Saturday, July 22, 2017
I write this at Trang’s home, where I am staying in the living room, on a reed mat under the fan. It is 8:30p and the rooster I heard yesterday hasn’t come up for air from all the crowing.
I spent the whole day with Trang, her parents and her sister. It began with breakfast at a restaurant – vermicelli noodles with good old iced Vietnamese coffee (I didn’t shake today). The noodle dish is called bùn thang bà âm and you can only get it in Hanoi.
We then visited a woman who is a very close family friend and Trang’s mother’s former boss. She is in her 70s, the former chairwoman of the second largest bank in the country and never married. We visited with her for an hour and a half and she was the center of attention. Trang would periodically translate summaries of what she saying for me. Before we left, Trang, Thu and I worked on translating our interview questions for her into Vietnamese as well as sensitive and respectful language. She wrote them down and wanted to think about her answers before we return another day, maybe next week.
We stopped by a market to pick up some pork and then drove to Trang’s mother’s parents’ house, where we ate with them as well as Trang’s aunt, uncle and cousin. They filled the table with steaming plates of food, and we each used a small bowl to eat everything.
I followed Thu and Trang’s lead: first, soup, then cucumber, then pork in a dipping sauce, then chicken in a dipping sauce, then vermicelli with soup, then more pork, and green squash, and more pork (the frequency due to a) it was my favorite, and b) Trang’s grandfather kept putting it in my bowl. Trang says this is how Vietnamese people show they like you. I was flattered, but stuffed. I asked her to tell her aunt that the soup was my favorite soup I had tried since I’ve been here. She told her and her face lit up and she kept smiling, even during the next conversation with the rest of the family. I tried Trang’s grandmother’s homemade wine, which they served in small goblets the size of shot glasses. It was very rich-tasting and I liked it.
For dessert, I had artisan tea and two bananas, each about half the size of American bananas, twice as thick and twice as sweet.
They were delicious. I kept thinking how good they would be in banana bread.After lunch, everyone spread out in the house for a brief nap before we left.
Before our next interview, Thu, Trang and I stopped by a place called Soya Garden, a restaurant specializing in different variations of soy milk. I had the original version with sugar, ice and chewy jellies. I’m not a fan of American soy milk, but this was refreshing in the 99°F heat index. I sat in this fun, swinging chair with a nice view of the city.
We then walked over to the apartment of our next interviewee, Trang’s high school English teacher, a 28-year-old married man with a young child. I was able to do this interview as well, and in the middle of it, I was struck by the reality of the moment: I am in Vietnam. I am interviewing everyday people here and learning about their lives. I am a real journalist and this is all happening right now. It was a pretty awesome realization.
Last night at the dinner table, I asked Trang’s dad about his career, day-to-day schedule, what type of role his job plays in Vietnamese society and other stemming questions, the more he talked. He told Trang to tell me that I asked very sharp questions and would make a good journalist. He also says that I’m getting better and better at using chopsticks. It’s nice, to immerse yourself in a completely unfamiliar environment ripe for your own ignorant mistakes, and to hear that you’re doing something right.
I’ve discovered that with Vietnamese people, the moment that the conversation transitions toward something even the slightest bit sensitive or just personal, they change the subject or vaguely share what they think you want to hear. Trang and Thu have explained that this is because of the lack of freedom of speech and the press here: news media is government-owned and people are arrested and imprisoned for voicing their want for free speech. I could even be arrested, even as a foreigner, if my blog were too critical of the Vietnamese government and if it were public enough for government authorities to find out. It’s interesting to observe how this political dynamic trickles down to even private conversations among trusted friends and family members. In addition to the language barrier, it makes obtaining the whole truth and the hard facts difficult. But it is a challenge I’m here to tackle and I am learning along the way.