Thursday, June 21, 2012

Father's Day Gazpacho

When we think of love and nourishment through food, we generally picture our mothers. Perhaps this is an attitude bequeathed by the creators of June Cleaver. Perhaps this is because grocery store foods are often linked, through adverts, to Mother Nature. And more than likely this is because it was our mothers that packed peanut butter and jelly in our lunch boxes and served roast pork with apple sauce for dinner. When we think of love and nourishment with food, we picture our mothers, in aprons, near an oven. Rarely do we think of our fathers. But this Father’s Day, I find myself thousands of miles away from my own father and considering his role in nourishing me, and in loving us.

Out-numbered is one way my family often describes my father. Hen-pecked could be another way to describe my father’s life with his beloved wife, three teenaged daughters, two female cats, plus the one (token) male parakeet. The women in my father’s life were and are strong-willed, inclined to blow every problem sky high and, without a doubt, a joy to live with. During any past female eruption, my father remained on the side until the worst subsided before, with a weary sigh, heaving himself from of his arm-chair to follow the latest disruption to her bedroom in order to bear-hug her back into good spirits.

Despite the constant upheaval in his home life, my father loved – loves – each of “his girls:” unreservedly, tolerantly, deeply. When my two sisters and I were very young, on weekend mornings we’d wake to sizzling sounds and pad into the kitchen to find sunshine in our yellow kitchen and my father, arms akimbo, supervising hash browns next to his even brighter yellow electric frying pan. When my sisters and I were a bit older, one summer my mother resumed working evening shifts at the hospital and charged my father with the preparation of family dinners. This, despite the fact that my father (like most men of his generation) was not comfortable in his own kitchen.

Nonetheless, my father began with what he knew: he drove to Costco and bought long tubes of chicken burgers and crackling packs of Kosher hotdogs. Then, dinner after summer dinner, he fed his happy girls barbequed meat on white buns with large sides of tater-tots. When my mother learned of these meals, she did not approve and decreed that my father must feed his girls healthy dinners. We complained, and my father protested, and eventually agreement emerged: one night a week we were allowed hotdogs, a tradition that my father dubbed, “Wednesday night at the ballpark.” But with that compromise in place, thus began my father’s forays into actual cooking.

At first he started simply, and with the Mexican-influenced foods that he loved. He drove back to Costco and purchased bags of chicken instead of tubes. Then, he went to the nearest grocery store for foot-high cans of tomato juice along with cucumbers, avocados, onions and tomatoes. During those first hot summer nights, he leaned over a cutting board to precisely cube cucumbers, dice tomato and red onions and then mix in his favorite large metal bowl. Then he’d pull a chilled can of tomato juice from the ‘fridge and carefully pour until the vegetables vanished under the juice. Next, he’d pull out a tablespoon and exactly measure three tablespoons of olive oil along with two tablespoons of wine vinegar. He placed bowls of this version of gazpacho in front of his girls before fetching those Costco chicken breasts from the barbeque. As summer turned to fall and fall turned into winter and years turned into years, my father’s cooking progressed and he developed a repertoire that includes his own version of lemon chicken, a myriad of (Public television’s) Rick Bayless dishes, Mexican “Albondigas” meatball soup and an Italian Minestrone that I myself cook when what I need a bear-hug from my father.

This Father’s Day, I am homesick for my father. So I called and asked him about his cooking. “I love you girls,” he told me with characteristic humbleness. “I did what I had to do.”

Looking back on our childhoods, it is easy (wonderful, really) to remember the love and nourishment from our mothers. But today, I am driving to the grocery store for vegetables and celebrating my father with a bowl of gazpacho. 

*Photo credit:

When he makes summer gazpacho, my father uses Sunset Magazine's basic gazpacho recipe. However, he advises, "I prefer to use red onions and I usually use more ingredients (example: a whole can of tomato juice instead of 4 cups + the entire vegetable). I also add a couple of chopped-up whole tomatoes. You might also seed the cucumbers as the seeds can be bitter."  I'd like to add that a fabulous substitute for oregano is fresh cilantro. 

Tomato Gazpacho with Avocado
Note: to keep the Gazpacho cold, add several ice cubes to each serving bowl.

1/2 cucumber, peeled if you like
1/2 mild red or white onion, peeled
1/2 avocado, peeled
1/2 teaspoon crumbled oregano
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
     (balsamic works too - but use 1 tablespoon then taste)
4 cups canned tomato juice
2 limes, cut in wedges (for serving) 

Cut off a few slices of cucumber and onion; save for garnish. Chop the rest of the cucumber and onion in small pieces; slice or chop avocado. Put onion, cucumber, avocado, oregano, oil, and vinegar in a serving bowl. Pour in the tomato juice. Top with cucumber and onion slices; chill.

Ladle into bowls, adding 2 or 3 ice cubes and lime juice to taste. Serves 1 father + 1 mother + 3 hungry girls.

The writer and her father at their favorite beach,
with their favorite terrier.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Viet Nam

