Sunday, November 6, 2011
When we first arrived here, Becky researched a dance studio only a few kilometers from our apartment. We visited it at that time, but no one was home. There was a phone number on a sign, which Becky entered into her phone. This was before we knew which digits are added to a Ha Noi cell phone to make it work. Becky tried the number, but it never went through, so we gave up, not knowing that we didn't have the right number. A couple weeks ago, when we were pedaling past the street with the studio on a Sunday afternoon, I suggested we check it out again. There were two couples dancing, practicing in a big dance space, open-air, with a slick tile floor. I don’t recall the names of the two men, but the two women were both named Ha. (Funny -- Ha Ha!) One Ha speaks English well and goes by the name of Tracy.
They were some of the leaders of a salsa group that meets at the studio twice a week – once to work on couple moves, the other two work on “shines” – slick individual moves – and styling. We watched them a while – pure LA style salsa – lots of fancy turning, and dramatic hand gestures and constant hair tosses by the women. Not exactly our style, but they were good dancers.
Becky asked if they knew Rueda de Casino, a Cuban Salsa Mixer that Becky and I have been studying for a number of years. They showed us a choreography that they had memorized from youtube (in fact, most of their dance moves were learned from youtube). Becky explained that in a Rueda circle, people don’t memorize a choreography, but follow a caller who yells the moves a measure ahead. The sequence of short moves is improvised by the caller. We offered to show them and spent an hour teaching some basic Rueda figures.
They invited us to their Salsa class that night. The shorter man, who is an amazing self-taught dancer, taught a complicated dance sequence. Becky caught on quickly, while I struggled (mostly with the pace of the teaching – they didn’t really break things down as much as I need – they just demonstrated the move and expected my uncoordinated feet to know what to do). Fortunately, a very patient English speaking Vietnamese woman named Mai came to my rescue and patiently worked me through the sequence (which I have since mostly forgotten). When we said our good-byes, Tracy asked if we would be willing to teach Rueda to their class (about 50-60 Vietnamese people) the following Friday?
So Friday night (11/4), Becky and I headed down to the studio via Xe om – motorbike taxis. We were the first to arrive. Vietnamese people are much like New Mexicans – The “start” time for an event is really the time that the first people arrive, and the next half-hour to 45 minutes are still part of that start. Couples and singles trickled in. Some practiced, some just talked. After long warm-ups in which the male leader (I think his name is Minh, but I might just be making that up) had me trying to isolate my shoulder, torso, and pelvis in ways that just aren’t physically possible for me. Standing a head taller than everyone else doesn’t help either. Fortunately Vietnamese are not very self-conscious and similarly are not at all judgemental. So I threw my inhibitions away and tried every shoulder roll and pelvic thrust. Not a pretty picture – but I never claimed to be pretty.
Then Tracy introduced us to the group and translated Becky’s explanation of Rueda. The six of us who had practiced together the previous week demonstrated the moves to Becky’s calls of “da me” and “enshufla doble.” For the next hour or so, Becky, with the help of Tracy and me, taught eight or nine moves. The 50 Vietnamese people were quick learners and want us to return. Afterwards, we were invited to drink some lemon tea at a streetside stand by the studio with many of the dancers. From there, the group was heading to a Salsa club downtown. Becky and I wanted to go, but Sivan was home alone (Amali was in Laos captaining her team at a basketball tournament -- another story) and we hadn’t eaten dinner. After quick goodbyes, Becky and I set off to find a restaurant.
We walked to a strip of restaurants that we had passed on our way to the studio and were drawn to the one where we saw a group of four older men at a little plastic table, drinking beer and singing boldly, to the guitar that one was playing. We sat at a table next to them and listened as they sang a variety of Vietnamese songs – some patriotic marches (you could tell by the rousing choruses of "Viet Nam! Ho Chi Minh!" and some that sounded more like traditional folk songs.
We ordered beers and looked over the menu. All the dishes were goat. Headlining the menu was a choice between grilled and fried goat penis. I thought about ordering one, but they were pretty pricey, so we got grilled goat, and a dish of fried goat skin and whole garlic cloves that I did actually order. While we were literally chewing the fat (Vietnamese love to include as much fat and gristle in their chunks of meat as possible), the men at the table next to us continued their serenade. Suddenly I recognized the guitar riff as the opening bars of "Hotel California," which they encouraged us to sing. I knew the words, but it is not an easy song to sing, so while Becky rolled her eyes at my struggles to find the key and keep up with his fast tempo, I did my best. So to get back at her, I gestured for them to give Becky the guitar (again more eye-rolling), but Becky took it and played “Let It Be.” For the next hour, they sang for us and we for them. We toasted and shared beers. Their American song selection was mostly early 60s stuff that Becky and I recognized but couldn’t recall the lyrics. I noted that most of the English language songs that they knew were the same ones on the lists at the Karaoke bars. Then they sang the song Tumbalalaika in Vietnamese and then in English, to which I responded with a verse in Yiddish. These guys were young when the Soviet presence here was strong.
