The Comical Hat

Various Writings by Connla Stokes

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A Crash Course in Conditional Clauses, a Hanoi Story

A short story of mine was chosen as Litro’s #StorySunday

It starts like this:

The 21st century is up and running and there you are, a 25-year-old male moving to Hanoi, Vietnam on something of a whim. You have come as you were reliably informed by a complete stranger in a beach bar somewhere in Thailand that if you’re from [Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, basically any old English-speaking country], you will easily find work here, even with zero experience.

You don’t even have to schedule an interview to land a part-time job at a cruddy language school with a laughably prestigious appellation: Oxford Language. You only need to stick your head in the front door, even if you’re dressed in shorts, sandals and a sweat drenched t-shirt. Once he gets wind that there’s a foreign man on the premises, the boggled-eyed director of studies, Mr. Minh emerges to ask the all-important-question: where are you from?

If you like you can read the whole thing!

Filed under storysunday shortstory connla stokes hanoi Vietnam englishteacher tefl

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When a drunkard paints his house instead of cleaning it…

I didn’t need more reasons to read Barry Hannah — been hearing his name a lot of late — but Chris Power’s latest "Brief Survey of the Short Story" lays them on pretty thick anyway. Exhibits a, b, c + d below:

In Hannah’s stories of the deep south – a territory as crazed and bloody as the one Flannery O’Connor described – violence and wild humour meet in line after unpredictable line. A particularly hated adversary is “overmurdered” by a battle-crazed Confederate soldier; a doctor enduring a crisis of confidence is “an unshucked oyster, hurtling on the winds, all air, gonad and gut”;

[Barry] Hannah wrote several post-apocalyptic stories, but his modern America is so chaotic and desolate it can be difficult, for a page or two, to tell them apart. 

 In Water Liars, one of Hannah’s greatest achievements, that peace is disturbed when the old timers’ tall stories are interrupted by a newcomer who describes finding his daughter having sex with a stranger on the lakeshore. His interlocutors are disgusted: “I wouldn’t’ve told that,” one says. But the story resonates with the narrator, who has been obsessing over “the bodies that had trespassed” his wife before he met her. Hannah cracks open the men’s banter like a crab shell, revealing the meat of the male psyche lying beneath.

What do you come to Barry Hannah for? You come to him for those moments when a drunkard paints his house instead of cleaning it; you come to wallow in the “petty desires” and “murky ratlike aggression” of his narrators; you come for a closing line like “We were both crucified by the truth”; and for declarations of love like “I wanted to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out”. Because like the soldier said, gee, he can really use the word.

Filed under barry hannah

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"Be gone Sesame!"

Sometimes I have to edit things from the language of gobbledygook to English:

It’s my habit, in my free time, searching any small alleys of Ha Noi to look for new distinctive things so that when her heart was gnawed at by sadness, I would say, “Be gone sesame!” to bring her the unexpectedness, hoping to see her innocent sweet smiles on her lips again. 

Though I think I might start saying “Be gone sesame!” to bring her the unexpectedness too. 

Whoever she is.

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Popular Asian Fiction and Poetry: Eastlit

Uzbeki Fred and the Foreign Man make the charts!

(Source: eastlit)

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The Expat is Speaking Elementary Level Vietnamese **MOST FLUENTLY**

In a small artsy looking café somewhere near the storied/ fabled/ legendary/ iconic Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, a male expat is speaking elementary level Vietnamese most fluently on his mobile phone.

He is doing this quite loudly as he wants to impress the two rather ravishing, well-heeled young local women who moments ago strutted in to this cafe as if they owned the place. The expat had expected a bit of eye contact and he probably would have been content with that. It would have been enough to have encouraged him to linger over his coffee a little longer, or maybe order another juice. But as they hadn’t even deigned to glance at him he had felt quite affronted not just on a personal level but as a representative of a whole tribe of resident expats who have taken the trouble to learn how to speak elementary level most fluently

That’s why he had pulled out his phone and called his mechanic a minute ago. By speaking elementary level Vietnamese most fluently (he is basically telling his mechanic his motorbike is broken, asking if he can come to fix it sometime this afternoon and giving his address), he is making a point to these uppity women that: 1) He is not a tourist! 2) He is a long-term resident of Hanoi! 3) As elementary-level Vietnamese speakers go in this town, he is very possibly one of the most fluent—perhaps in the top 5, certainly top 10! 4) Next time they see him, they should glance flirtatiously at him, if not go a little further, perhaps even say (in very clear, easy-to-understand Vietnamese) “Anh oi, you’re most impressive… who are you, what do you do, et cetera, et cetera…” and well, who knows where things would go from there but let’s not rule out 12 events in the Bedroom Olympics with at least one of these women. 

