Tag Archives: vietnam

Version 0.77 (The Grab Bike Driver Prompts Wonderings)


Sometimes when I sit here at the cafe, watching the world go by as it does, an individual will stop, who, for whatever reason, affects me in such a way that I begin to wonder about his life. I write this because just a moment ago a Grab bike driver stopped at the mini-market on the corner where a table and stools are set up. Even as he was parking his bike I was wondering about his life, for it was clear that he hadn’t arrived to pick anyone up, but had just arrived for a smoke and a drink. I got to wondering about how much money he made in a day or a month, where he lived, if he had a family to support. How many hours does he work and what does he do on his time off? I am thinking about all these things as he sits there contentedly smoking from his pipe. I realize I will never know the answer to any of those questions though. But I am curious, and I think it would be wonderful were I to be a fly on a wall of his home, or could somehow secretly ride along with him on his motorbike as he drives people around the city. And to understand the language and listen-in on his conversations such as the one he is having right now with the other guy at the table!


Version 0.76 (An Illusion of Prosperity, and the Joy of a Haircut)


I’m sitting at a bia hơi near the apartment where I’m staying, just a stone’s throw from the lake, watching a few chickens scratch and peck along the sidewalk and the park. The usual hangers-on of dogs are roaming about scavenging for scraps of food and looking for handouts, and up and down the streets the usual and constant parade of motorscooters, the occasional bicycle or car, families out walking (late evening, just as the sun is going down and the heat of the day begins to subside is when neighborhoods become most active), children are shouting gleefully holding their parents’ hands. The lights of highrises across the lake shine brightly, reflecting in its surface like dreams of prosperity that should be so easy to achieve if only by walking down to the water’s edge and scooping up with one’s hands or a pail. And then I look around me more closely and see the lights hanging from the corrugated steel awnings, and listen to the chatter of the family having dinner behind me (presumably the family that runs the place) and I see that right here, on this unassuming street corner that is like nearly every other in Hanoi that prosperity of a kind has already been acheived by some, if not many, and that illusion of prosperity rocked gently by the ripples on the surface of the lake is exactly that—an illusion.

I was down around Old Quarter today to enjoy a coffee at a favorite spot, and to have a slice of banana bread that unfortunately wasn’t available. Very basic things, and I had some delicious fried morsels at a little street food stall near the famous cathedral as well as a bahn mi. I’ve been pondering a haircut for probably over a month now, and today it finally happened. Walking back to my apartment it was along a stretch of road by a park where there are always several barbers, their chairs, mirrors, and other accoutrements of the trade at particular spots day in and day out. Each man to his station. I just happened to be looking at a certain gentleman whose chair was empty when he turned and saw me. We made eye contact and he made a shaving motion across his cheeks whereupon I made a cutting motion above my head. It was a fine thing this, having my haircut out in the open, watching children play at the memorial park in front of me, and young girls pose for photos with friends. Something so wonderfully joyous and life-affirming having a haircut outside while the world whirls by around you. The cars, buses, scooters, horns beeping, children playing, people walking and photographing, shop owners selling whatever goods they’re selling on the strip behind me the trees, and the sky overhead, the grass and the sidewalk beneath. It seems almost a crime to force people indoors for a haircut. Here, under the joy of the sky I was able to get one for $5 or so, and I would have gladly paid twice that.

Version 0.75 (Updates, Thoughts, Craft Beer in Hanoi)


I’m writing this at a craft beer bar in Tay Ho. They have one or two more locations scattered around Hanoi as well. This first beer I’m having is inspired by phơ. It is fantastic, though the phơ that I’ve had is not nearly as complex in flavor as this beer (not really sure if that says more about the beer or the phơ). Frankly I think it’s the spices, or lack thereof which they use up here. The phơ I’ve had farther south has been better flavored in my opinion. That said, it’s a delicious beer, and probably not a bad rendition on the theme. And they just brought me another beer as a gift (so she says). Also delicious. Seriously some of the best craft beer I’ve had anywhere on Earth.

