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

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Pho Co: 36 Streets

No it's not another soup. Pho co is the name of the old quarter, literally meaning ancient streets. It's also known traditionally as the 36 streets. Somehow the latter name seems like a lie. The number suggests a limit, as if you would exhaust the area by counting them off. In fact, pho co embodies a kind of infinity within. Over the last two weeks I have wandered around here many times. The area assaults the senses and boggles the mind.

Several times I have met friends after work for an iced coffee with friends at the Au Lac cafe behind the famous Hotel Metropole. It's all very genteel and beautiful sitting under the canopy of trees and taking in the French architecture. But when I wander north into pho co, the streets change and begin to meander off defying any sense of direction. The Vietnamese I have met cannot speak of the city in terms of compass points as we do in North America. In fact, they don't seem to be able to point out things to me on a map either. There is no use for me to say I am staying south of Hoan Kiem District. The city is a place they known by intuition, not by a rational mental grid. (See the article "Paradoxes of Discovery" which I have linked from my blog sidebar.) I have only just begun to wander around without a map for the first time. If I get lost, I can always hop on a xe om and direct them to my address in Bach Khoa. But getting lost is half the fun. It is during those times I feel I experience the infinity of the district. There is a richness of detail, of both architecture and human life: the unexpected pagodas, street vendors, hidden alleys, market streets, and sidewalk cafes.

At the same time, I worry that the area has lost something in the three years since I was last here. Each street is still named after an ancient guild or trade that once operated there. There is a chicken street, a paper offerings street, a tinsmith street. (Here's a list of the meaning of the 36 streets.) Over time, the trades of the streets have changed and the names are no longer reflective of the businesses, but even just a few years ago the old quarter was still like a giant department store, with neighbourhoods of merchants and artisans engaged in the same trade. I remember a bird cage area, a sunglasses street, a gravestone street and a candy lane. Somehow these themes seem less striking now than I remember them in 2002. The businesses are more mixed and more gentrified.

On the other hand, the changes have also brought about some improvements. I remember being constantly harassed by street vendors hawking gum, maps, travel guides, and lottery tickets (not to mention marijuana and opium) . They were very aggressive and Jon and I came close to being assaulted by a desperate map vendor. This irritation is mostly gone, although if you linger too long on a corner looking at a map, the xe om and cyclo drivers appear out of nowhere to offer their services. I was told today that most of these vendors were shipped back to the countryside during the ASEAN Seagames hosted by Hanoi several years ago.

But how many of the irritants are part of the overall flavour? Tonight I sat on little plastic chairs at a sidewalk cafe. Suddenly a jeep swept around the corner followed by 4 or 5 motos and screeched to a halt directly in front of my curbside seat. Stern looking green uniformed police jumped out and confiscated all the tables and chairs (including the one I was sitting on) and screeched off again just as quickly. It was a very abrupt and alarming experience. Apparently the street's sidewalks were not designated for patio use. Of course the messy life on the sidewalks are half the fun and charm of the old streets of Hanoi, chaotic as they may be.

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Monday, August 29, 2005

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.

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Friday, August 26, 2005

The Working Week

I haven't posted in a while. I was on a roll with a post per day, but then my first working week hit. So no, I haven't fallen off the edge of the world, I've just been busy with the routines of daily life. I guess these routines don't seem as worthy of note either, even though daily life here is always full of surprises and discoveries.

At the moment I have been helping my colleague teach some units of a English for Librarians program. This program brings together about 40 or 50 librarians (mostly young women) from across Viet Nam for English language training. Most of the program is simply language learning, but Stephen is responsible for teaching three classes a week in which they discuss library issues in English. These are the units I have been helping with. Stephen warned me that they are intensely curious about us (and especially me since I've just arrived) and so I decided to start things off with a presentation on Toronto. I took dozens of pictures of landmarks and street scenes in Toronto before I left. I was to give this on Wednesday, but at the last minute we got booted out of the classroom with the projector so we ended up having to improvise something for an hour. Our solution was to let them indulge and ask us questions - not necessarily library related. Thankfully the fact that I am not married with a family at the ripe old age of 36 (gasp!) had already circulated thoroughly through the grapevine so I wasn't pestered by this perennial Vietnamese question. Still, here are some I got: "Do you think Vietnamese women are beautiful?", "Do you know how to say I love you.?" (I did much to their surprise.) "Do you think you will find a nice Vietnamese girl while you are here?" A friendly bit of advice I got from one of the lecturers at the university, is never let them get hold of your cell number, especially if you are single. You will never hear the end of it.

