Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Learning Vietnamese: Past The Basics

I'm eating breakfast in a café, when a tall, middle-aged blonde woman walks in. She sits down at a table with a small group of diners, and starts conversing effortlessly in Vietnamese.

I put down my book and stare into space, listening to the sound of good Vietnamese coming out of a Western mouth: the easy glide of the tones, the command of the vowels, the articulation of consonants that were learned in adulthood.

And I think: this is what I aspire to...

Two weeks ago, my Vietnamese language class finished the 300-some-odd page course book we'd been using for the past six months. My class began book "B," moving me, I suppose, past the elementary and into the pre-intermediate level.

Indeed, after seven months of studying six hours a week, coupled with daily practice, I am now fairly functional in Vietnamese. I can eat, shop, bargain, travel, and engage in basic conversation about the day. Grammatically, I can express past, present, and future, use relative clauses and conditional (if-then) structures, offer advice, express my hopes, and my vocabulary is expanding daily.

I have worked hard to get to where I am, and so last week, to celebrate...I got depressed.

Friday, I just couldn't bring myself to study Vietnamese. It was cold, I felt tired, and in no mood to fight with phonemes. Like an incontinent adult, I couldn't bear the humiliation of being less than fully-capable, so I begged off my afternoon lesson, vowed to return Monday, and put away my books for the weekend.

Then Monday came, and a profound sense of seasonal ennui interfered, so I stayed out of class again. The result was that I spent nearly a week avoiding Vietnamese.

And then without warning, I woke up this morning with a mad desire to speak Vietnamese! Like a powerful urge for a midnight snack, my lips and tongue wanted these sounds, these flavors, these nuances of thought that have, as surreptitiously as a thief, begun finding their way into me.

What had been despair and frustration overnight turned into renewed enthusiasm for learning. And I can't really tell you why.

Learning a new language is an emotional experience; don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Once the initial thrill of communicating wears off, you become hungry for intelligent discourse. Finding yourself unable to relate to others at the level to which you're accustomed is humbling; you wince at your own banality, the superficiality of your observations. "Bad people are...uh...bad." Groan.

It's not for nothing that psychologists have come up with the term "language ego." Our self-concept and self-esteem are intertwined with our linguistic abilities. Learning a new language is ego-annihilating...and this, for an otherwise capable adult, can be torturous.

But the stages of language learning are also fairly predictable, and the ambivalent feelings I've been experiencing are classic signs of a pre-intermediate plateau. For the pre-intermediate student, frustration stems from the feeling that, no matter how hard one has worked, the road ahead is still longer than the road behind.

Thankfully, my training as a language teacher helps me understand what to do. It is important for students at this stage to review basic vocabulary and grammatical structures, even as they learn new ones. Exposure to authentic input – reading and listening – is critical.

Listening may be the most important skill of all. Think of how long a baby learns mutely before making its first utterances. Given enough input, language production becomes inevitable; it's wired into our DNA. And so, pre-intermediate students need to listen, listen, listen...

And guard against frustration. Mostly, for the adult language learner, it is important to have faith, and to persist in one's efforts, regardless of how banal and unintelligent one sometimes feels. To do this, one needs role models, and the Western woman I saw in the café reminds me that fluency is attainable, and that acculturation and friendship are worthwhile rewards.

And so today, I return to my language studies, which at times feel like drudgery, and at times fill me with the joy of discovery.

Có công mài sắt thì có ngày nên kim.

("Who works at sharpening iron, should one day have fine metal" - the rough meaning is: effort brings success).

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Vietnamese Lacquer Painting (Sơn Mài)

Fifteen years ago, artist Ando Saeko came to Vietnam from her native Japan, and fell in love with Vietnamese natural lacquer painting (sơn mài). She was accepted as a student by Trinh Tuan, a master of the art form, and has been here ever since. Last Sunday morning at Hanoi's Uzu Gallery, Saeko explained the origins of natural lacquer and how lacquer painting evolved in Vietnam.

