Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Country Wedding in Ha Tinh

Rice paddies in Ha Tinh

I recently had the opportunity to attend my friend's wedding in a country town just outside of Ha Tinh. It was a grueling overnight journey on a cramped train to get there, but when my group finally arrived, the smiling face of the groom, Giang Tam, was enough to make me forget any troubles we had getting there.  
 The countryside village of Nghèn is quite small.  There are rice paddies as far as the eye can see and in the distance, light green mountains.  The common sights of the area are duck farms, cows, and water buffalo bathing in muddy green pools.  When I asked my friend how many people lived there, his response was, "I don't know, I've never counted."

After our arrival, Giang Tam brought us to his home for lunch where we had the opportunity to start meeting his family; a large endeavor that took a few days as Giang Tam has seven siblings, and almost as many uncles.  The lunch was a fantastic feast of crab, tofu in tomato sauce, pork, and rice served with warm smiles in our friend's childhood home.

One of the interesting features of the Vietnamese language is the many distinctions it makes between people of differing ages.  Within the family group there are different titles for uncles of varying ages and also whether they are on the father's or mother's side.  These same titles are used with people on the street, for example: the younger uncle on my father's side is chú, but I would also use the same term to address someone of a similar age on the street.  As you can imagine, this made conversation and keeping track of people's relationships difficult.
Contrary to our plans of an early night, my party was kidnapped by Giang Tam and two of his nephews at around eight in the evening for the first phase of the wedding.  We were brought back to his household, which, by that time, was packed with family members talking joyously to each other on wooden stools.  Their hands seemed always busy opening sunflower seeds, enjoying fresh tea, or taking a shot of Nghèn's renowned rice brandy.  I was told later on that it's made with sticky rice and, at one stage of the process, formaldehyde.  I was reassured often that it was good for my health and found myself taking many celebratory shots until my cheeks were red.
Giang Tam's father is eighty five years old and sweeter than any man I've met.  His happiness was infectious and I spent a good deal of time conversing with him by whispering in his ear while he patted my knee.  I only know very basic Vietnamese, but I think it was a credit to his family that everyone was willing to talk to me and try and understand what I was saying: I did not feel like an outsider.

After a bit we were transported to the bride's family house seven kilometers away.  Here we met Giang Tam's young and stunning bride for the first time and were welcomed into her home.  The activities of the two households were fairly similar: drinking, card playing, nut cracking, fresh tea, and chit chat.  What struck me was the difference in character of the two households.  
While both were hospitable, the bride's family was noticeably less joyous.  The lighting was darker and they seemed to be more reserved, whereas my friend's family had been boisterous and quick to joke.  Though there are many possible reasons for this difference, one is the age gap.  Giang Tam is the youngest of a large family that has had many wedding celebrations.  In contrast, his wife, Giang, is much younger and the family had not yet given away a daughter.
After a few drinks at the bride's house, we were whisked away once more into the cool night air, surrounded by the sounds of frogs and crickets.  It was a nice replacement to loud traffic of Hanoi and we awoke the next day feeling refreshed.  By half past seven in the morning we were back at my friend's house waiting to go collect the bride.
A number of friends and family from the groom's side were transported by bus to the bride's home.  This proved to have a number of obstacles as these country roads aren't used to large vehicles.  At one point we encountered a large barrier of gravel, which Giang Tam, dressed in his wedding suit, got out and shoveled out of the way while the rest of us pushed the vehicle to freedom.
When we arrived at the bride's home the morning of the wedding the atmosphere was again quite solemn.  One tradition is that two representatives of the families have to agree to the wedding.  Two men, sort of patriarchs of the family, gave speeches.  Afterwards, we were all poured more of the rice brandy and had a toast; everyone exploded with cheers and glittering smiles that mirrored the confetti bombs that burst as we walked outside.
The procession kept getting larger and larger: the bus, the wedding car, and a large swarm of motorbikes carrying family and friends.  The next phase of the ceremony is a private affair at the family shrine, but we went directly to the restaurant.  We were told that the starting and finishing times of the party were very important just as the date was important -a lucky date according to the lunar calendar.
The party at the restaurant was extremely brief.  From the time the plastic wrap was removed from the food to the time everyone, in unison, stood up to leave, only an hour and a half had past.  The time was packed with speeches, karaoke, good food, and of course more brandy.  My friend's brothers and uncles kept coming around to toast us until we were quite drunk.  The bride and groom sat at a head table drinking sparkling juice fortified with some of the town's brandy; they didn't eat a thing.
The final surprise of the meal was the areca nut and betel leaf.  For the last two days I'd seen people with it, but had not yet tried it myself.  It is a traditional narcotic used on the wedding day that consists of a leaf with limestone paste and a nut that is quartered and placed by the leaf.  One rubs the paste and leaf together and then places it with the nut in one's mouth.
There is an interesting legend about the usage of this substance called ăn trầu in Vietnamese.  There were two brothers who loved each other very much and looked identical.  One of them was married to a beautiful woman who one day made the mistake of embracing the wrong brother.  The husband saw the two embracing and was so distraught that he took off running.  He ran until eventually he died from exhaustion and turned into a palm tree that grows areca nuts.
His wife ran after him and upon realizing her husband's death, died of grief and became a betel vine that wrapped around the palm tree.  The twin brother, who was following close behind, stopped near the tree and waited.  He became so bored that he eventually turned into a pile of limestone.  
As one chews, the mixture of the three items turns a bright red and has a similar effect to strong chewing tobacco.  Ones mouth and lips become stained a bright cheery red and ones head buzzes from the toxin.  That last dizzy moment looking at all the red faces and lips of the people who'd accepted me into their home, felt like the first time I was really in Vietnam.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tết in Hanoi, 2012

