15 April 2008

Agent The Steve (Vietnam Part Two)

I have breakfast at the same cafe every morning in Rishikesh: it has one of the best locations I've ever seen, overlooking the river and the bridge with its fascinating and endless stream of foot traffic. Also every day, I seem to get engrossed there in conversation with the citizens of the world for hours over coffee. Today, I didn't get out until almost 1 pm. So now you know one reason for my lackadaisical attitude toward posting lately. Another is the recurrent power cuts, which always seem to happen exactly as I'm finished writing a long post or email, even as I am maneuvering the mouse cursor toward the "save" button. Flash! It's gone! This is discouraging, and it makes me believe that Shiva doesn't want me publishing my news from the banks of his sacred river. Sorry, Shiva, but the public has a right to know... the second part of my adventures in Vietnam two years ago.

Here we go again. I'm saving after every sentence this time.

So. I returned from rice paddying in Sapa to join my volunteer assignment on the outskirts of Hanoi. You can Google "Vietnam Friendship Village" to learn more about the location: it's less a village than a small rehab and recreation facility for the victims of Agent Orange spraying by the US during the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam, without irony, as the American War). Arguments about its harmlessness notwithstanding (one general famously drank like a gallon of it or something), the children of the folks exposed to it are often born with physical and mental disabilities ranging from terrible to horrible. Some of them are so completely awful, I can't even bear to describe them. But the attitude and sheer joy of being alive of the less-challenged among them--those that can at least run around and play--is definitely better than mine. Every day, when we would arrive, they would barrel out of the compound and jump all over us. Literally: I frequently ended up pinned to the ground by their enthusiasm.

The work group was a mix of itinerant internationals and local Vietnamese students trying to pad their C.V.s. I got on quite well with the Vietnamese, who all spoke English pretty well. The foreigners I had less interest in, probably because the Vietnamese were more appreciative of my lame attempts to be entertaining. Usually, I do this by learning a few phrases in the local language and then turning them into pop songs, which I sing incessantly during working hours to pass the time. I've performed in Hebrew, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Japanese--to much acclaim. At least, to my own acclaim. The foreigners were also more reserved than the pushy, fun-loving, Starcraft-having-mastered Vietnamese, and I think I was the only one to connect with them. So although we slept on the floor in dark, windowless rooms, had one bathroom for over a dozen people, and ate the same meal of rice, "morning glory" (green spinachy stuff), and fried things every day for every meal, I had a great time living at the "Peace House" with my new workmates. I even regretted that we had ever gone to war against them.

The work itself consisted of carrying bricks around and weeding the garden. The village was constructing a new path through said garden for the enjoyment of the people there and was using us as the hard labor. Really, they probably could have hired a couple of local guys for next to nothing to build the thing in two days, so I gather our presence there for two weeks was more of an international cooperation exercise than anything else. I began to suspect this when I found out we had a three hour lunch break every day, which we took after about two hours of "work". I think they were afraid it was too hot and humid for the foreigners to handle much more than that. I was not arguing. One other American--also from New Jersey, as it turned out--did, however, have a problem with this. In typical American fashion, she complained constantly about our lack of effective leadership, organization, and productivity. I tried to appease her with song, but to no avail.

Back in Hanoi, I also had the opportunity to gorge on the local cuisine, which has become my favorite. I often snuck away from the evening's morning glory with a few of the Vietnamese in tow (I forced them) to search for "gỏi cuốn" (fresh spring rolls), dragon fruit, noodle soup, and cheap beer. Sidenote: isn't written Vietnamese so funny-looking? It's like someone took the Roman alphabet and, deciding it was a trifle dull, added little embellishments to it to liven things up: swirls, whorls, dots, squiggles, curves, and flourishes. I mentioned before my love of Vietnamese coffee (cà phê sữa), and I was in luck at the Vietnam Friendship Village. Just outside the gates, across from a dog meat restaurant, was a cafe where I happily overloaded on the stuff every mid-morning when I was feeling particularly discomfited by the objurgations (Word of the Day!) of the New Jersey girl. One night at the Peace House, the foreigners were called upon to prepare dishes from their own countries. Not wanting to horrify the locals with the sight of "American" food, I instead blended up an enormous batch of Spanish gazpacho with a blender I purchased myself for the occasion. Sadly, Vietnamese people don't like the taste of raw tomatoes--except for Trang; she was all over it. I should mention that almost all Vietnamese girls are named Trang; we had three or four, and I don't specifically remember which Trang it was. I'll have to ask my other workmate and friend, Trang. Even more sadly, the following day we returned from a hot day of work looking forward to some nice, cold soup only to discover that the house girl had dumped the rest out. I never forgave her for that, and I never will.

There are so many more interesting and delicious things I could relate to you about my time in Hanoi, like the time I saw John McCain's flight suit at the "Hanoi Hilton" and the other time I ate so much for dinner I didn't feel like green bean ice cream for dessert. But I think retrospective posts ought to be shorter than this, so I will stop here and continue the adventures, in greater brevity, in a new post.

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