They seemed to delight at comparing me and Stephen. Stephen is taller. Mark is older. Stephen is a more experienced teacher. They also like comparing our accents. Stephen had prepared me for one thing: the Vietnamese love sing for each other and sing together, and it is not unusual to be asked to perform on the spot. No wonder there are karaoke bars everywhere. Sure enough the question came: can you sing? I pretended to be shocked and unprepared, but then I came out with a short little aria from Mozart's Don Giovanni. They were all quite surprised (and oblivious to the fact that I had forgotten the lyrics and was ad-libbing faux Italian). I then followed it up by a verse of the Irish folk song Down by the Salley Gardens. I think I will live to regret this. I have had several follow up requests already, and they have even suggested an evening out at karaoke. God forbid!

On Monday I still intend to give my presentation on Toronto, and another later in the week on York University Libraries as a case study of an academic library. Later yet I will give more detailed presentations on library services.

Despite all of this, I feel underemployed. After the English for librarians program is over I think they would like me to improve the English of the library staff and somehow introduce library services like reference and information literacy instruction. There are two big (related) problems. There is no collections budget to speak of and they are mostly dependent on donations. Consequently the collection is not particulary relevant to the curriculum and the students don't see the importance of the library to their education. I've got some ideas about some strategies, but at this point I'm still trying to figure the place out. The management style is very hands-off. That's great if you want to be left alone, but I'm not sure what happens when you try to initiate change.

I'm very sorry to say that my initiation into the cuisine of dog meat has been postponed. I went out with Tuan Anh (the one Jon and I befriended 3 years ago) last night and we went to a bia hoi joint, but thit cho was not on the menu. Instead we ate squid, fish fried rice, and drank draught beer. Afterwards we went to a rooftop patio for an iced black coffee (I'm cutting back on the sweetened condensed milk) and eventually to a pool hall. I really like Tuan Anh. He's very generous and always concerned about my experience in Viet Nam. He's also fun and loves the bia hoi scene. At dinner last night he invited me to come to Hai Phong for the day to see his home town and visit his parents on Sept. 2nd which is Independence Day. I'm honoured but wonder whether I should stay in Hanoi that day to see the huge celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

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Monday, August 22, 2005

My First Commute

Today was my first real day at the university. I went in for a visit last week on the back of a moto taxi (xe om), but this time Viet said he'd pick me up early in the morning, take me for breakfast at a street stand, and then taxi me on his bike for 8:30. I woke up worried to the sound of heavy rain because i don't have the kind of full length poncho style raincoat that is appropriate for moto transportation. Thankfully the rain let up by the time he rang the bell. Breakfast was at a little open-air corner cafe where we ate banh my sandwiches with pate and pork fat (yeah, I know), cold soy milk, coffee (nau nong), and some kind of beef stew. Then we headed out...

Well, I thought commuting to York was bad! This was possibly the most memorable commute of my life (with the exception of the blackout in TO). We headed down the most direct route from downtown but hit a traffic jam - thousands upon thousands of motos buzzing and snarling and buses in between spewing out exhaust. We weren't going anywhere so we doubled back and headed west to try another route. Same story. It seems the rain caused the roads to flood and this snarled up the whole city. Viet tried to negotiate smaller routes and alleys, but this didn't work so we went back to the main boulevard. Many of the frustrated moto drivers decided to ignore the divider and use the opposite side of the street going into ongoing traffic. Of course this was dangerous, so instead a whole stream of motos (us included) hopped onto the unusually wide sidewalk. God forbid there actually be pedestrians using the sidewalks! This approach got us to the next roundabout which was snarled with a very pissed looking cop in the middle shouting at people.

In the middle of this sea of motorbikes, I hear my name. This is extremely unlikely in this city of how many million where I know maybe a dozen people. It was Stephen, my Australian colleague from the library at the university. After idling alongside for a few minutes, it occured to me that I should just switch bikes and and let Viet turn back and avoid this mess. Eventually Stephen and I made it to the campus which had been completely flooded by the rain. The students were wading barefoot into the campus in a foot of water. The library was an island, the water lapping right up to the building. Luckily Stephen's bike could cut through it and I somehow I arrived relatively dry. The water had drained away half way through the day. I'm told this is not a usual commuting experience, just an unfortunate first impression.

