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?

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.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

eating everything in sight

If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, you'll think all I do is eat out; and when I do eat out it's only Western-style food. That's a pretty fair assumption, and we have done a boatload of eating out.  Most places here are terribly inexpensive, unless you go to some of the restaurants in District 1, especially one which is a great favorite of mine, a Japanese-Peruvian place called Blanchy Street. Notice how I don't use the words 'Japanese-Peruvian fusion' here because fusing reminds me of a soldering iron; and I once got burned pretty badly by one. That word has no business being used in food writing. 

But some of the best food I've had is the street food. Yeah yeah yeah, i'm sure you're over it, ever single Trip Advisor entry on every SE Asian town bleats out to its sheep that one must eat the street food. But the thing is, you really ought to.  And the street vendors tend to be the nicest, friendliest, and most beautiful people you'll ever meet.

pho-in' it around the country

When we first landed in Vietnam, we arrived in Hanoi.  I had never been to SE Asia before. The furthest i'd been from home was India and South America, and that was more than 25 years ago.  I was mentally ready for this adventure, or so I thought. I honestly didn't quite know what to expect. At first, Hanoi was overwhelming. I didn't think I could take it all in. But then we strolled around the city and started to notice things, little things.  Like this lady selling pho and chè đỗ đen (I believe it's a sweet black bean concoction) right off the back of her bike. I firmly suggest that someone back in the States ought to get on this mobile pho delivery service, seeing as more than one person, including myself, would have killed for a bowl of it delivered right to me on a hairy morning.

mobile pho vendor

Street vendors are everywhere.  In Hué, they sold grilled corn on the cob, setting up a little makeshift grill right on the street.  I ate far too much while we were in Hué, and was too full by the time I'd emerge from a meal to even consider eating another bite.  This is an omission that will be rectified one day.  We also took a cooking class while there, from the most charming woman who's husband's family ran the classes and restaurant.  These types of classes are fairly popular here amongst visitors.  You usually start off at a typical Vietnamese open air market and go shopping, then head back to some central location and cook.  For us, it was our first time shopping true Vietnamese style, and I loved it.  I saw things that would raise an eyebrow or two from Health Inspectors back home, but things like that go unnoticed here.  A lot of the vendors sell out early, so if you get there late it's pretty wise to not buy meat or fish or something that you just know has been sitting out for more than four hours. Common sense is your friend here; respect it.  But if you put all that aside, and shop in the mornings (or sometimes at night, the vendors come back with fresh, sometimes different products), you'll be rewarded with a vast array of things you'd never even heard of but want to get in your belly immediately.  

baskets and baskets of fresh straw mushrooms

We got back to the restaurant and immediately set about making a four course menu.  The highlight was a fried banana flower salad with prawns and fried shallots, and a stuffed pancake.  I really want to make those pancakes again. First you make the pancake in a small crepe type pan, then brush the inside with a duck egg that has been gently whisked. The ones we made were then filled with sautéed straw mushrooms (which you never want to eat raw unless you want a nice case of indigestion, or so said our guide who mimicked what indigestion looked like). It also had pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts stuffed in, then you fold it over and fry it.

stuffed pancakes, Hue style, frying up

For the first month after arriving in Saigon, we lived in Go Vap, a northern working class district. A lot of people (mainly expats but some locals as well) were shocked. "Why on earth are you living there?", they all exclaimed. The thing is - now that i'm no longer living there, I really value that experience.  The people were friendly and amazing. For example, we went to get roast duck from a street vendor and discovered we didn't have enough money on us.  With a big laugh and lots of arm movements, the vendor basically told us it was no problem and we could pay him back later - which we immediately did as soon as we could (and the duck itself was a delight).  The street food is amazingly good and cheap, and an average lunch - such as this stuffed squid with braised greens and rice (and a banana on the side) - costs approximately 88 cents. 

best 88 cent lunch around

I ate some pretty decent banh mi as well. If you can, if you have a choice, find a vendor that has a bowl of pâté hanging about, and get them to slather that on to the bread first. You will not be disappointed. 

