Communist Kitsch continued: Saving lives?

 

vases

I haven’t been able to move past my intrigue with Communist Kitsch – there are so many directions to turn and explore. It started with my last post, when I poked fun at a few of the items I had collected and kept long past their due date. I cajoled facebook friends to post kitsch they own and love; and the enthusiasm spread. Here’s some of what turned up. The goose lamp might even be Communist Kitsch; it looks more Soviet than Vietnamese, but I don’t know the origins. I was at café in Elmsdale, Cup of Soul when I discovered a delicious collection of kitschy animals. While gingerly explaining the meaning (junk to others, but you love it) of kitsch, I asked to take a few photos; they were more than accomodating, thus the dancing cows. And on a recent call zoom call with classmates from my MFA, I mentioned my fascination with Communist Kitsch and as soon as the phrase slipped from my lips Phil swung his swivel chair around and dove behind a piece of furniture. When he emerged, he was unfurling a Soviet Propoganda poster, not unlike this one, which he sent later.

"Peace and happiness to you, victorious Vietnam!" Soviet poster, 1973
“Peace and happiness to you, victorious Vietnam!” Soviet poster, 1973

But it’s not all chuckles and laughter.

My interest in Communist Kitsch took hold at the Cong Caphe, a coffee shop near our apartment in Hanoi. The décor of the cafe spoke to me in its simple aesthetic. And it clearly appealed to others, because it was almost always busy – occupied by twenty somethings and foreigners. I wondered how older Vietnamese, the un-millienials, who may have even fought in the war, saw this business. Was it a mockery or even a bastardization of the few material items they may have owned in the past? Here’s one answer found in an article on a website hosted by the United Nations Refugee Agency. This piece from Radio Free Asia, is about a café in Hanoi, not the Cong, being ‘castigated’ for its ‘blasphemous décor’. The article posted here, was written in 2013, only 3 years before we went to Hanoi. It points to some of the questions that I’ve had about the strange companionship of capitalism and communism. Not everyone is charmed by Communist Kitsch.

When you plug Communist Kitsch into a search engine you end up with a lot of articles, commerical venues and photos of propaganda posters, similar to the one Philip sent me. In Vietnam, reproductions of old posters are sold everywhere in tourist shops. If you believe kitsch is purely ‘gaudy and tasteless art’ this can be confusing. Many of the posters are beautiful and use strong graphic detail tell a story. I was seduced by them. There are layers upon layers in these images and one of the best places to learn how to decipher the message and understand the context in which the images were created is Dogma. This private collection holds a significant number of posters and photos that were created during the war in Vietnam. Look at the detail behind the mother and daughter.

For the future of our Children
Determined to protect our villages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I would love to know what Clement Greenberg, the 20th century writer and art critic, would have said about each of these images. An American, known for his writing on kitsch, wrote this in the late 1930’s.

Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time.” [1]

I’m not sure his words fully apply to the experience of looking at 50 year old Communist Kitsch by a Canadian in 2021.  I don’t think the propaganda is spurious. Those who created it, believed in it but perhaps I’m not fully grasping his sentiment. I know that Greenberg’s ideas are not directed to communism, kitsch is kitsch, whether it’s produced under capitalism or communism or any other label. Greenberg’s writing on kitsch is ubiquotous. Here’s one more quote.

Kitsch is deceptive. It has many different levels, and some of them are high enough to be dangerous to the naive seeker of true light.

This feels more relevant and points to the subversive nature of kitsch; coming forward  on a backdrop of nostalgia and sentimentality, (which should not be confused with age). I know that much of the kitsch in my life, whether I bought it yesterday or two decades ago, is an item that reminds me of an event or a person or a period in my life. Those connections, between material goods and feelings, are easily warped and twisted, and one can spend much time  contemplating the genuine value of kitsch, why humans collect so much of it and where real beauty exists. This is why so many have written dissertations on kitsch, contemplating its significance and place in our lives. This can’t be worked through in a few words, but I just wonder if kitsch is determined by the relationship between the person and the item, rather than the items and the times. I’m sure it’s not as simple as that.

I’d like to redirect the conversation one more time. Trang, the creator of the website HanoiMinitrue, didn’t just answer my question about the Public Notice Boards when I posted this photo in my last piece Communist Kitsch: More than a lookHer instagram feed and her website have supplied the beginning of many threads about the dimensions of Communist Kitsch.  For example, here’s a link to a post on her feed where a poster is taking up a large part of a Public Notice Board. Here is the poster on it’s own.

Posters like this are peppered everywhere in Vietnam right now. This one says ‘mask up’.

As soon as I saw Trang’s image, I remembered an article in the Guardian last year about how these propaganda posters have contributed to the fight against the pandemic in Vietnam. It suggests that contemporary Communist Kitsch and heavy punitive fines for violating the regulations pertaining to Covid, has helped the Vietnamese government fight the spread. There’s a vague resemblance to what’s happened in Nova Scotia. Our former Premier told us to #staytheblazeshome and it went viral; our Chief Medical Officer, Robert Strang gets on the airwaves often, with mostly clear and consistent messaging. Similar yes, but the same? Not entirely. I think it would be an interesting conversation to have with people who have lived under democracy and communism.

Here’s another of the posters that’s been circulating across Vietnam. This one says to ‘Stay Home is to Love Your Country‘.  I’m uncomfortable turning the fight against Covid into nationalist propoganda, but I’m going to drop that thread again.

Instead I’ll ask if practical and useful items can still be called kitsch? Or does the definition change when kitsch saves lives? I just don’t know.

I started this by talking about the sand I collected as a teenager, which was only relevant to my father (the supplier of the some of the sand) and myself. Communist and Capitalist Kitsch, whether it’s propoganda posters or toys from a McDonalds’ Happy  or Meal or a ball cap telling me to ‘Just do it‘ remind me of the power behind an small and seemingly insignificant item. I struggle with possessions on many levels, but I also relish them, particularly when craft and artistry is involved. I’m going to park the angst for a brief time, with many of the questions, and let this small step into Communist Kitsch inform my own pursuit for beauty and meaning; a pursuit that continually shifts but never ends. As always I’m interested in your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Communist Kitsch: More than a look

 

Seriously good Kitsch from a Kitsch Museum in Romania

The only way to start this twisted adventure is to make a shameful admission about my first thoughts on Kitsch, a german word that made its debut in the English language in the 1920’s. Kitsch and Kitschy have always been a part of my vernacular, perhaps it’s because my grandparents spoke yiddish, but it could just as easily have come from outside. As a teenager I used the words a lot, particularly when describing the things other people bought. I was a snob who believed my family and I had impeccable taste and most others did not. (Those who knew me as a teenager will know of what I speak).

