I had five days and a choice. Beach or mountains?
Mountains win every time.*
I had five days and a choice. Beach or mountains?
I had five days and a choice. Beach or mountains?
Mountains win every time.*
Even a short three-day trek reveals the diversity of the Tonkinese Alps. There are five ethnic groups in Northern Vietnam and they all have boundless subdivisions, each with its own culture, dress and dialect. The way to say “hello” in one village would not pass in the next!
If you find yourself wandering to the region, consider a trip with Sapa O’Chau. It’s an amazing community development project that gives work and education to local youth.*
I began with translations. My friend Phuong and I would sit in the Manager’s office discussing the nuances of our ancient text and which English words would be the best to communicate them.
“Around the mountain of Hong Linh, silver clouds disperse. The Lam River is formed by two flowing branches, one transparent, one opaque. Night falls on the river, lie and listen to the sloshing of the waves.”
The scripts were replete with such prose, heavy on folkloric scenery and the most noble occasions in Vietnamese history – battles won, maidens saved, lands conquered. Always a lotus in a distant mist, forever a drum ringing through still mountains.
Consuming these banal narratives for hours on end, it was not difficult to see why the theatre was struggling. Its substance was tired, outdated, irrelevant to Vietnam’s modern aspirations, one the fastest growing nations in the world. Hanoi and its populace were looking forward and were eager to move that way: high-rise projects across the city, iPhone case stores sprouting on every street corner, a near obsession with anything new. It is no surprise then that appreciation for thirteenth century folklore and traditional music lingered mostly among the oldest generations and tourists searching for depth and novelty in their travels.
It was painful seeing three hundred empty seats night to night, dedicated and talented actors playing their passion for no one. I proposed some ideas to the director and through a series of casual decisions on everyone’s part, it was settled that I should market the theatre to Hanoi’s tourists.
A lobby full of patrons mingles amongst each other amicably, sipping on royal lotus tea in delicate blue-white china. People soon file – efficiently but on their own accord! – into the dark arena, heavy with anticipation of the colorful spectacular about to effloresce. They had come to Ha Noi for this.
Hau, the in-house marketer, was twenty-seven and three months pregnant with her second baby. From the start she would hold my hands and arms frequently, and she began every one of her rough Viet-English translations with “excuse me.” No doubt the result of a tedious job and heavy responsibility at home, Hau looked chronically tired even through her smiles. It seemed that she was the one to take the brunt of the theatre’s failures, mostly through misguided reprimands from higher-ups and an air of lofty expectation that surrounded her every task, as if each of her singular actions had to have a tangible result in terms of increased audienceship. “Excuse me, I hope you help us,” she’d repeat in a way that was deliberate and cautious.
Hau became my point person because our roles were similar and her English was the best among theatre staff. We’d be on the street before every show, Hau in her traditional dress with a handful of flyers, and me informing oddly-shaped Westerners about details practical and abstract – how much was a ticket? Did the ornate costumes mean anything? To collide on foot – this was the theatre’s chief strategy at the time, and it was tragically contingent on the weather and general luck.
What we needed most was new promotional materials. I designed new ones, but there was no money for more than a few hundred prints. They had ordered thousands of pamphlets with more information any guest could possibly want, blocks of summaries and irrelevant details in a pale mustard hue. This would all be manageable had they been factual, the gravest error being incorrect show times and days.
This meant hours of daily extra work for Hau, printing out strips of sticky paper with the correct times, then painstakingly applying two on each pamphlet. A stack of one hundred would take over an hour to complete, and we needed them for outreach to hotels and travel agencies. We’d labor away together on this inane but necessary task, if only to best siphon our time and human capital.
The lights dim and there is a decrescendo of hushes among the audience. Suddenly the ringing of huge hefty drums reverberates through the room. Their faces are lit up green and red, and the sea of floating heads show looks of wonder and excitement. The show was beginning.
The first few weeks were permeated with impromptu meetings with random groups of men, saturated in rice wine and enveloped in clouds of tobacco smoke, who would only comment on my skin, height, weight and face. My attempts to discuss strategy and short-term action were met with hearty laughs, for it was, as it was explained to me, customary of professional dealings in Vietnam to first focus on light chit-chat and building good personal rapport with colleagues. I noticed, though, over time the theme of these meetings didn’t change.
“I’d like to give a discount to students. Many tourists think the tickets are too expensive for an hour-long show.” After a lot of smiling in my direction, one of the men got up to fetch the vodka.
We’d go back to our office without any slight satisfaction surrounding our agenda, and continue stickering.
Laughter erupts as the Mandarin’s bumbling attendants have tied themselves together 101-Dalmations-style in pursuit of a sly assailant. They’ve been tricked into drunken stupor. What comedy!
We could have said it was because of the rain, but we were too hard on ourselves for that. There were a few weeks of all-time low attendance and several show cancellations. Actors in full make-up and costume would float around the lobby, talking, smoking, playing with their kids, waiting to do a job no one was interested in. I would stand there tenuously, looming, as I felt cast in self-judgement projected onto others: Here was the foreigner who was supposed to help us, and now she’s just standing there, judging herself. Can you believe that?
Not one harsh word was directed towards me, only constant generosities and smiles – this time with a bluer flavor – but I would hesitate saying the same for Hau. By then I knew the difference between neutral and harsh Vietnamese. Besides, Hau’s sweet tired face said it all.
