Thursday, December 16, 2010

1000 Years

It's been about a thousand years since I last posted. This is less of an exaggeration than it seems, as the preeminent event in Hanoi over the past few months was the city's early-October celebration of its 1000-year anniversary.

Allow yourself to reflect for a moment: when Hanoi was founded, the world's population stood at around 250 million, and forests still covered between 45 and 60 percent of the world's surface. Half the world's civilizations did not possess written language, the classical Maya were still around, and William the Conqueror had yet to cross the English Channel. This was a very, very long time ago.

Hanoi's founding ushered in what is often considered a golden age of Imperial Vietnam. Abandoning the defensive fortifications of the old capital near Ninh Bình, Emperor Lý Thái Tổ foresaw a Vietnam whose strength laid in technical and commercial achievements. He founded Thăng Long - Ascending Dragon - where he had seen a dragon rise from the Red River, and over the next several generations the Lý kings constructed great hydraulic works, including a vast network of dikes and canals, laid the foundation for Vietnam's legal system, abolished torture, and founded one of Asia's oldest universities, the venerable Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu), whose ruins are a must-see for any visitor to Hanoi.

Nobody in Hanoi during September and October could have avoided being swept up in the festivities. The city pulled out all the stops, closing off much of the city's central streets to traffic, chasing away hordes of street vendors, erecting stages for public cultural events, and putting up a giant video screen on the northeast corner of Hoan Kiem Lake with a countdown to the final day flashing in English and Vietnamese.

Local residents seemed to be of two minds with regard to all the commotions. Street vendors in the center of town were clearly annoyed at being moved, residents were none-too-keen on the heightened noise levels, and the inconvenience of all the street closures provoked a few grumblings. But it was hard not to notice a sense of civic pride even among the most jaded - a pride that was fully justified.

Like most other residents in the center of the city, I partially endured and partially enjoyed the celebrations. It was a good opportunity to learn about the city's history, to enjoy traffic-less streets (though this was balanced by worse-than-normal traffic jams on the city's remaining thoroughfares), to people-watch, and to reflect on what 1,000 years of change has brought to this once-tiny settlement in the Red River Basin.

"City" is a relative concept, and what anyone viewing old photographs of Hanoi is likely to notice is how undeveloped the city remained as recently as 60 years ago. Dirt roads prevailed, a great number of the city's structures were made of wood, and an intricate network of canals and waterways still snaked their way through the city - much of the Old Quarter's serpentine design is a result of it having been built around this topography. Indeed, I still occasionally flash on the Hanoi I first saw in 1991, filled with bicycles and the quiet sound of breezes floating off the city's many lakes.

Combining this vision with the extraordinary changes I've seen in just the year and a half I've been living in Hanoi, it's easy to conclude that the Hanoi of the future will be much different from the Hanoi that has come before. It is likely that, for this city redolent with a sense of history, the past is merely prelude.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Getting Unstuck

A few weeks ago, shortly after my friends John, Jean, and Martin left Vietnam, my brain went to Pittburgh, PA...and there it has remained. A deep well of homesickness has overcome me, such as I have not experienced in the 16 months I've been living in Vietnam. After spending countless hours pining over pictures of Pittsburgh's skyline, using Google Maps Street View to navigate the city's streets, and poring over local newspapers and blogs, I decided I needed a radical change. It was time to get unstuck.

September 1, four days ago, I began running again. My official War on Flab and Ennui has begun. I've been awakening at 6:30 AM the last few days, and jogging about 3 miles – out from my house, twice around Hoan Kiem Lake, and back. In addition to the health benefits, this task has also been reminding me of the beauty and magic of Vietnam.

If you want to see Vietnam at its best, you need to get out of the house while the sky is still rosy from the dawn. The streets are a hive of energy. Street markets ablaze in color and movement; old couples taking their morning constitutionals; armies of women wearing Pat Benatar leotards doing aerobics ("fascist dancing") to the tinny disco beat; lines of women beating and massaging each other's backs; early morning wedding parties posing for photos: these are the scenes that greet me as I huff and puff my way around the lake.

To be sure, four days have not been enough to bring me completely out of the doldrums. Once back home, I put on NPR and make my morning coffee, mimicking my Pittsburgh routine. After showering, I sit down at the computer, and check my e-mail and Facebook. For a moment, I could be forgiven for imagining myself in my mustard-colored office back home, with my black stone fireplace and a view of the Allegheny River. More than anything, I pine for my house, an 1890 Victorian brick building in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood, that I spent 5 years renovating before jumping to Asia. This house, more than anything, makes my return inevitable.

But I also have solid reasons for being here. In a few short months, I will – for the first time since my divorce, which plunged me into a financial tailspin – be free of all credit card debt. I will then have more than a year to put away money, and if my calculations are right, I should head back to Pittsburgh in spring, 2012, not only debt free, but with a sizable chunk of coin in the bank. While not a lot by some people's standards, these savings will have signalled a fantastic turnaround from the debt burden I carried into this country. And I will have accomplished this reversal in less than three years, doing work I enjoy, and in a place that, when I remember to look at it, is remarkable.

So I have taken on the task of recommitting to the present. The fact is, given the current state of the US economy, my job prospects probably remain better in Vietnam than anywhere back home. This, along with a general desire to shake thing up, was the main impetus behind my move, and the thinking seems as valid today as it did when I expatriated myself.

But the mistake I see many expats make is to treat Vietnam as a backdrop. It's fine to have goals and to envision one's retirement to a cottage by the sea, but treating the present as a means toward an end only cheapens the quality of one's experience. This is true wherever you are. The trick is to carry the goal in mind...and still enjoy the steps along the way.

So the task, zen-like in its simplicity, is simply to be where you are. Just be. Wherever you are, look around. Why are you there? Are the reasons as sound today as when you first moved there? If they are, then appreciate that fact. Get outside and photograph something, take time to smell the roses. The world is filled with beauty that you can only appreciate to the degree that you forget about yourself.

