So I come up with stories that I want to tell you, and then wonder to myself if they actually warrant a whole post. Often they’re just random anecdotes that amuse me, that I think are interesting, or that I know will seem fascinatingly foreign to those of you not living here (most of you). Sometimes they get clumped together in a nonsequitor blog post – lucky you. Other times they get saved for a moment when I can write extensively about a very random thing – I’m still planning the detailed description of how we buy ice from a random girl down along the railroad tracks. Lucky you there too! Who’d have thought you could get ice by the railroad tracks! But I digress. This is one of those “random assortment of things” blog posts. Ice story to follow shortly, I promise.
…Hanoi’s new art scene
If you drive around Tran Nhat Tong street looking for a happening place with lighting, signage and other markers of cultural activity, you’ll end up missing the place. #9 Tran Nhat Tong used to be a medicine factory, and entrance tucked among the shops and cafes hasn’t been updated since. It has, however, recently been purchased by a large number of local and international artists, who are converting the many rooms into studio spaces, restaurants, bars, and anything else they may desire. A factory complex with several massive buildings 4-5 stories tall, the place is still new and quite…raw. We parked in a sandy lot behind the building, wandered towards the crowd of people sitting on makeshift tables outside a small restaurant that had overflowed into the parking lot. We were looking for our friend Manh who had recently opened his studio space, to join him and his friends for a drink and get a mini tour.
Five minutes later we were sitting on a wooden platform around a spread of food, drinking rice wine from shallow ceramic bowls. Out of glasses? Stylish alternative? I’m not sure. Manh’s puppy Gui (sounds like Ghee) was sleeping in the dirt next to the platform, at least until we arrived. Around the table were painters, sculptors, a violinist, a few performance artists – a few of which spoke English. We got by with paltry Vietnamese and the international language of cheap liquor and a beautiful evening.
After a bit, we dragged Manh away to see his studio in the next building over. His space is on the 4th floor, so we climbed the old factory stairs into almost complete darkness, and then came around a corner and into Manh’s space. Two large rooms, completely unfinished/stripped concrete, old windows…beautiful. With paintings stacked around, we talked about his plans for the space and the plans for the artists complex in general. There are now two bars that have opened, each popular places that have moved from other locations in the city to be a part of this new community. Soon to come are a cafe and a restaurant, as well as the studios of dozens of the city artists. It will be a space for shows, work, collaboration.
…this thing called “Big C”
Big C is, I think, a Vietnamese interpretation of the Super Wal-Mart. A massive grocery store with every other kind of household good available, it attracts Andrew and I for two reasons: morbid fascination with the impressive degree of Asian kitsch, and the bread. I have one photograph that sums both of
these things up. Maybe Big C is more like a Costco, since they’re built only on the outskirts of Hanoi in massive warehouse style buildings. The Savico MegaMall, where the Big C is located, is sourrounded by parking for cars and motorbikes, with a mix of K Pop (Korean pop music) and American Top 40 playing too loudly over outdoor speakers. On the other side of the river, the drive over is quite beautiful….quite a contrast to the bins of cheap jeans, cases of TrueMilk* and subpar (not at all fresh) vegetables.
What is TrueMilk, you ask? TrueMilk is a juicebox of sweetened “fortified” milk given to children to fatten them up. In a country with famine in the recent memory, having fat children is both a sign of your family’s stability and of your mothering quality. Quite a large portion of Hanoians give their children “supplements” from China to help them gain weight – a point I might have to discuss in more detail sometime soon.
Anyway…back to the Big C. Andrew enjoy wandering around, gawking at the Vietnamese people buying bulk hotdogs, people who inevitably gawk back at us because – being on the other side of the river from the main city – there are significantly fewer white people over here. We find the random things we’ve been meaning to get in town (but haven’t) and head over to the bakery.
First…I should establish that bread in Vietnam is fresh, cheap, and available on almost every block. Mini baguettes (6-8 inches) are about 2,000 VND, meaning you get 10 for a dollar. This is a great thing for those of us who love bread (everyone). This bread, however, is made with about 30% rice flour, making the bread really airy and light instead of dense and chewy like a solid baguette should be. It’s perfect for sandwiches, but there’s something not quite as satisfying. Big C is one of the four places in town whose bread is just freaking delicious – the others being the French pastry shops that charge 10x the price. Big C charges 10,000 for a full (>2ft long and 4-5 inches in diameter) baguette, and 4,500 for a thinner, more traditional French style. That is – to remind you – 50 cents or 25 cents, respectively. Despite the steady inflation of the currency here, their bread prices stay the same, a fact which attracts…masses of people. A crowd develops at the counter every time a fresh batch comes out (about every 8 minutes) and people jostle each other, trying to grab as many as possible. The loaves come straight out of the oven, and people use bread bags as oven mits to grab them up. 30 seconds later they’re all gone, and the process repeats throughout the day. Every day. The fact that I was a head taller than the other women in line, the fact that I was a random white girl – neither of these things prevented the women surrounding me from nudging and elbowing me as I held my position. Long-forgotten high school basketball skills took over, and I “boxed out” like a champ – grabbing the first two loaves off the rack and getting out as the melee commenced.