The restaurant staff were putting away the kindergarten sized plastic furniture all around us. The lights were dimmed and we had one more toast and shared our good-byes.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Where have I been these last six weeks? Good question. School mostly – planning two new courses that I knew would be challenging, helping our four seniors wind their way down the tortuous path to college admissions, and administering SAT, PSAT, and ACT tests – three Saturdays in October just devoted to testing (and another in November). A couple short trips with my students, lots of grocery shopping and some creative cooking with very limited ingredients (one of the blog posts, I will summarize my “Expat cookbook”), bike riding on errands to track down lab supplies, playing ultimate frisbee a couple times a week, except for when it has been raining – which has been pretty often, and contending with the even more powerful forces of nature in the form of a hormonally unpredictable 14 year old.
Becky and I share College Counseling responsibilities. She will help the seniors edit their essays and the juniors summarize their goals, experiences and interests in anticipation of their future essay writing needs. Two of our seniors will leave in December, and the other two are here for a full year. We will have to help the first two complete their applications, and we will be with the other two through the entire process. It is a challenge to usher students whom we have only known a couple months through this crucial process. It is sufficient to say that these responsibilities keep me pretty busy.
In the next blog post, I will describe our trips to Ba Trang (chahng) and Halong Bay, and a bit on Becky’s trip to Sa Pa and Lau Cai, Amali’s journey to Mai Chau, and Sivan’s to Da Nang and Hoi An.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
It has been a while since I have had time to add to this blog. I have pictures, stories, and some brief video to share. I will try get to much of it this week and get you all caught up.
The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, preparation, and work. Two weeks ago, on Saturday, we all participated in a Hanoi Hash outing. The Hash is a running/hiking club that started in Kuala Lumpur in 1938, spread throughout SE Asia in the 1960s and 70s and then exploded in the 90s and has almost 2000 chapters, and is on every continent (even Antarctica). The leadership is voluntary. They organize runs every Saturday (and some getaway weekends as well). They hire a bus and a beer/soda truck and head out to the countryside. Some members have scouted out a route, and after an intial beer/soda stop, with brief introductions of new people, the runners and walkers head off. The leaders call “On, on!” periodically to keep everyone on pace.
We met downtown outside The American Club met a few of the veteran Hashers – the first one I met, a tall Kiwi man, introduced himself as “Chicken Legs" and a British woman told me her name was “Shakesbeer.” I met others with similarly colorful Hash names such as “Nice Bitch,” “Spandex Man,” and a diminutive Vietnamese woman with the moniker “Moneypenis” given to her because of her passion for James Bond (somehow derived from Money Penny). Real names were shared as well, but the stories behind the Hash names were much more intriguing.
The bus took us out of town, picking up Hashers at various locations en route, and an hour
later, we arrived at a dam in the countryside west of Hanoi. The 10k route took us through rice paddies, floating lotus gardens, with ducks in pens, and wallowing water buffalo. It was muddy and beautiful, hauntingly similar to scenes from so many war films. We would exit the paddies into small remote villages. Children would call Hello and then run shyly back into their houses. About half-way through, after we were good and sweaty, like an oasis in the desert, there was
the beer truck. Tropical heat, an empty stomach, semi-rigourous exercize, and beer are an interesting combination. I definitely slowed down for the remainder of the hike. When we got back to the starting point, there was the truck again. This time, I had water.
It was nearing sunset and we wondered when everyone would head back to to bus. It wouldn’t be for another hour and a half. It was time for the weekly Hash ritual. A German man, whose name I cannot recall, was the apparent leader of the group that evening. Using some white powder (lime?) he made a circle and everyone stood outside it. He called all new people into the circle, had us introduce ourselves, gave us a cup of beer (soda for the kids) and after the group sang us a song (led by Shakesbeer and Nice Bitch), we had to drink and then were brusquely told to get out of the circle. Then they called in birthdays, people who hadn’t shown up for a while, people who were going away for while, people who started as runners, but finished as hikers, men with really nice bodies who had to take off their shirts before they could drink their beers. With each category, there was a song, and a drink. There was more, and it felt a bit cultish or secret societyish (although there seemed to be no secrets). It was funny for the first half-hour, but got a bit tiresome and Sivan and Amali were really tired. They didn’t start the ritual until sunset, so, after leaving Hanoi at 2 pm, we didn’t get back until after 8 (The bus stopped for more beer on the way – and then, after all that beer, had to stop for a pee break as well).
