Sunday, January 27, 2008

Home Sweet Second Home

I suppose it is appropriate that as I finished Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, a pre-revolution soap opera about life in Russia's aristocratic society, I now find myself living one step closer to the lifestyle one might associate with that elevated class - I am officially part-time resident of both a city house and a country house.

My country house has been described in detail in earlier blog postings. While it lacks the expansive grounds (or even a yard or garden) that might raise it to the level of "estate," certainly is rich enough to warrant a certain level of descriptive grandeur.

My city house is no less grand in structure. It is comprised of four stories, five bedrooms, three bathrooms, a large kitchen and living area, and a rooftop terrace. But here it is the location that is worth every word: it is located just off of one of the numerous (but slightly more picturesque) of Hanoi's little lakes, and down winding tunnel of alley-ways which assures something more valuable than property itself in this city - absolute silence at night. Then, by following the lake and a few more winding alleys and hopping over a couple of traffic clogged streets, I can walk myself to work in under 20 minutes rather than risking life and limb twice daily in harrowing motorbike rides through the city's increasingly horrendous rush hours. Across a street in another direction is Hanoi's largest downtown park, complete with lake, walking paths and lots and lots of trees. Beyond this park lies the heart of the city: twenty minutes by foot in the direction opposite my office lands me in Hanoi's tourist district and central cultural, dining and shopping experience.

Unlike a member of the true aristocracy, I hardly have right to claim full ownership of the house. Indeed, far less than I can claim in my country home. In Hanoi I share this massive edifice to doi moi, Renovation and private ownership with two other development workers who have been in this house and Vietnam far longer than me. And we three then pay homage to the full exerciser of the right to make gains on your own land - the landlord who built this house and all of the others, forming the narrow alley in what twenty years ago was vegetable plot surrounding a small lake next to the train tracks. My stake in this existence is exceedingly small and fleeting, but the story of the community I reside in here will be the true lasting tale. In my following visits here I will bring a camera and attempt to capture what is the real miracle of this house deep in the labyrinth of modern Hanoi, as it paints an amazing picture of the changes that Hanoi has experienced.

On a personal level, however, it is nice to have a home in a place that is so convenient for my purposes. My country home will still be my pride and joy, but now I have a safe place to hang my hat and keys to the front gate - and anchoring that will help the great city of Hanoi feel more like a home and less like a destination in the future.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Playing Vietnamese Dress-up

I arrived at work Monday morning fully aware that I had an appointment to meet with the journalist and film crew from the local news network that afternoon. As usual, I wasn't really sure what they wanted to talk about, but my staff sure seemed incredibly excited about it. So excited, in fact, that, with bright, shiny eyes, one of my dear counselors, bouncing in her seat at morning meeting, suggested that I should wear the traditional "ao dai" (pronounced "ow zay") to the interview.

As silly a suggestion this seemed, it was quickly taken up by all the other staff sitting at the table, and soon I had a crowd of young women looking far too enthusiastic than is healthy for 8 am on a foggy, dank Monday morning. Uh-oh, I thought, there's no winning this one. But of course, I had to try.

"I don't have an ao dai anymore," I protested, "I took it back to America on my last visit." (I hadn't like how that one fit anyway).

"No problem, we'll rent one," came the answer.

"But I'm about 10 times bigger than the average Vietnamese woman - there's no way they'll have a stock ao dai in my size."

"Yes they will - we'll find one."

"It's too cold."

"We'll turn up the heat."

"Nobody else is going to wear one. It will look funny if it's just me sitting in the office wearing a fancy dress."

"Everybody will love it - and we'll do your make-up too! You'll look Vietnamese! "

Hah. It would take a lot more than a couple yards of neatly embroidered silk and satin and some white-out make-up to make me look like one of the petite, lithe, dark-eyed and black-haired exotic waifs that populate this lovely country. But, what the heck, it's only for local television, and they were so thrilled with the idea. If they want to play "Magic Make-Over" with me on a Monday afternoon, well, worse things have happened.