My not kitschy box collection

For example, I had a sand collection; it wasn’t kitschy, it was unique. The bright green ‘designer’ sweater with the alligator across the front, the one my dad bought me in Florida, (and would blind you if you looked at it too long), was the height of fashion. And my father’s paint by numbers on velvet, they were too cool for school. Kitsch and kitschy were words I used in reference to others, and I said them with attitude and a slight hint of venom.

So the first time I, the fashionista and decor icon, heard the term Communist Kitsch, I was very confused. I liked the way it sounded, but the idea that kitsch was cool hadn’t occured to me. Besides communism plus kitsch sounds like an oxymoron; I mean how much stuff can a communist have? I didn’t think communists collected sequins and snow globes, not even considering they were responsible for so much of the kitsch being made in this world. To avoid taking you deeper into clearly compromised thinking, just consider this, everything I learned about communism was from watching American movies, and listening to teachers who’d watched the same movies. If they had really known anything about communism they wouldn’t have said so. In other words, we all had indoctrination issues.

So when I arrived in Vietnam in 2016, a communist country, which calls itself a one-party state, where my family and I were going to live for one year, my knowledge of communism was pretty superficial. Which is when I heard Communist Kitsch for the second time.

Somara at the Cong; notice the cushion underneath her.

It started with the Cong Caphe, a coffee shop near our apartment in Hanoi. We went often to escape our small apartment and soak in the hipster vibe. Somara sometimes went alone, to listen to books and draw; and then I’d show up and pretend I didn’t know her, because going to a coffee shop with your mom is NOT hip, even when you’re twelve.

Walking into the Cong felt a bit like I was walking onto a set for the TV series M.A.S.H.,  just more fashionable with a better selection of drinks. Beneath the whirring metal fans is utilitarian wooden furniture; chairs, benches and tables set with tin dishes and plastic flowers. The staff all wear khaki t-shirts and hats. What stands out most from the earthy palate is the brightly colored fabric that’s used for cushions.

Communist Kitsch and this style of fabric covers a lot of the interior decor we saw in Vietnam; the Cong Caphe, a very successful chain through Southeast Asia has capitalized on it, the way Anthropologie the clothing and decor chain has grabbed hold of shabby chic. And this is where I left my musing on Communist Kitsch, amongst the cool coffee shops, and fabric markets, which I came to adore while living in Vietnam.

That’s until a few weeks back when I wrote my last post, the first in four years, a fumbling manifesto about why I was writing a blog called VietnamSpam, from a desk over looking the Bedford Basin. (You can go back and read it, click here, I’d be grateful.)

What you will see immediately, is this photo. I added it to the last post as a throwaway unrelated to what I was writing, but a genuine and earnest deviation in search of help. I still wanted to know more about the black chalkboards we saw in the alleyways of Hanoi.

These blackboards were all throughout the city, and I took a photo of this one in my neighborhood, thinking it might poetry by the way it was blocked. Poetry has a rich tradition in Vietnamese culture and because I saw other boards with similar blocking, I asked a Vietnamese friend if that’s what it was. ‘Not poetry, just messages from the government,’ she said. She said the messages wouldn’t make sense to me and didn’t seem to think the boards were interesting; I didn’t want to pry, and so the conversation ended.

I tried finding out more when we were still in Vietnam, but felt tentative. Quite a few people had told me to be careful writing  about our experience and to avoid criticizing the government. I wasn’t sure where the line between curiousity and criticism was drawn, and since I wanted to stay in Vietnam, I really loved being there, I never used the ‘c’ word or wrote about some of our strange happenings. I tried to do research on the blackboards when we came back to Canada, but all the search engine spit back at me was black, white and green boards for sale. It felt like a dead end.

So when I published the most recent blog entry, I  cross promoted the link to one my instagram feeds using this photo of some houses in Halifax. And the very next day, POOF, out of thin air, came a tiny little like that has sent me off on a new adventure.

Here are some of the photos I saw when I clicked on the like from an account by the name of @HanoiMinitrue.

 

I was pretty darn excited.

The first thing Trang, the author and photographer behind HanoiMinitrue taught me, is the blackboards are called Public Notice Boards. As my Vietnamese friend said, the boards communicate things the government wants people to know. Not ‘foreigner’ people, Vietnamese people.

Most of what Trang’s put on instagram in the last month shows blackboards with the words Chúc Mừng Năm Mới, which is the greeting used for lunar new year. According to Trang, Minitrue is a reference to George Orwell’s 1984 and the Ministry of Truth; now that’s intriguing. Her logline on her website is The Vanishing Beauties of Communist Kitsch, and even though I was a bit surprized to see that phrase again, I understood immediately.

Trang’s instagram and website look perfunctory on first glance. But linger and go back, as there’s lots of layers. She’s been following individual boards for several years, documenting change, and is always posting new boards discovered by her and her followers. One instagram post about ‘general clean-up’ has an explanation beneath the photo, saying it’s a reminder that Saturday is the day to attend to the area outside their building. I share a driveway with my neighbor and wonder what would happen if I put up a sign telling them Saturday is when we clean. No, I lied, I don’t wonder.  This is one reason I’m so happy to have her site. Trang’s providing the small details  of daily life which were out of my grasp when we lived in Hanoi.

In another blog post Trang interviews a 25 year old artist, named Thang, who takes care of  five boards in the coastal city of Hai Phong, which is near the Unesco World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay. I’ve read her interview with him several times now, and you can read it here too. The reason I keep going back is because it reminds me of  the consulting work I was doing in Hanoi with journalists at VTV, the National Broadcaster. One of the things I was asked to do was to help staff improve their interviewing skills. It was not easy; how do you teach people how to probe for information in a place that has censors?

When I  read the interview with Thang the artist, I wanted to know more. I wondered why it’s such an honour for him to do this work, and why he’s committed himself to five boards when he has a full time job. Does he get paid? What happens if there’s a message he’s being asked to convey that he doesn’t agree with? I would ask the same questions in Canada, but still don’t  know if they’re inappropriate in Vietnam.

I recognize that the layer that’s missing may be because I’m a foreigner, but it’s similar to the gap I couldn’t bridge when I was working with VTV. The work was fantastic and I still think about that job and how sad I was to leave the challenge behind.

