The Squeaky Robot

A Meddling Robot in a Human's World

Lanterns on Quang Ba

Posted on July 29, 2014

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Maybe you don’t know yourself as well as you thought or, perhaps more accurately, you are your own source of surprises. Before Vietnam I would tromp around loudly declaring, “All I want is travel! I have permanently itchy feet!” and a host of similar yet colorful varieties of this. I remembered how it used to be on any given trip, the thrill of the journey, the dirt that didn’t matter, the tranquil uncertainty of choosing left over right for no reason. It was this feeling of controlled falling I craved, and the lessons and adventures that were inherent. Hanoi would only be a juncture in my grand scheme, for the whole point was unrelenting, intrepid exploration across the Asian continent and beyond.

It’s been five months and I haven’t left Hanoi, save for one hour outside, twice. And I don’t feel that pressure building up, the one that tells me I should be heading somewhere newer, the same one that presses on you as you’re running towards the edge of a cliff about to plunge into a turquoise sea. Rather, Hanoi is a winding finite place with surprises everywhere like a dense Easter egg hunt, and it has kept my restless soul from boredom longer than anticipated. Navigating similar roads everyday, I feel at peace; this traffic, this maze but a game. Being able to give directions and recommend street food fills me with immense pride. I enter classrooms and I’m greeted with the familiar shrieks of kids whose aptitude for learning English constantly impresses. In these routines I feel the delight that my small students show when they run up to me with a drawing of a ship or an elephant that is particularly on point.

But every Easter egg hunt has an end, and I’ll be gone from Hanoi in October. In the meantime things will be business as usual, and this means ignoring the lofty abstracts of plans and time and dealing only with tangible goals and problems. Where should I fix my bike? What should I do about the student who clings to my legs like a hyperactive monkey? What neighborhood haven’t I explored? When will I go? What food haven’t I tried yet? Where can I find it? Unlike at home where everyone asks me what I plan to do that day, that week, that year, here it seems none of us have a past or a future; we’re just enjoying Hanoi together until the eggs run out.

Every night along the lake the women come out with their carts of drinks and snacks. The straw mats are rolled out and flattened, the lanterns lit. If you find the good spot, you’re next to stairs that lead straight into the water, black like sloshing oil. Some groups gather around the light and talk politics while spitting sunflower seeds into the water, others are silent as they lean on each other and look onto a mellow humming cityscape. It’s one of the many places in Hanoi where I forget before’s and after’s, for there are mats to lie on and stars to count.

Grab a Seat

Posted on July 11, 2014

For the budget-conscious person in Hanoi, there are no better alternatives to eating than traditional Vietnamese dishes found on every sidewalk, corner and alleyway. One needn’t look far. The food here is delicious, cheap and fun, as it requires a level of proactivity and interactivity that is unfamiliar to many cuisines worldwide. I say proactivity because the best places in Hanoi only serve one thing, and they only serve that one thing for a short window in the day. My favorite bun cha place is open for three hours a day at most, even less if they run out of food. So you must plan and run. Once you plop down on a dubious plastic cube, the interaction begins. Fix your plate with whatever options are available: limes, chili sauce, garlic vinegar, pepper. Mix whole chilies into your fish sauce – let it rest! The chilies must permeate everything. Many times it gets more physical. If you’ve got banh xeo or nem lui, be prepared to roll it up in rice paper, adding herbs and whatever else you want. Pay equal attention to your noodles, herbs and meat while eating bun cha; be judicious at your local com binh dan place, a buffet-style lunch offering much variety for little cost, choosing only the best quality of your favorite dishes. And so you must make and construct your food with precision and care. Met with cold bia hoi, a summer night with a breeze and good friends, there is nothing more to be had or said.

Mien Muc Tron

A rare find indeed. A delectable mix of glass noodles, fish patties, peanuts, topped with crispy squid!

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The Spread

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Pho Ga

There are two types of people in the world. One of them shrugs their stupid shoulders and goes, “What’s the big deal about pho?” The other knows fully well what the big deal is, but doesn’t respond because they’re eating pho.

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Banh Xeo

The texture of Vietnamese food is one of contrasts. Banh xeo, “sizzling cake”, is simply a rice batter fried to a crisp, translucent and yellow. Then filled with pork and whole shrimp to be folded into a half-moon crepe. THEN. You roll this majestic entity into a thin dry rice paper, pile it with herbs and green banana, and dip. The crunch that follows is on par with a religious experience.

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Banh Cuon Nanh Thit Lon

Earthy flavors, sweet and sour too. A succulent pork-mushroom mixture, loosely wrapped in mushy rice papers, to be dipped in the classic fish-chili sauce. One plate is small; I recommend ordering many different plates, no less than thirty.

