Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Days in Đà Nẵng (2): Our neighbourhood

The calendar tells me that we have been here four weeks. I find it hard to believe, but calendars do not lie. It may be a natural consequence of getting older, but I feel that my perception of time is increasingly at odds with the real speed of time passing by, and I am not sure whether that is a good or a bad thing. At least I am happy I do not know what boredom is like: whether I am busy reading, writing, cooking, sleeping or walking, I never feel bored, not a second. But I am a bit concerned about my inability to control the time I have been given. The obligation of submitting a fully finished PhD dissertation in August worries me sometimes.

Sure, I have been busy these weeks: I wrote a new dissertation chapter, edited another one, and read some important texts. Our apartment turns out to be a fine working place. But I have not been as productive as my optimistic dreams had promised me. Perhaps I should adjust my expectations, realise that quality is more important than quantity, and accept the fact that some highly interesting side topics and books are peripheral to my main story and should be left aside. There was a Golden Age, I have been told, when PhD candidates could spend a decade writing a thousand-page masterpiece; these days, however, there is little money available for research in the humanities - economically useless as they allegedly are - so the few of us lucky enough to get funding for doing PhD research have little choice but to accept the fact that we have to squeeze the whole project into three years. We try our best.

Being immersed in my dissertation topic, I would almost forget where I am. It is easy to spend a whole day inside the apartment, oblivious to the outside world, especially on a grey and rainy day like today. When we stay inside like this, the only things reminding us of the fact that we are in Vietnam are the occasional sound of a street vendor's tape in the distance, and the delicious tropical fruits turned into shakes and smoothies by our blender. Doing this work, one can easily get detached from the physical world. Hence the importance of going out every now and then, to experience the place where we live: a ride along the beach, a day trip to Hoi An, a visit to a local restaurant. And, of course, a walk in the neighbourhood - if only to go to the market.

And a nice neighbourhood it is. Located between the river and the sea, far from the port and the main industries, this used to be a poor suburb, inhabited by fishermen and their families. Later, during the war, the city was home to one of the most important American military bases; soldiers were sent to this beach area for a bit of fun and relaxation, bringing dollars and prostitution. But they left forty years ago, and the neighbourhood once again became what it had been before: an impoverished seaside suburb, little more than a village. Until recently. The city's population has grown significantly, as has its wealth. Slums gave way to big houses. Some members of the new middle class moved away from the crowded city centre, bought land near the sea, built houses and changed the face of the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, new hotels and seafood restaurants are emerging all over the place, anticipating the advent of large tourist crowds.

Yet, between the new houses and hotels, there is still quite a bit of open space. Some of it has been appropriated by guerrilla gardeners, growing their fresh vegetables and herbs on every available spot. If you know a bit about plants (or, alternatively, have a spouse who can teach you), you soon discover that those weeds growing next to the pavement are not weeds at all: they are chilli plants, lemongrass, sweet potatoes and mint, as well as peperomia pellucida, basella alba and sauropus androgynus. Some of them may find their way to the market, to stalls selling street food, and to your plate. Other empty pieces of land, such as the one in front of our apartment building, are surrounded by fences, so that local people cannot grow their vegetables there. But these, too, have been appropriated: by fragrant plants, birds, lizards, frogs and colourful insects. There is a lot of life in the city.

When you walk around the neighbourhood, you are likely to be approached by a street vendor on a bicycle, wearing a conical straw hat, who offers you whatever it is she is selling. If you are lucky, she has mangosteens, which she is transporting in a basket on her bicycle. They may not look appealing from the outside, but just wait until you taste the fresh white flesh inside: they are absolutely delicious. You may have to haggle a bit before buying them, though.

If the street vendor does not have what you want, you can continue your walk to the local market. Markets are always interesting places to visit, wherever you go, and you will not be disappointed here either. There is a great variety of fresh products, some of which you have never seen before: strangely shaped fish, shellfish and crustaceans; fresh herbs, vegetables and tofu; fermented eggs and eggs with whole duck embryos in them; all sorts of different (organ) meat; and beautiful flowers, used for praying. And, of course, all those wonderful fruits, some of which you will turn into juices or smoothies: pomelo, avocado, papaya, mango, lime, pineapple, dragonfruit, passionfruit, soursop, banana, rambutan, custard apple and coconut.

If you do not feel like cooking lunch today, you can sit down on a tiny plastic stool at one of the stalls selling noodle soup, rice with grilled meat, savory pancakes or rice porridge. A delicious fresh meal here will cost you less than a single drink in a bar back home in Europe. Once you have finished your bowl of noodle soup (with fresh herbs, possibly guerrilla-gardened), you can stop by at a local cafe for a cup of strong Vietnamese coffee, ideally served with condensed milk and ice.

After this nice cup of ice coffee, you may want to continue your walk around the neighbourhood. You will notice that there are several small, traditional buildings standing between houses. These are family shrines, called nhà thờ tộc, where people come to pray to their ancestors. They are not to be confused with đình, community temples, like the one you are passing by now. It has not been maintained very well, but you can still distinguish the lovely rooftop decorations. In the front yard, teenage boys are playing football. You assume it is a community temple, but you are not completely sure. It may also be a đền or a miếu, both of which would be translated as 'temple' in English, but which are not the same as a đình: they are places where individual deities are worshipped, rather than community meeting halls.

