SÖ: Not only has the soundscape shifted in your homeland since you were a child, but you often speak of the changes that happened in Mai Dịch, where your parents live since the 1960s. Just after the war, when you were born, Mai Dịch was still the very last outpost of Hanoi, a very rural place with a lot of little ponds and lakes, surrounded by rice fields.
NTT: Everything I remember about Mai Dịch from my childhood is gone now. There are no more ponds and trees. Children now stay inside most of the time.. There is no space for children here. When I was a child, you could take a bamboo carpet out to the nearest pond (where there is a parking lot today) on a hot summer night and sleep until the early morning, when you went back home. It was a good way to escape the heat.
SÖ: This was a time when there were not yet any motorbikes in Hanoi. What sounds would you hear by the pond in the night?
NTT: You would hear the wind in the leaves of the trees, the noise of the cicadas, the ghost stories told by the older boys, and sometimes grasshoppers jumping in the grass around the pond as well. During this time I had some secret corners out in Mai Dịch where I could be alone. But of course, today there is a constant flow of people on bicycles, motorbikes, in cars, and all the one-story houses are gone, replaced by increasingly large and narrow homes. Mai Dịch is now just part of a rapidly growing city. Of course, the new housing is part of a very strong improvement in people’s lives, which has occurred with the growing economy. The rural Mai Dịch from my childhood was a very poor area, where people struggled for survival in a war-torn country, like all in the north of Vietnam at the time. When I was nine years old I was accepted to study at the Hanoi Conservatory of Music. It was the year of Đổi Mới, and it was the last year that the state would offer a full scholarship to a student in the academy. Since then, it has been up to the student’s family to cover the university fees and the living costs. During the entire length of my studies, I was supported by the government.
SÖ: So in a sense you actually grew up in the old economic system?
NTT: Yes, and my parents are actors of traditional theatre, a cultural form that has been carefully nursed by the government. With Đổi Mới, the situation for traditional culture in Vietnam has been in constant recession. The audience is diminishing, and the situation for anyone with a state salary is getting more and more unbearable, since the salaries do not follow inflation. Hence, today, anyone with a state salary needs to have a second source of income.
SÖ: Shall we return to the bike ride we were talking about? We went to your uncle’s house in the village, driving through the center of Hanoi towards the Chương Dương bridge and onwards to Bắc Ninh. The first person we met was your cousin.
NTT: Now, in retrospect, one can see how this meeting with my cousin became significant in Arrival Cities: Hanoi. I hadn’t seen her much the last years, but now we had a bit of a conversation, and we looked at the old family bike. I think you shot a picture of it?
SÖ: I did. It made a bit of an impression, this rusty old bike, once brought as a gift from your father, who studied in Russia in the 1970s. And this is the bike she still uses?
NTT: Yes, and some years earlier, when she worked as a street vendor in Hanoi, this was the bike she would use to bring the 70 kilos of rice to the city in the early morning.
SÖ: It was the next time we were in the village to work on the Homelands project that she told you about this time in her life, right?
NTT: Yes, we had more time to speak when we returned in September 2013 to work for a week out in the landscape. We visited my uncle’s house many times in this period. Làm Xáo is a local expression in Bắc Ninh for the practice of working the raw rice, and, traditionally, this was part of the work you would do in my uncle’s family. This was considered women’s work, as an extra task alongside the main work on one’s own rice field. When I was a child and would come to the village in the summer, the sound of the huge mortars you use for Làm Xáo was a very distinct part of the soundscape. There are two main parts of the process: first the crushing of the raw rice with the mortar, and then the sorting, which creates a sizzling sound. Today, farming processes have been modernized and are carried out by companies who buy land from small-scale farmers and invest in machines, which of course changes the soundscape of the countryside quite radically.
SÖ: I remember when we travelled in the highlands to collect video footage for Arrival Cities: Hanoi. We shot a video of a woman working the raw rice.
NTT: Yes, but that woman was working rice only for family use, much more small-scale and with different tools.