Thursday, October 27, 2016

Fooding In The Flat

I've been doing a lot of cooking with the limited kitchen utensils that come with my apartment. For cooking, I have a rice cooker, a one-burner electric cooker that comes with a saucepan and boiling pan, and a kettle. That's pretty much it. Today I made a concoction in the rice cooker that is sort of like enchiladas without the wrappings mixed with Spanish rice, and it's delicious. I started with rice, split peas and lentils, added a bunch of sesame seeds, and brought to a boil with a whole bunch of tomatoes and chilis and garlic. I also included some mushroom broth from all the dehydrated mushrooms in the last week that I had soaked to reconstitute. I added some canned vegan “pork” that I found in the Lotte Mart's vegan section that is kind of the consistency of Spam, and some reconstitutable TVP chunks. Then I added a layer of chopped vegetables, including mushrooms, onions, eggplant, broccoli, and water dropwort, and let it simmer until the veggies had softened. Then I added some canned garbanzos and some cubed tough tofu, and smothered the top with pasta sauce, and let it finish cooking. It was so good I've been eating it all day, and I just finished the last of it.

I've been making decoctions of ginger with a little lime, to make ginger lime tea, and decoctions of turmeric root and black pepper for a turmeric pepper tea, also with a bit of lime. I've been making a bunch of stir fries as well. I made a lotus seed and veggie stir-bake in the rice cooker a few days ago. I've been making most of my own food while I have this apartment, which is a change from the eating on the street and eating raw fruits and nuts and one or two component ingredients I was doing while I was on the move.

To wash dishes, I have a tiny sink in the bathroom. It is the only sink in the apartment, and it only has three tiny jets of water that come out of it with very high pressure, but are a very small flow of water. If I need more flow, I can use the showerhead that is on a hose, and is removable from a clamp that holds it in place at shower level. The shower is not in its own enclosure, but the whole bathroom is the shower stall. The sink has a little swiveled disk that can be used as a sink plug; it is rubberized on the side and fixed to the drain on a pivot that attaches on either side of it.

The rambutans I bought the other day are getting juicier and sweeter as they ripen more.  They also don't stick to the seed as much when they ripen more.  I have a couple of different kinds of bananas; when I bought them, they were green, but they are ripening and will probably peak in the next couple days.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Hanoi Buses And Other Miscellaneous Stuff

It was pouring rain today when I got out of my French class, so I decided to take the bus. I've gotten used to the two buses that I can take back and forth from my neighborhood to the French Institute, the #55 and the #31. I know how to take both of them there, but I still have not figured out how to take the #31 back to my apartment. The Hanoi buses are not terribly transparent as far as information goes. The two buses that I did figure out, I kind of just got there by trial and error. The first day that I tried to take the bus, I ended up taking three buses to get to where I needed to go when I could have taken just one, had I been able to figure out the correct information. But I did learn about how to get there. And it's really no big deal to just ride on the buses for a while; each one costs about a quarter. Online, I have not found any map or time schedule. If I click on the link for the “schedule”, all I see are the bus numbers and a list of neighborhoods that they go through. That is not terribly helpful for someone who is not familiar with all of Hanoi's neighborhoods. Google Maps has a list of bus stops, but many of them are incorrect.

I would consider taking my motorbike to class, but parking is really difficult in the congested area where the Institute is. There is a parking garage connected to the Institute, but the cost is about the same as taking the bus both ways, so I figure it is better to leave my bike at home rather than let it sit downtown for a while. Maybe I'm just being overly paranoid about that, but the bus is just a better solution for me right now.

Eventually I am going to have to figure out where to buy a tarp to cover my backpack with for when I am in transit, in case it rains. I can probably go to the place I bought my bike, Style Motorbikes, and they will most certainly either know or sell them there. That place is a great resource. They will help you plan routes, show up for assistance if you have an issue with your bike, provide maintenance if needed, and generally provide all kinds of support. They were recommended to me by a guy from Georgia (the state in the US, not the country adjoining Russia) at the hostel where I was staying, and he did not steer me wrong. He also turned me on to the Facebook group where I found my apartment.

I found a place not too far from where I am living where I can rent a keyboard for 25-30 dollars a month, with a minimum of three months, and a delivery/set up fee of ten bucks. I am tempted to do it, but probably won't. First of all, I'm not going to be here for three more months. Second of all, there's not much room in my apartment to set up a keyboard. But I might stop by and check out the place. It would sure be nice to have a keyboard in my place to play, and I have only played piano a couple of times since I left the States. Maybe if I come back to Hanoi at some point (which I may well do at a later time), I can keep it in mind.

