Sunday, June 28, 2009

Life in the Swarm

Hanoi just became a lot less safe for its inhabitants, because I - yes, I - have a motorbike! My kind-hearted landlords, Anh Thành and Ch Dung, have rented me their spare 100cc Honda Super Dream, for the reasonable price of US $40/month. No longer am I bound to mercenary xe om drivers and cabbies, or forced to trudge miles in the sticky heat. Like a 16-year-old with his first car, I've had my first taste of freedom, and I challenge anyone to take it away from me!

Now I am a member of the swarm of traffic that clogs every thoroughfare, alley, and sidewalk in this town. And life in the swarm is not for the faint-hearted! Bikes collide, bodies touch, motorbikes, pedestrians, cars, and bicycles appear out of nowhere - and then there are the potholes, sewer pipes and other obstacles to overcome. Total anarchy rules. Nobody pays attention to lights, stop signs, dividing lanes, anything. If you need to turn left you head into the oncoming traffic, hug the left curb, swerve around the yoke lady, and try to catch the wave of motorcycles going your way. Boo yah, baby! Surf's up! Cowabunga!

The main rule for driving is the same as for walking: look straight ahead, never behind. One foot on the brake, one hand on the horn at all times, not that the feeble toot of a 100cc Honda does any good at all. Anyone honks at you, ignore them. And at all times, be ready to play, "shoot the gap!" When a spot of air opens up, you go for it, horn a-blaring; out-hustle the other bike shooting for the same space, and you win! And the prize is a face full of lung-burning exhaust! Isn't that fun? Play it again and again!

Everyone's watching, but nobody's looking. And there's so much to ogle at! Motorbikes piled high-and-wide with baskets, families of five on one bike, people hauling every good, or combination of goods imaginable. Just one vignette: I'm riding along and I see a woman ahead of me, her legs splayed out like a frog, about to fall off the rear end of a 110cc Honda. As I pull alongside I see the reason for her absurdly precarious posture: teetering on the seat ahead of her, and behind the driver, is a 50-inch TV! Poor girl's putting all her effort into trying to keep it, and herself, on the bike. But there's more! I pull alongside, and I see the driver, presumably the woman's husband - and he's texting on his cell phone! And then at the intersection, he runs a red light! I love this town!

So this is how it is to be. As a member of the swarm, I resolve to shoot every gap, toot every horn, overcome every pothole, and disobey every law, to get myself where I need to go. There is no use wishing for, or trying to impose any sense of order. We are anarchy. We are Hanoian. You will be assimilated.
A rare sight: space around the bike!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sugarcane Juice

In Cuba, they call it guarapo; in Vietnam, it's called nước mía đá, and on a scorching day or a hot summer evening, there's nothing better to quench one's thirst than raw sugarcane juice, served over ice!

Hanoi is as chock-full of mía đá stands as Seattle is full of cafes (mía = sugar; đá = ice). Most have no more than a couple of low plastic tables and the usual squat stools; very few have something as elegant as a roof. These roadside stands demonstrate small-scale capitalism at its best: a sole proprietor, or husband and wife team, with a press, some sugarcane, and a street corner. Open for business to all who thirst.

In all these places the process is the same: the hard outer skin of the sugar cane is peeled, and the sugarcane fed one or two short stalks at a time through an electric press that looks like an early Industrial Age torture device. After the first pressing, the sugarcane is folded and pressed through again, usually with a squeeze of lime (as in Cuba). This process is repeated until the sugarcane is squeezed dry; the slag falls in piles to the floor, and is later sold, I believe, to start coal burners. The mía đá is then served in a glass or plastic cup over ice (or to go, in a plastic bag with a straw). Being nothing more than unprocessed sugar, you'd expect the flavor to be cloying, but fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice is surprisingly light and refreshing. On a hot day, the ice is a big part of the lure; it dilutes the sugarcane juice as it melts, and gives you something to crunch on between sips.
As intrepid as I am about street food, I was resistant at first to the lure of this drink; the glucose-rich juice is an obvious breeding-ground for microorganisms, and let's just say we try not too look too hard into the teeth of the presses, which operate all day with little more than the occasional brush-down. At this point, all I can say is I've had enough of these drinks to consider the risk worth taking. It's important to make sure the juice is green and freshly-squeezed; the longer it sits, the browner it gets, and the more likely it is to contain pathogens. Offsetting this risk is the fact that the unprocessed cane juice contains nutrients that are lost when sugar is processed; the locals I've spoken to consider nước mía đá generally nutritious, if a bit fattening.