I know the gap exists in North America as well. It may be born of other things, but the quality of journalism and most certainly the quantity, has been washed out to sea as of late.

So questions aside, because I always have those, Trang has taken me deeper into the place I was so sad to leave. I don’t believe she’s writing for some-one like me, or that her intent is political. She’s sentimental, and appreciative of the artistry which has gone in to creating the chalk messages. Worried the Public Notice Board will soon be a thing of the past, she’s building a community of people who have her sense of nostalgia and this is a database, which will have even more value going forward. It has value to me right now.

Trang’s work has inspired me to go further in my exploration of Communist Kitsch, and I’m going to write more about it in my next post because kitsch saves lives.

What I want to acknowledge after having found Trang’s website is the common space between the two of us, a space that’s held between women all around the world. Last week she had a photo on her instagram feed, showing a Public Notice Board celebrating International Women’s Day. The photo is a blurry image of a women driving by the board on her bike. According to Trang, she is a garbage picker, like the two women in the photo below. The job is exactly what you think, going through garbage to find items of value to recyle and sell. Trang says she waited some time to take the picture and I appreciate her perseverence.

Garbage Pickers in Hanoi

I’m not sure what we’re celebrating on International Women’s Day, and I’m pretty sure Trang agrees. All it does is remind how poorly women are treated everywhere. Forever frustrated and angry about the misogyny, inequality and abuse of women in my own country, the irony of her image stung. When I got over that,  I was able to find my way to the feelings of warmth and solidarity I have felt with women from all around the world. I remembered conversations, even when there was very little common language, where we understood one another, and shared a moment. It happened to me often in Vietnam. That’s the part of this adventure I don’t want to forget. And those are the stories I want to keep telling.

I’d love to know if you’ve ever heard the words Communist Kitsh and even better if you have photos. You can comment on anything, I’m interested. And while you’re still here…do you think this stuffed cat from Mexico is kitschy? (Some-one in this house thinks so!)

Dispatch from Halifax

I never confirmed what these bulletins boards in the alleyways  of Hanoi are for and I’m still wondering. Anyone?

It’s been four years since Tim, Somara and I changed address to return Halifax and five years since we left to go live and work for a year in Vietnam. I’m not waking up all groggy anymore, thinking I might still be in Hanoi.

This is Halifax, not Hanoi

That year was a crazy awesome adventure we shared with a lot of our family and a few dear friends who also couldn’t resist. We still keep in touch with the Vietnamese friends who welcomed us into their lives; but as time passes, the communication is less frequent and sadly I’ve lost track of a few. On occasion I’ll reach for one of thousands of photos, but they’re still not properly sorted . (But hey, look what I just found under 2014 on my hard drive….)

Not 2014. And not Halifax. This is Hanoi.

Yet something’s changed in the last few months. The pandemic, which has eaten everything in its wake, has tossed us back to the magic of living in that chaotic, polluted, and oh so lovely part of the world.

Classic dipping sauce for Bang Xeo

People who know my family, know we talk about food constantly. Since returning, Tim likes to review our favourite restaurants; the one or two dish street stalls and shops we returned to over and over again. We have sought out some of the more common delicacies here in Halifax, (we love, I Love Pho on the Bedford Highway), but still yearn for the authenticity of plastic tables and stools. We’ve also learned to make a few dishes and frequently visit Tien Phat, the grocer who has pretty much everything we need – who’s also on the Bedford Highway. If Somara’s not with me, I try to speak Vietnamese to the owners, but my pronunciation which was barely acceptable in the thick of Vietnamese lessons, is now pathetic. Back to the food – I’m still contemplating buying a decent hot plate to try Korean/Vietnamese BBQ, but don’t know how to cram another gadget into the cupboard without Tim’s ire. (Like he owns the kitchen.)

Somara and friends trying Tien’s drag outfit from contest at Australian Embassy.

Another strain of conversation is about the kids we met. We know they look substantially different, but wonder how their personalities have changed.

Mai’s son, who was really shy, and who adored plain white sliced bread, was a boy and is now a teenager. I was thinking about the segway he rode up and down the halls of his high rise apartment. Maybe he still does it. If so, I hope it’s in the dead of night while everyone is asleep. (Kind of like the kid Danny, in the movie The Shining; except my movie is on a segway instead of a small trike, and there’s no orange and red carpet, but I’ll keep the music from the original soundtrack). What I really would like to know is what is Mai’s son like now? Does he miss his sister who’s moved to Toronto and hasn’t been home in two years? What video games does he play? 

Several weeks ago, I found the picture Ling’s daughter drew for me when we were on vacation together in Hue. Is she still drawing and taking piano lessons? Or did she rebel like Somara and move on to another instrument? How big are her twin brothers? I know these kids probably don’t remember me, but I feel wistful about them and their parents; they’re people who we started to get to know, they made Vietnam even more meaningful for us, and then we left.  So whether it’s plain old nostalgia or trying to break out of walls that have closed in on us, Vietnam is top of mind these days.

What Tim, Somara and I discuss most are the streets where we rode our motorbikes, and the places where we went to hang out. Most Vietnamese live in small spaces and spent a lot of time in cafes, and parks, and on the sidewalk; parks are their dance studios, fitness clubs, and a place where all ages come to play; sidewalks are where you can find the best restaurants and markets; and like the cafés, they all buzz with the rituals of Vietnamese life. Some of the place and street names don’t come to mind quickly, and our conversation can get a bit ridiculous as we try to get ourselves all situated at the same location, but these memories are precious.

When these conversations occur, it’s as if we’re trying to rebuild a scene in a movie that we all love. Each one of us talks about a sight, sound or smell; something that reminds us of why the memory is special. If I was to sum up my movie about Vietnam and describe how I want it to feel, I would say I want my viewers to feel a sense of adventure and wonder.

Ceramic wall started in 2007, Long Bien Bridge above it started in 1899.

This blog started because I wanted to find a way to capture the adventure and wonder that kept coming at me. Hanoi, one thousand years old with a population of close to 10 million (give or take a million) is undergoing massive change as capitalism has made friends with a one party state. You never knew what you’d see in the next metre let alone the next block. Many of my days were spent going just a little bit further, or turning a different direction to peek around a corner. You could never get it all in either…the city is so layered and full of nooks and crannies begging to be seen. Hayao Miyazaki’s movies give me the same feeling. Not all his films, but some, like Spirited Away  summon it perfectly.  Maybe it’s because the unknown felt safe and beguiling; in the unknown, as in many of his films, there is optimism and hope. Hope is a great antidote to fear and trouble. I don’t want it to sound sugary sweet, because it wasn’t that either. There was a gentle tug of mystery, of something that might be a bit sinister, and that might be where the wonder comes in.

