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Phogettaboutit!

This post is dedicated to all my friends back home who are in love with pho.

First, let’s all agree that pho is wonderful. It’s Vietnam’s culinary ambassador for a reason. That said, if that’s your experience with Vietnamese food, let alone the soups, you are doing yourself a disservice of Caremian proportions. I’m here to help. This will by no means be an exhaustive list. You could eat a different soup each day for a year and not have the same one twice. I’m just going to introduce you to some of the more popular ones here in the hopes you’ll seek them out back home and give ’em a whirl.

First up, banh canh. There are many varieties of this one, the type I go for is banh canh Trang Bang, named for the town of its origin. I just had a bowl for dinner tonight (and last night as well!). This is a relatively simple one. The broth is light and flavorful with hints of tartness. Chopped scallions decorate the slices of lean pork loin. Adding a dollop of chilies spices this one up just right! To be fair, you might have some difficulty finding this one in the US. Typically, the restaurants that serve this variation are also serving wraps made of a special type of rice paper that stays fresh for a short period of time. You’ll find it easier to get some banh canh gio heo.

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banh canh Trang Bang

 

Bo kho is Vietnamese beef stew. It’s served one of two ways: banh mi bo kho (with a baguette) or hu tiu bo kho (with noodles). Rich and spicy, this one serves chunks of beef with sliced onions, some herbs, scallions, and a warm baguette. It’s zesty, spicy, and will warm up your tongue!

banh mi bo kho

banh mi bo kho

 

One of my favorites is bun moc (pronounced: boon mawp). It has one of the best tasting broths you’ll sample. This is a rice vermicelli noodle soup that features what the Vietnamese call cha, or pork cakes, along with scallions, and roasted garlic. There are many types of cha prepared all different ways. Bun moc has a variety of them. The blocky white ones are the most common, and have a blander taste to them. The elongated ones tend are sweeter and more tender than the others. The white, round ones are mild and have mushrooms, while the brown ones, my personal favorites, have a cinnamon flavor to them! Lucky for me, Giang isn’t a fan of cha so whenever we go to our favorite bun moc place, Bun Moc Thanh Mai, I always wind up with her cha. It’s customary to use sate, which is a spicy chili sauce made with garlic, oil, and lemon grass; and mam tom, which is shrimp paste. Be careful with the mum tom, it’s very pungent!

bun moc

bun moc

 

Banh da cua Hai Phong is one you’ll definitely remember if you come across it. It’s a clear broth served with long, flat noodles, cha, ground crab meat, bo la lot (beef wrapped in betel leaves), and morning glories, a popular green vegetable here.

banh da cua Hai Phong

banh da cua Hai Phong

Banh canh cua is another one that is outstanding. Using large noodles, it’s served with crab meat, sliced pork, prawns, bits of pork rinds, scallions, and congealed blood (some people prefer not to eat this part, but I’ve come to love it!). Again, a little sate, some squeezed lime, perhaps some banh quay (Chinese-style fried bread).

banh canh cua

banh canh cua

Bun mam is another popular bowl and some people call it the Vietnamese version of gumbo. When you get your first bowl that fermented aroma wafts up your nose and your mouth starts to water. The vermicelli noodles, prawns, squid, pork, and eggplant all cry out for some sate and shredded banana leaves.

bun mam

bun mam

Bun Thai is similar to bun mam, but lacks the fermented smells and is usually quite a bit spicier.

bun Thai

bun Thai

Mi quang is a favorite of Giang’s. She loves it. There are too many varieties to list, but the one I have pictured is pork with flat noodles, rice crackers, chicken, and congealed blood.

mi quang

mi quang

Hu tieu is a go-to for me. There’s an excellent stall right along Tan Dinh market at night. There are several takes on hu tieu. Its origins may lie with the Chinese who settled in Cambodia, but Thailand and Vietnam both have version of it. The one I usually get is more Chinese-style than the hu tieu Nam Vang which is more traditionally Vietnamese. The xia xiu (pork), pork rinds, rice noodles, scallions, green leafy veggies, minced pork, and banh tom (shrimp cracker) all come together in a delicious broth. Yeah, I’ve had a few bowls of this.

hu tiu mem heo

hu tiu mem heo

Sticking with the Chinese influence, sui cao has become a favorite. Our friend Annie introduced us to this one. The best is in D5. It’s dumpling soup. You can choose what to add to it, I usually add xia xiu, but you can choose shrimp, chicken, pork skins, and a bunch of others I wouldn’t know about because I don’t read that far down the menu. When hungry, we order fried dumplings as well which come with a sweet and sour sauce. You can also order a side of the pork bones they use to make the broth. There’s still enough meat on there to enjoy. Yes, it’s as delicious as it sounds.

sui cao

sui cao

Last one of the Chinese-influenced soups is hoanh thanh (wonton). I love this one and was having it every day for quite a while. Sliced pork (xia xiu), green onions, leafy veggies, minced pork, pork-filled hoanh thanhs. You just can’t beat it for $1.50.

 

oanh thanh

hoanh thanh

I’m going to finish up with bun rieu. This is another crab noodle soup that has a much different flavor than banh canh cua. Green onions, tofu, tomatoes, vermicelli noodles, congealed duck blood, morning glories, and ground crab in a tomato broth. I think it’s a bit stronger, but definitely worth checking out.

bun rieu

bun rieu

I could go on for days listing soups to try in Vietnamese cuisine. My hope is that my friends who love food and enjoy pho try some of the other fantastic soups from this country. Vietnam is definitely among the 5 best cuisines on the planet in my opinion, and I can make a strong case for top 3. So the next time you want some pho, remember that here, pho is closer to breakfast cereal. Sure, we all love it and don’t go too long without having a bowl, but if you don’t sample some of the other bowls of yummy goodness the Vietnamese have blessed us with, well, you’re really missing out.

Burmese Days – Bagan

Thatbyinnyu Temple

Thatbyinnyu Temple . At 61m high it’s the tallest in Bagan.

The last place I visited before heading back to Yangon to leave Burma was Bagan. Bagan is an ancient city and has nearly 5,000 temples dotting its landscape. It’s a major tourist attraction for Burma and a favorite of temple junkies that rivals Angkor Wat in Cambodia. You quite literally can’t swing a dead cat around by the tail without hitting a temple or pagoda (paya, in Burmese).

Htilominlo Temple

Htilominlo Temple

Ananda temple

Ananda temple

There are so many temples, I couldn’t possibly take pictures of them all, nor would I wish to. There are more here. If you’re planning to go to Bagan on your visit, keep a few things in mind. The climate is Hellish. It’s very hot, dusty, lots of bugs, and generally uncomfortable. If you can get up early to check out temples then take a break during the hot part of the day for a nap and some lunch and return to the temples later in the afternoon that is advisable. 

The donkey carts are quaint, but they’re slow. Bicycles go faster and you’ll make better use of your time. This is especially relevant if you stay in Nyaung U village as it’s a fair distance from the temple area.

Dhammayangyi Temple - the largest temple in Bagan.

Dhammayangyi Temple – the largest temple in Bagan.

