Wednesday, August 24, 2016

playing tourist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 21, 2016

One year later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above Danang. American bunker left over from the war.

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

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

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

Riding a water buffalo, outskirts of Hoi An.

Rice paddy, outside of Hoi An.

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

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

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

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

Delicious things fermenting. Market stall in Hue.

Shrimp farm on the road between Hue and Danang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

coffee culture

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

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

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

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

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

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