The term "lacquer painting" may be confusing; most of us probably think of lacquer as an additive to paint, or as a synonym for "varnish." I doubt many of us know that lacquer is a natural product made from the sap of an Asian sumac (the Vietnamese species is Rhus Succedanea). The sap is obtained in much the same way as rubber: an incision is made in the bark of the tree, and the resin is collected. The liquid separates as it sits; solids sink to the bottom and the pure resin at the top is skimmed off, mixed with pine sap, and stirred continuously for three days to give it an even texture. The resulting glossy material – processed natural lacquer – is used by artists.

The history of lacquer painting in Vietnam demonstrates this country's ability to take foreign influences, and create from them traditions that are wholly Vietnamese. Archaeologists have found lacquered objects dating back to the 4th century B.C., but lacquer was used mainly as an adhesive until the 14th century when, using techniques that are believed to have originated in China, it bloomed as a decorative medium. Lacquer began appearing as a glossy varnish on pagodas, wooden panels, palanquins, and other valuable objects, especially those of religious value.

It was the French who helped transform lacquer from a decorative craft into a modern pictorial art form. In 1925, teachers and students at the French École Supérieure des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine (Indochinese College of Fine Arts) began stretching the possibilities of the medium, taking traditional techniques and infusing them with contemporary artistic conceptions. The modern tradition of Vietnamese lacquer painting dates from this time.

Lacquer painting is a laborious process; it may take months or even years to complete a work. The term "painting" is, frankly, something of a misnomer; the medium is as sculptural as it is painterly. The technique of building a painting through layers, and of manually manipulating the surface, is as much a part of the process as the use of natural resin.

The foundation for a lacquer painting is a plywood board that has been covered by up to ten layers of lacquer. The artist may cut into this foundation to inlay crushed egg shells, gold leaf and other materials, or inlay materials directly onto the adhesive surface. Powdered pigments are lain directly onto the wet lacquer; color is built up in layers. Between layers, the artist continually scrapes, sands, polishes, and buffs the surface, to ensure an even finish. Since lacquer does not technically "dry" but rather hardens through the activation of an enzyme, the artist must be aware of ambient temperature and humidity; in less than optimal conditions one may have to wait days before applying new layers.

The result of all this layering, however, is that natural lacquer has translucent, muitidimensional qualities that could almost be described as holographic. Light plays on and under the surface of the painting. In much the same way that light fractures in water, the eyes perceive light and movement at multiple depths. One wonders what Monet, with his waterlillies, may have made of this stuff; it seems perfect for capturing the motile play of light and color that was so much a part of his oeuvre.

To some degree, lacquer may be suffering due to its recent popularity. According to Saeko, 100% of the lacquerware sold in tourist areas – and many of the paintings – is made from artificial, and not natural lacquer. This is because artificial lacquer, made from industrial polymer resins, does not require the same careful layering as natural lacquer; it can be produced quickly and inexpensively. While artificial lacquer lacks the depth of natural lacquer, it is also more brittle, tending to crack as the painting ages. Natural lacquer, on the other hand, ages like wine; colors deepen, become brighter and more true over time.

In other words, a lacquer painting, like the tradition it comes from, is fully and vibrantly alive.

Ando Saeko (http://andosaeko.com/)
Uzu Gallery (http://uzugallery.com/)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More Cooking with Hương

Today's dishes:
  • Cá Bông Lau Kho Tộ (Catfish Braised in a Clay Pot)
  • Bò Lá Lốt (Beef Wrapped in Wild Betel Leaf)
  • Cải Xoong Xào (Stirfried Watercress)
  • Xúp Tôm Thái (Thai Prawn and Lemongrass Soup)
One thing that continues to impress me about Vietnamese cooking is how the most complex flavors are created through the simplest of means. The first time I ate Cá Bông Lau Kho Tộ (Catfish Braised in a Clay Pot), I was sure it must have been concoted through the same mysterious alchemical process that turns water into wine, and copper into gold. I was feverishly raving about this dish to my friend Hương, when she nonchalantly let drop, "Oh, I can make that. It's easy." Without missing a beat, I immediately invited myself over for another installment of...Cooking with Hương!

