Monday, September 26, 2005
Red River Blues
I went out with L. for the second time recently. The first time we went for bia hoi and billiards. This time he met me at my new place before we set out for dinner. L. is the student from Hai Phong Jon and I met three years ago while watching the Hanoi circus perform outside at a stage on Hoan Kiem Lake, and we kept in touch ever since.
L. is poor and has no moto, so he asked if it was okay for us to do things on foot. I thought maybe we could first have a beer at my place, but he did not seem very comfortable there. He entered tentatively, and was surprised that I would not be sharing with roommates. He also asked about my rent. I've since been told by expats that it is usually best not to answer the rent question. It's a question that pops up and a truthful answer just creates an awkward situation (despite the fact that rent is cheap by our standards). The prudent answer is: "I don't know. The company/university/employer pays for it."
There are some okay hole-in-the-wall joints in my neighbourhood but if you are making a night of it, it's best to head north towards the centre for a more dynamic dining experience. L. suggested bun bo near the Hang Da Market. Hang Da bun bo kicks ass, but it ain't close. It was about a 40 minute brisk walk. I worked up a big appetite in the process. Now it's hard to walk more than about 30 seconds in this city without the pith helmeted xe om drivers draped over their bikes (sometimes lying horizontally across them) calling out to you. We considered taking a moto taxi to cut the journey short, but L. didn't think it was necessary. I assumed he was more comfortable being able to pay his own share of the evening. So we walked to the noodle house.
After dinner we sat around a cafe on Bao Khanh drinking sua chua ca phe (a yoghurt, coffee and crushed ice drink). It was all quite pleasant until his phone rang and his whole demeanor changed during the ensuing conversation. I asked him if everything was alright and he said yes, and we continued our conversation for a few minutes until he could bear it no longer. It turns out his younger brother T.'s girlfriend had just called to let him know that there was trouble. T. is a bit of a bad apple it seems and has developed a gambling problem already by the young age of 21. Every year or so T. gets in way over his head and loses a fortune. My friend L. usually tries to protect his mother from the shame and burden of it all by finding a way to dig his brother out of his debt. This night's newly acquired debt was 30 million dong (approx. CN$2200). This in a country with an average monthly income of approximately CN$60. With this amount L. could buy two motos. L. was too disturbed to go on. He excused himself to go find his brother whose location was unknown. I don't even want to think to what kind of shady characters were looking for him. I hoped on a xe om and headed home.
Over the next few days I told this story to a few friends. The response was always cynical. Vietnamese and expat friends worried that this was all a set-up, a fabricated story and that I should expect to get a call in the next couple days asking for money to help bail out the brother.
It's not like there isn't reason to be cautious about scams around here, and I appreciate the advice I have been getting from friends. But how do you strike the right balance and avoid the pitfalls of naivety and paranoia? It's true that the set-up in this situation seems classic, but what about the fact that I have known L. for three years (albeit mostly through email)? There is also something to intuition. L. is incredibly warm and generous with me, and has always been concerned that I am experience only the best of Viet Nam. He frequently calls me "brother".
The problem with caution is that sometimes the cost of such protection is greater than the risks. I might be willing to lend L. $100 or $200 (but not $2000) if he asked and if I really thought it could make a difference. Call me naive. I might never see it again, and there is a risk that I'd be taken advantage of. On the other hand, what is the cost of shutting down on people and closing your heart to the possibility of real need? That is probably a cost paid by many an expat. I think I would rather lose a couple hundred dollars. It's only money, not integrity.
Five or six days went by without hearing from him. Finally I text messaged him to see how he was doing. He texted me back from Hai Phong where he had gone to be with his family and try to pick up some pieces. He thanked me for thinking of him and wrote to me saying, "You always help me in hard times. Your support means a lot to me."
Saturday, September 24, 2005
Even though I have another five months left, I feel like my weekends here are numbered and so I have to make my best of them. I have a list of day trips I want to do. Perfume Pagoda was one. I was thinking of doing Tam Coc and Hoa Lu yesterday with a little travellers' cafe. In the meantime my new friend Hung invited me for a tour of the Red River countryside on the back of his black Vespa. I couldn't resist.
He picked me up yesterday morning at 8:30 for a bun rieu breakfast in the Old Quarter. Breakfast here are generally savoury so it's not unusual to eat something like crab noodle soup in the morning. That wasn't enough so we also ordered some kind of herbal omelette and a sweet bean thing in syrup to follow up. (Gradually I'm becoming more street vendor literate. They usually only sell one or two things which they advertise with Vietnamese only signs. If I don't know the dish I'm too timid to dive in and order. I usually like to know what I'm eating and how to eat it. But after six weeks now I'm building up a repertoire of street foods names.)
Back to the Vespa. We crossed the muddy Red River - it looks as wide as the Mississippi. Looking north we could see the famous Long Bien bridge built by Eiffel (of Tower fame) in the 1890s. There are only chopped up segments of the original left because of heavy bombing during the war; the bombed bits have been filled in. Apparently the Americans would bomb it in the morning and the Vietnamese would be rebuild it by the evening. Apocryphal? I dunno.
It was heavy traffic on a Saturday morning because all the migrant countryfolk were returning to their villages for the weekend (whatever they get of it). It's a fascinating mix of traffic: trucks, cars, motos, bikes, homemade tractors, horse pulled carts, and water buffalo. There was also a big green moving bale of hay. It was weaving in and out of traffic. The hay was so big you could hardly see the wheels of the motobike or the driver. It looked like some Jim Henson creation bobbing around the highway.
Our first destination was Chua Dau (Dau Pagoda). This is a very significant pagoda complex tucked away in a humble village. It is not as spectacular as some of the complexes around but happens to be the first Buddhist site in Viet Nam and dates from the 2nd Century. Little remains of the original buildings because it it is built of wood, but it has an ancient feel nonetheless. It is currently under renovation. Before entering Hung and I were invited for herbal tea with some of the pagoda caretakers who were sitting in one of the collonaded areas. They don't see many foreign tourists, mostly just Vietnamese, and so were fascinated by the guest from Ga Na Da.
Our second stop was Chua But Thap. This pagoda is merely 800 years old, but most of what you see is 17th or 18th Century. Although not as important as Chua Dau it is much more spectacular: beautiful rooflines, courtyards, relief carvings, and statuary. In the middle is a building with a huge Reincarnation Wheel (more like a pillar) which pilgrims gather around once a year to rotate.
Before visiting a temple complex dedicated to the kings of the Ly Empire, we stopped off at a village known for its wood block prints depicting Red River village life (boy with flute on water buffalo, domestic scenes and fanciful animals scenes like the mice wedding procession, and a classroom of toads). At the Museum of Ethnology last month I had read about a famous master artisan who is largely responsible for keeping the tradition alive. I asked Hung if the man is still alive. He nodded and pointed to the old man from who I was buying five prints (40 cents each). I was in the master's living room.
On another note, today I finally had bun cha. This is one of the classic dishes of Hanoi (up there with cha ca, bun rieu, bun thang, and of course pho bo). Bun cha is only eaten at lunch and you can usually tell who has had it because they reek of garlic. The place I ate was thankfully light on the garlic. This is a hard dish to describe. You eat it out of two bowls. One has diluted fish sauce, the other has a broth with little minced pork patties. It is served with a big plate of vermicelli and a massive heap of herbs. It's a mix and match meal, nothing like the premixed Southern style bun dishes we get in Saigon-style restaurants in North America. Each mouthful is a different combination of all the elements. I've got to start taking aerial photographs of my meals before I eat them, but I would look (even more) like a ridiculous tay ba lo if I did.