Thursday, October 4, 2012

Escape From Hanoi, the Conclussion with a Concussion.

Sorry, it’s been a while, been real busy adapting to the new school/country/life.  French paperwork and bureaucracy are legendary, not to mention, work.  Anyway, I left off as I was getting into the back of a chauffeured Land Rover with the brother of one of my students, who was connected to the government/mafia in some way.  Connections are how you make things happen in Asia.  Law is completely subjective upon who you know and what type of power you wield.   We were going to hook up with his high ranking cop friend who was going to put the squeeze on the taxi driver who ran me over, in order to get a little cash to cover my losses and pain.

As we were heading to the meetup, the brother explained to me that since we weren’t going to squeeze the taxi company itself , which was my original intention as they would have deeper pockets, we would be going after the driver himself.  The reason I decided not to go after the company was because if they made it a legal issue, there was a good chance they would contact my insurance company which had paid for my hospital stay.  If they did that, the insurance would find out I had been on a motorbike, a no-no, since I didn’t have my license.  If that happened, there was a good chance I would be left out in the cold, if my insurance rescinded their payments, I would be stuck with a $20,000 hospital bill and a lengthy legal battle in the Vietnamese courts.  Instead, if I put the squeeze on the driver, we could leave the company, and therefore the insurance company, out of it.

Sounded like a pretty good idea until I thought about it.  I would be squeezing a Viet taxi driver.  Someone whose yearly income was about $2,000.  That just didn’t sit right with me.  I’ve always felt a closer connection to the working sod, the underclass, because I had been there myself,  more than I have any other social group.  For all of my adult life, until I moved to Vietnam, I lived below the poverty line.   And I would be taking money from a guy whose yearly income was equal to less than my monthly income…But still, the guy almost killed me, left me for dead, and left me $1000 in the hole…

I had a quick think about it and went with my gut.  The last thing I want to do in life is drive another poor person deeper into poverty.  If I did that, I’d be just like all the other scumbags who make their millions by exploiting others.  The corporate CEO’s who instead of paying their American workers a living wage, send their production overseas to places like Vietnam where they can pay their workers literally pennies, the Communist party members who live in luxury while the average Viet can barely afford food.  Fuck that.  And fuck those guys. 

I told the brother to stop the car.  I explained to him my feelings, and where I was coming from (minus the strong language), He looked surprised, and asked if I was sure.  I told him, yes, I wouldn’t feel right about myself, I didn’t want to send another poor person even lower.  I’m not going hungry, I live in a nice enough place, and still save a little.  What more do you really need out of life?  I would rather chock up the $1000 I lost due to the various repairs, medical bills, etc, then to send someone else, and most likely his entire family, into grinding poverty.  I thanked the older brother for his help, and his kindness.   The brother nodded, still surprised and said he really respected my choice.  But there was one thing…I told the brother all I really wanted would be for his police friend to warn the taxi driver that he needs to be a better driver, because the next time he runs someone over, he, or the victim, might not be so lucky.  If I can make just one Vietnamese driver less dangerous, I feel like my time in Nam was a success.  We drove back to my school and I got out, feeling pretty good. 

A few days later, my “guardian angel” as I’d taken to calling Steve, the Westerner who picked me off the side of the road, bloody and semi-conscious, drove me to the hospital, and contacted my coworker to help me out, called and asked how I was doing.  I told him I was healing but doing ok.  He told me he had a friend who was an accountant, and as I was a foreigner who had paid taxes, and was leaving the country soon, would be able to get a chunk of the income tax I paid back.  Sounded interesting.  He gave me her email address.  I emailed her the next day, explaining my situation.  She said that I could indeed get around $14,000 back (about as much as I had paid), if I met certain requirements about the taxation system.  It turns out I did indeed meet these requirements.  She emailed me back that it was certain I would be able to get it back, and since I was a friend of Steve, she wouldn’t charge her usual consultation fee.  Great!

The next step would be for me to send her a copy of my paychecks, passport, work visa, tax ID number, etc.  I did.  After sending all this, she then said everything was a go, I just had to pay her the fee of $2,000 upfront to process the paperwork…What?!  Of course, at this point my scam radar went off.  But still, I knew accountants did have to get paid, and if I could make $12k in profit…So, I did a little research, contacting several legit Vietnamese accountants to see if such a law existed for foreigners getting back their income tax.  They all responded, no, not that they knew of.  Son of a bitch.  I was being set up.  Apparently for the second time. 

I replied to her offer with an offer of my own.  How about I give you $5,000 but you do the work first?  She replied, no she couldn’t do that, it’s not how the system worked, and if it was too expensive, she could lower the price for me, to only $900.  Right.  I asked her if she had an office, and was a registered accountant with the government.  She didn’t reply.   But by this point, she had all my identifying documents, so most likely, she is currently stealing my identity.  Well, guess what asshole, the jokes on you, I have abysmal credit, no company in the world will give me a credit card, you stole the identity of literally the worst person in America to steal an identity from.

This made me start to wonder about Steve.  So far, he had twice set me up with someone who wanted $2,000 off me, in order to get a huge sum back.  Typical con man scheme.   If there even was a second person, both situations were over email, so it could have been him all along.   In fact, it made me reconsider the “accident” itself.  What a coincidence that Steve, who also happened to be a con man, just happened to be there ready in the middle of nowhere, suburban Hanoi, where white people don’t go.  Ready to pick me up as a guardian angel.  Further, the photos that I took of the taxi were perfect.  Nothing cut off, license plate, make and model.  Apparently I did this after picking myself up, semi-conscious, bleeding out the face like a stuck pig with broken teeth and nose, yet still on the ball enough to photo the vehicle perfectly, and somehow, not photo the actual driver?…

It seemed more likely that in fact, Steve had set the accident up.  Most likely he was working in tandem with a Viet partner, the driver.  The driver nails me, then stops, just long enough for Steve who happens to be right there, ready to help me photo the vehicle (but not the driver), then takes off, leaving Steve to gain my confidence by bringing me to the hospital and looking after me.   It made sense.  One thing I’ve learned living life on the edge is that just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.  I have some stories about that which you’ll only get out of me over a beer or four.

At this point, I had only about 3 weeks left in ‘Nam.  I thought about reporting Steve, or trying to.  Using some police contacts to make a stink, or maybe smearing his name in the local expat website.  But, Steve knew where I lived.  He knew where I worked, he had my passport info.  If he was connected with the local mafia, which was pretty likely, as he didn’t seem clever enough to figure out this hustle himself, and he was always inviting me to dodgy little bars that “his friends” owned, I could be stirring a hornets nest.  If this was the West, I would go after him like a pitbull, because I understand how things work.  In Nam, I would be playing by their rules, and I barely understood those rules.  This is the type of situation that could get bad real quick if Steve was more connected than I was.  I only had 3 more weeks, then no more Nam, and off to the French Riviera and a new life.

