In many places around the world, young foreigners on the streets are offered cocaine or weed; in Hanoi it's motorbike rentals. As I trek back to Linh's house from my first Vietnamese language lesson, feeling reasonably accomplished for the first day, ten different men sitting on motorcycles as if they are lawn chairs shout, ``hey,'' beckoning eagerly to me while pointing down at their bikes. No, thanks, I'll walk, I gesture with my fingers -- I will ask about that phrase at my lesson tomorrow. The air is hot and humid, so I have to fan myself by flapping the front of my t-shirt to stop sweat from accumulating and showing through the shirt, but I enjoy observing the city life.
Streets in the old city are full of activity. On the sidewalks, countless people sit on comically small plastic stools, hunched over mysterious-looking but delicious-smelling bowls of food. Shop owners stand in front of overflowing displays, hawking everything from the crazy-looking Dragon Fruits, to cartoon-character-emblazoned notebooks and "100% Cotton" garments made in China. Most of the sidewalk real estate not reserved by food stalls or shop vendors is occupied by rows of motorbikes, guarded either by employees of the food stalls and shop vendors or by entrepreneurs who have staken out the territory. So, that leaves the street for pedestrians like me, and all of the other beeping and honking modes of transportation.
Previously, I learned that on a bike, the main rule of the road is to charge ahead and let the people behind and around you figure out how to avoid hitting you. It turns out that the same rule applies to pedestrians. Whether you are walking along a street next to the curb or strolling through a busy intersection -- right through the center of a four to eight-way intersection -- let others accomodate you. Trust that others want to avoid being in an accident as much as you would appreciate walking without being hit by a pile of metal. The key is to commit to whatever you are doing. Proceed slowly, so others can react to your movements, but steadily, and you will part the incessant waves of traffic. I should note, though, that in this town traffic "rules" -- like 'stay in your lane,' 'stop at red lights,' and 'go counterclockwise around the roundabout' -- are more like suggestions. It takes some getting used to, but with fewer rules -- and traffic lights -- people do seem to become more responsible.
Speaking of responsibility. The research project is moving. Linh and I spoke with the director of the Center for Education and Development, who gave us advice and contacts for our individual research topics and for our collaborative project. I had a moment of panic when she said that the education system had changed very little since the 1980's, but she meant K-12 education, not higher education. In another moment of panic, I found that someone wrote a PhD dissertation on exactly the topic I planned to study: "The Transformation of Higher Education in Vietnam after Doi Moi: A Story of 'Dualism.'" Once I have read through the 100-something pages, I will report back about how that will influence my project, but, in the meantime, there are plenty more interesting conversations to be had.
Regarding the side project, Linh & Co. and I are solidifying our plans for "The Creative Kid Project" and applying to various sources for funding. The one-paragraph description is as follows, but it is similar to a combination of the Brown Conversation, Camp Rising Sun, and the Vietnam Youth Forum:
This July, we will partner with three Hanoi middle schools to pilot the Creative Kid Project in a 6-day program focusing on building and applying creative problem-solving skills. Thirty 13-15 year-old students, who will be selected by application from the partner schools, will come together to develop ideas for improving their schools. On the final day, students will present their proposals to their teachers and school administrators. (Website to follow shortly)
Now, speaking of less responsible activities... Yesterday all kinds of big, frustrating questions were swirling around in my head until we went to the most amazing buffet restaurant...
Guaranteed to make anyone forget their questions about the purpose of education, political economy, and life. But those questions will return. In the next post.