The Ancient House

I fear that from this point forward, my blog will be pretty far from chronological and anything near “real time,” but such is the tricky balancing act of travel writing: trying to do noteworthy things, and finding time to actually write about them.

As a quick recap of my roughly four weeks in Southeast Asia, my first week included a trip to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, followed by a week in Ho Chi Minh City, and a weekend volunteer trip to the outskirts of Long An province west of the city. I travelled to Laos last week, and am now back in Ho Chi Minh City for my last week.

I want to circle back to my week in Can Tho to write about one of my favorite sites, something a bit off the beaten track. Our hotel listed a few local attractions worth seeing besides the famous floating markets, and among them was “Binh Thuy Ancient House.” Something about the name intrigued me, so my cousin and I rented a motorbike on a free afternoon and, armed with a map, traveled to the general vicinity about 15 minutes outside of town.

Not knowing exactly where the house was, we pulled over at a pagoda that looked promisingly ancient to see if it was our destination. My cousin asked an old woman selling food outside the gate, and she waved her hand vaguely at a road across the street, as if shooing us away. “She says it’s that way,” my cousin reported. As we made our way down the narrow street, lined with vendors and shops, I started doubting the accuracy of our less than detailed directions, certain we’d never find it.

But the house was in fact on that street, though we drove past it once before we realized it. The large blue iron gate was closed, except for a side panel wide enough to ride a motorbike through. I expected at least a sign. The beautiful tile courtyard was empty. My cousin talked to some workers doing some repair on the side of the house, then parked the motorbike and headed around to the other side of the house. I followed him, assuming we were in the right place. We rang a doorbell and peered through a screen door into what looked like someone’s darkened kitchen. After some time, an old woman appeared, spoke to my cousin briefly and shut the door.

“It’s closed, isn’t it?” I said. But no, she was simply unlocking the main room for us. Stepping through the green shuttered doors into the dim interior felt like entering a long unused room in a mansion from the Secret Garden—or maybe the big library reveal scene from Beauty and the Beast. As the woman opened one pair of shutters and then another, a high-ceilinged room slowly appeared out of the darkness, crammed with breathtakingly ornate artifacts from another time.

I suppose “ancient” is a relative term for describing the house, which was built in 1870 and remodeled to its current state in 1911. The inside revealed a blend of Eastern and Western styles. Tile floors, beaded chandeliers, carved hardwood chairs and tables, ceramic vases, wooden wall panels with exquisite mother-of-pearl inlay. Carved ivory tusks of an elephant long dead. Most staggering were the intricately hand-carved wooden borders that framed each entryway, a true artistic masterpiece of deer, birds, and flowers.

I wondered aloud how the owners had made their fortune to pay for such luxurious things, assuming my cousin would translate for our guide. “Our family were rice and salt merchants,” she replied in perfect English, with clean diction. With surprise, we learned that the woman, whose name is Lien, is a retired English teacher. The house belonged to her own family, who had lived in the area for six generations since the 18th century.

Our visit suddenly became infinitely more personal—a trip to someone’s home rather than a stuffy museum. Lien was delightful: gray hair pulled back in a neat bun, graceful features, soft eyes, a kind smile that revealed a few gold teeth. She seemed like the perfect grandmother.

Lien, a descendant of the house’s original owners, is worth the visit on her own! Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

She and about 10 members still live in rooms behind the main house, but in the old days, she said, there were many more. The land surrounding the house used to be much bigger too. Now most of the family lives far away, and I sensed a grandmother’s sadness when she said this. In a framed group photo of a family reunion at the house, Lien is positively beaming with a small child in her lap.

It was easy to imagine the family dissipating over the years, the fortune crumbling, the precious artifacts and tracts of land sold off one by one to pay for debts, taxes, bribes. One black-and-white photo in a booklet Lien gave me showed a baby posed between two absolutely enormous elephant tusks from the family collection. The caption contains a poignant parenthetical: (missing already). The remaining family treasures are now collected into the house’s main room in a shadow of its former glory—with a single woman invested in keeping its memory alive. Perhaps I identify with Lien because I am definitely one nostalgic for the past, someone keen for preserving history who often cringes at modernization.