In the big picture, I know that someday I will leave Vietnam. And then there will be times when I look back on this period of my life in Hanoi, and really, really miss it. So best to soak it up while the experience is at hand.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Huế: Vietnam's Heartland

Huế is a relatively small city, but its historical and cultural importance gives it a justifiably big attitude.

To understand Huế, a little background is needed. As any Vietnamese person will tell you, Vietnam can be divided into three regions – north, south, and center – each bearing distinct psychological, linguistic, and cultural traits. Hanoi forms the cultural center of the north, Ho Chi Minh City of the south, and Huế, even more than the much larger Danang, can be considered the focal point for central Vietnam.

These divisions, and Huế's significance, have their roots in Vietnam's often tumultuous history.

Throughout the 16th and much of the 17th century, Vietnam was engulfed in a power struggle between the Trinh Lords (Chúa Trịnh) in the north and the Nguyen Lords (Chúa Nguyễn) in the south. Their dividing line was the Gianh River (Sông Gianh), just north of Huế. This struggle lasted until 1802, when the Nguyen Emperor Gia Long unified the country and made Huế the national capital.

When the French colonized Vietnam in the latter half of the 19th century, they organized it into three administrative units: Tonkin (north), Annam (center), and Cochinchina (south). The Nguyen emperors remained symbolic monarchs, meaning that Huế continued to play an important role in the country's affairs.

The Nguyen, however, shorn of power, had little more to do than twaddle about making fussy food and building themselves opulent tombs. This cuisine and the relics of the old Nguyen Kings are what Vietnamese and foreigners alike go to Huế to enjoy.

Huế's proximity to the 17th parallel made it a major battleground in the US-Vietnam conflict. The 1968 Tet Offensive in particular took a terrible toll on Huế. First, the communists overran the town and executed as many as 6,000 civilians in what came to be known as the Huế Massacre. The American/South Vietnamese counterattack that followed reduced much of the city to rubble.

When I visited Huế in 1991, the effects of war were still visible. I remember walking into the old Imperial City through mounds of rubble which had long been picked over for scrap metal. Bullet holes and damage from artillery blasts could still be seen. Vietnam, as yet, had few tourists, and scant resources with which to restore historical relics. As a result, I got to see Huế in a somewhat more decrepit state than one finds it in today.

Nearly 20 years later, the city has found its legs once again. I wasn't sure I would like it last week when I returned, and checked into a disappointing hotel on a street filled with persistent cyclo drivers and street touts. But it didn't take long for the city to grow on me.

Once one leaves the tourist ghetto, Huế becomes a large town with a peaceful feel. The inappropriately named Perfume River (Sông Hương), with its famed dragon boats, provides a calm counterpoint to the urban vibe, and it doesn't take more than a few minutes on motorbike before one is amidst rice fields and farms.

Travel in any direction, along waterway or road, quickly leads to one of the Nguyen Imperial Tombs, or some other fascinating historical site. And the landscape, with sun-drenched rivers winding among mountains that overlay like translucent layers of rice paper, is majestic.

Vietnamese people throughout the country speak about Huế with pride. It is in Huế that the finest conical hats (nón lá) are found; Huế's women are renowned for their beauty; and Huế's cuisine – dishes like Bún Bò Huế, and Bánh Khoái – can be found in every city in Vietnam.

I booked a mere two days in Huế and quickly wished I'd booked more. I intend to return and explore it further. For the person who wants to get to know Vietnam's history and cuisine, one could do worse than put in some time in Vietnam's former capital city, which has borne witness to so many of this country's struggles, and continues to soldier on.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Hoi An

Hoi An (Hội An) in 1991 was one of the highlights of my Vietnamese sojourn. In the intervening years, it has become a must-see destination on the backpacker trail. I had heard of its development into a tourist locale, and was curious to see how much of its historical charm had been lost.
It took me five minutes to hate the place. With store owners and street vendors harassing pedestrians every ten feet, I felt like a walking wallet. The broken English everywhere – "Hello, you buy my shop" – added to my feeling of estrangement. I was no longer an expat with decent language skills living in and partaking of  Vietnam; I was an outsider, shoved to the other side of the fence from an area I'd grown accustomed to playing in.
Sure, sure, the town is beautiful. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site for a reason. As a major Southeast Asian trading port from the 15th to 19th centuries, Hoi An's architecture reflects layers of multicultural influences. Its wooden shops and rolling alleys, along with architectural gems like the 17th century Japanese covered bridge all make the town worth a stop. Women in conical hats ply the Thu Bon River (Song Thu Bon) in narrow wooden boats and I'll be damned if it isn't picturesque.
Truth be told, I made my peace with Hoi An once the initial shock had worn off. As tourist locales go, the town is better than most. The cyclo drivers are mostly courteous, and the initially aggressive store owners actually take "no" for an answer. Once I settled into the place, I thoroughly enjoyed my overpriced-but-delicious coffee and croissants at the neat riverside restaurant with the English-speaking staff and tasteful decor.
Hoi An's beach deserves special mention. It is quite simply one of the best beaches I've been to, with clean sands, perfectly warm water, few tourists, and oceanview restaurants serving astounding seafood at reasonable prices. If you did nothing more than enjoy a beach holiday in Hoi An, it would be all right.
But I now begin to understand the negative reports I've heard from travellers passing through Vietnam. For the average vacationer who follows the tourist trail from Hanoi to Saigon, hitting Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Halong Bay, and Sapa, Vietnam must seem an endless barrage of street touts and price-gougers. The open frankness I enjoy in the Vietnamese character, when applied to tourists, becomes a direct assault on your wallet. It could wear anyone down.
Just remember that basing your opinion of Vietnam on places like Hoi An leaves you with a warped picture of what the country is about. These places are worth visiting to be sure; they're tourist locales for a reason. The thing to do is go in, take your pictures, and leave. And then rent a bike, go out and explore the country.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Da Nang By Day

Seen from the air, Da Nang (Đà Nẵng) is built on a stretch of coastline from which two small bites have been taken out: one by Da Nang Bay (Vịnh Đà Nẵng) to the north, and the other to the east by the South China Sea. The resulting land form is shaped like an apple core, with the Sơn Trà Penninsula at the top and the city itself at the foot. The Han River (Sông Hàn) winds its way through the core, and shreds at the bottom into a network of waterways that end in spindly nerve endings to the south and west.