“What a show that was,” Fran from Minnesota beams to her son as they file out. “And pictures with the cast, too! What a show that was.”
By the end, it felt like trying to stop a colossal wave from reaching the shore. All we could really do was listen.
My contract ended in July, and I chose not to renew. On the last day I clambered up the dark stairs for one last time to say goodbye to Hau, to tell her she could call me anytime to help her sticker the mountain of useless pamphlets that sat tauntingly in the corner.
The stairwell was lined with dusty black-and-white prints of a show in action, flaunting the bold-faced greats and an age when everyone here was more alive. I followed these up to the third floor offices, now quiet and empty. Hau’s light was on.
“I’m not good at this,” she said, slouching in her chair, her eyes small and despondent. “It’s just me here, I do not know what to do.” The rotating fan in the corner became stuck and started clicking, clicking, clicking. “It’s not your fault,” I said. My eyes glazed over as I stared intently at nothing. “You know what? I’m not good at this either.” Hau smiled as she fiddled with her hands in her lap.
We sat there listening to the despairing fan as this thick truth hung in the leaden air of our office, the one of delusions lost, not really knowing what to do with it but deciding to finish the day on our own terms.∗
“I like to read about histories and dinosaurs and the universe!” she says wide-eyed. “Teacher, remember the video we watch? The universe is getting bigger and bigger as we talk!” Her arms stretch high over her head as she illustrates the vastness of the cosmos. Then she collapses into her chair, exhausted by the mysteries of our existence.
“There could even be aliens,” she exhales.
I see Hang three times a week, Saturday through Monday. I tutor her privately and in a group lesson. She’s also my Teacher’s Assistant for a raucous bunch of six-year-olds. Although she’s only one or two years their senior, she speaks and reads like a proper fifth-grader.
Sometimes she takes her role as a TA very seriously, marching around with a ruler and throwing the students stern looks. Other times she makes a fort in the corner of the classroom and reads a book. I occasionally ask her for help with clarifying directions, but in general I regard her as a free agent.
Hang’s house is also a school. Table and chairs occupy more square footage of their downstairs than actual free space. The walls exist simply as backbones for the towers of books leaning against them. Every evening, dozens of students of all ages work diligently on arithmetic and calculus problems, and Hang’s mother, Trang, flies around, correcting and advising.
“I must separate my brain,” Trang says. She must go from basic algebra to space-time mathematical models that trouble her most brilliant Master’s-level students in a matter of seconds. All the while wrangling her one-year-old son, a blundering pudgeball who leaves aftermaths worthy of tornadoes in his sorry path.
It’s a known fact Vietnam is notoriously hard on its students, all competing for funding and university placements that are elusive at best, but its teachers can suffer as well. Trang is working all the while she’s awake, and there’s really no such thing as vacation when her students have exams to pass and futures to seize.
“I want to be a teacher like my Mum. And, Teacher, I want to speak English like you.”
We study together in the attic of their house, in a small classroom with glass walls all around like a makeshift atrium for fake plants and dusty curtains. On the edge of Hanoi proper, the windows frame grasslands, farms and construction projects, alive and abandoned. Funnels of smoke peppered throughout the fields rise into the silver sky.
“When I am old and brilliant I will go to America to see you. They will give me money.”
“Who will give you money?”
“I will get IELTS paper, TOEFL certification, and I will be brilliant in maths and English, and they will give me money so I can study and live in America!” she exclaims.
“That’s great, Sweetie, and know that you already are brilliant!” I say in a sad voice that I can’t help.
She covers her mouth with her hands, hiding her gap-tooth smile.
“Oh, Teacher! I tell you I read there could be water on Mars?!”
“Wow!” I say. “Perhaps there is.”∗
As part of a larger project I’m pursuing, about Soviet-style tenements in Hanoi, I got the chance to explore one of these buildings with the help of Linh and Nga, a couple of guys from the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. The organization works all over Asia, but here in Northern Vietnam, many people still don’t have the formal rights to housing that they’ve purchased and lived in for twenty-five years.
The case of Hanoi architecture and living space is a complicated one, but a general trend seems to be that, beyond the “rules”, there are no rules.
Here we are scaling a splintering bamboo ladder to access the illegal roof garden. As we walked up the six flights of stairs, all the residents already heard about what we were doing. “Be careful,” they laughed, “it’s an old ladder.”∗
There are three types of people at festivals: those who work, those who play, and those who people watch.
A woman douses her festival fruits with sugar, chili and salt.
The kitsch needed to celebrate Mid-Autumn: masks, lanterns, noise-makers, drums, moon stars and Uncle Ho.
Food vendors must compete for attention.
The Old Quarter delights and suffocates.
Look up! A deep blue sky fades into a pink dusk. Radiant lanterns float in the trees. Bubbles whirl through the flow of the streets. People chant under a large red moon. These hypnotic whimsies distract from more important things on the ground.
A crowd inches along Hang Ma, Lantern Street, like oozing lava.
Bo Bia is a thin pancake with honeycomb, coconut fibers and sesame seeds. Buy one to try it, of course, and also because these women work incredibly hard.
Chaos itself looks at Hanoi and says, “No, thank you.”∗
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.∗
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.∗
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.
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.∗