I have to leave the country for at least a day at the end of November to renew my visa. Well, technically I don't really have to, I could renew my visa internally, but that can be complicated and expensive. So leaving the country is, for the most part, the easiest and cheapest way to get another visa. I had just missed the new one-year visas that Vietnam has for US citizens, which started on September 1. Just my luck, I got here on August 31, and fell under the old deal, which was a 90 day visa. But even the new one-year visas supposedly require you to leave the country every three months. I say “supposedly” because the visas are new and the rules are not terribly clear yet, and some people seem to be able to help you figure out ways to get around many rules, or find loopholes, in any case. Some folks just ride their motorbikes across the border to Laos for a day or two, and then come back. You can pretty much do that for years...some people live here long-term and just take a short journey to another country every three months. So I went to Skyscanner to see what would be the cheapest place to fly to for a few days. The first place I found was Malaysia, but I didn't jump on that right away, so I didn't get that ticket. A few days later, I looked again, and at that time, flights to Bangkok were the cheapest at the end of November. So I bought a ticket, and Bangkok it is. I'll be there for five days, maybe that is enough time to take a short trip somewhere in Thailand. But if not, I'm not going to push it; I can just spend the five days checking out the city. The hostel is only about five bucks a night, so it is not like it will be super expensive or anything.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Class Struggle

I'm taking classes in both French and Vietnamese at L'Institut Français de Hanoi, which is housed in a building called L'Espace. I originally wanted to take intensive classes that were three hours a day, five days a week, after seeing that intensive classes were offered, but after the placement test, which placed me at the upper intermediate level, I found out that they do not offer intensive classes at that level. It was a little bit of a disappointment, but I decided that I would make up the time by doing as much side study on my own as I can. I have been watching a lot of French language television, as there is a TV station here that broadcasts solely in French. Sometimes it has English subtitles as well. Occasionally it will have French subtitles, but this seems to be strangely confined only to shows that originate in Quebec. Also, I can check out movies in French from the library at the Institut; I have a free borrowing card that comes along with taking a class there. I try to watch a movie a few times...the first time, I will utilize the subtitles (if there are any; not all the movies have them) and just try to follow the plot and catch any French I can. Subsequent times that I watch a movie, I just try to fill in the gaps in the words that I did not catch the first time.

So right now I am taking the regular classes, which are 1½ hours a week three times a week. One advantage is that they only cost a third of the price of the intensive classes. Either way, the classes are incredibly cheap. The intensive classes would have been around three hundred dollars for seven weeks, and the regular classes are costing me about a hundred dollars for the same length of time. Since I could not get intensive classes, I decided to try learning the Vietnamese language as well. They teach Vietnamese there, but the classes are taught in French. I figured that would be an opportunity for me to reinforce my French as well. And, besides, most of the class is in Vietnamese anyway, and it is only every once in a while that the teacher will explain something in French.

Originally, the French class was scheduled for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and the Vietnamese class was supposed to be Tuesday and Thursday. But a few days before the classes started, they moved the Vietnamese class to Monday and Friday. The advantage is that I only have to go to that end of town three times a week. The disadvantage is that I'm more burned out and probably would have had more alertness in class if I was starting fresh. But it is not that bad.

There is a completely different demographic in each of the two classes. The French class is populated with mostly young Vietnamese people, mostly around college age. The only foreign students are a German guy and me. In the Vietnamese class, everybody there except for me is originally from France, and they trend probably a generation older than those in the other class. Some of them have been in Vietnam for quite a while and it is evident that some of them have had a good deal of exposure already to the Vietnamese language, as there are a few who are able to make it through the class discussions much easier than others, and know many words beyond the ones we are covering. The textbook is kind of crappy. It does not have any vocabulary at all, and has a lot of exercises in it at the end of each chapter that call for words that have never been discussed in the lessons. Fortunately, the teacher gives out a lot of handouts and provides a lot of in-class material to fill the gaps in this sucky textbook.

