Sunday, September 11, 2016

rainy season.

Street art. I believe that sign says something along the lines of making sure you lock up your vehicle lest it gets stolen. Or something like that.


Arrived at my new client’s, dropped off my grocery bags in the kitchen and told him I still had a few more errands to run for dinner that night. “That’s fine”, he said. “Our housekeeper can take you on her bike if you want so you don’t have to go on foot”.  He asked Mrs. Lien if she wouldn’t mind driving me to the markets. “Ham Nghi?”, she asked (Ham Nghi street is where the two international stores are located. “Yes”, I said, “And around the corner on Ton That Dam to the street market for vegetables”. “Ok, we go now”.  

Though I’ve lived in Saigon for one year, I am still too chickenshit to get behind the handlebars of a motorbike. Which is pretty stupid, I’ll admit. Most of my expat friends drive. After all, I learned how to drive in France, and from what I gather there’s not much difference in the way the Vietnamese and French drive.  I drove my mom’s car four years ago on a two lane road along the Mediterranean, and though there were some hairy moments (I’d forgotten that there are no stop signs in France so people merge willy nilly and flip you off for not letting them cut in front of you), I managed just fine.  And in Vietnam, sure, there are laws and rules, but few follow them. Cops waving you down mean nothing; just smile and keep driving, is what a Vietnamese friend told me. After all, they’re not going to come after you (unless they're the cops dressed in all black - those are the serious Take No Prisoners/Take No Shit cops; you do what they say).  Sidewalks are not meant for pedestrians, they’re for motorbike riding and parking. One way streets? No such thing to some drivers, even if that sign says you can’t drive in that direction.  Wrong way drivers tend to hug the curb, so if you’re on foot crossing a one way street, always look in both directions or you’ll get plowed down.  But on the plus side, most of the time your glare will be reciprocated with a smile and a “Sorry!” in English. 

So I hopped on the back of Mrs Lien’s bike and she was off… and immediately scooted at top speed down a sidewalk, pedestrians jumping out of her way. Next onto a one way street going the opposite direction, with a bus headed straight for us and various honking taxis. Rain hit me hard in the face and I got scared. My arms tensed as I reached back and attempted to grip the seat behind me and hoped for the best. Somehow or another, Mrs Lien managed to dexterously maneuver her machine through rainy day traffic, and blatantly ignore the honking and other drivers.  At one point on our adventure, she came across a wall of motorbike drivers, all driving the proper direction. When our way was blocked, she stopped her bike and proceeded to loudly berate one of the drivers (at least, that’s what I think she was doing) until he sheepishly backed his bike out of our way and let us through. I’ve never been so fucking scared in my life as she raced right smack down the middle of the street, ignoring a bus headed straight for us, horn honking so loudly that I went deaf for a minute. I have no idea how she managed to skirt around the bus without smashing into it into head on. When she finally came to a stop back at our client’s place, she was laughing. Jesus, I thought, did she do that on purpose to scare me?

In the hands of the Motorbike Gods.

Tricky tiles.

Saigon’s sidewalks are for the most part paved with one kind of tile. There are exceptions, like granite in some of the high tourist areas, and I noticed a few streets in Go Vap when I lived there where the tile was different; but I’d wager a guess to say that 90% of the sidewalk tiles that i’ve seen in the city are the same and manufactured by the same company. Whoever owns that company must make bank. Due to my firsthand knowledge that sidewalks are alternate routes for motorbike drivers, I've noticed the tiles are often broken.  No sidewalk is flat (this also has to do with tree roots growing underneath).  Sometimes the tiles get fixed, though not as quickly as we’d like. There was an article a few months back stating that a lot of main thoroughfares in District 1 would have their sidewalks repaved starting in the next month or two; my street was on that list.  It’s now mid-September and I’ve yet to see any construction.  During rainy season, water gets underneath the broken tiles, so if you walk everywhere (like I do), occasionally you’ll come across one in your travels and once you step on it, the water gushes upwards and splashes your leg.  I ruined a good pair of heels this way (lesson learned: never wear heels on the sidewalks here, also see above about them not being level and with me being a klutz, I’ve tripped and fallen quite a bit).  I call these tiles “tricky tiles”.  On familiar walks, I know exactly where the tricky tile is and I try to avoid it, but sometimes one must accept Tricky Tile Fate because I hit at least one new one per day.

Rainy day in Saigon. Is that a sidewalk, you ask? No. It's a BOOBY TRAP.

Lazy rainy Sundays.

There's a growing craft beer movement in Saigon, which is pretty exciting for us residents.  Not that there is anything wrong with the local Bia Saigon (or Bia Hanoi, or Tiger, or Larue, etc).  Sometimes you just want a taste of home, like a good hoppy IPA.  A half dozen or so craft breweries have popped up here in the past year or two, creating American-style beers using local ingredients.  BiaCraft, a taproom, showcases all of the brands including their own brews.  Up until now, BiaCraft's only location was in District 2, but this week they opened a new location in District 3 near my house.  So while I started a big vat of chicken stock not to be disturbed on the stove for a few hours, I went to check out the new place.  Ensconced on the patio with a cold beverage watching the rain come down, I watched two guys pull up on a motorbike, one of them balancing two kegs on his knees.  Turns out they're the brewmasters from LAC Brewing, two guys from Portland, Oregon named Michael and Lucas, come to deliver more of their Devil's Lake IPA since BiaCraft had already run out at the new location (and it's only been opened for 4 days). 

I love this town.

