Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Brief Tour of Hanoi Cafés

In my last posting, I admitted my addiction to coffee. The fact is, I'm as hopelessly addicted to cafés as I am to the mighty brew. Twenty years of living in Seattle, where cafés dot every corner and children learn to operate an espresso machine about the same time they learn to walk, left an indelible mark. On a gray, drizzly day (of which there are many in both Seattle and Hanoi), there is little I'd rather do than sit in a café with my laptop or a good book, and read or shoot the breeze with my compadres while slugging down another cup.

Vietnam, the world's second-largest coffee producer, is blessed with a staggering variety of cafés, and this variety is abundantly evident in its capital city of Hanoi. Like Dublin with its pubs, it is physically impossibile to cross Hanoi without passing a few dozen establishments dedicated to the fabled elixir. From streetside stands where lines of men smoke and play chess before faded plaster walls, to the ultra-modern Highland Coffee chain where foreigners and the Hanoi bourgeoisie mingle over $4 frappuccinos, Vietnam's cafés cater to every taste and budget.

My own preferences run toward cafés that possess a sense of history, or a mix of weathered and modernist elements. I have compiled a list of my favorites cafés, which I present below:

Cafe Xe C
13A Hang Bun
This was the first Hanoi café I fell in love with, and it still holds a special place in my heart. While it is nowhere near any of my regular routes, I often head here on the weekends to enjoy its funky blend of antique wooden furniture, abundant greenery, and old motorcycles recalling a 1950s "On the Road" Bohemianism. Its proximity to Hanoi's best art gallery, Art Vietnam, makes the place a convenient stop on a weekend culture tour.

Housed in an old French villa, with a giant oxwheel at its entrance, the café features antique foot-pedal sewing machines that have been repurposed into coffee tables, and tasteful bungalow-style wooden chairs. Periods of history come crashing together haphazardly; its collection of oddball items includes old victrolas, rotary dial telephones, grandfather clocks, antique wooden cupboards, brass trophy cups, manual typewriters, 16mm film projectors, HiFi stereos, candlestics, rusted electric fans, an electric Yamaha organ, and numerous hanging pots.
The coffee itself is nothing to write home about; just the standard Robusta fare. A steady supply of regulars trickles up and down the stairs, but the mood is never frenetic. The anachronistic decor makes it easy to wax into a nostalgic space, dreaming of what must be the fascinating stories behind every item in the room.

Café Phố Cổ (a.k.a. "The Hidden Cafe")
11 Hang Gai
Tucked behind a couple of tchotchke shops on one of the Old Quarter's busiest streets, Café Phố Cổ is a hidden refuge from the din of the city. To enter, you have to duck into a touristy silk shop and walk through a dark, narrow corridor that opens into a tall courtyard. Once there, you're in an Asian surrealistic fantasy. The café is a caricature of a 19th century opium den, with carved wooden lintels, ceramic artifacts, caged birds, stone Buddhas, and weathered silk paintings thrown together between potted lotuses, overgrown bamboo, and neglected bonsai on artifical rocks.

It's a place M.C. Escher might have designed after eating too many spring rolls. Four open-air stories rise skyward, joined by a weird interconnecting network of metal staircases and wooden foot bridges. The service is famously bad; you basically order what you need downstairs, wait for it to be prepared, and then walk it up to your seat. But the view is to die for - a panorama of Hoan Kiem Lake seen from a balcony practically jutting over the water.

An excellent drink here is the Cà phê Trứng. A meringue of whipped sweetened condensed milk and egg is whipped together, and then poured over the coffee. It's a lovely, ticklish, dessert-like brew to sample while enjoying the strange decor, and gorgeous lakeside view.
Văn Vit Café
27 Tran Binh Trong
If I have anything like a regular haunt, this is it. Half a block off Thiền Quang Lake in Hanoi's Hai Bà Trưng district, this establishment offers something rare in Hanoi: tastefully modern interior design. The visitor is greeted by a lovely façade: a full-length window fronted by tall bamboo growing from white ceramic pots. The café has three rooms, each different in atmosphere, yet unified by the consistent presence of exposed brick walls and unframed abstract canvases.
The front room, with it black ceramic tile floors, art-deco counter, rounded brick wall, and minimalist track lights, could easily be the entrance to a tony art gallery in Tokyo or Manhattan. A few steps further leads one to a small, intimate middle room, with a couple of dimly-lit tables. The back room opens up to high ceilings and tall shuttered windows; this room feels more like a proper café, with well-sized tables sided by small cushioned loveseats, and a couple of large floor fans to keep the air circulating.

