At Home in Hanoi

Hanoi, Vietnam – I arrived in Hanoi along with ten other volunteers from all walks of life and corners of the globe. To paraphrase a famous Latin saying: We came together, We saw together, We conquered together. As with most things in life, everything started at home. Possessing the same mindset helped us all get along, but not having TV, internet or other distractions the first couple days forced us to interact and get to know each other. Throw in the other four volunteers who were already here, and we had a very close knit group that only enhanced everyone’s experience in Vietnam. Not everything was perfect, or went according to plan, but we still had a ton of fun.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

  • First, I’d like to make an update to some previous posts. The rooster is officially gone! It’s been over a week since I’ve heard him. Hopefully, he made for a fine meal on some family’s table. I’m just glad I can finally sleep in uninterrupted bliss.
  • Coming from a Western country, doing laundry normally means putting a load of whites or colors in the washing machine and then switching them to the dryer before hanging and folding everything. In Vietnam, doing the laundry means putting a load of whites or colors in the washing machine and then hanging everything up to dry in clothes lines. It’s not really that big a deal, as long as you plan ahead for the day or so it takes for clothes to dry (as in, make sure you have enough clean boxers), and you don’t mind everyone in the neighborhood being able to literally see you air your dirty laundry.
  • Besides our human roommates, we’ve also apparently adopted some roommates of the four legged variety, as in rats and mice. It’s a common thing in Vietnam (when you don’t have air con and leave the door open all day to let air in, I guess these things are bound to happen), but it doesn’t mean the girls in the house find them any cuter. In fact, to find a rat all we had to do was follow the screams on the first floor.
  • I’ve tried to chase the rats on two different occasions without any success, except making myself look like the modern day Carl Spackler (Caddyshack reference for those who didn’t catch it).
    • The first time, one of the girls spooked the rat out from under where it was hiding while I stood waiting to pounce on it with a bowl (it seemed like a good idea after a couple of beers). Unfortunately, the rat always ran in the opposite direction of where I was standing.
    • The second time, we saw the rat scurrying towards the front door. Thinking this was an excellent chance to get rid of the rat I grabbed a broom (again, it sounded like a good idea at the time) and tried to scare it by banging on the cabinets, computer stand, and our cook’s Buddhist altar before standing at the ready to sweep the thing outside. The rat failed to materialize, so I went to bed.
  • Two of the new girls had never seen a rat before, and they were actually excited to see one in our house (I don’t know why, I just went with it). After a night of drinking, we scared the thing out from under the Buddhist altar and let one of the girl’s chase it around the first floor with her camera. Apparently, the thing’s camera shy.
  • One thing many of us have in common is an affinity for playing cards. And, with so many people from different parts of the globe, we were able to do a little cultural exchange and share and partake in games from everyone’s homeland. I think the favorites were Shithead, Bullshit, Asshole, Nines, Super 8’s and Chopsticks (also known as Spoons).
  • While most of our games were of the friendly variety, there was one incident where competitive juices took over (okay, my competitive juices took over). While playing spoons, I grabbed one of the chopsticks on the table after someone had amassed four of a kind. At the same time, one of the girls made a grab for the same chopstick, plus the one next to it (you only need to grab one). Somehow, we ended up in a tug of war for the chopstick – me pulling on the one, and she pulling on both (remember, the irony here is that you only need to grab one). Next thing I know, my chair tipped over and I went down. But don’t worry, I saved my beer without spilling a drop. Oh, and I was okay, too.
  • The local volunteers from our organization came over one night to give us a Vietnamese cooking lesson, on how to make spring rolls. I may have Americanized mine and created giant rolls (with ‘that’s what she said’ jokes inserted at appropriate junctures by others) – something about portion control and American eating habits don’t mix well. However, no matter their size, the rolls – and all the other food – were excellent.
  • By far and away, my favorite place in the house is outside on the rooftop terrace. Not only is it right outside my room, allowing for easy access, but you can usually catch a nice breeze and I’m a sucker for drinking outside. I love sitting out there after I wake up in the morning while checking email and thinking while it’s nice and cool and quiet (for Hanoi, at least). I love spending lazy afternoons sitting out there with a cold beer in hand. And, I love hanging out there at night with all the housemates.
  • In a sure sign that Facebook is taking over the world, and that we’re just plain lazy, many of us would be in various places around the house, sometimes sitting around the same table, on our computers talking on Facebook chat. That’s right, no one would bother to walk one room over or down one flight of stairs (or look across the table) to speak directly to each other. Of course, the best was when someone would make a Facebook update as they told everyone what they were typing, as in laughing out loud as they typed lol.
  • In a surprising twist, I can probably count on one hand how many times I’ve watched something on TV since I’ve been in Hanoi (not including the use of MTV Asia as our stereo, or watching the Olympics over breakfast). In fact, I’m seriously considering canceling cable and going with over the air stations only when I return to the States. It’s amazing how productive and social you can be when you’re not parked in front of the TV every night.
  • It’s kind of funny that when I arrived in Hanoi, I was craving some alone time after being around so many people (what can I say, I was used to living alone and I had been traveling alone for two weeks). Yet, now I’m bored when there’s no one around, and I’m not really looking forward to traveling on my own when I leave. I know Americans love their space and individualism, but there’s something to be said for community, too.
  • One thing lacking in the house, is anything resembling comfortable furniture. My bed is a thin cushion on top if a piece of plywood, and the kitchen chairs and the chairs on the terrace are made of wood and metal, respectively, and have no cushion whatsoever. While I’ve gotten used to it, what I wouldn’t give to have a La-Z-Boy and a couch…
  • This being Vietnam, not everything works smoothly all the time. For instance, my roommate tried to wash the dishes one night, but he received quite a shock (literally) when we discovered open wires touching the dripping sink. Or, the time our water pump broke and there was no water in the house for the day (let me tell you how much fun that was). Or, the time my roommate threw his lighter on his bed and it exploded – nothing like hearing an explosion coming from your room to make your heart skip a beat, or three.
  • I’ve discovered more uses for chopsticks than I ever thought possible. Consider that you can use a chopstick to, amongst other things:
    • Stir your coffee in the morning
    • Spread jam on a slice of bread
    • Eat what were formally known as finger foods, such as French fries and peanuts
    • Pick the seeds out of a piece of watermelon
  • The sad part of this whole experience is that when a person’s volunteer assignment ends it means that it’s time for them to move on and leave. Of the 14 who were here when I started, only four of us remain. Others have arrived to replace those that have left, but, what the newbies can replace physically, they simply can’t replace in spirit. We’re still having fun, it’s just in a lot more laid back, chill kind of way compared to the frenetic chaos that was the month beforehand. I guess it’s not all bad. I mean, my alcohol consumption has gone way down, I’ve caught up on sleep, and I’ve found time to update this blog again. On second thought, bring back the craziness.

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