I will post some Hash pictures, but I left that camera at my office.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Saturday, August 20, 2011
Friday, August 12, 2011
I was warned about shrimp paste. Vietnamese use it in their cooking, sometimes
serve grilled cakes of it, but most often use it as a dipping sauce. We don't
see it in our American Vietnamese restaurants, and two days ago I found out
why. In my many culinary escapades I have tasted things I didn't like or
wouldn't order again, but only once did I taste a food so utterly disagreeable
that I had to spit it out. In Taiwan there is a popular dish called Stinking
Tofu. It is cooked in big vats, often outside the restaurant to attract
customers. The traditional preparation was to cure the Tofu in fermented milk
(yuck) -- now they use artificial substances that mimic that flavor. I tried it
(twice to see if I might acquire a tolerance for it -- I didn't) and it tasted
the way a feedlot smells. Not my favorite. Give me Uni (sea urchin sashimi) with
it's post-nasal drip texture any day over stinking tofu. Mind you, I was willing
to try it twice.
Three days ago, on our way to buy our bicycles, we went to a mid-scale vietnamese
restaurant near our apartment. No translated menus, so we just ordered soups,
thinking that they would come in meal sized bowls like pho'. They came in tiny
bowls, so we looked around at other tables to see if there was an appealing
dish to order. Some young guys were eating fried Tofu, which seemed safe. We
pointed and our order arrived 5 minutes later, with a purplish, grayish dipping
sauce. Not knowing that this was the infamous shrimp sauce, I dipped and popped
a piece into my mouth. The piece came out less than a second later -- the old
men at the table next to us smiled knowingly. The taste was offal. Not awful,
offal. Best association is with the smell of a sewage treatment plant. I
grabbed for my beer -- empty. I took a swig of Sivan's coke. I felt waves of
nausea. I couldn't even sit near the bowl sitting on the table. I couldn't get
the flavor out of my mouth. We paid our bill quickly and headed down the block
to the french bakery. Even after the pastry, I couldn't completely extinguish
I have subsequently learned how they make shrimp paste. They toss raw shrimp and
fish in salt, and then let it undergo liquefaction and fermentation under the
warm tropical sun. In other words, it is rotten seafood. Lan, our Vietnamese
teacher, told me that many Vietnamese can't stand it either, but it is popular
in the middle of the country. Will I try it again? I doubt it, unless there was
a lot of money behind the dare.
Then yesterday, we visited a nearby lunch restaurant that we have been meaning try.
We scope these out when we walk by people and see what they are eating, or, in
this case, the restaurant had a bunch of dishes that you could point to. Like
many street restaurants, the kitchen was the front part of someones home. No
door, just an open kitchen, a few tables inside and few outside. The woman
cooking scooped a big mound of steamed rice on each plate and then allowed us
to each point to as many different foods as we wanted, which were arrayed over
the rice. There were fried chicken drumsticks, steamed cabbage, curried coconut
and pork, some seasoned ground meat???, several dishes with fried chicken skin,
gizzards, or liver with various spices or sauces. Steamed collard greens, and
other appealing fare. There was one plate that caught my eye. Oblong, inch long
yellowish things, no sauce, which upon closer scrutiny, were obviously pupae of
some sort of moth or butterfly. Roasted, I think. To keep a short story from
getting too long, they were roasted silkworm pupae. I popped one in my mouth
and bit down. Crunchy on the outside, sweet and salty on the inside -- good
initial experience, but then, after chewing it up a bit more, some internal
tissues clearly did not taste as good as the ones that I first bit through. It
wasn't terrible, but also not so great. I will try them again to see if I can
acquire a taste. Sivan, with great courage, sampled a silkworm pupa as well.
She will not be trying it second time.
So we've gone from horrible, to weird, but there was also the best meal we have
experienced, four nights ago. We saw people sitting at the tiny preschool
plastic tables and chairs that comprise the street vendors' restaurants, with a
round, sterno fueled grill in the center of each one. (Some of the tables were
partially melted). It was a do-it-yourself meal. They brought us a large platter
of raw meats and veggies (one meat was pork skin, a fact I kept from the girls
until they asked why it was so chewy). They gave each of us two sets of
chopsticks -- one for cooking and one for eating. And a thing of butter and
another of oil. Suffice it to say, the food was fantastic. Can't wait to take
Saturday, August 6, 2011
Thursday, August 4, 2011
There we were,
last night, about 7 pm, eating roasted duck and Pho from a streetside
restaurant up the alley next to our apartment (initially thought it was chicken
since there was a bucket of plucked dead whole chickens next to the grill –
best duck I’ve ever tasted though – a whole duck for 5 dollars!). The girls
ordered cokes and the restaurant owner brought us glasses with ice. I tried to
ask if the ice was purified water by pointing to the ice cubes and pointing to
the blue 5 gallon water dispenser. The owner nodded yes, so the girls filled
their glasses. The guys from the next table told me that it wasn't pure water,
so the girls had to order new cokes, drink them warm, and we enjoyed a great
meal. When it was time to go, the guys at the table next to us offered me a
drink so I asked the the girls if they wanted to head back to watch Glee.They
did and I sat down with 7 guys ranging in age from mid 20s to late 30s (I
think). They worked for same import/export company and were eating and drinking
together after their company soccer team won their game. Several spoke english
well and we had a relaxed, sometimes funny, conversation. Trung (choong), the
youngest, with the best command of english, sat next to me and we talked about
Hanoi, about their business, about wives and girlfriends... I asked about how
working for a privately owned company compares with working for a government
owned firm and they all got kind of quiet... All the while, Trung and Yen and
Viet kept filling my little half-shot glass with shots of Vietamese wine (i.e.
