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

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A Philosophy of Food

When my parents told a Vietnamese-Canadian friend that they were going to Vietnam, but just to Hanoi, they were given a sympathetic look and told something like: I'm sorry to hear that; the food is so terrible in the North. Well it's not the starving 80s anymore. Time to get acquainted with the Hanoi Renaissance. The richness of the food culture here is not to be believed, and as you will know, I can't get enough.

The culinary riches of this city struck me especially after visiting China. I have always loved good Chinese food, but unfortunately most of the food I ate in China was mediocre. We had some great meals (Beijing duck and dumplings and hotpot in Shanghai), but these were the exceptions. The vast majority was nothing to write home (or blog) about. Of course we had no idea where to eat in the cities we visited, so maybe it's not entirely fair. But this leads me to my point. The food in Hanoi and most of Vietnam starts at good and only gets better. It would be very difficult to get a bad Vietnamese meal in Hanoi it seems to me. The wee hours of Saturday night were a perfect example. I squatted on a plastic stool on a deserted street near the Water Tower at 1:30am with a group of friends and vacuumed up some kind of noodle soup with pork ribs and winter greens. What should you reasonable expect at such an hour and in such setting? Of course it was fantastic. Or I wander up a unknown street north of my house in search of a new place to eat. I spot a grimy little neon lit room with people slurping up the advertised dish: My Van Than. Never had it before, have no idea what's in it (even when I'm eating it actually), but I step up, sit down and slurp along. You don't need a recommendation in this city to expect fantastic food. It seems just about any old joint will deliver.

But the hold of Hanoi's food on my imagination goes beyond taste. There is also something fascinating about it. I couldn't put my finger on what it gives it its grip until recently I read an article about Southeast Asian food blogs on a web site called Global Voices. In this article a fellow Hanoi blogger from Sticky Rice notes that Vietnamese food lends itself to "the yarn behind the food; the process of watching the food prepared or the interaction between the people, even the journey. In our sanitized western world, we miss out on all of that when we go out to eat." This is true on so many levels. The food and the ingredients here are not processed and packaged, nor does the cooking generally happen behind closed doors in a kitchen at the back. Cooking is a curbside affair. And at the other end, eating is public theatre. Food is integrated with the other activities of the street. The net effect is that eating is not just for the tastebuds; food here is also a narrative experience involving whole communities of players. If technology has robbed food of its social context in the West, this is a place that puts it back in its proper place.

I think there is something else distinctive here. I may be risking gross generalizations, but I think the repertoire plays an entirely different role in the cuisine of this country than it does in the West. Vietnamese cuisine seems to be organized around a canon of dishes. The dishes call out to you on the street from little white neon sign boards like proper names. Each is the name of a tradition, and the goal of these small businesses is the perfection of a single dish, the attainment of an ideal. (Often humble eateries will become famous for their definitive version of a dish.) In the West it seems to me that dishes are more often than not descriptions that don't function like proper names. Think of the wordy menus in the West. Also the goal in the West seems to be interpretation and variety, not the embodiment of a ideal form or the realization of a tradition. Think of the proliferations of fusion cuisines in North America. Maybe these difference reflect deeper cultural values and different understandings of tradition. After all, one might expect a Confucian society to focus on the attainment of ideals and the reproduction of tradition rather than idiosyncratic creations.

Now having gone out on a limb with this last one, I must offer a bit of a corrective, because in fact there are different culinary traditions in Vietnam. Mainly what I am talking about is street food. There is also the kind of down home cooking I eat at work every day at our communal lunches. These meals are rice-based and very simple. The point isn't to perfect some dish, but just to fry, steam, or boil up something tasty to eat with your bowl of rice. Then there are proper restaurants with their tables and kitchens hidden away from view. These places tend to present you with a big menu presenting dozens of pages of options and varieties. Then there are other sub-traditions like exotic meat adventure eating where the point doesn't seem to be eating an ideal, but to prove your manliness by eating bizarre odds and ends and strange species. These other traditions don't work quite the same way, so take it all with a grain of salt - or dash of fish sauce as the case may be. Still I think there is something to it.

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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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Monday, November 14, 2005

Honda Wave Alpha

Just a quick entry to mark the occasion: I now have my very own moto, a red Honda Wave Alpha!

Every Friday for the last month I have been telling people my plans for the weekend included getting off my ass and renting a moto. Another weekend just passed with no moto to show. Today (Monday) I went off to work only to discover that there was no power in the burbs. At about 11am, Stephen and I ran out of work of the unplugged variety and decided to leave early for the day. On the way home I screwed up enough courage and asked him if he would accompany me to the rental place and hold my hand as I signed the agreement.