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Bun Bo Nam Bo

The beauty of all this is that it’s fast and fresh.

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What Lies Behind the Curtain?

Untold treasures of the culinary persuasion, there can be no doubt.

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Pho Xao Bo

“I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life,” said Diego Rivera about his unibrowed paramour. And I did not know it then, but pho xao bo had already become the most important source of carbohydrates in my life.

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Com Binh Dan

Argentina has Lomo a lo Pobre, Poor Man’s steak. Vietnam has Com Binh Dan, Poor Man’s rice. Evidently poor men eat well.

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Banh Da Cua

Flat brown noodles soak up a broth teeming with crab and fried fish.

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Grab a Seat, Someone will be with you shortly

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Crickets & Cubs

Posted on June 12, 2014

I sing to myself while driving my bike. No one can hear me in the wind and the rumbling purr of my 1982 Honda Cub, lime-green if you want to know. But on my way to meet with a new student, the purr became a thunderous rattle, and I couldn’t hear my own voice anymore.

After the short meeting, the Cub was completely shot. The kickstarter shook loose, the brake pedal was jiggling but somehow also stuck. With every attempt at the gas the rattle grew louder, opaque exhaust spewed into the air. The quiet black alleys of West Lake reached new heights of emptiness as I solemnly rolled the machine forward.

What could I do? Mechanics were all closed at this hour. I had the equivalent of fifty cents in my wallet. I had my debit card, it was true, but I was unsure how perilously close the balance was to red and I wanted to avoid ATMs if possible.

An old British man stopped me along the way, asking me if I needed some gas. A group of Vietnamese were drinking beer across the road, watching our exchange with mild interest. Crickets were singing in the swaying trees. No, I said, My exhaust pipe is completely detached from the engine. Thanks though.

I’m not a person to overreact. Many of the inconveniences we meet in life I don’t care about. And I didn’t really care then. It would be fixed eventually – the worst case scenario, rolling my bike a long way home at night, was at most a neutral event. It would just be something to happen. I was just thankful to have my headphones with me.

But then my bleak prospects disappeared. I realized I had many friends in the area, and at least one of them had to be up. My new plan was to leave the bike at their place and deal with it tomorrow.

I took a right off the main road and wheeled to their house with renewed vigor. They were startled by my unexpected presence, then invited me inside.

I was starving. I fixed myself fried eggs and tomatoes. I had Vang Da Lat, cheap red wine that tastes like rice vinegar.

The crickets continued their songs outside. The street lights flickered black. We talked about school shootings in America, and how they heard my friend was shot in the leg in one of them. We talked about the cute Italian guy who works at the gelato place, about future plans and travel.

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The happiness of that moment was acute. How comfortable I felt with these people I didn’t know two months ago, how I was so thoroughly welcome, no questions asked. How I could casually cook myself their food in their kitchen, then casually clean up afterwards. Belonging is neither something I’m used to nor something I consciously seek. But there I had it right in front of me. I almost missed the moment thinking about how happy I was to have the moment.

I was sent away into that same dark night on a bike that wasn’t my own. One friend lent me her orange ride, another trusty Cub, so that I could get home. I zoomed away smiling and singing.

The friends I’ve met in Hanoi, I want to hug them and tell them how I much I appreciate them, how it’s been a pleasure and privilege, how my life is infinitely better with them in it, if only for a moment. How I miss them even though they’re here now – expats always leave. It sounds like I’m leaving. I’m not. But you never know.

Pho Xao

Posted on May 25, 2014

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If you follow The Squeaky Robot Instagram, you know it’s mostly just pictures of my dog and of pho xao, fried rice noodles with vegetables and meat. Sometimes doused with soy sauce, sometimes with garlic vinegar and a homemade chili concoction. While I can’t explain this love affair, I happily accept it. The catch is, I like so much lime in my pho xao the hole-in-the-wall I frequent sometimes refuses me limes because “they need them for other customers”. Or something like that.

 

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The Great Divide

Posted on May 1, 2014

For our purposes let’s steal a casual definition of dissociation from Wikipedia: “a mild detachment from immediate surroundings.”


The expat community in Hanoi is so large there is nothing I can confidently say about it, other than it is small. Meaning five thousand expats have only a few well-known places to congregate on Friday nights when the state curfew takes hold and the xe oms and cabbies belong to a different state, the one known as red-faced inebriation. It is no surprise, then, that in the confines of Hanoi proper, white people collide with each other on dance floors, in restroom lines, waiting for drinks at bars. Even on the road, I kid you not, I was once driving north on Au Co and an acquaintance caught up on his bike, gave me a nod, and zoomed off.


