The Comical Hat

Various Writings by Connla Stokes

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Extracts: Love in the Time of Bamboo-Jacuzzis

The thought of businesses making bamboo-based products always reminds me of an old house-mate I had in Hanoi at the turn of the century.

It’s a story I never quite understood but for some reason this house mate of mine didn’t realise a person could simply apply for a tourist visa when coming to Vietnam—or maybe he did, maybe he knew he wanted to stay for a longer than your average tourist (the housemate’s actual reason for visiting Vietnam: following a woman he’d had a fling with in London and still had a thing for). Maybe he knew it’d be a pain getting visas renewed every month. So, determined to get a six-month-business visa rather than a one-month-tourist visa he arrived at the embassy disguised as a slightly-more-plausibly-successful-looking version of himself—suit jacket, trousers, a slightly incongruous tie, shirt tucked in, a pair of polished shoes, etc.  

His ruse also involved talking himself up as a potential investor. He had a not-at-all-serious-by-any-stretch-of-the-imagination-business plan in mind as he arrived at the embassy, where he initially spoke to a petite woman. Once he began his pre-rehearsed spiel her expression changed instantly when he used the magic words “significant investment”. There was no need for credentials or references after that. An impromptu appointment was promptly made. A door that was hitherto closed suddenly became open. Suddenly our friend found himself being led into the ambassador’s office-cum-reception room and being invited to sit in a stately yet uncomfortable chair while the ambassador’s secretary poured him green tea into a miniature tea cup with no handle.

The ambassador soon joined him: “So, how can we be of service?” There would no paper work, designs, portfolio or promise of a Powerpoint presentation—just a brief elevator pitch that could have come straight out of an episode of Only Fools and Horses—so picture Del Boy, if you like, leaning forward and grinning at the ambassador, as he said: “Two words: Bamboo Jacuzzis.”

The ambassador nodded and leaned back, perhaps, interlocking his fingers—his way of saying, go on. Or perhaps he was mystified, lost for words even; perhaps he had no idea what this word “Jacuzzis” meant. His guest felt a need to continue: “Well, Vietnam has got all this bamboo, hasn’t it?” [There would be no argument there from the ambassador] So I’m going to source the bamboo and design Jacuzzis and ship them back to the UK.” [There was that word again—Jacuzzis. Did he or didn’t know what a Jacuzzi was? He was quite sure he didn’t.]

More silence ensued but the pitch had come to an end. The ambassador’s guest certainly had a confident air as if to suggest that the only surprising thing about bamboo Jacuzzis made from Vietnamese bamboo was that no one had thought of this already. The ambassador was still nodding his head but more slowly now. He continued to say nothing. Perhaps, he was thinking, if this guy wants to come over and buy loads of bamboo, well, he can do with it as he pleases, or perhaps he was thinking, “This is embarrassing—I am the ambassador to Britain but I have no clue what that is…” Either way, he leaned forward and said he would happily authorize the business visa application and wished his guest the best of luck with his business project. They stood up. Shook hands and walked to the door. Perhaps, there was a quick exchange of the obligatory pleasantries; something about the tea, or the weather, or visiting Vietnam for the first time.

As they got to the door, the Englishman, who for some reason suddenly figured it was okay to reveal this had all been a complete charade, turned and said, “You know I’m only joking about the Jacuzzis, right?” The ambassador smiled, maybe he even chuckled. Perhaps, he was thinking, this man must be joking about joking, oh the English and their impenetrable layers of sarcasm! Or perhaps, he was thinking, “Agh! I still have no idea what a Jacuzzi is!” Perhaps, after he closed his door, he looked it up in an Oxford Dictionary. Perhaps, he realised long after the man had disappeared that if someone did really want to make bamboo Jacuzzis without the proper expertise the planks would easily absorb the water, swell then warp and possibly turn mouldy… why the research alone would take years. Perhaps, he thought, this really was to be a “significant investment”. Perhaps, he noted it down for later reference, just something to keep an eye on, one never knows. Perhaps, this time next year Bamboo Jacuzzis would be huge. 

 

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The Businessmen and the Bun Cha Girl

[Archives, 2012)