One can easily see why the French, in 1940, chose to build an airstrip here. The heart of the city is flat, with clear visibility from all sides. Heading down from northern Vietnam, this is where, after passing over the Hai Van Pass (Đèo Hải Vân), Vietnam's coastal lowlands officially begin. Broken only by a mountainous area around Nha Trang, these lowlands run the length of Vietnam's coast for nearly 1000 km southward, all the way to the Mekong Delta.

The town itself is fairly ordinary at first blush. Definitely a small city and not a large town: the feeling is distinctly urban. Modern Kia dealerships beside plastic tarped eateries; Da Nang is, like all of Vietnam, developing at rocket speed, but has yet to reach the level of, let's say, Malaysia. It is also a major port city, Vietnam's third after Saigon and Hai Phong (Hải Phòng). One senses a fairly healthy local economy: there are few shanties to be seen, and everywhere there is construction.

Early morning, I rent a motorbike and head out to explore. Stopping for a quick coffee in town, I quickly realize the impenetrability of the local dialect. Recently, I've been getting cocky about my Vietnamese; I am, in fact, fairly conversant in most situations. But the people here speak a dialect that is not only more nasal and lodged further back in the throat than what I'm used to, many of the words are different altogether. So the northern word for "thousand" - nghìn - is here pronounced ngan, making prices particularly inscrutible. I engage in friendly chit-chat with a man in the cafe, and it's like speaking to a Glaswegian: he understands me perfectly, but I can barely make out what he's trying to say. This is going to take some getting used to.

I've seen enough of the town and decide to head toward the beach. You can see what attracted American GIs to this place: the sands are flat and pristine, the shimmering blue water, while famous for its undertow, has a light surf, and the gleaming sun makes it all seem quite the tropical paradise. The beaches are almost completely abandoned, with a few pockets of beach chairs and thatched umbrellas awaiting tourists that never come. Riding south along the coastline, however, there are a thousand condos, resorts, and casinos under development, and one can see it's just a matter of time before this place becomes Cancún.

I wheel back north, past the stretch of coast which was once dubbed China Beach. All signs of the former US presence have long been stripped away; there are only fishermen in curious little round boats pulling up their nets, some drydocked boats, and a few palm trees near the road under which people are beginning to take shelter from the late morning sun. Off to the north lies the Son Tra (Sơn Trà) Penninsula, a mountainous promontory with a large statue of Lady Buddha (Phật Bà Quán Thế Âm Bồ Tát) overlooking the sea. This is another area ripe for development, and I suspect that in a few years' time it too will be dramatically transformed.

I do not denigrate Vietnam's development aims. Western travelers often go in search of "traditional" cultures and "authentic" locales, and are disappointed when they find those locales have become "modernized" or "spoiled". The idea that Vietnam should remain in some kind of primitive pristine state is chauvanistic and demeaning; every culture undergoes change, and it is perfectly reasonable to desire development and economic progress.

But from the hillside, overlooking the coastline and the small city it frames, I feel this is the perfect time to be visiting this part of Vietnam – before all the damn development everyone so longs for brings its own mix of benefits and challenges.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Evening in Da Nang

With fewer than one million people, Da Nang (Đà Nẵng) is Vietnam's fourth largest city, after Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and Hai Phong (Hải Phòng).

To students of the US-Vietnam war, the city carries special significance. It was here that the first Marines arrived in 1965, and it was here that US ground combat operations ceased in 1972. While Da Nang has a history that dates back nearly 2,000 years, and was once Imperial Vietnam's major port, much of the city you see today was, in fact, built around the old US army bases. Several of the iconic names from the Vietnam conflict – China Beach, Danang Air Base – had their origins in this port city at the edge of the South China Sea.

Da Nang is one of the cities I visited on my inaugural trip to Vietnam, in 1991 (see The Road to Hanoi for background on this trip). At the time, like all of Vietnam, the city was still awakening from its post-war slumber. I remember a quiet, mid-sized city with hordes of teenagers cruising around on bicycles. Like so much of that trip, most of the memories have blurred, becoming a pastiche of images that register more on the emotional level than on the iconic.

The last few months in Hanoi have, like the memories of that adventure, also been a blur. The management job I was so happy to have gotten has turned out to be considerably more challenging than anticipated. Technical complications, organizational politics, and overwork have taken their toll. In light of these pressures, Hanoi has become an annoyance, a cacophany of street noises and too-fast drivers. I had to get away.

So it is to central Vietnam that I have fled. My good friends John, Jean, and Martin Bolivar (my ten-year old soul-mate with a mop of blond curls) have come to Vietnam on a family vacation, and I have decided to spend the next ten days or so with them, visiting Da Nang, Hoi An (Hội An), and Hue (Huế). It is the first time since 1991 that I have come down into the heart of this country, and I am anxious to see not only how it has changed, but what dormant memories may be jostled by returning to these places I visited nearly 20 years ago.

I arrive in Da Nang International Airport (Sân bay quốc tế Đà Nẵng), which sits on a flat stretch of what used to be farmland in the middle of town. At the height of the war, the city's airport was one of the world's busiest, reaching nearly 2,600 air traffic operations daily. Today, the airport is a quiet shadow of its former self; after deplaning I pass the airport's two baggage carousels and grab a taxi into town.

Nearly 10 PM and the streetlights are on. Da Nang's drivers are as mad and obsessed with honking as their northern counterparts, but there are fewer of them so the net effect is not quite as jarring. Old Vietnam hand that I am, I scarcely blink as my driver nearly crushes half a dozen motorbikes on our way to my hotel.

