Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

New Years Anthem

To mark the occasion of the arrival of the Year of the Pig I offer up the official Vietnamese New Year Anthem by everyone's favourite Swedish foursome. I'm sure there is a entire canon of traditional Tet songs, but these were hardly in evidence last year at Tet. Instead the Vietnamese universe seems to be obsessed by one song, and one song only. In fact the song serves the purpose of both New Years, Western and lunar, the result being about almost two solid months of Abba on replay, not just two discrete flare-ups as you might think. I've never been a big Abba fan but I must admit the brilliance of this song. It has an insidious way of lodging itself in your brain, particularly if you are trapped on a bus from Haiphong with the video on a loop for over an hour.

As for the video, check out the state of Ikea circa 1979, not to mention the eye shadow, and the innovative Lazy Susan filming effect. My big question: what's he looking at out the window?

It's an appropriate video to be posting today for other reasons too, since I'm feeling that post-party effect (though I'm not lounging around on my chesterfield in a party dress). Jon, Koen and I pulled off a full-on Hanoi Tet meal complete with ga luoc (poached chicken with lime leaf and ginger dipping sauce), nem (Hanoi style deep fried spring rolls), banh chung with pickled leeks (purchased not made from scratch), dau phu sot ca chua (tofu in tomato sauce), nom kho bo (green papaya salad with spicy dried beef), cha lua (Vietnamese sausage), a pork and radish soup, authentic green tea from Thai Nguyen, followed by fruit and mut Tet (candy). Oh yeah and we polished off my only bottle of Nep Moi (Vietnamese rice vodka made of young rice, smells like hazelnut and packs a whopping 40%). I think I'm ready to take on Iron Chef Vietnam.

As it turns out, our celebration was 24 hours too late! I discovered that Tet is sometimes a day earlier than the Chinese New Year, and this was one of those rare years. It's something to do with Vietnam being in a different time zone from China, although I can't imagine how that one hour makes any difference whatsoever. When I got through to a few friends in Hanoi on their Saturday morning, I was told "Tet roi, Tet roi!". I was assured though that the Tet in the Vietnamese diaspora however has come to conform with the Chinese date. Oi gioi oi, nothing is ever simple!

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Riding the streets of Hanoi

Koen shot this a few weeks back. I'm the one in the orange up front. Jon's behind me. For those of you who know the hood, we turn right from Dai Co Viet onto Ta Quang Buu, heading into Bach Khoa.

I know it's not the best footage, but it's all I got!

And for those of you interested in the psychology of this kind of traffic, here's a fantastic post on the topic by Antidote.

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Humour and the Ông Tây

One night this past December Jon and I met up with a group of friends at a cafe. We sat on the floor around a low table nursing coffees and juices. The conversation was entirely in Vietnamese except when one of the guys would take pity on us and fill us in a bit. After a while Jon turned to me with a wry smile and said, "I'm at a loss. What on earth is going on." "Welcome to my Hanoi life," I said. And welcome to the other side. Here we're in the minority.

Despite our almost complete incomprehension, it wasn't boring for a moment. Somehow humour communicates across a linguistic divide. We had no idea what anyone was saying, but it was infectious anyway.

But sometimes the humour doesn't translate. Vietnamese is rich in puns based on differences in tones, reversals in meaning (something means its opposite), changes in word order, etc. A friend once tried to explain some joke that had been made in an internet cafe the other day, a joke he'd been laughing about ever since. It wasn't just the subtlety or delivery that was lost in translation - the combination of linguistic turns and cultural references was completely opaque to me even when carefully translated.

Despite the linguistic challenges to the cross-cultural understanding of humour, I still find that a person's "sense of humour", as a personal quality, is able to communicate. And I can vouch that the Vietnamese often have a wicked sense of humour. There are still incidents from my time in Hanoi that continue to crack me up. Key to this sense of humour is the fact that the Vietnamese generally do not take themselves too seriously. Nor are they beyond gentle teasing.

Speaking of gentle teasing, I offer my nickname as an example. It began with just a few little jokes, and gradually developed into the following list of monikers: Ông Tây nhà quê, Maria, háu ăn, đuểnh đoảng, buôn chuyện, hải ly.

I am proud that I was deemed worthy of such a long nickname, even if the individual elements of the name may seem less than flattering. I guess I don't take myself too seriously either...

Ông Tây: literally, Mr. Westerner. Thinh gave me this name one night and it stuck. To tell the truth he was one of the few whose sense of humour confused me at first. Thinh speaks no English whatsoever. Apparently he is hysterically funny, even if sometimes he has a bitchy edge. The first time he called me Ông Tây we were eating noodles on the street with a group of friends late one night. Whatever he was saying was followed by gales of laughter. Initially I was not amused. The term Tây can on occasion have a slight edge and I mistakenly assumed I was the butt of some joke. Later Viet reassured that his quips were completely inoccuous. In fact Viet insisted that the group would never allow anyone to diss me in public.

Nhà quê: village; country. I can find no exact equivalent in English. Country bumpkin is too goofy. Hick is too harsh. In some contexts it can actually have a real edge so you have to watch where you use it. Amongst friends though it suggests a naivety or lack of sophistication. I blogged earlier about the irony of my status as Tây nhà quê: although I may be from the urban West, I still come off as somehow parochial and awkward. I might as well have come from some village just up the river. Why? First of all, I knew nothing of the urban ways of Hanoi, at least initially; and second, given the choice I always preferred to go local, sit on the little plastic sidewalk stools, drink coffee in ancient little cafes, and go to my chaotic gym in Bach Khoa. I mostly eshewed the slick new Westernized hangouts that had such appeal to some of my more upwardly mobile Vietnamese friends.

Maria - Hung came up with this one. Back it the 90s it seems there was a very popular South American television series in syndication in Vietnam. The series featured Maria, a country girl transplanted to the city who makes it big climbing up the corporate ladder in the fashion industry. (Sounds like one of the many versions of Betty La Fea, which eventually became the American Ugly Betty. The only incarnation of this character I can find named Maria was a Greek remake.) Okay, so why the hell am I Maria? Something to do with my nhà quê status (like the Maria/Betty before her metamorphosis?), and the fact that at least to Vietnamese ears my name sounds a lot like Maria. I feared to ask whether they thought my fashion sense was like Maria before or after her rise in the fashion world. Hmm.

Háu ăn - Viet slapped this one on to my ever lengthening name during our trip to Bangkok last year. It means something like greedy eater. Anyone even slightly familiar with this blog will understand that I have a bit of an obsession with food, and especially street food. Our trip to Bangkok consisted largely of Viet stopping at every stall to bargain for clothes, knock-off watches, and CDs, and me stopping at every cart to fill my piehole with every manner of street offerings.

đuểnh đoảng - Another Hanoi slang expression with no exact equivalent in English. Somewhere between spacey, absent-minded and happy-go-lucky? It's supposed to be a very endearing term, so I prefer to think it's closer to absent-minded, which I will admit is a sometimes accurate description of yours truly. This quality was also excerbated by the fact that I often didn't really know the score, and was sometimes helpless in such a new context. Similar rationale to nhà quê above I guess.

Buôn chuyện - Literally it means "wholesale talk" or "gossip by the bulk". It seems I don't just chat a little; when I talk it's by the yard. In fact I think I earned this not because I sit around gossipping or can't shut up, but because I know a lot of people in Hanoi. Viet could not fathom how I might be so well connected at a place like Apo. This relates mostly to Western social patterns of mixing, mingling, introducing and being introduced. It didn't take me long to build up a network beyond the scope of my Vietnamese friends.