Many people spend days going around Bagan. That’s fine if you’re a temple junkie, but if you’re like me and just want to see the major ones, one day should be enough. The area as a whole compares to Siem Riep in Cambodia, but it’s hard to compare the three major temples there with anything.

Getting to Bagan comes with its own challenges. From Mandalay you can take a river boat and travel with the locals. This can provide some opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have, but it’s a much longer ride than the bus, and there aren’t any creature comforts. The bus is 9 hours from Mandalay, and considerably longer from Yangon and other areas. It’s wise to plan which parts of the country you want to see and in what order so you are more efficient with your time rather than waste a day here and there waiting for a bus to leave. You can also break up the hotter parts of the country with the more comfortable ones that way so you’re not spending long stretches in extreme heat or relatively chilly weather.

One thing you should make a point of doing in Bagan is climbing one of the temples for sunrise/sunset. There are several good ones, just pick one that is least crowded. Unfortunately, you’re likely to run into crowds no matter when you try as the tourists are now starting to flock to Burma. I was regularly told that 2012 was double what 2011 was in terms of visitors. I don’t know how accurate that assessment was, but there is a growing shortage of hotel rooms needed to accommodate people.

Another thing to note is that the country has only recently come out from under military rule. People are still sensitive and the government still watches people, including tourists. Be mindful about what types of conversations you engage in with locals. They will often respond with canned answers previously approved by the government. When I asked a few guys in a bar whether they preferred the name Burma to Myanamar they were close to cartoonish in their defense of the name Myanmar. Secretly though, one of them told me he didn’t want to say because he didn’t want to get into trouble. They’re happy to speak to foreigners if they feel safe. The best way to make a few friends is to pick up a book on the Burmese language and learn a few polite phrases. It really goes a long way with them, and it’s a fun language to speak.

Burma is a beautiful country and the people are the friendliest I’ve come across. I would definitely go back for another visit, but I would travel to the beaches and the extreme north, east, and south of the country instead of the oft-traveled ‘Big 4’ of Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake, and Yangon.

We left Inle Lake after spending a few days there. Done correctly, 2-3 is plenty unless you’re into the whole trekking thing. We caught a bus to Mandalay, which is back in the lowlands, and very hot. I decided I didn’t want to hang out in Mandalay just yet and opted to continue solo on what’s called the Lashio trail. I hopped on a minivan bus and went to the first town on the Lashio trail called Pyin Oo Lwin (formerly called Maymyo after a British officer). Only a 2.5 hour ride from Mandalay, it’s in the Shan highlands and boasts a very comfortable climate. This was my favorite part of the trip. There’s something about traveling alone that energizes me more than anything else I can think of, save perhaps writing. And being someplace that’s quiet, comfortable, and low-key was just what I needed after Yangon and the touristy town of Inle Lake.

If you make it this far stay at the Grace hotel.

If you make it this far stay at the Grace hotel.

They served breakfast and tea in the garden, a great place to catch up on some reading, every morning.

They served breakfast and tea in the garden, a great place to catch up on some reading, every morning.

After relaxing for a bit I ventured out. The Grace hotel is suitable for travelers wanting comfort, but traveling on a budget.  Of the beaten path, the main road through town is about a 10-15 minute walk, and well worth staying away from most of the noise. You will occasionally hear cadets from the nearby military academy marching around, but other than that, it’s peaceful.

A leisurely stroll into town reveals a quaint mountain enclave with a wonderful night market for some local eats, plenty of small shops with local wares if souvenirs are your thing, and cafes that are great little places to unwind if you need a strong cup of coffee or some tea.

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Pick your meat and they'll cook up a healthy dose of it for you at the night market. Mmmm....pork.

Pick your meat and they’ll cook up a healthy dose of it for you at the night market. Mmmm….pork.

These are made of a rice flour combination batter and topped with anything from tomatoes, to chickpeas, to herbs and spices.

These are made of a rice flour combination batter and topped with anything from tomatoes, to chickpeas, to herbs and spices and are some of the best morsels you will encounter in the entire country.

You can also find spectacular Chinese food in the Shan State. I had some of the best sweet ‘n’ sour pork ever at a restaurant on the main strip. It was a welcome change because it’s oddly not easy to find Chinese food in the south of Vietnam and it really hit the spot.

There are some beautiful sights in Pyin Oo Lwin, including the botanical gardens, some of the older houses and architecture which are just amazing to look at. If you want to stick close to town you can rent a pony cart for an easy ride around.

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The pony carts are relaxing, but you can’t get to some of the sights further away, like the Peik Chin Myaung cave, which is a huge Buddhist spot. So many statues and images of the Buddha you can’t fathom. The Pwe Kauk Waterfalls, aka Hampshire Falls, are close by the cave, so they can be done together in an afternoon. Sadly, due to a hard drive mishap at the Apple store, my photos of those two sights have been lost forever. On the bright side, Apple gave me a 3TB Time Capsule as an apology.

Those are all fine and good, but THE sight to see in Pyin Oo Lwin, in my opinion, is the Dattawgyaik Waterfall. Not only is it beautiful, but the effort you will expend to see it will give you some sense of accomplishment. I recommend hitting this early in the am while it’s still cool as there’s a fair amount of hiking involved. It’s about a 45 minute ride by motorbike in the opposite direction of the Pwe Kauk Falls and Peik Chin Myaung Cave, so you can do it in a day, as I did, but it will be a long day.

When you get to the falls guides, who are usually young girls in their teens, will escort you down the gorge. They carry baskets of drinks down, while wearing flip-flops mind you, on trails that look like this…

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Needless to say the trail is treacherous. Don’t even think about going it alone, because it’s not a single trail. There are many that look just like this and can lead off to small villages or god knows where. Even after spending years on the bow of a boat in all kinds of nasty conditions, I slipped once or twice descending this rain-soaked, muddy trail. Perhaps more than once or twice, and I was wearing appropriate footwear. Pride prevented me from accepting any help from young girls, except once when it really would have meant I would break my ass, or worse, a leg.

About halfway down the gorge there is a small pagoda of sorts. It’s cut right into the rock and there’s always a monk stationed there to mind the place. They take turns in shifts.

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Definitely watch your head!

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This is actually a pretty nice rest stop where you can catch your breath, have some water, and regroup a bit before pressing on to the really challenge part of the descent. Some helpful advice: bring your own water. The guides have baskets of very over priced soft drinks, but no water. When you reach the bottom of the gorge, there is a family who lives down there and sells various refreshments, but again, very expensive. I guess that’s the labor cost for getting supplies down there.

This bridge was interesting.

This bridge was interesting.

But you won’t allow yourself to turn back, so just cowboy up and press on. It’ll be worth it, I promise!

It's a wonderful sight to see after a workout of a hike down the gorge!

It’s a wonderful sight to see after a workout of a hike down the gorge!

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It was a real treat to see this knowing it wasn’t easy to get to. The other waterfall in the area will be a letdown after this one, but you should still take it in if you can. There are a couple small wading pools here you can walk around in to cool off, but you probably should avoid the main pool at the base of the falls. I was getting ready to take a swim when the folks that tended it warned me off because there are ‘other things’ in the water. I decided not to find out for myself, and settled for a picture instead.

