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Tales from the table in provincial Vietnam


Three Chinese style brick roofs face my attic-like room in Hoi An, Vietnam. Two Chinese lanterns of faded red dangle from the ceiling of the narrow balcony overlooking the courtyard of a traditional 180-year old Vietnamese house. Everything, including the banisters of the balcony and the window shutters, is made of teak.

The balcony allows me to see the Central Market of Hoi An, a traditional fisher village frozen in time – well, almost. Now that the world has discovered it, all the beautiful traditional teak houses and the light green and yellow French colonial buildings have been turned into what the tourists would like to see – knick knack stores, tailors’ shops, and of course, restaurants.
 
To get away from the tourists, I go to an open-air market, shaded by tarps in rainbow colors, and sit with Number 23, a woman selling fresh juice. Every day, I sit there and watch the people, the real residents of Hoi An, as they carry out their transactions.

The juice lady knows me by now. She prepares a new kind of juice for me every day. I do not need to ask for one anymore. Today it will be avocado with mango, coconut, dry plums, custard apple, dragon fruit, and papaya.  She tops the juice with dry coconut and white cubes of jelly.  Knowing full well how refreshing it is in the middle of a hot humid day, she asks “You like? You like?” with excitement and a happy smile.
 
The hall and reception of the old house I stay in feel like a museum. The previous owners were Chinese sailors who decorated the house with artifacts they found in the sea such as pots and vases. In the same museum-like room, I sit each night with Ly, the young woman who runs the house, and sample different kinds of Vietnamese food. Tonight we have com ga – chicken rice.  Last night, it was cao lau – Hoi An noodles with chicken. Ly promises mi quang – noodle soup – for breakfast tomorrow.
 
Ly got married about a month ago but has to stay here in the house to earn money while her husband works as a tour guide somewhere else. As she has to be here twenty-four hours a day, she does not get to see her husband much and they cannot live together until she finds a better paying job.
 
The house charges tourists about seventy dollars a day but Ly makes only seventy dollars a month. She is a university graduate with a degree in Business English and speaks better English than most Vietnamese I meet. She hopes to find a job at a reception desk at a resort so that she can earn more and start living with her husband. She would then also be closer to her village.
 
Every time we meet for dinner, Ly refuses to let me pay. 

“You are my friend, you are my guest,” she says and defeats my violent protests. I certainly make more money than she does but, like the other Vietnamese I know, she won’t let me spend any money either.
 
At five in the morning, our moped cuts through sweet green rice paddies toward the ancient Cham city of My Son, a religious centre of the late 4th century. Some people are already awake, exercising in front of their homes or preparing to sell bread, fruit, or noodles for breakfast. In front of public buildings such as schools, loudspeakers ‘appeal’ to citizens to be good. Not many people would be hearing these appeals at this time of day, I would think, but this may be a form of subliminal suggestion aimed at those who are still in bed, in the hope that their brains will absorb the message while in deep sleep: This is, after all, a socialist country.
 

I am the first one to arrive at My Son, a lush green valley dotted by spectacular ruins.  Intricately decorated with gods and goddesses, these brown brick buildings were built by Indians living in Central Vietnam. The buildings are surrounded by trees. From time to time, I catch sight of some amazing birds and hear the bees buzzing around, trying to measure up with the birds singing. I feel like an explorer, the first to stumble upon this marvelous ancient city. No tourists, no cameras, no white flesh escaping from blouses or hanging below mini-skirts or shorts. No jaded Vietnamese either. They must all be back in Hoi An, getting ready to sell more to the tourists, and the tourists must be getting ready to walk around and examine what they might buy next or plan for their next destination.
 
Later in the day, I stare at a tree with orange flowers facing my balcony and ‘listen’ to its fragrance. I hear the buzz from the Central Market – old ladies with conical hats selling bananas, lady number 23 making juice, women buying fish from the boats on the river, fishermen cleaning fish of all sorts, and the rest selling noodles, meat, vegetables, grains, clothes, and hats.
 