The hotel is at the edge of the Han River (Sông Hàn), just beside the Rong Bridge (Cầu Rồng). At night, the suspension bridge is lit up like a ferris wheel, and the vision of Han River Bridge (Cầu Sông Hàn) behind it brings to mind memories of my beloved Pittsburgh.

After checking in, I head outside in search of memories. More buildings than I remember, taller too. I'm not even sure where I stayed before. Beside the river, a small gathering of kids are whizzing around each other in electric cars, grazing each other, learning to be awful drivers. A middle-aged woman with her camera on a tripod is taking pictures of a young couple with the bridge behind them. I try to catch a whiff of the sea, but the air is still and odorless.

I cannot find the Da Nang of my past, and decide to surrender to the Da Nang of the present. I resolve to explore the town more tomorrow while I wait for the Bolivars to arrive. I have adventures in mind, and a list of foods I want to sample. But for now, I have come to Da Nang only to sleep.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Snail: It's What's For Dinner

Tony Guglietta, in Mr. Massini's third grade class at P.S. 249 in Brooklyn, New York, circa 1971, used to pull the most amazing things out of his nose. Tight and unctuous, with a slight curl, his magnificent creations were not entirely unlike the entrails of a mollusk. For this reason, perhaps, I've never been a huge fan of escargot.

Over the years, I've made my peace with eating snails – at least as the French eat them: with a medley of shallots and spices, garlic, lemon, and butter. High in protein, low in fat, there's a reason these animals have been eaten by humans since prehistoric times. While snail is not the first appetizer I'm likely to order in a French restaurant, I admit I've eaten some fine gastropods in my day.

Like the French, Hanoians love to eat snail – a tradition they developed long before the French arrived. Snail eateries in Hanoi are ubiquitous, ranging from sidewalk stalls that serve heaping mounds of boiled mollusks, to restaurants that specialize in a range of snail-based noodle dishes and soups. Like the French, the Vietnamese often pair snail with garlic, but ginger, chillies, tomatoes, spring onions and the perennial nước chấm all help to give it an entirely Southeast Asian flair.

There are, however, many reasons to treat Vietnamese snails with care, besides any memories they may conjure up of Tony Guglietta's third grade masterpieces. And this has to do with a fear of their toxicity.

Most snails subsist on a diet of living and decaying plants, though some species may also ingest carrion. It is not uncommon for them to acculumulate bacteria and other material that may be toxic to humans. This is why the French take great care to purge snails before eating them. The French will leave snails for days in wooden boxes, then encase them in rock salt, and wash them numerous times in an effort to get them to disgorge whatever's in their intestines. After all this effort, you can usually assume French escargot is safe to eat.

Hanoi snail is another matter altogether. While the French feast on land snails, most of the snails you get around Hanoi are paddy snails, pulled from the freshwaters surrounding the city. One needn't be an environmental scientist to eye these waters with suspicion. Filled with a host of chlorinated pesticides, PCBs, and other dangerous chemicals, as well as zoonotic trematodes - a parasitic fluke that may lodge in your liver or intestines - the rice paddies from which Hanoi's edible snails emerge are a breeding ground for natural and man-made toxins. Because snails lack the enzymes to metabolize these toxins, the toxins accumulate inside them, and get passed on to you, the diner.

All this might be tolerable if the Vietnamese took the same care to prepare snails for eating as the French. But do you think that happens? Hardly likely.

Having said that, bún ốc Hà Nội is one snail dish I have on occasion because, potential toxins and flukes aside, it tastes good. Bún ốc Hà Nội is a medley of snails and rice noodles, served in a tangy and spicy pork-based soup, with a generous helping of basil, bean sprouts and mixed fresh herbs. Lighter and less spicy than the common bún riêu cua, which is made from crab, bún ốc Hà Nội is a very tasty dish that can usually be found in small specialty eateries. A specialty of Northern Vietnam, it works equally well on a cold winter day (because of its heat) or as a springtime lunch treat (because of its lightness).

There are other snail dishes to be found in Hanoi, including stuffed snails, and grilled snails with lemongrass, which look quite inviting. However, I will continue to handle Hanoi's snails with care, indulging in them once in a great while. I would recommend Hanoi snail dishes only for the intrepid gastronome – ideally one who didn't attend school with Tony Guglietta.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Urgent vs. Important

Steven Covey, in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, writes about the difference between doing what's urgent, and doing what's important.

Urgent matters are those front-burner priorities which we simply must attend to: the fire in the kitchen, the crying baby, the immediate crisis. Important matters, on the other hand, are those which, while not necessarily urgent, add value to our lives: doing exercise, taking time to be with friends, eating well, making art.

The last two months have been filled with urgent affairs, and my life in Hanoi has lost a bit of its focus. I'm old enough to know that life does this sometimes: even in an exotic locale, when faced with matters that appear urgent, it is easy to lose perspective. The damn job, the daily commute, the influence of insipid people leading uninspiring lives. How easily we forget why we came here in the first place. Before we know it, the lotus blossoms have bloomed and died, summer has laid its blanket upon the earth, and a season has passed without our noting it.

The solution is always, ALWAYS, to forgot oneself, to look outside, to open ones' eyes and notice, as Miller told us, that, "The world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people..." Hanoi at the cusp of summer is rich in vignettes:

Vignette #1: The street market that sets up on a small side street near my house every afternoon is filled with action. In a small building entryway, set back a little from the street, there's an old woman with betelnut-stained teeth who sells herbs. Not a lot of them, small bundles of rau mùi, tia tô, rau thơm, rau kinh giới, and all the other greens that are so necessary to the Vietnamese table. I buy from her regularly. We never barter; she charges me exactly the correct price, and with slow, precise movements, puts my herbs into a small plastic bag.

Vignette #2: There's a small gang of boys who are my neighbors in the crowded apartment building I live in. Aged from six to 12 years, or thereabouts, they create a ruckus in the hallway that is often hard to take. Running back and forth fighting their little-boy wars, kicking soccer balls, shooting bottle caps – they play all the little boy games I used to play when I was their age, on the other side of the planet. Whenever I come out of my apartment, they all stop and yell, "Hi HAL!" and I haven't the heart to complain about the noise.

