Some general thoughts pg. 2
I've been experiencing difficulties with getting pictures up on the blog. Mostly this is due to the unreliable internet here in Ha Noi. For no rhyme or reason, and seemingly with a mind of it's own, the internet will suddenly disconnect, then reconnect...then disconnect, then reconnect...rinse and repeat. This makes uploading large jpeg files a bit challenging. So hang in there and I'll eventually get them posted.
Topic Today: Fusion. Vietnam is a fascinating juxtaposition of the new and old, modern and archaic, clarity and confusion, chaos and order. Travel the city and you will see skyscrapers being built within inches of French colonial villas, ancient temples surrounded by the hustle and bustle of modern transportation, wealth mere inches away form of poverty, traditional conical straw hats next to baseball caps advertising American products, and always, life is in a constant stream of motion. The contrast between a nation struggling to move its people forward while maintaining it's cultural and ethic identity is visible and omnipresent. When I chat with Vietnamese over a cup of coffee or during a meal, I hear of the challenges of living in a city that, in many ways is struggling to find it's identity. I hear of the desire to move ahead while feeling constrained by the realities tradition. I hear of the desire to be educated in Europe, England, Australia, and the U.S. being challenged by the fear of losing one's own cultural identity. Despite these contrasts you cannot live here and not fall in love with this place they call Ha Noi. Mainly it is the optimism of those people who live here that drives this city, but it is the culture beneath the pavement that permeates the air and reminds one that "Viet" is the name of the 54 different ethnic groups and "Nam" means South. We Americans spell it incorrectly. Vietnam is actually split into two: Viet Nam...as it is referring, I am told, to the "one hundred who live south of China", that is, Viet Nam is not a single people, it is a land of many people. I absolute revel in the richness that I am coming to know as Viet Nam. Until the next time....
Topic Today: Taxi or Grab?: Many is the warning I've heard about watching out for unscrupulous taxi drivers preying on tourists. You know, those who charge excessive amounts for short rides, drive around in cars with fake taxi company signs on their door and fake meters inside, and take superfluous turns down busy roads to "run up the bill". Knocking on the proverbial wood, I have not yet fallen prey to any of these ne'er-do-wells. That said, I firmly believe the vast majority of taxi drivers are honest people making an honest living, working for legitimate taxi companies. I do have one friend, however, who fell prey to a less than honest driver. My friend had taken a legitimate taxi to a destination and paid a reasonable fare (something like 25,000 dong -Vietnamese dollars; about a buck USD). Upon the return trip, however, my friend managed to flag down a taxi that looked legitimate, but, upon getting in to the taxi, my friend noticed the meter suddenly start adding up more quickly than expected. At the end of the trip, the taxi driver informed my friend that the amount due was what was shown on the meter. A whopping 300,000 dong (~$12 USD)!! in the end, after much arguing, my friend gave the drive 30,000 dong and left the driver ranting at him as he walked away. So, it can happen. Best thing to do is call a legitimate company and have the company send a driver to you. Now the alternative is a company called Grab. Grab bought out Uber about two, maybe three months ago. There are two essential types of Grab: cars or motorbikes.
So here's my experience with Grab. Whenever one of my Vietnamese colleagues calls me a Grab ride, things go well! Yay! Whenever I have tried, things do not go well...what typically happens is I pull up my phone app and plug in my location and destination. I see the picture of the driver and the car plate number and punch the "cash" option. Good thing I choose cash. Every time I have tried to use Grab, the app tells me the driver is at the destination and will wait 5 minutes. I then get a call from the driver chatting away in Vietnamese, but he is nowhere in sight. No matter how many times I say "I don't see you" in English or give the address in Vietnamese, the driver either hangs up and cancels my ride or the 5 minute time period elapses and the ride is cancelled. Arrgh... So here is what my Vietnamese language tutor has recommended. When I order the Grab, text this message: "Tôi là người nước ngoài. tôi không nói tiếng Việt. Đây là địa chỉ của tôi: " This says "I am a foreigner. I do not speak Vietnamese. This is my address:" I'm going to wait until I've had a few more Vietnamese lessons before I actually try this approach. Meanwhile I will take the bus, which costs 7000 dong ($0.30 USD) each way no matter where you go. If you have to change a bus, to another bus, 7000 dong. If it isn't rush hour you can arrive in a reasonable amount of time. If rush hour?...well, just walk it's quicker.
Topic today: Food. I have had a number of absolutely amazing opportunities to eat Vietnamese food. I have eaten at the typically overpriced touristy places and I have eaten where the "locals" eat. While both of these have good food, the best places yet, however, have been where the students have taken me to eat! Some things, regardless of the country or culture, remain consistent. One of these consistencies is: college students always know all the good places that serve great food at great prices! These are usually intimate, little restaurants tucked away off on a side street. The kind that seat maybe a dozen inside and another half dozen outside. When I walk in and look around, I find I am usually the only foreigner in sight...my kind of place!
In Ha Noi, there seems to be two types of restaurants: those that serve a range of dishes and those that specialize in one dish only. In the first, when eating alone, you order what you want and it is brought to the table all at once and you eat as you would in any restaurant. If eating in a group, one or two people (or the group) will decide what is to be ordered and then the food is delivered in "courses". When the food comes it will be on it's own plate and each person will have a bowl in front of them. The food is served "family style" and typically men will be served by the women at the table for the first "round" of eating the food. After that if you want another spring roll or piece of fried cuttle fish, you simply remove one from the plate on the table and transfer it to your bowl and eat. With perfect timing, the second course will arrive and the process is repeated. If a noodle dish such as Bún Thang (rice vermicelli with shrimp paste and chicken broth) is ordered, each person will have their own bowl. If you go out to lunch and eat in a group, there is no such things as a "light lunch". I have walked away stuffed to the gills each time! If you go to a specialty restaurant, there is only one course consisting of that single specialty dish.
Final thoughts on food: Be prepared. No such thing as "trimming the fat off the meat" here in Viet Nam. Just slice it up and cook it. Shrimp in never peeled before cooking, nor gutted; just throw the whole thing into the pot! Meat is boiled, deep fried, or barbacued. Same with fish. Chicken thighs are chopped in two lengthwise along the bone and served to you that way in whatever dish has them. Ribs are chopped into bite size pieces or you to knaw or pick off with chopsticks. There are a million ways you can prepare rice; I call rice the "Bubba Shrimp of Viet Nam", if you've seen Forest Gump you get my drift. There are 5 types of noodles:
1. Bánh phở: Flat rice noodles.
2. Bún: Thin, rice vermicelli
3. Hủ tiếu: Chewy, clear thick noodles made from tapioca
4. Mì: Either whole wheat noodles or egg noodles
5. Miến: Noodles made from starch, called "glass noodles"
Piece of trivia: When eating noodle dishes. Hold a spoon (think the kind you find in a Chinese restaurant with a flat bottom) in your left hand and chopsticks in your right. Lift the noodles onto the spoon, place a piece of meat or veggi, etc. on top of the noodles and use the spoon to put it in your mouth. No splashing please. It's okay to occasionally stuff the noodles directly into your mouth with the chopsticks. Use the spoon to eat the broth and lower the level to reveal more food. Slurping is socially acceptable. I'm right handed, so I've been working on the left-handed spoon skills and I'm splashing less and less as I get the hang of chopsticks. I am so thankful that the Vietnamese are a forgiving, patient, and kind folk!