of a man who worked the pipeline in Alaska for
20 years and had a goat farm to my personal delight), nor the menu
prices ($5 for a burger which is grand theft in these parts), but the
very fact that we were there. You see, the Vietnamese government gave
the land to the US, and so they have no jurisdiction of what is going
on within those four walls (and large courtyard). Accordingly, no
Vietnamese can come within (except for the employees because, after
all, cheap labor to earn dollars is always welcome). So we were in
some form of a distant echo from the Saigon of 1975 and the US embassy
compound where only we could go in... very, very eerie.

Another strange sight was this Italian tourist who sat down next to us
at another restaurant, and asked for Christine's help to order. Poor
English yet the usual Mediterranean charm (like me, hee, hee). Big
guy, he reminded us of Alfredo from Cinema Paradiso.

And on yet another field trip between home and school, we stopped by
Vietnam's Pixar (Hung's studio). They are working on a feature-length
film (due December in Vietnam time, which means next March). I'm
telling ya: these guys are talented and hard-working. And you
will get to see their movie sooner or later. They have
already produced some superb animation; I saw a couple of clips done
by an animator on his own time goofing around and I was blown
away. Their hardware and software are up-to-date, but they are
definitely behind the technology curve in know-how. Yet, they will
catch up: Honda did, and look where the US car industry is now (or
most other US manufacturing to be honest). Talk about a huge business
opportunity getting to be their world-wide distributor! But that ain't
my line of work so I'll enjoy seeing them succeed from the sidelines.

The class is almost over. One more lecture to go, a final to put
together, and three assignments and a final to grade. It's been
extremely demanding, more so than my regular job (well, equally so if
I compare it to startup release cycles). But, oh so rewarding! My
class is a wonderful group, and I am delighted I had the opportunity
to share some of my knowledge. Some will go to the US and continue
their Masters at UHCL (University of Houston Clear Lake), some won't
make it. Yet both groups learned a lot over this past month. Not just
coursework, mind you, but the whole experience of teaching in a US
style. To be fair, what they got was a mix of a US startup and a US
classroom: the assignments were as intense as tight release cycles,
yet the grading was on a curve :-)

What's most gratifying is the sense of being part of a legacy. This
was the very first year of this program. So everything was brand new:
the syllabus, the assignments, the schedule, everything. It was very
challenging to start from nothing and build it all, but the sense of
contribution is also tremendous. This program will attract more
students next year, and eventually lead into bringing in US-educated
Vietnamese to teach. Longer-term, the material covered will seep back
into the regular university curriculum so that all students at the top
Vietnamese technical university will learn about JavaOS, Unix and
Windows in their Operating System class instead of MS-DOS. And it all
starts with 8 bright students in our classroom. The motivation to come
back and teach again next year is mighty high. Yes, the offer is on
the table so we're thinking about it seriously... but in the end, what
really matters is whether I helped the students. So I won't make up my
mind until I get back my course evaluations and figure out whether
they had as good a time as I did.

The funnest thing is that I'll miss my students. I was too busy to get
to know them (and so were they), yet I've developed an intense
interest in their future. In a way, they remind me of me when I was
younger. Eager to learn more, eager to go to the US and study, really
dependent on the generosity of US schools, appreciating the value of a
good education (by the way, the program in Hanoi is quite expensive
for most of them... about $2300; correcting for the cost of living,
that's $20k-$50k). Anyway, I look forward to visiting whoever makes it
to UHCL and having our first chance to hang out and chat outside a
classroom environment in Houston.

I forgot another odd sight. You know how in the US there are these
women-only gyms for self-conscious women to exercise without men
staring at them (go figure... but anyway)? Well, there ain't such
thing in Vietnam. Moreover, there is a square by the lake where there
is a free, open-air aerobics class in the evening! Yup, right on the
square, next to the fumes of the bikes and cars, ladies of all sizes
and shapes jump up and down listening to American disco. I just
couldn't help grabbing an ice cream cone and watching them. (I get it
now... it's because of men like me that women-only gyms are built.)
Actually, Christine and I watched together --- it was not only odd,
but it looked like they were having a jolly good time! We agreed that
we'll bring our sisters to teach a class or two on this square.

After many a visit to the Hoa Sua restaurant and its cafe, I realized
something today: the only Vietnamese customers I've seen
there have been (a) locals taken out by westerners, (b) adopted
Vietnamese children with their westerners parents, (c) young
Vietnamese women with much older westerner men (it looks even shadier
than it sounds). Oh, there's Christine too. But I guess we fall under
group (c) :-)

And, finally, I'm very proud of my wife. She came as a visitor with no
specific agenda. She could have been just a trophy wife or a tourist
if she wanted. And she did a bit of that too, but much, much more. She
helped my class revise their essays for their UHCL applications, she
prepared and gave a talk on life in the US, she helped John with the
website, she helped her dwarf friend Phu to write his autobiography (a
short one, no pun intended), revised an essay of my sister's via
email. And got multiple lovely outfits made for herself, which I
really appreciate since it's much wiser to have such outfits made here
for a fraction of the cost than in the States. Cost-conscious (ok,
cheap), and with a good heart... how lucky am I to have her!

