Pho Vo Thi Sau
At work I've arranged to work Monday to Thursday and leave Fridays for a bit of sight-seeing and some Vietnamese lessons. Last week though I was asked to come in Friday for the closing ceremonies of the English for Librarians program since I helped teach some sections of this program. I hesitated, but I am very relieved I went. I had no idea what was in store.
It turns out my colleague Stephen and I were big celebrities in the ceremonies. They even called us up to the front to deliver impromptu speeches in front of the University President. Being asked to deliver a speech out of the blue probably ranks up there as one of my least favourite things, but somehow it all worked out. After the speeches and photo-ops there was a banquet dinner. Stephen and I were seated at the table of honour with the Library Director, two members of the Board of Governors, and I was next to the President. They brought out platters of steamed fish, tamarind shrimp, salt-cooked chicken, braised beef, green papaya salad, etc. The top administrators were far from stuffy. In fact, they were very relaxed and a lot of fun. They insisted on pouring glass after glass of beer, and were not even beyond an occasional bawdy comment.
At one point, the President asked where in the city Stephen and I were living. When Stephen said Pho Ba Trieu, they exchanged knowing glances. Apparently it is famous for its "massage" parlours. But when I mentioned my new address on Pho Vo Thi Sau, the President looked up and said, "Ah, yes, the Black Spot!" And so I learned that my own cute little house is located in what was in only recent memory the drug hotspot of Hanoi - kind of like the Hanoi version of New York's Hell's Kitchen. But just like Hell's Kitchen, this area has been cleaned up. I won't say it's been gentrified, because that seems to involve Starbucks moving in - although I have discovered a really great pho bo joint across the street. The main street has a lot of workshops with metalworkers and mechanics, but there are also a few cafes, sidewalk restaurants and a bia hoi (beer garden). They cleared out the infamous "black spot" by putting in a couple small lakes. One of the lakes is a stone's throw from my house, and every evening at dusk, neighbourhood women gather at its side for an aerobics class. My house is down a cute little laneway. I love the network of laneways. There is a little courtyard a few steps from the house where neighbours gather for badminton and children run around. Vietnamese neighbours are notoriously gossipy and they notice every coming and going. I'm sure my appearance has got the rumour mill going. One morning I walked out and 3 little girls looked shocked. "Tay oi, tay oi, tay oi!" they screeched after me (tay ="west" or "westerner" and oi is something like "heh").
My house is three storeys, but I only really use two. The top floor contains a room with a little family altar (all houses have these), a laundry room and a large porch for hang drying clothes. The middle floor has a bedroom and a living room, and the first floor has a room to park motos and a large kitchen. Last night Viet helped me organize a little housewarming. There were 8 of us: 5 Vietnamese, 1 Israeli, 1 Australian, and me. We made baguette sandwiches and bought a big jug of draft beer from the bia hoi across the street.
The only downside so far is the rooster out back that likes to greet the dawn at 5:45 each morning. It feels nice to be settled. As much as I enjoyed staying with Andrew, I never had much of my own space to relax. Now I have a place to chill out. Next on the agenda: a moto and a gym!