            This is an essay about Vit Nam. Viet Nam, the country, not Vietnam, the war. Viet Nam. Viet Nam, a country in Asia: located way east of India, way north of Singapore, and that abuts south China. Viet Nam, positioned near enough to the equator that its foliage defines the words “verdant,” “lush,” and “tropical,” and where rice farmers harvest after 2 growing seasons.
Viet Nam is the 13th most populist nation in the world and 60% of Vietnamese were born after 1980. Viet Nam, where 80% of the population claims a complex religious mix of Taoism, Buddhism, and ancestor worship crossed-Confucianism, but where youth prefer to buy and buy over tradition. Viet Nam is a country that the World Bank calls “Lower Middle Income,” a country that newscasts refer to as a “developing nation,” but where the national poverty rate dropped 23% in a single decade. This essay wants to describe Viet Nam, where Communism rules the functions of government in name only while Capitalism rules everywhere, including the government. Viet Nam, whose most famous city, Saigon, was re-named after revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh and whose capital, Hà Ni, is described often as “cold.” 
“Cold” can only be a comparative, not a statement of fact, when describing Hanoi. Or perhaps cold encompasses both Hanoi’s weather and its culture of restraint. When compared to Saigon, Hanoi is considered quieter, more influenced by the Chinese (Southern China is a 12-hour bus ride from the city), and traditional. In Hanoi, commuters in one of the world’s fastest growing cities zoom past Hoan Kiem Lake and its Turtle Tower where an ancient turtle affectionately known as "great grandfather" swims alone into extinction. Next to Hoan Kiem’s Confucian Ngoc Son Temple and its lacquered red “Welcoming Morning Sunlight Bridge,” sits a theatre where hundreds of tourists—mostly Western—crowd in to watch wooden puppets dance on and under the surface of a miniature lake. The puppet show’s lake is crowned by a Chinese-gate shaped backdrop while a troupe of musicians is seated on a raised platform to one side, lilting from bamboo flutes, đàn nhs, guitars, hammered dulcimers, a tremulous instrument known as the đàn bu, and drums. Puppets dance, tourists clap and leave the Thang Long theatre wearing smiles, ready for more.
Outside the theatre is Hanoi’s Old Quarter. By late spring, the temperature surpasses 88 degrees and humidity should be ranked at 1000 percent. Tourists suck air, wipe sweat from their brows, and gape when informed that the Vietnamese cool themselves with a helping of steaming Ph.  Pronounced /fuh/ and often described as Viet Nam’s national dish, ph is street food made with a rich broth of beef or chicken, best simmered overnight, ladled over special rice noodles, and served in Hanoi with only loose pepper flakes and slices of lime. At breakfast time in Hanoi, sidewalks fill with middle-aged Vietnamese men seated on low plastic stools near metal carts, twirling their chopsticks in bowls of ph while commuters whizz atop motorbikes.  
Motorbikes are ubiquitous on the streets of Hanoi and indeed across the entire country of Viet Nam, whose tropical climate and “developing” status renders motorbikes key to modern Vietnamese life. With smaller bodies and 2 wheels compared to 4, motorbikes are defter than cars and, with saddles able to seat a family of 5, the equivalent minivans in the States. Motorbikes are affordable to buy and maintain; therefore, according to the World Bank, nearly 20 million people in Viet Nam own motorbikes. This is approximately 22% of the population, a number which could sound low until you yourself see that motorbikes in Viet Nam are a picture unto themselves. In the city 700 miles south of Hanoi that officially was renamed Ho Chi Minh City upon reunification but is still referred to as Saigon, there are motorcycles. Lots of motorcycles.  
Imagine for a moment, if you would, a creek with islands of rock flushed with water. If you were to zoom in and peer at the molecular level, you’d find that each molecule is shaped a bit like Mickey Mouse’s head with a glob of oxygen with two little hydrogens—or, turned upside down, like a large person on a two-wheeled motorbike. Imagine that creek and its rush of water in constant motion, without pause, flowing around rocks. Now take that imaginary creek, expand it to four lanes, change the rocks to cars and the occasional bus and water molecules into the motorbikes and you get a rough picture of Saigon’s traffic. The World Bank estimates also that 60% of all vehicular trips in Vietnam take place on a motorcycle, which goes some way towards explaining Saigon’s traffic.
Although few words besides astounding describe rush hour in Saigon. When you look out a bus window, you will see a husband driving a motorbike with a child in front of him along with a second child and wife behind him, a man driving with a woman in a white lace skirt riding side-saddle behind him, 2 male construction workers holding fast to a ladder between them, along with hundreds, thousands of single motorcycle riders, often men, sometimes women. Every motorbike driver’s goal is to not stop, to go with the flow, in a literal sense. So packs of people on motorbikes ride through Saigon, dodging, turning, honking and weaving.
Who knows where these motorbikes are going? Not to rice patties, that’s certain. Throughout its history, the country of Viet Nam cultivated wet rice, but after respite from some 100 years of colonization followed by 30 years of war brutalization, the Vietnamese government reformed the economy from idealist Communist to something closer to a “socialist-oriented market economy.” The world was doubted the effectiveness of these reforms; however, by the early 1990s, Viet Nam was able to establish industrial production, commerce, agriculture, and tourism. Around the world, Viet Nam began to be noticed for remarkable annual growth and a subsequent raise in its people’s quality of life, and a steep fall in their poverty. In 1998, the World Bank tallied the country’s poverty headcount ratio at 37.4% but by 2008, that ratio had fallen to 14.5%. Today, manufacturing, high-tech industries, and even oil production form large and growing parts of Viet Nam’s national economy, although services related to tourism is Viet Nam’s largest industry. Perhaps those motorbikes in Saigon are off to a factory, an office or a restaurant.
If you travel to Viet Nam and become a tourist there, you would barely need to be told, “Viet Nam has a socialist government and a capitalist economy.” Instead, you would ride within a gaggle motorbikes through the streets of Saigon and marvel at government adverts artistically rendered in a style that Westerners call, “Communist Propaganda”: posters of Ho Chi Minh with a little girl’s arms hugging his neck or billboards with stylized Vietnamese people, dressed in primary colors, and posed on backdrops of prosperous cities.

