Saturday, November 24, 2007

Colorful Finds in Hanoi

This week saw me making yet another pilgrimage to Hanoi for a couple of weeks of work ahead. But this time was different – I had procrastinated on making my hotel reservation and found myself suddenly in trouble when my laziness collided head-on with the start of high tourist season. Not only was my usual place booked solid – but almost all of the other hotels in the Old Quarter are completely packed solid. Or at least no rooms are available for the two solid weeks that I will need – both in and out of my price range.

Then, to add inconvenience to bad luck, the driver that brought me down to Hanoi refused to take me to the remote hotel buried deep in the traffic-choked claustrophobic lanes of the shop-filled tourist streets in the Old Quarter – the one that finally had agreed to give me a room for two weeks. That would have left me bailing at the hotel where my fellow passenger had a room and finding a local taxi to take me through the streets. Fortunately, the hotel that we did stop at first had a last minute opening for one night – and between my fellow passenger and the friendly hotel staff, we managed to negotiate a reasonable price arrangement and I got a perfectly comfortable room for the night.

Still, that left me the dilemma of Saturday with no room. So bright and early Saturday morning I was off on foot scouring neighborhoods for potential hotel rooms. I finally happened upon a Vietnamese hotel in a neighborhood halfway between the tourist district and the area where my hotel is. And what a lucky find it was! For $22 US/night, I scored a large 10th floor room (in a hotel with an elevator), with a bright window opening onto the Hanoi skyline and full of fresh air, two comfortable chairs, a writing desk, large wardrobe and very comfortable bed. The staff warned me sadly that this was their “small” room and they apologized for not having anything larger available. Small?!? This was almost three times the size of the room I had paid $10 more for the night before, and had a big tub and a window allowing fresh air into the room. Only downside? No breakfast included, but then, neither did my former regular hotel.

So, I was left to a Saturday of happy discoveries. After finding the hotel I set out to properly explore the neighborhood. I was several blocks south of the tourist district, and had finally escaped the prices and obsessive vendors. Yet there are a large number of nice shops, restaurants (every other one being Japanese…), coffee and juice shops, and it is near one of the largest markets and largest upscale shopping complex in Hanoi. Walking distance (if you’re a walker like me anyway) to just about everywhere I would want to be. People were friendly and not pushy. Streets are green with trees. And the whole area (my hotel included) is a wireless hotspot, so I can access the internet from almost everywhere – though I must confess to being torn between that and the 30 some-odd English language stations I can watch in my hotel room…

And so – for one of my adventures of the day:

As I said, my new hotel is located in prime Vietnamese shopping area, specifically next to the largest fabric market I have ever seen. The entire top floor of the almost one-city-block area (minus a large open atrium that looks down on the green grocers in the center) is packed tight with fabric stalls. Most of the stalls sell the same standard fare of fabric – cottons, corduroy, poly-mixes and wools for making suits; the lighter-weight shirt and blouse material in solids and prints; rich velvets, heavy knit material for sweaters and even some jersey for sweatshirts. There are a few specialty shops including denim and silks mixed in, and one whole corner devoted to pillows and bedding. Each shop is miniscule – the average being just long enough to lie down in and deep enough to sit upright with legs extended – height is only limited by how high the bolts can be stacked without falling over. Each booth is thigh-deep in layers of bulk fabric.

But what struck me the most was the atmosphere. I visited on a Saturday afternoon – prime shopping time for office workers and students and other people who can’t simply choose the day of week to browse fabrics. I emerged from the dark stairway to find myself ten people deep to the nearest stall – in a space so small that I could have almost reached over those ten people to touch the nearest fabric. For all the Black Friday-esque crowds, it was almost as if the very softness of the cloth was absorbing the energy, breathing out sedatives even as it absorbed the noise of the hundreds of voices.

The vendors, having been exposed to this tranquilizing atmosphere the longest, were the most subdued. Considering the fact that each one of the thousand-plus was selling practically the same stock as their three hundred closest neighbors, there was no rabid salesmanship or mind-numbing competition for attention between the sellers. There were no megaphones advertising half-price deals; no in-your-face shoving to prove that this bolt was indeed far superior to the identical twin next door. The opium of the fabric acted so strongly that even haggling seemed to be at a bare minimum and many were stretched out fast asleep on top of their inventory.

This picture I randomly found on Flickr captures the atmosphere well - great shot three-b.

The customers, still high on the intoxicating effect of the whirl of colors, were more vigorous, but the sellers calmly offered each interested party a seat on the child’s footstools that are so popular here, effectively blocking the two-foot-wide walkways with sitting human bodies. They proceeded to calmly introduce different colors and styles, easing each potential buyer into a languid consideration of the benefits of each texture and weight.

