Monday, August 28, 2006

Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Red River Blues

I went out with L. for the second time recently. The first time we went for bia hoi and billiards. This time he met me at my new place before we set out for dinner. L. is the student from Hai Phong Jon and I met three years ago while watching the Hanoi circus perform outside at a stage on Hoan Kiem Lake, and we kept in touch ever since.

L. is poor and has no moto, so he asked if it was okay for us to do things on foot. I thought maybe we could first have a beer at my place, but he did not seem very comfortable there. He entered tentatively, and was surprised that I would not be sharing with roommates. He also asked about my rent. I've since been told by expats that it is usually best not to answer the rent question. It's a question that pops up and a truthful answer just creates an awkward situation (despite the fact that rent is cheap by our standards). The prudent answer is: "I don't know. The company/university/employer pays for it."

There are some okay hole-in-the-wall joints in my neighbourhood but if you are making a night of it, it's best to head north towards the centre for a more dynamic dining experience. L. suggested bun bo near the Hang Da Market. Hang Da bun bo kicks ass, but it ain't close. It was about a 40 minute brisk walk. I worked up a big appetite in the process. Now it's hard to walk more than about 30 seconds in this city without the pith helmeted xe om drivers draped over their bikes (sometimes lying horizontally across them) calling out to you. We considered taking a moto taxi to cut the journey short, but L. didn't think it was necessary. I assumed he was more comfortable being able to pay his own share of the evening. So we walked to the noodle house.

After dinner we sat around a cafe on Bao Khanh drinking sua chua ca phe (a yoghurt, coffee and crushed ice drink). It was all quite pleasant until his phone rang and his whole demeanor changed during the ensuing conversation. I asked him if everything was alright and he said yes, and we continued our conversation for a few minutes until he could bear it no longer. It turns out his younger brother T.'s girlfriend had just called to let him know that there was trouble. T. is a bit of a bad apple it seems and has developed a gambling problem already by the young age of 21. Every year or so T. gets in way over his head and loses a fortune. My friend L. usually tries to protect his mother from the shame and burden of it all by finding a way to dig his brother out of his debt. This night's newly acquired debt was 30 million dong (approx. CN$2200). This in a country with an average monthly income of approximately CN$60. With this amount L. could buy two motos. L. was too disturbed to go on. He excused himself to go find his brother whose location was unknown. I don't even want to think to what kind of shady characters were looking for him. I hoped on a xe om and headed home.

Over the next few days I told this story to a few friends. The response was always cynical. Vietnamese and expat friends worried that this was all a set-up, a fabricated story and that I should expect to get a call in the next couple days asking for money to help bail out the brother.

It's not like there isn't reason to be cautious about scams around here, and I appreciate the advice I have been getting from friends. But how do you strike the right balance and avoid the pitfalls of naivety and paranoia? It's true that the set-up in this situation seems classic, but what about the fact that I have known L. for three years (albeit mostly through email)? There is also something to intuition. L. is incredibly warm and generous with me, and has always been concerned that I am experience only the best of Viet Nam. He frequently calls me "brother".

The problem with caution is that sometimes the cost of such protection is greater than the risks. I might be willing to lend L. $100 or $200 (but not $2000) if he asked and if I really thought it could make a difference. Call me naive. I might never see it again, and there is a risk that I'd be taken advantage of. On the other hand, what is the cost of shutting down on people and closing your heart to the possibility of real need? That is probably a cost paid by many an expat. I think I would rather lose a couple hundred dollars. It's only money, not integrity.

Five or six days went by without hearing from him. Finally I text messaged him to see how he was doing. He texted me back from Hai Phong where he had gone to be with his family and try to pick up some pieces. He thanked me for thinking of him and wrote to me saying, "You always help me in hard times. Your support means a lot to me."

Village Life

Even though I have another five months left, I feel like my weekends here are numbered and so I have to make my best of them. I have a list of day trips I want to do. Perfume Pagoda was one. I was thinking of doing Tam Coc and Hoa Lu yesterday with a little travellers' cafe. In the meantime my new friend Hung invited me for a tour of the Red River countryside on the back of his black Vespa. I couldn't resist.

He picked me up yesterday morning at 8:30 for a bun rieu breakfast in the Old Quarter. Breakfast here are generally savoury so it's not unusual to eat something like crab noodle soup in the morning. That wasn't enough so we also ordered some kind of herbal omelette and a sweet bean thing in syrup to follow up. (Gradually I'm becoming more street vendor literate. They usually only sell one or two things which they advertise with Vietnamese only signs. If I don't know the dish I'm too timid to dive in and order. I usually like to know what I'm eating and how to eat it. But after six weeks now I'm building up a repertoire of street foods names.)