vodka – and very smooth).We toast with a loud “zo” and down each shot. After several
shots, their dinner was delivered – they were having the same delicious duck,
and bowls of Pho (pronounced Phuh’uh), with brown rectangular very airy pieces
of meat floating in it.They offered me a piece with a bowl of noodles (mind you
I was full and getting a bit warm from the “wine.”)I asked what is was but they
just told me to taste it (reminds me of how I get sivan and amali to eat new
things...like that camel stew in egypt last summer).I tasted it. Not good. Sort
of the flavor I associate with canned dog food, but with a texture that made me
think it was cow lung – sort of spongy/but with a kidneyish stringiness – is
your mouth watering yet? Then Trung explained that it was coagulated cubes of
duck blood (from the rest of our dinner).When they offered me a second piece, I
politely took it, and smiled weakly as I popped it into my mouth and commented
on how interesting the texture was.I think I impressed them.Apparently other
foreigners gag. I told them that in China, I had some soup with what I thought
was pink tofu, but turned out to be cubes of clotted pig blood.Food is
food.Just have to work at acquiring certain tastes. I doubt I will attempt to
work at this one, though.
Now for the
interesting part.Trung asked if l like Karaoke. Ok I don't, really, but I know
how integral karaoke is as entertainment in Asian culture. This was an
opportunity to get to know these guys, and I'd now downed about ten mini-shots,
so, what the hell, I said sure. It was about 8:15.Glee had just started, so the
girls wouldn’t worry. From our apartment window we can see half a dozen karaoke
clubs, which is where we headed.The guys hopped on their motorbikes (DWI – but
for only two blocks), I behind Yen on a very nice ride, and we drove the two
blocks (thank goodness) to the street with the clubs.The clubs have wide open
entrances to a 20’ x 20’ room.The only people in the room were the red-jacketed
staff members (lots of them).Strange. And no music.Stranger still.At the back
of the first floor was an elevator.Two of the red-clad staff herded us into the
lift and up we went to the fourth floor of five.I was expecting the door to
open to a crowd of people listening to someone singing cheezy vietnamese
romance ballads, but there was only silence, and more red-jacketed workers.They
opened a thick padded door into a small (15 x 10) soundproof room.There was a
big sectional sofa around 3 of the walls and a big screen opposite.The coffee
table in the middle was filled with snacks, sodas, and there were 2 mics on the
table.A binder on the sofa had the two lists of songs – vietnamese and
english.We would write the number and name of the songs on little pieces of
paper and the red-jackets would come in periodically with more snacks,
Heinekens, and would collect our song requests.
Karaoke etiquette makes every song into an alternating duet between two of the
participants.They had me pick out some songs.They picked theirs.I went for 70s
hits – Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, John Lennon, Simon and Garfunkle and a few
cheesy 80s songs.Their taste in English songs was mostly early 60s stuff that
my friend Karen likes to sing, but I only know the chorus melodies for.But we
managed.They made me sing some Tammy Wynette country waltz that was vaguely
familiar – I did pretty well even though I was winging the melody.Troung had an
amazing voice – high clear, expressive. Some of the other guys were talented,
too.My strongest numbers were a very deep bluesy rendition of House of the
Rising Sun – they didn’t know that one but liked it, and then Yen and I
performed duets to Sounds of Silence and Imagine. At 9:30 one of their
girlfriends arrived.She and her boyfriend sang some much more danceable
vietnamese pop tunes – She had a great voice and could really dance...But at
9:50 I said my goodbyes, collected a bunch of business cards and walked home.
Tonight, I think
I will take the girls and we’ll have a fun time singing beatles and abba
songs.It only costs $5 per hour (although I have no idea what the drinks cost –
they wouldn’t let me pay). An interesting evening, indeed, even with the duck