Văn Vit serves the standard four coffee drinks (coffee with or without milk, hot or iced), and a decent cà phê phin, as well as an assortment of juices and shakes. With its free WiFi, Van Viet would fit in well in NYC's Tribeca, or Seattle's Capital Hill.

Café 252
252 Hang Bong
Just outside the old quarter, Café 252 is a typically non-descript hole-in-the-wall, with fading hospital-green walls, chintzy laquerware wall-plaques, a slow-moving ceiling fan, and cobwebs in the corners. It's the kind of place that, even new, was probably never that impressive. Yet this is where you will find some of the best baked goods in Hanoi.

The owner, a man named Le Huu Chi, learned to bake in the French territory of New Caledonia (there's a picture on the wall of Uncle Ho in the 1950s, with a group of students from the school). In addition to fine croissants, paté-filled pastries and pain au chocolat, the café offers home-made yogurt, and a full breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu. As a bonus, it's the only place I've found in Hanoi that offers fresh milk, instead of the canned sweetened condensed milk that is served everywhere else.

Le Huu Chi's daughter has taken over operation of the place, with no apparent drop-off in quality. This café appears to be on the tourist map; on my last visit there was a Scandinavian couple eating breakfast, a group of foreign-born Vietnamese speaking French, and two middle-aged Japanese women staggering about photographing and smiling at everything. As I said, you go there for the baked goods, not the atmosphere.

Café Mai
52 Nguyen Du and 96 Le Van Huu
This is where you go when you want good coffee. In operation since the 1930s, Café Mai's two locations offer respite from the bitter low-grade Robusta bean, with a menu of well-prepared coffees from around Vietnam, including high-quality Arabica from the mountainous province of Lang Son. Prices are slightly higher than at other Hanoi establishments, but still lower than the chain-store Highland Coffee cafés that offer a lower-quality drink. The owners know coffee as well as anyone in Vietnam; the beans are well-roasted, and freshly-ground.
In both Café Mai locales, the ambience is unmistakeably Vietnamese: no-frills decor and groups of adults smoking and talking around formica tables. Somewhat incongruously, the Café Mai on Nguyen Du offers free wireless Internet, so it's possible to sit and work there, while sipping a mighty nice brew.

My exploration of Hanoi's cafés has only begun, and I hope after some time I will have many other places to add to this list. Part of the fun of living in a city with a thriving café culture lies in the thrill of discovery. Hanoians constantly swap locales, keep abreast of changes to the established joints, and like to venture into uncharted waters. Given the profusion of Hanoi cafés, I may be exploring for some time.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Vietnamese Coffee Primer

Except for the occasional cigar, I have few vices. I don't smoke, drink, or use drugs. But if you want my coffee, dammit, you're going to have to pry it out of my cold, dead hand!

I am a certifiable, hardcore, hopeless and irremediable coffee addict. You can forget about trying to cure me with 12-step programs, psychological counseling, appeals to health, politics, or morality: if there's coffee in the house, I'm going to drink it. And the word, "decaf," does not exist for me: it just isn't coffee if it doesn't make your forehead sweat.

The truth is, coffee was one of my main considerations in choosing Vietnam. It's as much a part of the national culinary culture as ph

The history of coffee in Vietnam dates back to 1857, when French colonists planted the first trees. The crop quickly caught on, and by the early 20th century, plantation-scale production was in full swing. Before the wars that destroyed Vietnam's economy in the middle part of the 20th century, coffee was Vietnam's second-most productive cash-crop (after opium). In the early 80s, Vietnam began making furtive attempts to rebuild its coffee production, and by 1996, Vietnam was the world's second largest exporter, after Brazil. 

Vietnam's sudden emergence as a coffee power, however, made the country notorious. The country was blamed for a worldwide collapse in coffee prices that devastated coffee producers from Mexico to Tanzania. Part of the fault lay in Vietnam's overproduction of the easily-grown Robusta bean (Coffea Canephora), as opposed to the higher-quality Arabica (Coffea Arabica), which requires more careful cultivation. Additionally, quality control issues contributed to Vietnam's reputation as a dumper of poor-quality product on the market. While multiple causes lay behind the price collapse (falling consumption, exploitation of market power by major retailers), even the Vietnamese government accepts that Vietnam deserved some share of the blame.

