Monday, February 9, 2009

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ha Noi before Tet

Warming up to New Year's in Ha Noi and Tourista

SEE ABOVE: Just wanted to share a few photos of the last week or so in Ha Noi leading up to Tet, the Chinese/Vietnamese New Year. It's been about three weeks since we bid farewell to Louis, Kimiko, and Sonny and just as we recovered and got back into the groove, Ha Noi, and the rest of the country for that matter, started gearing up for the Lunar New Year.

Tet Nguyen Dan is the biggest and most important holiday in Viet Nam. Naturally, this means that in the weeks leading up to Tet things get a bit out of hand. The crazy traffic gets even crazier, the markets more jam packed, and the all the special Tet goods, from peach blossoms to banh chung (the special sticky rice, mung bean, and pork dish wrapped in leaves and boiled for 12 hours.) Gifts for all the important people in your life must be carefully planned and accounted for as soon as Tet begins everything, literally everything shuts down.

Huyen and I spent several afternoons and evening running around buying things for the three family altars as well as tons of sweets and snacks that must be on hand for the guests everyone receives in their houses. It's definitely not relaxing, but the atmosphere is so festive and everyone in such high spirits that it's hard not to get caught up in everything. So, two days before the New Year, Huyen and I packed our things and headed to the bus station barely able to carry all the stuff we were bringing to Thai Binh to celebrate the New Year. . .

SEE BELOW: I posted these three slide shows below without much explanation, so, better late than never, a description. We spent half of December traveling around Viet Nam and Cambodia with our good friends Kimiko, Louis, and Sonny.

Louis and Kimiko arrived in Ha Noi on the 14th of December and spent 5 days in North Viet Nam with us. Touring around the city eating pho at 5 at my favorite joints and just hanging out it was a blast. Sonny joined us on the 17th and I had time to change his mind about dog (if at first you don't like, eat, eat again, I always say) with the help of my good friend Minh before Louis and Kimiko returned from their romantic getaway to Ha Long Bay.

Despite a rough start thanks to flight schedule changes and mechanical delays we made it to Ho Chi Minh City and a quick transit to Siem Reap to see all the ruins of Angkor. We spent really great days in Cambodia and ate some surprisingly good food, and despite the fact I'd been there three times before, Angkor never fails to amaze me. If you haven't been there, you MUST go sometime in your life. It's really an amazing place in a country with such a recently terrible past.

Back to Ho Chi Minh city just into for my friends Kym and Trang's engagement dinner and three fun filled days hanging out topped off on Christmas Eve when Thailand beat Thailand in the first of two games in the S.E. Asian Suzuki Cup. The town which is crazy on Christmas Eve under normal circumstances was absolutely a mess that night. Crazy fans racing about the street till they hit the walls of traffic that made it impossible for motorized movement in the center of Dist. 1. We slipped into an Irish Pub with a life band of over the hill ex-pats singing covers and had a great time putting away Irish car bombs and getting silly with the camera.

On the 26th of December Sonny parted ways with us and Viet Nam off to his own adventures in Hong Kong. The rest of us went North up the coast to Nha Trang. Unfortunately, as is oft the case in December, Central Viet Nam was cloudy and rainy. So, we did not get to enjoy Nha Trang's famous beach or islands, but we did get to eat some good and cheap seafood and Nem Nuong from Nha Trang, which is a favorite of mine ever since Sonny introduced me to them at Brodard in Westminster many many moons ago. We also caught a small break in the weather to enjoy the Thap Ba mud baths and Hot Springs as well as a not too shabby couples massage. From Nha Trang we hoped on to an overnight train heading to the old Imperial Capital Hue.

