Soup for the Soul - Diane Lee

Soup Soothes the Soul

When it’s cold in Hanoi – the air weirdly humid and the moisture from the air collects on my face, which I blot with a serviette that leaves traces of delicate, white paper on my forehead and cheeks like freckles – the weather is perfect for soup.

Actually, in Vietnam, any weather – hot, cold or in between – is good weather for soup. It soothes the body and nourishes the soul. And while I don’t eat phở (beef or chicken noodle soup) thanks to my pescetarian status, I did occasionally eat bún riêu (crab noodle soup sans the pork and blood cake) and regularly, bún cá (fish noodle soup). Soups cost around VND45,000, or AU$3 — cheap, delicious and nutritious – and they are available everywhere.

A few times a week, at around 11.30AM, a couple of hours after my gym work-out, I’d walk the 300 metres from my apartment to Ms Huong’s restaurant, dodging motorcycles and old folk on their rickety bicycles, and find a table, sometimes with others but mostly on my own and order my bún cá. Restaurant is probably not the right word; but it was a few steps up from a street food stall, with adult sized tables and chairs, organised in differed rooms of the converted house. The open kitchen was on the street, and Vietnamese rode up on their motorcycles and their food-to-go was handed to them, ordered via an app, wrapped in plastic and then more plastic. So much plastic.

Ms Huong’s brother or mother – it was a family affair as most businesses are in Vietnam – would bring my salad greens and herbs in a plastic basket, and condiments of tiny kumquats, pickled garlic and sliced chillies while I waited for my soup. Before I stopped drinking alcohol, I’d order a beer with a glass of ice, because the beer is never cold enough in Vietnam, but after I became a tee-totaller, I’d have the free trà đá (iced tea with anonymous herbs), poured from a large plastic urn with a large wooden ladle into a small plastic cup.

I’d chat in my child-like Vietnamese to the people seated near me, who were impressed with my pronunciation and the fact that I could communicate reasonably well in their difficult, musical language. Invariably, we’d revert to English because it was easier for me and more interesting for them. I found Vietnamese are friendly, like Europeans, and I’d often have company when I ate alone. I was always looking for opportunities to practice my Vietnamese, and eating locally, really locally, perched at tiny plastic tables on even tinier plastic stools, with the smell of the city with it ugly beautiful smells, was one of the best ways.

The soup at Ms Huong’s was a light fishy, tomatoey broth, poured over pale yellow noodles and long stalks of spring onions with chunks of deep-fried, battered fish added to the mix. I used to joke that I didn’t want to know where the fish came from, because I would often see men fishing in polluted West Lake – a catch-all for sewerage and household waste – char-grilling their catch on the concrete footpaths that framed the lake. I never got sick from food in Vietnam, though, so that says something. I had a Vietnamese boyfriend who refused to use the supplied salad and herbs, but I would always dunk them in my soup. I found a tiny slug once in my greens, but in Vietnam that wasn’t exactly unusual and hardly concerning, what with rats running along roof beams like it was their own personal thoroughfare, and racing down into gutters, disappearing deep into the Hanoi’s rank, ancient underbelly.

***

My other favourite kind of soup is free soup. But this soup — the soup in the photo – is free, but not free. I’ve earned it. I’ve been concentrating, making sense of mish mashed words and timelines and juggling misconstrued meanings and mistranslations to shape a story of inspiration and achievement.

I’ve been interviewing the owner of one of my favourite restaurants about his life. I’m ghostwriting his memoir. With an actual decent budget; a rare occurrence. My job is to help this man tell his story: from a childhood of poverty to one of travel and entrepreneurship and wealth. Generally, I like the work. I listen, I ask questions, I type, I ask more questions, I type some more. And listen again. Most of what I type is dot points, incomplete sentences, thoughts around my understandings of the events and what transpired. Later, when I have left the interview, I shape and massage and structure his words so they are meaningful and connect.

This man came with a preconceived idea about what he wanted to write about. He sent me the start of a manuscript. It was my job to kindly blow that up, because it was contrived and formulaic and made no sense. There was a story to tell, but not the one he thought he should be telling. We parted ways over this, in the end. He wasn’t a writer, and his written English was difficult to read, and my job was to educate him to the possibilities of his story and to entice him into telling it. He trusted me, but also didn’t, seeking out second and third opinions, suggesting alternative editors. Our contract was explicit: he wasn’t to do that, but the call to be validated by someone other than me, the ghostwriter, was too strong. He started delaying milestone payments, which made me nervous.

The pop psychologist in me says he was having control issues and delaying payment, which is a common occurrence in Vietnam, was a way to flex his muscles. That aside, before I took on the project, I explained my process. How we’d work together. His responsibilities. Mine. Inputs. Outputs. Deliverables. And I explained it again. And again. He signed the contract. Every time we met, I’d have to explain it all again. It was exhausting. I spent the first half an hour of every session going over the process. And it’s not like he didn’t have any say. I’d work the interview notes into prose, send the text to him for feedback, and work through his comments and incorporate them into the next draft. It turned into a battle of wills and it was exhausting.

Other freelancers would say: just do what he wants. He’s the client. He’s paying you to deliver a service. But I couldn’t. Not ethically. I couldn’t take his money and write a story that was less than it could have been.

So one muggy afternoon in Hanoi when the sky threatened a torrent of rain, over seafood soup chock full of squid and prawns and cockles and dill, when the conversation flowed and was generous and unguarded, that was the last time we met.

This photo was taken by me after work at one of my favourite restaurants in Hanoi on or around 17/01/2020. I remember the big stuff of my life there, but it’s easy to forget the details and minutiae that made living there (mostly) so enjoyable. This essay has been written so those details won’t be lost, and may or may not become part of a memoir – but form a part of my broader writing intentions for 2022.

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