Back to the Vespa. We crossed the muddy Red River - it looks as wide as the Mississippi. Looking north we could see the famous Long Bien bridge built by Eiffel (of Tower fame) in the 1890s. There are only chopped up segments of the original left because of heavy bombing during the war; the bombed bits have been filled in. Apparently the Americans would bomb it in the morning and the Vietnamese would be rebuild it by the evening. Apocryphal? I dunno.

It was heavy traffic on a Saturday morning because all the migrant countryfolk were returning to their villages for the weekend (whatever they get of it). It's a fascinating mix of traffic: trucks, cars, motos, bikes, homemade tractors, horse pulled carts, and water buffalo. There was also a big green moving bale of hay. It was weaving in and out of traffic. The hay was so big you could hardly see the wheels of the motobike or the driver. It looked like some Jim Henson creation bobbing around the highway.

Our first destination was Chua Dau (Dau Pagoda). This is a very significant pagoda complex tucked away in a humble village. It is not as spectacular as some of the complexes around but happens to be the first Buddhist site in Viet Nam and dates from the 2nd Century. Little remains of the original buildings because it it is built of wood, but it has an ancient feel nonetheless. It is currently under renovation. Before entering Hung and I were invited for herbal tea with some of the pagoda caretakers who were sitting in one of the collonaded areas. They don't see many foreign tourists, mostly just Vietnamese, and so were fascinated by the guest from Ga Na Da.

Our second stop was Chua But Thap. This pagoda is merely 800 years old, but most of what you see is 17th or 18th Century. Although not as important as Chua Dau it is much more spectacular: beautiful rooflines, courtyards, relief carvings, and statuary. In the middle is a building with a huge Reincarnation Wheel (more like a pillar) which pilgrims gather around once a year to rotate.

Before visiting a temple complex dedicated to the kings of the Ly Empire, we stopped off at a village known for its wood block prints depicting Red River village life (boy with flute on water buffalo, domestic scenes and fanciful animals scenes like the mice wedding procession, and a classroom of toads). At the Museum of Ethnology last month I had read about a famous master artisan who is largely responsible for keeping the tradition alive. I asked Hung if the man is still alive. He nodded and pointed to the old man from who I was buying five prints (40 cents each). I was in the master's living room.

On another note, today I finally had bun cha. This is one of the classic dishes of Hanoi (up there with cha ca, bun rieu, bun thang, and of course pho bo). Bun cha is only eaten at lunch and you can usually tell who has had it because they reek of garlic. The place I ate was thankfully light on the garlic. This is a hard dish to describe. You eat it out of two bowls. One has diluted fish sauce, the other has a broth with little minced pork patties. It is served with a big plate of vermicelli and a massive heap of herbs. It's a mix and match meal, nothing like the premixed Southern style bun dishes we get in Saigon-style restaurants in North America. Each mouthful is a different combination of all the elements. I've got to start taking aerial photographs of my meals before I eat them, but I would look (even more) like a ridiculous tay ba lo if I did.

Zero to Sixty at the Library

Some of you may be wondering how on earth my sabbatical work here in the library is going. I haven't written a whole lot about that except for a few things about my commute and my experience singing for librarians. For those of you who aren't wondering about the state of libraries in Viet Nam and care primarily about descriptions of food, pagodas and Karst landscapes, you may want to skip this posting. I promise I will get back to those things. (For instance, my recent lunch of large snails from West Lake stewed in lemongrass, lime leaves and chile-tamarind sauce deserves attention.)

Well, I really wasn't sure what to expect of my work here. My initial emails with a librarian here were very promising. There seemed to be so many areas of overlap between my expertise and the vision of the librarian with whom I'd been in contact, especially in the areas of information literacy and the development of reference services. Just before I came I was informed that this librarian had left for the World Bank. Even before I arrived I sensed a vacuum left by her departure. (As an aside, why does the World Bank skim off the most talented, the most visionary and create a brain drain from the very infrastructure they are trying to develop?) In any case, the projects we agreed several months ago I'd be working on include: the introduction of reference services, the development of information literacy instruction, and my participation in a programme to teach English to librarians from across Viet Nam (this last project is now complete).