In the end, I decided not to stir the hornet’s nest.  The only thing I would gain from that is revenge, and while it is sweet, I’ve also learned that revenge without a hefty economic compensation attached to it is just empty calories.  It’s a fine thing, learning how to assess battles that you have little chance of coming out on top of. 

 I was so close to finally making it through what had without a doubt, been the absolutely worst two years of my colorful life.  I had been homeless and penniless in strange towns several times in my life, and faced down some real scary bad situations that I’ll tell you about over a beer, and this had been hands down, the worst.  I had gotten dysentery twice, had two month-long sinus infections, got fired from my job, then rehired at the last moment, gotten divorced,  without friends or family, then fallen in love, only to have my heart broken to pieces for the first time in my 36 years,  gotten irritable bowel syndrome, and topped it all off with a crushed sinus passage, a concussion, a broken wrist, large patches of missing flesh, three broken teeth, and $1,000 lost.  I figured, fuck it, at this point, I’m just happy to be alive, in relatively good health, and have a new life waiting for me.  Sometimes, you just gotta cut your losses.

The next three weeks passed blessedly uneventfully, mostly because I spent them hiding out, trying to present as small of a target as possible to Hanoi.  And finally the last day came.  I honestly didn’t think I would make it.  Not until the plane left the runway, did I let out the biggest, happiest smile I had had in two years, as I watched the quickly disappearing swampland below.   Relief flooded me.  For the first time in two years, I felt relaxed.  I let out a whooping laugh as I waved my middle finger at the city from 500 feet in the air, never to set foot on that cursed swamp again.  Like my father before me, and so many other young men of his generation, just happy to be leaving ‘Nam alive.   Fuck you Hanoi, I won.  Just barely. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Escape From Hanoi, Part 3

Escape from Hanoi, Part 3

So, I had gotten out of the hospital, lucky to be alive from both the accident and the medical “care”, and had finally nailed down the job in France.  And better yet as I discovered, not just in France, but in the Cote d’Azur, on the French Riviera.  For those unfamiliar with French geography, this is the part of France right on the Mediterranean coast, right next to Monaco.  It’s one of the most desired places to live in Europe, second in French tourism only to Paris.  Year round warm weather, turquoise warm blue water perfect for diving, and delicious French cuisine.  It’s where the million/billionaires of Europe go to play.  And somehow, I had just landed a job there, that paid a good salary, with a generous relocation allowance, and teaching the subject I love (history) at what by all accounts is an outstanding, well managed, not-for-profit school.  About as different in every possible way that things can be different compared to my situation in Hanoi.  I couldn’t believe my luck.

Just a week previous, I was lying on the side of a Hanoian highway, semi-conscious, bleeding and broken in several places.  Then a stranger, an Englishman named Steve happened by and helped me out.  He happened to live right by the accident site, so he locked my motorbike up at his house, and brought me on the back of his motorbike to the hospital.  After getting out of the hospital, he got my bike repaired for me at a mechanic friend of his.  He brought the bike back to me, fully repaired.  The repairs only cost $300, and I thanked Steve profusely for getting that fixed, for picking me off the road, and for getting me to the hospital.  I asked if I could give him some money for his help, and he refused, saying he was just trying to do the right thing.  This guy seemed like my guardian angel, if such things existed.

Although, he said, that if I wouldn’t mind doing a small favor for him, he’d really appreciate it.  In Vietnam, their banking laws are labyrinthine to make it harder to launder money, he explained that the bank wouldn’t allow him to transfer his money back to England because he got paid under the table, so now he was stuck with a lot of cash and no safe place to put it.  He asked if, at the end of the month, I would do a bank transfer for him.  He’d give me the cash, and since I had a job that paid taxes, they’d allow me to transfer the money.  His job as an English teacher paid his salary in cash, as I already knew many English teachers are, in fact, paid in cash, under the table.   I said no problem, just let me know when he wanted me to do it.  I’m not a sucker, I would only do it if he gave me the cash first, so I figured there was no risk in that.

He showed me pictures of the bike before repairing it.  It was basically totaled.  The front wheel had been torn off the forks, and the frame had been broken in five  places.  Looking at the bike, I was again pretty happy to alive.  Still, I couldn’t really figure out how the accident had happened.

Now, I’ve been racing bicycles down hill for about 10 years every Sunday night in Portland (ZooBomb!), and I’ve seen and been in my fair share of pretty spectacular  wrecks.  After your first few wrecks at high speed, you learn how to crash.  Learning how to properly crash is one of the most valuable and painful lessons you can learn in life because the only way to learn the safest way to crash is pay for it with your blood and bones. However, if you know how to crash, your chances of being seriously hurt decrease enormously.  At this point, I am living proof of this. 

A quick and free lesson in crashing for the uninitiated:  When you crash on two wheels at speed, the first, best, and fastest thing to do is to tuck your chin.  Stand up now and try it.  Notice how, as soon as you tuck your chin, your shoulders hunch in protecting your ribcage and your abdominal organs.  Also, your shoulder muscles are bunched up around the neck area, further protecting your neck/spine, and reducing the impact area of your face/jaw.   If you were to land flat like that, your forehead would hit first, which is way better than having your nose/jaw hit first.  Your forehead is one of the densest bone masses in your body.  Further, when you really tuck your chin in, it pulls your arms to your sides, further protecting the sides of your ribs, and also preventing your arms from flailing around and getting snapped in half as you’re being tossed and spun along the pavement.  The simple movement of tucking your chin kicks in our body’s naturally most defensive posture, the fetal position. 

To this day, I cannot figure out how I receive my injuries as they were all over my face, left side and right, lower and upper.   All I know is that judging from the damage on my bike, and how little real serious injuries I had, I must have done something right in the crash, as all I had were three broken teeth, a concussion, a broken wrist, a crushed sinus passage, and a bunch of missing skin from scraping to a stop from 35-45 miles an hour (I can only presume I was going that fast as I was on the highway, and it appeared the bike had flipped several times while crashing).  I know those sound like serious injuries already, but I’ve seen people on ZooBomb get broken spines, crushed lungs and ribs, entire front rows of teeth knocked out, compound arm, shoulder, and collarbone breaks, torn ligaments, and broken skulls, all from crashing at my speed or often slower on a bicycle.  There but for the grace of god go I.

