Sunday, February 7, 2016

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới !

still life with gin & tonic, cucumber, and flowering apricot tree.
"I love Saigon during Tet", my French friend Ben told me. "The streets are completely empty.  You can walk down Hai Ba Trung in broad daylight with your eyes closed, and not fear of getting hit by a car. It's wonderful".

Ben has been telling me this every so often after meeting him 5 months ago.  Since i've moved here, i've been curious as to what goes in in Saigon during Lunar New Year.  For the uninitiated, Tet is Vietnam's bigest holiday. The country shuts down for a good week. Most people who live and work in Saigon are from other parts of the country, so there's been a slow, mass exodus out of the city for a few days now.  Very little is open.  I plan on catching up on much needed sleep, exercise, lounging about on my sunny terrace, and engaging in bouts of day drinking. As one does.

Just now, walking back from the market for tonic and soda water supplies (because, priorities), I was hit with a massive sense of deja-vu. I couldn't quite place it at first, and then I realized exactly what it was: Saigon during Tet is like Paris in August. The heat, the near-empty streets, with few motorbikes and taxis, and I was overcome with a wave of nostalgia i've not had in a long, long time.  I always liked Paris in August, when all Parisians clear out and go on vacation for a month, when very little is open, when you can walk down a neighborhood street and not encounter a single soul.  During those times, it feels like the city is there just for you to explore, all yours, your own private Paris.  I hope to have a good time exploring quiet Saigon during this next week.

Edited on 2/8: sad to report that Hai Ba Trung is as crazy as ever with motorbikes, taxis, and busses barreling down on you. BEN LIED.

Friday, January 8, 2016

expating.

Christmas Eve in Maryland, sometime in the early 00s, double-fisting margaritas (as one does)

I went to a small high school in Paris and was friends with the other American kids. On graduation day, one of the girls with whom i'd been close said to me, "I've only been friends with you out of convenience, because we had to be friends. But I don't really even like you".

I was upset when she said this. I thought she could have worded it differently, or I don't know, just not told me anything - we never saw each other again except for once, since we lived on opposite ends of the world. But now that i'm living overseas again, I find myself thinking this about some of the people I've met here.

I became friendly with a girl who organizes weekly get-togethers with other expats (not just Americans) to drink wine and meet other women.  I like most of the women I've met in this group, but some of them I wouldn't even consider being friends with back home.  But because we're thrown together like this, it's expected for us to hang out.  Which to be honest is complete bullshit.  I spent the last few years purging crap friends from my life and though the process hurt (sometimes I was the purgee and not the purger), the end result was so liberating.  Last night was one of our wine weekly meetings, and one of the girls (ultra-blonde, gluten-free, carb-free, intolerant of all kinds of foods, skinny as a rail because she doesn't like to really eat anything) launched into a conversation with me about the special project i'm currently working on, which is a Mexican pop-up restaurant.  A bit of backstory: the Mexican food in Saigon sucks. It's either missing salt, acid, heat, flavor, or all of the above.  And it's all made far too sweet, to cater to the Vietnamese palate.  So my boss wanted me to do the occasional pop-up, and I've become an inadvertent expert on all things Mexican. I've also been exchanging long Facebook messages back and forth with a Mexican friend of mine in Atlanta who gives me guidance, advice, and all that happy shit that supportive friends do.

So the woman (let's call her Beth) tells me she's coming to the next pop-up night (which is tonight).  Asks me if i'm serving empanadas (i'm not).  She gets visibly upset. "Why the hell not? That's Mexican".  I explain to her that we're doing a tasting menu, one dish from each of seven culinary areas, so we had to limit what we wanted to present and, though it cut out a lot of really tasty stuff, i'm really proud of the menu.  "That's right, they're called STATES", she says, matter-of-factly. "That's why they're called the United STATES of Mexico".

Me: "Yes, I know. But we've broken it down into seven regions and featuring one dish from each region".

Her: "Well, I can't wait".

Me: "Oh good!", I exclaim. "I'm really happy to hear that. We've gotten good feedback so far.  We've been trying to make it as authentic as possible, specifically not Tex-Mex or Southwestern or anything fusion-y". God, did I just use that word? I hate that word. "I tried to keep faithful to the spices and heat in the original dishes".

Her: "What? What are you talking about. I HATE spicy food".

Me: "Oh. Uh".