So, about 11 am one field coordinator rushed in and announced we were going to the rental shop. We must've been a sight - this dear girl is 23, about 4 feet 6 inches tall, about 80 pounds, and just as sweet and feisty a thing as they come. Here she is trying to drive me around town on her miniature scooter (made for petite girls like her) to find an ao dai that will fit this comparatively towering 5 foot 3 white girl. But she was right - they found a dress for me on my first try. It was a standard bridesmaid's dress that must have been made for a girl quite a bit rounder than me. The pants posed a momentary problem in that rounder also implies shorter - but ten minutes later they were ten centimeters longer and the problem was solved.

After lunch I returned to the office with my make-up, high-heels and hairbrush in a bag. Without hesitation the girls set upon me and soon my desk was indistinguishable from a Mary Kay house party. Boxes and bags disgorged make-up of every color, brushes of every size, creams of every consistency. I was strapped to my chair and the torture began. The hardest part of the whole process was keeping a straight face for them to apply the various products while watching them consider every move as carefully as a sculptor or surgeon. Too bad their outcome wasn't an actually masterpiece (I tried teaching them the proverb about silk purses out of sows' ears).

Fortunately after the first layer was applied they decided I should change first - fortunately, I say, because even with a whole team of caregivers and plenty of time devoted to preparation, I still wasn't ready when the TV crew arrived (okay, they also arrived about 45 minutes early). Sadly the early arrival didn't impede the liberal use of an eyelash curler (eeeek!).

And so I had just enough time to jam my feet into my heels and my translator to toss some hot water into the teapot before the much-lauded representatives of Cao Bang's finest correspondents entered my seat of power. My translator had the tact to tell me I looked just like a Vietnamese woman on her engagement day about two seconds before the two young men entered - great, now I finally figure out that they were trying to marry me off to Cao Bang Television. Needless to say the two gentlemen were taken aback to see me in full wedding dress. I'll give them credit that they seemed just as surprised by the show as I felt ostentatious, so at least they weren't knowingly in on any of this.

To add futility to vanity, the lead reporter haltingly explained that he and his cameraman were only there to get a bit more information about our projects and some B-roll for a short brief they were planning for the news that night - they didn't actually want to interview me after all. I doubt I had exactly stunned him with my beauty or anything, but he certainly was distracted because he proceeded to repeat this fact ad nauseum while occasionally interjecting how much they hoped they might be able to work with us more in the future and perhaps to do a much bigger story soon. He even went so far to throw out that they could send the story to the national news if they could find something enticing enough (a mixed-blood wedding ceremony, perhaps?).

I've never found cold interviews with Cao Bang Television to be all that effective before, so I was more than happy to set about giving them more basic information and background on our projects. And background information certainly was needed and called for - despite the fact that we have done several extended interviews and even one large publicity project with Cao Bang TV in the past, this young gentleman was sorely uninformed about our programs.

In the end, I have no idea whether a story was even completed and aired this week...and I have no idea if any of the B-roll of me sitting behind my desk in my full wedding get-up talking to my translator and other staff would have made the cut anyway. The reporters hung around for about an hour and got to scope out an office full of girls of varying degrees of eligibility - which, to them, was probably more of a story than our actual work. I discovered that I can indeed semi-successfully rent an ao dai on short notice in something near my size in this town, but have also been convinced of the importance of having another good one tailor-made to fit me. And my staff have finally satisfied themselves that I won't magically turn into a Vietnamese woman simply by applying a lot of really white make-up to my face in the style of traditional beauty.

Still, we took the requisite pictures to memorialize the occasion. As it was nasty day outside we were left with the rather uncomplimentary interior of our office, complete with bad fluorescent strip lighting, as a backdrop. Between that an the half-worn-off vampire make-up and the blasé hairstyle, I'm not completely proud of the outcome, but, for the record, here is how I looked:

After the fun was all over, I returned to my office and reapplied my own make-up to show them how I usually do my face. I had realized that most of the staff had never seen me in make-up, as that's not something I usually do in Cao Bang. So I went all out, complete with eyeliner, and they all agreed that in the future I can be left to do my own face. Other aspects of Vietnamese attire I will leave to the real Vietnamese.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

My castle, my sanctuary

WELCOME! Please, do come in. Yes, leave your shoes by the's the custom.