I found the same sense of adventure in my consulting work and couldn’t get enough of it. I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to work so closely with ‘journalists’ talking about freedom of information, and objective reporting. I didn’t feel I could write about these topics while I was still living in the country, but I’m going to try in upcoming posts. So while politics was very rarely discussed, the current state of affairs and Vietnam’s complex history created a fascinating backdrop to our experience.

Corn field and building typical in rural North.

We knew the magic of Vietnam would have worn off, we just didn’t know when. It wasn’t all ‘wonderland’; we saw bits of corruption and capitalism singeing the edges of what we found charming and good. Not all our memories are sweet either. Somara recently reminded me of an excruciating long taxi ride through the city during which I kept vomiting into a plastic bag. Delightful, I know.

However almost everything that happened that year fed the desire for adventure and wonder.  You can also say we broadened our horizons, or stepped out of our comfort safe, or that we were foolish or brave. Whatever you call it doesn’t matter, it was privilege that gave us the ability to leave our home, our jobs, Somara’s school, to pursue our desire to go back overseas. It’s wrong not to call it a gift.

 Which is partially why I understand the nostaligia and know it makes perfect sense. Even though the spread of Covid 19 has been minimal in Nova Scotia, (although we are now starting to see signs of community spread), it’s been a really lousy time, personally, professionally and as a human being. In fact, the hardest part is because I’m a human being. But there’s no escape. Yet as so many others have pointed out, there is an antidote to pandemic life. The antidote is ensuring you take the time to summon adventure and wonder wherever you are.

Bay of Fundy
Bay of Fundy near Wolfville

If I step back and really think about it, I can continue on the path. It doesn’t look or feel the same as a year in South East Asia, that’s beyond obvious. However this pandemic has forced me to look around and grab hold of the riches of this life – the one in Nova Scotia, the one that’s also distressing and really hard right now.

This past year has included trips to parts of the province, stunning locations, I haven’t seen for years. I’ve gone hiking on new trails, and made trips back to ones I adore. The summer was full of long leisurely beach walks, ocean and lake swimming and more kayaking than I normally do in a summer. I have spent oodles of times with old friends, commiserating and supporting one another and I’ve made new ones. I’m trying to be a better partner, daughter, sister and mother. Some days, today included, it doesn’t feel better, but there’s been lots of shared moments  and laughs; I marvel at my good fortune. 

As I peer out onto the world, I don’t want to throw this stuff away when the pandemic passes. They are key to living a good life. And I want them to transcend the line that will inevitably be drawn between pandemic and post pandemic life.

I’m returning to VietnamSpam: from Hanoiing Canadians. The title is problematic, and it may be insurmountable but I’m not doing anything dramtic until I finish writing about Vietnam. Instead I’m trying to think of a logline that captures the essence of what I’m writing.  For example no more Hanoiing Canadians…now we’re just plain annoying). And I’ll tell you the story later about the most magnificent title I ever had for a book –  it created quite the buzz, but there just wasn’t any content.  The best I can describe it right now is I’m continuing the adventure and I’m documenting it with words and photographs. It will help, I know it will. 

Small island near Terrence Bay, Nova Scotia

Halfway between Hanoi and Halifax

Tim and Somara in Koh Lanta Thailand

As we count down our stay in Southeast Asia I am stuck somewhere between Hanoi and Halifax. You can’t find this place on a map and I can’t name it; it’s a mental space.  My subversive mind is wandering back and forth through my life picking up people and events long past and has mired me down in memories. It’s not bad or good; it’s a quagmire.  I’m feeling incredibly grateful right now for my life, and so happy we came. I’d prefer to stay in the moment and focus on this chaotic complex world around me, because time is running out. But this seems to happen every time I’m about to make a big transition….I become lost in these mashed up memories and dreams. Anyhow the real reason I’m trying to express all this is that I’m struggling to write. (You don’t want to know how long it took to get just that out!) So once again, instead of words, I offer pictures.

These are photos of many of the  people who made this year incredible…..

First is Huong and Chinh. My aunt and uncle introduced us as Huong had been their guide in Hanoi in 2015.  They were pretty sure we’d become friends.  And they were so right.  Somara and I had the honour of being at their wedding in December.

This is Kristy (and Somara after a particularly good sale at a shoe shop).  She’s also a Canadian who came to Hanoi with WUSC and stayed on to teach English.  We ‘hang out’ a lot and I’m going to miss her terribly.

The Canary hotel, where we live is a family business.  Thu, the manager, and her two daughters are the ones we see the most, and  they have treated us more like family members than clients. Before we go I must try to get some good photos of all the family. Meanwhile, Tan, Van, Thuy (who you see in the first photo), Phuong who’s in the second, and Van (in the one below) all work at the Canary and have become friends. We enjoy their company and will miss their smiles.

 

 

 

 

Mai, who’s worked with (and humoured) Tim at the Hanoi Open University has brought us together with her family numerous times this year.  We even met her father and mother and sister, and her family, who live 2 hours North of Hanoi a couple of weeks ago. I hope one day we can host them in Canada.

One thing I’ve learned about privilege is that it’s not just about having the means to do things in life, it’s about having the support of those around you to do those things you desire. One of the best parts of this year was having people we love come and join in the adventure.

Sarah and Dave, dear friends from Halifax, fit Hanoi in to their 3 month journey to Australia and New Zealand.  And I’m so glad they did.  It was a blast showing them our favourite spots as well as uncovering new ones.

 

Amrita and I met in grade 7, a long long time ago. We’ve been through a lot of life together. And I was thrilled when she asked if she could come visit with her kids, Katie, Jason and Marina.  I think we laughed for 12 days straight.  The first picture is of all the kids playing Heads Up (a charades type game) at the Fine Arts Museum. The next is Amrita trying to throw clay.We had an amazing trip to Mai Chau (3rd photo) where we wandered through rice fields, and played more games until the wee hours of the morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tim’s brother Jeff has lived in Southeast Asia for over 10 years.  He was a bit elusive this year although we finally got to meet his girlfriend Ying (who was wonderful) in Thailand in early February. Jeff eventually caught up with us later in the month in Hanoi but somehow still avoided being photographed. Tim’s parents however were not photo resistant. This is Jackie showing us how to play cards and Paul showing Somara how to mug for a photo. Their visit was far too quick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Never ones to pass up an opportunity for travel, almost all my immediate family showed up at some point this year. First takers were my sister Fia’s family.  In fact they beat us here.  And we caught up with Fia, Joel, Ava and Lily almost a year ago in Central Vietnam.  The picture tells you what you need to know.

