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.