The Awakening of Hanoi

January 14, 2008 at 1:11 pm (misc) (, , , , , , )

An article in The New York Times, published on February 18, 2007 by Jennifer Conlin.

The Apricot GalleryCorrection Appended

To find the Mai Gallery in Hanoi, you must first walk down the bustling avenue of Le Thanh Tong, a street filled with flower stalls, neighborhood shops, sidewalk cafes and the ubiquitous roar of hundreds of motorbikes streaming in the direction of the century-old opera house. As you turn down Phan Huy Chu, one of a maze of narrow alleys in the Old Quarter, the throngs of teenagers leaning against parked mopeds with their cellphones cupped to their ears quickly disappear. Instead, squatting on the sidewalk stirring steaming pots of soup laced with noodles, pork and cilantro, are elderly women, their faces hidden under traditional farm-field conical hats, chatting among themselves as they give you a quick, inquisitive glance.

As I made my way down this passage on a warm morning in late November, I thought about why I had come to Hanoi — to see a country I knew only from history books and vaguely remembered images from the nightly news in the 1970s. The map of Vietnam was like a screen saver on our television set, and the war in Southeast Asia dominated the discussions at the dinner table in the politically active college town of Ann Arbor, Mich.

Thirty years later, I found myself experiencing an enormous disconnect. Hanoi was not at all as I had pictured it. Instead of being a squalid third world capital struggling to recover from years of war and isolation, it was a stylish, European-influenced metropolis with manicured lakeside promenades, tree-lined boulevards, ancient pagodas and French-colonial buildings painted in a peeling palette of jade, turquoise and burgundy.

On the streets, elderly men sipping tea at food stalls and grandmothers balancing poles on their shoulders laden with heavy baskets of fruits and vegetables were outnumbered by representatives of a younger and more boisterous generation. Nearly sixty percent of the population in Vietnam was born after the war ended in 1975, and Hanoi feels like a city of teenagers. They were everywhere — doubled up on motorbikes, their hair streaming behind them like jet spray as they raced off to school or work. At night they gathered in the parks and the city’s dance clubs before zooming off again to start a new day.

Two days into my stay in Hanoi, I had made the obligatory visits to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum (where the body of the still-revered leader lies in state) and the Temple of Literature (once a university, built in 1070) but had also found my time increasingly taken up by visits to the city’s art galleries. That’s because back in London, where I now live, friends who had been to Hanoi had all come back raving about the art. One showed me her collection of traditional paintings — each a different village scene, Impressionistic in style, painted on wood and then treated and polished with sap from a lacquer tree. They were stunningly luminous, laced with gold and silver gilt as well as crushed eggshell. The effect was like looking at a detailed painting under a thin, still puddle of water.

“Just wait,” my friend said. “You will fall in love with the art there.”

And I had. But while I was fascinated by 20th-century Vietnamese art — a mixture of Eastern techniques (woodcutting, engraving, silk and lacquer painting) with European influences from the early 1900s (Impressionism, Cubism) — I was most taken with the contemporary works by younger artists, many of whom are integrating the traditional into the modern and expressing themselves in new ways that reflect an awareness of what is happening in the Western art world.

That’s one reason I was now headed toward the Mai gallery, hoping to meet Tran Phuong Mai, the owner, herself. As I wandered from art gallery to art gallery, her name kept coming up in conversation, as other dealers would describe her — sometimes with a slight roll of the eyes or a faint note of exasperation in their voices — as being among the most prominent figures in their midst, the one who was most adeptly taking advantage of the increased attention contemporary Vietnamese art was attracting in the West. (Well, that was certainly in contrast to one gallery owner I met, who when I happened to mention that Charles Saatchi, the noted British collector, was beginning to feature young Vietnamese on his Web site, said, “Charles Saatchi? Oh, I got an e-mail from him several months ago asking me if he could link my gallery Web site. But I had never heard of him. Is he famous?”)

Young, stylish, attractive and with a close relationship with many of the city’s young artists, Mai was beginning to sound like a character I knew well from my days of living in Manhattan in the early 1980s, when New York’s downtown art scene was exploding. Could this be the Mary Boone of Hanoi?

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Restaurateurs Push Hanoi Into the Future

January 8, 2008 at 12:45 pm (misc) (, , , , , , )

This is an article I found in The New York Times, published on February 5, 2006 by Matt Gross

Salmon tartar with wasabi tobiko from Restaurant Bobby Chinn.

“CÁ KHO” is one of those Vietnamese dishes that is so simple to prepare that it poses a challenge to chefs who want to make it uniquely their own. After all, it’s just fish braised in a clay pot. But therein lies the challenge: What kind of fish? How sweet, how salty, how runny should the caramel-and-fish-sauce braising liquid be? How much black pepper is too much? It’s a debate that has as many wrong answers as right ones, and that, as far as I’m concerned, rarely yields a dish that could ever be called memorable.

Which is why, on a recent visit to Hanoi — my first since 1997 — I was amazed to taste a ca kho that refused to fade into the background. The fish was soft and actually fish-flavored, and the braising liquid had a depth and richness that had me drizzling sticky russet juices over my rice bowl all night. I can’t make any claim to encyclopedic knowledge of ca kho in Vietnam, but it was the best I’d eaten in a long, long time.

