Thursday, May 28, 2009

The House on Van Ho 3 Street

Every force evolves a form.
- Mother Ann Lee, Founder of the Shakers

Nature isn't frivolous. Every form in the natural world, however odd it may be (seahorse, caterpillar, platypus) is an adaptation, a response to the forces that call it into being. The gnarled tree perched at the edge of a cliff gives form to the steady force of the wind, just as ice crystals give form to the steady force of the cold. Force begets form - that's how everything in the world evolves.

Hanoi is a city of impossibly narrow, tall houses - an architectural form dubbed the "tube house." Historically, two forces militated in favor of this design. First was the imperial tradition of levying taxes based on the width of the house. The second force was the long-held Vietnamese tradition of housing multiple generations under one roof. Together, these two forces, one pushing inwards, the other upwards, evolved a style of architecture that, while bearing French influences, is uniquely Vietnamese.

The house I live in, on Van Ho 3 Street, is a fine example of these forces at work. The house measures no more than 15 feet wide, but stretches five stories upward, towering over its neighbors. There are balconies on every floor. The first floor is fronted by a sliding green metal gate. Traditionally, the first floors of these tube houses usually served as storefronts; the family would live upstairs. This is still often the case in Vietnam. On the narrow, winding alley that is Van Ho 3 Street, about every third house has a grocery store, sandwich shop, hair dresser, or other entrepreneurial enterprise fronting the street. My house does not; the first floor contains a foyer (where the motorbikes are stored), living room and kitchen. Bedrooms occupy the rest of the building: one in front, one in back on every floor. A narrow spiral staircase provides the central spine.
View from my front door on a quiet afternoon
The owners of this building, my landlords, are a kindly couple in their 50s named Thanh and Dung. The Vietnamese custom of addressing people as family members means that I address them as Anh (elder brother) Thanh, and Chi (elder sister) Dung. They live on the second floor. Their two daughters - 20 -year-old Phuong and 10-year-old Ly - take up one room on the second floor and the back half of the third floor. None of these people speaks English, and I consider it a plus that I am forced to use my fledgling Vietnamese to communicate with them. At any rate, with a large house, and relatively small family by Vietnamese standards, Thanh and Dung began renting the top floors of their house to foreigners less than a year ago. I'm the latest addition.

We all coexist more as lodgers in a boarding house, than as housemates, per se. The front half of the third floor hosts a young British couple, David and Tracy, who I hardly see. The fourth floor has a Finnish anthropologist named Saara, who has been incredibly helpful to me with her good nature and near-fluency in Vietnamese, and in the back half of the fourth floor is a young man from the "Soviet Union" (his words, not mine) named Ali.
View of Van Ho 3 Street from my balcony
I have the fifth floor all to myself. My room is on the front, with a private balcony; the back, overlooking Lenin Park, is an open-air patio containing the washer and clothes lines (no need for a drier in this part of the world). I share a bathroom with Saara and Ali, but thus far this has not been a problem. The kitchen on the first floor is open to all of us, but we are asked to be aware that the family uses it between 6 and 8 pm. With the abundance of delicious street food in Hanoi, there is no reason to impinge on their routine.

My room is small, about 15x15, but its tall ceilings give it a sense of spatiousness. The family has kindly provided me with a desk, a small rug that for some reason has a Western horse motif, and a bed covered by a bright yellow bedsheet decorated with blue stenciled fairies (I kid you not). The bed is, let us say, firm: my first time upon it I nearly chipped a tooth. But the private balcony alone is worth the price of admission. It overlooks the entire alley, including all the adjacent rooftops. It's not a spectacular view, but I like the height, and it catches the afternoon shade. Between my room and the balcony is a small room that contains the family altar; other than keeping my water dispenser there, I ignore the room completely.
Spartan living
By western standards this is spartan living, but at US $140/month (plus $15 more for electricity and high-speed Internet), I feel I've gotten a bargain. After living alone in a spacious three-story house for the last few years, the lifestyle suits me; it clarifies the difference between wants and needs. The location is a major plus: my work is five minutes' walk in one direction, and the university where I am studying Vietnamese is an equal distance in another direction. My entire life, if I wished it, could be lived within a ten-minute triangle.

For my 46th birthday, the family today surprised me with a large bouquet of flowers and a cake. We sat in the narrow living room hooting and hollering, eating cake, and making a fuss. It didn't matter that my Vietnamese consists at this point of a few phrases that I use to link together words I pick out of the dictionary. We are all inhabitants of the same tube house, brought together by whatever those forces are that bring people together. Call it kismet, call it nature. Call it life in the tube.

In the next installment, I hope to describe for you the humming beehive that is Van Ho 3 Street.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Correcting the Record on Hanoi

I have found a place to live and tonight is my last night of hotel life in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Before turning the page on a new chapter of my life here, I have something I need to get off my chest. I fear I have given an inaccurate impression of my newly-adopted city. I'm afraid I've painted Hanoi as an Asian Gomorrah, filled with street touts, whore-pimping moto-drivers, and hucksters on every corner. I've found Hanoi to be nothing like that. Even the Old Quarter, the city's lunatic center, has none of Bangkok's air of sin, and its street hassles don't hold a candle to India. So on my last night as a tourist, before becoming a proper resident of Hanoi, I would like to set the record straight.

