A Songkran (Baisakhi) break in Vietnam had me on a hectic trail by plane, boat, road and train. I noticed that puppies are farmed like chickens there. Also in evidence were fried insects like in Thailand and Cambodia, but if the French are not disdained for eating frogs’ legs and snails, why can’t Asians eat slugs and bugs with equal honour? Don’t Indians eat things that make others goggle in disbelief? ‘Lokor bhinna ruchi’ and all that.
The Vietnamese kept asking, “Where you from?” and I realised that I had been out and about in Vietnam for nine days and seen four South Asian-looking people. This was in Ha Noi, which looks like Kolkata’s cousin.
I also went to Hue; Danang where the Americans landed; Hoi An, the 150-year-old heritage city and went cruising on Halong Bay, that marvelous hideout off the South China Sea. I found nobody did namastes like in Thailand, but in general their manner had warmth.
Their painting, lacquer and embroidery were excellent as were the coffee, cakes, baguettes and ‘pho’ (meat broth). I was charmed when a linen store-owner suddenly pulled out a Lucknawi chikankari tablecloth set and told the customers at large, “India! Very beautiful!” (it cost a wodge). And at the precise moment that Indian hunger hit, Annapurna showed me a place filled with Vietnamese and farangs, that did both dosai and butter chicken. It was run by an Iyengar whose wife taught Math at a French school.
Browsing through Ha Noi’s bookshops, I found the work of a popular Vietnamese culture columnist, Mr Huu Ngoc. His column, ‘Traditional Miscellany’ had appeared every Sunday for years in the ‘Viet Nam News’ when compiled into a book called ‘Wandering through Vietnamese Culture’ (fifth edition in 2010).
One chapter in the very first section was called ‘The Indian Village’ to which I naturally turned first. He went “to visit the Birla village of orphans on the outskirts of Ha Noi” in October 1994 and reflected on “the relationship between the Vietnamese and Indian peoples”. A number of positive observations show a frank, confident acknowledgment of Asian history that we may associate more with liberal Indians than with a number of others.
“Vietnam”, he writes, “an Indochinese country, came under the indirect influence of Indian culture and the direct impact of Chinese culture while keeping its Southeast Asian substratum… Let us note the enrichment of our culture by Indian elements…”.
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture