Friday, April 29, 2011

More is more - or - how a manicure made me fear for my life

My Vietnamese friend kidnapped me for the day last Friday and took me to her house to meet her mother-in-law.

I know, I know.  That sounds really ominous, right?  But it wasn't.  It was a lovely day with lots of cooking and playing with babies and being part of a family.

At one point, I noticed that my friend had elaborately painted toenails.  And then I made a big mistake.

"Look at your feet!" I said.  "Very beautiful!"

Now, privately, I thought her feet were a little garish - but I wasn't going to tell her that. But, the deed was already done, I had complimented her on her nail polish, and now I was going to pay.

"You like?  I take you.  You get?"

And I tried to deflect - next time - maybe another day...

But no.  And an hour or so later I found myself sitting in a small Vietnamese salon around the corner from my friend's house. I regret not taking my camera.  (I always regret not taking my camera, and I never take my camera.)  Not because this salon was beautiful though - Oh NO.  Because this salon was so shockingly filthy (to my pampered western eyes) that I was certain that my description of it would not convince you.  But I'll try, shall I?

First you should know that my friend effectively abandoned me there.  She was busy at home and so she dropped me off, insisted on paying the beautician and left me there.  And I felt like I couldn't complain or refuse by this time because this is obviously the place she goes to all the time and she thought she was giving me a real treat.

So I was left alone waiting for my turn in the salon.  Nobody spoke English.  Maybe I was the first Big Nose they had ever had to work on. When I arrived there was a young man sitting in a chair getting the wax scraped out of his ears.  She had a whole lot of complicated looking brushes.  Sort of like a chimney sweep but on a much smaller scale.

Next in line before me was a middle-aged woman who had come to get her hair washed. The salon had an interesting improvised hair washing sink.  It was an large funnel somehow suspended at about waist height, that poured into a pipe that bent upwards from the floor. She used a hose that was connected to a tap on the wall to pour water over the woman's head. The pipe then drained into the next room (about a metre away where the floor level was a few inches lower. It just drained suds'n'all all over the floor in the next room, and eventually I suppose ran out of the room into another drain somewhere else.  The woman getting her hair washed sat in a quite ordinary chair and leaned her head back over the funnel.

Mostly I love Vietnam, but here's something I really don't like: The dust that gets everywhere and into everything robs the city of colour.  And it was really noticeable in this salon.  Obviously, when the place was first opened and new there were some bright pictures on the wall.  There are some plastic flowers tacked onto the wall above the mirror and the walls themselves are painted.  But everything in this place was caked in horrible greasy grey dust. And the colours are all wilted underneath.

There was a mother dog and one of her pups lolling around on the floor. It was a hot day.  Their fleas and general manginess contributed to the depressing feel of the place. Their hair mingled in with the unswept cuttings from someone else's trim.

When it was finally my turn I began to panic a bit. I realised that she was going to use cuticle trimmers, and that those cuticle trimmers - cutting into my skin - would not have been cleaned since being used on the last customer. I have really thin dry sensitive skin and have seen my fingers bleed under not very careful cuticle trimmers before. So I decided - no way hozay!  She can't touch my feet.  I will not remove my shoes!  And I gingerly gave her my hand to work on, but decided that at the slightest hint of pulling or bleeding the cuticle trimmers were to be taken away.

Well, dear reader.  She was the most gentle and skillful nail technician I have ever had.  There was not even a pinch and certainly no blood. So all my misgivings (can you get HIV from cuticle trimmers?) faded.  A bit.

Finally it was time for the nail painting.  First - hot pink. Then, she got out her specialty nail painting kit and a tiny tiny brush, and started on the flowers.  Two for each fingernail - and three for the thumbs!  And then when the flowers were done, she started again and the leaves appeared.  But wait there's more!  After the leaves - the dots.  And after the dots I wasn't sure if she was done yet or not but she grinned up at me and nodded and so VOILA:

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dear Phil - What's brown and sticky?