After he has given his address for the third time to his mechanic, the expat ends the call. He notes, without looking, the two women have stopped chatting. No doubt they have been stunned into this rare period of silence by his most fluent elementary level Vietnamese. With his task accomplished, the expat stands up and in that ever-so-slightly-grumpy-Hanoi-way-that’s-completely-acceptable-in-Hanoi he tells the mousy, 15-year-old waitress with a t-shirt that says “ALL THIS BUT BRAINS TOO” to calculate his bill.

He imagines the whole time the women are furtively checking him out. In his mind, their continuing silence basically implies they’re thinking: Who is the impressively authoritative foreign man with such a command of our language and our culture? Only their innate sense of decorum prevents them from shouting: "I WANT ONE!", "I WANT ONE, TOO!"

The waitress very quietly places a piece of paper on the table and without looking the expat slaps down VND50,000 as if money is no object to people like him. He then steps outside, quickly mounts his motorbike, and drives onto the road where he attempts an awkward looking U-turn which involves trying to avoid a broom sticking out of a street cleaner’s wheelie-bin and a pair of socked feet jutting out of a parked taxi’s passenger seat window.

Out of the corner of his eye he can see the waitress waving at him as he completes his U-turn. She is holding the VND50,000 note in the air and saying something. No doubt she’s trying to return the leftover change. He raises his hand and waves her away. He also notes the two women are looking at him and laughing as he drives away. He assumes they are all flabbergasted at his most fluent elementary level Vietnamese not to mention his flagrant generosity but actually it’s because the waitress is trying to tell him he hasn’t left enough money for his ca phe sua da and an orange juice, the latter of which costs VND50,000 alone.

Oblivious to the fact that he has just stiffed the waitress, the expat man rides away with his back straight, feeling both quite manly and rather knowledgeable. After he drives around the corner, he remembers he needs to call his mechanic to cancel the pick-up. He pulls up on the pavement and nails this very short conversation so perfectly that he wishes someone else overheard it other than a 75-year old green tea and cigarette vendor who had nothing else to do but listen to him. Although, he would note at least she seemed pretty impressed by his elementary level Vietnamese which he speaks most fluently. It’s moments like these that make him think he might even be top three material.   


Filed under hanoi vietnam vietnamese speaking vietnamese satire humour expat connla stokes Vietnam

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False starts from incomplete novels*: The Metamorphosis (Expat-Backpacker Edit)

When Gregory Samson woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself in a room he did not recognize. Gregory, an expat living in Ho Chi Minh City for close to 10 years, first noted the ceiling fan and a spluttering a-c. He could hear noises from the street. There was an intense heat in the air. He wasn’t used to any of this. In his plush apartment, 30 floors above street level, he was always shielded from the heat and noise of downtown Saigon. He sat up in the bed. Where the hell was he? He glanced around the room. There was a rucksack leaning against a single chair; a bunch of clothes formed a disorderly pile on a small desk. Had he… slept with a backpacker staying in the Pham Ngu Lao area? He choked at the thought and as he did he noticed his legs. They were tanned. Gregory had a desk job and there was only so much sun he saw week-to-week. These were not his legs. He looked at his arms. These were not his arms. He jumped out of the bed and rushed to the miniature en-suite bathroom and came to face with a bearded stranger in the mirror. Gregory Samson screamed, fell over backwards and crawled on his elbows back to the bed. What the fuck was going on? He didn’t understand how what had happened had happened but he somehow realized what had happened. He’d been transformed into the thing he despised more than anything in this world, the most monstrous of verminous creatures… a backpacker travelling around Southeast Asia.

