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Tu' is a young tour guide working in Hanoi for a company called New Dawn. While he leads tourists through the city, including American vets on "war tours," he starts to wonder what it is they are seeing of Vietnam--and what they miss
entirely. Maggie, who is Vietnamese by birth but has lived most her life in the U.S., has returned to her country of origin in search of clues to her dissident father's disappearance during the war. Holding the story together is Old Man Hung, who has lived through decades of political upheaval and has still found a way to feed hope to his community of pondside dwellers.
This is a keenly observed and skillfully wrought novel about the reverberation of conflict through generations, the enduring legacy of art, and the redemption and renewal of long-lost love.
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Camilla Gibb is the author of four novels—Mouthing the Words, The Petty Details of So-and-so's Life, Sweetness in the Belly and The Beauty of Humanity Movement—as well as numerous short stories, articles and reviews.
She was the winner of the Trillium Book Award in 2006, a Scotiabank Giller Prize short list nominee in 2005, winner of the City of Toronto Book Award in 2000 and the recipient of the CBC Canadian Literary Award for short fiction in 2001. Her books have been published in 18 countries and translated into 14 languages and she was named by the jury of the prestigious Orange Prize as one of 21 writers to watch in the new century.
Gibb was born in London, England, and grew up in Toronto. She has a B.A. in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies from the University of Toronto, completed her Ph.D. in social anthropology at Oxford University in 1997, and spent two years at the University of Toronto as a post-doctoral research fellow before becoming a full-time writer.
Gibb has been writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto and the University of Alberta. She is currently an adjunct faculty member of the graduate creative writing program at the University of Guelph and the Barker Fairley Distinguished Visitor in Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto.
A Note of Grace
Old Man Hung makes the best phở in the city and has done so for decades. Where he once had a shop, though, he no longer does, because the rents are exorbitant, both the hard rents and the soft—the bribes a proprietor must pay to the police in this new era of freedom.
Still, Hung has a mission, if not a licence. He pushes the firewood, braziers and giant pots balanced on his wooden cart through the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter in the middle of the night and sets up his stall in a sliver of alleyway, on an oily patch of factory ground, at the frayed edge of a park or in the hollow carcass of a building under construction. He’s a resourceful, roving man who, until very recently, could challenge those less than half his age to keep up.
When he is forced to move on, word will travel from the herb seller, or the noodle maker, or the man delivering newspapers, to the shopkeepers along Hàng Bông Road who make sure to pass the information on to his customers, particularly to Bình, the one who is like a son to him, out buying a newspaper or a couple of cigarettes in the earliest of morning hours, returning home to rouse his own son, Tu, slapping their bowls, spoons and chopsticks into his satchel, jerking the motorbike out of his kitchen and into the alleyway, and joining the riders of three million other motorbikes en route to breakfast, at least forty of them destined for Hung.
His customers, largely men known to him for a number of years, are loyal, some might say dependent. He is loyal and most certainly dependent. This is his livelihood, his being, his way in the world, and has been ever since he first came to apprentice in his Uncle Chien’s phở shop at eleven years of age.
It was 1933 when his father sent him from the rice fields to the city, getting Hung well out of the way of a mother who cherished him least of all her ten children. She’d kept him at a distance ever since a fortune teller had confirmed her suspicions that the large black mole stretching from the outer corner of Hung’s left eye to the middle of his cheekbone was an inauspicious sign. Tattooed with the promise of future darkness, the fortune teller had decreed.
Hung had come to his Uncle Chien with no name other than “nine,” denoting his place in the birth order, becoming Hung only in Hanoi, under the guardianship of his uncle, a man who neither subscribed to village superstitions nor could afford to turn help away.
This morning, Hung has set up shop in the empty kidney of a future swimming pool attached to a hotel under construction near the Ngũ Xá Temple. It has taken several attempts to get his fire started in the damp air, but as the dark grey of night yields to the lighter grey of clouded morning, the flames burn an orange as pure and vibrant as a monk’s robe.
Some of his customers have already begun to slip over the lip of the pool, running down its incline with their bowls, spoons and chopsticks, racing to be head of the queue.
Hung works like the expert he is, using his right hand to lay noodles into each bowl presented to him, covering these with slices of rare beef, their edges curling immediately with the heat of the broth he is simultaneously ladling into each bowl with his left.
“There you go, Nguyễn. There you go, Phúc, little Min,” and off his first customers shuffle with their bowls to squat on the concrete incline, using their spoons and chopsticks to greet the dawn of a new day.
