Happiness is a bowl of bún chả in the rain

As promised from the previous post, I set out to explore more local parts of Hanoi – all thanks to the discovery of a food review app used by locals, Foody.vn. Please do use this when you’re in Vietnam! It will bring you to well loved local eats at local prices. Without this app, I don’t think I could have ventured to local hangouts, due to the lack of information in English online.

So, my trip really took a dramatic turn for the better, and it was a truly magical day for me that involved rain, a nostalgic 90s cafe, witnessing the chaos of school dismissal at a local school, finding delicious bún chả and making a local friend.

I shall start from the beginning, and include videos to show you an actual glimpse / fragment of the chaos, colour and life of Hanoi.

Woke up to a rainy day in Hanoi today. Temperatures dropped heavily by almost ten degrees. It was freezing, and we jumped on a GrabCar (yes, they have it here so use the Grab app for the best transport deal) to a nostalgic 90s cafe on the other side of town, loved by locals for bringing them back to their childhood days. We were curious to see how the already nostalgic city to us could travel further back in time, and how the childhood of Vietnamese youths our age looked like.

In the comfort of the warm car with Vietnamese tunes playing on the radio, and the rain glazing the roads outside, it felt like I was in a film, watching the people in their assortment of colourful raincoats whizz by on their bikes. There is something about the rain that makes everything more beautiful, and especially so here, when the roads burst with colour.

The cafe was hard to find even by local standards, according to the reviews on the app. This picture shows the little back alley we walked in from, hidden behind a row of shops. We went up a flight of stairs that looked like local housing, and it was, because we discovered that there were residents living there. The cafe itself also looked like the interior of an old house. By Singapore standards, I felt like I was transported back to the 60s. So this was what childhood was like in the Vietnam of the 90s.

Unfortunately I didn’t take pictures of the interior…we went out to the balcony which looked something like this:

That’s me, and I realise this is the first time I posted a picture of myself. I am trying out a more candid style of blogging on the go via my phone.

The cafe staff were surprised and a bit lost when we didn’t understand what they were saying, because I think no tourists ever came here. Thanks to Google translate and a girl who spoke some English, we managed to make some sense of the Vietnamese menu. A warm, comforting plate of sweet potato fritters was soon served. When I showed my Vietnamese new friend (I’ll come to that later) this picture later, she was really excited because it was really her childhood snack.

We also got some flavoured frozen yoghurt in cute little tubs, complimentary roasted popcorn, and the legendary Vietnamese coffee we can’t get enough of.

This is the local version of the board game Monopoly. The board is the unfolded wooden case containing the Monopoly notes and property cards, all made with flimsy laminated paper.

This was the view from the balcony, a classic scene of motorbikes in Hanoi. If you think this traffic is bad, wait till you see what happens next.

The cafe is situated right opposite a local primary school, so what we saw at around 4:30PM was a crowd of parents on motorbikes waiting for the school gates to open. And around them, the usual traffic continued unabated.

Soon the school gates open, and the crowd of motorbikes flood into the school compound. Children are seated behind their dad or mum, or else inserted between both parents on their bike, or sometimes up to 4 family members huddled on one bike. Some kids hold on to their parent’s hands while they calmly navigate the heart stopping (to us) tirade of honking bikes, taxis and cars.

This is their everyday life, while it seems like an exciting dramatic scene unfolding before our eyes. Watching these kids brave the monstrous traffic at such a young age, I learn that the Vietnamese are a resilient people – and this word means so many things on different levels I cannot even begin to claim to understand.

More stills from the unstoppable gushing river of vehicles.

Witnessing this moving scene of people braving the traffic, I felt humbled, and for the first time, felt at ease with the movement and noise. Soon the cacophony blended into the rhythms of my environment, and I took out my Kindle, opened a half-read book, and read Montaigne’s philosophy for an hour.

Philosophy – of all things, in the midst of the roar of Vietnamese traffic! This was definitely a transformative moment for me, learning how to find inner peace surrounded by chaos.

As the night fell and the peak hour traffic subsided after more than two hours, we departed the cafe for a bún chả stall I found on the food app, rated highly by Hanoi locals. We were dropped by our Grab driver along a busy main road, but somehow manage to wind our way into a narrow back alley.

There we discovered a row of food stalls like the one above, which we managed to identify after some time. It was around 8PM, and finally, we had found the unassuming place where locals ate their daily dinners, and not the tourist-priced street stall I mentioned in my previous post where we were “shoved around like animals waiting to be fed”.