Her: "And my in-laws are coming and they're Italian. They think puttanesca is spicy. So they hate spicy food too".

Me: "Well... perhaps for your table I could arrange to have your dishes less spicy so it'll be more of an enjoyable experience for you - "

Her: "Look", she said, cutting me off. "I'm from CALIFORNIA. I've had great Mexican food. All the Mexican food in California is NOT SPICY. How dare you call your food authentic Mexican if you haven't even had authentic Mexican? I mean, come on!", she laughed. "The Mexicans in California make great food. You don't know what you're talking about".

Me: "Well actually I HAVE had authentic Mexican and some of it is indeed quite spicy".

Her: "Well you're wrong".

Me: "Okay, well I beg to differ".

Her: "But I'M RIGHT. It's NOT SPICY. Have you had a Mexican taste your food and tell you it was authentic?"

Me: "Are there any Mexicans in Saigon? I don't know any Mexicans in Saigon".

Her: "Well there you go", she said smugly. "You're wrong".

This was my breaking point. It took every ounce of my being not to lash back, but instead I caught myself and thought, What would my chef friends back in the States do? One of them, notorious for being in-your-face-I-don't-give-a-rat's-ass-honest, would have told her to save her money and stay the fuck home because her happy ass wasn't welcome in his establishment (though he would have used way more colorful adjectives).  I decided not to be that frank. Instead, I  took a deep breath, sat back in my chair, and smiled.  And this infuriated her. She grabbed her phone and immediately started pretending to text someone or look something up, involving many furious motions.  Within minutes she got up and left.

I notified my marketing girl to expect  a cancellation today, table of 4.

Are these the types of people i'm supposed to be friends with? because if so, they can go back to California.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

How To Speak Australian

So at my fancy new food job, when i'm not prepping for an event (such as the big weeklong event kicking off on Christmas Eve that has occupied all of my time) I sit in an office with a bunch of other people and work on recipe development. Most everyone in the office speaks English, so it's made me quite lazy with attempting to learn new Vietnamese words.  My boss grew up in Australia, and there's another Australian guy in the office, so the type of English everyone speaks is Australian-ish. In trying to adapt, I've had to make some changes to my food vocabulary.

Cilantro = Coriander

I know from watching Nigella Bites episodes years ago when it first aired on the now-defunct Style Network that the British use the term "coriander" to describe what in the US we have always called "cilantro" - except in French it's coriandre and in Spanish it's cilantro, so mass confusion all around.  I've had to frequently catch myself in conversations with my Vietnamese Sous Chef on this project when I notice the blank look on his face as I begin to utter "cilantro".  This one is an easy change, though, and it's already infiltrated my vocabulary quite nicely.

Eggplant = Aubergine

Aubergine is the French word for eggplant, so this one is been a no-brainer for me to assimilate into my vocabulary.  Same goes for:

Zucchini = Courgette

Same word in French. Easy peasy. I've got this. Right?

Not so easy:

Squash Blossoms = Pumpkin Flower

Earlier this week while reviewing a potential menu item with my boss and talking about sautéed squash blossoms, I looked up from my notes and saw the look of horror on his face. "Squash blossoms? You eat those?", he said, incredulously. Which in turn caught me off guard. He's probably one of the best known chefs in Vietnam and he's never heard of of squash blossoms?

"Well, yeah everyone in the US eats those," I responded. "In Italy they stuff them with cheese and fry them".

As I'm talking, he's googling images and his expression clears up.

"Ah! pumpkin flower! Okay I get it".

"Pumpkin flower?", I blurt out.  "That's what you call them?"

"Well yes.  'Squash blossoms' sounds disgusting".

"Right. I'm never going to get this".


Bell Pepper = Capsicum

Capsicum is the latin word for pepper. Another term they use freely at my work kitchen is sweet pepper. The problem I have is that this one is a tongue twister for me. Capsicum capsicum capsicum.  Lorem ipsum. Try saying that three times fast.


The Metric System versus American Bullshit

Ah, my old friend the Metric System. I learned this while growing up in France. This is the only system that makes complete sense.  Everything is easy to figure out. For example: 1000 grams equals 1 kilo,  and 1000 milliliters equals 1 liter.  So why on earth hasn't the good ol' US of A embraced this extremely easy to understand system? Let's get rid of the US Customary System already.  It's fucking ridiculous.

borrowed from Wikipedia. LET'S GET WITH THE PROGRAM ALREADY.


