1st full day in Nam- "Hello, Moto's"

Trip Start Nov 23, 2007
Trip End Dec 11, 2007

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Monday, November 26, 2007

2315 local (Hanoi Standard Time):

After finally going to bed around 330 am local, I awoke to sounds of my mother ambling around our hotel room.  I glanced at my watch: 730am.  Apparently it was time to get up.  After I dressed and walked with Mom to Great Aunt's house (a 5-minute walk), I got my morning dose of reality.  A petite elderly woman (no more than 90 pounds) carried 2 large open-top wooden barrels suspended on a pole that was balanced on her shoulder.  This served as her self-contained shop, as her barrels contained everything she needed, from dishwasher and knives to charcoal burner and cookware.  She sat down between the barrels which she set down and opened for business.  Another woman pushed a cart into place alongside of a building, and then pulled out her small cooking stove & charcoal fire in a pot.  She set out 4 tables and 8 stools, only they were the size of Fisher Price/Playskool plastic furniture.  This signified that her restaurant was then open for the day.  My mother's cousin (my 1st cousin, once removed--I call her Auntie Lanh) opened her home for us to see.  It was NOT 5 feet wide!  It was just one room, the length of which was maybe the length of my bedroom at home.  They had just woken up the kids, and I could see that they were rolling up mats they slept on and moving them to a partition in the back of the room.  This partitition was used as storage/personal space.  The floor space they had just slept on was now their kitchen, with a small desktop grill (slightly larger than an all-in-one printer) as their stove.  I would later learn that the rear of the home was connected to the rears of two other houses, perpendicular to this home in orientation.  The other houses are occupied by Aunt Lanh's husband's siblings' families.  In essence, if you had an argument, you would not be afforded any privacy while you hash out your difficulties.

We picked up my grandparents and took Great Aunt and her 2 eldest daughters (Aunties Lanh and Thuan) for a walk to Cho Thi Nghe (Thi Nghe Market) to pick up a 7-passenger taxi for a ride to Cho Binh Thanh (Binh Thanh Market) where we had pho @ Pho 2000.  There was a picture of Clinton's visit to the restaurant in November 2000, and he was sitting in the same place i was seated!  Browsing around Cho Binh Thanh provided views of an interesting mix of touristy stalls with souvenirs, traditional fish markets, vendors with general wares, and small cafes that seated 5-10 people.

A few observations:
1) I watched as a guy purchased an entire cart of goods and pushed it to his parking spot outside.  He proceeded to pack all of his foodstuffs into woven baskets and load down his moto with this remarkable weight.  With some clever manipulation, he was able to load everything, although it made for dangerous driving.  These people will force their machinery to do anything and everything.  There is simply no other affordable means of going about their lives.
2) Here, going to the markets for the freshest ingredients is a nearly daily occurrence (partially b/c refrigeration is costly so houses keep very small refrigerators with nearly unusable freezers, and partially because they demand the best possible ingredients they can reasonably afford).  Throughout this day, I constantly heard discussions of which fruits/vevetables were better-tasting and fresher.  Everyone seemed to know the peak seasons of various foods, and made purchases with that information in mind.
3) Additionally, natives seemed to know how to make unique dishes from just about anything that was on sale, be it sea snails, frog legs, pungent herbs, or rare vegetables.  Nothing was too unfamiliar that they didn't know how to prepare it.  Truly, as my travel guide book suggests, these people don't eat to live, they live to eat!
4)  Haggling is a rule, but for the tourists (and uninitiated), signs posted everywhere say that prices are fixed and regulated - ha!
5) People often drive right through these open-air markets, pull up to a stall, pick up goods, and drive off.
6) Negotiating traffic can be quite a dicey proposition too, as drivers and pedestrians alike seem to use traffic signs and lane markings just as general guidelines for their travel.

We saluted Tran Nguyen Hai's statue in the circle across the street and went on a mini driving tour.  Then we dropped Grandpa off and went through Cho Thi Nghe (for real this time) picking up food for dinner tonight.  After dropping the food off, Mom and I went to the nearest Internet cafe to look up some tours.  We decided on a 5d/4n tour of N. Vietnam since Central Vietnam was flooded out, based on the last update we heard.  Uncle Huy gave me my 1st ride on a moto back to the hotel so that we could get ready for Mass.  Nha Tho Thi Nghe (Church of Thi Nghe) was a tacky-looking structure with a gigantic replica of the Grotto of Lourdes in the courtyard.  We stopped into the mausoleum onsite to pay a visit to Great Grandma and Great Uncle Tinh whose family we are visiting (please read my "Subplots" blog to find out more about the family, if you wish, to learn the very sad story about him and why his family is still stuck in VN).  The church itself was a large cement structure with walls that had a grid pattern.  Each square of the grid was slanted outwards, leaving a gap at the bottom for air to flow into the church but keep the rain out.  Mass was way long, as Grandma and Mom were soundly asleep during the homily.  No doubt the long hours of sightseeing/walking had tuckered them out.

