The Squeaky Robot

A Meddling Robot in a Human's World

Posts tagged “vietnam

Black Hmong & Red Dao

Posted on November 4, 2014

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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.*

The Spring of Magical Thinking

Posted on October 28, 2014

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…

Conversations with an 8-Year-Old Hanoian

Posted on October 14, 2014

“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…

Bamboo to Heaven

Posted on October 5, 2014

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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.”

Crowds & People

Posted on September 9, 2014

Hang Ma

There are three types of people at festivals: those who work, those who play, and those who people watch.

Star

A woman douses her festival fruits with sugar, chili and salt.

Uncle Ho

The kitsch needed to celebrate Mid-Autumn: masks, lanterns, noise-makers, drums, moon stars and Uncle Ho.

Vendor

Food vendors must compete for attention.

Snake

Children wear masks and growl like tigers to frighten Ra Hu so he will not gobble up the entire moon.

lights

The Old Quarter delights and suffocates.

Child

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.

Lanterns

A crowd inches along Hang Ma, Lantern Street, like oozing lava.

Bo Bia

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.

Bubbles

Chaos itself looks at Hanoi and says, “No, thank you.”

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…

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…

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