The rest of the day was very pleasant. I spent the time preparing one of my presentations to the English For Librarians course I'll be participating in. There was our communal lunch on the rooftop, and then naptime! All the staff find a little corner to curl up and doze off. There are no cots so I just pulled up six chairs and made myself a little makeshift bed. Then I went to the first class just to meet the students. Later the whole class was invited to a nearby house for a little goodbye celebration of a library staff member who will be leaving to study computer science in Korea on scholarship. We all sat around on the tiled floor eating tropical fruit and spicey beef jerky.

Meanwhile during my doze I had received a text message from my friend Tuan Anh. Jon and I met Tuan Anh three years ago while watching the Ha Noi circus perform outside at Hoan Kiem Lake in the celebrations leading up to New Year's Eve.) Tuan Anh was texting me to ask if I'd join him at a bia hoi patio on Thursday for draught and dog meat. I thought about it a minute and responded in the affirmative. There are so many signs for thit cho throughout the city that it seems quite normal. I don't intend to eat a lot, just a taste maybe. I actually met Tuan Anh at a bia hoi patio yesterday after I called him from Lenin Park. It's like a Vietnamese beer garden with lots of snacks. But I draw the line at con meo (cat).

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Sunday, August 21, 2005

Apocalypse Now!

It's not what you think! It's a gay club, not a war movie. Well, not entirely gay, maybe 3/4 and it depends on where you are standing in the club. It looked and sounded like any North American club, except for the 95% Viet crowd and the very stern looking green uniformed cops posted around the club.

I had a blast! By law all clubs are supposed to close at midnight, but I guess the club has "connections" so the music winds down around 1 (yeah, okay so it's not Fly). I'm starting to notice a strange trend though: like any scene it has its cliques, but these groups tend to be keep entirely apart. The guys recognize each other and may even know a lot about each other (through gossip?), but there is little mixing. I know guys in two different circles, and when I tried to introduce them, I was told "It's really not necessary." It's as if people are scared to have too many gay connections; it's like an allergy to community.

The after-hours scene seems to be pho bo at the night market. The streets at 1am are devoid of activity, but when Apo (as it's called for short) lets out, an gay armada of motorbikes sweeps the streets - about 40 motos travelling as a clump towards the city centre, bikes gradually peeling off. Eventually a small group of us arrived at the Dong Xuan Market in the Old Quarter, established ourselves on little plastic stools and ordered beef noodle soup. I'm totally into this and would like to suggest 60 cent bowls of pho be served on little squat benches at Timothy's after the clubs let out in TO. Unfortunately late night rice noodles might not go over on carb-phobic Church St.

It looks like I'm back to food, so while I'm at it let me describe a late breakfast (brunch?) I had with Viet this morning. The Globe and Mail just came out with an article (which I should link to from my main blog page) about Hanoi cuisine. It was called something like "Down the rabbit hole of Hanoi cuisine". Well, it truly feels like a kind of secret world sometimes. The rabbit hole this morning was a den of sidestreets and alleyways which Viet squeezed his bike down with me on the back to this tiny room packed with locals eating bun oc (snail noodle soup). Damn! 50 or 60 cents for this delicious bowl of slightly sour broth with herbs, round rice noodles, a few tomatoes and these little delicate snails of varying sizes. It's got to be about a 5 min. walk from here, but I can't imagine I'd ever find it again.

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Saturday, August 20, 2005

House Hunting

The theme yesterday was house hunting. Andrew has been in Saigon on business for a couple days and he returns today or Monday. I really feel like I need to move on soon before I overstay my time. So yesterday I had two appointments to look at some possibilities. It's been a great way to get to know Ha Noi better because I'm seeing new districts and getting a feel for Vietnamese neighbourhoods - clearly not something one experiences as a tourist.

First I met with Lam. Thach referred me to him. We went to lunch and iced coffee, and then weaved our way through the traffic on his moto, through the embassy district and beyond. Through friends he had heard of a house for rent and had arranged with the landlady for a viewing. It was not easy to find. Most people seem to live in little alleyways off of larger streets, and even smaller lanes spindle off of these. The house was in one of these networks. We had tea and longan fruit with the landlady and her daughter and afterwards a tour of the 5 story house (only one room a floor, but still more than I'd need!). The price dropped from US$500 to $400. It's a possibility but I'd still like to be a bit closer to the centre and on a more direct bus line to the university.

