Saturday, November 26, 2016

I'm afraid of Americans.



Thanksgiving night, we dressed up in our Sunday best and sallied out to dinner. My Vietnamese oven isn’t capable of roasting a whole bird (it’s a rather wee countertop thing that turns off after an hour, so you have to keep jumping up and running over to turn the dial again), so eating out was our best option.  This year a lot of restaurants and hotels were offering Thanksgiving meals (drinks included) at decent prices, and that cannot be beat. Last year I didn’t see any special deals, not that I was looking - I mean, I didn’t move to SE Asia to not soak up the culture - but this year, the city and its people have totally embraced Thanksgiving and the absolute horror that is Black Friday.

After a server poured us some wine, I noticed a low din that was slowly getting louder and louder.  I turned around to look. We were one of the first reservations (5:45 pm) but by 6 the place had filled up… with Americans. It took me a minute to adjust to the accents. Except for a small, small handful of people (I’m talking 3), all of our friends are Australian, French, or Vietnamese (or Canadian, or Macanese, or Cambodian; you get my drift). I work for Australians, so I’m used to that accent… but I’m no longer used to hearing the American accent.

I looked at Larry. “Dude. This is kinda freaky”.  He looked around, amazed at the crowd, “Yeah… It’s weird”.
“Who are these people? Did they come out of the woodwork?”
“I don’t know, but there’s a lot of them”.

The more alcohol poured, the louder the voices. Nasally, drawling. Haw-hawing.
“Do I sound like this when I talk?”
Larry laughed. He’s from New York and speaks in a forceful New Yorkese. “I never thought about it”. He shrugged his shoulders.  “I guess so”.
“God, that’s ugly. What an ugly accent we have”.

More wine being poured all around, including for us.  Americans getting drunk in the background, including us.


“I’m afraid”, I wailed loudly.  “I’m afraid of Americans.  Where are my Aussies when I need them?”
“Not celebrating Thanksgiving”.
“Bullshit. They’re drinkers. They can drink me under the table”.

I went up to the buffet and got caught in a stampede of Americans. I quickly snatched some food haphazardly, tossed it onto my plate, and practically ran back to the safety of my seat.  It felt as though we were on a field trip to another planet. We were one of the last tables to leave, as we waited for a large group of about 20, who were seated near us, to vacate the premises.  The din slowly quieted down.

“That was horrendous”, I said in the taxi home. “Thank God for food and booze. I need a shower to cleanse myself of my sins”.
“What sins?”
“I dunno, but I feel all grody now. Too many Americans”.

Here’s hoping you all had a peaceful, restful Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

visions of flying coffee-smoked ducks in my head


bar notes.


I don’t know about you, but I’ve been burying myself in side projects. Or at least, spending a lot of time doing research and homework for projects.  I am full of ideas, big, small, unrealistic perhaps, but in my Alice brain they are attainable to me. A lot of my ideas stem from innocent conversations with friends.

A couple of weeks back, I was having a cocktail at a favorite watering hole when I remembered I was out of coffee beans, so I ran next door to the café where I used to work to grab some.  Just my luck they had finished roasting beans that day, and I inhaled deeply, my nose pressed to the bag, as I slowly walked back to my drink.  My friend Jerry smiled at my goofiness (for I am indeed quite goofy).

“Have you ever used coffee in food?” Jerry asked, picking up the bag from where I'd set it on the bar and giving it a good long appreciative whiff.

“Yes,” I replied, my eyes getting wide with food memories flooding back. “In the South part of the US, we use coffee to make a gravy for ham. But we call it Red Eye Gravy.  And you can use the ground coffee in a rub for steaks. Rib eye steaks work well”.

“In Vietnam, too, we use coffee for meat”.

“You do?” I said, shocked. I nearly fell off my barstool in excitement.  “I didn’t know this! Tell”.

“We use it for duck. In the Mekong Delta, in Cần Thơ region.  My grandmother is from there”.

My eyes got as big as saucers, and I eagerly pulled out a notebook and pen and started scribbling. “Tell me more. What do they do?”