Delivering the goods.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

playing tourist

I wandered down to the Bến Thành market, which isn’t a place I usually go since it’s flooded with tourists, but I needed a hat.  I’m going to the beach this weekend, and since I stupidly left my hat at a security checkpoint at the Seoul Incheon airport last year, it’s about time I bought another.  Markets are the places to go in this town if you want to buy something relatively inexpensive and don’t mind haggling a bit.

Bến Thành market has been around for ages, and its building is one of the oldest in Saigon.  On the back end is the food - butchers, fruit sellers, etc… , then as you scoot inwards you’ll find food stalls (phở and the like), coffee beans, more vegetables, then tons and tons of clothing and shoes.  The vendors here will not leave you alone. You can’t walk down an aisle without someone pushing a purse, or tshirt, or pack of coffee in your face. “Madame, can I help you Madame? You want nice purse Madame?”.  This is where they differ from the other markets in town, like the Bình Tây market in Saigon’s Chinatown, where vendors really do leave you the hell alone unless you ask them a question; but I didn’t feel like trekking there today.  I usually only go to Bến Thành when I need something pretty badly (usually food-related), and I know the lay of the land well enough in there to kind of dash my way in and out.

Searching for hats, I spied a pair of palazzo-style pants that I immediately coveted.  The vendor honed in on me, so of course I pretended I wasn’t THAT interested in them.
“Madame, you like these?”, he said.  “We have many color”.
“I’m not sure. Let me think about it”.
“Oh Madame, you my first sale today, I need good luck. You buy from me, I have good luck all day”.
“Ha! Fine, okay. These look kinda small. Do you have my size?”
“Madam, these stretchy”.
“Yeah but will they stretch across this?”, I said, indicating my Western-sized midsection.
“Madame! you not fat! You very skinny!”
I burst out laughing.
“Me, Madame”, he continued, “I am fat”. He lifted up his shirt and sure enough produced a well-developed beer belly, which he grabbed hold off and waggled around like a prize at a fair.
“Yeah”, I said, getting into the mood. “You’re fat”.
“Ha ha ha hahahaha Madame!”
“We’re both fat. It’s good!”
Then proceeded on to the bargaining.
“My boss, he want 1 million VND” (about 45 bucks). “But for you, I give for 650,000”.
“Dude. I live here. I’m no tourist”.
“Okay for you, 600”.
“Okay 400 but that final offer”.
I’m sure I could have haggled more, but we were new Fat Friends Forever. I shook his hand, which surprised and delighted him.

Further along the aisle, I bought a hat, a plain-ish straw confection that is popular with tourists (the sun here is very, very strong being so close to the equator).  And on the way out, I passed by a stall selling those Thai print pants that a lot of Western tourists wear, both men and women alike, pants which aren’t very flattering unless you’re a supermodel.  I myself have two similarly printed harem-type pants with wider legs that are ridiculously comfortable, but I only wear them around the house because I don’t want to be pinpointed as a tourist (though I did wear them around Angkor Wat since at the last minute I needed to buy clothing that covered my knees).  Two British girls were scoping out the selection on the rack.

Brit 1: “I like a jazzy pair. Let me know if you find a jazzy pair”.
Brit 2: “I want to wear mine home on the plane. How fab would that be?”
Brit 1: “OOOH I know! Why don’t we both get the same pair? That’ll shock them all right when they come pick us up at the airport!”
Brit 2: “That’ll be mega! Hahaha can you imagine the look on their faces? Ok I want blue ones”.
Brit 1: “But do they have any jazzy blue ones? I only want them if they’re jazzy”

I bought a few other things, then once outside ducked into a store across from the market that sells bedazzled burqas to buy a cloth shoulder bag I can use for the beach trip; glutted with purchases, I headed home.  I ended up having to wear the hat so that it wouldn’t crush in my bags, which in hindsight was not the best idea.  For the very first time since living in this country, I got accosted by xe om drivers the entire walk home. I may as well have had big flashing red arrows pointing at me.

“Xe om, Madame? I take you to hotel”.
“Madame! Madame! Where you go?”
“Madame! Xe om! Madame!”

One of them even followed me halfway home before finally getting discouraged.  Most of the time they leave me alone since I have a pretty fast stride and don’t look like an obvious tourist. But today I wanted to get home to beat the rain, and damn, they were relentless.

Speaking of harem-type pants, the first time I saw a pair were on a man at a hotel restaurant in Danang.  I remember him distinctly because he was a dead ringer for Marlon Brando in “The Island of Dr. Moreau”.  He both frightened and amused me.  Though not a hotel guest, I got the impression from the staff (and from various things he said as he had a loud nasally Truman Capote type voice) that he lived nearby and came to eat at the hotel every single night.  Smoking is not discouraged in a lot of public places in Vietnam, so when a couple at the table behind me lit up, ol’ Marlan kept shooting them pointed glances and whining to the staff, “Can’t you get them to stop smoking?”, which prompted the male smoker to blow smoke directly into Marlan’s direction.  And I remember the pants, because they looked rather strange on him, like a big baggy diaper.  Fast forward a few months and I purchased a couple of pair for myself. Well, if they’re good enough for Marlan…

Sunday, August 21, 2016

One year later.

Along the "walking street" Nguyen Hue in Saigon.  The middle section is always pedestrian, and on Saturday and Sunday nights they close the periphery streets to allow for the massive crowds that show up. Most people have Sundays off, so folks come in from neighboring districts to hang out. Some nights you'll see a group of skateboarders showing off, other times a bunch of kids will get up and do some synchronized dancing.  Always someone with a guitar strumming along.  

Today marks my one year anniversary of living in Vietnam.  We arrived in Hanoi, bleary-eyed, hungover from too many in-flight cocktails, and feeling totally out of whack. I felt as though i'd landed on a different planet. 

