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

Sunday, January 29, 2006


Coriander & Peach Branches
Dat took me out on Thursday to help me prepare my house for Tet. First the peach blossoms. We rode up to the outdoor Tet Market on Hang Luoc and bargained for a branch. Even though Dat approached the flower lady and I was purposely several steps behind, she was still too clever for her own good and tried to quote him an unbelievably ridiculous 400,000VND. Dat succeeded in charming her and we walked away with my branch for a mere tenth of the initial price. On the way back home Dat pulled up to a woman peddling herbs from the back of her bike: flowering coriander. All set, we returned to my house where we charred the base of the peach branch (stops the sap from escaping) and set it up in a vase in the living room. And this morning I did as instructed and boiled up the coriander and bathed with the fragrant water - a ritual prescription for thorough cleansing. I emerged from my herbal broth ready for a very savoury new year.

Lessons at the Family Altar
I was invited to Tet Eve lunch at my friend Thach's family's home. His father is a scholar of German and is responsible for authoritative Vietnamese translations of Goethe, Heine, ETA Hoffman. The conversation over lunch alternated between three languages, with no one person actually understanding more than two. Thach's father explained Tet traditions and Vietnamese spirituality in German. My understanding was always approximate; I had never heard German words for Vietnamese concepts. He led me upstairs to an incense-filled room with the family altar which he explained to me. He then asked that I also pray there, to the Buddha and the spirits of their ancestors. Lunch was traditional Tet: bamboo shoots, nem, chicken pieces and of course banh chung. I went home with a banana leaf wrapped banh chung in the basket of my moto.

Tet Eve dinner at another friend's family home. We ate almost the same traditional Tet meal. Midnight is a sacred moment for Vietnamese families when the house is sealed and then reopened by a guest specially selected as auspicious, so I made myself scarce at about 10:30. This also made it possible to make my way to meet a friend at Hoan Kiem for the fireworks over the lake at midnight. Once the crowds dispersed a bit we went in search of active pagodas - not hard to find just after Tet midnight in central Hanoi. The most magical was the incense-filled Chua Ba Da near the Cathedral. I returned home at about 1:30 but couldn't fall asleep. The atmosphere outside still felt electric with the sound of firecrackers and drums. Instead I wandered up to my rooftop to look down on the lake behind my house. At the far edge the sound of live drums, flutes and singing emanated from within some kind of complex (a temple or communal house?). At the lakeside several people built a bonfire of paper offerings and the tall orange flames reflected across the lake's surface.

The Pagoda Circuit
The visits begin in earnest after midnight and last for several days (and several months in the case of the holiest pilgrimage site, the Perfume Pagoda). On the first day of Tet I started things off with a visit to Ngoc Son Temple (holy though not actually a pagoda) in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. The beautiful square flags were out in full force as they are all over town. Afterwards I rode up to West Lake to one of the holiest sites in Hanoi, Chua Tran Quoc (see pic above). Finally a visit to one of my favourite neighbourhood spots, Chua Lien Phai which is tucked discretely down a rabbit warren alleyway off Bach Mai. Although it's hardly a secret, it's obscure location ensured that I was the only foreigner present. I arrived in the middle of hypnotic chants led by one of the yellow-robed resident monks.

Recently some ludicrous business type suggested in an newspaper column that Vietnam would be wise to abandon its faithful observance of Tet ritual because it's bad for business. Never mind the clueless tourist who gets stuck wandering empty streets. He was more concerned about the heaps of lost opportunity as Vietnam steps out of time - and the stockmarket - for a week. Of course this is just the beauty of it, to watch as a whole society switches back to its native calendar with its spiritual and symbolic markers. There are few things more powerful that seeing the whole world stop, and then gradually begin afresh.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Kitchen God Departs

It's not unusual to see little conflagrations in the street gutters at certain times of the lunar month here in Vietnam. Usually these paper offerings consist of fake (US) money, and occasionally paper replicas of other items your ancestors might need in the afterlife: furniture, motobikes, cars, maybe even a cellphone. Last weekend though it seemed to be getting a little out of hand so I start inquiring what was going on.

