Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Hanoi Feast

Last night my friend Katie and I were treated to an incredible feast through a company called Plate Culture, which connects people to home cooks around Southeast Asia. We were told to meet Tom at his house way the hell out in Go Vap District - it takes a lot for me to get lost in Saigon, but by the time we arrived I had no idea where we were. (Although we were obviously near the airport, as airliners roared over regularly on their final approach before landing.)

Tom, who is from Hanoi and has lived in Saigon for four years, was a wonderful host. He didn't realize only two people were coming and had cooked enough Hanoi specialties to feed a small army, but we assured him we would do our best. I've been to Hanoi a few times but don't know a whole lot about the city's food, so this was an eye-opening experience. I had never eaten any of the dishes Tom prepared - unfortunately he didn't know the English names for any of them, and I don't know what the Vietnamese names mean, so this won't be particularly helpful. Know that everything was delicious though.
There was a plate of stir-fried pork with carrots, baby corn, beans and succulent pork skin.
 This is nem chua rang, or fried nem chua. (Whatever nem chua is.)

 This is a salad of cha lua and something else we couldn't figure out the word for.
 By the time all of this was on the table (plus boiled chicken and, not pictured, sticky rice with rooster meat) I knew there was no way we'd be able to finish everything. I hate wasting food, especially amazing food, but this was too tall of an order.
And then Tom served up a hearty bowl of soup containing chicken, egg noodles, herbs and more cha lua. It was awesome, and unlike any soup you would have Saigon, but after a few mouthfuls I was about to explode. Fortunately he didn't force us to finish everything, or I would've have been able to walk away from the table. At least I was able to finish the light dessert of lotus seeds placed inside longan, served chilled.
This was one of the best meals I've had in a while, and gives me some dishes to look out for the next time I'm in Hanoi. I enjoyed talking to Tom as well, as he likes living in Saigon but is very proud of where he is from. He talked at length about Hanoi's beauty and way of life and why the food there is better - simpler recipes, fresher ingredients, etc. His descriptions of the food were delightful - the meat used with the sticky rice came from specific roosters that are castrated ("they cut off the cock's balls" in his words) so they won't be distracted by female chickens and can focus on getting fat instead. As the feast digested on the long drive back to District 5 I realized this was an experience I won't forget any time soon.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Chức mừng năm mới!

Or in English, Happy Lunar New Year! Thursday ushered in the Year of the Goat, as signified by this herd of golden goats at the Flower Street here in Saigon.
The atmosphere in the city has been great, with people being extra polite and shouting 'Happy New Year!' at passersby. Families have been out celebrating in their finest ao dai, and the traditional suspension of many laws that comes with the holiday means groups are out on the streets gambling and playing cards. Last night the city was a madhouse, with whatever restaurants that decided to stay open packed out the door and traffic chaos. Driving in the afternoon with just a fraction of the population still in town is glorious, and something I could really get used to.

Staying here for the Tet holiday has actually been great fun. I've gotten a lot of cycling in, and on New Year's Eve (Wednesday night) I had friends over for drinks and then we watched the fireworks from the roof of my building. The show launched from downtown was even more impressive than the one on January 1st, and as I looked around I spotted eight other displays in various parts of the city, some near and others way in the distance. There isn't as much food available, and yesterday was particularly tough since the delivery website I use was closed, but I've managed to survive. The time off has also given me a chance to catch up on some of the movies I've downloaded recently - since last Friday I've watched The Skeleton Twins, Birdman, Kill the Messenger, Nightcrawler, Source Code, Kick-Ass, The Guest and Rush, in addition to keeping up with my TV shows. Going back to the grind on Monday will be tough.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Saigon in Bloom

On Tuesday I parked in District 1 and wandered through the 23/9 park flower market before making may way to the Ham Nghi Flower Street. The flower street is normally held on Nguyen Hue, but since that thoroughfare is currently a massive construction site the tradition has been moved a few blocks over. This is the most beautiful time of year in Saigon: the skies are clear, the temperatures aren't too hot (yet), and the city is awash in the colors of Tet flowers and ornamental trees. I don't quite understand the significance of the various flowers and plants, but nearly every house has at least two pots of mai flowers placed out front. Some families go all-out and buy trees worth hundreds of thousands of US dollars. Say what you will about Tet being diluted by modern technology and culture, but the tradition of floral decorations is alive and well.

