Monday, May 25, 2009

in Hue

I’m with two of my remaining colleagues now in Hue, which is about halfway down the coast of Vietnam. There were many tearful, sometimes tedious goodbyes last Saturday, and I’m still feeling a little bit fatigued from it all. We underwent a pretty significant transformation when we left Haiphong and Hanoi as businesspeople / volunteers and then showed up in Hue as tourists. Now everybody is selling something, including an hour with a “beautiful” woman for U$10. Apparently we look like the types that can't get beautiful women unless we pay for them. So, thank you, Pimp on Cyclo.

Hue was at one time the capital of Vietnam. There are a lot of very old castles, pagodas, and other miscellaneous buildings. The other day we were at a pagoda which I think was the one Thich Nhat Hanh originally studied at. When we were buying things in the gift shop there, one of the monks asked us where we’d been working in Vietnam, and we said Haiphong. His eyes lit up and he said “Oh – Do Sun Beach!”, which is hilarious, because everyone knows that Do Sun Beach is where both locals and tourists go for things like an hour with a “beautiful” woman, although hopefully it’s a little more than U$10.

The photo below is from a pagoda along the Hue city tour route. I tried to have us arranged in geographic order. That is, we are standing in the positions of our respective countries (US, Italy, Germany) from east to west (west to east from our point of view). I don’t know if we got it right.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

it really sucks to say goodbye

There’s a few days to go on my work assignment here, and by Saturday a lot of us who have been spending the last month or so together are going to have to part ways for our respective countries or to go back to work in Vietnam.  Before our assignment started on April 24, we had only spoken to each other via weekly hour-long conference calls for 3 months prior.  So when we did meet in person, we had some idea of what the other people were like.  Meeting in person, however, and living and working in what for some of us is a completely different culture, continent, and/or country, is a far more intense experience in relationship-building.  With few exceptions, I’m going to have a tough time saying goodbye to the people I’ve worked with and gotten to know here. Fortunately it’s not all bad news, though; I’m going to travel with two of my colleagues here down the coast of Vietnam to Hue, then Hoi An, then Danang, and then to Ho Chi Minh City.  That will bring us to Saturday the 30th of May, at which point they’ll head back to Hanoi and to their respective countries, and I will go on to Siem Reap in Cambodia, then Bangkok, and on June 6 I’ll head to NYC from Bangkok.

When I was staying in Buenos Aires in May of 2006 I, there was an Irish woman, a doctor, who was part of my clique at the Spanish language school we both attended. She told me that she didn’t say goodbye to people if she could in any way avoid it; she would just leave.  She didn’t explain exactly why, other than that she just didn’t like saying goodbye.  It’s times like these when I wonder if I want to be around for the goodbyes, and maybe it’s just better to just stop showing up instead.  Except that wouldn’t be terribly respectful and I have nothing but respect for these people.  It’s tempting to fantasize that if I didn’t say goodbye, maybe there was no reason to … somehow I knew I’d see them again.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Karaoke rules! (this country)

On Tuesday we were invited at the last minute to a party being held by the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) for graduates of an educational program for directors of small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs).  It started out innocent enough, at the banquet hall of a very popular restaurant here called Gia Vien.  It’s the third time we’ve been there, even though it’s earned the nickname “The Rat Restaurant”, since the trees and garden area in the outdoor seating area is literally crawling with rats.  It’s kind of crazy and pretty unnerving, but once you get past it, it’s not such a big deal.  But the small trees actually shake with the movement of all the rats running around in them.  I feel better if I think of them as little squirrels.

Anyway, the dinner was MC’d, as are all major events here, like weddings, big parties, etc., by a professional MC/announcer.  Think of the host of an infomercial; that level of enthusiasm and same lack of profundity.  He got up and said a few introductory words (I presume; I don’t understand Vietnamese) and a group of women dressed in traditional clothing and a couple of men got up and sang what sounded like a traditional song.  Again, it could have been the national anthem, for all we knew, but I guess it didn’t matter.  This was followed by individual songs on the part of some of the members of the singing group, and they started serving food.

And then the wine bottles rolled out, and holy s*.  Apparently getting loaded is not only acceptable at these kinds of things, it’s quite aggressively encouraged.  A director came by our table and proposed a toast, and we all stood up and toasted with him.  Then another one did the same a few minutes later, without any concern for the fact that we had to immediately stop eating, take our napkins off our laps and put them on the table, and stand up to toast.  At this point I thought to myself, “They aren’t really going to all come up to the table and toast, cause, like, that would be crazy …”

Well they’re crazy.  Between 20-50 different people came up and toasted our table, some more than once, and one guy at least 3 times.  The table behind us (“the party table”) sounded like a frat party, with people yelling the Vietnamese equivalent of “One, two, three … drink!” and downing glasses of wine as quickly as possible. 

