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
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.

girl-on-train
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.

throwing-mud

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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

grasshopper-2
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

 

 

 

 

What I Did on Summer Vacation

What I Did on Summer Vacation

This is the first time since I was 14 that I qualify to write the ‘what I did on summer vacation’ essay.  That’s because for the past 30 plus years, I’ve had a full time job during the summer.  In fact for many years summer barely showed itself to me. It just blended into spring and fall, and the continuum of a life where I was constantly working and taking a week’s vacation here and there, wherever it could fit in.  It wasn’t 30 years bereft of anything good in the summer. We have always been in search of the next moment that can be spent on a beach or swimming in a lake, particularly in our gorgeous province; and we’ve had fun renting cottages with friends and travelling to spend time with family in other parts of the country. We even spent two years in Botswana where it’s always summer. But its been a long time since I’ve had the expanse of two full months in front of me with no job and no concrete plans.

So I’ve been anticipating this summer for quite some time. I wanted to come to Vietnam so I could stop working and take the time to just be with Somara and Tim, and ultimately myself. Top priority was spending the summer with Somara. The only hitch being that for the first time in 4 years Somara was going to miss out on Camp Kadimah, a place she really loves. I worried that she would be online watching a play by play of her friends having loads of fun along the South Shore of Nova Scotia, so I kept saying that we were in Vietnam and it was going to be awesome. July 1, came and there we were. No plans, big hopes and 2 months for Somara and me to hang out and experience awesome.

It did not start awesome…in fact it felt more like awful. Our Hanoi apartment is tiny. One thing is out of place and I see it or trip over it. I was (and still am) on Somara constantly to pick things up!  Really there’s no place to spread out. It was and still is scorching hot outside. Some days we wear 3 outfits which leads to a lot of laundry that needs to be hung up. Hanging up is Somara’s job. I admit it, ‘it sucks’. But she chose the position. On top of which every time we’ve opened a door or window for the past few months, it feels like we’re being thrust against a burning hot wall. Getting out can be a real problem.

In addition to the physical challenges, I have fretted about not working since we arrived. A lot of energy has gone into this anxiety. And because I’m not working I put up roadblocks to doing things that cost money, whether it makes sense or not. (I’m working on this one). So I was saying NO to a lot of things, and stressing about every damn thing we bought. Somara was bored and frustrated. I was anxiety ridden. It was tense.

So very early on I was feeling desperate. In an attempt to find something for her to engage in I went looking for camps, activities, anything that preferably involved art. I contacted SolArt the Vietnamese art, music and dance studio next door to where we live. And there was nothing in English. We considered a French sports camp. I kept asking and googling, and googling and asking. We just couldn’t find anything she wanted to do or that was suitable. As this was spinning around and around, I was becoming more and more convinced I needed a job. And so, after a bit of prodding from a Vietnamese friend, I approached SolArt, to see if I could offer the course that Somara wanted but they didn’t have. And without realizing what was really happening, our summer started to turn around.

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SolArt Class

SolArt posted an ad for our class, and within a few weeks we had enough people enrolled. Mostly Vietnamese students, the group included three Irish siblings. Three days a weeks for two hours in the morning, Somara and I shared the wonders of colour and getting glue and paint all over yourself with 9 youngsters fr0m 5 to 11 years of age. Sometimes my activities were too difficult for them, sometimes they got antsy and naughty. Through all of it Somara more than fulfilled her role as my assistant. She refilled paint trays, poured glue, helped tiny fingers hold things in place…and best of all was a kind voice helping some of the younger kids come out from behind the pole or under the table.  On the particularly bad days, we had fun  recounting who had been a ‘butt head’ that day.

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Vit, a.k.a. duck, good for chasing and eating

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Somara on the steps of a Tam Coc Pagoda

In between classes we went swimming, to museums, to the American library, and different parks around town. I know she liked coming out for dinner with our Canadian friends because she’d get really sad about the nights I told her she couldn’t come. We indulged our love of lemon water and avocado smoothies. (I have yet to see a lemon in this country, many many limes, but almost every cafe or restaurant has ‘lemon’ water). One weekend was spent with my friend Pia in Tam Coc, cycling through rice fields and drinking copious amounts of water.  Somara was the first up the steps of every pagoda and she seemed quite happy chasing goats and ducks down the lane in front of our bungalow. The shouts of boredom subsided, and so did the shouts of frustration.

Eventually Somara went to a Chilean Art teacher for three private classes. That experience was hers alone as she took cabs to and from class by herself and decided with Teresa what she wanted to learn. Unfortunately she met Teresa just as she was preparing to return to South America and it was all over much too quickly. However every day since she has been drawing for at least an hour.