I haven't studied Vietnamese for long, but I've made a few observations about what I have seen so far of the language. The vast majority of the words in Vietnamese are monosyllabic. I've been not only looking at the material we are covering, but also trying to look over signs and postings of regulations and such in public places. Sometimes there will be an imported foreign word that has more than one syllable. For example, I saw the word “carrageenan” on a list of ingredients (ha, this word isn't in my spellcheck either, and gives me “Narragansett” as the supposedly correct alternative). Also, verbs are never conjugated (at least from what we have covered so far and what I have curiously looked up online). A verb will not change at all between different persons, and for different tenses, there may be a helper word that is added to convey the different tense. There are accent marks for letters, and accent marks for words that convey the tone assigned to the word. There are six different tones that a word can have, and it can be difficult to figure out in the rapidity of a conversation which one to apply. Tonal languages are supposed to be difficult for westerners, and I can see why. The tone you impart to a word can often completely change the meaning of the word, but I have heard that when a westerner who is struggling with the language is speaking, a Vietnamese person can often compensate for their incorrect tone and understand what they are saying because of the context. The rising tone is a little bit like the rise in intonation you might add at the end of a question in English (and other languages) to differentiate it from a statement, but more understated, and much faster. Since a rising tone conveys meaning in a word, it means that Vietnamese do not rise their tone at the end of a sentence to denote a question. Keep in mind that these are just initial observations, and I could be wrong about any of this stuff or applying it in the wrong context; if you know otherwise, feel free to correct me in the comments. I am definitely no expert on the language and it is a struggle to learn it.

When I started learning Polish, it seemed to me that words in that language were really difficult to learn. And new words in Polish can still be difficult for me unless they spring from some root that I am familiar with, and/or utilize some rule that I am aware of to denote the correct part of speech. For some reason, verbs seemed even harder than other parts of speech; at least verbs beyond the initial few that one uses all that time. Probably one of the reasons verbs are so hard is that they don't denote a thing and therefore are harder to visualize. I think part of the struggle is that Slavic roots are so foreign to a Germanic/Romance language model, but you still might encounter something vaguely familiar occasionally. Vietnamese is a whole different ball of wax. You are never going to encounter anything familiar except for words that have been imported wholesale. And all these monosyllabic words with strict tonal guidelines look similar and are incredibly hard to memorize and keep distinct...particularly when there are words that are spelled the same but have different tonal or letter accents.

In my French class, we have two regular teachers. One is a middle-aged Vietnamese woman who comes in on Mondays, and the other is a younger French woman who teaches on Wednesdays and Fridays. There was another woman who substituted once. It is good to have the two perspectives on teaching as each teacher emphasizes different things. The Monday teacher seems to hew very closely to the textbook and seems to be more interested in details, while the other teacher tends to just kind of go with the flow and seems to be more expansive. Both of the teachers seem very knowledgeable and engaging.

On a side note, it has been raining a lot the last couple of days.  I know it is still the rainy season, which supposedly lasts through November, but it has not been raining much the last couple of weeks.  Now suddenly the rain has ramped up somewhat.  I am sitting in my apartment watching it pour rain outside from the window of my apartment.  It usually doesn't rain for very long, but the rain comes off and on throughout the day.  I don't think it gets very cold in Hanoi in the wintertime, but it may get down to slightly cool temperatures.  But by winter, I'll probably be moving again, checking out my next destinations.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Tense Motorbiking, Poor Connections, And Cheap Technology

Today I went for a long ride on my motorbike into the outskirts of Hanoi and the countryside. My bike has a USB charger and a phone bracket on the handlebars, so I plugged in my phone, mounted it, and put it on Google Maps. But Google Maps isn't bright enough for me to see in the daylight. So I had to constantly stop, turn off the bike, and check where I was at on the map. Not that I really needed to, I could have just driven and checked it out at the end when I wanted to come back. But you know digital culture, it addicts us and mesmerizes us, sucking us all into its demanding bosom, so like an obedient addict child of the the electronic monster, I sucked on the heroin milk of its reassurance constantly. But I eventually switched to, which was much brighter, and which I could see all the time. Problem solved.

I am hoping to get to the point where I am not just a tight ball of stress when riding my bike in Hanoi traffic. I constantly find that my body is rigid and tense, and that I am gripping the handlebars much too tightly, and I have to make a mental effort to relax. Then ten minute later I will notice again that every muscle in my body is rigid again, and I take a breath again, and relax my muscles. But it is hard to be relaxed in Hanoi traffic, especially when I am not all that used to motorbiking. The clutch and front brake (I hardly ever use the back foot brake, but I am trying to train myself to use it more) keep both my hands occupied. And traffic on the streets and at every intersection is just coming from all directions all the time. Nobody stops for any of the intersections, and right-of-way is based on survival of the fittest.

On the way back into town, I stopped at the Lotte Supermarket to do some food shopping. I like to take my backpack into the store near where I live, so I can fill it instead of using bags. But they won't let me do that at the Lotte. I even showed them that there was nothing in the backpack, but rules are rules are rules are rules, I guess. They make me put it in the locker, and they put a cable tie on my fanny pack. Pretty damned paranoid. So I have to get the groceries in plastic bags, beg somebody to cut the cable tie on my fanny pack at the end of shopping, and then repack all the groceries into my backpack. Then I tie the backpack onto the rack on the back of my bike. I have this awesome rack that they installed when I bought the bike for loading up my huge backpack when I eventually travel across Vietnam after my classes are over. But it is just bungee-corded on, so I hope nobody decides to relieve me of it.

