Tag Archives: Vietnam

Coffee in Hanoi

I’m returning to Vietnam on vacation next month, and that got me thinking about the many hours I’ve spent in coffee shops in Hanoi, especially one on Ngu Xa in Truc Bach…

By Alison Bate

 The cafe owner smiles the smile of many mornings as she brings over my iced coffee and green tea chaser. I lean forward in my bamboo chair to stir the two-tone Nau Da, digging down with the long-handled spoon to mix in the condensed milk, navigating around the lumps of ice. The mixture curdles and sometimes looks like a work of art and other times a sludgy mess.

I take a sip of Nau Da and the chocolatey taste spreads inside my mouth, and an involuntary smile outside. A sip of the green Tra Da clears my palette and my mind.


A guardian at Cafe Pho, Hanoi (Photo by Alisher Sharip)

At the back of the Cafe Pho, the family shrine is graced with orange gladioli, three cans of Sprite, a blue tin of cookies, sticks of burned incense and other offerings. In another corner, a Ho Phap guardian casts a benign eye over the customers. The cat is not around today.

It’s 9 a.m, and the Cafe Pho on Ngu Xa is filling up. Two young guys read Bong Da sports newspaper and, less predictably, Phu Nu women’s newspaper. Others watch soccer on VTV3.

I watch as a triangular pattern continues all morning, with three businesses working in unison. A thirty-something couple and their two young boys have ordered Pho Ga and the owner yells their order up the street. The family could sit on small plastic stools at the chicken noodle stall a few doors away but choose to relax here in comfortable chairs. We watch as steaming bowls of the broth are brought down the street. The parents squeeze on fresh lime and add dipping and chilli sauce onto the noodles. Everyone tucks in.

Afterward, a woman in navy-and-white striped shirt comes over from across the street and rounds up empty noodle bowls. Back in front of her open room, she sends the white bowls along a bucket assembly line. Slops into dark blue container, pre-wash in white bucket, soapy wash in silver galvanized bowl, and rinse in sky-blue bowl. Finally, the clean bowls are stacked to dry in a pink meshed basket. Half-hidden behind her, two men sort herbs and bits of meat.

Now the woman in the striped shirt and her colleague are carrying the clean bowls in a pink basket to the Pho Ga stall at the top of Ngu Xa and return with the empty basket.

Above the little stores, songbirds chirp away in their pretty prisons, trapped in cages hung from precarious phone cables. Their tweets a pleasant backdrop to the revving of motorbikes, the clang of cutlery and the smell of wet noodles.

This evening, I’ll be teaching, but the morning is mine, all mine. I pull out Chapter 12 of my novel and begin writing.

Note: An earlier version appeared in Word Vietnam magazine in November 2014

Section of Muoi Trong Nguyen's "War" painting (2015)

War, peace and the artist: Muoi Trong Nguyen

By Alison Bate

The corpses filled the river valley, their hands stretched toward the sky.

It was 1979 and Hanoi artist Muoi Trong Nguyen had been sent north to the border with China to record the war scenes for historical purposes. The fighting between China and Vietnam lasted less than a month, but in that short time, more than 30,000 soldiers died in the conflict, also known as the Third Indochina War.

He spent months after the battle ended, sketching and painting watercolors on site, but it’s this image of the hands of the corpses stretched toward the sky that stays with him. Sadly, he says the paintings no longer exist or are in the hands of the military.

Pix Muoi Trong Nguyen and Thang Tran

Artist Muoi Trong Nguyen (left) with translator Thang Tran at Writing Across Generations in Hanoi, April 2016

Western visitors to Vietnam often focus on the aftermath of the “American War”, as it is known here, or perhaps the colonial period, when France colonized the country. But to most Vietnamese nowadays, these wars are events from the past. Any current fears or threats are focussed on its neighbor China, based on its past invasions, current maritime ambitions and, of course, tempered by a booming trade between the two countries.

Nguyen, who writes in Vietnamese under the name Nguyen Trong Thap*, has brought out a new memoir “Noi Chim” that gives a fascinating glimpse of personal life in north Vietnam during the land reforms, the American War, and his time in the military and as an artist. He read excerpts from “Noi Chim” (Sinking and Swimming) and answered questions at a special reading at Hanoi Cooking Centre in April. At the event “Across the Generations”, he was joined by poet Nguyen Thi Hong Van and blogger and copywriter Yuki Phan, with Thang Tran translating.

