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

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Duck in Three Parts

Egg: I finally got a good shot of the infamous trung vit lon. My earlier shot was actually snapped in Laos. This one ordered curbside for brekky in Bach Khoa after a banh my trung left me still peckish. Koen and I partook. Jon sat this one out.

Fertilized duck egg has lost much of the visceral challenge it once posed for me, but it retains its fascination. I still don't look too closely nor do I linger over it - the taste though is actually quite nice. Egg on the meaty side.

If you do look closely the duck is really not that far gone - at least not as served in Hanoi. According to this very graphic article (you are forewarned!), it's another story altogether in the Philippines where they call it balut. At that late stage duck embryo really does deserve the infamy it has attracted on recent reality shows.

My Bach Khoa egg arrived minus the shell and ready for its close-up. I appreciated the photogenic potential of the naked embryo even if I missed cracking the shell and sipping off the embryonic fluid (a chicken soup-like teaser). The fresh julienned ginger and rau ram were welcome diversions.


Blood: If duck fetus has lost its gory thrill for me, the same is not true for tiet canh vit, a.k.a. raw duck blood soup. Only the brave should click here for the full visual effect of this lovely dish. Still I'm fascinated and I'm game as long as I don't necessarily have to commit to an entire bowl.

I've long heard about this delicacy. The first mention I recall was in a WHO case report of bird flu transmission in rural North Vietnam. I'm unsure if you can still find this dish in Hanoi given the circumstances. Several of my Hanoi friends insist it's quite delicious, but warn me to resist the temptation. Aside from the bird flu issue (which has long ceased to really worry me) it has been known to result in less lethal but still serious episodes possibly requiring extended hospital stays. In any case, I never saw any signs of this dish in Hanoi.

Imagine my shock then when I spotted a little (untranslated) sign on the wall of my favourite pho shack up the street from me here in Toronto: tiet canh vit. I could not believe my eyes. When I pointed to the sign and inquired if they really serve raw duck blood soup, at first I received a vague response to the effect that they are not sure what's in stock right now, let them go look, and was I ready to order my pho? No confirmation that I had actually read the sign correctly. Only later when I persisted in my questioning they finally brought out a nice bright red bowl for me to inspect. Yep no doubt about it: duck blood soup.

Only served on Sundays. Should I or shouldn't I? So far I've enlisted two brave souls who might share a bowl with me. None of us are really keen to commit to more than a couple spoonfulls.


Meat: Somewhere in Linh Dam in the southern suburban fringe of Hanoi lies a field. On one side a lake, on the other a row of buildings set way back, and above hangs a great cloud of smoke. Beneath this cloud a hundred low plastic tables laid out in lines. In total this field must be home to at least a dozen purveyors of the same delicious dish: vit nuong or grilled duck. The dish and its obscure location was only revealed to me last month during my visit. Somehow it had escaped my attention last year. I expected something like the roast duck that hangs in the Cantonese BBQ joints in my Chinatown back home. It was nothing like that. Instead the chunks of duck had been beautifully grilled over charcoal. In fact there were several preparations, each quite different and new to me. I have no idea anymore where this field is. All I remember is the taste of the slightly charred duck meat, the expanse of low plastic tables spreading out, the surreal duck smoke wafting above, and the company of friends. Some day I will drive by again on another motobike. The dreamy quality of that field will then find its place on my already tattered map of Hanoi.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bike Seat Math

If there is one image that sums up my December in Hanoi, this is probably it. For those of you not intimately familiar with the motobike culture of Vietnam, it's a bike seat...with lots of chalk...

It looks an awful lot like a math lesson. In fact it's all about parking. The system goes like this: you pull up to a place, a young parking guy emerges from the chaos of the sidewalk. You hop off, he hands you a numbered tag, chalks up your bike seat, and rolls your bike off to some acceptable corner of the sidewalk. Somehow upon retrieval even the numerical tangle pictured above does not fool the attendants. They know exactly which number is theirs. In this case I think 39 was the most recent addition.

This picture represents the cumulative activities of Hanoi Week 1. If only I had a legend for each number.

My visit was intensely social. I had hardly a moment alone, and most of this socializing happened in cafes, sidewalk eateries, restaurants, tea houses and bars. Each meeting, each meal, each cup of ca phe left its trace on my seat. I actually began to admire the effect and was sorry to see the composition obliterated by a bike wash (incidentally immediately after this photo was snapped).

Thanks to another Viet (this one in Japan) for the moto! Access to wheels makes all the difference in a city like Hanoi.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The End of Apo?

The late breaking news first arrived by Yahoo Messenger offline messages this morning. I am feeling very connected.

Apparently Hanoi's infamous Apocalypse Now nightclub is down and out after an evening of violence culminated in homicide. It seems it all began with an argument between two groups over a table. A fight broke out in the club, and those involved were kicked out by security guards. The fight then continue outside in the parking lot at 12:30am Sunday morning where one person was killed and three seriously injured. When I asked my friend what the weapon was, he told me "knife, we don't have gun here". The incident was described to me as gang-related.

It also seems that in the investigation afterwards the police discovered that Apo has been illegally selling untaxed alcohol. Several friends told me this was in order to compete with the New Century club across town. Apocalypse Now has been closed indefinitely because of these charges.