Since moving into this new more southernly suburb (which I find particularly sterile and uninviting and can't WAIT to get the hell out of), I haven't been doing much street food eating, so I have cooked more at home.  This kitchen doesn't have much going on, but that toaster oven, with a capacity of maybe 8 inches by 5 inches, has seen a lot of usage. I've roasted garlic in there; roasted peppers; broiled chicken thighs, toasted innumerable slices of bread, melted many a things. 

the little toaster oven that could.

The fridge is always full of little goodies, like this bowl of persimmons. Ripe, jammy, putting any persimmon I ate in the U.S. to shame. That whole bowl (minus one because I'm greedy) cost me about 58 cents. 

There's a Whole Foods in Mill Valley, Ca near my parents house that I've affectionately dubbed "Whole Shed", since it's about the size of one. And then one day while wandering down Hai Ba Trung Street, we came across the Shed's Vietnamese equivalent, a place called An Nam. It's expensive for Vietnamese standards, but really cheap for American standards. They sell a lot of American, French, and British packaged foods, as well as Australian and American beef. But they also sell a really great selection of unpasteurized French cheeses, which I leapt upon yesterday, and which we had for dinner last night. 

An ashy tomme, a slab of veiny morbier, and a raw goat's cheese wrapped up in grape leaves. The goat's cheese was so incredibly fragrantly stinky and running out to sea. It was marvelous.

So the point is, there is no shortage of food here in Vietnam, whether you want to eat typical or Western. It's an inexpensive place to live, and so far I'm crazy in love with this country and its people. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

back to the old drawing board

"Mr. Quynh? Nice to meet you" I say, extending my hand. "I'm sorry i'm a bit early, my taxi got me here very quickly".
"Not at all, not at all. Come in". He shakes my hand and sits down. "Yes, come in".

I sit myself down and take out a pen and pad of paper from my backpack and settle in for the interview. I'm not quite sure what i'm interviewing for, really. I know it's for a teaching job, but the woman doing my recruiting was pretty vague about the exact position, because i'm sure she wasn't given much information to pass along.

"Hmmm. Yes", says Mr. Quynh. "Do you know IELTS?"
"Do I know what that is? Yes, I do. But I don't have that degree. I have a certificate in TESOL".
"Hmmm. Okay. I need you to monitor study group".
"Of course. Is the study group on the school premises? Is it here?"
"No.... know what... I have nothing for you".
"Oh... uh...."

Awkward pause. Why am I here? I ask myself. I hesitate for a moment then pick my bag back up off the floor and start to put away my pen and paper.

"You have teaching experience, yes?", Mr. Quynh blurts out.
"Well yes, that's why i'm here, no?". I look at him puzzled. I'm trying not to look exasperated.
"I have friend. She work international school. I place you there".
"Oh. Uh. So what does that job entail? I mean, can you tell me more about that job?"
"I been here one month. I turn thing around".
"Um. That's great, i'm sure you're doing a really good job". I smile, trying to move things along. "Where were you working before?". Not quite sure where this is going, but i'll play along, I think to myself.
"Oh. I was with Asia Pacific International School".
"If you don't mind me asking, why did you leave?"
Mr. Quynh laughs. "Students! They problem. They no good. But hey, I can get you job there!".

I blink and take a deep breath.  "Uh... Mr. Quynh. If you left the school because of classroom management problems, why do you think I would do well there?"
"Oh. Hahaha! you need to take bus".
"Excuse me?"
"You take bus. You live too far".
"Oh. Okay". This is going nowhere.

He smiles complacently at me. I pick my bag back up and put my pen and paper away.

"Well, this was nice", I say while standing up. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Quynh".
"Thank you! I tell my friend about you. You don't forget".
"No sir, I certainly won't".
"And you take bus".

What the fuck just happened?