At a high school reunion in Hanoi, a bunch of 30-somethings start to arrive at a seafood restaurant in the West Lake area on a hot and sticky summer’s day. The staff is still laying the tables while some of the early arrivals gather in clusters under the ceiling fans. Everyone has a turn at saying, “Oh my god! Look, it’s [whoever just walked in the door]” as their old classmates enter the once gaudy but now shabby-around-the-edges-restaurant. Although nobody would think of complaining, the ringleader behind this event—a woman by the name of Phuong Anh—continually explains that she wanted to select a down-to-earth-location: i.e. not one of the fancier five-star hotels that are all around town. A few people can’t help but mumble about the AC, which clearly isn’t firing on all cylinders, but everyone is too giddy to bicker and nobody wants to look like a sourpuss in front of old friends they haven’t seen in how ever many years it’s been. Indeed, many moons have passed since most of these people have come face-to-face, so nostalgia-coated chatter is the order of the day: “Tuan Anh—do you remember when I threw your plastic sandals on the roof?!”, “Or the time our dear teacher chased you around the yard with a stick?!”, “Who was that kid who used to drop his pants to the floor every time he needed to pee?!”, “That was me….” There is more than one eruption of uproarious laughter before everyone sits down to eat and catch up over more frivolous banter: “So what are you doing for work these days?”, “Where do you live?”, “How many kids do you have?” In such circumstances many women will be happy they’re married (even if they’re not happily married) as whoever is on the shelf is reminded continually that they’re an old maid even by bitter divorcees. The two remaining bachelors in the room are gently teased for being lady killers without any evidence that they actually are lady killers. Whether willfully single, left-on-the-shelf, recently divorced, “MBA” (married but available), or quite-clearly-under-the-thumb, there’s some harmless flirting between former sweethearts and old unrequited crushes. After a couple of beers one floppy-haired man by the name of Quang—once a shy, scrawny teenager with an over-sized school uniform, now a agricultural scientist of some renown in forestry circles—blurts out, quite loudly, “I used to like you so much…” to a woman called Thu Ha. He admits he used to follow her home, hiding in doorways or behind trees whenever she looked around, all along Ly Thuong Kiet Street and down Quang Trung Street toward Thien Quang Lake. When she acquired a bicycle he’d even sprint to try and keep up. After she disappeared down her lane, he’d sit on a bench on the bank of the lake, gazing across the water, daydreaming till it was time to go home. Thu Ha—all dolled up and fresh from the hair salon, still, basically, a bit of a dish—is way out of Quang’s league, but she still blushes at this heartfelt confession much to everyone’s delight. “Oh, why didn’t you say anything?” she eventually replies, covering her burning cheeks, but he only shrugs his shoulders as if the answer is he didn’t know he could say anything. Relishing the apparent awkwardness, their old classmates shout out a few suggestions: “It’s not too late, Quang—invite her to go for ice cream on the way home.”, “No, take her on a pedal-Swan across Truc Bach lake!”, “But try not to talk about trees too much—that’d be so boring she’d jump into the lake!” Ignoring this ruckus, a few tables away, one self-made man, who has recently set up his own advertising company, is spouting off about macroeconomics with two former pals, who have both climbed the corporate ladder with prestigious foreign-owned companies. The ensuing conversation, which has a subplot of oneupmanship, touches on the property market, the global economy, gold trading and other matters of consequence effecting businesses and the financial world at large. This well-dressed trio has travelled to financial hubs such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo; they are all surprised they hadn’t bumped into each other in Vietnam Airlines’ Business Class Lounge. They discuss the economic downturn and the restructuring of Vietnam’s banking system earnestly and mostly interrupted for half an hour. Eventually the men, perhaps collectively sensing that they should mingle, all look around and survey the room. Straightaway, one of them spots an old classmate arriving late, and nudges one of the others, and says, “Look, bun cha Nguyet has arrived,” as if he’s surprised that she’s come. The men recap her life quickly: she was a smart girl, they all agreed, who’d landed numerous job offers after graduating from university. Hadn’t she studied marketing and communications? Yes, they thought so. She spoke pretty good English, if one man remembered correctly. She could have had a good career, surely, but for some reason she opted to stay at home and help her infamously shrewish mother at her family’s bun cha restaurant—one of those hole-in-the-wall Hanoi-style places that spilled out on to the pavement—on Yet Kieu Street. When she walks over to say hi, each of the three worldly businessmen avoids asking her what she’s up to these days so as not to embarrass her. Luckily she asks all the questions and seems very impressed by their accomplishments: “Look at you guys, such well-dressed gents.”, “Oh you’re so lucky to travel so much…”, “Wow, CEO of your company! Congratulations on your success!” It’s only when someone else joins their group that she’s asked about her own life. She replies, quite positively, “I’m still helping my mother at the restaurant…” The mens minds briefly drifted, picturing poor bun cha Nguyet still in her floral-patterned pyjamas, rolling pork patties in her hands, turning the slivers of marinated lean bacon over on the charcoal-grill, opening bottles of Bia Hanoi for red-faced garrulous men and on her hunkers washing vegetables in a basin on the floor. One of the men mumbles, “Yes, I must go back there for bun cha someday” and the others quickly join in, saying that they remember it was the best in town. Nguyet says it’d be great if they came and it would be her treat. The men laugh at this gesture though not in a deliberately cruel way; it just seems silly to think that they could get excited over a free lunch when it would only cost a paltry VND50,000 each at most. The men—struggling for conversation—are somewhat relieved when Nguyet quietly totters off to chat with some of her old pals at another table. They get back to talking business and the reunion continues in a predictable but pleasant fashion for the rest of the afternoon.

* * *

As the three businessmen start up their scooters outside, agreeing they’d meet up soon for drinks at some swanky hotel bar, where all the movers and shakers wined and dined these days, a BMW 4WD pulls up and beeps. The window rolls down, and lo and behold, there is bun cha Nguyet, looking rather petite up so high behind the steering wheel: “Hey guys, see you all soon! Don’t forget to come to my restaurant for lunch, okay?”

* * *

In the coming weeks none of the men ever suggested meeting for drinks in the swanky hotel bar, but separately each one will visit Nguyet’s bun cha restaurant. They will all say: “I was in the area for a meeting…” and will spend most of the time trying to impress Nguyet while asking her about the bun cha business: “How many square metres is this place?”, “How many people do you employ?”, “How many customers do you get every day?” Each one is trying to figure out how much her revenue is. When each of them tries to pay, Nguyet will laugh, and say, “No!” and “No!” and “No!”  Afterwards, each man will probably have gone for an iced coffee. Personally, I like to picture them sitting at a café on the bank of Thien Quang lake, gazing across the water, daydreaming till it’s time to go home.

                                        * * * End of * * * 

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[Archives, August 2005] A botched attempt to travel down Highway 1 at the speed of light

[An old blog post from Pittstop Works] 

Teddy de Burca Jr. just wanted to take a taxi from Phan Thiet to Ho Chi Minh City, but found himself in an experiment to try and travel at the speed of light

It wasn’t far out of Phan Thiet when I realised I was trapped in a car with a taxi driver who had set his mind on achieving what I had thought was impossible: to travel down Highway 1 at the speed of light.

It would be nice, I suppose, to arrive at your destination as you left. To be there in the blink of eye. To travel straight through Ho Chi Minh City to the other side of the galaxy or to go boldly where no Vietnamese taxi driver has gone before.