The push in recent years has been toward quality over quantity. Robusta production has been scaled back, and in many areas coffee has been replaced by other crops. Since joining the International Coffee Organization in 2001, the government has instituted better quality controls, and begun promoting the careful cultivation of Arabica beans in suitable locales. Increased cooperation between government and private growers has allowed Vietnam to become an exporter of gourmet coffees, sold mainly through the Trung Nguyen brand in Asian coffee shops, and increasingly to the West. Vietnam's goal is to have a stable production of 600,000 tons by 2010, two-thirds of its peak 2001 production, consisting of 70% Robusta and 30% Arabica.

More welcome still, to a coffee addict in Hanoi, is Vietnam's rising internal consumption. While more than 90% of Vietnam's coffee is still exported, improved coffee quality and a thriving economy have helped Vietnam resurrect the café culture of its colonial past. Vietnam's cafés range from roadside plastic chairs under a plastic tarp, to air-conditioned modernist hangouts with WiFi and $4 lattes. Aside from the yuppie Highland Coffee chain (there's no Starbucks in Vietnam - wanna read that again?), wherever you go the method of preparation is likely to be similar.
A good Cà Phê Phin is typically served while it is still brewing. A single-serving aluminum press sits atop a glass or ceramic cup. The press is filled with a few spoonsful of coarsely-ground coffee, and about four ounces of boiling water. It takes four or five minutes for the coffee to filter through. For those who want it with milk, a dollop of sweetened condensed milk sits in the bottom of the glass. The use of canned condensed milk was originally due to its easier storage in tropical temperatures, but long use has resulted in it becoming the taste preference of most Vietnamese. You may drink your coffee hot, or pour it over ice. 

I've heard Vietnamese coffee called an acquired taste, though I seem to have acquired it quickly. What is true is that it is strong - not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Part of the blame lies in the aforementioned Robusta bean, which produces a rougher, more bitter taste than most Western coffee aficionados are accustomed to; part of it lies in the density of the brew. While not as thick as Turkish coffee, the Vietnamese drink is dark and muddy. Vietnamese coffees are the Gitane cigarettes of the coffee world - made for hardcore drinkers. 

But the lure of Vietnamese coffee culture lies not only in the drink, but in the cafés. My favorite cafés are those with old-world charm, where one can imagine oneself part of the intellectual and artistic culture of early 20th century Indochine. While French colonialism was largely responsible for bringing to this country a café culture, the French found fertile soil in Vietnam's native intellectualism (this is a country, after all, which founded its first national university in 1076, when most Europeans were still hacking each other with pickaxes and living on gruel). Hanoi's old-world cafés evoke nostalgia for the colonial era, yet remain unapologetically Vietnamese. They are languid locales, places to relax and smoke, gossip and debate, and indulge in the Vietnamese love of conversation and wordplay. 

Because cafés are such a major part of my life here, I would like to describe for you a few of my favorite Hanoi cafés. This will be the subject of my next posting. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Monsoon Morning

Shortly before 5:00 AM, I am awakened by a deafening sound. For a moment, I think that all the rice in Vietnam is rolling down the chute of a grain silo and straight onto my roof. Then I realize the rains are back, and as I lie in bed enveloped by the sound, I can already see in my mind's eye the calf-deep water gathering in the streets, the newspapers and fruit-peels rushing down the alleyways, and the thin plastic bags floating like multicolored lillies in stagnant pools. 

The Asian monsoon is unlike any rain on earth. Not even the Caribbean can compete. Caribbean hurricanes, like Caribbean people, let out all their emotions. They come at you with tremendous fanfare, blustering and yelling and brandishing a switch, and threatening to take you out to the woodshed. Their power is unquestionable, but the build-up is so long, you usually have time to get yourself to high ground or otherwise protect yourself before they hit. And then they spank you, and leave.

The Asian monsoon is just relentless, completely indifferent to human affairs. Nature has a job to do and sets out to do it: powerblasting the earth. You don't get the sense that humankind is being punished; we're all just irrelevant. And the monsoon doesn't just spank you and leave, it stays for months, putting you through the blast, rinse, and spin cycles over and over. You, your street, your whole damn city are all just so much silt to be washed through the delta, and out to sea. 

