Archive for the 'Hanoi' Category



Ways In Which Subbing At a Vietnamese High School Is Similar To and Different From Attending American High School: A Compare and Contrast

Bang a gong

1. Different: Instead of a bell, they bang a gong.

2. Similar: The alarm goes off at 6am. I’ve picked up a couple days subbing for a friend of a friend at an elite Vietnamese secondary school, teaching literature classes.

I’d seen the job posting a few weeks ago and had considered applying – the pay was great and I was beyond qualified and I loved the idea of teaching literature, but the hours were long and the commute longer.

I’m out of the house by 7:30. Why does high school always involve such early mornings? No wonder I was depressed.

3. Different: Forty-five minutes sucking smog on the back of a motorbike and twenty minutes in a van provided by the school, shuttling me to a further campus that the one I ventured to.

So I’m bleary and hot and already covered in that thin layer of pollution Hanoi coats you in and it’s not even 9am. The van bounces down a bumpy road as the school rises before me: a new structure in a new part of town, surrounded by lotus fields and shanties and, in the distance, the outline of half-constructed highrises.

The school is massive and stark: six stories of cement-block austerity locked inside a tall metal fence. There’s nothing but gray – no trees, no lawns, no hand-drawn banners for homecoming or Glee Club or whatever the fuck it is high school kids are supposed to do.

It looks like a prison to me. (Similar)

5. Different: I wander around the halls for a while, unsure of where I’m supposed to go. I default to the stand-there-and-look-foreign tactic and eventually someone who works at the school comes over and shows to me to my classroom.

When I walk in, all the students stand up. “Hello teacher,” they say in unison. But they say it like something they’re forced to say, with that particular adolescent drone of boredom and annoyance (similar).

They stand there, staring at me. I stare back. They’re wearing white button-up shirts and these little red sashes tied around their necks, sailor style (different).

Finally I figure out that I’m supposed to tell them to sit. So I blush and motion my hand, “sit, sit,” feeling an embarrassed grin stretch across my face (similar).

6. Similar: The morning goes by in a blur, reading off the hand-written lesson plan notes: comparing and contrasting fables. I ask questions; they shift in their seats and mostly look bored. But there’s a few kids that keep raising their hands, that know the answers and even make little leaps, little connections that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. For a moment I wish I’d taken the job.

They’re an upper-class demographic; you can tell by the sneakers they wear and the watches they have and the iPhones I confiscate. You can tell by the references to films they make, by the fluency of their English, but most of all by the easiness with which they carry themselves – a confidence that verges on entitlement, the universal marker of privileged youth.

Maybe that’s what starts bringing up the thoughts of my first high school, what starts sending these little slivers of electric memories through my tired brain. I rarely think about that school, usually remember (or disremember) high school as a weed-induced blur in the back of a portable, a town an hour and a half bus ride form Oakland where I don’t remember doing any homework but was still on the honor roll. That’s where I spent three of my four high school years – zonked out on pills and water-bottle vodka, making zines and only skimming the surface of consciousness when I needed to. I forget about the other year, the other place.

The pangs of it keep coming back all morning and I keep pushing them away, until it’s lunch and I’m sitting in the cafeteria alone (similar), apart from all the other teachers (similar) who are Vietnamese (different) and smile at me (different) but don’t seem particularly interested in engaging (similar). I hunch over a metal tray of rice and duck and pickled greens (different), nothing to listen to but my own damn brain babbling (similar) and I’ve got no defense for the flood of it coming back.

Not my pic but pretty fitting, eh?

Bishop O’Dowd: I hated that school. I only spent one year there but it was the worst goddamn year of my life. My first time at a private school, my first time at a Catholic school (exposed to any organized religion, really), my first venture into middle-class white society. Though really, now you could change “first” to “only.” Fucking hell, no wonder it went horribly.