Anyway, it’s a quiet Sunday night for me, though it usually is, traveling or not; and seemingly a quiet night in Quang An as well, though it ususally is, weekend or not. Some of the bia hơis—various corner shops selling cheap, fresh beer, snacks, and perhaps a banh mi or fried rice—may be busy however. Maybe that is why I like the area so much. Old Quarter is a mad house 100% of the time, but Tay Ho, and most specificfally Quang An, is quieter, and just western enough to feel comfortable to a westerner, plus it has a variety of food you won’t find elsewhere in Hanoi.

My camera should perhaps be returned from Fuji’s repair shop on the 27th. Right now I am at my apartment until the 28th, so the timing could be perfect. It likely won’t work out that way, but instead some other way, and that’s fine too. There is no great rush into anything.

Prices to rent a motorbike seem to be much cheaper than I first thought, so I may opt to rent one for a month. The freedom of movement that would afford me would be wonderful, rather than having to take trains and busses all over. But again, I will just have to wait, and make sure I read the prices correctly.

Furbrew, the beer bar I am at, is a modern bar set inside a building with windows and a front door. This means there is also a/c. Very different from the bia hơis one see everywhere, usually just set into a concrete bunker with a tin roof, an open front and plastic tables and stools tumbling out onto the sidewalk, which means if it’s hot like it always is this time of year, you know… hopefully there are fans where you’re sitting; there are always some scattered around these open air joints.

The staff inside Furbrew was mainly young girls, high school age, maybe one was college age, though it’s often difficult to determine age so I’m quite possibly far off target. I find it interesting (though hardly surprising, nor does it bother me in some moralistic or ethical way like it would some other ninnies) that they’re working a bar, although it looks like some really good food is served too. I guess one would describe it as a gastropub or bistro rather than a bar. My bill for my three beers, one of which I received for free was only 95k dong. I left them a 25k tip which is basically a dollar, and their faces lit up like the Christmas tree in Times Square. The appreciation for that extra bit of money is astounding to me, and warms my heart.

I love being here so much. It is unfortunate that I don’t have an unlimited supply of money or else I’d consider buying a place.

Version 0.52 (Ten Minutes of a Morning)


From the hostel this morning I watched a guy deliver large sacks of ice on a scooter to a restaurant across the street. Anything and everything is transported and delivered by scooter here: potted and unpotted plants, jugs of water, bundles of sticks, chickens in cages, songbirds in cages, propane tanks, furniture, cats, dogs, children, mail, tools, crates (which may be filled with anything imaginable). For most of this stuff one would think a car would be necessary at a minimum, but a pick-up truck or delivery van much more appropriate, but here, no. Anything can be strapped or some other way anchored to a scooter, and nothing beats a scooter for maneuverability, and no one beats the Vietnamese for their industriousness and ingenuity. Anyway, this guy delivers his sack to the restaurant, dropping it in a large cooler out front while the proprietor looks on. After this skinny little Vietnamese guy, with not an inconsiderable amount of effort, drops off his ice the proprietor fellow comes to the decision that he would prefer the other sack of ice, so of course they had to be switched. For what earthly reason that is, besides feeling like swinging his big dick around and popping his “BIG EGO” pin onto his shirt and giving it a good polish with his sleeve, I don’t know.

But as well, this proprietor had a couple of these little bird cages hanging from the canopy out front. These much-too-small cages, in which the single bird leaps back and forth from cage to perch to cage again with not even enough space to open its wings, like a mad man in a nut house. He’s not the only one, and it’s mostly the older generation, but it just seems another example of his hubris, or ego.