Life continues through the monsoon, and so, at 7:00 AM I prepare to head off to work. A river outside my front door forces a slight change of attire. I take off my shoes and socks, roll up the hems of my trousers, put on my flip-flops and splash down. The morning market on Van Ho 3 street is going on despite the rain. A couple of people are pushing bicycles laden with cheap plastic goods through the swamp. For some reason, the bok choy looks particularly green and crisp today. Up the alley there's a man shoveling sand in front of a building that's been undergoing repairs for several weeks. The wet sand makes the whole endeavor look like a grander version of a sand-castle being built on the shore, waiting for the tide to wash it away.
What impresses me about Hanoians is their insouciance about the deluge. Wrapped in plastic baggies like yesterday's sandwiches, they go about their daily routines, while the rain goes ahead and blasts the paint off the walls. It's at these times that you see the brilliant simplicity of the nón, the ubiquitous conical hat made of latanier leaves, that is as much a symbol of Vietnam as the red banner with the yellow star. Water gains no toe-hold; it just slides off: a model of perfect engineering, adapted to the environment which begat it.

I squirt out the alley and onto the main drag where motorbikes are cutting deep wakes through the surf. Traffic is moving down Đại Cồ Việt Street. Water slicks my glasses: I watch the whole scene as though through a layer of mottled glass. In contrast to the normal routine, there are only a few intrepid food vendors out on the street, stringing up various combinations of plastic and rope in an effort to protect their stands. I marvel at their ingenuity, and the plain gumption they show.
I'm splashing to work in my flip-flops and watching the morning unfold, when I pass a man in a doorway - gaunt, wearing a white tank-top and sporting a thin fu-manchu beard. He is holding a camera in his hand, as obviously intrigued by the interplay of nature and human activity as am I. We catch each other's eyes and smile. That's the thing about the monsoon: it doesn't seem to put people in a terribly bad mood. I've heard Asians say it's their favorite time of year: the dust is down, the air is cooler. Like so many of life's routines, it is what you make of it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My First Vietnamese Blog Post!

My friend Nhung suggested I publish my first Vietnamese language composition on my blog. What I'm proud of is that I composed this free-hand - thinking in Vietnamese instead of translating from English - and only afterwards looked up the spelling of a few words. My friend Whalen gave it a quick look before I took it into class, and my Vietnamese teacher, cô Hương, corrected a couple of mistakes. But not too many! It certainly isn't going to win any literary awards, but I'm rather proud of my efforts after 7 weeks, so here is a description of my house and room for my Vietnamese readers:

Tôi sống ở nhà của hai vợ chồng người Việt Nam. Anh ấy tên là Thành và chị ấy tên là Dung. Họ có hai con gái - Phương và Ly. Năm nay Phương khoảng 20 tuổi và Ly 10 tuổi. Nhà của họ có năm tầng và chín phòng. Tầng một có phòng khách và phòng bếp. Tầng hai có phòng ngủ của Thành và Dung, và phòng ngủ của cháu Ly. Tầng ba có phòng ngủ của Phương và phòng ngủ của hai người Anh - David và Tracy. Trên tầng bốn có hai phòng ngủ. Trong một phòng là cô gái người Phần-lan tên là Saara. Phòng của người Đức tên là Aron đối diện với phòng của Saara. Phòng tôi ở trên là tầng năm. Nhà chúng tôi có ba nhà vệ sinh: trên tầng một, ba, và bốn.

Phòng tôi không to nhưng có trần nhà cao, khoảng năm metre. Trong phòng tôi có một cái giường, một tủ quần áo, một bàn làm việc, và một ghế. Phòng tôi không có máy lạnh nhưng có quạt bên cạnh giường tôi. Tủ quần áo ở bên cạnh cửa. Bàn làm việc và ghế ở trước tủ quần áo, và giường ở cạnh bàn.

Translation: I live in a house that belongs to a Vietnamese couple. The man's name is Thanh, and the woman's name is Dung. They have two daughters - Phuong and Ly. This year, Phuong is about 20 years old and Ly is ten years old. Their house has five floors and nine rooms. The first floor has the living room and kitchen. The second floor has Thanh and Dung's bedroom, and Ly's bedroom. The third floor has Phuong's bedroom, and a bedroom that belongs to an English couple - David and Tracy. The fourth floor has two bedrooms. In one room is a Finnish woman named Saara. The room of a German man named Aron is opposite to Saara's room. My room is on the fifth floor. Our house has three bathrooms: on the first, third, and fourth floors.