He searched for a phone but couldn’t find one. He found a wallet with a small amount of money and a credit card with a name he didn’t recognize. He slapped himself in the face hoping he might shatter this strange and terrible dream. He rifled through the clothes: Fishermen Trousers, Good Morning Vietnam/ Same Same But Different/ Tiger beer/ Angkor beer/ Beer Lao T-shirts, various kinds of shorts, a pair of sandals, ersatz sunglasses and a straw fedora. He dressed and left the room. Perhaps this fantasy might end if he walked through the door but it didn’t. Not yet. The receptionist waved and smiled. A couple of backpackers sitting on the doorstep seemed to recognise him. “What day is today?” he asked them. The backpackers thought this over with a smile as if not knowing the day was a day-to-day problem to be proud of. One eventually replied, “I’m pretty sure it’s Sunday.” Gregory stormed past them and into the throng of mid-morning Bui Vien Street. There must be an explanation. There must be a way out. He reasoned that this could only be a nightmare; a very real, exceptionally vivid nightmare but still just a fantasy that he could and would exit at some stage. But how? He walked down the street. The xe om drivers cooed. A cyclo driver hollered. Taxi drivers beeped. Perhaps, he speculated, the hallucination would end with extreme humiliation. If so, he knew instantly what he had to do. With his straw fedora tucked tightly on his head, he walked barefoot along Tran Hung Dao street, ready to meet his friends while they brunched at L’Usine/ Au Parc/ The Deck…      

*Never to be continued…

Filed under satire hcmc vietnam tay ba lo backpacker Saigon expat

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Letter From Vietnam: Relatively Speaking….

I have an article in this week’s The Guardian Weekly…. 

On the anniversary of the death of my Hanoi-born wife’s auntie in Ho Chi Minh City, two distant branches of a family tree come together to put the Vietnamese language’s strict conventions regarding pronouns through its paces.

When talking, Vietnamese clans stick rigidly to kinship terms so everyone will know what generation they belong to and who is washing the dishes (it’s probably going to be the youngest adult female).

Filed under hanoi hcmc vietnam connla stokes Vietnam

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Diverting traffic… to Eastlit

Those nice folk at Eastlit have published a very short Hanoi story of mine.

This is the beginning. This is day one. The foreign man is sweating a little bit but he’s prepared to take everything in his stride. This country is a work in progress. He is here to help. He is here to make a difference.

Read on by clicking here.

And by the way, Eastlit is “a journal and network of supporting sites focused on creative writing, literature and art from or connected to East and South East Asia.” 

Needless to say that’s a rare thing they’re doing. You can find out how to submit stories here.

Filed under Hanoi Connla Stokes Eastlit Southeast Asia literature literary journals vietnam

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The Great Chocolate Start Up: Marou — Faiseurs de Chocolat — The Director’s Cut

It begins like an evocative tale from old Indochina with two French émigrés crossing paths for the first time while trekking through a Vietnamese jungle. But that’s how the co-founders of Marou — Faiseurs de Chocolat first met.  

They didn’t know it yet, but Vincent Mourou and Sam Maruta had something common. They were scouting for business opportunities while living rather tenuous existences in Ho Chi Minh City (née Saigon) circa 2010. Vincent, who had abandoned an advertising career in San Francisco, was working freelance (and often for free) when an agronomist he knew mentioned how cocoa plantations were taking off in southern Vietnam. Today, Vincent happily admits he didn’t even know Vietnam had cocoa but his curiosity was instantly piqued. At that time, father-of-two Sam was an ex-banker doing his best to steer clear of the finance sector. But frustrated by having to buy his whole family a new business visa every three months, he accepted a role as the finance director of a State-run chocolate company at the start of 2011. He lasted 10 working days but at least he had a sense of cocoa’s growing potential in Vietnam.

Sam and Vincent would cross paths again at a university, where they were both taking Vietnamese lessons, and at a charity dinner they established this mutual curiosity of cocoa. Just before Tet (Lunar New Year) in 2011, Vincent told Sam he was planning a reconnaissance mission into the countryside. They googled “vườn cacao (literally, cocoa garden) and “Ba Ria” (a southern province in the southeast of Vietnam) and the next day set off on motorbikes in search of a plantation with no address. Such their lack of expertise, on the way they stopped to photograph a coffee tree thinking they saw cocoa pods.

But eventually they met a farmer by the name of Duc (with whom they still work today) whose son happened to be home for the Lunar New Year holiday and spoke enough English to lead an introductory tour of the farm. The Frenchmen were impressed by Duc’s sophisticated drop-by-drop irrigation system and bought a 2-kilo sack of beans before returning home. 