Hanoi is an intimate city, a city of neighborhoods, a patchwork of small municipalities crisscrossed by a few main thoroughfares. And each of these neighborhoods is a village, abuzz with markets, eateries, families that have known each other for generations, and of course, motorbikes squirting up and down the lanes. The city is actually quite small; you can cross most of Hanoi by car in less than 20 minutes. You inevitably get lost in Hanoi's alleyways, but the town's modest size ensures you soon emerge onto a road you recognize. It doesn't take long for initial confusion to give way to a sense of familiarity. 

Hanoi's architecture, when you can get a good view of it, is often spectacular, replete with history. It's worth stopping on street corners and looking around. French colonial villas with wrought-iron verandas trellised with flowers and plants, narrow multi-story houses with shingled roofs and stone dragons, and 1960s modernist structures all exist side-by-side. Their textured walls - layers of faded plaster, stenciled lettering, and grime - have a Rauschenberg beauty. What the Japanese call wabi sabi - the beauty that things acquire with age - is abundant in Hanoi.

The thing that breathes calm into Hanoi is its lakes. Lakes are everywhere, some covering only a couple of city blocks, others approaching serious bodies of water, with small buildings on the distant shore. And Hanoi has trees; for all its alleys and traffic it's a surprisingly verdant place. Drinking a demitasse of espresso and sweetened condensed milk in an old-world cafe beside a tree-fringed lake, is one of the city's great pleasures. 

The traffic is indeed crazy, filled with the constant bleating of tiny scooters, and drivers who cut you off. But bear in mind that, at around 100cc, these bikes just don't go that fast. Also regulating the traffic are old men on bicycles, conical-hatted women with yokes perched on their shoulders, and pedestrians walking slowly across the street, allowing the traffic to part around them. The atmosphere ranges from comical to annoying, but rarely is it threatening. And it's a paradox of Hanoi that the slower you move, the easier you get around. 

On the whole, I've found Hanoians to be hospitable and friendly. In two weeks I've only been ripped off once - it was a pretty sophisticated scheme in which a taxi driver had some kind of clicker that allowed him to accelerate his meter; I didn't pick up on it till we'd gone too far, and didn't have the stomach for a fight. But countering this singular experience have been the many times Hanoians have gone out of their way to help me, by showing me how to eat an unfamiliar dish, turning me up the right alley, charging me a fair local price and counting the money right into my hand. 

I believe this paints a fairer portrait of the city, as I've experienced it thus far. The first stages of expatriation are always jarring. You pull the phonograph needle off your old life in mid-song, and suddenly you're in a whole new world. No matter how exciting the new place may be, there are times when loneliness sets in. But the solution is always to step outside, and "develop interest in life as you see it" (Miller). For the person willing to accept the city on its terms, I've found that Hanoi returns the favor.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

No Boom-Boom Tonight

I'm walking down a street in Hanoi's Old Quarter when one of the city's many motorcycle taxi drivers pulls up alongside me. "Hello, moto?" he asks.

I'm used to this, so I answer without thinking, "Cảm ơn, không. No, moto. Thank you."

"No moto?" he confirms.

"No, my friend," I reply.

Pulling up closer, he offers, "Okay, you want boom-boom?"

I sigh. This again. Street hustles of this sort really don't happen outside the Old Quarter, but until I find myself a permanent place to live, I'm going to have to handle these situations with aplomb. I answer politely, "No, buddy. No boom-boom tonight."

At this, most moto drivers usually pull away, but my man is a natural salesman, so he pushes his point, "What?" he asks, "You don't like boom-boom?"

It's difficult to ignore a direct assault on my masculinity. "I like boom-boom plenty," I try to explain, "I just don't like to PAY for it!"

He understands, but offers, "So tonight, you lucky?"

This makes me pause. I hate to say it, but my man's got a point. "No," I admit, "tonight I'm not lucky." Then I hasten to add, "But sometimes I get lucky!" 

He spots his opening, "Tonight, you no lucky? So why not boom-boom?"

You've got to admire how his impeccable logic cuts across the language barrier. "Really man, I appreciate it," I try to make him understand, "But I'm not going to pay for it. So no boom-boom tonight."

Having struck out with both the moto ride and the boom-boom, he tries one last tactic. "Okay, you want drink?"

"No brother," I tell him, "I'm afraid I don't drink."

This is more than he can take. "What...?!" he stammers, "No drinking, no fucking??" His eyes widen, astonished. 

"It's not that." I say to him through my laughter, "No drinking, SOMETIMES fucking!"

He clearly has no idea what to do with me. He looks me up and down, like he's discovered a new species. Finally, a light turns on in his head. "Ahh..." he says with a definitive tone, "You GOOD boy!"