I'd never been to SE Asia before, so I didn't know what to expect. And I think that's why I've enjoyed living here so much; i've been open to everything and didn't have any preconceived notion of what life would be like.  I have nothing to be upset about since I didn't cram my brain with unrealistic ideas.  And the journey has been enlightening.  I've eaten a lot of great food and met a some amazing people.  I can't wait to see what further adventures are in store for me.

Some of the following pictures are up on my Instagram, and some on my Twitter feed.  There's also a few from trips to Cambodia, when i've had to leave the country to get my Vietnamese visa renewed.

Vietnamese custom: men pull their shirts up and hang out like this.  I'm thinking they do this when they're comfortable and happy in their surroundings. I think this is pretty great.

When we lived in Go Vap, one of the northern working class districts of Saigon. This kid danced through dinner then wanted to kiss me.

My first day in Saigon. View from my hotel room at the Park Hyatt Saigon (i've stayed in swanky places in Vietnam, and i've also stayed in some real hell holes. I've been lucky to see both.  I'd recommend the Park Hyatt, but their beds are not remotely comfortable. Like sleeping on a hard rock). Billboard commemorating the National Holiday on September 2.  It's since been replaced by a Budweiser ad.

The main post office in Saigon's District 1 has a couple of really beautiful mural maps that date back to French colonial times.

And sometimes I like to pop a squat and meditate at the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens. I wasn't in a proper seated position since I was wearing a skirt, and didn't want all and sundry to see my bits and parts.

First meal in Saigon? pho.  My first meal in Hanoi was pho as well. Hey, when in Rome.

Go Vap street food. This is stuffed squid over rice and cost less than $1 USD. You can eat really, really well on the cheap while living here.

Saigon River estuary, view from my old apartment in District 7.  I didn't particularly like living here because I felt very isolated and far from everything, though the views were amazing.  You could see storms coming in; it was wild.

Grilling out on the rooftop with Vietnamese college students in District 12, New Year's Day. Clams, okra, squid. We also had a hot pot (I believe those are also called "steamboats" in some countries).

American-style burgers at Relish & Sons in District 1.  The one on the left is a pho burger ('bun' made of noodles).

This is my friend Trang and her owl Ri. Isn't Trang gorgeous?

Some type of rice noodle soup at the Rex Hotel. I eat a lot of soup. This one had pork, prawn, quail egg and a nice simple broth.

Peking Duck, skin being removed and folded into pancakes along with some spring onion, at the dim sum place inside the Windsor Plaza Hotel in District 5.

Japanese noodle house in District 1. I find it interesting that I have eaten more Japanese food since I moved to Vietnam than I have in my whole life.  There are a few really extraordinary Japanese restaurants here, one of them about a 45 second walk from my house.  I eat udon noodle soup about 4 times a week.

This is at a restaurant near my house where they serve only two things, one of them being spring rolls.  Each order is one massive spring roll served with rice noodles, and it's delicious.

Above Danang. American bunker left over from the war.

Food vendor next to the bunker. She carries everything she needs in a big bag, and sets up shop wherever there's a reasonably flat surface.

View from my hotel room in Hoi An. It didn't suck. We stayed at the Nam Hai, and you must look it up online. Probably the nicest hotel i've ever stayed in; the rooms look like they belong amongst the pages of Architectural Digest.  Each room also comes with an outdoor shower (in addition to the fancy indoor one), should you be so inclined to bathe outdoors. I think all homes should have one. I love outdoor showering.

Tra Que Vegetable Village, an organic vegetable farm outside of Hoi An.  This farm has been around for 300 odd years, and they use seaweed as fertilizer.  They also offer cooking classes. We went for a 50 mile bike ride one day through Hoi An and the neighboring fishing villages; it was amazing.  Got caught in a pop-up storm during the last hour of riding. Came back with hundreds of photos, some great memories, and a fantastic sunburn.

Riding a water buffalo, outskirts of Hoi An.

Rice paddy, outside of Hoi An.

My good ol' friend, the durian.  It's currently durian season, and they're being sold all over the place.  I've gotten used to the smell by now. These were on display at a market in Hoi An.

Cat hanging out in the Temple of the Jade Mountain on Jade Island in Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword), Hanoi

Morning at the market, Hue.  I took about a hundred pictures of just food stalls that day.  So many new (to me) things, so many colors.

Metropole Hotel, Hanoi.  This is at the outside bar near the pool looking up at the old building.  We stayed in the old section (there's also a new section); the rooms are small but have lost none of their French colonial charm.   It was such a pleasure to call the Metropole my first home in Vietnam.

Delicious things fermenting. Market stall in Hue.

Shrimp farm on the road between Hue and Danang.

Scared out of our gourd on the back of a tuk-tuk by a crazy ass driver who totally floored it and serpentined all over the place.  Gave him an extra big tip for the adrenaline rush. Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Ruins at the temple of Ta Prohm in Cambodia, aka "the Jungle Temple" since it was a filming location for the movie Tomb Raider.

Monkey at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.  There are monkeys everywhere.
Beef lok lak topped with a fried egg.  Siem Reap, Cambodia.

For lunch today, I had this.  Sea bass and ginger dumpling soup. The broth is SERIOUSLY the shit.  I want to bathe in it.  This bowl costs about $3 USD.  @ Phat's Dumpling House in District 2. 

My first pizza in Saigon at Pizza 4Ps in District 1, with a big ol' blob of their homemade burrata atop. Bliss.  P4Ps sells burrata to pretty much everyone else in Saigon who has burrata on their menu, including the Park Hyatt Saigon.

Larry and my friend Hai, who was afraid to walk across the suspension bridge on her own (it swayed and has the occasional hole where boards have rotted away through the years). Somewhere deep in the jungle, Ben Tre province, Mekong Delta.

