The Squeaky Robot

A Meddling Robot in a Human's World

Posts tagged “vietnam

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


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.


Posted on March 6, 2014

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The woman in the rice hat is my fashion hero.

I was invited to attend a celebration of Vietnamese history and culture. I was pulled into the section where the actors wait to make their entrance, and it gave a perspective that perhaps most audience members never experience. The costumes shimmered in the floodlights as the dancers depicted the rebellion of Vietnam against China, led by the Trung sisters, the country’s first female king and general. But all I could think about was, what are these actors thinking about? Grocery lists? Squabbles with loved ones? How they could use a cigarette right about now? Were they just enjoying the show and the movements they rehearsed a million times over? Or why is this white girl in their way?

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


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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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.

Born to Leave the USA

Posted on February 18, 2014

Today was so windy the smog practically rolled south of Hoan Kiem lake; it was the clearest view I’ve had of the tiny gray pagoda in the center. Walking along the water’s edge, on my way to the post office, it was the first time I felt that I belonged here; not to say I have the sturdy belonging of a local born and bred, obviously, but something much more than the fleeting existence of a tourist. In other words, an expat. The question I am most confronted with these days is, “Why Hanoi?” It’s a natural question, one that follows the dictums of polite conversation with strangers, but I still hesitate despite the frequent opportunities to get it right. The short, manufactured answer…

La Vie en Rose

Posted on February 14, 2014

The guy told me five dollars. I said, I know the fare is two, no more than three. He smiled widely, his gold caps shimmering in the light, and brought it down to four. I ended up walking to Ngoc Ha. It was only forty minutes, and I could watch the Old Quarter disappear to become long stately avenues, lined by gates with statements and fig tree shadows. Despite my incessant drowsiness – a mixture of jet lag, genuine fatigue, and the surreality of being brand new in a place as demanding and bustling as Hanoi – I was continuing the search for my apartment. I had already seen an elegant place in Tay Ho, a clean northern district known for being the most…