I was warned by several people that things move very slowly here, and not to expect huge changes. I was told to take whatever goals I have and only expect to accomplish half of them. It helps to be laid back and able to roll with the punches. At the same time I was also told that other changes can come suddenly and things can be implemented overnight before you can stop them. Changes come in these two flavours: glacial and decisive. My first few weeks gave me a feel for the glacial. Now things are moving full steam ahead.

The English for Librarians training is now over and I have turned my attention to the development of library services. This is proving to be fascinating and frustrating at the same time. The Library Director has been pushing for me to run a workshop on reference services. In theory this is a great idea, but I have come to question the purpose of this. There seems to be an assumption that all that is needed is a staff training, a desk and a schedule. On paper this will indeed look like a reference service, and the management is all for anything that looks like a Western-style library. The problem is that reference services cannot be introduced in a vacuum. Public services only work in a service culture. There must be some kind of shared understanding between users and staff about what constitutes a service. It's a bit of a chicken and egg problem: you can't expect reference questions to appear without an expectation of service from the user. And it's difficult to justify a new reference point without a prior demand. One solution is to get library skills embedded somewhere in the curriculum so that the demand is created.

My Australian colleague Stephen and I are of like minds and we regularly escape to the campus guesthouse for iced black coffees (den da has become my drug). We do our best thinking there, but often we get all worked up and then return to the office and feel a kind of inertia set in. It is very difficult to initiate anything without an ability to communicate with the Director (no English) and without clear reporting structures. At times our suggestions are greeted with the dreaded smile, nod and "okay". What this means is: Yes, I acknowledge what are you saying and affirm your existence, but I reserve the right not to respond directly to your idea.

All this changed last Thursday. We got a call from an Australian woman who is deeply connected on campus and who was in discussion with the Dean of a new programme about partnering with librarians to teach information literacy modules for her students. The idea is not simply that we would provide a few classes, but that we would be fully integrated into the entire two year programme. For those of you not up on the current state of academic librarianship, curriculum integration is one of the holy grails of the profession. So you can imagine our surprise after weeks of brainstorming incremental changes with Stephen, we are presented with the end goal. Not only is the idea big, but it is to happen immediately. We caught wind of this last Thursday and already less that a week later, Stephen and I have taught over 300 students.

The problem is that this did not come from a library vision - and this is where it gets interesting. This idea came from an Australian-educated Dean who was deeply influenced by the role of Australian academic libraries in teaching information literacy. She wants to do the same thing here but the library administration doesn't quite seem to get the whole concept. This is one of those cases of leapfrog development. Ideas that took a long time to develop elsewhere in the world get implemented without any of the intermediate steps. The question is, how necessary are these intermediate steps, or can we go skip straight to the last page? So far the answer seems, no, we cannot just skip to the end. This project appears to be opening up many cans of worms.

To begin with Vietnamese education is still deeply Confucian when it comes down to it. One could describe the model crudely as a "banking theory" of education. The teacher invests knowledge in the students who learn by rote. The knowledge is later reproduced by the students in examination. Education is not about transformation, but about reproducing ideas and traditions. Libraries in Vietnam have not traditionally been about independent inquiry, but about storing and protecting ideas. Most libraries here have closed stacks and the role of librarians are generally as bookkeepers.

The library here is very progressive by these standards. We have open stacks which is still a radical idea in most of Viet Nam. But in the process of planning a library class, we discovered that in fact there is a regulation that requires students take a library orientation and pass a test before being allowed to have a library card. Unfortunately it appears the orientation sessions and tests are usually just offered at the beginning of term. God forbid that you actually identify a need to use the library half way through the term.

We've also discovered that innovative projects that create new work are sometimes frowned upon unless they are accompanied by some sort of "personal incentive". You can't get something for nothing. And collaborations with other units are a questionable idea because that might involve a loss of control or at least the optics of that. We get the feeling that our partnership with a dean is seen suspiciously because it looks like we are doing work for her and she has co-opting the library's agenda. It will be challenging to convince the library that this partnership actually benefits the library and is helping us achieve goals such as the creation of reference services.

So you can begin to see how this curriculum integration project is ruffling some feathers.