Even as a foreigner I attracted relatively little attention beyond the passing remark. I was allowed to browse each stall and examine the stacks for what I was interested in. I was addressed in polite Vietnamese, asking what I was looking for with none of the cutthroat tourist-quarter language showing how good-good something you would never want anyway was; there wasn’t even the same aggressiveness that I had encountered in the kitchen and housewares area in the lower level of the same building. When I asked prices, they gave me a reasonable quote – the same they were giving to all the other Vietnamese shopping beside me.

And thus, I was lured. I happily purchased two different corduroy colors and wove and shoved and dodged my way through the stalls until I found a denim dealer. Average price was about $3.50/meter – perhaps still a little high, but priceless if I can get custom-fitted pants in a land of size zeros. I saw as much as I could see – but now want to go back and look for flannels for making winter sheets for my bed. Then there’s the idea of looking for ribbed cotton or jersey to have turtlenecks made. And then, as winter passes I should think of a spring and summer wardrobe. Ah! The potential is endless!

Obviously the Vietnamese agree with me, so I am happy to say that the tailors of Vietnam are not going out of business any time soon. And when you can make people as comfortable buying something as the laid-back fabric sellers in Vietnam, why not go back for more?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thankful for Teachers

Almost in the spirit of Thanksgiving the Vietnamese have reserved November 20th as "Teacher Day." Imagine, taking one day out of the school year in which the students all show up at school, but not to be lectured to or tested or otherwise tortured - and neither are their teachers. Instead, teachers bask in a day of appreciation, songs, dances and lots and lots of flowers. Bouquets were flying right and left and the flower sellers were doing a holiday's business as ever student raced to get a dozen roses or a stalk of lilies snuggled in a bed of babies breath or bright yellow daisies all trussed up in paper and lace and ribbons to present to their favorite teacher. I asked my staff how this whole tradition of teacher's day came about. Of course, the origins have to go back to the esteemed Uncle Ho Chi Minh, who wrote an open letter of appreciation to all teachers in the country, dated November 20th, year unknown. He included a quote that translates roughly as:

If you want to prosper in the next decade, plant trees;

If you want to prosper in the next century, plant people.

Teacher’s Day was only declared a public day of recognition only within the last few decades. I asked my staff for some of their experiences while celebrating the day. Almost all of them talk about going to visit their teachers in their homes on this day at. A large group of students would gather together and choose a teacher’s house. Many of them spent so much time there that some of them even wound up spending the night after being caught out after dark. Visiting teachers on this day is almost mandatory – and many don’t stop after they finish school. Many of my staff who had attended school in the area dashed away from the office at 5 PM to gather with their friends and begin to make rounds to their former teachers’ homes.

Today I had a meeting with members of our organization’s Project Management Committee, including the provincial director of the Department of Education. The committee spent several minutes chatting about the activities from the day before – then they asked me how Teacher’s Day in Vietnam compares to in the US. I had to confess that I didn’t think we had an official day for recognizing all the contributions of our teachers to our lives…and that I think Vietnam has something good on us there. Everybody laughed, appreciative that they were truly ahead of us in at least one major category – showing thankfulness and paying debts of gratitude.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Midnight Tug-of-War

Evening has settled over the town – coming faster now that winter is creeping over the edges of the calendar pages. Noise from the local restaurant drifts up through windows, but mercifully the saws and hammering from the construction site next door have ceased. My curtains are drawn and windows closed against the evening chill. I’m fresh from a hot shower and ready to snuggle under the covers with a book for my first early evening in weeks.

BOOM. Boom-boom-boom-BOOM.

I’m still not used to the noises that my new house makes and amplifies through the hollow backbone spiral stairwell. I wonder if somebody is downstairs pounding on my door. I’m wearing only a tank top and pajama pants, so I slip cautiously out through the French doors to my bedroom balcony to peer into the shadows below. There are a few people running in the street, but I don’t see anybody at my door.

BOOM. Boom-boom-boooom-boom-BOOM. BOOM-BOOM.

In the pool of light from the streetlight I see the disturber-of-the-peace. A woman is beating on a large drum, raising the cry of war. There are three or four adults milling authoritatively about and several children excitedly run over hoping for a turn with the drum mallet. A few insubstantial noises come from the drum as the children whack away. There’s no panic and no sense of urgency – just the persistent and insistent droned beats changing slightly in tone and tempo as different adults demonstrate their messaging skills:



BOOOM-BOOOM-BOOM-bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-ba-ba-boom. BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.

Obviously there is a message in all this banging, but people seem only mildly interested at first. Gradually more and more people wander down the street, bundled in winter coats and hats. Children race excitedly up and down through the puddles of hazy light from street lamps and doorways, thrilled to be sanctioned to be out past bedtime in a neighborhood made new by shadows and darkness. Several motorbikes get caught in the throngs roaming distractedly about. I stay hidden in the shadows of my balcony, hoping that whatever it is that is going on, they forget about the new foreigner.

