Monday, August 31, 2009

Long Biên Bridge

Bridge: a structure spanning and providing passage over a river, chasm, road, or the like. A connecting, transitional, or intermediate route or phase...

--Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009.

When construction on the Long Biên Bridge was completed in 1903, it was considered a technological marvel. Utilizing Gustave Eiffel's innovative engineering concepts (Wikipedia erroneously credits Eiffel with the bridge's design), the bridge, with a span of 1,682 meters, was the longest in Asia, and the fourth-largest in the world. The main purpose of the bridge, which spans the Red River, was to provide continuous rail transport between Hanoi and the important port of Haiphong. Apart from its functional purpose, the bridge provided turn-of-the-century Indochine with a potent symbol of modernity, proof of European technological sophistication, and a demonstration of the supposed benefits of French colonial rule.
In the 106 years since the bridge opened to traffic, it has metamorphosed from an icon of French fin-de-siecle modernity, into an enduring symbol of Vietnamese strength. As a silent gatekeeper to the city, the Long Biên Bridge not only witnessed, but was central to, many of the historic events that transformed 20th century Vietnam. Recently, I was privileged to spend a morning exploring the bridge with historian and photographer Douglas Jardine, whose dramatic black-and-white photographs of the bridge can be seen in a current exhibition in Hanoi's Maison des Arts Gallery. A professor at Hanoi University, Doug has been exploring, writing about, and photographing the bridge since 2006.
Originally named after Paul Doumer, the Governor-General of Indochina, the bridge was renamed Long Biên after Vietnamese independence in 1945. At that time, northern Vietnam was in the grips of a historic famine, caused by the stockpiling of rice for the Japanese-Vichy war machine. The famine killed up to two million people, and served as a rallying point for Hồ Chí Minh's independence movement. Tens of thousands of starving refugees staggered across the bridge into the city, in search of food. Doug told me that the now-bricked-up niches beneath the Long Biên Railway Station (Ga Long Biên), served as make-shift morgues; bodies were piled one atop the other. Later, during the American War, these same niches served as bomb-resistant maternity wards.
Today, the Long Biên Bridge continues to play a dual role. On its surface, a steady stream of rail, motorbike, and foot traffic pumps economic blood to and from the city. Underneath, the bridge provides shelter for Hanoi's downtrodden, a collection of semi-visible constituencies who, in Vietnam's economic euphoria, have been pushed to the edge of the city, in some cases all the way into the river. Behind the fruit market - the main entrepôt for fruit entering the capital city - lies a shantytown of makeshift structures and tin roofs beside a polluted canal. In this neighborhood, site of Hanoi's earliest European encampments, the drug use, criminal activity, and police shakedowns rival any third-world ghetto.
The bridge's role in providing a "powerful meridian for people's minds" (Jardine) is evidenced by the sociological divisions among the "boat people" who live on the Red River. North of the bridge are people who, for one reason or another, have been pushed onto these tin-roofed crafts. These are the poorest of Hanoi's poor, people who eke out an existence by collecting plastic bags, and other desperate measures. South of the bridge are people who have traditionally led an aquatic existence, subsisting by fishing, and towing light loads up and down the river. Despite their commonalities, these are culturally distinct communities. For all these boat dwellers, the bridge provides a clear physical and sociological divide.
During the American War, the bridge was the U.S.'s highest-priority target in North Vietnam. The reasons were obvious: all supplies moving by rail from China and Haiphong crossed into the city over the bridge. The first bombing raids, in August, 1967, dropped three of the bridge's 19 spans into the river. From that date until January, 1973, the bridge was repeatedly bombed and repaired, sometimes by American POWs, acting as human shields. But despite putting the bridge out of commission for long periods of time, the U.S. never succeeded in fully halting the flow of supplies into the city, which continued to move over an improvised network of pontoons, bamboo rafts, and other makeshift devices.
Underneath the bridge, on the low-lying island of Bãi Gia (Middle Bank), is where the real story of the American War is told. Makeshift supports dating back more than forty years - some as basic as a box of rocks - continue to support the bridge. Bomb craters have left perfectly round ponds where the bridge touches land. An overview of the terrain shows a clear bow to the island - low in the middle, higher on the sides. This bow is the direct result of thousands of U.S. bombs over time displacing the soil from the middle to the edge of the island. That the bridge continues to stand over this bomb-warped terrain is something of a miracle.
Today, Bãi Gia houses a fascinating array of subcultures, most of them unknown even to native Hanoians. The most visible group is made up of around twenty migrant families, who live on floating houses and farm the island. Additionally, a group of orphaned boys lives alongside the island's western edge. The darkest subculture is comprised of the heroin addicts, who arrive in early evening and set up camp for the night, under the bridge. That all this exists in the heart of booming Hanoi is testament to the bridge's power to define the city's imaginative as well as physical geography; the bridge provides a line over which some people dare not cross.
But this may be an inevitable function of bridges. Bridges serve as powerful tropes for the geographical imagination. Metaphorically, we conceive of them as objects of unification - we speak of "bridging gaps," or bridging phases of our lives - but they may just as easily be seen as barriers, the final point after which one is truly no longer "home." Bridges also represent conquest: the subjugation of rivers or chasms, or of a colonized people. Perhaps it is in the nature of bridges to mutate over time. At one time, the Long Biên Bridge represented the future of Indochine. Now, the bridge stands as a reminder of the city's traumatic and glorious past - a network of rusted beams and rivets over a bomb-scarred terrain, sheltering farmers, junkies, and orphaned boys.
Total Length: 1,682.60 m
Main Span: 106.20 m
Truss: Steel
Function: Railroad and foot traffic
Built by Daydé and Pillé, 1899-1903