Fanning the flames at a restaurant along the canal near my house.

With my friends Linh and Cami in my apartment during a crazy party.

And one time I ate ice cream for lunch. As one does.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

coffee culture

Do you remember the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had? I do. I was in high school - I was 18 years old - traipsing around London (as you do) with my Mom.  I didn’t live in England, but we spent an awful lot of time there when I was growing up.  I remember when I was 15 and went with a friend’s Dad to visit an old friend of his who was at that time producing a video for a little known band in the US (but well known in the UK). We went to Knebworth Manor to watch a few minutes filming of a little ditty called “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”.  Didn’t meet the band, but I was more into walking around and staring at the architectural elements of the manor rather than the filming itself*.  But I digress.

Usually my time in London with my parents was centered around shopping.  Shopping is the breadth of life for my Mom. I’m hesitant (for a variety of reasons) to let her visit here, one reason being she’ll want to go into each and every store in each and every shopping center, and I don’t have the stamina and patience for that.  One Thanksgiving, while visiting my American grandmother in Miami, Mom had me drive her to each one of Miami’s malls on Black Friday and follow her along as she shopped.  She is exhausting.  I’m one of the few women I know who really, truly hates shopping because of this (unless it’s for food, then I’m all about it).  But this particular London trip we did a bunch of touristy things that for some reason we hadn’t gotten around to before. I’m sure we started at Harrods or Harvey Nichols, because Mom would have insisted; but then she and I went to Tower of London and walked around outside in the bitter windy cold along the Thames.  For some reason we were looking for Scotland Yard, though I’m sure that was more my doing. I can’t imagine Mom being interested in something she would clearly consider mundane.  Walking along the river, the wind began to howl; we had come to a stop in front of some random fish-and-chips joint. We both looked at each other, and without a word went inside and installed ourselves at window seats while the owner’s wife, a Rubenesque woman with an enormous beehive hairdo, served us coffee with cream. And it was heavenly.  I don’t know if it was because of the really good English cream, or the fact that it was such a shit weather day, or because this woman with the crazy ass old-fashioned hairdo was giving Mom the stink eye because she was French, but that cup of coffee was magical enough for me to remember it as the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.

I’ve had some good coffee (and a lot of bad coffee) since.  When I moved to Gainesville, Florida, there was this little place downtown called Café Espresso, where I spent countless hours drinking subpar coffee (later it was found out that the owners reused coffee grinds, which prompted us to start calling the place Café Depresso). Vietnam has a huge coffee culture.  You can’t walk down one city sidewalk block without passing at least 3 cafés or vendors set up with a tarp overhead and wee plastic chairs underneath.  (you can’t walk down a city sidewalk anyway without it being an obstacle course, but that’s another story). There’s also the mobile coffee sellers, the ones who have a whole set up on the back of a motorbike or a push cart, who install themselves in front of office buildings and at intersections, selling variations of cà phê đá (iced black coffee) or cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk). There’s been talk in the past couple of years about how the coffee being sold is actually fake - chemically laced soy beans and corn - made and sold for super cheap which the masses drink up.  This is interesting - and sad - since one of Vietnam’s biggest export is robusta coffee beans.  I do enjoy the occasional cà phê sua dá, but only occasionally since I imagine the sweetened condensed milk, which makes the drink delicious, goes straight to my hips.  A buddy of mine, one of the head honchos of the Buon Ma Thuot Coffee and Commodity Exchange (BCCE), gave me packets of locally sourced arabica earlier this year, which I’ve slowly but steadily worked my way through. I generally prefer arabica to robusta, though I’m no coffee snob and don’t pretend to really know the difference.  I just like the taste better.

I went to the café where I used to work to get some beans for my French press, since I like the occasional cup of coffee in the morning.  The café specializes in importing beans from around the world and roasting them on site, so their inventory changes often. This week they have Ethiopian, Mexican, Burmundi, Costa Rican, and decaf (at which I made the sign of the cross, hissed, and pushed it to the back of the counter). One of the girls had me smell the beans while she waxed poetic about which coffee is best for Chemex versus French press, and bitterness versus sourness.  “Yeah yeah, but I take my morning coffee with a teaspoon of sugar and some cold milk”, I said. A look of pure horror spread across her face. “But you miss all the flavors that way!”, she moaned. “How can you enjoy the dryness of this bean if you add all that to it? Oh and make sure the water temperature is just so. Not boiling”. But I’m a stick in the mud when it comes to that first cup in the morning. After that, sure, pour me all the fancy coffee tonics, cold brews, nitro brews galore, for I do love them. But sometimes you just want a regular cup ‘o joe, or even diner coffee.

In my bleary eyed fog this morning, I ground up some Ethiopian beans, added them to my French press, dumped in some scaldingly boiled water from the kettle, then went rummaging around in the fridge for some milk. I found a container with the dredges of maybe 2 tablespoons worth of milk left in it. Though it wasn’t too early for me to be strolling out to the nearest Circle K for milk (they’re open all night), I had just woken up and didn’t feel like facing the world plus cross a busy street and dodge city buses just for some milk. I made do with the 2 tablespoons of milk. Sitting there, savoring that cup that I probably made with water too hot for coffee snobs’ personal tastes, I remembered that long ago cold day in London with my Mom; and for a brief moment all was right with the world.

*Bit ‘o trivia: Knebworth Manor is also where they filmed Adam Ant’s “Goody Two Shoes” video. And that, folks, is my useless trivia for today. I’m full of goodies like that. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

This is not a rehearsal.