Unlike Cuba, sugar is not a major industry in Vietnam. Consumption exceeds supply, and Vietnam imports about a third of the sugar it uses (it should be noted that a fair number of the country's processing plants are small, inefficient, and wasteful). I don't know what percentage of Vietnam's total sugar output becomes nước mía đá, but for US 30 cents, on a hot, sticky afternoon, I'm all "damn the torpedos, and gimme that drink!"

Friday, June 19, 2009


Clearly done with bargaining for the day
I have my first pet peeve. It's not with the traffic or the noise, it's with a recurring conversation I keep having with Vietnamese friends and aquaintances that goes something like this:

Hal: How much should I pay for x?
VN friend: Well, for me it would only cost x. But for you...

Wait, what's with this "for me, for you" crap? I understand the concept of "skin tax" (extra money paid by people with white skin), but that doesn't mean I'm willing to pay it! So stop taking the practice for granted by quoting me two prices!

My friends' instincts, however, are rooted in two basic assumptions, both of which contain a kernal of truth. 

First is the assumption that all Vietnamese merchants hike their prices at the first sight of white skin. This certainly happens often enough - maybe even most of the time. I know when the fruit lady in the market looks at me with dollar signs in her eyes, that I'm about to get a mangosteen up my rear as far as she can shove it. But this is rarely a problem. So long as I have a sense of what an accurate price should be, I'm protected - though there is the occasional vendor who will absolutely refuse to sell me something at local-market rates. I suppose she considers it a matter of principal. No matter; I usually find someone else.

The second assumption is based on the stereotyped view that westerners can't, or are unwilling to, bargain. Like the first assumption, this also contains an element of truth. In my experience, these non-bargaining Westerners fall into two categories: the angry ones, and the indifferent ones.

To understand the angry Westerner, you have to watch a couple of Vietnamese go at it in the local market. They bargain hard - the merchant offering a starting price, the shopper turning the piece of fruit around a few times in her hand, the vendor offering up another sample for the shopper to consider. They may or may not smile, but both parties clearly understand their expected roles, and the transaction is conducted without tension.

Now watch an angry Westerner and a Vietnamese merchant go at it. The Vietnamese fires off the same opening line, but the Westerner, certain she is being ripped off, is tense, wary, possibly even rude. The merchant, who was simply playing a market game, doesn't understand the Westerner's anger. Things escalate, and sadly, an opportunity for cross-cultural bonding, even at a rudimentary level, is lost.

One of the benefits of having traveled and lived in so many so-called "developing" countries is that I long ago learned that bargaining, whether in Vietnam, South Africa, or Peru, is first and foremost a social act. The market is a place where important social relationships are nurtured, and news and gossip exchanged. I remember a young Mayan woman years ago in a Chiapas market, next to a basket with two or three oranges. Thinking I was doing her a favor, I offered to buy them from her, and she refused. She explained to me that if she sold them, she would have to go home. For this young woman, a day at the market had to do with a lot more than selling oranges.

Bargaining is rooted in this sense of the marketplace. The vendor's price is the opening act in a ritualized play that serves a social as well as economic purpose. The proper response is to smile, shake your head, give the merchant or taxi driver a knowing look, as if to say, "Uh uh, buddy, I'm on to you." Come back with a counter-offer. They counter, you counter, eventually you get to a price that leaves both of you smiling. 