The weather wasn't improving but at least there was not a beach there to taunt us. Instead we toured around some of the Nguyen Emperor's Tombs, the Imperial Palace, and the Thien Mu Temple, skipping the boat ride back on the famous Song Huong (Perfume River) as we were all soaked and tired. We did enjoy Banh Khoai (Banh Xeo for those of us not from Central Viet Nam - or the thin crepe like dish served stuffed with fatty pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts) for lunch one day. A dish of Bun Bo Hue (Hue's famous spicy beef noodle dish with it's buccatini like noodles) and dinner of some of the dishes developed in the Imperial Courts. My favorite being Banh Beo, small steamed disks of rice topped with shredded shrimp and a lardon of cripsy pork skin, or as Louis had to call them, chicharrones. We also got to see Viet Nam seal it's first win ever over Thailand with a stunning goal in injury time at a cafe where everyone was crowded around the T.V. and it was understandable hard to get served. Again the victory resulted in the youth of the city jumping on their motorbikes and tearing about the city, flags and banners waving violently behind them. However, since Hue is a very small town compared to Ho Chi Minh City or Ha Noi we to make it back to the hotel without needing to make any detours. The next morning we caught a taxi cab to a waiting Sinh Cafe bus that would take us back South to Hoi An. The city Kimiko had been dying to get to ever since they started planning the trip . . .

Rain, rain, and more rain in Hoi An. Even worse we had splurged on the extremely nice Victoria Resort with our beach front suites mere steps from the beautiful raging cold and gray ocean. This time only a strong sense of self preservation and a desire to get shopping in the towns innumerable tailor shops stopped me from donning my swim trunks. Unfortunately, Kimiko and Louis did not need the extra suitcase I predicted they might before our arrival, saving their funds for the handbags of Ho Chi Minh City's Ben Thanh Market. Louis and I did get matching (couple) hats for a buck each at the town's main market, but it was Huyen who made out like a bandit, with two custom made dresses and a skirt. I also fumbled my way to four dress shirts for my step-father David despite having about a tenth of the measurements they required. The resort provided us with a bountiful buffet breakfast every morning, and we had one dinner of very disappointing hot pot, though the next day we managed to put away four regional specialities in one rainy lunchtime. New Year's Eve at the hotel was an adventure as the rain and wind were so strong Huyen and I packed our nice clothes into a back-pack for the two minute walk to the lobby and restaurant. Changing in the lobbies' restroom rather than soaking or finer things. Dinner was unspectacular, except for the fact they had foie gras with hot rolls, which made up for any other disappointments. The next day we parted ways with Louis and Kimiko at the hotel as yet another flight schedule moved their flight 6 instead of 2 hours later than ours. And, just like that our trip was over and we were back in Ha Noi. Looking through the thousands of pictures and creating the slide shows below I can remember all the fun the 5 of us had. Memories for a lifetime . . .

Monday, January 12, 2009

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Perfect Afternoon in Thai Binh

Hey All. It's been a long time since I've been able to post anything on the Blog site. Ever since we got engaged we've been busy and December has just flown by. One very important event that went by so quickly it's almost hard to believe it actually happened was my first visit to Huyen's parents house in her home town of Thai Binh. Only 11 months earlier Huyen told her parents about our relationship and at that time their reaction was far from favorable. However, three subsequent trips, a meeting between our parents, and an opportunity to cook for father and mother separately at our apartment in Ha Noi had done a lot to bring us closer together. This was not just a simple social visit. Although the trip was an invitation to have lunch, I would also be introduced to the ancestors at the family altar.

We got up early on Saturday and packed up all the stuff we had prepared for the trip. We had bought gifts to offer at Huyen's parents, as well as both her grandparents, altars and some cakes I had baked for her family. I had taken Huyen to the bus stop several times before on trips she had make back home but this was the first time I had entered the gates of the sprawling Ha Noi bus station. Passing through a gauntlet of people selling everything for refreshments to alternate bus options we found the next bus headed to Thai Binh just about to depart. I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the bus was and that it was only about an eighth full. The driver popped a Hong Kong police thriller into the DVD player and we headed out of the station for the 2 hour drive to Thai Binh.

After arriving at the bus station in Thai Binh we caught a cab that would take us the 5 minutes through town to the new housing development where her parents had bought a place a couple of years before. Aside from the uniquely Vietnamese architecture it reminded a lot of my brothers' townhouse in Santa Clara. Row's of slightly different houses built wall to wall with landscaping between each section, and a large recently completed park in the center of the development. We found Huyen's mother and sister, Phuong, working away furiously on lunch, while her father had yet to arrive home from an early morning meeting. Huyen gave me a quick tour of the house and then we came back downstairs where I was forced to relax instead of helping out in the kitchen, though I did sneak in a few pan tosses of the stir fry when no one was looking. Her father came home and we gave him the belt we had picked up in Singapore after he had changed out of his work clothes and came back down to the first floor.

