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Friday, January 23, 2015

Escape from America: Hanoi, Vietnam


How long have you lived overseas?

I've lived in Hanoi, Vietnam since August 2009.

What made you decide to leave the US?

I was living in San Francisco in a rent controlled apartment and it was actually great in some ways. I knew a lot of creative people, artists, writers and everyone was doing something cool. I went to a lot of great shows and ran a small press and wrote and saw amazing poetry readings. It was a great time to be young and trying to make something. But, I also had a career that I hated and was bad at and felt stuck and lost and depressed the majority of the time. I was in debt and unable to pay my student loans. My boss at the corporate textbook publisher sat me down in a meeting and told me that I was a dreamer and that we had to figure out how to make it work for them. The corporate world was just not for me. Then I had a close call with a city bus on my bicycle and I went to my friend Truong Tran's for dinner and he said, "Alan, you don't have a mortgage, you're not married, you don't have any major pieces of furniture. You could go anywhere. You could go to Vietnam." This planted the seed and after a short time, a weekend I think, I quit my job and started making plans to leave. I came to Vietnam with a backpack, a few books and a little bit of money. I initially came to Hanoi in August 2009 with the plan to teach English for six months and see where it took me.

What do you miss about not being in the US?

I miss people the most. There are friends who I see now only once a year if that and it's a bit sad to only keep in touch through things like Facebook or gmail. In the end it's only a simulation of the people I know and love. As much as we are psychic and mental, we are also physical and being in the same space as a person you love is important. There is really something vital to eating with friends, getting drunk together, talking in person, just being together. I also miss libraries, museums, used bookstores, and unpolluted air.

What are the challenges of living where you are as a foreigner?

Hanoi is a city of 7 million plus people. There are practically no emission regulations and millions of motorbikes on the road coupled with a construction boom that is also largely unregulated and thus the air is DIRTY. The traffic is a nightmare. It's noisy. I have a smokers cough even though I quit smoking years ago. There's also arsenic in the water and food poisoning is a regular occurrence. I had a friend who got poisoned from wood alcohol in counterfeit vodka.

The challenges in particular for foreigners in Vietnam are in navigating the shifting legal status of being here. The government is constantly changing its policies on foreigners living and working here. The requirements for work permits and work visas are in constant flux. At some point there may be six month or year visas available at an embassy in Laos or a travel agent in Pnomh Penh, so expats working, running businesses, or even married to locals might take a flight to take advantage of these. At other times only three month visas are offered. If you are lucky enough to get a work permit (which requires a degree, medical check, police clearance and five years experience in your given field) this becomes much less problematic.

Also expat relationships are very transitory. People move in and out. Nothing feels stable. Nothing is permanent. It helps to not be attached and even better to be detached.

In terms of language, Vietnamese and English couldn't be more different. Vietnamese has a western alphabet thanks to the French and the communists, but for much of its long history Vietnamese was written with Chinese characters. Like Chinese the language is a monosyllabic tonal language. As a result small shifts in intonation and pronunciation can drastically alter a word. You could be in a market asking a seller how much for her pork meat and inadvertently asking her how much for her cunt meat. In English we intone contextually and rhythmically whereas in Vietnamese the tones are for meaning. When I first prepared to come here my friend Truong taught me to say, I don't have any money and fuck your mother. After arriving I took some lessons and wandered around writing down words into a notebook. Later, in my little old quarter hotel I would look up the things I had written in a dictionary and try to make sense of them.

There are so many beautiful things about the language. The sense of time and definition is much looser than English,mut the sense of community context is deep and rich. In Vietnamese there is not just an I and You, but a whole shifting ensemble of pronouns indicating age, status, gender, hierarchy and most of all relationship. English in comparison feels like a brain in a jar regarding other brains in jars next to the colorful family of aunts, uncles, children, teachers, fathers, sisters, babies, and friends in the Vietnamese pronoun lexicon.

My Vietnamese is still very basic but I can read and write and speak some. I can buy things in the market and answer the same basic questions about how old I am, where I am from, how long I've been here, am I married, will I marry a Vietnamese girl. Etc.

What are some of the pleasant surprises you've encountered in your new home?

