Thursday, October 28, 2010

Constant Adventure!

It has been way too long since I have last written in my blog…and I really should not even be writing now with all the college recommendations, grades and comments that I need to write – deadlines approaching…but somehow my blog got higher priority. Procrastinate much?

Currently, I am in a bus. Two hours into an eight-hour bus trip to Sapa – small little packed bus with thirteen kids, four teachers, our director, a driver, and one other guy (maybe our tour guide? Maybe a random hitchhiker? No one was ever introduced…). My computer battery is dying quickly, but I did manage to write one rec. My ipod battery is also dying…and I did not bring a book because I have kindle on my ipod. So yeah, bad planning on my part. Already took a nap…guess I have lots of time to think.

It has been so long since my last post that I really cannot even begin to sum up everything that happened – the mundane or the crazy. Friday the marking period ended, so I have grades and comments to do, though very little direction comes from the director sometimes, so everything is a bit of a mystery…including the trip that we are on now. We are taking this bus to the mountains of Sapa – which I am hoping will be wonderful. It is supposed to be cool (weather-wise) – maybe even in the 60s! And there is supposed to be hiking! Finally we are getting out of the city and the smog and the noise and will hopefully be able to breathe some fresh air! We are spending four days in Sapa, and a night or two with host families. Then we come back to Hanoi, and a few hours later, leave for Ha Long Bay. We will spend the night on the boat and return the next day, though I hope we get a chance to relax and take in the scenery…

I am thinking I will have some time in the next week to update about these trips! The 1000 year anniversary (10/10/10 1000 nam Thang Long Ha Noi) of Hanoi was exciting. We marched in the military parade in front of millions of Vietnamese. Honestly more people than I think that I have ever seen in my life. The streets and buses were so crowded. There was one point when we were walking home from the parade (after walking a few miles in the parade we had to walk a bunch of miles back home because there were no cabs and the buses were paced) when I was literally surrounded by Vietnamese people and motorbikes. I was trying to cross the street (of unmoving motorbike and people walking traffic) and literally could not move. Even if I wanted to jump over a motorbike, I couldn’t – there was no space. I just stood there looking helpless – a blond head sticking up a good six inches over a sea of black heads. That night were the 1000 year celebration fireworks. Luckily, Ted and Lisa lived close to the stadium where the fireworks would be. There were supposed to be over 10 or more locations for fireworks, but unfortunately, during the kite festival (which I also went to), someone was smoking near where the fireworks were being stored and they exploded. There was a huge mushroom cloud and a few deaths…so they could only have fireworks at My Dinh stadium – one location instead of many. John (Englsih teacher) and I managed to get a bus mid-day to Ted and Lisa’s. They had already closed their street to traffic and people were already coming in droves – a good 5 hours pre-firework display. The display was awesome, and I am glad I got to see it from Ted and Lisa’s sixteenth floor apartment. As I was trying to sleep – at Ted and Lisa’s – I heard traffic, voices, and honking until at least 2am (fireworks were over at 10pm). The next day we heard reports that there were so many people in the streets and in the outdoor stadium that many were passing out due to lack of oxygen – there were so many people packed together that there was not enough air to go around!! Crazy!

I always said that I did not really want to be in a city. That is one of the reasons I decided not to attend Columbia this year. And here I am, more fully in a city than I could ever imagine. Being in this situation – living in a city, in a foreign country – in a developing country – is definitely challenging in many ways and also makes me question my beliefs and wants and needs and future. I am definitely having fun and learning a lot – but it is also exhausting. It is exhausting to be questioning everything and thinking about everything al the time. My battery is about to die, so I will have to put this on hold for now. Luckily I will have plenty of time to think during this next 6 hours on the bus…

Soooooo that bus ride was actually a good 12 hours. I have now just returned home from the night train from the mountains outside Sapa. We got on the train at 8pm and got into Hanoi at 4:30am. Sapa was pretty awesome. It was misty and cool the whole time, which was a nice change from the humidity of Hanoi, though today it is cool and cloudy in Hanoi as well. We saw a bunch of markets and different tribal groups. I loved all of the bright colors of the different tribal wear! Neon pink, green, blue, orange! The people were nice – they spoke better English than many in Hanoi. Vietnamese was not their first language, and some claimed to know English better than Vietnamese! There was one great woman named Pie who followed us around and guarded us from the other women selling things. She said, “You only buy from me”, but she was also really sweet. We had some good conversations. For one, she told me that I am way over the hill in Sapa. She said that no one wants to marry anyone over 20 years old. So basically I would be SOL if I lived in Sapa! She was 25 and had been married for 10 years and had two babies. She was cute and happy and walked 7km from her village with her big basket on her back full of things that she made to sell. Luckily for her, the kids and I all liked her, so she definitely made her day’s walk worth it.

