chillin' in sa pa (while ha noi blazed)

Last week, Ha Noi was blazing hot. And the weekend was worse, with highs reaching around 40 degrees and humidity making it feel far hotter...or so I hear. Fortunately, I can't bear witness to the latter, as I was chillin' in Sa Pa, wearing a sweater and jeans (something I thought I wouldn't get to do till I return the the States), though I did don my swimsuit occasionally.

Sa Pa is a village in the mountains near the China border. It is cool, rainy, and lusciously green. It looks exactly like I expected Viet Nam to look.

It is home to amazing street food (including grilled tofu that will change your life!);

lots of ethnic minority vendors who will follow you around incessantly, trying to sell you their traditional cloth (they might even sneak up behind you in a restaurant and put one of their hats onto your head);

rocky waterfalls perfect for climbing up, swimming under, and lounging by (or for having a church service by, complete with communion of rice and water);

cheeeap hotels (though I suppose any hotel is relatively cheap when you shove ten people into two rooms);

and rocky roads to traverse on motorbike (though the wiping out was my least favorite part of the trip).

This weekend, it also happened to contain some of my favorite people in Viet Nam. (I like the ones who aren't in this picture, too...this just happened to be a great one!)

So, you'll understand why I can now call Sa Pa my hands-down favorite place in Viet Nam (see, it even makes me look great in pictures)!

Seven friends and I boarded the over-night train on Thursday night and were joined by 3 more Saturday morning. We arrived back to Ha Noi at 5:30 am Monday morning, with just enough time for Hannah and I to snag a couple hours' sleep on cots on our office floor before our co-workers showed up for work--only in Viet Nam!

P.S. Remember those purple sweet potatoes I told you about? They have those in Sa Pa too (another point, as if it needs one).


things that make me happy (today)

"I consider myself a skilled peer pressure-er," said Ali today over g-chat as she tried to convince me to write this post. "Hannah has even written one already!" she said, in a further attempt to persuade me. (Hannah is well known as the most perfectionistic, and thus the slowest, blog writer, possibly ever.)

Well, I don't doubt Ali's peer-pressuring skills in the slightest, having been the (usually) happy victim many times before, but the thing is, I didn't really need that much convincing. It's just that I, unlike the two of them, apparently, had work to do today (something that may actually come up again soon...).

I only mention the way this all came about because I think it is a good reminder of how important it is to focus on the things that make us happy and thankful. Even before she convinced me to write one of my own, Ali mentioned her plan to write a things-that-make-me-happy post, and it got me to thinking about the subject. The thing is, I had a big disappointment yesterday that was making me feel down about the world. But when I put my mind to thinking about things that made me happy--I couldn't stop thinking of new things! Thus, I recommend this practice, and write the following list of things--no matter how small--that made me happy today.

1.Morning swim. A new pool recently opened fairly close to my house and I and a friend or two have been going there to swim a couple mornings a week. This is part of my I-miss-exercising-and-I-should-do-it-more plan. Why should I do it more? Because it makes me happy.

2.Editing the Vietnam Cultural Window magazine proof. This is my favorite part of my job, and it only comes around once every two months. I get kind of upset when I don't get to be the person who does it. Why? Because it makes me happy.

3.Interactions with people. This morning, a pair of men, who turned out to be brothers, struck up a conversation with me in the pool. Even though it started with a question that can indicate the beginning of an aggravating, you-are-amazing-just-because-you-are-a-foreigner conversation, it was not aggravating. Maybe it helped that the one man and I had something in common--we are both editors! Additionally, at lunch today, I realized, for no particular reason, how much I have come to like my co-workers. Thirdly, I went to my new favorite coffee shop to read during lunch, and realized that the workers there know who I am now. Being a "regular" always makes me happy.

