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

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Duck Interrupted

My last entry began with eggs too. Maybe it's just some kind of pent up poultry craving following the most recent bird flu chicken black-out.

Last night I went out for hotpot with a friend. We had a mixed platter of meats and veggies, but included two eggs on top. We let them cook the longest and just before we sent the pot back we dished them out and cracked them open. I was shocked at the sight. This was no ordinary egg in my bowl. This was the infamous trung vit lon, or fertilized duck egg. I had been wanting to try this delicacy, but thought I had missed my chance when poultry products all vanished across the city. Still I was not prepared for the sight. I must say it was much more difficult to sink my teeth into this than to eat dog. The sight of it just screamed Don't eat me! at the most visceral level. The egg had already started to form itself into a little duckling. Thankfully I could not make out the head or beak (actually I think my first bite took care of that as it was the most, umm, well let's say textured of the bites), but the nascent wings were in evidence, and little veins were already forming just inside the shell. Then there was a little juicy grey section. My guess is that these were to become the little duckling guts. I ate the whole thing.

Well, there is one off my list. Again, like dog, not my favourite, but one of those things any food adventurer in this region has to try. I hear it is much better when served as a dish on its own, accompanied by herbs like rau ram, and dipped in various sauces (like the picture above, taken in Laos). Incidentally, the rau ram is supposed to modify the trung vit lon's apparently potent Viagra effect. It seems I am living very dangerously!

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Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas Eve in Hanoi

Eggs seem to have made a return to Ha Noi, and so I had one in my coffee at Cafe Giang on Christmas Eve. This cafe is one of the old traditional hole-in-the-wall spots, and I will soon write more about its significance. It's speciality though is ca phe trung or egg coffee. I've never seen it anywhere else. Whipping egg white up in coffee sounds like an alarming proposition until you think of it as a kind of take on egg-nog. In fact, it's delicious. The entire cup is transformed into a frothy sweet mocha puff.

Dat and I met early on Christmas Eve for a quick gift exchange and a stroll around the Old Quarter. His mission has been to show me all the quirkiest local weirdo places where Tay ba lo fear to tread. Cafe Giang has been on our list for a while. So it made a special if unorthodox beginning to my Christmas Eve, and I don't think he'd anticipated the Christmas potential of this drink.

The big deal here is Christmas Eve here, not the following day. That's not to say it's celebrated in any Christian sense except by the small minority of Vietnamese Catholics. People boot around on their motos with Santa Claus hats, and you can hear Christmas musak at the shopping centres. The downtown core turns into a massive moto parking lot with everyone looking for a party.

After our egg coffee, Dat and I stashed my motobike and wandered down to the Cathedral to see what was going on. Naturally this is the big gathering place on this night. Three years ago Jon and I stood in front of the Cathedral and waited with a crowd that seemed to be holding some kind of vigil, waiting for something to happen. We had expected the Cathedral doors to be flung open in a dramatic flourish at midnight. Instead the hour passed without any climax and the crowd went on staring at the doors curious about the mysterious goings-on behind it.

This time Dat and were early enough to actually get in the church. There was no service going on but the pews were packed and the congregants were reciting some kind of liturgy in a chant. I couldn't put my finger on what was so odd about this, until Dat, who had never been in a church in his life, observed that the text was being read in a Buddhist tone and cadence. The only thing that was missing was the beating of the hollow wooden drum and the occasional sound of the bell. Here was a classic case of religious syncretism and the effect was quite mesmerizing.

Eventually hunger required us to break the spell and wander out in search of food. We ended up walking Hang Gai until we found the entrance into a special alleyway Dat had been wanting to show me. In all my wanderings I had never noticed this one, and it was one of those alleyways that has its own special character and life. This one doesn't peter out but runs deep into the block and after a few twists and turns, emerges (at one end anyway) at the Hang Da Market. One section is lined with little open rooms selling nem chua ran, or fried sour pork (fermented in banana leaves before being fried). We squeezed our way into one of these recesses, squatted on the plastic stools and ate an order accompanied by jimaca dipped in chile salt. A spot to remember for a late night post-bar snack.