Oh, I forgot: I got my Vietnamese pyjamas! Or rather, it was a present
from my students (they figured out the country bumkin in me very
quickly). I think next time I pick asparagus in my neighbor's patch
I'll wear my pyjamas and my conical hat. He was a Vietnam vet, so I'm
sure he'll appreciate the reminder. Time for my sensitivity lesson
with Christine.

Posted by Toli at 10:05 AM | Comments (0)

March 20, 2004

Voiceless in Vietnam...

Well, my sore throat went away...along with my voice! It's bad enough getting around with my badly-accented Vietnamese, but being virtually dumb/mute is much worse. Especially since I'm the voice for both me and Toli much of the time! And it's not even the sexy Kirstie Alley/Candace Bergen kind of hoarseness I get when I've been talking a lot. Oh no, I make this annoying sort of squeak when I open my mouth. Squeak squeak!

Anyway, I've kind of been avoiding doing shoutouts since I used to find them annoying, but now that I have my own log, I can't resist saying hi to my running commenters!

Bibi - I miss you baby! If only you were here to translate my squeaky sounds into something intelligible. Of course, knowing you, you'd just laugh your butt off.

H - Yes indeed, Howard *is* cool. How is the missus doing?

Cindy - Sydney! Woo-hoo! It must be autumn there or something? I'm surprised you found the time to take a vacation long enough to go down under, but if anyone deserves a vacation, it's hardworking you. Hug Scott for us - you two would have a blast here.

We had a neat little surprise this morning. Ong Tai (the older grampa-ey uncle of the bride Toli befriended) stopped by this morning to invite us to lunch. It turned out, though, that lunch was actually a celebratory meal (I have no idea how to correctly translate this) in honor of his own deceased uncle. In Vietnam, they honor the anniversary of a loved one's death, particularly the third year following. So we had the opportunity to bow at his family altar and share a meal with his family. Again, everyone made a big fuss over Toli, particularly a cousin of Ong Tai's who works as an English translator and spoke nearly perfect accentless English. Let me say, it was a *terrible* time to be a squeaky semi-mute, but I was glad to see so many people interested in talking to Toli.

Oh - and during the lunch, I looked down to see a little calico kitten cross under the table! I squeaked so much over it that the owner offered to let me take her home and raise her, and I very well may have if it didn't involve transporting an animal overseas.

We're more than halfway through our stay here in Hanoi - I can't believe how quickly it's gone by!

Posted by Christine at 09:11 AM | Comments (0)

March 19, 2004

To Market!

The fates seem to be against my writing a log entry this week. During the better part of this week, I’ve been under self-imposed quarantine due to a naggy sore throat that still hasn’t gone away. All the locals have been telling me it’s due to the weather we’ve been having - raging rains that put Texas storms to shame one hour, burning hot sunshine the next, and the cycle repeats. Guess it gives a new meaning to feeling “under the weather”, huh? I’m pretty bummed, though – it’s a really mild sore throat, but that makes it the third time I’ve gotten sick while on a major trip recently. My immune system is letting me down!

Then yesterday, I tried to go to the local Internet café, but all the computers were used. So I went this morning, and the place was still closed. Then I decided to drag my lazy butt down to Toli’s workplace to get a few hours of Internet in only to find that their network connection is down! Never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for dial-up!

Anyhoot, the good news of this week is that chicken is back. Woo-hoo! (Please, no comments about this songbird coming down with bird flu – it’s just a sore throat!) Of course, one of the best things about Vietnamese cuisine is eating poultry, so I wasn’t about to let a little hysteria stop me from indulging. Since last Saturday, I’ve had chicken (twice), goose, and (gasp!) pigeon. It’s been yummyful. The birds here are tend to be farm-raised or mountain-raised, they’re smaller in size and more flavorful, and they’re freshly killed the day you eat them, so the taste is so much better than chicken back home in the U.S. of A.

Of course, it’s that “freshly-killed” part that will get me to go vegetarian before any disease does. One of the main factors in choosing to come back to Vietnam and living smack-dab in the heart of Hanoi was to try and get a feel for what local life is really like. Toli and I eat street food at least once a day (and yes, there are health effects to that as well that I will delicately put aside for now), we walk *a lot* or occasionally take a “xe om” (motorbike taxi), I watch too much cheesy Vietnamese television (and have gotten hooked on an evening Chinese soap as a result), I’ve taken to bargaining for silk at the local market (still can’t get the local price though, I’m sad to report), but most often, I go to the grocery market with a friend when she grocery shops.

Warning: Some rather icky descriptions up ahead. Don’t read if you recently ate or will be disturbed by this kind of thing.