There are two keys to this dish: the first is the dry heat that comes from the tộ, a clay pot that functions like a Vietnamese Dutch Oven. The second key is the coconut caramel sauce, which, along with the lemongrass, galangal, and chilis, coats the fish with a burnt, savory, caramelized glaze. As with most Vietnamese dishes, there are regional variants; in the south they add garlic, and perhaps a little bacon, but the basic technique remains the same. Dry cooking is essential, as this is what allows the sugars to caramelize, and the catfish to brown.

To make the caramel sauce, Hương mixed about 1/4 cup of water with 1/2 TB of sugar, a squirt of nước mắm (fish sauce) and some gia vị (Vietnamese spice mixed mentioned in earlier postings). She then dipped the tip of a chopstick – no more, or the sauce develops a harsh, burnt taste – into a small bottle of nước hàng dừa (coconut caramel), and added it to the sauce. A little tasting and adjusting and the sauce had a nice balance of salty, sweet, and malty flavors.

The rest was a simple matter of assembly. A few stalks of lemongrass were crushed (to relase their flavors) and then chopped into roughly 1-inch pieces. About an inch of galangal – a magnificent rhizome used throughout Southeat Asia – was sliced and added to the mix. For those who are unfamiliar with it, I would describe galangal as a milder, more citrusy ginger, with elements of pepper, mustard, and pine. Hương lined bottom of the tộ with some lemongrass and galangal, added the catfish, filled the gaps with more lemongrass and galangal, poured in the sauce, and topped it all off with some minced chili and a dash of white pepper. The tộ was then covered and placed directly over a medium flame for 40 minutes.

When completed, most of the moisture from the sauce was gone, leaving a sticky, caramel glaze, scented by lemongrass and galangal, that seared the outside of the fish, keeping the meat inside perfectly moist. The flavors complemented, but did not overwhelm the fish; it was a remarkable balance of seafood with aromatic spices that could only have come from Vietnam.

To accompany the meal, Hương made Bò Lá Lốt, which has become one of my favorite street dishes at cơm bình dân joints throughout Hanoi. Bò Lá Lốt may be translated as "Beef Wrapped in Wild Betel Leaf", but lá lốt (Piper sarmentosum) should not be confused with Piper betle, the leaf that is used to wrap "betel nut" (the seed of the Areca palm) and lime, and chewed as a mild stimulant throughout Asia. The lá lốt leaf has a subtle flavor that is at once bitter and fragrant, with a hint of incense in the aftertaste. It serves as both a culinarily and visually satisfying wrapper for the beef.

The ingenious part of the Bò Lá Lốt is in the wrapping. To make the meatballs, Hương pounded together about 150 g. of ground beef with 100 g. of pork – the pork adds fat as well as flavor, and keeps the beef from drying out during cooking – with four or five garlic teeth and the usual spices: gia vị, pepper, sugar, fish sauce. She then steamed the meat until it was mostly cooked. To make one wrap, she filled the back side of lá lốt leaf with a spoonful of the beef mixture. Rolling the beef over – and this is the ingenious part – she used the leaf stem to secure the roll in place and...Voila! A perfectly wrapped meatball. With a little pan-frying, the leaf wilted around the meat, and I got to experience the best damn Bò Lá Lốt I've had since I've been in Hanoi.

Hương completed the meal with a simple watercress (cải xoong) and garlic stir-fry, and I contributed by making Xúp Tôm Thái (Thai: Tom Yum Goong), a spicy prawn and lemongrass soup I learned to make years ago in Thailand. It was the first time I'd made this dish since leaving the states, and having access to authentic Southeast Asian ingredients like galangal and kaffir lime leaves allowed me to make it exactly as I remembered it. As you can see, the meal turned out beautiful! But you'll have to take my word that it was every bit as delicious as it looked!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Folk Art of Đông Hồ