I cut a bit out of the middle there since it was much of the same, and he was busy telling me about other people that he's interviewed lately (people that i know); but that was the gist of my job interview yesterday. I left, perplexed. Was I dressed inappropriately? Is it because i'm too old? Was I showing too much cleavage or not enough? Wait - did I really just try to justify to myself that i'm not sexy enough or too sexy for a fucking job? seriously - these are the things that popped into my head. You never know here. Maybe he just didn't like my face.

So. Back to harassing people for a job.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

apartment hunting

So the other day whilst milling around the busy streets of Saigon, I walked past a seafood restaurant that had these critters swimming around in large aquarium cases.  I put an APB out on Facebook and Instagram, asking if anyone knew what they were - as far as I knew, they were a hybrid shrimp-lobster-preying mantis maybe? and Toby from Plate Fodder said they were in fact called Mantis Shrimp.

you will be assimilated

If you're not familiar with mantis shrimp (and I wasn't), I advise you to check this link out.. and it's FRIGHTENING.  Why the Mantis Shrimp is my New Favorite Animal.

As I was doing a round of show-and-tell the other day at Pasteur Street Brewing Company, my friend Oanh (who works there) peered over my shoulder and exclaimed, "Oh, tôm tít!". She says her family steams them and serves them au naturel with dishes of salt and pepper to dip them into.

We have to be out of this apartment by I think the 27th, so we're actively looking for a new place.  As previously stated, I will probably miss the view at this Airbnb. But I will not miss the massive dusty fake orchid arrangements that are supposed to liven up the living area, since the landlord can't seem to keep anything alive in the eight large planter boxes of dead stubs out on the balcony.

I always thought that when I finally move into a more permanent place here in Saigon that i'd get an orchid or two - the florist here sell them like crazy.  But I think i'm over that, and now I just want a bunch of potted cacti.

Apartment hunting can be an adventure. We found a broker on the internet, who met us in front of one available apartment, then took us around to see others. The first one we saw was fine, just a bit small... then it went downhill from there. The last place he showed us, after we'd been following his motorbike in a taxi all afternoon, looked like a dorm room complete with dorm-sized fridge and a small electric hotplate. So when a new buddy of mine I met on the twitterverse (hi Michael!) reached out and suggested I use one of his real estate people, I jumped on it.

Dan is Vietnamese but speaks English really, really well (in fact, he was featured on a 2012 episode of House Hunters International - a show that for some inexplicable reason was always playing on the waiting room TV every time I went in for a doctor's appointment back in the States).  Dan took us around to visit a few places that expats generally like - nice places, high rise buildings, nice views, usually a lot of Western-type shopping in the building itself or nearby. I finally realized I had to be frank and tell him I wanted a decently sized "Western-style" kitchen. A lot of these high rises have small kitchens, most without an oven - in fact, all of the traditional Vietnamese apartments i've been in don't have an oven at all, maybe a small toaster oven. I'm not planning on cooking massive roasts (or maybe... I am?) but I wouldn't mind something a bit more substantial than a toaster oven. Or I can just go buy one myself if the apartment has enough counter space for it.  The last place Dan showed us was ideal. I don't want to talk too much about it should the deal fall through and the landlord decides not to let us have it; but I really want this apartment and I feel as though I could be happy there, pottering about in the kitchen.

And even if i don't feel like cooking much - which will probably be the first few days since pots and pans need to be purchased - the surrounding neighborhood is littered with cafés, beer gardens, restaurants, street vendors with tiny tables and chairs to perch yourself on, so I won't go hungry. And the best part? the closest restaurant to the apartment is a seafood place, complete with aquariums lining the walls... lobster, fish of all kinds, and my old friend, the mantis shrimp.  Now to get some salt and pepper.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Adventures in dining

If you walk up the stretch of no-man's land that separates my apartment building from the rest of District 7, you reach what is probably my favorite hole in the wall restaurant so far. To be honest, I don't even know the name of it. From the outside it looks like a big, dilapidated, palm-roofed beer garden, complete with the requisite "beer girls" which every beer joint in Saigon has; a bunch of tiny, cute girls wearing the tightest and shortest little matching outfits. Their job is to get people to drink more, and it works. Because District 7 is home to a lot of Japanese expats, this particular restaurant is full of off-duty Japanese businessmen who want plenty of attention and are willing to pay for it. The people watching here is pretty fascinating to say the least.

