Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Trying Out for TV!

Writing this blog has yielded a number of unexpected bonuses. I've heard from people around the world, been visited by readers traveling through Vietnam, been reprinted (with permission) on a Vietnamese travel site, and formed a handful of lovely friendships I hope to maintain over the years.

Few things could have been less anticipated, however, than a response I received a few weeks ago to my post on finding a new apartment. Somehow, a casting agent for a well-known US travel show got a hold of my blog, and asked me how I'd feel about being on the show! Now, there's no certainty that I'm going to be on the show, but I've been taking the necessary next steps to make it happen, and enjoying the fantasy that I may finally attain the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol promised me.

The program, which airs on the cable channel HGTV in the United States, is called House Hunters International. It chronicles the exploits of American expatriates as they search for new homes overseas. I actually saw the show several times before leaving the states, so I'm familiar with its format: a prospective buyer looks at three properties, the audience is left hanging over which property the person's going to choose, there's a commercial break, and then the buyer/renter's choice is revealed. Some fudging of the facts would be necessary to make my home search fit the show's format, but I think it would be a fun way to chronicle my current life in Hanoi, and introduce American TV audiences to the whirlwind that is Vietnam's capital city.

At any rate, as part of the process of trying out for this show, I was asked to submit a casting video. Since my friend Hương played such a central role in finding this apartment, I was asked to include her in the video. The result you see below: three short clips featuring Hương and me in my apartment, in front of the Hanoi Opera House, and at the entrance to my building.

I have no idea if this is going to lead to anything, but Hương and I had a lot of fun making our casting videos, and I thought they would provide an entertaining diversion for my readers. The videos are rough, shot with Hương's digital camera, and as you can see, we are decidedly not professionals! But aside from satisfying my vanity, they give a little taste of my version of expatriate living in Vietnam.

So herewith I present: Hal & Hương in Hanoi!

Casting Video #1: Hal's Apartment
video

Casting Video #2: The Hanoi Opera House
video

Casting Video #3: Building Courtyard
video

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bát Tràng Pottery Village

One nice thing about living in Hanoi is that when you need to buy dishes for a new apartment, there's a 600-year-old pottery village right next door.

Bát Tràng village (the word Bát means "bowl"; Tràng means "workshop" or "guild") lies on the bank of the Red River, about 13 km. from Hanoi. To get there, you cross the Chương Dương bridge out of central Hanoi, turn right onto a dilapidated, heavily pot-holed road, and try to avoid being hit by the buses, trucks, and motorcycles that jockey to overtake each other in both directions. Before long, the city's urban streetscape gives way to a surreal blend of building settlements, old temples, and dime-sized rice fields that characterizes so much of suburban Hanoi. Bát Tràng lies less than 30 minutes away.

The historical record places Bát Tràng's origin around the 14th or 15th century, though folklore places it much earlier. An abundance of white clay made the area suitable for ceramics production. There are various theories as to how the village developed its craft; quite likely it was, like so many Vietnamese traditions, imported from China, then given a local twist. At its height, Bát Tràng pieces were prized by the Imperial Court, and shipped as far as the Middle East. Centuries of pottery production eventually exhausted the local clay supplies, but white kaolin clay still gets shipped in from nearby provinces, helping the village maintain an annual export trade worth around US$40 million.
Having explored a number of these crafts villages at this point, I was suprised by both the scale and activity of Bát Tràng. The town is filled with cement and brick buildings housing glass-windowed showrooms, bundles of ceramic objects awaiting transport, and building placards advertising export services. A couple of traditional wood houses serve as galleries and information centers. Around 80 percent of Bát Tràng's population of nearly 7000 people is engaged in ceramics production and trade, and indeed, it takes just a short hop into a nondescript alley to find some small workshop with artisans diligently at work. The immediate impression is of abundance and affluence and full-on production.
After parking my bike near the entrance to the town, it was about a one kilometer walk down a shop-lined road to the central market. Once there, a plethora of busy stalls offered an impressive selection of wares. Bát Tràng produces both utilitarian goods, such as plates, cups, and vases, and decorative objects, such as altars and statues. The traditional styles are lovely: gray-white porcelain with hand-painted Asian landscapes, village scenes, and abstract designs. Most of the painting is blue or black, though other colors are not difficult to find. Special enamels and high-temperature firing give the pieces their durability. These production processes are as much a part of Bát Tràng's tradition as its designs.
In the end, I purchased a clay cooking pot (tộ); five medium-sized serving platters; a half-dozen bowls, plates, and ceramic spoons; sugar and salt containers; and a couple of smaller square plates for dipping sauces and whatnot, all for around US$25. I added a Japanese twist by purchasing mis-matched bowls and plates – each diner eats off a unique dish. I have no doubt they'll be functional and attractive elements of my home. And should anyone ask, I'll be proud to tell them about the old village by the Red River where I bought them.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hanoi Sanctuary

What is the value of sanctuary?