At night, I find myself in a bar. Only Vietnamese men sit at the only other table, and one waitress serves us all. We all sit on low plastic chairs. A while later, the waitress decides to leave with a man from the bar.  Another man gets angry at seeing this happen. He starts slamming glasses of rice wine down on the floor – crash, crash, and crash.
 
“Oh, this is normal,” says Ly the next day.

“Everyone in Vietnam has extra-marital affairs,” she adds, with a giggle, “The angry man probably wanted to be with the waitress himself. Women sometimes do it for the money,” she remarks, with no sign of emotion, treating the subject as being quite normal.
 
The next day, I take a transfer bus and listen to a man talking on two different phones simultaneously, almost shouting. Then, I make the bumpy twenty-hour bus trip from Hoi An to Saigon. Rice paddies and palm trees are side by side with French colonial houses. After almost a whole day of driving over potholes, my body continues to move to the same rhythm when I finally get to bed.
 
In Saigon, I see lot of women, especially younger ones, with older Western men and I remember Ly’s comments. I know from my trip to Thailand that this is quite fashionable.  Where better can one find beautiful, young, and perhaps even submissive women, and at very reasonable prices to boot, than in Asia, where life is tough and money scarce?
 
A friend in Saigon tells me about an English teacher working there. Every night, he stands, a beer in hand, near one of the major parks and watches obsessively. He pays about ten dollars to Vietnamese girls to get naked in the park and then get friendly with dogs. He then joins them in his fantasy game. Vietnam seems to be a fantasyland, where Westerners can afford to enact their fantasies.
 
“Would they be able to get away with these kinds of things in Europe or America?” my friend asks. It is obviously a rhetorical question. Her expression clearly indicates her disgust with such people who come to Asia to become what they really are, to pursue their fantasies in countries where people need money so badly that they would do almost anything for a little cash to ensure their subsistence.
 
Every morning, I watch mothers with their little daughters selling tissues, chewing gum, and key rings in small baskets. They walk the streets of Saigon, every day, all day. It would be exhausting, not to mention depressing, wouldn’t it, to try to make a couple of dollars, if that much, to feed one’s children? And then if a Westerner came along, offering significantly more than a couple of dollars, and suggested ways to put an end to the walking up and down the streets of Saigon? What would one do? Choose a couple of dollars a day over ten dollars at a time? If I were one of those mothers, what would I do? If I were exhausted, worried, desperate, would I do it? Would I let myself and my daughter become a part of that fantasyland as well?

My thoughts are all of a sudden jerk back to another young Vietnamese woman I met before coming to Saigon.  Kim Anh, 32 years old, offers to take me around in Hue soon after we meet at my hotel in Hue, where she works at the reception desk.  She ends up becoming more than a tour guide for me, even though our relationship starts with an unpleasant argument.

Earlier in the morning, I had come to the hotel with a different driver than the one she had sent to pick me up at the bus station and whom I had not seen. She was mad at me because, as I later found out, she had to pay out of her own pocket when the hotel driver came back without the customers. Understandably, Kim was upset and treated me quite rudely. Being very tired after a nineteen-hour bus journey from Hanoi, I was equally unpleasant. 

Later on, we found out that the driver who was supposed to pick me up had stood at the bus station for half an hour holding up a different name. We both felt bad and she offered to show me around after work. I felt bad, too, for having been unpleasant to a Vietnamese person for the first time, knowing how polite and friendly they always are.

On her moped, Kim first takes me to her tiny home. We enter her front porch on the moped after Ling opens the locked gate for us. 14-year-old Ling is from a small village and Kim adopted her after Ling’s alcoholic father divorced her mother.

“She went with other men,” Kim tells me when I inquire about the mother. Ling now stays with Kim and helps her with housework. She goes to school as well and will stay with Kim and her family until she finishes university and finds a job.