The speciality here is crab. I know this because though I don't know the name of the place, it has an enormous neon crab brightly lighting up the dingy entrance. When you're seated, you're handed a menu as thick as a Cheesecake Factory menu, and some of the stuff on there is pretty fascinating. Iguana, all types of fish, pig's brain soup, deer, badger, and an assortment of snails, cockles, clams, oysters, and of course, crab.

(Some items don't translate well into English).

I'm used to Maryland blue crabs, having lived in Baltimore for a bit way back when, but these suckers are huge, 3 kilos each (well over 6 pounds apiece). You can get them steamed a variety of ways, in beer or coconut juice, and with several different sauces. I tried the black pepper sauce, which was good - but the chile sauce is the best. If you're getting other food, you really only need one crab a person, maybe two. We thought we had ordered a Szechuan peppercorn oyster dish, when what came out were raw clams in a spicy sauce heaped with cilantro, which turned out to be a really nice mistake; the clams meaty with a tinge of an iron-like flavor, like liver.

The crabs come out with a spicy green sauce which I can't get enough of. And bowls of lemongrassy herbed water to clean your fingers with, because you will get messy.  The shells on the crab claws are so thick I friggin broke my cracker. Our beer girl didn't seem to mind. 

There are about two or three similar crab joints on this block, since I don't know the address I'll just post a picture of the map and street corners.

That big intersection there to the left of Vivo City, corner of Nguyễn Văn Linh and Nguyễn Hữu Thọ.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

observing the breadth of his domain

All the travel books say it's a good sign when you walk into a restaurant and you're the only tourist in the place. Last night we went to a Japanese restaurant on Đông Du Street in District 1, and we were the only non-Japanese in there. The people at the next table may have even rolled their eyes a bit at us, but when they saw what we ordered (not California rolls, I guarantee you that), they became much more respectful.

The food was pretty phenomenal, including this mushi broth served in a teapot (which was about $6 USD). I used to eat something similar in Atlanta for about 20 bucks, but it was only once in a while since the matsutake mushroom used for the broth is seasonal.  

Normally I do a fair amount of people-watching. I have a fertile imagination, so it's helpful when you're stuck someplace like the airport, because I find people-watching to be ridiculously fascinating.  But I found myself watching this guy all night:

I first noticed him when I went up the stairs to use the facilities, and I was curious what this chef guy was doing, just standing there on the small landing, staring out at the restaurant. When I got back to my seat, it occurred to me that he wasn't watching the customers. He was watching his own well-oiled machine at work.

He kept a keen eye on every bit of what every person who worked there was doing. He watched what the girls were ringing in, what the bussers were doing, how fast everyone was moving, glanced at each and every dish coming out of the kitchen, scrutinized the whole lot. At some point he came down from his perch and took over expediting food out of the kitchen.  And once, and only once, did he break his regal stance and deliver food himself to a table, someone who must have been of great importance to deserve such an honor (I never got to see who it was because they were seated upstairs).  In a way he reminded me a bit of Chef Jiro Ono - and if you haven't seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you must, especially if you're into food (notice how I didn't use the word 'foodie' here because I fucking hate that word). 

Upon leaving, we paid our respects and thanked him, and were rewarded with a huge grin and a deep bow.  

Saturday, October 10, 2015


One of the good things about the apartment where I currently live is the view. On a clear day, one can see for miles (or kilometres - I need to get back into the habit of using the metric system, which makes way more sense than whatever bullshit yards and feet and whatnot that only confuse).  I took this photo below the day I moved in using the panoramic feature on my iPhone.  The buildings are actually much closer than they appear, but for purposes of this exercise, this photo will do.

Not too shabby, eh? The view is one of the only things I like about this apartment. It's located bit farther off the beaten track than I would prefer, and you can't exactly walk anywhere, but i'm only here for a couple more weeks before uprooting and moving closer into town. I think.