My travel companion and partner, sitting on a stool at the plastic tables.

We ordered what we thought was bún chả as we had eaten before in Singapore’s Vietnamese eateries. Little did we know! This was bún trộn, made of the same ingredients except that they were mixed. It was the Southern Vietnam interpretation of the dish more commonly found in Ho Chi Minh down south, and indeed, like the pho we had in Singapore, was much sweeter. This confirms our realisation on this trip that the Vietnamese food found in Singapore hails mostly from Ho Chi Minh.

And bún chả was a Northern dish that actually originated from Hanoi itself! We learned all this when a friendly Vietnamese girl sat down beside me. The first thing she said was, “this version of bún chả tastes better”, as she pointed to the noodles, pork slices and vegetables separated into bowls in front of her which she had ordered.

That began a conversation as we shared dinner with a university student from the nearby economics university. She told us that this was her favourite bún chả stall, and she always came here after school. How lucky we felt! Although we ordered the mixed version, it was more delicious than any we’d ever tasted. Such tastes and experiences simply cannot be transported across geographical spaces.

Alice (the English name she chose for her love of Alice in Wonderland), was surprised and (seemed) impressed that I came here through the Foody app, and on a Grab car. She said I know a lot about Vietnam life, and I told her I am trying very hard. It was not easy indeed! Everything was so unfamiliar on the first few days, but things are becoming clearer.

She later brought us to a nearby dessert shop she frequented. She taught me a few Vietnamese phrases, which was so much more effective than struggling to repeat what I heard on Google translate.

And I never knew Vietnam had such nice desserts! The leftmost one is a very sweet mixture of caramel pudding, black glutinous rice, jackfruit slices and sago. At the top is some cheese based jelly with sago. On the right, which was my favourite, was mango sago with coconut jelly and milk.

Only upon coming to Hanoi did we realise the Vietnamese people liked eating desserts. Our friend ordered the three which we all shared, and I was touched by her gesture of being willing to spend time with two foreigners she met at a bún chả stall.

I came to Hanoi only knowing of the Old Quarters and French Quarters, due to limited time to plan for this trip and rather limited information found online. It seems like not many people have explored the city of Hanoi extensively.

Initially disarmed by the hostility we faced in the Old Quarters, I am now thankful for it was my perturbed feelings that led me to discover, and become determined to visit the places where locals lived and ate. Breaking through the appearance of a mysterious foreign culture that seemed inhospitable at first encounter, I found human warmth and hospitality with a bowl of 20k dong bún chả.

Today, I found magic in Hanoi, and I found a new friend.

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Outsiders

Hanoi has been…unsettling. My senses were so overwhelmed and stimulated that if I did not write, I would drown.

It is with deep regret and frustration that I say the Old Quarters have left me with a sense of discomfort. And I’m not just referring to the dangerous traffic and incessant noise pollution that literally induces migraines. It was something deeper that I sensed from the people and the atmosphere, a certain hostility I have never felt before.

This is not the romanticised, nostalgic account of the Old World, of sun-drenched colonial buildings and French windows, and the people selling tropical vegetables by the road and eating pho on red plastic stools.

I have always been against tourism – you can say it is mutually beneficial, cultural immersion in exchange for economic growth. But it is also mutually exploitative. I realised that the moment I felt the intrusive presence of hawkers literally forcing me to try their food, or a peddler tearing at my partner’s shoes and then asking him to purchase glue. In the same way I felt really distressed and intruded, this must be what the local people have felt and will continue to feel with the invasion of tourist crowds marvelling at their exotic cultures.

But I am not one of the tourists, and I never was. My Singaporean counterparts can be considered tourists, because when they go to new places they seek fun, excitement, local tours and activities, photos at beautiful places and key attractions, as well as good food and recommended eateries on TripAdvisor or fellow citizens’ blogs.

Many white tourists and backpackers whom Thais would call ‘farangs’ are here for the 5k dong plastic mugs of beer from metal canisters, and want an experience of the land without compromising too much of their comfort zones – so much so there are cafes and bars tailored to their styles and needs, and expat blogs telling of where the remote working / digital nomad community and freelance artists hang out, or where to experience Vietnamese cuisine in a ‘more comfortable setting’.

When I go to a new place, whether in Thailand or Italy, I always seek to see and experience life from a different perspective, and try to immerse in the ordinary everyday rhythms of a place. Most of the time, with this willingness to immerse and connect, I have felt a human warmth that transcends language.