Now I am back in my apartment for another few hours, doing laundry, eating snacks, maybe napping…before we get back in the bus to go to Ha Long Bay. Hopefully the sun will come out and we can have a nice relaxing time…who knows what the next hours will bring…everything is always a surprise and adventure!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pics from the bell casting

Finally, a week later, here are some pictures from the bell casting. And of the cutest old woman I have ever seen. There is a picture of our vodka and lunch, and a picture of tons of noodles being dried on the side of the road.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Vodka Shots at 10am? Only in a Monastery

I was not going to post anything tonight because my camera battery is charging so I cannot post pictures, I am exhausted, and I know I am going to have another crazy day tomorrow that will need to be documented. But I decided I should just get it all down before the novelty wears off, I suppose.

Today class was cancelled at the last minute for a field trip. A bell was being casted at a monastery not too far from our school. Supposedly this only happens once in a lifetime, so we had to take advantage of the opportunity. We were all dressed in pants or long skirts to show respect when entering the temple, so of course, it was a scorcher with ridiculous humidity. We, the fourteen students, four other teachers and I, loaded into a bus around 5:50am and headed off to the monastery to see the casting of a bell. Around 6:45am, we stop for noodles with beef, and then continue on our way. The bus drops us off at the bottom on a steep hill. We walk on the gravel/dirt road up and up and up - completely drenched in sweat by the time we reach the ceremony. As the only Westerners there, we obviously stand out. We are surrounded by monks and nuns - all wearing robes, most purple or brown. Many of the monks and nuns have shaved heads and black/red teeth. As we are offered mini-cups of tea (the first time of at least 15 more times that day), we are also offered this bitter fruit thing that they chew on - later we find out that they chew it to blacken/redden their teeth. As we pack in like sardines around the bell (in a hole in the ground), they start putting tons of metal into three huge buckets around us and light it on fire. The background noise is Vietnamese chanting and drumming. We are then told that we need to wait at least one hour until the metal is melted so that they can pour it in the cast. Many of us stand around and continue to watch the green flames rise from the buckets of metal, while others are dragged off by random Vietnamese people to pose for pictures. This was a nice atmosphere though, because when I finally made eye contact with people and then cracked a smile, they smiled back! Black teeth and all! I definitely felt more like a welcome person than an exotic escaped zoo animal. One hour later, everyone begins to re-surround the bell. We are watching and waiting as they dump hot burning ashes and embers onto the ground and pour water on them, getting the molten metal ready to pour. We are patiently waiting (and continually sweating through our clothes) for the bell to be casted - because that is the whole reason we got up at 5am and were standing there sweating in the first place.

Soon, our tour guide lady is anxiously pushing us away from the bell. We follow, assuming she knows what she is doing. Next thing we know, we are being told to take off our shoes and sit on the ground. Then monks bring us trays of shot glasses and multiple bottles of vodka. We are each given a glass and start taking shots. It is 9:45am at this point. They keep pushing shots on us, as we try to politely refuse (these are high school kids for goodness sake!) and soon they put at least 10 different vegetarian dishes in front of us, which we guess means that it is lunch time. Maybe the bell will be casted after lunch. More than halfway through the meal (where drinks consisted only of vodka), a few of us realize our whole group is not with us. As they walk toward us, we find out that they casted the bell as soon as we were taken for shots and lunch. The point of the whole trip was to see the once in a lifetime event of the casting of the bell - and most of us missed it! I was bummed, but the kids seemed to be ok. They were being pulled in all directions by the surrounding Vietnamese people (pretty much everyone - maybe at least 50 people) were having lunch with us on the ground). They were being offered more shots and a tokes out of a huge pipe (of course, they politely declined, since we have rules in this program ;) ).

Soon we leave that monastery and get back in the air-conditioned bus. We stop at another temple/pagoda. Still sweaty messes, we meet more monks and drink more tea. Oh, and at this monastery, there are not only monks, but also monkeys! Two of them in a cage...