But this is an essay about Viet Nam whose north and south, tradition and modernity, development and poverty meet in the country’s center. Meet in cities such as Đà Nng, a city some 375 miles equidistant south from Hanoi, north from Saigon. Once the location of South Vietnamese and American military operations, Danang is now watched over by a towering 236 foot-Lady Buddha statue built atop a hill known to locals as Monkey Mountain. The city is hard at work developing beach front condos for the rich and ushering crowds into International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) soccer matches in a stadium that appears to have been piloted from Area 51. Danang, determined to take its economic place among Saigon and Hanoi, is building high-rise buildings that cast shadows over fishing boats anchored in its harbor, near its busy port. Its university is also adding teachers and buildings—not at all keeping pace with need—while tourists collect their bags and step from the city’s airport, shudder at its functional visage and board buses for more picturesque cities such as nearby Hi An.
           A visit to the old Silk Road port city of Hoi An is, tourists are told, a visit to “Old Viet Nam.” Home to just over 100,000 people and notable as one of the few UNESCO sites that feels alive, the city shelters under palm trees that border line a sluggish river. In the “Ancient” city center, buildings are as Asian as can be—indeed, the town could be used as a period piece film set for a movie such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—with its ancient brown wood or painted buttercup yellow faced-buildings, roofed with curved tiles, and hung with silk lanterns trailing tassels. Decorative trees heaped with periwinkle-colored flowers, a yellow-flowered vine that resembles honeysuckle but is not, and bougainvillea liven up the town’s old streets. Lanterns hang from dark wood second floor balconies, often in the company of twittering birds in yellow cages. Each building continues to be utilized to the fullest: first floors are commercial enterprises such as clothing shops, purse shops, souvenir shops, open air restaurants, t-shirt shops, painting shops, open air bars lit with strings of white lights, jewelry shops, tiny museums, and more clothing shops.
Tourists stroll while proprietors call, “Hello! Madam, hello! Please come inside my shop!”
Inside the shops, tourists may loose interest in the wares when they see that many of the buildings were constructed of hardened, black wood, the majority of which remains unreplaced since the 16th and 17th centuries. Often the second floors of each building are surrounded by a low balustrade that looks down on the first floor. Special trap doors with woven slats were built into the second story’s floor, which allow people to watch their shops flood inch by inch when the Thu Bn River flows over its bank during September – December’s rainy season. With experience that comes with centuries, families hand their first floor wares and furniture up through the trap doors and into the safety of the second floor. From outside balconies looking down, you will see Asian tourists, posing for pictures with two-fingered peace signs while motorbikes putter down streets, steering around slow-moving Western shoppers, clutching purses and asking each other, “Which shop is next?”
Wandering in and out of Hoi An’s tourist shops, or even better its custom tailoring shops, is okay but a visit to Hoi An’s traditional market is genuine fun. The people from Hoi An do not require supermarkets in Danang, instead they buy what they need local and very fresh from their fresh food market. Although there is no formal entrance into the market, you will feel adequately greeted by colorful fruits atop crates. Mangosteens, slightly larger than golf-balls, purple and capped by a green stem and leaves. Jagged durian, Asia’s “king of fruits,” a delicacy so malodorous that hotels forbid it, brown grape-sized longan with its thin white pulp that covers an easy-to-accidentally-bite-into black seed. Long green papayas with the bland orange flesh are popular here, as are finger-sized bananas, intense, delicious: sellers string bunches of them up, and they hang in upside down fan-shapes. As you walk by, you will find that fruit sellers are less interested in selling to western tourists, which is also true of the flower sellers across from them.
Stalls selling flowers in Hoi An do not overly differ from anywhere else: sellers stuff white plastic buckets stems attached to pink, peach, and yellow roses, so perfect that they must not have traveled far to be sold at market. Also for sale are red, orange, and yellow Gerbera daisies but they are not nearly as entrancing as the national flower of Vietnam, the pink lotus. Lotuses are sold, unopened, in bouquets of four coupled with shower-head lotus head seed pods.
When you ask a flower seller if you may take a picture of her stall, she will probably agree and say,
“Yes. Where are you from?”
Perhaps you’ll reply, “America. Where are you from?”
“From Hoi An!”
Next, you may walk into an alley used as a parking lot and count 10 motorcycles and 3 bicycles and find yourself bowing your head to an old lady in a conical hat. Bowing is an expression of respect in the country of Viet Nam, and to bowing to an elderly woman comes surprisingly easy. Another lady will approach you from the side.
“Madam? You want pedicure? I do nice. 2 dol-lar.”
Your response to such approaches will be automatic at first, practiced in just a few minutes. “Nooo, thank you.”
Nonetheless, she will follow you chanting, “How much you want pay? I do. Very cheap.  There. 2 dol-lar. Pedicure. Very nice!” as you walk by a stalls frying noodles under shady umbrellas. A wrinkled old lady wearing a cloth Hello Kitty face mask and what appears to be cotton pajamas rolled to her knees, will be selling a perplexing combination of pieced raw pork on cardboard and bouquets of marigolds for sale. Another lady, of similar age and taste in fashion, may be selling bundles of lettuce and a vegetable that can be translated as both “water spinach” and “morning glory” from faded blue baskets. Across the fresh food market’s aisle is an egg stall. Eggs are, of course, common in Viet Nam and this seller’s crates will likely brim with brown eggs, whitish eggs, smaller brown eggs, and tiny speckled eggs. 
Behind the egg stall is the fish market, and beyond the fish market is the river where the goods in Hoi An’s fish market are fresh, fresh: their eyes are hard and clear, their scales are shiny. Old ladies, with serious faces and dressed in thin cotton clothing that could be purchased from Walmart’s sleepwear section, squat on their haunches behind low tables with baskets or cardboard covered in silver fish, fresh prawns, and squid. They wave jade bracelets in the air as they quibble with each other or, without customers, with small Nokia mobile phones. A woman tourist with white skin, bleached hair and tanned shoulders may pace between their stalls, photographing fish with a long lens. Some of the vendors might glance sideways at you, but mostly they will pretend to ignore you. Concrete floors around the market are wet but they appear clean as are the fish, hacked pieces or piled in re-used grocery bags. A scrub brush shall go swiiiiiish swish as one vendor puts aside her wooden basket filled with silver-dollar sized fish and scrubs her table.
On the river side of the market, a black sun umbrella collapsed a long time ago and is now decorated with a ladies hat and belt. A generous blackened teapot will boil while seated on red bricks. A green vegetable that could be sliced zucchini or perhaps green-colored peppers will probably being drying in the sun. A visit to the Hoi An fresh food market is a visit to Viet Nam’s past, present, and (hopefully) its future.
Once again outside the market, a man vendor will approach a child and toss a spinning toy into the air while the child’s mother says, “No!” and drags the child away. Another vendor will kneel on the stone sidewalk, fanning a small charcoal fire, with a basket of something wrapped in banana leaves by her side. The smoke trails into the street, the smell of something unfamiliar will make you hungry, but the sound of sizzling will be drown by soothing Western piano trills piped through small speakers seated at each intersection. At the center of Hoi An, literally and metaphorically, is an arched bridge built by the Japanese and supplemented by Chinese traders and residents of Hoi An in the 16th century. A sign inside the covered bridge boasts that “Chùa cu [bridge] is a symbol of cultural exchange between the Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese people.” Many tourists will never see the like.
Near the bridge, you may hear an Australian accent ask, “May I take your picture?”
“Yes!” a fruit vendor holding a basket of mangosteens will reply. “1 dol-lar!”

 This is an essay about Viet Nam, a country that is developing, that is finding new ways to earn dollars, or Dongs (as the local currency is known) to be sure, but still poor enough to have pockets of great need. If tourists board a bus destined for Huế from Danang, the bus won’t travel much more than 50 miles but it will take hours winding up a steep mountain road before heading down and through the countryside. Along the way will be farms marked by ancestor grave plots. In the south, graves are marked by squat, tile-covered mausoleums pre-fabricated for an ancestor’s pleasure. But in central Viet Nam, the graves take on the colors of temples: bright yellows, pinks, periwinkle blues that contrast with Viet Nam’s verdant foliage. And the graves are marked by 2 dimensional altars, waist-high, with Chinese writing framing bas-relief dragons or unicorns.
Before the bus reaches the outskirts of Hue, a breeze will lift a vague but pungent smell, mixed with smoke, to your nose. Outside the windows, orchards of silver-green eucalyptus leaves will sway, just a little. Semi-rickety farmstand tables will host lines of clear bottles, with labels calling the bottles Thanh Binh, an oil that Vietnamese people believe treats illnesses of all kinds. Few of the roadside tables will be manned but to the side of each table is a sentry formed by two metal barrels, one welded above the other. Smoke will waft from under the barrels and somehow, eucalyptus oil will be released into a pipe on top. Western tourists rarely purchase eucalyptus oil; you are likely to read stories of Vietnamese war refugees who smuggled bottles of eucalyptus as if oil was life-saving gold.
The city of Hue, Viet Nam, was once famous for its rulers. But what every tourist should do is visit the Duc Son Pagoda and Orphanage. As the bus parks, children tip torsos over walls, fastening grave eyes on you while they wave. Behind them, more children will run after soccer balls or giggle with their friends. You will be greeted by Buddhist head-nun Minh Duc, wearing gray linen with frog closures, who will explain the Pagoda’s goal of preparing orphans for life beyond the orphanage by ensuring they are healthy and educating them. After spending some time in Viet Nam, the beginning of this visit may feel like a shake-down for dollars and it will be hard to take Minh Duc seriously when she urges you to, “Do not hold anger in your heart.”
But your heart will change when you meet the Pagoda’s children to the point that you will fantasize about plopping onto your bum in the middle of the orphanage’s open playroom and bawl. Not because the children appear unhappy (they may even be contently sleeping) nor because they’re not well-cared for (they will appear clean and healthy) but because each baby has irreparably lost his/her family. Damn the cliché: tragedy upon the young is heart-breaking.
But perhaps tragedy has also taught the orphans at Duc Son Pagoda to live the moment, enjoy what they can have. A toddler in a yellow dress may well appear from nowhere and throw her arms around you. You won’t be able to help yourself from picking her up and giving her your heart. You’ll smile and perch her on your hip as you carry her to a circle of other tourists and other children. You’ll entertain her and the other kids by putting your left foot in, your left foot out, your left foot in and shaking it all about. When you dance and shake her, gently, she’ll cling fast and grin as you perform “I’m a Little Tea Pot,” “Old Macdonald,” and “The Itsy Bitsy-Spider.”
You may loose some of your appeal when Minh Duc hands colored markers and sheets of paper for the children to draw on. Groups of toddlers will cluster around all visitors to the Pagoda, gesturing for you to draw pictures for them. And you will. Really, you will happily draw suns or flowers or even the children themselves while the children walk from visitor to visitor.
At some point, your little girl in yellow will reclaim you by sitting down, hard, on your left knee. Other children will continue to beg you to draw for them while your little girl will probably wave her green marker around until her chubby legs and cheeks are marked with enough slashes to resemble Indian War paint. Time with Minh Duc and the children will demonstrate that she is mother to her orphans, and she will notice the little girl’s marks, smile, wet a ready wash cloth and demonstrate how to wipe the pen off. Later, you may play with the little girl in yellow, bouncing, chanting “You can go to Boston, you can go to Lynn, but don’t fall iiiiinnnn!” while cupping the back of her head and tipping her so that her hair hangs in spikes and she grins in perfect happiness.
These children need the care and it is really easy to give.
The problem? When it is time to leave and the little girl in yellow’s face crumples. Like a scar, you will carry it your entire life.