It seemed to be the consensus of most people I talked to that Hanoi would be completely devoid of life during Tết, the lunar new year. This year the Tết holiday was officially from the 23rd of January till the 26th, but for the preceding week Hanoi seemed to be slowly emptying out. Traffic was busy at odd times of the day, and the bus stations looked like riotous affairs. It seemed as though those who thought the city would depopulate were correct; my friends and I even had thoughts of shooting a short zombie film.

I was surprised then to see cabs still on the street and neighborhood shops still open. Granted quite a few restaurants and shops did close, but even the market had a few people selling greens. It was a quieter and simpler Hanoi, but not quite the scene for a zombie film. The night of the turning of the year there were fireworks over Hoan Kiem lake. A small group of us gathered at a bar before going out to see them and were amazed at the number of Vietnamese who came for the event.

Getting to the bar was quite difficult work and we were lucky to find a place to sit when we got inside. Who were these people and why didn’t they go back to their hometowns for Tết? Were these the true Hanoians who were from nowhere but Hanoi? Were these people coming from the countryside for the event? Was this simply the leftovers of Hanoi gathered in the same spot?

Properly oiled up from our drinks we faced the crowd gathered on the street and fought our way for a spot with a good view of the lake. I’d never seen fireworks in Vietnam before and was curious what it would be like. I’ve seen some pretty impressive displays over the years in the U.S., Korea, and Japan. I wouldn’t dream of taking away the award of best fireworks I’ve seen from Japan (seen in Kumagaya, outside of Tokyo), but they were pretty good. I sensed national pride welling up in all the oohs and ahs of those around me as the lights exploded above the Ngoc Son Temple in the middle of the lake. It was picturesque; a postcard scene, and definitely, with the figures of Saturn and smiley faces, better than I’d expected.

After the fireworks there was nary a cab to be found and we joined the herds of people slowly and tiredly walking the long way home; this was Hanoi up after its usual bedtime. The sidewalks were full of people burning offerings for dead relatives and holding up what looked like large palms. Due to the heavy smoke, it was even hard to breath at times. What with people in Hanoi walking home (they never walk), fires on the sidewalk, smoke filled streets, and shuttered buildings all around us, the walk home did become a bit zombie-like I suppose.

The most difficult part as a new Hanoian during Tết is trying to get your head around the gift giving. Gift baskets of assorted sizes with Tết goodies can be found for sale just about everywhere. They include things like candied coconut, lemons, pineapple, and sugar coated nuts. Generally though, cash is the accepted gift of the holiday. As I understand it, one is meant to give crisp new bank notes in ornate red envelopes. The hard part is choosing what the appropriate amount of money to give is and who you’re supposed to gift it to. I tried to err on the overgenerous side giving an envelope to even my regular coffee lady. She does, after all, let me change from my cycling clothes in her back room.

