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

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Parents Arrive

The parental units should now be sitting in their hotel room somewhere in Siem Reap, Cambodia. They flew off on Monday and will return Thursday evening after their private guided tour of Angkor. This follows nearly a week of sightseeing in Hanoi. When they return they will have another week to soak it up, see Halong Bay and whatever else strikes their fancy.

I must say my parents have been great. This is a very rewarding place to travel but not always easy, especially if you are new to Asia and the developing world. I've still been working days, but we've been getting together each evening and spending long weekends together. Of course they are getting to see the tourist highlights of Hanoi, but I've also made a point of giving them glimpses of Vietnamese life beyond what tourists usually get to experience. I've given them the inside scoop on cafes and restaurants, introduced them to half a dozen Vietnamese friends, taken them for a hotpot dinner at the house of a Vietnamese colleague, brought them out into the countryside to see some remote pagodas, and even got them sitting on plastic stools eating bun rieu and other delicacies on the street and in markets. They have been good sports, but there is a limit. No chance of getting them on the back of a moto. We'll see how successful I am in convincing my Mother of the virtues of do-it-yourself grilled goat's breast. The other challenge will be a walking tour of my neighbourhood which demands unusual nerve crossing Dai Co Viet.

It has been interesting to see Hanoi through their eyes. It helps me remember my initial impressions and to recall what was strange and new. In particular I remember the shock of the traffic. When I emerged from the airport in Saigon three years ago I was enthralled to the unbelievable spectacle of the street. I was wide-eyed for days. Forgetting this, the very first thing I did after my parents' check-in at their hotel was to lead them out into the swarming maze of the Old Quarter in search of food. Each major street required something like a ferry crossing. Confidence comes with experience though and now they are enjoying meandering walks about the city. Never leave without a map though I tell them; the streets try their best to lead you astray.

They were also impressed by how youthful a society this is. It's true. I look around at the streets and sometimes it seems they are populated almost entirely by 20-somethings. I often feel like I am pushing the ceiling with my 36 years. I am the oldest in my circle with the possible exception of Andrew who is the same age. If I feel ancient here, I can imagine how my parents must feel. Of course the older generations are in evidence too. Now that it has turned cool in Hanoi some of the older men sport berets (a hold-over from the French days). So does my Dad and so there is a kind of sympathy between them. On more than one occasion, they nod, smile, point at their hats and laugh in recognition. I'm sure they think he's French.

I cannot imagine doing Hanoi without experiencing its food culture. We've done cha ca on Pho Cha Ca, bun cha on Hang Manh, bun rieu on Pho Hoa Ma, and gave them a tour of the Hom Market where my Mom and I sucked back fresh passion fruit juice (nuoc chanh leo) while my Dad devoured two orders of dried beef (bo kho) dipped in hot sauce. Here too there are limits: their travel doctor in Hamilton has declared ice and uncooked vegetables off limits. I've never had any problems with these, although I have one friend who suffered from a nasty parasite called shigela which he probably caught from eating uncooked greens, but this was only after a four year diet of street food. In any case, we all decide on our personal level risk. The other concern is sugar since my father is diabetic. Thankfully sugar is not used liberally in cooking as it is in the South. The issue is more the copious amounts of white rice and noodle that are served. So far so good. Still on the food agenda: grilled goat, West Lake snail, bun bo by the Hang Da Market, and maybe fresh fish hot pot. Dog is definitely not on the agenda, says my Dad.

As it turns out, eating poultry at "ground zero" is a moot point since it was recently banned. There is still no evidence of risk of bird flu from eating cooked poultry, but a Hanoi man died recently after cooking chicken. It's the preparation, not the consumption that is potentially dangerous. I miss my banh my trung and bun thang, and feel sad for their vendors. The one upside is that most of the roosters behind my house have suddenly fallen ominously silent. I don't recall 5 am being so peaceful - although a rooster's call this morning made me wonder if some had just been temporarily relocated to save their necks. Actually despite my complaining, I was sort of pleased to hear his return. I like that village feeling.

The other interesting thing has been playing tourist again. I've already written about my ambivalence with this role, but what has been fun has been the shock value of what little Vietnamese I know in the tourist context. Clearly this is unexpected. I get smiles, giggles, gawks and turned heads. This is in contrast to the reaction I get in my own neighbourhood or any other non-touristed area of the city. Whitey sightings in those areas are rare and people are curious, but if you are sitting at a cafe in the burbs of Thanh Xuan or shopping for linens out on Bach Mai, the locals expect that you will probably know some Vietnamese to have gotten that far. I think they are surprised that I don't know more than I do. The expectations are completely different.

Part two of the parental visit will begin upon their return from Cambodia on Thursday. There are many more sights to be seen, but I think the most memorable experiences are the unexpected encounters with people along the way, the little dramas of everyday life. Viet Nam is rich in these, probably because life is lived so publicly. All the little details spill out onto the street. My parents delight, as I do, in the interactions with the vendors, cafe owners, kids, and strangers. A perfect example: Yesterday I desperately need some breath-freshening after my usual pre-gym banh my pate so I approach a little makeshift sidewalk teashop and ask the price of their gum. The man answers with a smirk: 5000 VND ( about 36 cents). This seems steep and I suspect a little foreigner inflation. I complain (dat qua!), at which point an older lady (his aunt I am imagining?) sitting on the stoop intervenes. She rolls her eyes, shakes her finger and interjects with the real price: 2500 VND! The man laughs in embarrassment. He doesn't get away with much around his auntie it seems, but he tries again. After all maybe the foreigner doesn't really understand what the number hai nghin rua amounts to. I give him a 5000 bill and he returns to me 2000. "Five hundred more!" she says over his shoulder. Burned again. It's all a big game and he's been had. Auntie and I nod at each other for our teamwork. He laughs. A drama over 18 cents.

My friends have gone out of their way to make my parents feel welcome. I have befriended people of such quality in my three months here. My good friend Dat is a trained guide and has volunteered three free tours already (the Temple of Literature, the Ethnology Museum and a Temple tour). A colleague invited them over for dinner. Andrew has enlisted the help of his company's drivers. Hung has coordinated their Angkor trip. If ever any of these friends come to Toronto, I will spare nothing to welcome them. Incredible generosity has been shown to me and to my parents. I hope one day I can return the favour.

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