“I was born and bred in Thanh Hoa province, but when we took the government back from the French, I came back to Hanoi – it’s where my father was born, where my family was – but during the war, citizens were mobilised constantly, so we had to move around a lot.” Dr. Trinh Ngoc Thinh, 86, was born in 1932, back when Vietnam was still the French colony of Indochina, so it’s fair to say he’s seen Vietnam twist and turn in the winds of history, but much in the way that a taste can transport you back to the past, Dr. Trinh’s most concerning changes are the food.
“During the French occupation, I was a student of course,” he smiles, “We had no rice to eat, so we had to ration out potatoes and cassava to keep the starch in our diets.” Modern Vietnam’s powerful lust for rice is world famous and, to anyone here, the absence of such a revered national staple is almost unthinkable, but for Dr. Trinh, it was a daily reality. “Students rations were subsidised by the government back then, but meat was a once-a-week luxury, corn was a fairly reliable staple, but it was only the students that could access these subsidised rations, so we’d have to share them with our families.”
The string of wars that shaped Vietnam into one of the top foodie destinations on the face of the earth have left an indelible mark, not just on the nation, but on those who lived through it. Dr. Trinh served as a medic during the tumultuous formation of what is now Vietnam, but he was never assigned to the front lines, instead he was based in Hải Dương province. “It was rural, I didn’t have a lot of violence or conflict to deal with and I ended up spending much of my career there.”
Dr. Trinh’s first foray into the medical profession came at a time where there was great need for his skills in Northern Vietnam. The Americans had increased their military presence and expanded their operations. Bombs were raining explosive death down on the country like a typhoon, the nation was bitterly divided and resources across the country were being depleted rapidly to continue the fight against the Americans. “We had to live off rations – just 13kg of rice per month – but it wasn’t always rice. Sometimes we got corn instead and sometimes the rice was just mouldy and inedible. Most people received just 300g of meat in their monthly rations.”
His role within the war efforts granted him access to more food than most, “As a specialist – I was a surgeon – I received 2.5kg of meat every month, which was well above the average, but when the state ran out of meat, we were down to tofu.” To me tofu is a congealed globule of atheism-confirming horror and only to be eaten in the direst of times, but then again, I’ve never served as a medic in a war. “All of the meat we were given was boiled, so that it looked like there was more and kept its weight – which was important for the rationing – but now a lot of modern methods seem quite dangerous.”
A cruel twist of irony has wrought its wrath on Dr. Trinh, who, having witnessed the finale of countless lives and having survived Vietnam’s years of violent unrest, has now lost much of his appetite. “Now that I’m older, I can’t digest the richer foods like meat, but the stark contrast between the past and the future is that back then, there wasn’t enough and I needed more, now there’s plenty of food and I need very little.” Despite seeing an influx of Western culinary trends as well as imported ingredients weaving their way into the fabric of Vietnamese culture, he remains diligently loyal to Vietnamese cuisine.
“It’s lighter, it’s healthier and in my condition, my stomach can’t handle the rich ingredients, plus these days there’s so much more chance of eating chemicals – times might have been hard previously, but it was still fun and there was a lot less cancer.”
Dr. Trinh’s observations raise an important question for Vietnam – has the nation’s miraculous economic development sacrificed quality on the altar of commercial value? “Yes, we have a higher standard of living now than ever before, but diseases like cancer and diabetes are new problems that have come with those improvements,” muses Dr. Trinh, “I worry about food safety these days, farmers have more fertilisers, more pesticides and chemicals, we don’t eat fresh food as much as we should, processed foods are so popular – look at my granddaughter!” He motions over to one of his many grandchildren who are running amok about house gleefully as we talk, “She’s far too fat – she eats too much, there was no obesity back in my day.”