Crossing the Dong Nai River by ferry later that day, Vincent and Sam were enthused by the expedition. They weren’t rich enough to trade cocoa in substantial volume, so Sam suggested simply making chocolate. How hard could it be? They returned to Sam’s house, as he had an oven and a blender, and searched online for some guidelines. They spent an evening roasting, winnowing and grinding to produce a block of chocolate with a coarse taste and a granular texture. It was raw, it was fruity—it wasn’t sophisticated chocolate, more “like a punch in the face” recalls Vincent, but it was very good.

In the beginning

After these ad hoc experimentations, Vincent and Sam were giddy enough to contemplate a manifesto. They wanted to create something locally and in the French tradition of chocolate making (to wit: unadulterated chocolate made from nothing but cocoa and sugar); the emphasis would be quality, not quantity, and the approach would be artisanal. It would prove a defining 24 hours for their inchoate start-up.

Armed with an Indian lentil grinder (purchased in Singapore for a couple of hundred dollars) they set about trying to get to grips with pretty much everything. Cometh the moment, cometh the charismatic German agronomist, Hans Wiberg-Wagner, a friend of theirs, who happened to be running training sessions for cocoa farmers in southern Vietnam. By allowing the guys to gate-crash, he essentially ran a master class in cocoa cultivation for the two budding apprentices. “It gave us a good feel for cocoa, and for what was happening at farms,” says Vincent.

They concentrated on the process of making chocolate, producing a new batch every three days, changing one variable at a time, while driving a patched-up 1965 Citroën La Dalat (upon purchase “The mother of all lemons”) to source beans from farms in Ben Tre and Tien Giang provinces in the Mekong Delta, Dong Nai Province, east of Ho Chi Minh, and Lam Dong Province in the Central Highlands as well as Ba Ria.

Typical of Ho Chi Minh City’s creative network, they realised one of their neighbours, Sasha Vassay of EIGHT Design, had the know-how to create a chocolate mould. They describe the slanted, slightly asymmetrical lines with the Marou monogram in the centre he created as a “future classic”. The start-up operation was moving through the gears and by the end of 2011, Vincent and Sam had purchased a factory in the industrialised outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. 

Forging an identity

In search of a design concept for Marou, Vincent and Sam turned to Rice Creative, another fledgling firm at the time. They had an affinity with co-founders Chi-An Benjamin De Leo and Joshua Breidenbach, who had recently walked out on a major firm in search of a “different set of clients and a new working environment.” Enter Marou stage-left along with a breath of fresh air. “Marou were actually one of our first clients and a designer’s dream client,” says Joshua. They immediately agreed that the goal would be producing an award-winning design and set to work.

Inspired by the ceremonial wrappers produced by artisanal printers in Vietnam’s Cho Lon district (Ho Chi Minh City’s “Chinatown”), Rice Creative hand drew chocolate-oriented motifs (read: cacao pods, fruits and leaves) and a few monsoonal clouds across an intricate lattice pattern. The elegant typography referenced vintage signage found around Vietnam while Marou’s now-standard colours – deep vermillion, ochre yellow, grass green, midnight blue – all came courtesy of the trinitario cocoa pods’ natural hues.  The gold embossed lettering and internal gold wrapper completed the sumptuous experience Marou hoped to deliver with every bar. 

While Rice Creative worked on these initial design ideas, by chance a friend of Marou was attending a dinner in London. He produced a prototype of the bar for his dining companions, one of whom was Melina Keyes from Wallpaper* magazine, which, as fate would have it, was preparing for a special issue on “handmade creations” from around the globe. This mysterious bar of chocolate was deemed to fit the bill. Subsequently, Vincent and Sam were invited to produce a one-off limited edition bar. They also discovered that selected products would be exhibited at Milan’s Design Week in early April, 2012. Cue creative overdrive: Marou concocted a bar with 80% cocoa content made with beans from the best organic farms in Tien Giang Province. To enhance the subtle flavours (think light citrusy fruit, banana, cinnamon, honey, a hint of tobacco), they also decided to make a thinner bar.  Meanwhile, Rice Creative went far beyond the brief to simply rebrand the packaging by adding the magazine’s name and created a funky, retro-futuristic design that would soon go viral.

Fourteen months after the two men returned from Mr. Duc’s farm with a sack of beans, suddenly, after Milan, a phenomenon was born. “If the chocolate is as beautiful as the wrapper, I’ll buy some,” emailed one German distributor. France’s biggest newspaper, Ouest France ran with the story before the chocolate was available there but by June 2012, they were exporting. “We hardly called anyone,” says Vincent.

