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

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Mystery of the Painted Scrolls

I had a full six months to do my shopping in Hanoi, but human nature being what it is, I left it to the last minute. Here is another reason why my last week in Hanoi was intense. I spent a few manic afternoons running around stores picking up things like eggshell laquer trays, rosewood chopstick sets, Hmong bookmarks and a pair of stuffed water buffaloes for my niece and nephew.

I also happened upon these two paintings (click on the thumbnails for larger images). I guarded them jealously during my flight home and somehow they survived all the way to Toronto without being crushed by luggage. Now they are framed and waiting to be hung on my walls.

The problem is, I don't know what they are.

I want to try an experiment. There is so much talk these days about the role of virtual communities in the creation and sharing of knowledge. I'm not sure who out there reads my blog, but I'm hoping I can harness some of that collective brain power to help interpret these images.

Painting # 1 (above): My friend Dat didn't know what it was, but he has a theory: these are not six different mandarins, but one. He thinks the painting depicts the adventures of this character as he rides around on sacred animals (a dragon, tiger, phoenix, white horse). He carries with him a wooden card inscribed with his name and rank. At the bottom we have what appears to be an official of some sort, and at the top we have a divine hand. Dat thought the hand belongs to a female divinity because of the fingers and the style of robe. Or is it the Jade Emperor? It's not clear which direction Mr. Mandarin is going.

Painting #2 (right): I wondered whether this is a Dvarapala, one of the guardians of a pagoda. The sword and the stern expression seem to suggest that he might have some role in frightening off evil spirits. These figures are usually in pairs, with one on either side of the entrance to a pagoda. The platform on which he is seated is offset so maybe there was originally another figure on the other side to provide symmetry. My friend Hung suggests instead that this is also a mandarin. Apparently the gate above his head reads "Heavenly Man".

The woman I bought them from couldn't help me. She would only tell me that they were painted by Red Dao people in the Far North of Vietnam. I am not convinced of that. I am unsure of the age of the paintings, but the paper was worn and ragged.

Anyway, those are my best guesses. I may be wildly off. I claim no expertise in these things, but would love to hear other ideas. Please make liberal use of the Comments button below.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

My Photographic Diary

My six months are up, but my blog continues - for now anyway. I've still got a few entries in me, so don't give up on HanoiMark yet.

I intend to write a piece on the experience of reentry which has not been easy. One of the more productive ways I have been dealing with my return has been to organize and publish the best of my photos from the last six months on a Flickr website (click here to see). I admit I have a hard time weeding out photos, so it may be more than anyone cares to view. Feel free to view them selectively, even though I think they look best using the slideshow feature.

Note: They are not all of Hanoi. I've created sets of other places in Vietnam, and included piles of pictures of Laos. Also, I have excluded pictures of friends for reasons of confidentiality.

I have always regretted that I could not blog more about my incredible Vietnamese friends, but I have avoided getting too personal in order to protect their privacy. It seems to me that there is a paradox in Hanoi society. Life is at the same time more public and more private than it is in the West. On one level, everything is everyone's business. Life is lived more on the street than behind closed doors, and everyone loves to talk. At another level though it seems that people respond to this by carefully shielding parts of themselves. It always seemed taboo to broadcast personal stories learned in confidence - especially when many of those stories involve sexual identity.

The same goes for photographs, so while I'd love to post pictures of friends (to illustrate for instance the way Group A would occupy my living room), I think it would be unwise.

Flickr is much more than photo viewing tool. Like a blog, it also allows for comments, so if you have a question or a comment, feel free...

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Friday, March 10, 2006

Both Sides Now

A few days before my departure I was invited to a house party hosted by two Americans. The party was split down the middle, expat and Vietnamese, so it seemed an appropriate anticipation of my transition back to the West.

I've written a lot about the way Vietnamese socialize in groups. The differences with Western modes of socializing were in stark contrast at this party. Predictably all the expats gravitated towards the kitchen. The Vietnamese meanwhile camped out in the living room. But the way they were relating was the most interesting thing.

I didn't know any of the expats, but all I had to do was stand around a few minutes in the kitchen before a few people introduced themselves. Although these introductions were generally stiff and awkward ("Hi, my name is Barbara. How long have you been in Hanoi?"), I was still struck by the peculiarity of this sort of cocktail conversation in which strangers introduce themselves and search for intersecting interests. There should be nothing unusual about this except that I could see it fresh after being away from it all for so long. Here was a room full of mostly unrelated individuals chatting in small clusters, mixing and regrouping throughout the evening. All the sudden I could see the fluidity of the Western kind of socializing. There was a kind of randomness and serendipity, like atoms bouncing off each other.