I remember thinking it was like a movie, just like one of those goddamn movies about the big suburban high school, which someone somewhere must think captures a universal adolescent experience but really only captures one version, one narrow sliver of the experience. And even though the school was in the East Oakland hills, it was still all there: the football players, the cheerleaders, the mean girls, the token scholarship kids, the Asian math geeks, the queer Drama kids – like a stereotype of a stereotype, like a movie set and everyone was pretending and no one was saying how fucking fake and soul-sucking the whole thing was.

My fourth day, one of the Alternative Rebellion kids was sitting behind me in class. She had spikey hair and a dog collar and the smooth glowing skin only access to quality health care and a lifetime of good nutrition afford. She leaned forward and hissed in my ear, “You think you’re so cool with your dyed hair, but me and my friends think you’re lame.”

She kept on all period – “Loser, poseur, wanna-be, fake” – and I lowered my head and felt my cheeks burning red as I tried not to cry, every single zit on that flush of acne I had ignited with the searing shame of it. I didn’t understand – where I came from, kids didn’t talk shit so carelessly; there were real-world consequences for that. Hadn’t someone ever jumped her? Well, no.

I wanted so much to not care; I wanted so much for this girl to think I was cool. I’d always wanted to fit in and never had, the weird white kid at the Oakland public schools. I’d always wanted, I thought, to escape into a world of suburban comfort, where everything was nice and easy and manicured and clean and everyone looked like me. Because the people on TV and the people in the movies, they all looked like me and they were happy and life was easy, aside from easily solvable comedic exploits.

But this wasn’t an easily solvable comedic exploit; this was my life. My shitty, shameful, desperately yearning, 13-year-old life. I was relegated to the Untouchable class after that day; for the rest of the year, I had three friends who would talk to me, three girls that would throw trash at me in those gleaming hallways, and a whole school full of kids who ignored me.

I hadn’t thought about any of it in a long-ass time. The incidents, maybe, but not the feeling, the real burning shame of it. The hungry awfulness. It was my last year of relative sobriety before I switched schools and the Pandora’s box of addiction opened. In a lot of ways, that was better than that freshman year I spent at O’Dowd, depressed and isolated and miserable with no way to escape it. Trapped in a landscaped prison.

The bell gongs (different) and I go back out, to wander the hallway and find my next class.

But now that the gate has been opened, I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t keep the memories neatly compartmentalized. They flood and tangle, the rest of the afternoon – when I see the ugly awkward girl hunched in the back of the classroom (similar); when the cool girls in front roll their eyes and giggle (similar); when the bell gongs (different) and the kids stand up and chime “Goodbye teacher,” and watched me walk out (different). When I go to the next room and I stand in front of more kids in sailor uniforms (different), who guess I’m American because I “talk loud” (different), and I keep talking loud (similar) and I look up and see the day outside – a day that looks sweeter and gentler and clearer than it really is – cut into the size of a classroom window (similar) and I have that trapped feeling (similar) rise in my gut all over again (not similar: same) – memories of shit I thought I’d gotten over, wasn’t angry about anymore, suddenly rearing back up like raving stallions, and I’m still angry (same) and I’m still awkward (same) and I’m still ashamed (same).

I should have punched her, I think.

I’m glad I didn’t take the job, I think.

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The Coming of the Storm

It was coming. The way it’s always coming, except for just after it’s came: a big-ass storm that’ll flood the alleys and clean the air and give the mosquitoes new pools of water in which to hatch.

I wake up exhausted—6:30am, out on the bike by 7:30, class at 8. A string of kids who won’t listen, a little boy who cries three hot angry tears when I kick him out for talking. It’s worse than if he sobbed, those three tears, worse in their restrain and fury—maybe at me but also at something else it seems, at whatever that thing in him is that can’t listen, can’t sit still, can’t stay in his fucking seat.

Hour break before I’ve gotta be back across town for tutoring—a private lesson for a Korean teenage boy about to start at the international school in a few weeks. His English isn’t great but he’s smart as a whip and well-mannered and tries hard, even when I can tell he doesn’t want to. Sometimes I suspect it’s just to humor me but it’s trying nonetheless, making a difference nonetheless, so I pretend not to notice.