Today, Marou’s products are stocked by 50 retail outlets in France, making it the company’s primary market, followed by Sweden and the UK. Other significant markets include Japan, Qatar, USA, Canada and the Philippines. Timing has played its part. Single origin, bean to bar chocolate has become a movement in recent years. “We’ve been riding a wave,” admits Sam. Nevertheless, Marou has been the indie-star of prestigious events, such as Salon du Chocolat in Paris, where Vincent and Sam have rubbed shoulders with the evangelical Willie Harcourt-Cooze and patron saints of chocolate like Pierre Marcolini and Francois Pralus. To cap off a dizzying 2013, at the Academy of Chocolate Awards last year, Marou scooped three gongs (two for chocolate, one for design)—and yet it still feels like this is just the beginning.  

A brief history of Vietnamese cocoa

Marou has essentially emerged in the third incarnation of Vietnam’s cocoa industry. The French colonial administration first tried to encourage the crop in late 19th century but by 1907 they were ready to pull the plug. The cocoa trees that remained were just another one of the random fruits found amongst the fertile southern delta. Fast forward to the 1980s, when a reunified but economically isolated Vietnam was heavily reliant on the Soviet Union for trade and aid. Moscow’s apparatchiks advised their Hanoi comrades to grow cocoa, so they did. But by the time the trees had grown, the Berlin Wall had come down and the Soviet market had vanished. The majority of cocoa trees were slashed by disgruntled farmers.

But at the end of the 1990s, international trading companies plus Western development aid agencies dovetailed effectively to resurrect cocoa as a potential cash crop (recently, shrinking production in traditional markets such as West Africa has also benefited Vietnam). At the end of 2013 there were an estimated 42,500 farmers growing cocoa on 22,500 hectares (up from 900ha in 1999).

In Vietnam cocoa farms are small, intercropped plantations where cocoa trees can grow alongside cashew and coconut trees. This multi-cultural approach suits Vietnamese farmers who don’t want to be overly reliant on one crop. Still, there is always a fear that plummeting global prices will result in slashed trees. “That’s why we pay above market prices for quality beans,” says Vincent. “When market prices go down, Marou pays up.” Even fair trade is a bespoke affair with Marou. 

The Chocolate Factory

Today Marou’s factory and office is a hive of activity, staffed by a team of 20, including Vincent and Sam. On the factory floor, there is an 80-year old coffee roaster, bought on e-Bay and shipped from France, now roasting cocoa without complaint, and an enormous erstwhile rubber press that went through “a bit of a rough patch in a junkyard” but is now happily pumping out cocoa butter.

Surveying the beans to bar process is Jason Laurent, a 27-year-old former pastry chef from Kansas, USA who, rather appropriately for Marou, ended up in Vietnam on a whim. “I came with nothing and made it work,” he says on the factory floor where a mélange of cocoa-heavy aromas hangs in the air. He describes his role as watching, tasting, tasting, tasting and more tasting. There are rough times for roasting and grinding but it is ultimately an intuitive process with some variables still in play. “For example, the shells on the cocoa from Ba Ria are that little bit thicker,” he explains.

Marou had initially envisaged using artisanal sugar from the Mekong. A nice idea on paper that proved impractical. “The sugar tasted very interesting but it overpowered the cocoa,” explains Sam. Unrefined sugar brings moisture into the mix and “chocolate abhors water,” he warns, rather gravely.  

The taste of terroir

Part of Marou’s unique selling point comes from its conviction in the mysterious element of terroir. Each bar they produce represents a different province. An early adopter of Marou, the executive chef of Don’s Bistro in Hanoi, Donald Berger, says, “Marou’s subtle flavours and aromas are truly amazing and easily detectable. It is comparable to the tremendous difference of terroir in the best wine regions of, say, Bordeaux and Burgundy.”

There is no way industrially produced dark chocolate can compete with this unbridled individualism. As major chocolate companies strive for uniformity, they neutralise natural flavours and end up enhancing the end-product with vanilla to offer some kind of complexity. “Like adding MSG to soup,” suggests Sam. 

It’s not just the land that influences the taste of Marou chocolate. Fermentation, which happens at farm level, is also part of the inimitable process. “Maybe it’s a little bit mysterious,” says Sam. “But our only criteria is making very, very good chocolate.”  

 *A version of this story was published elsewhere. You can read it here