Hải ly - Viet Anh is to blame for this one. Apparently I resemble either an otter or a seal.

The translations don't even quite do it. I know I am missing much of the nuance of my own nickname. Despite the barrage of jokes though I know it's all good-natured. I've vetted the name with disinterested Vietnamese friends who all assure me as much.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

Duck in Three Parts

Egg: I finally got a good shot of the infamous trung vit lon. My earlier shot was actually snapped in Laos. This one ordered curbside for brekky in Bach Khoa after a banh my trung left me still peckish. Koen and I partook. Jon sat this one out.

Fertilized duck egg has lost much of the visceral challenge it once posed for me, but it retains its fascination. I still don't look too closely nor do I linger over it - the taste though is actually quite nice. Egg on the meaty side.

If you do look closely the duck is really not that far gone - at least not as served in Hanoi. According to this very graphic article (you are forewarned!), it's another story altogether in the Philippines where they call it balut. At that late stage duck embryo really does deserve the infamy it has attracted on recent reality shows.

My Bach Khoa egg arrived minus the shell and ready for its close-up. I appreciated the photogenic potential of the naked embryo even if I missed cracking the shell and sipping off the embryonic fluid (a chicken soup-like teaser). The fresh julienned ginger and rau ram were welcome diversions.


Blood: If duck fetus has lost its gory thrill for me, the same is not true for tiet canh vit, a.k.a. raw duck blood soup. Only the brave should click here for the full visual effect of this lovely dish. Still I'm fascinated and I'm game as long as I don't necessarily have to commit to an entire bowl.

I've long heard about this delicacy. The first mention I recall was in a WHO case report of bird flu transmission in rural North Vietnam. I'm unsure if you can still find this dish in Hanoi given the circumstances. Several of my Hanoi friends insist it's quite delicious, but warn me to resist the temptation. Aside from the bird flu issue (which has long ceased to really worry me) it has been known to result in less lethal but still serious episodes possibly requiring extended hospital stays. In any case, I never saw any signs of this dish in Hanoi.

Imagine my shock then when I spotted a little (untranslated) sign on the wall of my favourite pho shack up the street from me here in Toronto: tiet canh vit. I could not believe my eyes. When I pointed to the sign and inquired if they really serve raw duck blood soup, at first I received a vague response to the effect that they are not sure what's in stock right now, let them go look, and was I ready to order my pho? No confirmation that I had actually read the sign correctly. Only later when I persisted in my questioning they finally brought out a nice bright red bowl for me to inspect. Yep no doubt about it: duck blood soup.

Only served on Sundays. Should I or shouldn't I? So far I've enlisted two brave souls who might share a bowl with me. None of us are really keen to commit to more than a couple spoonfulls.


Meat: Somewhere in Linh Dam in the southern suburban fringe of Hanoi lies a field. On one side a lake, on the other a row of buildings set way back, and above hangs a great cloud of smoke. Beneath this cloud a hundred low plastic tables laid out in lines. In total this field must be home to at least a dozen purveyors of the same delicious dish: vit nuong or grilled duck. The dish and its obscure location was only revealed to me last month during my visit. Somehow it had escaped my attention last year. I expected something like the roast duck that hangs in the Cantonese BBQ joints in my Chinatown back home. It was nothing like that. Instead the chunks of duck had been beautifully grilled over charcoal. In fact there were several preparations, each quite different and new to me. I have no idea anymore where this field is. All I remember is the taste of the slightly charred duck meat, the expanse of low plastic tables spreading out, the surreal duck smoke wafting above, and the company of friends. Some day I will drive by again on another motobike. The dreamy quality of that field will then find its place on my already tattered map of Hanoi.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bike Seat Math

If there is one image that sums up my December in Hanoi, this is probably it. For those of you not intimately familiar with the motobike culture of Vietnam, it's a bike seat...with lots of chalk...

It looks an awful lot like a math lesson. In fact it's all about parking. The system goes like this: you pull up to a place, a young parking guy emerges from the chaos of the sidewalk. You hop off, he hands you a numbered tag, chalks up your bike seat, and rolls your bike off to some acceptable corner of the sidewalk. Somehow upon retrieval even the numerical tangle pictured above does not fool the attendants. They know exactly which number is theirs. In this case I think 39 was the most recent addition.

This picture represents the cumulative activities of Hanoi Week 1. If only I had a legend for each number.

My visit was intensely social. I had hardly a moment alone, and most of this socializing happened in cafes, sidewalk eateries, restaurants, tea houses and bars. Each meeting, each meal, each cup of ca phe left its trace on my seat. I actually began to admire the effect and was sorry to see the composition obliterated by a bike wash (incidentally immediately after this photo was snapped).

Thanks to another Viet (this one in Japan) for the moto! Access to wheels makes all the difference in a city like Hanoi.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The End of Apo?

The late breaking news first arrived by Yahoo Messenger offline messages this morning. I am feeling very connected.

Apparently Hanoi's infamous Apocalypse Now nightclub is down and out after an evening of violence culminated in homicide. It seems it all began with an argument between two groups over a table. A fight broke out in the club, and those involved were kicked out by security guards. The fight then continue outside in the parking lot at 12:30am Sunday morning where one person was killed and three seriously injured. When I asked my friend what the weapon was, he told me "knife, we don't have gun here". The incident was described to me as gang-related.

It also seems that in the investigation afterwards the police discovered that Apo has been illegally selling untaxed alcohol. Several friends told me this was in order to compete with the New Century club across town. Apocalypse Now has been closed indefinitely because of these charges.

I can't find any English language coverage of the incident, but for those who can read it here's the Google cached text of a brief report in Vietnamese in Thanh Nien online.

Giành chỗ trong quán bar, 1 người chết
Vào hồi 0 giờ 30 ngày 14.1, tại trước cửa quán bar Apocalypse Now - “Thiên Khải” ở 2 Đông Tác, P.Trung Tự, Q.Đống Đa, Hà Nội đã xảy ra vụ đánh nhau lớn giữa 2 nhóm thanh niên. Nhóm bị chém có 4 nam 2 nữ, nhóm gây án mạng có 5 nam. Theo thông tin ban đầu, hai nhóm mâu thuẫn nhau vì tranh giành bàn rượu đã đặt chỗ. Hậu quả anh Nguyễn Huy Linh (28 tuổi, ở E8 Phương Mai, Q.Đống Đa) bị đâm chết; các anh Nguyễn Chí Huy (32 tuổi, ở E8 Phương Mai, Q.Đống Đa), Tạ Duy Thắng (31 tuổi, ở 36 ngõ 13 Giải Phóng) và Bùi Quang Hưng (36 tuổi, ở P.Hạ Đình, Q.Thanh Xuân) đều bị đâm trọng thương. Công an Q.Đống Đa đang phối hợp các đơn vị điều tra truy bắt những kẻ gây án. (N.V.C - K.T.L)

Will Apo rise again? Probably. Apparently a similarly violent episode shut down New Century several years ago and it eventually saw the light of day again. In the meantime I've been told that GC will probably experience a sudden influx of "family".

Well now I know why they have those security guards posted conspicuously around the clubs. This isn't the first bit of bar violence I've heard of in Hanoi clubs, though usually it doesn't usually end in murder. In any case, it's not like we don't have periodic club shootings here in Toronto.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Not Yet

I have returned home with a backlog of stories and photos. No time to type in a two week crash-course visit. Forgive me Viet if I begin with a story about you.

