Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Unhappy Westerners

An American woman I know, who has been in Vietnam for six years, is leaving. I am sad for her, not because I know her well, but because she has had such a hard time here.

For six years in Hanoi, this woman led one of the more materially-charmed lives of anyone I know. Her house was a mansion, with high ceilings, fashionable furnishings, and tasteful mementoes of her many travels. Her son received excellent schooling at the city's most prestigious school. Her husband's high government position freed her from the necessity of work, and she enjoyed the services of a cook, a housekeeper, and a driver. But despite these comforts, she disliked the country, and will be bidding good riddance to Vietnam.

Many of the things she told me when I arrived – that Hanoians were rude, that they would pretend to not understand me if I tried to speak their language, that they would constantly try to rip me off – have simply not been true for me. She dismissed my favorable first impressions as naiveté. After some time, when my impressions of Vietnam only grew more favorable, she ascribed it to my work at a language school. She could not accept that Vietnam was not as bad for me as it had been for her.

Unhappy westerners abound here; most of them blame Vietnam for their miseries. Another example: the other day, an Australian woman I know, speaking about the Vietnamese, said, "This is an unkind race." I asked her on what she had based that opinion, and she mentioned the driving, and office politics at her workplace. I asked her if she spoke any Vietnamese, if she had studied the history, or the literature, or if she had any close Vietnamese friends. The answer, of course, was a mumbled no.

These attitudes are hard for me to understand. I like Vietnam: I appreciate its history, I like its food, and most of all, I like the people. I also have practices that help me to live here as a foreigner. First of all, I remind myself every day that I am here by choice. Vietnam did not invite me; I chose this place, and if I want to make the most of my experience here, I had better remember that.

In a similar vein, I don't look for Vietnam to entertain me, or fulfill me spiritually, or provide for me anything that I am unable to provide for myself. I came here assuming that Vietnam would at times be intriguing, frustrating, exotic, horrible, and beautiful – in other words, like every other place on earth. I'm not surprised by its discomforts. Vietnam gives you nothing you cannot give yourself. Why should it? It's as pitiless as the sea.

Happiness – and this is true anywhere – often depends on accepting things on their own terms, not on the terms one would impose upon them. When you take Vietnam on its own terms, you see an ancient culture where Confucianism and traditional agricultural village society have been thrown into a crazy blender with Voltaire, Marx and Mao, and produced a melange of dynamic forces that often operate at odds with each other. It's a country that has experienced enormous social fissures...and not entirely reconciled them. But the thing to recognize is that Vietnam's fundamental dialog is with itself – not with me, or any of the other foreigners that have recently begun to wash up here.

I try to live by the credo expressed in the Henry Miller quote that anchors this blog: look outside, forget yourself – the world is filled with richness and beauty. Learn to appreciate vignettes: the old women in conical sunhats selling mangosteens and pineapples; the weird wooden bong smoked by the uniformed security guard in front of a motorcycle dealership; the scent of rotting fruit peels that, in the summer heat, blends rank and sweetness in equal proportion. These moments anchor a place in memory, and become tomorrow's nostalgia.

Aristotle one day was sitting on a hillside outside of Athens, when a traveller came up to him and asked, "Are you from that city?" When Aristotle said yes, the stranger asked, "Tell me, what are the people like there?" Aristotle answered the stranger's question with a question: "What are the people like where you come from?" The stranger replied, "Oh, they are very nice, very friendly, kind and helpful," to which Aristotle responded, "The people of Athens are exactly the same."

Later, a second traveller approached him with the same question, and Aristotle asked this traveller too, what the people were like where he had come from. The stranger replied, "They're very mean, always fighting and unhappy," to which Aristotle replied, "The people of Athens are exactly the same."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Canh: Soup's On!

A typical home-cooked Vietnamese meal consists of white rice, a meat dish, a vegetable dish, and soup, known in Vietnamese as canh. All dishes are placed in the middle of the table; diners grab tiny morsels and place them into their individual bowls. Rice is, of course, the staple, as it is in all of Asia, and the other staple is canh.