Anyway, a day later, I forced myself to go back to work, which I probably shouldn’t have.  In the course of the day, I got out my phone to take a photo of something, and I noticed I had a picture of a taxi on it.  I didn’t remember taking a picture of any taxi.  I checked the time stamp and geotag, it turned out the photo was taken at the time and location of my accident.  There were two photos, a perfect shot of the side of the taxi where I noticed tire skid marks, and another of the license plate.  I’ve been hit by a lot of cars in Portland, (never that seriously injured, at worst some scrapes) and my first reaction is to always take a picture of the license.  Had I been that bad-ass that even though I was half conscious, I was able to get up and take two perfect shots of the cab?  I guessed so.

Then I figured the next thing to do was call Steve, and ask him if he actually saw anything.  When I spoke to him, he said when he pulled up, I was sitting dazedly on the curb, and he noticed there were skid marks on the road.  I told him that I just discovered that I had apparently taken two clear shots of the taxi that hit me before they left.  Oddly enough, I hadn’t taken a shot of the taxi driver.

He said that was good news because his landlord’s son was a high-ranking police officer, and could represent me to the taxi company, essentially putting the squeeze on the company to pay for my injuries.  I said wonderful, thanks, and he told me he’d call me back shortly with more info.  About an hour later, he called and told me that today must be my lucky day, because since I had photo of the taxi, and Steve said he would be my witness, and because I was a foreigner, the police officer would be able to get me $20,000 from the company.  Wow, not bad!  He told me he would have more details soon, and he’d call me back.  Half an hour later, he called back, saying that the cop had confirmed it was guaranteed that I would get paid, there was only one small catch though, the cop was asking for $4,000 to do the work.  Now, I know you think that sounds crazy, but actually, bribery is how EVERYTHING gets done in Vietnam.  If you want a cop to do his job, you bribe him.  However, four grand was pretty steep.  The figure made me hesitate.  Steve said that if I didn’t have that much money, he could loan me half of it.  Earlier in one of our conversations, he explained how his parents were very wealthy and paid for everything, and he was only teaching English here in order to meet people.

I told him I needed to think about this before I could commit, as that was a lot of money.  He said I needed to give him an answer asap, as the longer we waited, the less of a case I would have.  I hung up and thought about it.  Something felt not right, I couldn’t put my finger on it.  So far, I had no reason not to trust Steve.  After all, the guy had practically saved my life, fixed my bike, and asked for nothing in return.  It had only been a week since my accident, I felt still out of it and confused, and this situation wasn’t helping.  Steve had assured me that this was a sure thing, as his friend had told him, and he’d known his landlord and her family for years.  Still something felt wrong.  Logically, it made sense, as this is how “justice” is done in Vietnam.  But I started to imagine how I could get screwed.  I saw the most likely route would be, I bribe the cop for four grand, then he brings me to police station to do the paperwork, and instead asks for more money, and if I refused to give him more money, than he would arrest me for attempting to bribe a cop.  These things can happen in Asia.  In an hour, Steve called me back, needing an answer.  This was all happening too fast.  I went with my gut feeling and told him thanks, but no thanks.  He said, no problem, he understood, and he looked forward to grabbing a beer with me when I felt better.

I still liked the idea of getting money from this accident though.  After all, the driver had almost killed me and then left me for dead, and I knew the taxi company would have deep pockets.  So I had another idea.  Maybe I could find someone to put the squeeze on the taxi company for free?  After all, most of my students come from very well connected families, typically high ranking government officials/Communist party members/mafia/businessmen.  In Vietnam, if you’re rich, you are some combination of all of those to varying degrees. There’s no such thing as social mobility there.  No matter how hard you work, if you’re poor, you’ll always be poor.  You’re born into your social class.  Much like America is becoming with it’s 1% super rich, and then the rest of us.

Anyway, I began asking my students if any of their parents would be interested in helping ol’ Mister International Man of History out.  The first kid that got back to me hooked me up with his brother.  I met with his brother, and he said sure, he’d help me, as he was connected with the police.  Teachers are well respected in Asia, and it’s not uncommon for student’s families to do nice things for their teachers.

I was feeling pretty tense, as I’m not used to mafia/Communist party officials doing favors for me.  The brother pulled up to the school in his chauffeured Land Rover with government plates, and I got in.  Off to the police station to talk with his cop friend and put the squeeze on the bastard who had almost killed me, then left me for dead….

To be continued…

Friday, August 24, 2012

Escape from Hanoi, Part 2

So, I had just missed my third and final job interview at the French school by two days, due to a concussion with amnesia, and several other broken parts.  I was in a hospital in Hanoi, the “French” Hanoi Hospital.  I put quotes around the French part because that’s their big selling point, that there’s actually French doctors there, but in reality, there’s like 2 in the entire hospital.  So, basically for 10 times the price of a normal Viet hospital you get a 5% chance of getting a French doctor, and a 96% chance of getting regular ol’ terrifyingly oblivious Vietnamese medical care.

Anyway, I checked my email, saw that the school had emailed me twice trying to get ahold of me, then gave up.  I emailed apologizing, and explaining to them the situation and how I would be in the hospital for at least the next few days, but I am still very interested in the position.  They replied ‘no problem, we understand, get well soon and let us know when you feel up to an interview.’  Phew.

The next morning, I was to have surgery on my nose.  My left sinus passage was crushed and needed to be popped back into place.  I would need to be placed under general anesthesia, which always carries some risk of the anesthesiologist od’ing you if they don’t get everything exact.  So far, I hadn’t seen a single French person, and my medical team was no different, all Vietnamese.  In these situations, much like flying, I just figure either they’ll do a good job and I’ll live, or a bad job and I’ll die.  Not much to be done about it.  Call it fatalism, but it gets me through the day.

My face hurt like hell, if you’ve ever had a sinus infection, like that but with the additional feeling of hitting you in nose with a hammer.  Not fun.  Anyway, they cart me to the table, and dump me on it.  They lay me down, and then a little poke, and ahh, the sweet nectar of oblivion is pumped into my veins.  No more pain, just happy floating in the void.  I was having a pretty nice opium dream, I don’t remember of what, but I can only assume it was somewhere far fucking away from a Vietnamese hospital.

Dreaming, and then CHOKING!  DROWNING!  GGGGGHHHH!! My eyes snap open, and gurgling, I cough out blood, spraying the entire operating room in blood, like the chick from The Exorcist.  Step out of the action for a moment, I’m going to give you a little first aid quiz to see if you know more than 5 Vietnames nurses and one Vietnamese surgeon.  Question:  If someone is bleeding profusely in their sinus passage, and you lay them on their back, where do you think gravity will dump that blood?  If you answered “down the victim’s throat”, YOU WIN!  You know more about first aid than a room full of Vietnamese medical professionals! 