Sometimes, knowledge comes to us by a circuitous route. After I wrote about Vạn Phúc, the silk-weaving village outide Hanoi, a friend asked me if – there obviously being mulberry trees for the silkworms – there was a tradition of making mulberry paper in Vietnam. I was unable to find any such tradition, but in the course of searching for mulberry paper I discovered the folk art of Đông Hồ, a village 30 km. east of Hanoi. And so was born a quest to view this art at its source.
Đông Hồ is the center of a woodblock printing tradition that dates back 500 years. Đông Hồ pictures (Tranh Đông Hồ) are frequently displayed in Vietnamese households during Têt, the Vietnamese New Year. They typically depict a range of Vietnamese folk imagery, from traditional symbols of wealth and fortune, such as pigs, ducks and chickens, to bawdy tales that satirize the extramarital affairs of husbands and wives. These subjects, together with the stylized manner in which they are represented, constitute the Đông Hồ style.
What makes Đông Hồ pictures particularly impressive is that they are made using traditional dyes and inks, and production processes that date back twenty generations. The paper is produced from the bark of the Dzo tree; the bark is soaked in water for months, then mixed with seashells and made into a thin, lightly textured paper stock, which is then sometimes tinted. The colors are made from crushed leaves, burnt bamboo, pine resin, copper rust, eggshells, and other natural sources. The prints are finished with a rice paste glaze that hardens the paper and protects the colors so that they resist dimming even after long exposure to light.
Wanting to see this in person, I and a friend set out on my motorbike, on a drizzly Saturday morning, onto the northbound road to Hải Phòng. Forty minutes out from Hanoi, we veered off the main thoroughfare and began asking for directions. Just before the village, we stopped at a rural roadside vegetable market. Mounds of herbs both mysterious and familiar – dill, mint, and cilantro, alongside mồng tơi, mùi tàu, and rau răm – as well as twisted roots with medicinal powers, reminded me of the richness and antiquity of Vietnam's culinary traditions.
Were it not for a large sign announcing "Đông Hồ Pictures," I might have ridden past the village. With only 10,000 inhabitants, Đông Hồ looks much like any other rural village in northern Vietnam: slim houses with crumbling stucco exteriors, interlaced with rough dirt roads. Upon entering the village, narrow alleys lined with piles of bricks (a brick-making factory lies outside of town) remind me that it's building season in rural Vietnam as well as in Hanoi. Expecting a village built around its cottage industry, I was surprised to discover that only two households offer Đông Hồ prints for sale.
We veered into a courtyard and entered a low, traditional brick house that had been made into a workroom and showroom. There we found a large family altar, and framed prints on all the walls – some modern, some as old as 200 years. Piles of wood blocks, their edges stained with ink, lined the shelves around the edges of the room, amid bundles of Dzo paper. Across the floor, hundreds of prints were drying, and between them a young woman repeatedly inked a wooden block, laid it carefully onto a paper, rubbed the back of the paper to make sure the ink adhered, and set the print out to dry along with all the others.
We browsed, bought some pictures, and sat on a laquered wooden bench to wait out a sudden shower. While waiting for the rain to stop, I reflected on how Đông Hồ, in its way, symbolizes Vietnam's recovery from its 20th century conflicts. What was once a thriving cottage industry nearly died amid the ravages of war. Only a few families maintained the tradition, and in the 1990s, when the market recovered, Đông Hồ's pictures again began to be sold. Today, as Vietnam pushes toward modernity, millions of Đông Hồ pictures are sold every year to both tourists and Vietnamese households, and there is every reason to think the young woman I saw making Đông Hồ prints will one day pass her secrets onto her children.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Việt Nam Vô Địch!

Everybody loves it when the home team wins. And in Hanoi, a victory in football (soccer), the national obsession, is cause for delirium. Tonight, I had the opportunity to see Hanoi erupt, as Vietnam roundly thrashed Singapore 4-1 in the semi-final match of the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, in order to set up Thursday's championship match against Malaysia.

This victory does more than put Vietnam at the threshold of a championship; it signals the country's emergence as a regional sporting powerhouse. To put it in perspective, the 2009 SEA Games mark the 50th anniversary of an event that has been held biennially since 1958. The games, held under the supervision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), not only feature perennial Olympic favorites, such as gymnastics, volleyball, and wrestling, but some lesser-known sports such as Pencak Silat, Pétanque, and the painful-sounding Shuttlecock-Kicking (one only hopes the athletes, and their shuttlecocks, are properly protected).