While some soups are complex and may form the centerpiece of the meal, canh is more often just a light, simple broth infused with some kind of herb or vegetable. This kind of canh is eaten at the end of the meal, poured into a bowl with rice, and used to fill up the belly after you've had enough of the main courses. The stock for this type of canh often comes from the water that is used to boil the main meat or vegetable; the Vietnamese are loath to let anything edible go to waste. At restaurants, a light canh may be served alongside a noodle or rice dish, as a palette cleanser and extra filler.

More complex soups can include clams, shrimp, chicken, fish, and various vegetables, and form the centerpiece of a meal. One famous example of this kind of canh, originally from the south but found all over Vietnam, is canh chua. Canh chua ("sour soup") is made with pineapples, tomatoes, onions, and tamarind or some other sour fruit, and may include fish, pork, or shrimp, and various herbs (there seem to be as many canh chua recipes as there are cooks). When a canh such as this is served at table, the meat or vegetable may be omitted.

At least in the north, there is a seasonal element to canh; it tends to be a bigger part of the meal in summer, when the hot, muggy nights militate against overeating. A light canh helps to satiate hunger without overfilling the belly, and makes it easier to eat rice. An example of a light summer canh is canh mồng tơi cua, which is made from river crab and a leafy green vegetable called mồng tơi (Latin: Basella alba; English: Malabar spinach).

The crab meat, which is bought from the market in 100 gram parcels and has the consistency of mud, is broken up into a liter or water, and allowed to simmer. A small package of crab eggs is usually included; these are added to the stock once the water has boiled, along with a little gia vị (prepackaged spice mix sold in all Vietnamese food stores). The mồng tơi is chiffonaded, tossed into the stock, and briefly boiled, before the soup is taken off the stove and cooled before serving. To really make this dish pop, serve it with Cà muối, a small eggplant varietal that is salted and pickled and becomes totally addictive if you eat it regularly. The picture at the top of this post shows the canh top right, alongside a lovely perch wrapped in lemongrass.

A more robust canh is the canh ngao, or clam soup. This dish – made from clams, dill (thì là), Vietnamese cilantro (rau răm), a little-known herb called mùi tàu (Latin: Eryngium foetidum; English: culantro), scallions, tomatoes, and gia vị – is weighty enough to hold its own against any meat dish, and can easily form a central part of a meal.

The recipe, again, is very simple: boil the clams until they open. Shell the clams and decant the water to remove the grit, and return the broth to the stove. Return the clams to the broth, and add all the chopped veggies except the rau răm and scallions. Bring to a boil, add the scallions and rau răm, and serve. That's it! It sounds simple, but the picture below hopefully attests to the richness of this meal.
Good Vietnamese food shows a great appreciation for the natural taste of fresh ingredients. Where the French delight in the mysterious alchemy of a sauce, Vietnamese chefs are just as likely to offer a simple broth, infused with little more than the taste of a fresh herb. This is not to say that Vietnamese cuisine does not produce complex creations, but the culinary philosophy seems to be: the simpler, the better. Nowhere is this philosophy better demonstrated than in the Vietnamese approach to soup, where the bountiful riches of the garden are enjoyed.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Autumnal Changes

Here in Hanoi, the first rush of autumn has hit the air. Evenings are cool enough to sleep under a sheet, and the first step out the door no longer feels like a dunk in a warm oily pool. The summer rains are still among us, but now the air is gentle and cool, and every day the chance of a typhoon lessens. In two or three months, we will be wearing jackets at night, and the days will never go above 20° C. (68° F.). The sticky summer can safely be said to be behind us.

For me, Vietnam's seasonal changes are an abstraction, something I read about before packing my bags. I have yet to experience these seasons first-hand, and so am looking forward to my first turn around the calendric wheel. For Hanoians, of course, the seasons are as familiar as a lover's breath. I'm enjoying watching my Vietnamese friends begin to buzz about the months to come. There's a palpable euphoria in the air, a sense of anticipation and appreciation of the reward they are about to receive for having endured yet another summer.

I arrived at the start of the hot season, and four months later, as the air cools, my mind is gradually coming to terms with the fact that everything I've been doing - learning the language, changing work roles, and developing intimacies - is laying the groundwork for a VERY extended stay. When discussing plans, the phrase, "a year or two" slips easily off the tongue, but summer's transition into autumn drives home the passage of time, and the prospect of more Vietnamese seasons to come. This is a period of psychological adjustment.