That's it, he's got it. "I try, my man," I say to him, smiling. "You have no idea how hard I try."

Satisfied, he departs. "Okay, good boy. Have a good night!"

"You too, my friend. You too..."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Créme Caramel and Rain

You have to question the intelligence of a Cuban who makes as his home, in order: Seattle, Pittsburgh, and now Hanoi. My people come from a tropical, sunny clime, a paradisical island where - excepting hurricane season - the sun shines over the waving palms as blue-green waves break on the shore, etc. (cue music) Why then, have I taken it upon myself to live in the wettest, grayest, most depressing locales on the planet? I might as well move to the northern coast of Britain already and get it over with. It's the logical trajectory.

Today it has been impossible to stay dry. The rain clouds arrived before sunrise, and rather than giving way to a few hours of sunshine, as they've been doing every day since I've been here, they decided to park themselves over the city and take a good, long piss. This has not been the soft romantic "rain dust" I spoke of earlier; this has been a relentless, sopping, dripping, puddling, soaking rain, a watery spanking on all the denizens of the Red River Delta.

Hanoians seem used to this. It doesn't phase them a bit. They pull out their tarps and put on their thin, plastic rain ponchos and the city's commerce continues with no apparent change, save for the morose expressions on the faces of the cyclo and xe om drivers whose livelihood has GOT to be affected by this weather. Hanoi's drainage system, however, gets overtaxed fairly easily. Last November, nearly 100 people were left dead after 36 hours of continuous rainfall caused massive floods. It's days like these that make one keep a keen eye on the loose tangles of electrical wiring dangling all over the city. 

With such crappy weather, only one recourse remains, and that is to eat sugar. Luckily, Hanoi is dotted with scores of shoebox-sized French bakeries offering delectable confections at dime store prices - one of the nicer vestiges of European colonization. I've become a fan of the créme caramels sold in little plastic containers for around US 30 cents. The quality of the custard is excellent, and while there's enough caramel syrup to flavor the dish, it's not awash in the stuff. In Vietnam the custard is usually steamed rather than baked because few households have ovens, but the difference is unnoticeable from the standpoint of both taste and consistency. 

So there is little to report this evening, and little to do other than stand under a dripping awning, while sweating inside a cheap, plasic rain poncho, and eat créme caramel. Watching people scurry to and fro under a dribbling network of electrical wires, and all the world is rain.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The New Normality

Leaving the school at 7:00 pm, after a long day spent observing classes, looking through school resources, getting to know the staff and other teachers, and prepping my classes (which begin Monday), I decide on a 40-minute walk back to my hotel rather than take a xe om - motorcycle taxi - for 20,000 Vietnamese dong. Still wearing my necktie, I put india.arie on the headphones and start up Ba Trieu Street toward Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter. The evening has a delicately cool, damp breeze. 

No longer noticing the motorcycles on the sidewalks, the kaleidoscope of street merchants, or the odd foods on display, I trundle along, tired but happy. I don't even bother to stop before crossing the streets anymore - I just launch myself into the stream of motorbikes, walking at a pace that is slow enough to be predictable. I like the mix of languid and cacophanous that Hanoi seems to be. I let my mind wander. I think about how adaptable humans are, at how quickly we adjust to new normalities.

I had the same thought earlier today, on the back of a xe om, as my driver wound his way through the morning traffic. No longer feeling the proximity of the other vehicles, or hearing the constant honking, save for the occasional loud blast from a car right up behind us (which is difficult to ignore), I found myself looking up at the buildings, the narrow residential houses on the back streets, the occasional remnants of an old French administrative office, and the scaffolded new towers being built around town.

Now walking back to the Old Quarter, none of this feels so new, or even exotic anymore. While Hanoi has secrets that will take years to discover, the city has, in one week, started becoming familiar. I know that Thien Quang Lake is five blocks to the left (with a lovely old-world cafe by its bank), and to the right are the crooked alleys of Hai Ba Trung. I know that if I decide, there's a lovely old street I can take as a shortcut to the hotel.

Getting hungry, I veer to my left for Hang Dieu Street, where there's a constantly-crowded hole-in-the-wall I've been wanting to visit that specializes in eel. Without trouble, I find it, the display case outside brimming with thousands of small, fried, crispy morsels. Being alone, I'm led to the one empty chair at a table with a young Vietnamese couple. I order mien luon - and receive a rich citrusy broth with glass noodles, bean sprouts, shallots, eels, and a rich scent of Vietnamese cilantro.

In a city where the delicious has become commonplace, I am no longer surprised when I put something to my mouth and have to suppress my squeals. Sweet and salty and redolent with herbs, I slurp and pick my way through the bowl with abandon. Once again, Vietnam has seduced me with food. My tablemates, enjoying my obvious pleasure, indicate for me to add a slight squeeze of lime. It's a perfect note, that perks up the broth's acidic edge and brings the whole meal to a crescendo.