Also ridiculous is me spending eleventy hours a day pulling my hair out while trying to convert my recipes from ounces, cups, and pounds to grams, kilos, and liters.  Except I need to start spelling it litre if I want to go with the flow here.

Pronunciation 

Let's start with the word risotto.  In the US we say Riz Oh Toe.  Except for me, that is.  Ever since I watched Gordon Ramsey bawl out a contestant on the first season of Hell's Kitchen, I've marched around the house barking out Riz Aw Toe, much like I used to with the word ¡BOCACALLE! . "Why did you put fish stock in the fucking rizawtoe?", bellowed out a red-faced Gordon Ramsey to some kid who looked like he wanted to just turn and run away. Ah, Chef Ramsey. Never change.

Shah-Let versus Shuh-Lotte

Also, thanks to Chef Ramsey, I've pronounced the word "shallot" as Shuh Lotte for many years now. I did it at first because I thought it was funny, and then it infiltrated my vocabulary without me paying any attention.  People at my various food jobs in the US used to make so much fun of me, but hey look at me now! I got this one.

But I tell you, one word that I will never change in my pronunciation is tomato. To me, it will always be Tuh May Toe.  I cannot and will never pronounce it Toe Mah Toe.  I have no idea why, and no idea how to explain it, but this one goes against every fiber in my being.  I just can't do it.

And now, all this food talk has made me hungry, plus there's no milk in the house so I must go out into the wilds of the streets of Saigon and properly feed and caffeinate myself.  Be well, people.





Saturday, December 12, 2015

back to reality.

Things that make me happy:




I honestly don't understand people who don't like to work. I've been lost in a fog these past few months, walking the streets of Saigon, climbing the walls of my apartment. Oh, it feels nice to be human again.

In other news, yesterday before I went to the interview (which I thought the job was about recipe testing and cookbook development and not corporate cheffing) I slipped and fell in the bathroom as I was rushing to get ready. As I was falling I thought, Please don't hit my head, as i've had bad bouts of vertigo lately. I didn't hit my head, but instead I fell sideways and scraped my arm along the the little table right outside my bathroom and my foot jammed into the bathroom door. So now i'm starting the new job with a black and blue arm and a broken toe. Mazel Tov to me! This has got to be a good omen.  If someone wants to send me some arnica cream i'd be forever grateful and i'll put you in my will.

I'll also take a bunch of dried Mexican chilies too, variety pack of mulato, pasilla, ancho, and chipotle if possible.  Don't ask questions. I may explain later.


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

eat real.

fermentag-ing of things and stuff, open air market in Hué

I recently read a blog review written by a woman I met a couple of times in Atlanta who had just returned from Cambodia.  She begins her post with: "Ever wonder why there aren't any Cambodian restaurants in Atlanta, while Thailand, Japan, Korea, and even Vietnam are all well represented? Having just returned from my epic Asian adventure, including six days in Cambodia, I think I know why." She goes on to bemoan the lack of flavor, taste, and spice in pretty much everything she ate while there.

I read this, and it upset me. I myself had a fantastic food experience in Cambodia, though entirely way too short (30 hours in Siem Reap is not nearly enough time).  But then I remembered when I first arrived in Vietnam back in August. Through a tour company, we scheduled a weeklong expedition of the country, starting in Hanoi, heading south to Hué, then Da Nang, Hoi An, and ending in Saigon where we now live.  The tour was to be a "food lovers" tour, so naturally we were excited.  What I haven't blogged about so far was how abysmal the food was during the first half of the tour. Americans are well-known around the world for having aversions and allergies to everything, so wherever we checked in or whatever restaurant we walked into, the first questions we were asked were, "What allergies do you have? What foods do you not like?." The fact that we have no allergies (real or imagined) and that we eat pretty much everything surprised most of our hosts.  They had already prepared meals for us wherever we went, and the menus were quite boring. The same bland fried spring rolls, the same ultra-bland ultra-sweetened corn soup appeared frequently.  The best meals we had those first few days were from the hotel breakfast buffets where we raided the pho table. I was perplexed because the Vietnamese food I'd eaten in the US was different than this Vietnamese food. More complex, much more flavor.  It finally dawned on us at dinner one night while sitting in a restaurant eating their set tourist menu and looking longingly at the food being brought out to the table next to us, food that looked really amazing and strange and delicious, food that wasn't what we were eating. So we contacted the tour company and told them: Enough is Enough, we want to do away with these set tourist menus. They were perplexed. They couldn't believe it. No one had ever complained about the food before, they said.  We pushed. And finally, we got our way. It was only after we got to Hoi An that the food got better, though the meal we made ourselves in Hué was wonderful (i've previously written about that). And the area around Hué has the spiciest food in the whole country, along with lovely fermented things and stuff sold at the local markets. In Hoi An we finally had hot pots, grilled fish, and clams using minimal ingredients, but just enough to make them all shine; produce used correctly, its integrity not lost beneath flavorless, thin sauces. This was the Vietnamese food I had been craving. This was what I had been longing for.