Order a coffee, review my notes, brain too foggy, give up. Feel like my eyelids are weighted, sleep like a big mouth wanting to yawn around my forehead and take me back with it. Wish I could let it, sip my coffee, resolve to take a nap later.

Get on the moto, space out as I feel the humidity gathering, growing thick in the air like a cloud of bugs. Arrive at the apartment complex: one of four high-rises you can see clear across town. The building’s on this housing development, tacky and landscaped, with really crisp sidewalks and these massive sculptures of wild white stallions at every round-about—the kind of place a foreign company will put its workers up in, which is what my student’s family is.

I’m early so I go sit on the big foofy sofa in the foyer. It’s going for a French aristocrat look—tassled pillows and little clawed pegs, a faux-Impressionist painting on the wall that seems to dominate, overtake the room in way I haven’t ever quite seen another painting do. The effect is something other than what’s intended, almost Murakamian in its alienation, in a way that makes me feel like I’m in a novel instead of someone else’s real life.

Sit there and listen to the elevator ding and the security guard pacing in her clicky shoes and military cap. Try to read a bit of the book I downloaded last night, have a hard time digging it—get lost in the sentences, fend off that same feeling of all-consuming sleep. Have a brief pang of homesicknesses for Flannery O’Connor, homesick for my fat old Collected Works—not that I miss her but that I crave her, crave that line in Wise Blood about how Jesus was a wild ragged figure in someone’s mind, “motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”

Resolve to Google the quote when I go home.

Check the time, ride the elevator, struggle my way through the hour and a half, dim brain and dull eyes. The boy does well today—write down what he says and show it to him, compare it with what he’d said a month ago, note the improvement. He smiles.

Drink the milk his mother gives me, the donut holes she fried in the kitchen while we were working. Eat them with a little fork. We don’t say much but smile a lot. She pays me, I thank her, she thanks me.

Get on another bike; the first few drops start, not light and misty but in heavy, deliberate plops. Stop, put on my plastic poncho that I don’t leave home without, strap my helmet back on.

Ride back but the rain doesn’t come, it peters out and receedes and I’m the only one on the road wearing my poncho. Feel like a jack-ass.

Get home, down some water, crawl up the stairs. Flip on the AC and collapse into bed without taking my dress or my leggings off.

It’s one of those sleeps that seems to kidnap you, to hit you like a dump truck, turn your limbs to lead and your brain into a pile of black at the front of your skull. Go thick and dreamless; roll over once, gasp, return.

Have a dream, a crazy lucid dreams where I’m completely cognizant, completely myself, but don’t know I’m sleeping. There’s a girl. A phantom really: pale skin and fangs. She might be a vampire. Sometimes she’s chasing me and I’m running—I go up on a ledge and she meets me there, hisses. But then it’s me who wants her, almost as though I want to seduce her, like something is compelling me to seduce her, and I knock her over and I grab at her ankles, draw her close to me. The world spins steeply beneath us.

I lose my grasp on her and she’s gone again, goes back to chasing me and I’m terrified. I feel her around me all the time; I “wake up” in a house (which isn’t waking up at all, and isn’t a house at all, more of a skinny hall of mirrors) and there’s a little girl there. She’s sweet and I’m trying to talk to her, to listen to her talk about Barbie’s or whatever—trying to be normal when really I feel that other girl, that vampire girl, everywhere, lurking around the house, trying to get in.

I squint as though my eyes were fogged. I have to write this, I think in the dream, write down what happened before it’s gone. But every time I try the pencil smudges and my vision blurs and something distracts me, some question or task, until I can’t see the fucking paper in front of me.

I wake up then. For real wake up, just long enough to roll over and wipe the drool off my chin. My head feels like a block of cement on the pillow and the room is black, blacker than it should be at 4pm. The sliver of sky I can see through the window is ripe and swollen.