Despite the fact that he was my closest friend in Hanoi, I never met Viet's family in the time I lived in Hanoi. I knew only the most anonymous things about the family he lived with just a few minutes motobike ride from my little house. He kept me entirely separate from his domestic world. In fact his family may have only learned of my existence near the end of my stay when it seems Viet was spotted by his sister on the back of my moto going up Bach Mai. Who was this Tay their son was hanging out with?

As it turns out, his mother regards Westerners with great suspicion. I am told she is a fan of Vietnamese soaps and, like my mother, has at times a very active imagination and a sense of drama. According to the world of Vietnamese television one should always be wary of the Ong Tay. You never know when he might slip something into your drink, corrupt your children with foreign influence and social evils, leading them gradually into a life of crime and depravity. Perhaps it would have come as no surprise if she'd know this Ong Tay had lived in the infamous Black Spot of Hanoi.

So this time I was very surprised to be allowed to meet Viet's mother at his aunt's house on my first day of my most recent visit. I was not prepped for the occasion except that in the narrow alley leading up to his aunt's house Viet strongly suggested I pocket my earring. I slipped it off for the remainder of my time in Hanoi.

After my rehearsed "Chao Bac" greeting, I was invited to take a place on the tile floor while Viet took care of some family business. I sat there quietly as the family discussed who-knows-what and I let my eye wander around the living room inspecting the family altar, the domestic bric-a-brac and the view to a little paved courtyard populated by a dog, a few cooking implements and some wash basins. After our initial greeting, the family paid me very little attention, hardly a sideways glance.

Finally though after about twenty minutes, Viet's mother turned to me and asked me one of the Standard Questions: "Do you have children?" In fact my Vietnamese interrogators rarely get as far as this. I am usually asked first about my marital status so the question of children is always preempted.

In comparison to Western languages Vietnamese is not a yes/no language. There is no straightforward equivalent to the English word yes, and when the question concerns the future, the Vietnamese prefer not yet to the generic word for no. Maybe this reflects a more tentative never-say-never outlook. In any case I answered the Standard Question with my Standard Response: chua (not yet). But given that this was my one opening, probably my only chance to chit chat with the family, I felt compelled to add something, and I tossed around for some other expression, some little elaboration. Showing off a bit I proudly offered: "chua lap gia dinh" - meaning, I have not yet formed a family.

An awkward pause followed. Turning away Viet then addressed his mother, then turned back to me and said: "I had told my mother you were married but did not yet have children. Now I told her you were just joking."

I had just contradicted an alibi I didn't know I had. If Viet needed some wiggle room he might just have said I didn't really know what the expression meant or I understood it differently. What does it mean to "form a family"? Does that mean to marry or to have children? It seemed to me that there was enough ambiguity here to work with.

Well the phrase is not ambiguous in Vietnamese; it clearly relates to marital status. So Viet insisted I was merely joking. Viet's mother must think Ong Tay have a very dry sense of humour - or none at all. I sat there clueless on the floor with a sincere and humourless expression on my face.

Afterwards Viet didn't seem too concerned about the whole incident, but I felt embarrassed I managed unwittingly (though through not fault of my own) to put my foot in it. It seems that while the Ong Tay may not be a criminal corrupter of youth, he may however quite naively risk blowing your cover. Obviously a little Vietnamese is much more dangerous than none at all.
Mea culpa Viet. Next time I play real dumb.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Back Down the Rabbit Hole

I am experiencing that weird compression of time again. Last March I felt it returning to Toronto. Now I feel it again here. It's like I was just here, like I am just picking up exactly where I left off. A whole universe in waiting. Everything is still so fresh.

I spotted Viet through the glass in the arrivals hall at the airport. He had arrived early not having been able to sleep the night before. During the cab ride to town he brought me up to speed on all the group gossip and gave me the low-down on any new players I might meet. Viet dug into his pocket and handed me my old cell phone like it was the key to the city (which it probably is). It didn't take long for the txt msgs to be flying all directions. The network was activated. How many friends did I first see on a motobike? Cell phones and motobikes - the twin emblems of modern Vietnam?

Andrew has spent weeks fixing up his new house in time for the visit. It's large and very comfortable and tucked down an obscure alleyway in Bach Khoa, the bustling academic quarter, just a street over from where I stayed with him when I arrived last year.

The first day I was kept very busy and distracted from the preparations for my "surprise" party that evening. I was not supposed to notice the strange and random appearances of friends in Andrew's alleyway. Then I seriously disrupted their careful planning by insisting on a nap mid-day. More mysterious scurrying around. Post-nap Viet whisked me up to Truc Bach Lake for coffee, then abruptly found a reason to get us to Bach Khoa by 7pm. Finally when I was let back in the house and subtely led to open the kitchen door. About fifteen very familiar faces lay just beyond. In the process of getting reacquainted I drank copious amounts of red wine. This is not a recommended approach to dealing with serious jetlag and the inevitable onset of traveller's stomach, but I had the next day to think about that.

I certainly feel well cared for. In addition to Andrew and Viet's hospitality, Lam found me a motobike. It feels wonderful to be back on wheels. Thankfully my skills at negotiating Hanoi traffic are also still very fresh.

The boys have also made a point of giving me a bit of a Hanoi makeover. I guess I reverted to my nha que Western habits and needed a few points of correction. My gold hoop earring was attracting way too much attention so it's long gone. The cuffs of my jeans had to be unrolled. Happily though they approved of the cologne I was wearing (though I didn't tell them I only own the testers).

Some cities feel like a vast expanse of surfaces, extending outward; you get to know these cities by covering ground. This city feels contained but with infinite depth; you get to know it by burrowing in. Hanoi is like a huge rabbit warren. And now that I know this world and have my connections I feel like I can easily disappear into it. It's gratifying and it's good to be back.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Noi tieng 15 Phut

I'm well into my 15 phut of fame now.

A few weeks ago I arrived at work and noticed an excited little email from my Mom about an article in the travel section of The Globe & Mail (for my international readers, that's Canada's national paper). She had spotted an article entitled "Discovering Hanoi's Secret Alleys" (Nov. 22, 2006, p.T5) and thought to herself "Oh, Mark will find this interesting", and proceeded to cut it out. Then she noticed who wrote it. And who took the accompanying picture...

During the APEC buzz I had decided to adapt an old blog entry and submit it to the travel section thinking that it might help put a face on the city everyone was blathering on about in the most formulaic sort of way. I didn't know it had been accepted until it was already splashed across the country. (Unfortunately they don't publish the "Travelblog" column in their online edition so I can't link to it. Write me if you want a copy.)

My debut in the Vietnamese media had actually come several weeks earlier, when several of my publicly posted photos were picked up by the online edition of VTC News to provide some illustrations for a translated NYT story on Vietnam's acceptance to the WTO. (Rest assured that I was asked permission first. It didn't happen entirely out of the blue.) It seems my photos were used to illustrate themes such as the development, povery and the youth of the country. I hope it goes without saying that the second photo in the story is NOT mine. A more recent VTC story on the WTO used another of my photos.

And now it appears that tomorrow YFile, my university's internal online daily, will be running a story about my work last year in Hanoi! (Here it is.)

Despite all this attention, at least someone is trying their best to keep me from my Warholian moment. How else to explain the persistent mispellings of my name in the VTC photo credits. A few of my doppelgangers are getting all the credit.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Destination Hanoi

In retrospect I guess I kind of painted myself into a corner when I named this blog "Six Months". Henceforth let this blog be known as "Six Months in Hanoi (& Beyond)".