The culinary project for which I was hired has been postponed indefinitely; so with me not feeling well anyway, I wanted to talk to my boss about my options (basically, I quit. But i'd be interested in discussing the project If and When it starts back up).  There's really no need for me to be in the kitchen when another chef is on staff (who was there when I started), the menu is so small, and nobody orders much food anyway.  I went in to talk to my boss, and while I was waiting for her I sat down on a bench and leaned my head against the wall.  The GM, an angry little man, stomped over to me, hands on his hips. "So are you feeling better?", he barked down at me, scowling as he hovered.  I knew what he was thinking. He thinks i'm lying about the vertigo. It wouldn't be the first time people haven't believed me.

I've had this condition for 10 years.  It was initially triggered by an ear infection I got after snorkeling off the coast of the Bahamas.  Later, various things triggered it (jumping off a high dock into Lake Lanier 20 feet below; mild concussions brought on by sports activities; and lately, stress). I remember sitting in my supervisor's office 9 years ago showing him a doctor's note saying I shouldn't be driving a car and him looking at me like I was bonkers, saying, "I've never heard of this condition".  Which reminds me of a food writer several years ago who infamously declared on Twitter that writer's block doesn't exist. So - just because you've never experienced it or heard of it, it therefore doesn't exist? He later apologized for the comments after a deluge of backlash.  I had a friend (at the time she was one of my best friends) who thought I was making it all up just so that I wouldn't have to hang out with her.  To say i've had some toxic people in my life is an understatement - but that's another blogpost for another day.

Vertigo is not uncommon. A lot of people experience feelings of uneven equilibrium if they have a head cold or sinus infection.  It feels as though you're on a raft on choppy waters in the ocean.  Sometimes the waves are smooth, sometimes you're in a storm.  I call it the Boat Ride from Hell.  Usually the symptoms are temporary, your body recovers and fights the infection, and normal living is resumed.  Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo, which is what I was diagnosed with 9 years ago, is most often caused by microscopic crystals in the inner ear which have dislodged and are floating freely.  There are physical therapy programs designed to help scoot those crystals back into place (Brandt-Deroff and Epley are some).  These exercises have been known to help some patients - they did "cure" mine in the very beginning.  They don't help me anymore.  I've been to specialists, ophthalmologists, ear/nose/throat doctors, had an MRI "just to be safe" as my ENT explained it (and at a whopping out-of-pocket cost of $300 which I could ill afford at the time).  I had one specialist insist that I had a major sinus infection and put me on steroids, which did nothing but keep me awake for 4 days and make me even more stressed out.  The bout I had 2 years ago, brought on by stress, lasted 4 months.  After reviewing the MRI results with my ENT, which showed nothing wrong with my head, I told him that I would be seeking solace in Eastern medicine.  This made him chuckle, adjust his glasses, and mutter, "Whatever you want to waste your money on".  And that's when I bobbed and weaved into an acupuncturist's office.

Did it help? Sure. It wasn't a miracle cure - but then again, none of my incredibly expensive Western medicine and programs worked.  Getting acupuncture and cupping therapy (glass suction cups with heat moved along the skin to help promote blood flow and good ch'i or qi) helped relieve the anxiety and stress brought on by the whole situation, and it did eventually alleviate the symptoms.  My body gets used to the symptoms and I don't feel them again for some time.

My acupuncturist, a lovely American woman from Illinois, has an office in a massive villa which is home to a holistic retreat of sorts located in Saigon's District 2.  D2 is where a lot of Western expats live.  It is reminiscent of Miami.  My Dad grew up in Miami, so I spent a lot of time there as a child.  I don't particularly like Miami - or D2 for that matter.  There are great big groupings of villas in "compounds", and their residents are very insular.  It reminds me of Walden Two, in a way, or that terrible movie The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio.  Everyone seems so artificially happy (I do have friends who live in D2, so I'll probably get a bunch of crap for this).  I live in District 1, in an area which reminds me of Greenwich Village in New York City.  Give me New York any day over Miami.  But I will say this about D2: when i'm at the villa, with pins poking out of me every which way and no audible traffic sounds coming from the dusty streets outside, I do feel a sense of calm.

And perhaps this is what I needed all along, a sense of calm.  We bustle about our everyday lives trying to cram in as much as we can into such a short daily schedule.  We often complain that there is not enough time in the day to do all the things we need to do.  Every single time I get sick, I remind myself to slow down and enjoy things. And every single time I recover, I fall right back into the race.

Some of my Facebook contacts tend to populate their timelines with so-called inspirational quotes and memes, but fail to actually apply them to their own lives.  They scour Facebook all day long and smugly armchair philosophize on every topic.  I feel badly for those people. Having said that, I did see a quote this morning which rings true:


I've about had it - i've reached my apex.  I'm ready for this boat ride to be over with. I'm going to spend the rest of the year working on my health and wellness, and enjoy my life as much as I can, albeit slowly.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

nothing to lose in translation.

Recurring vertigo is SO much fun.

Me, calling a local clinic: "Hi, do you speak English?"

Girl: "Yes we do, how may I help you?"

Me: "Oh good! My insurance provider suggested I call you. Can you tell me if you offer cupping therapy?"

Girl: "You would have to make an appointment to come in and see the chiropractor, and bring all your insurance paperwork with you.  The cost for the first consultation is 1M VND" (about $44 USD).

Me: "Right.  But can you tell me if you provide cupping therapy? You know, where you put glass cups on your back?". God I feel silly describing this.

Girl: "And make sure you bring your insurance card. Who is your provider?"

Me: "Blue Cross. Pacific Cross. But i'm not going to come in unless you actually provide this service.  Do you provide cupping therapy or not?"