But in Hanoi, I felt dehumanised. The motorcycles zipping through every narrow lane and alley regardless of whether road traffic is allowed, and the viciousness with which they don’t stop or even slow down when they approach a human body, feels like a violent disregard for human life. Human bodies become objects and obstacles to weave through. I have considered that perhaps biking is their local culture, along with the noise pollution and the way they honk incessantly at pedestrians and other vehicles. But when you find yourself face to face with a speeding bike that’s about the ram into you from a totally unexpected corner, showing no signs of stopping despite mutual awareness, and when this happens a few times, you experience a kind of terror that transcends cultural differences.

The movement is incessant. When you stop, peddlers and hawkers approach you with at first what seems to be benign intent. Then you see the thirst in their eyes. I remember an essay I read in Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives. Something stayed with me – the way she described the human interactions she experienced in Vietnam as cold money transactions.

Yesterday, returning home shocked and exhausted, I read on Wikitravel that over here, it is acceptable to rip people off as long as they are foreign and rich, rich being anyone richer than themselves, because it is a way of taking back what was once taken from them. Perhaps it might be a generalisation, but if so a very true one, because I have felt the hostility and indifference in all my attempts to connect with the local people. At the eateries and bakeries, I feel myself shoved around like animals to be fed. I say thank you and try to make conversation, but am brushed off or ignored.

To be fair, maybe all I have experienced is restricted to the Old Quarters, which I spent two days exploring. It exhausted me completely, being an introvert and also very sensitive to the environment, and today I am recuperating indoors. I don’t know if anyone else has experienced this, because everyone I know who came here only spoke of good food, yet indeed, they did not mention anything about the people. Maybe they found no need to connect, or dismissed it as a language barrier.

But I think it’s more than language. Culture is found in the way a people carries itself every day in the most ordinary details of a society’s fabric. If Wikitravel is accurate, I feel a dreadful fear for the vengeance that lies behind the ruthless actions, cacophony of impatience and annoyance, as well as the mosquitoes here, sucking our blood even in our sleep.

Maybe I am too sensitive. It would be better if I am like the other tourists, just revelling in the moments, enjoying my massage without sensing their resentment at having to rub our feet in tedious manual labour, while their receptionist merely smiles prettily and brings customers in. It would be better if I could squeeze myself into the swarms of beer drinking people squatting at the night market, oblivious to the violence of motorcycles attempting to cut a road through human bodies. It would be better if I enjoy the best bowl of pho I have ever tried, without noticing the wary glances of the waiters and hawkers, that averted glance or the lowering of eyes.

Maybe it’s their history, their experience with the war that I cannot and will never be able to fathom or empathise with. Perhaps it is the heavy baggage of the past, a collective resentment and hatred at foreign invasion – which affront them in the most innocuous moments, like a traveller capturing a colonial window balcony and keeping it as a souvenir, an understated endorsement of colonialism.

Maybe it is the socialism, the way in which everything is divided into us vs them, self vs Other. Although Hanoi has received many tourists and outsiders, there is an impenetrable wall of ice. Unlike the Land of Smiles, its general conviviality and the sense of the Thais being at peace with themselves and each other, Vietnam is a land of closed doors, only opening a crack or sliver, for the outreach of arms exchanging cash.

I know maybe I haven’t seen everything yet. Tomorrow, when I am better, I will head further into the outskirts of the city centre and stay away from the Old Quarters tourist Mecca. I do not have any intention to offend, neither am I angry or offended. Instead, my heart is filled with a heavy sadness I have never felt in a new place, which I generally embrace and appreciate for the unique nuances that can be found from different ways of life and living.

It is the first time, with great regret and embarrassment, that I am drawn powerfully towards the great convenience store of globalisation, and find comfort in Oreo cookies and Ritz cheese crackers – things I wouldn’t even eat at home, yet find comfort in, in the most unexpected of places.

In this place, it hits me powerfully, that maybe, in every place I venture outside of home, I will always be an outsider. Get out, don’t get in my way – this is what I heard. In spite of my efforts to live in the everyday of every place and not collect postcard moments like prizes, I am, in a way I cannot shake off…

a perennial tourist.

Napoli: Beauty in the chaos

Out of all the cities I explored during my trip to Italy last year, Naples (or Napoli in Italian) left the deepest impression – for many reasons.

naples b&w

The first thing that hit me upon stepping into Napoli was chaos. Being the gateway to Southern Italy, which differs greatly from the more affluent and internationalised North, it was the most flavourful, colourful and boisterous and crazy place I visited in Italy, or maybe even Europe thus far.