My room is not very big, but it has high ceilings - around five meters. In my room are a bed, a wardrobe, a desk, and a chair. My room does not have an air conditioner, but it does have a fan beside the bed. The wardrobe is next to the door. The desk and chair are in front of the wardrobe, and the bed is beside the desk.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On Learning Vietnamese

I arrived in Vietnam on May 10, and a week later began taking regular language classes at Trường Đại Hc Bách Khoa, a branch of Hanoi National University. For seven weeks now, I've been struggling to understand and utter the difficult, surprising, and devilish phonemes that make up the Vietnamese language. Nothing in my 46 years of speaking languages has prepared me to make these sounds. It's been like watching an alien attempt to squeeze itself out of my mouth; as surprising when successful as when it fails.

The language itself has a deep and interesting history. Vietnamese is a Austroasiatic language spoken by around 90 million people worldwide. Ethnolinguists consider the language autochthonic, meaning it is an indigenous language that has not been reduced to minority status. While centuries of Chinese rule led to the adoption of numerous words from that country (much as the Norman Conquest brought a number of French words into the English language), the Vietnamese language remains, at its core, a variant of whatever was spoken by the first people to populate this part of the world. When you consider that its linguistic ancestor was originally spoken by inhabitants of the Red River region, where Hanoi is located, there is no doubt that I am learning a language that has deep roots in the native soil.

Grammatically, the language is easy. Sentences have a simple subject-verb-object construction (like English), with no verb inflections - that is, words do not change to indicate tense (the way the English "go" becomes "went" to indicate the past), or number (adding "s" to make plurals), or gender (like Spanish). Because of its similar sentence construction to English, it's easy to make intelligible sentences. String together a subject ("I"), a verb ("like"), and an object ("Vietnam"), and you have a sentence: Tôi thích Vit Nam. There's a bit more to the picture than that, but trust me: the grammar is the least difficult part to learn.

The devil is in the pronunciation. Aside from being tonal - that is, the word "ma" has at least six different meanings depending on how you say it - Vietnamese has several sounds that are not found in the English phonological system. Moreover, the Vietnamese ear is attuned to the subtlest distinctions - words can have the same basic consonant, vowel, tonal structure, but by holding the vowel slightly longer, you create an entirely different word, e.g. tắm ("shower"), and tám (the number "eight"). So the pressure is on, not only to pronounce sounds that don't exist in the English language, but to pronounce them with an accuracy that English (which actually tolerates a lot of diversity) usually does not require.

As if this were not enough, the same word - same spelling and tone - can mean different things depending on context. An American friend of mine who speaks Vietnamese well described the language as being like a thousand-piece puzzle, in which every piece is a piece of the sky. You have nothing to indicate where that piece belongs, other than how it fits its immediate neighbors. This emphasis on context reinforces what I wrote earlier about high-context vs. low-context cultures. The legalistic precision of a low-context vocabulary is missing here; speaker and listener need to be attuned on many levels to communicate meaning. Vietnamese is a high-context language for a high-context people.

Lest I give the impression that the language is impenetrable, however, let me emphasize that after seven weeks, I can already get most of my basic needs met (eating, shopping, bargaining) and have been able to hold some basic conversations. A large part of this is due to the helpfulness of the people. I've found most Hanoians to be pleased that I am attempting their language, and more than willing to help me out. They are also strict teachers, and more than once a conversation at a cafe has resulted in me having my pronunciation drilled into me by a Marine sargeant of an instructor! But in truth, these experiences are welcome. Aside from providing me with needed instruction, these sessions require me to play the role of the grateful guest - an important role that allows people to display their natural generosity. 

At core, humans share more similarities than differences, but the differences are significant enough to warrant attention. While we all suffer and love and struggle to meet the same basic needs, language acts as a polarizing lens, coloring how we view things. Learning to see the world through a different lens helps us to check our ethnocentric assumptions, and reminds us that much of what we consider to be natural psychology, is just internalized culture. From the standpoint of a foreign expatriate, language also provides signposts for navigating a new culture, for learning what is necessary, what is funny, and what is to avoid. 

Despite its difficulties and frustrations, I've been enjoying learning Vietnamese precisely because it is so different. I moved to Vietnam because I wanted to live in a place that would challenge my assumptions. I can think of nothing better for tearing down old assumptions than to start giving new names to things. The world begins anew, for, as it is written: in the beginning, was the word. 