“So you must dig a hole and put the duck in the hole”.

“Ooh! They do that in Argentina”.  Damn, why didn’t I bring that Francis Mallmann book with me when I moved here?

“They do?” his face lit up. “Yeah so you wrap duck in banana leaf…” . Jerry spent the next 5 minutes describing what to do.  After the meat is smoked, you discard the skin and roll up the meat with veggies in a rice paper wrapper, tying the roll with a thin piece of spring onion. Per Jerry, the key is to smoke the duck in the leaves discarded from harvesting rice.  “You must use rice leaves. Not the same if you do not. Not the right flavor”.

My mind blurred with visions.  Where could I dig a hole near my house? I could dig up the planter bed out on the terrace, but the landlady would have a fit.  What about the newly empty lot next door, I could dig a hole there before they restart construction, no one would ever know…  Jerry interrupted this flow with a firm, “But you can’t just dig a hole anywhere. It has to be Mekong Delta, and it has to be Cần Thơ, it has to taste of countryside.  Otherwise, it’s not real. It’s not countryside”.  Me, scribbling on my notes: Smells like countryside. Can’t do this anywhere but countryside. 

So now I’m obsessed with heading over to Cần Thơ and getting someone to slow smoke a coffee-rubbed duck for me. I don’t think I’ve lived until this moment happens.



On days where I’m cooking for more than just a few, my clients hire someone to help serve, clear, and help me out in the kitchen.  Ly and her family are from Saigon; Ly is very sweet, completely capable, and I never have to tell her what to do.   On one occasion when I had Ly helping out for a lunch function, I had a Keralan-inspired curry working on the stove, and was messing around with tamarind pulp.  Tamarind is not something I’m used to working with; I only used it a couple of times in the US, and that came from an already processed jar found in an ethnic store.  But here, it’s aplenty (my urban street has tamarind trees growing along it). And there I was, getting frustrated, trying to scoop away pulp from the big black seeds, when Ly swooped in to save the day.

“I show you what my mother does,” she said, pouring a bit of steaming hot water in my bowl of tamarind pulp.  “You put water, you use a spoon, and you stir. Stir a lot. Then, the seeds come out automatically”.

And sure enough, the more I stirred, the more the seeds dislodged themselves from the pulp.  Such a small kitchen trick that maybe a lot of Westerners know about, but I certainly didn’t. It made my life so much easier that morning, and will in a future project I'm not going to discuss yet as it's growing in the dark of my brain and on the back of a bev nap.

The curry was great too.  I may share my recipe one day.

on the left, tamarind pulp. on the right, hello seeds.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

chinatown.

We met Grace on the corner of Châu Văn Liêm and Nguyễn Trãi streets, on the edge of Saigon’s Chinatown.  Grace’s family on both sides are of Chinese descent, and she regularly visits a pagoda to pay respects and pray.  Given our affinity for this kind of stuff, we eagerly agreed to accompany her, and she leapt at the chance to show off part of her heritage and daily life.

We walked to the nearby Chinese Buddhist temple of Chùa Ôn Lăng, which I believe is dedicated to a female bodhisattva and goddess of the seas.   Grace bought bottles of cooking oil from a vendor outside the pagoda, then showed us the ritual of praying at all the altars and pouring out a bit of oil in each of the lit lamps as an offering. Any leftover oil we had would be donated to the temple, who then give it to older devotees who can’t afford to pay for any offerings.

Afterwards we went to a chicken and rice eatery, appropriately named Cơm Gà Đông Nguyên (com = rice; ga = chicken).  All the cooking is done outside, and the dining room is up a flight of stairs in a white tiled air conditioned room.  As we sat eating plates of chicken with rice cooked in chicken broth, pork with crispy skin, a black chicken soup in medicinal herbs, and pork tripe, the highly entertaining conversation gravitated around food and Grace’s family.

“People here kill chicken by wringing neck. But my father, he do different”, she said. “He give them vodka”.

Me, suppressing a laugh. “Your Dad gets the chickens drunk?”

