“They actually didn’t have anything else. And this is easy to make, they can make it even from the iron of fallen aircrafts. It was at a time that all Vietnamese made their kitchenware from the aircraft.”
After 1975, a rebuilding Vietnam struggled to put itself back together in any way it could. All resources were fair game. Some took airplane hatch doors and used them in place of house doors, which they lacked.
The particular plates we’re eating off of at Goi, a Hanoi-style eatery in Ho Chi Minh City (87 Nguyen Du, Q1), are military surplus, produced nowadays by Nha May Trang Men Hai Phong — ‘Enameled Iron and Aluminium of Hai Phong’. According to Goi’s owner, Phong Hai Du, everyone alive back then will recognise the plate’s seal.
“Back then,” Phong says, “we didn’t do a logo. Everything had that stamp. That stamp will take everyone back to the 1980s, I’m sure it hasn’t changed.”
Using these plates was a very deliberate move in the restaurant’s planning process, with the thought behind it extending as far as the cubbyholed walls, which carry old cameras and thermoses, oxidised metal things, antiques that look vaguely Soviet.
“We went with [these enameled plates] because of the whole ambience,” says Phong. “We thought about regular ceramic china, but it could be anything, it’s not entirely relevant to anyone. The era that we want to set is somewhere in the 1980s. Early 1990s, late 1980s, that’s when all of us — me and my partner — practically grew up. We were all born in the 1970s.”
An Idealised Memory
The 1990s era of uneven, exponential change doesn’t have the same effect on Vietnamese nostalgia, in part because it was neither here nor there. It was a becoming — a time in which Vietnam’s values were shifting, when its people realised they wanted what they didn’t have.
“Everything in the 1990s is very blurry,” Phong says. “It’s a little bit of the old, a little bit of the new stuff. The 1980s is very authentic.”
Nancy calls the blue of these metal plates “the colour of peace and clean”.
And this is the way nostalgia is waking in Vietnam, for Phong and Nancy and others their age and younger, who didn’t feel the true hardship of Thoi Bao Cap — the Subsidy Era. During this time, from 1976 to 1986, times were difficult. Every family had to make do, living in similarly meagre conditions. For them, it’s a beautiful period, tied up in childhood and an idealistic innocence.
As we’re sitting in front of Goi talking after the lunch rush, a story comes to Phong’s mind. “World Cup 1986,” he says. “Every block maybe had four or five families that had a TV, maybe one of them had a colour TV. Back then it was in Mexico, so the games here started at midnight or 2am. We all gathered at that particular house with a TV. And whoever lived in that house didn’t have a choice, they had to host us. Imagine you have a living room with 40 or 50 of your neighbours in it.”
He shakes his head. “That’s just how it was back then, and we liked it a lot better than now.”
“It’s a kind of ruin art,” says Nguyen Van Kien, owner of Hanoi lit-café The Booklink (Bep 4, cho Sinh Vien, DH Nong Nghiep, Gia Lam Pho).
For a couple of years Kien has been collecting forgotten relics of the period, ceramic bowls pushed to the back of cabinets, cups placed top-down in gardens as ornaments. He’s sourced them from his home province, Hai Duong, and from a pagoda in the commune of Kim Lan. It’s proven more difficult than he thought at first.
“[I] thought we had a lot [of the crockery] in my family when I asked them to bring some to me,” he says. “But no more. All were thrown away.”
His parents haven’t used the bowls for years. “They think they’re old-fashioned,” he says. “Now they have colourful ones.”
At Kien’s old place of employ, Bookworm Too (6 Lane 1/28 Au Co, Tay Ho, Hanoi), the plates and bowls he’s collected were exhibited this summer, and now are stickered in the VND500,000 range.
What was once considered cheap and distasteful is now being appreciated. Restaurants like Ho Chi Minh City’s Cuc Gach Quan (10 Dang Tat, Q1) utilise this glazed, white clay crockery, hand-streaked with blue paint by crafters in places like Hai Duong and Bat Trang, to serve meals that would be just as comfortable on porcelain. Something in the cracked vessels works on their mostly younger, mostly well-off patrons’ subconscious minds. In a place like Cuc Gach, where comfort is the raison d’être, the use of these bowls speaks loudly.
A Hanoian restaurant, Cua Hang Mau Dich So 37 (‘State-run Food Shop No. 37’, 37 Nam Trang, Ba Dinh), digs even more deeply into this nostalgia with a concept entirely devoted to the Bao Cap era — dispensing ration stamps to customers, mixing yams in with the rice.
Toni Nguyen devotes a blog post to the restaurant on her site, toninguyen.com, which references this newfound perspective on one of the most difficult periods of Vietnam’s history:
“Our dreams in those days were so simple, just to travel to Hoan Kiem Lake by train and eat Trang Tien ice cream,” said one woman. All of a sudden, tears dampened their eyes. It had been years since they’d recalled the joy of eating Trang Tien ice cream… (At a time when life was so tough that rice was mixed with yams, ice cream had been an impossible luxury for most). Everyone was absorbed in the nostalgic ambience. If the dishes were a bit slow to appear, they all joked: “That’s the subsidy era!”
To Kien, these emotions are connected with these artefacts, at least for those old enough to remember. Some people “think they’re ugly, they remind them of the hardest times so they don’t like to see it anymore”.
Collecting the crockery and giving it some spotlight is done with the younger generations in mind, those who weren’t there to experience these hardships, and the sense of identity they instilled. “I think that young people need to see this thing, which is disappearing,” he says.
“If we have exhibitions, and cafés display [this crockery] more and more and the newspapers keep talking about it, then young people will realise the value and notice the old things. If you hide the bowls in the corner they will not see the value, but if I keep talking about it and the café keeps displaying it, then gradually they will have the same interest.”