Phở Cuốn

My friends Long & Giang took me for lunch yesterday to a restaurant on Trấn Vũ beside Trúc Bạch Lake that specializes in Phở Cuốn, which is basically all the ingredients of a bowl of Phở Bò minus the liquid & rolled up in rice paper. It’s eaten by dipping in a slightly sour dipping sauce. This is the best thing I have eaten on this trip to Vietnam.


The restaurant is on a little island separated from the city by a narrow canal & Trúc Bạch is itself separated from the much larger & more famous Hồ Tây (West Lake) by a narrow causeway. After lunch we went down the street & drank coffee beside the lake.


Red Music

At the singing competition the other night, most of the songs were sentimental tributes to the relationship between students and teachers, but maybe a quarter of them were in a genre the Vietnamese unselfconsciously call “nhạc đỏ,” red music. It is both frankly patriotic and martial. Imagine a genre of contemporary American pop based on Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets,” complete with march time and military drumming.

National Teachers’ Day in Vietnam

Yesterday was National Teachers’ Day in Vietnam, a day on which Vietnamese college students return to their high schools & high school students to their elementary schools taking gifts to their former teachers. The night before last I was invited to a big party & singing competition at the International School of Hanoi National University. It was a lovely, typically Vietnamese affair, which is to say wonderfully welcoming & relentlessly cheerful. The International School is a success story during a difficult period for Vietnamese education.

The singing acts–all composed of students, faculty, or staff–varied in quality, from barely passable to semi-pro, & they went on for far too long. A lot of the songs advanced commonplace sentiments about the value of education & the importance of teachers, but by far the most popular combined such sentiments with a strongly patriotic, even martial, strain. This feels distinctly odd to liberal, Western ways of thinking about education, but it makes sense here given the strong Confucian & revolutionary / communist traditions of contemporary Vietnam. Indeed, the choreography & musical arrangements retained a hint of the Soviet aesthetic.

The Confucianism of Confucius is, as David Hinton notes,1 quite different from the Confucianism of that philosophy’s subsequent evolution:

The brand of Confucianism wielded throughout the centuries as power’s ideology of choice focused on select ideas involving selfless submission to authority: parental, political, masculine, historic, textual. And the “sacred” Ritual dimensions of these hierarchical relationships only made them that much more oppressive. It is this aspect of the Confucian tradition that has become so problematic in modern times, for intellectuals came to recognize it as the force that was preventing . . . modernization.

At the same time, and much in evidence on Teacher’s Day, were the Confucian virtues of filial piety & ritual. There was a great deal of sentimental celebration of teachers & parents–teachers being seen as auxiliary parents due virtually the same respect as one’s mother & father. The event, held in a hotel conference room, was in every sense a deployment of ritual, with many formulaic exchanges between teachers & administrators & between teachers & students. David Hinton, in his introduction to his translation of The Analects, writes:

It was in this context that Confucius extended the use of Ritual to include all the caring acts by which we fulfill our responsibilities to others in the community – hence the entire weave of everyday social life takes on the numinous aspect of the sacred.

The ritual mode is clearly evident in Vietnam in a way that surprises Western visitors, if they notice it at all. This can be as simple as the way one hands an object like a key or the change from a purchase to another person–with both hands & a slight bow. It is one of the things that draws me back again & again, despite the fact that I find some of the actual, formal rituals–like the singing contest–hard to throw myself into with the complete abandon of the Vietnamese. Even the retired Rector of the International School was still going strong after three hours. Which is about when I slipped out. There were a couple of other Americans in attendance & it was clear that we were unable to make the leap into sincere participation. Some of this is language, but not all. All cultures make use of ritual, some more consciously than others. Americans have plenty of rituals, but we generally don’t call them by that name and we do not cultivate them in the same way as the Vietnamese.