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Wistful recallings of Ha Noi, 30 years ago

Update: June, 03/2015 - 14:42
Life in the slow lane: An over-loaded tram was a common sight during the bao cap years. Their slow speed invited many youths to jump off and on as they moved, and accidents did happen. — VNS File Photos

Two books and an exhibition give readers the opportunity to visit a time marked by scarcity and long periods of waiting in queues. Nostalgic Hanoians remember that things were more equal then, Nguyen My Ha reports.

No beer lover in Ha Noi, or beer lover from elsewhere who's been in the capital city, can ignore Ta Hien Street in the Old Quarter.

Most evenings, the street and its immediate environs overflow with local people from all walks of life, not to mention people from other countries. Most Vietnamese men, grab a cold beer, or two or more, after work.

Amidst such abundance, it would be difficult for people of today, residents and tourists alike, to imagine what life was like, beer-wise, 30 years ago.

Those were the days: New titles reminiscing about Ha Noi's past, just 30 years ago, have grabbed the attention of contemporary Hanoians. — VNS Photo Truong Vi

This task is made easier by a book, Xa Roi Ngay Xanh, or The Long-gone Blue Days, where author Mai Lam, currently residing in Moeln, Germany, recalls the vivid cinematic scene of people waiting to get a mug of their favoured tipple.

Numbers regarding beer consumption won't say much about the men who drink it, "but the way men in Ha Noi drank beer during those hard days taught me that they love beer the most," Lam writes.

The author wonders if there is any other place on earth where, under a scorching sun, men stood patiently in long winding lines, waiting for their turn to get a drink.

"At the corner of Tran Nhan Tong and Nguyen Dinh Chieu streets, the line was so long that they invented a way to prevent customers jumping queues. Flattened beer caps, each the value of one glass, are chained to a long iron wire. The long line stood for hours, with each man holding to one beer cap waiting for the kegs to arrive.

"The beer stand, made of steel, could house many people standing inside. They jokingly called it the ‘tiger cage'. Almost a hundred people stood inside the cage, and their eyes would all turn outward when someone yelled, 'Beer's arrived!'

"Then all the heads turned around, looking admiringly at the cyclo driver, who was sweating all over after carrying several kegs on his vehicle. In the eyes of those thirsty men, the cyclo driver's image was close to that of a mother returning home with food from the market or an angel saving them from the heat and thirst.

"After he poured the beer into a big jug for the saleswoman to sell, he took the first glass, which was his, of course, as a bonus for his hard work. All those men looked at him intently. Some even unconsciously swallowed (saliva) in sync with his drinking."

Beer's here: Beer dispensaries, known as ‘tiger cage', sold the beverage for 3 hao a glass. Ten hao equals one dong. Today, you can't buy anything with one thousand dong, let alone one dong.

Mai Lam's book, a follow-up to the first part, the second volume of his first one, Tu xa Ha Noi (Ha Noi Seen from Afar) published last October, is a memoir of his youthful years.

Memories of obviously difficult days continue to haunt him, but they are glazed in a sparkling beautiful blue colour, and sprinkled liberally with laughter.

Last month, a larger volume published by the Tre Publishing House, Quan Khu Nam Dong (Nam Dong Army Zone), caused quite a stir on the Ha Noi literary scene.

It is prefaced by famed war novel author Bao Ninh, who did not know the writer, who has also chosen to remain anonymous to all readers.

"This is a memoir commonly shared by many people," Bao Ninh writes, "about boyhood and adolescence, about family ties and youthful love, about father and son, teacher and student, and above all, the camaraderie shared by the young men in the book and the sacred first loves of their lives. All of these feelings were ushered back into my heart when I read this incredibly engaging book."

"Quan Khu Nam Dong," a livingquarter of families of army men in Nam Dong Ward in Dong Da District.

The Nam Dong neighbourhood was an enclave where families of military personnel settled. It had eight blocks of four-storey apartment buildings with a playground in between. Its residents were the wives and children of army officers, who fought in the south.

The two books about the final years of the war and the following post-war period hit the shelves within a month. There have been more flashback experiences on offer of late, with an exhibition trying to provide today's youth with a peek into the lives of their parents.

Curated by a group of young artists, "Standing in line: a journey back to the bao cap years", was part of a larger programme organised by the Ha Noi Culture, Sports and Tourism Department to try and preserve the finer features of Ha Noi, detect negative aspects, and fix them.

The life of others

Bao cap essentially means it's subsidied by the state, and one need not worry about it.

The good side of it has the State caring for its people, and the latter feeling free to use resources made available by the benefactor. The other side means individuals and families have no control over what they receive, even in terms of staple food like rice, meat or clothing. Also, no matter how hard they work, their incomes won't change.

Waiting in line: The shop sign reads "Vegetables and Fruits." During the bao cap time, everything was scarce, including food.