Collecting myself, I thank my companions, who without sharing a word have been most helpful. I pay the serious woman out front for my meal, getting her to momentarily break her scowl when I tell her the meal's been ngon lam (very delicious). I put india.arie back on the headphones, and step out into the madness that is Hanoi's Old Quarter, feeling myself as much a part of the scene as the cyclo drivers, merchants, tourists, and whores that make up my neighborhood on this monsoon-licked night.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bánh Cuốn Lady

On my third day in Hanoi, I have fallen in love. It's a rather untraditional form of love - on Facebook, one would say it's "complicated." But like all true love, it is obsessive and thrilling, and before it, I am reduced to a state of giddy adolescence. The object of my delirious affection: the lady who makes Bánh Cuốn on Cầu Gỗ Street in Hanoi's Old Quarter.

My true love, shown with her husband, who I intend to knock off at the first opportunity.

Like a vampiric lover, she appears at sunset, with her table and plastic chairs, and her little pancake pan with all her delicious fixings. There she sits for hours, patiently making rice flour crepes and filling them with a heavenly mixture of minced pork and black wood ear mushrooms.

Lifting the crepe off her pan with a stick. A stick, for God's sake!

Lovingly, she dishes them onto cheap plastic plates, topping them with dried shallots, while her husband (who sadly does not have long for this world) prepares the Nước Chấm - a dipping sauce made of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and water, which I am invited to doctor with red chillies and fresh herbs.

The plastic-wrapped hands prove we practice safe sex.

The result is angelic in its sublimity, yet terrifying in its potency, a sorceress' potion that conquers all who ingest it. She is Bánh Cuốn Lady, and despite all her powers, I vow to make her mine.

Unholy bliss for a mere 80 cents.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Learning to Cross the Street

The main difference between the Hanoi of 1991 and the Hanoi of today is the traffic. When I was last here, the predominent mode of transport was the bicycle, and motorized vehicles were rare. It's hard to believe, against the din and clamor that is modern-day Hanoi, but the city was quiet then: on a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, you could actually hear the trees.

Today, you'd be lucky to hear yourself think. This Hanoi is a madcap rush of motorcycles, cars, trucks, buses - and did I mention motorcycles? Worse than any roach-infested cupboard, the city is teeming with motorbikes (the Honda Wave seems to be the most popular). And throughout the city, in every alley and thoroughfare, these flatulent little termites all toot at a timbre that reaches right up your sphincter and gives it a little squeeze.

The rapid evolution of a motorized transit pool has given rise to a traffic culture that at first seems inscrutable, but in actuality is fairly straight-forward. The rule is: look straight ahead. Don't bother with what's behind you, or even next to you. You are responsible for everything ahead of you. This means if the bike in front of you starts to drift, you drift along with it. If a street vendor crosses in front of you, you predict the vector and veer around. In the case of an accident, I am told, the party at fault is the party that should have seen it coming. From what I've been able to gather in my short time here, it really is that simple.

These rules extend to foot traffic as well, but as a pedestrian you get to rule the roost. Nobody wants to hit you. Just wade into the midst of it, neither too fast nor too slow, and the traffic, like a school of metal fish, magically opens around you. At first, you need cast-iron cojones to leap into the fray. But like so many frightening things in life, it's only daunting until you do it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

My First Two Hours in Hanoi

After the journey I've had today, which included getting soaked in a downpour, stuck in a Bangkok traffic jam, fined for my extra bag at the departure gate, and having the airport screeners take my toothpaste (the fuckers), I'm braced for hassles. With trepidation, I get off the plane in Hanoi. It's 8:30 PM and the sky is already dark.

While it has none of the technicolor glitz of Hong Kong or Bangkok, Hanoi's Noi Bai Airport looks refreshingly normal, and the officials, in their smart green khakis and bright red epaulets, move me efficiently through immigration and customs.

A man outside the baggage claim is holding a sign with my name on it. We shake hands, and he leads me to a Toyota SUV. My driver pulls out...and that's when the beeping begins. The guy just can't lay off his bloody horn. Short, flatulent bursts whenever we near another vehicle, or when someone nears us, but also, as if afflicted by an automotive Tourettes Syndrome, he beeps at random moments, when nobody else is around.

Outside the airport, the buildings are few and far between, but they become thicker as we approach Hanoi. Faded two- and three-story modernist structures with painted Vietnamese lettering, a few open food joints, some dark display windows with Caucasian mannequins staring blankly at the Asian night. 

We roll on further, and the motorcycles start to join us, farting gnats darting between the cars, jockeying for position. Everyone's on their horns now, including my driver, who's really gotten into it. I shoot him a glance, half-expecting to see Gomez Addams deliriously honking away, but he's cool as a meadow, driving with one hand, thumb resting on the horn. 

I can barely look at the buildings anymore; the traffic has become the show. We come to our first Hanoi intersection, and a hundred motorcyles, cars, and trucks randomly shuffle together, and spit out in forty directions. Wheee!!!! Beeping and veering and jostling, and everything's too close for comfort. I smile to keep from screaming my head off.