Even if you frequent the Chinatown markets in the U.S., visiting a market in Vietnam can be a rather stomach-churning experience. The markets are usually located outdoors with these rickety-looking booths. There’s no such thing as a refrigerator case (unless they’re selling something dairy-related), and I daresay there is very little in the way of sanitation standards. You’ve got people packed to the gills all chopping meat or scaling fish or pushing produce, as well as motorcycles and bikes squeezing by as you shop – yes, “drive-by shopping”.

The produce stands are a bit tatty-looking, but all the vegetables are freshly picked that morning. You do have to keep an close eye on the seller, though, to make sure that they give you the best of their produce selection, rather than the stuff others won’t buy. There are also stands that sell rice, freshly-made rice noodles, tofu, and other dried goods.

The crazy part is the meat area. You have to imagine what your local butcher shop would look like if there were no electricity available. Everything is chopped by hand with these really-old-looking but razor-sharp cleavers or put through an old-fashioned meat grinder (you know what I mean if you ever watched “You Can’t Do That On Television”). You pick out your cut of meat, the butcher chops it off on a well-used wooden block, slaps it onto a scale (that he weighed everyone else’s meat on – none of this butcher paper business), argues with you that it’s the cleanest and best cut of meat he’s sold all day, and then shoves it into a thin plastic bag. And God forbid he even puts down his cigarette during this entire transaction.

If you can stomach this part, you move on to the area where the lady is scaling the fish…while it’s still flopping. It is unbelievably creepy! She’s got these little tubs the size of a kiddie pool jam-packed with fish swimming around, and you know deep inside that these critters aren’t going to survive past dinner time. The other day, I walked by one where the fish jumped out of the tub and started flopping around on the floor for nearly a minute before the fish monger grabbed it and dunked it back in the tub. And fish bleed – a lot! You just can’t tell when you’re buying it at $4.95/lb in H-E-B.

So now…if you’ve read this far, and you haven’t thrown up breakfast yet and are still eager to know more…there’s the poultry shop. The one my friend goes to is separate from the market, and thank goodness, because one visit was enough for my lifetime. There are these large bamboo cages, which hold something like a dozen birds. The poultry guy reaches in and picks out some poor sucker and hands it to you, the customer. You’re supposed to hold it by its feet and make comments about its size and condition. The guy then weighs the chicken, ties up its feet, and then…well…you know. But in Vietnam, they don’t go chopping off it’s head – that’s the good part. They hang the bird and bleed it. Then, I think after it’s good and dead, they blanche it in hot water and pull the feathers. I don’t know because I stopped looking when the knife came out and distracted myself by playing with the ducks. (I know…ducks.) There was also this sad moment when this neighbor brought over a live goose inside a shopping bag for them to slaughter, and the poor goose kept trying to peck itself out of the bag. Anyway, they end up presenting you with this nice clean carcass (head, beak, feet and all) in one of their ubiquitous plastic bags, and you go along on your merry way trying not to think about how this creature was alive just fifteen minutes ago.

Anyway, I don’t relate all these details to gross you out, but rather to point out how far removed we are from our food sources and how we take for granted the long process it takes from growing a living being from an egg to a chick to something that we buy in the meat section of the local grocery store. I don’t want to advocate that we all become vegetarians (especially when judging by my intake of poultry this week) or creep everyone out a la “Fast Food Nation”, but I think it would do everyone a lot of good to think about where our food comes from and to show a little respect for the creatures we eat and the underpaid workers who make it possible for our food to show up on our plates.

Posted by Christine at 07:17 AM | Comments (0)

March 12, 2004

That old mare, she ain't what she used to be.

(Think The Simpsons, episode Krusty Get Kancelled... An old homeless
man takes Krusty's place on TV singing the above song with his pants
pulled down.).

I'm really an old man. Christine got it right on: I was sharing my
knowledge of Computer Graphics with Hung, whose firm is really
cutting-edge in Vietnam, and it was mostly news to him... while for
me, it's knowledge that I have from my old PhD days. That said, what
we discussed was simple basic foundational stuff --- the kind of stuff
that doesn't change (much) over time. But what really made me feel
ancient is my age. Hung is the lead of his firm, and he is the oldest
guy around; he is 31. That ain't very surprising given how most of
Vietnam is populated by a younger, post-war generation. But, for me,
who was used to hearing so often "You are doing this or that and you
are so young," well it sure put me in my place being the oldest fart
on the block! At least I had my nurse Christine with me to give me my
daily laxatives...

