Great Hanoi (& Haiphong) Rat Massacre

I ran across this fascinating article a while back which I wanted to share. It’s about the great Hanoi rat massacre during the time of French colonialism. I don’t want to spoil the entire article because it’s a great read, but the crux of it gets to the amazing entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese people. The French colonial administration wanted to address the growing rat population within the underground sewer systems of Hanoi. The modern sewer system was meant to civilize things in the capital of Tonkin,¬†their crown jewel of a colony. But the idea of increasing sanitation backfired when the rats soon discovered that the drains and sewers were perfect places to live, thrive, and have baby rats. The rat infestation became unbearable until the French administration came up with a brilliant idea: pay Hanoi residents for dead rats. This sent a rash of rat hunters into the sewers in search of the critters. They only had to turn in the rat tails. The French had no desire to have to deal with actual rat bodies. So each tail turned in would yield a monetary reward. But the clever Vietnamese saw an opportunity. Killing the rats would actually diminish their ability to make money off of killing rats. So what was the solution? Simple and brilliant. Cut off the tails, turn them in, but don’t kill the rats. Soon the city was infested with tail-less rats who could still reproduce to have more rats. This was French planning at its worse. Read the entire article at the link:

Great Hanoi Rat Massacre

I can’t think about rats in Vietnam without remembering what our team-teaching colleague did for us during our third year teaching in Haiphong in 1997. My second daughter was just born in a hospital in Thailand. We spent six weeks there preparing for the baby’s arrival. We lived in a small shared apartment at the Maritime University with our teammate, Joe. The living quarters were Spartan, to say the least. Actually, they were not very nice in accordance with western standards, but we did our best to make it a home for us. Joe also had been in Thailand for a conference, and he headed home first before our return with our newborn child. When he arrived and entered the kitchen, it was as if a war zone had manifested itself in our living space. Trash and chewed-up food stuff was scattered all over. Tupperware and storage containers had been chewed through. Rat poop was all over the place. The citadel had fallen. The rats had taken over.

But Joe, being the incredible guy that he was, wasn’t going to allow the place to be infested with rodents with our newborn baby on the way. He got to work. He set traps. He laid down poison. He physically beat rats, chasing them with a stick. All in all, he killed nine of them in our kitchen, if my memory serves me correctly. He threw out all infested items and bleached and cleaned the dingy tile until it was about as clean as it was ever going to get. We arrived home to a spic-n-span apartment. A sterile and safe place for our child. When he told the tale of what had happened, we knew that the great rat massacre of 1997 had occurred, and we were blessed to have such a caring teammate to live with.

Thank you, Joe. And thanks also for not saving the tails for me.

A Glimpse at Hanoi – Early 1990s

A friend posted this fascinating LINK showing life in Hanoi in 1990. I found these particularly fascinating because it pre-dated my arrival in Vietnam by only four years.

I first arrived at Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport – the OLD one – in August 1994, just months after the U.S. had lifted the embargo against their former communist foe. We were moving to Haiphong near the coast, a three hour train ride to Hanoi, to teach English. (I’ll reminisce more on all of that later – I need to find all my photos!)

But we would frequently take the train to Hanoi to visit the big city and enjoy the “amenities” that simply didn’t exist in Haiphong. Those amenities included CHEESE and Coca-Cola and stuff like that. Yes, that will put things into perspective as to where Vietnam was in regards to development at that point.

We would bring our bicycles on the train – the train that used to go over the oldest French bridge and actually went to the main train station right in Hanoi proper – they stopped doing that around 1997. Anyways, we would bring our bikes on the train so we could easily cycle around Hanoi.

By 1994, the trams that you saw in the pictures were already gone, but the streets you see in 1990 looked about the same when we were cycling around. There were very few cars, lots of bicycles, and some motorbikes. By the end of the decade, Hanoi changed a lot, and now here in 2015, there are many parts of Hanoi which I would hardly even recognize. I’m sure I’d need to hang out in the Old Quarter and around Hoan Kiem Lake to feel at home.