So began my very eclectic Christmas weekend.

I had been receiving so many concerned emails from back home worrying about me being alone for Christmas. Of course I missed friends, family and especially Jon, but it was not as difficult as it might have been had I been alone in a country where Christmas is celebrated in the home. Here it is mostly as a excuse to get together with friends and have a party, throw a dinner, go to a club, or I guess hop on a moto and drive around. Just down my alleyway the neighbours had set up tables, speakers and a disco ball in the badminton court/parking lot.

After my Old Quarter adventure with Dat I was off to a big gay party for the evening. This was hosted by Group B. So far I've mostly written about Group A since it is my usual circle (see "The Group" posting below), but I am also friendly with this group, which is one of the more upwardly mobile of the gay circles in Hanoi. Most are professional, educated, well-travelled, and have excellent English.

There were about 22 of us: 2 whiteys, 2 Viet kieu, 3 Singaporeans and all the rest local Hanoians. It is strange how similar certain elements of gay culture are anywhere in the world. In many ways, a party hosted by the International Gay Brotherhood, Vietnam Chapter, seems so much like a party back home: the sense of humour (at least what I could understand of it), the fashion, the music, right down to what seem like certain universal gay character types. One of the Viet kieu guys from California and I would have flashes of recognition: ahh, so here is the Hanoi version of so-and-so back home. This uncanny familiarity is though I think in large part a function of the group's very middle class status and their exposure to the wider gay world outside the country. This is not generally the case with Group A.

Probably the most memorable moment for me though was the errand I was volunteered for upon arrival. Four of us were sent out on two motobikes to pick up the catered food. My job was to balance two heavy porcelain platters of salad rolls (dipping sauces included!) on my knee on the back on a moto in the intense Christmas Eve traffic. One end of the piled platters was on my right knee and the other end was sticking off the side of the bike. I was certain I was going to be clipped and shower an intersection with a fish sauce and rolls. At one point the plastic wrapping came off so our food was bathed in the lovely air of the Hanoi street. Soon after we ended up waiting at a train crossing as the train from Sapa rolled in. I was not optimistic the platters were ever going to make it to the party and considered just serving impromptu hors d'oeuvre then and there to my traffic jam neighbours.

After the party, we all ended up at Apo. Nothing to report except that I have never seen it stay open so late. A shocking 2:30am!

Sunday marked another missed family tradition for me. This was the first year in 14 that I was not able to light the Hannukah menorah. I tried. I asked my one Jewish friend here in the city if I could join him in lighting candles the first night. Unfortunately he said he had no menorah, and in any case was planning on attending the lighting ceremony at the Israeli embassy. Instead I sang the blessings while riding up the dyke road on the way to another Christmas party in Nghi Tam. And each night I have sung them in my little house, which by the way has great acoustics. There is something to be said for tile floors.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Flamenco in Alley 61

A new friend from the gym asked me recently if I liked music. I thought it wise to hedge lest I get invited to another evening of off-key karaoke. Then he clarified and asked specifically about classical music. So I pictured an evening at the opulent Opera House. Wrong again. How about classical guitar in a cafe near Nguyen Trai St?

I accepted but later doubted I'd heard right. Nguyen Trai is the big dustbowl thoroughfare I take every day to and from work. It is the main to route through the burbs of Thanh Xuan and is currently the site of major overpass construction. Past the bridge site I'm sure there are lots of cafes - they are ubiquitous in this city - but live classical guitar seemed so unlikely. Vietnamese pop videos or live bong da (soccer) on satellite maybe.

Well, Hanoi is a city of surprises. What casual visitors to the city never see is the extent of the maze of laneways that make up this city. They are endless and quirky. Some promising ones fizzle out after a few turns. Others seem to be going nowhere and suddenly yield new networks complete with noodles shops, hair salons and internet cafes. I've heard the laneways of Hanoi compared to the medinas of Morocco in their complexity. You never know what is waiting for you around the corner through the next crack in the wall.

