Photo of the Week: Americana edition

Yep, y’all guessed it. They are a collection of cow-shaped salt and pepper shakers on view for sale at the coolest thrift store ever, Picker’s Paradise in Columbus, Indiana. I’ve been struggling to figure out how to photograph this town; it’s all buildings and I don’t know how to take pictures of monuments (I can learn). So today, while running errands with my mama, I just shot the details, which I just like best.

The American Midwest never gets old. It may not have the sweet, old fashioned manners of the South, the trendy fashion of Brooklyn or the glamour of the West, but it sure has a sense of humour. While I’m still tripping on reverse culture shock, which causes me to stick my hand out to stop traffic; wonder why children aren’t running up to me smiling and shouting, “Hello, white lady;” be confused about which coin is which; and notice that everyone here seems really tall and blond.

Last summer, my parents moved to Columbus, Indiana. My childhood memory of Indiana involved the movie Breaking Away and many hours spent in a red-and-white-curtained pizza joint next to the highway while we waited for a tire repair. I’m living with them for the next six months. Living at home is an adjustment in itself after six years of living with roommate, boyfriends and alone. Hopefully, it will only last until January or February, when I’ll either start a Master’s in Education or fly off to South Korea. But since it is a new part of the country, I’ll just pretend it’s a new country altogether. I’ll adopt the kind Indiana “y’all” and the way people look you in the eye, beam and greet you with and warm, “How y’all doin’ today?” Minnesota Nice turned out to be Minnesota Passive Aggressive. Indiana might actually be nice.

I know I’ve promised more photos from Vietnam. You’ll get them but blogging helped me frame a lot of my experiences while in Vietnam so I think it will help me adjust back to the USA.

These are a few of my favorite things: 10 things I love most about Hanoi

I miss Hanoi. The way life is lived in the streets, the way calling everyone Anh (Older Brother), Chi (Older Sister) and Em (Younger Sister/Brother) makes you actually think of them as family, the freedom of driving a motorbike, my students and their nickname (Lady Undertaker) for me. Originally, I began writing this post because I was dealing with a tough time this winter. Having a broken foot and scabies simultaneously makes living in a chaotic, developing country a hassle, not an adventure. In an attempt to cheer myself up, I made a list of some of my favorite things. Now, this list serves as a way of remembering some of the places I love about Hanoi.

1. Cafe Pharma

Called Cafe Pharma because the owner’s son is a pharmacist at the Bach Mai Hospital, this cafe was down the street from my old house on Phuong Mai (Alley [Ngo] 4).  It is owned by a man in his late fifties or early sixties who sings along to classical Vietnamese music and plays guitar every evening.  My housemates, Heloise, Terena, Fiona, and I went there so often that he would greet us with a delighted, “Xin chao, Han-nah.”  If he had other customers, he would often explain who we were to them, that we lived nearby, that I’m American, Terena and Fiona are Australian, and Heloise is French.  Having a regular cafe is important; the owner will know your drink order and won’t treat you like a tourist.

2. Birdcages

I’ve done multiple posts on Hanoi’s birdcages but just to reiterate:  I adore the birdcages hanging above doorways to cafes and shops.  A Vietnamese friend told me that their purpose is to make customers happy and I am always cheered by the sight of them.

3. Ca phe trung

Ca phe trung means egg coffee.  I’ve had it only at the Hanoi Social Club, a trendy cafe in the old quarter that also makes a mean Italian cocoa.  There is a cafe that specializes in it but I have never found it, despite looking hard.  It’s a delicious treat of dark Vietnamese coffee, sweet condensed milk and egg whipped into a concoction that tastes like a marshmallow burned to the perfect shade of gold.

4. Street Food

Americans have their fast food, the French have their long, multi-course meals. The Vietnamese have street food. Bún chả (below), Bún Bò Nam Bộ, phở, nem (spring rolls), chè, sữa chua nếp cẩm (black rice with yogurt). Deliciousness on a chopstick.

5. West Lake (Ho Tay)

Hanoi’s biggest lake is West Lake. Joggers, fishermen, young couples canoodling on motorbikes, children swimming, teens in swan boats, a lotus pond and several pagodas make it an oasis away from the city’s chaos. It’s winding road makes it a nice, scenic route home from work in the evenings.