It turns out the Kitchen God was about to depart and would be needing a few things for his annual visit to the Jade Emperor. Ideally you want Ong Tao, as he's also known, to be comfortable on his voyage to ensure that he doesn't badmouth you and your family thus sealing your fate for the coming year.

The Tet countdown is on. The 23rd of the lunar month is final date of departure for your home's own personal god of the hearth. He rides a carp to heaven and so you will also see many people releasing small fish in the many lakes and ponds of Hanoi. Like Christmas or Easter, Tet is not just a day, but a whole ritual stretching several weeks. We are down to four days.

The closer we get the more riotous the streets. I rode part way up the dyke road this morning to check out the procession of kumquat trees and fruit blossoms. Pink peach blossoms are traditional in the North, but you can also see the yellow apricot blossoms more common to South Vietnam. These branches, bushes and trees are ubiquitous right now, but the parade of trees reaches it's zenith along the dyke road which leads to the flower market. The whole road becomes a massive outdoor garden store. Each side is lined the entire way with trees, pots, flowers, and branches. Needless to say you won't get anywhere fast on this road right now. From an aerial view the traffic must look like a giant botanical river. It seemed like every second motobike had a kumquat or peach tree strapped to it.

Tomorrow Dat will come over and help me buy my very own peach branch for my living room.

Since I have been invited to the homes a few friends I have also been shopping for gifts for their families. The most appropriate Tet gift is a selection of dried fruit. These are nothing like our bland dried prunes back home. There are a million varieties and are preserved in sugar and often have a chile or ginger zing to them. I'm addicted.

I was also warned to do a little food shopping for the house since everything will be shut down and the unprepared expat can go starving for a couple days. Actually my friends have said that regardless this fate will not befall me. They will take care of me and invite me to their homes for the traditional banh chung.

Stay tuned for more Tet reports!

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Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Banyan Tree Musical Club

There is a travel article that needs to be written entitled "Hanoi: Beyond the Old Quarter". Most tourists have no sense what's out there. It helps if you have a motobike and don't mind risking your life squeezing your bike down narrow lane ways and dodging the oncoming obstacles, not to mention the ones that pop out sideways from hidden doorways.

Last Saturday I took advantage of the warm weather (ahhh, 25C in January!) and hoped on my bike with my map and the intention to worm my way across the city using only obscure laneways. My eventual destination: the Temple of the Kneeling Elephants (Den Voi Phuc) near the botanical gardens.

I still can't get over Hanoi's network of lanes. This is the Hanoi tourists are oblivious to. In fact, these are where most Hanoians live and it is one reason why this city will always be at least somewhat resistant to cars. They can only be reached by foot or two wheeled vehicles and they can be long! God forbid my motobike were to break down in the middle of one and I'd have to walk my way out.

I'm pretty good knowing my way around the main streets of Hanoi, but then every large city block seems to contain a vast terra incognita. I still can't figure out how to penetrate into the core of the block I live in, even though I can see acres of houses from my rooftop. Also it seems so many of Hanoi's 150 plus lakes are hidden smack in the middle of these blocks and invisible from the main streets.

So I took the very long way through the city, popping out onto main streets and slipping back into side streets on the other side. Eventually I made it to the Temple of the Kneeling Elephants, named after the creatures guarding the entrance. This is one of the four temples, one for each cardinal direction, that are supposed to protect the city from evil forces. It was built in the 11th century in honour of Linh Lang, son of Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, and one of the mythical Vietnamese boy-heroes who fought off the Chinese.

