Friday, January 29, 2010

Life is far from perfect, but I'm having fun anyway

Okay, so remember in my last post when I said I'd seen no evidence of rats living on my floor? I totally and completely jinxed myself by saying that. The past two nights I've heard a rat running around my room trying to eat my food. And two nights ago I could even see it, which was actually better than not seeing it because I could definitively see that it was on the opposite side of the room from me. Needless to say, however, I was still rather freaked out by this. Last night was significantly better because it only woke me up once. Unfortunately this was because our shower broke a few hours before I went to bed, so it was noisily running all night. We couldn't get it fixed until this morning, at which point they worked on it for three hours. And now, upon returning from class, they're working on it again. So basically, I have the most unlucky room ever what with things breaking and gross creatures running around.

For the most part this week has been uneventful. Class has been a bit better than usual- we went to a few museums downtown as part of our history Vietnamese studies classes. For my Vietnamese language class today we took motorbike taxis to a market and had to bargain with vendors for a good price, which was easily more fun than sitting in a classroom trying to understand, well, anything. Vietnamese is fairly simple as far as grammar goes, but the pronunciation is really really difficult. Also, everyone in my class seems to experience a phenomenon in which we can understand everything the teacher says until he asks one of us a question, at which point it all turns to gibberish and that person's brain tries to melt out their ears. It's very annoying, and makes us all feel very stupid.

Last night we cooked dinner for our roommates. We found a grocery store that sells western food, and rented the kitchen at our school for the evening. (Our school has a kitchen, but our guesthouse doesn't. How weird is that?!) Because the ingredients we could find were somewhat limited, and ovens just don't exist here, we ended up cooking a lot of breakfast food (chocolate and banana pancakes, bacon and eggs) in addition to our dinner food (pasta with marinara sauce, mac n cheese, mashed potatoes). We also had some Norwegian rice pudding for dessert, because one of the girls on our trip is from Norway. It was delicious and wonderful and tasted like home. I think our roommates really liked most of the food, though I definitely saw some weird combinations of things being eaten (such as mac n cheese on top of a pancake). It was also great to get to cook again, since we can mostly only go out to eat here.

Monday, January 25, 2010

An Eventful Weekend

Last weekend was quite the adventure. I think it all starts Friday evening, when I went to a wonderful restaurant called Highway 4 in the old quarter with our trip leader Bruce, our trip assistant Caitlin, and our teacher/program coordinator Alyce. It has the most wonderful menu of completely exotic foods. It's rather expensive by Vietnamese standards, each dish runs for about 80,000VND. However, this translates to being about $4, so it's not actually expensive. The restaurant also distills its own fruit liqueurs, and has a whole variety of amazing and entirely unique flavors (I tried the Rose Apple liqueur, it was absolutely delicious!). Between the four of us, we ordered some really unusual things: cricket spring rolls, ostrich and potato croquettes, and roasted bull-of-the-bog, which despite sounding like some kind of frog is actually a bird called night heron. I think the night heron was hardest for me to eat- you could distinctly see bits of bird-shape on the serving plate. It didn't taste bad or anything, it was just too close to still being an animal for someone who until recently was a vegetarian for 4 years. I think the best dish we had was fish and pork that had been soaked in fish sauce and was really really tender and delicious. Overall it was one of the best (and weirdest, and cheapest) meals I've ever had in my life.

After dinner the whole group of LC students went to see an ex-pat production of Beauty and the Beast. It was definitely community theater at its best- it wasn't a great show, but it was fun and for charity and it was cool to see people from so many different countries all in a show together. But the weirdest part was also the reason we were there: the girl who played Belle is actually a recent LC grad living in Hanoi for a year to escape the recession. She was a senior when I was a freshman, and I recognized her in that naggingly-familiar-but-you'd-never-actually-figure-out-how-you-know-her sort of way. She's friends with Caitlin, which is how we found out about it and how we got tickets.

