Eating & Speaking

I’ve been a little careful about what I’ve been eating the last couple of days. This means choosing somewhat more bland restaurants, often ones designed specifically to appeal to non-Vietnamese tastes, even if the food is Vietnamese. Whether this makes any real difference is difficult to say: It’s equally possible to eat something off in one of these places as in a street stall, maybe more so since the best Vietnamese street stalls turn over a lot of food very quickly. In any case, since I still feel a little wobbly I have been taking care.

The waitress in the tourist place seemed, at first, utterly bored. She was a little surprised when I placed my order in halting Vietnamese, then went back to what she was doing at her computer on the little desk at the side of the restaurant. I sat next to a window looking out at the street & sipped my lime juice & Schweppes soda. After a little while, she went to the back of the room then brought me my clay pot chicken with rice. I had to ask for chopsticks: “Xin cho Bác cái đũa.” The five-word sentence brought a flicker of smile to the young woman’s face. She went to get them, lay them on my table, then retired again to her computer.

The chicken was tasty but salty. About halfway through the meal I asked for another soda. When it came, I said, “Mặn quá!” (Very salty). She looked concerned, but I said, in English, “It’s okay, just salty.” At this point, something clicked, I think. What I had taken as boredom was perhaps diffidence. A bit later, when she took my plate away, she asked me in Vietnamese how long I had been in Vietnam. I have a kind of standard answer to this question that simplifies reality somewhat, since my language skills are not up to the temporal details. “I’ve lived here a year,” I told her, and have studied Vietnamese in the US; that I’m a professor & work with a publishing house as an editor. I can get this all into choppy Vietnamese without too many problems. The young woman looked at the chair across from me & I nodded for her to sit down. At this point we had to begin moving back & forth between English & Vietnamese: “You understand a lot,” she said. “I don’t hear the language very well, though,” I told her. My hearing is really not up to any sort of fluency in a tonal language. “I think you understand a lot about Vietnam, though,” she said. I don’t really know how she could know this, except perhaps by accepting my attempt to speak her language, or maybe by not dragging all my cultural assumptions into the restaurant with me. We talked about various things, mixing our languages, and then I went off into the night.

When any two speakers converse, whether they share a birth language or not, there is a moment of assent, fraught with vulnerability, right at the start. They agree to speak in good faith. (Most encounters are not actually conversations, of course, but instrumental exchanges–that’s how we get through the day.) Sartre calls bad faith a kind of self-deception, or play-acting.1  When the young woman in the restaurant glanced at the chair across from me, she was asking, even if she was herself not fully aware of it, that we drop the play-acting. We were then able to have a conversation, however halting, across our languages. Such encounters are rare at home or abroad, but perhaps being forced out of one’s habitual bad faith, in Sartre’s sense, increases the possibility that real conversations may occur. The barrier between speakers who have only bits & pieces of each other’s languages actually creates an opportunity for openness.

I can’t really reconstruct or recall the details of that conversation–it was mostly concerned with small matters. I asked a lot of questions about the names for things, I remember. Near the end of our talk, the young woman (I’ll have to go back now & learn her name: it didn’t seem important at the time) asked, “Why do you keep coming back to Hanoi?” Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? I wonder what the answer is, of if there is an answer. Or maybe it’s actually simple: I keep returning so as to lift of the corner of the curtain & to remember that it iOS possible to have a conversation with someone–or with one’s self–in good faith.



Rainy Sunday in Hanoi: Recovering from bụng ốm

Pouring rain. Hammering rain. The it stops & the sun comes out. When I go out it will rain again. It’s about 80º. In any case, I’ve been cooped up for two days–feels like a week–with a stomach bug–bụng ốm in Vietnamese: almost an onomatopoeia! I knew I was recovering when I began to imagine eating some fruit. Vietnam is so full of fruit that after a while it becomes invisible. But when you notice it, the variety and abundance are astonishing. (Here is an overview of what’s available, though it only scratches the surface. And here is 40 seconds of video that catches the feel of the streets.)1

So I knew I was getting better when I began thinking about fruit. But you don’t want to stuff just any fruit into your bụng ốm–some will actually make you worse. Begin with bananas, which are full of minerals & fiber. Bananas, bottled water, and Vinamilk yogurt will get one through most food-borne intestinal disturbances. With one exception years ago, the combination has always worked for me. That time, I needed to take a course of Cipro & then probiotics & an electrolyte solution that is somehow both sweet & salty at the same time. Actually, yesterday, after I was mostly recovered, I went to the pharmacy to lay in a supply of loperamide in case of emergency (best to avoid until your system has cleaned itself out), along with the standard probiotic & the nasty electrolyte powder (don’t be fooled by the orange on the packet). I was surprised when the pharmacist asked if I wanted a packet of Cipro. “Không có toa thuốc bác sĩ?” I asked. (Without a doctor’s prescription?) She laughed and said something that may have meant, “Oh, yes, a doctor!” then she laid the blister-pack on the counter, so I got some Cipro, too. I’m not going to take any of this stuff now except the probiotic, but if I need it later, I’ll have it. Somehow, though, I usually only get bụng ốm once each time I come.

Finally, a word about yogurt. The largest industrial company in Vietnam (barring foreign & multinationals) is Vinamilk. It is a kind of miracle food. The stuff is highly sweetened & highly processed–Westerners might be tempted to turn up their noses–but it can be transported throughout a tropical country with inadequate transport & refrigeration. It is also full of probiotics.

sua chua

Sữa chua is Vietnamese for yogurt & to a non-Vietnamese the word looks a lot like sửa chữa, which is actually a different word, in this case meaning “fix” or “repair.” But if you have bụng ốm, sữa chua will help sửa chữa your problem. Plenty of water, bananas & Vinamilk yogurt make an excellent first line of defense against travelers’ stomach problems; if that doesn’t work, there does not seem to be much the pharmacist won’t provide.

Vietnamese Pronouns

Today I was addressed as “ba” for the first time. In Vietnamese, personal pronouns are assigned according to age & position in the family. When I first came to Vietnam twenty years ago, I was addressed as “chú,” which means “father’s younger brother”; a few years later I was promoted to “bác,” which means “father’s older brother. In both cases I was still an uncle, with the connotation of “avuncular,” but “ba” just means “father.” I suppose that now I can look forward to “ông,” meaning “grandfather” and thence to “cụ,” which is a gender-neutral pronoun for “old person.”

Karaoke & Travel Impressions

What is it about the Vietnamese & karaoke? I’m seven floors up & I can hear people going at it in the club across from the hotel. Must be a hell of a din downstairs.

Arrived in good order this morning, less wrung out than usual. Hot & muggy, with a rain shower this afternoon while I napped. There is a beautiful new bridge over the Red River & in general Hanoi looks prosperous. The airport, which in the past often had a certain Dantean quality, has been redone & spruced up; neat & efficient, the place was a pleasant surprise, especially in contrast to Hong Kong, where the airport–once a jewel of Asian modernism–has gotten rather tatty. Maybe the decline is related to the mainland’s economic turmoil.

The manager at my hotel remembered me from a couple of years ago & since I was early, settled me with a plate of fresh fruit while my room was gotten ready: passion fruit, dragon fruit & watermelon.


As noted, I slept for a while, then took a short walk & went out to dinner. I always go to the Moca Cafe on my first day in Hanoi–not because it’s the best place, but because of its longevity. The cơm rang gà (chicken fried rice) tastes the same as it did sixteen years ago & it was pleasant to watch the stream of Hanoians & tourists go past the open windows & to hear the raw, unmelodious bell of St. Josephs.