“My father has fifteen children,” adds Kim, trying to change the subject when she sees how emotional I get hearing Ling’s story and thinking how kind she and her husband are even though they do not earn much. Kim makes 200 US dollars a month and her husband a bit more working at an emergency medical service.

Five of Kim’s 75-year-old father’s children are his own. The rest, the youngest being five, are all adopted and they all live in a small village in a house surrounded by a big garden. His father used to work for Americans and French as a doctor of Chinese medicine. He now takes care of children in need, and there are a lot of them in Vietnam.

I watch Kim ironing her pants and Ling folding laundry in her own tiny room. Kim’s 6-year-old son Hoâng Quôc Viêt is excited as we are soon to ride on Kim’s moped.

The little boy sits in front of his mother, leaning his tiny head toward the handle bars and watching everything around us with a big smile. I am sitting behind Kim but can still feel the excitement in the little boy’s heart.

We pick up Kim’s best friend – a rare treat for Kim – and go to a restaurant where I am taught how to eat fresh spring rolls. You take one or two sheets of thin rice paper, fill it with shredded papaya, fresh lettuce and cilantro, top it all with chicken torn off a skewer, and finally roll it all up and dip it into a sweet sauce mixed with hot chili. The restaurant only serves this dish and is well known among the locals.

“Life in Hue is more relaxed than in Hanoi and Saigon,” Kim tells me.

“We make less money but are happier here.”  Hue is definitely less hectic than Hanoi – fewer mopeds and a more relaxed lifestyle. And it is close to the beach.

Our lunch is followed by some relaxed time with another two of Kim Anh’s girlfriends.  We sit under some trees in a tea garden by the river and drink sweet lemon juice and iced tea. They all look at me and make comments. 

“Not beautiful, not beautiful,” Kim says, looking at my necklaces from Tibet and Indonesia.  Vietnamese women seem to appreciate gold more than stones from some other land.  

One of Kim’s friends is 37 and not married, very unusual in Vietnam. 

“She is a manager,” Kim explains jokingly “and she has never been able to meet the right guy.” They keep making fun of her and of her very smart handbag. She keeps smiling, not taking any offence; she even pays for all of our drinks.

Later on, Kim and I stop at a market to shop for dinner. While I wait with her son by the river, Kim goes to buy fresh squid and fish. At home, I watch Kim frying the squid in her tiny kitchen which opens to a tiny patch of land planted with chili peppers and beans and frequently visited by two tiny mice. Kim carefully and happily chops tomatoes, garlic, green onions, and fresh bamboo shoots, and adds them to the pan along with fish sauce and all kinds of condiments including chili and salt. She uses the fish to make a soup. 

She asks me about my ex-boyfriends. She tells me about one boyfriend she had before she got married. 

“He was a foreigner and I was afraid of marrying him,” she tells me with a giggle. “Different cultures…”

Kim’s husband joins us for dinner as the sun dives into clouds. We eat the fried squid and fish soup with rice and morning glory fried in garlic. He keeps urging me to eat more. 

“One more bowl of rice,” he keeps saying in Vietnamese. I am worried that if I refuse, they might think I do not like the food.

We eat in the living room, sitting on antique black chairs which seem to adorn many Vietnamese homes. They are decorated with pearl-like stones and even though they seem uncomfortable, they are quite friendly once you sit on them.

Kim’s mother-in-law watches us from above. Her picture is on top of a wardrobe with some incense. On the 15th and 30th of each month, incense is lit in her memory. The 15th is when the moon is full and the 30th when it is not as Kim tries to explain why the dead are remembered on these particular dates.

On a small table nearby is a picture of Kim’s 9-month-old daughter who died of some heart problems. A bunch of thick incense is dipped into sand for her as well and a watermelon is placed too as an offering. When I ask 32-year-old Kim if she wants another child, she says she wants to wait five more years. 

“It was exhausting and very difficult for me to lose my baby,” she tells me, trying not to show much emotion but still seems lost in her memories.

After dinner, we chat about life in general. 