Two months ago, construction began around the house at Vân Hồ 3. Across the narrow alley, workers began gutting the top three floors of a modern, five-story Vietnamese tube house. The jackhammers were 30 feet from my pillow. And they started at 6:30 A.M.

At first, I tried to wait it out. The few months before Tết are always filled with noisy construction; everyone's trying to complete their home improvement projects before the lunar new year. Hanoi takes on the look of an adolescent with braces, awkwardly smiling through scaffolds and cranes. I couldn't imagine escaping anywhere in the city.

So for nearly two months, I tolerated a daily barrage from early morning till well into the night. At all hours of the day, the noise was jarring, a constant assault on the nervous system. Rings appeared under my eyes. I became irritable at work.

Then another building project began behind the house – a smaller project, just adding a couple of extra floors. And then they began tearing down the house next door. Jack-hammers pounding directly into the walls. With the whole house shaking, I felt like a wartime refugee trying to sleep through an air raid. It was time to move.

At this point, my friend Hương came to the rescue. Some weeks ago, Hương had told me of a furnished, one-bedroom apartment near the Hanoi Opera House (Nhà hát lớn Hà Nội). It was beautiful, it was perfect, but the owner wanted $600 a month, well outside my budget. Hương chatted with the owner, we waited a couple of weeks, and the owner called back: she was willing to go down to $400. We arranged a visit to the apartment. Upon walking in, I realized I was home.

From here on, Hương took over. She negotiated further, and got the rent down to $360/month – nearly half the original price. Hương looked over all the contracts, noting discrepancies between the English and Vietnamese-language versions, making sure all was according to Hoyle. I was useless, a smiling wallet, offering nothing but the promise that I'd be a decent tenant. In the end, I signed a one-year lease, and last Monday I moved in. Without Hương it would never have happened; I am grateful beyond words.

The apartment is 45 square meters, on the fourth floor of an apartment building in a prime neighborhood in central Hanoi. The décor is faintly modernist with Asian touches. The lighting is soft and delicious, with rice paper coverings to all the lamps. The living room is tastefully furnished, with two soft beige sofas around a glass coffee table.

The bedroom is slightly elevated, separated from the living room by a sliding glass door. It has a comfortable queen-sized bed and modern dark wood furnishings. Tucked in corner is a work desk. I have cable TV and high-speed Internet. Large frosted glass windows allow for ample light. In the back of the building, away from the street noise, I overlook a courtyard filled with plants and laundry.

The kitchen is spacious by local standards, with four gas burners (incredible for Hanoi), and a small kitchen table with four chairs. No oven, but there is a microwave, rice cooker, and ample cabinetry.

I also have a roof-top terrace all to myself. Once the weather warms up I envision getting some nice chairs and a table, and doing some grilling. The only drawback to the flat is a shower pump that wheezes like an emphysemic old man. Since I only need to turn it on when I shower, I don't consider it much of an inconvenience.

The neighborhood is brilliant: two blocks from the Hanoi Opera House, a block from the historical Metropole Hotel, five minutes' walk to Hoan Kiem Lake (Hồ Hoàn Kiếm). A short hop from the chaos of the Old Quarter, my street is quiet. In the morning, I wake up to the sound of birds.

There is a small altar on the wall above my work desk. My first act in my new home was to light incense and give thanks. Sanctuary is a holy place, a place of refuge and asylum. I have my sanctuary in Hanoi, and I am grateful.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Morality of Eating Dog

In the eight months I've maintained this blog, nothing I've written has generated as much reaction as my last post: a trip to a Hanoi dog restaurant. This wasn't entirely unexpected. Talk to somebody about the treatment of animals in factory farms, and they nod their heads in sympathy, then order another burger. Tell them you're eating man's best friend, however, and they're aghast: "How could you!?" "What's wrong with you?" "It's immoral!"

Rationally speaking, I have no problem with anyone who argues against meat eating as a whole. While I am not vegetarian, I understand the moral basis for vegetarianism, and respect that it applies a uniform standard to the question of eating animals. I also understand not eating beef if you're Hindu, or pork if you're Muslim or a Jew. But these are personal choices, based on religion and culture, and I see few Hindus, Muslims, and Jews attempting to dissuade others from making a different choice.