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You’ll have about an hour to do what you like before the guides nudge you to start back up the trail. During rainy season you can count on the trails getting very wet, so you have to use caution of course. The good news is that you run less risk of falling down a 2km gorge on the way back up. The bad news is you’re hiking UP. Yeah, it’s a bear. It will take over an hour to get back up to the top. Remember to tip the guides. If memory serves I gave them 5 or 8 dollars apiece. I covered most of Pyin Oo Lwin and relaxed in 2-3 days. In retrospect, I wish I had continued on the Lashio Road to see Hsipaw and then all the way up to Lashio which entails going over this gorge by train:

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Alas, I opted to return to Mandalay instead. I have something to look forward to the next time I go to Burma! The trip back down into Mandalay was quite different. Instead of an air-conditioned minibus with plenty of room for everyone because I didn’t book a return ticket, I had to share a 1983 Toyota Corolla cab with 6 other people. There was no air, which was okay for the first 40 minutes until the heat of the lowlands started to pour in the windows. The seat belts didn’t work either. Thank goodness the cab driver told me that was no problem. Speeding down a winding mountain road populated with the likes of him, trucks, bikes, and buffalo made me feel right at ease without a seat belt. Like I do often in Asia, I just let it slide, mostly because I had no choice.

Mandalay Hill is a good spot to start seeing what the city has to offer. The views are fantastic if you get a clear evening.

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You never know who you’ll run into when traveling. That’s part of the fun I think. Along with two new travel companions I had a fun, albeit brief, conversation with a monk who was too cool for monk school.

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The next day a small group of us shared a rented van and, although we failed miserably by picking one with a broken air conditioner, were thankful we didn’t opt for bicycles. The first place on the list was the U Bein bridge in Amarapura, which was the capital of Burma.

The U Bein bridge is the longest teak bridge in the world.

The U Bein bridge is the longest teak bridge in the world.

We made reservations to eat at this riverside eatery. They told us our table would be ready in December.

We made reservations to eat at this riverside eatery. They told us our table would be ready in December.

The bridge spans one section of the Irrawaddy River, the main river in Burma. It gets quite windy out over the river, which is a relief from the heat. The Amarapura Mahagandayon Monastery is home to over 1000 monks. Every day they line up to eat lunch and it’s a spectacle, but one I missed because a few of us were on the other side of the bridge sampling some crab pancakes and cold Myanmar beers for breakfast. Our companions told us that there were about as many people taking photographs of the monks as there were monks.

Inwa is a former imperial capital and one of several ancient cities around Mandalay. It’s comprised of old buildings that are long since abandoned, and there’s a teak monastery that’s still in use.

The teak monastery. This is still actively used.

The teak monastery. This is still actively used.

Even monks fall asleep in class.

Even monks fall asleep in class.

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Something you will notice when checking out places of interest in Burma, especially in Mandalay, is that there are charges to enter any archaeological zone (including places like Inle Lake) or place of interest. Inwa was the most egregious of the places I visited. There were charges to enter Inwa, then a charge for the ferry, and then a charge for a pony cart to get around, and then you needed a special pass to enter some of the ruins. None of the charges in and of themselves were exceptionally high, but it all adds up and you begin to get tired of them. It’s understandable that a poor country like Burma needs to generate revenue, but it’s more than likely that the money is going into the pockets of high-ranking officials and their cronies, which is why it’s advisable to stay in smaller hotels and guest houses and keep the money in the local economy rather than handing it over to fat cats.

The final stop in Mandalay was Sagaing Hill, the capital of the Sagaing Region. It’s a monastic center and it’s a long way up.

The Burmese love stairs.

The Burmese love stairs.

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They also really love the Buddha.

They also really love the Buddha.

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More pictures from this part of my trip are here.

The devotion to the Buddha in Burma is unlike any religious devotion I have ever seen or imagined. No matter how small the village, there is a pagoda and monastery functioning. I visited a small village outside of Pyin Oo Lwin and was able to speak with some local people including a young couple that just got married. The husband was entering the monastery for 6 months despite being a newly wed. It was a condition his wife gave him. He was quite the drinker and hell raiser. The pictures were great, but thanks to an mishApple, they are lost :(.

I found myself pondering how a country that is so poor can spend money on keeping religious temples, monasteries, and pagodas in pristine shape when their schools look like this:

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I suppose half a century living under an oppressive junta will make people cling to religion as a way to cope. I really hope they start putting more into educating their children. No amount of notebooks donated by tourists is going to make a difference if they don’t prioritize education.

Of all the places I visited in Burma Mandalay is the one region I would definitely skip on a return trip. I’m not unhappy I saw it, but I think there are other places I would rather check out, especially the eastern Shan State, the northern Kachin State where the Himalayas begin, and the coastal areas.

Burmese Days – Yangon & Inle Lake

Shwadegon Paya

Shwedagon Paya

Traveling to Burma, a country steeped in history and controversy, was on my list for years. Once called the Jewel of Asia, it was on the fast track to becoming a developed nation. It was a battle ground for much of WWII where the British and allied forces clashed with the Japanese empire’s juggernaut military. Both sides pummeled Burma with artillery and bombs devastating much of the industry and infrastructure.

Burma gained independence after the war but the republic was lost when a military coup took over and the junta that took over ruled for decades. A couple of years ago the junta started giving power back to the people and held elections and released their dissidents from prison and home detention, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the most famous of them.

I visited Burma last year, and while it seems on the road to recovery, it’s still has a long way to go. It’s stunning in its natural beauty, the people are the friendliest I’ve met in SE Asia, and there is vast potential for Burma to regain its reputation as the Jewel of Asia. However, at this moment, the best word with which I can describe Burma is RAW. After flying into Bangkok and getting my visa–single day processing is available now–I landed in Yangon (formerly Rangoon). I don’t recommend lingering about in Yangon for long. Definitely take in the Shwedagon Paya, pictured above. It is an enormous pagoda and a source of national pride.

I don’t normally go for guided tours, but there is just so much to see in the pagoda complex that it begs a better understand than you will find in any guidebook. Simply guessing at what things mean is a waste. Proper explanations, including the history of the structures, which date back 600 years and include an enormous amount of gold, enhance the experience.

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Some of the more interesting features of Swedagon Paya include 8 small shrines placed around the main structure pictured above. Each shrine has its own animal totem and represents a day of the week. The exception is Wednesday, which has two shrines, one for the morning and one for the evening. This is because the Buddha was born on a Wednesday. The Wednesday morning shrine’s animal is an elephant with its trunk raised, and Wednesday afternoon’s is an elephant with the trunk down. Each of the animals has its own meaning.

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I was born on a Wednesday evening, so I found my shrine and poured water over the Buddha statues as well as the elephant. There are a few ways to do this. One method is to pour the same number of cups as your age in years plus one. The other is to pour 7 (or 9) cups over each. I did the latter as instructed by the guide. This ritual purportedly brings health, good fortune, and all that good stuff into your life (we’ll see). I was pretty happy to find out my animal was the elephant since I really enjoy elephants. There are plenty of elephants throughout the pagoda. White elephants are prominent as it’s said the Buddha incarnated in his mother’s womb as a white elephant.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe platform of the pagoda is 6 hectares (just under 6 acres) and the entire complex is 46 hectares. More pictures of this pagoda and other sights in Yangon are here.

