The Squeaky Robot

A Meddling Robot in a Human's World

Posts tagged “asia

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…

Pho Xao

Posted on May 25, 2014


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.


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…


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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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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Royal Huế

Posted on February 19, 2014

In a gust of fortune I was picked up by two kind Vietnamese women, Ha and Thu Phuong, whom I know through like, five degrees of separation. They met me for tea, tea turned into lunch. A short ride to the French Quarter and I was bathing in sweet fish sauces infused with chili. It was a lunch of cuisine a la Huế, the ancient capital city in central Vietnam known for its copious World Heritage sites.

Central Vietnam’s royal and prestigious history affords its cuisine the same distinctions. It was a meal of dozens of small plates and involved methods of preparation. Banana leaves needed tender unwrapping, cakes of steamed rice patties needed to be rolled, every plate was to have a splash of a different sauce; the minced beef patties on lemongrass skewers had to be assembled by hand with herbs, mango, cucumber, and vermicelli, all rolled into sticky rice paper, which was to be dipped in a light peanut sauce. Indeed, there was something more to this meal than most. It was fun.

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Bánh bèo: tiny steamed rice patties topped with scallions, fried somethings, and crispy bread. Pour a little sugary fish sauce, and it’s an unbelievably good mix of texture and flavor.


Bánh nậm: another type of steamed rice cake infused with green onion, shrimp and/or pork. The technique here is to pour some fish sauce, slowly try to peel it off the leaf, then roll it into a tube.


Bánh ram ít: a sticky rice dumpling filled with pork and shrimp on top of a crispy rice cracker. The stickiness cannot be overemphasized; it feels like having very delicious glue in your mouth. I appreciated the crunchy cracker, which served as kind of a life boat to hold on to while chewing.


Nem lụi: Minced beef is wrapped around a piece of lemongrass and grilled. Then begins the painstaking – but very much rewarding – process of assembling the rice paper roll. I will definitely be doing this for future summer barbecues.

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So after five involved dishes, I was prepared to roll out of the restaurant. But Ha insisted that I try Bún bò Huế, the defining soup of the region. Unlike pho in Hanoi, the broth is really complicated; largely infused with lemongrass, it has different sweet, sour, and salty components. It’s also known for its wide array of meats and proteins: oxtail, pig knuckles, beef shank, congealed pig’s blood, and random types of cartilage. Ha said I needed the “complete experience”, and I agreed.

I took a motorbike taxi home. As I strapped on my helmet and jumped onto the back of the bike, I swear to god, acceleration was slower than usual.

Goodbye to All That

Posted on January 14, 2014

After a personally tumultuous final semester of school I moved back home in May. And it seemed like the second my foot went through the door, it signaled some great wisp of malevolent air that threw my dad out of remission. He was dead in September. The thing that made me relatively okay throughout the year was the grand idea that I was going to see Asia – Vietnam – by the end of it. It was the year of controlled, meditated breaths and talking to myself, coaching, negotiating: I’ll be in Southeast Asia soon. This – travel, place, otherness – had become the solace of my small life. I’ve endured bad breakups with, “Well, at least I have Argentina.” General anxieties about life…

In Defense of My Disdain for Itineraries

Posted on January 5, 2014

I don’t know a fraction of what there is to know in the world, and neither do you. An itinerary is like a songbird’s cage, like blinders on a horse but voluntary, because an itinerary is born within the confines of that fraction of a fraction of what we do happen to know. While general intentions are necessary and the research we do before a trip is useful, making an itinerary down to the exact hour is neither. Just like it’s impossible to know what will happen in any future, near or far, it is impossible to police a trip with a piece of paper, no matter how bolded the font. It’s like trying to reign in life with absurd expectations like wanting to…


Posted on December 16, 2013

Five years ago, I decided I would love Hanoi. I was reading a travel piece on it while waiting for my dentist to finish drilling holes into someone else’s head. It seemed like a place for romantics – the literary romantics, the ones who can stare at a leaf for three hours and see the whole universe, the ones who spot a lone red balloon and are suddenly devastated. It seemed like Hanoians hovered on their scooters and bikes, creating a ceaseless, connected blur from dawn to dusk and through the night like a floating infinity symbol. It would be a place where I could be alone and not feel alone. Color would be everywhere. These are lofty expectations. I typically don’t nurture these…