The angry Westerner doesn't get this. The indifferent one does. This person understands the cultural value of bargaining, but simply doesn't want to participate in it. These are the people who pay above-market prices with an attitude of, "these twenty cents mean a lot more to the taxi driver than they do to me." Personally, I like these folks more than the Westerners who constantly feel they're being ripped off. But I would argue that they are doing everyone a disservice. 

Foreigners are basically inflationary. Our willingness to pay more for goods and services pushes up the price of those goods for everyone. I've seen Bangkok taxis practically roll over well-dressed middle-class Thais to grab some hippy backpacker on a street corner. I've seen Guatemalan weavers refuse to sell clothing in their local village because they could get more in the travelers' ghetto of Panajachel. In any particular transaction, it's true that twenty cents mean more to the merchant or taxi driver than they do to me, but in the aggregate, overpaying hurts the people whose wages correspond to the local costs. 

This is why I bargain for everything when I travel. I want my Vietnamese friends to understand this, and to tell me the correct local prices for things, so I can go into the marketplace with ammunition. The savings are less important to me than the bonds I form, and the economic footprints I leave behind. 

That's the opinion I'm peddling today. If you don't like the price, make me an offer...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bún Chả (things are gonna get easier...)

Most Vietnamese, northerners included, will tell you the food gets better as you head south, but the north, including the capital city of Hanoi, is not without its culinary pleasures. And if you only have one meal to eat in Hanoi...let it be bún chả!

At lunchtime, Hanoians squat down to eat at bún chả joints all over the city. These eateries are easily recognized by the flat metal cages of bite-sized pork charred in batches over low charcoal grills (chả), and by the burnt-sweet smell of caramelized meat that lingers over these streetside kitchens. The sweetness is due to the pork's marinade, consisting of fish sauce, garlic, and sugar. As the pork is charred over the fire, the marinade and fat drip into the charcoal, creating a smoke that flavors the meat, and announces the eatery to the neighborhood.
Like many Vietnamese dishes, bún chả is assembled at table. As soon as you sit down, you get a basket of greens (lettuce, bean sprouts, cilantro, basil, mint - the Vietnamese are all about their fresh herbs), and a tangled pile of thin white rice vermicelli (bún) that someone has run through with a pair of scissors (otherwise, the noodles are impossible to pull apart). If you're lucky, some grunting diner will push over the pepper shaker, red chilies, and pickled garlic in white vinegar - otherwise, just reach over and grab them yourself. Then sit and drool while the main bowl is asembled.

In a matter of seconds, you will have before you a bowl of sweet golden broth chock-full of grilled pork, with a few pickled cucumber slices (or chayote, or green papaya) floating near the bottom. Looking at first like a thin, meaty soup, the liquid is really a complex dipping sauce, a well-balanced mixture of fish sauce, sweetened vinegar, water, and lime, infused with some oil from the grilled meat, and normally served luke-warm. 
The first step in eating bún chả is to doctor the soup. Nearly everyone starts with a few shakes of black pepper, and most people slosh in some vinegared garlic. At this point, tastes diverge. My personal style is to squeeze in a little lime, toss in a couple of red chilis, and then grab some greens and lay them in, letting them soften for a moment before eating. Regardless, you then grab some noodles with your chopsticks, dip them in the soup, and scoop 'em up along with whatever they catch in the bowl. Lean your head low over the bowl and shovel them in your mouth. Close your eyes and whimper.

Vietnamese cuisine delights in contrasting textures, and in this regard, bún chả does not disappoint. The greens provide a crunchy counterbalance to the softness of the noodles; and there are usually two types of meat, one fatty and bacony, the other a soft pork patty mixed with shallots and spices. It should be noted that a good bún chả master grills the meat so that it's burnt and crunchy on the outside, soft and juicy on the inside - providing yet another contrast. Add to these textures all the savory, burnt, sweet, and spicy flavors, and eating bún chả becomes a complete sensual experience, one that leaves your tastebuds reminiscing after the meal is done.