I do have problems with arguments, however, that apply absolute standards of morality to proscribe the eating of certain animals, and permit the eating of others. This is exactly what happens with dog. Animal rights activists, most of them based in the West, have been lobbying Asian governments for years to ban the dog trade. Comparisons have been made between dog-eating and cannibalism, slavery, child prostitution, and other heinous practices, to argue the inherent immorality of eating dog.

So let's ask a simple question: why is it wrong to eat dogs? Specifically, why is it MORE wrong than eating any other beast?

The most common arguments against dog-eating revolve around the idea that, alone among all animals, dogs are bred for their loyalty and companionship, raised to be "man's best friend." Their companion status offers them protection from our appetites.

The problem with this argument is that it basis the value of an animal entirely on how we treat it. If we raise it as a pet, it's our friend; if we raise it for food, it's meat. By the same standard, if a dog is raised to engage in dog fighting, is dog fighting okay? By the logic of the companion status argument, it is.

Aside from the companion status argument, what else is there? Dogs are no more (or not much more) intelligent than pigs, nor gentler than lambs, yet both those animals routinely find themselves on the Western table. What is the uniform standard by which to argue that dogs are morally wrong to eat, culture notwithstanding?

Absent a clear moral foundation, anti-dog-trade activists often rely on the argument that it is "uncivilized" to eat dogs. Coming from countries where factory-farmed livestock need to be blasted with antibiotics to survive the appalling conditions in which they're kept, this argument reeks of hypocrisy.

Consider that Vietnam consumes an estimated four to five million dogs per year. This is roughly the number of cats and dogs that are annually euthanized in U.S. animal shelters. So which country is the paragon of civilized virtues, the nation that incinerates the animals it murders, or the nation that eats them?

I think there are valid arguments to be made against eating dogs, but they don't rely on moral relativism or vague appeals to the virtues of civilization.

The first argument is political. Unlike Korea, which mainly relies on farm-raised dogs, almost all the dogs that are used for meat in Vietnam are either imported from other Southest Asian countries (especially Thailand) through a mafia-controlled underground network, or stolen from pet-owners. While some argue that this trade eliminates unwanted strays and nuisance animals, it also empowers criminal syndicates and corrupt government officials. Likewise, it's hard to condone the theft of family pets, with all the emotional devastation it causes.

The second argument is a basic matter of animal cruelty. Throughout Asia, food dogs are often horrifically slaughtered: either beaten or slowly bled to death, supposedly to improve the quality of the meat. Absent government regulation or oversight, there is little to protect these animals from their fates, so it is up to the consumer to prevent this method of slaugher by not contributing to the demand.

Let me be clear that dog-eating is by no means universal, or even popular, in Vietnam or any other Asian country where it is practiced. Only a small number of Vietnamese have any interest in eating dog. But few of them seek to prohibit their neighbors from doing it.

Having had the experience of eating dog, I doubt I'll seek to have it again. But this is a personal choice.

Links:
Wok the Dog: What's Wrong with Eating Man's Best Friend? (
http://www.slate.com/id/2060840/)
Asia's Dog Meat Trade: A Look Inside a Seedy World (
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/12/01/asias-dog-meat-trade-a-lo_n_375249.html)
How Many Cats and Dogs are Eaten in Asia? (
http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/03/9/dogs.catseatenAsia903.html)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Eating Dog in Hanoi


Vietnamese people love dogs. They keep them as pets. They also eat them, or at least some do.

Dog eating has deep roots in Vietnam; it is a practice steeped in ritual, and associated with certain dates on the lunar calendar. Dog meat (thịt chó) may be eaten for various reasons aside from culinary pleasure, such as to increase male virility or bring about good luck. By some estimates, Hanoi accounts for up to half of all the dogs eaten in Vietnam, so if I was ever going to chow on chow, Hanoi would be the place to do it.

Saturday, my friend Nhung was stinging from a bad haircut, Phương had had a recent string of bad experiences, and a spate of bone-jarring noisy construction was forcing me out of the house I'd been living in for the past seven months. It was past the mid-point on the lunar calendar, shortly past the Julian New Year, and a propitious time for eating dog. So Nhung, Phương and I collectively decided to go out for thịt chó in hopes of reversing our fortunes. For me, curiosity provided an added incentive; in all my years living in Asia, I had only tasted dog meat once, and I wanted to go in for the full thịt chó experience.

