Time, and the way we talk about time, is funny. All my fellow travelers said to me when I told them that I was going to Hoi An was that I was going to love the ancient city. And I did love it, but it was not what I had expected. Because the word ancient was emphasized so much I had pictured a place frozen in time. I had pictured a place where I would be able to feel the history with every step and imagined I would be surrounded by secrets which I would never be able to understand. But time does not freeze. Places change and grow just like people do. Many people were there to visit the ancient city, and so the ancient city changed in order to please them. There were many shops and restaurants with big open windows to let the breeze in, but none of them seemed to be for the locals. It seemed that now everything was there for us, and it was a little hard to see the ancient behind all the souvenirs.
But despite all of that, Hoi An was incredibly beautiful. The air was warm and the sun sparkled off the water and all the people around us seemed happy. There were flowers and brightly coloured fabrics on every corner and I really enjoyed poking around and looking at all the pretty things. It was quite a change from what we had been experiencing before. One evening as we made our way to the night market, we stopped for Piña Coladas on a boat bar on the river. It certainly wasn’t an “authentically Vietnamese” activity, but it was a wonderful place to watch the sun go down. Plus, after trekking for three days it felt good to treat ourselves to some summery drinks on a wooden boat.
But don’t get me wrong, the ancient city was there, you just had to look for it. Izzi and I bought a pass so we could see a collection of the preserved ancient houses and temples. I learned a lot from all of them. Many of the temples are actually Chinese temples. In the mid 17th century the Qing dynasty took power from the Ming Dynasty and many people who were not willing to obey the new regime took refuge in Vietnam. The Nguyen Lord welcomed them and gave them Vietnamese citizenship. Although the Chinese settled in many areas, Hoi An was the most popular. This migration influenced much of Hoi An’s architecture in a Chinese style.
The temples were very beautiful, but my favourite heritage site was the Duc An Bookstore, which was also highly influenced by the Chinese. It was built at the end of the 19th century and held books by many Chinese authors and philosophers including Khang Huu Vi and Luong Khai Sieu. Many early anti-French revolutionaries came to this bookstore to meet and discuss the progressive ideas from the Chinese authors. The book store was an important site for Vietnamese independence.
Hoi An was also full of little gems that, although not necessarily ancient, were wonderful all the same. Of course, we drank a lot of coffee and visited a lot of cafes but our absolute favourite was Reaching Out—a tea house built around a philosophy of silence. The point was to be at peace, enjoying the subtleties in the taste of the tea and the beauty around us. The spot was incredibly beautiful. Izzi and I fell in love with our surroundings and both felt like we could have stayed there forever. The silence was emphasized by the fact that all the servers were deaf so we weren’t able to communicate with them vocally. Instead they provided us with little wooden signs so we could ask for what we needed.
Reaching Out’s mission is to give jobs to individuals in the community who are disabled. Vietnam is not an easy place to live, and especially not with a disability, so Reaching Out gives those who need it a good, stable place to work where their rights are protected. All the servers at the tea house were deaf, but they have jobs for all sorts of differently abled people. Not far from the tea house they also have a workshop where they make beautiful gifts. The work shop is right behind the store so you can go in and see the craftspeople making everything. It was very hard for me to choose, but eventually I bought a couple beautiful little tea cups, a tea strainer, and some fair trade tea and coffee. If we hadn’t been backpacking and I didn’t have to worry about everything breaking I would have bought an entire tea set.
The Central Market was definitely the place to go for lunch. There were a lot of tourists, of course, but we found a stand that seemed to be popular with the locals called Mrs Hien’s, and waited for a spot there. It was definitely worth a bit of a wait. Izzi got a Cao Lao (noodles, broth, and beef) and I got a Bahn Mi and a pumpkin soup. I have to say that the Bahn Mi wasn’t as good as the one I had gotten in Hanoi, but the pumpkin soup was unbelievable. It was like no other pumpkin soup I had ever eaten before and it was definitely one of the most memorable meals I had during my time in Vietnam. When we finished eating, we went out the back instead of the way we came in and that’s where we found the real market. There were vegetables everywhere and live crabs with their claws tied up with twine. I strolled happily along the water taking in all the smells and sounds and feeling like I had really found Hoi An.
One of the main things to do in the little city is to take a cooking class. There are tons of options everywhere you go, but we decided on Vy’s Market after passing by on our first night there. When we signed up they told us not to eat for three hours before the class, but they really should have told us not to eat all day. When we arrived we met our guide, Cherry, who was wonderful. I say guide because the evening really felt like a tour. The place was set up with tables in the middle and then different stations dedicated to different types of food all along the edges. We started at the noodle making station, although we weren’t allowed to actually know the recipe for the dough since, apparently, it was a family secret of the chef’s. There we tried our best to cut the dough into noodle strips, which I failed miserably at. When I tried to go anywhere close to the speed of the chef the noodles came out way too thick, but if I slowed down to get them the right size I realized it was definitely not a sustainable pace. I was much better at the dumplings. First we got the dough to the right consistency using rice flour, then shaped it before wrapping it in a banana leaf. It was sticky and wonderful and I was really excited to add the filling later on.
We also made spring rolls, which were awesome, but my favourite thing to make was the Vietnamese pancakes. This was the most fun because I felt like I was actually doing everything myself and it turned out really well! I hadn’t tried that dish yet so it was cool trying something traditional that I had made myself.
And then there was the”Weird and Wonderful” station where we didn’t cook anything but had the chance to try some of Vietnam’s strangest and least tourist-friendly dishes. I liked the beef tongue best and the frogs were also great, but I just could not handle the duck fetus. I am a really adventurous eater and it takes a lot to pass my limit, but a duck that has been allowed to develop about half way inside its egg and then boiled and eaten… that was too much for me. At the end of the evening, when Izzi and I were both so full that we almost couldn’t eat the dumplings we had prepared at the beginning of the night, Cherry gave us a booklet of all the recipes we had tried out. I’m hoping to put some of them up here soon!
The cooking class was a Hoi An must-do, but we also couldn’t visit and not get some clothes made. Hoi An has been a tailor city for thousands of years. The ancient emperors used to have all of their clothes made by tailors from there and the tradition has lived on. Bing, our host at Cloudy Homestay, told us not to go to a place in the ancient city because they would surely overcharge us. Instead she sent us to Bao Diep tailer. I promise I really meant to just get one thing. All I wanted was a silk dressing gown, but they were too good. Kim, the lady helping me, knew exactly what she was doing. As soon as I sat down with her she handed me an iPad which already had the Pinterest app open. She told me to just look through everything for a while. “I can make anything you find on here,” she told me. After I picked the designs I wanted, we picked out the fabrics (I fell in love with linen that day) and then Kim took my measurements. I’ve never felt more like royalty. We went back the next day to try on the clothes and then after they made a few alterations they all ended up perfect. Needless to say, I got more than a dressing gown. I also got a dress, a skirt/shirt combo, a blazer, a white linen shirt, and some silk slippers. I’ve never had clothes that fit me so well, made specifically for my body’s individual shape. I spent much more than I had planned, but there is no way I would have ever been able to do that at home and the experience was amazing.