It is striking how daily routines that seemed so foreign only a few month ago - eating soup for breakfast, walking through a swarm of motorbikes - are now as normal as bringing in the morning mail. I barely notice the conical-hatted women anymore, carrying wooden yokes with fruit-laden baskets on either end. I walk right through markets selling pig's feet, river crabs, and rivers of white noodles, showing as little interest in my surroundings as a New York City commuter reading the Times on the morning train. The exotic has become familiar, and I know from experience how foreign everything I once called familiar will appear, when I see it again.

Expat living begets meditations on many things, among them, the idea of home. The transition to Vietnam has been as smooth as any transition I've ever made. Neighborhood, community, friendship, it's all here, and I feel Hanoi stands to give me as much as I want to give to Hanoi. But it takes several turns of the seasons for a place to become a home. This is not a complaint, merely an observation. I like it here - I like the people, the food, the sense of history - and at the personal level I'm content. What more does a person need?

In North Vietnam, the prevailing winds in autumn blow from north to south, following the curve of the mountains that form the eastern tip of the Himalayas. These winds are cooled in the heights of the Tibetan Plateau, before they rush through Kunming and southern Yunnan down into the Red River Delta. In October and November, the days are cool and dry; in December, the sky dons a gray cloak and a persistent drizzle, which the locals call "rain dust," appears. From March to May the heat begins to oppress, and than again come the summer rains. These are the cycles of Hanoi's seasons, which I have learned through study. Some people hold this knowledge in their bones.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ninh Bình

It's been three weeks since I went to Ninh Bình, and I still haven't been able to write about it. Part of it is simple exhaustion: I've been (happily) busy with my work, and unable to find the time to organize my thoughts. Part of it is, however, attributable to the beauty of the province. How to write of such a place without gushing or sounding like a guidebook? This has been my dilemma.

Still, I want to record this place because it is one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. So here goes, and please forgive, in advance, the melodrama.
[Fade in. A flock of egrets flies over a rice field. Slow pan across the landscape as narrator speaks]

About two hours south of Hanoi lies a place, known as the "Inland Halong Bay," where limestone karsts rise out of verdant rice fields, ancient Buddhist temples stand, and secret waterways run through the heart of mountains. Inside this timeless land, water buffalos pull wooden carts, children are tended by women in conical hats, and traditional Vietnamese village life operates as it has for thousands of years....

[Cue music]

Okay, now that I got that off my chest...

The topography of Ninh Bình was formed millions of years ago, when a body of water that later became the South China Sea receded from this inland zone. These mildly acidic waters began etching the land, leaving behind piles of twisted rock that, over time, won the trust of the local flora. As the waters continued to recede, larger openings appeared, accelerating the drainage and forming caverns, sinkholes, spires, gnarls, and hills shaped like serpents and dragons and other creatures from the mythological imagination.
Within this contorted landscape lies a Shangri-La of lotus-covered ponds, meandering waterways, and lush, green rice paddies, dotted with temples, pagodas, and weathered Buddhist shrines. Ornate mausoleums rise from the center of small lakes, and rustic abodes are built under natural overhangs or nestled into the living rock. A thousand years ago, the province housed the Imperial Court of Đại Cồ Việt, an honor it lost in 1010 A.D. when King Lý Thái Tổ moved the capital to Thăng Long (modern-day Hanoi). The ruins of this kingdom still lie on the small plain of Hoa Lư, protected by the hills from Chinese invasion.
If you were to fall asleep and wake up inside an Asian brushstroke landcape, Ninh Bình is most likely where you would land. I doubt that life here has changed a great deal in the last millenium or two. Despite a growing tourist infrastructure, it is still possible to feel the steady rhythms of traditional Vietnamese village life. Women tend to the rice fields, men cast nets into tranquil waters from small wooden boats, and water buffaloes are bathed at the end of a long workday. A motorbike ride into the mountains allows you to get lost in this land, and is surely one of the great pleasures of traveling in Vietnam.
Tam Cc, the region's main tourist draw, is well worth seeing. Tourists pay 50,000 đồng for a three-hour boatride that includes boat journeys inside three long caves, and a stop at an old temple. Women paddle up to you to sell mediocre embroidery, some of them controlling their boats' oars with their feet, but for the most part it's a mellow scene, and the landscape is awe-inspiring. As spectacular as Tam Cốc is, however, for my money Tràng An is even better. Just a few miles away, Tràng An provides equally dramatic scenery in a calmer setting, with fewer tourists. Regardless, the routine is the same: sit back, take in the setting, and dream.