A stick of course!


But also, the little bits of pork belly inside these banana-leaf wrapped steamed tapioca cakes that my friend made while I watched.

Would you like the recipe?  Of course you would!

First, you will need banana leaves - and lots of them.  The banana leaves need to be washed thoroughly, and then when you've washed them you need to wipe them down carefully on both sides to remove all the white bloom, and tear them into rectangles about 10 cm wide.  You really need to get your husband to do this bit for you (as my friend did) because it's boring and it takes forever and you would much rather be working on the delicious filling.

OK. So next - the filling.

Cut a nice fat piece of pork belly into small cubes - a couple of centimetres wide.
Mash up some garlic in a mortar and pestle with a small handful of shallots.
Fry up the garlic and shallots until they're soft and aromatic (not too hot - don't want to burn it!).  My friend just uses regular cooking oil.
Add the meat and cook it over a medium heat.  Once it starts to brown, add sugar (quite a bit) salt, soy sauce, fish sauce.
My friend added stock powder - I would recommend using some real stock.  Something meaty and concentrated. Not too much though.   The aim here is to caramelise the meat - not steam it.
And pepper.  Add quite a lot of pepper.
Now add fresh, shelled prawns - chop them so they're quite small like the pork bits.
Cook it all slowly till its nice and brown and very rich in colour.
Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Easy, right?


Gently heat quite a bit of tapioca starch with quite a bit of water.  I didn't watch this part being done, so I'm not super sure. It probably tells you how to do it on the starch package. The final product is opaque white and sticky - like a very soft dough.


Put maybe a tablespoon of dough in the centre of the banana leaf.  Add a teaspoonful of the meat mixture.  Fold up the banana leaf so the dough mixture is wrapped, tucking the ends underneath. Use strips of banana leaf to tie two little parcels together - ends tucked under sides facing, so they don't unravel.

Steam for just a few minutes.


The tapioca starch goes clear and jellyish under the steam. The whole lot is very delicious, and even if it looks like a sea slug I promise you it doesn't taste like one. 

Guess the fruit - prizes

A couple of weeks ago, Mr Martin and I went out together to look for prizes for the Fruity Guessers.

"The theme is Fruit," I pronounced as we squeezed our way up the world's narrowest escalators in the Tax Centre Shopping Mall opposite the Rex Hotel.  Locals: please tell me.  Why is it called the tax centre? This shopping mall has cosmetics and electronics on the ground floor, and a whole lot of crap aimed at tourists on the all the other floors.  Perfect!

I already had part of the prize. Remember this, Kat?

Well, I trotted off to the Co-op mart and got one for you both.  Seriously, that peeler/shredder is my favouritest kitchen tool at the moment. It's also very good for shredding cheese.

But, I felt like I needed something else. And then - Lo!  The perfect thing!

Could it be?  Why yes it is!  A set of coasters shaped exactly like a dragonfruit! They also had durians, custard fruit, and pomelos. Among others.  But the dragon fruit ones we loved the best.  And I got so excited at the woman's stall that I flung my hand around somehow managed to tip the coasters all over her whole stall of stuff and make a CLATTER that echoed through the whole building that sent people running to come and witness the carnage.

But my guardian angel must have been watching over me (yes, we watched Wings of Desire the other day) because nothing was damaged except of course my pride.  I was so embarrassed.  And I was sort of disappointed in myself because I had been looking forward to arguing about the price, but now I felt as though I couldn't possibly try.  But maybe the woman at the stall felt sorry for me, because she didn't give me the ridiculously high price I was expecting anyway.  Hooray!

And then when I got home I had an even brillianter idea which has taken me weeks to execute because I keep forgetting to buy two dragonfruits. But today I did it! And now you can see exactly how lifelike the coaster sets are:

That was fun!  I wish I could send you the real fruits, because nothing beats the fresh fruit we get here in Vietnam.  But of course, I don't think NZ Customs would thank me - not to mention that it won't be at all fresh when it gets there.