Note that the apple doesn’t fall far…

Next was my mom, who waited for the summer heat wave to end.  Even though she’s travelled the world I worried that it was really far for her to come. It didn’t phase her one bit, nor did the traffic, or the food…. The best moment was when the women at our local market asked her age (not uncommon, as age changes the way you address some-one), she answered, they gasped, and then clapped and cheered.

Before Mom left her sister, Naomi arrived.  And then her brother, Shim, and my aunt Moe. It was great just hanging out with them enjoying a lot of good scotch, vodka, and other delicious things.  I had forgotten how much I like shopping with both my aunts, and we made up for lost time. (Naomi is being fitted for one of the few items she had made in the first photo.  Note the poncho in the next was not tailor made.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I said these are photos of people who made this year incredible.  Tim, didn’t just make it incredible, he made it.  I can’t believe I put up so much resistance…what was I thinking?! Can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.   As for Somara, I think she’s shown us her incredible capacity to be open to the world.  She’s also taught me that if you want her attention, there can be no puppies in sight.

Chasing the Light

Late afternoon fun in a Mai Chau rice paddy

It’s been raining and overcast for over a week in Hanoi. In fact it’s down right chilly and I’m under the fleece blanket Somara has brought from Halifax. I’m not telling you this to get sympathy, I’m making the point because I’m frustrated with the light. When it’s not raining or foggy, the sky has been flat and dull and my photography plans have been thrown askew.

Hoi An, after rain, before sunset

Dusk or the light that comes just before dusk, something called magic hour (which are really just minutes), is my favourite time of day, that is when the sun shines through. When it happens something comes over me and I’m able to centre myself, clear my head and sometimes even experience awe. The change in me is palpable.

But magic hour is fleeting and I’m always torn between savouring the moment and running off with my camera. And I’m feeling anxious right now because there’s a spot I’ve been wanting to photograph for awhile that I just can’t seem to get to at the right time of day in the right conditions. It’s even more stressful knowing our days in Hanoi are numbered.

Quality of light, I believe, is different everywhere. That quality is part of what contributes to my connection with a place. It’s hard to separate the light from location and physical surroundings, because ultimately you experience it as one. But atmosphere, physical geography, and physical relationship to the sun must have an impact on light….it just must.

I find the light particularly gorgeous at dusk in our living room and on our porch in Halifax. Most of the time the porch looks tired and frumpy but when the conditions are right, it’s a paradise. One day I might put together photographs of my favourite ‘twilight’ locations and try to illustrate the differences.  But for now I’m in Hanoi, where I’ve seen light that I feel is a new and welcome addition to my repertoire. Sadly I think it’s the pollution and smog that contributes to the beauty.

Hanoiing Traffic

Diverging back to Nova Scotia for a moment, there was a scene in one of my documentaries that I will always remember filming. Outdoors, just before dusk, we were on the shoreline of a rural community, and it was a calm calm evening.  I can recall the orange bronze glow of the descending sun on the subject’s face, and the warmth of the imagery. It was almost over the top, kind of like seeing Northern Lights, too out of the ordinary to believe, and unforgettable.  I was horrified when I saw that the editor had colour corrected the footage to look like it was much earlier in the day…and had completely removed the glow. To this day I regret not having pushed him to return the footage to its genuine state.

View from 7th floor

One of the tiny challenges I’ve had this year being a ‘late afternoon light chaser’ who lives in a high rise, is calculating the time differential of what you see from the 7th floor window as compared to the ground.  In other words, don’t wait to see great light from your window before heading outside on your mission. It’s going to be a lot darker on the ground. The other problem is that it can literally be a chase.  Hanoi is so congested it’s hard to know where the light is going to fall. When I was photographing traffic I was constantly trying to find the openings where the light came through; part work-out, part photo session, wearing my running shoes.

Somara’s Botanical Dance

One of my favourite respites in this crazy city is the Botanical Gardens. In late afternoon it becomes a haven for badminton players, runners, soccer enthusiasts, and parents and kids who just want some space to run around. I’ve taken my camera there on many occasions but have little to show for it. My excuse is that it get darker quicker than most places because of the enormous trees and I think it’s on lower ground. I’m reposting the one image I’ve taken there that I really like.

Late afternoon light in Cambodia

We were in Cambodia in December to see the temples around Siem Riep, including the most well known of them, Angor Wat.   Many tour operators built their agendas around light for two simple reasons, temperature and beauty.  So even though I like to think I’m not a ‘typical’ tourist who goes along with the crowd,  I was, always conscious and planning where we’d be in the late afternoon.  (For the record, sunrise was a no brainer; we were in bed). So even though we went everywhere on our own, no guide or gaggle of tourists in tow, I was chasing the light and the perfect image.  Day 1 just as we were perched at the top of a temple waiting for the sun to descent, Somara leaned across her dad and said ‘I don’t feel well’.  We quickly made the mad dash down to get her back to the tuk tuk to go home.  Good thing too.  On the way I was able to capture the image above (see everyone at the top waiting?) and this one of Somara, whose hair looks much more spectacular than she feels.

In retrospect I’m not sure why we were waiting for the sun to set and looking down.  I’ve always preferred the quality of light cast onto objects at dusk over sunsets in the sky. Don’t get me wrong, I like a gorgeous sunset, (in our house we yell out ‘ Sky Alert’), I’m just not interested in photographing them.

Our second night in Cambodia we went to Angor Wat (with at least 5000 other tourists) and  I was in my glory.  Arriving just after 4:00 pm I knew I had a good hour plus of really good and then great light ahead of me.  Not even 30 minutes in, my camera battery died.  I’m not even going to share what I captured on my cell phone.  But here’s an image from when we just arrived.

