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 :)