“I want to see my family happy,” Kim says. “We do not need lots of money,” she continues as she keeps joking with her little boy whom she loves very much. 

“We are now your family in Vietnam,” she adds. 

“Thank you,” I say, several times, as I tend to do with others, in many other cultures. And like others in many other cultures, Kim says,

“Please do not say ‘thank you’. ‘Thanks’ is in the heart. Our friendship is in the heart,” she adds, gently patting her heart with a big smile on her face.

What a beautiful heart! I remember the lotus flowers I saw everywhere over the last month in Vietnam. I cannot help thinking that perhaps the beauty of these flowers has also somehow found its way into the hearts of these people. I wonder if they have adopted the beauty of lotus flowers as an example into their lives.

Vietnamese generosity is also represented in the labyrinthine old towns such as the one in Hanoi. Meat, shellfish, water eels, spices and, of course, all kinds of junk for tourists exhibit themselves against old colonial French buildings in its various markets – one of the reasons Hanoi is perhaps one of the most charming cities in Asia.  The famous Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of Hanoi, one of the greatest attractions of the old town, is hugged by mighty tropical trees, some ready to dive into the water. The most beautiful trees are the weeping willows. Tall and slim, they change the mood of their surroundings by allowing their delicate long branches to weep their sorrows into the lake.

I watch a short man with the body of a child fishing by the lake.  The water is green and the bottom is well hidden except for an occasional fish or water snake surfacing for a tiny bit of something to eat. The man does not have a fishing rod but a mere string tied to a small hook. Determined, he keeps breaking the shells of his snails to use their meat as bait. He catches one tiny fish, slams it onto the concrete he is sitting on, abandons it to its fate and cracks open another shell. I want to ask him what he plans to do with the fish but my Vietnamese only allows me to say cam on – ‘thank you’. 

As I watch him, the lights of some buildings against the water catch my eye – KFC, HSBC, Ice Cream Parlors. The owners, the managers of these places – how much do they make, I wonder? And do they ever come to fish around this lake? Would the fisherman ever be able to find a job in one of these places and make as much money? Would he even want to? He is skilled at catching fish – he surely has a gem within that would allow him to work but has the gem ever been worked on? Was there ever an opportunity for this?

As I continue sitting on my stone bench by the lake, I watch a beautiful young Vietnamese woman with long dark hair sitting on another seat by herself. Whenever our eyes meet, she smiles. One of her smiles is broken short when a police officer, many of whom can be seen around in the old town, politely asks her if he could sit on the opposite side of the same bench. She nods, just as politely. He takes off his hat, rests it on his lap and keeps running his fingers through his hair trying to collect the courage to talk to her. Within two minutes, they have started a conversation, but they do not look at each other. Imagine two people having a conversation, staring only at the lake opposite them and the words only dance from the lips of one person to the ear of the other. 

I want to keep watching them and see how the conversation ends, and I want to watch the stubborn little fisherman triumphing over another innocent fish but I move on to eat fresh spring rolls. In one of the tiny restaurants in the old town I gobble down six giant vegetarian rolls – for less than a dollar – served always with a smile, provided, of course, the first smile comes from you. The Vietnamese seem hesitant with their smiles with foreigners. Can it be that smiles always came from them first but were not returned by some of the foreigners, like the backpackers who have flooded Vietnam over the last ten years or so?

Each morning, a young woman by the name of Dim makes breakfast for me at the hotel in Hanoi and cleans my room. At first, she was shy talking to me but now she sometimes comes and sits with me in my room. She asks all kinds of questions about me and my life in my country, North Cyprus, and in return, she tells me about Vietnam. 23-year-old Dim has a bright pretty face. 

“I want to be fatter,” she says with a giggle.

I usually pay about 30,000 Vietnam Dongs (about two dollars) for a breakfast of bread, egg, jam, cheese, coffee, and fruit. Dim makes one million Dongs a month (about sixty dollars).  In other words, if Dim paid two dollars for breakfast every day for one month, she would have no money left for anything else. 