And here it is - the much-anticipated inside tour of that great green giant that I now call home. I am feeling settled in to a very comfortable degree, and I feel ready to welcome guests into my home. So we will start at the front door and into my kitchen. If you look closely, you'll notice that no, I don't have an oven and range seems like you just can't find that in Vietnam for less than $1,200. So for the time being I'm simply using a single burner gas stove and small electric oven - hardly ideal (or in sync with the almost grandiose attitude of the rest of the place- you'll notice all the large furniture such as the dining room table came with the place).

Shall we go up? And up...and up...and up...
And up to the second floor. This is my entertaining area with a "lounge" in the English sense, and a music room...where for now only my horn gets to hang out rather forlornly...maybe someday it will have friends. The curtains came with the place, as did the pleather sofa and lounge furniture. And the photo of the bride...I'm still looking for a large picture/weaving/traditional art appropriate to cover that up with.

And we climb upwards, with a spiraling glance back at the second floor...
And upwards again we climb - to the third floor... my bedroom...complete with a realization of a childhood dream - French doors opening onto a (albiet tiny) balcony. If you have read my past posts, you will remember that I went all out and bought an innerspring mattress for this home...though if you look closely you will also notice that I have yet to find sheets to fit. There is a second room on this floor in image of the music room on floor be a guest room have need of using it and thus motivation to finish it!

And upwards again...

Into the Family Shrine Room. Basically for me it's a dusty wanna-be attic that is going unused and uncared for by me. Fortunately the ancestors have been officially removed to another temporary shrine, so the dust isn't actually a desecration.

And the laundry room: it's worth it just for the view (although the washing machine and drying space are pretty sweet).

And there you have it - the quick overview of my current home. It really is ridiculously big - even for a full Vietnamese family. Most of the family homes I've visited aren't nearly this well tricked out. But it is exceedingly difficult to find a place that has things like a kitchen that haven't been rented out to other foreigners that and thus cost twice as much. So, value-wise, this is an extremely appropriate find.

So, I appreciate it, even though I doubt I will ever live in anything as elegant in my life again, and certainly not alone. It's not perfect - if it had been designed by me there are several critical things I would've done differently. The bathrooms are tiny, there are odd angles in the rooms that make it difficult to arrange furniture. I would have installed ceiling fans and better lighting rather than wall fans and obnoxious fluorescent strip lights. I would have preferred to have better sunlight, but this is still a vast improvement over where I lived previously. It would also still be nice to have a place to hang my hammock...

But beggars can't be choosers, and I am but a beggar living in the house of a king - and loving every second of it!

My doors are open - please drop on by and judge for yourself!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Yes Erica, Vietnam is Still a Developing Country.

Maybe I’ve spent too much of my recent life in a Black Hole, but there are days (and weeks even) in Vietnam that I can begin to forget just how far this country has come in such a short period of time. And how much further it still needs to go. It’s easy to take for granted a certain amount of progress that has been made – and begin to assume that it is an indicator of how much more progress must have already been made. Often, what you’re busy taking for granted is actually an indicator of the cutting edge here. I’m not talking about bathrooms and paved roads – that would’ve been Madagascar. Things are slightly more evolved here, if only slightly.

Let’s take my most recent experience with technology: establishing a wireless network in the privacy of my own new home in Cao Bang Town, Cao Bang Province, Rural, Mountainous Northern Vietnam.

When I arrived in Vietnam over a year ago I discovered one of the major perks of my new job was not only having relatively fast and reliable internet access in my office, but having a wireless internet network in my office. And since I was living in that office, having that same wireless internet access in my home was an even bigger perk. Since that had all be established before my arrival on the scene, I took its existence for granted…up until our router decided to die an untimely and (fortunately under-warranty) early death. Then for several days we had a variety of Vietnamese-nerd males bouncing in and out of the office getting things back online. I suggested my potential interest in the goings-on, but was summarily dismissed from any consultation and with the language barrier I found I couldn’t force the issue. The network has since functioned reasonably well, despite some concerns that the geek squad from the post office ISP have continued to refuse to address.

