Here’s to the five years of blogging

I began blogging exactly five years ago. That night of 8 June 2008 when this blog debuted was like tonight; it was raining hard. Traffic of motorbikes scurrying to reach their destinations halted outside because the downpour was just too much to bear for the antiquated drainage system of that old district of Hanoi. The woman selling pho outside our compound was still there, seated in her red kiddie plastic chair serving bowls of steaming rice noodles submerged in that divine broth to stranded motorists who did not bother taking off their colorful raincoats and equally multi-colored helmets.

That night I was suffering from a level of boredom too extreme and painful it was one of those rare times I can recall I cried. I cried a lot. I missed home so badly. I felt invisible because I was indeed living invisibly. For the woman selling pho outside I was just “that” strange ngoui nuoc ngoai, for the rest I was a nonentity.

Writing down about those gamut of feelings  I knew I would never fully capture in writing, I thought, would be the best way for me to at least have some semblance of order during those months when nothing seemed to make sense. (It’s not as if things make more sense now. (Often they still don’t make sense, though I never stopped attempting to understand them.) I was twenty-two then. I could feel I was poised to realize whatever it was I was dreaming of. I have completely  convinced myself then that whatever inconvenience it was that I was going through in that foreign country was a way of gaining a foothold to something bigger. I didn’t know what that something was then, and I can never be less sure now.

I didn’t care that “Going Against the Current” was too corny a title. But it was the first thing that occurred to me. I subtitled it ‘thoughts of a twenty-something.’ I wasn’t aware then that I was having my share of quarter life crises. I didn’t know the term existed. But I knew there was something odd about that whole set-up. Living and studying in Vietnam was not part of my plan then. I only wanted to escape from the banality of my existence right after graduating from college that I was willing to be hurled anywhere, only to find myself hurled nastily in that blah. I was living by myself in that shoebox of a rented place on Tran Hung Dao Street in the old district of Hanoi, which only exacerbated what then was a terminal case of ennui. At that time, it was the aptest title I could think of for a personal blog.

I wrote this to console myself:

“On Being an Exile”

I have been reading a short essay written by Jorge Luis Borges, and he talked about how being an “exile” brings out parts of our personalities that is unknown to us, and will forever be unknown to us, unless we allow ourselves to be exiled or for us to be exiled by force (which can be in any form such as that of the state, an organization, or the bigger society).

Here, I shall be talking about throwing one’s self away, figuratively, that is, one chooses to embark on the feat of a self-exile. Consciously choosing to leave, and here it means physically deserting anything that has to do with a secure life, and living in a place that is foreign, a place where doing something for comfort will prove burdensome. Barriers will include inability to communicate one’s self, lack of cultural knowledge, ethnocentricity, etc.

Just like all ethnographic researches, the researcher, or as in our case the exiled, faces several stages of coming to terms with himself in relation to his environment and its actors. Roughly, there will be a period of much patronizing and romanticizing, that is, the exiled will think that everything around him is better than what he has left behind. It will be followed a realization that things around him are different and therefore will tax his understanding of all the cultural truths as well as subtleties in his new environment. This will awaken the hidden ethnocentric (and xenophobic) character of our subject which lead to a gap and further distancing from everything around him and creating a world of his own making. Although this may sound pessimistic, this is necessary for the subject to create a giant leap towards understanding and eventually living in harmony with the foreign people surrounding him.

The third period, which I will refer from hereon as ‘distancing’, is a very crucial step because this is where the hidden and repressed selves of our subject surface and thereby allowing different personae to make themselves known to him. Here, creativity, appreciation of one’s former society, and objective probing of the world in general are strengthened and are highlighted.

In distancing, the mind of the subject shifts from a passive, non-observer of events, objects, cultural truths and subtleties, and idiosyncracies into a more active, peering, and critical entity. Interestingly, this also leads to a blossoming of the artistic mind, scientific inquisitiveness, and more understanding of the inner self as well as the emotion. Distancing allows the exiled to have a hold of his world and shape it in a way that can be radical, sometimes, but most of the times more reformative, and in general beneficial. It can be in a form of literary works such as Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain or Tolstoi’s novels War and Peace and Annakarenina, or Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.

It is, therefore, necessary, especially for the young people, to travel and to detach themselves from the mundane and the usual and immerse themselves in a world devoid of comfort and security.

No amount of feigned cockiness could hide the insecurity of my twenty-two-year-old self, of my inability to know where exactly I was heading. Still I treaded on because doing the most difficult was the easiest thing to do. And I never regretted having gone on with the journey. The ride has been exciting and I look forward to more years of blogging. I just hope that when another five years is done, I’d be a lot better.

Before leaving

Just when I am starting to love Hanoi do I realize that I am leaving the city ten days from now. I tried not to be overly sentimental, and so I did the things I routinely do – cycle around with my red bike, do my afternoon jog, write, and go to the gym in Thai Ha. I think that by doing these I am keeping myself from thinking about sadness; keeping myself from thinking the good, bad, happy and sad things I have been through in this city; keeping myself from being too attached to things that I’ve learned to live with for the past months.