Traditionally, Vietnamese cuisine provides seven ways to cook dog, known collectively as cầy tơ bảy món. These seven dishes are:
  • Rựa Mận - Steamed dog meat with shrimp paste, rice flour, and lemongrass
  • Giềng Me Mắm Tôm - Steamed dog in shrimp paste, galangal, and rice vinegar
  • Thịt Chó Hấp - Steamed dog meat
  • Thịt Chó Nướng - Grilled dog meat
  • Dồi Chó - Dog sausage
  • Chó Xào Sả Ớt - Fried dog in lemongrass and chili
  • Canh Xáo Măng Chó - Bamboo and dog meat soup
The dog restaurant we went to, just past the north side of the Old Quarter, was one I'd passed many times. Unlike some countries, where dog is eaten in hidden alleys, Hanoi flouts its affection for eating Fido. Dog stands can be found throughout the city, selling cooked canines like any other meat. The restaurant we went to, on a busy street corner, was a well-known purveyor of canine cuisine, and a solid choice to provide the full-on sampler.
It was shortly past seven when we walked into the crowded restaurant. We passed the downstairs tables and headed upstairs to be served in the traditional style: sitting on woven bamboo mats. A young man laid some newspapers on the floor; we sat down and various herbs, lime, salt, chilis, lemongrass stalks, sliced cucumbers, and large crispy sesame-seeded crackers known as bánh đa, were placed between us. Oh yes, and mắm tôm, a ghastly fermented shrimp paste that a reader to one of my previous posts called "shit in a can." An apt description, but apparently a necessary part of the thịt chó experience.

The prepared dishes followed quickly after and were all spread out before us. A veritable banquet of mastif proportions! As a whole, the meat of your cuddly pet is not quite like any other mammal I've ever tasted. It has the sinuousness and grain of beef, but is surprisingly fatty, like pork. It's actually a very rich food, highly nutritious, and fattening if eaten often. The seven traditional dishes – using different parts of the dog (the Vietnamese are expert at not letting food go to waste) – each play to either the beefiness or porkiness of the meat.

The first dish I tried was the Rựa Mận, a plate of room-temperature meats served like cold-cuts. The proper procedure, I was told, was to wrap a piece in an herb called lá mơ, and dip it in the mắm tôm. This could be followed with a bite of lemongrass or other herbs, if desired. I expected to have a visceral reaction to eating dog, but in fact I found it perfectly normal. The meat had a rather pleasant, beefy texture, with no discernable smell or strong taste, outside of the mắm tôm.
The Thịt Chó Nướng – grilled dog meat – however, was another matter. In this dish, fatty cuts from the neck and back are basted in a galangal-flavored marinade, grilled, and topped with shaved galangal. It was delicious! While reminiscent of pork, the meat had a deep earthiness that worked very well with the galangal. This was clearly a method of preparation that expressed the uniqueness of dog.
The Chó Xào Sả Ớt, on the other hand, while quite tasty, could just as easily have been prepared with any other meat. The spices balanced well with each other, but I felt the taste of the dog was masked. And this was my reaction to most of the dishes I sampled. While flavorful – save for the dog sausage, which I didn't particularly care for – there was little to make dog, as a flavor experience, particularly unique. Whereas lamb has a distinct taste that shines through most recipes, dog disappears into its method of preparation. When prepared like pork, it could just as easily be pork; when prepared like beef, it could just as easily be beef. When it comes to meats, I felt there was little to make dog stand out from the pack, so to speak.
What was palpable, however, was a strong sense of community among the diners. Maybe because dog meat borders the edge of cultural taboos, even in Vietnam, the sense among the diners was of a select group enjoying a secret and decidedly naughty pleasure. As the only Westerner, I was greeted warmly, with toasts and smiles from other customers. Before too long, it felt quite normal to be among my friends and fellow diners. At the end of the day, we were all the same. We were eaters of man's best friend.
It's an experience I thoroughly enjoyed, though I probably shall not have it again. While I have little tolerance for some of the arguments I've heard against eating dog, for me dog eating sits in a moral gray zone. I shall like to explore the complex morality of this practice in a future post; for now, let me accept the experience as it was presented to me: as a unique culinary adventure and an opportunity to bond with friends.

Oh yes, and the day after eating dog, I signed a lease for a lovely, one-bedroom apartment in central Hanoi. So perhaps, eating dog brought me good fortune after all.