What was she? I ask in my half-awakeness.

Writing, my black brain answers. She was writing.

Feel myself getting sucked back into sleep, quicksand-sucked, as the rain finally starts outside my window.

There’s Truth in Skyping

Wednesday morning, post-jog Skype sesh: sitting in my robe, cup of coffee, laptop in my lap, feeling all warm and good after a shower and a bowl of pho.

Routines are one of my favorite things (because I’m officially old and boring). Watching the routines emerge in my new life here in Hanoi has been a sweet, kinda precious thing. And one of my favorites are Wednesday mornings. It’s my only weekday morning off right now, so I force myself to make the most of it: wake up at 6am to go jogging before the worst of the heat presses down. It doesn’t really help much; after ten minutes I’m a fucking slip-and-slide of sweat and after twenty minutes I’m woozy from the heat. It’s really more of an excuse to get up early—cause as it turns out, dawn is one of my favorite times in Asia and who really says, “I’m getting up early to go strolling”? Well, most of SE Asia, judging from how many people are out and about, stretching their limbs and buying vegetables and sitting on little plastic stools drinking tea. But not me—I’m the giant, red-faced tattooed girl ducking from all the low-hanging tree branches, curly fro flopping in the breeze. (Majestic, really.)

Anyway, I do that for twenty minutes and after I’m sweaty and disgraced enough, I go down the block and get a bowl of pho, stroll over to the market and buy some fruit, stop for a coffee, come home, shower, BLAH BLAH BLAH and I’m on the computer and (in theory) ready to write by 8am. Killer.

Except 8am here is 6pm on the West Coast, 9pm on the East, and a reeeeeally good time to catch up with friends. So I end up chitty-chatting for a couple hours, that Word document slowly getting buried behind Skype and IM and FB windows. Like most writers, I feel a sense of urgent, impending failure unless I’m writing 2000 words a day, but I try to reassure myself that maintaining connections with folks back home is important. Because I love my friends, but also because they know, really know me, in a way I often don’t know myself. (And besides, I enjoy the fuck out of a witty IM.)

So this morning I’m Skyping with a friend in Oakland. She’s telling me about this nightclub debacle and I’m telling her about my wading-through-sewage debacle and we’re laughing and shit. And then she goes, “You sound so much happier!”

Okay, so this is like fourth time I’ve heard this from someone. Granted, they’re not here in person and all they’ve had to go on for the past 10 months has been my voice, maybe a grainy little video box that freezes a lot and makes my skin look yellow. But still, I think there’s something to that. You know how they say when one sense is shut down, the others become heightened? Like blind people are supposed to have mad good hearing? I don’t know if this is true but I like the sound of it and it goes along with my theory, so let’s assume. Cause it would then follow that if your only contact with someone is through their voice, you’d get pretty good at reading and gaging it.

So I tell her, “Yeah, you’re like the fourth person who’s told me that.”

And she goes, “Well do you feel happier?”

I answer without missing a beat: “Totally.”

Now, the transition to Hanoi has been turbulent. I don’t find Hanoi a particularly accommodating city, and I had to hit the ground running. I’ve had more demoralizing breakdowns in my move to Hanoi than I did in Phnom Penh, and the air is worse and the traffic is mental and I think it might actually be hotter here.

But it’s true, I’m happier. I’m happier in this hard-to-name, only-vaguely-aware-of way, in the same way hard-to-name, only-vaguely-aware-of way I was UNhappy in Phnom Penh.

I’ve been trying not to talk about it too much. One, because you don’t really wanna sound like a smug bastard and two, because I don’t know how to explain it. Why am I happier here? Life is easier in Phnom Penh in a lot of ways—it’s a smaller city, it’s less polluted, there’s more access to foreign products, food is less expensive, people are damn friendly, there’s tuk-tuks, etcetcetc. People here have asked me, you know, what was Phnom Penh like, why did I go there, why did I leave, and I usually just shrug and say, “Hanoi’s a better fit for me.”

