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

Pho Primer

vermicelli pot
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.

Quay
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.