Girl: "Once you come in and fill out the paperwork, you can see the doctor and he can recommend proper treatment".

Me: "This is going nowhere".

Girl: "Thank you for calling! Hope to see you soon".

Me hitting my  head repeatedly on the table. Ow. I Shouldn't have done that. Vertigo worse.

Thursday, July 14, 2016


I've gotten feedback from friends and strangers back in the US.  "What you've done is admirable", a lot of them say. "Packing up and moving halfway across the world! You're an inspiration".

Truth is, i'm not.  I'm not exactly a success story here. Unless you go right into teaching English - of which there are well-paying jobs aplenty and which I don't want to do - expat jobs are a bit difficult to find. And once you get one, you're not guaranteed that it will last.

My first job here, the owner of the company broke my contract twice with no explanation.  My last few weeks I was battling with HR over my apparent lack of email etiquette.  I've been using email for business for over 20 years, sat through business writing seminars, and yet get schooled here because I wrote, "Thanks, Caroline" at the end of an email instead of "Best" or "BR" (for Best Regards).  Seriously, half a day wasted every day going back and forth with HR on such nitpicky things. I was so relieved to stop working there.

I jumped into my second job quite blindly, with no thought, because I was bored at home and wanted something to do.  Well, we all know how fantastically that job turned out.  Since then i've met a multitude of people who've exclaimed, "Why didn't you tell me you were going to work there? I would have told you not to do it!".  The delusional owner is not a bad guy, but has no idea how to run a restaurant, especially one in this country.  It's surprising because he's a businessman, worked in Hong Kong for 16 years; yet when I talked to him about costs and P & L he would give me a strange look.  One time after a lunch rush he exclaimed, "We made 7 million VND at lunch today!", to which I replied, "Yeah, but what were the costs involved? 7 million is not take home". He looked at me like like a little kid whose favorite toy was taken away.  Cold wet washcloth of reality, that's me.  His wife (The Money, his backer) confided in Larry that she doesn't sleep at night from worrying. I do feel sorry for her. I liked her very much.

Whether it's fair or not, expats get paid much, much more than their Vietnamese colleagues.  We also work less hours.  My current contract states I am to work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week.  But my Vietnamese kitchen staff rarely, if ever, take a day off. I know this because when I first started I worked 20 days straight before I flipped out and took a day off; during that whole time, the only other person who took a day was the other chef.  The staff come in every single day.  I may be wrong on this but I believe they're bullied into not taking time off ( I know I was those first 20 days).  I don't believe the owner of the company, an absolutely lovely woman who I really like, knows what's going on since she's passed the reigns of all the operations to the GM. My gut instinct tells me not to get involved.

Do I need to work? Not really. I'm fortunate that i've got a little money saved up.  The cost of living here is ridiculously cheap, for an expat with expat money that is.  But I like to work (and i've never understood people who don't; don't you get bored with nothing to do? Don't trophy wives bore themselves silly doing nothing except lunching and getting their nails done? I don't understand them).  I wouldn't have met all the people I am now friends with had I not been working. I wouldn't have met my current boss had I not put on a pop-up restaurant over Christmas and she hadn't come to eat.  Plus I get to meet really wonderful people and see a side of Vietnam I wouldn't have known otherwise.

I've mentioned that learning English is really important here, especially for kids vying to get into hospitality and tourism jobs.  One of the kids I work with (the one to whom I showed the 50 Best Restaurants in Asia list) can't afford English lessons, so he teaches himself.  He's got sticky notes all over the place and mutters English phrases under his breath.  His English isn't good, but he's really trying.  He's always asking me about correct American pronunciation.  I glanced over at his notes one day; they're mostly vocabulary words and phonetic spellings of them.  "Sourness", "Bitterness", "Sweet", and, interestingly, "Insipid", a word that even American adults rarely use, probably because they don't know what it means.  When he uses a new vocabulary word on me, I congratulate him.  His 100-watt smile is worth all the money in the world.

Friday, June 17, 2016

saigon stories.

"What do you mean, you don't wear a chef coat? You should provide the example and wear one".

I was having a conversation with an American acquaintance of mine, also a chef, attempting to explain why I don't wear a chef jacket at my current job.  And the reason is because when I arrived on my first day, I noticed my Vietnamese counterpart, the other chef, wasn't wearing one.  The last thing I want to do is intimidate him or make him uncomfortable in his own kitchen; so on that first day my coat stayed in my bag and I promptly brought it home and put it away.

If there's one thing I know how to do well in life it's how to get along with others.  I have vast training in that field, what with growing up with an overbearing French mother and then falling into a few decades worth of some seriously bad personal relationships, both on the romantic and platonic sides.  But through it all, I learned how to play well in the sandbox with the other kiddos.  Moving here I knew I would have a lot to learn. In my workplaces, people would view me as the loud, passionate American and I would need to tone it down a bit (though i 'm not sure how well i'm succeeding on the loud, passionate side).  I am learning about a new (to me) culture, and there are a tremendous amount of differences. I'd like to think that the days of cultural imperialism are over with, but that's not exactly true.  Lots of expats come over here and like to lord it over the locals.  That's not me.  And that's what this other chef wasn't understanding.

From the first moment we met and he found out what I did for a living, he started name dropping.  "Well, I used to work for Donald - you know Donald, don't you?", he said, referring to Donald Link.  That's when my eyes glazed over and I just stared through him.  I may even have sighed out loud.  God I hate that shit.  "Well Donald and I did this. And Donald and I did that. And Donald Donald Donald.  Oh the first time I went to Prune was with Susan Spicer".  Yadda yadda yawn bore.  I'm not pretentious at all, and I dislike pompous chefs who are like that.