Paul Bowles once said or wrote something like, I can think of no greater freedom than to be a foreigner. Coming to a place like Vietnam decontextualizes you. You become untethered from the dominant culture and the gap between self and other widens dramatically. As a result your identity becomes somehow freed from context. It's both alienating and liberating. Who knows if the things I do are weird, special, mediocre, or normal, because here I am a foreigner. It gives me a pass in a weird way. Maybe it's the remnants of the colonialism or decades of war or just due to being an other. Regardless it is an interesting position to be in.

Asides from that, Vietnam in particular is a very human place. People eat on the floor in rooms facing the street with their doors open. When a neighbor dies, black flags are hung outside and a tent is erected where funeral music is played all day and night. The grieving family are wrapped in white cloth and even later they wear black badges to let everyone know about this status. The Viets are constantly looking after one another. A regular greeting is, hi, did you eat yet? I go to the markets and see every part of an animal used. Sidewalks are transformed into eateries, places to drink and gossip. Time is marked by the consumption of rituals. I am constantly full of awe and wonder.

What are some of the unanticipated problems?

Arranging legal documents to work here was a bit of a hassle but not hard. When I first came, I got scammed and ripped off a lot. I had an employer not pay me a whole month's wages. Also having your friend group scatter across the globe is weird. Meeting the cultural police at poetry readings. Being checked up on by government officials randomly outside your house.

What are some advices you have for Americans who also want to get out?

If you want to get out and you can, do it. Get a TESOL or CELTA and teach English in Asia. Don't work for free in one of these scam volunteer programs. If you're a teacher go to an international school job fair and see if you can't get a job abroad.

--Alan Banes (35-years-old)


All photos by Alan Banes. When I was in Hanoi in 1999, my last time there, I didn't see people staring at cellphones in cafes, but the other images are familiar. The Hanoi of skyscrapers, including one of 70 stories, didn't exist, and there were no luxury shops downtown.



Anonymous said...

I wanted to post this a while ago and the picture of them staring on their smartphones reminds me of this song:

Anonymous said...

"I miss people the most. There are friends who I see now only once a year if that and it's a bit sad to only keep in touch through things like Facebook or gmail. In the end it's only a simulation of the people I know and love. As much as we are psychic and mental, we are also physical and being in the same space as a person you love is important. There is really something vital to eating with friends, getting drunk together, talking in person, just being together."


Chuck Olroski said...


The picture with people seated at cafe and staring at cell phones cracked me up. Had I money, it worries me what I could have become.

A little school bus story before signing off?

On my school bus run, I have a fourth grade boy who is designated "hyperactive," not of wealthy stock, and does not have a cell phone. At times, he gets to be a bad ass; for example, one day he mistakenly thought a kid stole his hat and punched him in the face, knocked him to floor, and gave the kid a kick in ribs.

I had to report the incident, and now must separate the boy from the bus's general 0 population, he sits upfront, only a few feet from me.

While driving Scranton streets, I started thinking about the gal who escaped the U.S. for Mexico. Recalling her 5th grade experience and her learning about the arrogance of "Manifest Destiny, I thought I'd ask the young boy (in quarantine) a couple friendly questions.

First was, what is your favorite video game?

"Call of Duty."

O, that's good, my son likes that game too! Do you know who discovered America?

"Columbus, I think."

Terrific! You're ready for Jeopardy and winning big prizes. Another question..., what state is north of Pennsylvania?

Uh, New York? My father went there to see the Giants once.

Very impressive! Another question, what state is south of Pennsylvania?

"I dunno, Chuck."

Having him in my capture for another mile or two, I got pushy and asked, did you ever hear about "Manifest Destiny?"

No reply, the boy started to look at at his colored paper and shaped it into an airplane.

Man, that's really cool!

"You 'wanna see it fly, Chuck?"

Nah..., maybe take it inside, show mom and dad. But please just don't throw the plane around the bus? I don't want a riot.

"O.K., Chuck. When can I get out of the bus front seats?"

In the immediate future, that's your destiny.

"Thank you."

Linh Dinh said...

From my All Around What Empties Out:

O Hanoi

In the middle of town, or just off to the side,
Is the largest turtle in the world. (Or, maybe,
Just one of the largest.)

We lived in the old quarters, on Potato Street,
Then Coffin Street, then Clown Street,
Then Teleprompter Street.

In a so-called tube house, a house
So narrow one must walk sideways
With one's head turned. Like this. We slept
Upright during the Four Thousand Year War, and,
Out of habit, for a thousand years afterward.