No matter what kind of day you're having, a bún chả lunch can only leave you singing, in the words of the old soul hit by the Five Stairsteps:

Boo-oon cha, things are gonna get easier
Boo-oon cha, things'll get brighter
Boo-oon cha, things are gonna get easier
Boo-oon cha, things'll be brighter

Some day, yeah
We'll put it together and we'll get it all done
Some day, when your head is much lighter
Some day, yeah
We'll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun
Some day, when the world is much brighter

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Respite from the Heat

Hanoi's been suffering a heat wave - actually normal for this time of year - that has pushed temperatures close to 100° F. In this kind of weather, the first step out the door feels like a sudden dunk into a warm gelatinous pool. This is the kind of heat you wear; after five minutes the lightest clothing is a sweat-soaked rug. So tonight, as soon as the clouds move in and the rains crack open the evening sky, I do what countless other Hanoians without air conditioning do, and step outside to take my first easy breath in days.

The angle of the wind permits me shelter on my balcony, so I sit down to enjoy the rain-whipped breeze. Low-hanging clouds veil the unfinished Vincom Towers, their scaffolding giving them the appearance of matchsticks piled twenty stories high. In the sky hangs a diffused three-quarters moon, its feathered edges blending into the fog. All around, the dark and angled roofs of the houses paint a portrait of a city in silhouette.

The patter of raindrops provides a soft counterpoint to the distant and nearby sounds of the town. Voices dully murmur from a nearby TV, a child calls out, a rusty gate creaks open. There's the rumble of a scooter, its tires slushing through puddles, echoing up the alley walls. Noises in this city don't have a white-noise roar; every radio, engine, and horn makes a distinct sound. Hanoi is a comedic clash of tambourines, glockenspiels, and kazoos, rather than an orchestra playing in concert. Tonight this clash is muted, dampened by the rain.

If Hong Kong erupts and Bangkok oozes, Hanoi just sort of squirts. Life squeezes out between narrow gaps: fruit vendors between motorbikes, bicycles between vendors, pedestrians between bicycles. There's a constant jockeying for position, and somehow, always just enough room to get by. Even from the vantage point of the fifth-story balcony of an appropriately-narrow tube house, there's the sense of small-city life shoving itself through crannies and cracks. I could probably jump across the alley from my balcony to the nearest roof; I wouldn't even need a running start. Hanoi is life writ small.

The hot weather feels like another constraining force, pushing Hanoi's inhabitants together. As a new Hanoian, I get to partake in the sense of belonging that comes from the city's shared hardship. This evening, at a sandwich stand, I heard an old woman complaining of the heat to anyone who would hear her. Noticing that I understood her, the old woman offered me the same cavil, "Nóng quá!" as she fanned herself with her hand. Yes, Grandmother, I replied, it's very hot - and the woman and I both smiled. I wonder if this woman ever imagined, during the Christmas bombings of 1972, that 30-some-odd-years later, she and an American would be commiserating over heat while he waited for his sandwich, and they both waited for rain. 

Back on my balcony, the rain stops, the wind dies down, and instantly the heat returns. I've been in Asia five weeks now, and this sticky night, with its brief respite from the hot weather, is my one-month anniversary in Hanoi.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Teacher, Teacher!

I was having dinner with a colleague from the language school where I work, when I began talking about language teaching. I apologized for bringing up "shop talk" during dinner, and he stopped me with some blunt words: "Don't apologize," he said, "There's nothing wrong with liking your work."

Indeed. One of the major reasons I left the US was to reinvigorate my career. I had hoped that once I started teaching again, my livelihood would cease to be a "necessary evil," and become something I enjoy. One month into it, my decision to leave seems, for now, to have been vindicated.

Let me say right off that everything I had heard and hoped about Vietnamese students is true. They're smart, energetic, easily-engaged, and willing to do just about anything in the classroom. They are, simply put, the best students I've ever taught, and while you do get a tough crowd once in awhile (elementary-level teens seem to be a challenge), according to my colleagues, these groups are the exception, rather than the rule.

