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

Friday, November 11, 2005

Exotica

Some blog readers out there have been curious why I haven't been including gorgeous food porn shots of my meals in my blog entries given how much of my blog is dedicated to my culinary obsessions. Well, you'll be happy to know that I took my first pho bo aerial yesterday just before tucking in to my lunch. I was sitting at a little rickety table across the street on Vo Thi Sau at my favourite local pho joint. I tried to fluff the scene a bit, arranging the pot of chili sauce and the platter of limes next to it. I got my camera ready under the table, glanced around to see if anyway was watching, snapped the shot and quickly hid my camera. (For superior food porn, feel free to indulge in the Sticky Rice Hanoi food blog. I follow it religiously.)

I am finding it difficult to take pictures in Hanoi. There is no lack of things to capture; it's just that the act of taking pictures pulls me out of my life here and makes me just another wandering Tay ba lo. As soon as I am behind the lens, I am cast in the role of the outsider, the tourist, the voyeur. With a camera in hand, I am no longer living in Hanoi, I am outside looking in.

Last weekend I went to Saigon with Andrew for a three day excursion. It was my second time there, and so I felt freed of having to see the sights, and instead spent my time visiting friends, frequenting cafes, going to nightclubs and of course eating food!

Gastronomic aside: There is a book called "1000 Things To Do Before you Die". If I were to create my own list it would include eating bun mam (stinky fermented fish soup, #11 on the Mimi menu) in its place of origin. Actually I think it is a Khmer inspired dish from deep in the Mekong Delta, but eating it in Saigon's Ben Thanh Market was close enough. There there was a lunch of bun bo Hue (not as spicy as expected), and one of my personal favourites, banh xeo. This was the largest, crispiest, prawn, pork and beansprout pancake creation I've ever seen. It was served with a massive basket of herbs. They were still dripping wet from washing and I thought momentarily about varieties of water-borne parasites before digging in and getting my hands very dirty. Also, several samplings of rare beef salad, che ba mau (three layered bean drink), and fresh nuoc chanh leo (passion fruit juice). My one disappointment was Saigonese pho bo. It seems I've been Northernized. It was too sweet and somehow lacked the deep beefiness of the original.

It wasn't all cafes and eateries though. Andrew and I also spent half a day in Cho Lon (the Chinese district) wandering around back streets and pagodas. It was here and especially in the streets behind the Binh Tay Market that I took some of the best photos I've taken yet in Vietnam: pictures of fish vendors, piles of tropical fruit, mounds of herbs, lines of xe om drivers, cyclos in action, funny market kids horsing around on trolleys and men playing Chinese chess while airing their torsos (a typical scene). Andrew and I both felt a kind of freedom. There was something about being in a new city that allowed us to just be observers.

Back at a cafe in Hanoi several days later I got only puzzled looks from Viet and Hung as they were checking out the pics on my cam. They observed that I seem to have this obsession with fresh produce and people doing unremarkable things like riding motorbikes, selling food, and gathering on sidewalks. Viet commented that a picture of a woman with a conical hat crouching in the middle of traffic with a pile of rambutan, was "very normal". They cannot imagine why I would want to take such photos. These are merely images of daily life. I am wondering what they will say when they discover a picture I took of pomelo skin drying on utility pole down the street. (The dried skin is used to make homemade shampoo. Check out the recent Party Wig posting on Sticky Rice. I guess this would be like taking shots of recycling bins back home.)

Although I enjoyed playing the camera toting tourist in Saigon, I find my attitude gradually changing. The exotic has become part of my daily life. Every day I still see novel things, but so many things have simply become the setting for working, commuting, eating and socializing. Canadian Hanoi expat Claude Potvin observes in his book, Vietnam Chronicles that in fact the exotic is a moment in time. It is hard to put yourself back into that moment and look again at everything as strange.

Meanwhile I am often reminded that of course I am the curiosity. It seems almost every time I'm at my gym (where I am the sole Western member), some guy will work up enough courage to come try out his English on me. As soon as he starts asking me questions (where are you from? do you like Viet Nam? are you married?) two or three other guys will sidle up to overhear it all. And I just came from a little open air restaurant I discovered in my neighbourhood that specializes in bun bo Hue. I became the focus of the whole joint as they inspected my chopstick technique ("You eat well!") and peppered me with questions. The owner tried to explain the ingredients of the soup. They howled in approval when I couldn't understand his English, but understood instantly when he explained the three main ingredients (rice noodle, pork and beef) in Vietnamese.

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