I am living in Hanoi not as a tourist staying in a hotel for a week and bringing around with me my camera taking pictures of cultural oddities I will never encounter in my country. Instead, I am living the life of an ordinary Vietnamese. I never took tourist buses that would keep me from the dust and grimes of the city roads instead I fought my way every time I ride my bike; I never took a cyclo and paid 10 dollars to see the old section of the city, instead I walked and thinned my white shoes to meet a Vietnamese in Tran Hung Dao and talk to him in a language he is more expressive.

This afternoon, I went to an Adidas shop along Nguyen Luong Bang to buy another traveling bag for my trip to Ho Chi Minh next week. And it dawned on me that I am indeed really leaving soon. How hackneyed the expression “time is too fast”. But it is indeed too fast. I reread my entries in this blog as well as the ones I wrote in my private journal and came to a conclusion that my fears during those times were a bit petty. Probably I’ll look at all my fears now in the same manner I view the fears I had before.

I am not saying I have gone mature, what I know is that I’ve become a man more experienced every time I travel.

I’m going home soon. It scares me.

Right after I arrived in my room after a grueling exam last Friday, I felt that everything in my room – ballpoint pens, my white bath towel, Columbia windbreaker, a doll made of rice hulls Chi Le gave to me, my laptop, everything – seemed to remind me of cold nights, humid nights, boring nights, tiring nights, happy nights, sad nights, nights I’m in love that I spent in this country.

I’m avoiding this trap most travelers fall into, loving so much something that letting go will be impossible. The way I see life is also similar to this, to cherish something but keep some distance, enough to make the disengagement less difficult.

I’ve been doing this all my life. It will not be hard this time.

All museums are biased

I’ve been to countless of museums, but I do not seem to appreciate any of them. Artifacts are mounted in such a way that they are totally detached from their historical context. Sometimes they are used to highlight the supposed superiority of one nation or the absence of these places as a lack of anything we call “history” of that nation; as if a group of people has never existed. Museums are the repository of the achievements of a nation. The more comprehensive is the collection, the more developed is a nation’s consciousness of its existence and the more confident it is in its place in the bigger scheme of things.

Vietnam, being a nation of people with a colorful past, is not found lacking with these edifices that mark its growth as a nation. So last Sunday, I accepted a friend’s invitation to visit Bao Tang Quan Doi or the Armed Forces Museum. Although it is around 20 minutes by bicycle ride from my house, I’ve never visited it during my five months of my stay in the country. It’s located opposite to a square dedicated to Vladimir Lenin, the communist Russia’s founding father who is also revered in Vietnam.

The museum contains collections starting from the earliest years of the organization of Vietnamese armed forces, around the 9th century. I learned that the first street where I stayed during my first month in Vietnam, Tran Hung Dao, was named after one of Vietnam’s famous generals during the war against China. So is my current place in Nguyen Luong Bang who was a general during the war against France.


There was a group of young men, between 18-24 years old, wanting to enter the army, that was being given a lesson on the history of the army. The woman speaking through a megaphone, although didn’t look quite believable, seemed to be enjoying the crash course on Vietnamese History 101 she was giving in front of the fascinated young men.


The picture above is that of the actual bicycle used during the war with France. This can carry 320 kilograms of load ranging from ammunition to rice (as many as six sacks and a half). This was used during the war to carry supplies for the soldiers in the forest. What is more interesting about these bicycles is that they were often used by women as they were less susceptible to being seized by the French Army.

I was reminded when I transferred place and had to use my bicycle to carry my duffel bag which contained clothes, the 20-meter internet cable, and books. It was around a hundred kilograms which I had to divide into two. Carrying the bag around with my bike was already too difficult. I just can’t imagine carrying 320 kilograms of things with a rickety bike on a rough terrain.


This is the watch tower, the museum’s landmark located outside the actual museum building. It was built in the latter part of the 19th century during the campaign against the French and Chinese invaders. The picture below is the view from the top of the watch tower.


Climbing the spiral stair was rather a challenge because aside from the stair being too steep the ceiling is also very low. The height of the ceiling, I surmised, was either because it was built very narrowly to save floor space thereby increasing the height of the watch tower or the Vietnamese people during that time, as in the case of any other human beings, were still not so tall to demand ceiling height required by a modern man measuring 181 centimeters.


This is a collage of debris of American aircraft after they were bombed by the Vietnamese forces and crashed. These remnants will forever remind the world’s only superpower that it did not win the war it waged on the soil of a small Southeast Asian country.


Bao Tang Quan Doi was made to showcase the achievements of the Vietnamese armed forces and like all other kinds of museum, can be quite biased. History is written in such a way that it favors the prevailing power or the writers of history; in the case of the museum, prevailing power is defined as the power that had the museum built to tell the story of a country so proud of its past.