Version 0.51 (False Piety)


Yesterday went with Minh to the colossal statue of Avalokiteśvara and the pagoda complex on Son Tra Peninsula north of the city. He tells me everything there is no more than ten to fifteen years old. I’m a bit incredulous about that, so I want to research it a little bit.*

In addition to the older Linh Ung Pagoda there was a brand new pagoda or shrine built on a nearby lot (the temple grounds are quite large). A very tall tower which the costs of must be fairly astronomical. Impossible for the monastery to afford I would think, but Minh tells me they get donations and sponsorships from large companies, similar to how in the U.S. so many sports stadiums and arenas are bank rolled by large corporations or banks, and thus, as a sign of their hubris and ego they negotiate with the city to have their name on the stadium. It’s unfortunate because I feel it sucks the soul right out of the thing, not that I feel there is much soul left in team sports; it’s basically just a transactional relationship between ownership and players around who gets paid what. This I find repugnant, or, if not repugnant, unattractive, and so I find myself repelled from popular team sports in general. The fact that this doesn’t exist is what draws me to ultra trail-running. I also happen to enjoy the act of trail-running myself. The biggest names in that sport are the easiest people in the world to find inspiration in, but not just inspiration to become a better runner or athlete, but inspiration in being and becoming a better person, for they all are compassionate, warm-hearted, empathetic, grateful, humble, sincere, human beings without the inflated egos of the stars of the popular team sports. In short, they’re just great people who, because of the notoriety they receive for being the athletes that they are, cast a broad net and pull many people into their life-affirming orbit. Nor is there a need for giant sports complexes to be built, thank God, or better and more advanced training facilities just to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak. There are only races to be run through some of the most beautiful natural places on Earth. So, I wonder if one day these temple complexes will be named after a sponsor or a donor of a large sum of money.

The fact that there is all this money that flows into these pretentious little palaces completely turns me off of them (except for the photographic opportunities afforded by the hordes of tourists who visit and make a mess of the place by leaving litter all over). They’re no different than the tacky mega-churches seen all around the U.S. Is it necessary to build something so tall? No, of course not. What is the purpose? If the spirit of a people lay in the height and size of a temple or church structure, then the city of Changzhou would have the most spiritual people, and the rest of the world would be struggling to catch up, to outspend ($38.5 million) and outbuild (~154 meters) the Chinese. These are not, unfortunately, structures built by the toil and sweat of the monks living on the grounds, or the populace of the city or town that might benefit by it, but are built by companies with cranes, employees, and huge bank accounts. There is no spirit. It’s mere commodity, and this is reflected in the tourists who visit them with their false piety, striking poses around the various Buddhas and statues of ancient sages, or anywhere there might be a beautiful view behind them. I saw a woman yesterday posing on the steps leading up to the main courtyard who stood with her back to the ocean hundreds of meters below and behind her. Her palms were pressed together against her breast as if in prayer or a bow, and I could feel my face flush in anger at her hollow pose. This woman was like an empty, rusted watering can which, because it can hold no water has absolutely nothing to give, serves absolutely no purpose. Place it in a corner of your garden though and it might look like a nice bit of decoration. If you get close enough you can see that it is useless. So much of this posing and posturing, largely by the Chinese and Korean tourists, I witnessed here that it turns my stomach (The fact that they leave their trash—snack bags, and plastic water and soda bottles—littering the grounds of the complex doesn’t encourage a friendly attitude towards them either.). But this of course makes it an excellent place to witness a strange, to me, sort of human behavior, no matter how repulsive it may be at times.

*the complex itself dates back to the nineteenth century, however parts of it have been renovated and rebuilt over the years, other areas are new as the site has been developed further, and the giant statue is only nine years old dating from it’s completion, or fifteen years old dating from when the first stone was laid.

Version 0.49 (A Zen Tale)


Life seems so simple here. People are either throwing themselves into work (even if that means standing at attention while waiting for customers, like soldiers lined up waiting for the command to attack), or doing absolutely nothing; just sitting around on the omnipresent little stools, chewing the fat amicably (often with tea and sunflower seeds, or tobacco). This of course seems an obvious observation on the surface, for what do people the world over do? They work, then they relax. But as an American, the peculiarity I see is not so much in the doing, but in the when of that doing. Mostly Americans are all on the same, or very nearly so, schedule, meaning everyone is either working or not working at very specific times throughout the day. Here at times it seems as though half the population is doing nothing, and this in the middle of the day, while the other half is hard at work. Well, those are some thoughts and observations.