But this is an essay about Viet Nam, whose city of Hue was built by its last royal dynasty, the capital of Viet Nam’s imperial Nguyn Dynasty. The Nguyen’s were the last family to rule Viet Nam, beginning in 1802 when Nguyen’s carved a moat and built a refined but less demonstrative Chinese-style Forbidden City and then ruled as best they could through colonization and WWII. The thirteenth emperor abdicated into the power vacuum of 1945 and fled with his family to France. The Vietnamese Crown Prince, Bo Long, passed in 2007. Unfortunately for the city of Hue, not far from its borders was the divide between North and South Vietnam.

This is an essay about the country of Viet Nam, today. This is not an essay about the war in the country of Viet Nam. The war that Americans know, in short-hand, as “Vietnam.” But without searching very hard, you will learn that Americans were the last, and arguably the most destructive of an entire millennia of invaders, military and trade-oriented alike. Despite—or more likely because of these invasions—the country developed and retained a singular culture, including its own language and a spirit of independence combined with dogged perseverance that allowed the Vietnamese to collect positive aspects of invading foreign cultures into their own. From the Chinese, the Vietnamese obtained a vocabulary, Confucian hierarchies, Confucian respect for ancestors, a flavor or two of Buddhism, ying-yang roof curvature, and noodles. From the French, the Vietnamese gained coffee, baguettes, a Latin lettering system, pâté, and all those funny little tonal marks that they use to express themselves. From Americans, it must be supposed, the Vietnamese acquired a country in ruins, a diminished population, the image of “Uncle Ho,” pride at having vanquished the mighty American military, and desperation to build and re-build to a better future.

This is an essay about Viet Nam, not an essay about the war. And yet, even in 2012, it is hard to avoid the war. Although exact numbers are elusive, over a million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians died after skirmishes were escalated into war by the United States in the 60s. But the war’s roots were planted an entire century earlier when France co-opted Vietnam’s ruling Nguyen dynasty, colonized a good part Asia between India and China, christened the area “Indochine,” and exploited Vietnamese people along the length of the South China Sea.
Colonization continued until World War II when the French were superseded by Japan, allies of the marauding Germans. After the US and Western Allies forced surrenders from Germany and Japan, an independent-minded Ho Chi Minh declared independence, American-style, for the whole of Viet Nam. And yet, in place of independence, world powers divvied the responsibility of re-colonizing Viet Nam at France’s behest, sparking a confrontation between the French and Independence-minded Vietnamese that resulted in a Geneva Conference divide of North and South, Communist and Republican, Buddhist and Christian, along the 17th parallel. Neither North nor South were satisfied with this compromise. The South deteriorated politically while the North, under the rule of Ho Chi Minh, chaffed at the country’s division, and then set out to war. Again.
At first, the US, in full anti-Communist, Cold war stance preferred the periphery of Vietnamese politics, especially as it was already embroiled, in inscrutable Asia, in a similar proxy war of division between Communism versus Democracy: the Korean War. But when North Vietnam turned resolutely Communist and position itself to re-take South Vietnam, the US couldn’t resist intervening in opposition of the Communists, utilizing 2 1964 incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin, 1 actual and 1 fictional, as rationalization. Hundreds of thousands of US military troops were sent into harm’s way in Viet Nam.
50,000 were killed.
          Again, over a million Vietnamese, soldiers, civilians were killed.
The Northern Vietnamese asserted territorial and strategic advantages while the American government claimed that loosing battle after battle spelled success. Atrocities were committed. On both sides. On 29th of April, 1975, Northern Vietnamese troops smashed into the city of Saigon as US troops and CIA personnel evacuated from helicopters landed on rooftops. The US marked a historic first military loss. Today, the prevailing theory is that Americans have yet to recover from losing a war. That seems questionable but what seems clearer is that the collective American psyche remains mired in 1975, when Viet Nam was both victorious and destroyed and when there were so much blame and to blame: politicians, guilt, grief, other Americans, and people on both sides of the divide in Viet Nam.
Even the Vietnamese, poverty-ridden but not dispirited, blamed. During the war’s 1968 Tết Offensive, a fierce battle was fought in the then-Southern city Hue: American bombs damaged Hue’s Forbidden City while the Northern Vietnamese massacred an estimated 2800 to 6000 of their own people. After reunification, the Communist party wrote off the Nguyen dynasty and ignored "relics from the feudal regime," refusing to restore the Forbidden City and other historic sites. Yet in a sign that Viet Nam prefers to look towards its future rather than its past, these sites are being restored so that crowds of tourists will boost Hue’s economy. 

In the end, this is an essay about Viet Nam, in 2012. Viet Nam, a country where tradition and modernity meet, not collide. Viet Nam, where the landscape and weather resemble Hawaii but where the people have learned to cool by eating hot noodle soup. Viet Nam, where one can visit a towering Lady Buddha, attend a FIFA soccer game, and go fishing within a few miles and a few minutes. Viet Nam, where tourists enjoy water puppet shows, playing with orphans, visiting the newly restored Forbidden City or may buy a really fresh fish.
Here in 2012, it is time to break our learned association between the country of Viet Nam with the War in Vietnam, and see the country for what it is: Viet Nam, a country exhausted of being invaded and impoverished, eager to hop a motorbike and speed into the future.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Dear Friends and Family,

Rarely on this blog do I describe feelings, my feelings, while traveling. This is intentional, of course. Even before enrolling in graduate studies where our creative writing motto above our entry should read, “Show NOT tell,” my writer’s instinct insisted that I not write something like, “Visiting Malaysia made me happy.” A sentence that is flatter than a pancake, as bland as unflavored oatmeal. And yet, here I am with the urge to take a stab at describing some of my feelings from visiting Vietnam.