Moat around Angor Wat

Perhaps the best part of being here this year, is having the time and opportunity to think about all the things I haven’t made time for in recent years, and to act on them.  I remember an article in an Alberta Travel Magazine about the light during magic hour in Southern Alberta.  It described the lengths director Ang Lee went to in planning and preparing a scenic shot for his film ‘Brokeback Mountain’.  It was a shot that was only available to him for a very short period of time…minutes.  It’s a privilege to be on a similar quest even though the results don’t ultimately matter.  I’m quite happy to just walk around basking in the late afternoon light and savouring the glow. I hope it returns soon.

Monks in Battambang, Cambodia, end of day

Truc Bach Lake, Hanoi

Truc Bach Lake, Hanoi

 

 

 

Danang in August

 

 

A crash course in Cơm a.k.a rice

A crash course in Cơm a.k.a rice

I’m a bit trepidatious to start this post, and you’ll understand why in a moment, but I’ve spent so much time wandering in, around and through rice fields this year, I need to tell the story.

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Planting rice near Hanoi in early July

Prior to coming to Vietnam my relationship with rice was purely that of a consumer who would choose rice over potatoes any day. I love sushi rice, I love basmati rice and most of all I love day old rice of any kind that I can re-fry with a bit of olive and sesame oil, and then splash with Tamari sauce. The only time I’ve ever considered how it’s grown is when I’ve watched films like ‘The Painted Veil’, an adaptation of a W. Somerset Maugham novel set in China, or my absolutely favourite Hiyao Miyazaki film ‘My Neighbour Totoro.’ Both have sweeping scenes of Asian rice fields where men and women are bent over working. Most of what I remember in these scenes are the conical hats called Non La in Vietnam, pants rolled up high and hands dipping in and out of the water. What they were doing under the water has always been unclear.

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Young rice field near Hanoi

So it’s understandable that I’ve always believed that rice is picked from under the water. (I’m nodding my head yes as I write this to convince myself that there’s nothing wrong with this assessment). I imagined separating the long green leaves to reveal tiny kernels inside. Not a lot of kernels, just enough to support the delusion of how it all worked. Sadly I was never humble or curious enough to find out the truth. (I say sadly because I’m from the Praires and have this romantic notion that Prairie life is imprinted on my DNA, but if it is, it’s lost or forgotten the farming chromosome). And I’ve been living this lie for quite some time.

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Young rice

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Fully ripe rice

Not immediately, but fairly soon into our time in Vietnam, I uncovered the truth on the birthing of rice. Actually it was never covered; it was blowing in the wind in front of my face.  I remember the exact moment when it all became clear. Rice, like many other grains, grows out of the stock above ground. It seemed so obvious. One stock can hold a lot of kernels, and there are a lot of stalks in a small area.

Since this revelation, I’ve become enchanted with rice fields and the growing process.  My understanding of how it works is still superficial but I’m coming along.

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Freshly cut stalks

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Step 1 in the drying process

In much of Vietnam, rice is planted and harvested manually. Each new crop begins as a handful…okay maybe a bag of kernels that’s been soaked in water and sprouted. Each of the green stalks is then placed in a field by hand. Depending on what part of the country you’re in there can be as few as 1 and as many as 3 crops per year.

When the rice has grown high, and turned from a vibrant green to a golden yellow and brown, harvesting begins.  Also done by hand with a sickle, crop owners chop what are best described as handfuls which are then tied together and splayed across the remaining stock to dry.  From that drying position they’re collected in baskets and then piled in heaps to dry further in the sun.
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I met the woman above as she was transporting what seemed like a massive amount of rice from one part of her village to another to get the optimal amount of sun.  Once it’s dry enough, the kernels are separated from the stocks.  This can be done by machine (I haven’t seen it), but is still done manually by many.  And from there it’s dried again.  I’ve been in several places where half the road has been turned into a drying rack.  The strange part is that there seems to be little bother if some-one drives over a patch.  (And the mother in me says this is the lesson on why you wash your rice…but let’s try and forget I even thought that).

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Tam Coc rice drying

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Raking the rice

And once this stage is complete the rice is separated out of its husk.  I’ve tried an old fashion grinding machine to do this task and surprisingly many people still do it manually and it’s called winnowing. A shallow basket of rice is held away from the body and flicked sharply so the husks fly off in the air, and the heavier kernels just circle back into the basket. I imagine it’s a similar skill to flipping eggs in a skillet.

We’ve walked in the same rice field 3 times this year.  The first time, in June, the rice was young, the second in October, it was partially harvested, and the last time, in November it was a wet muddy bog, waiting for the stalks to dry out enough to turn under into the soil.  It may have been the time of day, but in some ways I think this last time was the most beautiful.

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If ever I decide to commit myself to the study of one grain, there’s no doubt it will be rice. I’ve just touched the tip of the stalk.

 

Gorgeous children

Gorgeous children

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Exhibit A taken in Phong Nha

I love kids, always have, and Vietnam has been an incredible place to indulge in their presence. My assessment, that I will gladly defend with photos, is that Vietnamese children are gorgeous and often angelic looking.

I love that there’s little hesitation to talk to unknown adults. For the most part I haven’t received the ‘why are you talking to me?’ stare. I get long looks…but it’s often from the really little kids who are just checking me out. Generally no-one is uptight about strangers talking to their kids, particularly if it’s a foreigner.

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Exhibit B taken on the train to Hai Phong

The most fun has been in restaurants and at parks where you just wave to a child and they start to move in closer. Somara’s an added bonus (for a multitude of reasons of course), because the kids are drawn in by the colour of her skin and hair. On a number of occasions our table in a restaurant has become Grand Central Station with kids running back and forth to grab our attention. Because of the nation wide push to learn English, parents encourage their kids to take any opportunity to speak it, even if it’s just running up, yelling ‘hello’ and dashing off.

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Mai Chau

A lot of the times I’m out walking I see grandmothers and grandfathers pushing their grandkids on bikes around the neighbourhood.  Often they have a bowl of food they’re trying to spoon into their mouths. It’s fun to watch them eating on the run. No stress or tantrums that I can see about getting them to eat; they’re taking it moment by moment enjoying the sights along the way.

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Doan Trang feeding the pigs

Remember what I said about being angelic ‘looking’? I’ve noticed that as always those with the angelic looks also know how to work it…and work it good. They’re able to assuage a bad situation…such as my friend here who was not supposed to be plucking greens from the garden to do this.

Unfortunately there are severals things that challenge my desire to take photos with wild abandon. My work in the film business has ingrained in me the need for the waiver. I can’t help but believe people have the right to decide how and when their image is used and appreciate that being a photographer comes with obligations and responsibilities that are rarely fulfilled. And the last is my belief that sometimes you just need to be in the moment. Nothing between you and your surroundings. All of this leaves me a quagmire that’s easier to acknowledge and move on from, than it is to solve.