I suppose I could also say how much closer they seem to nature, and by this I mean the human animal in its natural state, simply eating, drinking, sleeping, socializing. I look at many of the Vietnamese as I walk around Hanoi, mostly the older generation, and I look at their dogs, and I watch their chickens strut about a garden or pick through a trash bag on the curb, and the similarity is utterly astonishing. I can’t get it out of my mind. Their behavior looks so natural, so completely free of pretense, of thoughts of needing to be elsewhere doing something. There is at times a sort of zen-like essence to it, like one old story that goes: There was once a disciple of one Zen Master having a chat with a disciple of another Zen Master. The first disciple was explaining to the second how his master could perform all sorts of miracles, such as, for example, performing calligraphy in the air with a brush as the characters appeared on a sheet of paper on the other side of a river hundreds of feet away. After recounting this and other supernatural feats he asked his friend what his master could do. The other disciple replied that his master could perform amazing feats as well. “As an example,” he said, “when my master is hungry, he eats, and when he grows tired, he sleeps.”

Version 0.46 (Needing a Break, Leaving Soon)


Oh Hanoi, Hanoi, Hanoi, you weary me with your noise, your pollution, your noise pollution… your stink, your humidity, your scooters and motorbikes and the smell of their exhausts and the sounds of their engines; your crumbling roads, your crumbling sidewalks, your lack of sidewalks, your sidewalks that are not sidewalks but are parking lots instead, your incessant horn honking, your puddles and mud on and alongside the roads, your polluted lake littered with trash and dead fish, and its murky, milk-coffee-grey color; your solicitations from untrustworthy taxi drivers.

You’re cool. You’re beautiful (on the whole). You’re great! I really like you, but I’m not doing anything here with you any longer. You no longer stimulate me in the way you once did, and my life here no longer feels purposeful. I need to leave. At least for a little while. I’d love to come back though. And don’t forget it! I love watching you grow, and the frenetic, insane energy contained within your walls, streets, and alleyways. I love your little shops, and eating stalls and cafes found through the doorways, the living rooms or dining rooms or hallways of families’ homes, up a back staircase to a second or third floor. I love how so much is hidden away, tricky to find, but still discoverable if you know where and how to look. Often times it seems walking down an alley or through a door must be like walking into the bedroom closet of a certain professor, parting some clothing and finding yourself in a strange new land. I love the smiles of your people when smiled to. I love all the varieties and tastes of your food, especially the fresh fruit I can find on many a street corner. But I fear so much of this I can find elsewhere, and right now I need an elsewhere because at least the discovery of a new place will stimulate and renew the sense of purpose in me (I hope). This stagnancy must not last.

Version 0.43 (Some Thoughts on Being a Foreigner)


I’m a little shocked, for I haven’t journaled in two weeks. Truthfully I haven’t had much to write about.
Scratch that.
There’s been much to write about, but my camera has been doing the journaling this time. Right now I just want to sit quietly and think back on whatever I think back on. Down whatever merry lane my mind might carry me.

I’m at Ella Cafe in Tay Ho having a coffee as I usually do around this time, six in the evening. An hour ago I had my first ever massage by a professional massage therapist: Swedish, 90 minutes, $30 (or 680,000 dong). It was a nice treat to myself, though I have a hard time imagining it being worth the quadrupling in price it would cost in the States. Perhaps that means it wasn’t particularly good? Oh well. It’s impossible for me to say as I have no prior experiences to compare it to.

I have successfully applied for and paid for my visa extension. I assume it will be filled. In less than two weeks I’ll be in Da Nang. This is something to be excited about. I haven’t been out of Hanoi since arriving, and though I planned to rent a bike and drive down to Ninh Binh for two days, I realized the visa extension was more pressing (passport used as collateral for the bike). I really love this country, though, but I can’t place what it is that speaks to me so plainly and loudly and happily. Sometimes I wonder if it’s the fact that as an American with American money, everything is so inexpensive here. Now, it’s not just that, but I can’t in all truthfulness claim that that doesn’t have something to do with it. There is also the explosive growth I’m seeing in Hanoi. Everyday it seems a new business is opening or a new building being erected, or ground being broken somewhere. It looks to me like there’s a freedom to do almost anything you like, with little red tape and restrictions getting in the way. Little money required as well. One of my favorite sandwich shops is little more than a closet next to a convenience store. I imagine most of their business is to-go for they only have two, small, round tables out front.