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

William Calley and Vietnam's Spiritual Renewal

Three days ago, William Calley, the American Army lieutenant convicted of murder following the infamous 1968 massacre in My Lai, Vietnam, broke his 40-year silence and publicly apologized for the killings. Speaking at a Columbus, Ohio meeting of the Kiwanis Club, Calley said, "There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai." Calley's apology for the massacre, one of the most horrendous and psychologically jarring episodes of the U.S. war with Vietnam, was given short notice in Vietnam's newspapers.

Looking at the industriousness of modern Vietnam, it is hard to believe that three decades ago, this country was at the end of a more-than-thirty year period of nearly-continuous war. The last (not counting the 1979 skirmish with China) and certainly most damaging of those wars was the ten-year conflict with the U.S. A decade of fighting the Americans left over one million Vietnamese dead, an economy in ruins, and environmental devastation that this country has yet to fully recover from. But despite the scale of destruction, memory of the trauma seems to hold little sway in the Vietnamese imagination.

What strikes me most about Vietnam's post-war recovery is not its economic regeneration, but its spiritual renewal. In much of the U.S., the sociocultural conflicts engendered by the war have yet to be resolved, but in Vietnam, the country destroyed by the fighting, the people have moved on. None of the post-war animosity that often endures between combatants seems to have lingered here; not once in the time I've been in Hanoi has anyone remarked upon my nationality in connection with the war. For an American living in modern Hanoi, it's as if our countries had never fought.

One of the explanations for Vietnam's lack of lingering resentment toward the U.S. has to be generational. 70% of Vietnam's population is under thirty years old, meaning that the vast majority of modern Vietnamese have no personal memory of the war. To this generation of Vietnamese, the American War is an event studied in textbooks or on fieldtrips to museums, where the downed B-52 and captured American tank hold far less interest than the latest Linkin Park tune on a classmate's iPod.

Among older Vietnamese, several other reasons can be found. First is the ambivalent attitude many people hold toward Hanoi's communist government. South Vietnam's ambivalence is easily explained; the south still has numerous people who supported the U.S. But even in the nation's capital, support for Vietnam's leaders is equivocal at best. In the face of endemic corruption, lack of press freedoms, and other repressive tendencies on the part of Hanoi's government, it would be understandable if people felt a modicum of sympathy toward those who, at an earlier time, opposed it.