After meeting Lam, Dat picked me up at the Daewoo Hotel (holy posh!) and we skirted around to the east side of West Lake to meet a woman he works for who is well connected and may have some housing ideas. This side of the lake (the largest in a city of lakes) has a series ancient villages that have been swallowed up by the city but somehow still retain their charm and identity. The village we were in was full of narrow streets, gardens and pagodas - very quiet and peaceful, a sanctuary and refuge from the busy streets of the city. Dat's friend was not home yet so he took me to an ancient pagoda and monastery complex nearby. In the past, I've just assumed the pagodas here were essentially Buddhist if somewhat eclectic. Not so! One temple was Taoist (dedicated to the Jade Emperor) but with Buddhist shrines, and another was dedicated to a local historical/mythical figure whom people revere (a cross-dressing woman who fought the Chinese occupiers!). Dat explained how all these beliefs, gods, goddesses, practices, myths and traditions all bleed together. Vietnamese religion is highly syncretic. It is so complicated to follow the various strands. Buddhism is only part of the picture. He then explained the significance of the trees and plants of the village, their uses and meanings in Vietnamese culture. Everything is imbued with spirits and Dat explained half a dozen legends, tales and creation myths.

After I explained what areas of the city interested me, Dat's friend said she would be in touch about the possibility of a small house near the Temple of Literature. Finally I have a few leads.


Thursday, August 18, 2005

Pho Bo Mornings

At this rate, I'm going to come home with a flat little tummy. The food is simple, delicious, satisfying but they don't know about supersizing yet. I'm never in danger of overeating. I have to resist turning this blog into a prolonged meditation on food. Everyone knows I'm obsessed by food - esp. Viet food. It's an unavoidable topic.

So far I've had pho bo (beef noodle soup) three mornings in a row. Back in TO, this classic dish can be bought for dinner for a scandalous $8 in Asian fusion restaurants on Yonge St. Here it is a humble breakfast, is served from boiling pots on the sidewalk where you sit on kindergarden stools and slurp away. And it costs 60 cents. It's a Hanoi original but is eaten throughout the country. The garnishments are what distinguish the different regions I'm told. Here in Hanoi the style is spare: julienned scallions, a couple leaves of herbs, some chili sauce and a squirt of lime (but kind of more like a tiny orange?).

Last night was ga tan. It was delicious and completely like any soup I've every eaten in North American restaurants. Chicken drumsticks in a broth with bitter herbs (identity unknown), lotus seeds, red raisin-like things and maybe a few chunks of herbal root. Each piece of chicken is dipped in a salty milky looking dip. Very satisfying and sure enough it took care of my upset tummy. I would never have picked out this restaurant, but Viet took me there. You'd think that one of the finest purveyors of this dish in a city of several million would seat more than 6 people at once. A little kid (age 3?) sat with his mother at the end of our table and stared at me with his huge black eyes the whole time. What's this white monkey doing here eating our food?

Okay, I just noticed the last two postings are named after dishes. So I'm predictable.

It was a beautiful cool night (well cool is relative), and after dinner Viet took me for a moto ride around West Lake, by Ba Dinh square with the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and around the ancient Citadel, which I'd never seen before. It's a significant historical site, but is off limits as a military complex. Over the walls you could get fascinating glimpses of ancient yellow gates and the tiled roofs of pagoda-like buildings. Then to a cafe for bubble tea.

I see I'm back to food again. I must be hungry and it's roughly lunch time. Oh, the possibilities!

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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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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Lesson # 1

Well, I'm here and have much to tell. In fact, I did tell it all, but lost it all at an internet cafe earlier today. Hence lesson #1: DO NOT compose blog entries while online. Next time I compose in word processing and cut and paste. I had a lengthy detailed description of my first 24 hours. When I went to post I discovered that the connection to the server had been lost and the thing vanished before my eyes. Grrr. Hopefully I will find time to reconstruct it tomorrow after my first meeting at the university. It remains to be seen how long this meeting will be. It's been hard to find time to write these last two days. I'm either sleeping from jetlag or trying my best to accomplish tasks which would otherwise be easy back home. Today's accomplishments: figured out where to buy pho bo in the neighbourhood; obtained a cell phone; bought a plug converter for my electrical devices; and met with the landlord of the guy I'm staying with for now (an expat Ozzie named Andrew- great guy!) to present him with a copy of my passport and visa so that my whereabouts can be reported to the local police (a routine procedure). The meeting with the landlord included a kind of tea ceremony with chit chat, partly in Vietnamese and partly through Andrew's friend Tuan who interpreted for us. The conversation of course included the perennial question: are you married yet. Chua! Yes, I know I'm very old (36!) not to be married, but it's not the same in Canada. I'll get used to this routine I'm sure. Ok this internet cafe is closing. Gotta run. More tomorrow. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this actually posts!