On her way to those art classes Somara found a cat hostel that masquerades as a cafe.  She first went with Tim, and then we spent 3 hours one afternoon, stroking the fur of a rather motley crowd of cats. I applaud my patience as the smell in there was kind of like the wall of heat I described earlier…a putrid, acrid reek of cat urine.

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And finally on August 22nd we left for 10 days in Central Vietnam. Tim had a conference in Hue and we were going to turn it into a vacation. For the next 10 days we indulged in new tastes, like succulent crab in tamarind sauce and the dazzling sights and sounds of the region.  We motorbiked, zip lined, rode the train, soaked in muddy caves, swam in the ocean, and countless other pools, and hung out.  Somara got car sick, I lost my voice and we still bickered the way we always do. It was the best. (More on Hue, Phong Nha and Danang later).

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Thuan An beach near Hue

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A view of the river in Phong Nha

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Phong Nha sunset

In summary, this summer I taught an art class with my daughter.  I watched Somara find a new passion, drawing for hours on end as she lost herself in an older passion, Harry Potter, listening to the audio books. I found out that she’s willing to try or do anything once, and will tell you if she didn’t like it. She always likes a cookies and cream ice-blend. I watched her watch a lot of youtube videos and movies and of course I nagged her about it. I saw her compassion and kindness for others come out when she interacted with the other kids in our art class.  I heard her vocabulary grow and watched her shorts get shorter. She’s even more confident than when we arrived.  She showed me how to find fun and how to always capitalize on the laughs particularly if there’s something really odd going on.  I learned that when I’m mean and hard on myself, I do the same to others. I need to be kinder to all. And I watched Tim get up every morning and go off to work, so I could have this experience.  July and August of 2016 were spent with my posse, Tim and Somara, bickering and loving one other in this crazy great, hot and stinky Vietnam.

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Phong Nha

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At the Imperial City in Hue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daily Details

Daily Details

I’ve been spending far too much time fighting back the ants this summer.  They’re tiny, and come in large quantities in random locations throughout the apartment. They suss out the most minuscule of food remnants, but also have a habit of showing up in places that have nothing to offer these feisty creatures, unless of course, they like to eat paint. So a good portion of my day is spent itching and cleaning, and cleaning and itching. And I wouldn’t mention it, except that my other main pre-occupation, the heat, is starting to bore me (and others) and if you’re going to get a sense of the day to day here you need to hear the not so sexy stuff.

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Walking near Ho Chi’s Minh’s Mausoleum.

In better news, for the first time in months I walked for the pure sake of walking this past week. I was actually on my way home from the pool, and because Tim usually has to make 2 trips as there isn’t enough room for 3 of us on the motorbike, I took the opportunity to enjoy the late afternoon light. The best thing I saw on the way home (but didn’t capture on my camera) is loads of kids running through the sprinklers on the lawn in front of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. We’re going back as soon as it stops raining to see if we can do it too.

A good amount of time this summer has been spent in swimming pools, and we’ve become very attached to the one at the Army Hotel very near our place. That’s because it’s clean, never crowded and COOL!  A lot of the pools here are like hot tubs. Last week Somara made friends with 2 Dutch girls who were in Hanoi on vacation and like us were hanging at the pool. When they came back through Hanoi after travelling North, we met up with them a second time before they left for the south. We’ve tried other pools, like Sao Mai where the girl is taking a selfie below, but the number of people swimming is a bit like the numbers of ants in our apartment.

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Somara and her Dutch friends playing tag

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Overview of Army Hotel Pool

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Sao Mai Pool, refuge for hundreds

Another escape from the heat has been the art course I’ve been teaching at a Vietnamese art, music and dance studio two doors down from us called SolArt. The kids are from 5 to 11 and we’ve been exploring colour. Somara has been my most excellent and desperately needed assistant.  The majority of students are Vietnamese but I also have 3 siblings who are Irish but live in Australia. Mostly its been fun but there have been a few low moments, like when the youngest kid stabbed the oldest with a wooden skewer. Sadly class will be over on Saturday and I’m going to miss all of them, even the stabber.

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Judah and his bird mobile

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Xu and her sparkly mobile

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Grace and Somara

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Ha Chi and Xu doing collage

Somara has been a star distributing supplies and attending to the wide variety of needs of the 9 young artists, including fetching treats and water, so she hasn’t always been able to do the activities.  But she’s been coming home and doing a lot of drawing and today had her second art class with a South American artist.  Here’s a few of her beauties.  (This past week she’s also made four magic wands from chopsticks and a glue gun.  It might seem obvious but she’s currently on book 4 of Harry Potter).