Connectivity. I just can't get me much. The internet wi-fi at my apartment is sporadic and usually super-slow. It will often take several minutes to load Facebook comments, longer to load a web page from a link, and I can usually forget audio or video. If I can do audio or video, it is usually two seconds of streaming, followed by a minute of buffering, then another few seconds of streaming followed by interminably long buffering, repeat, and lather. Many times I just give up on try to see comments or likes on FB, links, etc. Or I will just let a link load while I do something else, and come back in about five minutes (sometimes I'll come back a second time in ten minutes) to see if it has loaded.  But sometimes the connection will surprise me and be really strong for hours on end. I had good luck with the wi-fi connection at the French Institute when I first started going there, but then it started being hit-or-miss too.

When I first moved in to my apartment, the wi-fi worked for about a day, then didn't work at all for several days in a row. So I decided to get a Vietnamese phone with a local SIM card, seeing as how I didn't have any data, and texts/calls are supremely expensive ($5.99 a minute for calls, fifty cents for each text). So I got a Vietnamese smart phone which is pretty decent for about forty bucks, and to top up for a month costs a little over five bucks. Not bad. But the phone has very little memory and storage, so I encounter the same problems with connectivity freezing as my phone's brain has little seizures all the time. I just can't win.

And that brings me to Vietnamese technological ingenuity. Vietnam is a fairly poor country; I think I read somewhere that the average salary is about two hundred dollars a month. Yet they mange to build devices that fill the same niche as the devices in the US and Europe for a fraction of the price. My Vietnamese phone weighs a fraction of my US phone, but still is pretty good for what it is, and the price was definitely affordable. The washing machine at my apartment building is another example. It probably weighs about a tenth of what a washing machine in the US does, though it is the same size. It is more like a tent than like a building; though the sides are solid, they are very thin. It is a top-loader with a drum that is like one of the old-style metal trash cans that people used to put on their curbs, but with much, much thinner gauge metal. The top folds and unfolds to cover the drum while it washes. Yet the Vietnamese have managed to design a fairly good appliance to do the job it is designed to do. I hardly ever use it, though, because I still mostly wash my last batch of clothes in the sink; I really just never get to enough dirty clothes for a full load. I did use it once.

So with the connectivity issues I have, I'll post this today if I can connect. If not, then it'll go up whenever it is possible.

Nope, just tried to post it, and got a message saying there is no Internet connection. For some reason my laptop will connect even less reliably than my phone(s). I typed this on the laptop, which is, by the way, a totally crappy laptop and has its own brain freeze issues due to inadequate infrastructure. And I bought it in the US. Cheapo technology, I guess, knows no bounds.   Oh, there it comes.  It just took about ten minutes to load the Blogger page.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Settling In For The Short Run

It was a breezy and cool morning today. The windows of my apartment in Hanoi were open, and it was the first morning that a cool breeze has blown in through the windows. So I decided to take advantage of the cool weather and go for a walk today, just to check stuff out. I wandered some in the back alleys behind the alley my apartment is on. I've been wandering down these alleys almost every day, there's not a lot of seriously interesting stuff there, but it is cool to check out the little labyrinths that wind their way into the nooks and crannies between the big highway road and the river. I found a place where there were some tennis courts...I wonder what it would take to use those? Of course, I don't know anybody who plays, nor do I have a racquet, so that's not happening right now. Then I turned back to the main part of Tay Ho to check out some parts of the little peninsula jutting into the lake that I hadn't been to yet. Then I stopped by the grocery store to get some supplies. The trip to the store is almost daily, because I just bring home what will fit into my little backpack on my back. I have shopped for groceries with the motorbike a couple of times (once to a bigger store farther away), but mostly I'm still bringing most of my groceries home on foot.

My motorbike is pretty cool, but I haven't used it all that much. It is a Win, it shifts one down and the next three up. I bought it nearly new because I didn't want to chance a breakdown or have to pay for an expensive repair while I am using it to travel. I maybe ride it a couple days a week in town, but more often I walk. I burned the crap out of my right leg, though, on the exhaust pipe. I was maneuvering it into a tight space in the parking garage of the grocery store, then grazed it with my leg while I was exiting through the narrow space. I've also figured out which bus goes to my French and Vietnamese classes, so occasionally I take the bus instead of walking.