As our bus joined Friday morning rush hour on our first Friday in Vietnam, I felt a jolt of surprise: the streets of Saigon are filled, filled with motorcycles. Imagine for a moment, if you would, a creek with islands of rock flushed with water. If you were to zoom in and peer at the molecular level, you’d find that each molecule is shaped a bit like Mickey Mouse’s head with a glob of oxygen with two little hydrogens—or, turned upside down, like a large person on a two-wheeled motorbike. Imagine that creek and its rush of water in constant motion, without pause, flowing around rocks. Now take that imaginary creek, expand it to four lanes, change the rocks to cars and the occasional bus and water molecules into the motorbikes and that will result in a better picture of Saigon’s traffic.

Motorbikes are key to modern Vietnamese life. Even with smaller engines, motorcycles are more deft than cars, more affordable to purchase and drive, and thanks to Vietnam’s tropical climate, comfortable to ride all 12 months of the year. According to the World Bank, nearly 20 million people own motorbikes, approximately 22% of the population, which could seem low until you take your first rush hour drive in Saigon, look out a bus window and see a husband driving a motorbike with a child in front of him along with another child and wife behind him or a man driving with a woman in a gorgeous skirt riding side-saddle behind him or two male workers, one holding fast to a hammer and ladder zooming beside you. Just as often as not, motorbikes are ridden by two or more people, rendering them the equivalent to the family car in the States. The World Bank estimates also that 60% of all vehicular trips in Vietnam take place on a motorcycle, which goes a long way towards explaining the traffic in Saigon.

Every motorbike driver’s goal is to not stop, to go with the flow, in a literal sense. So packs of people on motorbikes ride through the streets of Saigon, dodging turning, honking and weaving. It is mad. It is a nightmare to be a pedestrian crossing the street. But once I recovered from the surprise, I decided that traffic in Saigon is a wonder to behold.

I am ashamed to admit that little in Vietnam felt fresh, little—besides the notable histories of the French occupation and “The American War”—challenged me or took me aback. You see, I am accustomed to eating unidentifiable food with chopsticks, I am already acquainted with rituals of hierarchical societies and ancestor worship (derived from Confucianism), Buddha and his temples, I’m familiar with re-bar + concrete construction (indeed, I’ve even done some of this myself), and I’ve worked extensively with Asian children (and know that when they sing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” in an elementary school, they use different words for “clucking” and “mooing”). Travel writers are instructed to see and write with a “fresh eye,” but Vietnam felt too familiar for me to separate it from the other Asian countries I’ve traveled. During my time in Vietnam, I scolded myself for my feelings of over-familiarity, which were rather a shame.

Much of the familiarity that I felt in Vietnam came from my two years of living in Daegu, South Korea. I taught wonderful students, worked with inspiring co-workers, had a few kindred friends, loved Korean food (troubles with turkey, mozzarella, and decent chocolate aside!) and was able to spring-board into other travels around Asia. Those two years in Korea were, in many ways, some of the best years of my life. And my ties to Koreans were the strongest connections that I’ve forged abroad. When we were flying to Asia, I eyed the flight map as we passed Vladivostok and Ulleung-do, I fervently wished that our airplane would land in Seoul. And I knew exactly what I would do: I would seat myself on a south-bound bus to Daegu, then take Line 1 + 2 to Kyungbuk University’s stop, and then walk up the hill to Daegu Foreign Language High School. After three and a half years, my head understands that I would be greeted with confusion, not the delight from my memories, and yet on that plane and during our travels through Vietnam, I physically ached to return to the home that I once enjoyed in Korea.

Maternal Love.
While we were in the central Vietnamese city of Hue, we visited the Duc Son Pagoda and Orphanage. We began the visit seated and listening Buddhist head-nun Minh Duc, who explained that they are raising approximately 180 children who range in age from infants to university students. Furthermore, she detailed that their goal is to prepare the children for life beyond the orphanage by educating and ensuring their health and that the orphanage both raises private funds to support the children as well as selling wood-carvings and running a vegetarian restaurant. The Headnun walked us through a central play area and up into the toddler bedroom and adjoining baby nursery, that just made me want to cry. Not because the babies were appeared unhappy (they were asleep) nor because they were not well-cared for (they appeared clean and healthy) but because each baby had lost his/her family irreparably. One of my co-workers lifted an awakened baby in her arms while my heart sank to my toes. I pivoted out and onto our bus waiting to take us to lunch.

After we dined at the Pagoda’s delicious vegetarian restaurant, we were given a choice: we could go back to our hotel or we could return to play with the orphanage’s children. My impulse was to return to the hotel (and its turquoise swimming pool) but my conscience reminded me that young children are best cared for with individual attention and caring physical touch. Plus experience had taught me that children love playing with “special” guests. I could easily give children a little love and attention. So with eleven of my peers, I returned to the orphanage and walked into the play area.

There were not yet kids to play with but three teenaged girls sat to one side so I put my hand out to each girl and asked, “My name is Lor – ra. What is your name?”

I’d share their names with you now but honestly, even after several attempts, I flubbed their names, very, very badly. They smiled anyway and we chatted until suddenly a toddler in a yellow dress threw her arms around me. I thanked the teenagers for talking to me, picked the little girl up, she smiled at me and I lost my heart. Honestly, here at 36 years old, I’m a funny one. If asked about my personal plans for the future, my answer is modern-day-woman, job-oriented (“perhaps I’ll work towards a PH.D. in English?”) while my heart screams (silently) for a family. When asked about kids, I feign horror and back away but if a little girl no more than three years old flings herself around me, I pick her up, spin her around and hold her as if I’d never let her go.

Which, in this case, turned out to be a good thing because once she had claimed me, she had no intention of letting me go. My peers gathered our group of toddlers into a circle and began singing “The Hokey-Pokey.” I tried to put the little girl in yellow down so that I, too, could entertain all of the children but her legs crumpled and her face scrunched like a raisin. So I perched her on my hip while I put my left foot in, my left foot in, and shook it all about while my little girl in yellow clung to me. She also held fast through performances of “I’m a Little Tea Pot,” “Old Macdonald,” and “The Itsy Bitsy-Spider.”

I lost a portion of my appeal when colored markers and sheets of paper were passed around. Groups of young children, perhaps two to four years of age, clustered around each of us visitors, gesturing for us to draw pictures for them, and happily drawing on their papers as children across the world do. We visitors obliged, drawing suns or flowers or even the children themselves, while the children themselves were mostly content on their bellies, spinning pens across paper. Later we were surprised at how well they behaved: each child had one pen but often obliged to share it with others, they generally drew on their papers (not on the floor), and they were fairly happy and quiet while they did so.