4.Reading. When the coffee is so cheap and the coffee shop is so air-conditioned and I have such a long lunch break, there isn't much to stop me from going to the above mentioned coffee shop nearly every lunchtime to read. I just finished Great Expectations, which I enjoyed in the way I might enjoy a 14 mile run--it's great fun and leaves you with a great feeling of accomplishment, but you are ready to be done with it so you can move on to eating and showering. And now I have moved on to a lighter fare: Run, by Ann Patchett. Sure enough, reading it makes me happy.

5.Air conditioning. Weather.com told me that it was 97 in Hanoi today, but that it felt like 116. Or something like that. I think it is obvious why A/C makes me happy.

6.My hair. It looks good today, even post-sweaty bike ride. I'm not going to lie, looking good (which I usually don't in this weather) makes me feel happy.

7.The fact that my co-worker pumps breast milk every afternoon around this time while she sits in front of her computer. After the initial surprise, this has made me happy ever since.

8. I think I eeked a smile out of my host grandma this morning on my way out. This could have been my imagination, but if it was I going to go right on imagining it...why? Because it makes me happy, of course!

9. 2 months. That's how long it is before I get to see you. I will enjoy being here for those 2 months, but I'll admit that thoughts of going home do make me happy.

10. SAPA! Tonight a 9:50 pm, I and a number of my closest friends in Vietnam will board an overnight train to Sapa, a mountainous area near the China border. It's probably the place in Vietnam I've been looking forward to going to the most, and my work is paying for it as a thank-you present for all the free labor. Pretty good deal I think. There should be lots of mountains and gorgeousness and some "trekking" (cool backpacker-y word for hiking) and...can you tell that the mere thought of it makes me...happy?

And now, I hope this has made Ali happy. Why? Because making other people happy makes me happy! :)


taste the rainbow

I thought I'd gotten used to "weird foods"--I've eaten snake, after all. And as far as fruit goes--I can eat my weight. In fact, one of the things I love most about Vietnamese cuisine/culture is the part where we all sit around after the meal and eat fruit and drink Vietnamese green tea. This is a pretty traditional habit; but in my family it's a fairly consistent nightly occurrence. Thus I've tried a plethora of fruits--from familiar (boring) things like apples, to things that look like they must come from other planets--hot pink dragon fruit; spiky, red rambutans; bumpy custard apples; and green oranges. Often, I find myself eating fruits I don't know the English names of; for all I know, some of them don't even have English names.

After more than 8 months of exposure to phenomena like these, I usually don't even glance twice at strange-looking fruit, but tonight was an exception. I was pleasantly shocked when, after supper, Co Van produced, from a large pot on the stove, purple sweet potatoes! I never even knew such a thing existed! (I find it interesting that the disfigurement of a known element is often more shocking than the appearance of a completely foreign one.) They were steamed to perfection and required no condiments. Mine was by far the most delicious and beautiful thing I have consumed in awhile, especially considering that purple might be my new favorite color.

Isn't it great when shockingly colored food does not necessarily have to imply a warning against its countless preservatives, unnatural dyes, and surplus sugar? I think so. It's just so much more fun this way! Of course, Vietnamese people are deathly afraid of pesticides (especially from Chinese-grown fruit), but this mostly means that even the most pain-in-the-butt types of fruit are washed multiple times and painstakingly peeled. At home, I would probably be far to lazy to put in the effort it takes to eat these exotic fruits; but here, they aren't exotic, and preparing them is an everyday task. (One that has rarely been assigned to me since my mango-peeling episode, and due to the fact that Vietnamese are naturally dubious of any foreigner's fruit-cutting ability.)

I'll taste this rainbow any day.


snake snacks

I recently got a request to write about food--something that should not be too difficult considering that food is something I'm pretty passionate about. It is especially easy to comply to this request because I just wrote a related article for Viet Nam Cultural Window, the tourism magazine (which I play a large part in editing) published by The Gioi Publishers every two months. However, given past experience, the article requires a preface (even though--once again from past experience--it probably won't work):

WARNING: READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. This entry may contain information unappetizing to those with weak stomachs or who are opposed to eating even animals commonly considered palatable by Western standards. Furthermore, the author will not accept future complaints about its contents (though she is not opposed to compliments about her culinary bravery).

