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

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

My Moveable Feast

On one of my last nights in Vietnam three years ago, I remember hopping on a xe om to check out the New Century Club here in Hanoi. I felt a small victory learning how to negotiate a xe om after a month in the country. As I was riding the motobike down the side of Hoan Kiem Lake at night past the Thap Rua Tower I had a sudden sense of freedom and an uncanny feeling that this city could feel like home. It was a feeling I could not get out of my head.

Now several years later I am on the verge of another departure. This time though I am not left with a premonition of what might be but with a memories of a fulfilled dream, of a deeper relationship with this city.

There have been times I been cynical about the extreme lyricism of so many of the portrayals of Vietnam: langourous, dreamy, and rice paddy green. But now when I think back over the last half year, despite the chaos, dust and grey winter mornings I do find a kind of lyricism in my memories. So I hope you'll forgive me if I indulge in a few of the most vivid images and experiences I take away with me.

Hanoi from Under a Raincoat
This ride was on the way to lunch on the other side of town. It was raining and cold. Viet drove and I sat behind him hidden under his big plastic poncho raincoat. Mostly I experienced the sound of the Hanoi street: the honking, the sounds of motors, the clanking of soup bowls, snippets of incomprehensible conversations in passing. I could see only whatever random flashes the flapping of the raincoat revealed: wet feet, wheels, red plastic stools, puddles, metal rods balanced on a cyclo, the trunk of a banyan tree pushing through the cracked pavement. All of this I experienced from within the intimacy of the raincoat I shared with Viet, with my head on his shoulder, my arms wrapped around him and my hands in his warm coat pockets.

Hung at the Altar
Shortly after I met him Hung offered to take me out on the back of his black Vespa to Bac Ninh Province for the day to see pagodas (see "Village Life"). It was hot late summer day and the dry roads blew grit in our teeth. From on top of one of the Delta dyke roads you could see the countryside stretch out punctuated with little villages and orange brick kilns. Hung first took me to Chua Dau. There are more spectacular pagodas, but this one has an austerity, a serenity. Hung was my cultural interpreter and helped make sense of the religious imagery. Each time we approached an altar Hung would first bow his handsome head and quietly pray. Each time I was deeply moved. It was something about seeing him shift from talking about to participating in. I humbly put away my camera.

Summer Storm in Bach Khoa
It must have been my first day because I asked Viet to take me to an internet cafe so I could write home to say that I had arrived safely in Hanoi. It was sweltering and he took me to a tiny internet cafe where we squeezed between the chairs to the two remaining computers at the back. The weak air conditioning had little effect with all those bodies in such a narrow space; the strong fans helped more. Suddenly the heavens outside opened and let loose a storm like I have never seen. I was alarmed but no one else batted an eye at what is in fact a daily occurence during this wet season. The streets flooded in a matter of minutes and I was without a raincoat. After waiting in vain for a few minutes Viet found a way for us to hop from awning to awning down the street until we succeeded in picking up a cheap plastic raincoat and a couple of caramel puddings which we ate in a little tile floored storefront open to a sheets of pounding rain.

Upstairs at Cafe Nang with Dat
Dat introduced me to Cafe Nang and it will always be linked to him in my memory. Dat is one of the proudest Hanoians I know. It's unusual for such a young man to have such a passion for the history and traditions of his city. When he would walk through the Old Quarter it was always as if he was discovering the streets for the first time. He took it upon himself to show me the quirkiest little joints hidden down alleyways and up secret staircases, and Cafe Nang was one of my favourites. He showed me the little marble staircase at the back of the cafe. It always felt so Alice in Wonderland squeezing our way up, passing through a tiny ancient kitchen lined with drip coffee filters, to a little room littered with the cracked shells of red watermelon seed shells. There we would drink nau da and watch the drama that is the meeting of Hang Bac and Hang Be. With Dat I felt I had been let in on a secret world, a world of street vendors, plastic stools, and cafes with broken plaster that had not been painted since the French pulled out.

The Kittens
I was usually the last to be informed of the gatherings at my house. Vo Thi Sau became the Group clubhouse and I was always happy to oblige. The doorbell would ring and there would be a pod of bikes outside in the lane waiting to turn my front room into a parking lot. The guys would deposit a pile of shoes at the foot of the stairs in my kitchen and head upstairs to my living room. Someone would bring a bag of fruit to be carved up and devoured. Hardly anyone would drink a drop. My furniture always seemed to be an awkward imposition. Instead they would throw the cushions on the floor and pile on, curling up, leaning on each other, limbs all overlapping. Like a litter of kittens I thought.