In this case, it was a bohemian guitar salon. Bao pointed his motobike down some narrow little corridor off a main street and we emerged into a little parkette type opening. Just past that was our destination.

Nhac Tranh Cafe has only two little rooms. The first room is where you place your order, the second room is where the action is. There are several rows of low wooden benches (which refuse to accommodate Western spines) facing on to tiny stage. The yellow walls have character, all chipped and worn and covered in portraits of what it seems are the patron saints of this cafe: John Lennon, Trinh Con Son, and any Spanish guitarist. There is a large framed portrait of Andres Segovia over the stage. Once the room is packed your order is likely to be delivered from the outside through the window. The room is lit by candles and it seems the music begins when a small hurricane lantern is brought to the stage.

First up, a former professor from the National Music University, all tweeded up, performing Spanish classical. He is great but so unassuming and cracks only a faint smile when the applaud comes. The audience seems to be mostly students, many probably from the same institution as the prof. His act is followed by his students. The repertoire gradually gets less classical, less tweedy and more flamenco. And those nervy students get virtuosic. Wow! Sometimes it could only be played by the Buddha with a thousand arms. Too many notes, not enough fingers. But they do it. Meanwhile to our side are four fine arts students with a pad whipping off line drawings of the performers.

I am thinking I'm the only whitey in the joint when suddenly they pull a real live Spanish guitarist out a hat at the back of the far room somewhere. The master brings along a student on stage for a flamenco duet, followed by a kick-ass Cuban vocal number. The tiny room goes wild.

Sometime during all of this I start feeling watched. It turns out the art posse has decided I make ideal sketching material. I guess that's what I get for being in extreme minority. Even when the show is over they want me and Bao to sit there a bit. It's an odd experience. Where are you supposed to look when you are being sketched? I am flattered even if most of the sketches are not altogether kind and seem to overestimate my age. Must be the dim ambient lighting.

I didn't know there are real bohemian places left in this Starbucks world. It was all very 1963 Greenwich Village, but in a completely unselfconscious way. God forbid the Lonely Planet gets hold of this, but you know the remoteness of Alley 61 should be enough to protect it. The next day I text Dat to tell him about this discovery. He knows about it already, and is completely shocked that I've been let in on the secret. How many other secrets is Hanoi hiding from me?

Promise not to tell?

Quan Nhac Tranh
Alley 61, Thai Thinh St.
Thanh Xuan District

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Bike from Hung Yen

I am now 100% moto enabled. I have joined the great sea of churning engines and much to my surprise, I love it! I've only had it about a month. It sat in my front room practically unmoved for the first week because all my time was spent in cabs with my parents during their visit. Also I was scared. Finally I broke through the inertia while they were away in Angkor. I got up my nerve, rolled it out in the alleyway, turned the key - but went nowhere. The engine wouldn't start. So I called up the rental agency and a guy with a toolbox appeared in my alleyway in about 15 minutes. I expected him to roll up his sleeves and get all dirty. Instead he listened to my problem, pulled out this lever thing called "the choke", hit ignition and the engine roared. Thankfully on his way over I had discovered that the front tire was also nearly flat, and this succeeded in redeeming my call and saving face. (This was my second humiliation that morning. Earlier I had my landlord send a plumber to check my water pressure which had not been the same since they installed a new water tank on my roof. I showed him the pathetic sprinkle of my shower and he just adjusted the shower head. It sort of half did the trick, and succeeded make me look like a totally helpless tay.)

I think my parents had mixed feelings seeing me roll up on my moto to greet them when they returned. As it was they were generally traumatized by the traffic in Hanoi. The surprising thing is that the traffic isn't nearly as scary when you are an active part in it. Maybe it's just an illusion of control. In any case, I got used to it very quickly, and now I can't imagine why it took me so long to dive in. I wish I had taken the leap earlier because it has changed my whole relationship to the city. Suddenly Hanoi has expanded. I am rapidly constructing a new mental map of the city including the directions of the one-way streets (never noticed them before). Also I now have a more effective way of exploring the mind-boggling network of alleyways surrounding my neighbourhood. It feels like there are dozens of hidden villages tucked away down long quirky tunnel-like alleys filled with little teashops, barbershops, internet cafes and produce spread out on mats. These hidden worlds are harder to explore on foot.