But I think too, about the fact that I’m a foreigner with a fair bit of money relative to most Vietnamese (I guess) and think about this position of privilege that I am in because of this, and I can easily see how my judgment is skewed as a result. But how might I judge any differently? For I am who I am, and I come from where I come. Certainly some things that I see as inexpensive, many Vietnamese citizens will disagree, and for them i have very real empathy, because I come from that place in the U.S. Yet I don’t think they are unhappy because of this. I think the Vietnamese are some of the happiest and friendliest people I’ve come across, and the most communal and social, and I believe this is the driver behind their general happiness. Having more or less here doesn’t seem to matter so much because they are all part of various very tightly knit communities of family and friends.

These are all just observations made by a white male tourist from America over a two week period.

Lights flashing, streaming by in the dark
Others making shimmering daggers across the lake
The honking of horns like notes on a musical staff that is that same line of cars and motorbikes
Fruit hawkers on the sidewalks with their wares resting in woven baskets: sliced pineapple in plastic bags, enormous crescent shaped bunches of bananas, passion fruits, dragon fruits, lychees and still others unrecognizable to me.
Blue and red plastic stools everywhere, speckling the sidewalks, some their seats split, cracked, and taped together, and others brand new.

Screaming, shouting children pouring out of the gates after school like ants from an anthill.
Throngs of parents on scooters packing the streets, backing up traffic all around,
or nearly nonexistent the children left to their own devices to wander off and get a snack or play games.
Two old men, a tea pot, tea cups, a board game on the sidewalk, and several other onlookers exhorting, advising the players on strategies and next moves like the groups one might see in the United States surrounding a barbeque pit, or arched around the engine bay of a car, the hood up, attempting to diagnose a problem and prescribe a fix.
The mist over the lake and the cloud in the sky merged in the distance, becoming one.
Corn grilling, corn kernels battered and frying, bananas battered and frying.
A barber asleep at his spot on the street, the back of his head reflected in the mirror hanging on a wall.

Verison 0.40 (Chaos and Speculation)


Hanoi, Vietnam.

The chaos.

Finding oases in this city is crucial, and if you’re just arriving may seem like an impossible task. However there are more than one may think, from small cafes down mysterious alleys and quiet lanes, to those mysterious alleys and quiet lanes themselves. Sometimes a more obvious place, like a public park. Even a gym may be considered as one. And hopefully one’s own home. Wandering around Old Quarter on foot (wandering around anywhere in Hanoi on foot, with the exception of certain lanes and streets, I’ve found) is an exercise in awareness and maintaining an inner tranquility. Not a problem for me, but I imagine for some people this could be a struggle, thus, this stressor that for some is minor or negligible for others may be like cymbals crashing in their ears, and after only minutes of this they’ll want to run back to their apartments to cower under the bed sheets. It doesn’t help that even when shopping employees are apt to hover by one’s side like a pest, or at the very least stand at a sort of military-like attention. This I find more exasperating and bothersome than the simple act of weaving through traffic letting the horns wash over me like so much spray from a waterfall.

My laptop is still dangling from the chains of Limbo. Three days and still not repaired. Maybe not ever. I wonder if they can at least extract the contents from it so that if/when I do purchase a new one I will have not lost anything. I am now uncertain about my time here. The purpose that I established for myself was one of using my laptop as a means of potentially making some money trading crypto and forex, but more importantly (maybe) as the only way of soliciting an agent or a publisher for my stories. Cultural immersion is of course the other reason for being here, but I don’t know that I would have opted to rent an apartment for a month otherwise. Who knows what I’d be doing. The thought of something else never even crossed my mind. So, all this leaves the question of what do I do to occupy myself now? (assuming the worst). There is an art supplies store about four miles south of here that I will probably pay a visit. I’ve been wanting to paint for some time. Maybe this is an opportunity to begin. I may also look into clay throwing as pottery is something else I am curious about. And there are a good deal of pottery works here. There is much for me to think about in this regard.