Eventually, when the children began to get up, walk around with paper and pens in hand, and search for a new visitor, the little girl in yellow reclaimed me by sitting down, hard, on my left knee. Other children continued to approach me on my right while my little girl in yellow waved her green marker and managed to mark her chubby legs and cheeks with enough slashes to remind me of Indian War paint. The headnun noticed her marks, smiled, wet a ready wash cloth and showed my little girl how to wipe the pen off. My little girl obeyed, carefully wiping herself for a matter of minutes, surprising me with her attention span and when she turned to wipe me down as well. Soon the children finished their drawings and began to laugh and fuss as tired children do. I picked my little girl up and bounced her chanting,

You can go to Boston,
You can go to Lynn.
But don’t fall iiiiinnnn!

As I chanted iiiiinnnn, I cupped the back of her head and tipped her down, her hair hung in spikes and she grinned in delight. I righted her but she flung her body against my arm so I tipped her again and again. She grinned each time. But soon the nuns gathered the children and the group bid us farewell. My little girl in yellow, still partially covered with green face streaks, clung to me so I walked over to the headnun and pointed. The nun nodded knowingly, reached for my little girl who went willingly to the head nun, but as she was handed to another lady caregiver, the little girl in yellow’s face crumpled and she hid in the lady’s shoulder as the caregiver bore her upstairs. I suspect my face crumpled too. Love, even one that lasts less than two hours, is hard to loose.  

Once, while listening to a radio playing Korean opera, I barely repressed a cringe while my guiding teacher said, “This is the soul of Korea, crying.” I’ve never forgotten those words; what a beautiful way to describe music.

Music emanates from the heart of Vietnamese culture. We first got a taste of idea from poet John Balaban, who visited Chatham University to discuss his memoir Remembering Heaven’s Face (an excellent read, by the way), his other works related to Vietnam, and Vietnam itself. While he served as a Conscientious Objector in Vietnam during the war, Balaban discovered ca dao, Vietnamese folk poetry. He was so taken by these songs that his first act upon returning to the States was to successfully apply for a grant so that he could return to Vietnam (still during the war) in order to tape farmers, fishermen, seamstresses and other country folk singing their favorite poems. No one had ever collected these and at the time, it was Balaban’s hope that his project would help end the war. I cannot say that it did but the resulting collection, now published under the title Ca Dao Vietnam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry provides a nuanced take on Vietnamese culture (less to war), and shows the importance of music in Vietnam.    

Besides ca dao recordings that Balaban played during his visit, our first taste of Vietnamese music was one evening on a boat, with two dragon heads, big enough comfortably to seat our group of 26 in plastic chairs in the midst of the Perfume River. Musicians boarded after us, tuned and began playing a Vietnamese moon lute, a 16 string zither, and what came to be my personal favorite, another zither known as the dan bau. That night, although I have little affinity for Asian music, their Vietnamese music resonated my soul.  

A few nights later brought out and out delight. We had flown as far north as we would travel on this trip, Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi. After a tour of the Old Town, we sat ourselves in the front row of a theatre to watch a traditional water puppet show. Although we had been told that the show would be “one of the highlights of the trip.” I was dubious until the lights dimmed and an announcer explained in English that this style of puppetry had been developed in the Red River Delta region when the rice fields flooded. Next, lights switched on above a raised platform on the left side of the stage, well above the water, where seven musicians paraded out, bowed to the audience, and seated themselves. With their drums, a bamboo flute, đàn nhị, guitar, hammered dulcimer, đàn bầu, they lilted a few numbers. Next stage lights above a deep pool of water were dominated by a Chinese-gate shaped backdrop were came on and seven lacquered wood puppets playing the drums popped up from under the water and began playing their drums and dancing. These puppets were being danced in a tank of water deep enough to wet an adult just below the waist. Prompting the question, how do the puppeteers do it? I was curious – and captivated.  

Yes, I can hear skeptics asking, “Seriously? All it takes to delight you is puppets in water?”

And I must say, “OMG. They were amazing.”

During the water puppet show, I felt the urge to dance in my seat, clap, and laugh aloud, but I confined myself to a large smile as the first puppet scene ended and were followed by three red Chinese-style dragons with golden spiked spines who spun in synchronized circles. The eight approximate scenes that followed rarely contained dialog and were not driven by narrative but each scene had its own theme, style of music, and culminating event. There were two turkeys whose vertical necks folded like accordions that created a baby on stage, a man in pigtails danced uttered calls that stretched his tone high and low, there was a bullfight (awesome!), dancing umbrellas, a fisherman chasing a fish that turned into a snake, a fish that jumped over an obstacle and turned into a dragon, and my favorite was a serious of nine puppets with candles lit above their heads who danced until they disappeared behind a bamboo curtain, which appeared to turn them to stars. I was entranced.

Music and water puppetry must comprise part of the soul of Vietnam; I delighted in both.

All and all, while I cannot say that “Visiting Vietnam made me happy,” I can definitely write that visiting Vietnam alternately surprised me and inspired a plethora of feelings within me. In the end, traveling always makes me happy.

Fondly yours,


Musicians at Hanoi's Water Puppet Theatre.

Puppets, seeming to dance on the surface of the water,
with candles from their heads, at Hanoi's Water Puppet Theatre.

Dragons dancing at Hanoi's Water Puppet Theatre.
If these don't delight you, please, please just take my word for it:
they are delightful!

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Vietnam is the first country of ten countries on this side of Asia that has coffee – real coffee, not instant. Robust coffee that is brewed in a metal filter, dripped directly on a layer of sweetened condescended milk and accompanied by a bowl of ice. Nirvana in a cup, I say, which is why I returned to the Hoi Anh food market to bargain for a filter and coffee. A few days earlier I had initially kicked off the bargaining process and had bargained the vendor down to 30,000 Dong ($1.50) when I walked away due to a lack of conviction. When I returned to the same vendor’s stand, the lady chuckled with delight, “You!” she said.

“Yes. I am back.” I smiled and pointed to the filter that I planned to purchase. “You said 30,000 Dong for this coffee maker?”

She frowned. “Ok. 30,000 small one.”

“But I don’t want the small one. You said 30,000 for the big one.”

“No small one!”

“Ok. How much for the big one?”


“50,000? Really? If I buy this and some coffee, do I get a discount?”

She laughed. “How much coffee you want?”

“Two bags.”

“100,000 Dong.”

“I think that is too much. How about 70?” I wheedled. My experience in Asia has taught me to drive harder bargains but over the last few days, I’d been researching the ethics of tourism and was no longer fussed if a little extra money went to a hard-working Vietnamese lady.

“How about 90?” she returned.

“Ok.” I agreed and pulled out the 90,000 ($4.5) dong.

The vendor looked pleased. “You go home now?”

“No?” I said, puzzled. “Why?”