Since its foundation, the Games have been regarded as the premier regional sporting event for the 11 participating countries. In the all-time metal count, Indonesia and Thailand tower above the field. But Vietnam, third place in the last two SEA Games, has been moving up the rankings, and in this year's event, Vietnam narrowly trails arch-rival Thailand in the total medal count. This kind of success bolsters Vietnam's socialist government, which since 1975 has actively promoted sports with the slogan, "To be strong to construct and defend the country." At a more visceral level, however, Vietnam best chance to win its first-ever SEA Games gold medal in the national sport (previous soccer champion Thailand has already been eliminated) has fans frothing at the mouth.
The visible sign of all this frothing is, naturally, the traditional celebratory traffic jam. Apparently, every time Vietnam wins a major sporting event, Hanoians don their red jerseys, drape themselves in the national flag, get on their bikes and go clog the already-clogged streets of the city even more. The din is frightful; drivers lean on their horns with extra vigor, and roll through the city yelling and screaming like maddened yaks. Frankly, the yelling, along with the sudden appearance of yellow stars on blood-red fields, are all that differentiate it from normal Hanoi traffic. But it's hard not to get caught up in the fun, especially when one sees little children, scarcely aware of what they're cheering for, jumping up and down and waving their flags.
It's all jolly good, and reason enough to hope that Vietnam's Young Lions come out roaring Thursday night and crush Malaysia as they did Singapore. The victory chant, Việt Nam Vô Địch!, translates roughly into "invincible against adversaries." VIỆT NAM VÔ ĐỊCH! VIỆT NAM VÔ ĐỊCH!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Hanoi's Season of Building

Today's magnificent, cool, and sunny day in Hanoi, licked by a northern breeze, has given way to a lovely crisp evening. Autumn is on the cusp of turning into winter, and in Southeast Asia, this is arguably the nicest time of year. Memories of summer's swelter still color the chilly nights; winter here has none of the sense of permanancy, the unending frost, of winters in northern climes. One feels like basking in this kind of weather, and enjoying its short visitation.

This time between summer and the long Tết holiday is also when work crews crawl over the city, transforming Hanoi's ever-changing landscape. Hanoians' daily activities take place against a backdrop of constant jack-hammering, which begins at 6:30 in the morning and continues until after dark. Buildings get covered with rickety wood-and-metal scaffolds, like adolescents getting a new set of braces. Hanoi becomes an obstacle course filled with cement, mounds of sand, piles of bricks, shovels, wheelbarrows, and wires strewn haphazardly about. If there is any question as to how Vietnam managed to rebuild itself so quickly after the devastation of the 20th century, it's answered by this season of building.

The story of Hanoi since the American War has been of a baby continually outgrowing its clothes. After 1975, as Hanoi experienced a post-war baby boom and increased migration to the city, the city's antiquated infrastructure began to strain. The government's solution was, and still is, to build Hanoi outward. Just last year, on August 1, 2008, Vietnam's capital city grew from 922 to over 3,300 square kilometers, by absorbing two neighboring provinces. Overnight, its population nearly doubled from 3.5 to 6.2 million inhabitants. And still, experts say the population is growing at a rate of 3.5% per year; an urban population of 10 million is expected by 2030.

The question isn't whether Hanoi is growing, but how. If you look at Hanoi's modern skyline, two things stand out: the absence of skyscrapers, and the abundance of greenery. Low, weathered buildings, tree-lined streets, small lakes, and numerous parks give Hanoi – for those of us who appreciate it – much of its charm. So it is logical to fear modernization and expansion, even as one recognizes its necessity. The question is, will Hanoi follow the model of Beijing and Seoul, where whole neighborhoods have been bulldozed, and cultural relics laid waste in favor of austere apartment complexes and saccharine office blocks? Or will Vietnam's leaders recognize Hanoi's historicity and verdant spaces as central to the city's character, and work to preserve them?
On the surface, Vietnamese government statements give one reason for hope. While Vietnam's leaders recognize the city's many challenges – traffic and housing congestion, flooding, the possibility of urban sprawl – they also publicly acknowledge the necessity of preserving Hanoi's cultural and environmental "assets." The three urban planning models currently on the table all include large "green corridors" for preserving Hanoi's parks and agricultural zones. Buildings showcasing the city's rich blend of Chinese, Vietnamese, French, and Soviet influences are being slated for protection. At the highest levels, the term "sustainability" is at least being discussed. There is reason to be sanguine about Hanoi's prospects.