It's also made me feel much less dependent on people and has given me a new sense of freedom. I don't have to wait for some kind soul to volunteer to help me with mundane errands. In fact on a few occasions I have been the one ferrying around my Viet friends; this always seems to result in bemused sideways glances at traffic lights. The most fun is driving in a late night convoy on the long haul from Apo to Sheraton on Saturday. After Apo closes we often make the 30-40 ride up the side of West Lake to the Sheraton for the (only) after-hours scene. Hanoi's sidewalks fold up well before midnight, even on the weekends, so the streets are generally vacant by the time we start our procession. Although we could make it there in much less time, we drive very slowly in a group. I used to wonder why we drove so slowly on empty streets - until I realized that maybe it is the highlight of the evening, not because of the route, but because it is a social time. With virtually no traffic we can ride as a group alongside each other. The conversation drifts back and forth between bikes. I understand little of it unless they accommodate me with a little English, but the humour is infectious. Our pod of bikes reconfigures and regroups as the conversations float back and forth. There is a such freedom and beauty in the empty tree-lined boulevards at night, the rushing air, and the fellowship of good friends. I'm always sorry when we reach our destination.

That first week riding I knew I had to face my xe om driver. Actually I think he must have heard the news before he saw me roll up the alley, such is the neighbourhood gossip. The first day I took it for a practice run around the block, some man pulled up alongside me on my street, said something to me with a quizzical look on his face and pulled away again. I'm sure he was one of the local xe om drivers and this strange sighting would be reported up and down the street by the end of the day. When I finally screwed up enough courage to attempt my commute to work, I had to drive it out the alley past poor Binh waiting for me and my daily 20,000 VND. All I had to say was "Binh oi" and point to the bike beneath me. I'm sure his heart sank. What else to say? I waved goodbye and intended to zip off gracefully into the traffic. Instead I hit the gas, and the bike sputtered and died. Binh had to help me get it started again. In addition, it seems every morning I always forget to put my kickstand up and manage to scrape it on the speed bump next to where he sits. He may have seen his daily 20 nghin dry up but at least he's got some entertainment. One morning he tried to hop on the back of my moto.

My commute to work was the ultimate test for me. It is long, dusty, and chaotic. Now I feel confident and even enjoy it in a sick kind of way. It is exhilarating to be motoring along the boulevards, the only tay for miles it seems, having mastered the art of the Vietnamese rush hour.

On the other hand, sometimes my confidence crumbles when I am confronted by the violence of the road. I have seen death a number of times: twisted motobikes and bicycles, immobile riders lying on the street surrounded by crowds. Late one night I found myself driving through a pool of blood. Apparently, Vietnam is second in the world in incidence of traffic fatalities (China being the first). There are many reasons why this is so and I'll leave it to this blog to explain. Before you all click on the comments button below and plead with me to wear a helmet, I should mention I'm already wearing one. It is a cool black helmet cut above the ears with two white stripes running down the middle, and a subtle little visor. Very CHiPs. I am hoping to start a fashion craze.

There are also other little annoyances I'm discovering. For instance, this city is not made for contact lenses. My eyes burn after a ride of any length. Then there is the recurring Hanoi cold. In fact, it's not a cold at all but an exhaust induced nasal allergy that flares up after one too many rush hours on Chua Boc (must be seen - or inhaled - to be believed). Finally there is my battle with drowsiness. It takes me a couple ca phe den das to truly awaken to the world each morning. In the summer I used to blame this on the stifling heat and humidity. Now I've decided that I'm just half asphyxiated and it takes me a couple hours each morning to awaken from my carbon monoxide stupour.