He veers us off the main drag and we enter Hanoi's Old Quarter. We're in an impossibly narrow passageway, choked with merchants and pedestrians. At a bend in the lane, we park before a modern-looking hotel. Two young guys come out to take my luggage, I thank my driver, and approach the hotel desk. 

The kid behind the counter has a kind smile. "Ten days?" he asks. I answer, "I suppose so." I'm led up a narrow staircase to a seventh-floor walk-up. I leave my lungs on the fourth floor, and by the time I reach my room, I'm crawling. The room's clean, though, with a TV, refrigerator, computer, and Chinese armoire, and the bathroom is immaculate. I don't even mind the stairs, this will do just fine.

I take a moment to catch my breath, and then head downstairs in search of food. I ask the kid behind the desk where I can get a good bowl of pho, and he points to a cubby-hole a few doors down. "Good?" I ask. "Very good," he replies. The kid's not kidding. I sidle up to the end of a metal bench and a woman hands me a bowl of steaming goodness. Oh man, this broth is rich. I give it a dash of chili sauce, toss in some pickled garlic (making sure to slosh in some of the vinegar), give it a stir and begin to whimper like I'm making love. Hassle me all you want, Vietnam, if you're going to feed me like this, I will gladly be your bitch.

The young man sitting next to me starts to talk with me in broken English. He gives me a card and takes down my e-mail and buys me a cup of iced tea ("If you want to be Vietnamese, drink tea"). When it comes time to pay for my soup, I accidentally hand over ten times the price; the soup vendor politely points out my error and gives me the correct change. I'd been warned ahead of time that everyone would try to overcharge me, that I'd be constantly fighting over money. These experiences will undoubtedly come, but I'm thankful that my first interactions are kind. 

Fortified, I decide to check out the neighborhood. Things for sale everywhere. Merchants sitting in open storefronts, sandwiches on corner food carts, plastic-tarped clothing stalls, and skewered chicken feet on portable charcoal grills. Vietnamese and foreigners on low plastic chairs at street-corner Bia Hoi (beer) joints. Nearly everyone is smoking. I decide that my mission is to find Hoan Kiem Lake and have a celebratory cigar. 

The street action is incessant, like being inside the buzzing element of an incandescent bulb.  I can't go ten feet without being accosted by someone. "Hello, cyclo?" "Taxi?" "You want massage?" One cyclo driver is so certain I need to get laid he accompanies me the whole length of the street. I'm trying to walk with a purpose, but I have no idea where I am, and a few right and left turns leave me exactly where I started. Deep breath. Try a different alley. In theory, I'm about a block from the lake, but it takes me half an hour to find it.

I sit on a park bench, and before I can reach for my cigar two giggling teenage girls want to have their photos taken with me. Sure, why not. The girls take turns snuggling up to me - not shy about physical contact, these kids - and snapping pictures on their cell phones. We attempt to talk but the language barrier is unbearable. I appreciate the cuteness of the moment, but I'd really like to relax and have my cigar, so I get up and resolve to walk around the lake. In ten steps I realize they're willing to accompany me, so I decide it'd be better if I head back to my hotel. The girls and I giggle our goodbyes, and I start to walk back home.

Within seconds another man is on me, convinced I need a massage. I must be covered with shit because the flies keep landing on me. No thank you, nope, no...then a motorcycle driver slows down next to me, his passenger a young Vietnamese woman with heavy make-up. I make the mistake of meeting her eyes, and she gets off her bike "No sister, really, no thanks," I smile before she can get a word out her mouth, and put my homeward journey into hyper-gear. 

So much has been going on I've hardly even noticed the buildings. I spot a lovely, low stucco house with a carved dragon on its gable. A relic of Hanoi's past. I pause to look at it and two cyclo drivers converge on me at once. But I can't get my eyes off the carving; it's exquisite. And that's when the drivers become background noise. I smile, I'm not rude, and I'm not at all upset. And I realize that to survive here, I'm going to have to learn many things.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


At its height, the kingdom of Ayutthaya had no rivals. European traders, arriving in the Thai capital in the 1600s, described a city of glittering spires and majestic temples, awe-inspiring in its wealth and power. Sacked by the Burmese in 1767, Ayutthaya remained in ruins after the Thai monarchy expelled the invaders and built their third and final capital in modern-day Bangkok. 

Today, a mid-sized, modern provincial town has sprung up around the ruins. Less than 80 km from Bangkok, Ayutthaya is one of Thailand's major tourist attractions, and Terry and I decide to pay it a visit. To escape the searing heat, we take a late-afternoon van from Bangkok's Victory Monument, arrive in the evening, and get a room. 

At night, the major ruins are lit up, providing a romantic backdrop to the town's quiet activities. On an evening stroll we come upon two warriors on elephants, festooned in traditional 17th century Thai military garb, practicing the battle routine they put on for tourists, on a traffic island in the middle of town. After watching this anachronistic display for awhile, we grab dinner at the evening market, and retire for the night.