The other fascinating thing Stephen and I are discovering is that book ownership seems to be a highly charged matter. The library unfortunately has no acquisitions budget. Everything has been acquired by donation. (And you should see some of the crap that "generous" libraries think is appropriate for donation to the developing world. How about "Choose Your Own Adventure Books", Minitab software manuals from the late 80s, and copies of old state tax regulations? I also came across a Jane Fonda Workout book, but somehow it seemed appropriate to have Hanoi Jane's later career represented on the bookshelves.) Despite this sad situation, it appears that departments have traditionally had their own separate acquisitions budget for their own departmental resource centres. If only this money were pooled to become the library budget. On the other hand, the background here is that probably most professors can't afford too many of their own books and so the departmental collections function the way the faculty's private office collections do in West. After all, a nice new academic title can easily cost $100, and that is actually about a month's salary for instructors. (We recently learned that the workers installing metal screens in the library were making about as much as some of the university's top administrators. Everyone has some kind of sideline in order to survive.) So maybe departments began pooling resources out of necessity. And I can't imagine any library in the West letting students take out a book on loan that was worth a VP's monthly salary.

Despite all of this, the library here has made some great strides. It is easy to get frustrated and yet I have to remind myself that the modern academic library that they want, cannot just appear out of nowhere. There are all sorts of issues that the institution must work out for itself. And maybe in the end, the institution that will evolve will in fact be different from what we are used to. But clearly they want changes, and I guess my role is to poke around and challenge and raise some issues so that the library can move beyond its current state.

Perfume Pagoda

I'm falling behind. I've got a list of things stories and I feel I need to document if I can ever find the time.

At the top of my list is Perfume Pagoda (Chua Huong) which I visited last Sunday. Perfume Pagoda is actually a collection of pagodas on a mountain 70 southwest of Hanoi. It is considered Vietnam's holiest Buddhist site. The 2nd and 3rd lunar months of each year (February and March) are pilgrimage season. There are prescribed times for pilgrims from each region of the country. It's hard to imagine that it would be a meditative experience at that time of year. From the sounds of it is madness. This time of the year is however very quiet.

The pagodas are stunning, but really it is the journey that is most impressive. The ritual journey begins in the small village of Ben Duc where you board a little aluminum boat for a one hour row on the Yen River through a spectacular Karst landscape (looks like a Chinese brush painting). The fantastic 18th Century Thien Tru Pagoda lies at the bottom of the mountain, but the journey continues with an hour and half hike up the mountain to the Huong Tich Grotto. Legend has it that pilgrims have been going to this cave for several thousand years, although the shrine was built in 1575. Well, enough said...I'll let the pictures do the talking.

A couple things though. First, it was strange to be amongst the tourists again (the Tay ba lo as the Vietnamese call them - Western backpackers). I see them downtown but I have no real contact with them. I probably seemed a bit aloof at first and kept my distance. Eventually I got to talking to them and in fact they are were all very interesting people. It made me realize what a very different reality I'm inhabiting compared to my tourist experience three years ago. I have learned so much and ended up interpreting things and signs and other various cultural phenomena to them. And yet I remembered how wonderful the tourist experience was. There are many expats in Hanoi who have never bothered to go to Perfume Pagoda or Halong Bay. Ironically sometimes you have to grab your camera and jump on the little Sinh Cafe tour bus just to expand your horizon, even if it makes you more conspicuous and pulls you (further) out of Vietnamese society for a time. Also there was a Viet kieu in the group, a Vietnamese-American returning to see the places and people of his long distant past. It's always fascinating watching Viet kieu on these tours interacting with the locals in a kind of benign avuncular way - distant and at the same time warm and sympathetic.

Another little experience I thought I should mention: on the way to Ben Duc we passed through a long strip of dog restaurants. Outside one of them was a cage with a small dog running around yapping at passers-by. I didn't find eating dog that disturbing really, but I must admit the sight of the live dog was a bit challenging.

Pho Vo Thi Sau

At work I've arranged to work Monday to Thursday and leave Fridays for a bit of sight-seeing and some Vietnamese lessons. Last week though I was asked to come in Friday for the closing ceremonies of the English for Librarians program since I helped teach some sections of this program. I hesitated, but I am very relieved I went. I had no idea what was in store.

It turns out my colleague Stephen and I were big celebrities in the ceremonies. They even called us up to the front to deliver impromptu speeches in front of the University President. Being asked to deliver a speech out of the blue probably ranks up there as one of my least favourite things, but somehow it all worked out. After the speeches and photo-ops there was a banquet dinner. Stephen and I were seated at the table of honour with the Library Director, two members of the Board of Governors, and I was next to the President. They brought out platters of steamed fish, tamarind shrimp, salt-cooked chicken, braised beef, green papaya salad, etc. The top administrators were far from stuffy. In fact, they were very relaxed and a lot of fun. They insisted on pouring glass after glass of beer, and were not even beyond an occasional bawdy comment.