But the car was not modified to any Star Trek specifications. In fact, the whole vehicle was juddering as the car tore down one of the busiest roads on the planet, weaving in and out of articulated lorries and buses, like there was no tomorrow.

I thought about pointing out to the taxi-driver-cum-scientist that there were two eventualities to this experiment: Either a) we would crash, into one of the other thousand automated vehicles around us, and burst into a ball of flames. Or b) he would succeed and we would travel at the speed of light but alas that, according to my understanding, would mean our molecules and atoms would obliterate in an instant and we would be nothing but cosmic dust sprinkled upon an earthly road.

Either way, we were doomed. I knew that. But he obviously didn’t. So why didn’t I speak? If I had, I hear you say, nothing would have happened. But hindsight, you will agree, is about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike, so I sat in dumb silence, well, not quite. I could hear the music in my headphones. Isaac Hayes was crooning about a backstabbing love affair. “If loving you is wrong…” he sang. We will crash I thought. “I don’t wanna be right,” continued Isaac.

Just as I thought enough is enough, I will tap him on the shoulder and say, listen buddy, it just isn’t happening, not today, not with me, I don’t want to travel at the speed of light or crash, I noticed the taxi driver had already seemingly given up on focusing on the task at hand. He had taken his eyes off the road, despite the fact that we were now travelling at a hundred thousand miles per hour, his eyes were scanning the horizon, gazing across the lush paddies, his thoughts, perhaps, recalling an incomplete romance from his past, and Isaac repeated, “I don’t wanna be right”. My eyes looked up ahead. I saw the stationary truck we were hurtling towards and I pointed and said… 

I will not speak of the impact, my gruesome injuries, or the imminent debacle of getting from somewhere on Highway 1 to a hospital in a neighbouring country. Nor will I speak of the operation or the rehabilitation. But I will recommend that when you find yourself in a taxi, or a mini-van, or a bus, or maybe on the back of a motorbike, if it becomes apparent that the driver is trying to travel at the speed of light, be direct, be true, be swift and tap the fellow on the shoulder and say, “Nope. Not today buddy. Not with me. Ease off the gas and let’s enjoy the ride. I’m in no hurry. I’ll even give you the gist of Einstein’s theory of relativity along the way.” 

Filed under vietnam roads road safety taxi

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Who’s down with TPP? YEAH YOU KNOW ME! An explanation in the key of Naughty by Nature

Yeah, wassup y’all? How y’all doing tonight across the Pacific Ocean tonight? Yeah, yeah… I know what you’re saying. And you know what I’m talking about. Man—we got some synergy in the house tonight! We gotta tap that fo’ sho’!  

First up, you know who I am, I’m Teddy—T as in terrific, and ‘eddy as in short for Edward. [Complete silence]

Okay, okay, let’s get a bit of “Hey, ho….” going and get this party started.

I’ll say “Hey!”, and you say…. [Barely audible, non-synchronized mumbles of “ho” from crowd]

Whoa, whoa, whoa… I can’t HEAR YOU PEOPLE OF THE PACIFIC!

I said, I’ll say “HEY!" and you’ll say [Respectable hollers of “HOOOOOOO!”]  

Yeah, now you’re feeling it my Pacific brothers + sisters. Now, DJ, drop that a beat, ‘cos I ain’t just here for the call-and-response shit with y’all. If that’s your bag, take yo’ ass to Bac Ninh Province for the Quan Hooooooo Festival. Yeah, yeah… [chuckles] those guys can do that all day long but that’s cool. They’re our Pacific brethren too yo’…

Now let’s do this!  [Beat starts up, sample of The Jackson 5’s “ABC” comes in on a loop, slightly reminiscent of a Naughty by Nature song you might know. The crowd is bumping.].

[DJ grabs a mic and says: “Yo Teddy! There’s a lot of people out here tonight who wanna know what this TPP is all about, why don’t you explain it my brudda’?]

Yo! TPP – hmmm, how can I explain it?
I’ll take you frame by frame it, to have y’all jumpin’ and singin’ it
T is for Trans, P is for Pacific, y’know, like the Ocean?
The last P…well…that’s not so simple – ha!
It’s sorta like a word that describes an arrangement in which two parties or more agree to cooperate to advance their mutual economic and political interests…
It’s 11 little letters that are missin’ here
And you can get on occasion with any other country…
Man, this is hard, I better come up with a figurative illustration…
Bust it!
You ever had a girl and met her on a nice “hello”!
You get her name and number and you feelin’ like you want to cooperate
You get home, wait a day, she’s what you wanna know about
Then you call up and it’s not her girlfriend or her cousin’s house
It’s not a front, F to the R to the O to the N to the T
It’s just there’s another guy at her house and he’s also trying to cooperate to advance HIS mutual interests… yo!

It’s time for TPP! We got time for all the other pacific people’s mutual interests – that’s what I’m getting at
There’s no room for international trade monogamy — there’s just room for TRANS-OCEAN TRADE POLYGAMY!

How many brothers out there know just what I’m gettin’ at?! [Chorus of yeahs from all the people in da house]
Who thinks it’s wrong that I’m splittin’ and co-hittin’ with all y’all for trade relations!?
Well if you do, this is TPP yo’ and you’re not down with that!
But if you don’t, that is if you think it’s cool, let’s get down to a period of seriously protracted negotiations….

Sing it!

You down with TPP (Yeah you know me) [x3]
Who’s down with TPP (Every last homie yo’!)
You down with TPP (Yeah you know me) [x3]
Who’s down with TPP (All my homies yo’)

 

In Loving Memory of My Sense of Humour

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Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it [Archives, April 14, 2006]


The traditional pipe smokers in Vietnam must have been born with iron lungs, says Teddy de Burca Jr.