Ah, and here is Bình, greeting him quietly as always, bowl in hands, never particularly animated until he’s had a few sips of broth. Although he is well into his fifties, Bình is a man still so like the boy who used to accompany his father, Ðạo, to Hung’s phở shop back in the revolutionary days of the early 1950s. The world has changed much since then, but Bình remains the same mindful, meditative soul who used to pad about after Hung, helping him carry the empty bowls out to the dishwasher in the alleyway behind the shop.
“There you go, Bình,” Hung says, as he does every morning, dropping a handful of chopped green herbs into his bowl from shoulder height with exacting flourish.
“Hung, what happened to your glasses?” Bình asks of the crack that bisects the left lens.
Hung, loath to admit he inadvertently sat upon them last night, shrugs as if it is a mystery to him too.
“Come”—Bình gestures—“let me fix them for you.”
Hung dutifully unhooks his glasses from his ears and hands them to Bình’s son, Tu, who is waiting beside his father with his empty bowl. Tu tucks them into his father’s shirt pocket, and Bình shuffles left, making way for his son.
Tu, just twenty-two years old but so full of confidence, greets Hung with more words than Bình ever does and waves his chopsticks left and right as he tries to calculate the size of the pool. This is very much like him—Tu loves numbers in a way that seems to pain him. He used to teach math at a high school, but he has abandoned that recently in favour of entertaining tourists. Hung is not sure all that foreign interaction is good for the boy, but he trusts Bình is monitoring the situation.
Hung indulges Tu with a challenge this morning: “I’d like to see you calculate the pool’s volume in terms of the number of bowls of phở that would be required to fill it.”
Tu grins as he manoeuvres his way carefully across the pool, holding his bowl right under his nose, the steam rising like incense smouldering in a temple to bathe his face.
Hung has taught Tu, Bình and Bình’s father, Ðạo, before him that you can tell a good broth by its aroma, the way it begs the body through the nose. And phở bắc—the phở of Hanoi—is the greatest seducer, because of the subtle dance of seasonings that animates the broth. It is not just the seasonings that make phở bắc distinct, it is provenance, a lesson Hung would happily deliver to anyone interested in listening.
The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl, for it is in Hanoi, the Vietnamese heart, that phở was born, a combination of the rice noodles that predominated after a thousand years of Chinese occupation and the taste for beef the Vietnamese acquired under the French, who turned their cows away from ploughs and into bifteck and pot-au-feu. The name of their national soup is pronounced like this French word for fire, as Hung’s Uncle Chien explained to him long ago.
“We’re a clever people,” his uncle had said. “We took the best the occupiers had to offer and made it our own. Fish sauce is the key—in matters of soup and well beyond. Even romance, some people say.”
It was only with the painful partitioning of the country in 1954 that phở went south; the million who fled communism held the taste of home in their mouths, the recipe in their hearts, but their eyes grew big in the markets of Saigon and they began to adulterate the recipe with imported herbs and vegetables. The phởs of Saigon had flourished brash with freedom and abundance while the North ate a poor man’s broth, plain and watered down, with chicken in place of beef as the Party ordered the closure of independent businesses like Hung’s and a string of government-owned cafeterias opened in their place.
Terrible stuff it was, grey as stagnant rainwater in a gutter. Those who are old enough to remember it thank Hung for getting rid of the mouldy taste in their mouths. Kids of Tu’s generation probably can’t even imagine it. Tu was born just before the government’s desperately needed economic reforms of 1986, when the market was liberalized in order to alleviate starvation and independent ownership once again became a possibility. Only then could the true potential of phở be realized.
The challenge for Hung now has less to do with the availability of ingredients than with the need for restraint. Hung sees himself as a guardian of purity, eschewing bean sprouts and excessive green garnish in accordance with northern tradition. They may well have opened their doors to the world, but that does not mean they must pollute their bowls. Ăn bắc; mặc nam, they say—eating as in the North; clothing as in the South—something so fundamental must be respected through deference to tradition.
Hung is a man governed by such principles rather than any laws, particularly those ones keenly enforced by the police that are of greatest inconvenience to him and those he serves. When the officers come to ticket him for trespassing or operating without a licence after he has had the peace of setting up shop in the same location for a few consecutive days, his customers will be forced to run off clutching their bowls, sloshing broth against their freshly pressed shirts, losing noodles to the pavement, jumping aboard their motorbikes and lurching into the day.
Hung’s crime is the same every day, but sometimes the police are in more of a mood to arrest a man than fine him. “Where did you relieve yourself this morning?” an officer in such a mood had asked him a few months ago.
Hung had shaken his head. The question made no sense. “Where did you pee, old man?” The officer raised his voice, threatening to arrest Hung for resisting a police officer if he didn’t answer the question.
Hung reluctantly pointed toward a patch of grass and asked, “Has peeing now been declared a crime?”
