Life in Vietnam

Life in Vietnam

Andreas Pohl, Tracey Lister
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Michael Fountoulakis

The noise was sudden, close, and very loud. Small explosions went off all around us. The smoke stung our eyes and became so thick that it was almost as if a heavy fog had descended on the town square, reducing other people to ghost-like shadows moving mysteriously in the distance. Two of these faceless figures ran towards us. We squinted hard to make out who they were. Suddenly two kids in shorts, thongs and T-shirts appeared, jumping up and down and shouting with big smiles: ‘Chuc Mung Nam Moi!’ (‘Happy New Year!’) Then they were gone again, drawn towards another string of red firecrackers.

The year was 1994. We had arrived in the coastal town of Nha Trang on Tet, the lunar New Year’s Eve. The atmosphere was festive and there were people everywhere. Children showed off their new dresses, and adults made last-minute purchases of food, gifts and cumquat trees. Not unlike our Christmas trees, cumquat trees are displayed in homes to mark the occasion.

Tet, which usually falls in late January or early February, is without doubt the most important holiday on the Vietnamese calendar. Anticipation builds in the busy weeks leading up to New Year’s Eve: debts are settled, business deals closed, family feuds resolved, houses scrubbed, and new clothes bought. It is all about turning over a new leaf and starting the new year with a clean slate.

In 1994, there was even more excitement than usual. The Americans had lifted their embargo, which had crippled the country’s economy since 1975, the end of what the Vietnamese call the ‘American War’. The economic reforms which the communist government had introduced in 1986 were also starting to bite, and living standards were improving. After many lean years, the country was on the way out of its economic and political wilderness, and the optimism of the Vietnamese was infectious. There wasn’t a problem that couldn’t be solved. Everything could be done, fixed, sorted or organised in one way or another. Everyone expected life to be much better in the year ahead.

This was our first trip to Vietnam, and we were hooked. Many short visits followed until years later, when Tracey and I had the opportunity to move to Hanoi for a couple of years. I was offered a job at a local university and by lucky coincidence, Tracey met Jimmy Pham, the director of the small project called KOTO. The project was moving to bigger premises and was in desperate need of a professional chef. Within only two months of arriving, Tracey was in the midst of setting up the new kitchen, meeting local government officials, and training the first small group of students in basic food preparation. For Tracey, KOTO was a learning experience. And through her contact with local chefs and home cooks, her fascination with Vietnamese food took hold.

Food plays an important role in Vietnamese culture, a role that goes far beyond the dinner table. A prime example of this is the common greeting ‘An com chua’. Translating directly to ‘Have you eaten rice yet?’, this phrase is not to be taken literally, but rather in the broad sense of ‘Are you well?’

Tay! Tay!

A Western couple moving into a predominantly Vietnamese neighbourhood caused quite a stir. Whenever we walked through our area, the children playing in the street would point at their noses (Westerners are considered to have very big ones) and shout at us ‘Tay! Tay!’ (‘Westerner! Westerner!’). This was usually followed by the only two English sentences they remembered from school: ‘Hello, what’s your name?’ and ‘Where are you from?’ Our reply in broken Vietnamese would, without fail, send them into fits of giggles.

Westerners have always struggled with the melodious singsong of the Vietnamese language. Portuguese merchants and later French Jesuits tried to tame the language by transcribing its Chinese-style characters, Nom, into the Roman alphabet. To show pronunciation, they invented a complicated system of accents. Vietnamese has six different tones, which means that the same word can be pronounced in six different ways, with six different meanings. With the odds of making mistakes being five to one, correct pronunciation is a very long shot.

The Vietnamese language makes life tough for the hapless tay. But it is the fuel that powers Vietnamese humour, which is all about teasing each other with word play and double entendres. So maybe the giggles we got from the children in the street were not really about us speaking Vietnamese with funny accents, but about tays saying rude things in public without realising.

Chopsticks and baguettes

Shortly after Tracey and I moved to Vietnam’s capital, a headline about a fun run appeared in the country’s only English newspaper, the Vietnam News: ‘Vietnamese Run Rings Around Foreigners!’ For a while, the story was our favourite because it showed the irrepressible national pride of the Vietnamese, even in something as trivial as a fun run.

