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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Mai Chau – A mountain sanctuary

Mai Chau – A mountain sanctuary

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road between rice fields

About three hours into our journey to Mai Chau (pronounced cho) last week-end, a stranger handed Tim his cell phone and said ‘it’s for you’. We were on a public bus just over 120 km southwest of Hanoi, moving somewhat aggressively and quickly on roads that ascended and descended through mountains.  The only people Tim knew on the bus were Somara and me. In fact the only people who knew that Tim was on the bus were Somara and me.  The first thing I heard Tim say was ‘Sorry I don’t understand’.  Because it’s genetically ingrained in my being, I imagined every bad scenario possible. But after a moment’s pause Tim laughed and said  he was sorry but we already had our accommodation booked.   Through the rearview mirror I could see the eyes of the driver light up as he looked back to see that the connection had been made and a promise fulfilled. He didn’t care whether it panned out or not.

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Rice fields

Connections are what Mai Chau is made of.  Rivers and canals bring water to rice fields and multiple other crops like corn and morning glory (known as muong); which is delicious smothered in garlic and chilies.  Zipping around are a multitude of birds, butterflies and other insects feasting on the flowers, while buffalo, cattle and goats graze for their sustenance closer to the mountains.  The most amazing part is that you can cycle the paths and rocky roads that link the series of small village settled in the valley between these mountains.  Mai Chai is an area that, in addition to showcasing ethnic minorities to foreigners, has become a haven for the Vietnamese to relax away from the city and connect with nature.

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Sol Bungalows’ pool

After eating dinner at Sol Bungalows (the place we had booked) the first night, and eating lunch at the largest of the villages in the area earlier in the day, we took a short cab ride to another small village in search of food on Saturday night.  It was clear that something big was going on because of all the activity in the large field on the edge of this small village.  My guess was an outdoor concert.  As we walked from restaurant to restaurant chock a block full of young people we quickly realized we weren’t going to find dinner there and unless we found the field more interesting and wanted to hang out we needed to move on.

So we started the 1 km trek to the village where we had earlier eaten lunch. Along the way we passed a lot of Vietnamese teenagers, heading to the field where loud music was now thumping away. I can’t remember now if it was K-Pop (Korean), V-pop (Vietnamese) or Western pop music but I do know Somara told me to start dancing.

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Stilt home with basement

Regrettably we never figured out what was going on.  But fortunately we found a restaurant at the next village willing to serve us at this late hour. The only other customers were two tables of Vietnamese who looked more like family and friends than patrons. We were ushered to our own table and within moments a gaggle of kids starting running back and forth to where we sat.  They would run up, tap our shoulders, say ‘hello’ and then run away screaming and laughing uproariously.  Before our delicious meal was all done Tim had migrated to the men’s table to shoot rice wine.

Somara had wandered off by then, so in search of her I migrated to the sounds of music next door.  Up the stairs on the main floor of the stilt house was a group of people eating dinner and being entertained by local dancers. Before I could sheepishly back away from what was clearly a private party, I was invited in and told to make myself at home. I could see that Somara had already done so and was chatting with another girl who looked closer to her age. Eventually Tim appeared. For the next hour plus we talked, we danced and Tim drank more rice. They were a friendly, generous and fun loving group of people.  It was an awesome night.  I left with a couple of new facebook connections, great memories and an attachment to this lovely little valley in Northern Vietnam.  We’ll be back.

weaving silk
boiling silk worm cocoons and spinning silk
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textiles from various ethnic groups
textiles of Mai Chau
I salivated over the one at the front
Sol cows
Cow traffic
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Bathing the buffalo