The occasion for this loophole is a little plan I hatched in October to put me back in Hanoi for the holidays. In one week I'll be somewhere high in the sky in transit limbo on the way to Hanoi for a three week visit. I'm thrilled to be returning. I'll be mostly in Hanoi but will also be spending a few days in Bangkok and three in Sapa. This time Jon will be joining me, but only for two weeks since he's got to stick around here a bit longer than I do. I will blog the trip as much as possible. I imagine much of it will likely be written upon my return. It will be a whirlwind of visits; I don't know if I'll find much time to write.

I am returning only after ten months. It has been long enough that I have settled back in but brief enough that I still have all my connections. I expect it will be at least a little surreal to enter back into that world. Time felt foreshortened when I returned to Canada. I imagine I will have the same experience coming "home" to Hanoi, as if I'd only just left.

It is starting to sound like my arrival will be a kind of fugal repeat of my arrival in August 2005: Viet will be meeting me at the airport and taking the cab with me to Andrew's house in Bach Khoa where I'll be staying. Of course I won't be quite as wide-eyed as before. Viet recently told me that he sensed in me a fear and caution when I first met him in the arrivals hall as he picked up my bags and led me to a cab. I am embarrassed to admit he was probably right. I was throwing myself into the hands of a virtual stranger. I was exhilirated but so uncertain.

Now it's not the arrival but the anticipation of the subsequent departure that makes me wonder. Everything about my departure last winter anticipated my return, because I was not ready to leave. The last thing Viet said to me was "You are not going away. You are just going on another trip - but this time much longer." Will my next departure anticipate yet another return, or a reluctant and probably unconscious closure? The former I hope.

Anyway I'm getting ahead of myself. For now I have so much to look forward to.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Blog Plagiarism

It is a great irony that after six months of teaching information literacy in Vietnam I become the victim of information piracy. Thanks to Technorati's link tracing feature I discovered my blog postings are being reproduced hollus bollus without attribution at this and this blog. And an even greater irony - one of the addresses is "vietnamofmine.blogspot...". Just who's experience is this?

To be fair, at least the first of Mr. Trang's blogs is called "Learning English By Other's Blog Posts". I'm very happy to let my writing be used for teaching purposes, but what about asking permission or setting up some context at the very least? And why not just use my original blog for this purpose rather than filching it?

I will admit to some ambivalence about all the flagrant intellectual property abuses that are rife in Vietnam and other Asian countries. When it comes to CDs and DVDs, the letter of the law would probably mean that the vast majority of people in Vietnam would have virtually no access to recorded music and film. It's not like Disney and Sony are yet being cheated of vast reserves of Vietnamese disposable income. But this strain of piracy carries over into so many cultural enterprises. It hardly seems necessary to pilfer content in a blog. My blog is already free. Just use it where you find it. And isn't it teacher's responsibility also to teach respect for other's work?

I have left comments on Mr. Trang's blog in the hopes that he will respond out of conscience (or write me at sixmonthshn AT gmail DOT com). At least he seems to have brought me out blog retirement.

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Friday, May 05, 2006

The Nature of Blogs: Some Parting Thoughts

It's time to put this beast to sleep. I've called my blog Six Months, but in fact I think I'm into my eleventh month if you include my first post last July before I left.

It's not like there isn't still material - I've still got piles of stories and experiences - but my writing has become more introspective since obviously Hanoi is inside my head no longer around me. More importantly though, my muse has fled. While in Hanoi I often had the odd experience of having my postings writing themselves in my head as if someone were feeding them to me. I don't feel that anymore, although I'm listening carefully; maybe I can find the muse hiding in some other corner of life here.

And so although I'm winding this blog down, who knows? Maybe I'll come out with another blog. If so, I'll be sure to post a quick note here with the referring address.

The truth is, the blog bug has bit me. Writing became a way for me to process what I was experiencing in Vietnam, but it was also an experience in itself. I discovered a virtual community of people engaged with trying to understand Vietnam. I continue to be an avid reader of Vietnam blogs. Although I never got around to creating a blogroll, I would have included Virtual Doug, Sticky Rice, Our Man in Hanoi, Noodlepie, and Xe Maybe. HanoiMark will continue to live in the comments sections of these and other Vietnam blogs.

Now that I am sitting at my desk back home, it's easy for me to wonder if I made a mistake in keeping my blog under wraps for so long. On the surface a blog may seem like an online journal - except for one major difference: a journal is personal and rarely has an audience, while a blog is a public medium and the idea of audience enters into its writing. I think the failure of so many blogs is that they are written as if they were mere personal diaries; they end up being impressionistic scrapbooks, like collections of notes to self.

Other blogs are have more in common with email; the readership in envisioned, but it's a specific audience. Early on I thought my blog would be an efficient substitute for broadcast emails keeping friends and family informed. This I think is the limited goal of so many travel (and family) blogs. There is an intended audience, but it reads as if the author were still filling in addresses in the TO: field. These blogs have little significance beyond those who personally know the author.

When I began writing I was very conscious of those I knew were reading my blog: friends, family and some coworkers back home. Early on I was concerned about how I could balance the demands of such different groups of people. At the same time I tried to keep the existence of my blog relatively quiet and limit my audience. For one thing, I still hadn't figured out how personal I wanted to get.

This strategy proved in vain as readers I didn't even know began to tune in. I think this is because somewhere along the line I had already abandoned the email analogy and started writing as if it mattered. I decided I would only write something when I felt I had a point. I was not travel blogging, and was not interested in posting mere descriptions or lists of places. Those things I would save for private emails when I felt the need. Instead I decided to post observations, reflections, a good story, anything I thought was a window into the culture. Once I began to write for a more general audience I became much more disciplined - not just in the writing process but in the choice of topics.

I don't know if I succeeded, but this is the peculiar potential of the blog, to become a kind of grassroots journalism, personal, engaged and yet disciplined. This is what Global Voices calls the "bridge blog", blogs that are rooted in personal experience and yet can speak to a much broader audience beyond its local context.

Although I wish I had done it earlier, opening up my audience came with certain risks. For one thing, although I adopted pseudonyms, I was still writing about people I knew and I feared them finding out. In any circumstance this would be awkward, but anyone who has read my entries about the dynamics of Vietnamese social groups (The Group, for instance) will know the value placed on confidence amongst friends in a society given to so much gossip, even when it comes to things we wouldn't consider particularly personal in the West. Furthermore, I was often writing about gay men who have more urgent reasons to keep their worlds separate. Consequently I tried not to write too personally about people I knew, even though there were some fascinating stories that were just begging to be told. Same things with pictures of people.

There were other constraints. I think anyone blogging in that part of the world probably has a nagging question about who out there is actually reading your stuff - and I don't just mean personal friends. Let's just say a little bit of self-censorship probably occurs. I'm not even talking about overtly political issues necessarily. It would have been a disaster on so many levels if my workplace had discovered me writing on workplace experiences. It would have entailed a loss of face and trust among other things.

Actually I suspect all serious bloggers probably face at least some of these constraints just by virtue of the fact that blogs are public. The freedom of the diary (even the email) is lost; what is gained is the potential to make your experiences speak to others. And to participate in virtual communities.

Speaking of communities, I'm very curious to know who my readers are. So I'll end off by inviting those of you who have been followed my blog (even just a little bit) to sign in the Comments field like a Guest Book. Or if you don't want to identify yourself, just sign it anonymously but with your whereabouts.

Since I can't guarantee I won't return with another blog, for now I'll say only Hen gap lai!