The blood had filled my nose, and proceeded to fill my throat, cutting off all air, essentially drowning me in my own blood.  Still zonked from the anesthesia, but lucid enough to know what’s going on, I wave at the nurses who are currently running around the room like 5 chickens with their heads cut off, and do the international hand signal for “choking”, the crook of your hand across your throat, with a panicked look in the eyes, and face turning slightly blue.  They continue to run around the room aimlessly, all yelling in Vietnamese, but none actually doing anything.  One has at least the bright idea to offer me a tissue as I’m coughing blood everywhere.  Thanks lady, but instead, do you think maybe you could help tilt my head up, as I’m clearly trying to do, so the blood flows out of my throat?  Nah, too complex a concept.  I push through the drug induced coma and finally get myself onto an elbow, where I expel the rest of the blood onto the floor.  Then I take the uselessly proffered tissue and wipe my gore covered face off.  If I was slightly more zonked out by the anesthesia, I wouldn’t be writing this today.  I think in the states, there might be a lawsuit there, but in ‘Nam, it’s just business as usual.

That was the only real bad thing that happened to me in the hospital, other than one of my nurses stealing my morphine doses as I was healing up, which really sucked as my sinuses were hurting so bad, I couldn’t sleep, or do much apart from grit my teeth.  I finally got out of the Hospital of Doom (which is believe it or not, the second best hospital in all of Hanoi) and back to my house on Friday.  About the job, I knew I had to strike while the iron was hot.  I knew I was fighting with a lot of other teachers for this gig, and if I waited too long, they might just go with someone else.  Although I was still mentally rattled from my concussion/amnesia, I emailed them and said I’d be ready for the interview by Monday.  Two days to try and get my brain hard-wired again.  I still had (and still have) absolutely no memories of the time between leaving work and sitting with my coworker with my arm already put in a cast in the hospital.

The interview was at 1:30pm on Monday, so Sunday night, I went to bed at midnight, thinking I would likely wake up at my usual hour of 8 or 9am.  In Hanoi, I never was able to sleep later than about 8:30am.  I woke up comfortably, stretched, and looked at my watch, thinking it would be maybe 9 or 10, since I felt so refreshed.  It was 2pm, half an hour after the appointed time.  Shit!  Again!  I jumped out of bed, then tried not to faint from lack of blood pressure, grabbed my computer, checked email, and sure enough, another two messages asking where I was, and if I was still interested.  I replied that I was absolutely interested, and apologized for how unprofessional this must seem, but the medication I had taken had apparently knocked me out for 14 hours (literally the only time in my life I have ever slept for 14 hours).  If they could just give me 30 minutes to get ready, I would be ready to interview.  They said no problem.  Quickly brewed some strong coffee, and dressed. 

The funny thing was that, as bad as my injuries were, if you looked at me, I really didn’t look messed up at all.  Not even a bruise on my face, although I had broken sinus and teeth.  My arm was in a cast, but that was it.  So, I decided I needed to ham it up, and show them that I was really messed up, otherwise they might just think I was bullshitting them.  So, quick costume change.  I put two large bandages across my nose, I hadn’t shaved in a week already so I had a nice castaway beard going, and then I wrapped a sling around my arm, therefore hoisting my cast into the camera’s field of vision and making my arm injury look far worse.  To top it off, I put on a shirt and a tie, and draped my suit jacket over my shoulder, in an imitation of a veteran from The Great War.  Now, I looked like I felt.  Perfect.

When they turned the camera on (Skype interviews are now the norm for international work), the director let out a gasp.  Booya!  “Um, are you ok?  Are you sure you are feeling well enough to do this?”  Yes, I’ll be fine, let’s get this interview started!  “Well, if you need to take a break to rest during the interview, that is totally fine, no problem, just let me know.”  No ma’am, thank you, but I’m pretty tough and you’ve already had to wait for me enough.  “Well, if you’re sure…” 

And again, I aced the interview.  Even though I was groggy and messed up, like I said, my interview mojo is pretty high nowadays after going through 3 days of non-stop interviews in London.  After, I wrote her an email thanking her for her time, and that I looked forward to speaking with her in the future.  She responded almost immediately thanking me for my time, and told me it was pretty clear that I had the energy and dedication for the job.  Boo and ya!  Two days later, I got the job offer.

The problem is my motorbike was still with the guy who I assumed to be my guardian angel, this English guy named Steve, the one who took care of my bike, picked me off the road, and brought me on the back of his motorbike to the hospital, pouring blood and half conscious.  If it wasn’t for him looking after me, I might just have died on the side of some Hanoian highway.  One thing about the Vietnamese, if they see an injured Westerner, they are very unlikely to try and help them.  Not because they are bad people, but because they are afraid.  In popular Vietnamese legend, if a Viet helps an injured foreigner, and then said foreigner dies or gets worse while under their protection, there is a belief that the foreigner will then sue them, or that the government will hold the Viet responsible for the condition of the foreigner.  This might actually be true, knowing Vietnam’s crazy laws, but I don’t know, and neither do most Viets, as such, they are real hesitant to help a badly injured foreigner, and given that, I can’t say I blame them.   

When I was in the hospital, Steve was constantly texting and calling me, asking how I was doing, if there was anything he could do to help, assuring me my bike was safe, and that if I wanted he could get my bike (which was completely totaled from the accident) up and running for around $300 because he has a Viet buddy who’s a mechanic.  Seemed like a good deal to me, so sure, hook it up buddy.  This really saved me a big head ache, as I would have somehow had to get the bike towed to a garage and then negotiated them fixing it, all with basically no Vietnamese language skills.  This might not sound difficult, but in Hanoi, everything is a negotiation, and there’s no such thing as “the Yellow Pages”, if you don’t know a mechanic, or a tow truck, good luck finding one.  But Steve hooked it all up, and for a good price (I assumed).  This guy was like some blessed stranger.  He saved me from an uncertain fate on the side of the road, brought me to a hospital, and asked for nothing in return, I even offered to give him some money as a token of gratitude for helping me so much, and he refused.  What a guy! 
In the world of con-men, this situation is called “gaining the mark’s confidence”…As I was to find out later…
To Be Continued…

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Escape from Hanoi, Part 1

Time travel back with me to mid May…  I had just accepted a job offer in the Virgin Islands and was pretty excited about that.  Tropical paradise and all that.  Then I got even better news; six months previous to that, I had spent a few weeks researching and sending out letters of introduction with my CV (like a longer resume) to every single international school in France, Germany, and Sweden, and I even built up a website to highlight my teaching skills and sell myself.  One school in France got back to me saying they might have a position opening for next school year.