Saturday: a day that will be joyously remembered for months to come. I woke up all too early for a saturday morning, got a cab downtown, and went to the international clinic to get my cast off. The whole time I was there I just could not stop smiling! It took a rather long time for them to actually cut through the damn thing, the cast material that is used in the US is much harder than what they use everywhere else in the world, and the saw that they had here was rather old and prone to overheating (it was basically a really weak version of the kind they have in the US that somehow, magically, doesn't cut skin). My ankle is still a little bit swollen, and really not flexible, and that whole leg is really really weak, but I can almost sort-of walk! I think I'll be using crutches at least until the end of this week, at least for going longer distances, but already I can hobble across my room with no crutches, and putting weight on my foot is feeling better and better each time I try. The slightest little things can make me happy, like carrying something across a room or standing up or other little silly things like that which you normally don't even notice. It's wonderful.

Saturday afternoon we went to see a Vietnamese Water Puppets show. I absolutely loved it. The water puppets are controlled by puppeteers standing behind a screen, waist deep in water. The playing space was a pool of water maybe 15x15 feet or so. The puppets are on the end of long poles, and while some parts of them are animated by the puppeteers pulling strings or some such device, mostly their movement is simply through interaction with the water, either with movable joints or with a rudder-like device under the water. The show was a series of short vignettes depicting country life, historical moments, and the dances of supernatural creatures. There were nine puppeteers running the whole thing, and it was accompanied by a 6-person band playing traditional music. I'm not sure I've really done a good job of describing what it was like, but it's the sort of thing that you have to see to really know what it's like, so I'm not really sure I could do a better job of explaining it. Anyway, I thought it was really cool and really pretty, and even though it seemed a little bit like a cultural tourist attraction type thing I thoroughly enjoyed the show.

On Sunday our whole group, LC students and Vietnamese roommates, went to see the Perfume Pagoda. To get there we had a two hour bus ride to a town near the mountains, followed by an hour-long boat ride through amazingly beautiful scenery and rice paddies. The boats were similar to canoes, with 4-5 people in a boat, along with the rower. We had lots of fun talking to each other, singing, and just enjoying the scenery. Unfortunately my camera battery died right when we got to the water, but Bruce was nice enough to let me borrow his camera for the rest of the day. Once the boat ride was over it was a long hike to the top of a mountain (or in my case, a cable-car ride), at which point we walked through a little village precariously built on the side of the really really steep hill to a cave, at the bottom of which is the pagoda. The cave itself is amazing, seeing some of the rock formations really made me understand why people would believe that the gods were there. The altars in the cave are full of gold statues of gods, and people have made offerings to them of money, fruit, and even boxes of cookies. While we were down there a priest held a small prayer-service type thing and was singing and playing a small drum and gong. It was beautiful. Cody, one of the students on our trip, is Buddhist and was meditating during the prayer service, and I don't think I've ever seen anyone look as happy and peaceful as he did on our way back. Then it was back to the boats, back to the bus, and back to Hà Nội.

Oh by the way, for contrast here's today's adventures (truly a Monday worthy of the common "I hate Monday" sentiment): This morning, I sat down on my bed to do some reading, at which point, with a loud crack, my bed broke. As if that weren't bad enough, mere minutes ago I turned on a light in my room, and a big bug, like 1 1/2 inches long, went scuttling across my floor. I do believe I just killed my very first cockroach. It was big and disgusting and I feel bad for killing it, but there was no way I was letting that thing live in my room. (And in case you were wondering, which I'm sure you weren't, yes there are rats in my building as well. I've seen no evidence of them on my floor, but I've seen some huge ones downstairs.) Vietnam: awesome or sketchy? My vote goes to both.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Nothing too interesting

Today the weather is pretty much perfect. It's nice and warm, enough to break a sweat while walking (or at least while crutching), but sitting here on my balcony it's the perfect temperature. There's a nice cool breeze, the sun is out, the rooster that lives across the courtyard is being noisy (only ever in the afternoon though, never in the morning when it's supposed to)...