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Yao Paintings Redux

Sometimes it's all about the comments not the entry. This was definitely the case with my March 22nd piece entitled The Mystery of the Painted Scrolls. The entry was an experiment to see if I could harness the collective knowledge of my virtual readership to help identify and interpret two painted scrolls I purchased on the eve of my departure from Hanoi. I was not disappointed. A special thanks to Anonymous and Wulingren for helping me understand the origin and meaning of these paintings. Because the discussion happened entirely in the comments section, and I know many readers skip comments (especially when there are 22!), I thought I would give an update - though I recognize this stuff is probably too esoteric for most of my blog readers out there.

As it turns out I should not have been so dismissive of the vendor who told me the scrolls were from the Dao (aka. Yao) people in the Northern highlands of Vietnam. The Yao migrated into Southeast Asia (where they are scattered across the highlands of Yunnan, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand) after being squeezed off their land near Shanghai in the 12th Century. (I've included a photo I took of a Red Dao woman in the countryside near Than Uyen, Lai Chau Province - see my entry Heaven's Gate.) They took with them a form of Taoism which became more distinct over the years. One of the central features of Yao Taoism are sets of sacred painted scrolls displaying the deities in the Yao pantheon. These scrolls are not merely depictions of these gods - in fact, the paintings are considered to be the abode of the gods who are present within them. The paintings are used for ceremonial purposes (such as ordination). When the paintings are old and worn out, the deities are invited to leave the scrolls in a "closing of the eyes" ceremony, after which they can be sold. It seems I bought some cast-offs.

Painting #1 (click to see it) depicts the Four Messengers (or Liaison Officers) of the Governors of the four supernatural realms. The messenger for the Governor of the Sky rides the white crane at the top. The messenger for the Governor of This World comes next on the white horse. Below him is the messenger for the Governor of the Underworld on a tiger (which were thought to dig up corpses and graves). Finally we have the messenger of the Governor of the Waters at the bottom riding a dragon.

It seems these messengers have a role not unlike Hermes, shuttling back and forth between the high priests, one of whom you can see at the bottom left, and the gods. At the top left corner is the hand of a supreme deity who is receiving the messages. I still don't know who this is. The Jade Emporer?

There is a painting reproduced in J. Pourret's book "The Yao" (p. 241) with exactly the same figures in exactly the same configuration.

Wulingren was able to interpret some of the text at the margins (from the comments):

The painting seems to be a representation of what takes place on a heavenly level during an ordination ritual, and is probably hung during the ritual. In the bottom you see the teacher, in this case, surnamed Li, and the student, with tablet.... On the right side, it says, "receive the disciples of the sanyuan (translated as 3 primals, 3 origins, 3 principles--the upper primal/heaven, the middle primal/earth, and the lower primal/water).
It is still unclear what the relationship is between the 3 primals and the messengers of the four supernatural realms depicted.

Painting #2 (click to see it): I know much less about this one except that Anonymous tells me the Chinese characters at the top read "Dai Lua" which is the Taoist heaven. But who is this guy in the picture? I could find no clues in the books I've consulted on Yao paintings. Possibly he is one of the guardians of the temple? Looks like he's keeping someone at bay.

As it happens I picked up these two small folksy portraits at the same store in Hanoi. I thought very little about them and in fact mostly forgot them until i came across a section in Pourret's book on Mun Yao paper masks. I had a flash of recognition. These masks are worn by Mun Yao priests "on his forehead whenever he needs to impersonate a particular deity for the ritual at hand". Just a hunch.

By the way, the store where I bought this stuff had piles of these Yao paintings which were going for reasonable prices (though I had a Vietnamese friend with me to help me drive a hard bargain). I picked my scrolls because of their excellent condition and bright colours, but I remember seeing many very old looking ones in more muted mulberry colours (probably more historic). There has got to be some important stuff there, though many are falling apart. So, if you happen to be in Hanoi, the store is just south of the little corner of Ngo To Tich and Hang Quat in the Old Quarter (maybe 1 or 2 doors down on the east side of the street). The paintings are upstairs. While you're at it, get a trai cay dam further down the street!

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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Returning: One Month Later

Something lay there that eluded not just me, but many who have experienced another way of life. We write about some facets of it, some surfaces, that we make our business. But the gold we find is transformed by the reverse alchemy of our journey, for there to here, into lead....What is this reality that gets left behind?

-Hugh Brody, The Other Side of Eden
Last week I saw a woman in a conical hat riding down Parliament St. Then I looked again and saw only a man on his bike wearing a large beige hood that sat like a triangle on his shoulders.

The woman seemed as natural as the man, except that she inhabits another world. I only saw her though because I was still between worlds. It's as though my body returned to Toronto, but my mind lagged behind, shifting between alternate realities, not sure where it was or wanted to be.

It's been a very long month since I returned. I expected reverse culture shock, but that was the easy part. Grief has been the greater challenge.

My first shock was the silence. I live in an urban area by North American standards, and yet the silence in the house was deafening. I felt like my ears were stuffed with cotton: no honking motobikes, no clanking dishes, no water pump motor, no barking dogs or calls from the laneway vendors. Only silence. Even outside I felt a kind of sensory deprivation. Where were are the people? A city of millions behind closed doors, an entire metropolis inside, hidden away in houses, cars and office buildings. No theatre of the street, no sea of motobikes, no adrenalin.

Of course I knew I had arrived in the midst of our winter slumber. We are only now tentatively emerging into spring but the city still waits.

The cold was one reason I hid at home for the first few days. The other reason was that I was not ready to be part of things again. Reengagement was an admission that it was all over, and I was not ready for that. That would come later when I felt like I was returning, and mentally I felt I was still in the process of leaving. I still feel that grief. My mind wanders back to the vivid world I left behind and then suddenly I reawaken to my surroundings and feel a yawning loss.

Grief is in many ways a renegotiation of identity, and my challenge has been to incorporate HanoiMark with a different self that inhabits this world. I left something behind in order to explore a new identity abroad and it is as if these two selves now meet as strangers. At first I felt distant and disconnected in my old contexts. For at least two weeks I felt tone deaf in conversations with friends. I felt I was observing our conversations but strangely never fully a part of them.

Sometimes after a vacation you experience that strange sensation when you walk into your house and somehow everything feels different. The space of your home feels altered, as if someone changed the height of the ceiling or the shade of the walls. This return had a different quality. Places seemed completely unchanged - it was the other stuff: the sounds, the conversations, the social relations, the pace of life, that all seemed strange and foreign. And maybe the fact that the places seemed all too familiar, highlighted the odd temporal character of the experience of returning. I felt I was returning, not just to a place, but to a time half a year earlier. Time itself seemed compressed and foreshortened. Because everywhere I returned felt like I had only left moments before, the six months, in their intensity and richness, seemed to inhabit some other dimension, some unrelated time.

This disconnect between worlds played out on so many levels. Most people had a very difficult time relating to my experience or knowing what to ask or say. I think it helped that many friends had been following this blog. Still I tired of answering the question "So how was it?" because the question only seemed to invite a quick summary. And then there was this one: "What was the one highlight of your time in Vietnam?" I cannot distill the experience like that. All I can say is something true but generic like "my friends" - which sounds flat to the listener who was probably hoping for something more exotic or lyrical.

I'm not sure I'd be any better at engaging someone who had returned from a place I knew nothing about. And the problem is not all theirs either. I became aware that people would tire very quickly of me beginning every sentence with "In Hanoi..." so I would censor myself. Too often the result has been a huge gulf in communication. People don't know what to ask, but then I also don't know how to get started. What remains is a sense that I experienced a very vivid dream, a world hermetically sealed off from this one both in time and quality, a private world resistant to all attempts at description.

