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

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Bird Flu Social

Generally I have a busy social life here, but sometimes I feel suddenly quite alone. The last three days it seems everyone has been busy with their lives. I like my little house, but there is hardly a thing to do there, so sometimes I just wander the streets of Hanoi. Mind you that's not a disagreeable thing to do; it would be hard to exhaust the pleasure of discovery.

Last night I resorted to one of my longer strolls, but the evening began instead at a social at the residence of the Canadian Ambassador. The occasion was not Hallowe'en (which it was), but avian influenza. I received an invitation by email last week for an information session and status report on the possibility of the pandemic. I have not been worrying a lot about the issue these days (I have smaller fish to fry), but it was a creepy experience. After they went through some of the basic info, they described the possible impact of such a pandemic. I won't go into the details because there is no point getting all panicky. Let's just say it sounded a bit apocalyptic. The good news is that we were told the government here is actually very well prepared. Most of the discussion in the question and answer period revolved around two issues: the supply of Tamiflu (none) and evacuation plans if it ever came to that. I had that eerie feeling you sometimes have in "interesting times", the suspicion that maybe what you are experiencing may in retrospect be judged of great if not historic significance. I know that sounds grandiose, but there I was in a room with people some of whom are coming fresh from the avian influenza conference held last week in Ottawa for health ministers from across the globe, and here I am receiving their report and recommendations in one of the big hotspots.

Anyway, I think of myself as being fairly philosophical and sanguine about things like this, and don't intend to dwell on this. I made my appointment for the flu shot today, but there aren't a lot of other preventive measures one can really take (beyond common sense - I guess I will have to pass on raw duck blood).

The evening was surreal for another reason too. I realized that this was the first time I'd been in an entirely Western crowd in over two months. That's not to say that everyone was white, Canadian society being what it is, but mostly. I've gotten so used to being a (very) visible minority here. I go whole days without seeing more than a couple Westerners. I am used to being stared at and having children stop their sidewalk ball games to yell "hello". Furthermore, I'm not really up on the expat scene; my circles are mostly Vietnamese.

In contrast this felt very familiar. For once I could understand the jokes and cultural references (for instance our probable fate upon return being quarantine isolation in Scarborough), and I was very happy to see butter tarts amongst the incredible spread provided. At the same time, I felt a bit of a culture shock. The one thing I could have done without was our stiff and reserved form of socializing. Hardly a soul talked to me. Eventually a kind looking older woman approached me and asked me how long I'd been in Hanoi and what I was doing. After explaining I finally got around to asking her if she was involved in a project or some sort of work in Hanoi. "Not really", she replied, "I'm the ambassador's wife."

Eventually I left feeling ambivalent. There was nothing to mediate between the cosy world of the ambassador's living room and world of Hanoi waiting for me out the door. The familiarities of a Canadian crowd had a certain comfort (despite the topic of the evening), and yet I felt I had little place there in the expat world. Instead I wandered out into the chaotic streets of Hanoi where I feel alive and engaged yet still an outsider. I took a very long and meandering route home. I think it took me two hours: past the brooding Lenin statue looking out over a spontaneous soccer game; along a street consisting entirely of sidewalk hotpot restaurants with low tables and plastic stools; past the lantern and paper offering street; into the myriad crooked crowded streets of the Old Quarter. Eventually I emerged into Ly Thai To Park where kids were breakdancing, and on to Hoan Kiem Lake where a crowd of woman were doing an outdoor aerobics class. I bought a banh my pate (warm pate, cold cucumber and hot chili on baguette) to supplement my dinner of hors d'oeuvres, and eventually settled in at a street cafe to cure this bittersweet feeling with a mia da sugar fix (iced sugarcane juice with lime).

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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Notes on the Middle Kingdom

I just saw Jon off in a cab to the Beijing airport for his flight back to Toronto. I will hop in my cab in two hours to return to lovely Ha Noi. I've taken a two week hiatus from my blog to spend time with Jon and focus on China. It was very difficult to say goodbye again. It will be four months until our next reunion in Ha Noi, Laos and Bangkok. In any case, we had a great visit together. Now I've got to try to capture some of the experience in writing as well.

It's a strange experience coming to China from Viet Nam. I couldn't help but always be comparing the two countries. I think some of the things that Western travellers experience as foreign and "typically Asian" (like the two-wheeled traffic) were not novelties for me. Instead the contrast with Viet Nam highlighted other things.