At 4:30 AM I wake up, mentally composing a letter to my ex-wife that I never intend to send. Listening to the geckos clicking over the soft whir of the air conditioner, I decide to sit outside. Even at this hour, the air is hot and sticky. The monsoon is still a couple of weeks away.

The sky begins to lighten. A truck pulls up and idles outside the hotel gate. I see a barefoot monk, with his saffron robes and begging bowl, making his morning rounds. An impossibly pretty girl comes out from a door marked, "Staff." We smile - always the smile in Thailand - and exchange greetings: "Sawatdee khap," I say. "Sawatdee ka," she replies.

Rooster crows nearby. Motorcycle passes by. The truck driver and a man are engaged in quiet conversation. A woman walks by carrying two baskets on either end of a pole perched across her shoulders. Two birds, thrush-sized with magpie coloring, dive-bomb me on their way to a nearby tree. 

A light breeze awakens the sticky air. An old monk stops outside the gate. A middle-aged man walks up to him, steps out of his sandles, and drops a bag of rice into the monk's bowl. The man presses his palms together before his lowered head as the monk issues a chant of benediction. 

Now the buffed nickel sky is really starting to blue. The birds begin to make their morning ruckus. Multiple layers of sound - motors, animals, alarms and voices - begin to invent themselves. Over the roof of a nearby house comes the first ray of the sun.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Bangkok Breakfast

Find the street stall that has all the people. If the stall is on a street corner, its popularity may be a function of location, so to be really sure, find something in an alley. If people are milling about, sitting at tables, and chowing down, you know you're about to experience something good.

Go up to the fat lady at the wok and smile. Stick your nose inside the wok, lift the lids to peer inside the pots, don't be afraid. She knows she's got you. She's pushing the good stuff, and you're already on the hook.

Point at whatever you want to eat and sit down. Today's breakfast consists of two courses. The first course, a sweet roasted pork dish served over rice with a tangy, ginger-chili oyster sauce, is sublime. The pork melts in the mouth. The second dish is even better: a thick fish-maw soup with molasses notes and a deep scent of black mushrooms, sprinkled liberally with cilantro. The woman indicates for me to add chilis to taste. I've died and gone to heaven.

I wash it down with a coke I don't even bother to finish. The total cost comes to 68 Baht - about two bucks.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

No Dogs, or Whores, Allowed

Walking through a central Bangkok park at night, my friend Terry explains the rules: "No dogs or whores allowed." "How do you know when someone's a whore?" I ask. He pauses, and then responds, "Well, how do you know when someone's gay...?"

Later, entering the lobby of Terry's building, a pretty young woman in a tight skirt eyes me up and down and fixes me with a delicious smile. Well, she's certainly not a dog...

For a middle-aged white man in Southeast Asia, the politics of sex are unavoidable. There are about three million sex workers in Thailand; by some estimates, prostitution provides up to 3 percent of Thailand's GDP. Most of this trade is Thai-on-Thai, but a single white man can't escape being the subject of people's projections. To some, I'm the walking ATM, the ticket out of poverty. To others I'm the symbol of patriarchy and of economic privilege in an unjust world. How do you know when someone's a whore? Well, how do you know when someone's a John?

All over town, the older white man holding the hand of the pretty, young Thai woman is a ubiquitous sight. It's hard not to see pathos in this picture, but I try not to impose my own mores on a reality that revolves around a different moral compass. One has to remember that the same ambivalent liberalism that permits the sex trade also helps make Thailand one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world. I think Americans could learn a thing or two from these people.

But I recognize that, for a single white man, it is impossible to hold an abstract intellectual position on these matters. Thailand makes it personal, any expression short of moral outrage easily countered by the response, "What do you expect him to say? He's a single man in Thailand..."

In the evening, Terry and I meet a few middle-aged male expat friends, and over drinks the conversation turns to sex. Several men commiserate over their Thai girlfriends; a few tell horror stories about jilted lovers turning to revenge. All agree that "working girls" provide a clarity often lost in these cross-cultural relationships. "I don't pay women to have sex with me," one man quips, "I pay them to leave." This statement strikes me as both honest and sad. 

Without judging others, I wish to say this has never been my scene. I spent years in Southeast Asia, and never acquired "the fever." But I have sympathy for all parties involved - the lonely males, for whom, in many cases, purchasing affection is the only option, and the women, some driven into the flesh trade by poverty, but others just upwardly mobile, using the money to purchase luxury items or, if they're really lucky, a foreign husband. It's sometimes hard to tell who is the exploiter, and who's the exploited. (Note: I restrict this discussion to consensual relations between adults. Child prostitution and sexual slavery are reprehensible, on this there can be no doubt).