I try to find ways to bridge these worlds. Writing helps. Also I've been able to keep in touch with so many of my Hanoi friends by chat and internet phone. I am still up on all the gossip. How long this will last I don't know. And I've tried to continue to feed my addiction to Vietnamese food. Toronto has no shortage of Viet restaurants, but then the offerings here have lost their magic. What impressed me so much before pales now in taste and variety. I haven't given up yet, but I stare at the menus here and recognize little. This is partly because most of the restaurants here are Saigonese style. Even when I have found the odd place that serves Northern delicacies I find that the dishes have inherited only the names: bun rieu, cha ca, bun cha - but rarely their essence. I've been assured by others who have returned from abroad that eventually your tastebuds forget. Is this a blessing or a curse?

In January my friends Deep and Daniel visited me in Hanoi for a weekend. They are Toronto friends but are now living in Bangkok for several years. Viet and I took them all around town on the backs of our motos. One evening we took them across the Red River to a fish restaurant in Gia Lam where we joined 6 or 7 of my Group friends and sat on grass mats eating grilled fish and hotpot. Later I told them how pleased I was that some friends had come to witness this world. It meant that I would have someone to talk to about this experience, to validate the existence of all of this, and to make it seem less like a private dream. I told Deep how I was already anticipating the challenges of returning. I worried that I'd have to box up this part of myself and put it on a shelf. "Welcome to the immigrant experience", Deep said.

Obviously my return after six months cannot approximate the profound dislocation that immigrants must feel, but at least it gives me some small insight into the challenges that can result from such cultural shifts. It also reminds me of the richness of place that sometimes seems to resists language. I can see how this surfeit of experience could defeat and silence - or inspire acts of imaginative expression.

Deep agreed that probably part of this experience would sit sealed in a box. But he also assured me that it is never really forgotten. "There will be times you'll need it, and you will take it again off the shelf."

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Mystery of the Painted Scrolls

I had a full six months to do my shopping in Hanoi, but human nature being what it is, I left it to the last minute. Here is another reason why my last week in Hanoi was intense. I spent a few manic afternoons running around stores picking up things like eggshell laquer trays, rosewood chopstick sets, Hmong bookmarks and a pair of stuffed water buffaloes for my niece and nephew.

I also happened upon these two paintings (click on the thumbnails for larger images). I guarded them jealously during my flight home and somehow they survived all the way to Toronto without being crushed by luggage. Now they are framed and waiting to be hung on my walls.

The problem is, I don't know what they are.

I want to try an experiment. There is so much talk these days about the role of virtual communities in the creation and sharing of knowledge. I'm not sure who out there reads my blog, but I'm hoping I can harness some of that collective brain power to help interpret these images.

Painting # 1 (above): My friend Dat didn't know what it was, but he has a theory: these are not six different mandarins, but one. He thinks the painting depicts the adventures of this character as he rides around on sacred animals (a dragon, tiger, phoenix, white horse). He carries with him a wooden card inscribed with his name and rank. At the bottom we have what appears to be an official of some sort, and at the top we have a divine hand. Dat thought the hand belongs to a female divinity because of the fingers and the style of robe. Or is it the Jade Emperor? It's not clear which direction Mr. Mandarin is going.

Painting #2 (right): I wondered whether this is a Dvarapala, one of the guardians of a pagoda. The sword and the stern expression seem to suggest that he might have some role in frightening off evil spirits. These figures are usually in pairs, with one on either side of the entrance to a pagoda. The platform on which he is seated is offset so maybe there was originally another figure on the other side to provide symmetry. My friend Hung suggests instead that this is also a mandarin. Apparently the gate above his head reads "Heavenly Man".

The woman I bought them from couldn't help me. She would only tell me that they were painted by Red Dao people in the Far North of Vietnam. I am not convinced of that. I am unsure of the age of the paintings, but the paper was worn and ragged.

Anyway, those are my best guesses. I may be wildly off. I claim no expertise in these things, but would love to hear other ideas. Please make liberal use of the Comments button below.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

My Photographic Diary

My six months are up, but my blog continues - for now anyway. I've still got a few entries in me, so don't give up on HanoiMark yet.

I intend to write a piece on the experience of reentry which has not been easy. One of the more productive ways I have been dealing with my return has been to organize and publish the best of my photos from the last six months on a Flickr website (click here to see). I admit I have a hard time weeding out photos, so it may be more than anyone cares to view. Feel free to view them selectively, even though I think they look best using the slideshow feature.

Note: They are not all of Hanoi. I've created sets of other places in Vietnam, and included piles of pictures of Laos. Also, I have excluded pictures of friends for reasons of confidentiality.

I have always regretted that I could not blog more about my incredible Vietnamese friends, but I have avoided getting too personal in order to protect their privacy. It seems to me that there is a paradox in Hanoi society. Life is at the same time more public and more private than it is in the West. On one level, everything is everyone's business. Life is lived more on the street than behind closed doors, and everyone loves to talk. At another level though it seems that people respond to this by carefully shielding parts of themselves. It always seemed taboo to broadcast personal stories learned in confidence - especially when many of those stories involve sexual identity.

The same goes for photographs, so while I'd love to post pictures of friends (to illustrate for instance the way Group A would occupy my living room), I think it would be unwise.

Flickr is much more than photo viewing tool. Like a blog, it also allows for comments, so if you have a question or a comment, feel free...

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Friday, March 10, 2006

Both Sides Now

A few days before my departure I was invited to a house party hosted by two Americans. The party was split down the middle, expat and Vietnamese, so it seemed an appropriate anticipation of my transition back to the West.

I've written a lot about the way Vietnamese socialize in groups. The differences with Western modes of socializing were in stark contrast at this party. Predictably all the expats gravitated towards the kitchen. The Vietnamese meanwhile camped out in the living room. But the way they were relating was the most interesting thing.

I didn't know any of the expats, but all I had to do was stand around a few minutes in the kitchen before a few people introduced themselves. Although these introductions were generally stiff and awkward ("Hi, my name is Barbara. How long have you been in Hanoi?"), I was still struck by the peculiarity of this sort of cocktail conversation in which strangers introduce themselves and search for intersecting interests. There should be nothing unusual about this except that I could see it fresh after being away from it all for so long. Here was a room full of mostly unrelated individuals chatting in small clusters, mixing and regrouping throughout the evening. All the sudden I could see the fluidity of the Western kind of socializing. There was a kind of randomness and serendipity, like atoms bouncing off each other.

In the living room there was no mixing and mingling whatsoever. Instead the Vietnamese group all knew each other and hung together like a big family. They were essentially draped over each other on the couch and the floor. If you didn't know them already there would be little way to break in. But in contrast to the random fluidity in the kitchen was warmth and casual intimacy. Once I'd had my fill of finger food I opted for the living room where I curled up the couch with the rest of them.

Now I am back in Toronto and this contrast is even starker. In Hanoi I would sometimes complain about the cliquey-ness (sp?) and the fact that people wouldn't talk to others outside their group. Now I can see the good and the bad of each pattern. We Westerners may be better at introductions, and mixing and mingling, our social networks may be more open and less defined, but intimacy between friends doesn't seem to come as easy for us.

I don't know if the patterns I saw were specific to the gay community, or reflective of wider society. I also don't know if they are specific to Vietnam or other Asian culture, but when I shared my observations with a Singaporian friend here, he recognized it all immediately. When he moved to Canada two years ago, he felt isolated. Sure you can meet people, but social plans have to be arranged a week in advance. You do not have to break your way into a clique and to this extent it might seem less complicated, but people only have so much time for you because they are busy balancing their other social commitments.

Despite the closed nature of the groups I experienced in Hanoi, they afforded a family-like intimacy. No need to make plans days in advance because it was taken for granted that the group would hang out. One phone call and half an hour later the group might be meeting for coffee or bia hoi.

