Watching the Oscars in Hanoi

I had just settled in for a steaming bowl of pho gà, the national breakfast of Vietnam, when my lovely wife Mary pointed behind me and said, “Hey look, the red carpet.”

We were one week and thousands of miles from American culture, so it took me a while to understand what she was saying. The red carpet? What is that, the mausoleum housing Ho Chi Minh’s pubes?

But I looked around and there, on a TV behind me, was the red carpet ceremony for the Academy Awards. It was a Monday morning in Hanoi and Sunday night in the states, and I realized we were watching the Oscars live at breakfast (which frankly is a much better time of day to watch it if you want to be able to stay awake until the end).

We were in Southeast Asia to visit Mary’s brother Bill, who is a university professor in Bangkok. After a week in Thailand, we caught a quick and cheap one-hour flight to Hanoi to visit Bill’s friends Thanh and Van, who teach at Vietnam National University.

Most of our trip until then had been TV-free, and we had visited several Buddhist temples, ancient palaces and exotic markets. So it is an understatement to say that it was kind of surreal to slurp my pho and watch Seth MacFarlane sing about celebrity boobs.

Pho, if you’ve never tasted it, is one of the world’s greatest comfort foods: Mom’s chicken noodle soup, but spiced with star anise and basil and fish sauce and lime and kicked up to Asian heat levels. Most Americans eat it for lunch or dinner, but Vietnamese eat it for breakfast … and lunch and dinner. (Unlike a lot of Asian foods, you can find delicious, authentic pho in lots of restaurants in Louisville, including Vietnam Kitchen, Annie’s Café, Saigon Café, Café Mimosa and Heart & Soy.)

But there’s nothing like eating pho in Hanoi’s quaint and historic Old Quarter. Here tourists rub elbows with fashionable Hanoi hipsters at food stalls that line the surprisingly European-looking squares, while a seemingly infinite number of motorbikes whir past. French cafés, a legacy of the colonial era, sell bánh mì and espresso, while tourist traps peddle tchotchkes, silk and statuettes of the Buddha. The Quarter is also home to the gorgeous Hoan Kiem Lake, where lovers stroll and old women invite westerners to join them in their Tai Chi.

One day, while we sipped espressos and honed our Confucianism, we saw a man come into the street and burn what appeared to be fake money. Van later explained that he was taking part in a ritual of ancient folklore on the first day of the lunar month: making an offering of “ghost money” to his dead ancestors. Besides money, some believers burn images of other items they think their ancestors would like. The most popular current item to burn is a picture of an iPad. I briefly considered burning an iPad for my dad, but I was afraid he’d tweet me from the afterlife and tell me to get a haircut.

With all of its charm, Hanoi is no place to let Seth MacFarlane and William Shatner kill your Asia buzz. Besides, we had an appointment to visit Thanh and Van at their university, so we said goodbye to Oscar and headed across town. During a tour of the college, Thanh invited us to sit in on an American Studies class, and we unexpectedly found ourselves in the front of the room speaking to a large class of students. I don’t know why I was surprised: We were Americans, why not study us? The exchange was lighthearted and thought-provoking. The students wanted to show off their English, which was excellent, and hear our thoughts on America’s role in the world, racial and gender discrimination in America, and, of course, pop culture.

One student told me she used the TV show “How I Met Your Mother” to help polish her English but that she had trouble with the humor. A faculty member explained that American slang is hard for non-native speakers to follow and that Vietnamese love humor that’s based on wordplay (this in a country whose legal tender is called the dong) whereas Americans tend to prefer sarcasm. I told the students that sarcasm was my specialty and offered to come back sometime and teach a course in it. They seemed to love the idea, but they might have just been practicing their sarcasm.