Friday, July 10, 2009

Late Night Noodles

It's night time, and I'm in the classic posture: head low over my food, slurping up a long noodle like a robin pulling up a fat worm, when a hand appears from just behind my right ear. It passes close to my cheek and over my shoulder, follows the stretch of my arm, and continues past me to the table, where it picks up a pepper shaker. Pepper in hand, it follows the same trajectory back; the shaker lightly grazing my shoulder before it disappears behind me. I continue eating, not even bothering to look behind. After all, this is Hanoi street dining, and close encounters with other diners are part of the experience. 

Tonight's repast is a very nice phở xào, or to put it less exotically, fried noodles. It's impossible to travel around Asia without sampling some version of this dish: pad thai, mee grob, or pad see ew in Thailand; chapchae in Korea; yakisoba in Japan; pancit bihon in the Phillipines; chow mein or chow fun in China - and the list goes on. It's basically noodles and yummies tossed around in a hot wok and slapped unceremoniously onto a plate - often by a person who's been making the same dish for so long, he can do it with his eyes closed. 

While pad thai may be more popular in the US, Vietnam's version of fried noodles takes a back seat to no one. A basic rice vermicelli (medium-width, slightly rounder than the Thai version) serves as the foundation, wokked together with some shallots or onions and a mound of mustard or cabbage greens, and coated in a light, savory, brown gravy. My usual fare is the phở xào  - which adds thin-sliced strips of beef to the party (possibly rump meat, though I'm not sure), and...what more do you need? You want something fancy? Go watch the Food Network and leave me alone!

Like the cơm bình dân I wrote about earlier, this is not haute cuisine. It's basic, hearty, filling stuff, and it requires little doctoring at table - a dash of hot sauce and a squeeze of lime are all I usually add. Alongside the dish comes either a nice little broth, a few cucumber slices, or nothing at all, depending on the establishment. At roughly one US dollar per serving, there's no reason to complain. 
Part of the dining ritual in Vietnam is the post-meal toothpick. These are often housed in a clever little box attached to the side of a large metal chopsticks-holder (it's a good idea to give the chopsticks a quick wipe with a napkin, by the way, before using them). Sitting and cleaning out the teeth, while staring vacantly into space, is an enormously satisfying way to end a meal. I can only imagine my old dentist, Dr. Zimmerman, smiling serenely from wherever he is on the planet (this is a man who once, when told by my mother that I was in India, had only one question to ask: "Is he flossing?"). 

Toothpicking done, I rise up from my stool, and step over the man whose arm had earlier grazed me on the way to the pepper shaker. He takes no notice of me, and I have no reason to say anything to him. We have an unspoken agreement with each other and all the other diners around us: encroach on my personal space all you want, so long as you don't get between my plate and my mouth.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Food for Commoners

At least twice a week I pack my ribs with food from a local lady who serves cơm bình dân ("come bing zun") out of her house in an alley near my school. Even with room for about 15 people inside and another 20 some-odd chairs outside, it's often impossible to find a seat during the 11:00-12:30 lunch rush - a testament to the food's quality and economic value.

Cơm bình dân roughly translates as "rice for commoners," and true to the name, places like this are popular with workers at lunchtime. It's a point-and-chew experience, where you start with a mound of rice on a cheap plastic plate, and then try to choose what you want faster than the woman can pile it on. Once loaded up, you drop a 20,000 VNĐ note down, and find a spot to squat among the construction guys, soldiers, and office workers who are slurping and munching away.

The variety of food is astounding, and I often wonder how many people it takes to actually put out the spread. Victuals usually include: a couple of pork dishes, two different chicken dishes, deep fried fish, stuffed tofu, spring rolls, omelettes, stir-fried shrimp, deep fried insects called nhộng (weird, but popular), stewed eggplant, scalloped potatoes, a smorgasbord of boiled, fried, and pickled vegetables, and one of my favorites: bò lá lốt, which is minced pork and beef wrapped in the leaf of an herb called lá lốt, and grilled. This is usually served with a delicious cold soup called canh rau ngót, which gets its flavor from the ngót leaf. Whatever your fancy, you're guaranteed to find some combo you like, and walk away stuffed for around a US dollar.

A typical mountain of food

Vietnamese have an interesting way of eating these kinds of rice dishes: with chopsticks in the right hand, and a spoon in the left. You use the spoon to shovel the food into your mouth - some people actually use the chopsticks to put food on their spoon, though any combination of implements seems to be perfectly acceptable. At table, I like to make myself a little sauce, consisting of fish sauce, a few chilis, a squeeze or two of lime, and a couple of pickled garlic slivers, with maybe a splash of the vinegar. I dip my spring rolls into the sauce, pour a little of it over my rice, and basically use it to add another layer of flavor, as and when I please.