Things might have been different had the communists succeeded in rebuilding Vietnam's economy after the war, but ten years of centrally-planned collectivist economics only made things worse. It was not until the 1986 reforms of Đổi mới unleashed the innovative vigor of the Vietnamese people that the country's economy started to grow. And as Vietnam's economy advanced, the country began attracting more foreign capital, so that foreign faces began to be equated with economic progress. Once the U.S. and Vietnam normalized relations in 1995, those faces began to include many Americans.

All these reasons certainly contribute to Vietnam's post-war psychological health. There are also cultural elements to consider. Perhaps due to an ingrained Buddhist ethos, or to a sense of historic time that dwarfs most European nations, Vietnam combines a sense of its own historicity with a firm focus on its future. People are just more interested in looking ahead than in looking behind. Additionally, let us not forget that Vietnam won the war. Going back to A.D. 40 when the Trung Sisters (Hai Bà Trưng) beat back the Chinese Empire, Vietnam has successfully repelled every invader who has tried to, or temporarily succeeded in, occupying the country. It's a nation that has little reason to hang its head; whatever price Vietnam has had to pay for its freedoms, it has paid them, and whatever struggles it continues to have, they are at least internal, between Vietnamese.

In his public apology, William Calley said, "I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families." His continuing guilt hung over the hall at the Kiwanis Club so palpably that, according to an eyewitness, you could have heard a pin drop. Meanwhile in Hanoi, I saw two smiling, young Vietnamese men help a middle-aged American tourist onto a tour bus, and wish her farewell on her trip to Halong Bay.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cooking with Hương

Nothing is better than home cooking. So when my friend Hương invited her friend Phương and me over to her house for some homemade bún bò (beef noodle salad) and nem (spring rolls), I jumped at the chance with only one condition: she would have to teach me how to make the stuff. And so last Saturday, armed with an apron and an appetite, I placed myself in Hương's capable hands.

On the way, Phương stopped at a vegetable stand to pick up some greens. One of the signature elements of Vietnamese cuisine is its use of fresh herbs. Whereas North Americans will commonly buy veggies and pop them in the fridge, the Vietnamese insistence on freshness means that people often go out two or three times a day to buy the freshest ingredients possible before mealtime. Additionally, Vietnamese cuisine finds uses for herbs that are considered weeds in other countries. The picture below shows, from left to right: rau ngổ, tia tô, rau kinh giới, and rau thơm. Rau ngổ is known in English, if it's known at all, as Rice Paddy Herb (limnophilia aromatica). It has long, arrow-shaped leaves and a mellow, citrusy flavor. Tía tô is Vietnamese Perilla, a peppery herb related to the Japanese shiso, with a slightly more aromatic taste. Its purple and green leaves provide wonderful color, and its earthy flavor is slightly reminiscent of fennel. Rau kinh giới (elsholtzia ciliata) is Vietnamese Lemon Balm; it has beautiful green leaves with serrated edges and a lemon-scented flavor with a suggestion of mint. The last herb is oregano an as-yet unidentified mint-like herb, known around here as rau thơm. These herbs are frequently served raw at the Vietnamese table alongside countless soups, noodle dishes, and other fare; diners add them as and when they wish.

When we got to Hương's house, I was a little disappointed to find that she had already made the mixture for the nem "to save time." The mix, I was told, consisted of pork, carrot, miến (glass mung bean noodles), bean sprouts, eggs, onions, green onions, parley, pepper, a little oil, and a prepackaged Vietnamese spice mix called gia vị, all chopped very fine. My job, I soon found out, was to roll the nem. After a short lesson, I was aproned and put to work. The video below shows me demonstrating the proper technique.