But this being Vietnam, there is also reason for concern. Corruption remains endemic, and plans made at one level of government can easily be erased at another level by the greasing of a few palms. As Hanoi emerges into a modern Asian city, its rising real estate values provide potent incentives for investors to flock here with their capital. Money and corruption are powerful foes to historical buildings and green spaces, and so, a battle is poised to be fought between far-sighted leaders who favor cultural and environmental preservation, on the one hand, and short-sighted developers looking to tap the region's value, on the other.

How this battle turns out may ultimately depend on Hanoians themselves. In conversation, they speak glowingly about the city's many lakes, its blend of architectural styles, their love of green spaces. Balmy autumn days like today bring people outdoors in droves. But the lure of modernity is also strong for a long-impoverished people, and after all that this country has been through, it'd be hard to begrudge their taste for the good life. There's no way of knowing, at this stage of the game, how the story of Hanoi's development will play out. In the meantime, there is plenty of work available for the men coming in from the countryside, and I fully expect to be woken up in the morning by jack-hammers.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


What is it about xôi that makes it so damn good? Steamed glutinous rice, known in Vietnam as xôi, has become a bit of a obsession for me. Some weeks, I might eat it as many as five or six times. If a week passes without it, I feel like I'm missing a basic nutrient. Truth be told, I'm hooked, and I'm not about to seek treatment anytime soon.

What exactly is xôi? In Vietnam, rice comes in two forms: regular "hard" rice, called
gạo tẻ (Oryza Sativa Dura), and the sticky, or glutinous rice, called gạo nếp (Oryza Sativa Glutinosa). The hard variety is the medium-to-long-grain staple you eat every day: loose-grained, hard to eat with chopsticks, mixes well with other foods. Sticky rice, as the name implies, holds together firmly; in Laos they actually press it into a ball and use it to pick up other foods. It's unsuitable for soups because it doesn't swirl around in the liquid, but works great as a base for sweet or savory toppings – and the Vietnamese give you plenty to choose from.

The difference between the two rice strains comes down to a single genetic mutation. Let me explain: normal, hard rice contains two starches, amylopectin and amylose. Amylopectin is the starch that makes rice sticky. Normal rice contains around 30% amylose, however, and this ensures that the grains separate after cooking. As you can guess, glutinous rice has no amylose. As a result, the amylopectin is free to loose its stickiness upon the grain unhindered. Bless its starchy little head.

As a cultivar, sticky rice is of fairly recent origin. While evidence exists that hard rice was cultivated in China as early as 3,000 B.C., genetic researchers have traced the origins of sticky rice to a single genetic mutation that probably occured a couple of thousand years later. Where did this mutation occur? Most likely right here, in Southeast Asia. People obviously took to it, because farmers went on cultivating it. Even today, sticky rice remains the staple grain in many parts of Southeast Asia, notably northeastern Thailand and Laos.

What does all this have to do with dinner? Nothing, except that I like to know where my food comes from! And the fact that sticky rice has such deep roots in the Southeast Asian soil makes me feel that, in a macrobiotic sense, I'm eating exactly what I'm supposed to be eating while I live here.

So let's get to the yummy stuff: in Vietnam, xôi
can be made into sweet or savory concoctions. Sweet xôi is called xôi ngọt, and salty, or savory xôi is xôi mặn. When it comes to toppings, the sky is the limit. Sweet xôi can be cooked with coconut milk, mixed with fruits, nuts, sugar, and even used as a base for ice cream! My taste, however, runs toward the savory varieties. Most especially, I love xôi xéo, in which the xôi is cooked together with green beans (giving the rice a yellowish color) and served with mung bean paste, fried shallots and choice of meat.
Hanoi boasts many locales in which to sample a good xôi, but Xôi Yến, on Nguyễn Hữu Huân Street, at the edge of the Old Quarter, could make a credible case as the best in town. Xôi Yến is easy to spot amid several xôi eateries on the same street because it's the one with all the people. The place serves a steady stream of customers, sitting at tables inside or upstairs, on low plastic stools outside, or getting their fare to go.
Xôi Yến offers three basic xôi varieties – xôi trắng (regular, white xôi), xôi ngô (xôi with bits of corn mixed in), and the aforementioned xôi xéo – with about twenty different possible toppings. These include various patés, boiled meats, chicken dishes, eggs, and vegetables. My favorites include gà nấm (chicken and black forest mushrooms, topped with kaffir lime leaves), thịt kho tầu (caramelized pork), and chả cốm (a kind of processed meat with green rice flakes inside) – all served with xôi xéo, of course.