At one point, the President asked where in the city Stephen and I were living. When Stephen said Pho Ba Trieu, they exchanged knowing glances. Apparently it is famous for its "massage" parlours. But when I mentioned my new address on Pho Vo Thi Sau, the President looked up and said, "Ah, yes, the Black Spot!" And so I learned that my own cute little house is located in what was in only recent memory the drug hotspot of Hanoi - kind of like the Hanoi version of New York's Hell's Kitchen. But just like Hell's Kitchen, this area has been cleaned up. I won't say it's been gentrified, because that seems to involve Starbucks moving in - although I have discovered a really great pho bo joint across the street. The main street has a lot of workshops with metalworkers and mechanics, but there are also a few cafes, sidewalk restaurants and a bia hoi (beer garden). They cleared out the infamous "black spot" by putting in a couple small lakes. One of the lakes is a stone's throw from my house, and every evening at dusk, neighbourhood women gather at its side for an aerobics class. My house is down a cute little laneway. I love the network of laneways. There is a little courtyard a few steps from the house where neighbours gather for badminton and children run around. Vietnamese neighbours are notoriously gossipy and they notice every coming and going. I'm sure my appearance has got the rumour mill going. One morning I walked out and 3 little girls looked shocked. "Tay oi, tay oi, tay oi!" they screeched after me (tay ="west" or "westerner" and oi is something like "heh").

My house is three storeys, but I only really use two. The top floor contains a room with a little family altar (all houses have these), a laundry room and a large porch for hang drying clothes. The middle floor has a bedroom and a living room, and the first floor has a room to park motos and a large kitchen. Last night Viet helped me organize a little housewarming. There were 8 of us: 5 Vietnamese, 1 Israeli, 1 Australian, and me. We made baguette sandwiches and bought a big jug of draft beer from the bia hoi across the street.

The only downside so far is the rooster out back that likes to greet the dawn at 5:45 each morning. It feels nice to be settled. As much as I enjoyed staying with Andrew, I never had much of my own space to relax. Now I have a place to chill out. Next on the agenda: a moto and a gym!

Jazz at the House of Big Sing

Nha Hat Lon. That would be the Hanoi Opera House. Literally it translates to the House of Big Sing. Learning new words can be fascinating (and often hilarious). So many new phrases are funny little interpretations, metaphors and juxtapositions when you translate them literally. (Then there are the wild transliterations of English words into Vietnamese characters. Today I saw "The Importance of Being Earnest" on a shelf in the library by the author Oxca Oaido. If you know how to sound out the Vietnamese characters, these spellings are ingenious and effective.)

Anyway, I digress. Last night I spent an evening at the famous Nha Hat Lon. The French built the thing in 1911 (?) as a smaller scale replica of the Paris Opera. It has a stately yellow and white presence at the end of a boulevard near the bottom of Hoan Kiem Lake. I've been dying to get inside the building; for one thing it's acoustic are legendary. So I was thrilled when my friend Chien offered me free tickets to a concert by a Finnish jazz group called Trio Toykeat. Chien suggested I meet him and his friends on the step of the Opera House at 7:55 for the 8:00 show. I suggested 7:45 instead, which he seemed to think was unnecessary. I guess I'm still getting used to Vietnamese time, which is a lot like Latin time (or drag time for that matter!) . The boys were completely unconcerned to be chatting outside at 8:10. The show actually started at about 8:20. It was an interesting crowd streaming by us as we waited on the steps. In my neighbourhood and at the university I can go a whole day only seeing one or two Westerners, but it seemed the whole diplomatic community had shown up for the occasion (after all it was sponsored by the Finnish embassy).

The building has been restored and is in beautiful condition. The foyers are pure marble, but inside it has the size and feel of the Elgin Theatre in Toronto - red velvet seats and Victorian looking boxes. The show was great too, but I'm not sure what the Vietnamese audience made of it because much of it was experimental. My friend Chien had about 8 of his friends present. I thought they had been enjoying it, but the truth came out just after the intermission when most of them decided to excuse themselves: karaoke was calling! Chien admitted that he couldn't really get into this kind of jazz. He was trying hard to learn to listen, but his ear wasn't yet accustomed it. I guess it's the same trouble many in the West have learning to hear tonalities and musical structures so foreign to us. To be fair, the karaoke was also part of a farewell party for one of Chien's best friends who is leaving for five years of study in Japan today. In any case, I decided to stay and hear the second half. Also I needed an early night to get home and unpack my bags in my new house. I will get to the story of my house soon I hope.