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endangered sounds

Museum of Endangered Sounds

A museum of sounds we have lost, or will soon lose with the passage of time. I love this project because it is a refreshing way of documenting history. Certain sounds of our daily life can form memories that are so personal, yet shared in a collective nostalgia.

I’ve always thought that sounds are really important, and easily taken for granted – until we realise we’ve stopped hearing them. For example, the sounds of activity at a local coffee shop kopitiam in Singapore – the clinking of teaspoons and glass cups of kopi or teh. The rapid stirring motion of the drinks stall uncle as he makes various concoctions of local drinks. The buzz of the ventilators and stoves in the zi char kitchen, turning out plate after plate of comfort food like sambal kangkong or sweet & sour pork.

What if one day, the hot, greasy and unglamorous stalls of the hawker centre or kopitiam are forsaken, in the face of chain restaurants in the endless sprout of new malls?

And then there are the friendly uncles and aunties running little shops selling provisions or hardware, or a fascinating array of household items we need at home for cleaning, organising, cooking or repairing.

Or the heartland or market stalls selling golden tins of gem biscuits, the sound of coffee beans being ground, and the bargaining and banter of the butchers and fishmongers at the wet market every morning.

And the wrapping of chicken rice, fried kway teow, Hainanese curry rice or roti prata in a square of brown paper, tied up with a red rubber band.

As the sounds of the present become obsolete with new development trends and technologies, will they all be forgotten?

Untouched

Shaxi.jpg

This is a portrait I took of an old lady at a traditional village market. She belongs to the Bai ethnic group, one of the many minority ethnicities in China, where Han Chinese is the majority.

This weekly market has been held for the last thousand years, in a remote and untouched village called Shaxi (沙溪), in the Yunnan Province of southwestern China. Every Friday, the usually peaceful and empty streets spring to life. Villagers dress in their traditional garbs and straw hats, carrying wares or fresh produce in rattan baskets hoisted on their backs, or laying them out on the cobblestones for sale. It is a boisterous and colourful affair, with everything ranging from vegetables to handicrafts or clothes put up for sale.

Many of these villagers, especially the older generation, do not know how to speak Mandarin or pu tong hua, which is the official language of the People’s Republic of China. They speak their own ethnic dialects, but are very friendly and try their best to understand and communicate with the few foreigners that visit their village.

Few travellers have unearthed this gem, which has not been commercialised by mass tourism yet. But that too is uncertain, as developmental works are bound to enter the little village soon, improving infrastructure and connectivity to the outside world.

As of two years ago when I visited Shaxi, the only way to access the village is via a rickety and narrow mountain path that left me in cold sweat as our car swerved precariously near the edge of the steep and winding slope.

When we finally arrived, we were brought to a home stay run by a friendly and enthusiastic girl named Xixi. Every morning, we were awakened by the sounds of cows mooing loudly. We showered and brushed our teeth with fresh and icy cold water that flowed out of a bronze tap, all the way up from the mountains.

Our bed was a thin mattress placed on a bed frame that looked like wooden planks, with no heating in the room although it was winter.

In the morning, we ate a home cooked breakfast, with eggs from the chickens in the farm, and fresh milk squeezed daily from the cows we heard. It tasted strangely raw, although not in a bad way, except that we were too used to processed milk that came in cartons at the supermarket.

There is a supermarket in the village too, but villagers take pride in harvesting everything they need from the farms and their crops.

Even their alcohol is homemade, and I remember the plum wine we were introduced to that came in unlabelled plastic bottles with red caps that reminded me of herbal tea we drank at home. The plum wine was sweet and refreshing, and fresher than anything I have tasted before. I still miss it today sometimes.

As night fell and the local shops drew their shutters, we had BBQ by the roadside where makeshift stalls were set up every evening. There were so many different kinds of meat that I couldn’t recognise, but my favourite was actually the enoki mushrooms. Grilled till golden brown and slightly charred on the charcoal grill, its taste was fragrant and succulent (coming from someone who doesn’t like mushrooms).

There’s something magical about eating barbecued food fresh off the charcoals. With gas and electricity nowadays in modern cities where we stay, it is rare or almost impossible to find food cooked on charcoal.

On the way back to our farm home as we navigated the maze of narrow alleys, we looked up and saw the most amazing sight in our lives. The sky was a milky way of stars. It was not just scattered with sprinkles of stars, but flowed like a river of glitter. Maybe there’s a reason why our galaxy was named the Milky Way.

In a place with minimal electricity and streetlights, the true beauty of our cosmos revealed itself.

Read more about Shaxi here.