Grace nodded solemnly. “Yes! He feel bad for chicken. Everybody kills chicken by wringing neck and he don’t want chicken to be scared. He get chicken drunk, then he wring neck. Chicken die happy”.

Larry and I burst out laughing.  “Well”, I said, drying away tears of laughter with the back of my  hand, “I bet the meat tastes better since it’s tenderized”.  Grace nodded. “Yeah, my father, he thinks so too”.

She then talked about her grandfather. “My grandfather, he eat the same thing every day. For 86 years! He eat white porridge for breakfast. White porridge for lunch. And dinner, he eat regular food, but also a bowl of white porridge”. She added, “He never sick”.

“White porridge? Like congee?”, I asked.

“Yes”.

“Wow”, I said. “Bland white porridge is the key to good health! I best get on that”.

“Yes. And then one day he go to hospital and he die”.

“Wait, what? He’s dead? Your grandfather is dead?”

“Yes. They not have white porridge at hospital”.

Never a dull moment in Saigon.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

fooding.

Yellow pomegranates. The one on the left weighs in at a whopping 800 grams (that’s about 1.75 lbs!), and I hope it’s ripe and full of good juicy arils because I plan on using them as part of a grilled eggplant salad on Friday, part of some vaguely Mediterranean buffet lunch I’m making for my clients. 


The locals seem to be interested in the food I’m buying.  Recently I walked down to my favorite street market to get vegetables, about a 2 km walk from the house; and on the way back it started to rain pretty hard so I jumped on a bus headed home.  The conductor pointed to the empty seat directly behind the driver.  As I plonked down and put my bags on the floor, the driver, noticing me in the rearview mirror, said in English, “Where you from?”.  “America”, I replied, to which he gleefully said, “Ah! AMERICA! Ha ha ha!”, then rambled off a few things in Vietnamese to the conductor.  She leaned over from her seat across the aisle and began digging through my grocery bags to see what I had bought, picking out lettuce and herbs and showing them to the driver.  I’m guessing he approved, because he kept nodding and grinning.

This is something I’ve gotten used to. It would be different if random people were rifling through my handbag, but this is just groceries and I’m guessing they’re just curious as to what I’m eating.  One day while I was waiting for Larry to get a haircut after a bout of grocery shopping, one of the stylists sat beside me and started poking through my grocery bag.  “Ca chua… Mit…”, I said, as she pulled out a tomato then some jackfruit sections. “You good!”, she exclaimed, “You know Vietnamese food! I teach you more”.  So she pulled out other items and had me repeat after her what they were.

Sometimes on my way back from shopping I’ll walk along Dong Khoi street (formerly Rue Catinat back in French Colonial days).  It’s one of my favorite streets to walk down, even though I’m constantly having to dodge women every 10 feet shoving a flyer for a massage parlor in my face. Dong Khoi is home to some pretty spectacularly cool old buildings, though I believe there’s the threat of them being torn down soon. Halfway up the street a disabled woman sits in front of the Parkson department store selling gum.  I don’t know her name, but we’ve become pretty friendly.  Sometimes we’ll give her some small bills, but we don’t take her gum because we’d prefer she sell it to tourists and be able to make some money.  One day while we stopped to talk in our lousy Vietnamese and her broken English, she made a motion for us to hand over a grocery bag so she could see what was inside.  She pulled out ginger, a cucumber, and a lime and held them up to us expectantly.  I realized she wanted them for herself, so I nodded. A look of rapture spread across her face and she burst out laughing. So of course now when I walk down the street with any groceries at all, I know she’ll rifle through them and pull out a carrot, or a piece of fresh turmeric, a beet, or another lime (she seems to really like beets and limes).  I’ve gotten used to  buying a few extra of those.