And so I've set about to prove to myself I'm still young, lifting 70kg
(140lb) bags of nails and walking from/to school every day (1 hour
each way)! But then, as I feel oh-so-young again, Christine and I go
to this training restaurant I mentioned last time, and we are back to
being colonialists again! Surrounded by young students, eating top
French cuisine in a classy outdoor garden with classical music playing
(for $10 a meal). And my image of a colonialist ain't that of a young

And if that wasn't enough, today Christine gave her Life in the US
talk, and it reminded me of being a freshman at Stanford. Oh boy, was
my accent as pronounced as that of my students? How the heck did my
roommate Neil understand what I said (maybe he didn't...)? Sure, I
still have a strong accent, but I was amazed how often I'd let
Christine get away with using confusing terms in her talk. For
example, she said "you get a ticket if you drive too fast". My
students, like me in 1989, were totally confused... is it a movie
ticket? A theater ticket? Do I get an award for being a really fast
driver? None of them asked such a question, because another member of
the audience jumped in to clarify that "ticket" means "fine or
penalty" in this case. Well, once upon a time, I'd catch those
pitfalls myself... boy, have I forgotten so soon the evening Neil said
"I'll go hit the sack now" and I understood he was going to exercise
in his room by knocking around a punchbag? So he went in his bedroom,
closed the door, and slept, exactly as he had said, and I was
impressed how quietly he exercised.

Back to feeling old, Christine mentioned Ong Tai, the old grandpa. He
is actually a private math tutor for 18-year-olds, so his brain is
totally there. His English is not very good, but his French is
excellent. Well, mine isn't. It used to be good a long time ago, after
8 years of French classes in school (well, I skipped quite a few to
play volleyball, but I still learned a decent bit). Ong Tai has not
used his French much since before I was born, yet he is totally
fluent. See? My brain is older than Ong Tai's!

Anyway, I don't feel old in a bad way. 34 is young, I know. Still
plenty to do, lots to see. But after a relative routine (but most
pleasant) life in the US since 1989, travelling gives me a chance to
take a step back and see the big picture: some things you learn and
they stay with you, some you forget, and technology moves on without
waiting for you. That's all. It's realizations like this that our year
abroad is for, so we are definitely on the right track it seems!

Back to my work. Class is really exhausting, and the worst has yet to
come. So far, it's been mostly a matter of preparing assignments and
lectures. This week, I started answering questions as students worked
on their first assignment. Soon, they'll be working on their second
(and have questions), while I prepare the third, grade the first, and
with lectures still going on. Oh boy! They are such a good class
though, it's a pleasure putting in all the effort.

Durian-time! Durian is a very, very, stinky fruit. But it's known as a
local delicacy! Well, Christine won't touch it, but I gave it a shot
in ice cream form. Delicious indeed! Though my wife refused to come
anywhere near me until after I brushed my teeth and rinsed with
mouthwash. But there is a catch, you see. Ice cream is best because
the stench doesn't interfere with the taste. But Durian eventually
melts in your stomach. And its fumes rise. And if you burp, God help
you. You can take me out to Durian, but you can't take Durian out of
me. And so, while Durian is a favorite ice cream taste for me, I must
say I live to regret it the following few hours (unless I stuff down
some solid food afterwards).

It's late now, so I'll go join my trophy wife in bed. I'll ask the
mahout to prepare our elephant Dumbo for a visit to our coffee
plantation tomorrow. Though Christine would rather spend her time with
the other International Ladies having cookies and tea at the British
Embassy. God Bless the Queen!

Posted by Toli at 01:41 PM | Comments (2)

Coming up for air...

Just a quick note to let you all know that we're alive and doing just fine. This past week has been monstrously busy with Toli's work. Today is his fourth lecture, which puts him a third of the way through already! It's a special lecture today, as tomorrow is the GRE exam, and Toli doesn't want to overload the students. He'll be discussing how to build a company in America, and I'll even be contributing to the class with a little talk of my own on life in Texas. Toli also wants me to add that communication with his class has been steadily improving - he's slowed down the pace of his lectures quite a lot since the first one, and the level of comprehension is at about 75-80% for most of the students, which is about the same as mine was when I was taking classes in Germany.

Anyway, to keep you laughing, here are some little tidbits from our second week here:

*We had breakfast the other day with Ong Tai, the uncle of the bride who chatted up Toli at the wedding. It was so cute - he picked us up on his motorbike to take us to a little cafe near the opera house. Then after he took Toli home following breakfast, he basically kidnapped me for the morning and showed me all around town, finally stopping at his house for tea. He's so grandfatherly, I'm just crazy about him.

*I joined the Hanoi International Women's Club for their monthly newcomer's "coffee" which was held at the wife of the Brunei ambassador's place. Pretty impressive stuff, considering that the "coffee" was really a full brunch spread and there were about 40 or so women from about as many different countries. I was the youngest one there, and the only ethnically Vietnamese one as well. And while at first, it seemed so surreally exotic and amazing compared to my monthly evenings with the neighborhood women in "Big Country", I soon came to see how women all over the world seem to love to get together to chat about their husbands, their kids, their careers, and other such aspects of their lives.

*I also managed to meet up with a Fulbrighter here who, in turn, introduced us to a friend of his who runs a computer graphics animation company. Computer graphics was Toli's big passion once-upon-a-time, so it was a lot of fun watching Toli and Hung talk animatedly about it. I told Toli later on that Vietnam is one of the few places where he can find someone who appreciates computer graphics knowledge already 5-years-out-of-date!