No, but that very patch of grass, as he was no doubt well aware, was the consecrated site upon which the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs would soon be erecting a new monument to honour the revolution’s martyrs and devotees. And so Hung was promptly arrested for insulting the Communist Party, which is to say, the only party there is.
Hung considered that night behind bars, lying on concrete and pissing into a communal bucket, mild punishment compared to the previous time he’d been charged with insulting the Party. Then, they had disciplined his mouth by punching out most of his front teeth with the butt of a rifle.
“Why this waste of money on statues?” he shouted after Bình had paid the bribe to release him from prison the second time. “Why yet another monument for the revolution? It’s been fifty years of this. Oh, if they could read the insults in my mind . . .”
“They used to claim they could read minds,” Bình said, and off they wandered, mumbling together like two old men despite the almost thirty years between them, two old men who had indeed once believed in the Party’s telepathy.
Hung serves the last man among today’s early shift of customers and looks over at Bình and Tu, the younger still making calculations in the air with his chopsticks, the elder concentrating on his bowl. He wonders whether it isn’t time for Tu to marry. He hopes Tu’s mother, Anh, is giving this matter some attention; if not, Tu may well be the last in this family line Hung will serve.
The comforting clatter of metal spoons against ceramic is suddenly interrupted by a booming voice that floods the bloodless kidney, bouncing from side to side. Noodles slap against chins and silence falls. “What the hell are you all doing here?” a man yells, stepping down in heavy workboots. “I’ve got a project to supervise. I’ll have you all arrested if you don’t pack up and leave immediately!” He smacks a crowbar repeatedly against his thick-skinned palm.
Bình rises to his feet and all eyes turn toward him. “Sir, you have to smell this,” he says, nodding at the bowl in his hands.
Hung feels a hot rush of pride fill his cheeks. Bình really is a son to him, if not by blood, then certainly through his devotion. What is blood without relationship, without life shared, in any case? Hung has come to believe it is little more than something red.
A hush vibrates around the pool as the foreman steps toward Bình and demands to know their business. This is private property; what are they all doing squatting here like it’s mealtime on some communal farm?
“This is Hanoi’s greatest secret,” Bình says, his eyes lowered in deference. “Seriously. You have to know. It will change you.”
Despite the threat of the rusty crowbar, despite his familiarity with the pain such an instrument can cause, Hung knows this is his moment. He shuffles forth across the concrete in his slippers. He holds his own bowl under the foreman’s nose, steam rising to envelop them both. His customers inhale as if sharing one set of lungs. No one makes a sound as the foreman licks his lips and takes the chopsticks Hung offers. The foreman thrusts those chopsticks to the bottom of the bowl and lifts the noodles into the air, creating a wave that plunges the herbs to the bottom before they float back to the surface, infusing the noodles in the broth, just as every mother teaches her child.
The foreman proves he is just like every mother’s son. He leans over the bowl and inhales as he lays the noodles back down to rest in the broth, then clutches a few strands between his chopsticks and raises them to his mouth. The construction workers stand around the rim of the pool, watching their boss in silence. The foreman slurps broth from the spoon, lifts up a few more noodles with his chopsticks, curls them into his spoon, picks up a thin slice of beef, lays it on the bed of noodles, tweezes a piece of basil from the broth and places it on top of the beef, then puts this perfectly balanced combination, this yin and yang, into his mouth.
And then he grunts.
“I see what you mean,” he finally says to Bình, handing the bowl back to Hung.
“Bring your bowl tomorrow. Tell your men, too,” Hung says quietly, squinting at the workers on the rim. His left eye is clouded over; his right discerns the outline of a row of men. “Half price for them,” he says, “free, of course, for you.”
“I’ll pay you full price,” says the foreman. “Just as long as you and your customers are out by seven.”
“Yes, sir,” says Hung, shuffling back to the fatter end of the kidney to extinguish his fire. He feels a tremor of nervous laughter rattle beneath his ribs. He dares not look over at Bình. He smiles into the fire, sharing the victory with its embers instead.
It is not yet half past six—still plenty of time left to serve the latecomers who have just arrived, which Hung does now with good humour and renewed concentration, laying noodles and beef into each bowl with his right hand, pouring ladlefuls of broth over top with his left, his rhythm as even and essential as a beating heart.
Hung recognizes each man by the state of his hands: the grease moons under the nails that mark a mechanic, the calluses of one who works a lathe, the chewed nails of a student writing exams.
But then whose lovely hands are these amidst this parade of manly paws? The delicate hands of a woman who has, improbably, never engaged in manual labour. And the bowl. Shining. Translucent. Porcelain.
He looks up. The young woman before him is a classic beauty with delicate, balanced fea...
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Book Description Anchor Canada. PAPERBACK. Condition: New. 0385663234 U.S. orders are shipped from N.Y. state. Seller Inventory # 048905
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