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

Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas Eve in Hanoi

Eggs seem to have made a return to Ha Noi, and so I had one in my coffee at Cafe Giang on Christmas Eve. This cafe is one of the old traditional hole-in-the-wall spots, and I will soon write more about its significance. It's speciality though is ca phe trung or egg coffee. I've never seen it anywhere else. Whipping egg white up in coffee sounds like an alarming proposition until you think of it as a kind of take on egg-nog. In fact, it's delicious. The entire cup is transformed into a frothy sweet mocha puff.

Dat and I met early on Christmas Eve for a quick gift exchange and a stroll around the Old Quarter. His mission has been to show me all the quirkiest local weirdo places where Tay ba lo fear to tread. Cafe Giang has been on our list for a while. So it made a special if unorthodox beginning to my Christmas Eve, and I don't think he'd anticipated the Christmas potential of this drink.

The big deal here is Christmas Eve here, not the following day. That's not to say it's celebrated in any Christian sense except by the small minority of Vietnamese Catholics. People boot around on their motos with Santa Claus hats, and you can hear Christmas musak at the shopping centres. The downtown core turns into a massive moto parking lot with everyone looking for a party.

After our egg coffee, Dat and I stashed my motobike and wandered down to the Cathedral to see what was going on. Naturally this is the big gathering place on this night. Three years ago Jon and I stood in front of the Cathedral and waited with a crowd that seemed to be holding some kind of vigil, waiting for something to happen. We had expected the Cathedral doors to be flung open in a dramatic flourish at midnight. Instead the hour passed without any climax and the crowd went on staring at the doors curious about the mysterious goings-on behind it.

This time Dat and were early enough to actually get in the church. There was no service going on but the pews were packed and the congregants were reciting some kind of liturgy in a chant. I couldn't put my finger on what was so odd about this, until Dat, who had never been in a church in his life, observed that the text was being read in a Buddhist tone and cadence. The only thing that was missing was the beating of the hollow wooden drum and the occasional sound of the bell. Here was a classic case of religious syncretism and the effect was quite mesmerizing.

Eventually hunger required us to break the spell and wander out in search of food. We ended up walking Hang Gai until we found the entrance into a special alleyway Dat had been wanting to show me. In all my wanderings I had never noticed this one, and it was one of those alleyways that has its own special character and life. This one doesn't peter out but runs deep into the block and after a few twists and turns, emerges (at one end anyway) at the Hang Da Market. One section is lined with little open rooms selling nem chua ran, or fried sour pork (fermented in banana leaves before being fried). We squeezed our way into one of these recesses, squatted on the plastic stools and ate an order accompanied by jimaca dipped in chile salt. A spot to remember for a late night post-bar snack.

So began my very eclectic Christmas weekend.

I had been receiving so many concerned emails from back home worrying about me being alone for Christmas. Of course I missed friends, family and especially Jon, but it was not as difficult as it might have been had I been alone in a country where Christmas is celebrated in the home. Here it is mostly as a excuse to get together with friends and have a party, throw a dinner, go to a club, or I guess hop on a moto and drive around. Just down my alleyway the neighbours had set up tables, speakers and a disco ball in the badminton court/parking lot.

After my Old Quarter adventure with Dat I was off to a big gay party for the evening. This was hosted by Group B. So far I've mostly written about Group A since it is my usual circle (see "The Group" posting below), but I am also friendly with this group, which is one of the more upwardly mobile of the gay circles in Hanoi. Most are professional, educated, well-travelled, and have excellent English.

There were about 22 of us: 2 whiteys, 2 Viet kieu, 3 Singaporeans and all the rest local Hanoians. It is strange how similar certain elements of gay culture are anywhere in the world. In many ways, a party hosted by the International Gay Brotherhood, Vietnam Chapter, seems so much like a party back home: the sense of humour (at least what I could understand of it), the fashion, the music, right down to what seem like certain universal gay character types. One of the Viet kieu guys from California and I would have flashes of recognition: ahh, so here is the Hanoi version of so-and-so back home. This uncanny familiarity is though I think in large part a function of the group's very middle class status and their exposure to the wider gay world outside the country. This is not generally the case with Group A.

Probably the most memorable moment for me though was the errand I was volunteered for upon arrival. Four of us were sent out on two motobikes to pick up the catered food. My job was to balance two heavy porcelain platters of salad rolls (dipping sauces included!) on my knee on the back on a moto in the intense Christmas Eve traffic. One end of the piled platters was on my right knee and the other end was sticking off the side of the bike. I was certain I was going to be clipped and shower an intersection with a fish sauce and rolls. At one point the plastic wrapping came off so our food was bathed in the lovely air of the Hanoi street. Soon after we ended up waiting at a train crossing as the train from Sapa rolled in. I was not optimistic the platters were ever going to make it to the party and considered just serving impromptu hors d'oeuvre then and there to my traffic jam neighbours.

After the party, we all ended up at Apo. Nothing to report except that I have never seen it stay open so late. A shocking 2:30am!

Sunday marked another missed family tradition for me. This was the first year in 14 that I was not able to light the Hannukah menorah. I tried. I asked my one Jewish friend here in the city if I could join him in lighting candles the first night. Unfortunately he said he had no menorah, and in any case was planning on attending the lighting ceremony at the Israeli embassy. Instead I sang the blessings while riding up the dyke road on the way to another Christmas party in Nghi Tam. And each night I have sung them in my little house, which by the way has great acoustics. There is something to be said for tile floors.

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Anonymous Cathy R. said...

What an excellent way to spend Christmas Eve! I love the more social approach they have, as opposed to our home-oriented festivities. Much more inclusive. And also much more possible given the climate there. (I assume it's warm now??)

Keep the blogs coming Mark! Happy New Year!

10:45 AM

Blogger Preya said...

Sounds fun! I had a great Christmas eve in Hanoi too...I had dinner at the Vine with an old friend and then sat in the mad traffic around the lake for a while...ahhh it was good to be home! I went to Apocalypse once while back and was so disappointed; I miss the old Apo...which, FYI, used to stay open all night...:(

4:02 AM


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