Snake snacks

So, you’ve eaten phỏ by the side of the road more times than you can count—even taken it away in a plastic bag once or twice. You’ve braved the sketchy fresh greens in bún chả and bún ốc, and tried their siblings, bún ca, bún thang, bún bo, chả ca—yeah, you’ve got the bún noodle dishes covered too. Maybe you’ve been more daring than that and ventured into the “weird meat” territory—the land of dog meat and bubbly pig skin. Perhaps you have even developed a habit of gnawing on pigs’ feet. However, if you are one of those people who prides yourself on your fearless ability to try anything, there is still one stop left for you on your tour of the more exotic foods of Hà Nội—the snake village of Lệ Mật, located just outside Hà Nội on the road to Bát Tràng, the famous ceramic village.

One Sunday afternoon, seven friends and I headed across the Long Bien Bridge to visit Bát Tràng Ceramic Village,then stopped at Lệ Mật on the way back. What ensued was not the most filling or cheapest food I have yet eaten in Việt Nam, but it was the epitome of dinner and a show.

The restaurant owner and his son welcomed us enthusiastically by dangling two writhing snakes before us and rattling off the prices and merits of each. They told us that the larger bamboo snake (800,000VNĐ) was better for eating than the smaller, more expensive cobra (1,000,000VNĐ), whose blood made for better wine. While the cobra was enticing—mainly for the exotic idea of eating a poisonous reptile—the bamboo snake and its cheaper price proved more appealing to our group of hungry twenty-somethings, half of whom are volunteers.

After checking out a room filled floor-to-ceiling with glass vats in which coiled snakes and various other animals stewed in wine, we took seats in the delightful open-air dining room and awaited our serpentine dinner-mate. Our host brought the snake right to our table and allowed us to watch as he expertly slit its belly, squirted its blood into a jar, and extracted its still-beating heart.

As we waited for our meal—a set menu of six dishes, one of which apparently disappeared en route, made from various parts of our snake, complimented by an assortment of dipping sauces and a dish of qua sung moi (traditional Vietnamese pickled figs)—our server brought shots of rice wine mixed with snake blood, which the more courageous among us used to toast our forthcoming culinary adventure. One particularly lucky individual got to add the snake’s heart to his glass. We chased that shot with a round of bile wine.

bile: just so romantic...

After the wine escapade, we began nibbling crushed snake bones. The crunchy consistency of this dish—which was served with sesame rice crackers—turned some off, but its liberal sprinkling of peanuts and sesame made it a tasty appetizer by my standards.

snake bones and sesame crackers: the new chips and salsa?

Next on the menu was grilled snake meat. The small amount of meat I was able to pull off the bones was quite good; the seasoning was superb. The following course of chả cuốn lá lốt (ground meat rolled in lolot leaves) was well flavored but, once again, bone-riddled. My favorite dish was the miniature fried spring rolls; of course, I am partial to spring rolls in general. By group consensus, the sticky rice—which claimed to be made with our snake’s fat and was topped with fried garlic—was also a hit.

If your goal is to get as much food as you can for as little money as possible, then find yourself a plastic chair and some mý xao in the Old Quarter; but for a culinary adventure and a story that will guarantee the amazement of your friends at home, venture across the Long Bien Bridge for snake snacks at Lệ Mật.

So there you have it. Any other requests? :)

a brief note on noodles:

phỏ: This word by itself can refer to one of the more famous Vietnamese dishes, and certainly the most famous of Hà Nội origin. However, the word phỏ also refers to the specific type of noodle used--a thin, flat rice noodle. This noodle soup features a clear broth, either beef or chicken, and some green onions. It is best with lemon (have I mentioned that Vietnamese lemons are green?--and no, they're not limes), black pepper, and chili added. (This is one of my favorite parts of eating phỏ--the process of doctoring it up and mixing it, while the delightful aroma wafts into my face.) There are many other uses of the phỏ noodle that I don't mention in this article.

bún: this is another variety of rice noodle, but this one is round and even skinnier--sort of like a pale, flimsy version of angel-hair spaghetti. The dishes I mention in that paragraph are various dishes that incorporate bún noodles--bún with beef, bún with snails, bún soup, bún soup with fish, bún with grilled fish...

mý xao: is (did you guess it yet?) yet another type of noodle. This variety is egg based and curly--close kin to that friend of the stereotypical college student, the Ramen noodle. Xao means pan-fried. This dish is usually topped with veggies and meat, or both, and is quite delicious in a greasy, comfort-food way.