The town of Ninh Bình itself is unremarkable, but a comfortable place from which to explore the province. Goat meat is the local specialty. The Ngoc Anh Hotel is very good: clean, cheap, and friendly. Two days are sufficient to get the lay of the land, but more time would allow you to fully explore the sites, which include a nearby national park.

Let the pictures tell the rest of the story.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Vietnam's National Independence Day

It is one of history's ironies that Hồ Chí Minh died on the exact anniversary of the day when, 29 years earlier, he had declared Vietnam's independence from France. September 2, Vietnam's Independence Day, therefore rings as a dual tribute: to the end of colonial rule, and to the spiritual father of the modern Vietnamese nation, known throughout the country as Uncle Hồ.

Like national holidays everywhere, Vietnam's Independence Day seems to be appreciated more for the break it provides from work, than for its historical significance. The one notable sign of patriotism is the sudden appearance of flags everywhere. Hanoi's streets, especially its alleys, explode with a sudden bloom of red and yellow banners, and oversized posters of Hồ speaking into a microphone suddenly materialize on walls that a day earlier had been bare.
That Hồ Chí Minh was a patriot is beyond doubt. Over the course of his life he suffered prison, exile, war, and numerous privations in his struggle for Vietnamese freedom. Indeed, it was Hồ's passionate nationalism that allowed him to embrace contradictory ideologies. His 1945 independence speech from Hanoi's Ba Đình Square was a model statement of liberal democratic virtues. Quoting the independence declarations of both the U.S. and France, Hồ framed the case for Vietnamese freedom within the context of "inalienable" individual rights. And yet the communist ideology he extolled made it inevitable that under his preferred system of government, the collectivity would rule over the individual.

Few would argue that Vietnam has been more successful at furthering the cause of independence than of freedom. The reason lies partly in the dichotomy represented by Hồ's conflicting creeds. But it is difficult to overlook the role of Western powers, particularly the United States, in shaping Vietnam's post WWII history. In his independence speech, Hồ asked the international community, on the basis of "acknowledged...principles of self-determination and equality," to recognize Vietnam's independence. The international community refused, and Vietnam was launched into a further nine-year struggle to rid itself of France which, backed by the West, sought to reclaim its colonial possession.
It was during this struggle that Vietnam's ties with the Soviet Union and China grew stronger, as the world divided into the state of mutual antagonism known as the Cold War. And it was during this period, under continuing pressure from the U.S. and other Western countries, that the Vietnamese Communist Party undertook a series of radical land reforms and Stalinist purges of Party members. Whether Vietnam, in the period after WWII, would have gone this route will forever remain open to question (Hồ had earlier expressed discomfort with both Maoist and Soviet models of socialism).

One of the unintended effects of American Cold War policy, I believe, was to radicalize the very countries it sought to isolate. Here, my experience as a Cuban-American certainly colors my views. Both Hồ Chí Minh and Fidel Castro, in the early days of their countries' independence, sought to normalize relations with the U.S. Both swerved sharply leftward after being spurned. I often wonder about the alternative universe I might have been raised in, had my parents not fled the growing repressiveness of their homeland – at about the same time that Vietnam's war with the U.S. was looming.

All this comes to mind on a day of celebration in Vietnam's capital city. In the evening, motorbikes clog the streets around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, outdoor stages showcase traditional music and dance, and it becomes impossible to find a seat in any of the ice cream shops. As I look at the young faces all around me, it is hard to imagine that many of them are thinking about history. Meanwhile, the serene face of Uncle Hồ smiles above the throng.