Vietnam’s more-than-two-thousand-year-long history is a series of struggles against much bigger and more powerful countries. The American War was the most recent, but also the shortest. In the greater scheme of things, the Chinese occupation—which lasted almost a thousand years— and a century of French colonial rule have left a more lasting legacy.

The Vietnamese not only adopted China’s spiritual beliefs of Buddhism and Confucianism, but also everyday items such as cooking utensils like the clay pot, the wok and chopsticks. Mongol herders introduced beef to the Vietnamese diet, and the Chinese even gave the country its most important food staple of all: rice!

Between 1852 and 1954, the French built roads, railways and opera houses, and brought baguettes, pâté and pastries. But the many injustices of French colonial rule turned the peasants and many of Vietnam’s best and brightest against them. Today, however, colonial villas and a fondness for coffee and crème caramel are as much a part of Vietnam’s culture as stilt houses and nuoc mam, the ever-present fish sauce.

Vietnam did not merely adopt influences from other countries, but turned them into a rich, diverse and complex culture that is uniquely Vietnamese— a culture that Tracey and I were eager to embrace.

A microcosm of Vietnamese life

For two years, home was Ho Giam Street, not far from the city centre. For us, this soon became more than just our new address: it was a microcosm of life in Vietnam.

For a mainly residential area, Ho Giam Street was a very busy place. Many families ran small hospitality businesses on the side, to add to the household income. The three hundred metres from one end to the other boasted a noodle-soup stall, a tea stall, a café, two Vietnamese pubs (bia hois) and two simple restaurants that served com binh dan, a kind of Vietnamese tapas.

The house we were to call home was typical for that part of town: three storeys high, with two main rooms on each floor, and a roof terrace. (In the past, property tax was calculated on the basis of street frontage. As a result, most parcels of land are narrow and deep, and people tend to build up.) In typical Vietnamese fashion, the ground floor of our home consisted of the formal living room, which opened up to the street. Intended for entertaining visitors, it was furnished with a traditional heavy wooden bench, two matching high-backed chairs and a coffee table—all carved out of blackened hardwood and inlayed with mother-of-pearl. The quality of the craftsmanship was only matched by the discomfort felt when sitting on the furniture for more than ten minutes. The Vietnamese obviously preferred short visits, we decided. Our landlord considered the setting one of the main selling points of the house, and we are certain he thought we were mad when a year later we asked him to remove it, to make room for a billiard table.

The other houses in Ho Giam Street were similar to ours. But in the maze of the dark alleyways that ran off the street, homes were simpler one-storey, oneroom dwellings. While taxis were able to drive to our front door, these alleyways were barely wide enough for two motorbikes to squeeze past each other.

Ong tao: the kitchen god

Our kitchen was located on the ground floor, in the back of the house. The main concession to Western cooking was an old-fashioned electrical oven. (Unlike grilling, roasting and baking are foreign to Vietnamese cuisine. The French may have introduced bread and pastries, but the Vietnamese prefer to leave the production of these delicacies to the professionals.) Mounted above the stove was what looked like a shelf. From time to time, we would return from work to the smell of joss sticks and the sight of flowers or a bowl of fruit that our housekeeper, Thuy, must have placed there. The shelf turned out to be the altar to Ong Tao, the kitchen god.

The jolly figure of the kitchen god who set his pants on fire by standing too close to the stove betrays the sad tale that gave rise to this well-loved character. It is a complicated melodrama involving a wife and her two husbands, who in the course of the story manage to burn to death, one after the other, in the fire of the kitchen hearth. With the passing of time, the three characters merged into Ong Tao, a spy from heaven who observes the goings-on in the house. Seven days before every Tet, Ong Tao travels to heaven, to report to the Jade Emperor—but not before a royal send-off consisting of choice offerings, to put him in the mood for a favourable account.

