Thin is selling tea on the doorstep of her house. Members of her family are sitting around a small table playing cards and drinking tea. They come sometimes when the weather isn’t good or on their day off. “They play just for fun, not for money,” she explains, “because if you take it too seriously the police will come.”
Thin used to be a government factory worker and when she retired, she started selling green tea. “Actually I used to sell flowers after retirement, but then I took a break and went on to sell tea. For selling flowers you need to know how to wrap and put the flowers together nicely, while selling tea you just need to know how to boil water.”
She shares with us her secret to making good tea. The most important is that the tea has to be green and stay like that through the day; if it turns yellow it’s no good. The day before you make the tea, you need to boil one litre of water and leave it in the fridge overnight. The next morning you wash the tealeaves carefully, cut them into small pieces and place them in cold water. Once the water has come to the boil, you take the kettle off the stove quickly (don’t overboil it otherwise it will turn yellow), then you mix your tea with the cold water from the night before. “This technique will keep the tea green all day,” she assures us. The bitterness of the tea? It comes from how many tea leaves you actually use.
The B52 in the Lake
In the 50 years Thin has lived in her house, she has seen the neighbourhood change completely. Ngoc Ha used to be the flower garden of Hanoi, supplying the city, and the lake was surrounded by single-story houses. Now the houses are higher, the flower gardens are almost all gone, the traffic has intensified and there is the wreckage of a B52 bomber in the lake.
That was in December 1972 when she was 23 years old, working for a factory producing cotton shoes for soldiers. There were five or six air-raid shelters built by the authorities to protect the people every time the sirens sounded the arrival of American bombers. Each bunker had a cement roof with steel in the middle.
They heard on the radio that a recent bombing raid had leveled the whole of Kham Thien Street. Old people and children had to take refuge in the suburbs. During the evacuation to the camp in the suburbs, Thin’s two daughters stood on the back of a bicycle, arms round their dad’s neck. She and her husband stayed at home because people were still needed to carry on production and guard the area. For a few months, she didn’t see her children; they had to stay in the camp. The living conditions were harder, the water was muddier, but the kids were safer there.
The day the aeroplane came down, everything was normal. Thin woke up at 5.30am, cycled to the factory at 6am and worked until 2pm. She had lunch at the factory: noodles, a little bit of meat and vegetables. Then she came back home to prepare dinner for her husband. Every day they would have dinner together.
That night as she was sleeping, she heard the air-raid siren. When she got outside, everybody was rushing to the shelters. It was very dark inside — you could hardly recognise the person right next to you. After about 10 minutes, Thin heard the rumble and the roar of planes mixed with the sound of anti-aircraft fire.
Half an hour later, when it seemed to be quiet, they started to climb back out. That’s when they saw it right in front of them, an enormous ball of fire burning in the middle of the lake. It was part of a downed plane; the petrol in the engine was burning and lit up the sky. Some other pieces of the airplane had been torn off and came down in other neighbourhoods — two people died from the falling debris. They stood there for a while observing the scene, then walked quietly home.
The overall atmosphere was tense; she’d lived through the war for many years, but this was the first time she’d witnessed it with her own eyes. — Julie Vola
To see the other stories in this series, please click on the links below:
The Banh Mi Seller
The Shoe Repairer
The Banh Canh Cua Seller
The Street Barber
The Flower Seller
The Salad Professor
The Tuk Tuk Driver