clams in a gingery, lemongrassy herbal broth. Hoi An


So I get it. You're on a tour in SE Asia, you get shipped off in droves of buses to these so-called tourist restaurants which cater to the bland palate. It sucks. They answer to this is to get off the beaten path and take some risks.  Not everything will be spicy (as in heat); the food will typically be sweeter the further south you go in Vietnam towards Cambodia.  I myself am prone to topping my food with as many of those tiny little fresh red chilies as my taste buds can handle; I have accustomed myself to liking and craving spicy food, and that can't be readily changed, nor do I really want it to. But heat alone doesn't make something flavorful; you must have herbs and other seasonings and spices too.  I had a passable burrito at a Mexican restaurant here last week, flavor that couldn't be ameliorated by the addition of as many pickled chili slices I could cram into the damn thing. And don't even get me started on their guacamole.

I need a do-over of Hanoi. When grumbling about the dreadful food we ate there, a Hanoian friend living in Saigon said cryptically, "You haven't seen my Hanoi" (an offer i'm totally taking him up on, hopefully soon).  And I want a do-over of Hué; street vendors every 20 feet sold corn on the cob grilled on tiny little grills set up all over the sidewalks.  We were always too full, wandering back from some crap tourist restaurant, to partake in what smelled and looked like an absolutely lovely snack.

So I feel a bit badly for the food writer who just hated Cambodian food. I wish she could have her own do-over. And if someone wants to open a Cambodian joint in Atlanta, I'm all for it and would be behind it all the way. Just give me the word.

grilled sea bass, smoked eggplant, cucumber, fish sauce, cilantro. Saigon

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Americans! (shakes fist in the air)

tuk-tukin' through the mean streets of Siem Reap.
German Woman: You greedy Americans. You think you're so entitled. You ruin everything.
Frances: A lot of us feel really badly about that. 
- Under the Tuscan Sun

If you're planning a trip to Cambodia to visit the Angkor Temple Complex, you'll want to eat at what's considered the best restaurant in Cambodia (per my Google fu). It's called Cuisine Wat Damnak and located on the other side of Siem Reap from where our hotel was, near the monastery where our guide Rottana grew up.  The husband and wife team who own and run the place take local northern Cambodian flavors and techniques and blend them with their French culinary background (the chef hails from France). We managed to eek out an early reservation at the last minute, and our tuk-tuk driver drove like a bat out of hell, careening all over the place and ended up on the sidewalk to circumvent all the traffic on the main road in town. It had been a really long time since I laughed that hard.

I try to be a gracious tourist. I really do. I'm a guest in this part of the world, and it's all new and fascinating to me. So I get really irritated with other tourists who don't act the same way. And i'm sure this will come as no surprise to a lot of people, but the most annoying tourists i've encountered are Americans (I feel as though i'm allowed to complain about my own people, so i'm going to go ahead and do just that).  Of course I'm not complaining about all American tourists - i've met some really lovely ones like Sheila Dee and Evo Terra who run The Opportunistic Travelers site and are really wonderful in person (they're currently gallivanting around Australia, you can follow them on their podcasts too).  But sometimes you wonder why in hell people left the comfort of their own homes back in the US and fly in a tin can over the big blue Left Pond if they're not even going to embrace different cultures once they've arrived. Which is the main reason why I won't live in Saigon's District 2, but that's another story for another day.

holy basil martini. delightfully tasty.