Vignette #3: I drive everywhere and have no idea what's legal and what's not. The other day, wearing my mask and helmet, I'm pulled over by a cop after turning right at a red light (hardly an egregious action in a city where nobody has a license, and driving the wrong way down a one-way street doesn't raise an eyebrow).

The cops in Hanoi are famously corrupt, and I know he just wants to shake me down, but when I take off my mask the cop realizes he's hooked himself a foreigner. He pauses, and then awkwardly tries to explain that I'd made an illegal turn. I understand him perfectly, but say to him in the most ear-splitting foreign accent, "I don't understand."

He calls over a young woman who speaks basic English to translate; I continue to feign ignorance. After a moment, realizing he's letting other fish swim by, he pats me on the back and lets me go. I put on my mask, rev up my engine, and in a moment of cheekiness before I speed away, I wink at the girl and thank her for her Vietnamese! As I peal away I look behind me, and the cop is smiling appreciatively at my ruse.

I've had a thousand such moments in the past month, but urgency kept me from noting them. Life got busy. In this regard, the daily grind in Hanoi is no different from anywhere else. The important thing is to catch yourself before you let too much time pass by.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hanoi at One Year

On May 10 of last year, after a week in Thailand, I arrived in Hanoi to begin what I knew would be at least a one-year adventure. One year later, I've extended my work contract two more years, and as I've come to know Hanoi, my relationship to the city has deepened. Below are some random notes on Hanoi, as I see it today.
Past First Impressions
As I wrote in My First Two Hours in Hanoi, my first impression of Hanoi was that it was "like being inside the buzzing element of an incandescent bulb." Like most visitors, I was initially based in Hanoi's Old Quarter, where the energy is non-stop. I found life among the vendors, street touts, backpackers and motorbikes exhilirating...and exhausting. As soon as I found my first apartment, my sense of the city began to change.

Judging Hanoi by the Old Quarter is like judging New York City by Times Square. It's an important component, but by no means representative of the city as a whole. As I wrote in Correcting the Record on Hanoi, "Hanoi is an intimate city, a city of neighborhoods." The visitor who doesn't leave the Old Quarter entirely misses the point. It is this intimacy, this sense of the "neighborhood as village," which gives Hanoi much of its flavor and charm.

Development and Change
Whether you see Hanoi as poor or rich, as developing or decrepit, depends on where you come from. Flying in from Europe or the U.S. one is apt to notice the crumbling facades, the broken sidewalks, the tangled skeins of electrical wires knotted around weathered wooden poles, and conclude that Hanoi is underdeveloped.

In the year I've been here, however, I've seen the Vincom Towers open for business, the city's western edge push outward, more and more luxury cars appear on the roads. New construction projects are coming on line every day, and the government plans to double the existing amount of hotel and office space over the next five years.

When you remember the poverty and devastation this country faced at the end of the 1980s (vestiges of war and government mismanagement), it's easy to see that Hanoi has taken great strides. Judged by its history, Hanoi doesn't represent underdevelopment. It represents modernization on steroids.

Expat Life
There are many ways to live the expat life in Hanoi. Some foreigners nibble around at the edges. I've chosen to jump into the center of the pie.

Take language, for example. A year ago I spoke no Vietnamese. After 10 months of language lessons, daily contact with salespeople and neighbors, and mingling among the majority-Vietnamese social circles I travel in, I'd place my language ability at a pre-intermediate level. I believe this has opened the door to understanding Vietnam in a way that many foreigners, even those who have lived here longer, cannot.

As a prototypically high-context culture, Vietnamese social relationships rely on a strong nexus of shared assumptions and unspoken "in-group" understandings. But while Vietnamese share a strong sense of common identity, by no means have I found them to be unwelcoming, xenophobic or chauvinist. What I have found is a strong sense of well-deserved cultural pride. I call it self-respect.

What this means, to the foreigner, is that to enter Vietnamese social circles, you need to do it on their terms. A basic knowledge of the country's language and history, and an appreciation for the cuisine, open the door. All you need to do is show a little interest, and respect. If you're not ready to do that, then why the hell are you here?

Annoyance and Acceptance
To be sure, no place is perfect, and Hanoi at its worst could test the patience of a Buddha. Traffic, smoking, pollution, and unhappy Westerners all rank high on my list of annoyances. But beneath it all, Hanoi today feels to me like a calm city.

There's little I enjoy more than strolling past a modern architectural ruin – a crumbling Vietnamese Imperial gate, or some decaying monument to French colonialism – or alongside a neighborhood lake. The city comes to life in vignettes: a conical hatted woman setting up to cook bún riêu on the street, two old men playing chess in an outdoor cafe, children kicking a beat-up soccer ball down the street.

These intimate moments, set against the backdrop of a city that breathes history, are what come to mind when I think of Hanoi today.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Watching Opera in Hanoi

True confession: I like opera. I've been attending performances and listening to recordings since I was a boy. For a few seasons, I was even a subscribing member of the Pittsburgh Opera. So when a friend scored free tickets to a recent performance of La Bohème at the Hanoi Opera House (Nhà hát lớn Hà Nội) , I was happy to go and see how the locals put on a show.

Although opera is commonly considered high-brow, upper-class entertainment, it should be remembered that, for centuries, opera was Europe's street theater. It's always had its high-brow side – a number of operas were commissioned by royalty and played to exclusive audiences. But there is a second strain to opera's history, a tradition of musical theater performed by local singers and musicians, that was as popular in its day as American Idol is today.

Hanoi's performance of La Bohème, although performed in a high-brow venue, seemed more in line with opera's populist tradition. Performed by Vietnamese singers with a mostly-Vietnamese orchestra, it was a not-entirely professional but fully energetic performance of Puccini's famous work.