Lenin Park

This past weekend was a big holiday weekend here. September 2nd is Independence Day and this was the 60th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence by Ho Chi Minh in Ba Dinh Square. This is an intensely patriotic country, and every house hangs a flag for the holiday. Nonetheless, anyone who can tries to get out of town for the holiday weekend, because the city becomes a bit of a zoo. Originally my plans were to go to Hai Phong with a friend (his hometown), but his studies got in the way and our plans were abandoned. Plan B was to witness the big military parade down at Ba Dinh Square - until I discovered it was called for 7am. A colleague at work recommended I make my way down there at 3am. If he was joking he has a very dry sense of humour. In any case, I was told that if I wanted to go I'd have to walk; the xe om drivers wouldn't even try to get close because of gridlocked traffic. Needless to say, I decided to sleep in and pass on the goosestepping orgy.

Later in the evening there were firecracker displays at 5 locations in Hanoi. Andrew and I were out and about and didn't really intend to wade out in the chaos but got swept up in it. Before heading to pick up a friend of his on his chopper we had to stop by a building where he works. It's a huge posh marble building with a mall full of high-end designer stores and grand fountains at the entrance. He had some business to do and when we stepped out onto the terrace to leave we were faced by a sea of gridlocked bikes. Gradually the crowd edged into the building grounds and began to discover the marble fountains. The security guards seemed powerless. Instead of retreating to the top of the building to watch the fireworks from the roof, we waded out into the crowd, somehow crossed the intersection and into Lenin Park to watch the spectacle. I don't care about fireworks so much but it was great people-watching. Hanoians seem to overcome their reserve in large crowds.

I have been to Lenin Park for a morning run twice now. Apparently the park used to be a huge swampy dump but it was transformed into a leafy park centred around a large lake with several islands. It's quite a sight really early in the morning. The Vietnamese are health conscious and the park is packed at 6am when it is still cool. It's a weird kaleidescope of activity. Many people just walk or run the circuit around the lake, but there are also spontaneous aerobics classes (women only), ball-room dancing, lots of badminton, volleyball and even fishing. But my favourite are the old men and women doing tai chi like moves. I say "tai chi like" moves because they are completely idiosyncratic and are, I'm sure just made up on the spot. The tai chi improv often looks bizarre and comical. Then there are the teens practicing their breakdance/hip hop moves. It's hard to believe that these gangsta types wake up at 5:30am to practice their grooves. Last week I was trailing another runner making a loop around the lake when suddenly he broke into some kind of airborne kung fu move. All this frenetic morning activity evaporates quickly though. By the time my bus passes by the park on the way to work, it has mostly emptied out.

Well, no posting of mine is complete without a food update. Every day is a culinary adventure, though some dishes have just become absorbed into my routines. For instance, breakfasts are either pho (beef or chicken) or my new obsession: banh my trung, which is just a simple baguette stuffed with an omelette, cucumber and chili sauce. Yumm! And I could have both if I so desired for under a dollar. But there are two meals that are particularly noteworthy. Of course they were both meals introduced to me by Viet. He's not a foodie at all, but just keeps taking me to one brilliant (and dirt cheap) place after another. Sunday night 5 of us went again for lau (hotpot) at another one of these sidewalk joints. Hanoians say that hotpot season has begun since it is now "cool". I would never call a humid 32C cool, but any old excuse is fine by me. My first lau was all beef; this time it was almost everything but beef, including: clams, live jumbo shrimp (the lid was covered so I didn't have to watch them squirm), various types of tofu and greens, mushrooms, chicken, frog legs and pig brains. Frog legs were not new for me, but the brain was - very soft, tastes like liver. The broth was incredibly rich by the end when we added the noodles.

The other discovery was tonight on the way to the linen store to buy sheets for my new house (more on that later), when we stopped by a hole-in-the-wall specializing in eel. The main speciality was mien luon, which is a glass noodle soup topped with deep fried eels strips (no bones thankfully) and garnished with bean sprouts, lime juice, and chili sauce. I was starving and so had to follow it up with a bowl of chao luon (eel congee). I think the time has come for a really good Hanoi themed restaurant in Toronto. Saigonese restaurants are a dime of dozen, back home, but what about the poor neglected art of eel soup, sour snail soup, cha ca and bun cha! All I need is a little old Vietnamese lady to take me in as a cooking apprentice, and maybe a few silent business partners.