Monday, December 05, 2011

South East Asia, Before the Chocolate

A couple of weekends ago in Hanoi (only an hour-and-a-half flight from Guangzhou), my uncle asked me if I ever write about my travels.  The question struck me because writing about my travels is one of the things that, when asked, I claim to do for a living, and because Vietnam is even the country where, a dozen years ago, I began to undertake travels that could be chronicled.  But you (and my uncle) might not know that, since there is no record in any mainstream publication of my ever having been to any of the countries in the current Association of South East Asian Nations.  Why?  Well, as I write in a poem that was just published this week (a proud first), the reasons are many.  Sometimes I prefer to just read a book.  Or write a poem.  Tangle myself in the lusty pursuits of the human soul.  Or get back to the work I'm being paid to do and grade papers.  Or throw myself uncomfortably onto the couch to contemplate the lack of insulation in my apartment and the accumulation of allergens on the blanket that I'm using to do the job while watching several uninterrupted episodes of The Wire on pirated DVDs.  Anyway, I'm ambivalent about "travel writing," which, as I had the wonderful occasion recently to discuss with the English professor to whom I had first submitted my own travel stories as a student on Semester at Sea in 1999, is predicated on the antiquated cultural notion that what is strange to you is ipso facto universally strange; and once an author disabuses herself of that faulty logic, she must reconsider her research and file the work under a new category (journalism, say, or memoir; anthropology, maybe, or confession).  Or acknowledge that there's no there there--which is not such a terrible thing.  That emptiness, vastness, confusion is often why we travel in the first place--to be foreign, to get away, to lose ourselves.  That's a wonderful pursuit.  One of my favorites.  I'm just dubious of the instinct many travelers have to write with authority about the very thing within which they are lost.  In 1999, I invoked "the uncertain tree-lined streets that frame latter-day mythology about colonial Saigon" in one of my first travel stories.  Like many 21st century travel writers, I have continued to question the biases and motives of travelers from my part of the world while at the same time participating in them, projecting them, with my very presence, back onto parts of the world that are not my own.  That is the trap we have constructed for ourselves, and for a while now the trap itself has made for an interesting topic of inquiry (I particularly enjoy what Claude Levi-Strauss did with it in Tristes Tropiques).

And until I figure out how to get out of the trap entirely, here are the items and encounters that have most impressed themselves on my memory over twelve years of travel in Southeast Asia:

1.  Van Cong Tu's Hanoi street-food tour and the discreet bourgeois charm of Tu's shiny white Vespa (you can jump on the back if you're touring solo).

2.  On the topic of the bourgeoisie, everything about the Metropole hotel in Hanoi, especially the Vietnamese cooking class and the perfectly grilled steaks, heavy French sauces, and artichoke stuffed with mustard-seed-spiced cauliflower salad in the bistro facing the street.

3.  The mystery of Saigon, which had about one and a half tall buildings when I visited in 1999 and now, I hear, looks likes Singapore or Hong Kong, though the miraculously delicate spring-roll dipping sauce made from other ingredients mixed into incredibly pungent fermented fish sauce is as good as ever.

4.  Pho.

5.  The fruit.  Everywhere, the fruit.

6.  The combination of Buddhist ethics, creative spirits, and fragrant herbs, resulting in phenomenal restaurants that train street kids for jobs in hospitality: Koto and Hoa Sua in Hanoi; Makphet in Vientiane.

7. Everything about Vientiane.

8.  Riding away from the inevitable sensory overload of Angkor Wat, on the back of a moped, into the gentle dusty landscape and weaving between with blue houses on stilts.

9.  Dialogue in and about Burma/Myanmar.

10.  Vatch Bhumichitr La Bhu Salah guest house: combination art retreat, culinary indulgence, and friend's holiday house.

11. The oil massages and stir-fried noodles you get every day on a beach vacation in Thailand: simple, easy, never less than good, and you don't have to settle up until you leave at the end of the week.

12.  The "tent experience" at Relax Bay on Koh Lanta in Thailand (or so I imagine whenever I think about planning a trip there).

(The photos here are mine and other people's, accumulated over time.)

Still to come on Chocolate in Context: Vietnamese bean-to-bar chocolate makers.


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