Not one to let opportunity pass, I stayed in touch with this school, pestering them about once a month to remind them that I was still very much interested in teaching for them.  They kept saying, ‘yeah we know, we’ll let you know’.  A few months of this passed, and I didn’t hear back from them, then I decided to take the gamble and fly to London for this job fair.  About that time, in my daily job hunt, I noticed an ad, “Teach in the French Riviera” on the London Times Educational website, which is about the hottest and most used European teacher website.  When you post any job there, you’re going to get hundreds of applicants.  When boasting about teaching in the French Riviera, you’re going to get many hundred more.  I read it, like probably a couple thousand teacher before, and discovered it was for the school I had been in contact with.  I didn’t know the school was in the Riviera because the school goes by this long, unwieldy French appellation which got shortened into a long, unwieldy acronym.  I just knew it was in France, and that’s somewhere I wanted to teach.  I didn’t know it was in THE most desirable place in France to live, right on the Mediterranean, in that little sweet spot right next to Italy.  So of course, the competition would be fierce.

For any European job, me being an American puts me at a huge disadvantage.  At least half the European schools I applied at wouldn’t even consider someone without a European passport.  Mostly, it’s because getting a work visa for a non-EU citizen is a pain in the ass, and in the French bureaucracy, it’s worse than almost any other European nation.  Finding a job there as a foreigner is a super hard sell.

So, I figured this was the moment I was waiting for, and dropped them another line, reminding them that I would love to work there.  “Yeah, we know, we’ll be interviewing in about a month from now, we’ll let you know.”  Well, I knew I didn’t stand much chance with that, so I went into negotiations with the Virgin Islands school, a bird in the hand, and all that.

A month passed and no news.  Then a few weeks later, I get an email asking if I’m still interested in working for the French school.  Absolutely.  We set up an interview for the next week.  The interview comes up and I kick ass.  After going through 3 full days of non-stop interviews in the London fair, my interview skillz were top notch.  The director of the school tells me that I just made it to the top ten of a very large field of applicants, around 500 people applied for the post.  Yeah, I got game.  Not over yet though, he sets up a second interview for the next week, this time with himself and the head of the History department.  The second interview comes, and I ace that one too.  He tells me at that point, I bumped up to the top spot, and I pretty much got the job.  I just have to go through one more interview though, this time with the head of the School board. 

At this point, I had the Virgin Islands job if I wanted it, so I knew I had a fall back.  And tropical paradise is a pretty good fall back.  The only thing that made me more interested in France is that the island I would be moving to was tiny, only 20,000 people.  I’m now a single guy, and after being stuck in the tiny island of Hanoi expat life, the thought of going to an even smaller social scene wasn’t appealing, especially one with few single people, as I was told the Virgin Islands were (by someone who was currently working there and single).  Paradise, yes, but paradise by yourself can get lonesome.  In France, I have a real shot at laying down some roots, and finally finding a place to rest my wandering soul.  I speak the language, love the food, understand the culture, and I really like the idea of having workers rights, a concept that doesn’t exist in Asia (and barely exists in America).  Plus, the Riviera ain’t such a bad place to live either.

This is all happening at the end of May.  I only have a month and a half left in my contract in Hanoi.  If I can just survive the next 45 days, I got either tropical paradise or the Mediterranean, both a far cry from the ol’ Loud and Dirty.  I left work early so that I could go home and prep for my final interview.  I took the highway to get home…And the next thing I am conscious of, I am in a hospital.  I look around confused and clueless as to how I got there.  My arm is in a cast.  My face hurts like hell, so does my leg.  My pants are bloody and torn.  I look over, and there’s my coworker Ryan sitting next to me.  I ask Ryan “What happened?  Why am I in a hospital?  Where’s my bike?”  Ryan rolls his eyes and sighs.  He tells me in a tired voice that I got hit by a car when I was riding my motorbike home on the highway, a foreigner named Steve saw me on the side of the road, picked me off the road, brought my motorbike to his house which just so happened to be a few blocks away, then brought me on the back of his motorbike to the hospital where I was diagnosed as having a broken wrist, three broken teeth, a crushed sinus passage, a bunch of road rash, and a concussion.  By his rapid-fire litany of that sentence, and his weariness, I deduced that he had probably told me this a hundred times and I had lost my short term memory.  I asked him.  Yup.  This was about the hundredth time he told me.   At least this time, I remembered.

The doctors then put me into a hospital bed, and Ryan told me (again, and also for the first time subjectively) that it was very important that I tell the doctors and the insurance company that I was WALKING when the accident occurred.  This is important because I don’t a have motorbike license in Hanoi.  Very few foreigners do.  I knew a total of 2 out of all the foreigners who had one.  The reason is twofold.  One, the process for getting a motorbike driving license in Vietnam is extremely byzantine, complicated, long, and like most things in that country, only works out about 30% of the time.  Reason two is that the government realizes that foreigners are the best drivers in Vietnam.  We’re not the ones who make the roads dangerous.
 Still, if the cops wanted to, they know they could literally pull over any foreign driver, and none of them would have a license.  But they don’t.  My theory behind that is Vietnam is really trying to boost their tourism, and the last thing they want is for tourists to be reporting back about always being hassled by the police.  Not good for tourism.  So, yeah, the accident happened while I was “walking”, although I still had my motorbike helmet with me in the hospital.  The doctors don’t care though, unlike here, they’re not in the insurance biz.

Eventually, they put me into a bed, and tell me I have to spend  at least the next few days in the hospital, to make sure I don’t have permanent brain damage, and they are also going to need to operate on my sinus passage.  Eventually Ryan goes home when I get sorted out.  Thanks again Ry-Ry.

I wake up the next day, still dazed from my concussion, but lucid.  I check my email on my phone which miraculously survived unscathed, only to find two emails from the French school, one email asking where I was, and the second asking if I was still interested in working at the school.  Shit!  I had missed the interview by a full day!

To be continued…

Monday, May 14, 2012

Bribing the Buddha

Another interesting thing about Vietnamese culture is the amount of superstition, and the belief in luck.  Although similar, religion and superstition are slightly different.  Superstition in my definition, is more like little ‘practical’ bits of religion, i.e. religious thinking (belief in ghosts, spirits, etc) that concerns itself with day to day living, rather than ethics or afterlife.  In almost every Vietnamese house and business, you will see a little altar in the corner with a Buddha in a little house, and at the foot of the Buddha, a lot of little offerings, often beer, fruit, and incense.  When I got here, this interested me, and I tried to get the Viets to tell me what all that meant.  What was the spiritual significance of all that?