*Today we gave the neighbors a helping hand and a good laugh. We were on our way out the door to class when we saw them struggling to lift a 70-kg bag of nails. Toli offered to help, and they managed to drag the bag to where they needed it. Afterwards, the men were talking about "American strength". Haha.

*Oh, and Toli has really gotten into eating ice cream here. Every day, the girls (daughters of the friends we're staying with) ask - "So what kind of ice cream did Toli eat today?" They got a big kick the other day when we invited them to ice cream, and Toli ordered 5 different flavors. American indulgence at its best!

That's it for now! Hope to have some more stories the next time I write in.

Posted by Christine at 02:47 AM | Comments (1)

March 08, 2004

Happy Women's Day!!!

Today is International Women's Day in Vietnam (as well as a slew of other countries besides the U.S.) - it's a holiday where all the men show their appreciation for the opposite sex by presenting them with flowers and gifts, as well taking over household tasks such as cooking and cleaning. Kind of a Mother's Day/Teacher Appreciation Day/Secretary's Day/Valentine's Day rolled up into one. Toli's students have been filing into the office, one by one, presenting the staff with flower bouquets. Poor Toli has taken a lot of ribbing - everyone keeps reminding him to get me something, and he's been responding with, "Have you seen Christine's shopping bill yet?"

I'm surprised that this isn't a major holiday in the States actually - Hallmark could probably use another income stream between Valentine's Day and Easter. Maybe they just don't appreciate us ladies as much in the States...or maybe every day is considered Women's Day considering the level of equal rights we have. Or maybe it's just a stupid economical reason, like, the flower producers haven't sufficiently recovered from the onslaught of demand from Valentine's Day - who knows?

Anyway, I promised a major update from the wedding we attended last Saturday. We took a lot of pictures, so hopefully those will be available sometime soon. I can't promise that what I'm about to relate is totally accurate, as my knowledge of Vietnamese weddings comes from adapted traditions practiced by the Vietnamese-Americans back in the States. And it seems to me now that these bastardized East-meets-West traditions have now made it over to Vietnam. (Kind of like how restaurants in Mexico now serve chips and salsa as an appetizer - not because it's a Mexican tradition, but because visitors to Mexico expect it since all the Mexican restaurants in the States serve it.) Am I making any sense?

So - the wedding festivities all started when Toli and I came to the bride's house to await the groom's family. Toli caused a bit of a stir being the only Westerner around, and one of the bride's uncles took it upon himself to chat up Toli in both French and English. It was cute. The guests all stayed downstairs, feasting on tea, pumpkin seeds, cookies, and cigarettes, until the groom arrived with a large procession of family and friends to claim his bride. We didn't see this part, because it all took place upstairs and the tiny house was so full of people, but apparently what happened was that the mother of the groom asked permission to take the bride home with her. She presented the bride with a gold necklace, the two families shared tea, and the bride and groom paid their respects to the family altar.

Then we all traveled en masse to the groom's house on the other side of town (which was a bit chaotic, involving lots of people cramming into cars and caravaning across town) where there was a similar set up of tea and refreshments for the guests. Here, the bride's family was welcomed by the groom's side. The happy couple exchanged rings, the bride received another piece of gold jewelry, and the bride and groom proceeded upstairs to pay their respects to the groom's family altar. Then after that, all the bride's family was welcomed upstairs to show their approval for the bride's new living quarters. There was much noise and picture-taking, and I think the poor bride was pretty exhausted from the photographer ordering her about and posing her every which way.

Finally, we all traveled then to the hotel where they held the reception. The reception is pretty similar to a Western one - sumptuous food (12 courses!), loud music, a little pomp, and lots of drinking and merriment. Toli got a huge kick out of the music in particular - the father of the bride is a popular musician in town, so he was able to line up quite a few singers and musicians - everything from a Sinatra-esque sort of guy in a white evening suit to four teenage singers ala Spice girls to even two guys belting out an on-key but heavily-accented rendition of Air Supply's "All out of Love". The reception went by rather quickly, though - about 2.5 hours from start to finish - most Vietnamese-American receptions go pretty late into the night with a lot of dancing.

Some interesting things to note:

*Clothing-wise, the bride and groom went all Western-style with a suit and the big white poufy dress. I was surprised since even I had ordered a red ao dai for my wedding and managed to convince Toli to don one (the groom's is usually blue) as well. On the brighter side, they kept the same outfit on the whole day, unlike the myriad of dress changes that often occur in Vietnamese-American weddings in the States.

*There's something really special about the wedding ceremony taking place in the homes of both families - it feels very intimate and personal, more about two families coming together rather than a big huge party. Unfortunately, distance makes this kind of thing either difficult or impossible for weddings in the States. Two recent Vietnamese-American weddings I attended had to use proxy-houses to stand in for the groom's house since using the real house would involve traveling by more than a few hours or even travel cross-country. I mean, for my own wedding, we would have had to charter a plane to and from Greece to do this properly!