But for the past few days, this is the view we've been getting. And today is a bit clearer than previous days: 

Yesterday you couldn't see the buildings on the left, which are in reality pretty close. And this is all due to illegal wildfires burning in Indonesia, affecting all the surrounding countries, which the Indonesian government refuses to do anything about.  

That's pretty normal in this part of the world. Governments are corrupt; they say they're going to do something and they don't, and they don't enforce rules and laws they put into effect. But they enforce their own bullshit made up on the spot rules, like cops pulling random people over when driving and demanding a bribe. Bribery is pretty common here. Shameful.

Yesterday, trying to get a taxi home from dinner, some local decided to help us by pretty much getting in the way. When we did manage to get a cab, no thanks to him, he got pretty angry when we wouldn't give him any money, and beat his fist on the cab door. Shit like this is pretty common here. I am gracious and gracious and gracious, and I put up with a lot of bullshit from "friends" and former business partners; I had vowed not to tolerate any more bullshit when moving here, but unfortunately I may have moved to the wrong country to enforce my own beliefs.

I knew before coming here that these countries tend to have antiquated views on women and ageism in general, but it didn't occur to me that it would be as bad as it really is. Job applicants must include a head shot of themselves (now I see why so many people are keen to get professional pictures taken of themselves) and you must include your birth date on all applications. I had a job interview the other day, for one of the resorts in the central provinces.  Second question out of the Executive Chef's mouth was, "How old are you?". When I told him, I could tell he immediately wanted to get me off the phone. The awkward pause and hemming and hawing and finally, "Well... i've got some hotshot young chef in Hong Kong who I'm going to interview next, so I'm not quite sure what to tell you".  In the US, ageism is illegal.  No amount of me trying to tell this chef about my vast experience and knowledge, he wants a hotshot young guy. Ah well. No use crying over it when there's nothing I can do about it.  And there's no use in me voicing my opinion about it here because that will only fall on deaf ears. 

The other thing i've noticed here - though it hasn't applied directly to me but has pissed me off way more than the ageism - is blatant racism.  The women here try to be as pale as possible. They don't step out in the sun without covering themselves up ridiculously from head to toe. They buy bleaching products and skin care, which has proven to be difficult for me when shopping for my own skincare because I can't find anything that doesn't have a bleaching ingredient in it.  People here view dark skin very negatively. The Vietnamese who are tan or naturally dark skinned get shunned because they're considered to be a lower class than the others: they're viewed as farmers, the ones who do hard labor outside, they're seen as "dirty".  My friend Vân is a totally cute chick who is naturally dark skinned. We were out having drinks with her and her friend Kim when they told us about being bullied growing up, and how the other kids called them "negroes" because they both have skin a bit darker than what is considered "normal" here. Kim said that at the beginning of each school year she would check her new history book for when they would be learning about U.S. history, especially slavery and the Civil Rights movement, so that she could be mentally prepared for the onslaught of name-calling that was par for the course.  I read on one of the expat message boards about an American couple (he's white, she's African-American), and how people here were treating her. He claimed that strangers were coming up to him and asking why he was with a "dirty" girl. If this is true, it's pretty fucking awful shit.

You'd think that with more expat money flowing in at a rapid speed that attitudes would change here - and they probably will, though I doubt how fast those changes will take place.  I can't even imagine what would happen if they allowed people to vote here. I'm not quite sure i'll see that day in my lifetime.

Anyway, I could delve much deeper into this, but I haven't had enough coffee yet. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

wish wish wish

I took these pictures in August at the Chinese Assembly Hall in Hoi An, a historic building that dates back from the late 1600s and now houses a temple dedicated to the goddess of the seas, protector of sailors.

These incense cones take three weeks to burn. One can buy a cone and write a wish or dedication and have it hang in the Assembly Hall.  At the end of the three weeks time when the incense slowly burns its way around and out, your wish is said to come true. So naturally, money was plonked down and I wrote myself a wish and got my very own incense cone.  