Once the nem were prepared, they were ready to be fried – slowly, over a low flame. While I manned the stove, Hương began making the nước chấm – the sweet, peppery fish sauce mixture designed to flavor the bún bò, and serve as a dipping sauce for the nem. To begin, a bowl was filled 3/4 full with warm water. Next, a little fish sauce was added – just enough to give the sauce a light golden color. After this, a hearty bit of sugar was added, followed by a little vinegar, some crushed garlic, and a healthy dose of black pepper. Like all good cooks, Hương kept tasting and adjusting the mixture until she came up with a sauce in which all the aforementioned flavors were roughly evenly balanced, with a slight preponderence of the pepper.
Making the bún bò was more a matter of assembling than cooking anything. The white starchy bún, or rice-flour noodles, are normally bought pre-cooked and ready to eat, in large skeins that only need to be cut before serving. For the bún bò, a bottom layer of lettuce, then successive layers of bean sprouts, bún, beef (which is simply marinated in pepper and gia vị and pan-fried), some freshly-fried shallots, and finally the nước chấm, completed the assembly. Sliced cucumbers, peanuts, and the fresh herbs were placed at table to be added by diners according to their tastes.

The final spread was a visual delight: here you see the lovely Hương beside her creation. The flavors were outstanding, with everything I've come to love about Vietnamese food - the contrasting textures, subtle aromas, and crisp freshness of all the greens. And for all I've come to enjoy street food, I realized how much better it is to have it made at home by a capable chef. My thanks to Hương and Phương both for a lovely evening.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bánh Mỳ Huế

The Vietnamese word for bread is bánh mỳ (bánh mì in the south). Confusion sometimes arises because the same word word is used to refer to "sandwich," which in Hanoi usually means a smear of paté, a few slices of processed pork, and maybe some pickled veggies and cilantro stuffed inside a buttered Franch baguette. The term gets even looser, however, when it's used to refer to a special dish known as Bánh Mỳ Huế, or Bánh Mỳ Bít Tết. For you and me, that's just good ol' steak and eggs!

When you order Bánh Mỳ Huế, you receive a scalding black skillet with a metal lid, inside of which are frantically sizzling gobs of oil. The air is redolent with the burnt-sweet scent of smoldering flesh, but you should refrain from giving in to your carnivorous instincts, and let the oil die down before lifting the lid (or else open it and start eating as a type of drunken freshman initiation rite, but keep the nearest hospital's burn unit on standby).

Once you decide to peek inside, the sight is glorious: slivers of thinly-sliced beef (bít tết is the Vietnamese pronunciation of the French "beefsteak"), saturated meatballs, unguent French fries, and a few green onions and tomatoes tossed in as a gesture toward good health. All this surrounds a couple of the most deeply-fried eggs you've ever seen. It hardens your arteries just to look at it.

This magnificent greasebomb is served with a side of pickled cucumbers, some fresh tomatoes, and a hearty French baguette, but it is not meant to be eaten as a sandwich. Rip off rough hanks of the bread, take morsels from the frying pan and whatever else appeals to you, and savage your meal like a cheetah on a gazelle. A dash of chili paste complements the meat very nicely. Just make sure to leave some bread at the end, so you can soak up the remaining grease. You will swear you have died and gone to high-cholesterol heaven.

I've had this dish in a few places in town, but the best joints, in my opinion, are on Hòa Mã - Bánh Mì Huế Ngọc Hiếu on #9 Hòa Mã is quite good. Being rich and meaty, this meal will set you back a whopping US$3 (once you factor in your drink) - not counting medical expenses.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Zen and the Art of Hanoi Driving

Driving in Hanoi could test the patience of a Hindu saint. It isn't so much the anarchy - the absence of rational order is actually one of the things I LIKE about motoring through Hanoi's bike-choked streets. Nothing suits the human psyche more than chaos, in my opinion; too much conformity deadens the spirit. For me, the cacophany of the developing world is preferable to the saccharine sterility of suburban America - any day of the week.

Thinking about it abstractly, I see Hanoi traffic as a force of nature, as beyond human judgment as the monsoon. But this attitude disappears quickly once I'm in the midst of the swarm, experiencing the thousand micro-moments that loosen my cool. The driver who rides my ass while leaning on his horn, the kid who shoots in front of me without looking, the Mercedez who plows through motorbikes like a Swedish icebreaker cutting into Antarctica - it's an aggressive game these drivers play, and being a native New Yorker, my instinct is to fight back. By the time I get off my bike, I'm often angry and jittery and not at all pleased with myself for having been so easily baited.

