[Originally posted by Lane Brugman on February 17, 2014. You can find his original blog here: beamanoftheworld.com]
As the mist falls from the gray expanse of the Hanoi sky, the veil of Vietnam is as secretive as ever. This veil is neither easy nor quick to dispatch and most will never get past it. One must let go of past expectations, surrender and dive, head first, into this largely unknown country in order to uncover the awe and splendor of Vietnam. This is the story of my journey.
My decision to travel to and study in Vietnam was a chaotic impulse. While attending a study abroad meeting in aims to plan my semester in Chile, the speaker mentioned an opportunity to study in Hanoi. She instructed us to ask more questions if we were interested. Needless to say I was interested. My ignorance about the Vietnam War, the incredible jungle climate of Southeast Asia, the incredible food and all the differences between American and Vietnamese culture whetted my appetite. The curiosity that ignited inside me was so intense that I instantly began asking question after question. The more I learned about the program the more excited I became. Two of the most important pieces of information I gathered was that: this was the first time CSU was running the program and that I only had four days to decide. After exhausting my adviser with questions I left the office with a grand smile and a foreign sense of enthusiasm. I then did what every college student must do… run it by the parents.
My parents are very open-minded people but they were quite shocked to hear the Chilean plan had been substituted with Vietnam. I reassured them that the opportunity to go to Vietnam was once-in-a-lifetime and they agreed. With the support of my parents and most of my friends I made the decision to go. So there it was. I was going to Vietnam, not Chile, for six months and I only had two months to organize everything.
Those two months were spent balancing time between filling out applications, completing scholarship forms, gathering visa materials, getting vaccinations, and finishing my 18 credit workload. These two months also consisted of telling all my friends and family that I would be across the world in a developing country for the next six months. During these conversations many asked; “Why are you going to ‘nam’?” I found myself short of a concise response but that question did bring up a common theme. Most Americans think of Vietnam as a war, not a country. Vietnam, the country, seems to be mystery to us. This is the veil of Vietnam and I hope to reveal the real Vietnam through the eyes of a 20-year old college exchange student.
Progress is quickly transforming Vietnam into a major player Southeast Asia. The constant stream of motorbikes buzzing about Hanoi’s streets represent the progress that is quickly transforming Vietnam into a major player in Southeast Asia.
In my time, I have come to realize that Vietnam is a country of stark contrasts. When you get here, Vietnam overwhelms you, it inundates you. You get off the plane and are suddenly in a world that will not wait on you. You are engulfed with screaming car horns, buzzing motorbikes and loud banter in an alien language. This culture shock seems to smack you dead in the face. You have just been bludgeoned by a foreign culture and you realize it is going to take time to recover. Days go by, you remain in a surreal state but you are able to revel in all of the new, all of the novel, all of the exotic. Weeks pass and as your recovery quickly progresses, the new becomes regular. Soon the fatigue of travel, the commotion of the streets and utter feeling of shock loosen their sharp grasp on you. The intricacies of the Vietnamese culture begin to shine through, the veil slowly rises.
At this point you begin to appreciate that for all of the “in-your-face” facets of Vietnamese culture, you have been missing the subtle traditions, gestures and customs of the people.
The ability to cook has not been lost on the Vietnamese. This was taken at house warming party which included a delicious lau or hot pot. Nearly every celebration focuses on communal cooking, drinking and eating.
The area that reveals the most about Vietnamese culture is a simple one, the dinner table. Here, more than any other place, the true Vietnam shows through the sheer, for this culture revolves around its much talked about cuisine. Hanoi is most definitely a foodie’s paradise. Restaurants that specialize in one dish line entire city blocks with certain streets renowned for their phở, bún chả or lẩu. The cuisine is very public too. Hundreds of people crowd around street side vendors, sitting on blue plastic stools as busy chopsticks can be heard shoveling food from bowl to mouth. Hanoians are deeply proud of their food and extremely conscious of the long lineage and tradition of Vietnamese food. I quickly learned that each vegetable has specific health benefits, that the only suitable fish sauce is from Phu Quoc and that a proper Vietnamese meal should not require a drink but rather the liquid will come from a soup, broth or boiled vegetable. The depth of tradition and knowledge surrounding Vietnamese cuisine is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Take for instance the story of bánh trưng, or chưng cake.
Chưng cake, you see, is the traditional food for the lunar New Year or Tet holiday, Vietnam’s most celebrated holiday. As the story goes, the simple dish was created by a poor Prince wishing to impress the king of Vietnam. All of the other princes competing for royal attention spent lavishly to find ingredients from across the country but Prince Lang Lieu was not wealthy. He scraped together local ingredients: mung beans, rice and pork. Then he combined all the ingredients and wrapped it with banana leaves before boiling it. When he offered his culinary creation to the King, the king was deeply impressed by the resourcefulness of Prince Lang Lieu. The young Prince had taken easily found, local ingredients and combined them to create a long-lasting, delicious meal. Simple, easy to make, long lasting and very filling, Chưng cake became a hit centuries ago and it remains a favorite for the Vietnamese around the Tet holiday.
I had the pleasure of attended a family chưng cake production just days before the Tet holiday. I spent several hours observing and making the famous cakes alongside 15 family members. From grandma to the youngest toddler, the whole family is involved in the process. The cake begins with creating a banana leaf form. A cupful of rice creates the first layer, followed by crushed mung beans and several pieces of pork. The pork is then covered by more mung bean and a final layer of rice. The banana leaves are then tightly folded around the rectangular form and tied with thin strips of palm thatch. I soon found out that this is the most difficult part of the process. I split banana leaves, failed to tie the thatch correctly and couldn’t get the cake out of the form. Once the laughs subsided the cake came out as a bright green, 6”x6”x3” rectangular block of food and boy oh boy, they are dense! The huge number of cakes are then boiled in a giant pot for 24 hours. Family members take shifts monitoring the pot making sure everything is in order and that the precious cakes are not stolen. The cakes are then divided among the family or sold to neighbors and enjoyed for the festive days, sometimes weeks, to come.
Sidewalks serve a different purpose in Hanoi – outdoor seating. The commotion of the streets is only surpassed by the tremendous food.
The Chưng cake is a great story of Vietnamese cuisine and its also a great insight into Vietnamese culture. Food, family and tradition remain the most important facets of Vietnamese culture. Though it takes time to see and understand these intricacies, under each of these aspects is a subtleness and modesty that embodies Vietnam. Vietnamese food highlights the bounty that the countryside supplies and allows the ingredients to shine. The spirited, traditional preparation has earned Vietnamese food a distinction as some of the best in the world, yet it does not seem to brag or boast. The people are the same way: genuine, traditional, inspiring and talented yet modest. In this way Vietnam presents a bizarre opportunity to be inundated by the modern blare of motorbikes one minute, then the next minute be in a fish-sauce smelling kitchen, preparing a traditional nem -spring roll – dinner.
My host mom made one of my favorite dishes bún chả for my birthday. She went to the market at least once a day to secure the freshest ingredients. I miss this so terribly!
This contrast of driving through streets where the culture seems to be so palpable, even incapacitating at times compared to the intricate, quiet tradition is fascinating yet hard-to-grasp. The excitement, commotion and overwhelming alien nature of Vietnam easily creates a shroud around this beautiful country. Yet if you are able to get passed this initial mask, if you can open your mind, you can enjoy the full picture of Vietnam. The picture is a brilliant one with bright colors and images that will change your life. When your eye finally focuses in on the tradition and purity behind a simple bowl phở, you know that the veil of Vietnam has disappeared, leaving you a brilliant country to admire.