Guest author Christina Vo reflects on the varieties of beautiful street scenery in Viet Nam, with photos by Eric Wolfinger, photographer for Charles Phan’s Vietnamese Home Cooking.
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My father’s Vietnamese friend once tried to explain to me how daily life was “visible” in Vietnam. I didn’t understand what she meant until I experienced Hanoi – and Vietnam – myself when I moved there for the first time more than ten years ago.
Daily life, I learned quite quickly, can be vibrant, dynamic, overwhelming, and chaotic at once. A simple activity – like crossing the street as you dodge a sea of bicycles, motorbikes, and cars – feels daunting. Even buying a piece of fruit or a bottle of water involves some sort of negotiation. The first floors of homes double as convenience stores, tailors, and DVD shops, where entrepreneurial Vietnamese sell anything that might appeal to a passerby. Street vendors wearing conical hats carry quang ganh (two baskets hanging from a bamboo pole) full of colorful fruits, vegetables, and tropical flowers. Flavorful meals are available at makeshift food stalls on every street corner.
While I am grateful to live in beautiful San Francisco, even my favorite daily routines here feel rather dull in comparison to life in Vietnam. I go to a neighborhood coffee shop, where the baristas prepare a near perfect iced coffee, but my conversations with the other regulars feel contained to surface level formalities. Instead of interacting with each other – and even slowing down to observe the world around us – we choose to engage with our iPhones. Sometimes, I long to be sitting at an outdoor café on one Hanoi’s tree-lined streets or in Saigon’s vibrant city center, chatting with a friend, watching the life around us, as we sip on a cafe sua da.
On cold, foggy days in San Francisco (which often reminds me of the weather in Hanoi), I eat pho in the deli on the ground floor of my office building to satiate my longing for Vietnam. On warmer days, I will opt for the banh mi. The Vietnamese owner calls me “em” and shamelessly asks questions about my personal life, while sharing updates about her devoted son. Her inquisitive questions, which might feel intrusive to some, felt like a normal part of my daily interactions in Vietnam.
There are, of course, a plethora of Vietnamese dining options scattered throughout the city, where I could indulge in Vietnamese cooking. But, it just isn’t the same as sitting on a tiny red stool, having a hot bowl of pho on a cold Hanoi morning – the steam from the bowl rising in your face, the sound of the motorbikes honking in the background, the life passing by in front of you. That visible life is – quite simply – one of the reasons why living in Vietnam can feel so deliciously abundant.
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These photos by Eric Wolfinger were shot on assignment for Vietnamese Home Cooking, Charles Phan’s first cookbook. Eric is a San Francisco-based photographer, who worked as a baker at Tartine for four and a half years before turning to photography full-time.
Born in Connecticut to Vietnamese parents, Christina Vo grew up in Tennessee, Utah, Illinois, and Indiana, and then attended college in North Carolina. Unable to decide where to live after she graduated, she tried as many places as she could: Hanoi (on three separate occasions), Saigon, London, San Francisco, and Geneva. While in Vietnam, Christina worked as an account executive for JWT, a communications officer for UNICEF, a program manager for Solidaridad, and even toyed with the idea of designing handbags. She happily and thankfully settled in San Francisco and spends as much spare time as possible working on her first book.
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