Hanoi driving forces one to make a choice: develop the serenity to accept what one cannot change, or sally forth into battle. I have Western friends who do their best to "educate" the entire city. One person I know insists on chasing people who have affronted him and "holding them accountable" (I've never witnessed him doing this in person, but it sounds ominous). Another person I know eschews the squirty little horn on his bike in favor of a loud vocal "BEEP!" when people cut too close - and let me tell you, a wide-eyed white guy yelling at the top of his lungs in Hanoi traffic gets people to pay attention! I respect these one-man vigilantes and applaud their quixotic efforts, but for me, the only option is surrender.

A few weeks ago, after a particularly frustrating afternoon being cut off, run into, and honked at, I decided to employ driving as a Buddhist practice. I resolved to ride my bike through Hanoi's busiest streets for as long as it took for me to attain indifference. Every time my personal space was invaded, I observed the sensations that arose in my body: my shortness of breath, my tightened ribcage. I observed these things without judgment, and without trying to change them; they were real experiences, after all, and provided useful information about my state of mind. It took me nearly an hour, but the practice brought me back to earth. I was able to drive through the madness without partaking in it. I regained my cool.

Having attained this state, I wish I could say I've managed to sustain it, but like so many lessons we learn in life, the ability to apply what we know comes and goes. On some days I embrace the anarchy, on other days I fight it. But I've learned to see my reactions to Hanoi traffic as a useful barometer of my psychological condition. I usually know within moments of hitting the road if I am in emotionally fine-fettle, or driving with a chip on my shoulder. I've learned through experience that the decision to fight usually makes me miserable. This knowledge compels me to seek an inner solution, to make my peace with circumstance as best I can.

In a way, driving in Hanoi serves as a microcosm of the whole expatriate existence. Expatriate living forces you to take a good look at yourself, to clarify values, and to distinguish between wants and needs. Discomforts, frustrations and annoyances are a necessary part of the experience, providing one with the opportunity for transcendence. In this sense, Hanoi driving is a gift.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Vietnamese Butt Rocket

The life of a teacher can get pretty full at times. The world lately has been a blur of copy machines, pronunciation exercises, and homework. Thankfully, I have been managing to maintain certain, let us say, routines with comfortable, um, regularity. In fact, I've had occasion every day to take advantage of one of Vietnam's finest inventions, a device that perfectly balances form and function, is lightweight, easy to operate, and makes a lovely accessory to every commode. I am speaking, of course, of the Vietnamese Butt Rocket!

The Butt Rocket represents a perfectly sensible and ecological solution to the problem of human waste. It uses water, nature's natural cleanser, and does not contribute to deforestation. No mess, no fuss, no more family squabbles over whether the paper should feed over or under. And for efficiency, the Butt Rocket simply can't be beat! A well-aimed squirt is all it takes to wash all your cares away.

Operating the Butt Rocket is as easy as it looks. You pull the water cannon off its wall slot, spread the legs a wee bit, and shove the nozzle under the ol' caboose. Press the trigger and fire away. Immediately you will feel an exhilirating blast that blows away all of nature's nasties - including the dingle-berries! - and leaves your orifice squeaky-smiley and pristine!

The question of what to do with a dripping bottom is elegantly handled. While paper is not used for the nasty business of wiping away the fudge, it is used for drying. Put the Butt Rocket back in its holster, grab a couple of squares of TP (you need less because you've already washed away the mess), and dab, dab, dab. A little lingering humidity actually feels good on a hot day. Whenever I get up after using the Butt Rocket, I like to linger a moment before pulling up my undies, and just enjoy the natural fresh goodness of a cool bottom. Ahhh....

So lest you think you need to pack away industrial-sized packages of toilet paper in your luggage before coming to Vietnam, let me assure you that this is one part of life that Vietnam beautifully handles. There is nothing for you to bring but your appetite, and a smile.