While we were dining at Cuisine Wat Damnak - and having a grand ol' time, fueled at first by a Holy Basil Martini (holy basil, lemongrass, Thai ginger-infused gin) followed by wine, an American couple came in and were loud as hell. The menu at CWD changes every few days or so, and it's comprised of two different tasting menus. That's it. That's perfection. That's all it needs. You choose one or the other. So this couple marched in and I experienced one of those moments where you want the ground underneath you to open wide and swallow you up because you're so embarrassed.  Talking in loud, nasally, opinionated, and haughty tones, they held court with their server, who happened to be the wife and owner of the place. The conversation went something along the lines of this:

"I'm gluten-free. GLOO. TEN. FREEEEE. Do you do gluten-free options here? Can I switch things around? I like the sound of this menu but I don't eat most of these things. What is Sanday Fish? oh, it's like grouper? I don't like grouper. Can I substitute pork instead? Ew, frogs legs. Who eats that? I don't want that. How about these mushrooms, can you get the chef to take those out? Shouldn't be too hard, right? How spicy is this? I don't do spicy. Can I mix and match from these two menus? I don't eat dessert. Do we have to have dessert? What's a winter melon? Is that sweet? Oh, never mind. What is m-a-n-g-o-s-t-e-e-n? Can you make that dish without the peanuts?"

The owner was totally kind and courteous and let them pick apart her carefully crafted menu. After monopolizing her time for upwards of 10 minutes while they hemmed and hawed, they finally settled down with satisfied looks on their faces, as if they'd completed a job well done.

I felt like the shame and embarrassment they ought to have was suddenly heaped upon my own shoulders. Their projection onto me, if you will. And though none of the other diners said a word except listen to that horse shit while they ate in silence, they joined me in sending exasperated snarling glares towards that couple. But sadly, the joke was on us. The Americans were in a state of denial and sat there, scrutinizing and frowning at their food as each dish came out. And I felt sorry for them. They'll never get it. They'll never understand the subtle nuances, the time it took the chef to lovingly create the best dishes he could with local products, the love and pride that you could taste with every bite. They'd probably read that New York Times article and figured they'd be Worldly and Check In on Facebook so their friends could be jealous at their Keeping Up With the Joneses. Ok i'm generalizing and probably making that last bit up; I do have a vivid imagination. But you do wonder about these people and their brethren who have the same attitude when visiting foreign countries the world over.

grilled Sanday fish in galangal leaves with rice paddy herb, fresh and fermented watermelon salad. from Cuisine Wat Damnak

I had another such experience when sitting at Pasteur Street one day. An American couple were having an animated conversation with a lone guy at the bar, who also looked like he wanted the ground to open and swallow him up.  They were going on and on about a recent trip to one of the Killing Fields locations. "All those skulls!", the husband shouted. "So cool looking! Honey, show them those pictures you took of the skulls. All lined up and stacked up like a wall! And so cool! I'm gonna base some of my art work on that.  How cool would that be? Big fucking paintings of skulls. No, not that one honey, show him the OTHER pictures. He's gotta see those skulls!".  Horrifying, and not to mention a complete lack of respect for the subject matter they deemed themselves experts on.

I tend to complain a bit on social media and this forum sometimes about some exasperating things that happen in my daily life here, but i try to remind myself that it's a different culture here, and i'm not here to change it. I'm here because I want to be here and I want to experience it. I do get frustrated with things lost in translation, with certain customs (men peeing on our front gate in broad daylight, for instance). But these are little things in the grand scheme of things. And those frog legs and Sanday fish? Fucking delicious.

grouper in game style with mushrooms and loofah, spicy pounded pea, eggplant, wild mangosteen leaves at Cuisine Wat Damnak

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Quirks.

When you come home from running errands and find the cleaning lady in your apartment, not on her usual day, coming out of the bathroom where the washing machine is kept, arms full of other people's laundry.  Instead of being embarrassed at the idea of having been caught, she smiles up at me, says "Xin chào!" and briskly walks out of the apartment.  This was after being sat down and lectured by the landlady and our real estate broker only last night about our high usage of electricity.

When you go shoe shopping, spend a good 10 minutes looking around, turn to the salesclerk who's been hovering over you like a hawk only to have her tell you (before you've even gotten a word out) "We have nothing for you here".  "But I haven't even told you my size!", I exclaim.  "We have nothing for you here", she repeats, smiling broadly.

When you're standing in line at the checkout and a lady blatantly cuts in line, then looks around at everyone else daring them to say anything to her.  Everyone looks away, pretending they don't notice, except for me; I'm glaring at her.  The guy in front of me turns to face me, staring me down, as if he's wishing I would stop glaring at the lady.  I don't understand this attitude; they don't mind instigation, but they don't like confrontation.