I felt very pampered by Hoi An. The way we treated ourselves there was definitely not how I’m accustomed to traveling, but it was definitely the best way to experience the city. Plus, some luxury was needed after our days in Sapa and before we made the trip to Saigon.
Quiche has come to remind me of various family holidays — of sitting around my Aunt Lyndi’s table with the whole family for Christmas or Easter brunch. It’s definitely not the most traditional, I doubt many New England families were eating Quiche on Easter in the 1930s, and it doesn’t have that old-timey feel. I have to admit that a part of me does miss our old doughty cakes Christmas tradition (who wouldn’t fantasize about fried dough for breakfast?) but I’m all for celebrating with delicious fresh veggies instead of sugar and oil.
Once I started making quiche myself, I realized another reason it’s turned into a Morse holiday tradition — it’s extremely kind to the cook. It’s the type of dish that you can easily make ahead of time and almost forget about while you’re busy tossing salads or mixing drinks. I’ve gotten in the habit of making it when I’m not sure what time friends will be over or in the summer when dinner time never seems to be fixed. It’s easily transportable, making it a great potluck contribution but, most importantly, it never fails to hit the spot.
This quiche is a springtime recipe and a combination of some of my favourite spring veggies, but any of them could easily be exchanged for a vegetable that better fits the season… or your personal taste.
Apparently Sapa Town is pretty beautiful. All the pictures of hostels we looked at on Hostel World had amazing views of lush green mountains. But alas, we were not meant to see them just yet. The town was so foggy when we got there that we couldn’t even see from one side of the street to the other and to make matters worse, it was cold. After being soaked to the bone for three days in Hanoi, we were not happy about the circumstances here. We tried to explore the town a bit and went in search for a good jacket for Izzi, but with the fog being what it was we soon decided just to head back to the hostel. The hostel served hot food, at least, so we treated ourselves to rice and veggies and sat as close as we could to the fire. We struck up conversation with a Canadian couple playing cards at the table next to us. They had just finished their trek and we were interested to hear their thoughts. Unfortunately, it turned out that they hadn’t been able to see anything for their whole trek because of the fog. One of them said that all she had wanted out of her trip there was to see a rice paddy and not even that had been possible. Izzi and I finished our meal glumly and then, downtrodden, took to our beds to rest up for what were pretty sure would be a disappointment. Looking back on it now, our mood seems pretty funny. We sulked all day in our beds, ready for the worst, when what actually lay ahead was the most amazing three days of our whole trip.
We had booked our trek with a company called Sapa Sisters. There are many tour groups to book with in Sapa, but most of them are owned by foreign operators or hotels and don’t actually do much to benefit the local people. Sapa sisters is run entirely by local Hmong women, so they benefit directly from the tours instead of working through a middle-man. In addition to truly supporting local tribes, since it’s run by women of the Hmong tribe, it gives them an opportunity to make their own living and to be independent from their fathers and husbands. I felt really good about our decision to book through them. The day after arriving we made our way to their office where we met with our guide, Cho. She explained the different routes to us and the different levels of difficulty —we decided on medium difficulty, although it was tempting to choose the highest level. Then we left our big bags in their storage room and rented some boots. They were thin rubber rain boots which looked like the kind of thing a little kid might wear while gardening with Mum. I was skeptical and was sure that I would be better off in my sneakers. But, Cho strongly recommended that I rent the boots which, of course, turned out to be the right decision.
Once we were all booted up and ready to go, we set off through the town behind Cho. Two Hmong women followed us out of the town and at first it made me a bit uncomfortable, since I had no idea why they would be following us. But, since Cho didn’t say anything I relaxed. I ended up being very happy to have them. Once we reached the hills it got very slippery on account of all the rain (this is the part where I was thankful for my boots). Going up the hills was easy enough, but once we started going down it was downright scary. One of the ladies grabbed my hand each time it looked like I was going to fall to steady me. Although I appreciated her intention, at first I was determined to do it all by myself. I had been hiking in Patagonia, for goodness sakes. I could do this! But then I fell… twice, and after that I accepted her help. Eventually I think she realized I was a somewhat capable hiker and we came to an unspoken understanding. She only offered her hand to me when she thought I would really need it and I learned to trust her definition of a tough spot. They stayed with us until we reached the town where we would be eating lunch. When we thankfully sat down at our table, very ready to eat, they unveiled what had been hidden the whole time in their beautifully woven baskets and it all made more sense to me. It was time for us to buy some of their crafts to thank them for their help. At first I was disappointed. I had naively thought that they were really just there to help us. But I was genuinely grateful for their help and the crafts were beautiful, so I bought a couple woven pouches. Over the next few days countless women and children would offer us help along our trek, obviously expecting us to buy from them afterwards. Cho explained to me that she couldn’t tell the other women to go away. If she did, she said, the community would say that she was bad and didn’t want to share her fortune with the rest of the tribe. But she also told me that it was absolutely fine for me to deny their help. I was very grateful for her explanation and afterwards I learned to say a polite but firm no thank you.
Izzi and I both absolutely loved Cho. We had all been a little quiet at the start, but as we hiked and got to know each other better we began to joke and laugh quite a lot. She also taught us so much about our surroundings. Once, when we were walking through a more forested area she pointed out some trees which she said were Cardamom trees. She told us that the trees were becoming quite rare because of how the weather was changing. She said that before, it never never snowed in Sapa, but now it was snowing sometimes and the young Cardamom trees couldn’t survive it. She told us that the Hmong people say the tourists bring the snow because before the tourists came there was never any snow.
It was depressing to realize that there was a fair amount of truth in what they said. Perhaps the tourists didn’t directly bring the snow with them, but tourism means airplanes and airplanes mean carbon emissions and carbon emissions mean climate change and climate change means strange weather patterns and strange weather patterns mean snow in Sapa. It was a very confusing mix of emotions, feeling very lucky to be there learning this from Cho but also knowing that I was at the very centre of the problem.
Cho also pointed Indigo plants out to us. She told us to rub the leaves very fast in between our hands without warning us that it would turn our hands well… indigo. Maybe I should have thought about that myself, but I didn’t mind anyway. She told us that she is part of the Hmong Black people which have that name because they use Indigo to dye all their traditional clothing, which turns it all black. I was beyond happy to be learning all this. I really wished I could be writing it all down in my notebook, but that would have slowed down our trek significantly so I concentrated hard on remembering every fascinating tidbit that Cho shared with me.
I tried equally as hard to remember the sights, although taking a photo is a more socially acceptable form of delay than writing down notes. The fog turned out not to be a problem in the slightest for us and the entire trek we had perfect views of everything. Although visually they couldn’t have been more different, Sapa gave me a similar feeling to being in Patagonia. All the space around me seemed to have an extra dimension, as if the 3D world I was used to was actually very flat and I had just never noticed. As I looked around everything continuously seemed to be folding in and out of itself, looking very much alive. At times it would seem unbelievable that I was in the middle of all this beauty. The mountains made me feel very small. It’s a feeling I get often when I’m traveling and which I absolutely adore. I love feeling small because it reminds me that I am a part of something much bigger.