*Probably one of the better aspects of having a Vietnamese wedding is that guests usually give money instead of gifts. Let's be honest here - the best thing for a couple starting out is cold hard cash, and the whole etiquette thing in the States about having a bridal registry and not asking for money is just baloney in this gal's opinion. Just cut to the chase and cough up the cash.

*Lastly, and Toli will wholeheartedly disagree with me on this one, a Vietnamese wedding just doesn't seem as cheesy to me when it takes place in Vietnam. All the pomp and circumstance and the gaudy decorations somehow fit the context here - it feels real and fun instead of staged and contrived. Of course, as I said, Toli doesn't really think so - to him, most weddings are simply cheesy and contrived to start off with, and I can see his point.

Anyway, I hope we can get the pictures up soon to give you a better idea of what it's like. In all, it was a really wonderful experience to be part of, and Toli and I both feel blessed that we came in time to witness such a special event.

Posted by Christine at 04:19 AM | Comments (0)

March 05, 2004

Oh good lord, what have I done?

So it finally hit me today. Not the "oh-my-god-we're-in-Vietnam-do-you-know-what-this-means" breakdown I had as our plane was landing in Hanoi, but more the "what-have-I-done-to-my-poor-husband-and-his-students" kind of guilt that came over me as I watched Toli give his first lecture at the university today. I mean, this whole thing was my idea. I got the announcement about the open positions, I convinced him to apply, I bought the plane tickets...but the truth of it all is that the real cost and burden of this whole thing lies upon Toli and his students. I can't help but feel that if this experience goes down the tubes, I, the initiator, will suffer the least bit of damage while Toli and his students will have to suffer the price. It's a really sobering thought.

I have a lot of reason to believe that Toli's short tenure here will be a success - he's a great computer scientist and a wonderful teacher. And the students are all very intelligent, talented, and motivated. But there are a lot of obstacles to overcome, least of all the language and cultural barrier. We joked before coming here that all the students would start speaking in Greek accents after hearing him lecture, but it wasn't that funny once I saw them struggling to understand Toli as he discussed the differences between parallel and distributed operating systems. The concepts are difficult enough without the additional task of having to understand a fast-talking Greek guy. But Toli can't baby them either, though, because if they expect to get through a Master's program in Houston, they will have to adapt to hearing all sorts of accents from professors who won't care what country they've come from. I guess I'm just feeling all fretful and maternal about the students.

Putting that aside though, I am really impressed with Toli's ability to adapt to Hanoi. He seems to be experiencing a lot less culture shock than I had expected, and possibly less than I am currently having! He's gotten the hang of crossing the street, he can get around the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake with barely a glance at the map, and he's mastered enough key Vietnamese words and phrases (coupled with his pidgin French) to win a few smiles from the residents here.

As for me, I'm keeping busy today by helping Toli's students with some personal statements they are writing to complete their financial aid applications for the Houston program. It's interesting, because I often help Fay (Toli's sister) with her essays in her grad school classes, and the linguistic/grammar mistakes between Greek versus Vietnamese native speakers are vastly different. It makes me appreciate all their effort in learning English, because I can't imagine having to write that kind of composition in Vietnamese or German.

I've also managed to get over my terror of going out on my own (as Toli has been working most of the time) and gotten to know the city and its residents a little better. Remember that dwarf I met in the Internet cafe? His name is Phu, and he managed to charm me into writing an English note to the Little People of America group, of which he is a member. I'm surprised he even needed to ask me though, as he runs this little tea shop in the Old Quarter down by a local hostel and is a big hit with the backpackers there. And tomorrow, Toli and I are invited to attend the wedding of a pretty good friend of mine. She's this laughing girl I met through my dad back in 1996 - it's a little jarring that she's already getting married, but I'll be really glad to have the opportunity to see what a wedding is like here in Vietnam. So I hope to have something good to talk about in my next entry!

Posted by Christine at 06:42 AM | Comments (1)

March 04, 2004

We are Vietnami if you pli

We are Vietnami
if you pli (pa pa pa pom pom)
We are Vietnami
if you don't pli (pa pa pa pom pom)

(Think of the Siamese cats in the Lady and the Tramp. Also, Vietnamese
tend to cut off the 'z' at the end of words. Us foreigners tend to
mess up the vowels since we have less than a third than they do. Fair
is fair.)

So here I am. On the other side of the world, first time in Asia,
understanding absolutely nothing, completely unable to pronounce
anything right. And, strangely enough, it feels eerily familiar and

Doesn't make much sense at first, but, trust me, it does if you
lend me your ear for a while.

I grew up in the downtown of Athens, Greece in the 70s and 80s. By
many measures, Greece was a developing country at the time. Unlike the
rest of Europe that quickly rebuilt after World War II, Greece had a
civil war, a controlled currency, general political instability
(including a dictatorship and a socialist government for most of the
80s), major immigration waves from the countryside into Athens,
etc. Nowadays, Athens is pretty much on par with the other European
Union capitals --- if you correct for the idiosyncracies of daily
Greek culture --- but this wasn't the case while I was growing
up. FYI, it was only in 1981 that Greece joined the EU.