Two weeks ago I arrived in Beijing and wandered around until Jon arrived a day later. I was struck by how modern and First World the city appeared. I got to see more of the suburbs than I wanted that first day because the cab driver took me to two wrong hotels before I realized he was cheating me and I fired him. Frankly, the suburbs looked like a larger version of North York. Some of the more charming areas downtown near my hotel could have been mistaken for shopping streets in some North American cities, if it weren't for the Chinese signs and the bicycles. On the surface it seemed so familiar - and yet, I felt so helpless. I will never again take for granted the use of the Roman alphabet in Vietnamese (quoc ngu). The lack of shared writing system in China complicates communication enormously. We had to walk out of many restaurants without English menus; food glossaries in phrasebooks are of little use in China. In addition, there is surprisingly little English spoken even in the capital. You can get by much easier in Viet Nam with English. Viet Nam is a country of 80 million and the future of the country lies to a great extent in its ability to forge connections with the rest of the world. With one billion people, China is not so much a country as a universe and so the need to engage with the "outside world" must seem less pressing. If anything the onus is on the rest of us to learn Chinese, and you certainly feel this reversal in this mammoth nation.

In any case, in China I experienced a paradoxical feeling of First World foreignness. Viet Nam appears much more exotic than China. There is not one street in Ha Noi that could ever been mistaken for a Western city. The plastic stool restaurants, the yoked vendors with their conical hats, the sea of motos all prevent that. However, there is a sort of impenetrability in China despite the familiarity of its modern face.

And then there is the scale of things. I don't just mean it's obviously large population and land mass. I mean the massive boulevards and highways, historical monuments, towering modern buildings, sea of pavement that is Tiananmen, and the most absurdly large train station one could ever imagine (pulling up to Beijing West Station was like docking into the Death Star - but without the evil connotations). And then in dramatic contrast, there are the hutongs. These neighbourhoods are are like an alternate world. You could crisscross Beijing by either of these networks: the god-sized grid of boulevards and monuments or the intensely human-scaled world of the hutongs with their courtyards, gateways, tea houses, and street markets. There is such a disconnect between these two scales. Sadly the hutongs are quickly being ripped up for modern mega-projects in preparation for the Olympics. Apparently there is a Chinese expression: "If the old doesn't go, the new won't come." I guess that was the excuse of the Cultural Revolution as well. Again this is in contrast to Viet Nam, which as far as I can tell does not share this view of history. Hanoi feels as if it developed by accretion over the ages, not through a series of grand statements and violent obliterations.

Enough of my musings. Here are some of the highlights.

Beijing: First day at the incredible Forbidden City. It takes a full day and even then there were sections we didn't get to. Unfortunately the haze was bad for pictures. How did this survive the Cultural Revolution intact? The grand ceremonial plazas and imperial gates were spectacular, but my favourite part was actually the maze of little courtyards and gardens at the back where the court lived and worked. The haze on the second day at the Temple of Heaven was even worse and obscured the buildings, but lent a kind of mystery to the gardens surrounding it. We walked back from the Temple through Qianmen District with its little laneways and shopping alleys, around the Qianmen Gate and into Tiananmen Square. The Square affords some great views and is a must-see, but the vast featureless expanse (not to mention its history) felt oppressive to me. Stalinist architecture at its best! Great Peking Duck for dinner. The next day we intended to go to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, but were instead "Shanghaied" by our tour operator into visiting the Badaling section. It was still spectacular but I could have done without the cheeseball circus at the bottom (what does tossing tomatoes at black bears have to do with ancient China?). A day at the Summer Palace. The haze was gone, but unfortunately the main palace building was closed for renovation (damn the Olympics!). One of my favourite days in Beijing was our last day after our return from Shanghai. We rented bikes, rode to the Lama Temple (Tibetan holy site, ceremonial home of the Panchen Lama), back through the alleyways getting as disoriented as possible in the hutongs. We ended up at Jinshan Park and then followed the walls of the Forbidden City around to the entry gate in time for a military parade. We were lucky enough to stay in a historic hutong guesthouse which had once been the residence of an official in the Qing court.

Xi'an: Took the overnight train to Xi'an. We wondered if this was a mistake when we arrived at the intimidatingly huge Beijing West Station, but in fact the train was easy to figure out and well run. The main reason for visiting Xi'an is to see the Terracotta Warriors which are truly stupendous. It was also fascinating to be in a place which was once one of the great centers of the world: the first center of a unified China, and in a later era, the first (or last) stop on the Silk Road. The Silk Road influence can still be felt in the Muslim Quarter. I'm always a sucker for any old district with laneways, hole-in-the-wall noodle joints, and street vendors. We were lucky enough to visit the Great Mosque during a call to prayer and watched as the Hiu elders gathered in their white skull caps. Also an afternoon at the Large Goose Pagoda.