There were rice paddies all over the place and we hiked along thin paths which wound their way between them. I was actually surprised how much I liked the paddies. Usually I’m not a big fan of visible human impact on the land, but the rice paddies certainly felt like they had more of a right to be there than I did. They were carved so perfectly into the mountains and I couldn’t even begin to imagine how long they’d been there. Water buffalo roamed through them, grazing on the shoots in the water and I realized that the paddies were a part of humans and buffalo and rice living together in this place. Sapa wouldn’t be Sapa without them and they were spectacular.
I also grew quite fond of the bamboo. On our second day we hiked through a bamboo forest and the shoots grew tall and thick around us with only a tiny footpath to follow. It was dark in there, but the trunks were narrow, letting just enough light filter through them to give a mystical feeling. In other places, away from the forest, the trees clumped together in little patches, bending from the weight of their leaves which sat in tufts like a bad hair day and made them look like something from the world of Doctor Seuss.
After our long days of hiking it was always nice to arrive at our stopping points. On the first day we had stopped at a restaurant made for trekkers for lunch, which was fine. But that night we stopped at a homestay which we shared with two other small groups of travelers and which was infinitely better. We were given rice wine and amazing food and our hosts were so welcoming. Although we were tired, we stayed up chatting and drinking with the others, our goal being to finish our bottle of rice wine. Cho told us that in their culture, odd numbers were unlucky. So, for example, if you wanted a scoop of rice you had to take two and if you wanted three scoops of rice you’d have to take four. It turns out that the same goes for shots. Needless to say it was not difficult to finish the bottle.
Since Cho was good friends with the guide of one of the other groups we had lodged with, named Pen, we all continued the trek together the next day. For lunch we stopped at Pen’s mother’s house which I was naturally very excited about. It was wonderful to be inside a real home. Since the Chinese New Year was on its way everyone was in the middle of preparations, making traditional celebratory clothing.
They also served us the best rice dish Izzi and I would eat during our entire stay in Vietnam. I learned that nearly all the families there grow their own rice in their paddies and have their own vegetable gardens. Coming from where I come from, this seemed absolutely dreamy. Don’t I wish that everyone back home had the space and the time to grow their own food? Don’t I wish that everyone grew just enough to feed themselves and share with their neighbours? But, of course, Cho and many others don’t really feel the same way. Many people feel stuck in their lives, unable to do anything but grow rice for their families. It’s important to remember that the beautiful life of a small farm is only ideal if you have chosen it for yourself.
On the last of our three-day trek, Cho gave us the option of taking it easy and spending the day at a nearby waterfall, an offer we eagerly accepted. When leaving Sapa Town in the fog we had been so convinced the weather was going to be horrible that we almost spitefully left our bathing suites behind. Now, of course, we were irritated with ourselves, but we decided there was nothing wrong with swimming in our undies. When we got to the waterfall there was a bit of a chill in the air and getting into the water took some courage. But there are only so many opportunities to swim in a waterfall in Vietnam, so we stripped down and dove in. Yes, it was cold. There was a definite moment of shock that required some deep breathing, but it certainly wasn’t as bad as the salt lake in Chile. This time, Izzi lasted longer, too. The waterfall wasn’t very big but it was beautiful. The sound was gentle and calming and made me want to spend the whole day floating on my back with my face pointed up towards the sun. Every few minutes I would dive down into the river as deep as I could. It felt amazing to let the water run passed me and wash off all that travel. It made me feel more clean than even our nicest hostel shower had. When I came back up for air I settled again, half in the water and half in the sun. To my right there was an ancient looking tree which had grown out of the side of a small cliff. It grew low and twisted towards the sun, and its roots wrapped around a huge grey stone as they made their way down towards the river. Just next to it two water buffalo, a mother and a calf, grazed in the rich green grass, not at all concerned with our splashing. Beyond them I could see the rice paddies carved endlessly into the mountain sides and I was glad that the cold water had turned my skin numb so that I could concentrate all my focus onto what I was seeing.
My body felt tired as I pulled myself out of the water and I loved it. I sat and warmed myself in the sun with the others and it was impossible to imagine a more perfect way to end the most glorious three days. We still had most of our trip to go, but even then I knew that our trek in Sapa would be very difficult to beat.
Izzi and I really did mean to visit Ha Long Bay. In fact, it was one of the things I was most excited about after looking up pictures on the internet pre-trip. To me, it was the perfect Asian water landscape and I couldn’t wait to see it. Unfortunately, we did not make it to Ha Long Bay. When buying our train and bus tickets in Hanoi we got some dates mixed up and in the end we had a grand total of only 24 hours on Cat Ba Island.
Getting there was an adventure in itself. First we took a five hour bus ride from Hanoi and then a 45 minute ferry to the island. The bus was a hilarious nightmare. The length wasn’t so bad, five hours is nothing when you’re traveling, but for some reason the driver decided that it would be appropriate to blast horrible dub step the entire way. Nobody on the bus wanted to say anything to him, so we sat with our own music turned up as loud as it could possibly go, trying our best to get some sleep. Part of me thinks that he really just liked that kind of music and wanted to play it, but it was so bad and so loud that another part of me thinks he just wanted to torture the tourists. When we got off the bus and looked around, I was a little confused. We were at a rather shabby dock with rusty fishing boats sitting in water that looked less than pristine. This wasn’t exactly the paradise I had pictured, but we were hurried onto the ferry and my mood lifted as we started off across the water.
I dozed in an out of the sleep, soothed by the rocking of the boat, and when I opened my eyes I spotted an island shrouded with mist and mystery in the distance. Land ho. When we arrived on land we got on yet another bus and then finally, we arrived in town. The company we had booked the bus/ferry through also owned a hostel in town called Full Moon Hostel, and that’s where we disembarked. I was not thrilled about the hostel and the town in general gave me a weird feeling. It seemed almost ghostly, as if it no longer had any purpose but to feed and house the tourists coming through. At least, that was the impression from the centre of town. But as it turns out, the hostel Izzi had booked was about half an hour away from town. After such a long trip to get there I wasn’t looking forward to another drive, and the taxi wasn’t cheap, but man was it worth it.
The hostel was called Woodstock Beach Camp and it was located at the tip of a little cove. The air immediately felt better when I got out of the taxi and I filled my lungs with the wind coming off of the water. The beach was literally steps from the front of the hostel and there were no other houses or lodgings anywhere I could see. After the chaos of Hanoi the calm and quiet was very welcome. It was our own little paradise—our own miniature Ha Long Bay. The stone mountains stuck out of the water in rounded points that reminded me of hands emerging from the deep.
After walking up and down the beach a couple of times, our toes digging into the sand, we decided to stay put, right where we were. Getting to Ha Long Bay would have meant getting in another taxi and another bus to take us there. We had less than 24 hours to enjoy the island and, although it meant missing the main attraction, we decided to relax and enjoy.
The hostel was an absolute dream. It was hard to tell who worked there and who was a guest because everyone hung out all together. Izzi and I joined in for a game of cards and then some pirate dice game that I don’t remember the name of, let alone the rules. The cans of cheap Hanoi beer were distributed through a tab system, so they were plentiful and we had soon made friends with the others. The hostel was home to a litter of puppies who loved to snuggle, the cherry on top of this perfectly comfortable place.