Thanks to the power of thuoc lao(traditional tobacco smoked in a Vietnamese water pipe) I have seen hardy men’s eyes glaze over before they fell flat on their faces, foreign tourists upchuck their dinner into the large ashtray-bowl (that is always conveniently provided though it’s for the ash more than the vomit), and once I even saw an old African-American man turn completely white, but I’ll get back to all that later.

Of course, “pipe smoking” for many conjures up agreeable images of distinguished gents in smoking jackets by a fire with an after dinner cognac in hand, or perhaps a gritty old sea dog, who had a girl in every port in his day, but now is content to puff his pipe as he casts his eye over his only true lifelong love, ah yes, the ungovernable sea—oh ye fickle mistress!

But with Vietnamese pipes there is little refinement. The pipes— shaped like wee bazookas—are called dieu cay, and the process of smoking one is referred to as hut thuoc lao (smoking the pipe) and if, like a hapless cadet with heavy weaponry, you’re unsure of how to use it, fair warning—it might blow your head off. An after dinner mint it is not.

The pipe is made from a long, thick piece of bamboo, usually with a thin coat of varnish, up to 0.7m long, with a hole at one end, from where you suck, and a wee cone, or bowl, that juts out, near the bottom, where the tobacco is packed in. The tobacco is coarse and black, as if its been burnt and then left to sit in the sun (by the devil’s minions). 

The smoker begins by taking a healthy pinch of the tobacco and rolling it into a ball in the palm of their hand, before packing it in the bowl. Then with a match, the smoker simultaneously lights the tobacco while drawing and exhaling, a la Bill Clinton, i.e. not inhaling into the lungs, to generate a body of smoke inside, which is cooled by water in the pipe.Then you blow the tobacco out and take a blast.

As the smoke is drawn in anger the pipe gurgles and whistles. It’s a sound I came to love when I first landed in Vietnam. It says “you’re on the streets, among the people, in a bia hoi, or sitting at tea stall with a low-level, heavily-inked mafia stooge”. It says, “someone-somewhere is getting their lungs slowly obliterated.”

Of course, you can’t help but admire the panache of the locals smoking it with a fair degree of nonchalance, so it’s pretty easy to think of your glory days of late nights, bongs and pipes and say, “step aside wee man”.

But this water pipe may very well be your Waterloo. If you do try it, go easy on the tobacco. The more you pack in and the longer you inhale the more likely you’ll experience a head rush. Not surprisingly, perhaps, as you have just flooded your blood stream with a massive whack of nicotine.

One friend has a particularly wicked after-dinner habit of making it look easy to newcomers at a tavern we frequent. Then, of course, as above, they want to try it… One healthy plume of black smoke through the body later their eyes glaze over, their forehead cracks into a sweat, their body slumps back and if you’re unlucky enough, you can start playing, “Look what he had for dinner…”

Which brings me back to the African-American man, who from across a restaurant watched my friend puff away on a pipe. The man seemed impressed, walked over, said “how do you do” like men of a certain age still do from the US of A; he asked for a shot, and my friend said, “sure. Be my guest.” The man eyed down the pipe as though it were a rifle. He told my friend, who still had smoke oozing out of his mouth, as if his innards were on fire, that he hadn’t smoked a pipe since the mid-80s, which wouldn’t stop him taking it to his table and giving it a go. A minute later when I looked up, he’d turned as white as a ghost, his head was tilted to the side and his arms hung limply. The Vietnamese waiter said, “Ong gia say nhu dieu do” (Open to interpretation—could mean “high as a kite” but also “the old fellow is so stoned he dropped the pipe”; personally, I thought he was dead). I rushed off to get him a glass of water, but when I came back he’d somehow dragged himself out of the restaurant and skedaddled by taxi.

Of course, if all that hasn’t put you off smoking thuoc lao, well then I guess nothing will, so you might as well put this article in your pipe and smoke it. Just don’t try standing up too quickly after you do. There’s another story about a guy who did that and he still has the stitches to prove it actually happened. 

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The Original Masterchef Vietnam, Asia Eater Outtakes and Why We Should All Eat More Vietnamese Food

One of Vietnam’s many origin myths tells the story of Lang Lieu, the sixth Hung King’s ninth son from a squadron of 22 (not all squired from the same mother, I should add).

Roughly 3,000 years ago, the ageing sixth Hung king created a competition to decide who would take the throne. The rules were as followed: go gather the best food you can find and cook the king dinner. The best meal takes the crown and throne so, yeah, basically Masterchef with giant bells on.

For those that don’t know many of the sons went far and wide, but Lang Lieu, the most virtuous, and most humble of all the sons (but maybe not the life of the party?), stayed in the kingdom and failed to find inspiration. The night before the contest, he was visited by an angel (probably his mum or his aunt in disguise) who revealed the recipe for banh trung and banh day (two savoury cakes made out of sticky rice and stuffed with pork and mung beans) and won the crown for his “simply delicious!” meal that could be enjoyed by any commoner (In a wee present day echo of this origin myth, Vietnamese American Christine Ha scooped the third US Masterchef title with a pork and rice dish as her main course — again a meal any commoner could make). 

I thought of Lang Lieu as I wrote a story in the most recent issue of Asia Eater — the editors allowed me plenty of elbow room to write a reflective piece (based on 14 years of experiences and observations) about how many Vietnamese people just can’t stomach foreign food and/or Vietnamese people’s intense love of their home comforts.

If you can grab an issue (go on, subscribe!) you can hear some of my own anecdotes on travelling abroad with Vietnamese people to discover they’ve packed more food than clothes. Or my friend’s brilliant story about a deputy PM and his staff cooking up Vietnamese food in the presidential suite at the five star George IV hotel in Paris.