You will find my name, that of a ballyhooed scholar
From the 23rd century (AD or BC, I can't remember),
Inscribed on the next-to-last stele
At the Temple of Poesy.


Linh Dinh said...

From my Fake House:

When it was time for me to buy a rail ticket for my trip from Hanoi to Saigon, I was willing to pay the foreign price. Any thought I had of presenting myself as a local and saving 100 bucks was further discouraged by a story I'd heard of an overseas Vietnamese who'd managed to buy a cheaper ticket, only to be docked the difference while on the train, as he had sprinkled his Vietnamese conversation with one too many "OK's," thus revealing himself to be an outsider.

"Sister, give me a first-class ticket to Saigon," I said to the lady behind the booth.

"490,000 dong," she told me.

I hesitated, knowing the quoted price was too low: "Sister, give me the foreign price."

She looked at my face more carefully:
"1,490,000 dong."

I gave her the money. She continued: "You speak like a local."

"My mother is from Hanoi."

"Travelling alone, Brother?"


"Fancy luggage?"


"Why don't you pay the cheaper price?"


Linh Dinh said...

From my Love Like Hate:

To travel from Saigon to Hanoi is to go back in time. The navel of Vietnamese civilization, a place of ancestors, Hanoi is haunted by a thousand heroes, tyrants and poets. It first became the capital in 1010. By contrast, Saigon is only three hundred years old. The main stage for much of Vietnamese history, Hanoi is also its dustbin. So much has happened there only to be ignored, distorted, or forgotten. Entire centuries reduced to hearsay and ashes. Perhaps one should call Hanoi a dumpster. Cun and Kim Lan had come to this dumpster to see what was left of Hoang Long.


Linh Dinh said...

From my Love Like Hate:

Slurping the beef soup, Kim Lan said, “Thanks for allowing us to stay in your house. You saved us!”

“Saved you from what?! It was nothing!”

“We would have died of the cold. We were freezing when you found us.”

“What cold? This is not cold! Nineteen sixty-seven was cold!”

“You have an excellent memory, brother. I can’t even remember what the weather was like last weekend, whether it was rainy or sunny.”

“That’s because there’s no weather in the South—you’re from Ho Chi Minh City, no?—Ho Chi Minh City has no weather.”

“Have you been to Saigon?”

“No, but I was up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war. I know the South: The South has no weather.”

“What about the monsoon?”

“What monsoon? I don’t remember any monsoon in the South, the South has no weather.”

They ate in silence for a minute before the Cock said, “Is this your first visit to Hanoi?”

“Yes, I’m here to visit my husband.”

“Is he working up this way?”

“No, he’s in prison.”

“So he’s being reeducated?”

“Yes, he’s in prison.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that, sister. Don’t be ashamed. It’s good to be reeducated. I can’t blame your husband for being duped into serving the American imperialists and betraying his own country. He’ll be a good citizen soon. You want to see something?”


As Kim Lan and Cun watched, the Cock slowly rolled up his trouser legs. “A mine,” he said. “A Bouncing Betty, it’s called. Killed the guy right in front of me. Made ground meat out of him while it cut me in half. But what am I doing?! We’re eating breakfast, after
all! I’m sorry!”

The Cock had walked so naturally, they never suspected he wore prosthetics. “But I have nothing against the ARVN soldiers,” he continued. “When your husband is done with being reeducated, bring him here and I’ll throw him a party. I really mean it. I’ll kill a chicken or two for him. We’ll drink some rice wine together. Just knock on my door at any time. Even ten years later! Even twenty years later!”

After his guests had left, the Cock would think often about this visit. He rarely had company. Kim Lan’s tense, white face when he showed her his stumps had moved him tremendously. He had never rolled up his trouser legs in front of another person before. Even after two decades, he was still not used to the fact that he had actually lost half of his body. He would ponder how lizards could regenerate their tails. He also knew that salamanders could regrow their limbs and that a worm cut in ten pieces will become ten
worms. But he was not a lizard, salamander or worm. A head and a trunk were all you needed, he realized. Anything that stuck out of the head or trunk, such as the nose, ears, arms, or legs, even the lower jaw, was actually expendable.



About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007), Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009) and A Mere Rica (2017), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.