We lounged for a while in the pillows and tapestries, but after a while Izzi and I decided to explore a bit more. Woodstock actually had a kayak of its own named Simon (Garfunkel had recently been lost in the high tide) so after less than gracefully pulling it through the mud, we slid the boat and ourselves into the water. We spent a few hours pushing ourselves silently through the cove. Although it wasn’t raining (thank goodness) the sky was grey and the reflection of the clouds turned the water into melted silver.
One of the guys who worked at the hostel had told us about an old bunker left over from the war so, naturally, we went off in search of it. We managed to find it—it was the only metal door in the side of the rock—but after clambering up towards it and pulling hard on the handle, I realized it was locked. It wouldn’t budge a bit. I called down to Izzi to tell her that it was sealed shut, and I could hear my voice echo from inside the bunker. It sounded like a real adventure inside and all I wanted was to follow the sound of my voice into the tunnel. But it was not to be, so we continued our adventure on the water, stopping in the middle of the cove and sitting in silence.
That night we played more cards and drank more beer and eventually ended up in the middle of a big game of twister. I ended up winning, to my enormous surprise, and my prize was a shot of rice wine. It was my first one of the trip, but it certainly wouldn’t be my last. Not long after the shot I decided it was time for me to go to bed. The next day we were starting out journey towards Sapa so I climbed into my top bunk and fell soundly asleep, exhausted from the rejuvenating day.
Of course, seeing Halong Bay would have been amazing and we wouldn’t have missed it if we had just one more day. But sometimes you need moments like our day in Cat Ba while you’re traveling. You need to allow yourself a few opportunities to ignore the “must sees” and just be. Enjoy where you are, because even if it’s not on the TripAdvisor Top 10, it’s the first time you’ve ever been there, and will probably be the last. Plus, at least this way we weren’t contributing to the pollution caused by the tour boats in the water… right?
Have you noticed that some of the best pictures on this blog are credited to Izzi? She’s an absolutely amazing photographer. Do yourself a favour and follow her on Instagram! @izzixmcdn
As my sister will readily tell you, I am not a funny person. I have a sense of humour and I love to laugh, but I have never been particularly good at making people laugh myself. Funnily enough, I think this is the reason I love stand-up comedy so much. I love to watch and experience art forms that I could never imagine doing myself. It becomes truly magical. The first comedian I was ever familiar with was probably Jerry Seinfeld, in true ’90s kid form, and then like so many others I fell in love with the work of Louis CK. From there I began to expand and after a while I noticed that the comedy I liked best had a tendency to get a bit political, some more subtly than others. There is something special about the way that comedians deal with political topics. I found myself saying “huh, I never thought about it that way” far more than I usually did. When watching comedy, I allowed myself to rethink things that have been long engrained in my head and to address topics that I am often afraid to in my political social circles. That’s the beauty of stand-up — it opens up space for audience members to rethink their values and consider topics that might otherwise be intimidating or inaccessible to them.
This is where I’d like to begin—inaccessibility. Living in the age of information we’re theoretically supposed to be able to open up our computers and learn anything we want. The world is literally at our fingertips. But while I suppose it is true that we have access to unlimited information, it is far more difficult to turn that information into knowledge. There are many reasons for this, but the most relevant here is that information is produced by experts who hold power over any conversation about their particular field. As anthropologist Isabelle Stengers states:
“Experts are the ones whose practice is not threatened by the issue under discussion since what they know is accepted as relevant” (Stengers 2005, 13).
This means that in a conversation, an expert is the person whose knowledge will be accepted as true and objectively more valuable than the knowledge brought forward by the person who is not an expert in the field. Don’t worry, I’m not about to argue in favour of “alternative facts”. I do believe that experts are important and deserve to be listened to. Climate scientists do have the right to state that climate change is real. An individual who has never worked in public education does not deserve to hold the position of education secretary in the White House. But when a person labels themselves as an expert, they’re in a way saying “I know more than you and if you disagree with me you’re wrong”. This often means that real, in depth conversations are often only held between experts on the topic. They control the conversation, which isn’t a problem in itself, but the way they talk about their topic can often be confusing and dogmatic, especially to people who are new to the topic. One of my greatest frustrations with anthropology, for example, is that although it is such an interesting field that I want everyone to engage with, so much of the knowledge — theory, ethnographic articles — are almost impossible to understand if you haven’t spent four years of an undergraduate degree reading them (even then understanding is not guaranteed). This isn’t just a problem in academia, however. This tendency towards elitism and superiority is common surrounding many, even most, social and political issues. I’m guilty of it myself. It’s very easy to feel superior to someone who holds a different opinion than you do. The results, however, can be disastrous.
I am not alone in the belief that Trump was elected in part because so many people in the US felt left behind by their government and country. In an article for the Washington Post, Chris Cilliza states:
“Trump’s campaign was pitched entirely at the idea that egg-headed wonks and liberal elitists—including the entire literary and entertainment culture centered on the two coasts—were not only deeply out of touch with the concerns of Average Americans but also dismissive of them”.
The sad part about this statement is that these “Average Americans” are not entirely wrong. The fact that class struggle exists in rural America too is often ignored by urban dwellers. It’s clear, at least to me, that Trump won’t do anything to improve life for the lower classes, even the white ones, but that was central to his campaign. He told a large, frustrated group of people that they did not need to change with the rest of the country, did not have to listen to those who made facts out of things that were completely contrary to “Average America’s” beliefs. This, of course, is very different from the last presidency.
“Obama saw the job—especially in the first few years—as a sort of Professor in Chief. He would be the expert, explaining the hows and whys to a less well-informed public. Trump is the antithesis of that idea. He views himself as channeling the will of the people, a group that has been ignored or laughed at by coastal elites over the past decade” (Cilliza, 2017).
And it’s true; we have been laughing at them. To many on the left, conservatism (especially rural conservatism) has become synonymous with stupidity and we form intense prejudices that define entire parts of the country as lesser. No wonder these people don’t want to be a part of our conversations, don’t want to listen. I would not want to be a part of any conversation in which I was immediately considered stupid and talked down to (although as a woman this does happen often). I am totally in agreement with the idea that it is not the duty of the oppressed to educate their oppressors. People need to take the initiative to educate themselves. But it is naive to say that educating yourself is easy. If an uninformed person does try to begin to educate themselves on a social topic, what they’re confronted with is often inaccessible and isolating.
I’m going to use Dylan Marron as an example. This is an uncomfortable thing for me to do because I seriously love and respect what he does. But even as an avid fan, I have to admit that his intense use of sarcasm gives a clear tone of superiority. I only noticed this when I watched a video of his with which I didn’t totally agree. He was talking about the uselessness of awards shows like the Oscars and I was thinking to myself “well, but what about the potential awards shows have for making political issues known to millions of people at once?” I’m not necessarily right and he wasn’t necessarily right, but the point is that his video, the way he argued his point, made me feel a little stupid. It made me feel like any point I might have on the topic would not be welcome in that conversation. But let’s take a look at a video of his that I do totally agree with:
Right from the start, as I’m sure you noted, he states that “the people who say it doesn’t exist are full of shit”. Now, I happen to think that he is totally right. But what if I were a person who didn’t know much about police brutality and had maybe in the past even argued that it didn’t exist because I had never seen it? If I were the daughter of a police officer trying to understand what people were talking about, would this be helpful? I don’t think I would be particularly receptive to a person who right from the start told me I was full of shit. To be fair to Dylan, he is very aware of this problem. In fact, he can actually help me explain what I’m talking about here.
