Cell phones, Gyms & Dog Meat
I now have two Ha Noi weekends under my belt. It's hard to believe it's only been two. I feel like I've been here months now. Yesterday I took a motobike taxi (xe om) home from the outskirts of town where I played my first game of ultimate frisbee (a kind of frisbee football). It was a long and chaotic ride (the driver complained: xa qua, xa qua!) and lasted perhaps 20-25 minutes. I thought how much I have acclimatized, when I was hopping off the bike I realized that I spent the entire journey text messaging people on my phone with one hand while I hung on the back of the seat with the other. This is significant for at least three reasons: 1) I am no longer phased by the traffic; I was mostly oblivious to all the swerves and near-misses as I typed away; 2) I have at least a dozen friends and contacts in my cell phone already; and, 3) I have succumbed to the epidemic of texting that has swept Asia. This must be the most networked city on earth (or is it just Asia?). Everyone knows everyone, and once you have contacts in a few different groups, you are quickly known to entire networks. People don't seem to leave home without their cards which they hand out liberally. Ha Noi has been called a city of villages and perhaps that explains it. Everything is everyone's business.
Maybe because of this intense interconnectedness people aslo erect social partitions in order to try to protect their privacy. In a previous post I think I mentioned how the gay community is composed of groups. People are members of these groups and are identified as belonging to one. I haven't had much luck getting people to mix between them. It's paradoxical: people know everything about each other and yet pretend they've never met. I asked a group of Vietnamese guys what is the fascination with text messaging. They said it is popular for two reasons: it is cheaper than calling, but it is also a way to communicate without the risk of being overheard. It's a way of networking, but keeping silent at the same time. Maybe this is the consequence of living in a very densely populated society and one in which people live much more communally than we do in the West.
I'm realizing how taboo my blog is. Here I am publicly writing about people. If this blog were discovered by Ha Noi, I'm sure it would be social suicide. If I can find a way, I might make it accessible by invitation only (stay tuned).
Back to my weekend... Viet picked me up on Saturday morning and we spent the day riding around. Viet just treats me like one of the guys, and so I find myself with a guide of Vietnamese life. The great thing is that he doesn't even think about it. In fact, he often doesn't even tell me where we are going until we are there. So Saturday he took me to a Vietnamese gym out in the outskirts of Ha Noi.
I wasn't prepared for the sight, but it seems neither were the other guys prepared to see the likes of me. The gym was just one small room crammed with equipment and people working out. There were very few woman, and almost all the men work out topless. These guys were in very good shape. Let's just say it was distracting. I know I'm a curiosity as a white guy outside of the tourist areas, but generally people don't make much of a fuss (except perhaps little kids who gawk). In the gym though I seemed to have created a stir. The entire gym stared at me as I walked in and as I worked out.
After the gym, Viet's friends met us at a dog meat (thit cho)restaurant. Dog is generally only eaten in the second half of the lunar month when it is considered lucky. Eating it too early can bring bad luck. And it is mostly eaten by men, since it associated with virility. I would have been happy with just a taste, but dog meat is a multi-course meal. It is eaten with a mixture of fresh herbs, vermicelli noodles, and dipped in shrimp paste (mam tom). Frankly it wasn't my favourite. It was a bit gamey and grisley. Probably the lemongrass grilled pieces were the best. I wasn't that fond of the little sausages of dog intestine stuffed with some kind of nut. They tasted a bit like liver. Even though it wasn't my favourite meal so far, I must say though that it really was not a disturbing experience. It felt quite normal. Just not my favourite. The restaurant happened to have a little pet toy dog running around. It was definitely not the kind for eating (dog meat comes from a special breed which is farmed), but still I don't think it had any idea of the irony of its situation. I just hope it has been trained not to eat scraps off the ground.