Now don't go rushing to your letterboxes just yet, though.  We have been experiencing all the difficulties of the Vietnamese postal service in great detail recently and I have decided to boycott it all together.  So - you will have to wait until after my Mummy comes to visit me in early July.  I will make her take them back in her suitcase and post them from home.

How's the language going?

So you might be curious about how my Vietnamese language acquisition is going.

It's terrible!  I can't speak Vietnamese!

Quite a lot of the young folk I meet offer to language exchange with me, and I really should take them up on it, I know - but I am so lazy about it. 

But, I am not a complete ignoramus.  Simply by osmosis, and some Vietnamese flashcards on the iPod I have learned a few words and phrases.  So, I can say hello and ask 'How much?'.  Sometimes, I can understand when they tell me how much something costs, and sometimes I can't (improving every day!).  I have that problem that all new language learners have, where all the words run into one another and I can't hear what is being told to me - it just sounds like babbles.  In the Thai language they have a good way of talking about this.  They say "Fung my dai," which means not "I can't understand," but, "I can't listen."  Because, when someone slows down or talks more clearly I can understand, but I just can't listen....

Even after 13 years of concentrated forgetting I can still speak Thai better than I can speak Vietnamese.  Which really demonstrates the power of immersion for language learning.  I lived with a Thai family, and by three months I could read the language OK and could carry out simple conversations.

In Vietnam after 4 months I have a vocabulary of somewhere around 50 words and can use sign language.

There is another problem with Vietnamese though.  It is RIDICULOUSLY difficult to pronounce.  Every day I get in a taxi and I say the name of my street, (let's pretend I live on Apple street). The conversation goes like this.

Xin Chao!  
(This means hello.)

(So, I speak in Vietnamese to him, and he speaks English back.  But believe me, if I said hello in English, he probably wouldn't even crack a smile, let alone say hello back.)

Apple Street!

(Dead silence.  Driving to Apple Street.)

Or, the other half of the time it goes like this:

Xin Chao!  


Apple Street!

 O Dau?

Apple Street!

(Cups his hand against his ear.  Pulls a 'what the hell are you on about' face)

Apple Street

Apple Street?  Apple Street?
(Shakes head.  No such thing as Apple Street surely. What language is she speaking any way?)

(Pulls out notebook.  Shows address: Apple Street)

Apple Street!
(Drives in silence.)

So, I'm prepared to be misunderstood.  But the bit that gets me is that when I say "Apple Street" and he repeats it like it sounds like gibberish "Apple Street?" and then when he says "Apple Street" and tries to correct me - it all sounds like the same words to me.  I can't spot the difference. Fung my dai.

A few weeks after arriving here I found a "Vietnamese For Beginners" book with CDs at the local government bookstore (Fahasa).  It was cheap, so I bought it, thinking "I'll give that a crack".

So the book is rubbish, but - it's a really good CD...

If you're short on coasters!

Seriously folks, if you're in Vietnam and you find yourself reading this blog thinking: "Oooh! I wonder if she's got any tips for learning Vietnamese?" - well I do.  Keep your 63,000 dong and don't buy that book and CD set at Fahasa.  Also, practise on your taxi drivers:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Crooked Little House - Part 3

Today my little project of spying on the neighbourhood builders became an exercise in mutual voyeurism.  Now four storeys high, the new apartment building suddenly seems quite close, and the builders notice as soon as I step onto my balcony.  There is lots of grinning, and they call out to me a bit, but I can't understand what they are saying so we just all acknowledge one another with smiles. 

The person squatting there in the dark blue top with the bright yellow frilly hat is a woman - the first I've seen on a Vietnamese building site.  She was also wearing one of those facemasks that the motorbike riders wear, but she kept pulling it down so she could grin at me.  Her job today was pulling nails out of timber so the timber can be reused.