Opera in Hanoi?
That Hanoi even has a local opera company highlights a side of Vietnam I have grown to admire: its ability to weave elements of foreign cultures – even the cultures of former colonizers – into its own cultural narrative. France's continuing cultural legacy in Vietnam underscores this point.

As much as any European power, the French extended their culture into their colonial territories. Even while exploiting the colony's resources and manpower, there was a strain of thought which saw French colonialism as an opportunity to bring the "benefits of civilization" to the people they colonized.

Though French colonialism proved intolerable as an institution, during the colonial era in Vietnam the arts fluorished. Vietnamese writers, schooled in the French lycées, were prolific; the École des Beaux-Arts trained a generation of Vietnamese painters; and traditional Vietnamese theater was supported and influenced by ther French stage.

Hanoi's Opera House – a replica of the Palais Garnier in Paris – was completed in 1911. It ran regular performances by mostly-French troupes until the 1950s, whereupon war and overall deterioration forced it to shut its doors. This architectural gem remained closed for 40 years, until the government of an independent Vietnam commenced to restore it in the 1990s.

Since its reopening in 1997, it has once again become a center of Hanoi's cultural life, serving regular offerings of European and Vietnamese arts.

Vietnam's East-West Blend
Traditionally, the Vietnamese reaction to France's cultural expansion was to absorb French influences into its own local traditions. Thus, the 1920s saw lacquer painting marry traditional Vietnamese techniques to modern European aesthetics, the New Poetry Movement of the 1930s and 40s expressed the clash between Confucian ethics and western-style individualism, and the áo dài, Vietnam's national dress, was born from the marriage between 19th century traditional Vietnamese woman's garb and 1920s Parisian haute couture.

Indeed, Vietnam's east-west blend is visible on every street sign, as Vietnam was the only Southeast Asian country to adopt the Latin alphabet as its national script (quốc ngữ).

But for all this culture-blending, there were areas where imported Western culture was accepted with few changes. Breadmaking, for example, was one of them. In today's Vietnam one can find a decent baguette in nearly every corner of the country, along with a cup of coffee (to see how coffee has been transformed into a Vietnamese culinary offering, read A Vietnamese Coffee Primer). French pâté, croissants, and pastries are all part of my regular fare living in Hanoi, all part of France's legacy in Vietnam.

Professor Hữu Ngọc writes, "There is no pure culture. Everything is a mixture." Though it may not be immediately apparent, the European culture France brought to Indochine continues to permeate modern Vietnam, in much the same way that Europe continues to be influenced by the cultures of classical Greece and Rome.

Thus it is that, on a lovely spring Hanoi evening, I was able to hear soprano Lê Thị Vành Khuyên's lovely rendition of Puccini's famous aria, Quando m' en vo' soletta, and have it feel like a natural merger of Europe's own popular operatic tradition, and something comfortably Vietnamese.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lights! Camera! Vietnam!

Now I know how Brad Pitt must feel. After three days of wearing microphones, getting cameras shoved in my face, and repeating the same lines over and over to ensure every angle has been covered, I've had my taste of the famous actor's life (for a fraction of his money).

I think I'll stick to my day job.

Not that my ego didn't appreciate it. I was the star of the show! While I didn't get my own trailer, or a personal assistant, the only reason a director, cameraman, and sound engineer flew to Vietnam from New York City, and hired a local production company, van, and driver, was to watch me to go through the motions of pretending to find a home in Hanoi.

For those who haven't been following our story, some months ago I wrote about my lovely new apartment in Hanoi. A few days later, a New York producer contacted me to see if I wanted to be on a popular US cable TV program called House Hunters International.

The program follows US expatriates as they look for properties to buy or rent overseas. I was familiar with the show's format: the expat looks at three properties, the audience gets to guess which apartment is chosen, and then there's the reveal.

What the hell; it sounded fun! And because Hương had basically found the apartment, and the show wanted me to have "an advisor," it was agreed that she and I would do the show together. So Hương and I filmed some camera tests on her digital camera, mailed them to the producer, and after some weeks the producer wrote back to say the project was on.

The Crew
I was asked to block out three full days, Saturday through Monday, from 8:30 AM to roughly 7:00 PM, for the shoot. The plan was this: I would pretend to look at three apartments, including the one I actually chose. Two of those apartments would be with a local real estate agent; the one I chose would have been found by Hương through the Internet – as it actually was. That way, we could tell a fairly truthful story, but still fit it within the program's format.

Saturday morning. Hương and I met the crew near the Hanoi Opera House, a few blocks from my home. They were all young, hip, New York City white guys with a solid blend of professionalism, humor and attitude:

  • Tom Langan, the director, a low-key bald and bearded 30-something: the guy who makes the creative decisions, tells us what to say, and tries to keep everyone happy.
  • Joe Lipari, the cameraman, thin and fit from carrying a big, heavy $120,000 camera all day. Joe is up for two Emmy awards this year...a definite pro!
  • Dave Scaringe, the sound man, responsible for sticking microphones on people's bodies and boom mikes in their faces, and trying to get a clean sound amidst Hanoi's incessant noise ("a sound man's nightmare"). He handled with humor what would have driven me up a wall!

In addition to the NY crew, we had Nam, the local media company rep, who served as translator and general support, and a government censor named Joe, who despite speaking no English, was supposed to ensure that nothing we did besmirtched the name of the glorious Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Regardless of his presence, within minutes we were all cracking wise, dropping "F"-bombs, and it all felt very much like home.

The next three days are a blur. The first day, we hooked up with Adrien Bouriaud, a young Frenchman who was cast as my realtor. After some shots in his office, we went off to look at the two apartments he was supposed to have shown us. Adrien, Hương, and I worked well on camera; we successfully feigned interest, suppressed our grins, and more or less did whatever Tom told us to do, and had a fun time doing it.

The second day was shot mostly in my apartment. The crew loved the place, and it looked GREAT on camera. We hid some of my stuff so it could look like we were seeing it for the first time. My friend Phuong was roped into coming over and pretending to be my landlady. An inside joke was, despite the fact that Phuong is one of the most fluent English speakers I know, she was supposed to have limited English ability, so Hương would have to translate. I haven't stopped giving her shit about it yet.