BOOM. Boom-boom-boom-BOOM.

The banging continues, more frequent now as those milling don’t want to be kept waiting forever. Then suddenly a rope appears in the middle of the street and three parallel chalk lines are drawn about six feet apart. And I, with my bird’s-eye view of the proceedings, suddenly understand: this is rehearsal time.

Things happen a bit more quickly now. I slink even deeper into the shadows, hoping even more that my presence is forgotten. I have been assigned to the tug-of-war team for the Sunday neighbourhood party – a competition to be held against another city street, also apparently having a block party. I never imagined that a friendly tug-of-war competition would involve rehearsals, strategizing and practice. But here I am, shivering in the shadows, watching as the women and the men take their respective sides and places and prepare to rehearse pulling on a rope.

The banging on the drum has finally ceased, and all the attention is on the man holding the rag tied to the center of the rope. Ten people alternate sides down the rope on either end of the street, some giving anxious little tugs as they wait for the man in the middle to drop the rope. Women line up beneath my balcony; men have the rope in the shadows beyond the streetlight.

The rope is dropped and the referee leaps backwards as the rope is snatched taunt. This first battle lasts only seconds as the women quickly yank the men off balance and snatch the ribbon over their line – along with a couple of the men standing closest to the middle. Laughter and shrieks of victory cut through the darkness louder than even the beat of the drum. The men slink back into the darkness, not exactly into a strategic huddle, but to pass looks of quiet determination among them. The line-up takes longer this time as apparently more strategy is applied. Placements are considered, spacing carefully controlled. Finally they are ready to begin again.

The rope is dropped a second time and the referee jumps clear. The battle lasts longer now; while the women have sheer strength and endurance on their side, the men have their pride to defend. Balance is hard fought and won and suddenly the women are pulled across the line onto the men’s half.

The exchanges continue, with women and men alternating victories. Then suddenly everything stops when the referee grabs a sheet of paper and disappears into the house. I recheck my shadowy hiding place to make sure that it’s not me they’ve missed. Watching from above is one thing, being pulled down in my pyjamas to practice yanking a rope in the middle of a night is quite another.

Suddenly, to everybody’s amusement, a foreign couple wander through the mess. At first they appear slightly taken aback at the crowds standing about on a particular neighborhood street after dark, and then bemused by the sight of a rope lying on the ground. Nobody is making desperate moves in any particular direction, so I assume the foreigners don’t believe it to be a lynching. Soon the foreigners, tourists obviously, are noticed by a few in the crowd. A flurry of hand gestures and some monosyllables are exchanged, and as a few children rush through the crowd and attempt their own mini-tug of war with a rope twice as heavy as they are, the tourists figure out what’s going on. Why there is a neighborhood tug-of-war competition in the middle of the night is certainly still a mystery them.

Inspired by an audience and the return of the man with a sheet of paper, people leap back into action to demonstrate their tugging prowess. After some disorganized stretching and warming-up, three more battles take place in quick succession, again alternating victories between men and women. As the tourists watch, I am even more relieved that I am only observing from on high. It is better than trying to explain that, no, they aren’t just having a random game in the middle of the night, which would seem odd enough, but they are actually practicing for an upcoming competition this weekend. And they have been practicing every night this week. This is serious business.

Finally, the tourists tire of the strange occupation of the Vietnamese locals, and I begin to shiver in the evening chill. My hair is almost dry now, and my shoulders are still bare. I give one last glance to the jacketed and scarfed and now sweating population below, and retire to my warm bed and book. My participation in rope-pulling events will simply have to come the day-of…although I’m already considering just which shoes will provide the best grip and whether wearing gloves is allowed...

_____________________________________________________________________ Sunday Tug-of-war update: yesterday afternoon we had the competition - after 3 hours of communist party leaders giving speeches and patriotic song and dance (some of it absolutely awful, some of it impressively good). That was a learning experience in and of itself.

Then came the tug of war - and our team took it seriously. Matching team jerseys, red headbands, the whole bit. They even made me go change shoes (I was going to anyway, I just was unsure of the order of events). There were 6 competing teams in all, 3 men and 3 women's teams. We were the last women's team to compete, and we literally walked away with the prize. Hardly had to pull at all - completely walloped the other women's teams. Guess it pays to train against the men in your neighborhood.

I think the top men's team was the one from our neighborhood (all wearing matching red jerseys, and the women from our team went nuts yelling for them).

I had been hoping for a pull-off between the best men's and women's teams, but the whole thing deteriorated pretty quickly, and ended with us all tromping off to eat rice. Well, it was fun anyway - still think practicing every night was overkill though.