It's a charming little temple and, since it turned out to be the 15th of the lunar month, it was hopping inside. On the temple path though I was distracted by a little gathering of old-timers under a huge banyan tree who were using the temple gate as a stage for music making. A couple of erhus and banjo type stringed instruments were being used to accompany the singers up on the gate steps. When I stopped to listen they waved for me to come and sit down but I declined and went on to the temple. On my way back though, I paused again and this time a friendly old guy lept up, grabbed my arm and dragged me over to the table. So I gave in, sat down and let them feed me little mandarin oranges and candy. I was there for an hour.

They were so friendly that at first I suspected they might in fact be drunk. I suppose the amber liquid coming out of those thermoses could have been some kind of herbal ruou, but actually I think they were just high on life or something. In any case, they seemed thrilled to have me as their guest and took turns sitting next to me, shoving food in my face and trying to quiz me. So much for the supposed crusty reserved character of Hanoians. (This reputation is completely unfounded in my experience.)

Of course I let them indulge in the usual series of questions, but conversation was naturally limited. This older generation would have had few opportunities to learn English. In fact, for years of their lives it would have been illegal. Instead when my Vietnamese skills were clearly exhausted they tried the languages of their generation: Chinese, Russian, French. One lady was especially determined to communicate. She got all animated when she learned I was from Toronto. Something about her son, studying, Toronto, March, here is his phone number. At a crucial moment an older toothless stringed instrument player suddenly appeared at my side and began speaking German. Why not? White guy. Must know German.

Actually German is not so uncommon among older generations. This is one of the legacies of the political connection with the former East Germany. Through my interpreter I clarified. Her 23 year old son will be moving to Toronto in March to study. Like a good mother she saw an opportunity here. Will I meet him, she wanted to know?

I was hesitant at first, but actually I am happy to oblige. Not to get mushy, but the kindness and generosity shown to me here has been overwhelming at times. From the very beginning I have been embraced by so many people who have gone out of their way to open up their lives to me. It has often made me wonder to what extent we truly welcome newcomers to Canadian society. And when we do, how often is our hospitality offered out of self-conscious charity rather than a willingness to truly make new spaces in our personal lives. I am glad to have the opportunity to return a bit of the favour. Tonight I will meet Thang at a cafe on Ly Thuong Kiet.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Delta Wedding

Sometimes I get so caught up in what has become my routine life here that I start to wonder if I have anything left to write. Then suddenly I will find myself in the middle of something and the narrator starts up in my head. Then I know I've happened upon something blogworthy. Yesterday I experienced just such a "clearing".

The occasion was a colleague's wedding in her Delta village 40 kms. away. I didn't really expect it to be particularly interesting based on my previous experience at a Vietnamese wedding - fun but nothing to write at length about.

I almost didn't go. Generally the entire workplace is invited to weddings, though you are not really obliged to attend. The day before my other colleagues had been non-commital and I was also hesitant to ride out there. 40 kms may not seem much by North American standards, but is taxing with a moto on dusty and chaotic country roads. It took us just over an hour. I seem to have graduated to moto competency so I was asked to give a ride to one of my colleagues. The road out was full of life, which is not always a good thing when you are driving. Once we got beyond the city limits so many sights conspired to distract my attention from the road: wagons drawn by horses and oxen, ancient looking pagoda complexes tucked away along village streets, roadside bamboo factories, joss sticks laid out on the road to dry, impossibly stacked motobikes, etc.

We arrived at about 9:30am. We could spot the wedding house by the big blue tent outside framed by balloons, disco music pulsing within. We were seated in the courtyard of the bride's family home, for potent green tea and plates of pumpkin and watermelon seeds. These seeds are a perennial favourite in cafes, but apparently require a lifetime of experience (or Vietnamese genes) to split open properly with your teeth and pluck out the kernel. I spent much of the wedding practicing on the more brittle pumpkin seeds. I wouldn't dare humiliate myself on the watermelon variety which appear to be shellacked and hardened. Everyone make it look so easy. So much work for such a little crumb of a seed. Addictive though.