So I keep chatting with my friend, then I pop on FB and holy shit, Angelo’s online. So we start IMing, about curly fries and an on-the-job fender bender and some ridiculous Champagne Party an eccentric millionaire gives, when holy shit, ANOTHER friend pops up. (Cause I am so damn popular. In online life.)

It’s this dude I knew in Cambodia. He left before I did, in March, and we haven’t talked since then. So I’m bouncing between windows—curly fries, Cambodia, curly fries, Cambodia—when Dude goes: “I’ve been reading your blog.” Like. “It’s funny.” Like. “And negative.”

Wait, what?

“Negative?”

“It’s all about how hard everything is and how bummed you’ve been.”

Damn.

I’ve been trying to walk this line between being honest and being a total fucking Negative Nancy. Cause right now, to be honest, I’m pretty down on Cambodia. But I’ve been trying to keep my mouth shut about it, cause I know it’ll pass and that really, that’s not how I actually feel. It’s just that it’s really fresh; it’s like I was dating someone and I got burned.

Cause I didn’t hate Cambodia. It wasn’t some shithole with no redeeming qualities that I was absolutely miserable in. There were things I loved about Cambodia, loved in that full-body, heart’s-gonna-leap-outta-your-chest way that you can’t quite explain. I friggin moved there, from across the planet.

But things didn’t go well for me there. I went with big dreams and they totally fell through. I had to work my ass off at staying emotionally balanced and healthy, and as dramatic as it sounds, I feel like I narrowly escaped with my sanity. I loved Cambodia and it broke my fucking heart. That’s not Cambodia’s fault and it’s not mine. But it’s easier to be negative about it, to keep a mental inventory of everything that’s more developed and better here—and there’s a lot—because I’m still too close to it to look at the full picture. It doesn’t yet feel safe to delve into the complexities of why Cambodia didn’t work for me or what exactly happened to me there. Maybe it won’t ever be safe—that’s another thing I learned in my time there: that some things aren’t safe in delve into. Why did this thing or that thing happen? In a way it doesn’t matter. I’m not a psychologist; I’m not a historian; I’m not a policy maker. What would the knowledge of why do for me? “If you understand, things are as they are. If you don’t understand, things are as they are.”

I’ve been thinking all this, secretly. But not-so-secretly, it would seem. Totally fucking obviously, perhaps.

So, what I’ve learned from this morning’s Skype/FB/IM marathon: I’m happier in Hanoi; I’m down on Cambodia.

Not exactly late-breaking news. But the truth.

First-World Problems in the Second World

1. The landlords of the four-story house I rent have been doing repairs. For ten days straight.

They’re putting in AC and new light fixtures; they’re painting and putting a metal grating on the front fence that will in no way change how easy it would be to hop the fence.

As such, there have been men milling around my house for ten straight days. They arrive on a fleet of motorbikes at 8am and they sometimes don’t leave until 6pm. They aren’t particularly careful—they bash into Nick’s motorbike, they knock Jacob’s bedroom door off the hinges, they splatter paint and it drips down the gap in the stairs, on to the kitchen counter.

When I point this out to them, they clean it. With the sponge I use to wash dishes.

2. My landlord comes every day to supervise them. He wanders around shirtless, a cigarette dangling from between his fingers. I don’t like the way smoke smells in a house and by my Western estimations, as long as I’m paying him money, I should be able to ask him not to smoke in my house.

I don’t bother to point this out. Mostly because I only speak ten words of the language native to the country I’ve moved to.

3. On Friday the 13th, it is 95 degrees. The heat index puts the “feels like” temperature at 112. The AC in the classroom where I teach (for $24/hour, with no relevant qualifications) is feeble and wheezy. I feel nauseous.

4. I’m on the heaviest day of my period. The one box of “super” tampons I found were not in fact super, at least not by Western menstruation standards. This means that during the five minute break between classes, I have to run downstairs (in the heat) to use the one bathroom with toilet paper and soap.