On the covered roof terrace, we found another altar. Unlike the one for the kitchen god, this altar was put there for the serious business of ancestor worship. About 80 per cent of Vietnamese consider themselves Buddhist. But Buddhist culture is not as strong as in other countries in the region, mixed as it is with a liberal dose of Confucianism and with the practice of ancestor worship. The Vietnamese believe that the souls of the dead watch over them, making their lives better or worse, depending on how they are treated. Photos of the ancestors are displayed on the altar, which traditionally needs to be placed in the highest position of the house. To appease the spirits of their ancestors, families make regular offerings of food, flowers and incense. The food is actually shared between the ancestors and the families. Offerings are placed on the altar and stay there until the joss sticks have burned down: the time it takes for the ancestor spirits to partake in the essence of, for instance, a chicken. After this, the food can be enjoyed by the living.

Pho bo: a Vietnamese obsession

It didn’t take us long to get into the rhythm of daily life in Ho Giam Street. Many Vietnamese start the day with some exercise before breakfast, and most of our neighbours got up just after sunrise, particularly on those hot and humid summer days between May and August. At that early hour, the street in front of our house doubled as a badminton court. And once exercise was over, the food stalls set up their low tables, benches and colourful plastic stools and prepared breakfast. The Vietnamese like a savoury breakfast, and early in the morning, there is nothing better to revive oneself with than a hearty bowl of hot beef noodle soup: pho bo.

Pho bo is probably the closest the country has to a national dish. Said to have originated in the northern Nam Dinh province, it consists of rice noodles in a rich broth, topped with finely sliced beef, shallots, bean sprouts, basil and a generous dollop of chilli sauce. The secret of pho is in the richness of the broth, the ingredients used, and particularly the length of time the stock has been allowed to simmer—which can range from four to twenty-four hours. It is an obsession for the Vietnamese in general, and for Hanoians in particular. For a Vietnamese person, choosing a pho stall has the same importance that settling for a regular espresso bar has for an Italian.

The pho restaurant most often recommended to us was a shopfront not far from where we lived. Its walls were blackened with the soot of a continuously burning coal fire, and chunks of air-dried beef on butcher’s hooks hung from the ceiling. The bad temper of the proprietor was legendary, and on occasion she could be observed throwing the restaurant’s plastic stools at her miserable, young employees. She was also rumoured to be in charge of the local drug trade. The lure of a good pho, however, proved to be too strong for these shortcomings to matter. In the early mornings and evenings, the place was always so crowded that it was difficult get a seat at one of the many tables on the footpath.

Our favourite pho stall, however, was a sidewalk stall in Ho Giam Street. It opened only in the evening and catered for workers returning home after a long day in the office or factory—and later in the night, for revellers on their way back from bars and bia hois. It was a very neighbourly affair, with a simple set-up: a hand-painted sign, and one bench that sat in front of a table laden with plates and chopping boards of moist beef, fresh spring onions and other greens. Behind the table, the owner sat on a low plastic chair next to the charcoal brazier with the large stockpot. Her appearance starkly contrasted with her humble stall. Her clothes were immaculate, her hair was worn in a neat bun, and her neck, curiously, always displayed an elegant pearl necklace. She seemed to know everyone in the area, catching up on the local gossip and giving advice to her customers while preparing the pho. Tracey and I became regulars in our first winter, when we were both struck down with the flu. Unable to eat much, we survived on cups of her broth alone, for which she steadfastly refused to take any money. It was this simple act of kindness that really made us feel welcome in the street, and that turned us into fiercely loyal customers once we had recovered.

Exploring the many street stalls and restaurants which Hanoi has to offer was a wonderful introduction to Vietnamese cuisine. But soon we became keen to recreate our favourite dishes at home, and shopping for the necessary ingredients turned out to be adventure of its own.

Vietnamese markets: not for the squeamish

One never has to walk very far to find someone who will sell you food. As Vietnamese cuisine values freshness above all else, at least one trip to the market per day is necessary.

We often shopped at the famous December 19 Market. It is also known as the ‘Ghost Market’ as it was built on the site of a war cemetery for Vietnamese who died in the 1946 uprising against the French. The souls of the unknown soldiers are thought to still haunt the place. But while many Vietnamese can be quite superstitious when it comes to the souls of the dead, this sensitivity does not necessarily apply to animals. In fact, the meat and the poultry sections of Vietnamese markets are not for the squeamish, as we found out when we took a vegetarian visitor from Australia there.