In the living room there was no mixing and mingling whatsoever. Instead the Vietnamese group all knew each other and hung together like a big family. They were essentially draped over each other on the couch and the floor. If you didn't know them already there would be little way to break in. But in contrast to the random fluidity in the kitchen was warmth and casual intimacy. Once I'd had my fill of finger food I opted for the living room where I curled up the couch with the rest of them.

Now I am back in Toronto and this contrast is even starker. In Hanoi I would sometimes complain about the cliquey-ness (sp?) and the fact that people wouldn't talk to others outside their group. Now I can see the good and the bad of each pattern. We Westerners may be better at introductions, and mixing and mingling, our social networks may be more open and less defined, but intimacy between friends doesn't seem to come as easy for us.

I don't know if the patterns I saw were specific to the gay community, or reflective of wider society. I also don't know if they are specific to Vietnam or other Asian culture, but when I shared my observations with a Singaporian friend here, he recognized it all immediately. When he moved to Canada two years ago, he felt isolated. Sure you can meet people, but social plans have to be arranged a week in advance. You do not have to break your way into a clique and to this extent it might seem less complicated, but people only have so much time for you because they are busy balancing their other social commitments.

Despite the closed nature of the groups I experienced in Hanoi, they afforded a family-like intimacy. No need to make plans days in advance because it was taken for granted that the group would hang out. One phone call and half an hour later the group might be meeting for coffee or bia hoi.

I may have a large social network here, but my mobile phone rings only occasionally. I miss that intense interconnectedness, and the way I was always receiving new text messages. I miss the spontaneity and the feeling of being embraced by a close-knit family of friends.

Travel may be a outward exploration but it is also about the discovery of self. It's about the return as well as the voyage. There are moments when you suddenly discover the peculiarity of who you are and where you come from, and this party off Nguyen Thai Hoc was one of those moments.

In the end I succeeded in breaking down some of the barriers between two groups in Hanoi. (I will have to save that for another post.) Now the challenge is to bring more of that warmth and spontaneity into my Canadian social world.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Maybe it's schadenfreude, but it made me feel a bit better to read other Vietnam expat bloggers lamenting their imminent departures on Noodlepie. Never mind that the remaining time for the author of Noodlepie is roughly the length of time I had in Hanoi in total.

Expats come and go from Hanoi all the time. I keep wondering if it is normal to feel so traumatized, especially after just six and a half months. It has taken me a week to feel I can even write about it.

Someone brought a Torontonian to my farewell party. He was also about to leave Hanoi, and he couldn't wait to get out. He was tired of not being able to communicate, tired of the chaos and poor hygiene, tired of being followed in clothing stores. My colleague also told me about this year's batch of Australian Youth Ambassadors who all hung out together each weekend, going for coffee at Puku and drinking at Barracuda. They couldn't wait to go home, but from the sounds of it they had never actually left.

It may have only been half a year, but it was a whole world. I get irritated when people ask me, how was your trip?, as if I was just another backpacker on an extended fantasy. Despite the relative brevity of my time, my life there was full and three dimensional, and I developed strong attachments to people who have come to feel like family. Saying goodbye to them was painful. Leaving Toronto had not been so hard because I knew I was returning.

In a previous post I talked about my farewell party dilemma and how I couldn't just throw a bash for all and sundry because of complicated group politics. So there were two parties, one with an eclectic group of friends at Chim Sao on Ngo Hue, and the other with Group A on the roof of Highway 4 on Mai Hac De. I was so busy during my last week that I wasn't actually prepared for the finality of the goodbyes after the parties. Suddenly people got up to leave on Saturday night and I was faced with the unthinkable. My experience of leaving Hanoi was of suddenly seeing the loss of a whole community. I know I will return, but I will never regain that world.

Viet stayed over that last night. In the morning I awoke in darkness before the alarm. My packed bags were waiting for me in the living room. Viet couldn't sleep either. Hungry and restless we got on his motobike and rode up Lo Duc for my last bowl of pho, on the sidewalk under a tarp sheltering us from the light rain. Afterwards on the way home I asked Viet to take me for one last loop around Hoan Kiem Lake. He turned his bike around but insisted that this would not be my last time. It was still early and the park around the lake was full of seniors, strolling, practising tai chi, and playing badminton. If you pass by here in forty years, Viet said, look for me and you will probably see me doing the same.

When we got back, my landlord was already waiting. Moments later it seemed and the cab had arrived, my bags were in the trunk and the car door was open waiting for me, but I couldn't get in. I was a mess, but Viet was stoic. As we embraced he said to me that I was not leaving Hanoi, I was only going on another trip, but this time much longer. I got in and watched my house and Viet disappear out the cab window behind me.

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