I tried to keep thinking up questions to ask to delay the inevitable ride off from the shop. I was convinced I would start up the bike, wave goodbye to the shop and promptly ram into three or four oncoming motos. In fact, it seems the little late night lessons with Viet and others have paid off. Or maybe I've internalized some of the (il)logic of the traffic after months on the back of bikes. In any case, it wasn't so bad. What I don't understand yet is parking.

After a quirky veranda cafe on Lo Su, Stephen kindly accompanied me home. I was a little sheepish turning the corner into my alleyway, for fear of being seen by my xe om driver. Thankfully he wasn't there, but I'm sure the news of my appearance on the front of a motobike has already made it through the local xe om grapevine. The truth is though I am in no way ready for my commute, so tomorrow I still intend to meet Mr. Binh at the same time on the corner at 8:30. Anyway, my front room now looks complete with the shiny bike parked in the middle. Nothing makes a more authentic entrance to a Vietnamese home.

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Friday, November 11, 2005


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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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Xe om

The other morning I waited at the end of my alley at my regular time for ten minutes thinking maybe my xe om driver doesn't "do" rain. I have developed a loyalty to him so I stayed put, trying not to be too conspicuous. I didn't want to attract the attention of the other local xe om drivers who hang out up and down the street. I almost caused a feeding frenzy earlier this week when my driver didn't show up and I was obviously in need of a lift.

Xe om literally means "hug vehicle" because you hop on the back of the moto and hang on. The name is not meant to be taken literally; such behaviour would definitely raise a few eyebrows. If necessary I reach behind and hold on to the bar behind the seat. Negotiation is the name of the game. It's always wise to get clear on the price before you climb aboard. The price is initially seriously inflated, especially if I am in the Old Quarter because they assume I am merely another tourist. This begins to change when I give them my address (what tourist would ever request to go there?) and start my negotations in Vietnamese. I generally know what it should cost and I can be stubborn!

The drivers are earthy characters. I won't say they are always sympathetic, but always human. However hard the bargaining is, the deal is sealed with an amused chuckle and a smile that acknowledges the game it ultimately is.

On Sunday night I had to use a new driver to get to my dinner destination. To avoid misunderstanding I showed him the address on Nguyen Thai Hoc. His chosen route seemed unorthodox to me, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt given that he's the local not me. Eventually though I realized we were indeed heading somewhere I did not intend to go. I pulled out the address again, waved it in his face and pointed in the other direction. Yeah, yeah he says, the University, on Nguyen Trai.

Okay, so my Vietnamese pronunciation isn't great and the street names sound similar, but it also appears that all the local xe om drivers know where the resident cash cow Tay (Westerner) lives and works. If I am not absolutely clear on my destination (and its pronunciation), chances are they will go on automatic pilot and take me to work - even if I have never met the driver before.

We went through a whole charade of asking for directions, me getting off the bike and threatening to jump ship, etc. Oi troi oi! Eventually I messaged my colleagues to tell them I was trapped on a stray xe om somewhere in Hanoi. I was saved when my Vietnamese colleague called and I stuck my phone to his ear for exact directions. As I hopped off the bike he tried to suggest (with a smile) that our agreed upon price was unfair given how long it took. Right!

The next morning I appeared at the end of my alleyway and my usual trustworthy driver was nowhere to be seen. Instead who showed up but the clueless one from the previous evening? I shook my head and my finger at him and he just grinned back at me. When it was clear I wasn't going to climb aboard again, two or three more xe om drivers pulled up. I had never seen them before but they were all saying the address of my university and my regular rate. It seems all of Vo Thi Sau knows my business. I would not give up my regular guy and tried to tell them as much. The scene got more complex when a woman emerged from a tea shop, crossed the street and started to scold the xe om drivers. It seems she was some kind of local merchant. I had never laid eyes on, but she knew the whole story. I guess she has been watching me every morning. The streets have eyes.

Just when I feeling the drama was getting a bit much, I saw my regular driver crossing the street to my rescue.

It's a weird relationship I have with him. I don't know his name and have never really talked to him. I just call him "anh", older brother. The price has long ago been negotiated so I don't have to go through this whole game every morning. I think I may be slightly overpaying him, but only slightly, and by a margin that is trivial by our standards. What I gain is relative safety (a very cool and cautious driver), and a wordless sympatico. Is it a mutual respect, or just opportunity and convenience? I don't really know and I suppose it doesn't matter, but I like to think my show of loyalty is worth something.

It turns out he does "do" rain and he pulls up after a couple minutes in his usual worn white cap and faint smile. I hop on and without a word we begins the long weave through the traffic to the university.

P.S. This week I learned his name is Binh. He and his family live down the alleyway directly behind my house.

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