During one of the days of Tết I was lucky enough to be invited over to my landlord’s house for a home cooked meal. It was funny, I’d expected a room full of distant relatives and friends sitting on mats on the floor around a low table. I was so nervous about it I was even trying to practice some useful phrases and simple bits of conversation I could contribute. The reality was that there were only seven of us including my wife and I. We had a small feast of spring rolls, steamed and fried chicken, stir fried prawns and veggies, pork and bamboo shoot soup, fresh sausages (Nem Chua), and all of this was washed down with some lovely rice liquor. Upon the man of the house’s insistence we got a bit tipsy with the latter.

So for a week or so Hanoi was a little less populated, the people a bit friendlier, and the food a little sweeter. It was sort of sad to walk in the alleyways for the week immediately after Tết: scores of wilted flowers, empty envelopes and baskets, and a variety of liquor bottles in trash piles; evidence of good times had. It’s the only long national holiday in Vietnam and the effect could be seen on the faces of people on the street this past week; relaxed and well fed but longing for just a few more days. Maybe it was just me.

-another installment of Nate's Notions written in Hanoi, Vietnam

Location:Dốc Hữu Tiệp,Hanoi,Vietnam

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Coffee Culture in Hanoi

the old and the young at Cafe Lâm 

My first morning in Vietnam I was extremely jet lagged after a twenty hour journey from Chicago.  I stumbled blurry eyed down the streets of the backpacker district and hopped into the first cafe I could find and ordered a coffee.  The little cafe had only plastic stools to sit on; I remember them being quite near to the ground and it felt more like I was squatting than sitting.  Hunched in such a way I examined my first cup of Vietnamese coffee.  It was brought out with a smile by a young waitress and placed before me in a casual way as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  I did not agree with this notion.

There was a bowl full of hot water.  In the bowl was a small glass with condensed milk on the bottom; it was wearing a tiny metal hat.  I soon observed that the hat, or phin, was actually a filter as there was a dark oil like substance leaking from the bottom of it.  I remember thinking that it must be broken, because even after five minutes it still contained some hot water.  I kept poking at it and eventually the waitress, giggling to herself, removed it for me.  I mixed what now looked like a shot of espresso with the condensed milk and took my first sip of Vietnamese coffee.  It was divine: sweet and strong enough to cut through my extreme jet lag and help me get on with my explorations.

Sitting with Le Xuan Hoang at his coffee shop near the Red River, watching my coffee slowly filter through the phin,  I'm reminded of that first cup.  Hoang's cafe is located on a busy street near a committee building (No 3 Bo Song Quan Hoa Street).  He says he owes much of his cafe's success to it's location, as many patrons come to his cafe on business.  "I think umm people to drink coffee they have some reason.  Some people they want to drink coffee.  Some people they want a place to sit.  Some young people they want a place to be with their friends.  A lot of reasons for drinking coffee. But for my place, my shop, it's about the quality of the coffee,"  Hoang says explaining the real reason for his shop's popularity.

He uses a blend of three coffees: two types of beans from Nha Trang mixed with Trung Nguyen, the most popular brand of coffee in Vietnam.  He explains that the Trung Nguyen is strictly for aroma and that the other two are to make it strong, which it definitely is.  Hoang is convinced that not many people can really taste the difference between good and bad coffee, but fancies himself a connoisseur.  He limits himself to one cup a day though in order to control his coffee habit.

Vietnamese coffee distinguishes itself from its western counterparts in three ways.  It is roasted with butter oil, which coats the beans and protects them from burning during the process.  In this way they can produce dark beans similar to a French Roast.  Another difference is that they don't use 100% Aribica beans as is the trend in much of the west.  They usual do a blend of 70% Aribica and 30% Robusta, which makes the coffee a bit stronger and for many makes it a unique drinking experience--nostalgic almost, like this is how coffee once tasted long ago.  The third difference is the unique varietals that can be planted in Vietnam's diverse landscapes.  Among them are Arabica (and an "indigenous" Sparrow, or Se, Arabica), Robusta, Excelsa (sometimes called Chari), Liberica, Catimor and others.

through the souveir shop, the hidden cafe

The brewing method itself is also quite unique.  Coffee was introduced to Vietnam in the late 18th century by Dutch and French colonizers  Supposedly, the introduction of condensed milk was due to the difficulty in keeping fresh milk in the tropical climate but has since become a matter of preference.  The phin, or metal filter, has disputed origins and though they are seen in other places in South East Asia, no one can quite agree where they come from. 