“See?” She moved to the side of her stall and just beyond the tarp that covered her stand and pointed her index finger at a sky that become covered in clouds and changing into a dark gray.

“Oh. Rain?”

She wrinkled her brow, I concluded that she didn’t know the word, but the vendor nodded anyway.

I tilted my head at the sky one more time and scrunched my nose. “Thank you for saying. And thank you for the coffee. I wish you lots of good luck!”

She waved as I pivoted towards the river. “Good-bye!” she called. I could hear the smile in her voice. I must’ve paid way too much.

As I walked between stalls of pumpkins, heads of garlic, bottles of fish sauce, carrots and marigolds, I noticed that the air felt heavier, more humid than usual. “It is definitely going to storm,” I muttered to myself. I love the drama of storms. Anticipation washed through me. Yet I noted that the tarp above my head had holes in it, as did each subsequent tarp that covered the market. That approaching summer storm was going to pour through those holes, wetting merchandise and hard-working vendors alike. I imagined huddling under the tarp during a storm and didn’t like the feeling one bit.

I emerged from the market and walked along the river. White bolts of lightening cut vertical through dark clouds in the distance. Around me, shops had not closed but the usual tourist crowds and accompanying vendors had vanished. Café owners smiled and followed me with their eyes, as aware that I was crazy not to find shelter. Ahead on the river, three men in a wooden canoe set up lotus lanterns. The man in the back paddled while the other two men crouched and reached to adjust the large pink fabric decorations. Lightening continued to split the horizon but did not appear to approach. There was so much of it that I paused on the grassy river bank, trying to take a picture. A café own jeered from behind me; I failed to capture a bolt.

Then, as if struck by lightening, people around me jolted into action. The men in the canoe paddled for cover under a pedestrian bridge, Vietnamese pedestrians on the bridge began to run. A rain drop splattered against my shoulder. On the ground, rain splashes were larger than quarter coins. Motorcycles picked up speed. Suddenly, thunder cracked. Rain sizzled the surface of the river. I stood to the side of the bridge, savoring the wild of the coming weather and watched the men in the canoe furiously paddle for a Styrofoam cover that had flown into the river. The rain picked up, the man in the front leaned to retrieve the lid, and the man in the back paddled back to shelter as if his life depended on it. Was a piece of Styrofoam worth risking three lives? I wondered.

But even I didn’t have time to wonder. A policeman in a blue uniform watched me from a box-shelter, an Australian man and woman with matching salt and pepper hair speed-walked into a café. It began to rain harder. I decided to walk to the tailor shop that I had come to town to visit. I walked to the shop, avoiding spray from motorcycle riders who had donned plastic rain ponchos that fitted against their chest and puffed out behind them. Thunder cracked. A vendor thumped wooden window slats closed.

When I reached the shop, no one was near the front door. I walked into the back of the shop. There were no customers and the group of helpful ladies, dressed in uniform close-fitted kelly green tunics and matching pants clustered around the table usually reserved for customers. I greeted them, “Sing caio!”

Instead of an answer from the ladies, thunder shook the air. Each lady cried softly and ducked. They were afraid of the storm; I was exhilarated. The lady who had earlier asked me to call her Miriam stood. “You want your clothes?”

“Yes. Please?” 

“Ok.” She turned and led me to the back. Thunder rumbled. The shop ladies tittered. Mariam’s body stiffened as she lead me into the back of the shop.  

In the back, Mariam caught up a red woolen jacket and held it by the sleeves so that I could try it on. It fit as if it were custom-made. Which, indeed it was. Perhaps it is the collision of low-cost labor and gorgeous silk but custom tailoring has swelled into big business in Hoi Anh. The old village’s streets are lined with clothing shops where a customer may wander in, select a clothing item, ask “how much?” and be given both a price plus a time that the piece will be custom finished for you. During our introductory walk through the village, one of our tour guides had walked us to AoBaBa, a “quality” shop that he recommended and one of the shop ladies handed us each a shop business card.

Not that I initially planned to have anything custom tailored for me. A few years ago, one of my dear friends went to Vietnam, ordered some custom clothing and shipped it back to Korea, where we both lived (and desperately desired non-Korean clothing.) Each piece that she received was gorgeous. And yet, a few years later, when it came my turn to visit Vietnam, I brushed aside the notion of buying clothing. Until I spotted the jacket. Made of wool, with a unique collar and closed with black frogs, I fell in instant love. However, before returning to the shop that our guide recommended, I visited a few other stores and found that the jacket was priced at $40. Cheaper than Old Navy on a good sale day? I had to buy it. So during a period free of writing obligation, I returned to the shop pointed to the jacket, asked how much, was satisfied with the price, and asked the lady helping me, Miriam, if they could make the jacket for me.

“What color?” she asked as she handed me a bundle of 25 wools to choose from. I dithered between navy blue and red. Mariam smiled and patiently waited. I chose red.

Next, she pulled out a measuring tape. “Extend your hands,” she ordered. She measured around my chest. “Drop your hands.”  She measured from wrist to shoulder, around my neck, from boob to boob (!), around my waist, writing each measurement on a form in pencil.

“Ok.” She finally said. “You pay half now. Come back tomorrow.” I did return the next day, along with another seven or eight people in my group. Many of the women in my group were excited at custom tailoring and had ordered piles dresses, silk robes, blouses, skirts, and fitted suits.

“Has business been good?” I asked while waiting.

“No. But your group make very busy.” A lady who wore a name tag named Barbara told me.

“Is it good when you are busy?” I asked, looking at our collective mound of half-finished clothing, and imagining that it was keeping the tailors from sleeping.


I asked, “Because you are bored?” 

“Yes. But we sell more clothing, we get more money. No sales, less money. Busy is good for us. And for you.”

I agreed just as Mariam called me to try on my jacket. “You ordered a wool coat in this heat? That’s crazy!” one of my travel companions exclaimed. But as I slipped my arms into the jacket’s sleeves, which turned out to be too short, I smiled. I will be glad to wear it in the fall with dark jeans and my red shoes. When we finished with the first fitting, Mariam told me, “You can come at 4 tomorrow.”

At 4 the next day, thunder shook the building as I attempted to slide my perfectly fit jacket off my arms. But the silk lining had become glued to my rain-spattered arms and Mariam had to help me remove the jacket. She laughed. Thunder boomed again. She stopped laughing. I paid with my Visa debit card.

“You can stay here until after storm,” Mariam told me. I thanked her and asked if I may stand at the window of the shop. Her eyes called me crazy but she nodded. I walked to the front of the shop, put down my bag, folded my arms against the waist-high wooden sill and looked out at the street. The thunder and lightening had calmed a bit but rain splattered and rattled against the pavement. Motorcycle riders rode from right to left, each in a bright yellow or blue-snow-flake patterned or a white VietBank or pink plastic poncho. Bicycle riders also rode from my right to left. Rain continued, street drains were becoming clogged and water puddled on the sides of each sidewalk. Motorcycle riders in the same ponchos began to pass the shop from left to right, each with a child behind him. Mariam came to stand next to me.