My delight was compounded by surprise, for I was in Hanoi, a 996-year-old city where cooks, in my experience, like to take the rich variety of southern Vietnamese cuisine — a rainbow of fruits, untranslatable herbs, and sea creatures of every imaginable shape — and strip it down to a bland menu of broken rice and boiled meat. Then, with utterly misplaced pride, they declare it Vietnam’s true national cuisine.

But my surprise was caused as much by a second factor: I was eating in a fancy restaurant — Wild Rice, a renovated French villa with white tablecloths, a big fireplace, minimalist paintings and a substantial wine list — and fancy restaurants in Vietnam have a reputation for taking the cuisine down a further notch, substituting delicate lacquerware place settings for the ingredients (fish sauce, ginger, sugar, chilis, black pepper) needed to make Vietnamese food taste like, well, Vietnamese food.

All that, you may have guessed, is starting to change.

“Restaurants are opening all the time in Hanoi, more and more with a focus on modern design, delicious food and excellent staff,” Kate Henry, one of the forces behind the Hanoi food blog Sticky Rice, told me in an e-mail message before I arrived. (She and her blogging partner, Mark Lowerson, had already convinced me of this with their food-porn photos and descriptions of dishes like a chicken with spicy sesame sauce, “grilled handsomely, barbequed edges contrasting with shiny specks of red capiscum and the seeds.”)

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Đất Nước

December 12, 2007 at 8:55 pm (misc) (, , , , )

Khi ta lớn Đất Nước đã có rồi
Đất Nước có trong những cái “ngày xửa ngày xưa…” mẹ thường hay kể
Đất Nước bắt đầu với miếng trầu bây giờ bà ăn
Đất Nước lớn lên khi dân mình biết trồng tre mà đánh giặc.
Tóc mẹ thì bới sau đầu
Cha mẹ thương nhau bằng gừng cay muối mặn
Cái kèo, cái cột thành tên
Hạt gạo phải một nắng hai sương xay, giã, giần, sàng
Đất Nước có từ ngày đó..

Đất là nơi anh đến trường
Nước là nơi em tắm
Đất Nước là nơi ta hò hẹn
Đất Nước là nơi em đánh rơi chiếc khăn trong nỗi nhớ thầm

Đất là nơi “con chim phượng hoàng bay về hòn núi bạc”
Nước là nơi “con cá ngư ông móng nước biển khơi”
Thời gian đằng đẵng
Không gian mênh mông
Đất Nước là nơi dân mình đoàn tụ

Đất là nơi Chim về
Nước là nơi Rồng ở
Lạc Long Quân và Âu Cơ
Đẻ ra đồng bào ta trong bọc trứng.

Những ai đã khuất
Những ai bây giờ
Yêu nhau và sinh con đẻ cái
Gánh vác phần người đi trước để lại
Dặn dò con cháu chuyện mai sau
Hằng năm ăn đâu làm đâu
Cũng biết cúi đầu nhớ ngày giỗ Tổ

Trong anh và em hôm nay
Đều có một phần Đất Nước
Khi hai đứa cầm tay
Đất Nước trong chúng ta hài hòa nồng thắm
Khi chúng ra cầm tay mọi người
Đất Nước vẹn tròn, to lớn

Mai này con ta lớn lên
Con sẽ mang Đất Nước đi xa
Đến những tháng ngày mơ mộng

Em ơi em Đất Nước là máu xương của mình
Phải biết gắn bó và san sẻ
Phải biết hóa thân cho dáng hình xứ sở
Làm nên Đất Nước muôn đời..

Những người vợ nhớ chồng còn góp cho Đất Nước những núi Vọng Phu
Cặp vợ chồng yêu nhau góp nên hòn Trống Mái
Gót ngựa của Thánh Gióng đi qua còn trăm ao đầm để lại
Chín mươi chín con voi góp mình dựng đất Tổ Hùng Vương
Những con rồng nằm im góp dòng sông xanh thẳm
Người học trò nghèo góp cho Đất Nước mình núi Bút non Nghiên
Con cóc, con gà quê hương cùng góp cho Hạ Long thành thắng cảnh
Những người dân nào đã góp tên Ông Đốc, Ông Trang, Bà Đen, Bà Điểm
Và ở đâu trên khắp ruộng đồng gò bãi
Chẳng mang một dáng hình, một ao ước, một lối sống ông cha
Ôi Đất Nước sau 4.000 năm đi đâu ta cũng thấy
Những cuộc đời đã hóa núi sông ta.

Em ơi em
Hãy nhìn rất xa
Vào bốn ngàn năm Đất Nước
Năm tháng nào cũng người người lớp lớp
Con gái, con trai bằng tuổi chúng ta
Cần cù làm lụng

Khi có giặc người con trai ra trận
Người con gái trở về nuôi cái cùng con
Ngày giặc đến nhà thì đàn bà cũng đánh
Nhiều người đã trở thành anh hùng
Nhiều anh hùng cả anh và em đều nhớ

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