Anyway, here is a scene from my life growing up... Living in an
apartment, from which I'd walk the 2km or so to downtown in order to
buy electronic parts to build yet another contraption. On the way, I'd
walk half the time on the sidewalk, half on the street as cars and
motorbikes conveniently parked on the sidewalk. I'd have to be careful
not to trip as the old sidewalk had cracks and unstable tiles, either
due to the weight of parked cars... or due to the roots of the scrawny
trees seeking some clean water... or due to the cable poles
overburdened with streetlamps, signs, and myriads of overhead
telephone and electricity cables.

Running parallel to me, there were streams of honking cars,
motorbikes, buses. Sure my parents taught me how to cross at traffic
lights but (a) many intersections did not have lights, (b) who wants
to go 100m down the street, cross, and backtrack another 100m when I
could just cross the bloody street right here and reach the store
across in 30m. So I'd step on the road and start walking... somehow,
by magic, out of this seemingly chaotic system, order came about and
I'd reach the sidewalk across the street in one piece: order can be
either externally imposed (by following common rules such as traffic
laws) or by aggregate individual common sense (each driver making
locally optimal decisions while aware of their immediate
surroundings). It was all much like an ant colony: each ant has very
simple behaviour, there is no grand overseer, yet an ant colony looks
like a well-organized, efficiently-run nation to us humans.

Anyway, I'd reach downtown and look for my parts. I'd try one little
store that specialized in capacitors. Then one that had resistors. If
I was looking for an expensive part, I'd haggle the price a bit too
(or arrange to have a grown up come with me and
do the haggling for really expensive items).
Around noon I'd get hungry, so I'd stop at the grimy corner shop for some
souvlaki (kebab: pork meat on a skewer) for $1, or buy a koulouri
(sesame bread ring) for $0.10 from a street vendor who carried them on his
tray. And throughout my walk, I'd see congested cars, hear their horns
and plenty of swear words in Greek, and breathe in the unhealthy
fumes of leaded gasoline. Among those sounds, there'd also be the
occasional gypsy in a pickup with a loudspeaker horn on top
advertising his wares... Or sometimes the gypsies would beg for money
(they'd bother the grown ups, not me) as their kids ran around, often
half-naked until fairly old (and, of course, they'd do their business
on the street).

If this was one of those very rare (but oh so blessed) days when
private school teachers were on strike, then I'd probably go by a
public school or two at the end of the school day, and be surrounded by other
kids, all dressed in their blue uniforms. That is, if I walked through
the small back streets. But if, instead, I walked along one of the
main avenues of Athens (Vassilissis Sofias, where my parents still
live), I'd pass in front of many foreign embassies, each with a
pillbox guard stand in front, in which a consistently bored young man
holding an automatic gun would be sitting. Sometimes, I'd see a lost
tourist staring at a map and give them directions; and maybe tell them
how to get to their destination by bus to avoid the unscrupulous cab
driver who'd glady take them via Rome, Italy to charge a high fare.

Reaching home, I'd hurry to the TV to catch the kid shows that opened
the daily program of one of the two TV stations. The one I liked was
about making things from old stuff, e.g. a picture frame from
cigarette boxes. As a result, I had a very large collection (four 60
gallons trash bags) of my dad's cigarette boxes that I'd collect by
rummaging through the trash cans around the house. And, no, they did
not all become picture frames.

At night, after the TV signal was cut off at midnight, I'd relax with
my parents on our balcony. No, the stars were never visible; too much
smog and humidity. But there was a nice breeze. The traffic would be
sparser, and its persisting white noise was strangely soothing at this
lower volume. The sidewalk sweepers would arrive and push the street
trash over the edge of the sidewalk... whatever everybody conveniently
discarded on the sidewalk... such as cigarette butts and many a
lottery ticket bought from the street vendors downtown. The garbage
trucks would then arrive and collect it all, including the necessary
narcotic to sustain life in such chaos and the lost paper hopes for

That was then. And this is now, in Vietnam, while Athens has moved on
(for the most part). It was truly bizarre landing here and feeling
everything being so awfully familiar... Christine is the one who
speaks the language but is a foreigner in every other way: she feels
very nervous crossing the street, and she is learning how to haggle. Yet,
for me, this is the town I grew up in.

Mind you, I don't like most of this: I don't find it particularly
charming, I don't enjoy the smell of leaded gas, nor the haggling, nor
the begging, nor the lack of large self-service stores. I didn't like
it in Athens, and I don't like it here as a place to live. But, as a tourist visiting
with my wife, it is truly wonderful. Out of the blue, having no
expectation we'd encounter this parallel world, I can show Christine
the world of my childhood... how many people have a chance to step
into such a time warp?

Anyway, as a short-term experience, it's thoroughly fun and
refreshing because:

  • The weather is wonderful. Humid like Austin, or Athens in the
    spring, yet not too hot. Just perfect.