No Viet I met could actually tell me, was the weird thing.  The typical response is “It’s for the Buddha.”  Yeah, ok, I can see the little fat guy, but what does it mean?  Blank look response.  The thing is, religion in Vietnamese culture doesn’t have a focus on the afterlife, karma, or even morals as we would define them.  Instead, religion is about dealing with powerful unseen forces, which can ruin you or make you successful.  It’s a religion focused on the pragmatic side of this life.

 Vietnamese are by label, Buddhist largely.  However, the actual belief is a mishmash of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and a little bit of old fashioned shamanism.  For as much emphasis as the West has put on religion, the Vietnamese just kind of take it all with a shrug.  Sure, spirits exist, but that’s about as specific as they get.  You have the spirits of your ancestors who watch over your family, and demand offerings in order to protect you from bad luck/spirits.  Then there’s the gods, vague sort of pre-Buddhist ideas of powerful supernatural beings, then there’s the Buddha, who is like the head honcho spirit rather than an ethical ideal, and then there’s the concept of reincarnation tossed in there. 

I asked them, if you believe in reincarnation, then how can your ancestor’s spirits be floating around?  Shouldn’t they be reincarnated?  My Viet student looked surprised, like he had actually never considered that.  He just kind of smiled and shrugged, and said “Yeah, that’s a good point.  I don’t know.”  Fair enough.  But this interaction sums up Vietnamese religion pretty well.  It’s just one of those things that everyone believes because it’s what people believe, but nobody pays much attention to.  Kind of like spiritual background noise.

Religion here is for practical purposes, in order to have success in this life.  You make an offering to Buddha at the pagoda or altar in order to receive good luck.  There’s no spiritual aspect as we would define it.  The afterlife is vague and undefined, and their ethics derive largely from Confucian philosophy, rather than Buddhist thought.

Which brings us to the concept of luck.  In Vietnamese culture, there’s an unspoken view that humans have little actual control of their life.  If you are successful, it is about 20% your work, and about 80% good luck.  The forces of the world are so enormous that each individual is essentially powerless against things like the gods, the spirits, the bosses,  the government, the weather, etc.  In this culture, you can work all your life very hard, but not get anywhere.  If you’re born a peasant, you’ll die as one too.  Social mobility isn’t an Asian thing.  Your best bet is to rely upon luck, fortune, and the goodwill of the ancestors. 

In this culture, and even so in ours, this makes sense.  In the West, we have more ability to change our situation in life, not much more, but still, there is some social mobility.  Theoretically, if you want to be rich, you can pursue certain paths in life.  This is the big selling point of capitalism; upward mobility.  As the rich continue to become the Super Rich 1%, and the rest of slide into lower middle class, this American Dream is becoming less and less a reality, thanks to tax breaks for the rich and the corporations, “free” trade treaties, outsourcing, and the rising cost of education.

So, in Vietnam, they hope to persuade the things that control luck and fortune through offerings.  If you were to ask almost any Viet why they go to pagodas or make offerings to the Buddha, it is exclusively to receive good fortune (luck) in this life, rather than any spiritual reason.  In the Vietnamese mind, spirits are not part of religion, they are a force of nature to be reckoned with.  And they take it seriously.  People will pay HUGE sums of money ($1000’s) to have ‘lucky’ phone numbers, and a wedding day is always decided by consulting a fortune teller to find the most lucky day and time for the couple to get married on.  Some weddings take place on Tuesday morning at 9 a.m., possibly the least romantic time. 

As an atheist, I can actually appreciate this type of thinking.  In life, there is so much that truly is out of our control, and while some people resort to the belief that there is some divine order in the universe (‘God has a plan’ or ‘everything happens for a reason’), I can appreciate and in fact, agree more with the Asian idea that chaos and chance are the foundations of the universe.  Evolutionary science and science in general tend to agree on this.   You can be ready to think on your feet in order to react well, or take advantage of opportunities as they arise, but as a wise man once said, “Shit happens.” 

In Vietnamese spiritual thinking, they are just trying to hedge their bets with a little supernatural graft to the spirits, a friendly “gift” that might get the Powers That Be to do you a favor.   Us Westerners call it ‘corruption’ but here, it’s just a way of life and afterlife.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


My Vietnamese landlord is kind of like the grandpa I never had.  In fact I don’t actually know his name, either first or last.  I’ve always referred to him as “Grandfather”, which would be the Vietnamese greeting/address to one who is older than you.  Quick note about the Vietnamese language:  there are about 6 different pronouns to refer to people, depending upon their age and status.  Now, I speak minimal Vietnamese, but I understand the basics.  When you refer to someone, there’s 6 different ways to refer to them; male/female of a younger age or lower status than you (‘boy’/’girl’), male/female (different words gender dependant) of late 20’s/early 30’s approximately and/or someone of slightly higher social status (uncle/aunt approximately), male/female of middle age (father/mother approx.), and male/female of advanced age (grandfather/grandmother approx.).  So, I just always refer to my landlord as ‘grandfather’, partly because I don’t actually know his name and partly because I don’t know how to call him in a respectable way (calling someone by their first name may be offensive, I’m not too sure in this situation). 

Vietnamese society is very strongly influenced by Chinese Confucianism, which is a very hierarchical system of Superior/Inferior.  Aside, this is part of the reason I am not so much into Vietnamese culture, because it is super hierarchical, and I’m kind of an anarchist at heart.  Egalitie, Fraternitie, and Libertie never caught on here.

Anyway, back to Grandfather.  So, as best as I reckon, Grandfather is between 70-85.  With Asians, especially developing world Asians, it’s really hard to tell their age, partly because they stay very active until the day they die, and partly because their skin doesn’t show the ravages of age quite like our European skin does.  The night I moved into my new place, Grandfather poured me 3 teacups full of rice wine infused with severed and endangered Asian black bear paw.  Because if you eat/drink bear, you will be strong like a bear, according to the ancient wisdom/stupidity of  Traditional Chinese Medicine (the same medical tradition that brings us acupuncture and the extinction of the Asian Rhino because it’s horn will make the  penis more potent).  Well, I believe in conservation more than most, but when you’re a guest in someone’s house and country, a good guest accepts his host’s gifts graciously, which in this case mean drinking about two tumblers full of disgusting rice vodka/herbs/bear parts.

Anyway, Grandfather always seems to have the right timing to cheer me up right as I think this entire county is full of people who have the awareness of drunken, brain damaged people.  After I park my motorbike, Grandfather pulls me into his apartment (I live in what could be described as a 4 floor duplex, Grandfather and Grandmother on bottom floor, his son and family on 2nd floor, a French couple on 3rd floor, and me on 4th, all kept comfortably separate by an exterior stairwell/entryway), and sits me down, then starts pouring either beer if I’m lucky, or some foul rice vodka concoction if I’m unlucky, and I hang with Grandfather until I’ve pounded 2 beers or 3 shots and the accompanying snack.  Now, Grandfather and Grandmother speak not a word of English, and I speak about 20 words of Vietnamese so most of the time we sit there in awkward silence, grinning silly and having one word conversations (“Vietnam good?” “Vietnam good.”  pointing to food “good!”  ‘good’ is one of the few Vietnamese words I know).