6. Long Bien Bridge

Supposedly designed by Gustav Eiffel, Long Bien Bridge connects Hanoi to the far bank of the Red River. It also crosses the Middle Warp, an island in the middle of the river on which there are rice paddies, nude beaches, banana plantations and riverside graves.

7. Markets

I see something new every time I go to a market.  They are a feast as visual as they are edible.  The commotion, the hustling, the bargaining make them feel alive in a way that an American supermarket can never achieve and for which the farmers’ markets are still too reserved.

8. Bia Hoi

Translating to ‘beer with gas,’ bia hoi is freshly-brewed, light beer served at outdoor pubs. You can find a bia hoi on any street in Hanoi but some of the best are Pacific (281 Doi Can Street), the one at the intersection of Dao Tan and Linh Lang Streets, the To Ngoc Van Bia Hoi and 63 Xa Dan. It’s cheap (5,000 VND per glass) and doesn’t contain that much alcohol so you can drink a lot. Unfortunately, you can also forget that a single serving doesn’t contain that much alcohol…

9. Chicken Street

One of my co-workers loves Chicken Street so much she has considered just adopting the ‘Chicken Street Boy,’ a teenage kid with a trendy haircut who cooks the chicken. I went nearly once a week with my friend Brenna for beer and BBQ chicken, sweet potatoes and grilled honey baguette. The combination of chicken, beer and super optimistic Californian Brenna’s sense of humour combined to keep me positive.

Tip: If you go to Chicken Street, eat at the first restaurant on the right. It has the best food.

10. Motorbikes

On my way to take Yellow Fever, my trusty Honda Wave, back to the rental lady on Ta Hien, I nearly got into an accident. Of course. Traffic was insane every morning and afternoon on the way to and from work. Driving helped me learn the city so that the streets of Hanoi–Phuong Mai, Xuan Dieu, Tran Thai Tong, Au Co, Dang Thai Mai, Chau Long, Hang Bong, Hang Gai, Hang Ma, Ba Trieu, Hai Ba Trung, should I keep going?–are etched in the map of my heart alongside Rue de la Plance, Boulevard Raspail and Rue de Touraine in Paris which share space with Lake Street, Lagoon Avenue, Washington Avenue, 26th Street and all of Minneapolis. My greatest wish whenever I move is to learn the streets of my new city as intimately as I learn a lover’s body. This wish is especially dear as I sit in my parents’ Columbus, Indiana, kitchen stranded by the fact that I cannot drive, have no bicycle and know no one in this town. To everyone who said I would miss the motorbike most, you were right.

PS: For the time being, I will keep up the blog. I still have photos to post and I need some sort of creative outlet as I face six long months in the American midwest.

Xin chào, Việt Nam

I’m sitting in an internet cafe in Tokyo’s Narita Airport, on my way to the US for what was supposed to be a two-week vacation. It’s become a six-month stay with my parents before I relocate to Korea in February.

Sorry I didn’t say anything sooner. Vietnam’s firewall against bloggers was stronger and I could not even log in via proxy, even though I say nice things about the country.

The decision to move was quite spontaneous; I sat down to dinner one night and told myself, “You’ve only been offered jobs teaching primary school next year. You’re not kind to small children; you treat them like dogs. Move to Korea.”

Finances aside, I’ve been on antibiotics a dozen times in the past year, been treated twice from scabies and seem to have an incurable folliculitis infection on my legs. Strangely, I have not been sick once with food poisoning.

 Leaving feels anti-climatic. Shouldn’t my last sip fresh sugarcane juice be imbued with significance? Shouldn’t I slowly say goodbye to the places I have loved and frequented in Hanoi? But at the opposite end of leaving is arriving at the threshold of a new adventure. In Korea, there will be the challenge of using metal chopsticks, learning an alphabet made up of characters and the excitement of living in a cosmopolitan, modern Asian country. For a brief six months in the USA, I’ll face the difficulty of living with my parents for the first time in seven years. Then there is the fact that they have moved to a new town and I won’t know anyone. And I’ll probably have to work in customer service again.

