Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Invasion of the kumquat trees

In the beginning you didn't notice them arriving. Not really. As you rolled through the city streets little flecks of orange here and there may have caught your eye, but amongst the mass of traffic, fumes, beeps and parade of winter fashions, and what with the biting breeze, and the pre-Tet drizzle, you didn't bat an eyelid.

But now, maybe you are on a motorbike – driving to work – or hidden from the rain in the back of a taxi, or cowering behind your xe om driver. But you're in a sleepy-headed daze, so when you stare ahead and see 50 metres down the road a kumquat tree, bobbling in the buffeting breeze, driving a motorbike at full throttle, you'll shake your head, squint your eyes and look again.

Did you just see what you thing you did? Was that a potted plant controlling a two-wheeled motorbike swerving in and out of the traffic with the devilmaycare nonchalance of the headless horseman himself?

"Anh oi," you ask the xe om man, or taxi driver, tapping his shoulder. "Did you see that?" And he will smile leaving you with the impression that a) he didn't understand your Vietnamese b) he didn't understand your English c) he knows something you don't.

As the days dwindle down towards the Lunar New Year, Hanoi city becomes a free for all. The shopping list grows with each year but, to sum up, a shortlist of essentials includes stocking up on crates of beer, bottles of liquor, sacks of rice, fruit, meat and the mildly radioactive looking stomach-sized Banh Chung.

But you've started to notice something else multiplying. This time you're sure. Everywhere bikes are being driven around by kumquat trees. One tree, its little olive-sized fruits shaking as if the tree itself is laughing, is driving a teenage girl and her mother at 40 kilometres per hour down the dyke road, slaloming in and out of trucks, buses and SUVs.

The road by Quan Thanh park - along with many others - has been transformed into polka dot-orange. Young country teenagers coo at passing bikes, beckoning them towards a string of trees for sale. A middle-aged man cruises past eyeing up the trees. Eventually he pauses by a perfectly symmetrical, squat one. He has found his plant, or, you wonder, has the plant found its pod? The young sales boy skilfully ties the plant on to the man's bike. Then the man clambers on the pillion, pats the pot on its rump as if to say - "Off we go!"

You have an appointment, thankfully indoors, and you hurriedly head to the office. I'll be safe here, you think. But the receptionist shunts you into the waiting room where an enormous twelve-footer of a kumquat tree looms over you. The whole room seems to be caught in its shadow. You run out the door shouting that you'll be back after Tet.

Outside you start to panic. The city is now bedlam. You can't travel anywhere without seeing the scores of kumquat trees that have converged on the city like a scene out of the Day of the Triffids. You can't breathe. You decide to u-turn. You have to get out. The suburbs. The hinterland. Anywhere.

But as you snake your way out of the city you glance down into the fields to your right, and there you see a whole host of kumquat trees in their hundreds, stretching into the eerie West Lake mist. Down amongst them locals twirl, dance and skip, like a scene out of the Sound of Music. And the further you drive the more you see, the more you realise there is no point in fighting. The situation is useless.

Eventually you slow down by a field and dismount. You seem powerless, or compelled. You point at a tree. The woman nods. You fork out some crumpled cash from your pockets. Not too much you hope. Then she orders her son to tie the kumquat tree onto your steed. Then afterwards they place you nimbly on the passenger seat and pat the kumquat tree. Then the tree turns the ignition, clicks into gear, accelerates and drives you home.

On the way back the kumquat tree drives with smooth confidence. You are perfectly relaxed. You feel at peace with yourself and fellow man. You realise the stress of the pre-Tet traffic had got you down. Worked up. Frazzled. You smile, put your arms around the tree, and think - "this is going to be the best Tet ever."

As you enter the neighbourhood everyone sees you - the old granny at the tea stall, the neighbourhood policeman, the 'valet' boys at the bia hoi – and they clap their hands with glee.

When you arrive home, after opening your door, your landlord helps you heave the tree inside and place it in a corner where it twinkles in the rays of a setting sunbeam. He admires the tree, and then admires you: "Bay gio," he says with his hand on your shoulder, "thi em la nguoi Vietnam roi."

If you need a translation, it meets quite simply: Now you are one of us.

Things to do with your kumquat tree during Tet:
1. Take off a few kumquats and learn to juggle, which helps reduce stress and lowers the risk of Alzheimer's
2. Take off a half-dozen kumquats, invite a friend over and play "fruit" marbles, which helps reduce tedium and lowers the risk of eye-related injuries
3. Take off all the kumquats, slice them up with limes, while heating a bottle of red wine in a pot, add sugar, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves with the sliced fruit to the wine, heat until just before boiling point. Pour into a glass, drink. Repeat until drunk. And have a merry Lunar New Year.


pittstop designer said...

Feel free to post how you feel about kumquats

pittstop designer said...

...or how kumquats feel about you.

Preya said...


It's nice to see a different, less sappy take on kumquats, since they've always caused me to pen sentimental musings about how much I miss Hanoi. I love your writing by the way...

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