But  like I said, Grandfather and Grandmother are like my adopted grandparents.  Today I came home after a particularly exhausting day, wanting nothing more than to go up and relax, but, Grandfather sensed a disturbance in the Force, and pulled me into his apartment, where I was greeted with a full tumbler of mysterious rice vodka.  He patted me on the shoulder and encouraged me to drink up.  He told me what it was in Vietnamese, and I didn’t understand, but I was led to understand that whatever it was, “it’s good for the man!”  So, I did my usual, and gulped down about 12 ounces of extremely bizarre, borderline gag-reflex inducing rice vodka, followed by a glass of water.  Grandfather doesn’t drink anymore, but boy, he sure does love plying his guests with booze.   He is really a sweet heart.  Even if I can barely stomach the concoctions I am forced to drink, his heart is in the right place, and I drink it with a grimace concealed with a smile and a “to your health”.   And other times, Grandfather shuffles up to my apartment with little Vietnamese treats to offer.  Mostly I don’t know what I’m eating/drinking, but his hospitality is clear, and I always accept graciously, even when it’s stomach churning.  But again, he’s a sweet old man, and I like hanging out with him even if our conversations only consist of one word, and much awkward smiles and grins.

As I said Grandfather is like my adopted granddad, but as he’s Vietnamese, that still doesn’t stop him from occasionally trying to rip me off.  One time I ordered water (all houses are supplied by big bottles of drinking water, as the tap water is non-potable), it was delivered when I wasn’t there and Grandfather received the delivery.  Thinking he had paid for it in my stead, I went to give him the money, and he gladly accepted it, then I noticed Grandmother smacking him and talking in Vietnamese disapprovingly.  Grandmother kept giving me the money back, Grandfather kept taking it.  I was very confused.  Finally Grandmother shooed me away with my money, and the next day,  the water guy came around asking for money.  Grandfather hadn’t paid for it, but was going to gladly accept me giving him the money for it.  Grandmother wouldn’t have it though.

 That’s the thing with the Viets, they are sweet people, but they have little compunction about ripping you off, even if they like you.   I just shrugged it off and smiled, as I know Grandfather is an old scoundrel.  A month later when I was paying rent though, Grandfather was mistaken in his calculation of how much I owed him by $350, and would never have noticed (basically you pay rent 3 months at time here, and he forgot one month), now a part of me was thinking, ‘haha, sweet a free month!, gotcha Grandfather!’ but of course, the other side of me was like ‘no, be honorable’, and as my momma raised me right, that’s the side I always listen to.  So after 10 minutes of me explaining of how his calculation  was off and in fact I owed him $350, he got it.   I’m pretty sure I scored one for Western Honor on that one.  Grandfather has always treated me well, but after that, I was like blood.  And now here I sit, with a gut full of foul rice vodka infused with some horrible herbs/animal parts gurgling in my belly, but happy in being an adopted grandson.  As I said, the Viets can be infuriatingly oblivious to everything, yet they are still a very sweet hearted people.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sexpats, Missionaries, Hired Guns, and English Teachers; An Introduction to the expat scene.

So, less someone think I'm biased against all things Vietnamese, it's time to talk about the expat “community” here. (It's not just the Vietnamese that piss me off, I'm an equal opportunity critic) I put quotes around community because in my mind, community means some common connection to other people, some lifestyle or belief, some glue that holds people together rather than having them be strangers. Here in Hanoi, we're only a community because of our foreignness. The only thing the expat community has in common is that no one speaks the local language (ok, maybe there's 3 Westerners who can carry on an actual conversation in Vietnamese deeper than “My name is ---. I like food too”), and we are most certainly NOT VIETNAMESE, a fact pointed out every time you are stared at as you walk down the street, ripped off by a local, or asked to repeat your poorly spoken Vietnamese five times. Now, don't get me wrong, it's not that Viets don't treat us well, in general, they do (apart from ripping us off), and they are a super friendly people, far more friendly than any Western place I've lived. It's just that their ethnic identity IS their national identity (like every other country except America, Canada, and Australia-immigrant nations), and so the only Vietnamese are Vietnamese.

A couple of other quick generalizations about the demographics before we begin. The expats here are almost exclusively 20-25 years old, or 55+. Straight out of university, or heading to retirement. And dear god, I must be getting old, because seriously, college kids (and those just out) seem like such immature twats to me. Bah, such is middle age.

Anyway, In Hanoi, there's four types of expats. Not EVERYONE falls into these categories, but hey, generalizations are a fun part of life. Without them, where would most humor and ALL social sciences be? I find the only people stupider than someone who never makes a generalization are the ones who believe all their generalizations one hundred percent. Bigots and the Politically Correct are not so different from each other in that regard. So without anymore caveats, here they are, the Sexpats, the Missionaries, the English Teachers, and the Hired Guns.

The (S)expats are often older Western guys (but not always older), who love Vietnam because here they are a white god. Not every guy who dates Viets is a Sexpat, but boy, you can tell them when you see them. You can recognize most Sexpats by the age or beauty difference between them and their Vietnamese girlfriends/wives. Old guy with young girl? Sexpat. Ugly guy with beautiful local girl? Sexpat. Back home, they are usually guys who have a hard time getting laid, but here, they can always find a girl whose lifetime earnings will total what the Sexpat earns in one year. As such, the Sexpat represents a way out of village life for a local girl. And all they have to do is cook for, and have sex with an older ugly guy. And even better, unlike 70% of Vietnamese men, he is less likely to abuse her. 66% of Vietnamese women report that their husbands abuse them.

It's pretty funny/gross to see some guy in his fifties with a far younger, far more beautiful, and often pregnant, Viet wife trailing behind him. Typically the girl speaks little/no English, so that sweetens the deal further, as most of these guys don't want a wife for companionship anyway. They want a good little girl who cooks, cleans, fucks, and shuts her mouth (at least in English). Typically, when they go out to social events, the Sexpat gives his girl a toy to play with, and that keeps the girl occupied while the man hangs out with his friends. An Ipad is the preferred pacifier. The girl sits happily playing, as she would be lost in all the English conversation anyway. The Sexpat's preferred transport in Hanoi is a big, expensive motorcycle with his little Viet girl clinging on to him like a mother chimpanzee and it's offspring.