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Museum of Ethnology

When we’re not at a pool, or in art class, we look for museums, parks, nail salons and cafes to pass the time. Even though I’m not enjoying Vietnamese avocados, they’re too mealy for me, I worship the avocado smoothie, and am afraid of addiction issues. We’ve been spending time with some of the children of Tim’s co-workers and in particular have become friends with two fellow Canadians, Kristy and Mai, who we really enjoy eating and drinking with while we all laugh about life in Vietnam.

Kristy, from Vancouver, asked me for some help shooting photographs for the place she works called Hoa Sua. They have a restaurant and cooking school and Kristy has been trying anything and everything to get them out of a huge rut. So last Monday I channelled my inner ‘food producer’ and ‘photographer’ and ‘set designer’ and tried to help her out. There’s so much I could say, but won’t.  Except that I wouldn’t charge for my skills and hope there’s a few acceptable images for their website.

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Aside from Tim, the only people Somara and I see every day are the three beautiful women below. Thuy, Phuong and Ang take care of our apartment and this entire building.  Thuy, who’s holding up her fingers is absolutely hilarious, and is always holding court with Phuong and Ang.  She’s been trying to correct my Vietnamese pronunciation for months but I think has given up on me. I really enjoy the three of them, and wish we could speak the same language. I don’t know the name of the man saluting us. But we see him every day in the alley, listening to music on a small transistor radio.  He takes care of a large garage in our lane and never fails to greet us kindly and warmly.

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Thuy, Somara, Phuong, and Ang

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The happiest man on the block

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re travelling to central Vietnam in a week and a half for our last summer vacation hurrah. Somara is going back to school the first week of September and I’ve agreed to consult part time with VTV 6, the Youth network for the National Broadcaster.  I’ve done a few days with them already and it’s been great.  Looking forward to fall.

Just A Moment

Those of you who know me well, know that I believe in stories…and I’m always looking for the narrative thread.  But sometimes a photo doesn’t fit into a bigger story…I mean it could if you wanted to make something up. But since I’m so tightly aligned with my own truths, I can’t do it. At least not for this. Here are some photos that I love but they are photos without big stories. Each one is just about a moment.

Lantern Lady

 

 

I saw this woman in Hoi An making lanterns.   I think she’s quite regal.  She was at a workshop far from the tourists and crowds in a place we just happened upon.  Just before seeing her we shook hands with an elderly man and realized he was the guy on the big write-up in front of the place.  I wish I remembered his name now, but he was credited with bringing the art of lantern making back to Hoi An.

 

Grandma and Rice

 

 

 

During our visit to Hoi An we took a cooking class on an island about half hour by boat from the town. It was called “Grandma’s Cooking Class” and this is grandma. She was showing us how the Vietnamese once separated the rice from the husk. She’s 90 something and didn’t flinch once going up or down into her squat.

 

 

Spinning Somara

 

About 20 km from Hanoi is the village of Bat Trung. It’s also called Ceramic Village because almost all the commerce there is based on ceramics. I’ve never seen so many teacups, teapots and piggy banks in my life. I’m not sure the world is big enough. One of the best things about going there is that you can learn how to throw clay. It was super fun.

 

 

waving Buddha

 

 

These are just a few of the hundreds and probably thousands of Buddha Statues at Bai Dinh, a large Buddhist Temple. People were rubbing their knees as they walked by.

 

 

 

 

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I posted this photo in a much smaller size when writing about the Catholic Church, Phat Diem. I can’t get over the eyes on this Altar Boy. I wonder if he’s really pious, or worried about something he did and what the priest is going to say, or if he’s wishing his mom would stop taking pictures.

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I just love this photo of Somara and Doan Trang, who we spent a week-end with in Village #7. Either one of these girls could rule the world when they’re older.

 

 

 

 

 

tragic flowers

 

Those who are Facebook friends will see this too is a repeat. They are lotus flowers. I can’t get over them. They’re beautiful, they’re dramatic and they’re tragic. My friend Jane compared them to an ageing Bette Davis, which I thought was just right.

 

 

Bia Hoi, Oy, Oy, Oy !!!!

Bia Hoi, Oy, Oy, Oy !!!!

There’s a lot of shouting at a Bia Hoi (pronounced Bee-ah Hoy), after all it’s occupied by a lot of dudes drinking beer. You’re pretty much guaranteed to hear Mot, Hai, Ba! (one, two, three) after which everyone clinks glasses and has a gulp or two or Mot tram pham tram! which sounds like mo jam fan jam, and means 100%. If you say it, then you’ve got to do it, and swig the whole glass back baby.