While I’m on the pot, watching the mosquitoes twitch, I realize there isn’t a waste basket. I resolve to wrap my used tampon in a wad of toilet paper and carry it in my fist, to be deposited in the first waste basket I see.

5. My moto driver wants an extra dollar.

6. Searching for an address in the heat.

Since I never had vision insurance in the States, I rarely went to the eye doctor; when I did go, it’d always be over $300. As such, my toric contacts are now four years old. They’re filmy and make my eyes burn; I’ve been wearing my glasses instead and the prescription on those are even older.

I discover I can get a free eye exam at a reputable optometrist and I go, visions of clear vision dancing in my head.

7. During my free eye exam, I discover that toric lenses are not available in Vietnam. “Can I order them?” “No.” “Do you know where I can them?” “Yes.” “Where?” “Yes.”

I leave the clinic, squinting through my glasses.

8. I come home. The workmen have left and there’s a cleaner now. She’s thorough but zealous—she’s rearranged my bedroom, cut down the mosquito net and thrown away a rickety old table that I was too cheap to replace. I have to rehang the mosquito net before I can take my afternoon nap.

9. I cannot nap well.

10. I wake up and a big fucking storm has blown in. Everything is black and howling, and it feels like the world is pressing in against the windows. Finally it bursts and the thundering starts, a stampede of rain.

I notice water dripping down the stairs. I follow it up to the second floor, then the third floor. The stairs are slick and I slip on my way to the fourth floor. There I see the terrace has flooded and the water seeps in, underneath the door and into a filmy pool. I watch it drip drip all the way down to the first floor—into the kitchen, where the paint splotches are.

11. The rains dies down and I decide to drag myself out to a meeting. Because I am cranky and menstrual and obviously NOT WINNING at Vietnam today.

In the thirty minutes of torrential downpour, the alley has flooded. I wade through murky that laps against my shins, bits of garbage and food floating past. My flip-flop falls off and I have to reach in the water to retrieve it.

A morbid compulsion drives me to sniff my fingers. They do not smell nice.

12. Come home two hours later, legs splattered with bits of mud and belly full of homemade chocolate cake. Take a lukewarm shower and dry off. Apply my French moisturizer (it’s a toner not a cream, thank you), put the bottle back on the shiny new shelf the workmen installed that morning.

Notice that my contact lenses case is missing.

Search around for a bit, text the landlady, get a snarky text in broken English back.

13. Get on Google to figure out if one can get toric lenses in Bangkok, where I’ve already booked a trip for next month. Discover that one can. Also discover that it will be expensive, only be marginally less than in the States. The difference being, of course, that in Vietnam I’m actually earning enough to have disposable income for extravagant indulgences like medical care for non-life-threatening problems.

And flights to Thailand.

And workmen that lose contact lenses.

And landlords that repair your house.

Try to comfort myself with these thoughts as I climb under the mosquito net, the AC droning and the fan cutting the air into thick mold-smelling slices.

Kinda Like Dating: The Xe Om Saga

Number one most aggravating, expensive and demoralizing part of my move to Hanoi: transit. This city is big and confusing and filled with about 10 million motorbikes (no, really) and even without the heat it’d be pretty damn unwalkable. So you take xe oms, motorbikes—the same as you do in Phnom Penh except here you’ve got a helmet and the driver can read your destination’s address. So you’d think it’d be a better jam, but. It. Is. Goddamn. Expensive.

I guess most people don’t arrive in a city and immediately start looking for jobs and going on interviews. Most people don’t get three jobs in two weeks and have to venture out to these far-reaching, newly constructed parts of the city where the schools are located, twenty minutes away from center (not during rush hour)—venture out for evening classes and early morning classes, before they know their way around or where exactly they’re going, when the city still looks like miles and miles of exhaust-laced sameness.