I had a few things I couldn’t fit in — things like, how on my way back home to Vietnam from Dublin via Paris this summer, a middle-aged, French speaking Vietnamese woman sitting beside me on an Air France flight pushed her crappy, peppery, faux-Asian meal around with as little enthusiasm as I did. Eventually, her hand slipped into a bag and she produced a small bag of ruốc (Vietnamese pork floss). She sprinkled it over the rice and enjoyed a satisfying meal. And how I really felt like asking her for some…

Or how the day before my missus’ mother and auntie came down to Sunny-side up Saigon, my wife ordered bún chả — sure enough the Hai Ba Pham (as we like to call them) arrived with a suitcase filled with bun cha and other Hanoi staples. Once I might have thought – from an admittedly fairly ignorant and wholly Irish perspective – this is like me asking my mother to make bacon sandwiches in Dublin before driving to visit me in Cork. You can buy bún chả in Ho Chi Minh City. Bún chả made by Hanoians. But bugger that. No one makes bun cha like the Hai Ba Pham and Vietnamese people think nothing of travelling with food. Every trip (it seems) is essentially considered a picnic. 

Another aspect I thought about when writing this story is that although resident foreigners like to chortle at this (and Vietnamese people’s caginess over certain Tay foods), most (or very many) expats and visitors are swimming in the shallow end of accessible foodstuffs; if you think eating pho and bun cha/ bun thit nuong and the odd rice dinner (as I did before I met my missus) means you’re down with Vietnamese cuisine, think again. Again, that’s equivalent to say, going to Italy and eating pizza and a few classic pasta dishes and coming away thinking you’re well on top of all things cooked and Italian.  

Vietnamese people love to see foreigners enjoying Vietnamese food but (I feel) often we don’t realise that our menus are being censored when we eat with them. I realised this when two friends – Hanoi-born and bred boyos, who always hung out with beer-drinking-foreigners at the old bia hoi on Tong Dan street. Normally, people would always order the muc chien bo (deep-fried battered squid) and other tasty morsels. But left to their own devices, the two men had ordered long (cured intestines — sort of like Vietnam’s response to an Irishman’s black pudding) — to be dipped in mam tom (the infamous pungent, somewhere-between-pink-and-purple-coloured, fermented shrimp paste). Okay, I ate along (many would probably have passed), and I remember seeing its merits but have I ever ordered this dish? Never —and would I? Not unless I was really trying to impress someone (or get rid of them). [These are the same guys I ran into at Chim Sao restaurant dipping dog meat and various pickled items into dog brain sauce…]

Anyway, I’m not saying we should all eat intestines and dog meat that’s really not necessary but as time passes and Vietnam’s cities fill up with all the generic fast food flotsam/ horseshit you can find everywhere else in the world, I’m starting to get a bit more passionate about telling people — expats, tourists, even locals in Vietnam — that if you really think the emergence of McDonald’s and BK is the beginning of the end, well, do your bit and get out there and eat more Vietnamese food. 

And to be honest, it doesn’t matter if you’re eating a big mac or a falafel or a sushi set or a gourmet hamburger in a trendy cafe — as it’s all not Vietnamese food. The more Vietnamese food we eat the more we will protect this country’s incredible and incomparable culinary heritage.

So to get back to Lang Lieu, well, he can be the Patron Saint of “Forget that Foreign Muck — Let’s Stay at Home and Stuff Ourselves Silly with Our Own Food as its Way Better”-movement.

Bit of a mouthful that title, as it should be.   

 

  

Filed under vietnam vietnamese cuisine lang lieu food saigon hanoi connla stokes

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My nearly-four-year-old-son tells stories that sound like dreams, stories like this…

“I woke up in the bedroom in Dermot and Mary’s [grandparents] in Dublin. I looked out the window. It wasn’t raining so I opened the window and climbed out on to a tree and slid down to the front garden. I didn’t want to open the gate. The front door was open so I walked inside and Mary was in the kitchen and she was cooking my rice with… [pause to think] verzuhbullion [made up word]!  

It started raining then it was snowing. Then I walked out to the garden and there was a plane stuck in the snow on the ground. It was a really big plane. I dug a hole but the plane is still stuck. I went back inside and found an axe. I chop-chop-chopped the plane but it was still stuck. So I climbed a ladder and found a clip-rope and eeeeeeya, eeeeeeeeeeya, eeeeeeya [tremendous effort made to pull the plane out].

The plane wasn’t locked, so I walked inside and there was a toilet and it was yuckie! I went back inside the house and found Dermot who came inside the plane and he fell down the toilet! Dermot was stuck in the smelly, yuckie toilet [laughter].  

[Walks away. Turns on TV]

[Sometime passes…]

[Then…]

And I got the clip-rope and got Dermot out up onto the house! And then he fell into a hole. And Mary did too. And Dermot said, “awwwwwh” — So we got a machine and all got out.” 

The End (for now) 

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A brief history of my James Connolly t-shirt in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

I have a James Connolly t-shirt. It’s my favourite t-shirt. My mother bought it for me in Connolly Books of Dublin. In the last five or six years I have worn it so much that my friends in Vietnam will often say, “You’re always wearing that t-shirt.”What they don’t know is that I know very little about James Connolly. I honestly couldn’t manage a single paragraph on his Wikipedia page. The most I could probably handle is ghost writing his bio for a posthumous Twitter account: Scottish born, moustachioed Irish nationalist and erstwhile cobbler—Tweets about Socialism from beyond the grave. Views are my own or Karl Marx’s. Retweets not necessarily propaganda.  