I found myself taken with a photo of the actress Jane March hanging on the wall. A scene from the racy 1992 French film “The Lover,” which I hadn’t heard of, was filmed at the house. The lead actress is a mix of Vietnamese and European ancestry, though I was disappointed to learn that she plays a French girl in the film. The film is set in 1929, during Vietnam’s French colonial period—it would seem only fitting to have a character that acknowledged intermarriage. During my time here, I sometimes find myself wondering by the shape of someone’s nose or other facial features whether they have any European or American blood. I studied Jane March’s face with particular interest. I know many multiracial people, but have met only two or three that are specifically part Vietnamese like me. As a minority among minorities, there’s something to be said for finding people who “look like you”—in the sense that they have similar roots.

Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

I asked Lien how many visitors she gets at the house. Some days are busy when a tour group might come, she said, but most weeks are like today, only a few visitors if any. On our way out, I gave her a small donation to thank her for opening the house, about $5. She was so pleased, and asked if we would like to see the garden. My favorite photography subjects are flowers, so here I was in bliss. So many bright tropical orchids!  Wandering through the garden reminded me of my own Vietnamese grandmother’s, beautiful and slightly cluttered and in need of repair. A cat and some bony kittens stared at us with skittish eyes.

Lien came out to give me a small booklet on the history of the house, written in Vietnamese, English and French. She had even penned a dedication in it. She returned to the house, then ran back out, smiling and flustered because she realized she had mixed up “From” and “To” in the dedication. Endearing. Then, as we were leaving, she ran out again to give us a bag of sweet cooked plantains. A woman truly after my own heart.

Consider this my full endorsement for visiting the Ancient House if you should find yourself in Can Tho, Vietnam—if for no other reason but to meet its charming proprietor.

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The Pineapple and the Coconut

Plenty of pineapple at the floating market.

My saga to learn Vietnamese continues…

I took one Vietnamese class during my junior year of college, the only time such a class was available at any of the schools I’ve attended. I remember feeling frustrated at all the time and emphasis spent on the six Vietnamese tones or accents. I wanted words! I wanted to understand things! The tones just seemed like semantics. Plus, they are really difficult for a self-conscious speaker with a thick tongue.

But in a tonal language like Vietnamese, the tones are the key to understanding and (correctly) saying anything. It’s not enough to learn the general shape of a word, the pattern of consonants and vowels strung together that make one word distinct from another.  This approach, which helped me learn English and Spanish, doesn’t apply here, where the same word can have six different meanings depending on its tone. So it’s back to the basics of inflection for me.

Many of the Vietnamese words I’ve accumulated until now revolve around food. I’m pretty solid on fruits (at least, common fruits in the US), but for the life of me could not remember coconut or pineapple. Now I’ve realized it’s because the words are spelled exactly the same, with only the accent mark and the inflection of your voice to tell the difference. Pineapple = dứa, and coconut = dừa. Oh, and to make it more fun, the “d” is actually pronounced like a “z” if you’re from the North of Vietnam, and like a “y” if you’re from the South. Keeping all that straight?

During a floating market tour in Can Tho, we walked through a garden with a pineapple tree (plant?) growing near a coconut palm. Our fellow tourists from Germany expressed surprise that pineapples grow out of the ground. That’s it, I thought. Pineapples (dứa) grow up from the ground and have an up inflection, while coconuts (dừa) fall down from the tree and have a down inflection.

Never mind that I could just use another word for pineapple (thơm) that sounds nothing like coconut. I was pretty proud of myself for that one. But creating mnemonics for every Vietnamese vocabulary word? Fat chance. So it’s back to my little book, hoping that writing things down will help me recognize and remember new words. I need to sort and catalog them into different mental bins for the different tones. Learning to read, write and speak a word all at the same time seems like a tall order, but I’m realizing I can’t really do one without the others. The only way I’ll be able to navigate this language is knowing which way the tones go.

Writing it down….Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

A Familiar (Fish) Face and the Language of Science

Why hello, Chaunacops coloratus!

It’s always comforting to see a familiar face in a foreign country—especially when the face belongs to a deep-sea fish. I had the surreal experience of “bumping into” an anglerfish from the Monterey Bay area while visiting some fish researchers at Can Tho University.  One scientist had the latest copy of a Vietnamese aquaculture and fisheries magazine on his desk, and the front cover bore the mug shot of a fish that resembles an adorable pink grapefruit.