Because cars are almost useless here, guys with small dicks tend to prefer big expensive motorcycles, and even they are fairly useless for the typical weaving in and out of Hanoi traffic. Those bikes were made for proper roads and highways, not cramped alleyways and weaving around the random fruit seller standing in the middle of the road. Getting around here is all about zigging and zagging through the hordes of people, random open manhole covers, and Vietnamese stopping in the middle of the road to get out their cell phones. The Hanoi Weave is hard to do on an 800cc motorcycle. Not to mention the only time you can get any vehicle going faster than 70mph (and in Hanoi traffic, doing 70 feels like driving at Mach 10) is once you get about one hour outside of Hanoi into the countryside. And even then, there's the goddamned fruit sellers in the middle of the road.

Sexpats are the only long termers here in Vietnam. All the other expats, no matter how much they swear to you "they just love Hanoi", are only here for three years maximum before it starts to even get to them. Most people who “just love Hanoi” have also never lived anywhere outside their hometown. Those who have lived in a lot of different places tend to not be big fans of Hanoi, because the newness of being a foreigner has worn off, and what's left is just dirty old Hanoi.

Saying how much you “just love Hanoi” is the local equivalent of “I wait tables, but I'm actually an actor” in Los Angeles. Essentially it's another pretentious line of bullshit which nobody believes yet everyone tells each other. This city has a higher pretentious twat ratio per capita than a New York gallery showing performance art.

Everyone is trying to out “I-love-hanoi” the other, because everyone considers themselves so hard core because they live in Hanoi, yet being pretentious, they would never say its hard to live in Hanoi. Oddly enough, everyone “just loves Hanoi”, yet absolutely no one lives here longer than 3 years. No one that isn't into banging Viets that is. Sexpats got it good and will never leave.

Which brings me to the second type of expat, the Missionaries. Now, I don't mean actual missionaries in the religious sense, these Missionaries usually work for an NGO, but there's also a healthy dose of them in the education field. NGO stands for Non-Governmental Organization, basically equivalent to an international non-profit company. The Missionaries are typically fresh out of their ivy league universities, and after a year or two of either volunteering or working as an unpaid intern, are here to Save the Vietnamese People. They are mostly from wealthy backgrounds.

There's not a lot of money to be made in the NGO field, at least at the entry level (upper management make as much money as their private business counterparts, and somehow, are still always crying for everyone else to give their organization money), so the only ones who can afford to work as a volunteer or unpaid intern for a year are people who are already independently wealthy. Alas, it's always the bourgeoise who lead the revolutions and crusades as their insulated backgrounds breed naïve idealism. Of all the pretentious pricks in Hanoi, these are usually the worst.

As they have been enlightened on poverty, oppression, and gender rights by their professors, they are here to right the wrongs, and guide the benighted Viets to peace and prosperity. As old and corrupt as the Sexpats are, they are naive and young. An army of Pollyannas coming to Save The World. Now, I understand their motivations, and respect them actually. Helping people is a noble goal, and I know the people they do help really appreciate it. However, their naivety and self-righteousness make them a pain in the ass to deal with. Actual missionaries are often helpful in the same way, and annoying in the same way.

The Missionaries are the types that if they were to hear you complaining about anything here, would be the first to tell you "if you don't like it, then you should leave", or that the Westerner neighborhoods are "expat ghettos". Of course, they would never apply such critiques to foreigners in their own culture. They would never tell a Viet that lived in Canada and was complaining about some aspect of Canadian culture "love it or leave it!" No, that would be wrong. Nor would they ever call a Vietnamese neighborhood in their own country an “Asian ghetto”. But hypocrisy never got in the way of self-righteousness. I used Canada as an example, because they are the most politically correct people I've ever met. Like a country of Diversity Specialists or something. Except for my Canadian friends who are reading this, luckily they aren't so uptight. :)

In conversation the Missionaries are either excusing the stupider aspects of Vietnamese culture, or persecuting anyone who happens to point out such cultural failings. “Not better or worse, just different” is their motto. Yeah, ok, so you're telling me the cultural acceptance of domestic abuse is “just different” than ours, which tends to frown upon it? Or not putting a helmet on your child's head as it clings to the back of your motorbike, because you believe that a helmet will hurt a child's brain and neck development (yes, that's an actual reason here) is “just different”? What about the Vietnamese/Chinese obsession with male virility which has put to extinction the Vietnamese rhino, and pushed the Vietnamese tiger , elephant, and bear to near extinction? Ah, right, that's “just different” too. One thing travel and history have taught me is that, yes, some cultures have their shit together a lot more than others. Cultural relativism is bullshit.

English Teachers are the next group. They are typically young kids who are out on their first international adventure, and capitalize on the huge demand for native English speakers to teach conversational English. Few other places in the world can someone straight out of college work 20 hour weeks and live like a king. And that's why they are here, to party their asses off while still making money. They live in kind of an extended spring break.

When people ask me what I do in Hanoi, I tell them I am a teacher, then quickly add in “but I teach History”, to not get lumped into the party happy backpacker scene of the English Teacher. People usually respond, “oh, you're a REAL teacher”, because basically to be an English teacher you need little to no qualifications, at most a six month TOEFL course, and there's little to no course planning. You show up around 6pm, go through the preset lesson plan with the students for a few hours, and then you're done for the day. The pub awaits. It's not a bad life if you're someone who just wants to party his or her way around the world. In fact, I wish I had discovered this gig when I was traveling the world, as it sure as hell beats the digging ditches and serving coffee that I did. Not a bad sort, the English Teacher, but not much for conversation beyond “did you see that chick?” or “I was sooo wasted!”

Finally, we come to our last group, the Hired Guns. Hired Guns are the ones who are only here because of their jobs. Typically embassy workers, business people, or occasionally, teachers, such as Yours Truly. I put myself into this generalization. Most Hired Guns don't care for Hanoi, as they didn't really choose to live here, and Hanoi is a hard city to fall in love with. They tend to isolate themselves in the gated communities or luxury villas, in order to put as much distance between Vietnam and themselves. They are often middle aged, typically trailing a bewildered family. I don't really know much about this type (apart from myself) as they really don't get out much, I only see them behind the dark glass of their chauffeured cars, or at the more exclusive restaurants in Hanoi, which I don't go to. An elusive species.

So, that brings you up to speed on the local expat scene here. Which pretty much sucks by the way. The social scene is very tiny, and it's notable to see someone you haven't seen before. There are plenty of backpacker tourists in the Old Quarter, but they're only here for a quick bit. Every expat has pretty much seen every expat around town. It's pretty incestuous, and as far as incest goes, well, let's say that family tree ain't too pretty.