This system was implemented on a national scale from 1975, after the country's reunification, until 1986, when the doi moi (Renewal) process was launched. But to the north of the 17th Parallel, the system had been introduced in 1954, when everyone there was trying to make enough to feed themselves and provide food to the men crossing the Truong Son Range to the south to fight for country's reunification.

Systemic fallacies, exacerbated by the US embargo, plunged the country into a prolonged economic and social crisis, when the lives of people in the city were not largely different from their rural counterparts. In fact, it could have been worse for the former because they could not plant their own daily vegetables.

In 1986, the then Party General Secretary Truong Chinh, presented his state-of-the-country report at the Sixth Communist Party Congress, where he officially called for the Renewal process, acknowledging the need for a market-oriented economy where private and public ownership co-existed.

The wind of change swept through the whole country and people felt they were getting new chances to get enough of what they need and do away with the hardship of daily life that they had become so accustomed to.

Dining dignity

In the exhibition held at the Indochina Plaza during the first two weeks of May, young people pretended they were standing in line to get food rations. But it is hard to get a feel for a time when you had to spend at least a few hours every day, waiting in line, come rain or shine, just to purchase a fraction of one's basic needs. And sometimes, the shop would not have the item that everyone was waiting for.

To save time, people resorted to having proxies to take their place in the line – half a brick or tile, a piece of rock, a tattered conical hat, a basket or an old plastic bag that stiffened with prolonged use – anything was fair game.

Mai Lam uses a long chapter describing how six of his friends, all in the prime of health, eagerly sharing half of a boiled chicken.

There were 13 chops and six young men who'd just entered puberty. When they all stood up after having their share, one chop was still left on the plate. None of them took it, because they needed to be equal.

That egalitarian spirit, or its loss, is what many people recall and miss about those days.

Robin Hood's spirit

While Lam's book is an account of one Hanoian getting a good education during the hard time, Quan Khu Nam Doøng recalls the memory of a neighbourhood where ways of life, thinking and perspectives were shared in ways that today's youth are not likely to grasp easily.

The words "quan khu" have long lost their original meaning of a military zone. Those who can recall it do so with negative connotations. It evokes images of a band of young men clad in their father's old tattered military uniforms, rubber sandals on their feet, hard military hats without the star. They roamed the street in groups of four or five and would snap easily at the slightest provocation, real and imagined.

"Quan khu" also came to encompass teens who quit school and formed urban warring gangs. The young boys of Nam Dong were children of military officers who fought in the south and stayed on even after reunification. Their children grew up wild because their mothers, hands full with house work, including queuing up for food, entrusted the schools to teach them.

The book turns on their head popular notions of really bad, uneducated gangs living on the street.

The boys of Nam Dong were friends, studying in the same school, even in the same class. They got together to protect smaller kids from getting robbed by boys from other gangs or being bullied at school. They stood up for each other and others in the neighbourhood. They did play practical pranks on their teachers, but became very considerate when a teacher's wife fell seriously ill.

They grew up together, challenged each other in daring to declare their love to the girl in the next class, and relied on the one with better literary skills to write their love letters.

It is a book that evokes the spirit of Robin Hood in a West Side Story setting. There was not just one love affair; there were quite a few, all pure and powerful.

However, when there are gangs, sooner or later, things descend into violence. Weapons stolen from their fathers were used in some fights, one of which sent a boy to hospital in critical condition.

The book tells the story of how one innocent complaint by a young, beautiful girl led to a serious fight between two gangs, after which three were arrested. That final fight sent five young men to the real war in the south, two of whom never returned. Three others went to jail and one couple were separated until death did them part.

The anonymous author of the book says he only edited real accounts other people sent to him via e-mail. In an interview given to a newspaper, readers can glean that he is one of the young men he writes about.

A couple of years ago, when a restaurant opened in the Old Quarter, using the bao cap theme with furniture, decor and utensils of yesteryear, people crowded it to get a bite of the past. Even the waitresses wore outfits of that time. What surprised me during my visit was that their attitude was also replicated.

You could book a table, but if you were five minutes late, it was gone, with nary an apology. "It's your fault", came the indifferent response.

The food they serve was popular then, but today, sidewalk lunch stalls in working neighbourhoods sell the same thing: peanuts roasted in pork fat and salt, stir fried pickled cabbage, and tofu simmered in tomato sauce, just to name a few.

This revisiting of bao cap times can go too far, especially when what is being offered as "special" is still common fare, easily available in other neighbourhoods across the town.

Those who have actually lived through that period now treasure it because it's part of their youthful years that, though spent unguided, have taught them important life lessons.

Nostalgia always casts a soft glow on the past, but the "long gone blue days" are long gone indeed. Let them rest in peace. — VNS

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