Important safety tip: Anyone visiting Burma should take a head lamp with them, especially in Yangon. Electricity is spotty and the sidewalks in the capital are treacherous, particularly at night.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a small gap in the sidewalks, there are much bigger ones throughout the city. The stones wiggle and wobble as you traverse them and they make a concert of rattling concrete. Underneath them lay anything from waste or runoff water to raw sewage. Keeping your eyes on where you step is advisable.

Changing money is another thing you can take care of in Yangon. Some money changers will take Euros, but it’s safest to travel there with US dollars. You can get a better rate for your dollars with black market changers on the street, you just have to watch them like a hawk. You’re never in any sort of danger in Burma, anyone hurting or robbing a tourist will get thrown into a miserable prison for years, but they will look for opportunities to swindle you. Most hotels throughout the country will take US dollars in addition to the local currency called the Kyat (pronounced chat). There are NO ATMs in Burma, so you must bring all the cash you need with you for the entire trip. This sounds unnerving, but I didn’t encounter a single problem leaving my money in my bag in whatever guest house or hotel in which I stayed.

Once you’ve seen the pagoda, changed some money, and picked up whatever essentials you forgot to bring, don’t lollygag, get out of Yangon and start seeing the country asap. The first place I visited was Inle Lake. I was traveling with a pleasant German fellow I met in Bangkok named Marcus. We were ready for a 15+ hour bus ride. To our delight they put some money into the roads and the time for this trip was 9 hours. We arrived right at dawn and settled on the Teakwood Inn in Naungshwe village. It was clean, comfortable, and served free breakfast every morning. The owner is very pushy and thinks she owns the town. Keep her at bay and she’s somewhat amusing. You’ll also get a raised eyebrow and a chuckle whenever you mention to local tourism workers that you’re staying there. Whatever you do, do NOT book any tours or excursions through her, she’ll charge you double or more than the going rate. Two things you’ll notice around Naungshwe village are the number of dogs just lying about, even in the middle of street. They aren’t aggressive at all, but there are a LOT of them.

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The other is the incessant gongs and chanting of Buddhist scripture over loudspeakers coming from the local monasteries. It. Doesn’t. Stop.

Inle Lake is in the Shan State which is at considerable elevation. While you can’t get away from rainy season there, you will be far from the oppressive heat and humidity you encounter in the low-lying parts of the country. Sleeping with a window open is very comfortable. After settling in we booked a boat tour for the lake. You get up early and pile into a motorboat to check out all that’s going on all over the lake. The scenery is stunning.

Local fisherman

Local fisherman

One of many small villages.

One of many small villages.

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There are myriad villages, cigar factories, paper mills, boat factories, parasol factories, silversmiths, pagodas, monasteries, and floating gardens dotting the lake. They all once thrived as industries providing their goods for people all over Burma. Now, they mostly just cater to tourists. While it was interesting to see, all of them operate on kickbacks to the tour companies who get commissions for bringing tourists and pushing them to buy something from the gift shops. Every place has a gift shop trying to sell you something in addition to people on boats rowing up to you as you moor or cast off trying to sell you the same things. In some cases, it felt like a movie set when you arrived. All that was missing was someone yelling “Places everyone, aaaaaaaaand action!”

One of several cigar factories. The workers are paid according to how many they roll. Having quit smoking I didn't try one.

One of several cigar factories. The workers need to roll 1000 per day to receive full wages. Having quit smoking I didn’t try one.

Silversmith

Silversmith

A boat factory. Those are 50 footers!

A boat factory. Those are 50 footers, all made by hand tools!

The jumping cat monastery and floating gardens. Yes, the monks trained cats to jump through hoops.

The jumping cat monastery and floating gardens. Yes, the monks trained cats to jump through hoops.

Parasol factory

Parasol factory

There is large pagoda on the lake called Phaung Daw Oo Paya. It is central to the life and culture of the people who live in this region. It houses 5 busts of the Buddha all covered in gold leaf. Men purchase small packets of gold leaf and smear them on the busts for good fortune, adding to years of layers of gold already there. Women are forbidden to step foot on the inner altars and pedestals and must remain behind the boundary for it.

Phaung Daw Oo Paya

Phaung Daw Oo Paya

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That is not a woman on the altar, that is a man wearing a longyi, the traditional attire of all Burmese people.

That is not a woman on the altar, that is a man wearing a longyi, the traditional attire of Burmese people. Many, if not most, Burmese people wear them every day.

There are pagoda festivals throughout Burma, but the Phaung Daw Oo Paya festival is among the most elaborate. Every year, for 18 days in September, the busts rest on an altar on a boat that travels all over the lake. It stops at each village for an evening and everyone on the lake goes to that village for a big celebration.  According to locals, one year the boat capsized and the busts went overboard and sunk to the bottom of the lake. They recovered four of the busts, but the fifth wasn’t found. While returning the remaining four to the pagoda, the fifth was discovered, already in its place on the altar.

It's tough to appreciate the size of the boat in this picture, but it's enormous.

It’s tough to appreciate the size of the boat in this picture, but it’s enormous.

One of my favorite places on the lake was the Heritage House in Inthar village. In addition to being a beautiful teak house with gorgeous views, it is a sanctuary for Burmese cats. The breed disappeared from Burma and cats from the UK were imported to reintroduce the breed to its homeland.

Heritage House

Heritage House

I really wanted to take one home.

I really wanted to take one home.

There are about 40 cats who have the run of a good part of the house in addition to their own little island.

There are about 40 cats who have the run of a good part of the house in addition to their own little island.

One image I conscientiously avoided taking was of the Kayan women, known as ‘giraffe women’. They start wearing brass rings around their neck at age 5 and continue to add rings throughout their lives. The rings push down the clavicle and compress the rib cage producing what looks like an elongated the neck. One story goes that they started doing this so that the Kayan women appeared less attractive to competing tribes, discouraging them from capturing them. Now, without any practical need for the rings, the women who continue the tradition are often exploited for photographs with tourists.

While there, Marcus and I visited an orphanage that housed and educated about 80 children. Not all were orphans, but their parents were too poor to take care of them. The would visit on the weekends to see their kids when there weren’t any classes.

One of the rooms where the older boys slept and studied.

One of the rooms where the older boys slept and studied.

Younger kids had closer quarters.

Younger kids had closer quarters.

We spoke to the director of the orphanage to find out what they needed. She told us they needed school supplies badly, so Marcus and I went into town and found a store that sold them. We bought enough notebooks, pens, pencils, and erasers for all the students. People in Burma live in extreme poverty. We hardly did a lot, but we did what we could. The children were pretty happy to get some supplies and many were curious about us so we answered their questions and taught them some English words, and a few German ones as well.