But the character of “the expert” in our social drama has a counterpart — almost a complete opposite, though not quite. This character is called “the idiot”. I don’t mean “idiot” in its popular sense, as in a stupid or foolish person. Instead, I’m using the term based on French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s concept.
Deleuze’s idiot “is the one who always slows the others down, who resists the consensual way in which the situation is presented and in which emergencies mobilize thought and action… The idiot demands that we slow down, that we don’t consider ourselves authorized to believe we posses the meaning of what we know” (Stengers 2005, 2).
Put more simply, the Idiot refuses to blindly follow the status quo. They refuse to accept things as objectively good or bad, true or false, just because that’s how society has agreed to label them. They encourage us to look at things in a different way than we usually do. But don’t confuse this character with the “Devil’s Advocate”. The Devil’s Advocate argues the opposite of the common or current narrative, often just for argument’s sake. But that’s not what the Idiot is doing. They are not necessarily arguing the opposite of the current narrative. They are asking that we think about this narrative differently—that we don’t assume that the way we see something is the only way it can be seen.
“The idea is precisely to slow down the construction of this common world, to create a space for hesitation regarding what it means to say ‘good'” (Stengers 2005, 2).
… or bad, for that matter.
The Idiot is almost opposite to the expert because they do not put themselves above others. They are equal or even inferior since they are often the object or ridicule and laughter. And this is where I’m finally going to get back to comedy. In most of the good stand-up I’ve seen, the comic starts their set by placing themselves in a position of inferiority to the audience. This self degradation happens over and over again, and it is not an accident. Just look at this statement made by Ricki Gervais in HBO’s Talking Funny:
“I think with comedy, it’s not a rule of thumb, but I think you have to be the underdog. There’s no place for being above the audience.”
By using self deprecating humour at the start of the show, they show the audience that they do not consider themselves superior. They show that they’re just a normal, screwed up person with issues like everyone else. The audience can relate to the mess the comedian is talking about. In this way, although the comedian is clearly in a position of power—standing alone on a stage in front of thousands of people who have paid to hear them talk—they level the playing field. They’re saying “don’t be intimidated by me; I’m just some idiot”.
Amy Schumer is not my favourite—after watching a lot of stand-up as research for this piece I realized that the allegations about her stealing a lot of her jokes is true. That being said, this is a great example of self degradation. She literally calls herself trash based on the outfit she’s wearing and describes the humiliating experience of the “walk of shame” that much of her largely female audience can relate to.
Here Louis labels himself as completely average—a very normal middle aged man who is often out of breath and with no hope of ever being in great shape. Despite his immense fame and genius-status talent, he’s just a guy no better than anyone in that audience. But self degradation doesn’t always have to be about physical appearance, and often the best isn’t.
What he says here, “I have a lot of beliefs and I live by none of them” is something we can all connect with. It’s also something we might not like to admit to ourselves. We like to see ourselves as people who stick to our values, but the reality is that we are easily corrupted. You’re a vegetarian until Thanksgiving comes around. You only buy organic food except for when you get drunk and end up at McDonalds… Whatever our own personal example, these are moments that we are ashamed of. So when Louis connects with us on this level, beyond just physical appearance, we really do realize that he is a flawed human just like us. The audience is comfortable recognizing this shameful similarity because he doesn’t accuse them of being this way, he just talks about his own flaws and allows them to quietly relate. The example that follows is a little different.
Dave isn’t saying that he is a bad person or is a bad comedian, even. He simply talks about a moment, a very embarrassing and career damaging moment, where he really messed up. But he’s doing the same thing as Louis and Amy did in the last three examples—he brings himself to the level of his audience. In the anecdote he tells, Dave messes up in a very relatable way. Many people, especially those in his audience, have had the experience of just simply being too high at the wrong time. The audience may never have had the experience of being high on stage in front of thousands, but they know the feeling he’s talking about.
I’ve heard comedians call self deprecation one of the lowest forms of comedy. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is true that if a comic’s entire set were made up of them putting themselves down, it could get quite tedious. But what’s important to note is that all the examples I’ve given are from within the first 10 minutes of the comic’s set. This tactic is about making the audience relax, letting them know they are not some expert.
“In his role as negative exemplar we laugh at him. He represents conduct to be ridiculed or rejected and our laughter reflects our superiority, our relief that his weaknesses are greater than our own… Yet to the extent that we may identify with his expression or behavior, [we] secretly recognize it as reflecting natural tendencies in human activity if not socially approved ones” (Mintz, 74).
Sure, I guess technically we are laughing at the comedian, but really we are laughing with them. We admit to ourselves, if not to anyone else, that we relate to the comic’s flaws. The self deprecation says to the audience, “I am not better than you, and really you’re not better than I am. This is a conversation between equals”. And in a conversation between equals, with much less of a power dynamic than a lecture holds, the audience has the opportunity to let their guard down from around their beliefs and socially constructed norms.
But the Idiot goes further than just being an equal to the people around them. The Idiot introduces their peers to different ways of seeing the world. They slow down the conversation. For example:
Here, Louis literally says that sometimes “it’s not clear what the right thing is to do”. The common and accepted norm is that good citizens throw their trash away in a garbage can. Of course, Louis isn’t actually saying that we should all just start littering all over our cities. He’s not playing Devil’s Advocate; he’s not going 100% against the norm. What he’s doing is questioning this norm, opening up space to show us that it’s more complicated than it seems. In this bit he addresses the massive problem of pollution in the oceans and makes the audience face the fact that even if they’re doing what they’re “supposed” to, they’re all contributing, we’re all contributing, to an issue that is much bigger than dropping a candy wrapper on the street. Here’s another example with a slightly different approach:
Here he’s talking about a topic that gets a lot of people very upset—same sex marriage and the people who are opposed to it. What’s brilliant about this bit is that he never accuses anyone in the audience directly of being a bad person because they oppose gay marriage. He isn’t technically talking about anybody in the audience—he’s talking about babies. When he says “they can’t accept that because they’re being babies” he implies that people who can’t accept gay marriage are babies and are being selfish without actually pointing fingers at anyone. The entire point is clearly made yet veiled by the ridiculous idea that gay marriage is why babies cry on airplanes. The following bit is the one that got me thinking about this topic in the first place, probably because it’s the most obvious.
This is the closest he gets to really lecturing the audience, but he doesn’t do it as himself, Louis. He does it from the point of view of God. The image he paints is of God coming back and yelling at the human race as if we are a bunch of naughty children. Inside this ridiculous story he manages to question the insanity of the things we consider essential like cars, bacon, jobs and even the idea of the economy itself. But Louis isn’t saying that we shouldn’t have these things—he clearly doesn’t want to live without them—but he slows us down and makes us reconsider what we feel absolutely entitled to.