Given the opportunity, what would you wish for on your cone?

(I'm not telling what I wished for on mine. It's a big fat secret).

temple dog

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

the land of fruit aplenty

If you're into fruit, you're in luck. SE Asia is a treasure trove of fruit i've only been able to find stateside at places like Buford Highway Farmer's Market in Atlanta. 

One night at sunset while walking through the courtyard of a restaurant in Hué, I noticed trees bearing heavy oblong fruit that looked awfully familiar... and I realized they were starfruit (carambola). I'd never seen them growing on trees before.  The only time i'd ever eaten any was in Florida, decades ago; the grandfather of my friend Caprice had trees and trees of them on his property in Miami, and gave us a big huge paper bag full of them one Christmas.  Caprice and I were really broke at the time, so we ate starfruit pretty much every day until we were sick of it and able to scrounge enough loose change out of the couch cushions to buy a pizza.  Fast forward a couple of decades and here they were, long, oblong and ridged, growing like crazy in Vietnam. The hostess noticed me gawking open-mouthed at them, and asked if i'd like some. A few minutes later, it arrived at my table, peeled, sliced, and with a dish of spicy salt to dip them into. I remembered that sour tanginess from those long ago Florida days. Dipped in salt, the fruit is really refreshing on a hot day.


Dragonfruit is sold everywhere, and I mean everywhere. At least every 100 yards down any urban road there's someone hawking some. If you're not familiar with it, I can understand how it looks completely batshit insane. How would one go about eating one? That pink and green, as pretty as it is, is just the rind. You cut one of these in half and are rewarded with a stark white flesh dotted with black "seeds" (which are edible).  


My breakfast a lot of mornings consists of a bunch of fruit (along with some ph because hey, when in Rome). A dragonfruit slice is in the background (where you can see the white flesh), along with watermelon, pomelo, rambutan, the best and most flavorful passionfruit i've ever tasted, and papaya. The papaya one gets in the States is pretty pathetic. You don't realize it is either, because you're too busy pretending to be all fancy by using the seeds in a vinaigrette or some other way for your neighbors to ooh and ahh about. You always have to doctor papaya up with a good squeeze of lime. Not so with this local stuff. It's complete heaven. 


This thing below was brought out to me one night while I was hanging out at a local American-owned brew pub. One of the bartenders, Oanh (pronounced One) has become a pretty good buddy. She came running out from the back with a plate of this and exclaimed, "CAROLINE! have you had this before?"

Figuring it was some sort of apple, I crunched down on one of the slices. While it's not an apple, though it has the texture of one, it's actually a plum. "What's the name of it?", I asked Oanh. She laughed. "Plum. we just call it 'plum'. mận in Vietnamese". She shrugged her shoulders. "It just translates to 'plum' ".

pronounced 'mun', with a sorta silent n.

Then there's this thing which I noticed one day at the breakfast buffet at a hotel. I couldn't figure out why there was a huge platter of little potatoes sitting right next to the papaya. I figured it was some kind of fig, so obviously I had to try it. The thin skin pulled back easily enough and I was rewarded with these globule-like capsules, each encasing a seed - not unlike a rambutan or longan fruit.  It's called langsat ( trái bòn bon or just bòn bon in Vietnamese).  Sweet but with a hint of bitterness, which I really like. 


Speaking of figs, came across this one at the market. But this type of fig is considered a vegetable in Vietnam. I didn't find out too much how it's prepared, but I will. Oh, I will.

Figgy McFig.

And then there's my old friend the durian.  You can't escape it here. It's everywhere. and you can smell it coming a mile away too. The other day at the Ben Thanh market in District 1, I could smell it wafting across the way over the vendors heads.  A lovely, putrid scent, a tinge of eau de death, stinky cheese, and old socks. I may taste it again one day just to fulfill the desire to eat it locally (and not frozen, shipped halfway around the world, like I had before - which was bad enough), but i'm not feeling that adventurous yet. 

you can stay right where you are, durian.