Today I had some shopping to do at Annam, which is the Vietnamese version of Whole Foods, meaning that everything is overpriced but sometimes they have that one item you just can’t live without.  There’s a brand new Annam location in the Saigon Centre shopping mall, and it’s much bigger and nicer than the other store branches. It’s where I go when I’ve had a bad day and just want to look at all the shiny pretty things (some women window shop for shoes; I window shop for food). On today’s trip I bought a head of frisée lettuce from the Da Lat mountainous region where a lot of vegetables in Vietnam are grown. Walking home, I stopped off at one of the international stores on Ham Nghi where my usual clerk waved and came up to see what I needed today.  She spied my bag and scowled, motioning for me to hand it over for a look-see. Pulled out the bag of frisée, still scowling at it. “This looks fresh. Good deal”, she said, nodding, looking at the price tag and giving it her stamp of approval, before putting it back in my bag and helping me find a square cake pan with removable bottom, the object of my shopping trip to Ham Nghi.

...

After a seated event for 12 the other night, after all the cleanup and packing up, I was preparing to leave but sat talking to a colleague of mine while she had a post-prandial ciggie. She’s my client’s assistant, a vivacious and well-connected woman who is extremely efficient at her job (and knows it too).  She suffered some kind of nasal injury as a child which resulted in her not having a sense of taste.

“What I like about your food is that you understand textures. I can’t taste anything, so I totally rely on that. You have such interesting textures going on, and a lot of cooks don’t get that”.

Me: “That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me about my cooking!”

Indeed, I was incredibly flattered.  I never thought about my food having textures. As a cook, sure, I instinctively think of textures (I think); you know that adding crunch to a soft dish (like coconut puddings topped with chopped peanuts) will play nicely together and have a really good mouthfeel, but I don’t focus on it. I spend most of my time thinking flavors, and layering of flavors. It made me wonder, do other cooks think the same way as I do or do they think texture first - flavor later? Or is it just instinctive all around?

Friday, October 21, 2016

a world beyond pho

A friend of mine from Atlanta, in the midst of a whirlwind tour to SE Asia, stopped by for two nights. He landed in Hanoi, then moved on to Bangkok before arriving in Saigon. As he was about to board a plane to Hong Kong, he whined: “I ate really well, but come to think of it, I didn’t even eat any pho!”, to which I replied. “But there’s so much more to Vietnamese food than pho!”.

In Hanoi, which he didn’t particularly like, he ate at the bun cha joint made famous by President Obama and Anthony Bourdain’s visit last May.  In Bangkok (“a cross between Vegas, New Orleans, and New York; it’s sensory overload!”), he ate at the floating markets and got food poisoning.  When he arrived in Saigon, he said he was game to eating almost anything as long as he took some medicine first.

So we ate - and ate, and ate.  We ate banh khot, the tiny pancakes cooked in cast iron molds, filled with coconut milk and crab meat. Cau lau, a dish traditionally made in Hoi An, noodles and pork with very little (but extremely flavorful) broth. Fresh spring rolls which we rolled up in lettuce and mint and dipped into nuoc mam cham (fish sauce with chilis, lime juice, and sugar).  A vat of clams in a starfruit broth with tomatoes and loads of fresh dill. Caramelized pork ribs encrusted with sesame seeds (which he proclaimed to be “one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth”).  And consumed more ca phe sua da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk) in two days than I’ve had in a year of living here.

One can find Vietnamese restaurants all along Buford Highway in Atlanta, and lot of their menus consist of more than pho and banh mi sandwiches, but those two food items are really the only things that most Atlantans know as Vietnamese food, which is a crying shame.

Two days is just not enough time to sample the variety that encompasses Vietnamese cuisine. He said he’d come back next year, with wife and kids in tow, and vowed to spend more time diving into the food culture.  And I’m glad I’m doing my part to convince people back home that there’s a whole great big wide world out there beyond pho.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Deal with this, please. I’ve drank half a bottle of wine and I’ve some shit to get off my chest.

Every day I wake up and I think, “What did Trump say now?”.  I’m 11 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, so when I wake up, I check Twitter since it’s the end of the day on the previous day in the US. And every day for the past couple of weeks there has been some turmoil or bullshit that has popped up because Trump’s mouth has no filter, and it’s never good. It makes me sick to my stomach.