I enjoyed seeing Inle Lake, but I would do a few things differently if I ever went back. First, if I booked another lake tour I would insist on going to Inthein. It’s accessible by a narrow canal. The tour managers will try to tell you that the water is too low to get there, but that’s bullshit. Either they just don’t want to spend more time getting you there and having you walk around, or they don’t have a deal set up for commissions with the vendors there.

We finished up the trip to Inle by visiting a winery owned by a German fellow. It’s perched on a high hill and takes some effort to bicycle up, but it’s worth it. The wine is as lovely as the view, and the ride down after several glasses of red is thrilling! Sadly, I forgot to take pictures of that. You can see the rest of the pictures of Inle Lake here.

 

Deep fried turkey…Saigon style.

Thanksgiving is a time when many expats pine for home. SE Asia is especially far from home and the cost of comfort is high. Since turkeys are not indigenous to Asia, the only two options are ordering one that gets delivered to your door with all the trimmings for anywhere between $100-200, or find someplace that sells them and cook it yourself. The latter option presents a significant problem: houses and apartments don’t generally come equipped with ovens. Those that do have them are usually the countertop models, which aren’t appropriate for anything larger than a chicken…split in two. Even when you do come across the rare house with an oven, they’re not large enough for a turkey, and certainly not large enough to do anything else but cook a turkey meaning everything else gets done on a stove top. This makes Thanksgiving a tad inconvenient.

This year I suggested to the group of friends gathering for the feast that we deep fry it. This also presented a few challenges. First, none of us had actually deep-fried a turkey before. I consulted with the maternal unit to glean some insight knowing that she’s deep-fried the turkey before without incident. We also watched some YouTube videos about how NOT to fry one apparently. The videos are outstanding.

We acquired a 7.5kg turkey from Metro and used about 11 liters of cooking oil. We realized afterwards that canola or peanut oil would have been a better choice. The only other issue was our realization upon watching the videos that all of them used some sort of deep fry set up that included a propane tank with a hose that was at least a meter or so from the burner. We had to use this:

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You’ll notice that the cans of fuel plug into the camping stove right next to the burner. That did concern us a bit because we knew that the oil could easily bubble over and the cramped alley in which we were cooking could quickly turn into Hell. Luckily we were smart enough to have a fire extinguisher at the ready.

The beer was an important part of the safety protocols.

The beer was an important part of the safety protocols.

We got all the oil in the pot, lit it safely, and when it hit 175 C we lowered the turkey in gently. It went off without a hitch and finished 75 minutes later. We had a juicy, tender turkey. I did the carving (and had a fair amount of the skin…).

Our turkey in its cholesterol jacuzzi.

Our turkey in its cholesterol jacuzzi.

Sadly, I don’t think anyone took anymore pictures after that, save one. Colin…how did that turkey taste?

IS DELICIOUS!

IS DELICIOUS!

wakeupsaigon fbAbout a year in to my time in Vietnam, I began to miss some of the silliness that was a regular part of my life in Los Angeles. The Burning Man community is really adept at providing harmless, oddball distractions that are not only great at bringing people together, but they encourage one to indulge the inner child. It also occurred to me that I didn’t know nearly enough Vietnamese people for the time I had lived in the country. One February day whilst pining for some random play it occurred to me that I would have to make my fun if I wished to have any. So I approached some friends who I thought would be great collaborators: Ivy, Colin, Tina and Sharon were charter members of the team. Craig jumped in not long afterwards and has been tremendous since. We formed an informal organization called Wake Up Saigon to start organizing events that would bring people together for the purpose of play in public spaces. We make the events as close to free as possible and open them to people of all ages.

For the first event we wanted to give ourselves some time so as not to rush things, and planned to have Vietnam’s first participation in International Pillow Fight Day. It’s an event that is held on the first Saturday in April in over 100 cities around the world and has been going on for about 7 or 8 years now. It’s pure silliness. My first time was in Los Angeles and there were about 4,000 people who participated. We knew we wouldn’t get near that many in Saigon, and that’s probably a good thing…for now.

The first event was a great success. The pillow fight drew  well over 100 people to participate and look on, and it was a great mix of expats and local Vietnamese and the ages ranged from late teens to their sixties.

We also managed to get a local vendor there to sell pillows. We had to pull teeth to get them to agree, promising them they’d definitely sell pillows and it would be worth their while. Of course after the event they asked if we would be having one every week. It was a great sight and despite the sweltering heat (April is the hottest part of the year) we managed to go at it for nearly an hour before calling it quits.

Winding up for the kill shot.

Winding up for the kill shot.

The Punisher.

Ivy, The High Priestess of Hijinks. 

This year, my girlfriend Giang got in on the action…

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Colin and Tina gettin' their smack down on.

Colin and Tina gettin’ their smack down on.

The rest of the pictures are here, and for 2013 they’re here and here. We also work with a couple of local bars to host us with food and drink specials. The Spotted Cow is the name of the bar that hosted us for the pillow fights, Survive the Night, and the water gun fight. It’s a sports bar that attracts people for soccer games, so when we said we could fill it in the middle of the afternoon for a few hours, they stepped up and have been pretty good about hosting us ever since.

Other events we’ve staged include a massive water gun fight. Tina, who was already a rock star for getting the pillow vendors there both years, came up huge by managing to get a 1500 liter tank of water to the water gun fight. People would empty their guns and reload steps away before jumping back into the fray. We also managed to get a toy shop to show up with bags full of water guns for sale. They were pretty happy about that. The water gun fight was in May, which is also the oppressive summer here, and now that I think about it, we need another day like this to cool off.

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Survive the Night was the next event, which we’ve also done two years in a row now.  It’s a game that has been around a while and several US cities play it. We set up check points around District 1. There are three types of participants. The first are the Volunteers who run the check points and stamp the Runners as they go through them all. The runners have to make it through all the check points and get their stamps and get back to the finish line without being caught by the Chasers. If a runner is caught by a chaser they become chasers and then try to catch more runners. It’s like the dynamic at work in a zombie apocalypse.

Again, the Spotted Cow hosted us and put up prizes for the winners. There were vouchers for free food and bottles of booze for the chasers who caught the most runners. The volunteers get creative and they usually have a good spot to hang out and drink and have fun while everyone is running around. In some cases, the check point IS the party. Craig made sure the shenanigans were in high gear when he ran a checkpoint.  The first year only 3 people finished the race, but this year there were over a dozen who completed it, so the adjustments we made worked out well. Pictures are here and here.

No one passes through Craig's check point without downing a few beers first.

No one passes through Craig’s check point without downing a few beers first.

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Colin puts a lot of effort into this event making sure we have plenty of volunteers who are thoroughly and completely trained to deal with any situation.

Our biggest event, however, is the Zombie Walk. We’ve done it two years in a row, and it’s been a huge hit. We start at Red Bar where they let us put make up on everyone while giving us pizza and a huge bowl of zombie punch to go along with specials on other drinks and nibbles. We’ve had some great people step up and volunteer to organize the make up efforts to make sure everyone is sufficiently horrible looking.

Can you tell that Ivy gets into this sort of thing?

Can you tell that Ivy gets into this sort of thing?

Tina went all out, too…

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And not to be outdone…

Craig making sure he was a tad sacrilegious.

Craig making sure he was a tad sacrilegious.