He told us that he grew up poor in a farming family in the My Hao district of Hung Yen province, east of Hanoi, the youngest of 10 children. He always wanted to be an artist, but life did not turn out as he planned. At the age of 16, he enrolled in art school in Hanoi but less than six months in, was unceremoniously expelled – caught between a rock and a hard place.  In his memoir, he describes how the art school told him he needed to be on the Hanoi resident register to stay, but the district police would grant it only if he handed in the school’s acceptance letter.

“I had to pack up everything and leave, in tears and to the ridicule of friends. Perhaps they would be happy after all, even without my presence. Only I swallowed the pain that would last until my death,” he writes.

“Angry and lonesome, I limped away from class across the school yard, my eyes swollen up, taking a last look at the trees, the chairs, the garden’s statues. I entered the dormitory to pack up. It was empty and quiet. Seeing my dear bed, I flushed away the tears. Everything long gone, no more dreams, no more future and career. Bitter and humiliated.”

Back home in the countryside, he gradually pulled his self-esteem together. Opening his piggy bank, he counted 10 dong and took some to buy paper and art supplies. He began drawing for Lunar New year and for weddings. His father now ran a tailor shop in Hanoi and Nguyen hung his paintings on the wall, in front of the house.  Sometimes he drew from dusk to dawn, and his business began to flourish.

Section of Muoi Trong Nguyen's

Section of Muoi Trong Nguyen’s “War” painting (2015), showing after-effects of bombing during the American War, now hanging in a museum in Nghe An province, Vietnam.

But military events punctuated his life. He was only 20 when he joined the North Vietnamese Army in the 1970s. During the American War, Nguyen spent three years in the Truong Son Mountains, working behind the front lines, tasked with ensuring smooth radio communications.

At one time he caught malaria and was lost in the jungle for five days. To cross one particularly heavy river, he blew up a plastic bag and floated across. He eventually emerged in an area where naked female revolutionaries were bathing, he told the audience. They gave him short shrift, furious that he’d invaded their privacy.

Now officially retired, Nguyen still meets with former army colleagues once a year, and his painting work continues. Late last year, he finished two enormous “War and Peace” paintings for a museum in Nghe An province in north Central Vietnam. One shows the peaceful pastoral scene before the American bombing and the other, the wrecked post-war landscape.

* Vietnamese names use the surname first.

[Notes: Muoi Trong Nguyen has been my friend since 2014. Noi Chim was published by Nha Xuat Ban Hoi Nha Van in December 2015]

Muoi Trong Nguyen with his

Muoi Trong Nguyen with his “Peace” painting (2015), one of a pair now hanging in a museum in Nghe An province, Vietnam

General Giap goes home

By Alison Bate

Crowds pressed in to try and see the funeral procession of General Vo Nguyen Giap in Hanoi on Oct.12, 2013.

Crowds press in to try and see the funeral procession in Hanoi Sunday.

The body of General Giap was escorted from Hanoi to his home town in Quang Binh province for burial.

A woman tries to hand over chrysanthemum flowers to an officer for placing with other wreaths in Hanoi Sunday.

A woman tries to hand over chrysanthemum flowers to an officer for placing with other wreaths in Hanoi Sunday.

An officer holds a poster commemorating General Giap on Hoang Dieu, Hanoi on Sunday.

An officer holds a poster commemorating General Giap on Hoang Dieu, Hanoi on Sunday.

Pix Alison Bate

Writing in Hanoi

Author and writing instructor Julie Ferguson asked me to write a guest blog about my experience writing a novel while living overseas. Here’s the article in full:

Hanoi is a surprisingly good place to write a book.

The capital of Vietnam boasts good coffee shops with Wifi, teaching jobs where you don’t have to work too hard to cover rent, and the jostle of 3.5 million other motorbikes that stimulates creativity.

It’s a total contrast to my home on Bowen Island in western Canada, where deer roam the yard and only the whining of chainsaws breaks the peace.

Writing in two very different settings, I’ve realised that wherever I live there are other writers around to help during the long, lonely journey of working on a first draft.

My roommate Tom introduced me to the Hanoi Writers Collective in April 2012, and throughout the next 12 months, the expat group became the lifeline that kept my novel moving along.

We were a mixed bunch, coming from different countries and writing in very different genres. Andy Engelson was writing an epic novel based in the U.S. Pacific Northwest; Diederik Prakke, about Buddhists in love; Mary Croy and Liz Burgess, sci-fi for young adults; Charlotte Adams, poetry; and Linda Mazur, a nonfiction study of the early Vietnamese architects in Hanoi.

And I was (and still am!) writing a novel set in modern Sudan, where I taught in 2007 and re-visited in 2011. Our members also attended Noi Ha Noi, where Vietnamese and English-speaking poets, writers, and storytellers read their work in their native language. The Vietnamese poetry was then translated into English and vice versa. A tough challenge for the translators!