Most license plates in Hanoi start with 29 or 31. This is the mark of a native Hanoian, and there is a kind of snobbery about other numbers, especially those from the country. My plate reads 89. I had no idea where this was until recently when I was parking my bike at a cafe, and the attendant got all excited pointing at the number and then himself. Hung Yen province it turns out. I guess he figures I'm another village boy just downstream. It seems my license plate has thoroughly cemented my image as Tay Nha Que.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

Heaven's Gate

One of my regrets from our 2003 trip to Vietnam was that we never got to the Northern highlands. We had considered it but by then it was late December and too cold in the mountains. A week and a half ago my parents left and the weather was still warm, so I booked a three day mountain biking trip running a loop from Sapa over the Tram Tom (Heaven's Gate) pass and back to Lao Cai on the border with China through the remote highlands of the Tonkinese Alps. This region is largely populated by pastoral hill tribes who possess their own distinct cultures and languages and are identifiable by their unique and beautiful dress.

Two days after I booked the trip, winter arrived quite abruptly in the North and I worried that I had consigned myself to a wet, cold and miserable weekend completely socked in by fog. I spent a week shopping for warm clothes in Hanoi to prepare. In fact, the weather was surprisingly decent (even a half day of bright blue skies) and accommodated vast mountain panoramas that filled up half the sky. Yes, not what what people think of when they try to imagine tropical Vietnam.

Our little biking group gathered in Sapa after an overnight train from Hanoi. The cast of characters: me; a young American water engineer working in Sri Lanka; Nam, the driver of our 1978 Russian jeep; and Tu, our guide.

Tu was able to give us the inside scoop on hill tribe life since he is himself of the Tay minority from a village in the remote Northeast. He spoke impeccable English and claimed to be entirely self-taught. He was one of the few to venture out of his traditional village to the big city to make his way. Initially he went to Hanoi to study, but his education was aborted and instead he found himself shining shoes and selling postcards at the side of Hoan Kiem Lake. Usually stories like this do not turn out pretty. Many of these vendors are desperate and hardened by the street, and most were swept away and sent back to the countryside several years ago during a crackdown. Remarkably it seems Tu escaped this fate. Instead he learned enough English by talking (and selling) to foreigners to get himself hired by one of the most reputable tour operators. I admire his chutzpah.

I did not get to know our driver Nam well because of the language barrier but he seemed to appreciate my little attempts to speak to him in Vietnamese and rewarded my efforts by continually offering me rounds of rice wine at lunch (admittedly not the greatest pastime for a driver).

The tour took us through over the Hoang Lien mountain range (though the highest peak in Vietnam, Fansipan was cloaked in fog) and then down through spectacular paddy terraced valleys dotted with the traditional villages of the Hmong, Red Dao, Lu, White Thai, Black Thai, and Tay peoples. The tour company assured me that this tour gets you deep into the countryside to areas infrequently visited by outsiders. I did not appreciate the truth of this until we later compared notes with other travellers who had been trekking and who complained about the constant sell job they received by villagers used to the allure of the tourist dollar (even on what they thought were remote mountain pathways). In contrast, only once in three days did we have anyone try to sell us anything. Instead we encountered what must be some of the friendliest people on earth. At every bend in the road, at every little village and thatched house we encountered overwhelming goodwill. Everywhere children giggled and called out to us with staccato "hellos" from all directions, from villagers along the road and sometimes even from distant voices from locations unseen. Even though the countryside is sparsely populated, there were often too many excited hellos to acknowledge, and yet we would feel guilty if we failed to respond to each one. The kids would get such a kick out of it and would erupt into giddy laughter. On occasion the kids would hop on their bikes and race us down the road.

At one point we leaned our bikes up against a tree at the side of the road and wandered down a path into the fields to see traditional White Thai burial shelters. Three young men came upon us as our guide was explaining local burial practices. In wordless unison they squatted next to us and watched in fascination as we talked. They looked stoic but when we smiled at them their blank expressions transformed into huge broad smiles. Eventually we returned to the road and found that at least half a village had emerged to inspect our bikes. They gawked, giggled and stared at us, but always in the most hospitable way.

