I came to live in Vietnam in early 2002 and while I don't want to boast or seek higher ground, I can claim to have been here longer than most ex-pats. Some would say that I have a right to feel jaded, that I'm probably significantly bruised and bitter about Vietnam after this amount of time, that I must know everything there is to know about life and the people here.
In some ways, yes. But I try to remain optimistic for the most part, though a natural cynicism does show its ugly head from time to time.
And, I'm not done. Some lobe in my brain is still pulsing with curiosity. The frantic pace of street life in Hanoi means that inevitably some questions are left unanswered, filed in the 'must-get-back-to-that-later' basket. On the motorbike, the goings-on around me are speeded up to a kind of chaotic, fast-forwarding slideshow, a montage of movement, colour and noise too rapid for the human brain to process. My mental note-taking is therefore haphazard stream-of-consciousness:
"...must take a photo of that...what was that?...is he really doing that there?...is that edible?...WOW, love to try that...never seen that before...watch where you're going knucklehead!...oh, banana flowers, what a sight...never seen that temple before...wish I had the camera...god it's hot today...INDICATE! INDICATE! INDICATE!...geez I'm not a mind-reader...I know there's a bia hoi around here somewhere...is that fruit or veg...what's she peeling...looks under-ripe...wonder what that herb's called in English...that looks familiar...on the weekend I'm coming back to that..F*#K! screech...watch the bloody road, Mark..."
Some of these notes get scratched into a notebook but many filter out of my consciousness completely, never to return. I don't get back to them. Other notes constantly irritate, like reminders popping up again and again, but never at the right moment
Recently, I resolved one of these. Each year for years, I've been fleetingly observing street vendors peeling these small round brown objects which, with the skin on, look like big nuts. From a distance when piled plentifully in a basket, they could be mistaken for snail shells. However, when peeled, a white fruity looking thing with the texture of an apple appears and goes into a clear plastic bag. Once the vendor has the bag filled with about 20, it's ready for sale.
I've discovered that they are water chestnuts (ma thay), crisp, sweet and nutty, eaten as a fruit. Or sliced into this dessert. When my mum cooked Chinese in my youth, water chestnuts came in a tin and got sliced up and thrown into stirfries.
Another puzzle solved!