The flower market was bustling with activity, as foreigners ogled and snapped pictures while sellers looked out for potential customers and trucks and motorbikes delivered yet more flowers.

The below picture caught my eye as a good example of how the traditional and the modern mix in Saigon.

Ben Thanh Market is all dolled up for the arrival of the Year of the Goat.
The Flower Street was similar to past years, but with goats thrown in. As usual the beautiful display featured a wide range of visitors, from expats and tourists to families and teenagers taking endless selfies.
Flower Street entrance

model metro train
I'll end this post with a picture I simply got a kick out of.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Accidental Staycation

On Friday I managed to pull off a personal first and missed my flight to Hanoi. I gave myself what should have been plenty of time to get to the airport, but traffic was much worse than usual thanks to the upcoming Tet holiday and I had a moronic taxi driver who took the most congested route possible. By the time I arrived at the terminal my flight was already boarding and they wouldn't let me check in. I was pointed towards a desk where I could get on standby, but after walking over and seeing the amorphous blob of humanity (not a line) throwing I.D. cards and shouting at the overwhelmed VietJet staffer I decided it just wasn't worth it. All flights on all airlines to anywhere in the country are sold out until later in the week, and I would be fighting for a seat with people who were desperate to get to their hometown to visit their family for the first time since last Tet. So I walked back outside, got a taxi, and resigned myself to a week in Saigon off of work.

Which isn't actually that bad. Several friends are staying here as well, and starting tomorrow the traffic should really start to slack off as much of the city's population heads to the countryside. So far I've done a lot of cycling - knocked out 107km (66 miles) on Saturday, followed by a visit to Pasteur Street Brewing, which has rapidly become one of my favorite spots in town.

Vanilla porter and Southern-style biscuits and gravy. So good.
 Today I cranked out another 96km on the bike, heading across the Nha Be to Golden Scorpion with a couple of friends.

 Saigon is a riot of color at the moment, as traditional Tet flowers are on sale on seemingly every corner. (I may wander around tomorrow for some pictures.) The canal that runs by my apartment building is busy with boats that have sailed up from the Mekong Delta crammed with flowers and decorative trees as everyone prepares for the Year of the Goat, which begins on Thursday. In the meantime I plan to continue to take advantage of this unexpected staycation by doing a lot of two things: riding and relaxing.

Friday, February 13, 2015

I'm On a Boat

On Monday a group of friends and acquaintances rented a boat that takes you on a three-hour cruise up the Saigon River to District 2 and back. The crew provides ice while you have to BYOB, and there is a speaker system on board so you can bring music. (There's also a karaoke system. We didn't use that.) It's hard to interact much with the river here as it is rather disconnected from the city. The prime stretch of riverfront downtown is ugly and thick with traffic; an entirely unappealing place. This was a great opportunity to get out on the water and see the city from a different perspective.

After boarding in District 4 the boat sailed upriver, with the still-undeveloped Thu Thiem Peninsula on the right and bustling downtown on the left. We slipped under the Thu Thiem Bridge and eventually reached the spans of the Saigon Bridge, where they are building an overpass for the metro line as well.

There was a lot of activity on the water, from small container boats and wooden skips to barges that looked like they were on the verge of sinking.
We cruised past the opulent riverside houses of Thao Dien, as well as a few abandoned buildings, enjoying the fresh breeze along the way.

