Friday, January 16, 2009


Vietnamese hot pot.  My favorite dining experience thus far.  Each time I partake in this wonderful ritualistic gathering for a meal over the simmering pot of broth, I can look around at all the faces who make Vietnam special.  Sitting crossed legged on the floor, I feel more than an honored guest but accepted as a local while my neighbors plop bits of cooked beef, tofu, or pan-fried duck embryo in my ceramic bowl.  Heaps of freshly cut herbs are added to the fragrant communal bowl along with fresh oysters, squid, pig's heart, sheep intestine (tripe), and small balls of pounded pork.  Enough to satisfy variety a gourmet craves.  While a discussion of lau automatically may lead to a further in-depth report of Vietnamese gastronomy, I shall leave that for another post.  For the sake of a treasured national cuisine, I must do it some justice.  And I haven't even been to Hue yet, the ancient capital and home to Vietnam's finest delicacies (dog meat excluded).  

Hot pot is a celebration in itself yet creates lasting memories of special occasions.  My 23rd birthday being one of them.  Sprawled out on the floor, sharing from this single pot brings people together in a way that transcends eating "family style" at a table and chairs.  I watch the gray shrimp turn a mouth-watering pink while picking up some Vietnamese words or two.  Ngon qua.  So delicious.  And it's even tastes better dipped in chili sauce as ubiquitous on the Vietnamese table (or floor) as ketchup in an American diner.  Let's not also forget nuoc mam, or fish sauce, the pungent hazel liquid, the traditional staple condiment in Vietnamese cooking.  By itself, I still have yet to acquire its taste but mixed with a little vinegar, lime juice, sugar, and chilies, it is quite a wonderfully delicate burst of flavor.

At the end of the hot pot meal enters noodles, varying from the wispy-like rice noodles to packaged instant noodles added to each bowl along with the nutrient-rich broth.  Best enjoyed slurping from your bowl to your heart's delight.  

Monday, January 5, 2009

Capturing Sound

I can't do Vietnam justice with a camera. Of course each picture illuminates some feature of Vietnam, a motorbike, a lake, a spread of Vietnamese dishes, a food stall vendor in a conical hat, yet when I peruse the photos I have taken thus far, I never feel satisfied with these momentos. None seems to capture the quintessential or invoke my feelings toward Vietnam. And how can I even begin to use words to orally describe my surroundings to those who inquire: "So, Vietnam, what is that like?" The closest I can come in words would be an onomonpeic poem of the daily sounds.

As a Christmas gift I receieved a digital voice recorder which I hope to capture the sounds of Vietnam as an instinctual way to truly feel life in Vietnam.  Sound is deeply imbedded in culture and I can't pronounce the Vietnamese language well without sounding sing-songy myself.  Sound makes Vietnamese challenging yet fun to learn especially as I learn words that are separated in meaning only by the tone of voice. Upon meeting another foriegner named Bo, I remarked, "Why in Vietnamese you name means, father, beef, and region"! 

Before I left for Vietnam I only wish that I would have brought with me some more songs in my bag of tricks. "Sing a song," my students plead with me.  I don't consider myself a good singer, I can simply hold a tune but that is all that seems to matter to the people here as they applaud enthusiastically after I belt out a humble rendition of my now signature song, Jewel's "You Were Meant for Me". Sometimes I feel like I am living part of High School Musical: Vietnam. 

Not surprisingly then, Vietnamese love karaoke.  They like some English groups that I have never heard of. "You don't know, 'Michael Learn to Rock'?" a friend prods me with a look of shock. I guess groups like these never made it in the US or their respective English speaking countries but found a niche market in the Asian karaoke scene.  Go figure.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

New Years Resolutions

Welcome 2009—The Year of the Ox.  This year hopes to be full of industriousness and I have found the perfect new year’s resolution to match—blog more, much more.  Thus far in Vietnam I haven’t written as much as I would have liked and was lowered to jotting down notes before falling asleep, or a quick one-liner in a Microsoft word document.  Not too mention the water-logged journal I had to savage after the Halloween floods.  I dedicate the rest of this blog to the steadfast ox and the load he bears with my humble words. 

Upon returning from the States after a last-minute surprise visit on Christmas to my family, the realization that I actually have a life here in Hanoi makes me a bit uneasy.  Or perhaps it’s the reality that I now have the desire and ability to plop myself anywhere in the world and set up camp for myself.  And with this reality life continues to simultaneously unravel and create mystery. 

Today I am back and after a call to my friend we take lunch at a street stand to digress in a new variation of bun cha, the classic Hanoian specialty.  Juicy fatty pieces of pork served in the ubiquitous mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar.  Thin rice noodles and a bountiful plate of mixed fresh herbs aiding in digestion and palette cleanser.  I missed the food of Vietnam.  While we sit and lunch I trade my battered brown shoes for blue plastic slippers with an entrepreneurial young shoe-shiner.  After 10 minutes my worn mary janes are looking brand new.  After settling the both bills I realize life is great.  A delicious meal and a shoe shine for under $2. 

I met the real Mai Trang today.  My friend’s uncle is the owner of Khach San Mai Trang- Hotel Mai Trang I stayed at for two weeks and bears its namesake from his daughter, Mai Trang.   A very nice, friendly girl and for the sake of her esteem I hope Hotel Mai Trang continues to be a successful business. 

I close with a snippet from my current tune on my itunes “Rock and Roll” by Eric Hutchison.  Lately, as I have been hopping cultures in the past month (Vietnam, China, USA) life seems to be a simply a matter of doing what you feel and looking around in wonder.

“If he wants to rock he rocks 
If he wants to roll he rolls 
He can roll with the punches 
Long as he feels like he's in control 
If he wants to stay he stays 
If he wants to go he goes 
He doesn't care how he gets there 
Long as he gets somewhere he knows” –Eric Hutchinson