On the third day, I was left alone with the crew for the morning, which was mainly about "Hal enjoying life in Hanoi." In the afternoon, to shoot the "back story," we went to my friend Kevin's house, and pretended that his room was my old apartment. I had originally wanted to use the actual place, but my old landlords had refused to let us shoot at their house because, like everyone else in Vietnam, they fear their government, and were concerned that a camera crew would call attention upon themselves. I feel very fortunate that Kevin, his wife Keiko, and their landlord stepped up to let us film in their house.

In all, it was a gratifying, exhausting, and somewhat surreal experience. For me, it was less an opportunity to play movie star than a chance to showcase Hanoi's charms. Given that, for many Americans, Vietnam remains a war and not a country, I also hope that showing an American blending into daily life – learning the language, buying groceries, navigating traffic – might help some Americans to see Vietnam as a modern nation, in all its humanity and chaos. I was the face on camera, but my hope is that, in the end, Hanoi itself will prove to be the star.

The show is expected to air toward the end of the year. I'll keep you all posted! Meanwhile, if you want any autographs, you'll have to speak to my agent, thenkew, thenkew, thenkew...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Vietnam's War in Color

We did not feel guilty. We killed to save our homes. That's why we had no nightmares, unlike the Americans...

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a remarkable two-part documentary, called Indochine: A People's War in Colour, on The Discovery Channel. As remarkable as the content of the film is the fact that it was shown in Vietnam.

The film uses a combination of archival footage and eyewitness testimony to tell the story of Vietnam's tumultuous 20th century, beginning with French colonialism, and including Japanese occupation, the independence war against France, and later, Vietnam's Civil War and U.S. intervention. Incredibly, all of the footage is in color.

This is not a gimmick or a result of post-production. During their research, the producers of the show discovered that much of the original footage – those grainy images of Việt Minh fighters firing anti-aircraft weapons against the Japanese, French forces surrounded at Điện Biên Phủ, and camouflaged NVA fighters moving down the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" – had in fact been shot on color stock. Indochine: A People's War in Colour brings this footage to the public for the first time.

What is the emotional effect of color? Color takes the war from the realm of history into the realm of personal experience. Whether viewing agrarian life in the 1930s, or late 1960s urban Saigon, color evokes a sense of immediacy that black-and-white film cannot. You see Hồ Chí Minh as a thin, aging man with wispy hair smoking his cigarettes and sitting in quiet contemplation, and you feel yourself beside him. You see schoolchildren studying in the Cu Chi Tunnels (Địa đạo Củ Chi), their faces illuminated by candlelight, and you feel their earnestness. This is not history. It is real.

Adding to the emotional impact are the eyewitness testimonies that accompany the footage. Vietnamese and French soldiers who took part in the siege of Điện Biên Phủ describe their feelings as you watch the jungled airstrip assailed by artillery. Mothers talk about seeing their sons for the last time as you watch soldiers in Hanoi getting onto trucks to go fight the war down south. Watching their young faces under oversized helmets, I could see the students I teach every day. They were the same faces.

Indochine: A People's War in Colour was first aired in May, 2009. Beforehand, it had been heavily advertised on The Discovery Channel and, among Vietnam's expatriate community at least, was eagerly anticipated. Then, on the night it was scheduled to air, it simply wasn't shown. Government censors had apparently pulled the show, with no explanation. So the fact that I was able to watch it nearly a year later, seems to indicate a reversal of government policy.

Nothing in the program should be seen as particularly threatening to Hanoi's government. The film briefly touches on the communist mistreatment of North Vietnamese landowners in the late 1950s, but Hanoi has long (for the most part) acknowledged the atrocities. If anything, the film shows tremendous sympathy to the people of Vietnam who, irrespective of political allegiances, bore the brunt of the century's burdens. One can only wonder what provoked the government's original ban...other than a general, knee-jerk sensitivity to political content.

I've written before about how little Vietnam's wars continue to play in modern Vietnamese memory (see William Calley and Vietnam's Spiritual Renewal). While not exactly an irrelevant subject, war seems to be hardly ever thought about, even by those old enough to have experienced it.

Watching crowds in Hanoi saying goodbye to their soldiers from places I pass every day, however, I couldn't help but reflect on how much this country had endured. And it made me see the faces of my neighbors, those old enough to have lived through those difficult times, differently.

A friend has just alerted me to the fact that you can see the film on YouTube. By all means, check it out!

Friday, April 9, 2010

April Update

Some of you may have noticed: I have disappeared in recent weeks. It isn't that I don't love you. I've just been busier than a mosquito in a nudist colony, happily engaged in work and other things. I have been taking notes for future blog posts, but it's been difficult for me to sit down and put them together. And because I hate to bore you with postcard details about my life (I've always wanted this blog to inform), I assumed I had nothing to tell you about.

But then it occurred to me, the fact of my busyness IS worthy of a post. And here's why: Vietnam is a land of opportunity. With a population approaching 90 million, and annual economic growth between 6 and 8%, Vietnam is replete with economic opportunities for locals and foreign expatriates alike. Mine is a success story, and I'm happy to share it with you.

First, some background. A little over a year ago, my situation in the states had become difficult. In the depressed economic climate of the time, I was finding my job options to be limited. I was certainly employable, but hating the corporate opportunities that were coming to me. And while I have nothing against living a slackerly, Bohemian lifestyle, a recent divorce had saddled me with debt, and I was eager to shake off the burden.

As I explained in my inaugural blog post nearly a year ago, The Road to Hanoi, I had spent most of the early 1990s as an EFL hobo in Asia, and always maintained this line of work as a fall-back option. With the combination of debt and job dissatisfaction, it seemed a good time to cash in my chits.

