As much as I’d like to pretend my time here is one large vacation, the reality is one that actually involves having to do a bit of work. Don’t get me wrong, it’s significantly less exhausting in nature than just a few months ago when I was a harried teaching assistant in Madison, but I work nonetheless. My project assistantship at UW this semester involves updating the textbook “American Society: How it Really Works”…going through the book chapter by chapter and finding every time-sensitive piece of information – graph, table, reference to current event – and updating it. Find a newer article, newer piece of legislation, new data to remake the graphic. I do about 1/2 of my work at my favorite cafe (mentioned in my last post) on Trieu Viet Vuong – an almost too cool place called Cong Caphe where the coffee is strong and the menu is printed on an old Lenin text. The first two photographs are of that cafe, panoramas shot to show a bit of the atmosphere. The second pano is of our livingroom, from the couch. The warm afternoon light comes in, the fan keeps me cool enough to not break my computer with water damage (sweat), and Ethel snores from her napping spot on the cool tile floor.
Our little alley (a small street off the main road, small enough to allow only motorbikes, with houses crowded around, laundry hanging on telephone wires, and children playing) has two chickens, an orange cat, Ethel, and a dog named Chester. Well…to be fair…we’ve assigned the name Chester. Chester is a motley chihuahua-terrier mix with an odd barrel chest and spindly legs. He yips at Ethel, who openly ignores him, and patrols the alley…peering into open doors and sitting under tables at the street-food stands where the alley opens up onto the street. He also naps a fair amount. Anyway…Chester lives in a birdcage. Sometimes he doesn’t appreciate being locked in a birdcage (like when Ethel’s walking by and he can’t chase her off his territory) but for the most part he doesn’t seem to mind it. Here’s Chester taking a nap in his birdcage. Yes he’s alive.
Though the expat community in Hanoi is quite small in comparison with the millions of native Hanoians, there’s actually a quite sizable community of foreigners. Our favorite english-language bookshop Bookworm sells new and used books, has a cafe with delicious western food (goat cheese, spinach, tomato panini anyone?) and is set 10-15 meters back from the street.This is a characteristic common of several of our favorite spots in town. A small driveway or alley (or in this case glorified outdoor hallway) leads you back to an open garden and shop with significantly less noise and honking and an entirely different atmosphere from street-side shops. The yellow paint and dark red tiles, tropical plants and giant fans all add to the tropical atmosphere. The bookshop is lightly airconditioned, the Vietnamese guy behind the desk has an opinion on the novel by Simone de Beauvoir that you’re purchasing, and even the new books are 1/2 the price in the States.
The second venue we find ourselves frequenting is Hanoi Cinematheque, an independent movie theater that shows a mix of international films, art films, local films and some of the more well-received American options. The Hangover 4 won’t show up here, but Lincoln did, and various Sundance winners have as well. It’s a member’s only spot, so you pay your 200,000 VND yearly membership ($10) and then 50,000 a pop at the door ($2.50). There’s a restaurant and bar, you can bring drinks in to the 90 seat auditorium, and the garden/patio area is just beautiful. I must confess, the evenings are the best…the tree that shades the entire area has a few lights in it and the building that surrounds this place (the Artist Hotel, which rumor has it used to be a brothel) has softly lit balconies that make the patio just…perfect. Because it’s set back at least 50 meters, down a little alley often filled with motorbikes of movie-watchers, none of the Hanoi noise pollution makes it into this space. It’s just great.
Last weekend we went to an engagement party for one of Andrew’s work colleagues, held on the 17th floor ballroom of the Sofitel on Westlake, one of the fancier spots in town. From what we’ve seen (and what I’ve noticed on previous trips here) 90% of wedding related decorations are white and pink satin, a practice that might be different from home…but the sit-down 5 course meal with a gigantic floral centerpiece while family members made toasts and waiters made sure everyone had fresh drinks? That is international. Of course…this started at 11am, meaning the father-of-the-bride was 1/2 sloshed and singing songs about love and God by 1pm…but that’s really just impressive more than anything else.
Andrew works about a 1/2 hour south of the city, and while the job comes with a car service to bring him there and back each day, sometimes it’s more fun to go get him with the motorbike. I’ll drive down, we’ll meander back, stopping for coffee, exploring a little, enjoying the relative countryside and the 5pm sunshine and the wind and the inevitable cows eating the grass along the road. Of the four bridges the Long Bien bridge is by far the best. It’s the oldest (built in 1903 by a French architectural company), and is a bit…hm…run down. The train goes down the middle of it, with the river visible between the railroad ties. Along each side of this (separated by about a meter of open air and some iron railings) is a motobike/bicycle section. No cars/trucks allowed. Even better…towards the end (in either direction) of this 2,500 meter bridge are a variety of food stalls! Looking out over the water is a great place to have a beer and charcoal roasted corn on the cob, I always say. After our corn, I asked the vendor where I should put the husks and cob, since I didn’t see a garbage can. She indicated that I should throw it off the bridge. I won’t lie, this made me vaguely uncomfortable, but when we looked off at the PILE of husks and cobbs on the riverbank below…there wasn’t much to do but shrug and toss them over. It was delicious.
Want your own Vietnamese grilled corn? The last time I was in Quang Ngai (south-central Vietnam) I had the best grilled corn ever. EVER. Here’s the recipe:
Grill the corn on a bbq turning it regularly so it doesn’t char for a few minutes, the kernels will begin to blister. Grab it with tongs, and brush it liberally with the sauce. Sprinkle the scallions on it, and put it back on the grill for a minute. Enjoy!
nuoc mam (fish sauce)
fresh spring onion or scallions, finely chopped
fresh spring onion or scallions, finely chopped
Alright. Andrew is getting antsy, it’s time for wandering around the city by motorbike, for finding lunch and a subsequent cafe to sit in with a good book.