I didn't do anything super exciting today, I woke up, did my homework, talked to my parents on Skype for a while, went to lunch, went to a coffee shop, went to class. It's one of the first days that I've spent more of the day around the neighborhood than in the guesthouse, and it's done wonders to make me feel more like a real person and less like a gigantic walking, talking cast. It feels like I shouldn't let my ankle control my life as much as I do, but until you have to use them I think it's hard to understand exactly how limiting crutches are, especially in a country as foreign as this one.

That's all I have to say. Basically the point of this post is to say to my dear friends in cold, rainy Portland: I'm living in a wonderfully warm, tropical country. I win.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Week One

So it's been a week since I got to Hanoi. That seems kind of hard to believe, yet at the same time it feels like it's been a lot longer. But I suppose that's how things always work. I'm still definitely feeling some culture shock. It's not nearly as bad as it had been, but I think as long as I have the crutches I'll feel at least a little bit uncomfortable here. I have an appointment to (hopefully) get the cast off next saturday, I'm very excited. I've also had a kinda bad cold for the past few days, so all in all I haven't had that great a time here so far, though i think that'll change really quickly once I'm feeling better and can walk again.

Today was our 5th day of vietnamese class. It's an incredibly difficult language, at least when you're first learning it. There are 12 vowels and 6 tones, so saying a word slightly wrong will completely change the meaning. Luckily the grammar is fairly simple- you don't even need to include verbs in some sentences, there's a structure of topic-explaination. For example, you could say "my name Laura", and it's completely grammatically correct, which is quite nice seeing as how I hate grammar. So far we can introduce ourselves and where we're from, count, and say a few other basic phrases.

Other than our language class, we're taking Intro to Vietnamese Studies, Modern Vietnamese History, and Environmental Sustainability. We've only had one class each of History and Vietnamese Studies (we only have them once a week), and Environmental Sustainability won't really start until we get to Saigon, so the class load isn't too bad, and it mostly doesn't actually feel like school.

We're starting to meet a lot of other westerners here. A big group of kids from Connecticut College moved into our guesthouse 2 days ago. Most of them are a lot more preppy than the people I'm used to hanging out with, but it's nice to have other college kids around. There's another American who lives on my floor who has been here for about a year and a half. She has a mohawk and is altogether a rather cool person, and she takes classes at the same school we do. Most of the other westerners I've met are also students at the school. There's a surprising number of Americans there, and I'm starting to recognize some of them and have introduced myself to a few people.

Today was the first really sunny, warm day we've had in Hanoi. "Sunny" might be giving it a little too much credit- there's so much smog here that the sky can barely be called blue. It's definitely the result of all the vehicles on the road- anything you've heard about motorbikes and traffic in Vietnam is completely true. Almost nobody here owns a car, the motorbike is the main form of transportation. I'm sure there are traffic rules that you have to know to get your license, but nobody follows any of them. To cross the street you just sort of go, and hope the motorbikes successfully avoid hitting you. I usually wait until the traffic is a little less heavy, but the Vietnamese people usually won't wait, and they always make it to the other side.

I've been on a motorbike three times so far. The first time was last Wednesday, when Ruby (my roommate) took me out to go shopping and see the city. We bought a lot of fruit from curbside vendors, most of which I'd never seen before. I'm not sure we even have names for them in english, if so I've certainly never heard of them. They are all delicious though, I hope I can find them somewhere when I get back to the US.

On saturday, our trip leaders set up a game they called The Amazing Race to help us get to know the city. It was a series of missions that, together with your roommate, you had to complete in order to get the next clue. Because of my broken ankle, they gave me the option of either playing by taxi (which no one else was allowed to use) or being one of the people giving out clues, so I chose to help with the clues. Ruby and I were placed at a restaurant downtown, and in order to get the next clue from us they had to crack open roasted watermelon seeds that had been dyed red, a traditional snack for Tet. We had a lot of time to relax and eat lunch while everyone else ran frantically around the city, trying to figure out where they were supposed to go. Personally I think we got the better end of the deal.

