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.

Why Vietnam?

Every time I take a trip to Vietnam–averaging every couple of years since the mid-1990s–I’m asked what it is about Vietnam that draws me back again & again. It’s a reasonable question & one to which I have a set answer, but it’s an answer that doesn’t fully satisfy me. I usually say that, given my age, I have an inescapable historical connection to Vietnam. But that doesn’t explain, really, why I’m sitting in Logan International waiting for a 1:30 a.m. flight to Hong Kong, jumping then to Hanoi. And it doesn’t explain why I’ve now made twelve (I think) extended trips to Vietnam since 1996, including a Fulbright year in 2000 – 2001. It must be love.

I feel comfortable in Vietnam, especially Hanoi, which is less frenetic & less Westernized than HCMC. It’s not as if Hanoi is like home–I don’t feel “at home”–but I am attracted to the particular kinds of difference I experience there. And it certainly is different–the interpersonal expectations can take some getting used to. Social life is based on relationships of hierarchy, but also of trust, however paradoxical that may seem. Then there is that long sweep of history that gives weight to both social interactions and the arts, though much of this historical weight is being eroded by the forces of globalization.

Why Vietnam? What is it about going far from home that feels so lively & rewarding? Over the next few weeks I’m going to keep coming back to these questions, though I know in advance that whatever sort of answer(s) I come up with will be protean, shifting, unstable.

Leaving Today for Hanoi

Catch the Cape Air commuter this afternoon to Boston, from which I take a Cathy Pacific flight to Hong Kong & then on to Hanoi. The layover in Hong Kong should be just long enough to eat at the airport’s wonderful dim sum restaurant. Of all the intermediate airports I’ve stopped at on previous trips, Hong Kong’s is by far the best. Tokyo & Singapore are all right, Frankfurt by far the worst, largely because of the snarling security functionaries. Rainy evening in Hanoi

Noi Bai, the airport at Hanoi, is improving, but can be chaotic during busy periods. The main lesson I’ve (mostly) learned from the dozen or so trips I’ve made to Vietnam is to travel light. I pack, then try to subtract ten percent of what I’ve packed. Closes are inexpensive in Vietnam, even when custom-made, so I usually anticipate buying shirts once I arrive, trousers, too: the tailors can copy any pair I bring.

Redundancy & Style in Vietnamese

Vietnamese poetsthis may be common in everyday speech, but I havent run across itwill pile up two words with essentially the same meaning. Here is an example: The poet T Ngọc Thạch begins a line with the phrase Lớp lớp địa tầng in which, as near as I can tell by dictionary crawling, both Lớp lớp and địa tầng can straightforwardly be translated as layers or strata in English. I dont know whether I should render this as just layers or strata or something more like layers of strata. Clearly, I need to seek the help of a Vietnamese poet on this, but I’m beginning to think that Vietnamese writers use these doublings & sometimes triplings to elicit shades of meaning. That is, redundancy — that’s what we’d call it in the West — is a fundamental element of style in Vietnamese, particularly in literature, but also in everyday speech.