After all the power drinking, the somewhat-accompanied-by-a-live-keyboard karaoke started up.  Select graduates of the program, all voluntarily and all announced by the MC beforehand, got up and sang their favorite songs with the most sincere looks on their faces you can imagine.  Like if they were saying goodbye forever to their parents, wives, children, whatever.  I’ve never seen anything like that before.

Just when things seemed to be on the verge of getting really out of control, the party abruptly stopped.  This was around 9:30PM.  Our VCCI liaison (I don’t know what else to call him) ushered us out and into an SUV driven by some guy we’d never met before.  “Mr. X will drive you home,” was what we thought we heard, but after we passed the turn to go to the hotel, it was clear that the night was not over.  We ended up being dropped off at the entrance of a building that said karaoke in neon lights on the left, and some kind of dance club in bigger neon lights on the right.  Nobody knew why we were there, but some invisible hand guided us in the direction of the karaoke place.  Once inside, one of our translators led us to a room as if it were all planned out, and mumbled something about the VCCI guy joining us later, which at that point was irrelevant.

I have a secret to tell you, which is a secret in the sense that I’ve told everybody I know about it but still nobody knows or cares or both: I am awesome at karaoke.  It’s one of the reasons I’m considering staying here.  Also the women are beautiful, but I’m getting off track. 

This was the second time in a week we’d been to a karaoke place – we were at one last Friday and it was great, except for the fact that there were limited songs available to sing in English.  This of course led to us English-speakers singing Vietnamese songs by reading the lyrics on the screen, which results in butchering much-loved local songs with no vocal resemblance to either the nuance of the language or the key, melody, rhythm, or whatever of the song itself.

Anyway, we found ourselves unexpectedly in a karaoke bar on the local government’s tab, with a book full of English songs (harder to come by than you think) and our own DJ.  So what else to do but make it a Toto night!  And that’s what we did.  The Beatles, Doors, and Marvin Gaye seem to be popular with the international crowd, but you don’t see much in the way of Bon Jovi as you do in the States.  Maybe it’s just ‘cause Jersey is across the river from where I live.

The VCCI did show up as I was in the middle of “Hold the Line” at full volume.  It felt a little awkward and mildly unprofessional, but hey, it was his idea.  After a while (and some more drinks) people loosened up more, including our host, who started dancing with everyone else when the couches were cleared once “Billy Jean” came on.  I eventually got pulled, physically, by one of the non-English-speaking directors from the party into a much larger room, where one guy, surrounded by three women from the party, was singing some Vietnamese dance song at the top of his lungs.

When you do karaoke regularly, you get pretty good at it (notwithstanding natural talent like my own) and most of the folks here have naturally good singing voices or have just developed them after weekend upon weekend of karaoke.

At about 11:30 we were told it was time to pack up, which of course was disappointing because we were by then used to the idea that we were going to stay out and party, even though it was a school night.  

I’d just like to point out that my job sent me here.  Yeah – I don’t believe it either.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

cobra video

From my colleague Tim's camera - a video of the cobra we ate, being devenomed, defanged, cut open, blood drained out, and heart and liver removed. Not for the faint of heart, in case that description didn't sink in.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

playing football at Do Sun Beach

The cobra thing was yesterday but today we went to Do Sun Beach, which is about an hour outside of Haiphong, with most of our translators. The weather was cloudy and not what you would call beach weather, but this was going to be our last chance to go to the beach before 5/22 when our assignment here ends. Next weekend we’ve already got plans to go to Ninh Binh on Saturday, and Sunday we’re going to visit an orphanage.

The water wasn’t that bad, actually. Even when it’s overcast here the water is warm. I and a couple of my compatriots went for a swim, and after eating some snacks in some lawn chairs under beach umbrellas, we decided to have a football (soccer) game, Vietnamese vs. Foreigners. Not only did they have the home field advantage, but there were about twice as many of them as there were of us. It was lots of fun, although all of the Foreigners were sucking wind after about 15 minutes. Some of it got caught on tape, which you can see here. I’m the one in the white, black, and red São Paulo shirt with the number 9 on it, in the blue shorts:

eating cobras in Hanoi

There’s a town outside Hanoi that’s famous for breeding snakes for consumption in upscale Hanoi restaurants and elsewhere in Asia (and maybe even beyond, who knows). We took taxis to Hanoi from Haiphong (2 hours), had lunch, met our colleague whose son is visiting, then stopped at the Temple of Literature, the country’s first university which was built starting in the 11th century. After about an hour there we headed to a small historical village where the oldest man there – he had an ID card to prove that he was 83 – who looked like Ho Chi Minh guided us around for about an hour. After that we got in the car and drove another 1.5 hours to what I think was Le Mat, which is the snake village. Our colleague claimed we could go there and eat a cobra. I wasn’t totally on board with that idea until one of my other colleagues pointed out that you only ever had to eat a cobra, drink a cobra’s blood, and/or eat a cobra’s heart (these were all part of the deal) once in your life, and you would be a hero to all of your friends and coworkers once you got back home. You might even get a promotion.

We arrived at the restaurant our colleague had been to before and, once they understood what we came for, out came the snakes. They were so cool, both the snakes and the guys handling them. They pulled two cobras out, one after the other, and let them crawl on the floor for a while. The snakes hissed exactly like they sound in movies. It was unbelievable. I’m including a picture here but it doesn’t in any way portray the actual scene, and there’s better pictures and video taken by others that I’ll post later.

They originally suggested that we could pay U$300 to eat a cobra, which is insane. We talked them down to half that, and probably still got ripped off, but we’d been 6.5 hours in the car by now and were really just ready to eat the cobra already. After letting them crawl around a little longer, they proceeded to squeeze the poison out of the snake’s head, cut it in half lengthwise, drain the blood out of it, cut out its heart and liver, and put this all on the table. I drank the blood and ate a fair amount of the snake afterwards. I would have eaten the heart, too, except my colleague who convinced me to drink the blood because of the hero thing, called it a week ago. The heart was small, but still beating after being cut out, by the way.

Friday, May 8, 2009

the joy of driving in Southeast Asia

The first thing you’ll notice when you get to your hotel in Vietnam is that there aren’t many cars on the road, but everyone has a motorbike.  For foreigners like myself, this requires a little bit of adjustment, but you get past it eventually, right?  You have to.  The part that I can’t get past is that there are no road rules at all.  I’m not exaggerating.  Think of all the stupidest, illogical things you can do while driving, and here in Haiphong it’s accepted as totally normal.  This includes the following:

  • Passing on the left over the double yellow line
  • Driving on the wrong side of the road
  • Turning two blocks before the desired street and driving on the far right of the street in the wrong direction
  • Not stopping at red lights
  • Pulling a u-turn in a street of shoulder-to-shoulder motorbikes (again, not exaggerating)

All of this happens anytime you go on the road.  The way passing in cars works is that it’s understood that on a 4-lane road, the motorbikes get the right lane of each direction.  So cars don’t pass on the right; they pass on the left by going across the double yellow line, which is actually white here, or nonexistent.  This means that any time you get in a car, you will be engaged in what is essentially a game of chicken with cars going in the opposite direction, most likely many times during the course of the ride.  If you’re me, you have to either engage with someone else behind or to the side of you, so that you’re not looking out the front of the car, or you have to close your eyes.  Otherwise you’ll go insane, because each car ride involves multiple near-misses, many of which involve what would be head-on collisions.

We witnessed 2 accidents in the first 1 1/2 weeks we were here.  The first was when the bus driver to our Ha Long Bay trip collided with a woman who was trying to pass us in a motorbike on the right while the bus made a right turn.  She seemed OK to me, afterwards; she stood right up, it looked like her hand was scratched, but it wasn’t clear how much she might have twisted her knee.  An accident is a disaster, since the way they get resolved is through a yelling match between what are normally very cooperative and docile people.  Whomever wins the match, supported by witnesses, gets paid and the other person pays.  In our case the bus driver paid the woman $200k dong, which is ~U$12.  I’m not sure it was his fault but he very understandably wanted the whole thing to be over with ASAP.

The second accident was when we were coming back from a restaurant near the hotel in a cab.  Our driver very deftly navigated through an intersection where cars were coming from all directions, and someone tried to do a u-turn.  A car coming very fast towards us in the opposite direction passed us and crashed into one of them with a very loud crash.  Our cab driver didn’t stop.