“Is school finished now?” I asked over the din.

She answered, “Yes. Moms go to school to get kids.”

“Even in the rain?”

“Yes.” She said.

We stood for ten minutes and just watched the street. The rain didn’t let up, nor did the sound of pounding. Already the air smelled as if it had been washed clean. On the second stories of the building across the street, a man opened the shutter partway, looked and shut the shutter again. In the shop below him, another man used a small straw broom to sweep water and dead leaves into the street. In the shop to the right of the man sweeping, a woman opened a window hung with ladies purses, put on a clear poncho, and pulled a bicycle with a basket out onto the sidewalk. She got onto the bicycle and rode down the street, to the right. Minutes passed. More motorbikes, bicycles and ponchos passed. Without cell phones or books or television or computers, the ladies in the shop were quiet. Mariam was quiet. I was quiet. The man across the street peeked and left his window ajar and did not move. The lady vendor across the street rode from the left to the right, with her son on his own bicycle with a clear plastic poncho behind her. Both lifted their bicycles into the shop. I imagined that they went upstairs for an after school snack.

When the rain lessened, I thanked Mariam with a bow and a hand across my heart and walked into the street. My flip-flops flapped water up my legs and I tossed my hair and titled my forehead to the sky. A few people in ponchos and umbrellas began leaving the shops while an old man used a long wooden stick to dislodge the drain.

The storm was finished. My jacket was finished. We would be leaving Hoi Anh on the morrow. With coffee in my bag and exhilaration in my heart, I returned to my hotel.


"Canoes" on the river in Hoi Anh. 

Men paddling away from setting up lotus flower decorations
before a thunderstorm in Hoi Ahn.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Dear Friends and Family,

There is no entrance to my favorite place in Hoi Anh, the food market. Instead, one strolls by a custom tailoring shop and sights plastic crates, emptied and piled into tables. Atop the crates are oval-shaped wooden platters of fruit for sale: mangosteens, slightly larger than golf-balls, purple and capped by a green stem and leaves. Jagged durian, Asia’s “king of fruits,” a delicacy so malodorous that hotels forbid it, brown grape-sized longan with its thin white pulp that covers an easy-to-accidentally-bite-into black seed. Long green papayas with the bland orange flesh are popular here, as are finger-sized bananas, intense, delicious: sellers string bunches of them up, and they hang in upside down fan-shapes. Fruit sellers are less interested in selling to western tourists, as are the flower sellers across from them.

Stalls of flowers in Hoi Anh do not overly differ from anywhere else: sellers stuff white plastic buckets with pink, peach, and yellow roses, formed and so perfect that they must not travel far to be sold at market. Also for sale are red, orange, and yellow Gerbera daisies but they are not nearly as entrancing as the national flower of Vietnam, the pink lotus which are sold, unopened, in bouquets of four coupled with shower-head lotus head seed pods. When I ask the flower seller if I may take a picture of her stall, she says,

“Yes. Where are you from?”

America. Where are you from?” I reply.

“From Hoi Anh! But my sister America. California. She come see me tomorrow.” She confided.

“I am very happy for you. Enjoy your sister,” I smile as I continue deeper into the market.

Further in, I turn into an alley used as a parking lot and count 10 motorcycles and 3 bicycles. I bow to an old lady in a conical hat while another approaches me from the side.

“Madam? You want pedicure? I do nice. 2 dol-lar.”

“No, thank you.” I smile. But she follows me.

“How much you want pay? I do. Very cheap.  There. 2 dol-lar. Pedicure. Very nice!”

“No, thank you. Have a nice day.” I reply. But the lady follows me through the alley and as I turn to walk by a bunch of food stalls, under shady umbrellas, piled with food that I cannot identify and that I am too shy to photograph because I must photograph the cook and I loathe asking to photograph people. Pedicure lady leaves me near a wrinkled old lady wearing what appears to be cotton pajamas rolled to her knees just behind her perplexing combination of pieced raw pork on cardboard and bouquets of marigolds. I sigh and smile at the next old lady who is selling bundles of lettuce and a vegetable translated both as “water spinach” and “morning glory” from faded blue plastic baskets when another lady approaches me,

“Where you from?”

America. And no thank you.”

“No thank you, for what?” She asks indignantly.

I chastise myself for rudeness. “Sorry. I am looking at the market. No more.”

“Market is good. You want pedicure. Your feet”—she points to my left heel—“you need pedicure.”

I stop. I look her directly in the eyes. “No. Thank. You. Have a nice day.” Despite my firm refusal she, too follows me for another few steps, until I reach an egg stall.

Eggs are, of course, common in Vietnam and this seller’s large crates brim with brown eggs, whitish eggs, smaller brown eggs, and tiny speckled eggs. What I presume are chicken, duck and quail eggs. Behind the egg stall is the fish market, and beyond the fish market is the river. I walk into the midst of the fish market, find a corner and watch.

Hoa Anh’s fish are fresh fresh: their eyes are hard and clear, their scales are shiny. Old ladies, with serious faces and dressed in thin cotton clothing that I would purchase from Walmart’s sleepwear section, squat on their haunches behind low tables with baskets or cardboard covered in silver fish, fresh prawns, and squid. They wave jade bracelets in the air as they quibble with each other or, without customers, busy themselves with small Nokia cell phones. A woman tourist with white skin, bleached hair and tanned shoulders walks between their stalls, photographing fish with a long lens. I remain in my corner watching, writing, not photographing. Some of the ladies glance sideways at me, then pretend to ignore me. I decide that this is because tourists seem to average a minute and two photographs before carefully walking back out of the market. I am anosmic so I wonder about the smell. The concrete floors around me are wet but they appear clean but then there are fish, or hacked pieces of fish or clear bags of fish in every direction. One lady puts aside her wooden basket filled with silver-dollar sized fish, takes a scrub brush to her table with a swiiiiiish swish.

I finally move out of my corner, resisting the urge to photograph until I discover a huge pink fish under a cover of plastic. I ask the vendor if I can photograph.

“Yes!” She cries as she uncovers her prize. “1 dol-lar!”

I laugh, snap the photo, and then oblige her with 10,000 dong, the equivalent of 50 cents. I don’t usually give into larceny but something about the lady’s huzpah makes me laugh – and she cackles with me as I hand her the bill.

On the river side of the market, a black sun umbrella has died and decorated with a ladies hat and belt. A large blacked metal tea pot boils on top of red bricks. A green vegetable that could be sliced zucchini or perhaps green-colored peppers dry in the sun.

As I pick my way between fish stalls, I briefly fantasize about moving to Hoi Anh – purely for its food market.

Wouldn’t you?


One "Entrance" into the Hoi Anh food market.

Flowers for sale at the Hoi Anh food market.

Eggs at the Hoi Anh food market. 

Bags - literally - of fish at the Hoi Anh food market. 

Some food, sliced and green,
at the Hoi An food market. 

Fish - very, very fresh fish - at the Hoi Anh food market.

Bon appetite!!