When I first looked at the construction site, I thought that those long rust coloured piles (or frames, or whatever they are) you can see sticking up for the beginning of the next floor, and also on the front edge of the floor, were iron.  But actually they are just light wood - probably plywood.  The builders nail them in place as they begin each floor, thread long metal rods through them and then pour the concrete (by hand of course) into them.  Once the concrete is dry, they pull them off and use them again for the next level.

The concrete on the floor they were were working on today was poured yesterday.  Here's a video of the process. 

Today it is dry already, and you can see that they have already started to put up the next floor.  I don't know how tall this building is going to be, but they look as though they've got a bit of work to do yet!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

My Son ruins near Hoi An

My mother and grandmother are coming to visit me in July!  Isn't that exciting?  I am being very dictatorial about their visit.  They are only going to be here for a week, so I have been thinking very hard about what the best things are to see in Vietnam if one only has a week to spend.

And so of course Hoi An has come out at the top of my list.  It is perfect for all levels of mobility, perfectly welcoming and full of wonderful Vietnamese treasures.  We spent four days in Hoi An on our short tour at the beginning of January, and I realise that I have never written about it here, yet.  The highlight for me was the tour of the ruins at My Son.  In New Zealand all of the buildings and structures are a couple of hundred years old, tops.  So we kiwis get excited when presented with very old things.

The structures at My Son were built between the 4th and 14th centuries AD.  Our tour guide told us that after the Champa were defeated by the Vietnamese in around the 14th century, the site was abandoned, and nobody really knew much of it's existence.  Until, sometime in the 19th century it was stumbled upon by a hunting Frenchman, who brought archeologists to study the site.  I don't know how reliable our tour guide was, but I love the idea of the Frenchman picking his way through the dense Vietnamese forest - probably in pursuit of a tiger or something like that, and then coming across a whole lot of beautiful brick towers rising out of the jungle.

I made this video today - almost by accident, really.  I was uploading some different videos to youtube, and I saw an option to 'make' a video using a youtube video editor thingy, so I uploaded some of my Hoi An photos, and voila:

It ends rather abruptly, but that's what you get with free videos! Enjoy.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Guess the fruit winners

Well obviously I made that too easy!

Yes, the mystery fruit was passionfruit.  We have been eating passionfruit every day here lately on our breakfast with yogurt and muesli. 

I will have to have another go soon.  Mandy and Kat - if you email me your addresses I will be sending you a little Vietnamese fruit themed prize pack which you will probably receive in several months time thanks to the vagaries of the postal system here!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Crooked Little House - Part 2

There is an apartment building being built on my street. The project is progressing so quickly that is really difficult to believe - especially when you consider how low tech the materials and processes in comparison with similar projects back home.

This is a view of the site today from my balcony.

The floor that was being built last week has been completed, one layer of flooring has already gone down, and they are putting a layer of concrete down today.  The entire building is iron frames, bricks and mortar and hand-poured concrete. 

These guys are really small, but very strong.  They spend all their days hauling buckets of concrete and bricks. They have to work really quickly to pour the concrete out and level it before it dries.

They use a pulley system to get the concrete up to the floor levels they are working on.

The pulley is powered by some kind of fuel - I doubt it's diesel.  It sounds like two-stroke lawnmower engine and it billows out great puffs of black smoke.

 That's pulley operator down there in the hat. 

The concrete is mixed by hand in one of those old-fashioned concrete mixers.  I took this picture on the walk home from the restaurant the other night.

Even concrete mixers need to sleep.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Dear Phil - guess the fruit

It's time for a game.  I've been playing with my new camera. What kind of fruit husk is this?

Answers in the comments section please.  Winners will receive a prize!

Dear Phil - a birthday treat

Today is my birthday.

Bring Me Cake - or I'll laser you with my Katie Perry eyes!