There are not a lot of other people ate this monastery, and we are invited to go upstairs to the second and third floor to clean up and take naps. There are between 6-12 rooms on each floor and one bathroom. No doors on the rooms, but instead, red velvet curtains. The kids go to rooms. The teachers are trying to just hang out, but are soon shuffled to our own room. There are two queen-size beds in the room with no mattresses. Under the bed, we see empty Choco-cake containers and empty beer cans. In the dresser drawers is a ship in a bottle...When we woke up that morning, how could we ever have guessed what we would have seen and experienced??

So there are definitely details that I have forgotten, and I will post some pictures later, but that is the general summary of the day. Tomorrow, we are going to Ceramic Village. We wake up early, take a boat on Red River, then ride some bikes, then make our own pottery? then a bus back? Really, there should be question marks after each one of those plans because I have NO idea what will actually be happening...

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Dancing dwarves and other Hanoi WTF moments...

One thing about this job and living in Hanoi is that I never know what is going to happen. My coworkers and I joke that the only thing we really know is what is happening at that very moment. The only thing that we can be sure of is that we are in sitting in that specific spot during that specific moment in time. Everything else is unknown. Lately, it's been seeming even more surreal. I keep having to ask myself if I am dreaming or if it's possible that someone slipped something into my drink. The past few days have been full of these types of experiences.

Before I get into today's exciting cultural experience, I just want to mention the different stages of culture shock. Here they are in the order they tend to occur (though stage 3 often creeps up no matter the stage...):
1. Preliminary stage
2. Initial euphoria
3. Irritability
4. Gradual adjustment
5. Adaptation and biculturalism
6. Re-entry phase

For the past few days, I have definitely had more than a few moments in stage 3. You would think that after living in a dorm for 10 years, I would be used to noise - and I definitely am, to an extent. I am used to teenage noise. I am not used to screaming, crying babies, hammering or stomping on my ceiling at all hours, piercingly loud Vietnamese singing, or even louder rants in Vietnamese. I have also been feeling so done with people staring at me. I have waves of not wanting to leave my apartment because I do not want to deal with tidal waves of smelly sweaty people unabashedly staring at me (though I cannot deny that I am probably one of the biggest sweatiest people, but I really don't smell that bad thanks to genetics and deodorant). That is another thing that is driving me crazy. I am always a hot sweaty mess. I walk 15-20 minutes to school every day on a crazy crowded road past two bus stops, outdoor markets (they sell dog - the whole de-furred cooked dog, head included with the mouth open and teeth bared, just sits on the counter like a roasted pig with an apple in its mouth waiting to be digested), motorbike repair shops, tons of clothing shops (all with Western mannequins of course), outdoor restaurants with little mini plastic tables and chairs , and thousands and thousands of people. Most people just stare as I go past, some do double-takes (but not the kind where I feel flattered - the kind you would do if you saw a one-eyed-one-horned-flying-purple-people-eater pass you on the street), but lately I have been getting more smiles and 'alo's, and of course, the ever-present xe om offers. Regardless of all that, I arrive at school soaked in sweat. Literally soaked and dripping. So maybe that is why they are staring - a huge blond girl dripping sweat. I would probably stare too.

Anyway, as I have probably said, every day is an adventure, and even now that we have school and a fairly stable schedule, I still have no idea what each day will bring. If someone asked me to predict what I would see, hear, experience that day, I would never even come close to what actually ends up happening. Hence the WTF moments. In the past month, there have been more WTF moments than I can possibly document.

The director of the program for which I work seems to have some pull in Vietnam. He was born here and can speak Vietnamese fluently and has a long wise-man Asian beard, so basically, he's a big deal and has connections. Our director is good friends with a famous Vietnamese puppet master who has been around the world (even in the US - DC, New York, LA) with his puppets for conventions. This specific puppet master's expertise is water puppetry, which is a Vietnamese original. After we (our 14 American students and 4 teachers plus the director) attended one of his wonderful water puppet shows, he invited us to his house the next weekend. We drove for an hour in a little van until we arrived. His house was beautiful - though being filled with puppets gave it a little bit of a creepy factor. We also met his family. One of his sons is looking to attend school in California. His daughter has just finished a trip around the States and is returning at the end of this month to uhh 'born her baby'. WTF moment #!. Now please understand, I am not judging in any way - the family was amazing and so generous to welcome and feed 14 American teenagers - but this definitely struck me as interesting. Then we learned how to make nem (spring rolls) and proceeded to make at least 100. After we ate a delicious meal, we piled back in the van.