Ah well. Just a few things I need to get used to I suppose.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

peace


approaching Angkor Wat through the trees

"The Frenchman Mouhot discovered Angkor quite by accident as he was chasing a butterfly", said our guide as we walked down a wide dirt path. Though this is technically untrue - the Angkor temple complex in Cambodia had never really been 'lost', just covered by jungle - these words hung in the air and added to the mystique of an already strange day.  The sun was out, but clouds were drifting in; and the occasional monkey would scamper by looking for something to steal from you.  We were walking the back way up to Angkor Wat, a path much less populated than the main front entrance which is indeed grandiose but elbow to elbow with tourists, hawkers, and street urchins selling beads for a dollar.  As I looked up through the trees, the main tower of Angkor Wat peeked through; and I was overcome with the greatest sense of awe i've ever felt, and complete peace. I was so bowled over by this that I almost started to cry. "This is fucking cool," I said to Larry. "This is the best thing i've ever done".

We sat down on a rock facing the temple. Our guide Rottana was recently involved in a motorbike accident, so he walked slowly with his head tilted slightly.  Over the day, his story would come out. His father, a university professor, was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Since his two older brothers spoke English, they were accused of being part of the CIA and sent to the Killing Fields.  Rottana grew up in a monastery and learned Sanskrit and Mahayana Buddhism. He was reunited with his mother in 2003 after both thought each other dead. Yet as he told us of these horrible memories, his demeanor was calm, and he exuded an air of serenity. Perhaps this was his Buddhist training shining through.

A guard and a monk take refuge from the rain. Angkor Wat.

While we sat and Rottana spoke a little bit about the history of Angkor Wat, we noticed a noise in the distance getting closer and louder every second. I turned my head towards it. "What is that? Is that rain?". "The monkeys are coming", said Rottana, cryptically. Larry and I jumped up as the few tourists behind us started to make a run for it. Rottana smiled at us as we started to walk faster and faster then broke into a run and barely made it to the covered archway into the temple entrance. It rained on and off for the next few hours, but this only added to the sense of mystery of the place. Plus it didn't make the heat feel so oppressive.

There really are no words to describe how surreal Angkor Wat is. Even the obnoxious Japanese tour guide shouting at his tour group didn't mar the atmosphere.

the Center of the Universe. notice the 0 degrees on the compass.


Later in the day while visiting the Ta Prohm Temple, best known as the Jungle Temple or "Tomb Raider" temple where one small scene from the movie was filmed, we stood in the middle of a courtyard of sorts flanked by enormous banyan trees crushing the temple walls, and Rottana smiled. "Of all the Angkor temples, this one is my favorite", he said.  "I am happy here". If everyone could be as lovely and forgiving as he is, the world would indeed be a much better place.

Banyan tree, Jungle Temple.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Vertigo in an uncertain world.

For the first time in over two months I am watching the news on TV.  CNN in the hotel bar here in Siem Reap, Cambodia, trying to find out more about what's happened in Paris, trying to wrap my head around it, hoping my extended family is okay. And when the bar manager came up to ask me what was going on,  I realized that he and his staff did not know. So I explained. And I suddenly felt so foolish. I've come, briefly, to a country mainly to renew my visa but also to play tourist, and I know next to nothing about what these lovely people have been through in their own lifetimes. Today when talking to our guide about the Paris attacks, he said, "Oh. We had ISIS thirty years ago. The Killing Fields". 

We all know about the Killing Fields, but we don't sit down and really think about how close that happened in our past. And our guide, who grew up in a Cambodian monastery (we're guessing he was orphaned during the civil war) learned how to speak English from an Australian UN soldier in 2000. I don't know, maybe I'm being silly, but I'm overwhelmed by how small I feel in the universe, and how far away I feel from my family. Tomorrow I go to Angkor Wat, a trip I've wanted to do as long as I can remember, and I hope I can find some peace and understanding amongst the symmetry and holiness of the structures. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

the little things

When I decided to move to Vietnam, I had a lot of questions. I made lists and lists and lists.

Could I bring my knife kit? and will customs take it upon arrival? or will I have to pay a bribe at customs?
Can I ship things to myself from the US to arrive after I get there?
Does social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc) work there?
Should I get shots?
Will I get malaria or dengue fever?
How easy will it be to find a job?
Etc...