When I wasn't busy gnashing my teeth on bits of nothing I found myself entertaining the bride's family and friends. I was the only foreigner at the wedding and probably the first one to be spotted down the village side-streets in eons. I think my presence was appreciated - I'm not sure if my being there was novelty, honour or simply freak-show entertainment. The kids seemed especially fascinated. A shy four year old boy asked his father to come tell me that he had been to Australia!

When it was time for lunch (at 10am!) we went a few doors down to another house where the tables were laid with eight different dishes of dog meat. I don't even want to think about how many kennels were emptied out for this feast. Sometimes I feel guilty harping on such things because they play into the exotic and distorted image Vietnam has abroad, when in fact sometimes eating things like dog meat (or frog stomach, another recent culinary adventure) just seems pedestrian in its native context. There is a kind of truth in naivety and the experience of things as novel; at the same time this way of seeing is not true to the experience in its real world context.

To be honest though dog meat is distasteful even to some Vietnamese. My colleague next to me wouldn't touch it. This was my second time eating dog (see "Cellphones, Gyms and Dog Meat"), and I must admit that I enjoyed it much more this time. The meat was less fatty and grisly and instead of the usual mam tom (lethal shrimp sauce) there was a greyish dip, which looked like bean dip but turned out to be made of unspecified dog organs cooked with herbs. I know what you are thinking, but I should confess. I actually liked it. It had a nice lemongrassy taste. I also enjoyed the little ribs which had been braised until the meat slipped off the bone. Melt in your mouth doggie. I just wish the dishes had not been cold (instead - shall I say it? - hot dog). Well, I think that's enough for now. No need to go into the details of each of the eight canine concoctions.

I don't know why but people just seemed to nibble at the food. I was however famished after the ride, even at this premature hour of 10am, and chowed down. The sight of a foreigner digging into dog was of course of great amusement to the table. Once they got over it, they started on the usual foreigner interrogation. The questions are usually predictable and they run their course pretty quickly before they get bored of my very pat and rehearsed responses. This time they just couldn't get past my advanced age and unmarried status. Not even my witty redeployment of a Ho Chi Minh quote, "There is nothing more precious than independence and freedom!" would throw them off. I became the centre of what appeared to be a big debate: am I "on the shelf" or not? I think this is a colloquialism, a bit uncanny when applied to a librarian, for anyone who is terminally unhitchable, (aka. an old maid). On the plus side, I was told I definitely do NOT look 36. It went on and on.

This was all very hilarious, but these conversations sometimes make me wonder if I could ever come back here for my next sabbatical in seven years when I am an even riper 43! The older you get, the more of a puzzle you become and the more intense the questioning. It can be exhausting. Some days I think I would be better off just making up some story of a girl back home. It gives me an appreciation for the pressure that my gay Vietnamese friends have to endure. I only have to keep up this charade for a few months, not a lifetime. I think this partially explains why there are so few visible gay men over the age of about 32. As you mature, your options seems to be: moving to HCMC, studying abroad, or marriage. (Actually there is another more tragic option I'd rather not go into but which two of my close friends recently considered, one of them quite seriously.)

You would think given the importance of marriage here, there would be a big lead up and complicated ceremony to it all. It's hard for me to generalize, having only been to two weddings, but it seems that weddings are more about getting people together and eating than about pomp, ceremony and endless speeches. After the meal the groom's procession arrived (he was at his family home just a few village streets over), pictures were taken, and that was that. No declaration, no speeches, no I dos. It's actually hard to say at what moment the deed actually occurs. And the best part, no interminable goodbyes. When you are done, you just get up and go.

Occasionally I look around and find myself caught up in some little remarkable corner of Vietnamese life and I marvel at how I got there. It's not just the thrill of witnessing something, but of finding myself a part of things. This was one of those moments when I felt welcomed and embraced by this world. I may not be able to participate in all the banter, and I'm always a curiosity, but there is sometimes a warm sense of comradery that seems to bridge all divides.

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