Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Beef Ball Hotpot and Other Curiosities

Okay, back to the beginning...

The flight was actually much much easier than I remembered. Maybe it helps to dread it to the point where the reality can't help but be better than what you imagined. I think the Xanax sleeping pill Paul B. gave me was a big part of it too. I slept like a baby all the way to Alaska and beyond (I think). I was surprised how fast it all seemed. I hardly spoke a word to anyone on the flight to HK (again Xanax may have something to do with that), but ended up next to a young guy named Du~ng on the flight from HK to Hanoi. We got to talking and it turns out he's Viet kieu (overseas Vietnamese) from Wuerzberg Germany of all places. His English was shaky, but his German excellent since he's lived in Germany since he was 5. This was his first trip back home to VN after 14 years. I hardly have a chance to practice my German in Toronto, but there I was giving my German a workout while flying over the South China Sea. Go figure! We were both so excited when we touched down in Hanoi. I was trying to imagine all that was going through his head returning to a homeland he hardly remembers and to meet his grandparents for the first time in their native city.

After I picked up my luggage I wheeled it out through the exit doors into a crowd of people. I was searching the crowd and praying I'd see James Ha's friend Viet holding a little sign for me. Sure enough, there he was. It’s wonderful to have someone waiting at the other end, especially somewhere so far from home. We took a cab back to his friend Andrew's place. Andrew is an expat Ozzie who has been here two years. He’s incredibly generous and has been an invaluable source of advice and insight.

It’s amazing how all these connections have worked out. James introduces me to Viet who sets me up at Andrew's house and introduces me to half a dozen of his friends. And I guess all my chatting online is paying off. Yesterday I met Dat for coffee, and Thach has been calling at least twice a day from Saigon to see how I am making out. Thach has also asked his friend to help me look for housing. I hope to go house hunting with her tomorrow. She’s got a few places in mind. So I feel well cared for. On the other hand, I feel quite helpless most of the time. I don’t know my neighbourhood well enough to venture more than a few blocks away on my own - it’s a maze of boulevard, alleyways, markets and a buzzing sea of two wheeled traffic - so I’m always depending on someone to ferry me around on the back of their motos. And all the little things take so long to figure out. You take for granted the familiar routines that provide the context for your life until suddenly you are in a radically new context and all the minutiae of your life have to be reconstructed and reinvented from scratch. The expats say it takes a while.

Viet has been especially good to me. My first night here (Tuesday) he called up 6 of his friends (4 Viets, 2 expats) and took me out to a hotpot restaurant in the Ancient Quarter where we ate lau bo. It was dusk as we set out and by the time we got to Hoan Kiem Lake it was sparkling with lights and the pagoda floating on the island in the centre of the lake was glowing magically. We drove up the street Jon and I stayed on in 2002 and past our old hotel, past the bia hoi (fresh beer) vendor where I remember watching the theatre of the street. It was comforting to finally see something familiar. Our destination was near the ancient gate of the old walled city.

(Every ride through the city so far is an eye-popping and often hair-raising experience. There is so much activity; the streets bubble with life. And there is something so distinctive about the look and feel of a Vietnamese city street. It could be nowhere else: the street vendors in their conical hats, the moto traffic weaving madly, the canopied trees, the ubiquitous cafes with their miniature plastic stools.)

As for the restaurant, it was completely devoid of chairs, only grass mats and low tables. We shared a large beef hotpot and chatted in a combination of Vietnamese and English. Only two concerns. One was the big chunks of ice floating in the sweet corn tea we were all drinking, but I followed the lead of the two expats and have lived to tell the tale. The other concern…amongst various other cuts of beef in the hotpot were sliced beef testicles. Actually I was fascinated and it appears it was a bit of a novelty even for the Viet guys. I would have nibbled at one if it had found its way into my bowl but somehow it never happened.

It was great to be surrounded by such a friendly group on the first night. Viet has been great that way, and has been going out of his way to make sure I feel connected.