After Mass, the parking lot was kept closed until everyone was on their moto's.  The motorbikes has been parked immediately next to one another.  If everyone were not on their moto's ready to move at the same time, then the parking lot could not be cleared efficiently, since some riders will be blocked in.  When everyone was ready, the parking ushers released the riders like cattle to the kill onto the busy street.  The walk back to the house was taxing for Gpa.  Uncle Tien and I had to push him on his walker with the seat the final distance back to Great Aunt's house.

We sat in the family room--there is no dining room/living room to speak of--and I sat on one of the plastic stools (a roughly 8" cube) and was impressed when they brought out heapings of food!  I put my game face on and chowed down, and then it dawned on me .... this was food for the 6-7 families who were present or living nearby, and those of us who were seated were merely the 1st round to eat.  Oops.  I held back and told my stomach to behave itself.  Food was frankly not as good as Mom's but very fresh.  We bought 333 beer (one of the popular VN brands) for everyone (0.50 USD/can) and had a good time.

Afterwards, the Uncles seemed really set on taking me out for a common tradition amongst the men, going for coffee/tea/drinks and just lounging/smoking.  We rode in Uncle Fa's taxi, an 8-passenger SUV that we helped purchase I think.  In this poor district, there was this open-air oasis of an establishment.  In another area it might even be considered trendy by American standards.  It had all-glass enclosures that had a bar with semi-opaque paneling lit from behind with neon lights that changed color in unison.  Outside was an elevated patio that sported a reflecting pool in the middle with lush foliage surrounding it and lighting effects in the water.  I had a strawberry tea (VERY fragrant aroma), while one of the uncles ordered a juice made from Cam Xang ("green oranges").  I will have to try that at some point.  It literally looks like a green-rinded orange and has orange-colored juice as compared to the yellow-liquid of O.J.

We discussed some comparisons between VN and US culture.  For instance, edumacation here is rapid-paced, and students are forced to learn more material in a shorter period of time.  Uncle Minh observed that except for a select few, because they don't have much time to absorb and retain the information (eww, i just saw a cockroach that looked dead and dried up on the floor get swept up and then rise from the dead to scurry across the floor).  Perhaps I am an exception, but I felt the US educational experience was slow-paced, but it offered the chance to learn, relearn and retain the data.  I still teach kids in elementary/high school though I have been out of that scene for a long time.  Another difference is that the culture here is laid back.  Everyone is always outside, eating, drinking, talking, arguing.  Students go to school early--630--and then come home at 1030.  They have lunch and reconvene at 130 and continue until 430.  Then it's home for dinner, cleanup, studying, hanging with the family and preparing for the next day.  The US starts and its a race all day to get done:  people run-walk between places, eat standing up, and can't pause for any reason.  Then it's off to pick up dinner, Matthew from soccer practice, Lisa from band rehearsal, shirts from the cleaners.  Dinner is followed by martial arts practice, homework, video games, and whatnot.  VN gets up early, goes shopping, eats breakfast, goes to school/work, eats lunch/takes a nap, restarts in midafternoon, and goes for early evening drinks and conversation at the local establishment.  Here also, homes are constructed so that the street frontage has large double doors or doors like garages so that the house can be opened up like a store front.  An overwhelming majority of homes have businesses that operate directly out of the home.

There is a body of water (a channel with small tributaries) that passes right ouside of Great Aunt's house.  It is sickly green, thick, polluted with sewage, mostly standing water.  Once a year as water levels peak, the alleyway floods 2x's day as the ride rushes in.  This will be a constant annoyance in the week to come, forcing the uncles to take us in one at a time on their moto's.  In the past, Great Aunt's house was situated ~6 inches below street level.  During that time, the Uncles and Aunts would literally sit in their house and use buckets to scoop out water for hours.  The flood waters filled with sewage would leave a sticky odorous residue that sometimes made the house uninhabitable.  Thankfully, through their hard-earned work and through our financial support, they were able to level the house, raise the foundation, and rebuild a new structure that better housed the family.

Puts things into perspective when I complain about low water pressure....
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