Viet, Hung and I found ourselves out across town with only one motobike. It's supposed to be illegal to ride with more than two but it's a common sight and we piled on anyway. Hung drove, I rested my head on the back of his neck, and Viet sat snuggly behind me. Motobikes afford a kind of intimacy amidst chaos, and there is a powerful feeling to this paradox. I have many fond memories of conversations with Viet while we rode slowly around the city late at night with my chin on his shoulder. Then there is the physical intimacy; doubling on bikes is in fact a form of public spooning. During this particular ride I felt a supreme happiness. I surrendered to the warmth and care of two of my best friends, embraced in this little corner of Vietnamese life.

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Market Abstractions

I'm a sucker for markets. It doesn't matter where I am, I seek them out. You would think all those hours shucking corn and selling potatoes in the basement of the Hamilton Farmers' Market as a kid would have killed my interest. Somehow that tedious experience never succeeded in spoiling the fascination.

I am now in Luang Prabang, Laos. I never intended this to be a travel blog. I'm not particularly interested in publishing a catalogue of places. So instead of going on about the golden wats, saffron robes, and my conversations with monks (all incredible of course), I am offering a little photo essay on markets, and those of Vientiane and Luang Prabang in particular.

My pointillist cherry tomato and eggplant composition above got me thinking about the incredible abstract potential of piles of food. Who said still life had to be representational?

Today in Luang Prabang's Talat Phousi I passed by a big vat of blood pudding that looked very Mark Rothko. The bright red blocks floated in a deeper red bath. Red on red. It's a shame I didn't have the stomach to hang around the meat section longer. So this exhibition is vegetarian in nature. Maybe it's the influence of all those saffron-robed monks I've been chatting to over the last couple days.

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Never The Twain

One thing that half a year in a country will do is to strip away some of the layers of fantasy and orientalism that are unconscious to many of us in the West. During my first encounter with this country three years ago as a tourist I vacillated between thinking I could understood the place and a feeling of profound incomprehension. Both reactions are off the mark but inevitable. Over time the experience of the exotic has been replaced by an understanding of the Vietnamese world as lived, and gradually I can begin to see how the horizons of East and West overlap and on occasion even fuse.

Of course six months is not a long time all things considered, and there are still many cultural differences that truly baffle me. These are phenomenon whose inner logic escapes me. Now that my days here are seriously numbered all can do is describe some of them and surrender for now my attempts at true understanding.

No Thank You
The constant need to say thank you is deeply ingrained in the Western brain (maybe especially in Canadian ones). There are casual thank yous and then there are heartfelt ones. I completely understand how absurd the casual thank you can appear to the Vietnamese. When we are at a restaurant we say thank you when the waiter brings the bill. But why would we do this? This is all part of the waiter's expected role, not some kind of personal mitzvah. Besides, why would you thank someone for asking for money? Ditto with the kind but wimpy way Westerners tend to deal with hawkers pestering them on the street. I've heard tourists proudly use the literal Vietnamese translation of "No, thank you". Thanks for what? Seeing me as a source of income? There is no rational reason to thank people for merely fulfilling roles.

All Action, No Talk
Then there is the heartfelt thank you. I have been on the receiving end of so many generous acts here and I truly want to express a deep sense of gratitude. "Thank you" is fine in this context, but all that's needed is a quick understated "thanks". I have trouble with this because I sometimes experience a surplus of unexpressed gratitude, but if you go too far it's seen as overly formal and even possibly insincere. On one occasion I was even told that my thanks were unnecessary, and that true thanks are expressed by doing something in return - ie. words can be cheap. The opposite could be true for the Western sensibility with this expectation cynically interpreted as some kind of debt that is due - I scratch your back, you scratch mine. So which is more "authentic", saying or doing? And this leads to my next theme.

People here can be very direct with some things. I have been told point blank that I have bad skin, I am too hairy, I am lazy and of course I speak atrocious Vietnamese. If you are fat you will probably be told that to your face on a daily basis. And on a linguistic level the imperative is far more acceptable here than our Western way of couching requests in indirect niceties; the Vietnamese tell you what to do, while we preface requests with things like "would you mind?" or "can you please?"

Other things though are never to be expressed outright. Direct Western style expression is apparently seen as crude and confrontational as compared to the subtle approach used here. If you have a beef with someone, don't tell them - suggest it in a roundabout way to a mutual friend, ask them not to say anything, and watch as it make it's way back anyway. I have had several issues brought to my attention this way. I was once mystified by something that happened with a friend. I tried to ask directly for an explanation, but hit a stone wall. The harder I tried, the less I got. I understood much more later when things came out in a more by-the-way and less forced fashion. Sometimes though this kind of subtlety is completely lost on us foreigners. When a Western colleague began his contract he was fed apparently free lunches for several weeks before he suggested that they should really be asking staff to pay at least something. "We are so glad you finally asked," came the response, "Everyone's talking about your freeloading" ...or words to that effect.