There’s a weighty looking tome called James Connolly sitting on a shelf in my parents’ house. Whenever I am back in Dublin, I think maybe this will be the year I read it, or at least the introduction, so I can bluff my way through a conversation on the man while wearing the t-shirt. As it is, when my friends in Vietnam ask about the t-shirt, there’s usually a pause after I tell them his name. They are presumably waiting for me to explain why this early 20th century patriot and socialist is so significant to me that I’d wear a t-shirt bearing his image. I usually point out the cool design and the plough and the stars in the top corner as a diversionary measure. And it is a cool t-shirt. I’d go so far as to say that it’s probably the coolest t-shirt featuring an Irish politician ever made—not that I’ve seen them all. 

The print style of the James Connolly face (repeated five times in five different colours) is reminiscent of the ubiquitous Che Guevara image that everyone knows. It’s possible that wearing the t-shirt appeals to the “I-prefer-the-rarely-heard-b-side-to-the-hit-single” part of my personality. Sure, everyone in Vietnam knows Che Guevara but James Connolly? “Oh, well he’s this really cool Irish politician you’ve probably never heard of…” It was even designed, I believe, as merchandise for a film that has yet to get made (and probably never will). How obscure-slash-fucking-cool is that my friends? 

But here’s the thing: I have also encountered plenty of people in Vietnam, who have heard of James Connolly and probably know quite a lot about him too. And yet I daringly and deliberately courted them while wearing the t-shirt (I know—like,thrill seeker or wha’?). Attending official St Patrick’s Day receptions in Hanoi over the years, I have met ministers of state and a deputy prime minister of Ireland all while wearing my James Connolly t-shirt. They all glanced at the t-shirt yet said nothing. At the height Celtic Tiger (Ireland’s economic zenith/ bubble), and as the bubble burst, I like to think that they all wondered what the connection was between me and James Connolly when there was none (apart from me wearing it). I was there for the lavish buffet with all the trimmings and free flow Guinness—my James Connolly t-shirt had just come along for the ride.

Earlier this year, I attended a formal luncheon for Irish people living in Ho Chi Minh City on the occasion of it being nine days before St Patrick’s Day. I sipped on fine white wine while the five heads of James Connolly coolly observed the plush interior. When the conversation hit a lull between undersized morsels, the amicable ambassador searched for a conversation starter, and said, “Is that… James Connolly?” As one Irishman to another, he would give me the benefit of the doubt and assume I knew a lot about James Connolly. Maybe he thought I was trying to make a point by wearing a James Connolly t-shirt at such a bourgeois affair (everyone else worn shirts and ties). But he needn’t have worried. Wearing the t-shirt is just a dummy pass to a decoy runner that doesn’t exist.  

Once in a late-night watering hole in Hanoi a large, bespectacled, middle-aged man loomed over me and my James Connolly t-shirt and purred in a thick Cork accent, “Are you one of us?” He tapped his finger on a small badge with the letters “I.C.P.” Yes, you guessed right—that does indeed stand for the Irish Communist Party. It turned out he was on something of a group excursion to this nominally communist land with his coterie of Irish comrades. To answer his question, I didn’t say, “Well I am Irish but there the similarities probably end” but that would have been pretty accurate. And despite the lack of return on political repartee at the bar, I like to think he told his friends back home of our encounter and in turn they conjured up an image of a proud young Connolly man living in a far flung socialist republic for ideological reasons when nothing could be further from the truth. I’m mostly here for the cushy lifestyle.  

In the last few years, I have worn my James Connolly t-shirt so much the colours are fading and the collar is fraying. My mother has offered to buy me a new one—as a replacement or a companion for the original, I’m not sure, but whatever would people think if they found out I had not one but two James Connolly t-shirts? Even with this serving as a testament to my ignorance of James Connolly, nobody could believe I know nothing about him. I’d probably have to read that book in my parents’ house—or at least the introduction—or hope that they get enough money to make that film. And if they do, just remember—I had the t-shirt before anyone else. 

*End*

©  Connla Stokes 2013

Filed under Connla Stokes Vietnam Ireland james connolly ICP Hanoi Celtic Tiger

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The Flaggy Shore + the Splurgy Shore

"Along the Flaggy Shore, exotic tropical corals are in bloom. You can bend down and examine their beautiful branchings and minute elaborations. For, even as the grey Atlantic swells, and a soft summer rain adds texture to the humid breeze, you are standing on an ancient African seabed…"

That’s a lovely intro right there, penned by the Irish Times’ intellectual-at-large Fintan O’Toole, who took a “stroll along a part of Co Clare with serious literary credentials, in a landscape that has its own natural poetry…”  

As a child I spent many weeks every year in New Quay, a part of the Burren between Ballyvaughan and Kinvara, where our family friends the O’Briain’s lived within hoofing distance of the Flaggy Shore.

And hoof it down there we did, and in spite of the rocky terrain and blustering winds, we stripped down, shivering before sprinting and jumping into the cold and murky water before sprinting back to the towels covered in goose pimples, if not completely blue.

Scenic in its own unique way, it has, according to the article, inspired bards and playwrights through the years—serious literary heavyweights, the likes of Yeats and Bernard Shaw, you know, Nobel Prize winning heavyweights. It even inspired little ol’ me, an amateur literary pipsqueak with no claim to fame. 

It was the poem Postscript, written about the Flaggy Shore by Seamus Heaneyno lightweight himselfthat started it all by bowling us over back in the Dublin homestead sometime toward the end of the 20th century. Here’s the poem in full: 

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

None too shabby, Mr Heaney, we gave you that. But it wasn’t the lyricism that bowled us over. It was the cheek of it. My kindhearted mother was wistful, maybe a little in awe, but not jealous, nor cynical—I remember her saying that she’d heard he’d just driven along the shore and stopped for 10 minutes (or thereabouts). And to think of all the time we had spent there, she’d said, and Seamus Heaney basically nailed the place in verse after one fleeting visitand what did we have to show for all our days there?! 