A noodle is not just a noodle: If the number of different names and seemingly minuscule distinctions seems ridiculous and unfathomable to you, then don't let me get started on the different types of rice and "cakes." But believe me, I was right there with you at first. It seems silly, but to put it into perspective, just think what it would be like to be a foreigner who hardly ever eats bread who is just arriving in a Western culture. Think of learning the difference between French bread, wheat bread, focaccia, bagels, muffins, and croissants. Alternately, think of all the varieties of Italian pasta; to call noodles "noodles" in Việt Nam is like calling lasagna "spaghetti."

This is clearly not a comprehensive look at the noodle, the "for fun" Vietnamese food (rice is what you eat every day because you have to, noodles are what you eat for fun), but hopefully it helped you at least understand the snake article a little better!


adapted...or not.

On my way to work this morning, I ran into a significant traffic jam. No big deal. After determining that I could not, in fact, see any end to the line of cars and xe may, I decided to grab some coffee and wait it out--I had time (and no one would have cared much if I hadn't). So I went into "Sunday Coffee," ordered myself a caphe nau da, and spent about twenty minutes reading Great Expectations. As I was paying and preparing to leave, I glanced outside and noticed that the surface of West Lake was choppy and the sky was black; approximately two seconds later, it started pouring. Without any consideration whatsoever, I sat right back down and reopened Dickens.

As a few other women clad in business attire--clearly caught on their way to work--jumped off their xe may and into the cafe, ordering breakfast and coffee, I smiled to myself, thinking, I am so Vietnamese right now.

I sat, alternately chatting with one of the other women, text messaging Ali, and reading my book, for another hour, until the rain let up--not even feeling guilty about not being at work. I remembered how, during my first month or so in Viet Nam, I had gone to great lengths to wrap my bag up in five plastic bags and had ridden through a pounding storm to arrive--sopping wet but punctual--to a completely empty office. When my coworkers sauntered in an hour later, they expressed surprise that I had not waited the storm out at home.

So, see how well I learn? How well I have adapted to life in Viet Nam after 8 months? I have even started to plan to be places late sometimes, because I got sick of always waiting around for my friends to arrive. But before I get too cocky, I should probably relate an incident from this afternoon.

This afternoon, Hannah and I were drinking coffee next door as usual (let's not stop to calculate how many of my stories involve the phrase "I was sitting drinking coffee...") and a woman walked by selling pineapple from the baskets hanging off either end of her shoulder pole. Being the eternally hungry person I am, I bought some. Turns out, the pineapple had been sitting in her basket for some time...it was rancid. As we headed back towards our office, I grabbed the bag intending to throw it away, but saw another woman with a shoulder pole, the baskets of which contained what looked remarkably like trash...so I threw mine in. Not only Hannah, but also a few people around us chuckled--turned out the woman's baskets were not intended for trash after all, but the recyclable materials she collects and sells. Oops! Too bad, because sometimes it is still a struggle for me bring myself to drop trash in the gutter by the side of the street, even though I know that by the next day, someone will have swept it up.

Well, they say, you win some, you lose some. I say, sometimes you just win. Because I had a great time reading and watching the storm this morning. And this afternoon, I made people laugh. Besides, I'll admit that I don't mind if I never get in the habit of comfortably throwing my trash in the gutter. And I'm going to count on the fact that I will be able to re-assimilate into an American version of timeliness fairly easily since, as we have seen today, I am an expert at cultural adaptation.