I’d know that whimsical tilt and “smiling” face anywhere. I passed it many times on a scientific poster hanging on the way to my graduate advisor’s office at Moss Landing Marine Labs. My advisor, ichthyologist Greg Cailliet, recently co-authored a research paper about the first live observations of this anglerfish, called Chaunacops coloratus, with researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. (I’m guessing this paper is why the little angler is now a Vietnamese cover model. )Thanks to the technology of underwater robots and cameras, they were able to describe this fish going about its business in its natural habitat at an incredible depth of 3,300 meters (11,000 feet). The MBARI website has a great story about the fish, and even video of it swimming around and hanging out.

Needless to say, there was something so comforting in seeing my culture and my field of study intersect in this unexpected way. I don’t know if I adequately conveyed to the Vietnamese researcher why I was so excited about this fish, but he gamely let me photograph his magazine.

In my first post, I mentioned how I wanted to cultivate a relationship with Vietnam through the lens of science and the environment. My Vietnamese is rudimentary at best, but once we start speaking the language of science, I feel right at home.  Getting a tour of the facilities at the university’s school of Aquaculture and Fisheries was a chance for me to comfortably lapse into full geek-out mode.

Bubble bubble…vials of algae soon to become shrimp food.

I learned that students and faculty at the university study diseases and parasites that afflict farmed shrimp and catfish. That they isolate and culture different species of algae to feed baby shrimp and mud crabs. That they are researching methods of integrated aquaculture, using plants to filter the waste from catfish farms. All very cool.

An experiment to see if these plants can clean up farmed catfish waste water.

A highlight: the researchers invited me to check out some tiny planktonic animals called rotifers—both marine and freshwater varieties— that they grow for aquaculture feed.  As I sat down at the scope and adjusted the eyepiece, suddenly all the barriers of this foreign country dissolved. For my graduate work, I spent more hours at a microscope than I care to count, trying to identify bits of fish guts. Suffice it to say: a microscope is familiar territory.

We’re on home turf now… Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

Staring at the little critters zooming about tapped into a deep-seated feeling of wonder and appreciation that usually bubbles up when I’m reminded about the incredible diversity of life. Another time this happened was in the seventh grade when I, also seated at a microscope, first watched a paramecium ambling around a drop of water.  My thirteen-year-old self had no way of knowing what direction my future would take me, but I knew I wanted some connection to that experience of awe, as the natural world opened up to me under the lens of science. It’s humbling to think how all the paths I’ve taken and connections I’ve made have overlapped and intersected to bring me to this point.

Erin Taking Pictures

One of the perks of traveling with my cousin, a professional photographer, is that I come away with some top-notch photos of my vacation. I’m also a big fan of taking pictures, though I’m not studied or practiced enough to really consider myself a photographer (yet!). After sorting through my cousin’s photos from our recent trip to Can Tho, Vietnam, I realized he’d taken a lot of pictures of me, well, taking pictures. (Or in some cases, video, which explains my odd posture in trying to stabilize the camera.)

I thought putting some of these together would be a fun way for me to familiarize myself with the “galleries” feature in WordPress. Hope you enjoy! I’ll also put in a plug for Quan’s work as a wedding photographer: If you or someone you know is getting married in Southeast Asia, check out some of his photos!

Learning Vietnamese by Matchbox

An unlikely teaching aid. “Get the lottery results live by mobile phone.” Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

Teaching aids come in some varied and unlikely forms on my quest to learn Vietnamese. Two of my favorites are signs and advertisements. Big, bold words and short phrases have a better chance of sticking in my brain—manageable chunks I can decipher and digest. And for someone as slow to learning Vietnamese as I am, the repetition of common signs is a blessing, like roadside flashcards.

Thus, I’ve learned that the ubiquitous signs for “ra xe” mean “car wash.” This is often paired with the conveniently rhyming “sa xe” or “car repair.” Except, in this country “car” refers to a motorbike more often than not.

My trusty vocab book.

My other big language aid is my cousin Quan, who traveled with me to Can Tho.  I tend to pepper him with questions over meals. What does this sign mean? How do you say this? What did you just say to that person? It takes a lot of effort from both parties, but when we’re both feeling up for it, the language exchange is quite fun. When I’m really on top of it, I whip out a little book to write the words down, hoping this will cement the connection in my head.