The thing with zombie walking is that you get tired. Sometimes you need to take a load off.

We ended up having to pay the cyclo driver for 'renting' his cyclo for 5 minutes.

We ended up having to pay the cyclo driver for ‘renting’ his cyclo for 5 minutes.

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Or try to catch a cab!

We have a blast with this event. Fueled by alcohol and music, zombies are known to stop traffic, crawl on top of cars, scare the daylights out of people–especially little kids–and this year a couple jumped on the back of a cop’s motorcycle. Thankfully no undead arrests were made, although one of us got close this year for being ‘inappropriately dressed’. I guess that cop didn’t see 300+ others shambling along in much the same way. Plenty of pictures to check out here, here, and 2013’s event here. Needless to say, we were, and usually are, quite a spectacle around town. Like when we completely take over the opera house steps and cause the entire downtown area to stop and gawk, take pictures, and run in horror.

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The whole point of Wake Up Saigon was and is to make new friends, have some ridiculous fun, and challenge the default settings of an otherwise fairly conservative city. I hope someone picks up and runs with this sort of thing if and when I move on. My biggest joy in doing this is that for a short time I get to watch hundreds of people of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities turn into 12 year olds and have fun without a care in the world. I hope I continue to do this sort of thing for the rest of my life. I have to grow up one day I suppose, but I don’t have to grow old.

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Finding clothes that fit in SE Asia in general, and Vietnam in particular, is a tremendous challenge. Most things you’ll find here are for the local people, who have builds that are smaller than your average Westerner. Often times one is left with only one of two options: 1) purchasing at very high-end stores and boutiques–and that’s no guarantee since they often stock those stores with sizes for local people as well, or 2) have clothes custom-made. As it turns out, having clothes custom-made can often times be cheaper than all other options. Sure, you can have very snappy clothes made from high-end clothiers, including bespoke suits and footwear around Saigon, but that can get pricey (though nowhere near the cost in the US or EU) in a hurry. However, there are armies of tailors and seamstresses dotting the country who are willing to provide quality goods for prices more accessible to folk with regular budgets. They are polite, friendly, helpful, reliable, punctual, hard-working, and honest. The seamstress I commissioned to make some shirts for me, whom we shall call Shirt Lady*, was not one of these people.

My girlfriend Giang referred me to Shirt Lady.  Giang has known her for quite sometime as they used to live in the same neighborhood. Giang had just had several garments made by Shirt Lady, so I had no reason to suspect what was coming. After showing her what I wanted Shirt Lady told me the shirts would be ready in a few days. A week later we called to hear that it would be one more week before she finished the job. The next week she told me the shirts would be delivered ‘tomorrow’. ‘Tomorrow’ came and went, no Shirt Lady, no shirts. Another phone call and Shirt Lady told me it would be one more week, she was sorry, but there was a problem with her shop as the landlord was giving her problems. I slipped, and didn’t call for two more weeks, and this time Shirt Lady said she was no longer working out of her shop, but out of her home, and could she have just one more week, and the material was already cut, so it wouldn’t take long.

You can probably surmise what happened the following week. She delayed again. This time it was a sick mother who was in the hospital. Then it was a sick daughter, followed by a sick grandmother, all of them taking turns going to the hospital. Giang and I would laugh at each excuse because, well, what else could we do? We joked about her running out of family members to fall ill and be rushed to the hospital before Shirt Lady finished the shirts.

Finally, last week, we’d had enough. I ordered and paid for the shirts in August, and here it was, mid-December, and all there was to show for the money and time was a pile of nonsensical excuses which no reasonable person could accept. Giang and I went to her house to confront her and get the money back. When we got there she wasn’t around, so Giang called her to let her know we were at her house and wanted the money back. Shirt Lady told us that we should go home because she was…wait for it…on the way to the hospital because her son was sick. She would deliver the shirts the following day because they were already finished. Giang was really unthrilled and gave her a piece of her mind. The neighbor was home and calmly told us that Shirt Lady’s son most certainly not in the hospital and that Shirt Lady would be home momentarily.

It was very hot out, so we went for a nuoc mia to pass a bit of time waiting for Shirt Lady to get home. When we returned to her house, she was chatting with her neighbor who clearly didn’t warn her. When Shirt Lady refused to give the money back and said she would deliver the shirts ‘tomorrow’ Giang lost it. She ceased being my girlfriend Giang and became…

godzilla-breath-godzilla-8744426-701-326

GIANGZILLA!!!!

Giangzilla was breathing fire and tearing into the seamstress with a ferocity** I hadn’t seen in her before. In Vietnamese culture, younger people ALWAYS defer to their elders and generally have to bite their tongues if they disagree with something lest they get branded rude and disrespectful. Convention went right out the window despite Shirt Lady’s being 20 years Giang’s senior. The row became so noisy that neighbors gathered around to watch. It turns out that we weren’t the first customers to show up at her house demanding their money back. A couple had visited only a week earlier and yelled at her until they got their money back.

When Shirt Lady flatly refused to give us any money back, Giang threatened to call the police. Giang was so angry she was trembling, and I tried to calm her by reminding her that we knew this confrontation was inevitable for going on a month or two. Calling the police is the Vietnamese equivalent of using the ‘nuclear option’. You never know exactly what’s going to happen, only that something is going to get fucked. My being a foreigner might get them to push her to pay me my money back, only to see them extract a bribe from me in an even greater amount as payment for them doing their job. Giang was fully prepared to pay the police whatever it took to give this woman Hell. The worst part about the whole thing was that she told some blatant lies to cover up her laziness. That’s what sent it over the edge. Not even the friendly neighbor could sway either of them.

One last exchange and I thought it was going to come to blows. Shirt Lady offered to bring the shirts tomorrow when Hell froze over. Giang was about to lose her shit for real, when I asked if she could just make them right then and there. We would sit at her house and wait while she made them. We didn’t want to sit there and blow off an afternoon, but no one wanted to deal with this anymore. Shirt Lady agreed, and we sat whilst she did her thing.

Here’s where it got so frustrating it was comical. She was like a Jedi knight, cutting out patterns from scratch, remembering which material I picked out four months prior, cutting it, and assembling collars and seams and such and making it look easy. Watching her I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it to save my life. She did the whole thing in about 4 hours. After 4 months of hounding calls, excuses piled on top of excuses, and having to watch my girlfriend turn into a tiny Vietnamese rage monster, it boiled down to four hours of work. That’s it. And that she did it so precisely, so quickly, might have made my head explode if I weren’t already used to the way things get done (or don’t get done) in Vietnam.

Everybody was calm, and the two women who were at each other’s throats became cordial as Shirt Lady worked. We even had a beer with her. Then she opened up about what had been going on in her life. Turns out that the reason she lost her shop was because the landlord had been running a cam site. Vietnam is a conservative country, so this sort of thing is scandalous. To cover her tracks she was using Shirt Lady’s name on the site and then printed out the conversations and chats she was having with Western men and gave them to the neighbors–who couldn’t read English–and told them Shirt Lady was a filthy whore. Rather than question the landlord further, or even Shirt Lady for that matter, they just ran her off. The landlord likely did this because she wanted more rent for the place and she figured that this was the best way to get rid of an unwanted tenant.