It may come as a surprise but Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee beans after Brazil.  Until recently they were only producing rather low quality beans for mass consumption, but as more money comes to the country they are specializing in higher quality beans.  As the coffee shop owner Hoan explained to me, twenty years ago there were barely any cafes in Hanoi, now he reckons there are over two thousand.

One of the oldest coffee shops in Hanoi is Cafe Lâm, located on Nguyen Huu Huan street in the Old Quarter.  It's the full of old men wearing barrettes and smoking.  Through the haze of smoke though, it's hard to ignore the walls covered completely in paintings from various decades.  The story is that before the coffee shop became famous many starving artists would come hang out there.  They would exchange their latest works for credit and drink coffee for free until it was time to create another one.  This exchange did two things for Cafe Lâm: it was able to adorn itself with countless paintings that are now worth quite a bit of money and created an atmosphere where artists and intellectuals could hang out: an atmosphere that seems to exist to this day.  It was hard to ignore a man next to me who was doing a rendering of one of the paintings on his iPad.

Cafe culture here is just as varied as in the west.  From old unique cafes like Lâm cafe to expensive cafes with lavish couches where young couples go on dates.  Many however are simply done in peoples houses, which they furnish with a few plastic stools and open to the public.  In such operations the costs are very low as it's usually family members who work there or employees from the countryside who are paid a pittance.  According to Hoang, though, these operations rarely make much money.  "If you want to be a success in your coffee business.  You have to have some special thing.  Make some difference to other.  Maybe about quality, maybe about atmosphere.  Maybe because of you.  You are friendly and they want to see you," and Hoang surely is a friendly man who had to excuse himself several times during the interview to make small talk with his patrons.

cafe trung at Cafe' Pho Co

One popular cafe in Hanoi has a rather interesting gimmick.  It is Café Pho Co, called "The Hidden Cafe" by most Westerners (11Hang Gai Street).  If one hasn't heard about the cafe it would be near impossible to spot as one needs to go through a souvenir shop to find the cafe.  Indeed I had to stop at several such shops before finding the windy path that led to the old cafe with a bonsai garden and winding staircase that leads to one of the best views of Hoan Kiem Lake the city has to offer.  Café Pho Co is also famous for its cafe trung (egg coffee), which is the typical Vietnamese coffee topped with a sweet froth almost like a meringue. 

As described in the beginning of this post, Vietnamese coffee does take quite a while to brew and filter and no one at the coffee shops seem particularly rushed.  Indeed, many people hang out at them for hours slowly sipping and chatting with friends as the world passes by.  It's a distinctive feature of Vietnam, this savoring of the joys of life instead of rushing from place to place with a large paper cup.  Like the coffee itself this attitude takes some getting used to, but after you try it you soon find yourself addicted.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Story of Whitehead Camp

Without a good news source it’s easy not to think about many of the darker sides to Vietnam—past and present. Every country has its own dark history, but to ignore it completely is to rob people of their life stories. On a hunt for a story that could widen my view of Vietnam and its people I was led to the protagonist of this week’s blog: a twenty eight year old man who grew up in Whitehead, a refugee camp in Hong Kong. Due to the political nature of this tale, he has expressed a desire to remain nameless and will be referred to in this article as Anh.

With the rise of the new communist government in the late seventies came a troubling period in Vietnam that included reeducation camps for those who had supported the old government in the south and a fearful time for any families who may have aided either the French or Americans in any way during the wars. Many families fled the country to seek refuge. They are commonly referred to as “Boat People”.