Still, when the time came almost a year later for me to venture into the world of private internet access in the home, I wasn’t completely optimistic. But the process was not only surprisingly quick, it was also almost unbelievably cheap and painless – so much so that I figured I could justify the cost of picking up a used router in Hanoi and bring it up north.

I set about setting it up myself, with help from a friend. Things clipped along quite smoothly until I ran smack into the first wall – the Wi-Fi router insisted that it needed to know my username and password for my ISP.

Errr, ummm, I didn’t have one? I remembered clearly that I had asked the guys during the 15 minute hook-up if I would need one of those, but the jaunty reply was, “Nope!” He made it sound as if the idea was really rather passé. Well, now I need one.

And so, the saga begins. First I recruited my poor translator to call the ISP and ask them for some basic information: username and password. When I said “wall” – I meant sheer granite cliff. No going under, around or through. Only way left is to climb it. And so we did, for days. Apparently usernames and passwords aren’t information that is easily shared with the client. They gave me a website that I could conveniently enter that information into to receive my account information, but without that basic information to begin with, I wasn’t quite sure what they were expecting me to do at the website. Several more phone calls later, and my so-patient translator announced they were finally going to come to my house to set it up themselves.

Fine – I can agree to this – as long as I can watch and learn what is going on.

And here’s assumption number two: the geeks that will arrive at your house will know how to set up a wireless internet system.

Christmas Eve. I have had random assortments of not-so-geeky looking men wander in and out of my house all day to stare at my computer. I mean not-so-geeky in the sense that I don’t think any of them actually know how to use a computer beyond the basic “click this until it does that” training that they must’ve received at some point. They fumble with the cords and connections a bit and I give each new batch about 15 minutes go just in case one of the new guys really does know something. Then I have to come back in, put everything back in order and guide them to the set-up page and show them the information I need (username and password). The last guys who came looked at it for about an hour, then plugged the cable into my computer, bypassing the wi-fi router completely and stood back and shouted "voilà - internet!" Yeah, duh, I know, if you plug in the computer directly then it works. But that's not the point of the wi-fi.So, I mean stare in the sense that that’s really the most productive thing any of them did in their random traversing of my living room.

And this is where I stop and reconsider: yes Erica, this is still a developing country. When I stop to really think about it, I’m pretty sure that my house, once a wi-fi network is successfully established, will represent the second wireless hotspot in all of Cao Bang Town – the first being in our offices. And of course, the internet service provider that cares for our office network is not the same as the one providing my home internet service. They probably had to call some poor geek all the way up from Hanoi to set up our office network, and now I’m really stressing the capacity of the this ISP office.

Still, all I need is my username and password!!!

Finally, one of the groups to come over makes a phone call and almost magically I see letters and numbers coming out of the end of his pen that very much resemble the type of information I need – a username and password, even if it still looks a bit funny. Halleluiah. So, we type the information in and sit back and wait…and wait…and wait. Nothing happens. So they disconnect the cords, move some cables around and suddenly voilà! I have internet again! All because I’m plugged directly back into the modem. Sigh.

And, so, with that, I thank them and send them on their merry way, certain that they have done their last good deed for 2007.

And I am left to figure out what’s going on. Fortunately after a bit more fumbling and discovering that that original site for checking my account won’t work on my home account, but will on my work network, I confirm what my username and password are actually supposed to be. Then I return to the puzzle, and after a lot of Googling and checking around and almost 3 weeks after this all started, I discover that my ADSL modem is not set to “bridging” – which possibly some geeky-type-person might argue isn’t actually necessary, but hey, I changed it and VOILÀ, miracle of miracles, my wi-fi router now officially works. Look ma – no cables! I can now update my blog from my bed if I like.

And so, the moral of the story remains: when in a developing country, always remember you are in a developing country. This may well mean that you could well be the highest authority on any given topic on any given day, if only because you happen to speak fluent English (or another major language) and have internet search skills. Capacity, my friends, does not always come in the form of actual expertise.