I have most easily left these impediments behinds in rural areas where kids are excited to have you hanging out with them.  Somara has stopped to pet A LOT  of dogs and cats in this country…and that’s been another great ice-breaker. What has stuck with me in these situations is the amount of fun that’s had in genuine play. Kids hiding behind structures and slowly creeping up on people…trying with everything they’ve got to catch a bug in a cup or a jar….riding bikes side by side holding on to each other’s handle bars…(and no helmuts)and just combing the beach for shells.

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Thuan An beach near Hue

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Self described BFF’s grasshopper catching in Mai Chau

Parks are few and far between, land is expensive, and most empty space is a construction site or has something edible growing on it. But going to the few parks we’ve found is guaranteed good kid watching. (Yikes it sounds so creepy). Near us is a particularly good park with astroturf, some fantastic climbing structures and a short zip line. The best part is watching the negotiation that goes on between the kids lining up for the always popular zip line. I haven’t seen a scuffle…only a few indignant young girls questioning the boy at the back who thought he was entitled to go to the front of the line. I also loved the man who was lifting his small child up onto the knot to sit, and took it upon himself to stand there for the next 20 minutes helping every other small kid who came along.

I guess it’s not just the kids I love, it’s watching others treasure these young creatures; it’s all quite magnetizing. As are these three beauties of the Canadian kind. And I’ll leave it here.

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Hoi An Pagoda dance

 

 

 

 

Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes….

Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes….

My appreciation of Leonard Cohen began when I heard Jennifer Warnes sing ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. That was more than 25 years ago and a time when I was taking a lot of photography courses. I chose Warnes’ version of the song for an assignment that required me to create a slide show to illustrate a favourite piece of music. At the time I owned a long soft purple coat that with the magic of light could disguise itself as a famous blue one. I even convinced myself that the block where I lived in downtown Halifax, with it’s 19th century row houses, could pass for New York city’s Clinton Street. It never occurred to me that I had no idea what the real Clinton Street looked like. And I must have listened to that song 200 times, obsessing over every word and phrase, trying to untangle what it all meant.

I’ve been thinking a lot about words and language during the last few months watching Clinton and Trump duke it out for President.  Not much of what they said had meaning or consequence. I’m always amazed by what I think should be called “The Big Game” rather than “Democratic Elections”.  Clinton’s and Trumps’ words were just filler for the ravenous appetite of the media. And clearly, the art of oratory has been shelved; hell Trump was barely coherent let alone articulate. I don’t want to wallow in this for too long, except to say, I, like millions of others, became anxious and depressed.  And then Leonard Cohen died.

And in what seems like an inappropriate twist of emotion, his death grounded me. Immersing myself in his tributes, I returned to a place that despite its complexities and darkness felt real and most of all humane. Leonard Cohen reaffirms my belief in the power language.  Words when used well help us understand each other and bring us together.  It’s the world I want to live in.

My command of language is wobbly right now, but I do feel compelled to offer something of beauty, something that inspires hope.

Here are a few recent photographs.

Kindergarten kids in Hanoi’s botanical gardens

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Mai Chau Buffalo and his tongue

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Boys in Mai Chau having fun

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Girls in Mai Chau

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Bringing home the Bamboo in Tam Coc

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Grasshopper hunting in Mai Chau

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Fishing in Tam Coc

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The pumpkin who wouldn’t slide

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Hoi An lanterns

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PHONG NHA – my kind of FANTASY LAND

PHONG NHA – my kind of FANTASY LAND

I grew up skirting the edges of Fantasy Land (now called Galaxyland) at the West Edmonton Mall (WEM) in Alberta, Canada. On my way to a shop or a movie, the vibrations of this enormous indoor amusement park pulsed through the food court and into neighbouring businesses.  Even though it’s been many years since I’ve stood under its halo, I can still hear the dull roar of the Mind-Bender, a roller-coaster, touted as the largest indoors and infamous since 1986 when three people fell to their deaths. Despite never having been a disciple of Fantasy Land, the title was part of my vernacular.

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So, I usually write my titles last, after I’ve written and re-written the body, searching for a heartbeat to whatever it is I’m working on. But I knew immediately what to call this short piece on one of our most recent journeys.  Phong Nha in Quang Binh Province is a genuine Fantasy Land. Forget that noisy atrocity in a city I so love.  That’s not it.  This is it!  And I know that not everyone will agree and that’s good too.

A fantastical place inspires awe and can be ‘other-worldly’.  I have always loved the sense of anticipation one feels when you’re in such a remarkably beautiful place, that you are overcome by the wonder of what’s around the next corner. A Fantasy Land makes the ordinary sublime.

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Phong Nha, both a village and a national park (called the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park) is in Northern Central Vietnam less than 15 km from the coast. When I use the name, I’m referring to an a fairly large area. The fact that this place holds the world’s largest cave (discovered in 2009) and has a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation has nothing to do with my evaluation.  The reason we went was because a friend told us to.  And from now on, I will always listen to her advice._igp0465

The confluence of rice and cassava fields, tropical jungles, large limestone karsts (almost mountains), and waterways, some of which go for miles underground is at times mesmerizing.  Magic hour according to the light could have been at any number of times of the day. I wish I could have take an aerial shot of the late afternoon light reflecting off the muddy backs of tens of buffalo in bright green fields.  I just couldn’t get high up enough.

I had a sense that this was one of the few rural communities where poverty was being held at bay.  (I have tried to find statistical evidence to get at the truth – but so far nothing). I hope I am not wrong about this. The large buffalo and cow herds grazing in the fields buoyed my optimism, as did the many many large homes throughout the area. I know it’s changing rapidly as word of the ‘enchantment’ spreads and I fear for the future.

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A 70km motorbike journey around the park, twisting and turning our way on switchback roads sparked my imagination of what was in the mass of green.  And even though I felt a pit in my stomach when I saw signs announcing snakes as one of the park’s main inhabitants, I still found the place beguiling. Rumour has it that a Hollywood crew was there earlier in the year filming for the latest King Kong movie. I understand why.

Zip-lining and a foray into the ‘Dark Cave’ to float in the mud was fun and an opportunity to meet some other travellers. But this kind of activity leaves me very conflicted and since we’re talking about Fantasies, let’s move on.