In the beginning they ask me about my marital status, and I ask about theirs. I am not trained to care about this, but I’ve found that it’s a fixture of many conversations between women here. Life before marriage is a build up to marriage. Life after marriage is family. Two friends in particular, both my age, inevitably gawked and giggled when I announced my singleness, which was preferable to the occasional looks of pity. They are sweet people, of course, but I desperately wish I could talk to them about what it means to be young and female in Vietnam, what they think of the government, how they perceive Americans. But usually my Vietnamese and their English isn’t strong enough for us to move past marriage.


For every connection made with an expat, forged by common language, spoken and cultural, and the shared outsiderdom that ignites most conversation, there is a connection lost with the people who make my street food, come by to collect utilities, sell me groceries, and reject me in a dispassionate way at the Office of Immigration. It means I have less time and energy for friendships with locals. It means I’m speaking English or Polish or Spanish or Russian, not Vietnamese, a language in which I can’t yet engage in comfortably. One more connection with an expat means one more step into a firm transparent expat bubble.


I’m not interested in how things can or should be, I’m just interested in how they are.


I’m a regular for many people here. I’m loyal to one pineapple vendor. A mother-daughter team sells me vegetables at a nice price. Twenty minutes away by bike on a charmless road named Pham Ngoc Thach, I pay frequent visits to a young woman who fries my rice noodles until they’re golden and a little burned. The pineapple lady sometimes gives me discounts if she needs to move her product. The vegetable duo let me hold their baby, a toddler who wears tutus. The noodle lady doesn’t give me any added perks, as there’s no reason she should, but I sit close to watch how she makes the food, and last night she moved a stack of plates so that I could see better.


My second day here, a French guy with blonde shaggy hair and a vacant gaze told me that he came to Hanoi intending to stay for five months. “But it sucks you in, you’ll see. All of this sucks you in.” It was creepy and cultish, like he knew a cryptic profundity that I didn’t, but now I understand and apply his words not to the merits of a singular shared Hanoi, but an alternate reality that can be infiltrated by foreigners and foreigners only. This is merely a chimera, though, as many expats never get to touch the Hanoi that is for Hanoians and understand it on any meaningful level. Seldom few will ever know what it’s really like, only how it is as they walk through this place with a buoyant padding of air around them, protecting them from sharp corners but withholding the grittiness that offers the most reward.

Expatdom is almost always synonymous with isolation. We are outsiders looking in, like a Dickensian scene of looking through a frosted window-pane at a lively indoor fire. The barriers of language, culture and pure logistics are often tough to transcend. And so I doubt that even the most empathetic and informed expat in Hanoi, and the one who makes utmost effort to breach barriers, will ever see this place through true Vietnamese eyes. I am not making claims of authenticity, that the Hanoi expats experience is fake, just inherent disparity.


Balance is everything.


The bubble. It is the slow process of becoming subsumed into a Hanoi that exists for 0.0008% of its denizens. This is expat Hanoi, and expat Hanoi can have a dark face. It’s a sexy mix of low cost living and living largely. Cheap drugs, booze, and hookers, even cheaper consequences. The way Hemingway wrote about his expat Jake Barnes, there was this palpable apathy in the air. I never felt this to be more true than now, like today is the only day that matters not because it’s the proper happy cliche, but because for many expats here, Hanoi is as good as it gets.


I went downstairs to make tea one day. One of my housemates was sitting in the kitchen. I said hello to him and quickly prepared the tea as I was planning to head out. I somehow stayed in the kitchen with him for four hours that day, talking about the qualities of a good film, and neither of us knew where the time had gone.


Hanoi’s small roads aren’t lit, and these roads consume much of the city. We were on our way to see a Malian band play. I was following the group. It became more difficult to see as we delved deeper into the labyrinth. Bright street restaurants were fewer in number as we drove along a muddy path with deceptively deep potholes. We kept going until it was completely black and silent, surrounded by dumpsters and stone walls. I figured we had to be on the edge of town, near the banana fields.

Then a gate from nowhere opened, and the scene was flooded with light. We wheeled through and found ourselves in a beautiful outdoor restaurant with christmas lights hanging from copious trees and vines and furniture that was mismatched on purpose. Everyone besides the staff and band was French and white.

The band, Musbaba, started to play. Everyone got up to dance. And I didn’t know where I was for a long moment. I was in an enclosed garden where only French was spoken with a backdrop of earthy Malian music. There was mud and silence outside. Children sleeping nearby, their mothers either cleaning up or watching blazing TVs on the floor. Dumpsters and bananas, too. I knew it was Hanoi but it could’ve been Europe or West Africa or anywhere else. I felt ashamed for being so affected by something so intangible and tenuous, especially in a world of such fluid culture and movement.


