Six years later, in summer 2019, I returned to Copenhagen to visit Jorgen Nilsson and his wife Ulla-Stina, my old friends. Jorgen picked me up at Frederiksberg metro station. He welcomed me with open arms: “Hello Little Na, welcome home!”
I rushed to hug him with a heart full of dear feelings. Jorgen and his wife call me Na, a nickname that my parents and close friends often call me. For them, I am always a little Na.
I first met the old couple more than a decade ago in Hanoi while they were visiting the Temple of Literature, as Vietnamese Poetry Day was taking place. They bought my poetry collection ‘Nhung Chiec Gai Trong Mo’ (Thorns in Dreams) at a bookstore there. When they heard that the author of the collection was attending the Poetry Day at the Temple, they wanted to meet me. It was poetry that brought us together.
Their three-bedroom apartment is located on the fourth floor of an old house without an elevator in Pile Allé Street. The house faces the street and its back opens onto a spacious courtyard, with flower gardens and fruit-laden trees.
My visit was made when Ulla turned 80 and Jorgen was 86. On Sunday, August 25, their daughters, Mette and Lotte, hosted a joint birthday party for them, with around 20 guests. That was the reason I went to Copenhagen at that time.
My room in the house had a window overlooking Frederiksberg park and the Royal Danish Summer Castle. On the chair, Ulla prepared towels and a nightdress robe for me. On the table, she placed a book entitled "Tales from Moominvalley" by Tove Jansson - a famous Finnish female writer, a family album, a map of Copenhagen and an old postcard. I realised that it was the postcard I sent to Jorgen on his birthday in 2014.
In the family album, I saw a lot of my photos, which I had emailed to them over the previous years. The couple printed them and placed them next to the pictures of their own family members. They even noted down the dates of the photos in the way many parents do. My eyes were suddenly stinging but my heart was comforted. I felt relaxed and peaceful. After a long journey, I realised that I will always have a place to live in the bosom of their house.
During my stay with the Nilssons, I cooked some popular Vietnamese dishes such as fried spring roll, ‘bun cha’ (noodle with grilled pork), salads of vegetables and dried beef, steamed spring roll, and chicken ‘pho’. My hosts were impressed with the fresh and savoury tastes, particularly the sweet and sour sauce, in the Vietnamese dishes.
One day I decided to make ‘bun bo Nam Bo’ (beef noodle without broth). Literally, ‘bun bo Nam Bo’ means southern-styled beef noodle, but someone told me that it was created by a Hanoian woman dozens of years ago. She opened a restaurant on Nam Bo (now Le Duan) Street in Hanoi, serving noodles with grilled beef, herbs, sweet and sour sauce, and pickled green papaya. Whether from the North or the South, ‘bun bo Nam Bo’ is still one of the most favoured Vietnamese dishes of people outside the country’s borders.
Jorgen Nilsson and Ulla-Stina enjoy ‘bun bo Nam Bo’, cooked by Vietnamese poet Nguyen Bao Chan during her stay with their family in 2019. (Photo: Nguyen Bao Chan)
On that morning, I joined Ulla in a walk along Vesterbrogade, a busy shopping street where we could find the ingredients needed to cook ‘bun bo Nam Bo’. Ulla asked me whether the dish was only served on special occasions as she found that it required a lot of ingredients and took a lot of time to cook. She was surprised to know that it was just a normal daily dish in Vietnam, she surely has her respect heightened for the patience of Vietnamese women.
To cook ‘bun bo Nam Bo’, I first thinly sliced beef, then well seasoned it with oyster sauce, fish sauce, sugar, pepper, and finely chopped garlic and lemongrass. The beef was stir-fried on a high heat until it was just about done.
I also fried shallots, roasted peanuts, and pickled green papaya, carrots, and lettuce with vinegar, sugar and chilli.
The making of the sauce is vital as it is the soul of the dish. Without the exact measurements, I often mix fish sauce, sugar, vinegar in a sufficient amount of warm water and taste it until they incorporate well together, as the balance can depend on the brands of fish sauce and vinegar. Finally, I add pepper, garlic and some drops of fresh lime to finish the sauce.
I didn’t put all of the ingredients in a bowl and mix them together as is often served at restaurants. Instead, I placed each ingredient in a separate dish so that the diners could mix them by themselves in their own bowls. As it is a beef dish, Jorgen opened a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. The astringent wine mixed well with the ingredients of ‘bun bo Nam Bo’, creating an interesting taste.
We enjoyed a cosy dinner full of laughers and tears. I felt like I was at home and Nisson couple were my own parents. I recited to them a Vietnamese folk verse, which literally means “Whoever experiences sweetness and sourness in life together, please don’t forget each other.” They were touched and held my hands. “Na, you are like our third daughter. Thank you for this delicious meal, and thank you for coming back to us,” Ulla told me.
Despite drinking quite a lot during the dinner, I got up very early the next morning. I opened the window and heard the birds chirping from the trees at the park. The air was cold and pure. Looking down, Pile Allé Street was still quiet. The city was waking up. The sky was blushing as the first sunlight began to lighten up the intersection between Vesterbrogade and Pile Allé, gently covering the city with a dreamy golden glow. A new day had come.
I heard Jorgen making coffee in the kitchen. Then the sound of Ulla softly walking toward my room. She knocked on the door and called me in her gentle tone: “Na, let's get up for breakfast!” - "Yes, I'm up right now," I replied.
The aroma of coffee and bread filled the air. This city has become so familiar to me! Here the Nilssons gave me a home and a warm kitchen, where I can return any time.