Mai Châu

Mai Châu is about four hours outside of Hanoi, in northwest Vietnam, but as all the guide books and tourist literature will tell you: it feels a world away. 

it’s a bit of a cheesy ploy, a blatant advertising tactic, but it works. I am sold. I’m looking for a break, again, from the dizzying pace of Hanoi, a city I love, but a challenging place to live nonetheless.

A ride through twisting and turning mountain roads leads to the lush rural valley town of Mai Châu. I check into the Mai Châu Lodge and go on a small group bicycle tour through the nearby villages of Ban Lac and Pom Coong. we ride on dirt roads through rice paddies, and the fields are vibrant shades of bright green, lighter green, yellow, brown. we pass by stilt houses made of bamboo and timber. we ride alongside cattle and hear roosters crowing. we pass people sorting through grains of rice on bamboo mats. on the horizon, always, looms the jagged outline of the mountains.

the villages have adapted to the call of tourists: many open up their homes for homestays and sell handicrafts for souvenirs, gorgeous embroidered bags and scarves in rich, bright colors. as we bike through we see many women outside working at looms. it is a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new, of traditional and modern, like so much of Vietnam.

the lodge at night is every bit the peace and quiet I hoped it would be. in the morning I wake up feeling more clear-headed and rested than I have in some time.

family dinner

Hien, my airB&B host, invites me to a family dinner, a feast on the anniversary of his father’s passing. this is done annually, this kind of remembrance, called a death anniversary.

there is nonstop cooking for two days, and then Hien’s family fills the main room of the house. I sit quietly and eat at a table of women, next to Hien’s wife, Hoa. aside from light conversation with Hien and Hoa, I am a silent listener. most of the talk is in Vietnamese, of course, so I smile and try to look grateful. the women smile back as they fill and refill my bowl: spring rolls, prawns, green papaya salad, boiled chicken, sauteed greens, smoked ham, mushroom soup. it is all incredible.

when I notice everyone looking at me, Hien tells me they say I look very young. “18,” he says. I shake my head – no, no, no. I tell Hien that I’m 28, and my birthday has just passed. he says, “ah, 1987,” and he tells me in the Vietnamese zodiac this is the year of the cat, and that his mother is the year of the cat, too.

after dinner we sit and drink tea and eat watermelon. I’m left wishing I could express all the gratitude I feel – how honored I am to sit at the table with them. but even without the language barrier I don’t think words would be enough.



my first day alone here, my mother messages me to ask why the weather report for Hanoi (she checks daily, she tells me) does not say sunny or cloudy or chance of rain. instead it says “smoke.”

what does smoke mean? she asks. is Hanoi on fire? after a little research, I find out that it is, in a way: farmers on the outskirts of Hanoi are burning stacks of straw after the rice harvest. as I read the article I see images of many little puffs of smoke rising out of the fields. it’s affected the air quality, which explains the weather report, and why I woke up with a sore throat and stuffed nose.

so my first day is smoky. when I step outside I realize how spoiled I’ve been on the motorbike. I have forgotten how difficult walking can be in this city. the sidewalks are constantly filled with little street food stalls, plastic tables and chairs, and parked motorbikes. the streets are filled with motorbikes, many of them ignoring traffic lights (in Hanoi yellow and red mean “go,” too) and going the wrong way down one-way streets. along the curb are little bags of trash waiting to be picked up by sanitation workers. I am alert, admittedly a little tense.

there are small victories: a freshly baked baguette from the baker around the corner, still warm when it’s placed in my hands. a productive writing day. the time to read four short stories from my best american anthology (2002 edition). not too bad at all.



the best thing in vietnam

is an ice cream cone!! forget history and incredible people and stunning landscapes and architecture and culture! it is this cone. this is it, guys.

the place is called Kem Tràng Tiền. it is a parking garage. I mean that literally: people actually park their motorbikes in the ice cream shop. there’s soft-serve, and then there’s a prepackaged version on a stick, and then there’s this. there is only one flavor: the best most coconut-y coconut you’ve ever tasted. the cone is a thin wafer that’s not too sweet and baked with sesame seeds. one cone is 50 cents. that’s right. you can eat the best thing in Vietnam (also the world, maybe) for 50 cents. here is a picture of me on the best day of my life, the day I discovered this ice cream cone:


whiskey in the jar

we meet an Irish man at beer corner. he’s been living in Hanoi for three years teaching English. when he finds out we’re from Boston, he asks if either of us are Irish. we are sorry to disappoint with a no. we are a mix of other pale Europeans, but no Irish. as we drink he says he misses home but he knows his life is better here.

we go with him to a bar down the street where an Irish band is performing. we sing along to “Whiskey in the Jar.” it makes me think of Boston. such strange layers of homesickness, of displacement, to be in Vietnam thinking of Boston, a city populated with the descendants of Irish immigrants, sitting next to an Irish man thinking of Ireland.