Every day I chop a bunch of vegetables and then try to figure out what to put them in. Today I made some udon noodles with a pile of sauteed vegetables simmered down to a broth. I'm already chopping tomorrow's vegetables, though. I'm really settling into a highly temporary domestic bliss here. I love my little apartment, with the windows that open into the courtyard, where I can hear all the noises of the neighborhood. My fridge is stocked with plenty of vegetables to chop. I think I even know what all of them are now. I bought some little knick-knacks for the apartment...things like a mop, buckets for trash and washing and stuff, a few kitchen implements, etc. I figure I can just leave them for the next person who moves in here.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Voting Shuffle

A few days ago I voted in the American election from Hanoi. At least, I hope I did. It can take letters from Vietnam up to a month to get to the US; if you are lucky, they get there in a week or two. Hopefully my ballot will get there in time, and I have until five days after the election for it to arrive and still count. Since I mailed the ballot on September 30, hopefully it will get there in time.

I had registered for an FPCA ballot when I was still living in Austin. You simply fill out a form, and the voting occurs under a federal program, so a lot of the regulations are mandated federally, rather than locally, but some of the rules are local. For instance, in some parts of the US, you can return your ballot by email, but not in Texas. They email me a ballot, and I have to get it printed, along with a host of other documents, and then mail it back. The rules are fairly byzantine, and you have to get it all just right for your vote to count. You have to fill out a signature sheet with some of your basic information on it, and there is an envelope you print out on letter size paper that you have to fold into an envelope and then tape up; you have to sign the back of the envelope as well. In some cases, you have to send in a scan of your ID and affirm your residence, but I didn't have to do that, probably because I did that the last time I voted (which was from Beijing).

When I first got the email, Travis County forgot to include the link to the attachment to the ballot that needed to be printed out. But a day or so later, they sent out another email with the correct link. So all I had to do was download the paperwork, print it out, put it in the envelope, and mail it. Easier said than done. First I had to find someone with a printer so I could print it out. I had to walk all over Hanoi to find the resources I needed, and I had no idea where they would be when I started walking. I just figured I would keep walking until I found the stuff I needed, and I had all day. I had managed to transfer the file to a flash drive, and while walking around, I found a photocopy shop that could print it from the flash drive. So I had the documents printed out.

Then I had to find some clear tape to tape up the approved sheet of paper into an envelope. I had no idea where tape could be found. I tried several convenience stores, but none of them had any. In addition, I had a difficult time communicating to them that tape was what I wanted. So I tried typing “tape” into Google Translate. That didn't work all that well. It gave me a word, but the word was apparently not all that comprehensible to the shopkeepers I showed it to. Next I tried Googling “scotch tape” and choosing an image of it to show to people. That didn't lead to very good results either. I thought the picture of the tape in a dispenser was pretty clear, but one shopkeeper puzzled over the picture for a while and then tried to sell me soy sauce. No good. Finally I walked into one convenience store, showed the woman behind the counter the picture of the tape dispenser, and, after initially getting the predictable puzzled response, I spotted a roll of masking tape on her counter, and picked it up to show to her. She initially pantomimed that there was none for sale in her store, but then got a flash of inspiration, and pulled out a wrapped-up roll with several rolls of clear tape in it, which was not intended for sale, but for her store's use. I wanted to jump for joy...I had finally found what I was looking for! She handed me a roll and indicated that she would charge me about 50 cents for it. So now I had a dispenser-less roll of tape, but at least it was something I could work with.

Next I wanted to find a coffee shop where I could sit for a while, hopefully inside with air conditioning and enough room to spread out all the paperwork, and fill out the documentation and my ballot. I found a place that suited me perfectly (minus the air conditioning but at least it had good fans), ordered a bubble tea drink, and sat down to complete all the papers and my ballot. It probably took me about half an hour. I was able to tape up the envelope to get it sent, despite my difficulties in finding the edge of the tape, and needing to keep it away from the roll by sticking the end of it to my finger, awkwardly cutting it with my pocketknife when needed, and repeating this procedure until the envelope had been created, the contents had been placed therein, and it was sealed.

Success! Now I needed to find a post office to mail the envelope with the ballot. Luckily, I knew where the main post office was, near Hoan Kiem Lake, so I headed off in that direction. I went into the post office, they weighed the letter and assigned me the appropriate amount of stamps (you still have to lick the stamps in Vietnam); I applied them to the envelope and dropped it in the international mailbox for mailing to the States. And then I embarked on the hour-and-a-half-long walk back home. So I was able to fulfill my civic duty, assuming the letter gets there on time. And all I had to do to vote was trudge around on foot for about 17 kilometers. You're welcome, America.