A bowl of xôi with topping of choice generally runs anywhere from 8,000-15,000 VND (about 50 to 90 cents US). A light vinegary cucumber salad served alongside provides a nice complement to all these dishes. Throw in another 1,000 đồng for an iced tea, and you have one of the cheapest, and most delicious, meals in town.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Cát Bà Archipelago

Long ago, when a fish-monster was terrorizing people along the northeastern coast of Vietnam, Thiên Ngư, the Fish-God, descended from heaven on the back of a dragon, and engaged the monster in battle. The battle raged for months, during which time the god's dragon died of exhaustion and became an island. After killing the monster, Thiên Ngư threw his sword and club into the ocean; these too became islands. Later, a fairy woman descended from heaven on the back of an elephant the elephant also became an island. Thus were born several islands in the Cát Bà Archipelago.

Located 50 km from Hải Phòng and adjacent to Halong Bay (Vịnh Hạ Long), the Cát Bà Archipelago is comprised of nearly 400 islands, all made of the same dramatic limestone karst topography for which Halong Bay is famous. Viewing these gnarled islands in the early morning mist one imagines some truth in the legends of their creation. Spectacular rocky spires, trellised with vines, showcase the sculpting power of the ocean and do, in fact, call to mind the dragons, elephants, and other mythical creatures for which they are often named. It's also easy to see how, for centuries, these islands, with their caves, hidden grottoes, and twisted outcroppings, served as refuges for pirates and other seafaring rogues.

Aside from its spectacular beauty, the Cát Bà Archipelago is an ecological treasure. The larger islands, including the 140 km2 Cát Bà Island itself, are covered mainly by dense, tropical monsoon forest, but also contain mangroves, willow swamps, coral reefs, freshwater wetlands, and other habitats. They house a number of plant and animal species found nowhere else on earth, including the golden-headed langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus) which, with only 60 in existence, is officially classified as the world's rarest primate (it looks oddly like the love child of Scatman Crothers and a Teletubby). Most of the archipelago – 4,200 hectares of ocean and nearly 10,000 hectares of forest – falls within the boundaries of Cát Bà National Park, and is protected from development.

The center of island tourism is Cát Bà Town, a community of roughly 10,000 people on the main island, with a strip of hotels and restaurants lining the edge of a small bay. Most of this development seems to have sprouted quickly; island residents tell me that ten years ago there were only a handful of places to stay. Indeed, the island has the feel of a boom-town, with scaffolding and work crews covering the façades of buildings in various stages of construction or repair. The only thing protecting Cát Bà from further expansion is the topography - the water's edge, of course, and the steep, densely foliated hills. Cát Bà looks about as full as it's going to get.

Like so much of Vietnam, Cát Bà's development only feels like a boom from the perspective of Vietnam's recent past. To an outsider, there remain visible elements of traditional village life. The harbor is filled with small, weather-beaten fishing boats that head out every evening after dark. Mid-morning, women sit dockside, cleaning the night's catch, and you see men mending nets, and performing other activities that affirm Cát Bà's historic standing as a fishing community. Outside of town are rice fields, lotus ponds, water buffaloes grazing between wooden fences, and signs of an island life as yet unaffected by tourism.

In the end, Thiên Ngư, the Fish-God, married the fairy woman who had descended from heaven on the back of an elephant. She brought with her a gourd of holy water, which restored Thiên Ngư's strength and fertilized the land. Rather than return to heaven, the couple decided to stay on earth, hunting and fishing for a living. Looking over the cathedral of rocks and water that make up the Cát Bà Archipelago, it is easy to see why.