Another time we took a slight detour to inspect the view from a narrow suspension bridge over a river. When we looked back from the middle of the bridge we saw about 30 people coming to check us out. Half of them were curious goofy little kids. They rushed in to gather round us. Thank God for display panels on digital cameras which are endlessly entertaining to kids. The children would gasp and break into hysterical laughter when they'd see themselves on the little screen.

We made two visits to stilt homes during our trip. On our first full day cycling, we took a very muddy turn off the main road to one of the few existing Lu villages. The Lu people are originally a nomadic people from Laos who settled in the highlands in the 17th Century. There are only 9000 of them and this village is the home of 400. We were invited into the village chief's stilt house. He was watching TV. Apparently it is the only one in the village, and so his living room becomes a bit of a social hotspot each evening. It was strange to see toothpaste commercials in a village where the woman dye their teeth black (with the occasional dramatic flash of gold). The women also wear beautiful embroidered black dresses and often have huge woven baskets on their backs which they use to carry firewood and other goods. It turns out that our tour operator had only just forged a connection with this village, and we were the first visitors to be brought by - possibly the first tourists here ever. That's not to say there haven't been other foreigners here though. Our guide told us that that strictly speaking this village is off limits for foreigners because protestant missionaries have been seen in these parts disrupting local customs, not to mention power structures.

The other stilt home we visited belonged to a White Thai family. At the time of our visit they were busy brewing cassava liquor which we tasted. Our driver would have appreciated it had he been there. Even a few thimble fulls had an immediate effect. A few more and I would have been thoroughly drunk if not blind. They also served us tamarind candy made with fruit from the tree in front of their house. We had to pass through a muddy construction zone to get to their house. Their beautiful green valley will be submerged under a dam two years from now, and they will soon be paid to relocate. Our environmental water engineer was not impressed by this sad fact.

The agricultural life fascinates me. We passed through tea plantations, tamarind groves, turmeric and galangal fields, and of course lots of rice paddies. Most of the rice terraces are dry at this time of year, but in a few areas the rice has only just been planted. The most fascinating were the cinnamon trees. Our guide wandered up a hill and returned with a branch of cinnamon leaves. We broke off the leaves and chewed on the stems to taste the most potent, spicy sweet cinnamon flavour I have ever tasted. Apparently the women wash their hair with the leaves and the fragrance lasts a whole week.

Each night we stayed in small dusty frontier towns. Each had a market, and a few streets with the general stores stocked with dry goods, Chinese blankets and hardware. For entertainment the locals had at least one karaoke bar and a cafe or two. The most entertaining though were the little outdoor streetfood vendors at night. People gather around a fire while local minority women serve up deep fried pancakes (taro or banana) and warm sugarcane stalks stewed in cinnamon and ginger. In the mornings we joined the locals in one of the few hole-in-the-wall restaurants. One morning a group of men are throwing back shots of rice wine with their pho bo at 7:45am. They are thrilled by the rare sight of foreigners. Somehow they zero in on me and bring over a few shots for me. Despite the fact that I am just barely awake and haven't eaten a thing, it's hard to resist their handsome smiles and generous hospitality. I threw back a few on an empty stomach before my guide pleaded with them to stop. They were pleased while it lasted.

Time and time again the locals would welcome us with similar enthusiasm. There was such a innocence and eagerness to their goodwill. One afternoon I stopped to take a picture of a beautiful Thai stilt house along the road. A young man with a big smile bounding up the stairs into his house motioned to invite me in probably for a cup of tea with his extended family. I would have loved to except that my biking partners were already off down the road.

When we got back to Lao Cai after three days on the road, we ran into the other travellers who had opted for the trekking tours instead. We compared pictures. Despite the rich encounters we had with people, our pictures were mostly landscape, and their's mostly people. I did get some great pictures of people, but it was difficult. We were not in markets but on the road. We witnessed the country life of the hill tribes as they went about their business, and they were mostly on the move, as were we of course. We also respected their wishes when they clearly did not want their pictures taken.