My brother, father and I riffed off this as was our wont—”you can’t write a poem after spending 10 minutes there—a postcard maybe, but not a poem!”, “poet laureate says you, fecking chancer says me!”, “who does he think he is!”and, after poring over the lines, was that a blatant case of false modesty we detected?! “Useless to think you’ll park and capture it/ More thoroughly…” or a confession that he hadn’t even stopped his car (like a poem-writing drive-by?!?) or was he addressing us, the mere mortals (wherever the hell we lived): "Don’t bother. You couldn’t. I could. End of."

Anyway, we had a bit of tongue-in-cheek-fun out of it, and years later I channeled some of those sentiments and much of that humour to write a short story set in a place not very like the Flaggy Shore (more populated for starters) but in a place that suited my idea for a story.

I called it(and the poem within the story) the Splurgy Shorea pretty stupid, goofy name, sure, I’ll grant you that. There are also a number of made-up names for characters, which I regret (nobody warned me about reading too much Flann O’Brien before writing stories late at night). So plenty of flaws. But the story came together pretty quick, considering my inexperience, and much to my surprise it was shortlisted for Fish Publishing’s prize in 2004 and after a bit of tweaking was published in Australia by Sleeper’s Publishing in 2005. There’s also an earlier version online here if you’re interested in reading it…  

The idea was to take that sense of jealously and a larger measure of mistrust"sure I heard he never got out of his car", "fecking chancer", "unofficial poet laureate me arse"and spread it out amongst a whole community after the townspeople/ locals discover some poet has supposedly immortalised their “cluttered little bay” in verse.

Essentially it’s sort of a spoof noirsomewhere between the worlds of Flann OBrien and Patrick McCabe, I suppose. 

The story ups the ante by reintroducing the poet as a temporary resident (he comes back to rent a house by the shore where he is apparently working on a few last poems for an “anthology”) and he rubs salt into wounds by charming the women folk at the local pub. Eventually the narrator, a young, unemployed individual, who comes across as a few sandwiches short of a picnic, takes out the poet on the shore with a rock plucked from the “Splurgy Shore” and rows out to sea to dump the body.

He both realises the irony of his actionshe has immortalised the poet further, and envisages some arts council do-gooders trying to erect a bronze statue of the poet by the shoreand takes delight in his own little deed that will be stuffed somewhere in the “footnotes of history”… so the story ends with the line “that’s more than enough for me.”

It just about stands up todayI think—and hopefully despite the flaws is still an entertaining yarn though part of me would love to edit it (at least change the names) and to try and get it published in some sort of collection of Irish short stories, and when that wish comes to mind, I realise, a bit like the narrator, though much less evil, I also desire to mix myself into the footnotes of the Flaggy Shore’s literary history under the printed words of the heavyweights who passed before me. And I guess that’d be enough for me (for a little while). 

 

 

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Insignificant tales of Asia: Koh Pha-Ngan at the end of the 20th century and Jules, an inventor on the run and an aspiring novelist to boot


Prelude

We didn’t notice him come—we didn’t notice him go. But of all the people that came and went while my buddy Alan and I flopped around Thong Nai Pan beach on Koh Pha-Ngan island for over two weeks at the tail end of 1999, whenever we meet up, if we get to talking about that trip, we speak of Jules the Welshman the most—a most dubious and highly insignificant honour, granted, but an honour nonetheless.

If I sit down and think about the other characters, sure, names, faces, nationalities, character traits come back. We bussed from Bangkok with an Australian man who’d been living in London where he’d clearly grown a fondness for the Boogie and a thoughtful American woman who I’m fairly confident would have been blogging her Southeast Asian adventures if blogs had been invented (it was 1999 and we were all writing in notebooks/ journals with PENS!).

We ended up driving in the back of a pick-up from the port along a washed out clay road to Thong Nai Pan. Regular deluges had made the road pretty hairy. The pick-up slid down hills with little control and got stuck several times in huge crevices going uphill. Eventually we got there and checked into the first set of bungalows called Dreamland and settled into the life of a beach bum: reading fifth-hand novels bought on Bangkok’s Khao San road, drinking, smoking and eating adventurous things we’d never tried before, you know, like porridge with banana, pancakes with banana, muesli with banana, club sandwiches with no banana—and the odd green or red curry.  

Of the characters that came and went – in non-chronological order – I can recall a mysterious Persian-looking fellow who wore jeans (at the beach!) and played chess a little bit too well for Alan’s liking. There was an English couple fond of spliffs and clichés (“We’re travellers not tourists”). There were two shy French women and by day Alan and I thought about pairing off with them by night. There was a solo-travelling English girl who was hanging out with the local grass dealer, a Bangkok dude who’d re-branded himself for the foreign market as Pea. He was on the lam or escaping hard drugs – maybe both – and a little bit too street wise and cool for a barely developed beach strip. There was Nathan, a ginger Aussie army boy who was talking about a spit roast while the aforementioned English girl was in the toilet (I was wondering why he was whispering and picturing a pig, a spit, and you know, a roast—it would be years later when I discovered what he was suggesting). Lots of people left. We stayed. The rain came bucketing down and the road was apparently deteriorating. We thought we were stuck yet every morning one or two travellers would arrive on the back of the mud-splattered pick-up.  We were pretty content but daydreamed out loud about a troupe of Swedish (or whatever) beauties appearing the next morning – just to spice things up a bit between banana pancakes and lolling-in-the-hammock-time. With perfect comic timing, the next day eight gay Canadians arrived.  

And then there was Jules.

Part One – The Invention

I first noticed him one morning walking down the beach, gazing intensely at the shells, or debris, like an amateur geologist. I figured he was bored but not quite aware of it yet. Hence the overdone level of fascination with shells on a beach.   

At some stage he made his approach to our table and teased Alan and I with a line that sounded a lot like this: “You guys know much about patenting?” 