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Topping up the glasses

Bia Hoi means ‘Fresh Beer‘ and drinking a whole glass at once is easy; you could substitute it for a cold glass of water. Made fresh daily, it’s light with 2 to 4 per cent alcohol. At 5000 dong, the equivalent of 30 Canadian cents it’s worth the investment.

There’s a lot beer gardens in Hanoi, kind of like Tim Horton’s there seems to be one on every street. One article I read says that 30% of the consumption of beer in Hanoi is done at a Bia Hoi…and even though I’m not going to do a fact check, it’s easy to believe. We’ve been going to one close to our apartment, A LOT.

Ours is called Bia Hai Xom; I know that Hai means two, and I think Xom is the name of the owners. But first back to the beer. What’s incredible is watching the staff, some wearing no shoes, carry these huge trays of glasses on ceramic (very slippery floors).  They move incredibly fast, as there’s usually has no less than 300 people anxious for another Bia Hoi. For those who are looking for something with some alcohol content you can purchase bottles of vodka.

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This WAS ribs and muong, a delicious green

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Tofu coated in egg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s much more than a stale bag of chips available to eat at our Bia Hoi.  The menu is long and so far the favourites are papaya salad, pork ribs, salted chicken, and this tofu dish.  What’s loved most is the small packages of peanuts they bring with the beer.  Unsalted they’re sweet and fresh.

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The Kitchen

The first time we went I quickly realized that amongst the large tables of men, (ie. soccer teams),  there was only a handful of women present.  Not quite yet comfortable with that, on our second visit, we cozied up to a group of kids who were using the restaurant as a gym to run in circles. I think the parents were deep into a tray or two of beer, but ultimately that’s the great thing about a Bia Hoi, no-one cares. It’s a genuine hang out.

But there is one critical point to embrace before entering a Bia Hoi. Forget Miss Manners.  There are no rules here.  Protocol is to drop the plastic wrap that comes around your bowl and plate on the ground along with your napkins, and whatever other garbage you amass.  If you can’t bring yourself to do it, that’s okay too. At the end of the evening the staff clean up by dumping what’s in the dishes on the ground, then removing the dishes into these big bowls, tilting the table on its side to make sure everything’s off, and then sweeping everything off the ground.

For a lot of reasons next time we go, I’m going to chant “Bia Hoi, Oy, Oy, Oy” and see if I can get it to stick. I think it’s perfect.

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Three bucket, and three second, glass cleaning system.

 

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The dishes.

Our ‘Hood in Hanoi

Canary 2I just paid our second month’s rent at the Canary Hotel and Apartments (‘The Canary Hotel, I remember it well’…. ) and expect we’re going to stay here the entire time we’re in Hanoi.  We could find another place that’s bigger and with more personality, but we’re close to Somara’s school and we really like the Canary staff. Both Son and Ton, they two key guys at reception have decided it’s also their job to help us learn Vietnamese.  Ton taught me the word for sweat today, Mo Hoi, as I was walked through the lobby dripping wet from head to toe after a workout.

Daily activities are starting to etch themselves into routines and we are getting to know our ‘hood.  I don’t know what to call this area.  Our district is Ba Dinh, but that’s huge, and we live off Lieu Giai, a major artery.  As I’ve said before everything here is layered, including the streets. Each large road, leads to numerous secondary roads, leading to even smaller alleyways.  A lot of times I feel like I’m in a corn maze. I’m still surprized by all the shops you find in the smallest of alleyways. Convenience stores, clothing and a lot of Cafes.Cards and Cong

The Cong Cafe, about 45 seconds out our door has become a favourite. It’s a genuine hangout, a place you can play cards, or just while away an afternoon. On order are fancy coffees, smoothies, beer…I’m there (here) right now drinking an iced lemonade blend. I’d show you a picture but I sucked it back too quickly and now have a freezie headache.

The Cong looks across to the Japanese Embassy, and in the evening people exercise here or bring their kids to ride bikes. Best of all it’s where people come to play badminton.badminton wide

One evening as I was strolling about in flip flops and a sundress trying to get a few photos, a man pulled me into a game of doubles. I was happy to play but then my participation in the game of doubles was protested by another man who told me to go away. He got overruled by the others and then refused to play in that match. I was uncomfortable for about 10 seconds. Perhaps he didn’t think I’d play well enough, I don’t really know what was going on, but I did just fine. My plan is to return in running shoes and shorts to whoop his butt – if he’ll ever engage. Somara and I have been back several times and she’s the one improving the most.  I, on the other hand, sent 3 birdies over the fence onto the grounds of the embassy never to be seen again.