I may have a large social network here, but my mobile phone rings only occasionally. I miss that intense interconnectedness, and the way I was always receiving new text messages. I miss the spontaneity and the feeling of being embraced by a close-knit family of friends.

Travel may be a outward exploration but it is also about the discovery of self. It's about the return as well as the voyage. There are moments when you suddenly discover the peculiarity of who you are and where you come from, and this party off Nguyen Thai Hoc was one of those moments.

In the end I succeeded in breaking down some of the barriers between two groups in Hanoi. (I will have to save that for another post.) Now the challenge is to bring more of that warmth and spontaneity into my Canadian social world.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Maybe it's schadenfreude, but it made me feel a bit better to read other Vietnam expat bloggers lamenting their imminent departures on Noodlepie. Never mind that the remaining time for the author of Noodlepie is roughly the length of time I had in Hanoi in total.

Expats come and go from Hanoi all the time. I keep wondering if it is normal to feel so traumatized, especially after just six and a half months. It has taken me a week to feel I can even write about it.

Someone brought a Torontonian to my farewell party. He was also about to leave Hanoi, and he couldn't wait to get out. He was tired of not being able to communicate, tired of the chaos and poor hygiene, tired of being followed in clothing stores. My colleague also told me about this year's batch of Australian Youth Ambassadors who all hung out together each weekend, going for coffee at Puku and drinking at Barracuda. They couldn't wait to go home, but from the sounds of it they had never actually left.

It may have only been half a year, but it was a whole world. I get irritated when people ask me, how was your trip?, as if I was just another backpacker on an extended fantasy. Despite the relative brevity of my time, my life there was full and three dimensional, and I developed strong attachments to people who have come to feel like family. Saying goodbye to them was painful. Leaving Toronto had not been so hard because I knew I was returning.

In a previous post I talked about my farewell party dilemma and how I couldn't just throw a bash for all and sundry because of complicated group politics. So there were two parties, one with an eclectic group of friends at Chim Sao on Ngo Hue, and the other with Group A on the roof of Highway 4 on Mai Hac De. I was so busy during my last week that I wasn't actually prepared for the finality of the goodbyes after the parties. Suddenly people got up to leave on Saturday night and I was faced with the unthinkable. My experience of leaving Hanoi was of suddenly seeing the loss of a whole community. I know I will return, but I will never regain that world.

Viet stayed over that last night. In the morning I awoke in darkness before the alarm. My packed bags were waiting for me in the living room. Viet couldn't sleep either. Hungry and restless we got on his motobike and rode up Lo Duc for my last bowl of pho, on the sidewalk under a tarp sheltering us from the light rain. Afterwards on the way home I asked Viet to take me for one last loop around Hoan Kiem Lake. He turned his bike around but insisted that this would not be my last time. It was still early and the park around the lake was full of seniors, strolling, practising tai chi, and playing badminton. If you pass by here in forty years, Viet said, look for me and you will probably see me doing the same.

When we got back, my landlord was already waiting. Moments later it seemed and the cab had arrived, my bags were in the trunk and the car door was open waiting for me, but I couldn't get in. I was a mess, but Viet was stoic. As we embraced he said to me that I was not leaving Hanoi, I was only going on another trip, but this time much longer. I got in and watched my house and Viet disappear out the cab window behind me.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

My Moveable Feast

On one of my last nights in Vietnam three years ago, I remember hopping on a xe om to check out the New Century Club here in Hanoi. I felt a small victory learning how to negotiate a xe om after a month in the country. As I was riding the motobike down the side of Hoan Kiem Lake at night past the Thap Rua Tower I had a sudden sense of freedom and an uncanny feeling that this city could feel like home. It was a feeling I could not get out of my head.

Now several years later I am on the verge of another departure. This time though I am not left with a premonition of what might be but with a memories of a fulfilled dream, of a deeper relationship with this city.

There have been times I been cynical about the extreme lyricism of so many of the portrayals of Vietnam: langourous, dreamy, and rice paddy green. But now when I think back over the last half year, despite the chaos, dust and grey winter mornings I do find a kind of lyricism in my memories. So I hope you'll forgive me if I indulge in a few of the most vivid images and experiences I take away with me.

Hanoi from Under a Raincoat
This ride was on the way to lunch on the other side of town. It was raining and cold. Viet drove and I sat behind him hidden under his big plastic poncho raincoat. Mostly I experienced the sound of the Hanoi street: the honking, the sounds of motors, the clanking of soup bowls, snippets of incomprehensible conversations in passing. I could see only whatever random flashes the flapping of the raincoat revealed: wet feet, wheels, red plastic stools, puddles, metal rods balanced on a cyclo, the trunk of a banyan tree pushing through the cracked pavement. All of this I experienced from within the intimacy of the raincoat I shared with Viet, with my head on his shoulder, my arms wrapped around him and my hands in his warm coat pockets.

Hung at the Altar
Shortly after I met him Hung offered to take me out on the back of his black Vespa to Bac Ninh Province for the day to see pagodas (see "Village Life"). It was hot late summer day and the dry roads blew grit in our teeth. From on top of one of the Delta dyke roads you could see the countryside stretch out punctuated with little villages and orange brick kilns. Hung first took me to Chua Dau. There are more spectacular pagodas, but this one has an austerity, a serenity. Hung was my cultural interpreter and helped make sense of the religious imagery. Each time we approached an altar Hung would first bow his handsome head and quietly pray. Each time I was deeply moved. It was something about seeing him shift from talking about to participating in. I humbly put away my camera.

Summer Storm in Bach Khoa
It must have been my first day because I asked Viet to take me to an internet cafe so I could write home to say that I had arrived safely in Hanoi. It was sweltering and he took me to a tiny internet cafe where we squeezed between the chairs to the two remaining computers at the back. The weak air conditioning had little effect with all those bodies in such a narrow space; the strong fans helped more. Suddenly the heavens outside opened and let loose a storm like I have never seen. I was alarmed but no one else batted an eye at what is in fact a daily occurence during this wet season. The streets flooded in a matter of minutes and I was without a raincoat. After waiting in vain for a few minutes Viet found a way for us to hop from awning to awning down the street until we succeeded in picking up a cheap plastic raincoat and a couple of caramel puddings which we ate in a little tile floored storefront open to a sheets of pounding rain.

Upstairs at Cafe Nang with Dat
Dat introduced me to Cafe Nang and it will always be linked to him in my memory. Dat is one of the proudest Hanoians I know. It's unusual for such a young man to have such a passion for the history and traditions of his city. When he would walk through the Old Quarter it was always as if he was discovering the streets for the first time. He took it upon himself to show me the quirkiest little joints hidden down alleyways and up secret staircases, and Cafe Nang was one of my favourites. He showed me the little marble staircase at the back of the cafe. It always felt so Alice in Wonderland squeezing our way up, passing through a tiny ancient kitchen lined with drip coffee filters, to a little room littered with the cracked shells of red watermelon seed shells. There we would drink nau da and watch the drama that is the meeting of Hang Bac and Hang Be. With Dat I felt I had been let in on a secret world, a world of street vendors, plastic stools, and cafes with broken plaster that had not been painted since the French pulled out.

The Kittens
I was usually the last to be informed of the gatherings at my house. Vo Thi Sau became the Group clubhouse and I was always happy to oblige. The doorbell would ring and there would be a pod of bikes outside in the lane waiting to turn my front room into a parking lot. The guys would deposit a pile of shoes at the foot of the stairs in my kitchen and head upstairs to my living room. Someone would bring a bag of fruit to be carved up and devoured. Hardly anyone would drink a drop. My furniture always seemed to be an awkward imposition. Instead they would throw the cushions on the floor and pile on, curling up, leaning on each other, limbs all overlapping. Like a litter of kittens I thought.