This use of the ridiculous is used a lot in stand-up to soften things that are truly horrible.
When Dave talks here about a black woman being beat up by police, he does come out and say that it’s fucked up. But then he compares her fight to an infamous boxing match, making people laugh. When he says “she’s takin’ a lot of shots” the audience pictures this woman getting punched over and over and are forced to face that this is a reality in our society, but without being soberly and seriously confronted by it. Dave makes them face a horrible truth, but still allows them to laugh. Some of his bits are more up front.
Here, he reminds us of the injustice towards black people in America’s justice system. He points out that when this happens to a white man an entire Netflix show gets made about the issue while the same thing is happening to black people every day. He doesn’t make anyone feel bad about loving Making a Murderer; he even says that he watched the show himself. He just points out, humorously, the injustice. The joke is short, but the point gets made.
This bit by Ali Wong is not subtle. She says the words “white male privilege”; she brings up colonization. But she does this without mentioning her own oppression. The way she delivers the joke is impossible not to laugh at, and I loved seeing the clips of white men laughing when she’s done. By making them laugh with her and participate in this exchange with her, she forces them to recognize their privilege. I find Ali Wong really interesting. The first time I watched her set I felt quite uncomfortable because of her whole bit about feminism:
I couldn’t help but laugh, but my reaction to this was: “Ellen wouldn’t be a show without feminism, Ali!” and “women didn’t just do nothing before feminism, Ali”. But what I realized after watching her set a couple of times is that most of the best points that she makes are feminist ones.
I think she’s actually taking a dig at Louis here. It certainly seems like she’s referencing his bit about how boring parenthood is in “Live at the Beacon Theatre”. And then there’s this one:
Okay, clearly she’s not serious about the mushrooms thing. But in the rest of the bit she makes a really good point. Fathers are often praised for changing diapers or going to parent/teacher conferences when it is taken for granted that the mothers will do the same things. Although it is shrinking, parenthood is one of the biggest double standards that exists in our society.
I don’t think Ali means what she says about hating feminism. As horrible as it is, it’s true that many men just stop listening once a woman has declared herself a feminist. They prepare to be lectured and their defence goes up. It seems to me that when she jokes about hating feminism, she is taking herself out of the position of the Expert (although she absolutely has the right to speak as an expert on being a woman). But although it’s sad that she has to do this, it allows those in the audience who might be afraid of the word “feminism” to relax and listen to what she’s actually saying. They end up engaging with some important feminist issues.
All this being said, there is a wrong way to engage with social issues in stand-up. When Ali talks about the double standards of parenthood she doesn’t attack her husband or men who support their pregnant wives in general. When Dave brings up the horror of police brutality he doesn’t go on a rant labeling all cops as pigs. When Louis makes us reconsider our waste system he doesn’t say anyone who makes waste is a bad person. They don’t point fingers, they open up space for wider thought, playing the Idiot. The following bit by Amy Schumer is approached very differently:
Although I agree with the essence of what Amy is saying here, this bit makes me cringe. Right off the bat she is painting gun owners (despite the fact that she says she’s friends with some of them) as stupid. She squeezes them all together in one box and makes fun of not only their ideas, but irrelevant things like the way they speak and what they look like. She even goes as far as to make fun of the type of home some of them might live in as if poverty were a character flaw. If you’re pro gun, this bit is not going to make you rethink your position because she has already dismissed you as stupid. Why would you listen to her? Amy does the opposite of creating space for broader thought. She narrows the topic into something not only simplistic, but isolating. When you watch a clip like this one of Amy and compare it to this next one, the difference is clear.
In this example Louis never once makes fun of people who assume the sexuality of their children or raise them to have a certain sexual orientation. Instead, by showing how ridiculous it would be to raise kids gay, he clearly shows how ridiculous it is to raise them straight.
Now, even if you’re the greatest comedian, you’re not necessarily an activist. Many comedians say horrible and offensive things that do a much better job of reinforcing stereotypes and entrenching social norms than they do of challenging them. Even the comics I have used as examples have often been accused of going too far. For example, my clips of Dave Chapelle come from a special which has been criticized for minimizing the struggles of the trans community. But when it’s done right, humour has immense potential to spark social change. Laughter is powerful because it feels so good. It’s a physical reaction and I’ve found that, in my experience at least, physical reactions are much easier to remember. In HBO’s Talking Funny, Jerry Seinfeld says in reference to a joke by Chris Rock:
“Really good bits go deep into your head and keep coming back. I think about that bit, honestly, once a month. Because it was the first time, and I apologize for how naîve this sounds, that I realized ‘oh, black people live in a different world than white people!’ I didn’t really know that until I heard that bit” (HBO).
And not only are you more likely to remember, but you’re more likely to listen in the first place.
“Humour is actually less likely to foster the kind of ‘counter argumentation’ or ‘argument scrutiny’ that serious discourse usually receives” (Young).
Stand up is not going to save the world. We still need serious discussion, productive anger, and direct action. But in order to take action, you need to recognize a problem and you need to ask a question. As Stengers states,
“Often, speculations about what could possibly be announce themselves with the ‘what if?’ What if that which seems to go without saying was not as self evident as it seems?” (Stengers 2000, 46).
New ways of thinking come from taking a step back, slowing down, and looking differently at the way things already are. Through their self imposed equality with the audience and the power they hold through their ability to create laughter, stand-up comics are in the perfect position to slow everyone down, carve out some space, and help us ask “what if?”.
Cillizza, Chris, 2017, Donald Trump isn’t an intellectual. And he’s very proud of that. The Washington Post, January 19
Mintz, Lawrence E, 1985, Standup Comedy as Social and Cultural Mediation. American Quarterly 37(1).
When I was traveling in Vietnam, I spent a significant portion of my time drinking coffee. Vietnam is famous for its coffee and they serve it many different ways whether it be coconut milk coffee, egg coffee, or yogurt coffee. Although I wasn’t a huge fan of the egg concoction, by the end of my trip I had acquired a deep appreciation for yogurt coffee. When I first tried it I found it very strange. It’s definitely not a flavour I had ever tasted before. But it grew on me and grew on me until I was craving it every morning. It’s the absolute perfect way to start your day because its breakfast and coffee all at once. Once I got back to Montreal I absolutely had to figure out how to make it for myself. Now, there are more complex and perhaps authentic recipes out there that involve making your own yogurt, but I want something I will realistically make for myself in the morning so I use store bought yogurt. If you want to try to make the yogurt yourself — good on you!
2 Tbsp of quality espresso
1 cup of plain yogurt
3 tsp of sugar
5 ice cubes
1 Make the espresso. If you have an espresso machine at home feel free to use that, but since I do not I used a small macchinetta. If you don’t have either this could also work with drip coffee, but a shot of espresso is preferable because you want a small amount of strong coffee. If you do use a drip machine, make only half a cup.
2 Once the espresso is done, stir in the sugar. I suppose you don’t need to use 3 teaspoons if you’re trying to cut down on your sugar intake, but it didn’t taste quite right until I got up to 3.
