Thursday, July 1, 2010

4 days and the extremes of Viet Nam

My birthday weekend was pretty special. I hope that in writing this I can show you some of the extremes of life in Viet Nam - from the simplicity and poverty in the rural villages to the ex-pat (and Vietnamese) high life in Ha Noi. In both worlds, I had time, laughter and celebrations with good friends - thanks everyone!

At the centre where I'm working, the happy occasion was celebrated with a hyperactivity inducing, teeth-dissolving sugar-fest - kids and adults alike tucked into an enormous cake, elaborately decorated with roses and swans and lashings of longlife, sweetened cream; brightly coloured, very sweet, agar-based jellies (somehow moulded into a bizarre and entertaining array of animals - fish, dolphins, giraffes, cats...); 'che' - various beans cooked with what seems like an equal amount of sugar and drunk with ice; lychees, rambutans, jackfruit...

I'm sure there were some very grumpy children and parents that evening. 

From that chaos, I gratefully retreated to spend a lovely evening with Mrs Thong (pronounced Thom) and her family. Thong is one of life's angels - despite having poor health, she spends her time (voluntarily) visiting families with disabled children. The family have very little money, and few material things (you can see how bare the house is), but they radiate friendliness, warmth and contentment. They insist that I don't take gifts when I visit, and have done everything they can to make sure I'm looked after here in Dien Ban. I hope one day I can repay their kindness, or at least pass it on.

Setting out for Ha Noi later on was a bit of a sad occasion, as it meant saying 'tạm biệt' to my very good friend Phuc, who's just moved to the US for a year (yep, heard all the jokes, and yep, I've pre-warned her). She took me to Đà Nẵng on her motorbike to catch the train to the capital, and as usual we stopped at various local eateries in the never-ending exploration of Vietnamese cuisine! I wish her all the best for her new life over there, and expect that she now understands why I broke down in tears the first couple of times I visited her house for language lessons and couldn't correctly pronounce the difference between
a, ă, â, à, ã, á, ạ and ả.
It wasn't her teaching. Tôi nhớ bạn!


Arriving in Ha Noi the following afternoon (after 16hrs overnight in a non-aircon train compartment. 4 people in 2 seats!?), I met fellow VSO-ers and great friends Kathy and David for a drink by Truc Bach lake. A happy re-union, a beautiful view, lovely trees, handsome men exercising on parallel bars with their tops off, a cold beer.... would have been perfect apart from the young guy dropping his kegs to shit in the water just in front of us.

Later that evening the three of us dodged fat tropical raindrops to go round the corner for a gorgeous Indian meal (my first dahl in 3 months!) and then I gladly made a nest on their (far more comfortable than my bed) sofa.

Saturday (my Birthday!)
Breakfast chez Kathy was a treat. Living in Ha Noi allows them some little luxuries - cold fruit, yoghurt and apple juice from the fridge, with muslei from Fivimart. Which, when eaten in their company, on their 4th floor balcony, listening to the birds and watching early morning urban life down below, was the perfect start to the day.

Socialising here in Vietnam, as all over the world, tends to revolve around meals. So my birthday breakfast was just minutes and a short motorbike taxi-ride from a birthday lunch with Vietnamese friends (staff at my partner organisation) at the 'Ngon' (Delicious) restaurant. It certainly was 'ngon', and really great to catch up with them.

What better way to laze off lunch than by a pool? So, next on the birthday agenda was the Thang Loi Hotel pool, where for around £1 you can swim, sunbathe and hold your belly in to your hearts content. And it was also where I'd arranged to meet up with the rest of my VSO family (from my first post). The lifeguards were a little bemused by me screaming, running and jumping in the pool with all my clothes and shoes on to hug my friends, but they were happy enough once they'd extracted me and sold me a ticket. Lots to catch up on - work, and play. They were all jealous of my country tan - I was jealous of the accomadation, music, culture and cheese that they can get in the city.


After whiling away a good few hours, we headed to Pat's (another VSO's) house, where we were joined by more people for WINE and aformentioned CHEESE!!!! I'm ashamed to say that when she brought it out of the fridge I didn't wait for crackers or for anyone else to start - I dived straight in. Kind of like the pool I guess!
It was a joint celebration weekend for me and VSO Sarah (on the left in the pic above), and the first time we've all met up since we started out here, so everyone was as excitable as the kids in Dien Tho after all that sugar....