We finally did move to Hanoi in January 1998 where we studied the Vietnamese language full-time for about a year and four months before moving to Thai Nguyen in the summer of 1999.

Our house in Hanoi was off of Thai Ha Street (again, where are my photos?) and by then there was already a mini-mart across the street from our house.

Oh, and I loved the little Banh Cuon breakfast show which was a short walk behind our house.

Those were good times. I really miss Hanoi and hope to visit again at some point. Hopefully this year.

And I promise I’ll find those photos!

The Return of the Vietnamese Bean Cake

It’s funny how a simple treat from the past can download a whole heap of memories into your consciousness.

Have you ever eaten Vietnamese green bean cake? This stuff takes me back.

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A friend, stopping by Malaysia coming from Vietnam, picked this up for my family. When we lived in Haiphong from 1994-1997, we were the recipients of countless boxes of the special sweet cake. If you haven’t ever had it, and most of you probably haven’t, it’s quite unique. It has an extremely crumbly texture with a beanish-almost peanutish taste. Super sweet and tasty.

When I was first given one of these boxes back in 1994, I probably mocked it behind the giver’s back simply because I still had my extremely bland, close-minded American palate. But there is something about nostalgia which brings back the sweetness of the past – even if the past seemed short of it at the time. One bite of it yesterday was truly wonderful – both on the mouth and the mind. Here’s what it looks like on the inside.

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This wonderful treat is the claim to fame of Hai Duong, a sleepy little town midway between Hanoi and Haiphong. We used to regularly ride the train to Hanoi and as it made its 10 minute stop in Hai Duong, the vendors would pile on the train, hawking their wares – especially their green bean cakes. I never bought them. I lacked a need of it since my students at the time kept me and my child well-stocked.

So on this eve of the Vietnamese New Year, it was nice to have a little treat from the good old days in Haiphong. I’ll always remember those little stops in Hai Duong. Oh, and by the way, Hai Duong has another claim to fame – lychee – some of the best, fresh lychee in the world are grown there, ripe each late May. How I miss it!

Happy Tet everyone!

Big Noses, Blonde Hair, and “You are fatter!”

Did you see the ridiculous headlines this week about the disastrous ad campaign of a Japanese airline? In one of their ads, they had an Asian wearing a fake nose and a blonde wig, which apparently offended some very sensitive people. Here are some of the headlines which came out because of that travesty:

“Japan’s ANA pulls ‘Big Nose’ ad after online furor”

“Japanese Airline ANA apologises for ‘racist’ advert stereotyping”

“Japanese Airline pulls ‘racist’ advert after complaints”

“Japanese airline sparks outrage with ‘ad that is racist against westerners'”

Outrage? Furor? Really?

I remember the summer of 1995. I taught in Vietnam for one year and was returning to Haiphong after a summer holiday in America. I was met at the airport by one of our foreign affairs officials. The first thing out of his mouth when he saw me was, “Mark, you look fatter!”

I immediately accused him of being racist against westerners. I told him that I could not believe that he would pick a physical feature and use it against me in such a stereotypical way. It was as if he was saying that all westerners were fatter than Vietnamese. My 6’3″, 230 lb frame which had enjoyed two months of burgers, ice cream, and baked goods, towered over the 120 lb official. He apologized for his insensitivity, and we had a tense relationship for the next two years.

Except, I didn’t do that. I smiled, laughed, and said, “Your right. I had too much of my mother’s cooking.” We shook hands, laughed and went on our merry way. Believe it or not, he wasn’t being racist. And neither were the airline executives who decided to use the silly noses and wigs in a commercial.

The last time I looked in the mirror, I had a big nose. And you know what, my hair is not black.

When you have lived in Asia as long as I have, you begin to realize that the physical differences that may in fact be real between an average westerner and an average Asian do not actually matter at all! Period. But you shouldn’t be shocked when someone points out that people are actually different.