When we get out, we are outside of the Opera House in downtown Hanoi near lake Hoan Kiem, and in front of us are life-size dwarves with huge heads, big dragons, Mickey Mouse, flower pots, bananas, fish, and so much more dancing and galloping around to music. WTF moment #2.

We get escorted into the Opera House and somehow get VIP seats up in boxes. We are at an international puppet show (the 2nd annual in fact), and there are at least 30 tv cameras all around. Seven countries or so are competing in this puppet competition - with judges and everything. The first puppet show we saw was awesome - uv-lighted puppets with the puppet masters in black so they could barely be seen - dancing to music and flying around. The second puppet show...WTF moment #3. It was supposed to be the Ugly Duckling. Some were puppets and others were people in huge character costumes like at amusement parks or football games. Lots of quacking in Vietnamese accents and lots of piercing noises - and lots of complete randomness.

Today, we went to yet another puppet show. Yup, WTF moment #4. This show opened with a puppet Michael Jackson singing and dancing (moonwalk, pelvic thrusts, and all) to 'I'm Bad'. The premier puppet show today was sort of a Cinderella story, with lots of death, Vietnamese screaming, and dancing roosters, horses, and huge butterflies.

Supposedly we have tickets to another puppet show tomorrow night...who knows what that will bring??

So, I have had one Western indulgence since I have been in Hanoi. I recently joined a very expensive and very Western gym. I take a crowded sweaty bus to get there every day, but it is worth it. Inside, they have ellipticals with tvs attached, jacuzzis, and a nice outdoor pool. No stairmaster, but really I cannot complain. I kind of feel like I am cheating on the Vietnam experience by joining this gym, but it has been really nice. The interesting part is that it is usually quite empty (though it has just recently opened) and the music is Western. As I was enjoying my elliptical workout the other day, my thoughts were interrupted by a song coming through the loudspeakers. Interestingly enough, the song was 'Pretty Fly (for a white guy)' by Offspring. Such an interesting song choice haha, which made me wonder 'WTF?'.

Then, the last WTF moment of the day, a nice gym worker comes up to start conversation with me while I am on the elliptical. She is nice, so I indulge her. Soon, she is asking me whether I want to find a Vietnamese man to marry. I say sure - whatever, I guess I am looking for someone. She quickly then offers up herself. 'You can marry me! I am lez. I am lez and I love you. Let me tell you how to say 'I love Amy' in Vietnamese.' Flattering, I guess, but also, WTF??

The next adventure for the day is Ultimate frisbee. Two students and I are going to check out a supposed ultimate frisbee pick-up game tonight...should be an adventure! Much like everything else...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dong for Dong

So far, I have had many positive experiences here in Hanoi. People have been super friendly, wanting to talk and practice their English and learn about where I am from. Others just stare, but it is not rude to do that here, so I guess I will take it as a compliment. Hanoi also seems like a very safe city. Tons of people, lots of trash, but not a lot of crime. I have not felt unsafe since I have been here, (that may have something to do with the fact that I am bigger than everyone haha).

But, here is a story of one experience that was not pleasant. I did not feel scared as much as annoyed, irritated, pissed, and shocked. I also have no way of knowing whether this was the exception or if this happens often...

Xe oms are motorbike taxis. They are all over the city and usually have a sign up saying 'xe om' and have a driver with two helmets. Because motorbikes are everywhere in Hanoi, I decided that if I was going to experience Hanoi, I would at some point have to ride a motorbike. I decided to start early - might as well have the experience before the students arrive. Plus, xe oms are supposed to be cheaper than taxis...

So one evening at dusk, I decided to take a xe om to my colleagues' apartment. It was not far and usually cost 30,000VND in a taxi. As usual, tons of xe om drivers tapped their seats as I walked by asking me if I want a ride. Finally, after talking myself up and getting up the courage to do it, I say yes to one. I put the helmet over my blond bun and took my seat behind the driver. I gave him the address and showed him the location on the map. At no point was I worried that he would just drive me somewhere random and kill me or anything else. It was definitely cool - a rush even - to be zipping through traffic on the back of a xe om. I had a death grip on the back of the seat where there was a little bar I could grab. Soon, the xe om driver was talking to me, asking about the address. Then, while driving, he took my arms and put them around his waist. I had seen tons of people riding like this, so I assumed it was the way to go, but still just sort of slide my arms less around him and more just resting on his sides. I knew enough about my location that I could tell that we were close....

