Sunday, November 29, 2009

Xôi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Cát Bà Archipelago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

Hải Phòng

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hanoi at Six Months

I flew into Hanoi exactly six months ago today, and with the exception of a short trip to Ninh Binh, I haven't left. I still remember my sense of disorientation upon arrival – the traffic coming from all directions, the hustling touts of the Old Quarter, the sheer busyness of the place – but the Hanoi I live in today bears little similarity to the Hanoi I first saw. Actually, the city has changed little, but as I've grown to know the city, my sense of it has changed a great deal. And so, I'd like to take advantage of this semianniversary, if you will, to take stock, and describe Hanoi as I see it today.

Life in Hanoi is not for those who are set in their ways. The city forces people – especially Westerners, I believe – to adapt, and adapt quickly. Hanoi comes at you with at least as much vigor as New York, though the stress it engenders is of a different kind. Where New York is the quintessence of urbanity, Hanoi maintains the feel of a village that just happens to have six million inhabitants. This fucks with your sense of timing. One moment, there's a horrendous cacophany of horns and fumes, and some kid on a motorbike is screaming past you like a kamakaze. The next moment you're waiting for a conical-hatted woman to slowly make her way down the street with her baskets of fruits. It's difficult to completely give in to either movement or stasis. The only recourse is to constantly surrender and give in to the pace the street demands.

Hanoi's landscape evokes a constant sense of its history, but the country by no means lives in its past. The government has declared its goal for Vietnam to be "fully developed" by 2020. This term becomes easy to understand when you spend days among Hanoi's crumbling facades, cracked streets, and antiquated infrastructure. Impressions vary; a visitor from the developed world is apt to see lack, while a Hanoian who experienced the privations of war might see plenty. But history and progress are kept in balance – this is evident not only in the contrast between crumbling French villas and skyscraper cranes, but in the way that tradition blends with the exhuberant energy of youth. 70% of Vietnam's population is under 30 years old; they live among these crumbling plaster walls that have clearly seen better days, but they infuse the place with an energy that is palpable.

More than any country I've ever been in, language is the lever that pries open the box. Among the foreigners I know here, the difference in experience between those who speak Vietnamese (or at least attempt to) and those who don't, is night and day. My six hours a week of classes are clearly paying dividends. I'm fully able to get my needs met, and even small-talk to some degree. Today, I found myself fairly effortlessly conversing with some neighbors I hadn't seen for a little while. Vietnamese remains the most challenging language I've ever studied, but by no means is it impenetrable. After all, ninety million Vietnamese speak it. I sometimes have to remind myself: it is humanly possible.

It's important to come to Vietnam with as few personal agendas as possible. Expectations are disappointments in training. People hoping to find in Vietnam an antidote to Western consumerism will be disappointed by its capitalist fervor; people hoping to enjoy upper-middle-class comforts will be frustrated by Vietnam's lack of amenities. I would invite visitors to make every effort to see Hanoi as it is: not as a romantic vestige of colonial France, nor as a sequence of twentieth century wars, nor as an Asian economic dragon. Hanoi is all of these things rolled together; it is the melange that gives the city its flavor. It's a hell of a ride.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Vạn Phúc

When I hear the word, "village," I generally think of a small community of houses built in a rural locale, surrounded by farms and all the trappings of a pastoral life. And when I hear the phrase, "silk-weaving village," I imagine a tiny hamlet wherein old women tend to small wooden looms, following local traditions handed down for generations. So these were the images I had in mind when a friend suggested we visit Vạn Phúc, a local Vietnamese silk-weaving "village," and center of Vietnamese sericulture for nearly two thousand years.

The guidebooks inform us that Vạn Phúc (please pronounce this to rhyme with "fluke," and not...well, you know what not...) is on the banks of the Nhuệ Thì River, 8 km. southwest of Hanoi. In actuality, you head down Nguyễn Trãi Road for about 20 minutes, turn right at a block of buildings, and you're there. There's no sense of ever leaving the city, and the "village," if it can rightfully be called that, at first blush appears to be nothing more than a line of concrete block shops with plastic awnings and large glass windows that just happen to be spilling fabric onto the asphalt.

But like so many places in Vietnam, it only takes a little poking beneath the surface to discover its appeal. First is the history; despite its modern appearance, Vạn Phúc really HAS been a center of silk production and weaving since...oh, about the time of Christ! The village claims to be where Vietnam's silk-making industry originated. Vạn Phúc reportedly provided the luxurious silks that were worn, first, by Chinese emperors (when Vietnam was still part of China), and later, by Vietnam's indigenous kings and queens. If nothing else, you have to give the place props for consistency.

Beyond that, there is a flavor to the place that becomes apparent as one walks around its narrow streets. Away from the shops one sees people engaging in every facet of silk production: extracting it from the cocoons of the silkworm (Bombyx mori), spinning it, weaving it, dyeing it, and so on. This is not a display for tourists; it's simply what people do, and there is something reassuring about the matter-of-factness with which Vạn Phúc continues to do what it's been doing for centuries.

To be sure, the village has been affected by Vietnam's emergence onto the world market. Large orders from French and Italian fashion centers have greatly expanded the scale of Vạn Phúc's silk production; where ten years ago there were a few hundred looms, there are now a few thousand. The repertoire of products has certainly expanded – Vạn Phúc silks come in a blithering assortment of weights, textures, patterns and colors. On the downside, the presence of tourists has created a market for cheaper, lower-quality materials, but the discerning shopper, I am told, still finds in Vạn Phúc the best silks Vietnam has to offer.

So long as one doesn't expect thatched roofs and grazing water buffaloes, Vạn Phúc is well worth the short ride from central Hanoi – for its interesting history, fine shopping, and, dare I say it, village charm.