But my goodness was that bread delicious. We tore of pieces a bit too hot to touch waiting in line, and then treated ourselves to a bread & cheese dinner at home before I had to head to my Sunday evening class.
…being vegetarians in Hanoi
Vegetarianism in Vietnam is at the same time both easy and difficult. There is a massive quantity of cheap and fresh produce available on every corner – for anyone with a passion for cooking this is a paradise. 2.2 lbs of fresh roma tomatoes for a dollar, a big bunch of cilantro for 10 cents, a lb of eggplant for 75 cents…it’s pretty incredible. The tofu is made fresh in three styles (based on firmness, shape, and silkiness) and we get more than enough for the two of us for about 50 cents. Awesomeness. Except…there are three meals in a day, and unless you want to spend all your time in the kitchen (when it’s 95-103 degrees out on the average summer day) you eat out quite a bit.
And that is where vegetarians are pretty severely restricted. Street food is predominantly soups and noodles, meaning street food is predominantly meat based. Popular options:
- Bun nem – savory broth with fresh noodles you add yourself, usually with pieces of grilled pork and a few fried springrolls to dip, fresh herbs, chili, limes, sauces at the table to make it suit your personal taste
- Pho – beef, chicken, pork, duck, another noodle soup, probably the most internationally recognized Vietnamese food – made with meat stock and topped with thin shavings of whichever meat variety. In Hanoi this also usually comes with pieces of fried bread dough that are left to get a bit stale so that when you soak them in the broth they become…incredibly delicious.
- My xao – stir fried noodles, made with beef or chicken…restaurants can usually do a vegetable option but street stalls rarely stock much in the way of veggies.
All of this is made on the spot, very cheaply. Want to spend a dollar on breakfast? Walk out your door and within 30 feet there’ll be three stands selling delicious things.
Andrew decided to give meat-eating another go when we moved here, since so much of the food that makes Vietnamese cuisine famous is meat based. Within a month he’d cut it out again, leaving fish as an option. A month later, fish was out as well as he rejoined me as a veg. Despite the vegetarian life being a bit restrictive here, it suited him.
For vegetarians, the main street food is the egg sandwich. A small baguette, a bit of chili sauce, a fried egg or two with green onions thrown into the wok, some thinly sliced cucumber, some julienned pickled carrots/radishes, and fresh cilantro…all for 50 cents. Incredibly delicious, but also the only real option. Regular restaurants have a few vegetarian offerings, but they’re the same options. Tofu with lemongrass. Tofu with sautéed tomatoes. Stir fried noodles with veggies. Stir fried veggies. Rice. Fried rice. Steamed tofu. Fried tofu. Tomato and cucumber salad. French fries. Eggplant cooked in a sauce in a clay pot. These are all delicious, and when we eat out, we eat them in combinations. Steamed tofu, stir-fried noodles/veggies, tomato/cucumber salad.
The restaurant that gives us a break from the limited combinations of those 10 dishes is a small vegetarian restaurant down an alley about 10 minutes from our house. “Com Chay” restaurants serve Buddhist-vegetarian food, meaning everything is strict vegetarian, and they specialize in the gluten-based meat reproductions. Sweet and sour ribs even have little fake bones made out of slices of dried coconut. It’s delicious. A ten-page menu with “chicken”, “beef”, and “fish” sections – we get the option of trying some of the many Vietnamese dishes reserved normally for those who eat meat. They also have set menus, costing between 20 and 60,000 vnd (1 and 3 dollars) for a plate of rice with anywhere from a little to a PILE of food – depending on which you want. We eat here a few times a week and are rarely disappointed.
There’s also a teeny white kitten who tries to eat your rice. Points added for cuteness.
Now that I’ve told two long stories and have realized how long this will be if I continue…I’ll finish up with a set of random photographs, with little anecdotes included in the description.
Much love to you all