Today was my day to go to the university. I woke up early enough to find breakfast on the street. The vendors here each sell one thing only, so I went to one place for beef noodle soup, another for a baguette, and a third for a coffee - all within half an hour. The woman running the cafe looked me over and then began her questions. It was at that point that I realized how much I have actually learned from my Vietnamese tutor in the last 8 months. I was able to stumble through a 15 min. conversation with her. All basic stuff, but it felt like a victory for me.

After breakfast I negotiated a ride for about $2 on the back of a moto (xe om) to the university which is about a 20 minute ride south of my neighbourhood. The campus is set off from the street and very leafy and quiet with yellow painted buildings. I was met by one of the librarians at the administrative building and she brought me to the Foreign Office where I made my presence known. Of course it was accompanied by tea. Always tea. Then off to the library for a tour. It was there that I met Stephen, an Australian with whom I'll be working quite closely it seems. I think he's glad to have a English speaking colleague - as am I of course. I'll write more later about my impressions of the university and library. The best part was the lunch. The library staff has its own cook who lays out a communal lunch every day at 11:30 in a little glassed-in rooftop room. I'm looking forward to 6 months of these lunches. The chit chat will be a great opportunity to work on my Vietnamese. My colleagues are so curious and friendly and show such goodwill. We ate rice, plain tofu, sliced potatoes, pork belly dipped in salt and lime juice, and some kind on unidentifiable greens in a soup broth. Very simple but healthy.

Each day my experiences exceed the time (and ability) I have to describe them. I am sure I will always feel like I'm catching up as I am now.

Viet is coming to pick me up on his moto at this internet cafe for dinner in a few minutes. My tummy is starting to notice that it's not in Kansas anymore so he's taking me to a little place that serves an herbal chicken soup called ga tan. He has explained that it's good for what ails you, containing ingredients for the stomach, brain, circulatory system, energy, etc. A cure-all meal for about $1 each. (Now I expect half of you will be thinking I'm foolish given that I'm ground zero for the supposed impending bird flu epidemic, but I've done my research and cooked bird is all quite safe. I've never been a big fan of raw chicken and I guess I'll just have to pass on the experience of fresh duck blood.) Ok, enough for now.

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Anonymous Kyle said...

Howdy stranger,

Glad to hear that your chatting paid off and people are so friendly over there. Life here is still the same - work, gym, friends, and trashy reality tv. As you are not hear to experience all that, I'll give you the low-down.

As Jon have told you, Saturday is the day of the Great Birth, and the gang from the gym is going to Spuntini on Friday. Pooh-key was supposed to book Lee, but maybe it was the ancient blond roots, but we couldnt get the reservation. I've never tried Spuntini, but hear its good. You can join us in spirit as you take the virtual tour at

I granted myself 2 weeks of "birthday week" bonus bitchiness, so obviously Trevor is having a hard time adhering to taking it but not giving any back.

I've also been told by many that my longing and ever-so-apparent crush on Husband #2 is growing out of control. Oh, I just love Mr. Sweaty Big Hair...

That's it for now.

10:38 AM

Anonymous Trevor said...

Mark, as you can tell from Kyle's comments, nothing has changed here!
When Kyle said he could say whatever bitchy things he wanted because it was his birthday week, I asked him what his excuse was the other 51 weeks of the year. Still waiting for an answer.

So happy that everything is going so well for you! I'm not sure if I could adapt to a change in culture so quickly, but you had really done your prep work before you left, and I know you've been looking forward to this for a long time. The postings are great, fascinating. Keep them coming.

1:54 PM

Anonymous Lisa B. said...

Hi Mark

Sounds like you're settling in just fine. It's fascinating to be able to follow your adventure through your blog. I suspect that as much as all of us will enjoy these posts from you, when you come back you'll love having them the most.

I look forward to your further adventures with bated breath ...

8:37 PM


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