Oh, but the sorrow didn’t stop there. She had a man in her life with whom she has 3 kids. But rather than marry her, he ran off and married a woman in Danang and started a life there, leaving her to raise 3 children on her own. If you think being a single parent in the US is tough, you should give it a whirl here. The last piece of the puzzle was finding out that her brother is a very successful fashion designer in Vietnam. He’s in demand and creates custom designs for all the wealthy and famous people here. While she’s toiling away in a small house in a district far from the center of town, her brother is jet setting around the globe for fashion shows, rubbing elbows with high society, and sipping on champagne. Apparently he refuses to work with her on any level. Despite the fact she’s clearly brought a lot of her misfortune on herself, we couldn’t help but feel pity for her, much like Frodo must have felt when Gollum was sitting there, misty-eyed and ready to fall apart when he realized that rat-bastard of a hobbit stole his Precious.

She finished up the shirts and took us to a ‘finishing shop’, which was really more of a sweat shop, to have custom buttons put on, since she didn’t have any handy.

The 'finishing' shop.

The ‘finishing’ shop.

Ten minutes later she finished the shirts and we went on our way. But not before Giang ordered a special Christmas outfit for the Santarchy event this weekend. Shirt Lady took no money for it and promised to deliver it…wait for it…’tomorrow’. This time she was true to her word. Not only was Giang’s dress delivered right on schedule, but my girlfriend had her make another shirt for me–in Giang’s choice of material of course–and fixed a small mistake in one of the others. She even joined us for a beer and some dinner for Giang’s birthday celebration** at our favorite little hole-in-the-wall around the corner from the house.

It didn’t take long to get over whatever frustration and anger we had about being lied to for 4 months and being treated like fools to sympathize with her and see her for the human being she is. That said, I don’t know if I will have her do any more work for me, nor would I refer anyone else to her. I do hope she figures out a way to become as adept at the business side of things as she is at making garments. If she can figure that out she’ll be okay.

And in case you’re curious about the shirts, here is how they turned out…

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*Names have been changed to protect the not guilty, but responsible.

**Giang’s family is cautious about her temper. She isn’t easily angered, but once pushed too far, watch out. By the age of 2 even her nephew warned people not to wake her up or make her mad for fear of unleashing Giangzilla.

***In Vietnam it is customary that the person celebrating their birthday pay for the meal and all the drinks. So Giang paid for the Shirt Lady’s meal and a couple of beers.

 

I’m not a huge fan of New Year’s Eve. It’s often loud, expensive, crowded, overdressed, overrated and seldom lives up to the hype. There have been a few exceptions of course, but anytime I’ve done anything remotely conventional (i.e. clubs, bars, restaurants) in anyplace one might typically think of spending the holiday (i.e. the city you live in, or any big city for that matter) it has usually been anticlimactic at best or an unmitigated disaster at worst. Usually it’s dreadfully pedestrian. Every once in a while, however, I catch a break and do something fun and even relaxing.

Right after Christmas I got a FB message from my friend Lau, who is from Denmark. He told me he and his girlfriend Thea were in Vietnam, staying on the beach on Phu Quoc island. It’s only a short hop from Saigon, and since I hadn’t seen Lau since Burning Man in 2008 I figured this was an omen to get myself to Phu Quoc for the first time.

I can’t remember the last time I flew in a plane that used propellers. The twin-turbo prop was excruciatingly loud from take off until reaching cruising altitude, but then it mercifully quieted down. However, the landing was so jarring that people cried “ouch” and we wondered aloud if this was the pilot’s first landing. That was only half as funny as the plane making a u-turn on the runway and taxiing in the wrong direction to the terminal—interesting coincidence that they call it the terminal in this case. People craned their necks scanning the airways for more planes. Thankfully the cab ride to my bungalow was uneventful.

After meeting up with Lau and Thea we ordered some beers and relaxed before I got settled into my bungalow.

Mosquito nets are essential.

The proprietors were thoughtful enough to have a Christmas tree decorated for us right on the beach!

Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, your branches, er...

It was exquisitely cozy on this island where all I was expected to do was eat, sleep and drink beer. I’m exceedingly proficient in those areas. Of course there was plenty of time to relax with a book and soak up a few rays. I finally read The Great Gatsby and read The Alchemist once again. I resolved to make reading The Alchemist a New Year’s ritual.

Not a bad spot to read one of your favorite novels and get the New Year off on the right foot, huh? It was great to see Lau again and meet Thea for the first time. I couldn’t help but notice that the ‘catching up’ part of the reunion took about 5 minutes and the rest of the time we talked and had fun like I saw him last week.

The long weekend afforded me the opportunity to reflect a bit and ponder the concept of the New Year’s resolution. I’m usually of the opinion that it’s a bunch of nonsense. New Year’s Day is an arbitrary date likely picked out by a long since dead pope on a calendar that is only one of many throughout the world’s cultures. I live in a country where the New Year doesn’t start for almost three weeks right along with China’s. Jews and Ethiopians have their New Year in September. Tamil and Nepali New Year takes place in April with the Sikhs, Punjabis, Bengalis and a host of others. New Year, depending on which culture we’re discussing, can take place during any of the four seasons. In fact, January 1st has only been recognized as the New Year in Western countries since the 16th century. And if we’re merely discussing how to mark the passage of another year why not use one’s birthday? My time on Earth didn’t start during the same month as everyone else’s. Some people might even use more unconventional dates to mark time like the anniversary of some personal event or a cultural one like Burning Man. January 1st is arbitrary as are the resolutions to change our lives, our bodies or our habits. Or am I being cynical?

Then it occurred to me that perhaps the allure of the New Year’s Resolution is the desire to start over. I’ve learned not to underestimate the desire for a clean slate. Part of the beauty of human beings is our innate ability to reinvent ourselves with nothing more than the will to do so required of us. Perhaps it’s a matter of resolving to change our patterns instead of achieving results. Perhaps it’s a matter of restructuring priorities. After much contemplation what felt most apt to me was that we, as individuals, as a society, and as people all inhabiting this little planet, need to focus more on gratitude and less on desire. And with that I felt lighter, happier and grateful being on that island with friends and nothing to do but relax and enjoy the long weekend.

With the thinking portion of the weekend out-of-the-way it was time for the really important stuff…eating and drinking. We spent New Year’s Eve dining in the night market which is flush with fresh fish and cold beer!

Every restaurant seems to have the same fare, more or less, but we chose the one with the most locals eating there. And we ate there three nights in a row.

Clams, crabs, tiger prawns, oysters, you name it we tried it. To excess I might add, because even moderation must be taken in moderation.

Oysters grilled with peanut sauce and then served with peanuts and some type of spicy chili fish sauce with coconut milk were real crowd pleasers, and baby clams sautéed in a garlic sauce were a delightful mess. Their version of clam chowder seen in the photo was MUCH better than New England clam chowder. We were a little disappointed with the corn, but we weren’t there for the vegetables anyway.

