In search of lost time

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A homemade exhibit of items from the embargo era is like "˜meeting an old friend'
 
  The counter at Restaurant No. 37 on Nam Trang Street in Hanoi is cluttered with items dating back to the 1980s

At least one house on Hanoi's Nam Trang Street looks much the way it did when the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

On an islet in tranquil Truc Bach Lake, the road is home to Restaurant No. 37, pragmatically named after the house number. The house is hundreds of years old, with a tile roof and rough yellow walls.

But it's not the house that's the attraction (although that's part of it); people visit because of what's inside. What's inside is not just a throwback menu (although the food is also part of it). Most people stop by the place because Hanoi-born restaurateur Nguyen Quang Minh, 51, has turned the small establishment into a museum of sorts.

The museum displays everyday items, artifacts and photos from the Hanoi that was in the 1980s: poor and apart from the already globalizing world of the time.

Tin dishes and silverware, old lopsidedly-molded glasses, steel electric fans, government food-stamps and vouchers, metal thermoses and flasks, "Ho Chi Minh sandals" made from used car tires, Russian clocks, radios and meters, bicycles, propaganda posters and much more, including photos of the era by Swedish photographer Eva Lindskog who captured the time and place while in Hanoi during the embargo days fill the small establishment.

Minh lived through the period as a teenager and had to wait in line to receive government-issued food. Though those days are long gone, Minh told Vietweek he never forgot the experiences of his youth.

"Many people want to forget those hard days, but others, including me, sometimes like to review them."

Historical perspective

Two months after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong invited the US to normalize relations. Representatives of American banks and corporations were in Hanoi to discuss business opportunities. But the US instead imposed a crippling trade embargo on Vietnam that all but suffocated hopes for a vibrant and dynamic economy.

Billions of dollars in reconstruction aid promised to Vietnam by US President Richard Nixon were never handed over and Hanoi was saddled with the former Saigon regime's old debts, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars that were only fully paid off a few years ago.

Isolated from the West, post-war Vietnam applied what has become known as "the subsidy system." It was a centrally controlled economy in which the state managed and distributed all goods and products directly to people via food stamp-like vouchers.

Each household was given a certain number of vouchers based on the number of family members and they had to wait in line everyday to receive foods from state stores. They also exchanged fuel stamps for petroleum products and goods stamps for things like soap. Due to the serious lack of food and goods, people's everyday lives were hard.

"I decided to collect items from that period so that we could talk about it again and help young people learn about how their grandparents and parents lived at that time," said Minh.

With that idea in mind, Minh began culling his memory and address book to find all his old friends who might still have some items from the old days.

"˜Mad'

It took Minh three years to gather some items for his collection, which is now vast and includes made-in-Russia iron, palm-leaf hats, food vouchers, an old black and white television, military canteens used by civilians and a world more.

There's a stone placeholder with a man's name on it. These were used by people who arrived at the food lines early and then saved their places with rocks they had crudely carved their names into.

There are also several Russian "elephant ear fans," so called because of the Dumbo-like blades on the old metal devices. Minh's restaurant displays lots old radios and in those days, one had to have a license to own one. So Minh collected old radio parts registry books that radio owners had to have stamped when they got new parts.

There is an ashtray made of aircraft debris, all kinds of vouchers and foods stamps, tin lunchboxes, a tea set made of war aircraft scrap metal, a food purchasing registration book that a family had to keep track of their rations in, and old roberval scales used to measure food.

"Collecting was not easy work at all," Minh said.

"I still had some old items and wares, but many people had thrown them away once they could afford modern furnishings and appliances. Some even said I was mad to collect those things and remember that difficult period. There were many times I came back home after a long trip of searching for old items [for the museum] with nothing."

But Minh's old friends came out of the woodwork and began to support his project. Soon, buddies were doing some of the searching for him.

Many items in his collection came from a friend named Vinh Tan Dao, who is also a famous antiquarian in Hanoi whose collection of various old motorbikes and furniture are displayed at the Classic Motor Café on Hang Bun Street.

Nguyen Thi Vinh, a former waiter at a famous beer shop on Trang Tien Street, brought Minh an old glass from the bygone era, with air bubbles in the glasswork and crooked lines defining its edges. Painter Le Thiet Cuong gave Minh the enameled glass in which he used to put his brushes.

Minh also collected a great deal of photos of Hanoi street life of the time, when it was jammed not with motorbikes and SUVs, but tramcars and bicycles. Some of the scenes are familiar from today, such as people sitting in the street (literally) at "com bui" (dust rice) food stalls and carts.

There are photos of Trang Tien Street full of bicycles and people eating at with street food vendors taken by Eva Lindskog during her time living and studying here 1982-1987. Minh got these photos as a present from painter Le Thiet Cuong, who bought them from Lindskog when she exhibited in Vietnam last year.

Gradually, Minh's collection grew to include hundreds of items.

It then took him a lot of time to clean the grime off the old items, while reassembling and repairing old things that had broken down over time.

Painter Quach Dong Phuong helped Minh write the signboards and curate and arrange the items. Some are just for display, but others are used by the restaurant staff and customers.

Spartan but delicious

The fantastic and somewhat indulgent Vietnamese dishes now served at hip restaurants have come a long way, as Minh's menu reveals.

Though the dishes he serves are simpler than those found today, they are no less delicious, or perhaps even more so for their straightforward heartiness and nourishing quality there are few garnishes and nothing is embellished.

Popular dishes of the time are served, such as rice mixed with sweet potato, fried pickle vegetable, boiled tofu, vegetable soup and an array of other proletarian meals.

Though the food is the same as 80s Hanoi, the atmosphere is different.

During the subsidy period, the staff at state stores were known for being bossy. However, now at No. 37, polite and friendly waiters write down customers' orders on small "food vouchers." The meals are served on old tin bowls and plates from the embargo days.

The food is exponentially more expensive than what was sold 30 years ago, but it's not costly compared to other themed establishments in Vietnamese cities. Meals range from quite cheap at VND30,000 to a bit more indulgent at VND100,000 a dish.

Remembrance of rations

The restaurant, opened earlier this year, is now as popular as any of Hanoi's trendy destinations.

Many of the customers, especially those who had lived through the subsidy days, told Vietweek that even though the embargo era was full of daily difficulties, they were glad to have such an opportunity to help them remember the past.

In their stories, they spoke about getting up from 2 a.m. in the morning to line up for food, receiving five kilograms of pork, one kilogram of beef, three kilograms of fish, 2 kilograms of tofu, one chicken, and 20 eggs for the whole family for a month.

"Coming here I feel like I'm meeting an old friend again," said 57-year-old Hanoian Truong Cong Huong from Dong Da District. "That was a difficult time but we need to remember it so that we can have more will to overcome future obstacles."

Younger people have also expressed their interest in learning about the old days.

"My parents have told me about this time but this place helps me learn more clearly about it," said 32-year-old Mai Thi Phuong from Hanoi University of Culture. "Coming here, eating the food and seeing the bicycle, the radio, the palm hats and so on help me understand how much my parents had to overcome to bring us up."

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