It also helps that I've found my fellow teachers at Language Link to be a terrific combination of professional and - how shall I put it - fucking crazy. They - we - can best be described as a band of intelligent misfits. Being mostly British, you do have to understand that they're not really happy unless they're complaining, but after taking their jaded, bitter, and cynical natures into consideration, it becomes readily apparent that most of them are - and please don't tell them I said so - happy. And they take their jobs seriously. The combination makes for a nice atmosphere at work.

The Vietnamese staff is comprised of a band of attractive and competent young women that I can only be grateful the lords of Language Link saw fit to employ. The office banter between these gals and the English teachers is a source of constant amusement. Watching a dreadlocked Englishwoman explain to an innocent young Vietnamese gal the meaning of the term, "rug-eating" (cunnilingus) the other day, was a case in point. These are the types of cultural exchanges, I believe, from which we can all only benefit.

I've had three classes to start with: one group of 18 children, one class of 18 elementary level adults, and my 3-hour/3-times-a-week "English for Academic Success" class (8-students), for teens and young adults planning to study abroad. To this 18 hours/week teaching load, I've added an equal amount of prep-time - much of this just refamiliarizing myself with EFL materials and re-learning how to write a lesson plan. This should change in the next few weeks, as I become more comfortable in the classroom, and get weaned off the children's classes and pulled into the academic/test-prep niche. To be honest, I'll be happy to leave the kids. They are adorable, but I'd rather fill them with sugar, wind them up, and give them back to their parents. I'm too much of a peer to be any good as an authority figure over them.

In all, I have found the work to be challenging. My initial classes have had some ups and downs as I've tried to regain my footing as a teacher. The Director of Studies in my school observed one of my classes the other day, and had a lot of constructive criticism - ways to improve error-correction, create more opportunities for communication, and other methodological deficiencies. My opinion: his comments were on the money. I can see where there's room for improvement. But he also said I had, "the perfect combination of warmth and professionalism," and suggested that I, "am made for this work." The feedback from my students, I should mention, has been overwhelmingly positive, so I trust it's just a matter of time, and continued effort, before I hit the level of professionalism I expect of myself. 

From a psychic standpoint, these are huge issues. "Right livelihood," the Buddha said, is a moral foundation on the path to enlightenment. In my experience, the question of livelihood has been one of life's most intractable dilemmas, and my failure to resolve it in the US a major impetus behind my current expatriation. I don't know for how long I will find the life of an expat English teacher fulfilling, but in the month I've been teaching, I've re-learned that there is nothing wrong with liking your work. 

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lunch with a Peer

I'm by myself, slurping down a bowl of bún chà at a local street stall, when a Vietnamese grandfather, teenage girl, and four-year-old boy sit down. Most of these streetside eateries are basically people's homes, with a couple of low tables and tiny plastic chairs out front, so space is at a premium. As a result, people sit together, and I end up across from the boy.

Like all little boys, he's twitchy and curious, full of energy, and he can't sit still. He grabs a pair of chopsticks, stands up, and starts doing kung fu gestures while his sister orders lunch. His attention darts everywhere: to the moving plates of noodles and greens passing over his head, to the motorbikes whizzing by, to the adults around him, and to the imaginary army of kung fu warriors he periodically remembers he is fighting. 

There is little difference between this four-year-old boy and any other four-year-old in the world. A too-hard kick sends him reeling backward into a tolerant diner; his grandfather and sister both tell him to settle down, so he bobs back over to his chair. His patience disappears in about ten seconds, and now his chopsticks are batons, maybe planes - or maybe wings and he's a bird! He spins and squirms in his seat, until the food arrives.

This is when I begin to realize there is something different between him and the four-year-old boys I see twitching back home. His confident fingers maneuver the too-large chopsticks with dexterity; he expertly picks noodles out of his bowl and slurps them down. His eyes continue to survey his surroundings, and I can almost see the gears turning in his head. The world he is forming in his young brain is unlike the world I formed when I was his age, although the process for forming that world, I can recognize, is very much the same.