Version 0.39 (A Coffee Spot, and Dinner at a Buddhist Temple)


The atmoshere at Tranquil is superb for writing, which is why I am here—peace, quiet, thoughtfulness, and… writing.
Once again, though, what am I writing about?
I do not know.

Whatever comes!

Had one of the best coffees of my trip so far at Kafeville today, a micro-roaster tucked away down an alley near Bach Thao Park. After meandering my way from Tay Ho, along busy, and not-so-busy streets, then through the park, which contains a large pond; tall trees; wide thoroughfares for walking, running, or cycling; places designated for badminton, soccer, or any other game one could imagine; exercise equipment; large cages filled with a variety of birds—peacocks in one, and pigeons or doves (enormous, white ones, at that) in another—and men and women alike (mostly older) on said exercise equipment, I exited onto a busy road and took a left down a small side street that had me skeptical if the location was pinned correctly on Google Maps. That is until I arrived at my destination. It is a miniscule shop front almost all the way at the end of the cul-de-sac. The space is split about 50/50 between a seating area in the rear, and the barista’s work station and roast area up front, with a few stools for bar seating, and a low bench against a wall; as well, there is a small porch out front of the shop.

I hate writing like this, meaning purely descriptively—somewhat soullessly, but not completely soulleslly—because it’s meaningless, to me, and not enjoyable. I mean, what’s the point of describing an arrangement of chairs, or the color of the wood of a table, or the order flow in a cafe? This isn’t a magazine article, it’s a journal, a diary, something, hopefully, with soul, spirit, verve. What is written here must go deeper than surface details because otherwise there is no point. May as well throw the pen and the paper away and stick my head in the sand. It’s writing for the sake of writing because I feel like I should be writing. But why should I feel like that….

Everyday so far has seen at least one beautiful occurrence. Some days after my experience with the tobacco (which is what I found out later it was), and providing a story for a Vietnamese family to tell their friends about the foreigner they invited for a smoke and dinner, I was offered to have a free vegetarian meal at a buddhist temple I was exploring and photographing. While walking around the grounds, or, rather, while standing in place looking around, my head swiveling around on my neck, my feet doing a little dance as I turned around slowly on the spot, taking in the various structures, the layout of the grounds, the children running around playing hide and seek, the piles of shoes and sandals outside the thresholds of building entrances, the sounds of voices emanating from some of these buildings, the large grey flagstone tiles of the courtyard, a man came up to me speaking in Vietnamese, but also gesturing in an eating motion and pointing beneath a distant awning where a number of long tables were set up at which people were seated. He led me over and gestured to a series of maybe fifty or sixty bowls which were filled with veggies, stacked neatly and with purpose. I was to take one of these which I was then to give to a woman seated behind an enormous stock pot within which was more vegetables and of course a broth. This she ladled into the bowl and returned to me, and from there I was guided to a blue plastic stool at one of the tables. On the table were other dishes, one with a salad of greens and herbs, and another with some sort of small, bitter citrus fruit and fresh birdseye chilis sliced thin. These one adds to his soup to taste. There was no donation or payment accepted. It was, I thought, a generous act on the part of the man to invite me to eat, and generous on the part of the temple to provide such an abundance of food, particularly if this is something they do every Sunday to anyone who may be hungry. Besides that, it was just another wonderful example of the friendliness of the Vietnamese people. There was a woman who sat near to me and with whom I exchanged a few words in english. If only I was a french speaker we may have been able to have a conversation so that I may have come to a greater understanding of what these food donations were all about. Alas, I will have to satisfy myself with this rather unique experience that likely few westerners get the opportunity to partake in.