Our main writing group met every two weeks and we took it in turns to bring in a writing prompt, free-write for 20 minutes or so, then read our poetry or prose out loud. Afterward, we critiqued each other’s work, emailed to others in advance. (Ed: not all groups follow this format.)

From these sessions, I learned:

* Even if colleagues write in a very different genre, you can still help each other. Poets helped me appreciate the sounds of words and creative writers encouraged me to use my imagination.

* If at least two people make the same suggestion, it’s a good idea to explore it. For example, my novel was originally written  in third person from one point of view, but is now told from three points of view. It’s much stronger, as a result.

* Meeting regularly encouraged me to write a new chapter each time, and actually finish it – instead of lazily writing “snappy ending goes here”.

* If there isn’t a writing group where you live, you can always start one. I’ve spent the summer back on Bowen Island and a small group of us are now sharing our writing.

I’m heading back to Hanoi shortly, and look forward to reconnecting with the other writers – and keeping the novel moving toward the finish line.

Ten things I’ll miss about Hanoi

Liz, one of my colleagues at work, asked me last night what I’ll miss about living in Hanoi. It’s the people I’ll miss the most when I leave next month, of course. But I’ve also grown to love, in a strange sort of way, the following:

Tall and thin houses in Hanoi –  to beat the tax on the width frontage

Tall and thin– to beat the tax on the width frontage

* Motorbikes in the living room.

* Jockey-cap motorbike helmets designed to fall apart at the slightest accident

* Tall thin houses

* Impossibly thin motorbike cops

* Just throwing the garbage in the alley for the recycle ladies to collect

* Cafe sua da – good iced coffee for under a dollar

* Fresh pineapple for sale with all the hard work taken care of – cut up and ready to eat

* Fresh fruit shakes made out of bananas and pineapple

* Students with the same name in one class: three Thao’s, three Hoa’s, two Nguyen’s, etc

* “When my grandpa was a boy, He was a lot like me…” and other Family and Friends gems

* And, of course, the rat in the photocopier

Preparing the Tet trees in Hanoi

Au Co workers in Hanoi take a quick break from moving and hauling kumquat trees for Tet

Au Co workers in Hanoi take a quick break from moving and hauling kumquat trees for Tet

Quite a balancing act

A tough balancing act, taking a kumquat tree home in Hanoi, Vietnam

Pix motorbikers and peach tree

Not so easy loading a heavy peach tree onto a motorbike

I live in Au Co, near the orchards and flower market, and the main road right now is a manic mess of motorbikes, flower sellers on bikes, and walking and moving trees.

It’s just days before Tet and everyone in Hanoi is buying a kumquat tree for good luck in the coming Lunar New Year. Kumquats look like really cute baby mandarin orange trees, and according to one of my Vietnamese colleagues, it’s very important the tree has “good posture”. Not standing up straight, but a pretty shape.These trees are typically carried to their new homes by stern-looking motorbike drivers, miraculously balancing them on the backs of their bikes.

The branches of pink-blossomed peach trees are also popular and I’ve even seen heavily-bonsai’d dragon fruit trees on the move.

More and more lilies and chrysanthemums are emerging for sale in little side lots, along the sides of roads and as a sideline. Even the juice bar near the school I work at has started selling small trees and flowers out front.

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Pix motorbikes in hanoi

No. 132 passes the motorbike test in Hanoi

By Alison Bate

I’m finally legal, after five months of zoom-zooming around Hanoi.

Yesterday, I went to pick up my Vietnamese motorbike license, after a long, tortuous but entertaining ride.

Like nearly everyone here in Hanoi, I’ve broken rules that I wouldn’t dream of flouting in Canada. I’ve ridden my Yamaha Nuovo daily without a license and without insurance; I’ve carried passengers without a helmet; and occasionally even ridden the wrong way down main roads. All because that’s what the Hanoians do, and it’s simply the best way to get around the city.

It’s a nerve-wracking experience at first, driving on the crazy, noisy no-rules streets. After a while, though, you get used the rhythm of the traffic and learn to never look back.

I’ve never been stopped by the police and if I had been, the advice was simple: pretend you don’t speak any Vietnamese. As most of the police don’t speak English, either, they are very reluctant to stop westerners or Tays, as we are called.

But now, after endless paperwork, getting a Vietnamese car license, a battery of photos, a medical and a figure-of-eight driving test, I’m finally legal.

Ten days ago, I joined four other colleagues at Language Link for the final big hurdle: the practical test.
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On the Indigo Trail: with the Black H’mong in NW Vietnam

"The village of Ly Lao Chi"

The village of Ly Lao Chi, near Sapa in northwest Vietnam

By Alison Bate

The Latin name trips off his tongue easily.