Language does more than describe things; it colors how we see them. If in Greek, the word for moon means "cold," while in Latin the word means "light-filled," that very same moon is experienced differently, depending on what it is called. To this young boy, still wiggling into his body and coming to awareness, everything he looks at has a name: the chopsticks are "đũa," the table "cái bàn," his sister, grandfather, and everyone he knows is addressed with the pronoun appropriate to his or her station. 

I feel a deep kinship between myself and the now busy with his food little boy. We are both taking in our surroundings and giving everything names. For him, these are the only names he knows, so he accepts them with a natural grace. I, on the other hand, am encumbered by the baggage of previous words, so I have to work hard to stop myself from thinking "chopsticks," in order to remember "đũa." And sadly, I'm afraid I cannot say if the Vietnamese moon is light-filled or cold.

These thoughts are running through my head, in English, when the boy looks up from his soup. Our eyes meet, and then, seized with the same urgent thought, we simultaneously make a monster-face.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Hanoi Rauschenberg

"I think a painting is more like the real world if it's made out the real world."
- Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg took New York City trash to his studio, and glued it onto his canvases. "There is no reason," the American artist concluded, "not to consider the world as one gigantic painting." Hanoi's richly textured walls testify to Rauschenberg's once-startling assertion that everything can potentially be seen as art, if we give it the proper attention.Rauschenberg and Hanoi both build upon - and ultimately transcend - earlier traditions. For Rauschenberg, the tradition is abstract-expressionism; for Hanoi, it's an architecturally rich colonial past. Just as Rauschenberg once erased a de Kooning painting and claimed it as a unique work, time has stripped Hanoi's once-glorious buildings of their former grandeur, creating a wholly new aesthetic.
Rauschenberg's earliest works of note were large white or black canvases arranged as panels or quartets. Variations in surface texture reflected the changing ambient conditions. Later he began adding bits of newspaper which could sometimes be seen under the paint, sometimes not. These features - textured translucent layers affected by the ambient light - are key aesthetic elements encountered in Hanoi.
Responding to Rauschenberg's 1951 "White Paintings," John Cage "composed" his famous "4:33," in which he sits at the piano for over four minutes without hitting a key. Cage intended to negate the distinction between sound and silence: "Silence is the turning off of awareness." With Cage, art and silence are matters of with Rauschenberg...and Hanoi.
From monochromatic experiments in texture and light, Rauschenberg progressed to his famous "combines": complex assemblages of found objects and paint, amalgams of painting and sculpture. Working "the gap between art and life," Rauschenberg saw that an object, placed in a new context, becomes an entirely different object. He transported trash from street to canvas because he wanted to be surprised.
Everything was grist for Rauschenberg's creative mill: quilts, tires, socks, nails, the severed head of an Angora goat. For Hanoi, it's light poles, parking lots, embassies, schoolyards, and cafes. For Rauschenberg, the chair in front of the canvas; for Hanoi, the motorbike in front of the wall. Everything, inside or outside the frame, is part of the construction.
When Rauschenberg stopped working with found objects, and began silkscreening images onto metal, canvas, and rocks, he noted that in a consumer society, images are no longer bearers of information, but things. Every reproduction creates a new object, imbued with its own individuality. Rauschenberg emphasized this by distressing each silkscreened image until every trace of the mechanical process was gone.
The stenciled letters on Hanoi's walls advertise the city's craftsmen - its masons, carpenters, and electricians - through the crude mass-production technology of a developing nation. When reproduced over rough-hewn surfaces at cockeyed angles and allowed to drip and fade, these stencils cease, as Rauschenberg once suggested, to be transmitters of information: they become runes, hieroglyphs, fetishes.
Hanoi's multilayered walls beget the same careful observation as a Rauschenberg collage. You look at, onto, and into them simultaneously, wondering if the juxtaposition is by caprice or design. Are these random objects brought together by chance, or coded messages to be deciphered? In Rauschenberg's case, the artist's hand is evident, but what of Hanoi's walls?
Rauschenberg moved art from the street to the canvas; Hanoi's urban aesthetic is discovered by returning to the street. The city's plaster walls - eroded to their rough brick foundations, streaked with grime, graffiti, torn paper, and letters - perfectly straddle that space "between art and life." Or as Rauschenberg would say, it's art if you say it is.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Monday Morning Routine

