Chopping Wind

Aunt Bao’s house is located right next to a small street market, and I usually go out for breakfast. Sometimes it’s take-home sticky rice, but this time, Cousin Tien and I treat ourselves to Phở – the famous Vietnamese rice noodle soup. The noodles are fresh, and one bowl costs around 27.000 Vietnam Dong, roughly 1.5 USD. Phở has always been one of my favorite dishes, and now carries a lot of sentiment. Whenever I come home after having been abroad for months, my mother would make sure to have a bowl of Phở ready. Whenever I feel homesick, it's Phở that I crave, and only for special occasions, I will cook Phở with friends. It will take a few hours to prepare: boil the whole chicken for the stock, bone the meat and season it, and prepare the noodles and spices.

Cousin Tien and I often finish breakfast with Vietnamese Coffee at one of the many cafés lining the streets. He tells me that a lot of people in the area are trying to escape unemployment by opening little businesses. Indeed, the café we go in still feels like a converted home: the living room barely re-decorated into a sitting room, opening up to the street front. We sit down and I order an "Iced Milk Coffee." The owner needs some time before he understands what I mean. Cousin Tien tells me that milk coffee is called "Iced Brown Coffee" in Hanoi, referencing the color of the black coffee mixed with white condensed milk. In Saigon, however, they call it milk coffee.  

Every time we sit down for coffee or a drink, Cousin Tien and I would practice our “chém gió” skills. “Chém gió” is Vietnamese for “chopping wind,” and refers to an art of conversing that is summed up quite nicely through its figure of speech: conversing about anything and everything; an activity which could take hours to days, but is ultimately equally fruitful to “chopping wind.” Indeed, we end up talking for hours this time. I tell Cousin Tien more about my summer project, and we quickly move from “perceptions of the war” to topics such as political systems, democracy, capitalism and communism, the human nature and why wars exist. It’s chopping wind in its best form.

I always enjoy talking to Cousin Tien, who is equally news-obsessed and rather liberal, too. My mother married late according to Vietnamese standard (she was 31), so Cousin Tien, now in his mid-thirties, is nearly 13 years older than me. He works as an architect and I am often thankful for his insights about Hanoi’s urban and social history during our excursions. Nonetheless, I am taken aback when we start talking about Vietnam’s political system in the café. I catch myself looking around to see whether anyone is listening, and immediately realize the ridiculousness of my reaction.

Cousin Tien laughs when I tell him about my paranoia. It had been easy enough for me to disregard my parents’ early objections of my trip as unrealistic and paranoid. "Vietnam’s society is a mess", my father had told me on the phone, and I had decided that he didn’t know better; my father had only been back to Vietnam a handful of times since he left over 20 years ago. However, now I realize that I don’t know it better, either. Cousin Tien explains that talking about politics is rather common, even in public. As long as it is “chopping wind,” it seems that people can do as they please.

I ask Cousin Tien whether there is any political significance in saying the old name “Saigon,” or calling it “Ho Chi Minh City.” Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, a year after the end of the Vietnam-American War and the “Liberation of the South.” I also ask whether it would have any repercussions if Party officials use the old name “Saigon.” It’s simply a habit still, Cousin Tien explains, and I decide that my paranoia-prone mind is now politicizing a bit too much.

It is nearly noon, time for lunch again. Cousin Tien and I agree that we had done enough chopping for one day. “I think we covered it all,” I tell Tien with a laugh, “religion, politics, science, and societies.” With a smirk, Cousin Tien answers that he wants to stuff as much Vietnamese knowledge into me as possible while I am here. I laugh, “That’s fine with me! Maybe chopping wind will not be as fruitless then after all.”