Viet, Hung and I found ourselves out across town with only one motobike. It's supposed to be illegal to ride with more than two but it's a common sight and we piled on anyway. Hung drove, I rested my head on the back of his neck, and Viet sat snuggly behind me. Motobikes afford a kind of intimacy amidst chaos, and there is a powerful feeling to this paradox. I have many fond memories of conversations with Viet while we rode slowly around the city late at night with my chin on his shoulder. Then there is the physical intimacy; doubling on bikes is in fact a form of public spooning. During this particular ride I felt a supreme happiness. I surrendered to the warmth and care of two of my best friends, embraced in this little corner of Vietnamese life.

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Market Abstractions

I'm a sucker for markets. It doesn't matter where I am, I seek them out. You would think all those hours shucking corn and selling potatoes in the basement of the Hamilton Farmers' Market as a kid would have killed my interest. Somehow that tedious experience never succeeded in spoiling the fascination.

I am now in Luang Prabang, Laos. I never intended this to be a travel blog. I'm not particularly interested in publishing a catalogue of places. So instead of going on about the golden wats, saffron robes, and my conversations with monks (all incredible of course), I am offering a little photo essay on markets, and those of Vientiane and Luang Prabang in particular.

My pointillist cherry tomato and eggplant composition above got me thinking about the incredible abstract potential of piles of food. Who said still life had to be representational?

Today in Luang Prabang's Talat Phousi I passed by a big vat of blood pudding that looked very Mark Rothko. The bright red blocks floated in a deeper red bath. Red on red. It's a shame I didn't have the stomach to hang around the meat section longer. So this exhibition is vegetarian in nature. Maybe it's the influence of all those saffron-robed monks I've been chatting to over the last couple days.

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Never The Twain

One thing that half a year in a country will do is to strip away some of the layers of fantasy and orientalism that are unconscious to many of us in the West. During my first encounter with this country three years ago as a tourist I vacillated between thinking I could understood the place and a feeling of profound incomprehension. Both reactions are off the mark but inevitable. Over time the experience of the exotic has been replaced by an understanding of the Vietnamese world as lived, and gradually I can begin to see how the horizons of East and West overlap and on occasion even fuse.

Of course six months is not a long time all things considered, and there are still many cultural differences that truly baffle me. These are phenomenon whose inner logic escapes me. Now that my days here are seriously numbered all can do is describe some of them and surrender for now my attempts at true understanding.

No Thank You
The constant need to say thank you is deeply ingrained in the Western brain (maybe especially in Canadian ones). There are casual thank yous and then there are heartfelt ones. I completely understand how absurd the casual thank you can appear to the Vietnamese. When we are at a restaurant we say thank you when the waiter brings the bill. But why would we do this? This is all part of the waiter's expected role, not some kind of personal mitzvah. Besides, why would you thank someone for asking for money? Ditto with the kind but wimpy way Westerners tend to deal with hawkers pestering them on the street. I've heard tourists proudly use the literal Vietnamese translation of "No, thank you". Thanks for what? Seeing me as a source of income? There is no rational reason to thank people for merely fulfilling roles.

All Action, No Talk
Then there is the heartfelt thank you. I have been on the receiving end of so many generous acts here and I truly want to express a deep sense of gratitude. "Thank you" is fine in this context, but all that's needed is a quick understated "thanks". I have trouble with this because I sometimes experience a surplus of unexpressed gratitude, but if you go too far it's seen as overly formal and even possibly insincere. On one occasion I was even told that my thanks were unnecessary, and that true thanks are expressed by doing something in return - ie. words can be cheap. The opposite could be true for the Western sensibility with this expectation cynically interpreted as some kind of debt that is due - I scratch your back, you scratch mine. So which is more "authentic", saying or doing? And this leads to my next theme.

People here can be very direct with some things. I have been told point blank that I have bad skin, I am too hairy, I am lazy and of course I speak atrocious Vietnamese. If you are fat you will probably be told that to your face on a daily basis. And on a linguistic level the imperative is far more acceptable here than our Western way of couching requests in indirect niceties; the Vietnamese tell you what to do, while we preface requests with things like "would you mind?" or "can you please?"

Other things though are never to be expressed outright. Direct Western style expression is apparently seen as crude and confrontational as compared to the subtle approach used here. If you have a beef with someone, don't tell them - suggest it in a roundabout way to a mutual friend, ask them not to say anything, and watch as it make it's way back anyway. I have had several issues brought to my attention this way. I was once mystified by something that happened with a friend. I tried to ask directly for an explanation, but hit a stone wall. The harder I tried, the less I got. I understood much more later when things came out in a more by-the-way and less forced fashion. Sometimes though this kind of subtlety is completely lost on us foreigners. When a Western colleague began his contract he was fed apparently free lunches for several weeks before he suggested that they should really be asking staff to pay at least something. "We are so glad you finally asked," came the response, "Everyone's talking about your freeloading" ...or words to that effect.

Closed Social Networks
I am going away soon and I was contemplating a farewell house party. What could be more normal than inviting all my friends over for a big bash? In fact it would be like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You can know several "groups", but you shouldn't try mixing them. I have tried. Social networks are closed systems, at least in the gay world. The Vietnamese I know are generally lousy at introductions. You can be talking to a friend, someone else will appear but no word on their name or identity. The introductions I have attempted have fallen flat. All the groups I know hang out at the same places and know each other at least by sight, but there is little talk between groups. People go to clubs to hang out with their groups, rarely to actually meet anyone new (In fact I've almost never seen this happen in my group). I have asked friends why they don't talk to people in other groups (especially since the gay world here is so damn small), and I have consistently been told that they have nothing to say to each other and that conversations would be awkward and boring. Somehow talk is group-specific.

What baffles me even more is how groups form to begin with given these rigid social structures. One thing is certain though, people are only truly admitted to a group if they fit a certain profile and they improve the collective image. Outside the public realm though individuals associate much more freely. If you dig a bit you will find that are wider personal networks that belie the public patterns of group interaction. This tension between personal and group relations that makes for fascinating intrigue. There are people I'm friends with on a one-to-one basis, but who are actually quite distant in public spaces. I now know not to be offended by this.

I don't intend any of this to sound judgmental. These are just some of the things I don't understand. The longer I am here the more complex things become. Sometimes trying to figure it out can be like looking at a night sky in which faint stars recede when you try to stare them down, but reappear when you take in the whole panorama. Certain cultural phenomena appear odd or even absurd in isolation but are strangely intelligible within a larger context. But six months doesn't get me there (does a lifetime?) and still so much escapes me?

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The NYT Hanoi Food Debate

The New York Times recently published an article on the burgeoning Hanoi restaurant scene ("Restauranteurs Push Hanoi Food into the Future" by Matt Gross, Feb. 5, 2006). I was feeling a bit cranky pants the day I read it because of its bias towards elite restaurants and the way I felt it was snubbing the rich tradition of Hanoi street food. I never really set out to write editorial comments. Usually I just get worked up and unconsciously compose something in my head, which is what happened here. My purpose was to start a debate about the tension between traditional dishes and the haute cuisine that reinterprets them. Also I wanted to try to move the discussion beyond what I feel is a kind of North/South parochialism. I guess I succeeded. The NYT author responded at length.

As a librarian I will do the responsible thing and point to the debate at its source rather than reproduce text from another blog.

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