So. My first few weeks involved a lot of getting lost, getting stranded and getting extremely fucking annoyed. Mostly at myself, since I couldn’t communicate, couldn’t haggle, didn’t know how to ask the driver to come back when the class was over. So I’d come out of a dark building at 9pm in a desolate part of town, look around and realize there was fucking no xe om to take me back to civilization. I’d walk for ten minutes and the xe om I’d finally find would take one look at my ill-fitting clothes and desperate, lost expression and know he could take for whatever he wanted. $4 back to center? I wasn’t exactly in a position to negotiate. Well played, xe om, well played.

I tried to keep it in perspective—I was brand new here and didn’t know shit, so I kinda deserved to get ripped off. You have to earn not getting ripped off, is how I feel, and that takes time. So until then I was just gonna have to bleed money. Like $8-10 a day. And arrive to new jobs thirty minutes late because the xe om didn’t know his way and ran out of gas and yelled at me when I couldn’t tell him which direction to go.

Exactly.

(It took about a week to figure out that, as utterly terrifying as the idea of driving a motorbike is, it’s not at all viable to live in Hanoi and not have your own transport. So I found someone to give me lessons—not an easy feat considering I didn’t know how to ride a bicycle and had never balanced on two wheels. That’s a whole nuther story for another day, but for now I’ll just say that there’s bruises up and down my shins and I’m probably a good month away from being mobile.)

So the most immediate solution was to get a regular xe om. I was in the market, evaluating each ride for safety, courtesy and relative knowledge of the city. It was kind of like dating, except that when I found a potential candidate I didn’t know how to actually communicate the fact that he was a potential candidate. I would look at him longingly, try to pantomime a request before letting my arms dangle back to my sides and walking off, demoralized again. (Not so different from actual dating, really.)

I was spending a couple weeks in a guesthouse in the Old Quarter while I waited for a room in a house to open. The guy who ran the convenience shop across the alley (really just rack of water and cigarettes in his living room) was giving me overpriced, jerky rides to work and back, but I was stoked to just have a regular dude and not have worry about getting stranded. (Think of this as the Substandard Convenience Fuck—I did.) But one day he decided he wanted SEVEN FUCKING DOLLARS to take me work, so I ventured down the alley to find another xe om.

There was a cluster of them perched on their bikes on the corner. I sighed and did the usual approach, pointed to the address I’d written down on my falling-apart notebook. Negotiated a price, strapped on my helmet, hopped on. It wasn’t till we were halfway there that he started talking to me. In really good English.

He picked me up after class, took me back to the guesthouse. He gave me his number and told me to SMS him when I needed another ride. I did and man, he was pretty good. Safe driver, knew the city, open to negotiation. It was kinda perfect. Too perfect. Just like dating, I was hesitant, suspicious of Mr. Perfect Xe Om who could speak and read English, and was happy to tote my monolingual, newly arrived ass all over the city when he could probably make more hustling tourists in the Old Quarter. Don’t get attached, I told myself. This can’t last.

So when I moved into my new house last week and left the Old Quarter, I figured, you know, that was the end of a good thing. My sweet summer xe om fling. “Thanks for the rides,” I told him. “But I’m moving up to West Lake.”

“You need ride, you SMS me,” he told me.

“But isn’t that kinda far for you?”

He shook his head. “You SMS me,” he said again. It was more of a command than anything else.

Well, it’s been a week now and this fool is still showing up. He even texts me at night to ask when I need him the next day. It still isn’t cheap, but given the circumstance, it’s the best I could ask for.

I was already pretty stoked when he came to pick me last night. It was late and I was in my stupid work slacks that make me look pregnant and it had been a long day of classes and I was hungry and ready to go home. Like that.

I came out of the building and saw him sitting on his bike. He was nodding his head, and I heard a faint, distorted blare of music.

He waved and circled over. The sound became louder. And recognizable: “Hotel California.”

I laugh burst from my belly.

“You like?” he asked. He held up the thin cellphone from which the song was blasting. “I just buy.”