Alarm rings. Seven a.m. It must be Hanoi because my mattress has the consistency of a damp brick, and a muzak version of an old Tony Orlando and Dawn song is playing through a nearby loudspeaker. The fan at the foot of my bed has been on me all night, and with a light sheet around me, I'm a little cool. My alarm is on the desk across the room, so I'm obliged to get up. I don't mind; I'd just as soon be up before the day's sticky heat settles in.

Look outside: it's rain today. Can't tell from this height how heavy it is. Brush teeth, shower, all the normal stuff. I lock the door to my room and start downstairs in my house slippers, remembering two flights down that I've left my work shoes in my room. Back up, unlock the door, grab the shoes, and down I go. The annoying chihuahua on the second floor has started getting used to me; she just growls now instead of greeting me with that irritating high-pitched impotent yapping so common among small dogs. Nice puppy. We exchange glares, and I think, "no wonder they eat your type around here."

In the foyer, I switch from my house slippers to my shoes, and unlock the sliding metal gate. The rain's coming down hard. I put on my rain poncho before stepping out; the woman next door passes by and says "Mưa quá," which in my half-asleep state I don't understand, until I realize she's saying, "Much rain." "Vâng, vâng," I say in agreement, but she's already walked past. At best, my Vietnamese conversations have a tape delay, while I unscramble what's being said to me and fish for my words; in the morning, it's damn near impossible to talk to me. Then again, the same is true of my English.

Van Ho 3 street is hardly a street; more a series of interconnecting alleys. I walk right for about 20 yards, then there's a sharp left turn, and I'm smack in the middle of the morning market. About a dozen women in conical hats are sitting by baskets piled high with mixed greens, tomatoes, dragon fruits, and mangosteens. A man is flensing a pig's leg over his display of butchered animal parts. A young woman is sitting by giant skeins of small, white noodles. All this goes on under a dripping patchwork of multi-colored plastic tarps. 

Between all this, a steady stream of tooting motorbikes and pedestrians jockey up and down the lane. A woman is walking beside her bicycle, a large board on its rear fender serving as a platform for her mountainous arrangement of plastic sandals and flip-flops. Some of the houses serve as storefronts, and they're all open for business: there's the place on the corner that sells dodgy-looking pâté, a small phở stall, and two general goods stores. It's still only 7:30 a.m.

I walk past all this in about 20 seconds. I turn right at the "T", making sure to look back at the road not taken, where more market activity is taking place. A few more steps and I dart up a hidden alley to my left. I just discovered this shortcut the other day, and along with knocking some time off my 5-minute walk to school, the lane provides a short respite from the motorbikes. But only a short respite; near the end of the alley I can already hear the rumble of Đại Cồ Việt

I emerge from the alley onto the main drag, like a spitball shot out of a straw. The street roars with the sound of hundreds of motorbikes. I turn left and hug the edge of the road, ignoring the xôm drivers who try to catch my attention with cries of, "moto, moto." I walk past a cafe, a few stationery stores, a motorbike repair shop, a couple of office buildings, and maybe eight-to-ten street food vendors. I turn left at the next street and sneak into the cafe where I always get my morning coffee.

I've been unable to figure out the age of the woman who runs this place, so rather than insult her by using the wrong pronoun, I keep it safe and greet her with, "Xin chào." She knows what I want but we go through our familiar routine; I go to the counter to ask for my coffee, and take a seat. I have a little less than an hour before I start teaching, loads of time to sip coffee, maybe think through my lesson plan, or just look outside. It's Monday, and so far, nothing unusual has happened. Just the normal routine.