He finally toned it down a bit and became more normal when he realized I wasn't impressed with his coterie of Famous Chef Friends, and that I (sometimes) know what i'm talking about when it comes to (some) food.  I may have warmed up a tiny bit to him when we discovered our mutual dislike for Padma Lakshmi (sorry, I know i'm in the minority here but I just can't get over her condescending talk with food in her mouth on Top Chef.  Nothing grosses me out more than seeing people talking with food in their mouths).


The 50 Best Restaurants lists of 2016 were recently released.  I gave a cursory glance to the worldwide one, but my main focus was the 50 Best Restaurants in Asia list.  I am pleased to see that a restaurant we frequented back in November was featured.  Number 43, Cuisine Wat Damnak, which I mention in this post.  I'm thrilled to be dining there again tomorrow night when I head back to Cambodia on a visa run.  They have two set menus which change every two weeks, and the food is pretty wonderful, a different and thoughtful approach to Cambodian cuisine.  One of my kitchen staff, a young kid (I say "young kid", he's probably early 20s but i'm betting i'm the same age as his parents) leaned over my shoulder to look at the list.

"What is this?", he said, curious.
"Fifty best restaurants in all of Asia.  See.... Singapore, Hong Kong. Japan. Campuchia", I said, pointing to number 43.  "But no Vietnam. Yet".

He nodded solemnly. "One day, that will be me".

I was instantly overwhelmed with a feeling of pride.  And damned if I didn't start tearing up and getting a lump in my throat.  I had to get up and leave the room for a moment so no one would notice my gushiness.  I don't have kids of my own, so wherever I end up my staff tend to be surrogates.  I don't doubt that this kid will go far.

As I type this, i'm letting him look through my knife kit. m Most of my knives are old, but if you take care of them you'll have them a long time.  I've got an offset handled Shun santoku i've had for years that the kid's been ogling, so I let him use it.  "I like this. Wow! So nice", he says, smiling while chopping a ton of shallots.  So I pulled out a tiny little Global knife, blade retooled several years ago when I quite stupidly dropped it and the tip broke off (it was fixed by a guy named Edges - not making that up - who sharpens knives for all the restaurants in Atlanta).  I think he's in love.

Friday, June 10, 2016

beginning to think all French chefs are the same.

The first day the New French Chef came onto the job, he quickly scanned my outfit from my high top Chuck Taylors (I don't do chef clogs, they hurt my feet) to my black chef's coat with a few patches of flour on the arms from making bread, and said, "I think we should go change before service, don't you think?".

I blinked at him. I was appropriately dressed for that particular kitchen.  He left for a moment and re-emerged wearing a white chef jacket that more resembled a long-sleeved button down collared shirt.  The dishwasher giggled and said something in Vietnamese about the chef's whites.  "In Michelin starred restaurants", he said snottily, "White chef coats are de rigeur.  In fact, you may want to get some. We need to be completely uniform in this kitchen. Black coats are just vulgar". Right.  This is going to go down really well.

"Isn't he great?", beamed the French owner.  "I've been telling all my friends to come because he is going to revolutionize the menu! He comes from Michelin star breeding! He has great ideas!"

"Oh yeah, I"m really looking forward to it", I said flatly.  I was already unenamored with Michelin Star Boy after he asked me to cut shallots for him then immediately barked "NOOOOON!" in my ear because he thought I was trimming them the wrong way.

Though he wasn't volatile like the last French guy, though he didn't throw pots and pans at us from across the room and shout endless insults, he certainly had a way of irking the shit out of me. He immediately changed all the previous chef's recipes because he thought they were crap (and indeed some of them were), but then tried to introduce some serious old school French techniques that I don't think go down well with the type of restaurant this was.  When I asked about that, he would simply say, "Well in Michelin starred restaurants, we do it this way".  "In Michelin starred restaurants, it's perfectly normal to fist fight with other chefs in the kitchen and then go out for drinks together afterwards", he said after I told him about Volatile French Chef.  "In Michelin starred restaurants, chefs do not come out into the dining room, so you need to stay in the kitchen". That last one was after I went out to greet a friend.

"Yeah but in the US, chefs go out into the dining room all of the time", I retorted.  "People want to see the chef.  Some people pay good money for that.  You should get your ass out there and stop by tables and say hi".  I added, "It'll certainly bring up the Trip Advisor results", knowing that this last one is a soft spot for all restaurants in this town.

His eyes got wide. "No! I couldn't do that".

"Oh? But don't you want this place to be Michelin star quality?", I said sarcastically.

"Oh, okay".

Nowadays you can't get him out of the dining room.

For the remaining few weeks I worked there, I got seriously sick and tired of hearing about the way Michelin starred restaurants do things.  One day, determined to get to the bottom of the Michelin mystery, I started asking him questions.  After a lot of hemming and hawing, he finally admitted he'd only worked at one Michelin starred restaurant (he never told me which one it was), and even further probing unveiled that the restaurant had only one-star.  Which isn't too shabby, but the way he carried on you'd think it was a three-star.  Further digging proved that he wasn't the sous chef or chef de cuisine.

"So what'd you do there? Because restaurants, especially French ones, have definite stations".

"Oh... well.. I did a little bit of everything, you know", he said, looking around trying to evade any further questioning.

"But you must have some specialty, no?", I said evilly.  "So were you a line cook?"

"Oh well i did a bit of that, yeah sure we all have to, you know".

"Saucier? Garde-manger? Pastry? Come on, tell me".


I was not giving up.  "But what was your specialty? Where did you park your ass most of the night?"

"Well.... I guess I did the salads".

