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QUYEN VAN MINH - BINH MINH JAZZ CLUB

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Quyen Van Minh
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A Perfect Evening in Hanoi

Jan 10, 1995

ThingsAsian - I'm a regular visitor to Hanoi, however my hosts keep me so busy that there's rarely a day to spare. They always apologize for the tight schedule, and promise I'll have time to see the sights and explore the culture on my next trip. But I don't feel deprived. In the evenings, I'm free to sample the Hanoian versions of my favorite pleasures: food and music.

On my latest visit, I enjoyed an extraordinary evening of superb cuisine and live jazz. My colleague, Mr. Dinh, invited me to dine with his family. We rode his Honda to the Old Quarter and parked in front of a dingy blue building. A nondescript sign under the window sill read "Cha Ca La Vong."

"Could this be the restaurant?" I wondered, feeling a twinge of disappointment. I climbed into a room packed with a mix of Hanoians and foreigners. A tantalizing aroma, quite unidentifiable, titillated my gourmand's nose and aroused my appetite.

Mr. Dinh gestured to a corner table and introduced me to his wife, Anh, and daughter, Ha. Anh poured mugs of cold beer for Mr. Dinh and me, and filled glasses with Coca-Cola for Ha and herself. We munched peanuts and sipped our drinks.

"We're going to eat cha ca," explained Mr. Dinh, "a special fish dish invented by the Doan family about a hundred years ago. Their restaurant became so famous that the French changed the name of this street to Cha Ca Street."

The table was already set with a portion of white rice noodles for each of us, and a plate of fresh spring onions, cilantro and basil leaves. A waitress brought a ceramic brazier filled with glowing coals. She returned a moment later with a plate of chopped green herbs and a frying pan heaped with amber chunks of fish, tinged with spices. Anh added the herbs to the fish, stirred them together with a pair of chopsticks, and then prepared a sauce from lime wedges squeezed over salt mixed with pepper.

Mr. Dinh transferred some rice noodles to his bowl and added a dollop of steaming fish. He deftly lifted a chunk with his chopsticks. "This is how you should eat cha ca," he declared, as he dipped the flaky flesh into the pepper-speckled lime juice. He pointed to a small bowl. "You can try some of this fish sauce too, but many foreigners find it too powerful," he warned with a knowing smile. I sniffed a bit of the foamy, purple fish sauce and recoiled from the odor which reminded me of durian. "Don't worry, you'll enjoy the fish," guaranteed Mr. Dinh, as he followed bites of noodles and fish with sprigs of basil and cilantro.

Forgetting the sauce, I savored my first delectable morsel of cha ca. I closed my eyes for a moment and concentrated on the unique combination of flavors, chewing slowly and analytically. My experienced taste buds immediately recognized the mysterious herbs as spring onion and fennel, but even after several bowls I failed to identify the condiments flavoring and coloring the fish.

"What spices are used in preparing the fish?"

Anh, an accomplished cook, shook her head. "The recipe is a family secret," she explained. "Many restaurants in Hanoi serve cha ca but nowhere else does it taste quite like this. At Cha Ca La Vong this is the only dish they serve."

Between bites, I looked around at the crowd. The food was definitely the main attraction here. As soon as one group left, a new one rushed in to occupy the empty table. The waiters worked quickly, ferrying pans of fish to the braziers, doling out noodles, and replenishing the mounds of fresh herbs and the bowls of sauces.

With so many would-be diners waiting for a table, we didn't linger long after our meal. I thanked my hosts for their hospitality and for their choice of restaurant. Mr. Dinh hailed a pedicab and negotiated my fare with the driver. "This cyclo will take you back to your hotel," called Mr. Dinh. "I'll see you tomorrow morning at 7:00 sharp," he added, as he, Anh and Ha sped off, waving good-bye from their motorbike.

I didn't feel like going back to my hotel so early. When we reached Hoan Kiem Lake, I asked the cyclo driver to let me off. I sat on a bench gazing at the illuminated tower of the Ngoc Son Temple reflected in the lake. I could easily have spent an hour there watching the passersby and the play of light on the rippling water. As I mused, an idea twigged in my mind. Somewhere I'd read that a jazz combo played at Gustave's on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I consulted my map. Gustave's was very close to the lake. It was Thursday and I was leaving for Hue on Saturday. If I didn't hear the band tonight, I'd have to wait until my next trip. I gave up my bench to a pair of lovers and walked along the lake to Trang Tien Street.

Inside and out, Gustave's exuded French elegance. The ceilings were high, the bar was slate blue and salmon pink. Prints of Parisian scenes lined the walls. I settled into a blue velour armchair in the downstairs bar and ordered a drink. The quartet was already playing, and the mellow tone and smooth phrasing of the sax caught my attention right away.

I shifted my chair so that I could watch the sax player. He crooned "Summertime" on his baritone with such feeling that goose bumps rose on my arms. How had a Hanoian learned to play like that?

Most of the clientele seemed to be expatriates, but three Vietnamese men sat with a suited Westerner in the front table by the window. They obviously knew the band, and shouted for them to play "La Paloma." At the break, the saxophonist made his way towards the front to greet his friends, but I intercepted him, intending only to say that as fellow sax player and jazz lover, I could feel how much he enjoyed playing. He seemed delighted to get feedback from a member of the audience and my compliment blossomed into a conversation about himself and the band.

Inspired by recordings of Benny Goodman and Glen Miller, Quyen Van Minh has loved jazz ever since he can remember, but he only began playing the sax three years ago, after it became possible to buy imported instruments. Minh formed the New Quartet five months ago with pianist Quang Trung, string bassist Do Mai, and drummer Quoc Hung.

"We play here twice a week, and three times at the Metropole Hotel. I also work at the conservatory. I teach Vietnamese people and foreigners." Minh pointed to an American-looking man sitting at the table immediately in front of the band. "He's one of my students. But most of all I love to play. I can play ten hours a day -- I never get tired. Music is my life now."

The professional sound of the band seemed all the more remarkable now that I knew something of the leader's musical career and innate talent. Only a truly gifted musician could accomplish so much in such a short time.

More questions were forming in my mind, but we were interrupted my Minh's fans calling him over to their table. He excused himself and chatted briefly with them before returning to the band. The New Quartet exploded into sound with "Pink Panther," loosening up, and playing the second set with true panache. Perching his baritone on a stand, Minh showed off his mellifluous syncopation on the soprano sax. In later numbers he switched effortlessly to the alto and tenor, and then back to his darling, the baritone.

I stayed until the last number was over. The quartet packed up their instruments and walked through the bar, and out through the front door. Minh lingered longer than the others. He stopped at my table as he passed.

"Thanks for coming. We'll be at the Metropole tomorrow night." "I'll be back to hear you again next time I'm in Hanoi. Thanks for making this a great evening!" We shook hands.

I finished my drink and asked for the bill. My waitress smiled. "There is no bill for you Madame. You are Mr. Minh's guest."

Published on 10/1/95

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