Though we had brought three tins of cookies and some money for offerings at the family altars Huyen's mother had done most of the work. Preparing the traditional whole steamed chicken, xoi gac (red sticky rice), and a variety of fruits, all of which would be placed on the altar. No sooner had her father settled into his tea in front of the new LCD in the front room than did Huyen's mother hurry him upstairs with a huge tray loaded with all the offerings to the third floor where the family altar took up an entire bedroom. After about ten minutes her father came back downstairs and told Huyen and me to go on up. Huyen's mother had already placed all the food and other offerings on the table and had lit the incense so we simply came into the room and stood beside her. I stood with hands clasped in front of my heart looking across all the things arrayed in front of me on the altar closing my eyes as Huyen's mother asked for my Vietnamese name to introduce me to the family ancestors. We all made three slow deep bows and with that it was over. We quickly made our way back downstairs to finish the rest of the lunch before everyone got too hungry.

After setting up the small oven on the ground in a corner of the kitchen to roast another chicken Huyen's father asked if I liked dog. I said "Sure" and a moment later he was out the door on one of the bicycles that stood in the front room. Huyen confirmed that her dad had gone out to purchase some dog meat for the special occasion. A very generous gesture despite what all you dog lovers may be thinking. Dish after dish soon began to appear from the kitchen, and I did my best to try and make room on the dining table. By the time her father returned with the dog there would be nine dishes crammed onto the glass table top. Far more than five people could hope to eat, but just like her father's last minute dog purchase, a really caring and generous gesture from her mother to me. We sat down to eat and her father asked if I drank. I knew what was coming (any man in Viet Nam is expected to drink some kind of alcohol when sharing a meal, even more so during special occasions, where "special" alcohol often makes it's appearance,) but said yes anyway. From another corner of the kitchen appeared a whiskey bottle, which contained not whiskey, but ruou thuoc, which translates literally into "alcohol medicine." A home-made brew of alcohol and various medicinal herbs (not bad at all, and a better pairing for dog than the Johnny Walker's and lime I had the last time I had dined on dog.) With a quick toast we all tucked in to the feast. It was all delicious and when her mother asked me if I felt "at ease" I really did, and even more than standing in front of the family altar, sharing this wonderful and happy meal made me feel a welcome part of Huyen's family.

There was so much food all of us forgot to have a bowl of Thai Binh's famed rice until we were all stuffed. I had to try it, so somehow I managed to eat half a bowl, but was then called upon to split the remaining pieces of dog with her father. An offer which, of course, I could not refuse. I helped clear the table and then waddled over to the living room for a cup of tea, but no sooner had it been poured then I was encouraged to retire to the spare bedroom on the second floor to partake in the wonderful Vietnamese custom of the afternoon nap. With all that food to digest I passed out right away despite MTV Asia blaring away on the T.V. I felt like only a few minutes later when Huyen roused me from my nap as it was time to head back to the bus station. It ended up I was out for over an hour. Enough time for Huyen and Phuong to go out shopping and buy me two Polo shirts for $6. A few family photos (minus her father, who was still fast asleep) in the living room before the cab pulled up in front of the house. Quick thanks and goodbyes and we were off again across town.

We boarded the bus at the far more relaxed Thai Binh station. This time a DVD of the omnipresent "Paris by Night" (An endless series of Vietnamese music and variety show produced in the States) would be our in-drive entertainment. Just a few minutes after we had settled into our seats the driver fired up the engine and we were off again. Perfect timing once again I thought. Just like the whole afternoon in Thai Binh and the rest of the 4 months I've spent in Vietnam. Somehow despite all the difficulties and obstacles we've faced things with Huyen and I seem to work out. After so many years of struggling to make things work in my past relationships it's so wonderful to be with someone where everything, from bus trips, to empty ferris wheels, to time with each others family just works out perfectly . . .