Note: the story of Thiên Ngư and the monster comes from Hữu Ngọc. (2004). More Fascinating than Ha Long Bay. In Hữu Ngoc, Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture (4th ed.). Hanoi: Thế Giới Publishers.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Hải Phòng

The walls of Hanoi were closing in on me, so last weekend I took a much-needed break from Vietnam's capital city and headed north-east toward the ocean. On the way toward the vacation island of Cát Bà, I decided to stop in Hải Phòng, Vietnam's second-largest port (after Saigon) and, with a population of 1.7 million, the country's third-largest city.

Located where the Red River meets the South China Sea, Hải Phòng is one of Vietnam's major commercial centers. The city's ever-growing port has enough docks, mooring points, cranes, pipelines, weighing stations, storage yards, warehouses, and manpower to handle loads from the world's largest freighters, and push them, through rail, road, air, and water, to every point in Vietnam. In addition to its transportation and shipping functions, the city serves as a center of heavy industry; Hải Phòng and Saigon together produce 70% of the country's GDP. The city is, if not the heart, then certainly a critical organ in Vietnam's economic body.

One needs a sense of history to appreciate the place. Founded in 43 A.D., the city has been one of Vietnam's principal ports and trading centers for nearly two thousand years. In the latter part of the 19th century, the French made Hải Phòng their major naval base in Indochina, and turned it into an industrial center. The city survived the infamous 1881 typhoon, which took an unbelievable 300,000 lives. After World War II, the French killed thousands of Hải Phòng's citizens in their effort to forestall Vietnam's independence. Later, during the American War, the U.S. subjected the city to heavy bombing and mined its ports to prevent Chinese and Soviet goods from aiding Vietnam's war effort. Seen through the eyes of history, Hải Phòng stands as an important symbol of Vietnamese perseverence and industry.

Whereas Hanoi has the sense of bygone grandeur, Hải Phòng feels like it's probably always had a seedy underbelly – a place where, in medieval times, Shanghaied sailors and pirates mingled with loose and deadly women, and fights broke out over rum and doubloons. Alongside the banks of the Tam Bạc River, the streets have an element of Dickensian filth. Rusted car parts, wooden crates, and black oily coils of metal cables line streets slicked with layers of trampled vegetables. Side roads provide another picture of blue-collar activity, with woodworkers turning table legs on wood lathes, young men grilling whole dogs inside metal drums, and roadside vendors selling shoes, plastic flowers, and the ever-abundant street food.

The people who work these streets have a distinct blue-collar air. One sees longshoremen, welders, machinists, and laborers, hard-bodied men accustomed to an honest day's work. Women with no-nonsense faces port vegetables to market on their backs, or load wicker baskets heavy with condemned ducks and chickens onto motorbikes, before whisking them away to slaughter. Hai Phong's reputation as a center of the Vietnamese mafia and drug trade adds to the mystique; one scours the faces and tries to discern if they're of pickpockets, racketeers, hoodlums, warlords, or women with daggers in their bras.

Lest I give the impression of pure ugliness, let me hasten to add that Hải Phòng has a rough beauty that couples with its unapologetically Vietnamese sense of purpose. Tam Bạc Lake, long and narrow like the river that carries the same name, but capped at both ends, weaves its way through the center of town. The old quarter houses lovely examples of 19th century French colonial architecture, weathered and layered like Rauschenberg collages. And above all, Hải Phòng serves some of the best food in northern Vietnam. Friends of mine in Hanoi take trips to Hải Phòng just to eat. I had a magnificent street-side
bánh đa cua, filled with crab meat, fish cake, water spinach, tofu, dates, and the wide rice noodles (bánh đa) – produced only in Hải Phòng – that give the dish its name. It was a steaming, one-dish marvel of Vietnamese culinary ingenuity – complex, multilayered, and rich.

In sum, I liked the place. While it lacks the charms to attract the casual tourist, Hải Phòng is purposeful and busy, like the Vietnamese. It has played an important economic role in Vietnam for centuries, survived monsoons, wars, communism and capitalism both, and I have no doubts the city will continue to evolve for centuries to come. I will be back for the food.