January 22, 2012
We are in our last day in Hanoi. We came back for one day after our northern Vietnam homestays. Sadly, Hien is not with us. She has been pulled to escort a 3-day trek. The tour company had a guide pull out of the trek due to a family emergency. They were able to secure a substitute for one day, but not all three, so we have the substitute. The replacement is a lovely woman from the Red Zao ethnic group. She has taken us to see lacquer-ware and embroidery factories.
Ironically, she also escorted us to have lunch with Hien’s family (grandmother, father, mother and sister). Another feast, but this time it was with people that we have been hearing about for the last 5 days.
We missed Hien today. Last night, we had a tearful goodbye. We had become so found of her. We were delighted to realize that she had also become fond of us. She lingered as we said goodbye.
As we were eating our last meal, we asked her to compare us to other families that she had toured. She started with somewhat non-committal generalizations like “Americans like to ask questions.” We told her to give her opinion about us specifically. After some coaxing, she gave us this assessment.
Sounds like a pretty fair summary of our clan!
The Omnivore’s Market
Our new guide (Mayhom) also took us through a local market. Actually, this detour was not on the agenda, but we asked to go when we drove through it on our way to the handicraft village.
The market lined the street and was utter chaos. The streets are typically crowded, but are even more so as the nation readies for their Tet celebration. Tet celebrates the Vietnamese New Year and is unquestionably the biggest celebration of the year. From what we can gather, it is New Years, Christmas and Thanksgiving wrapped into one, only with fewer parades and football games.
Some of the items were specific to Tet, including “Happy Water” sold in earthenware vases with long straws.
They also make a special rice cake with pork wrapped in soy, rice and bananas leaves.
While we walked, I experimented with one of the lessons we learned from Shawn Achor (Harvard professor who wrote “The Happiness Advantage” who is also a consultant to camp). He told us that we are equipped with “mirror neurons” that lead us to “feel” what other people are feeling. They are the reason that we yawn when others yawn. What he told us is that smiles are contagious. Even more interesting is the fact that smiles release dopamine that improves our mood.
In summary, if you smile, others smile. When they smile, they feel better.
I spent the day smiling at everyone. This market does not see Westerners, so we were quite the oddity. People were once again taking our pictures. We responded by smiling and giving huge “CC thumbs up” (as demonstrated by Liam and a local boy here).
We engendered hundreds of smiles and laughs. It was special.
Today, the market was bursting. Since most people here have no refrigeration, they go to the market daily for food, often more than once. This is one of the reasons that the food here is so good – everything is completely fresh.
How fresh, you ask? Let me tell you. [Note: the following section is an effort to share the very odd sights and sounds that we encountered on our excursion through the market. Some of it is a bit brutal. I hope you accept my effort to share the sights and take no offense. In any event, you might not want to be reading while eating.]
Fruit and herbs were everywhere.
The butchers are “processing” the meat right there on the street.
We saw pig heads
Before I share the following photos, I must take you back 5 weeks to Thailand. As we were driving in a mini-bus as a cute midsize dog ran across the street. Wiley quipped, “Aww, that is the most adorable meal I have ever seen.”
We chuckled, but did not see anyone in Thailand or Laos or Cambodia eating dog.
Vietnam is a different story. While driving with Hien, a dog strikingly similar to the one Wiley had spotted ran across the road. Hien was more terse than Wiley, “Lunch.” She was also not joking.
We strive to be as non-judgmental as we can be. I believe it is unfair to impose our eating ethics on people that earn less than $1500/year. Having said this, eating dog is a hard idea to swallow (sorry for that). We are the land of Sounder, Old Yellow, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Underdog. Here, Sounder is sautéed (and you hope that Underdog is not underdone).
Since we adore Hien, we asked her about dog. Why eat them?
“They do not do much. Once you have one guard dog, the rest just sleep, eat and poop. When they are puppies, they play with the children, but as adults, you just need one.” Also, dogs are everywhere. I mean everywhere. Add to all of this the fact that roughly 10% of Vietnam’s dogs carry rabies.
“So you eat it because it is readily available?”
“Yes, but you must understand one more thing – dog tastes good.”
With this mildly disturbing intro (and with apologies to all dog lovers), I share this picture that took us aback.
I think I’ll have tofu tonight.