  • Food is dirt cheap and very, very good. Today we had a very
    filling breakfast on the street for $1.25 (for both of us). Yesterday
    we went to the equivalent of an upscale New York restaurant (one that
    is actually a training restaurant/vocational school for orphans) and
    had exquisite French food for the huge price of $12.50. When the bill
    arrived for $11.25 we rounded up to $12.50 and we got up to
    leave... which the young waiter took as a sign to run inside to get us
    our change before we left... she was very surprised when we told her
    to keep it.

  • Christine and I complement each other well. She knows the
    language, I know the way of life. In fact, the biggest pitfall is when
    either of us gets too cocky. Sure, Hanoi is like the Athens of my
    childhood but it's not identical: I didn't grow up with loudspeakers
    on every street invigorating my national sentiment at 7a, and asking
    me to move my motorbike onto the sidewalk for street cleaning at 7p. And
    while Christine gets better deals than the average tourist on the
    street, she still has to haggle to get local prices.

  • We are royalty (not only in terms of money). Now, that's a hard
    one. I don't like places where image means more than substance. But
    the fact is that, whether I like it or not, being a professor at the
    highest educational level in Vietnam carries a lot of
    caché with it. It turns one from a money bag of a tourist into
    some sort of deus ex machina. I actually don't like it much, but it
    does have the nice side effect that we are slightly more integrated
    into the society, albeit as members of the upper echelon. Anyway, it's
    a big ego trip, and I can totally see the appeal it exerts on ex-pats
    to return and be kings in their old homeland.

I'll close with some very weird, non-Athens-like experiences I had.

  • Walking by a street market and seeing (whole, minus the head)
    barbequed animals for sale on the stands. They weren't pigs, they
    weren't sheep... we've seen that in San Francisco's Chinatown. They
    were dogs. Makes one very aware how arbitrary it is that we Westerners
    eat some animals but not others. Vegetarians do have a point... But
    then, I go eat some Pho with meatballs and how quickly do I forget.

  • We were walking along the sidewalk behind some schoolgirls (age
    10 or so). When we all had to move to the street (some bikes were on
    the sidewalk, as usual), the girls looked back to check for oncoming
    traffic. One of them saw me, then turned to look ahead. At which point
    she realized that she had seen something very unusual, and turned back
    to look at me. Well, she did, but the look on her face was absolutely
    precious: it was as if she had taken a sudden whiff of Durian (which
    is a pungent fruit that smells as bad as rotten eggs). I'm just glad
    my wife doesn't look at me that way.

  • The university took us out to lunch at a nice restaurant. We sat
    in an inner courtyard in the back, surrounded by low palm
    trees. Service was ridiculously attentive, despite the buffet-style meal.
    On the ground, and along the edges of the courtyard
    were seated women dressed as peasants (but with more
    elegant clothes, i.e. wearing pretty ao dais instead of
    peasant pyjamas), and serving local food out of mock (i.e. way too
    clean to be real) foodstands. A foodstand comprises a very low table
    on which different pre-cooked ingredients are arranged in two large
    wide, shallow baskets. (Normally, the peasants put a bamboo pole on
    their shoulder and tie one basket on each end... sort of like a big
    scale. No, Greeks never had bamboo poles, nor did they wear conical
    hats.) Western music was playing, and the indoor buffet had some
    western dishes. From the courtyard and through the indoor area, the
    street was visible and its filtered noise came through. Well,
    I felt like (and, in a sense I was in actuality) a French colonist
    having lunch with the other elite in Indochine (which is what the
    French called the Vietnam pensinsula when it was their colony). It
    wasn't a good feeling (though the food was delicious)... it was too
    eerie and uncomfortable to be enjoyable.

We already bought me sandals (Teva equivalents for $7.50... haggling
started at $12.50). I've asked Christine to buy me a conical hat and
peasant pyjamas. I'm looking for a bamboo pole, and two baskets (one
for my computer, one for the textbook). Maybe this will help make me feel
more comfy.

Posted by Toli at 03:47 AM | Comments (0)

March 02, 2004

A little too surreal...

..okay, I'm sitting in an Internet cafe with a semi-okay connection in the middle of Hanoi's Old Quarter. In addition to the tap-tap-tapping sounds of the computers, there are the bells of the cyclo drivers, the incessant honking of motorbikes and autos, and a myriad of other sounds filtering in from the streets of Hanoi. My stomach is processing some spicy Vietnamese hot pot, for which I know I paid way too much (the equivalent of about $3 for two), and I am praying that I don't get sick from eating my third street meal of the day. This is all very typical of the tourist's experience in Vietnam - you get the feeling that you're living in a book with all the loud sounds, bright colors, and flavorful dishes. But what I can't get over is the fact that there is a 30-year-old dwarf sitting behind me, practicing English with the girl at the counter and occasionally chastising me for calling him Chu ("uncle") when I should have called him Anh ("brother"). This is some place.

Posted by Christine at 07:28 AM | Comments (0)