When Dim asks me what I have liked best about being in Vietnam, I leave out the massage centers. I am worried she might ask me how much I paid – 360,000 Dongs for a 90-minute body massage given with an attar (oil from plants) of basil and geranium, one third of her salary – I do not want to re-remind her that she has to live day to day, unable to afford worrying about the future.

My 33-year-old Polish yoga teacher in Hanoi, who also lives very much in the moment, says “You are as young as your spine,” as we assume the table posture to work on our backs.  Marzena has been in Hanoi for three years and has what many of us lack – a job she loves and plenty of freedom. She works most of the year and then goes to India for about two months to get more training in yoga. She has piercing green eyes, the bottom half of her blonde hair is shaved, positivity oozes out of her being. She likes being out of the competitive world of Europe. Here in Hanoi she runs one of the few yoga studios. She is doing great and does not have to get into the vicious cycle of competition.

The pavements of Hanoi are as crowded as the roads. Every morning on my way to work, I see women of different ages, with their conical hats and their big round straw baskets, selling tiny crabs trying to escape to their freedom, eels piled on top of each other in shallow water, big and fat grayish worms ready to become fried delicacies.

The female vendors either sit on the ground or, with a wide open smile, holding tight onto their baskets, run to hide from the police who are always around ‘sweeping them away’ to clear the pavements already too crowded with the parked mopeds. Recently, a law has been passed in Hanoi – no more vendors on the pavements, no more tolerance for those coming from different parts of poor Vietnam to make a living in Hanoi.

The fruit on sale are as interesting as the animals on display, but more colorful. Purplish dragon fruit, dark green watermelons, hairy red rambutans, sour looking green apples, and bunches of light brown lychees are as beautiful as the freshly picked bouquets of long stemmed roses and lotus flowers. Every morning, always at the same corner, one of the vendors tries her luck with me, drawing my attention to her juicy red grapes and asking me to buy some. My usual answer is “No, cam on” even though I know we will have to go through the same routine the next day but it is her country, her corner and she has to make a living.

Mopeds are an uninterrupted colorful wave on the roads of Hanoi. Another recent law requires bikers to wear helmets and vendors offer a selection of helmets shaped like jockey hats in all the colors you can think of.  Some of the few cars are taxis and the rest is people on mopeds with jockey hats of a thousand rainbow colors. It is, in fact, quite entertaining to stand by the road and watch the mopeds. It feels like the riders are not on their way to work or home, but a part of a moped parade. They comfortably ride side by side, and quite tightly, in a wave ready to crush on a beach.

The older ladies here in Hanoi are ageless and almost as entertaining to watch as the mopeds.  In one of the many parks of the city, I watch fourteen of them standing in a circle and rhythmically, under the command of the lady in the middle, massaging each other’s backs. They do this with big smiles and sweaty backs but with boundless energy. This goes on for over than twenty minutes. They seem mostly in their sixties (or perhaps less or perhaps more), and they are mostly the same height – short but dynamic – just like the many others I see marching and exercising in the parks of Hanoi, some wearing their conical hats, some their comfortable dull-colored shirts and pants, very much a reminder of the clothes Ho Chi Minh himself used to wear.

On the surface, they seem not only physically but also mentally strong, as strong as their younger versions on mopeds riding confidently in their smart high-heeled shoes. Physically, the young women seem to be in tip top shape too, even though in the more demanding life of a big city like Hanoi they are probably not quite as active as their mothers and grandmothers used to be but they still ride the wave with their male counterparts. And who wouldn’t, if it meant attaining a ‘better’ lifestyle? Are they as submissive as some of the other women I met in other parts of Asia, I ask myself, even though I cannot help but notice how confident they seem, perhaps more so than the women in my own country in southeast Europe. They seem unafraid of leading a life that requires hard work – more so, again, than those in my country who have all the means for an easy life but are still afraid of standing up on their own to drive the vehicle of confidence toward a lifestyle of their own choice.

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