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On the way to the ‘Pub with Cold Beer’

Really what I loved most was just being there, and the night we ventured out to the ‘Pub with Cold Beer’. Driving 10 km down a very bumpy dirt road, we arrived at the Pub at dusk. I was a bit panicked about the drive home, but settled in as we were handed cold beer and told to pick our chicken.  Happy that Somara was distracted by the two girls who lived there, she and I skedaddled off to play pool while Tim participated in the killing and cooking of dinner. Note that Somara cries in a zoo when she sees animals enclosed let alone slaughtered. Tim however, was in his glory.  Unquestionably the best chicken we’ve eaten in Vietnam, we were also treated to fresh pepper and fresh quava from the trees in front of the house. The magic of this evening was getting to know these two girls, both close in age to Somara, who didn’t just want to play with us, but who were interested in finding out more about Canada.  So smart and so sweet, we hugged them good-bye a mere 90 minutes after meeting them.  As we bumped and stumbled our way home in the dark on our motorbikes Tim suggested we stop and turn off our motors.  In addition to our star extravaganza was the cacophony of unknown creatures many of which must have been frogs.  I wish we had tents, but then we would have troubling getting to sleep.

I don’t want to bottle up our experience or even tell too many of you how to get there; I feel both the privilege and the burden of having been in Phong Nha.  The fantasy of this place may ultimately be fleeting, but I will hang onto it for as long as I can.

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The HUE (hway) to go

The HUE (hway) to go

One thing I’m really good at is going along for the ride.  Literally. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a lot of it, but I’m picking it up again.

What I’m talking about is tagging along with others on their travels. During my two years in Botswana, I became a pro at it, travelling anywhere with almost anyone. I like the sense of possibilities when you start out and that I’m relieved of the task of reading guidebooks, blogs and websites etc.

As soon as we arrived in Vietnam, I was back to my old ways.  Somara and I flew south to join my sister and her family, who were already mid vacation.  We just fell in beside them as they decided where to go, how to get there, and where to put our shoes at the end of the day.  It became a bit of a joke about how little I did, and the one time I booked the accommodation, let’s just say it was ‘an experience’. But we sure had a great time.

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Inside the Imperial City

Last month, we did the tagging a long thing again.  Tim had a conference in central Vietnam, in Hue, and Somara and I showed up for the fun, having done very little research.  I knew that a group of Tim’s colleagues were staying longer to visit the sites and thought, we’ll just do what they do.

On day 1 when most of the other adults were at the conference I took the lead from 7 year old Lam.  The daughter of  Tim’s colleague and now friend, Lam said she wanted to go to the beach. I have to admit I did hesitate, knowing from the little reading I had done that the beach is not the top attraction in Hue.  But it was unbelievably hot and and after a morning in the pool, and a quick lunch, we added 3 more to our posse and hopped in a van.

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Somara, Lam and Rio

Thuan An beach, 15 kms from the centre of Hue, is a gorgeous expanse of golden sand, where you can body surf, sleep under a cabana, or drink mojitos in the shade. Most of the time I hung with Marco, a three year old with the same passion for finding shells as me.  I also lost my voice that afternoon, yelling at kids to be careful, and laughing uncontrollably as we bounced between the waves.

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Dragon Boat

Significantly smaller than Hanoi, I knew Hue was going to be a break from the big city, but I couldn’t believe how much of a relief I felt being there.  Might have been the salty water, but the streets are mostly wide, as is the Perfume River that winds itself through the centre. Scattered a long its edges are dragons boats to transport tourists to Pagodas and the tombs of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. There’s lots of room to navigate. And in the style I so love, it was an easy place to meet up with others, and then go your own way.

The only pla_igp0210ce firmly on my list was a visit to the Imperial City. Once Vietnam’s capital, Hue’s main attraction is contained within the walls of the Citadel. Home to the ruling family, the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, it’s a place that is as cultivated and refined as it is earthy and coarse. Decimated by the Americans in 1968, you can still imagine life as a member of the Royal Family, with a field of flowers, ponds of gold fish, court musicians, and magnificently ornate buildings. It’s serene and majestic. There’s an effort to rebuild many of the structures that were bombed, and some are already complete.  I prefer the worn, peeling facades of buildings and walls that haven’t been touched.  So many layers within them, they are both tragic and stunning.

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Toward the end of our stay, on the advice of our friends, we rode motorbikes about 15 kms from town to see Huyen Khong Son Thuong Pagoda, a much less fancy pagoda than the more famous Thien Mu.  Huyen Khong, a garden retreat is known for its orchids, flowers and ponds.  The journey there turned out to be just as spectacular (and more bumpy) as the stroll within. For the second time since being in Vietnam,  I wondered if Claude Monet, the famous French painter had ever been to Vietnam.

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Building at Thien Mu

 

Huyen Khong Pond
Huyen Khong Pond

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other highlights of Hue, with no thanks to me, were our incredible suite at the Villa Hue booked by Tim’s office.  Larger than our apartment in Hanoi, we kept marvelling at the bathtub and shower. Chi, one of Tim’s colleagues took us to two different restaurants serving the world famous Bun Bo Hue soup.  Never having appreciated the soup before, my taste buds were treated to what might have been the best possible renditions out there. Sublimely delicious.

My only rule of thumb when travelling is to talk to other travellers. It’s taken me incredible places…and added another dimension to the journey. In July at our favourite pool, Somara and I met an American man who lived in Vietnam for six years and takes any opportunity he can to come back. We talked a lot about food. Following up on our conversation he sent me an email about Hue recommending “a goat hot pot place called Dung Goat. I don’t have the address but will try to get it for you. It’s near Thien Mu Pagoda. In Vietnamese: Dê Dũng”. (In English it looks like you’re talking about poop, but the D actually has a Z sound).  I’d been thinking about the goat hot pot since I received that email. Excited that we had motorbikes to take us there, Tim, Somara and I spent the better part of an hour on our final night, driving up and down the road near the Pagoda. Most people we asked said they knew it, but precise directions were elusive. Finally 3 friendly drunks told us to follow them on our bikes. It took about two kms and a near collision to realize they didn’t have a clue, so we made a quick escape. By that time starving for dinner, we ended up eating at a Bia Hoi. The food was lousy but the evening was memorable. We’ll find that goat hot pot next time, I’m sure of it.  And if you’re interested I can recommend another restaurant, Hanh’s where we ate at 4 times during our stay. I have an address and map.  Remember to share with others  if you know ‘the Hue (hway) to go’.

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