Empty Thanh Da Island in the foreground, luxury apartments in the back
After 90 minutes we turned around and headed back towards the dock, passing the same places as the sky began to turn orange with the setting sun.
Construction of Vinhomes Central Park, an enormous project behind Saigon Pearl
As we rounded the last bend in the river before District 1 we were treated to an incredible panorama of the city's increasingly sprawling skyline silhouetted by the sun.

This was a great way to spend an afternoon, and a great way to see the range of the city: from empty green space to dense skyscrapers to spacious homes for the rich; and for just 180,000 ($9) each it was an absolute steal.

I'm off to Hanoi later today for my Tet trip (motorbiking down to Hue on the Ho Chi Minh Highway), so I won't be posting for at least a week...not that I've been posting much anyway. Anyway, to those of you in Vietnam, chuch mung nam moi!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Golden Scorpion

Yesterday morning I took a break from binge-watching the first season of Broadchurch (can't recommend it enough) to cycle to Golden Scorpion (or Bo Cap Vang in Vietnamese) with a couple of friends/H2H riders. Located in the countryside south of the city across the Nha Be River, Golden Scorpion features a lake, water slides and pavilions where you can eat or laze in hammocks.

The ride out there is great, with the congestion and high-rises of the city disappearing as soon as you cross the broad waterway on the Cat Lai ferry. I always enjoy being on the river, even if it's only for a couple of minutes.
 After disembarking from the ferry it's an easy ride through small-town Vietnam before you eventually turn right onto a lovely country road hemmed in by verdant rice paddies.

 Since it was a Sunday, the place was packed with groups of young Vietnamese, so it wasn't exactly the most relaxing time, but it's still great to get away from the madness of Saigon for a while.
Golden Scoprion
The ride back was hot but pleasant - the dry season is firmly entrenched and there's barely a cloud in the sky most days. After zipping along we crossed the river back into the city and returned to the smog. 70 kilometers of riding all told, and it was lovely day.
Chris & Chris

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The road story Vietnam

This video, created by two Russian brothers after their 45-day trip to Vietnam, has been shared widely this week, and for good reason. It's beautifully shot and highlights what makes Vietnam so great: the people, the scenery and the adventures you can get into. The various misguided tourism departments may have no clue how to advertise the country, but videos like this do the trick just fine. Enjoy.

The road story Vietnam from Georgy Tarasov on Vimeo.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Winter in Saigon

Wow it's been a long time since I posted.

This has been the most pleasant winter I've ever experienced in Saigon. Since the wet season ended the nights have been wonderfully cool, with the low temperatures sticking around for my drive to work in the morning. There have been a few days where it would've been nice to have a hoody on. The blue-sky days are hot, but not uncomfortably so. I went for a bike ride at 3 yesterday afternoon and felt great.

In fact, this cool weather has been record-breaking. On the morning of the 15th the low temperature hit 59 degrees (15 C), the coldest reading in Saigon in over 20 years. I know that sounds laughably mild to those of you in northern Europe or North America, but for most of the year we rarely see temperatures below 70, so that's pretty damn cold. It's more like Hanoi weather. Plus driving on a motorbike makes things seem even cooler.

As a result everyone is bundling up, with kids decked out in parkas, beanies and mittens, and most adults wearing jackets. I went out for a couple sidewalk beers Friday night and should've worn a sweatshirt. It's delightful. This cool spell has resulted in photo collections like "Working people in Saigon build fires in rare cold" and "Beautiful tropical Ho Chi Minh City in cold weather". (Apparently there has also been an uptick in respiratory illnesses, as people simply aren't used to this.)

Things are forecast to warm up by the time Tet arrives next month, so I'm going to enjoy every last minute of this. Come April it will be long forgotten among the brutal heat. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Craft Beer Comes to Saigon

In the three-plus years I've been writing this blog I've complained about the poor quality of Vietnamese beer countless times. The mass-market stuff here is largely awful - bland, watered down and weak. It's made for rapid-fire drinking, not enjoyment. There are a few exceptions: a handful of 'German' breweries make their own beer, and while it's not amazing it is far better than Tiger or 333. Last year an expat-owned brewing company called Platinum started making beer, and it's good. There's also Fuzzy Logic, a very small-scale operation that you can occasionally find at Saigon Outcast.