Every day I would add to my list of questions. I went online and read expat blogs, which were less than helpful. One American living in Hanoi had created a downloadable Excel spreadsheet of all the things expats moving to Vietnam ought to bring with them. A friggin' Excel spreadsheet of nonsense. Things that she deemed the most important items were a cast iron skillet, cast iron Dutch oven, horse riding gear, pizza stone, metal cupcake trays... and the list went on.   Though she did have some helpful items, but those were rather common sense stuff (like feminine type things, which I won't get into for TMI reasons).

I really didn't know what to bring with me, so I figured I'd pare my life down to two suitcases and one carry on.  And I was most certainly not going to pack a Dutch oven; as it is my two suitcases weighed 71 kg and 75 kg respectively. That's 156.5 lbs and 165 lbs, for those of you who don't do metric. No wonder every single hotel porter has given me dirty looks.  When checking in at Delta curbside at the Atlanta airport, the baggage handler picked up one of the bags and blurted out, "What, you pack a dead body in here?".  After a while I started telling people I packed rocks. At least the humor diffused their surprise and irritation for a bit.

No, I didn't pack dead bodies. I packed clothes (a lot of the wrong clothes, mind you) and cookbooks. Some of those suckers weigh a lot. Out of a massively growing collection of almost 300 cookbooks back home, I brought 20 of them. Two of them are by Thomas Keller, and if anyone has copies of The French Laundry or Ad Hoc at Home, you'll know they weigh 5 lbs each at least. I got dinged on Vietnam Airlines twice for having overweight luggage and had to pay fines. But these were the things that made me comfortable, that would remind me of home, and that will get put to good use. Eventually.

I reached out to Beth from Wander for Life, since I knew her when she lived in Atlanta. Beth currently lives in Turkey and had spent a few months living in Bien Hoa.  She had some helpful suggestions. I had also made a local contact through one of my clients back in Atlanta, and I had a Skype call with him. Both of them suggested to keep small bills around; that bribery was common; to not lose patience; and should I do get an offer of bribe, to negotiate. Beth had issues shipping boxes to herself, though they did arrive; so I tossed that idea of shipping things to myself out the window. 

In the end, I did pack my knives in my checked luggage, and upon arrival at Hanoi's Noi Bai International, the customs officials looked so bored they didn't even blink or check through my bags as we walked confidently through the line.  They're looking for drugs and money, and can't be bothered with just another jetlagged expat rolling off an airplane.

Social media works here. Some of it may be temporarily blocked, so I took advice from Brandon, who runs the Ticket Saigon website and opened an Unlocator account. This small monthly fee is totally worth it. In fact, Brandon has a ton of advice for expats moving abroad, what to do with your mail, etc, and worth a good look.

You don't really need shots if you're staying in one of the larger cities. There are no really big areas of stagnant water - even when the city floods during the rainy season, it drains off within hours.  And about the job thing... well I've written about that. I'm trying to not get depressed about it, so patience is key.

One thing I can tell you all though, in case anyone is interested in coming to Vietnam and staying for a bit, is about visas. Something you won't find online and I had to find out the hard way.  We flew into Hanoi first and took a tour down the coast before settling in Saigon.  I've renewed my tourist visa twice now in Saigon, and both times the visa brokers were pretty upset that we arrived in the country through Hanoi. I've had to pay double for the visa renewal. The first broker we used was through a friend of ours, so I just figured it was a one time deal and forgot about it. This last guy we used, through a very reputable source so I know he's legit, told me the same thing. 

"You shouldn't have come through Hanoi", he said. 
"Why?", I asked. 
"Because you have to pay double now." 
"But WHY?"
He shrugged his shoulders and his eyes got wide. "Because that's the law. Hanoi is the law. We don't question it".
Oh. Kay.

So the best advice I can give you if you're traveling on a tourist visa and want to live here with a tourist visa:  If you plan on staying in Hanoi, fly into Hanoi. If you plan on staying in Saigon, fly into Saigon. In fact, because of this little irritant, I can't renew my visa in November in Saigon. I have to go on a border run to Cambodia - basically, exit the country and come back in. Then apparently all will be kosher. I think.  I guess there's only one way to find out.  But hey, i've never been to Cambodia before, so at least there's that.

And i'm sure there will be times when I wish I had a cast iron Dutch oven, but i'm not losing sleep over it. But I do wish i'd brought a wooden spoon.  That, I really do.