The giant clams were ‘feisty’ as Lau put it, but I enjoyed every chewy mouthful. And what can one say about tiger prawns…I’ll get to them in a moment. We also indulged in some fresh crab.

Before...

After

You have NO IDEA how amazing tiger prawns are until you have them. I swear these things have as much meat in them as small lobsters.

If only the Vietnamese knew what drawn butter was…That is half a kilo of tiger prawns there and they cost about $5. The smaller clams and oysters go for about $2 per plate. They sold larger clams by weight as well. Throw in the corn, about 4 or 5 beers apiece, a huge bowl of their clam soup and some other small things and we paid about $25 or so for the entire meal.

But wait, there’s more!

A group of Vietnamese teachers invited us to join them to ring in the new year. Naturally there was more beer, but we didn’t expect the 5 liter jug of rice liquor they were carrying around with them. Which of course we carried around with us as we all hopped from the restaurant, to a night club, to a bar on the beach where much dancing ensued. As if that wasn’t enough, Thea decided buying a round of Jagermeister was a good idea. It was about this time that I lost my shoes. I know I lost them because when I woke up on New Year’s Day afternoon my shoes were missing. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever lost my shoes. I guess now I can say I’ve lived.

Lau had a pretty good laugh about me losing my shoes. He laughed all afternoon, until it was time to head back to the night market for dinner.

Who is having their laughing now, Shoe-Leth?

My intuition had me pack an extra pair of flip-flops just in case. He had to buy a pair at the night market before dinner! Good fun! And it went on like that for several days. Bright sun, warm water, cold beer, fresh seafood, great company. I read two excellent books and got some important writing started. It was a pretty stellar New Year and I’m grateful for it.

I’m also hopeful that it’s a herald of good things to come for 2012. That’s the great thing about the New Year. No matter when or how you celebrate, it’s a chance for a clean slate.

I’ve got crabs!

The owner of Cua Ba Chi

And they’re delicious!

As part of my Christmas weekend I ventured to a street restaurant recommended by a friend that specializes in crab. Cua Ba Chi does nothing else. Located at 13 Phó Cơ Điều in District 5, they line the sidewalk with tables and cook right at the curb.

Along with fresh crab they put in a melange of spices, heaps of garlic, nuts, candied fruit, veggies of all sorts and then copious amounts of salt and sugar. They are stirred lovingly until the concoction yields a thick, brown sauce whose consistency is akin to maple syrup, but exhibits a taste that is sweet, savory and pungent while delivering a spicy kick.

The finished product alights the taste buds and hooks you after the first bite. I wish this was a scratch and taste blog so you could experience what I’m writing about. It’s served with fresh baguettes that are perfect for dipping into the sauce. Just order a cold beer and you’re ready to go to town!

The whole meal, beer included, is about $9. I suggest you wear dark clothing and refrain from using cell phones, iPods or cameras during dinner. Luckily for me my camera is waterproof so I could just wash it off after smearing the yummy goodness of crab sauce all over it.

…in Vietnam that is.

My friend Thanh invited me out for coffee a couple weeks ago. We went to meet a very close friend of hers named Chau. The Vietnamese are bananas about their coffee, although I mostly stick to tea. It turns out Chau is a jewelry maker. In 2010 I purchased a ring at Lightning in a Bottle that I really enjoy wearing, but became too large for my finger after I left the festival. I don’t know why exactly, but those are the facts of the case. The only way I could wear it was by putting electrical tape around the band. It was not only unsightly, it was distracting because the ring still didn’t fit precisely and I was always turning it around my finger.

I wore the ring the night we went to visit Chau in the Go Vap district (which is the 2nd most populous of HCMC’s 19 districts with over 548,000 people).  He generously offered to resize it for me and refused to accept money, being the friend of a very good friend of his. The young man working on it while we went out for coffee and then snails neglected to pop the malachite stone (which has many uses) out and burned it while they were taking some of the metal out of the band…sigh. They polished the stone to smoothness, but not before taking enough off the surface so that it sits just below the edge of the setting and is no longer flush. The ‘Nam giveth, the ‘Nam taketh away.

Regardless, I’ve been back a couple of times to have coffee/tea and then break bread over some informal language and cultural exchanges.  The most recent time, when I picked up my ring, we decided on having a hot-pot at the home of another friend nicknamed Saki; tired, Chau went home early. When we got to Saki’s house he realized he locked himself out, so we had all the things we needed for the meal, but no way to make it.

We rode over to Chau’s house and, at 10:30 at night, knocked on the door and explained the situation. Without hesitation Chau opened up his home and had four people walk in and sit down in his living room. Beers were opened, glasses were filled with ice, and newspaper laid down on the floor to accommodate the little hibachi into which Chau’s wife placed fresh charcoal and then lit it. In went the broth and then we added prawns, veggies, beef, etc. An impromptu hot-pot picnic on the floor of a jewelry shop is something that rarely happens back in the States, but here in Vietnam this kinda thing happens to me every week :P.

The picnic table

hoofin' it

That’s a beef hoof, bone and all. It was kinda chewy, but not bad. Now why did I eat a hoof? It falls under the Prime Directive which states that I will try any food or beverage served, offered or ordered. And in keeping with the Prime Directive, Chau has a jar of special rice liquor…

What is all that stuff in there? Glad you asked. It’s a bee’s nest broken up and left to break down, soak and infuse itself into the liquor. And what about those white things, you’re wondering. Well…

Cheers!

Those would be larvae, ladies and gentlemen. This drink falls under the Double Secret Prime Directive. The man opened his home after leaving us to go to sleep AND he fixed my ring for free. I had to, you see. Those squishy little larvae had a mild texture. They didn’t pop like salmon roe, but were mushy inside with a firmer skin. They tasted like rice liquor, thank the Buddha.

So what exactly does the title of this post have to do with anything? I’m getting to that. If you are squeamish you might want to stop reading this post and go do a crossword puzzle or something…

The Go Vap district is in the outer ring of HCMC close to where many of the numerous factories that manufacture everything from furniture to Puma, Adidas, The North Face and Gill products lie just beyond the city. Many people in Go Vap come down from Hanoi and the surrounding areas in the north to work in those factories. There are many differences between the North and South Vietnamese, from dialect to lifestyle choices to cuisine, and most of them are accentuated, if not exaggerated. It is in the North, I’m told by Southerners, that eating dog is popular. I haven’t, nor will I ever, dine on dog. Dog is a rare exemption from the Prime Directive. The one caveat to this is if it becomes necessary in a ‘I’m on a plane full of dogs and we’ve crashed in the Himalayas and there’s nothing to eat until spring but dog’ kind of way.

The streets of Go Vap are lined with kiosks of butchers who specialize in dog meat. It’s the first occasion in the time that I’ve lived here I’ve seen this. Naturally I had to stop and take a few photos.

That’s a head there on the left. Notice the way the tongue lolls out of the mouth there on the carcass on the right?

Heads and toes, er, paws.

The paws are a delicacy; right up there with chicken feet.

Side of dog?

I didn’t post these for shock value as much as ‘can you believe this’ value. You hear about it, but nothing prepares you for it. Rows and rows of dog carcasses, which I chose not to post. One seems like plenty.

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