Terry tells me not to write of these things. "People will criticize you" he says, "for taking an ambiguous moral stance." My response is, those looking for unequivocal morality should not travel to Southeast Asia. Being here requires a constant checking of one's impulses, a constant effort not to judge. There are so many things that just don't fit into one's traditional moral framework, and it's different when you're able to see people's eyes.

All suffering, said the Buddha, comes from desire. 

Bangkok's Parallel Worlds

Terry lives in a somewhat faded 13-story building in a narrow alley within Bangkok's Makkasan district, near the Victory Monument. From his tiny outdoor kitchen, on a 10th-story concrete terrace with cracked floors, the view is of high rises and highways well into the distance. The building is a solidly working class haunt, its buckling stucco walls and dimly-lit hallways representing middle class luxury in the developing world.

The whole city is accessible from this point. How you get from point A to point B is, however, an interesting question. In the two days I've been here, I've traveled by air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned bus, on klong (canal) boats that traverse Bangkok's narrow waterways, by the Chao Phraya River ferry, on Bangkok's sleek and modern sky trains and subways, on foot, and on the back of a motorcycle, holding on for dear life.

It's something of a metaphor for Thai society that these separate transportation systems do not intersect. Take the sky train, operational since 1999, and Bangkok's underground metro system, begun in 2004, as examples. For the sky train, passengers purchase "smart cards" - price depending upon the distance - which they feed into a turnstile upon entering and exiting the platform. The subways, by contrast, use a round black token for single trips. Both are clean, modern, air-conditioned, and efficient, but they exist in parallel universes. In the few parts of town where sky train and subway meet, to transfer from one to the other means exiting the system, walking in the dense heat to a separate station, and entering the other system's self-contained world.

Transportation segregation occurs along class lines as well. At anywhere from 18-35 Baht per ride (roughly 50 cents to a dollar, US), the Sky Train falls outside the range of Bangkok's urban poor. These folks ride the 8-Baht Green Mercedes buses, nicknamed "bone shakers," famous for their drivers being high on amphetamines. Hot, loud, jarring, these are the opposite, in terms of comfort, of the sky train and the subway. The bone-shakers battle the cars, tuk-tuks, taxis, and motorcycles on Bangkok's smog-filled streets, while the sky train and subway, the transport of office workers and expats, segregate themselves above and below the city.

It's hard to understand this lack of transportation coordination without knowing something about Thailand's complex power structure. This is a country where the balance of power between military, government, business, and even religious leaders constantly shifts. Corruption, gerrymandering, payola - more goes on below the radar than any outsider, and few Thais I suppose, could ever understand. Power is practically feudal here, balanced among individual fiefdoms. If you want to understand Thailand beyond the level of smiling waiters and sunny beaches, begin with this premise.

There are, in fact, many Bangkoks, and the city's patchwork urban transportation system reflects it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Bangkok, baby

If Hong Kong erupts, Bangkok oozes. Humanity finds its way into every nook and cranny of the Chao Phraya River basin. The city lies two meters above sea level, making water the main adversary of human development. With a population of somewhere between 10 and 15 million (who knows for sure?), Bangkok is vast and constantly evolving. Construction and decay seem to occur at equal speeds. For every new skyscraper, a crumbling facade; for every air-conditioned condo, a line of tin-roofed shacks slipping into a canal. 

For my arrival, Bangkok has rolled out the wet carpet. 33° celsius (91° F) with a thousand percent humidity. The smog descends to ground-level. Diffused view of a red evening sun in the haze.

Bangkok drivers don't honk their horns; it's considered very rude. In any other city, a mass of cars this large would be accompanied by a din to raise the dead. Not Bangkok. Cacophanous jockeying of vehicles and not a beep to be heard. A car swerves into our lane, nearly pushing us into the central divide; my driver flashes his brights and the car swerves away. He catches my eye in the rear-view mirrow and we exchange smiles. 

It's not beautiful, this Bangkok, but it is impressive. I've flown into this city more than a dozen times, but this is my first time back in 13 years. I'm anxious to see the sky train, a sorely-needed urban transit system that was long-planned, and finally built in my absence. I'm glad that I'm staying with my friend Terry, a kindred spirit who I've known since college, and who has made Bangkok his home for the last seven years - he'll be able to give me something of an insider's view for the five days I'm here. I'm also happy to have as my base a Bangkok residential neighborhood, surrounded by working folk and polite Thai whores, rather than the travelers' ghetto of Khao San Road, where mad drunken backpackers and ecstasy-addled Israeli ravers reign supreme.

My driver suddenly remembers it's time to blast my ears with pop music. Think Jonas Brothers thrown into a blender with a synthesizer and drum machine, played back at top volume with too much reverb. Looking at food vendors and pretty girls outside my window, I can't help but smile. I'm back in Bangkok and I fucking love it.

Arriving in Asia

Some cities sprout. Hong Kong erupts. 