3 Put the espresso in the fridge for about 15 minutes to cool. It doesn’t have to be ice cold, but if you pour the hot espresso onto the yogurt it will curdle.
4 Once the espresso is cool, put the ice cubes then the yogurt in a large glass. A mason jar is the perfect size.
5 Pour the cooled espresso over the yogurt then stir until all the contents are well combined.
My memories of Hanoi will always be very wet. No, January is not rainy season in Vietnam, but for some reason the weather decided to rebel (let’s continue to deny climate change, shall we?). The result of this rebellious weather was that I probably have a very different perception of Hanoi than I would have had in the sun. In the rain, Old Hanoi reminded me of an intricate network of canals instead of roads. The trees hung low over the streets and the old houses seemed to cling to them like cliffs along a river. The cars and motorcycles moved incessantly through the streets with the fluidity of running water and the bikers with their brightly coloured ponchos all clumped together felt like waves. Maybe in dryer circumstances my brain would have made other connections. But it is as it was.
Izzi and I spent a lot of time dodging these motorcycle waves. We would often spend several minutes watching traffic pass only to look up and realize that there was a walk sign lit and we actually had the right of way. It seemed that red lights only apply to cars, and motorbikes would move along as they wished. Since there are way more motorcycles than cars, this didn’t make the traffic lights particularly helpful. Not that the cross walks were plentiful, even if they had helped. There were many moments when in order to get from point A to point B we simply had to cross without help from any signage. While crossing one particularly scary rotary I found myself clutching Izzi’s hand and whispering to myself “I am with the force, the force is with me, I am with the force”. However by the end of our trip, if not by the end of our stay in Hanoi, we understood the art of crossing the road. The key is to cross with confidence — slowly enough that the bikes see you approaching, but never stopping so that you don’t confuse anybody.
Since Izzi and I both love to wander the streets when when we travel, a large portion of our time was spent cafes. This is not a problem in Vietnam, since the country is famous for its coffee, which I didn’t actually know until we started planning our trip. There are many types of coffee which are famously Vietnamese. Perhaps the most well known is the weasel coffee. This strange coffee is made by feeding coffee cherries to civets, or weasels, and the beans are fermented while traveling through the digestive track. Originally, this was done with wild civets. The animals would pick the quality coffee cherries from the ground and then the digested beans would be collected. Now, however, most of the weasel coffee in circulation is produced in farms. This method has raised many ethical concerns because the weasels are force fed the cherries and there have been many reports of them being kept in horrible conditions. For this reason, Izzi and I didn’t buy any while we were there. If you can be sure that the weasel coffee you’re buying is from wild civets then by all means, buy some. But this is a difficult thing to be sure of as a tourist. Otherwise, weasel coffee is an industry that I strongly discourage supporting.
After walking around for a few days in Hanoi, I ended up with a few favourite coffee spots (CaPhes, as they’re called there). The one that sticks out best in my memory is Wi Vity Young on Hang Dâu street. We had originally sat down there because it had seats outside on the sidewalk which were covered by a little overhang from the roof. Since the rain wasn’t too heavy at that moment, we took the opportunity to rest and people-watch for a while. It was the perfect place to do that. The cafe was right on a very busy corner where we could watch women bicycle by with their bamboo hats and huge baskets of fruit hanging from rods balanced across their shoulders. It was there that I tried Vietnamese iced yogurt coffee for the first time. At first the taste was very surprising. It was an odd combination of sweet and sour from the yogurt and also a bit bitter from the espresso. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at first, but it ended up being my absolute favourite by the end of the trip. As soon as I got back to Montreal I managed to recreate it which is great because it is the ultimate breakfast.
Right around the corner from Wi Vity Young was another cute little place which, unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of. Here I tried egg coffee — another typical one in Vietnam. The drink seemed to consist of a frothed egg on top of an espresso shot with sugar. I don’t think I could recreate this one at home since I’m not sure exactly what they did to the egg, but I’m not sure I would want to anyway. It wasn’t bad, definitely worth a try considering how famous it is. But for me the egg was just too heavy, regardless of the frothiness, and it was difficult to get it all down.
Finally, there’s Cong CaPhe. This place is actually a chain, which we realized after traveling a bit more around the country. It doesn’t feel like it, though. When Izzi told me she was taking me to a communist themed cafe, I had sort of pictured communist-commercial. You know, a big place with posters of famous communist leaders on the walls and fake propaganda everywhere. However, this was certainly not the case. Instead each Cong was a tiny little cafe with simple green walls with almost no decoration. We sat on tiny wooden stools at tiny wooden tables. Stepping in there felt like stepping back in time, which was really cool. They also had an amazing coconut iced coffee which was another of my go-tos throughout the trip.
But in between all of our coffee stops, we did manage to see some sights. One of the most striking spots we visited which was a little off the beaten path, was the old train tracks. It took us a long time to find them. We stopped to check our map and turned around more times than I could count, but for a romantic like me it was worth it. The tracks were lined so closely with houses that I could stand with one foot on the rails and reach out to touch the façades with my finger tips. The houses were each uniquely pretty with plants and laundry breathing life into each of them. They seemed to curve and move along with the tracks like I imagine the houses do in Venice along the canals (more water imagery for you). I thought the tracks would be abandoned, but they weren’t. We didn’t see any while we were there, but trains still use the tracks and it was shocking to imagine the rumble they must make through the closely stuck houses.
That same day we visited Hoå Lo Prison, a somber must-see. The prison was originally built by the French to hold Vietnamese resisters to colonization. Puppets are now used to recreate the conditions of those inside, and it was really astounding to see. Prisoners would be chained by their feet and legs so that they had to go to the bathroom right where they were sitting. In the cells that held multiple people there was often not enough air and prisoners would take turns in spots where the air moved more freely so they could take full breaths. Since much of the resistance was made up of women, many babies ended up being born in Hoå Lo and were kept prisoners with their mothers. According to the information available inside, some of the prisoners over the years managed to escape. We saw the entrance to a tunnel they used and read about how they chiseled their way out, but I still don’t completely understand. How did they get out of their cells in the first place in order to get to the tunnel? How did the guards not find the tunnel entrance? It remains a mystery to me and I can’t believe how strong these prisoners must have been to manage to escape even after being abused and malnourished for so long. Years later, Håo Lo was used by the North Vietnamese to imprison American soldiers. It turns out that this is actually where John McCain was held. The videos we watched told us that the prison was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton because of how well the prisoners there were treated. However, I’m not sure I really believe them. The videos were extremely propagandic. I mean, really, these were prisoners of war. There’s no way they were treated as well as they showed in the videos every single day. Although I certainly don’t trust the US government on what exactly was going on during the Vietnam War, I don’t trust the Vietnamese government either.