I can't find any English language coverage of the incident, but for those who can read it here's the Google cached text of a brief report in Vietnamese in Thanh Nien online.

Giành chỗ trong quán bar, 1 người chết
Vào hồi 0 giờ 30 ngày 14.1, tại trước cửa quán bar Apocalypse Now - “Thiên Khải” ở 2 Đông Tác, P.Trung Tự, Q.Đống Đa, Hà Nội đã xảy ra vụ đánh nhau lớn giữa 2 nhóm thanh niên. Nhóm bị chém có 4 nam 2 nữ, nhóm gây án mạng có 5 nam. Theo thông tin ban đầu, hai nhóm mâu thuẫn nhau vì tranh giành bàn rượu đã đặt chỗ. Hậu quả anh Nguyễn Huy Linh (28 tuổi, ở E8 Phương Mai, Q.Đống Đa) bị đâm chết; các anh Nguyễn Chí Huy (32 tuổi, ở E8 Phương Mai, Q.Đống Đa), Tạ Duy Thắng (31 tuổi, ở 36 ngõ 13 Giải Phóng) và Bùi Quang Hưng (36 tuổi, ở P.Hạ Đình, Q.Thanh Xuân) đều bị đâm trọng thương. Công an Q.Đống Đa đang phối hợp các đơn vị điều tra truy bắt những kẻ gây án. (N.V.C - K.T.L)

Will Apo rise again? Probably. Apparently a similarly violent episode shut down New Century several years ago and it eventually saw the light of day again. In the meantime I've been told that GC will probably experience a sudden influx of "family".

Well now I know why they have those security guards posted conspicuously around the clubs. This isn't the first bit of bar violence I've heard of in Hanoi clubs, though usually it doesn't usually end in murder. In any case, it's not like we don't have periodic club shootings here in Toronto.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Not Yet

I have returned home with a backlog of stories and photos. No time to type in a two week crash-course visit. Forgive me Viet if I begin with a story about you.

Despite the fact that he was my closest friend in Hanoi, I never met Viet's family in the time I lived in Hanoi. I knew only the most anonymous things about the family he lived with just a few minutes motobike ride from my little house. He kept me entirely separate from his domestic world. In fact his family may have only learned of my existence near the end of my stay when it seems Viet was spotted by his sister on the back of my moto going up Bach Mai. Who was this Tay their son was hanging out with?

As it turns out, his mother regards Westerners with great suspicion. I am told she is a fan of Vietnamese soaps and, like my mother, has at times a very active imagination and a sense of drama. According to the world of Vietnamese television one should always be wary of the Ong Tay. You never know when he might slip something into your drink, corrupt your children with foreign influence and social evils, leading them gradually into a life of crime and depravity. Perhaps it would have come as no surprise if she'd know this Ong Tay had lived in the infamous Black Spot of Hanoi.

So this time I was very surprised to be allowed to meet Viet's mother at his aunt's house on my first day of my most recent visit. I was not prepped for the occasion except that in the narrow alley leading up to his aunt's house Viet strongly suggested I pocket my earring. I slipped it off for the remainder of my time in Hanoi.

After my rehearsed "Chao Bac" greeting, I was invited to take a place on the tile floor while Viet took care of some family business. I sat there quietly as the family discussed who-knows-what and I let my eye wander around the living room inspecting the family altar, the domestic bric-a-brac and the view to a little paved courtyard populated by a dog, a few cooking implements and some wash basins. After our initial greeting, the family paid me very little attention, hardly a sideways glance.

Finally though after about twenty minutes, Viet's mother turned to me and asked me one of the Standard Questions: "Do you have children?" In fact my Vietnamese interrogators rarely get as far as this. I am usually asked first about my marital status so the question of children is always preempted.

In comparison to Western languages Vietnamese is not a yes/no language. There is no straightforward equivalent to the English word yes, and when the question concerns the future, the Vietnamese prefer not yet to the generic word for no. Maybe this reflects a more tentative never-say-never outlook. In any case I answered the Standard Question with my Standard Response: chua (not yet). But given that this was my one opening, probably my only chance to chit chat with the family, I felt compelled to add something, and I tossed around for some other expression, some little elaboration. Showing off a bit I proudly offered: "chua lap gia dinh" - meaning, I have not yet formed a family.

An awkward pause followed. Turning away Viet then addressed his mother, then turned back to me and said: "I had told my mother you were married but did not yet have children. Now I told her you were just joking."

I had just contradicted an alibi I didn't know I had. If Viet needed some wiggle room he might just have said I didn't really know what the expression meant or I understood it differently. What does it mean to "form a family"? Does that mean to marry or to have children? It seemed to me that there was enough ambiguity here to work with.

Well the phrase is not ambiguous in Vietnamese; it clearly relates to marital status. So Viet insisted I was merely joking. Viet's mother must think Ong Tay have a very dry sense of humour - or none at all. I sat there clueless on the floor with a sincere and humourless expression on my face.

Afterwards Viet didn't seem too concerned about the whole incident, but I felt embarrassed I managed unwittingly (though through not fault of my own) to put my foot in it. It seems that while the Ong Tay may not be a criminal corrupter of youth, he may however quite naively risk blowing your cover. Obviously a little Vietnamese is much more dangerous than none at all.
Mea culpa Viet. Next time I play real dumb.

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