“Have you seen any strobilanthes cusia – the indigo plant? Or know anyone who makes the indigo dye here,” a boisterous French guy called out as I wandered by a street café.

Bemused, I joined Jean-Louis Dulaar for some of the local bitter green tea, and gave him the number of my homestay owner, Mr. Hoa, who spoke good English.

“No, not Tavan, but in the next village, people make the dye,” Mr. Hoa told him.

We were in the village of Tavan, about seven kilometres down the mountain from Sapa, in northwest Vietnam. I had a few days off work so had caught an overnight train and minibus from Hanoi to Sapa. It was full of ethnic minority women relentlessly trying to sell their handicraft, and I couldn’t wait to get out of town.

“You rich, me poor. You buy my stuff. Why you not buy? You monkey,” they would chant.

After buying an exotic hanging from one of the few polite women, I escaped on a Xe-om taxi (hug a motorbike) to Tavan, a beautiful little village surrounded by rice fields at the bottom of a beautiful valley. I spent the night at Mr. Hoa’s homestay, nursing a cold and enjoying some healing shots of rice wine.

Jean-Louis Dulaar with one of the local villagers in Lao Chi

The next morning, I ran into Jean-Louis Dulaar, who turned out to be a French artist who goes around the world learning local methods of using natural plants to make dyes and then creates his own paintings.

“What are you doing today?” Jean Louis asked me.

“Not much.”

Zoom zoom. Two minutes later, I joined him on the back of his rented motorbike heading for the village of Lao Chai. There, we got off and stumbled around trying to find someone who understood what he wanted.

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Friday night in Hanoi

Kids watching the flag-folding ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi

Kids watching the flag-folding ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi

It’s Friday night in Hanoi and the Mausoleum is like a gigantic playground.

Barefoot toddlers and pre-schoolers run around in circles, dads hoist kids on their shoulders, and moms guard strollers, teddy bears and surplus clothes.

Shrieks of laughter fill the night air, a pleasant change from the impatient beep-beeps in the background from motorbikers on nearby Hung Vuong Street

The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, which holds the embalmed remains of the former president, is lit up in pinkish red, like an empty opera stage just before a performance.

Kids and parents playing at the Mausoleum on Friday night.

Kids and parents playing at the Mausoleum on Friday night.

The field in front is also floodlit, adding to the dramatic air, and criss-crossed with paths full of young people walking in T-shirts, shorts and capris and the occasional older woman wearing loose pyjamas.

Suddenly a whistle blows and the crisply-pressed white uniformed guards move into action, gently clearing the square of toddlers and their parents and pushing the crowd back into the grassy area.

But they don’t leave. On a path parallel to the square, the kids sit down and their parents stand behind them, all in a row, all clearly waiting for something to happen.

Martial music begins to play, and the adults sing along. Then from the left, a troop of the white uniformed guards marches three-by-three across the square toward the giant flag in front o the mausoleum. The flag is slowly lowered to triumphal music and folded away by one of the guards.

The crowd slowly drifts over to the motorbike park, and dad and mom drive off with their little kids squashed between them on the back of the motorbike. The square empties quickly and Ho Chi Minh is left in peace again.

(Posted April 17, 2012 by Alison Bate)

Rowing with his feet and other Vietnam water scenes

Pix man rowing with his feet

Local rowing with his feet in Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam (Pix by Alison Bate, March 2012)

Colorful boat in Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam

Colorful boat in Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam (Pix by Alison Bate, March 2012)

Travelling in Lan Ha Bay, near Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Travelling in Lan Ha Bay, near Ha Long Bay, Vietnam (Pix by Alison Bate, March 2012)

A quick break from kayaking in Lan Ha Bay (Pix Alison Bate)

Flying the flag in Cat Ba harbor, Vietnam

Flying the flag in Cat Ba harbor, Vietnam (Pix by Alison Bate, March 2012)

A fine mist filled the bay, as we went kayaking near Cat Ba Island in northeast Vietnam. Most people go to see the spectacular vertical mountains dropping into the sea, but actually I spent more time looking at the boats.

Cat Bay harbor itself is full of colorful wooden boats flying the Vietnamese flag, and in Lan Ha Bay, I enjoyed seeing this guy rowing with his feet. It was also a lot less touristy than nearby Ha Long Bay.

We also saw loads of fish farms, each with a little hut on it and a long pier guarded by yapping dogs.They guard the crop while the family is out fishing, often overnight, and seem to harvest lots of mussels and other shellfish and catch giant jellyfish.

(Posted by Alison Bate, Marhc 24, 2012)