On the day we went to see the Temple of Literature, we decided to go by one of those push bikes with the carriages (I’m not exactly sure what they’re called). It was something we felt we had to do at least once while we were in Hanoi and it was fun, but I felt a little bit guilty for the whole ride. Our chauffeur was just one guy pushing both me and Izzi and the cart. I know it’s his job and he would rather we gave him business than not, but it felt elitist and made me uncomfortable. At one point he slowed down so much that I was sure he had run out of steam, but it turns out we had just arrived at our destination. When I heard “Temple of Literature”, I had pictured a sort of library, but that it was not. It was a very classic looking temple with statues of old teachers with incense and offerings of fruit and money everywhere. I prayed for success in grad school, although I didn’t leave an offering so I hope that doesn’t come back to bite me. The coolest part was the names of all the graduates that were etched into stone turtles. They were so old that they were written in Chinese characters. I hadn’t realized that before French colonization these were the characters used in Vietnam. It was the French who westernized Vietnamese writing. I also learned that there are three sacred creatures in Vietnamese culture — the Unicorn, the Phoenix, and the Turtle. It makes sense that the names of all the doctors who graduated from this Temple of Literature would have their names immortalized on the backs of the turtles. Turtles live such long lives and with their medical degrees the graduates were to lengthen the lives of their fellow humans. This is pure speculation of course, don’t quote me on it, but it makes sense in my head.
Of course, we absolutely had to see the shrine of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s communist revolutionary leader and president. Walking towards it I could only think that the architecture was just as I had imagined communist built structures to be. It was simple and imposing, built with huge slabs of black stone and grey concrete. It was solid, strong, and intimidating, and reinforced most of the assumptions my only partly educated imagination had made about what something like this would look like. There were guards everywhere, pointing seriously in the direction we were expected to walk and shooing us away when we misstepped. Not one for uniformity and homogenization, Izzi seemed to get more rambunctious the more serious the guards were. As we got close to Ho Chi Minh’s body and the guards demanded silence she let out a laugh. I shiver at the thought of what would happen to her under such strict rule, but I was glad for her joyous company. My mood is very easily influenced by my surroundings. Although, they didn’t give us much time to really take in the experience. As soon as we got inside the stone cube that is his shrine, we were ordered to keep moving as we walked in a surprisingly fast-paced circle around his embalmed body. It wasn’t even really enough time to understand that I was in the presence of a dead body, let alone the significance of that particular body. It was a strange experience. I kept thinking about the massive structure we were inside with the undoubtably expensive upkeep that goes along with it. I might be mistaken, I haven’t yet read Marx, but isn’t communism about redistribution and equality? Yet there we were worshiping this one man as if he were a god. Our trip to the shrine wasn’t really the most fun we had in Hanoi, but it was really important to see. It’s important to remember that behind all the cute little coffee shops, beautiful ceramic, and delicious Pho there is a very complicated political history that played an enormous part in shaping Vietnam. Not everything is lovely.
The water-puppet show we saw at the Thang Long Puppet Theatre, however, was. Water puppetry is an old folk tradition which was started in ancient rice paddies during the rainy season when all the paddies were flooded. Of course the art form has developed immensely and the shows are much more intricate now, but they still tell the same classic stories of village life and feature key characters like the dragon, the unicorn, and the turtle. The puppets were amazing to see as they glided through the water telling their tales. The puppeteers were hidden behind a curtain and made the characters dance with long poles. There was also live music and actors who gave the characters voices. Although we couldn’t understand a word they were saying, they gave the story so much life and it was fun to watch. My favourite one was the dragon because as it came out into the stage it brought fire and smoke along with it. I absolutely loved the contrast between the smoke and the water. The effect was absolutely dreamlike.
On our last day in Hanoi we visited the Ethnology Museum. It was well curated and we walked around for hours drawn in by each beautiful artifact. I love objects — I love the stories they tell about how life was lived through them. They show us ways that we are different from one another as well as similar. It was exciting learning about Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups since soon we would be heading for Sapa, a region that is home to many minority cultures. I tried to take in as much as the information as I could, but there was so much that there was no way I was going to retain it all, or even most of it. Later in Sapa, though, Izzi tapped me on my shoulder and pointed to an interesting basket a passing woman was carrying. She reminded me that we had seen that type of basket in the ethnology museum and I was happy that we got to see the object in action. You see, I have complicated feelings towards museums of this kind. It seems a shame to me to put these objects behind glass. They’re not fine art; they’re things that are meant to be touched, to be used, to be interacted with. It is impossible to understand them with only your eyes. To connect with them you have to physically connect with them. I was particularly frustrated while reading about one of the culture’s animist beliefs. They believe that everything, every object, has a soul. Everything has meaning and life inside of it, regardless of whether or not it is actually alive. Reading this and then looking at this same culture’s objects behind glass seemed totally wrong. From their perspective we had caged spirits, trapped them forever in a zoo of objects where they would never be handled the way they were meant to be again. That being said, I understand the importance of conservation. I didn’t boycott the museum; I wanted to learn about the objects like everyone else. These parts of culture and history are so important. We want to understand people and these things are a wonderful way to begin to do that. Like most things, it’s a topic I find immensely complicated.
But intertwined with all of this — the museums, the politics, the history — is food. You cannot talk about Hanoi without talking about food. One of my favourite spots was the Hanoi Social Club, which Izzi found. I had the best jasmine green tea I’ve ever had. The food was amazing too. It tasted like Vietnam, but with a twist. The cooks there used local flavours and ingredients but in a very contemporary way. They were clearly experimenting, creating, and having fun. Although we went for lunch both times we went there, they hold poetry readings and have live music at night which I’m sure must be a blast. It also turns out that it’s a place you can feel good about eating at. All the cooks who work there are a part of a program that teaches quality hospitality skills to impoverished youth. Each bite of their spectacular food convinced me that the program must be working and that they definitely have a solid food career ahead of them.
We ate a lot of classic Vietnamese food, too. The main event, of course, was Pho. Pho is the type of thing best eaten on the street. This may seem like risky business, but the key is to find a place with lots of locals eating. This not only ensures that the food is good, but that the ingredients are fresh since the turnover is faster. Also, if you can see the food (which you often can in a street food situation) check to see if the soups and broths are boiling. Boiling liquids kill off any bacteria. We ended up sitting down at a place called Pho Keu (we couldn’t help but be amused by the name) and it was great. We sat down on the classic tiny plastic stools under the familiar drizzle. Since this was my first street food experience in Vietnam I opted for beef Pho since I was unsure about the safety of eating chicken. Looking back now I laugh at my cautious, naive self considering how much street chicken I would end up eating by the end of our trip. The Pho we got was about $2, huge, and amazing. It was pure and simple, perfect for my first real Pho experience.
But the dish I find myself craving now that I’m back in Montreal is not Pho, but Bahn Mi. I don’t think I’ll ever eat a better Bahn Mi than the one I had at Moto Bar in the French Quarter. The pork was tender and the juices, combined with just the right amount of chili, seeped into the baguette and gave it flavour, too. The baguette itself was also amazing, crisp on the outside and unbelievably soft on the inside. As I sat there munching I was reminded of the French. It’s amazing how occupation manifests itself in such interesting places in a culture — like the perfect baguette in the middle of Asia.
Hanoi was, to put it lightly, a lot. It is an undeniably overwhelming city where at any moment you could get hit by a motorbike or, in our case, drowned by the incessant rain. But I truly loved it. All this craziness and chaos was just a manifestation of a place full of life.