That same night Ruby was meeting up with two of her friends for dinner, and invited me to come along. We ate a dish called a Hot Pot, where you get a boiling pot of broth on a stove, a plate of raw veggies and a plate of (in our case) raw seafood, and you cook the food right there at the table. It was quite yummy, and I ate a lot of kinds of fish I never thought I'd touch, such as squid. After dinner we went and ate ice cream on the steps of the Opera house, which is a popular hangout spot for Vietnamese teens.

That's all for now, I'm meeting the rest of my group soon for a big week-one check-in dinner.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Welcome to Vietnam

Chào các bạn! (Hello friends!) I suppose this will be a rather long post, since a lot has happened in the past few days, so hold on to your seat and get ready for a wild ride!

To get to Vietnam, I had a lovely 15 hour flight from SF to Hong Kong, followed by a 2 hour flight to Saigon (officially called Ho Chi Minh City). Now, under normal circumstances that would be a very long flight, but with a broken ankle, it's pretty much hell. The only good part was that I got to speed to the front of all the security lines, which was pretty great. We got to Saigon at 11 pm local time, where it was exceedingly hot and humid even that late at night. We had to get up at 6:30 the next morning, at which point we all went out to breakfast, followed by orientation, followed by a flight to Hanoi. And let me tell you, an airplane was pretty much the last place I wanted to be.

The Hanoi airport is about an hour outside the city, and driving through the countryside you can see that you are in a completely different country from the US. Rising up out of unfamiliar trees are tall, skinny buildings 2 or 3 stories tall, all with colorful fronts and plain concrete sides. The buildings are the same in the city, though more often than not they're connected so you see a row of buildings with different colored fronts, each only about 10 feet wide and none of them the same height.

We are living in a guesthouse, which is kind of like a dorm but not limited to students or associated with a school, in the university district. I'm on the second floor (everyone else is on the fourth, and I'll probably move up there once I get my cast removed). Across a courtyard from us are Vietnamese houses, and across the street is a men-only gym with a big sports area in the middle. There's chairs and tables along the walkway outside our room, which is where I have to sit to use the internet because the signal doesn't reach into our room.

Everyone on the trip has a Vietnamese roommate. My roommate is named Ruby, and she's actually the program assistant for Hanoi. The first day she led us on a walking tour of the area around our guesthouse, but since I can't walk very far with the crutches I got to ride a cyclo, or bicycle taxi. It was really cool, but I felt like a major tourist and couldn't really hear a lot of what Ruby was saying on the tour.

We met the rest of our roommates at a big dinner that night. It was quite exciting and fun to talk to everyone, but most of us were very jetlagged and not feeling very sociable, though we tried our best. We've had other meals since where many of us went out as a group, and those have been much better for helping us get to know each other. Everyone is very friendly and outgoing, and they're all being extremely helpful to me since I have so much trouble getting around (Not only is it very hard for me to walk far, but the sidewalks are uneven and there's construction along the street in front of the guesthouse).

I'm getting rather cold right now, since I left my sweatshirt in my room and it's surprisingly cold and cloudy in Hanoi, and like I said I have to be out on the balcony to use the internet. I'll update tomorrow or the day after and tell you about my classes and more of what I've been doing and all that sort of thing. Goodbye for now!

Friday, January 8, 2010


Hello, and welcome to my blog!

So for those of you who don't know, I'm spending next semester in Vietnam. Don't ask me why, I don't have a better reason than "because it sounded cool". Besides, all that really matters at this point is that I'm going, and this blog is here to help me keep in touch with everyone. Hopefully I'll update fairly regularly, but I make no guarantees.

Oh, the other thing you might want to know is that I broke my ankle three weeks ago. Not the worst timing in the world, but it's pretty close. It could have been a whole lot worse, I narrowly escaped needing surgery, but it means the first three weeks of this trip are gonna be on crutches. Not fun. Also, that'll be way more of an adventure than I was bargaining for, and I'm not too happy about it. Oh well, nothing I can do to change it.

I don't really have a whole lot else to say right now. I'm leaving tomorrow and have a hell of a lot of things to do before I leave (such as packing, which I haven't really started), so I guess I should do that now.