Shanghai: We overheard a lecture in our hotel in which millenial Shanghai was compared with its other great boom era in the 1920s and 30s. The time is now for this city which is in a constant state of metamorphosis. Shanghai felt like a (much!) larger version of Chicago. There are so many parallels: the Bund felt like Michigan Ave. facing as it does on a park and waterfront; both are showcases of architecture, from the vintage early 20th Century, City Beautiful and Art Deco to the experimental modern buildings; and both cities share a home-grown gangster mythology. We stayed at the top of the Bund in the largest hotel room in history in the beautiful Pujiang Hotel which dates from the 1840s and feels like the 1920s. The neon on Nanjing Ave. is spectacular at night if you can stand the "lady-bar" touts and "Rolex" sales creeps, but Huaihai Road is really where it's at. My favourite: our day in the Old Quarter, which felt paradoxically like entering a Chinatown. The Yuyuan Bazaar was a bit Disneyesque, but it didn't take long to get away from it all and get lost in the maze of old Shanghai alleyways, which were once a notorious nest of opium dens. We ate at a little fried beef noodle shop. Our noodles were about 2 minutes from dough to bowl. We also wandered around a flower market, a insect and (pet) bird market (yeah, yeah, I know...the bird flu!) and through the French Concession. Another day we made it up the Jinmao Tower in Pudong.

Well, there is so much more, but I'm sure I'm testing the patience of even my more faithful readers. Also, I am no longer in Beijing. I am now in the little internet cafe behind my house on Vo Thi Sau. There is nothing like returning to make a place feel like home.

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Friday, October 07, 2005

The Group

Here's where it gets really taboo - writing about "the group". I don't know how it works in other social spheres here, but at least in the gay world the basic social unit is the "group". In the West we have more fluid circles of friends, overlapping networks whom we introduce and mix together. The groups here are very tight knit and well-defined, almost like family units. You aren't part of various circles of friends - you are a member of one group only . The problem with us foreigners is that we socialize differently so we really confuse things.

Two weeks ago I got in big trouble. I was congratulating myself for what I had assumed was a successful cross-group introduction. Viet and Huan seemed to chatting it up just fine at Apocalypse last Saturday. It was only later on the moto ride home, that Viet started to lecture me about respecting "group" privacy. I was guilty of two transgressions: 1) it seem I had identified Viet's workplace in passing to Huan; and 2) I had mentioned to Huan that I was going on a day trip to the countryside with Viet's group the following day. Huan let Viet know that he knew about both of these things in conversation.

I can understand that in a society as conservative and gossipy as this, it may be wise to keep your workplace and your connections in the gay world as separate as possible. The second transgression I just don't understand. I can't pretend I always comprehend the dynamics here. Sometimes I feel like I am peeling back layers of an onion and not getting to bottom of things. Why should it matter if people outside your group know you are driving out to the country for the day?

Although foreigners don't tend to be part of these "groups", I find myself pretty much accepted by one of them. Viet's group has done so much to include me that I feel like one of the guys. Last weekend was a perfect example. Seven of us met for dinner out on the dyke road near Nghi Tam. (It was an odd dining experience because we went out for "Western" food Viet style. The meal consisted of some cuts of very rare beef rolled up with bacon with a bit of crumbly cheese on top. Also included was a green salad with French dressing. Of course there were the Vietnamese touches that made it interested: all the beef was dipped in a lime chili condiment, and we also ate grilled stomach, etc. I imagine it as the flip side of North American Asian fusion. Despite the Western theme there wasn't a white face in the place, except mine of course. I was surprised I liked it so much. I would go back, except that a thousand other Viet delicacies are calling me!)

The dynamics of the dinner conversation were typical. In general most of the conversations occur in Vietnamese and I let them wash over me. If there are group decisions to be made, they are invariably in Vietnamese, so from my perspectives things just sort of happen and I figure it all out later. I don't mind. Most of the guys speak some English, and two or three speak it really well. They are my interpreters and sometimes conversations float back and forth between the languages. I also have these interesting relationships with the guys who speak no English whatsoever. We cannot communicate, but we've spent enough time together to feel like friends. Two in particular are terrible flirts. I am never sure what they are saying to me, but I can often read the innuendo by gesture and expression. Of course, two can play that game and they often look helpless when I toss something back their way.