Saying goodbye to friends was hard but expats, especially those of us in our twenties, are so transient that it has become routine. I’ll keep in touch with a few and I prefer to think that we will cross paths again someday. Of course, I had to go falling in love a week before I left but, hey, that’s typical.

Honestly, it was harder to bid adieu to Yellow Fever, my trusty Honda Wave motorbike. She got me safely to work and around town every day. She even drove through a knee-high flood during a monsoon a few weeks ago without stalling.

 Then there is Hanoi’s endearing organized chaos and state of functional disrepair. There is a slapstick attitude toward fixing things that, while inefficient, I adore for its similarity to my approach to fixing things.

For now, let that be food for thought. The connecting counter is open for American Airlines and I can get my ticket to Dallas. Then, a much needed cup of coffee.

Happy 4th of July

From a market stall in Saigon/HCMC, happy Independence Day.

Photo of the Week 2: Just because

Ho Chi Minh City, January 2012

Photo of the Week: Subject vs. Object, the Power of Eye Contact

I love this photograph.  I love the way the woman’s feet intersect with the crack in the pavement to form strong perpendicular lines and the way in which the post and tree in the background frame her upper body and push it forward, toward the viewer.  I love the way the horizontal lines of the crack in the pavement and the entrance to the stilt house in the back divide the picture neatly into thirds.

  Mostly, I love the eye contact.  I realized only the other day how important eye contact is to a photograph.  It creates a tension, a relationship, between the person in the photograph and the viewer.  If this woman were not looking into the lens, she would be an object, possibly a caricature.  But, whether she realizes it or not, she commands this photograph; she is the subject and the viewer–and photographer–must interact with her.

A Weekend in Mai Châu: The Rice Harvest

“Hai người, xe buýt ở Mai Châu.  Two people, bus to Mai Châu,” I stumbled in my best Vietnamese.

The lady behind the thick glass of the ticket counter of the Mỹ Đình Bus Station nodded curtly and tore two tickets off a pad, scribbling Mai Châu 8h30 on each.  “Một trăm hai mươi, one hundred twenty thousand,” she said.  Totally the foreigner price but whatever, I was getting the hell out of Hanoi for the weekend.

Half an hour late, our overcrowded, un-air conditioned bus rolled slowly out of the parking lot, honking loudly as it heaved its way through jams of motorbikes and taxis filled with passengers heading to their hometowns.  I was traveling with a CouchSurfing friend, Alexi, and we survived the trip by listening to Greek ballads on his iPhone when we weren’t sleeping.

Finally, the conductor shouted at us that our stop was approaching; it stopped and let us out at a crossroad in the middle of a rice field, across from a shack selling tea.  Typical.

Spread across the valley is a patchwork of rice paddies and corn fields doted with small groupings of stilt houses. It was harvest time and the air hung with dust and smoke from the milling process.  In front of houses, mats with corn and grain dried in the sun.

Rice is harvested with very little machinery, probably because farming equipment is expensive, so it is a collective effort involving men and women from the villages.

Grains of rice are sorted, separated from any stones that may have been caught up in the milling process, and laid out to dry.

Rice is a fundamental part of Vietnamese cuisine: it is the main carbohydrate for most meals, can be used to make noodles like the famous pho and, my personal favorite, xoi. Xoi is sticky rice mixed with peanuts, mung beans, topped with fried shallots and sometimes served with a fried egg or pulled pork.  Cooked in bamboo tubes lined with banana leaves, this sticky rice was slightly sweet and mixed with black beans.

People have a sixth sense; they know when they are being watched. This man turned back to look at me just as I snapped the photograph. The bridge they are about to cross was constructed because of a partnership between Japan and Vietnam.  There are many such projects throughout the country, including, I’ve heard, a plan to create a subway system in Hanoi.

Bundles of rice tied to a fence, a change from the usual piles of rice on the paths between fields.  Someone’s harvesting with design in mind.

***

It has been difficult to get online lately, which is why this post has been slow in coming.  I don’t know if it is because of government interference, weather or just a bad internet connection but thank you for your patience and, hopefully, I will have more photographs sooner rather than later.