Anh comes from a formerly well-to-do family. They lived in what he described as a villa in the seaside town of Hai Phong. Anh’s father is a Christian and, under the new government, was not allowed to pursue his dream of studying music at Hai Phong’s music university. The rising tension of the new government led Anh’s aunt and uncle to leave the country in the early 80’s when they still had some wealth. They headed to England where they remain to this day. For a number of reasons Anh’s family remained in Vietnam hoping the situation would get better. In 1983, however, they were left with no alternative but to embark on a boat journey. The figures vary dramatically from source to source, but it is estimated that there were roughly two million “boat people” and that five hundred thousand of them perished in their attempts at finding asylum. 

Many of these boats, not really sea worthy vessels, headed for major shipping routes hoping to be taken aboard freighters. They risked being attacked by pirates or stranded at sea; those that did make it to other countries were often sent back. Anh’s family made it to Hong Kong, which had declared itself a “port of asylum”. They were immediately sent to Whitehead camp.

Whitehead was located near Tolo Harbour, a remote coastal area in Hong Kong. The camp was, for the most part, a prison that housed around twenty thousand refugees like Anh and his family. It was a colorless mass of two story concrete buildings surrounded by a large metal fence with barbed wire rings curling along the top of it. According to Anh each building housed one hundred and fifty to two hundred people on tri-level bunk beds. When they arrived at Whitehead, Anh was five years old.

There was little to do in the camp, Anh explained to me. There was no work to be done and even the meals they received were precooked. It was a sort of glum existence, Anh played football on the streets and went to a school that was taught by people from the camp with no formal teaching background. He said there were only a handful of times that he was allowed to leave the camp, usually on school field trips. Besides that his existence was limited to life within his specific camp. The only animals he remembers seeing before he was fourteen were rats and police dogs.

As is human nature, the extreme insulation of the camp produced a number of gangsters who, though the resources were pitifully small, wanted to have the best for themselves. The early days were the most dangerous with many people battling it out for power. They sharpened the metal supports their bunk beds and used them as knives. Anh remembers the stories of the many deaths during that time period. If the lights went out in any of the rooms in the building it meant trouble. Since the refugees didn’t have control over the power supply, a lone dark room insinuated that the light had been purposefully sabotaged for ill purposes.

Eventually things settled down as certain gangsters came to control each camp. Anh’s compound had a tall slim gangster named Dhong who was always surrounded by a large crowd of thugs. Anh told me that when Dhong eventually returned to Vietnam he was soon murdered. One can assume the murder to be related to his cruel treatment of many of the families in the compound; revenge.

As time went by many of the inhabitants of the camp were interviewed to see whether Hong Kong would be willing to release them from Whitehead. Anh’s father told them of their struggles as Christians and about their wealth and villa being taken from them. “They (the interviewers) said his story was ‘too true to believe,” Anh said.

Anh’s father failed the interview and the family remained at Whitehead until 1997 when Hong Kong was handed back over to China. At that time they were forcibly removed from the camp and sent back to Vietnam. He told me he was literally brought out by two guards with their hands firmly dug into his shoulders.

The UNHCR’s Refugee Magazine reports that many of those who voluntarily repatriated by 1996 received financial assistance from the Vietnamese government; those who waited were assured only of their safety. August of 1996 saw the 50,000th Vietnamese person voluntarily reentering the country. There was much pomp and circumstance to celebrate the event, which was overshadowed when one of the 310 returnees aboard the aircraft attempted to flee. He tried hopping the fence of the Hong Kong airport, which forced the question: how voluntarily were these people returning?

Anh was fourteen years old when he came back to Vietnam. Luckily his family still had some connections and was spared the degradation of many of the returnees whose daughters were forced into unhappy marriages or whose children were forced into whatever jobs they could get to survive. Anh described that his greatest excitement upon returning was his cousin’s bicycle. “It was just a small metal bicycle but I drove it everywhere,” he said talking of his endless cycling journeys in an unfenced environment.

Anh was also lucky that he was still young enough to attend school when he returned. He remembers studying hard and at one point in High School being faced with an exam that would determine whether he could go to university or if he’d be forced into the military. He passed and studied English in Hai Phong. He lives a happy life now with a beautiful girlfriend and a stable job. His father, on the other hand, no longer plays music. The part of himself, I suppose, that didn’t survive Whitehead.