I can understand the jackfruit and durian, but what did the pup ever do to you?

Similar to France, fruit is served as dessert here - which i'm totally fine with.  Some of the sweets are just a bit too much for me.  Like this passionfruit cupcake I had a couple of weeks ago. It's pretty enough, but god was it teeth-achingly sweet. The top turned out to be marshmallow fluff. I thought it would be passionfruit flavored too, but sadly it wasn't. 

passionfruit cupcake and a cappuccino.

I want to recreate this with a passionfruit meringue, once I get a working oven. The current apartment has a kitchen rich in chopsticks, bowls, and dull knives.  It also has a tiny little toaster oven, with four settings: Light, Mid, High, and Toast. It turns off after 15 minutes of use. I managed to roast garlic in it the other day, though I kept having to jump up and restart the damn thing every quarter of an hour. Hey, adapt, improvise, overcome, they say.

And if all else fails, go for the chocolate. 

The cure-all for all shitty moods: Vietnamese coffee and a chocolate cupcake covered in ganache and sprinkles. BLISS.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

the land of selfie-mania

Everyone in Saigon is completely batshit crazy over taking selfies. It’s rampant. At shopping centers, in front of product placements at the store, standing in front of movie posters at the theater, standing in the middle of the street.

I recently met the Vietnamese girlfriend of an expat friend of mine (yes they compliment each other age-wise; I’ll broach that fascinating topic of age appropriateness another time).   I had been told she was a model and quite beautiful – and indeed she was stunning. She sat down next to me at dinner and before introducing herself, she snapped a selfie, handed me her phone and said, “Don’t I look pretty?”. To which I replied, “Uh yeah, you’re sitting right next to me, I can see for myself”.  It’s all very weird to me, because other than the occasional random one with friends, the act of taking a selfie is really not all that interesting to me. 

At first I thought this phenomenon was kind of strange, but now I think I know why.  Until last year, the Vietnamese government blocked access to (I believe) most if not all of social media, but then suddenly they made Facebook available – and now every single person I’ve met has a Facebook account.  So I’m guessing that with this newfound freedom, smartphones are more and more accessible. You can’t walk down a city street, even a calm one if you can find it, without having to come to a sudden stop and practically knock down the person in front of you because the person in front of them has stopped to take a selfie or eighteen of themselves.

The other phenomenon I’ve noticed is people paying photographers to take professional looking pictures of themselves. When I first got here, I saw a few really nice looking girls all dressed to the nines with what appeared to be a professional photographer taking pictures of them. They too like to stop traffic, or stand in the middle of a busy sidewalk so you have to zigzag around them to not  walk through their picture.  I must have unwillingly photobombed at least 50 of these set ups, and I’ve only been here a little over a month.  Initially I thought, How great! Vietnam, as an emerging market, has a ton of really beautiful models, and they're making money! But the truth is, everybody does it. Yesterday I was at the gym which overlooks a walkway stretched between two buildings. Suddenly appeared three slender girls wearing heels so high I’ve no idea how they were actually walking, and a photographer-type dude, who immediately sent them down the walkway one by one so he could capture it all on film. Unbeknownst to them, I’m also unwillingly photobombing those pics, so they’ll have to get them redone I’ m sure.  Talked about it to a British guy I met yesterday who laughed and said, “Yeah everyone here does it. I’ve got ‘professional’ pictures of myself done too. It’s just what people do here”.

It’s a little bit like running the gauntlet. Every 10 feet down a sidewalk someone has stopped to take a selfie or someone is getting their picture taken, so it takes you twice as long to get anywhere because of the obstacle course. That’s if you can find a sidewalk to actually walk on, one that’s not overtaken by motorcycles, scooters, people lounging about in small plastic portable chairs, and food vendors. But I’m not complaining. I find these little pockets of subculture fascinating.   The Vietnamese are the most gracious hosts I’ve had the privilege of meeting, and I’m grateful for the time I get to spend here. I just don’t want to be in anyone’s selfie.