The other day my translator let me drive her motorbike in the hotel parking lot, which is huge.  I was nervous but since she is about 90 pounds soaking wet, I figured I should be able to handle the bike, at least to do a quick drive up and back from the end of the driveway.  It was fine, and simpler than a motorcycle.  You have to shift, it has 5 gears, but there isn’t a clutch, so you basically just push on the accelerator and it goes.  After coming back she asked me if I wanted to take it on the street.  No thanks :)

Saturday, May 2, 2009

personal goals for the trip:

1) Close eyes for all photos in which I appear.

team photo

OK, I'll admit, I'm doing experiments with Blogger's features which let you reference photos from other people's blogs / sites / whatever, but this is a pretty cool picture, taken with my team member Tim Lund's camera by one of the doormen at our hotel in Haiphong. From left to right: Sukanya is from India, Mariano is from Milan, Italy, Ida is from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Shaunna is from Toronto, Canada, Tim is from Berlin, Germany, Jean-Michel is from Paris, France, and I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

you're nobody in Vietnam if you don't have a motorbike

... and you'd be amazed at what you can get on the back of one of those things.

Ha Long Bay and The Perfect Push-up

This weekend is 4 days long, thanks to the two holidays on Thursday and Friday, which are Reunification Day and International Labor Day, respectively. We’re allowed 2 somewhat-corporate-sponsored vacations / outings, while we’re here, which means that my company pays U$50 of it. The in-country manager of the Australian NGO which facilitates the company program arranged a trip to Ha Long Bay, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for us. We left Thursday morning, drove 2 hours by bus from Haiphong to Ha Long Bay, and then boarded a boat on which we stayed overnight on Friday. Each of us got our own room on the boat (that’s right), including separate bathroom and plenty of nice new things in hotel-style boxes and wrappers – toothbrushes, soap, shower caps, etc. – to steal and augment our respective traveling supply stashes. Sweet

Ha Long Bay (click on picture to the left for photo album) is not only the site of stunning views of rock formations which jet out of the bay hundreds of meters into the air, forming a maze of obelisk-shaped forms through which tourist and local fishing boats navigate. It also has a number of extensive caves - we stopped at two different ones on separate days - which are just as jaw-dropping as the stone formations themselves.

The Ha Long Bay trip was probably one of the most rewarding outings of my life up to this point. I’ve seen a lot of pretty cool stuff, too. The trip was made even more rewarding, and hilarious, by our colleague Jean-Michel’s insistence that The Perfect Pushup is the most ingenious exercise machine ever created by man (I’m paraphrasing). While we were in the caves, another group came along, and the engine to their boat died and our captain agreed to drive them back to the dock. While we waited for them to come back from the cave, Jean-Michel was kind enough to demo The Perfect Pushup for us (“You have it here?!”, we said). Click on the photo to the left to see the photo album that documents the entire thing. I believe the photos speak for themselves.

And in case you’re still not convinced it’s worth a look: both our driver and the guide from the other group came by before we left, seemed interested in what we were doing, and so they tried it out, too. Neither of them spoke more than 5 words of English, I don’t think. The Perfect Push-up not only helps you increase the size of your biceps, it also serves as a bridge between cultures and across languages.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


With very few exceptions, it has been the experience of me and my colleagues here during our very brief time in northern Vietnam that the Vietnamese people are extremely friendly and interested in helping and understanding foreigners.  The most prominent example of this is their use of the exclamation Hello!, which seems to be the most well-known English word, to greet any Western visitor.  This may have happened somewhat more frequently in Hanoi, which has a surprising amount of Western tourists, than in Haiphong, where I haven’t seen a single Western tourist outside of our hotel.  There is one very good reason for that, which is that Haiphong is a heavily polluted industrial wasteland.  It has tremendous potential for economic growth, but doesn’t attract any tourists that we can see outside the occasional Westerner passing through on their way to Ha Long Bay, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

My colleague Jean-Michel and I have been getting up and going running along the main street in front of the hotel at 5:30AM every morning for the past 3 days.  Neither of us expect this to be a sustainable model, so to speak, since the only reason I’m up is because after 4 days my body still thinks I’m in New York and I can’t sleep past 4AM, and also because as time goes on we’ll probably be more time-constrained than we are even now.

Apparently, for whatever reason, Vietnamese people don’t usually go running.  According to some of my travel books, the idea of taking a walk just to take a walk, even, isn’t something they’re familiar with.  They can’t imagine you would want to walk or run unless you needed to be somewhere or unless someone was chasing you.  So when we run the 8-10k at 5:30 in the morning along one of the main drags into Haiphong, we get a lot of blank stares with mouths open, and pointing.  That’s probably mostly because a) we’re two of the maybe 10 Westerners in the city of population 2 million, b) we’re running, and c) Jean-Michel wears black spandex shorts.

A lot of people are sitting in the front of luncheonettes – I don’t know what else to call them but I wouldn’t really call them restaurants – having breakfast and watching the city wake up.  When we run by, everyone stares, and some people, younger ones mostly, have enough of their wits about them this early in the morning to shout Hello! or to wave.  It makes you feel like a celebrity to wave back, and they always smile in return.