As a matter of fact, you are still not sure about the exact difference between đền and miếu. You are told that the former are associated with powerful Vietnamese deities, such as ancient kings and generals, while the latter are associated with local gods residing in nature, such as the popular tiger god. But you are pretty sure that miếu is a Chinese loanword, and that the grand Confucian Temple of Literature in Hanoi is also called miếu. You are a bit confused, and you realise how much you still have to learn about Vietnamese religion. In fact, if you were to continue your walk to the beach, you would see several other small temples there, called đền thờ. They have been built for stranded whales, who are considered gods of the sea, and are regularly offered food and incense.

The đình is standing next to a chùa, a Buddhist temple (usually translated as 'pagoda' in Vietnam). It is a lovely building, recently painted, with a large gate, a marble statue of Quan Âm, and a roof shaped in the typical East Asian way. You take off your shoes, and go inside. Two guardian deities are looking at you angrily. There is an altar, with a small statue of a Quan Âm with thousand arms. Behind, there are three large golden Buddha statues. They look pretty similar, but the nun welcoming you explains that they are Maitreya, Shakyamuni and Amitabha. She tells you that this is a Pure Land temple, and that they have regular meetings for laypeople, explaining them the principles of Pure Land Buddhism. She also tells you that in Vietnamese Buddhism, women can be ordained just like men. You would like to learn more, but your language skills are too limited to continue doing research on this topic for the time being. And anyway, it is about time to go back home. You have a lot of writing to do.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Days in Đà Nẵng (1): Arrival

It is a sunny day, 26 degrees, and I am sitting on the balcony. Motorcycles and cars are driving on the road below, but it is not very crowded. I am on the fifth floor of a new apartment building. A couple of high hotels are blocking the city from view, but there is still plenty of open space around here. In the distance I can see the sea, and the dark green mountains of Sơn Trà peninsula. I wonder whether it is possible to climb them. A giant white statue of Quan Âm, the bodhisattva of compassion (known as Guanyin, Kannon or Avalokiteshvara in other countries), is guarding the city. I still remember they were building it, a couple of years ago.

We arrived here on New Year's Eve. We had spent our Christmas holidays packing our stuff, cleaning our apartment, and moving everything to a friend's place. Next, we moved out of the apartment where we had lived the past year and a half, and went to Danang - the city where we are going to spend the next three months. It was a long journey - we had stopovers in Amsterdam, Singapore and Siem Reap - but everything went well. We even had the chance to pay a short visit to a famous Buddhist temple in Singapore, and enjoy some delicious local food. When we arrived in Danang, we were too tired to go out and clebrate the new year - but then, Vietnamese new year is not until next month.

It is windy, and not very hot yet, but I am glad it is finally sunny. The past two weeks were cloudy and a bit chilly, but it seems to be getting better. This morning, I went running along the beach, and the sea and sky were beautiful. It is hard to imagine a better place to do your morning exercises.

This is no vacation, though. I am supposed to submit my dissertation in August, and I still have a lot of reading and writing to do, so there is little time for playing or relaxing. Time is going fast. Still, I much rather read my book in a nice Vietnamese café, under a palmtree, than in a dark Norwegian apartment. And I much prefer writing my dissertation on a balcony, wearing shorts and flipflops, drinking ice tea or fresh fruit juice, to doing it at my office in Oslo - even though it is a nice office. Hence our decision to live in Vietnam for a couple of months. Of course, being able to spend some time together with our family was another important reason for coming here.

Danang is changing rapidly. It is the largest city in central Vietnam, with a population of approximately 900,000; strategically located between sea and river, it has been an important economical centre for quite some time. But in recent years 'development' has truly taken off. The city's skyline is ever-growing; more and more new shopping malls and office buildings are erected; shabby old neighbourhoods are giving way to new roads and apartment buildings; several impressive new bridges are being constructed; and last year, a brand-new airport building was inaugurated. New hotels and restaurants are eagerly awaiting foreign tourists, who have not yet shown up in very large numbers.

It remains to be seen whether the costruction craze can continue, however. Only a few years ago, Vietnam was touted as Asia's new tiger. Its economy was growing fast, impressive new buildings and roads were built in the big cities, and a middle class was emerging, leading to increasing domestic consumption. But today, there is less reason for optimism. The national currency is weak, and inflation very high. Foreign investors and companies are withdrawing, frustrated as they are by the corruption and state patronage of 'national' companies (usually owned by powerful members of the ruling oligarchy). Lack of investment is leading to the cancellation of construction projects; as a result, estate prices are dropping, and banks are getting in trouble.

I am getting thirsty. A couple of days ago, we bought a blender, and now I am experimenting with fresh fruit juices, shakes and smoothies. Thus far, I have made watermelon juice, pomelo juice, and a mango shake, all of which were very nice. The best was perhaps my soursop smoothy, with aloe and yoghurt. Today, I am thinking about making a dragonfruit-banana shake. Or shall I try passionfruit juice...?

Finally, let me apologise for not having been a very good blogger recently. I promise to update my weblog more recently this year. As I will be busy with my dissertation, for the time being I will not have time to write lengthy essays or travel stories. But I do promise some short stories about life in Danang - once a week, perhaps twice. And, who knows, some pictures. Please stay tuned.