A blog of my time spent in Vietnam working for Bao Nhan Dan.

Sunday, January 23, 2005


Denis in Hanoi after he managed to sort his visa out


War memorial at Dong Xuan market. It marks the site of a battle that took place in the market against the French in 1954


Dong Xuan market


Winter Hanoi


Another photo of the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. The stele to either side of the entrance instruct the rider to dismount from their horse before entering

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Icy Hanoi

Hanoi isn’t built for winter. It’s almost as if the city doesn’t expect the temperature to dip below 25 degrees, and any chill is a remarkable and surprising event. Houses are overwhelmingly constructed out of concrete, have high ceilings and fronts that are completely open to the elements. Floors are constructed from bare concrete, tiling or if you’re lucky parquet or wooden floorboarding – I have yet to see warm rugs to save your feet from an icy shock come the morning. Some of the older houses possess functioning chimneys but most are reliant on air conditioning units that act at a push as inefficient heaters.

The fronts of houses – often only separated from the street by a concertina metal security gate seem ludicrously inappropriate as the inhabitants huddle together for warmth watching deafeningly loud televisions. Some will crouch on the threshold of their houses tending charcoal bricks heating a quick snack, others will be puffing on long wooden pipes, the smoke from the tobacco mingling with their breath in the icy air. Xe Om (motorcycle taxi) drivers will be perched precariously on their bikes, eyes peering over their coat collars, their faces obscured beneath baseball caps, counting the minutes until sunset. Familiar corners are denuded of their usual gangs of Xe Oms where once they had given the appearance of being rooted to their spot. Women on scooters are now draped with layers of thick jumpers and knitted woollen hats with peaks. Face masks add to their swaddling, and you could easily pass someone you know without recognising them as their brown-black eyes are their only distinguishing feature. Yet despite of all this, street life still continues unabated. Women from the countryside still sell tropical bananas and pineapples, incongruous in the chilly environment. Men and women, young and old will still be seen tucking into wobbly piles of rice noodles, faces glowing from the charcoal blocks. Sock-wearing toes will peek out from sandals and children with icy noses still wear shell suit tops as they veer around corners on Chinese made over-sized bicycles.

Winter apparently lasts for two months and the weather up to the end of December was unseasonably warm, so perhaps we are only a few weeks away from spring. Undoubtedly Hanoi will be amazed yet again by the sudden blooming warmth, just as it was by the unexpected appearance of winter.

I love the smell of fish sauce in the morning…

Well actually I don’t, but it’s part of the rich tapestry of scents that initially assaults your nasal passages as you traipse the streets of Hanoi. The ubiquitous fish sauce or nuoc mam is an essential ingredient in Vietnamese cooking, but it is amazingly pungent in it’s smell – unsurprisingly considering it is - similar to the ancient Roman garum sauce - created from fermented anchovies (doesn’t that conjure a delicious mental image?). Other smells that tease your nose include the pervasive odour of petrol, paraffin, the smell of sizzling spring rolls, charcoal burning corncobs, rotting vegetables and sludgy sewerage.

It’s not that easy

Since my arrival in Vietnam I’ve received emails from people that invariably ask whether I have learnt any of the language. I have replied sheepishly ‘a little, but it’s really difficult’, only to be admonished for perhaps not trying hard enough…so I thought I’d find an article that conveys the pitfalls and difficulties inherent in speaking it.

Here’s a really good article I’ve found that explains just why Vietnamese is so difficult to learn – it’s from Time Out magazine here in Hanoi – enjoy!

Tone Deaf

Trinh Huu Tuan explains how to avoid saying four-letter words in Vietnamese

How much for a kilo of your labial flesh today?

Oh yes, I’d love to try roasted c**t

Please, make sure the whore is hot, I can’t eat a lukewarm one

A bottle of shit water, please

Darling, this beautiful thing is a vagina

You’re speaking Vietnamese, and that’s how it can sound to local ears when you produce the wrong tone. I teach Vietnamese to foreigners, and many a time I’ve been called ‘that damned teacher who viciously teaching those stupid Tay (westerners) into saying such filthy things’. If I knew how to, I’d swear to whoever or whatever you’d like me to that I would never trick anyone into saying such things to the respected citizens of the neighbourhood.

But it’s true, that nickname has forced me to invent a self-patented method to make my teaching of Vietnamese wrong tone-proof. A student of mine told me: ‘Now I can hum Chausson’s Poem in my head while asking that female butcher ‘how much for a kilo of pork today?’ and doesn’t yell at me any more’.