Monday, April 27, 2009

major topic of discussion upon meeting clients: drinking goat’s blood and eating dog meat

Today our group met went first to the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry building, where we met with our interpreters and then waited to meet the respective directors of each company we’re assigned to help.  My guy was last, since his business is one of the furthest from VCCI, and it turned out that the director couldn’t make it, since he was away in Hong Kong.  His son, the vice-director, showed up instead.  We then drove back in a black Chevy SUV.

The company is called Toan My Company Ltd. The Ltd is in part to distinguish it from the much better-known Toan My Company.  They gave me a tour of their pretty impressive administrative office building, which was a cozy 3 minutes, and said they would give me a tour of the factory tomorrow, which is a few hundred yards from the other building.  Then the vice director sort of apologized for not being prepared since it sounded like his dad may have just dumped the “project” in his lap until he gets back from Hong Kong. 

So after the brief tours and some pseudo-business discussion, we went for a 2-hour or so lunch at the most authentic Vietnamese restaurant I’ve been to thus far.  We had some dish which included fried goat meat, rice, and chicken, followed by really strong Vietnamese tea.  Me, the translator, the vice director, and the vice-director’s driver got to know each other a little better, by doing what Vietnamese are well known to do on first introductions, which is to ask the most personal questions possible of the new acquaintance.  Age, marital status, number and ages of children, other family details, and work-details are all fair game. 

They asked me if I wanted to try goat’s blood.  I said yes, but then the translator said (before translating) that she didn’t think that would be a good idea so I took her word for it.  I guess we’ll save that for next time.  The inevitable conversation about whether or not I’ve ever tried dog meat (not kidding) came up, and I said no.  Men here eat it pretty regularly.  I asked my translator, whose name is Anh (pronounced “Ein”) whether or not she’d ever tried it, and she said yes a couple of times.  I asked what it tasted like and she said she didn’t know, “like … dog”.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Morning at Uncle Ho's

Originally uploaded by newton10471
There were so many things that happened today, most of them fantastic, and too many to describe here, especially since I have to go to sleep and wake up relatively early to go and run 6 miles (we’ll see about that) with two of my colleagues.

The most notable event was our trip to Ho Chi Minh’s (he’s known as “Uncle Ho” here)tomb and mausoleum. The line, not surprisingly, was massive, thousands of people long, but moved also surprisingly very rapidly. Most of those in line were Vietnamese; in general they tend to be very nationalistic and Uncle Ho is the national hero. At the same time, there are a shocking amount of Western tourists in Hanoi, and they were well represented at the mausoleum.

After waiting in line for less than an hour, but walking the equivalent of what was around a mile, and after leaving our cameras before entering the mausoleum itself, we were rushed through the tomb by intimidating guards, some of whom supported rifles with scary-looking bayonets which I couldn’t tell were sharp or not.

It’s hard to know if it was the real Ho Chi Minh in there. It could have been a wax figure for all I know, and we were whisked through quickly enough (2-3 min) that I swear I saw his hand move at least once. It could have been the guard pushing me in the arm, though.

After we got our cameras and bags back, we were still within view of the mausoleum, which you see me standing in front of here, along with the yellow star on red field flag of Vietnam.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Hanoi day 1 agenda: a) get hit by motorbike

Today being my first full day in Vietnam, I decided it would be best to get hit by a motorbike. So that's exactly what I did this evening. It really shouldn't be much of a surprise since statistically it's almost impossible not to get hit at least once in, like, a one-month period, unless you never try to cross the street. I'm fine - all I got was a minor scrape on my left elbow. More painful was the bruised ego, as it happened in front of all 6 of my colleagues plus the coordinator from the Australian NGO.

In my own defense, I believe it was a one way street, and I was looking in the direction (to the right) of oncoming traffic when I must have popped out from behind a van right into the path of a motorbike coming from the left. The guy didn't hit me very hard, but it did knock me to the ground on my side, which was the most ego-bruising part. He yelled a minute before hitting me, and while I was lying on the ground I instinctively said "sorry, sorry". He sort of paused, a little shocked - he had a young woman passenger - and when he saw me get up and say I was OK he drove on, which I was very happy to see him do.

It was definitely my fault. Even though it looks like it was a one-way street, there really are no traffic rules in Hanoi from what I can see. They're more like guidelines. People sometimes stop at stoplights, and there's definitely a protocol to crossing the street which I haven't yet been able to figure out but probably should in a little more detail before I try it again. Or I could just look both ways.