I guess I am close enough to the end of my time here in Vietnam that I am already starting to anticipate my departure. As our train crossed the Red River on the way out of Hanoi at the beginning of the trip, I become suddenly quite melancholy. I could count my weekends now, and each trip out of town means one fewer weekends in Hanoi. The city has entered into me. I have a family of friends here and I know my departure will have a kind of finality about it that leaving Canada did not. It is difficult every time I leave Hanoi even for just a few days because each departure anticipates the ultimate one in a few months, the one I can't bear.

The flipside is that I was filled with excitement returning into the city. After crossing the Red River our train passed by the vast Long Bien night market in action (5:30am), and the skirted the Old Quarter revealing fleeting glimpses of kitchens, alleyways and ancient streets. I am glad to be back.

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Friday, December 02, 2005

Intrigue at the Hair Salon (Or How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love My Cell Phone)

Once my parents recovered from the initial shock of the traffic and general sensory overload, they began to notice something about me that had changed. Not the fact that I have perpetually bad skin here from all the motobike exhaust, or the fact that I've probably lost a bit of muscle mass due to changes in my diet and the difficulty of getting a real workout here; they first noticed that I seemed to be constantly glued to the screen of my cell phone, all the while tapping away on the dial pad.

Gradually I think they started to realize that it was not really a cell phone but some kind of universal information transponding device. All my tapping away was producing translations, restaurant recommendations, addresses, plane bookings, free company cars, and fair price estimates, etc. In the West we still use our cell phones as if they are substitutes for the old technology, namely telephones. Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that cell phones are used differently here considering that land lines have a more recent history in this country (15 years ago they were a rarity). It's like they have leapfrogged over the telephone line here and into this world of hypernetworked pocket mini-computers.

People use many more multimedia options than we do. It's not uncommon for people in cafes to turn on their phone speakers and play their MP3s like a jukebox song after song (very annoying). Then there is text messaging (or "Tex Mex" as my Mom calls it). It seems like phones are only used a fraction of the time for making calls - the rest is all text. Last week in Apo, I noticed an entire line of guys texting up against the bar. Despite their poker faces I knew they were in fact gossiping about each other, finding out the scoop on other guys across the bar who are probably also texting. There have been a few times, I've asked an innocent question about someone. A few text messages later someone gives me the answer. It's almost creepy. On the other hand, I will admit to participating in the same e-grapevine.

On the more positive side, my phone is my lifeline. Today's visit to the hair salon was a perfect example. I usually go get my haircut with a friend who can translate so I don't end up having to sport the result of a misunderstanding for a month. Viet bailed on me today but I went anyway. First though I had asked Binh for his help. After confirming that in fact there was no English spoken at this place, I called Binh on my cell, told him what I wanted and then passed the phone to the woman running the place. After hanging up I realized I'd forgotten to work out the price. Hair salons are not the kind of place you normally bargain, but you are vulnerable anywhere you get a service without first clarifying the price. So just as the woman was starting to wet my hair, I asked. She pauses, looks a bit uneasy as she calculates what she thinks she can get away with, and answers VND60,000 (about CN$4-5). I nod. Well her hesitation is just a bit too obvious for me. Also she is talking to some colleague and I keep hearing numbers and prices as they look back and forth at me, so I figure they are debating the appropriate whitey mark-up. My rejoinder is to get out my cell and start messaging as she is massaging my scalp. I fire off a note to another friend Cuong who is a regular here. It takes a couple messages back and forth for him to determine it is only a VND40,000 job. When I'm done I approach the counter and give them the fair price. They readily agree. I imagine they know exactly what I was doing with my phone, and the jig is up.

I have heard the very act of texting has even saved some friends an exorbitant "fine" for a petty traffic infraction. The policeman changed his mind when he saw the flurry of texting. Who knows who has what connections, and which networks are being activated? In fact that time it was all a bluff.

No hard feelings in the case of the hair cut sting. It's all part of the game and keeps things interesting. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. Besides hair cuts here usually include a long hair wash, scalp massage and face wash. Not bad for a couple bucks. Never mind that the comb looks like it was made out of a chunk of scrap metal. It does the job.

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