When I lived in Haiphong, I had the biggest nose in the city. Most likely. I was also the tallest person in the city. Or at least in the top five. I was also one of the heaviest persons in the city. And people weren’t afraid to point it out to me. I was fat – compared to them. I did have a big nose, I was tall. And you know what, no one ever hurt my feelings, even when they told me about how different I looked. I never felt threatened or attacked. I was never looked down upon. I was never picked on for being a westerner, because you know why, the average East or Southeast Asian would never do that. They are too gracious. Too friendly.

Some people in the west have become oversensitive, being offended in places where there is no offense.

We all need to learn to laugh at ourselves a little more. We need to be gracious in cultural misunderstandings. We need to understand that different ways of expressions may indeed mean something completely different across cultures.

It’s sad that too often we look for ways to divide and tear down. Let’s reach across the aisle in understanding. Let’s reach across the ocean in understanding. Let’s not be so serious about everything. Let’s enjoy life, sit down with those who are different from us and make a new friend – whether they have big noses, blonde hair, black hair, big stomachs, or any marvelous shade of skin which makes the world a diverse and wonderful place to live.





Burger King in Hanoi: The End is Near

A friend posted a selfie outside the newly opened BK at Hanoi Noi Bai Airport.

Globalization is complete. My Vietnam is dead.

I arrived at Noi Bai Airport for the first time on a dark, stormy night in August 1994. My wife, 15 month old daughter, and I were picked up at the airport by an official from the Vietnam Maritime University in Haiphong where we would be teaching. Haiphong is a port city off the Gulf of Tonkin about 60 miles east of Hanoi. I remember the van ride to Haiphong vividly. We had been travelling for 30-some hours, and we were dead tired. Our heads bobbed constantly as we nodded off even as our official greeters did their best to welcome us. The road was mercilessly bumpy – our vehicle bounced around like we were jumping on springs rather than rolling on tires.

At one point, we thought we were going to die. The driver slammed on the brakes, and we all went flying into the seat in front of us, wide-eyed, wondering what had happened. The headlights shone brightly on a herd of dark-gray water buffaloes which were just trying to cross the road.

The ride to our university took about 3 hours. Did I mention before that it was only a 60 mile trip? Well, this is the Vietnam I remember and know well.

There was only one road to Haiphong – not the highway that is there now – and the road was in horrible condition, preventing anyone from going quickly if they wanted to keep their lunch down. The road also had to cross two rivers where there was only a one-lane bridge – which also shared space with the train. If a train was at the bridge, or if someone had broken down, or if there was a long line of cars from the opposite side, traffic just came to a stop. We would get out of the vehicle and wait a good 20 minutes until it was our turn to travel over the bridge.

On a good day, you might have been able to travel to Hanoi in 2.5 hours. My longest trip back in the day lasted 4 hours.

This previous illustration should instruct you in your understanding of every aspect of life in northern Vietnam during that time. Here’s a few more examples:

  • Very few cars – the popular ones were the Russian Lada from the 1970s. Only government entities or large companies had vehicles.
  • Motorbikes were only starting to become more common.
  • Best mode of transportation – city to city – was by train (but you had to be prepared to burn a lot of time.)
  • Inside a city, the best mode of transport was by bicycle or by Xich Lo – the three-wheeled “pedi-cab” where you sit up front and the driver would pedal you around.
  • The new Hanoi airport had not yet been built, and the old airport was still used, including its small, dingy building which was just creepy.

Foreign food was simply not available in Haiphong. Even in Hanoi, there was no place to buy pizza, burgers, or any other kind of foreign food. Any foreign food in 1994 would have had to have been purchased from one of the few upscale hotels.

And to further illustrate what Hanoi was like, we called 1994 Hanoi “B.C.” – that is, “Before Coke.” That’s right. We arrived in Vietnam before Coca-Cola. That’s hard to do. The shops carried Coke bottles from China which were always flat. Sometimes you could splurge for a Coke can from Singapore, but those were rare and expensive.

I have lots more examples which I’ll share in a future post, but in 1994, we never dreamed that Vietnam could ever change enough to have a Burger King open in Hanoi.

It took twenty years, and now the end is near.

McDonald’s, too, is on it’s way.

Oh, how I would trade every McDonald’s in Malaysia for one Vietnamese Pho street vendor.

Sad, indeed.