I have a new neighbourhood. The Elwood chapter is over and the Abbotsford chapter is beginning. Elwood welcomed me to Melbourne and I am grateful for her leafy avenued, seaside community. Melbourne has a south vs. north thing going on. One side of the river against the other. I’m not really sure what that’s about. But I have crossed the river. And I am embracing it.
Abbotsford was historically an industrial area. You can still see remnants of factories and mills, but they have mostly become hipster cafes and apartments.
Gentrification. Depending on who is telling the story this is either a good thing or a bad thing. For real estate agents, it’s fantastic. Because when the bohemian bourgeois take over a suburb, and the rough edges are embraced and incorporated into latte environments, the prices go up. For the people who were just always here doing their thing, it can be annoying.
Abbotsford has a lot going on. A steady stream of migration since the 80s has made Abbotsford home to a large Vietnamese community and as a consequence a lots of vietnamese food down Victoria Street. I can get my pho fix whenever I feel the need.
And then there’s the Abbotsford Convent, the former Convent of the Good Shepherd. Nowadays the extensive and beautiful buildings positioned at the bend in the Yarra house artists, practitioners and creative communities. Land at this bend in the river has been used for farming since the first land sales in 1838. The Collingwood Children’s farm continues this tradition and is probably the oldest freehold farm land in Victoria. The land that runs down from the convent through the farm is a green and calm valley which hosts the monthly farmers market and is home to an extensive variety of animals from earthworms to peacocks to goats, horses, ducks and guinea pigs.
It feels good to be in Abbotsford.
The traditional indigo fabric the area is renowned for starts off as hemp. The women can often be seen walking around working sheaths of hemp as they go, stripping off the outside layers and producing threads of textile. These are then bleached and then dyed in large vats of indigo dye.
Indigo dye is extracted form the leaves of the indigo plants which grow around their houses. A paste or powder is produced by fermenting the leaves and is then boiled with rice wine, lye or, interestingly, boys’ urine. The hemp is immersed in the dye for about half an hour and then hung up to oxidise.
There are five tribes living in the mountains around Sa Pa: the Hmong, Tay, Dao, Giay and Pho Lu. They live very closely to one another but there are subtle differences in dress and they each have their own language that the other tribes don’t speak. Vietnamese is the common language.
Tourism is a relatively new source of income for the mountain people. Tourists really only started visiting the region in 1995. And the people are capitalising on it, learning English, guiding treks, selling their wares.
Life in the villages is still fairly traditional. Despite the arrival of mobile phones and excellent cellular reception. Walking up a muddy track, passing water buffalo, the indigo-clad woman in front of me answered her pink phone and had an animated conversation. I couldn’t quite marry that with the stories our guide, Chai, told us about about the importance of the Sunday market for meeting a prospective husband or wife. The girls marry young here. Getting married at 16 or 17 is still common. The marriages are often arranged by the parents. In this case, the couple may not have actually met before the proposal. But they may have glimpsed each other across a basket of chickens…or morning glory (water spinach). The girl can say No in answer to a proposal, but it doesn’t pay to say no too often. Unmarried women are not only considered very odd in the mountains, they have no one to look after them once their parents die.
Sons are still the be all and end all, the awaited child. Some families keep trying, we were told, and end up with 11 daughters.
There is domestic violence amongst the hill tribes. The stories of husbands beating wives seemed common. Chai told us that she refused to allow her parents to choose a husband for her. She wanted to marry someone that she loved and who would not beat her. She and her husband are hard workers, capitalising on the opportunities provided through the influx of visitors. He manages and cooks in a beautiful restaurant in Sa Pa, specialising in food from the region. Her English is excellent and she works as a guide on the treks and also as a translator and interpreter, often with film companies. They have a three year old son and they want him to go to University.
Drinking ‘happy water’ (rice wine) with a local family who did not wear the traditional costume and who had built their house to accommodate tourists, I was struck by the fact that we are all just the same. The husband of the family may have cooked our chicken and beef over the coals of an open fire in the kitchen, but these people, like most people, are doing the best they can for themselves and their children. They like a good time. They were eager to know whether we enjoyed their cooking and even more eager to toast our appreciation of the food with even more rice wine.
Ha Noi, capital city of Viet Nam. The city lies on the right bank of the Red River and is embraced by about 100 kilometres of Red River deltas.
As the capital of Vietnam for almost a thousand years (October 2010 marked 1000 years since the establishment of the city), Hanoi is considered one of the main cultural centres of Vietnam, where most Vietnamese dynasties have left their imprint. Even though some relics have not survived through wars and time, there are still plenty of interesting cultural and historic monuments to take in: the Temple of Literature, the One Pillar Pagoda, Museum of Ethnology and the Women’s museum, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – as a sign of their great love for Uncle Ho, the people ignored his request to be cremated and instead embalmed him. They continue to send him off to Russia once a year to top up the embalming process, and so is with his people always.
Even when the nation’s capital moved to Huế under the Nguyễn Dynasty in 1802, the city of Hanoi continued to flourish, especially after the French took control in 1888 and modeled the city’s architecture to their tastes, lending an important aesthetic to the city’s rich stylistic heritage.
I think I expected Ha Noi to be more French. But apart from the architecture and the french bread, a lot of the frenchiness has disappeared. This is probably a good thing. Setting to one side my own desperado desires for all things French, the French approach to colonising left a lot to be desired and Ha Noi is right to reclaim its own flavour and cultural heritage.
I am not a shining light in my experiencing Vietnam through all five senses. This concept is old news.