I’ve started reading the used copy of Dubliners I bought at Bookworm. I think about how Joyce spent most of his life abroad, away from Dublin, starting in his early twenties. And yet it is Dublin that fascinated him. did the distance make his recollections clearer? was it that he needed the space, needed to rebuild the streets and alleys in his memory in order to bring them to life?

Joyce put it like this: “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

in the particular is contained the universal. the words stick with me. I think about them as I walk the streets of Hanoi.


cafe life

it’s been almost a month since we got to Vietnam. we are in this strange limbo: we have been here too long to be tourists anymore, but we are leaving too soon to be expats. we’ve done most of the sightseeing in Hanoi. now we’re just living here, trying to find some kind of routine that will work until Bradford leaves for Korea.

during the day I sit in cafes and write. the cafes – most of the buildings here, actually – are very tall and narrow. I found out this is because of the way people are taxed on property, which is by the width of the front of the building. so a cafe that seems small – a few tables on one floor – actually stretches up and up. many places have four or five floors, each with a little terrace, balcony, rooftop garden. in the cafes there are always little nooks to hide in, and couches and comfortable chairs, fireplaces and mantlepieces. they are all unbelievably cozy. the layout makes you feel like you’re sitting in someone’s home. one cafe even has two acoustic guitars left out for patrons to play.

they all serve Vietnamese coffee, one of my new favorite things. it’s dark roast and made with a metal filter and served with sweetened condensed milk. some places serve another treat, more like a dessert than a drink – egg coffee, where they mix egg yolk into the condensed milk until it makes a sweet, rich foam. it tastes like tiramisu.

a cafe is a good place to be on a day that feels like fall. today it’s rainy and cold enough for a denim jacket and the wind is shaking little yellow leaves from the trees.


low brow: we go to the mall and the movies in a building called the Vincom Center. it is the most modern building I’ve seen in Vietnam, tall and all glass and metal and shine. we go to the arcade. there are children running and parents reclining in massage chairs labeled “Rest ‘N’ Go.” their bodies are shaking from the vibrations of the chairs.

at the movies we buy tickets for The Visit, which we haven’t heard of until the moment we decide to see it, the new M. Night Shyamalan movie.  it is in English with Vietnamese subtitles. things that are different about the movies in Vietnam: your seat is assigned to you when you buy your tickets. if you’re on a date, you can buy tickets for the “Sweet Box,” a loveseat in the back of the theater. there are different options for popcorn: caramel, original sweet, cheese, and salty.

while we watch I wonder how everything must sound in translation. how do you translate a rap sequence? one of the characters is a precocious teenager girl with a very pretentious vocabulary. how do you communicate that through the language barrier? how does the humor translate? well, it seems. we’re all laughing and gasping and hiding our faces at the same parts.

high brow: the next night we go to the Autumn Gala Opera and Ballet at the Hanoi Opera House. The show is divided into two parts. the first is famous choruses and arias from Handel’s “Messiah,” and the second is a contemporary ballet piece done to recorded music, music that includes a robot voice, while strange computer-generated images are projected on a screen in the background. we are both in agreement: we like the first part more than the second. we have a hard time figuring out the decision to pair the two pieces, and what either of them have to do with autumn, but we enjoy it all nonetheless.

the opera house is beautiful, built by the French in the early 1900’s, modeled after the Palais Garnier, an opera house in Paris. it feels very french, except for the palm trees that line the streets. before the show we stand around and admire the look of it. locals and tourists are doing the same, hanging out on the steps, eating ice cream and taking selfies.

a list of smells in vietnam

the smoke of offerings burning on the curb, incense in pagodas and small altars, the lemon-fresh moist toilettes they give to tourists everywhere, wet and mildew and urine in dirty bathrooms, the heavy perfume of rich old tourist women as they go by in rickshaws, skewers of pork grilling over charcoal for bún chả, leather in the shoe shops of Hội An, the eucalyptus insect repellant I spray on my legs and arms, the barnyard stink of little birds in hanging metal cages, cigarette smoke in the binh minh jazz club, the rich sweetness of hot coffee with condensed milk, pungent wafts of fish sauce from every street food stand (how can something that smells so bad taste so good?), freshly butchered meat and blood in an alley market, gasoline and endless exhaust fumes on the back of a motorbike in rush hour, the savory steam of a bowl of phở, freshly cut pineapple from a fruit vendor, centuries-old brick and mud in the citadel in Huế after a rainstorm, vinegar and chilis in a jar on a restaurant table.