So. It's coming up on Tet.
The lunar New Year celebration is a big one in Vietnam: so big that everything pretty much shuts down, and many shops and services not just for one or two days but--depending on where you go and who you ask--anywhere between one to two weeks. Right now, I'm busy stocking up on groceries for the days I'll be stuck at home, unable to indulge in my two latest hobbies: eating street food and trying to get across the road.
Since I left you, dear reader, I have spent an inordinate amount of time in airline ticket agencies trying to reverse some faulty last-minute hotel reservations online, learning how I might spell my name out more clearly to Vietnamese sales agents over the phone ("P as in Portugal, A as in Australia, I as in Italy, S as in Spain, L as in Laos, E as in England, Y as in Yemen!") and hanging out at the local health clinic, muttering in bad French as the doctor digs wax out of my pollution-induced-sickness-led-to-horribly-now-clogged ears.
Anyway, let's start with the good news:
And though Sean is here only a few weeks, he has already made life significantly better. For instance, because Sean is English and either lacks the gene for fear or for conscious thought, he can lead me fearlessly through traffic.
And because Sean spent a significant period of his life as a rock climber, he also knows a lot of interesting folks in the world, one of whom--Linh Nguyen, a fellow ex-climber--lives in Hanoi.
Linh happens to like to eat.
Which is good, because when I get stressed out from travel (or depressed or tired or bored or happy or upset or, you know, basically awake) I like to eat, too.
(No, those are not gummy worms, and, yes, this dessert tastes way better than it looks.)
The only thing we haven't gotten a chance to eat yet are the famous sandwiches about which I've been dreaming: sandwiches Linh insists can't be found in any form worth eating until we head south, towards Hoi An. Actually, most of the food we've been eating, Linh says, is far superior in the south, something I'm going to have the chance to discover in the coming weeks. But here in Hanoi, there are still delights to be had. Linh has taken us into lovely local cafés tucked far away between buildings with amazing views of the city, or wonderful little street restaurants, or--in one case--a local writer/artist's studio. Linh has essentially made Sean and me his pet project for the past few days, while also teaching us some Vietnamese and explaining some of the mysteries that are Vietnam.
For instance, those loudspeakers blaring out what sound like political rants-cum-motivational speeches followed--occasionally--by the melifluous strains of what I like to call "The Vietnamese Enya"? They are, yes, political propaganda but they function also as "neighborhood bulletins" in which information like changed garbage collection times and new parking laws are explained. They are also, interestingly, useful opportunities for a little friendly neighborhood shaming, as people are occasionally singled out for neighborhood violations. Something like: "Mrs. Nguyen in Block A: You need to start cleaning up after your chickens because they're crapping all over the street and they are DRIVING THE REST OF US CRAZY. YOU GOT THAT, MRS. NGUYEN IN THE RED DRESS WHO LIVES IN BLOCK A, APARTMENT 212C?"
And those people dumping bags of goldfish into the local lakes? It is not, as I previously thought, some form of futile catch-and-release program involving the local pet shops, but evidently a Tet-specific ritual meant to honor the kitchen gods.
And the horrible traffic? Even it can't stop a whole troupe from the local martial arts club preparing to head to the local park for their Tet dragon dance rehearsals. That's right: twelve men carrying an enormous dragon on a stick can STILL evidently dance and weave their way without pause or terror across five lanes of rush-hour traffic.
And those flakes of ash drifting down the block? It's time to burn paper money and other emblems of good fortune as part of a welcoming ceremony for one's ancestors.
Basically, Linh has been saving my ass here. And showing me some of the things that, I am slowly beginning to recall, are the reasons I initially moved here.
In the meantime, I'm getting ready to depart the horrors of Hanoi at rush hour ("Hannoying" being Sean's new catch word) to travel with Sean for a kind of late-date honeymoon to Sapa, then on to Hoi An and Phu Quoc. To hang on the beach, drink, eat a little. Let my ears recover, maybe.
But a big "thank you" to Linh for his help in the meantime. And for the food recommendations. I promise: I'll hold off on the sandwiches until Hoi An.
After that, however, all bets are off.