After 15 hours of flight, the plane begins to descend. Outside the window I can see the volcanic granite hills of southern China. Suddenly, the city appears: shards of buildings blasting skyward between narrow mountain cracks. How so many buildings can fit onto such a narrow strip of land, between such jagged mountains and narrow causeways, is beyond me. The old Hong Kong airport used to be smack dab in the middle of this madness; as soon as the runways were in sight, the plane would drop sharply, leaving your stomach behind. The new airport is outside of town; Hong Kong gets hidden behind a peak as we land.

A blast of warm, humid air as I deplane reminds me I'm in Asia. And if that were not enough, the intoxicating smells emanating from the airport food court drive it home. Rich noodle soups layered with subtle notes of chicken, peppers, ginger, star anise... And that's just the airport food court! I want to eat everything in sight, but force myself to the gate for my two-hour layover, remembering that Bangkok too has its culinary pleasures. Note to self: return with an empty belly. Soon.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Road to Hanoi

I first saw Hanoi in a dysenteric, rain-slicked haze in the winter of 1991. For the previous six weeks, my girlfriend and I had crashed motorcycles, been chased by police, and illegally hopped public transport up the 3000 kilometers of Vietnam's coastline, openly defying all the restrictions placed on the first wave of Western travelers that had begun to trickle into the country after decades of war and Communist rule. 

Here's how things were in 1991: tourists were allowed to fly into Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or Hanoi, and wander freely within those cities; travel outside, according to the rules, had to be by official car and driver, with official guide, to official sites, and so on. The temptation to flout authority was irresistible, so we rented a motorcycle for a week-long junket through the Mekong Delta, where every day we were detained by bewildered authorities, viewing their first white faces in 15 years (if ever). These local officials were usually confused enough about Hanoi's ever-shifting laws to be susceptible to whatever cock-and-bull story we could invent to get us out of the jam, and after watching us mime and clown and assault their ears with a painful melange of English, broken French, and Vietnamese, they would inevitably scratch their heads and escort us to the edge of town, relieved to push out of their jurisdiction. 

The week in the Mekong had been delightful, and buoyed by our success, we had hopped a public bus to Nhatrang, and spent a couple of weeks in the central plains of Vietnam. From Nhatrang we'd gone on to Hoi An, Quang Ngai (where we were nearly deported, but bribed a local official into giving us a private tour of the My Lai massacre site instead), Danang, and Hue, where I believe it was a spring roll that felled me. At any rate, by the time we boarded the all-night train to Hanoi, I was already starting to feel the fever and chills that signalled the onset of dysentary. So it was in this weakened state, in the early morning, pulling into a rusting train yard, and accompanied by a shimmering mist that the Vietnamese rather poetically call "rain dust," that I first saw my soon-to-be adopted city.

My first few days in Hanoi were spent in a cheap hotel with faded wallpaper and a wrought-iron balcony overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, shitting pus and blood into a cracked squat-toilet, and waiting for the antibiotics to take effect. I remember, soon as I was able to walk, the lovely tree-lined footpaths around the lake, and a rabbits' warren of narrow alleyways and merchants selling everything from bicycle parts to hand spun silk to boiled duck embryos served in the shell. I remember a blend of French and traditional Asian architecture that seemed a opium-laced vision of Montmarte. And though 18 years have dimmed memories that were hallucinatory to begin with, what I most remember is Hanoi's gray, dull light, the low mother-of-pearl skies, and a constant gentle sprinkle of rain dust within which I gradually regained my strength.

From 1991 fast-forward to 2009. I would love to say I'm returning to Hanoi, on a one-year work contract, because the city never stopped beckoning, but the truth is more prosaic: I need the money. Or rather, I've decided I would rather earn my shekels doing work I enjoy in a place where I'm as lost as a feather, than slog through mundane job after job to maintain my toehold on Western middle-class luxury. I'll give credit to myself: as US employment goes, I've done as good a job as many at working on my own terms, but a recent divorce saddled me with debt and recent forays into American corporate culture left me unsatisfied enough to decide it was time for a change. 

So why Vietnam? Having spent several years as an ESL hobo in Asia in the early 1990s, I have long maintained this line of work as a fall-back option. A few months ago, with the divorce and whatnot, I started seriously considering a return to the ESL life. The more I researched, the more Vietnam kept emerging as the best combination of money and lifestyle. Fast-growing economy, eager students, beautiful landscape, thriving arts scene, and some of the best food in Southeast Asia. A quick reading of online expat forums made me feel I'd be more comfortable in Hanoi than HCMC, so when a half-way interesting job appeared, I applied for it.

At 46, I will be the new teacher at Language Link Hanoi, a reputable British-based language chain with more than 120 institutions worldwide. By all accounts a place that treats teachers fairly and offers students an honest education. The pay is decent enough that I will be able to save money while actually enjoying Hanoi, and the way I figure it: it's as easy to have a middle-aged crisis while putting away some coin, as while not. 

This morning, I leave from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Bangkok, Thailand. After about five days in Bangkok, I'll head to Hanoi to begin my new life. I leave New York 9:00 AM on Monday and arrive in Bangkok 5:30 PM on Tuesday. Just a regular 9-5 gig.