Still, there wasn't anything like the craft beers I fell in love with when I was back in the U.S. last year. Then, a couple weeks ago, I heard about the Pasteur Street Brewing Company. An American team is behind this slice of heaven, and they've held their soft opening over the last two weekends. I went Friday night and was hugely impressed.

They had four original craft beers on offer, and for the first time in Vietnam I was looking at a beer menu that wouldn't look out of place in a hip American neighborhood. (They even had an IPA, but it had sold it out by the time I arrived.) The beers are brewed outside of Cu Chi and local ingredients are used - for example, coffee beans from Da Lat. We started off with a tasting flight to see which was best, and I didn't actually care for the first few sips. Then, I realized that's because it was real beer, something I haven't tasted since I left the States in August. The flavors are so much stronger than you usually get here, and it took some getting used to. Once I adjusted, though, I was in love. My personal favorite on the night was the coffee brown, but more flavors are being rotated daily.

 Even though this was a soft opening, the place was doing gangbusters. They ran out of all beer by 9:30. One thing that can unite all expats is disdain for the beer in Vietnam (even though many still guzzle it like it's their job), so Pasteur Street is filling a gaping hole with massive demand at the bottom. Just in case you don't believe me, when I showed up at 7 there were several barflys who had been drinking since they opened at 11am. With a grand opening set for later this month, I think it's safe to say this is already on its way to becoming a new institution in the Saigon drinking scene. The decor is tasteful, although the interior is a bit narrow, and there were great tunes played all night (a very rare thing here). Combine that with amazing beer and I expect to be making frequent visits to this place. I won't even complain about paying $5 for a pint - it's that good.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Vietnam Goes Gay

As of January 1, Vietnam abolished its ban on gay marriage, meaning the country has taken the lead in Southeast Asia (and indeed all of Asia) on gay rights. This doesn't mean same-sex marriage is completely recognized yet by the government, and there are no shared benefits or legal protection in case of disputes, but this is still an incredible move for a country with such a, shall we say, dubious record on other human rights issues.

The only country on the continent that recgonizes same-sex marriage is Israel, and while Vietnam isn't quite there, they have taken a huge step. This progressive move is especially stark when compared to other regional countries - Singapore recently re-affirmed its ban on same-sex marriage and the Philippines is considering one, while Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have strong anti-gay regulations. Even the tourist haven of Thailand hasn't been able to make any progress on gay rights. People in Vietnam do still exhibit anti-gay sentiments, but I've never heard of any serious homophobia here. Surely it exists, as it does everywhere, but what I've seen is more of the teenage-students-poking-fun-at-each-other variety than something more entrenched. All you have to do is notice the way many young Vietnamese men dress and act to see that 'gayness' isn't a very big deal here. (Of course I say this as a straight man, perhaps someone who is gay would have a different perspective.)

There is also the fact that Ted Osius, the well-received new American ambassador to Vietnam, is openly gay and married. It is hoped that his standing will show those who are reluctant to support gay rights that homosexuals are normal people who can be just as successful as heterosexuals.

There's a quote in a Bloomberg story about the issue that perfectly sums up why an officially single-party Communist state would make such a bold move: "The government doesn't have problems with equal marriage," Nguyen said. "It doesn't have to do with the political system. This is determined by public opinion."

This sentiment highlights how the government seems to be operating - when it comes to political issues the leadership is extremely touchy and restrictive (Vietnam has jailed more journalists than just anybody), but on certain social issues that even advanced countries like America still can't get around to, they have taken stunningly progressive steps. Officials don't think the country is ready for full legal recognition of same-sex marriage yet, but at this point it seems like it's only a matter of time. (And I can't help but think of how rich it would be for a country like Vietnam, which most Americans think of as a communist backwater, to get there before the U.S.)