The Squeaky Robot

A Meddling Robot in a Human's World

Posts tagged “writing

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.

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…

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…

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…

How to Buy Groceries

Posted on March 22, 2014

After a full week (or was it longer?) of eating out, I yesterday felt compelled to go grocery shopping. Normally I’d take my bike, but I’d been driving everywhere recently. It felt right to go by foot, headphones in, daydreaming on shuffle, going a pace all my own. It is in these moments that I feel most this city is my new home; moments of serenity and clarity in a life and setting that breed chaos. (Though on some days I wake up dazed, astounded by the fact that I live in Asia, and I am so shocked and humbled by this that I sometimes forget to put shoes on before going outside.) Walking around Hanoi is special, anyway, because you have to adopt…

Hanoi is for Fugitives

Posted on March 20, 2014

Nights in Hanoi aren’t for the sparkling clubber or clean-cut man in business-casual; they should be in Saigon. There is no vanity to Hanoi, and so this city without a mirror lets you into its Vietnamese soul. Nights out begin at a harshly-lit street restaurant with moldy plastic stools that buckle and food like stir-fried noodles doused in hot sauce and an entire tree branch of limes. Its beauty is in its simplicity. Beer must be bought next door, seventy-five cents. Afterwards you’ll find yourself in some sort of dark space with dim bulbs that emanate a pointless light – perhaps live music is playing, maybe radio jazz, or just the quiet whispers of people getting to know each other. No matter the venue,…

Fifteen Hours

Posted on March 17, 2014

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It was the shock of waking up one day and realizing I had to fill the next fifteen hours with something of substance.

To fill my fifteen hours, I would go places and watch Hanoi in action. Stepping outside meant to step into a sparkling cloud of warm mist. There was seldom a sun. Just mist and smog and drags of smoke from people lighting fires in the streets as a slew of motorbikes sailed by, jerking smoke around like silk laundry in wind. Maybe for warmth or to dry socks, I figured. No, just to watch papers burn.

To fill my fifteen hours, I signed on for kickboxing. My performance in the first class was pitiful, like a T-Rex trying to punch a floor pillow. But then my brain said, Aha! Your greatest asset has always been that you’re a quick learner. And by now, dear reader, I could probably knock you out.

To fill my fifteen hours, I began meeting my friend Phuong to work. We were translating a long script for the Tuong Theatre. It was hour after hour of sitting, talking, negotiating, sometimes fighting a tug-o-war of words, each of us defending our linguistic prowess. Translating first from old-timey Vietnamese, then the more modern stuff. Phuong would explain the idea, what’s important in this sentence? In this stanza? I need more context! I’d then make it into something, powder to pills, and clean it up, tie it up into crisp clean copy.


To fill my fifteen hours, I was hired by the same theatre as somewhat of a publicist. Tuong shows are about Vietnamese folklore, history, culture, stories passed down by old men with long gray beards to those with eager young ears while incense burns nearby. The costumes of the actors are embellished to a degree that can’t be communicated here; the paint on their faces is rich and thick, so opaque with confident demarcations of the blackest of blacks, and same for reds and blues and whites, you’d think it were a wooden mask waiting to dry. As far as the Western world is concerned, the one that travels to Vietnam and Hanoi for vacation, Tuong Theatre doesn’t exist. This is where me and my fifteen hours come in.

And so something of substance fell from a hazy sunless sky, as it often does.

Road to Somewhere

Posted on March 5, 2014

I took my bike out late at night to get more practice while the roads were clearer. It was a warm night, the city blanketed with slick pavement that made that sticky noise of rubber and rain, a Hanoi drowning in purple and red buzzing lights – hotels, eateries, flower shops, anything. The road, like a midnight river, reflected the flashing fluorescence. Rainbow Road. I zoomed past Ho Chi Minh’s red-lit tomb, my quiet illustrious neighbor, and around Ba Dinh, making sure to go on new streets, uncovering places I’d never been. I circumvented West Lake, smiling at the realization that I needed no map, I needed no help. There was no one else there at the top of the lake, the green-gray water…

Temple of Literature

Posted on February 22, 2014

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I met Phuong and her twelve-year old daughter Dan outside the Temple of Literature. Established in 1070 by King Lý Thánh Tông, this is a historic fixture of Hanoi that is not to be missed. It was used to foster the talent and energy of Vietnam’s people, a serene place for sages and Confucian scholars to learn and train; “The talent of the country is the health of the country,” Phuong explained. We walked along hundreds of stone tablets resting on carved tortoises, symbols of longevity and wisdom. These were in honor of the doctor laureates who had excelled in a given discipline: history, math, politics, it goes on and on. Every facet of this place was dripping with venerable tradition; it seemed an appropriate vestige of ancient ways, an homage to literature and the written word, as I watched a master of classic calligraphy make his brush dance.

Afterwards we went to a coffee shop and Dan pulled out her science textbook. It was all in English, Phuong said, and Dan was behind given they just moved back to Hanoi after three years spent in Germany. I was then asked to help.

As I detailed the differences between compounds and mixtures, solvents and solutes, and independent and dependent variables, Dan was quiet but I saw she was trying to absorb everything I was saying. She wanted to learn, it was clear, and she wanted to understand. There was an undeniable brilliance to her, a natural curiosity not easily attained. I couldn’t help thinking how she would have done well a thousand years ago, owning her own tortoise carved from stone.

I waddled home with my backpack and helmet, rejecting all the pressing taxi drivers along the way, for it was a cool, humid evening and I began going through the Vietnamese alphabet in my head.

Twin Cities

Posted on February 21, 2014

There are two Hanois: one where you’re not on a bike and another where you are. In the first Hanoi, it’s a still city built on crumbling stones, sewn together by telephone wire and tree vines that menacingly curl their way outward. In the second, it’s just a wave of bikes like blood cells in a vessel, and it becomes a labyrinth to be negotiated with expert pace and maneuvering and the chaos of the sidewalks – the people walking, working, eating, welding, cleaning, smoking, laughing – becomes an incoherent blur with the wind hitting your face and you wondering why you haven’t done this before.

Arguably, not all newcomers ever experience Moving Hanoi. It becomes a tough world to penetrate psychologically, and the reliability and safety of walking and taxis are favored. My first few days, I walked everywhere under the pretense of “getting to know the city,” but the reality is I didn’t yet know how to enter Moving Hanoi. How to summon a xe ôm, motorbike taxi, and what to pay? Where do I get a helmet – a good helmet, not just a plastic skullcap that becomes shards in the event of collision? When and where should I start searching for my own bike, so that I can toggle the twin cities at my leisure and convenience?

My first xe ôm was the first time I felt part of a new world, a Hanoi defined by its movement, not just a person standing in it as fixed as a tree, watching the current come and go. I felt like an insider, like I had upgraded my existence here: I found a spare helmet in my house, I walked up to one the guys who lean against their bikes on street corners, and we indulged talk of place and price. We soon set off; I held on to the bar behind me but I soon realized I didn’t need it. I was stable, I was sailing, I was part of the seamless blur of light that electrified this place, and I was watching the first Hanoi, the still Hanoi of tree tendrils and telephone wires, go wistfully by, like a friend of the distant past.

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