I chose Vietnam for a number of reasons: my love of the food, my fascination with its history, and the fact that I've just plain liked a lot of the Vietnamese people I've met over the years. But self-interest was part of the equation. I bet that, with my combination of skills and experience – Master's degree in education, experience in the EFL publishing industry, corporate instructional design background, and technical skills – there would be opportunity for me in this rapidly growing economy.

And I was right. I looked at English teaching as a stepping stone. But because I believe that the journey should always be as rewarding as the destination, I wanted it to be a stepping stone that I could put a little heart into. And it has been – teaching in Vietnam has been an enormously satisfying experience, and one that, in my new role, I am not entirely giving up.

But now, I have a new position, one that has been created to take advantage of my unique talents. My title: Blended Learning Program Manager. What the hell does THAT mean? Unfortunately, I cannot give you all the details about the position, but it involves curriculum design, writing, educational technology development, and all the other things I love to do. I've moved from the classroom to a position that involves me deciding what GOES into the classroom for the school as a whole. It involves shifting my focus from tactics to strategy, and I'm excited to tackle the challenge.

And here's the best part: I've signed a two-year contract. The earliest I'm likely to leave Vietnam is March, 2012. So you can expect my ramblings from Hanoi to keep coming to you for awhile.

April will be a little slow on the publishing front. Upcoming posts include musings on a recent documentary about Vietnam, more food descriptions, Chinese medicine as Vietnamese home remedies, and of course, the film company is coming from New York City THIS WEEKEND to film my episode on House Hunters International. I'll be blogging about all this and more! But all this will roll out after I've settled into my new position.

The message for readers, I believe, is this: if you are trying to decide what to do with your life, and the world outside beckons, head into it. Fortune favors the bold. And if Vietnam seems an attractive option, I can assure you that it is.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Making Vietnamese Phở

Up till now, I have steadfastly refused to discuss phở, the national dish of Vietnam. It's been a wise decision.

Like New Yorkers with their pizza, Hanoians take their phở seriously. An outsider, commenting on the merits of a particular bowl, had better know what he's talking about. An ill-considered comment will be swiftly rebutted by someone who's been slurping the stuff since babyhood. Passions run hot and connoisseurship is high; if you're not among the cognoscenti, you'd best remain silent.

After 11 months, however, I have begun to understand something about Vietnam's national dish. The validation of this came last week, when Hương at last showed me how to make phở. Not just any phở, but Hanoi phở. The real stuff. My palette had obviously become sufficiently sophisticated for her to begin unveiling the secrets of this subtle dish.

And make no mistake about it: phở is all about the subtleties. A hint of star anise, the fat content of the broth, just the right touch of herbs – these are the elements that distinguish a good phở from one that is euphoric.

What is phở? The simplest translation is "beef noodle soup" – but this prosaic title barely discloses its essence (I am restricting myself to phở bò – beef; chicken is worthy of a separate discussion).

Phở is, more precisely, a deep and rich stock, made of beef bones that have been simmered for hours, layered with meat and spices, and poured over medium-width rice noodles. No two phở preparations are alike...and this adds to its mystique.

Where does phở come from? Its early history is lost, but one detects the French influence in the name (pronounced roughly like "fur"), which conjures up the classic Gallic stew, pot au feu. Like Vietnamese phở, the French dish is made by simmering beef bones for hours, and then adding vegetables and herbs. It's possible that phở is simply a Vietnamese adaptation of that Franch staple.

Historians generally agree that phở bắc, northern phở, is the original phở. Like so many things in Vietnam, north and south do it in diferent ways. The southerners ladle it on thick: they use a lot of fish sauce and serve the phở with a hearty basket of herbs. Northerners are purists: a well-balanced stock and good quality beef are all that is necessary, and all those additional southern touches are generally regarded as detracting from the true phở experience.

How To Make Hanoi Phở. I offer this not as THE definitive Hanoi phở, but as one that will produce an authentic dish. We begin with the ingredients.

Beef bones, beef muscle (bò bắp), cinnamon, ginger, star anise, and shallots form the foundation. Thin-sliced beef tenderloin (bò thăn), green onions, cilantro, and lime are offered at mealtime.

The first step is to boil the bones with a bit of crushed ginger – bring them to a full boil...and throw out all the water. It's true! This removes impurities and helps to clarify the broth.

Once this is done, dry-roast the cinnamon and star anise in a pan, and grind them with a mortar and pestle. Char some shallots and ginger over a flame. Add them along with the roasted spices and the beef muscle (wrapped with thread to maintain its shape), to the bones. Refill the pot with water and simmer slowly.

And I mean slowly. Like any good stock, the longer it simmers, the richer the flavor. Three hours is considered an absolute minimum. A touch of fish sauce (nước mắm) may be added to the pot. But simmer it slowly...slowly...slowly...

...and that's basically it! Briefly boil the rice noodles, and blanch the tenderloin and green onions before tossing them into individual serving bowls with a bit of cilantro. Cut up some of the beef muscle and throw it in as well. Black pepper and lime to taste. White vinegar with slivers of garlic and red chillies is common at phở stalls; we didn't use it, and it wasn't missed. And our phở (okay, Hương's phở), simmered for 5 hours, turned out great!

Sounds simple? It is! That's why it's become one of the staple dishes of Vietnam. But do not let its simplicity fool you; patience, the quality of ingredients, and a certain je ne sais quoi make all the difference.

What Makes a Good Phở? In a word: balance. No single flavor should dominate. In aroma and taste, one should be able to discern the cinnamon, star anise, green onions and cilantro, but not at the expense of the beef. Too much spice spoils the soup; too little makes it flavorless.

The beef must be chosen carefully: fresh and red are all that will do. Make sure the tenderloin slices are still red when thrown into the bowl. The steaming hot broth will continue to cook it.

As for the broth, you want it clear, but slightly fatty. Like any good stock, it must have some body. The noodles, which I've barely discussed, should be al dente, of course. In all, you want the beef to carry the dish, with full support from its neighbors.

At its worse, phở is thin, weak, and flavorless. At its best it's heaven poured into a bowl.