We replied by saying things like: “No/ not really/ maybe/ don’t you post whatever it is you want to patent to yourself, or something/ why don’t you just ask a lawyer/ why?”

Oh, he couldn’t say—until he could 10 to 20 minutes later when he said something like this: “I’ve invented something.”

We were curious. Not bending-over-backwards-begging-for-answers-curious. Let’s say, mildly curious. Enough to play along and ask questions anyway. Jules pretended to play coy. It was too big to talk about. But talk about it he did. It was big. It could be huge – this invention. Like, change-the-course-of-history-save-human-civilisation-kind-of-huge. He intimated that there may even be people after him, whether they were trying to steal his designs, or stop him, it wasn’t clear. He said, no, whispered something like: 'I have to be careful – if this information got into the wrong hands…” Two random young Irishman, however, well, we were about to enter the circle of trust. He sat very close to both of us, swore us to secrecy, before revealing he had “designed a generator.”

“….”

“A power generator….”

“…”

“And the beauty of it is….”

“?”

“It runs on thin air…”

”!!!” 

"Yeah, this could change the world we live in overnight, man…"

"…"

"… the oil and gas industries, they’re worth trillions and they want to protect their investment…" [he glanced over shoulder for effect]

"Thin air?"

"Yeah, man — thin air…” 

And when we eventually slipped away to our one-bed bungalow and crawled in under the mosquito net riddled with holes, Alan and I looked at each other, and said things like: "THIN air!", "Yes, of course!", "Why hasn’t anyone thought of it sooner?", "Send in the assassins!" and we laughed so much that we cried and wheezed and gasped for air. 

 

Part Two – The Novel

So by now we have an inkling that Jules is a tad delusional, very possibly mad if only starting out to be mad – and so he became part of a game that needed no hyping up and no referee. There was no whistle to signal the start but without a word being spoken Alan and I were already playing, “Dump your buddy with the weirdo.” The aim of this game was, “ALWAYS leave a man behind.”

One evening, after dinner and beers, we sat outside Jules’ bungalow smoking a spliff and/ or sipping beers. Alan was on one end of the hammock. Jules the other. After a while, Jules suggested rolling another joint. Alan committed himself to the act and with that – and with considerable relish – I announced I was off to bed. Alan’s eyes widened and focused on my face. His lips didn’t move yet I could see he was saying, “Fuck you, you prick.”

Perhaps it was the weed, but Jules was in a relaxed mood and he didn’t seem too worried about the prospect of being dragged off in the middle of the night by a group of mercenaries hired in secret by a board of ruthless oil zillionaires. That night he wanted to talk about his literary ambitions. Maybe it was because Alan was holding his fifth-hand copy of Anna Karenina that triggered this off. Who knows. But anyway, he said something like: "You know, I’m working on a book.” Alan expressed token interest. Alan knew that writers generally never discuss the content of a book — he’s also aware that Jules is delusional. Maybe he’s not expecting to hear much more, or maybe he’s just hoping not to hear anymore. But Jules rallies on by revealing the backdrop to the novel. It went something a little like this: “Dublin, New Year’s Eve. Four people—one from Wales, one from Scotland, one from England, and one from Ireland [It would be noted later this is a classic and recognisable formula to anyone who has heard a joke starting, “So a Paddy Irishman, Paddy Welshman, Paddy Scotsman and Paddy Englishman are all caught by African tribe/ walk into bar/ are sitting in a plane…”] are all suddenly in financial trouble. The Celtic Tiger has collapsed. The economic shit has hit the fan. The four main characters all separately try to kill themselves as the clocks hit midnight. But by some incredible twist of fate THEY ALL FAIL. “

[Interlude: I should point out that this all took what felt like a brief eternity to tell. Alan was stoned and in the horrors. Jules was just getting started and settling in for the night. Leaning back, he pinned Alan back in the hammock and continued to explain how his characters all freakishly survive. It went on so long that Alan thought Jules had revealed the guts of the entire novel…]

Jules eventually seems to be winding up the story and then he said something like: “Then they come here…”

Here?

Jules swept his arm from right to left and gestured at the surroundings: “Dreamland.”

“…”

“Beautiful—right?” 

"…."

"And that’s the end of chapter one…”

"…" [Alan nodded his head, as if impressed.]

"…." [Jules smiled and stared into the distance]

“So how many chapters have you written?” [Alan politely played along]

Written? Oh none of them….” 

"…" 

"Well, not on paper anyway…"

Then Jules tapped the side of his head and grinned as if to say, “don’t worry mate. It’s all in here” where we would presume it would stay along with the blueprint for the revolutionary generator that ran on thin air.

When Alan eventually “escaped” Jules’ hammock, he walked back to the bungalow holding his mouth so he wouldn’t laugh out loud, and when he got back we sat on our bed laughing and crying until our faces hurt, and Jules, we didn’t notice him go, but slip away from Dreamland he did, from one banana-pancake-cooking bungalow-resort to the next [“it’s not safe to stay in one place”], trying to impress upon young backpackers, wherever he went, that he wasn’t just an ordinary man of little purpose from an ordinary town in Wales, he was an extraordinary individual on an extraordinary world. 

And maybe we shouldn’t have laughed (so much) — at least at his literary ideas. Years later myself and Alan would tell the story to a friend and they would remark, “that’s weird. I just read a book by Nick Hornby called the Long Way Down [published in 2005]” The premise? “Four strangers happen to meet on the roof of a high building called Toppers’ House in London on New Year’s Eve, each with the intent of committing suicide. Their plans for death in solitude are ruined when they meet. The novel recounts their misadventures as they decide to come down from the roof alive - however temporarily that may be….”

Coincidence? don’t think so!

Conclusion: If the oil zillionaires’ hired assassins didn’t get Jules in the end, it must have been Nick Hornby. 

The End