And so dissociation is precisely the word I need to describe how one moment I’m walking through my neighborhood, hearing children screaming in delight as they run home from school, smelling salty acidic fumes curl down the alley as a woman brews purple fermented shrimp, and the very next moment I’m just another foreigner in a sea of them, listening to two white guys play covers of recent top 50 hits or a Malian band play for French people in a literal bubble. In the former I am alone but wholly satisfied with my state and place – I came here for Hanoi, after all – in the latter I have connections and fulfilling conversations that go beyond myself, that go beyond marriage, as the best ones always do, but I am dissociated from Hanoi completely. I forget where I am. As in those people, that bar, that music, that conversation could be anywhere else in the world, even my hometown, the one I left with desperation.

This is not the nature of all expatdom, but it certainly is for mine. I can’t have both Hanoi and meaningful connection with others. And I don’t like thinking about which I love more.*

Quest

Posted on April 27, 2014

It was a two day affair in the woods, right next to Ba Vi National Park. An open air music festival and art exhibition called Quest. There was: a well-stocked bar and okay food; neon cubes; psychedelic tents with swaying glass disco balls; amazing live music in between subpar beats; a brown lake in which to swim; volleyball, my favorite; swings in trees; statues of giant elk; workshops for belly dancing and yoga and more; fire dancers and the smell of something burning; there was sideways rain and sky shattering lightening; dancing to Ray Charles in said rain; there were good friends and picnics and new friends; there were drugged-up expats, swallowing white pills and inhaling something from white balloons, letting them fart up into the sky and then scatter all over; there were pirates and tigers and characters of all sorts; there were fire ants, too, I think.

It was a two day affair in the woods, but I was happy to call it quits around 3am. I rolled into Hanoi when the sky was turning pink and I thought about Ba Vi, and how it was nice to see the stars.
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More than the Sum of Its Parts

Posted on April 9, 2014

Women sleep on hammocks along the water, barefoot and surrounded by tea canisters…

You try to capture your place in a neat little paragraph, one with compelling imagery – it’s a must! – of those shaded tree-lined boulevards, a serene ripe green in summer, prickly skeletons in winter. What’s in the air, as well? Parilla clouds in Montevideo. Dust and sand, intrusive, skin-stinging, is in Tripoli air I heard. Maybe love is in the air of Paris, Japanese tourists think, until they get there and see their dreams commit suicide by way of top of the Eiffel Tower.

In these descriptions you end up romanticizing your place in question beyond oblivion, to an extent that suffocates an unimaginably diverse entity and replaces it with the sometimes rosy, often simplistic concoction of your mind. Born from, what will forever be, a painfully limited experience. I know all this because I’m guilty of it too.

The short summaries of Lonely Planet and other travel guides and literature attempt to characterize places in this way. For legitimate purposes, no doubt. Tell readers and travelers how this place is, tell them what they must know and what to expect. They will thank you for it; their trips will be smoother, easier. They can make the most out of their two free weeks a year.

But it invites the danger of generalizing to the point of blandness, offering dubious literary certainties with no follow-up. It talks about a place in the context of a handful of eyes and opinions, in ways that are too confident. How, in truth, to describe my place, Hanoi, that captures its whole? Yes, the Old Quarter is a sight, stitched together by crumbling buildings that are alive, but Hanoi is more than the Old Quarter. How do I mention the city’s labyrinth of alleys, a system as expansive as nerves and synapses, that hide from the sun? How do I talk about the dizzying effect of the carbon monoxide I breathe in, sitting in rush-hour traffic? Or the incredible amount of animal abuse that goes on? Or how in some areas, the wires create a thick net that could catch a falling object and sometimes support the weight of even the fattest of roosters? Or the oppressive regime, both creators of laws and enforcers of them? Or the semi-abandoned amusement park at the top of West Lake that plays its music and turns its ferris wheel for no one?
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But what I find most offensive about these neat summaries is that they rob me of the grand surprise: that beautiful, indescribable feeling of being thrown into a place and going through it on your own terms.

Instead, I should talk about how the longer I am in Hanoi, the less I understand it. How one of the most nausea-inducing statements is anything resembling: “The [insert group here] are a proud people.” How I’d be a terrible travel-guide writer because for every place I’d write: “Just fuckin’ go and see for yourself.” How anyone who asserts absolute truths shouldn’t be regarded seriously. How answers are only good insofar that their questions are worth asking.

Instead, I should say that my truths are not yours, and my truths extend no further than my hazy line of vision and feeble reach of my arm: I’m people-watching from this cafe balcony. It’s a breezy cloudy day on the lake with good visibility. Women sleep on hammocks along the water, barefoot and surrounded by tea canisters. A spider has been pulling a thread from a nearby hanging leaf to my head, and it’s dangled here in front of my face longer than it should. Everything is interesting, and everything only happens once.

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