The excursion started promisingly. Vietnamese food is often described as fragrant or aromatic because of the great variety of herbs and tropical fruit used to prepare it. Vegetable stalls displayed bunches of mint, chives, basil and lemongrass. There were knobby lime-green gourds, spiky red rambutans and prehistoric-looking dragon fruit. Sellers were peeling garlic, carving pineapples and shredding coconuts.

But it all took a turn for the worse when we entered the narrow meat aisle. It was the latter part of the lunar month, when dog is eaten as a special delicacy. Darkly roasted, skinned, whole dogs sat on butchers’ tables with their fangs exposed. It was as if they had been ready to pounce when death suddenly struck. The fish section did not provide the necessary relief. Fish were thrashing around in shallow bowls, and we watched a fishmonger deftly scale a twitching, live carp. And our last hope, the poultry section, did not work out as we hoped, either. The first thing we came across was a stallholder cutting the throat of a duck and collecting the blood in a bowl. The blood was most likely going to be mixed with crushed peanuts and fish sauce for an afternoon pick-me-up, usually taken with a shot of rice wine.

Luckily for our visitor, it was not always necessary to go to the market, as sometimes the market would come to us. The relative quiet of the mornings and mid-afternoons in Ho Giam Street were interrupted by the plaintive calls—‘Banh my’ and ‘Ai xo di’—of the street sellers walking slowly through the area. On their heads, they carried bamboo baskets full of deliciously crusty baguettes that were still oven-warm (banh my), or sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves or newspaper (ai xo di).

Bia hoi: the local, down the road

Man cannot live on food alone, delicious as it might be. Vietnamese men love to go to their version of the local, the bia hoi (literally ‘draught beer’). Like pubs everywhere, it’s a place to chat, to eat, and particularly to drink. Soon after we moved into Ho Giam Street, our neighbour Manh decided to turn the ground floor of his house into a bia hoi. This became an all-too-convenient stop for us, and a quick after-work drink often turned into a leisurely session of observing the street life.

The pub grub served in hole-in-the-wall places like Manh’s is very simple. Boiled peanuts and the very salty and stringy dried cuttlefish are staples, as is a type of mettwurst called nem chua: raw sour pork eaten with a chillibased dipping sauce. The sausages are wrapped in banana leaves, together with a guava leaf, apparently to sterilise the raw meat—or so said my Vietnamese drinking companions. This might, of course, just have been a comforting fib to reassure Westerners suspicious of uncooked food. Be that as it may, nem chua never caused us any troubles.

Manh had decided to go up-market and invest in a ‘tempright’, in order to offer cold bia tuoi (pressurised or fresh beer) and gain a competitive edge over the two other no-frills bia hois in the same lane. In these establishments, the owners sucked on pieces of plastic hose stuck in the beer barrels to siphon off the beer from their kegs, like petrol from a tank. The beer was poured over big chunks of ice in the glasses to keep it cool. For twenty cents more per glass, Manh sold colder beer with more fizz. Most drinkers in the street, though, stuck with the cheaper hose system. Sadly, Manh had to close his bia hoi eight months later.

Family and food

It gets dark around six o’clock, and the bia hois in residential areas like Ho Giam Street usually quieten down not long after, as drinkers make their way home for dinner. In a country where eating alone is considered unlucky and the lonely diner is pitied, the evening meal is an essential part of life. At the end of the day, history, culture and tradition boil down to two basic ingredients: family and food, the very foundations of Vietnamese society.

Family meals are as much about food as they are about getting together. Family relationships make up three of the five Confucian ‘pillars of society’, and the customs of family meals all relate to the importance of showing respect for one’s elders. For example, the head of the family is traditionally served rice first, children are expected to ask permission to start eating, and wives often put choice pieces of food in their husband’s bowls. A typical family dinner would consist of rice plus two or three other dishes: most likely braised meat such as caramelised pork, some stir-fried water spinach (rua muong), and possibly a salad such as banana flower salad. The family gathers around communal bowls or plates filled with food and placed in the centre of the table or on a round tray on the floor. Family members then help themselves, topping the rice in their individual bowls with morsels picked up from the communal dishes. And at the end of the meal, when all the dishes have been eaten, they polish off the remaining rice with a light broth called canh.

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