Since I lasted posted a lot has happened. Ben has arrived, started and stoically finished the god-awful CELTA. I have been awarded the medal of valor by the Vietnamese govt. for saving two dogs from a burning building, thus enabling a poor family to eat for a week. Ben and I moved into a new place after spending three weeks living in close quarters at Madame Lan's homestay. Our new place is a former cafe complete with a host stand, a "Pixel Cafe" sign, a large court-yard, and so far one confused former customer who knocked on the gate until I walked out in my boxers and scared him away with my slug-like whiteness. It was a good find and it even has surround sound! When I first figured out how to make the system work I danced around the front room making a spectacle of myself for the lady who runs a tienda across the street. It has a good atmosphere despite the concrete wall crowned by a seven foot chain link and barb-wire fence. Ben calls it the Minimum Security Cafe.
Life in Hanoi continues to be weird. If you have ever watched a Monty-Python movie where people are doing odd, random things on the periphery, then you have an idea of what Hanoi is like. For instance, Ben and I were wandering around the city and stumbled upon an ad-hoc electronics swap meet. Electronics as in pieces of ancient ghetto blasters, parts of French-era fans, and coverless VCRs, all of which were secured precariously to 10-year old motor-bikes. Or, the man I call Sarge who travels around the city in a complete American Military get-up featuring camo, a pistol belt, and a Vietnam-era American helmet covered in netting. His camo jacket even has a US Army tag over the left breast. Oh yeah, he's Vietnamese and doesn't speak a word of English and looks completely mystified when I give him a hearty "Howdy Sarge!" What is particulary funny is that many of the poorer old men wear plastic versions of the NVA helmet so it looks like Sarge is always being hotly pursued by hostile shoe-shine forces.
On Thursday Sarah and I went variating (Euphemism for Trespassing), but property lines are not very distinct here, so you can walk about anywhere as long as you don't step on the crops. We walked out on the Long Bien Bridge circa 1900 and designed by Eiffel himself. In the middle of the bridge, which is open only to foot, moto, and train traffic, We walked down a staircase onto an island. The island is huge, stretching for maybe four miles and it is within the Hanoi city limits. But, unlike the rest of Hanoi which doesn't waste a square inch of space, the island is completely agrarian. It is just dirt and is within flood levels so there are no permanent structures other than the bridge. It is quiet picturesque and also a relief to walk in a large open area. The farmers work their plots in patty-hats and traffic is even reduced to a low, far away clamor.
All very nice, until you walk to the water's edge under the bridge and find yourself in a hypodermic needle mine field. No worries, I didn't step on any, nor did I have to fight off any junkies. But it was a shock in Hanoi, where I have been hard pressed to find any underbelly of hard-core crime. We carefully tip-toed away and walked across the island.
On the other-side we found two men replacing a bulb on a warning sign for ships even though the trees in front of the sign blocked it from view on the river. Beating the bushes to drive off snakes we walked down to the river bottom which has been exposed by the dry season.
Houseboats, trash, a stranded dingy, and home alters. Similar to the crumbs for Catholic communion being washed down into the soil beneath the church at home, the Vietnamese apparently throw their old or unwanted ancestor worship alters off of the bridges into the river. The effect is a sand bank studded with the little, half-cabinet like things. There were also perfectly good and attractive porcelain jars everywhere. It is unusual that nobody has picked up the jars up, but I wonder if they are not containers for human ashes and therefore a complete non-no for trash pickers.
Our day ended with us crossing a rickety bamboo bridge over a babbling brook of sticking sewage, walking back up to the dike road through a very poor neighborhood, and passing a pool hall directly under a bridge (the bridge is the ceiling). Ben and I went back through the area yesterday and this time we did manage to find a specimen of the Hanoi Junkie who was babbling, giggling, and stomping around. He didn't seem to notice us.
None the less, I never felt like I was in danger. I wouldn't dream of going to places like that in LA or Denver, but in Hanoi, well even the shady underside of the city is no more dangerous than my neighborhood back home. (I promise Mom.)