20 years ago I left an abusive relationship. I lived in the state of Florida. I got a restraining order, then moved to Savannah, Georgia. Two months later, the abuser showed up on my doorstep. He followed me to class; he followed me around town. He followed me home from work late one night when I worked a catering job after classes, and he forced me into my house. He raped me and sodomized me.

The next morning, after he left, I called Chatham County Sheriff’s Department, and I told the policeman on the other line what happened. I may not remember a lot of things, but what that man said has been etched into my brain forever. “Well, unless you have a bruise on your face, or a picture of him on your doorstep pressing on your doorbell, there is nothing we can do for you, little lady”.

I’ll never forget those words.  “Little Lady”.

I moved. The abusive stalker moved on, I thought. I moved away, to Atlanta, then Baltimore, then back to Atlanta.  And then I started getting phone calls from creditors, telling me that they were looking for him, because he owed them money. What in the fuck does that have to do with me? Nothing. I hung up. I got married to a decent guy. I never thought I’d have to deal with the abuser again.

And then came the time of social media. I started getting Facebook messages from him, at first being nice, saying, “Hi how are ya?”, shooting the shit like nothing bad had ever happened. As if I would be receptive to saying hello.  As if I would say, “Hey! How’s life? You doing good? How’s that left hook going, you still got it?”.  I ignored him. When I didn’t answer him, the messages became threatening, calling me a bitch for not answering him.

I never responded to any of these.

Why didn’t I block him, you ask? Because I always needed to know where he would be, so that I would be one step ahead of him.  I didn’t want to run the risk of running into him by accident. Blocking him wouldn’t help ease the uncertainty that he wouldn’t be waiting around the corner. This is the kind of shit that women who have been abused think about and have to deal with.  You didn’t think of that, dear reader, did you? Well, welcome to our normality. Every time I parked my car anywhere, every time I walked up my driveway or went to a grocery store, I looked around me to ensure he wasn’t lurking in the shadows.  And I still do that, half a world away, when I moved to Vietnam. I look around me wherever I am to ensure he’s not there. It's instinctive.

And he found out where I live; he lurked on my LinkedIn, a place where I felt safe because it allows me to interact with normal people and look for normal jobs. He saw where I worked. He sent me messages about how much he missed me, how he wanted me to change my profile picture so he would know what I now look like. Twenty fucking years later he does this.

Back in the day he constantly boasted about grabbing pussy, about grabbing tits, about how that’s what women want. And when the recordings of Trump came out, it brought back way, way too many memories of my past life, which brings me to the here and now.

Trump is an asshole, for many, many reasons.  Making fun of disabled people; thinking he’s better and smarter than everyone else; being a full on total waste of a human being.   Why on earth people think this “Good Ol’ Boy’s Club” is the norm is beyond me. Why every morning I see cousins and friends of mine on Facebook bleat like sheep about how “Why should this man be punished for saying bad words? It’s just locker room talk”. You must be joking. My father, my brother, and my boyfriend would NEVER speak this way in a locker room. My male friends wouldn’t either. Most men I know wouldn’t. Trump is the kind of man who thinks he’s done no wrong. Trump is like my ex. Trump is like many women’s exes. They think they can get away with it because they HAVE gotten away with it, with no thanks to people like that cop in Savannah belittling me. They can push and push and push and STILL annoy you from halfway across the world. And I’m embarrassed to be associated with people who think this way.

This whole “Make America Great Again”? It’s INSULTING.  I didn’t think America was such a bad place to live. My mom came to the US at the age of 18, which makes me a first generation American. Most of my American friends are first, second, and third generation. It pains me to see people embrace Trump like he’s telling “the truth”. What truth is this? Are you giddy, happy, ecstatic that he talks the way he does? Would you make fun of the family of a fallen soldier? Would you make fun of a disabled person? A Latina beauty queen? Would you talk about women like they are cheap? So why in hell are you supporting him? You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, but you’re not… but why the fuck aren’t you?

Guess what, Trump. You’re the cheap one.  You are the abusive ex we’ve been trying to get rid of.

Now, get the fuck out of our lives. For good. And take my abusive ex with you, to Hell.


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.


Streetwise.

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”.
“300”.
“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.