Pre-dinner snackage and wine started playtime perfectly, and from then on it became a bit of a blur of food, beers, laughter, taxis, trees blowing down, boys, cocktails, giggling, running in the rain, MCing, motorbikes (don't worry mum, it was very safe) football, Jagermeister......

We got in around 4am, which in the UK wouldn't be anything too unusual, but for girls now used to rural Vietnam time (5.30am rising, 9.30pm going to bed) and utterly unused to alcohol, was quite an achievement.

As a result, I'm very glad that I'm not in the following picture, which was brunch a few hours later. Very ex-pat, very luxurious (eggs Benedict!), very nice, VERY hungover. Sarah still manages to look glam though (grrrrr).


Ambitiously (for the day after the night before) I'd promised to meet with a Vietnamese friend, Khai, who I first met in my village (he and his brother were staying at the guesthouse where I live). I dragged myself onto the local buses and met him by the lake in Hanoi, and it was really great to see him. He speaks exactly two words of English (OK and No) so we get by on my Vietnamese and both of our amusement with sign language and mis-communication. We walked, had dinner and made plans for me to visit his village the next day.

Khai dropped me off at the Hanoi Opera House. It felt very wierd walking away from my  Vietnamese friend in his old (but immaculately clean) clothes, on his old (but perfectly maintained) scooter, towards my relatively very wealthy ex-pat friends, dressed up and illuminated on the elegant marble stairway. It really highlighted our privilege.

Initial adjustment aside, it was incredible to sit there, in the cool dark auditorium, listening to an Italian cellist play everything from classical pieces from the 1700's to Hendrix and Nirvana. We were transported to another, fabulous, magical world for a while.

The following morning I set out to visit Khai and his family, which involved over a hour of reading maps, flagging down buses, getting off said buses when heading in the wrong direction, flagging down more buses. With only a text message in Vietnamese to tell me where to go.
I like an adventure.... 

When I arrived in the village, Khai picked me up (at exactly the place and time we'd arranged. I understand if you're amazed.) We headed to the tiny house where he currently lives with his mother and brother Thuong, and met and chatted with her a while.

Power is rationed at the moment (in most rural areas it's off every other day), until the rainy season arrives and fills the hydroelectric resevoirs which provide a third of Vietnam's power. When it's hitting 40 degrees, it's coolest to be outside, in the shade, where you can catch any hint of breeze. So the three of us left his mother to nap, and wandered around the large peaceful village pagoda (a temple, in this case a triple faith temple - with elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism). We ended up joining most of the rest of the village on mats under the trees by the river. The men grouped together talking football, napping and smoking. The women chattered (as women do the world over). The kids climbed the trees, caught locusts, paddled in the river. It was bliss. I didn't take pictures, it was too special, and is etched in my memory.

As the afternoon went on, Khai and Thuong took me to the plot in the village where Khai has just started building his own house. The fact that he's able to do this in his twenties is testimony to his hard work and saving - Vietnamese cannot get mortgages, and land is expensive. Most rural Vietnamese live with their parents, even after marriage. I helped with the digging, which they found hilarious.

I fell a little bit in love with Khai that day - he's the perfect gentleman. The kind of guy that the man want in the middle of their group to slap on the back and make banter with, the women want around to mother, tease and flirt with, the teenage girls giggle and hide from, and the kids want to climb all over. There's a kind of sweet, unspoken romance between us, and for hours that afternoon I imagined just staying there, in that village. But there's some very good reasons why it can't and won't ever go further than coy glances and smiles.

Anyway, at the end of that beautiful day (where I'd only spoken Vietnamese!) I was back on the wrong buses, mis-reading my map, and managing to get back to central Ha Noi perfectly on time to meet another Vietnamese friend. This time the very modern, very professional, very welcoming Thao, who is the country representative of my partner organisation. She's married to an Australian, and they have two young children who are growing up completely bilingual, in a fabulous hectic stimulating house with a constant stream of visitors and house guests, tennis courts and a pool. Quite a life for them, and the most beautiful kids I've ever seen (apart from my nephew Orin of course). After a very fun evening with them and various others, Thao dropped me a the station for the 11pm train back to Đà Nẵng.

This time I had a sleeper, and I definately needed it....

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