Closed Social Networks
I am going away soon and I was contemplating a farewell house party. What could be more normal than inviting all my friends over for a big bash? In fact it would be like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You can know several "groups", but you shouldn't try mixing them. I have tried. Social networks are closed systems, at least in the gay world. The Vietnamese I know are generally lousy at introductions. You can be talking to a friend, someone else will appear but no word on their name or identity. The introductions I have attempted have fallen flat. All the groups I know hang out at the same places and know each other at least by sight, but there is little talk between groups. People go to clubs to hang out with their groups, rarely to actually meet anyone new (In fact I've almost never seen this happen in my group). I have asked friends why they don't talk to people in other groups (especially since the gay world here is so damn small), and I have consistently been told that they have nothing to say to each other and that conversations would be awkward and boring. Somehow talk is group-specific.

What baffles me even more is how groups form to begin with given these rigid social structures. One thing is certain though, people are only truly admitted to a group if they fit a certain profile and they improve the collective image. Outside the public realm though individuals associate much more freely. If you dig a bit you will find that are wider personal networks that belie the public patterns of group interaction. This tension between personal and group relations that makes for fascinating intrigue. There are people I'm friends with on a one-to-one basis, but who are actually quite distant in public spaces. I now know not to be offended by this.

I don't intend any of this to sound judgmental. These are just some of the things I don't understand. The longer I am here the more complex things become. Sometimes trying to figure it out can be like looking at a night sky in which faint stars recede when you try to stare them down, but reappear when you take in the whole panorama. Certain cultural phenomena appear odd or even absurd in isolation but are strangely intelligible within a larger context. But six months doesn't get me there (does a lifetime?) and still so much escapes me?

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The NYT Hanoi Food Debate

The New York Times recently published an article on the burgeoning Hanoi restaurant scene ("Restauranteurs Push Hanoi Food into the Future" by Matt Gross, Feb. 5, 2006). I was feeling a bit cranky pants the day I read it because of its bias towards elite restaurants and the way I felt it was snubbing the rich tradition of Hanoi street food. I never really set out to write editorial comments. Usually I just get worked up and unconsciously compose something in my head, which is what happened here. My purpose was to start a debate about the tension between traditional dishes and the haute cuisine that reinterprets them. Also I wanted to try to move the discussion beyond what I feel is a kind of North/South parochialism. I guess I succeeded. The NYT author responded at length.

As a librarian I will do the responsible thing and point to the debate at its source rather than reproduce text from another blog.

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

McDonalds Free Zone

Last week I had the peculiar experience of watching the documentary Supersize Me with a friend who had never heard of McDonalds. It was completely lost on him. In fact Viet fell asleep after about 20 minutes. Apparently it was strange and incomprehensible in a land without fast food.

Last month Viet and I were in Bangkok and passed by the first Golden Arches I'd seen in nearly five months. It was a novelty enough for me to comment on it. Viet just had a blank look. Never seen or heard of it. So I tried to explain the fast food phenomenon. While I was at it I pointed out the KFC next door. All of it a new concept.

It's not that Vietnam is unglobalized. Viet may not be eating globalized fast food schlock, but he listens to The Black Eyed Peas and various other hip hop ambassadors. (He's also into army fatigues which I just can't understand. I have tried to point out the irony of his wearing a U.S. Army jacket to no avail. Have you taken a look at the Long Bien bridge anytime over the last 30 years, I want to ask him?)

Nonetheless there is something so refreshing about a land without fast food chains. From what I understand foreign conglomerates need real local partners. They won't let the money just flow out without some kind of meaningful local investment. I guess the Kroc family doesn't see much in it for them given these conditions, and thank God for that. There are some homegrown chains here though. The big one in Hanoi is Highlands Coffee, the Vietnamese equivalent of Starbucks - slick and standardized, with all the best locations, including a big balcony overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake and, my personal favourite, a permanently docked boat on West Lake. Other than a few instances like that (Pho 24 is another) the businesses here are generally small home-grown family affairs. Quirky charm and personality are the name of the game.

However, as you can see I did succeed in spotting one pair of Golden Arches in Hanoi recently. I'm not sure how the McDonald's mystique adds to the success of little Ca Phe Hanh in a country without fast food chain brand recognition. Ironically though it speaks to the thorough absence of McDonald's here. It seems not even this blatant trademark violation succeeds in provoking a cease and desist order in this little corner of the world. More power to the underdog is what I say!

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