This is not Vietnamese haute cuisine; like its clientele, the food has a job to do, and does it with minimal fanfare. If you're getting your food mang về(to go), you can expect to have your food bagged and in your hand in seconds. On a busy day, this attitude of friendly efficiency is well appreciated; it reminds me of the kinds of busy diners we used to have in the States, before the fast food chains took over. I like it that, in Vietnam, you can still have your fast-food fast, delicious, and reasonably nutritious.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

High Context/Low Context

My ex-wife used to accuse me of being unable to enter a store without striking up a conversation with a salesperson or clerk. I never saw reason to deny the accusation. I've always delighted in the chit-chat, jokes, and wise-ass comments that can turn a business exchange into something more than business. Just because I'm buying a soda doesn't mean I can't have a little fun, right? Routine, in my view, should never be routine.

I've always blamed this behavior on my Cuban heritage. For Cubans, nothing is routine. The morning coffee, a shoe-shine, store excursion, or bus ride are all opportunities to indulge in the playful shit-giving Cubans call jodiendo - from the verb, joder. This word, literally "to fuck," is pejorative in most Spanish-speaking countries, but in Cuba it has a more light-hearted connotation: to tease, to mess with someone's head, to take the piss out of someone, as the British would say. So before proceeding further, let's all practice our declensions, shall we?: yo jodo, tu jodes, el/ella/usted jode, nosotros jodemos...

Here in Vietnam, despite my rudimentary language skills, I've recently taken to jodiendo with people on the street, and so far it's been going over quite well. Favorite targets: the ubiquitous xe om drivers that wait on every street corner for someone like me to pass by, so they can yell out, "Hello, motobike?!" Just to mess with their heads, I've recently started responding by asking them, in Vietnamese, "Okay, where ya going?" The question throws them for a loop - aren't I the one who's supposed to be going somewhere? But after a moment, they get the joke and respond with a smile or a chuckle. They know I'm jodiendo, and most of them seem to appreciate it.

The success of this behavior underscores a feeling I've had since I landed in Vietnam. I believe I understand Vietnam better when I approach the country as a Cuban than as a representative of the US. There are probably many reasons for this, but I think it comes down to the idea that Cuba and Vietnam both represent what anthropologist Edward T. Hall, in his 1976 book Beyond Culture, calls "high-context" cultures. 

Broadly speaking, high-context cultures, according to Hall's framework, have a strong "in-group" identity. They are more family-bound, and less permeable to outsiders. Because they operate on the basis of face-to-face interactions, rules tend to be situational, and many "understandings" are left unspoken. By comparison, low-context cultures tend to prize individualism over group identity, and are more likely to operate on the basis of explicitly-stated rules. In the marketplace, low-context people want to get down to business. High-context cultures take time to contextualize the business in some kind of social framework (see my comments on bargaining). Germany and the US fall toward the "low-context" side of the continuum; much of Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East would fall on the "high-context" side.

These are broad strokes, and in truth no culture is entirely "high" or "low." Within a low-context culture are numerous sub-groups that rely strongly on shared social "in-group" knowledge, just as there are times when high-context cultures favor efficiency. And of course, there are people who do not fit their native-cultures' stereotypical roles. But as a broad-brush way of looking at things, I think Hall's framework has some value.

The idea that Vietnam operates on the basis of deep "in-group" identity is evidenced by the language. Grammatically, everyone in the country is family. The proper pronouns for addressing people older than you translate to things like, "uncle," "grandmother," and "older brother," while one is expected to address most juniors as "younger sibling," and so on. If this doesn't speak to a "high-context" paradigm, I don't know what does.

The point is, I believe my identification with one high-context culture helps me to "get" what another high-context culture is up to. Among Hanoians I see a physicality, humor, and manner of interacting that remind me more of the Caribbean than the dominant Anglo culture of the U.S. I understand there's a web of in-group knowledge I haven't been exposed to. But without knowing all the social rules, I intuit that the best way to ingratiate myself to the people around me is to do things like chit-chat while I'm at the store, joke around, be a bit of a wise-ass, joder

Of course, this behavior comes naturally to me. It's just a context thing, baby - it would take you awhile to understand it.