I shook my head and chuckled. “I love it.”

I got on and we headed back. It had just rained and the air the fresh, the road still pocked with puddles that reflected the lights. He played the song over and over—we must have listened to it four fucking times—and he sang along to his favorite lines (“pretty pretty boys / that she calls friends”). I laughed and felt the breeze on my face and thought, you know, I’ve found a good one.

Though really, he found me.

Earning It in the Old Quarter

It was the heat that did it. 115 with humidity and no AC at my friend’s house, where I’d been sleeping on that stained futon for two weeks. Belongings scattered in three bags, towel strung along the back of a shelf in an attempt to have it dry. It never did.

So when I came back from lunch at 2pm last Wednesday and the power was out, not even a fan to cut the thick air into more manageable, breathable pieces, I knew it was time to cut out. I mashed my toiletries and dirty laundry into my bags, dripping sweat and shaking, and staggered down the alley to find a taxi.

I was off to be a tourist.

Obligatory flooded street photo

I’ve never been a tourist in Hanoi. Not in the proper sense. Thanks to my friend, I’ve always had somewhere to stay, someone tote me around on the back of their motorbike and take me to the good street stalls and even order for me. It’s been phenomenal, especially considering what a full-on assault-on-the-senses this city is. I’ve been massively culture shocked all three times I’ve arrived here, in a way that no other city had culture-shocked me, and if I didn’t have a good old friend to show me around I’d probably not have left my hotel room.

But after two weeks I was still kind of helpless. I couldn’t drive a motorbike (more on that later), didn’t know my way around, couldn’t tell you the names of any of the amazing food I’d eaten. I had, however, gotten three jobs and was feeling not exactly flush but at least less crushingly broke. I was ready to venture out on my own.

“Ugh, you’re going to the Old Quarter?” another friend said. “You couldn’t pay me.”

It’s true that it’s loud. It’s true that the traffic is mad and the alleys are narrow and the air is choked thick with pollution. It’s true that it’s mashed with backpackers with dirty hair and Vang Vieng tanks, who walk too slow and talk too loud. It’s true that the vendors overcharge you.

But.

But it’s kinda nice to be a tourist. To walk around—actually walk!—and get a sense for that layout of things. To find food stalls on my own, to haggle in my cursory Vietnamese, to be forced to fend for myself. It’s harder and more expensive, but I feel more like it’s mine, like I’ve earned it.

I also like sitting in the AC in my underpants.

Fish soup, down the alley from me

But true to form, I’m the shits at being a tourist. It’s been a week in the Old Quarter and I haven’t gone to a museum, haven’t seen a cultural attraction, have been half-assed about taking photos. I have eaten a lot of street food and sat at a lot of cafes. I’ve gotten up at 6 to jog around the lake, past the women doing that Chinese red-fan dance and the teenagers eating ice-cream (yes, at 6am). I’ve read a book and watch a couple movies and written two first drafts.

So I’ve had a pretty good week.

“I’ll be ready to leave in another week,” I told my Old-Quarter-hating friend, “when it’s time to move into my new place. But for now,” I shrugged at the tourists and the vendors and the xeom drivers perched on the corners, ‘I’m okay with it.”

It’s Too Easy (Cheating in Hanoi)

At the altar,
old ash curled
like fingernails.
A funeral pours into the street.
Bouquets of lychee,
electrical wires
like black nests,
the way his old Russian motorbike
coughs down the alley—
it’s too easy
to write poetry
in this city
where nothing else is easy,
where the air is thick
and my eyes sting,
where fishermen rise from arsenic waters,
gleaming as buffalo
while I drink coffee.

See?
It feels like cheating,
stealing
images the city wrote
when it wasn’t even trying
(when all I ever do is try)—

when it was looking the way other,
when it was waiting for the light to change,

revving its engine or else
leaning a head
against a back:
arms wrapped
eyes closed

Writing poetry in its sleep


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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