After our Western fusion dinner, the guys decided they would all gather back at my little place on Vo Thi Sau to hang out. I am often simply informed that I will be hosting. This is fine though, because in fact I have to do very little except let them in. On the way back our pod of motos passed through the Old Quarter. Viet went off in one direction to buy fruit at the market under the Long Bien bridge, someone else stopped at a store to pick up little creme caramels, and Hung and I found a little place selling che (cold sweet soup with lotus seeds). They wouldn't let me pay for a thing.

Instead of sitting around on my living room couches and chairs, the guys toss every available cushion on the floor and stretch out on the tile floor. The Vietnamese are very comfortable on the ground. They seem immune to the back aches I get when lounging on mats.

So here I find in the midst of this Vietnamese group and accepted as part of it all. I often can't believe my luck.

And yet, I'm not an insider. The guys have invented a name for me, that sums it all up. I am Tay Nha Que. Tay is the word used for Westerners. Nha que is a (derogatory) term used for country folk - especially those who come to the city and maintain their country ways (it can have a real edge in certain contexts). Although I'm from the city, I have these strange ways and am hopelessly naive from their perspective. And I must seem awkward. I don't know how to do things right: I can never get the footholds down when climbing on the back of a moto, I can't peel jumbo shrimp properly when eating hotpot (they take over and do it for me), I have been caught storing bananas in the fridge, and I eat yoghurt in the morning (not to mention once after dog meat!). They roll their eyes: tay nha que, tay nha que! As a Westerner, shouldn't I be more cosmopolitan? Instead, I come off as parochial, as a Western village boy. They never use the term harshly. It is always a gentle tease and is accompanied by a smile and a chuckle. Thankfully, they put up with me.

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Monday, October 03, 2005

Goat Testicle Wine

Are you blog readers out there actually all that interested in my descriptions of food? Well, I don't know what the attraction is to reading about food when you can't eat it, but there must be something to it. After all, think of the Anthony Bourdain phenomenon, not to mention the Food Network (and how many of us actually cook those recipes?). And if you think I'm obsessed, try reading a blog called Sticky Rice which is dedicated to Hanoi food discoveries.

I don't cook here at all, unless you count inserting cheese in baguettes. I don't have the pots, pans and utensils and I don't know where to buy things here (nor do I have the time). And it's hard to justify cooking when there are the most incredible food adventures around ever corner and every meal costs about a buck. Instead I eat all my meals out. This is part of the reason I am always talking about my meals.

The highlight last week was my goat dinner on Wednesday night. Huan took me out to a famous place called Nhat Ly. It's a smokey open air affairs on the 2nd floor of a non-descript building near St. Joseph's Cathedral. Each table has a hole in the middle in which they place a pot of red-hot coals. The first course is barbequed goat. There are two types: a red meat, and a white meat which is apparently breast. They looked like two totally different species to me. You grill them over the coals and then wrap the morsels up in rice paper with herbs, green banana, star fruit, vermicelli, scallions, etc. and then dip the whole thing in a creamy sauce. The next round is a goat hotpot. Traditionally this is drunk with some kind of ruou which is a kind of rice wine. Huan asked me if I was interested in the variety with fresh goat blood. I politely declined. At this point he just ordered another kind in Vietnamese and that was that.

It wasn't until the flask was empty that he asked me what I thought of it. I loved it. I expected it to taste like sake, but it tasted closer to an earthy whiskey or mezcal. It turns out it is called something like ngoc duong, which is in fact rice wine flavoured by goat testicle.

I mentioned this at our communal library lunch the next day, and this seemed to result in a kind of male bonding with all the male staff in the library. Goat is considered a male food which is associated with virility, like dog and snake. A kind of Viagra meal. Immediately they wanted to know about the rest of my evening. Maybe I was looking a little worn out from a late night? A whole series of bawdy jokes ensued. My usual (female) interpreter shook her head and refused to translate. It turns out the word for goat de also doubles for horny.

My other recent favourite meal was at the Hom Market which is about a 20 minute walk from my house. I thought I had already eaten my lunch when I wandered in and discovered these little bars where you sit down on a plastic stool and point at fresh salad rolls you want. Most of them contain dried spicy beef jerkey. Some of them were rolled in lettuce and tied into little packets; others were rolled up in rice paper. After 7 or 8 of these, the woman made me a drink from fresh passion fruit. I sat there with a big grin on my face.

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