Another said, ‘well, no more roasted c**t and the spectacular fuss it causes. Now they just bring me a nice crispy roast shoulder of pork.’ Another: ‘oh, I enjoy my rice noodle soup really hot now, I feel sick if it’s lukewarm’.

And there’s more, I’m afraid. It’s not that I have a nasty tendency to boast, just that I need to give everyday examples. So, yesterday, another student came in with a big smile and said: ‘I’ve got my distilled water now, and they love me in that shop. I can’t believe I used to ask for ‘shit water’ before’. And the final example, a young blond guy who’s in love with a Vietnamese girl, told me, ‘She has accepted my present. Now she can hear me say ‘Darling, this is yours,’ not ‘this is a vagina’.’

Vietnamese is a funny language. It sounds quite different from other languages, even Chinese, which was the court language in this country for many thousands of years. I am not a linguist and I don’t care about how much I should know about my mother tongue. What I enjoy is to gossip (sorry, I mean speak) and write down the funny things I come across every day. But I feel completely lost whenever I face the ancient history of my own land, because it’s all written in Chinese, whether chiselled in stone, carved in wood or block-printed on paper.

I don’t know how my ancestors sounded when they asked the price of a kilo of pork in the village market, or ordered a bowl of rice noodle soup, thousands of years ago. But I guess some 500 years ago, people must have sounded pretty much as they do now.

The proof is that the present system of Romanised notation of our spoken language was invented by Alexandre de Rhodes (1591-1660) – the French Jesuit missionary who published a Vietnamese-Latin-Portuguese dictionary, the first thing to be printed in present-day Vietnamese.

Having learnt from a linguist that a nation’s writing system carries the soul of a people, I guess this Romanised system has gradually cut us off from our Chinese roots and replanted us in a Westernised pot. But this pot has been claimed as our own by now, so I shouldn’t worry, although the thought of not having our own writing system has bothered me for a long time. Anyway, like of Dale Carnegie said, ‘if you only have a small lemon, just make a small glass of lemonade, and enjoy it to the full’.

If you were here 500 years ago, you still risked calling a kilo of pork a kilo of labial flesh. But can avoid it. Generations of French colonials have been able to pass themselves off as local scholars with colourful slang or flowery cliché, because they mastered the tones.

But me, I was born in Hanoi and speak only as a Hanoian. And that what I teach: Hanoi Vietnamese. But don’t tell anybody. I could be in trouble. You have to be here first, to get the smells, the feeling and, like Michael Caine says in the movie of The Quiet American, ‘the rest must be lived’.

Trinh Huu Tuan used to be a producer and announcer of Radio Voice of Vietnam, a voice talent and Vietnamese teacher in New York. He spends most of his time in Hanoi now, and still teaches English speakers to speak and write Vietnamese.

Denis makes it

Despite not having a visa on the morning of his flight Denis made it to Vietnam. Denis also made it to the ‘electronic music in Hanoi’ club night – the first of it’s type that we’ve managed to get to since our arrival. The nightlife is pretty much centred around bars, so going to a club (or rather a social club in your northern working men’s club type of thing) is a bit of a treat – especially if you prefer anything other than V-pop or banging house tunes. You could tell you were still in Vietnam though as we were greeted by young women who showed us to a seat and asked us what we wanted to drink – a nice change from the usual scrum around a bar.

Christmas Day and all that and stuff and things etc - a recap


The Temple of Literature - Vietnam's first university which dates back to the middle ages.

Woke up late and had to dash to Kate and Mark's and then to Al Fresco's for a buffet dinner - turkey, ham and mash potato - all good stuff - excellent apple crumble. I even won a prize - a $20 voucher for Al Fresco's so we will visit again.
Boxing Day dawned and we had to meet Felicity's parents, they had flown into Vietnam and we rapidly adopted a pattern of collecting them from their rather posh Sofitel Metropol hotel, they then made whirlwind visits to museums, the Perfume Pagoda outside of Hanoi, the Temple of Literature - Vietnam's first university during it's Confucian period, and many gift shops. They were surprised by the dynamism of the Vietnamese economy and enjoyed the perils of crossing the motorbike frenzied roads. New Year's Eve was spent in Wild Rice an excellent restaurant and then we went to Mark and Tu's for midnight and finished off the evening by visiting the flower market at 2 in the morning. Having just said good bye to Felicity's parents we then had another visit in quick succession. Denis made a speedy visit for 3 days