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.