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.


  1. i sit eating my lunch, greens and small onions from my garden over pasta with herbs and spices nothing exotic but still tasty...reading your recent missive and enjoying your world...

  2. Funny. Reading this I'm thinking about the first time i went to visit my hometown pal EJ who was living in Chiang Mai. Around 1993. Not knowing where to go exactly, i got in a tuk tuk and had it just drive around to check out the city. It wasn't long before i saw a jean clad old man with black converse sneakers walking a dog on a leash. He lookt out of place at first, especially with a leashed dog. Later as i realized he spoke and wrote Thai perfectly, he even walkt like a Thai, was completely comfortable in is surroundings in a very short time. Hmmmm, i guess that is what the "tribe" is ... the ability to adapt quickly and be at home almost anywhere on planet earth ... so far.

  3. those are "xe ôm" ,"miến lươn","ngon lắm".Your writting is so funny^^

  4. Oh! I have to say that Vietnam has mnay delicious dishes you have to explore!