*three minutes or so pass*

I am livid and tell the xe om driver to stop (in English, but he doesn't need to understand the words - he can hear my tone). I am not sure where I am, but I know I am close enough to walk to the apartment. He tried to charge me 50,000VND! I refuse, but I am so pissed and disgusted that I did not want to see the driver anymore, so I just paid him 40,000VND and proceeded to get my bearings and find my way.

Now, what happened in those three minutes? Well, you can probably guess, being that the title of this blog is 'dong for dong'. Yes, that is how it went. He put my hands around his waist, and then, next thing I know, as I am enjoying feeling the polluted wind in my hair and seeing the sights of Hanoi whiz by, he lets me know that he is enjoying the ride too. He takes my hand, and puts it, yup, right on his Vietnamese dong - and I am not talking money here.

So there you have it. My first truly maddening and unpleasant experience in Vietnam. Needless to say, that is most likely the last xe om ride that I accept for a while! Unless, of course, I'd like to pay some dong for dong.

Vietnam motto - 'do what you want'

Now that I have been in Hanoi for about two and half weeks, I am going through the stages of culture shock. One thing that I keep realizing and keeps surprising me is that common sense is not the same everywhere. I knew I would be introduced to new customs, new ideas, new foods, new ways of doing, but I did not expect to learn new realities, practicalities, logic, and common sense.

I learn new and different 'ways of doing' in Hanoi everyday. One of the most obvious things to me is that the say starts much earlier here. Parks and lakes and streets are filled with people doing their early morning exercises as early as 4am! They are doing aerobics, walking, jogging, doing different kinds of martial arts, sitting on benches, cuddling on benches, meditating - all kinds of things! Then, after that, around maybe 7:30am, the parks calm down and for some, become almost deserted, lest for a few gardeners in conical hats and zooming motorbikes. That is when the traffic begins to really pick up. Crossing the street becomes less of dodging zooming motorbikes and more of walking through a stationary maze of them. People are always on the sides of the streets sitting on mini chairs at mini tables (the kind we use as home in the States for little kids' play things) eating pho or some other kind of noodle soup. Or they are on the side of the road washing the plucked ducks for dinner that night. Or they are setting up their temporary kitchen, again on the side of the road. As you walk down the street, especially during meal times, there are so many smells mixed up in the constant air pollution from cars and motorbikes. I think that everything is even more new and different to me because I have never lived in a city, let alone a foreign one!

Ok, enough with the little descriptions - here is why, so far, I am saying Vietnam's motto is 'do what you want'.
1. If there is a ton of traffic, and you are not even able to maneuver your motorbike around others, then you can just drive your bike up on the sidewalk. It's just like a mini-road, I mean, it is flat and their are people and things to beep at. So I have learned that the sidewalk is not as safe as I had imagined! During rush hours, I now know that I always need to be aware of horns and motorbikes. Even if I am on the sidewalk, they could be beeping at me to get out of their way!
2. If you want to dig a hole in the sidewalk, or build something, or start a restaurant outside of your house, then you do it.
3. If you are hungry and you need food, you can eat dog.
4. If you want to buy a big new flat screen tv, a mattress, maybe a kitchen sink, some groceries, and you have your two kids with you, no big deal, just put it all on your motorbike and go.
5. If you need to turn right, but it is a one-way street going the other direction, whatever, just turn right. Make sure you beep.
6. If you want to charge one person 50,000VND for a bottle of water and another person 10,000VND for that same bottle of water, then do it.
7. If you don't want to pay that much money, then don't. Bargain for a better price.
8. If you are tired, it doesn't matter where you, do what you want and go to sleep!

I will have to continue this list later, but there are so many examples. Basically, there is no yielding in Vietnam. That is not to say that it is malicious in any way. What it seems like is people saying, 'sure you can go, but I am going first' or 'whatever, do what you want, I'm just doing what I want first'. So yeah, Vietnam - do what you want.

This is a picture of all of the different ingredients that went into my fruity drink from my other post. I have no idea what they all were, but some were fruity, some were jello-y, some were crunchy... overall it was quite refreshing!