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

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Back Down the Rabbit Hole

I am experiencing that weird compression of time again. Last March I felt it returning to Toronto. Now I feel it again here. It's like I was just here, like I am just picking up exactly where I left off. A whole universe in waiting. Everything is still so fresh.

I spotted Viet through the glass in the arrivals hall at the airport. He had arrived early not having been able to sleep the night before. During the cab ride to town he brought me up to speed on all the group gossip and gave me the low-down on any new players I might meet. Viet dug into his pocket and handed me my old cell phone like it was the key to the city (which it probably is). It didn't take long for the txt msgs to be flying all directions. The network was activated. How many friends did I first see on a motobike? Cell phones and motobikes - the twin emblems of modern Vietnam?

Andrew has spent weeks fixing up his new house in time for the visit. It's large and very comfortable and tucked down an obscure alleyway in Bach Khoa, the bustling academic quarter, just a street over from where I stayed with him when I arrived last year.

The first day I was kept very busy and distracted from the preparations for my "surprise" party that evening. I was not supposed to notice the strange and random appearances of friends in Andrew's alleyway. Then I seriously disrupted their careful planning by insisting on a nap mid-day. More mysterious scurrying around. Post-nap Viet whisked me up to Truc Bach Lake for coffee, then abruptly found a reason to get us to Bach Khoa by 7pm. Finally when I was let back in the house and subtely led to open the kitchen door. About fifteen very familiar faces lay just beyond. In the process of getting reacquainted I drank copious amounts of red wine. This is not a recommended approach to dealing with serious jetlag and the inevitable onset of traveller's stomach, but I had the next day to think about that.

I certainly feel well cared for. In addition to Andrew and Viet's hospitality, Lam found me a motobike. It feels wonderful to be back on wheels. Thankfully my skills at negotiating Hanoi traffic are also still very fresh.

The boys have also made a point of giving me a bit of a Hanoi makeover. I guess I reverted to my nha que Western habits and needed a few points of correction. My gold hoop earring was attracting way too much attention so it's long gone. The cuffs of my jeans had to be unrolled. Happily though they approved of the cologne I was wearing (though I didn't tell them I only own the testers).

Some cities feel like a vast expanse of surfaces, extending outward; you get to know these cities by covering ground. This city feels contained but with infinite depth; you get to know it by burrowing in. Hanoi is like a huge rabbit warren. And now that I know this world and have my connections I feel like I can easily disappear into it. It's gratifying and it's good to be back.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Noi tieng 15 Phut

I'm well into my 15 phut of fame now.

A few weeks ago I arrived at work and noticed an excited little email from my Mom about an article in the travel section of The Globe & Mail (for my international readers, that's Canada's national paper). She had spotted an article entitled "Discovering Hanoi's Secret Alleys" (Nov. 22, 2006, p.T5) and thought to herself "Oh, Mark will find this interesting", and proceeded to cut it out. Then she noticed who wrote it. And who took the accompanying picture...

During the APEC buzz I had decided to adapt an old blog entry and submit it to the travel section thinking that it might help put a face on the city everyone was blathering on about in the most formulaic sort of way. I didn't know it had been accepted until it was already splashed across the country. (Unfortunately they don't publish the "Travelblog" column in their online edition so I can't link to it. Write me if you want a copy.)

My debut in the Vietnamese media had actually come several weeks earlier, when several of my publicly posted photos were picked up by the online edition of VTC News to provide some illustrations for a translated NYT story on Vietnam's acceptance to the WTO. (Rest assured that I was asked permission first. It didn't happen entirely out of the blue.) It seems my photos were used to illustrate themes such as the development, povery and the youth of the country. I hope it goes without saying that the second photo in the story is NOT mine. A more recent VTC story on the WTO used another of my photos.

And now it appears that tomorrow YFile, my university's internal online daily, will be running a story about my work last year in Hanoi! (Here it is.)

Despite all this attention, at least someone is trying their best to keep me from my Warholian moment. How else to explain the persistent mispellings of my name in the VTC photo credits. A few of my doppelgangers are getting all the credit.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Destination Hanoi

In retrospect I guess I kind of painted myself into a corner when I named this blog "Six Months". Henceforth let this blog be known as "Six Months in Hanoi (& Beyond)".

The occasion for this loophole is a little plan I hatched in October to put me back in Hanoi for the holidays. In one week I'll be somewhere high in the sky in transit limbo on the way to Hanoi for a three week visit. I'm thrilled to be returning. I'll be mostly in Hanoi but will also be spending a few days in Bangkok and three in Sapa. This time Jon will be joining me, but only for two weeks since he's got to stick around here a bit longer than I do. I will blog the trip as much as possible. I imagine much of it will likely be written upon my return. It will be a whirlwind of visits; I don't know if I'll find much time to write.

I am returning only after ten months. It has been long enough that I have settled back in but brief enough that I still have all my connections. I expect it will be at least a little surreal to enter back into that world. Time felt foreshortened when I returned to Canada. I imagine I will have the same experience coming "home" to Hanoi, as if I'd only just left.

It is starting to sound like my arrival will be a kind of fugal repeat of my arrival in August 2005: Viet will be meeting me at the airport and taking the cab with me to Andrew's house in Bach Khoa where I'll be staying. Of course I won't be quite as wide-eyed as before. Viet recently told me that he sensed in me a fear and caution when I first met him in the arrivals hall as he picked up my bags and led me to a cab. I am embarrassed to admit he was probably right. I was throwing myself into the hands of a virtual stranger. I was exhilirated but so uncertain.

Now it's not the arrival but the anticipation of the subsequent departure that makes me wonder. Everything about my departure last winter anticipated my return, because I was not ready to leave. The last thing Viet said to me was "You are not going away. You are just going on another trip - but this time much longer." Will my next departure anticipate yet another return, or a reluctant and probably unconscious closure? The former I hope.

Anyway I'm getting ahead of myself. For now I have so much to look forward to.

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