Aroulottend another corner is the Lotte (pronounced LAW-tay) Tower. It’s not just a landmark for us, but for all of Hanoi. At 65 stories, it’s close to being the tallest building in the city. Mostly an office tower, it has a grocery store and some very fancy shops…kind of a cross between Holt Renfrew and The Bay on Bloor. Eventually we’re going to check out the Dim Sum on the 36th floor plus everyone who visits will be treated to the view on the observation deck up top. Perfect for a romantic night out.

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Traffic around here can be crazy, but truthfully, it’s more peaceful than where we were when we first arrived and lived in the Old Quarter. Besides watching traffic can be a bit of an activity as you never know what you’ll see driving by.

Close to the Cong, we’ve found an amazing bakery that makes delicate moist croissants for about 60 cents. I really like the man we buy milk from; his store is so full you can only open the door one way, but it’s spic and span clean and he’s got cheap cheese. I’ve made friends with a few vegetable and fruit vendors, and feel like I’m cheating if I choose one over the other. You can buy virtually anything within 1 km of our place, anything except Cheerios, haven’t found those yet.

Somara’s school Lycee Alexander Yersin is just over a 1km away.  A cab there costs $1.20 but we mostly walk. We’ve discovered a nifty shortcut that winds its way through one of those corn mazes avoiding Kim Ma another major artery. There is still one massive intersection to cross, MASSIVE, and you need to take a special course to work out the traffic signals. And I’m setting myself up for trouble by telling you this, but yesterday I caved and let Somara walk to school on her own.  She begged for a week and I couldn’t take it anymore. Now I need to go home and wait for her to return from school.  I’m not worried and you shouldn’t be either.

 

 

 

Pho Primer

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Pot to warm noodles for Pho

Everything in Vietnam is nuanced and layered – especially food.  So I’m not pretending that after six weeks I’m an expert on Pho, but I can peel back a layer or two. Pho, a soup with vermicelli noodles, greens and meat, should be called Vietnam’s Food Ambassador as it seems to be the best known dish outside the country.

Pho Ba
Pho Ba

Pho is NOT pronounced FOE. It just isn’t. It’s closer to the French word for fire, feu. But the key is in the tone, and if I understand it right, the voice goes down and then up a tiny bit at the end. We’re still working on it.

When we got off the plane and arrived in Hanoi at 10:30 at night it was the first thing we ate even though I originally understood that Pho is for breakfast.  It’s what our hotel served for breakfast and when we went with our friend Quyen to his village last week-end it’s what we had in the morning. But we’ve also been eating it for dinner and for lunch. Looking it up I discovered that the South Vietnamese confine it to breakfast and sometimes lunch, whereas here in the North it’s an any time of day meal. Pho B0 (Bo sounds more like BAH) made with beef, and Pho Ga made with chicken are most common.

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quay

We, like many of you, have eaten Pho in North America.  But the one thing we hadn’t experienced was its partner quay.  Quay is essentially a deep fried piece of dough you dip in the Pho.  Somara adores them, and I like to start my Pho with a piece of Quay while the broth cools.  On their own, they’re ‘meh’, soaked in a good broth they’re ‘YAH!’

somara and noodleI thought Pho was defined by the size of the vermicelli noodle, a slim one. But we were just introduced to a restaurant where the noodle is wide, wider than linguine.  This particular shop has two kinds of Pho Bo; thinly slice pieces of raw beef cooked by the broth or thick grisly chunks of beef that have cooked so long they fall apart with the touch of a chopsticks. You can have both if you can explain that in Vietnamese to the server.   We love the place, but it’s a cab ride away.

condimentsWatching people eat Pho is fun as it’s an expression of your personality. How many quay do you consume if any, do you add hot sauce, lime juice, salt and pepper, pickled hot peppers?  I recommend hot sauce.

Around the corner from our apartment is a really good Pho Ga spot where Tim has gone to buy just the broth.  (The owner sent him home with two cups and wouldn’t accept any money). And if you go the other direction is a Pho Bo spot where you can see the huge quantities of meat that go into the broth.  Tim says Pho is defined by it’s broth, and we’ve discovered a couple chicken broths that are so clear they would make any Jewish Bubbe proud.  What I love are the greens, green onions in particular.

If you live in Halifax, go try the Pho on the Bedford Highway at I Love Pho.  Tell them that a friend in Hanoi says their broth is on par with the best we’ve had in Hanoi and could they please start to make quay, because some Hanoiing Canadians are going to ask for it when they return home.