Mystery solved.  The great chef who came from a Michelin starred restaurant whom my boss was going on and on about to all and sundry last held a salad station.  That's not to say he's not talented - he is. He's a very fine cook.  But he has a problem with playing well with the other kids in the sandbox.  After Volatile French Chef was dismissed, I was able to convince the owner that I could make the ice creams.  And I did, and they were good.  I make a mean green tea ice cream.  The owner asked me to make a chocolate one, and before I could answer, New French Chef cut him off with a, "No, I'll make it. Mine will be better".

"Oh really?", I said, raising my eyebrows.

"Oh yes", he said haughtily.  "It's a Thierry Marx recipe.  It'll be much better than your crap American technique".

I decided to let this slide.

He emailed a buddy of his for the recipe, someone who worked for the tempermental chef. When the recipe came back, I glanced over the ingredients list.  "Are you sure the owner is going to okay this?", I said.  "There's some pretty expensive ingredients in here, including marscapone.  We're in Vietnam, this shit doesn't come cheap here".

"Oh but it'll be so good he won't care", he said, waving me impatiently away. "Ça va etre une tuerie".

The ingredients arrived and he proceeded to measure them out, dump them all into a bowl at once, and mix together.  This alarmed me. I've made gallons and gallons of ice cream and this is no way to respect the ingredients.

"You aren't going to temper the eggs first to make the custard?"

"No", he looked at me baffled. "Why should I? it'll be perfect.  Now just dump it all in the ice cream maker".

"Hey, this is your baby. You do it".  I did not want responsibility of this pending disaster.

So he dumped the contents of the bowl into the maker, and after 45 minutes realized it hadn't taken.

"Hmm", he said. "Maybe I should have chilled the ingredients first. Okay i'll chill them now and start over tomorrow".

The next day, same results.

"The texture is off", he said, looking at me accusingly.  "What did you do to it?

"What did I do to it? Hey, this one is your project".

"Well you're the so-called ice cream expert here. You tell me".

"I resent that. And you should have tempered the eggs first and slowly introduced the other ingredients, because that's how i've done countless times and mine have never failed. Ever".

"Well you figure out how to fix it then", he said, throwing his hands up in the air and walking away.

One day during break, we were shooting the shit about regular things, American politics, reality TV, etc, when we started talking about religion and Buddhism.  I said something about Judaism, and he blurted out, "God, I fucking hate the Jews".

My jaw dropped.  "What? What did you just say?"

"I fucking hate the Jews.  They're such pieces of shit.  The Jews in France are insufferable".

I took a deep breath.  "Do you realize what you are saying to me?"

"Yeah. That I fucking hate the Jews. Oh, i've some Jewish friends, and they're okay with it".

"You know people who are Jewish who know that you hate Jews and yet they still call you a friend? I call bullshit".

"You don't understand.  Jews in France are different than Jews elsewhere".

"This conversation is making me ill", I said, getting up and walking away.

I ran into one of the servers recently, who said things weren't good.  "People have complained about the food", she said. "And the bread is not the same" (off topic, i've had an issue with bread making lately, and it's due to the incredibly high humidity in our kitchen, though nobody here believes me). "And chef has become very lazy".

I really can't express how happy I am not to work there anymore.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Something strange is afoot at the Circle K.

Circle K's are everywhere in District 1. Sometimes there are two or three per block. They sell pretty much the same kind of crap that the ones in the US sell except swapping American garbage foods with a variety of Asian garbage foods, including but not limited to my favorite Korean kimchi-flavored seaweed snack and, most importantly, 750 ml bottles of Gordon's gin.

Walking home from work the other night, I swung in to the closest Circle K for a couple of cans of tonic water.  Two young American hippie-looking kids with pasty skin, eyeballs as big as saucers, and arms full of junk food were staring at one particular cookie display. The boy catches a glimpse of me out of the corner of his eye and his face perks up. That's when I went into defense mode, making a beeline for the back of the store where the cold beverages are kept, my goal to not make eye contact again with them. Plan backfires.

"Hey!", says the boy to me (I say 'boy' but he's probably about 25). "Hey! can you tell me where I can buy a muffin?".

I glance over at him wearily. "A muffin?"

"Yeah we just landed here and i'm REALLY JONESIN' for a muffin. I'd even take a blueberry one. Where can I buy a muffin here?"

Right, cos blueberries, not to mention muffins, are aplenty here. Does this kid know he's in Southeast Asia, I wonder. "Well, there's a Starbucks nearby".

"Great!". He and his girlfriend, who is just as spaced out as him, practically jump for joy and nearly drop their armloads of crap. "We'll head there!".

"Yeah, so hang a left out of here and it's about a block and a half down....".

"Wait, what? a block and a half away? Man, that's waaaaay too far". Boy looks crestfallen.

"Uh, too far? It's a block and a half dude".

"Nah, i'll just have to make do with these weird cookies I guess".

I start walking towards the cashier, ready to get the hell out of neon lit pasty face land.

"Hey, one more question! Hey so... is it legal to smoke pot here?".

I stop and turn to him. "WHAT?!?".

"Yeah, well you know, I've seen people smoking weed in public so I wasn't sure if that's a thing. I mean, can I buy it? And where can I buy it? Can I just light up anywhere like the locals do?".

In retrospect, there's so much I could have said and probably should have, but it had been a crap week and all I wanted was a fucking gin and tonic and a half dozen limes at that point. And I probably sounded like the oldest bat in the world when I responded with a, "Sorry dude, that's not my lifestyle".

"Oh.. okay, just thought i'd try. Thanks!"

He and the girl turned back towards the cookie display, the tip of his tongue sticking out from his mouth as if to really concentrate on the task at hand.

Bless his heart.