The spoken language just washes over me in waves of rising and falling tones, which I can’t yet decipher with any consistency. So I cling to the written word, the printed word, as something tangible I can wrap my head around at my own pace. During a visit to a café, I pounced on a matchbox sitting on a nearby table. What luck! What a trove of new words at my disposal! Thanks to Quan, I now know that the matches are high quality, and I can get the lottery results directly on my mobile phone.

Fun language connections sometimes ensue from learning new words. For instance, the bowls of water and flowers made me ask about the word for “float,” which is nổi. That reminded me I had already heard the word in the term “floating market”(ch ni), which we had visited earlier.

And that lead my cousin to tell me about the expression “Ba chìm, by ni,” which literally means “Three (tenths) sinking, seven (tenths) floating.” It’s something you say when someone asks, “How are you?” Kind of like saying “so-so,” but with the relative ratio of bad to good. (You can also switch it around and have “Seven parts sinking and three parts floating,” if things aren’t really going your way.) I’m so tickled by the mathematical preciseness of it. Ratios! In pleasantries!

Artichoke tea!

It wouldn’t be a true Vietnamese coffee shop experience without Vietnamese coffee, so we ordered some. The coffee, which is often served with condensed milk, is incredibly strong and sweet. It’s really delicious, but for someone like me who usually goes easy on caffeine, it can bring on palpitations. So I switched to tea. Quan recommended I try a flavor called “atiso,” which I had never heard of. To my surprise, the tea bag set in front of me read, “artichoke.” The tea had so much sugar that my sweet tooth was singing, and made it hard to tease out the true taste. Something that sugary couldn’t help but be delicious, although I think the flavor would be pretty pleasant on its own. I’d give it a hearty endorsement for the next artichoke festival in Castroville. Why has this not already caught on in a big way?

Amazon Catfish in the Mekong: First FISHBIO blog post

Sailfin armored catfish, far from its native South America.

I’m lucky enough to be blogging for FISHBIO while traveling in Southeast Asia, and my first post went online today! Please check it out!

I wrote about one of the Mekong’s more unusual inhabitants: an ornamental fish imported from South America. Here’s an excerpt:

The last thing you might expect to catch in the Mekong River is a fish from the Amazon—but that’s exactly what can happen now. Researchers from Can Tho University in Vietnam use trawl nets and gills nets to survey fish diversity in the Hau River, a tributary of the Mekong, every other month. A recent survey pulled up two different species of sailfin armored catfishes in the genus Pterygoplichthys. Thanks to the aquarium trade, these natives of South America are now comfortably at home in Southeast Asia, North and Central America, and the Pacific Islands.

Read the full story here!

It’s really quite sobering to see how people can change the species composition and ecology of a natural system by transporting fish all around the world.

First Fish

Since a focus of my trip is, after all, fish, I thought it was worth backtracking to describe my first fish encounter—not at swim, but on a plate. Which is pretty fitting, since mealtime is how I imagine most people associate with fish. Eating is the last link in the chain that truly connects fish, people, and the ocean or rivers.  For better or worse.

On my second day in Saigon, my cousin took me to get some Vietnamese comfort food. Rice, sautéed greens, pickled onions, pork and egg cooked in a clay pot—and salty cooked fish. It was all delicious, but I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of fish I was eating, and where and how it was caught. The little guys had more identifying characteristics than your typical fish fillet, but the salient features I remember were the crunchy skin and the sharp tiny bones. Hopefully my fish ID will improve when I hit the field…more observing, less eating.

A first for me was drinking starfruit juice. It’s so sour, you get a little jar of sugar water to mix in to taste. Quite puckerlicious. And I enjoy the concept of drinking through a reed!

I’ve had a few other gastronomic encounters with fish since then, including at my family’s house. My mom’s cousin put it exactly as I have imagined: “Vietnam has such a long coastline that the people here are used to eating many different types of fish.”

Fish in the river, fish in the sea.  And so much for me to learn.

The “before” shot—straight from the market.

And “after”—cooked with herbs.

Claypot fish—one of my favorite dishes, but this one was only so-so. My grandma’s is better!

A pomfret, or butterfly fish–known as “ca chim” or “bird fish” in Vietnamese for its long pectoral fins (missing here). A special dinner with researchers from Can Tho University. Photo by BảoQuân Nguyễn.