Vietnamese food, in particular, consciously appeals to each of the five senses. Obviously there’s taste, then there is the way it is arranged on the plate; the colours, textures, shapes are visually appealing. The herbs provide stimulation for our sense of smell. The crunchiness of crisp nems or fresh vegetables is an audible element and a lot of Vietnamese food needs to be picked up, touched, broken apart.
Five is the key number here and the power of five seems far-reaching. Coincidentally, perhaps, the star on Vietnam’s flag has five points. In Chinese and derivative cultures, the five-pointed golden star has strong associations with military power and strength.
But I digress.
Five. Intuitively we know, and can taste the careful balance in Vietnamese food, but what we perhaps vaguely sense about the food is a carefully calculated and philosophical approach. Vietnamese dishes are conceived through the balance of five elements; the fundamental taste senses: spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet. I wondered how best to describe the sensation of bitter as opposed to sour, for example. But if you think wood for sour and fire for bitter, it makes more sense. And these taste notes correspond to the five organs: gall bladder, small intestine, large intestine, stomach and urinary bladder.
Vietnamese dishes also include five types of nutrients. The plot gets thicker. Powder, water or liquid, mineral elements, protein and fat. And as if that wasn’t enough, Vietnamese cooks try to have five colours, which again correspond to the five elements: white/metal, green/wood, yellow/Earth, red (fire) and black (water).
And who amongst you thought it was just a matter of stir-frying some veges in the wok and garnishing with coriander?
Apart from all the eating I did in Vietnam, one of the most impressive experiences of Vietnamese food came through the cooking class with Mr Hung in Hoi An.
The class began with a visit to the market.
Once back at the cooking school, we donned our aprons and chefs’ hats, no less, and with a beer in hand, the lesson was underway.
We began with Hoi An pancakes, rice flour batter with chopped spring onion, sizzled pork and prawn and eaten with lettuce and herbs inside rice paper.
Then we prepared the fish grilled in banana leaf and stuffed with a heady filling of garlic, chilli, ginger, red onion and rum.
Vegetarian spring rolls filled with shredded carrot, taro, woodear mushroom, and green bean. Wrapped in rice paper, fried in oil and cut into small cigar rolls.
Green papaya and chicken salad with a salty, spicy, sour dressing.
Ha Long Bay with its 2000 islands, 989 of which are named according to the imagination of the fishermen (Voi Islet (elephant), Ga Choi Islet (fighting cock)), is a world heritage site and last year was included in the seven wonders of the modern world. I don’t really know how to describe it adequately. Even the photos don’t do it justice. The bay with its limestone rock formations rising up out of the ocean like jagged teeth extends over 1553 km2. We visited Sung Sot, or Surprise Cave, one of the many caves in the area. Discovered in 1901, the cave was used as a hideout by the Viet Cong during the ‘American War in Vietnam’.
After an afternoon of kayaking around some of the smaller bays, watching monkeys scaling the cliffs and listening to birds of prey wheeling overhead, the boat set down its anchor overnight and we sat up on the top deck drinking beer and watching blue sky turn dusky pink, indigo then black.
“We have road rules in Vietnam but we prefer to go with our gut feeling. If the light is red and there are no police, we just go.” Hai Pham, Intrepid Guide
Which is mesmerizing to watch when you’re sitting in a bar with a $2 beer and not actually amongst it. To the uninitiated it’s a little tricky to get a good sense of the feeling.
He who hesitates is lost has never been more true when crossing the road in Vietnam. There was a lot of paint wasted when they put in pedestrian crossings. They mean nothing. And as for the little green man as an indication it is safe to cross..? Forget it. You just have to throw yourself amongst the onslaught of motorbikes and attempt some sort of eurythmic approach to getting to the other side.
The same can be said for attempting to cycle in city traffic. I joined three cycle tours, two in cities, and I experienced some of the most hair-raising moments in my life. Especially in Hanoi. Hanoi has a population of 6.5 million with 3 million motorbikes. I think every last one of them was on the route we took. We had a guide who led the weaving and negotiating through the craziness. But there were some fairly fast heart beating moments there.
There are 85 million people and 26 million vehicles in Vietnam. 95% of these vehicles are motorbikes. For a long time, the Honda Dream was the big seller. Then it was the Dream II. Apparently, the nicer your motorbike the more attractive your girlfriend. So they say.
There is a story that relates Ho Chi Minh meeting Martin Luther King. When the leader of the Afro-American Civil Rights movement declared to the Communist revolutionary, Prime Minister and President that he had a dream, Ho Chi Minh is said to have sagely nodded his head and replied, I have a Dream II.
Vietnam, or as the Vietnamese people write it, Viet Nam, the Viet people from the south. Where to begin? I have a lot of cliched phrases in my head…land of many contrasts, a thriving destination, multitude of colour and natural beauty. All these things are true.
Before I left for my first foray into south-east Asia, I was asked what I expected. And to be honest, I didn’t really have expectations for Vietnam. I surprisingly hung expectation on a hook in the hall cupboard and had a sense of wanting Vietnam or my experience of it to be revealed to me as it happened. I wanted to discover and see and smell and taste. When I thought of Vietnam before going, I did imagine all the clichés…a lot of colour and an assailing of the senses. And perhaps that’s what I expected…that my senses would be assailed in a way they hadn’t been before.
I knew it would be a whirlwind with just over in a day at each stop. A lot of places beginning with H and one that begins with S.
Ho Chi Minh City, still referred to as Saigon, by its inhabitants
From the moment I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City two and a bit weeks ago, I had the impression of a sensory overload. Overload has negative connotations, so it is not so much that my senses were overloaded, but that each sense was appealed to, expanded, challenged, confronted and stroked.
I felt, tasted, heard, saw and breathed in Vietnam during every moment of my trip.