Since today is a workday, we had a little early celebration last night - by going to dinner at our favourite Vietnamese restaurant:

Cuc Gach Quan - 10 Dang Tat, Ward Tan Dinh, District 1, Saigon

There are many many reasons why we love this restaurant.  And the fact that we live a 30 second walk away from it is only an added bonus. The food is just outrageously good, the price is not expensive, the atmosphere is so pleasant - you feel like you're in a very special place when you go to this restaurant.  As you walk in the front gate you pass a big pile of fresh fruit - especially pomelos that will be used later in the kitchen.  So the very first experience is a delicious fragrance to stimulate the palate.

We are led through the restaurant, then up a very steep flight of stairs to the room where our table is.

Vietnam: I know you are trying to break my ankles. Please have mercy!

This restaurant is a traditional skinny house that has been converted into a restaurant.  The owner is an architect and the design is modern, but also very respectful of the heritage of the place. I love everything about it. But don't wear heels when you go - there may be some stooping and climbing called for to get to your table.

We ordered a glass of wine and a beer, and while we were waiting for our food, my husband gave me an early birthday present - a new camera!  I'm so excited by this, because my old camera is really on it's last legs. And it meant we could get some pictures of the food in the very low light of the restaurant.

We ordered (clockwise) pomelo salad, crispy sea bass with passionfruit sauce, caramelised pork belly in a clay pot, and sauteed beef with lemongrass and chilli.  We were not disappointed.  The pomelo salad had slivers of pork and fresh prawns, and was a delicious cleansing mouthful between morsels of the other dishes.

The passionfruit sauce on the fish had a sweet and sour effect. The fish was light and crispy on the outside but still wonderfully soft in the middle. The pork belly was everything I had hoped for. Very rich and flavoursome with a thick gravy. The winner of the night was probably the beef.

In my old age I find that I have less and less tolerance for too much chilli, and I was a little wary when I saw the big chunks of chilli in this dish.  But it was perfect.  There was only the beautiful flavour of fresh chillis with none of the bite.  And lemongrass!  Perfect.  I couldn't stop eating it.

As evidenced by the 'after' shot:

I've had a gutsful!

But no so full that we couldn't manage any dessert!  We decided to try some Vietnamese desserts (no ice-cream on the menu!).

Struggling to remember, but I think these were called lotus seed porridge and bean porridge.  The Vietnamese word was Che, I think.  Mr Martin was very suspicious at first:

They were sweet and very delicious.  They are served chilled, and the water is a very sweet soupy stuff.  I don't really know what I was eating, but it was great! We liked the bean one best - I think it would make a nice (if a bit sugary) breakfast food.  But then, I always want to have dessert for breakfast!

On a different topic, what do you think of my new haircut?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Cham towers at Quy Nhon

In my previous post I mentioned the Cham minority (remember the muslim costume?).  But then I remembered that I'm a pretty crap blogger and haven't told you anything about the Cham sites we touristed at on our little 'welcome to Vietnam' trip up the coast.

This is what I know about the Cham people. Modern Cham, who are a minority ethnic group in Vietnam are descendants of the Champa Kingdom which reigned in central Vietnam from the 7th to the 15th centuries AD.   There's a whole lot of stuff about the Champa Kingdom here for those who are interested - but I'll be honest with you - I've only really looked at the pictures on that site.  The Champa Kingdom was eventually defeated by the Viet, and one of their legacies has been these beautiful ruins that are dotted about the country.

In Quy Nhon there are two virtually complete towers standing in an area quite close to the center of the city, so while we were there we took some time to go and see them.

 Image modified slightly to protect the innocent.

The towers are in such good condition that you can get inside them, so of course we went up.  You can see that those steps are very steep - almost as tall as my knee.  They're also very shallow - you have to turn your foot on the side to get full purchase, or climb on tippy-toe.  I just went very slowly.  And apparently the whole world could see up my skirt (that was the last time I wore that dress out of the house!).  Mr Martin was very amused.

The towers were built as places of worship, and they're still used as places of worship today. At the top of the stairs in each room was a small room with a simple altar.

Joss sticks were provided in the corner by the door - and a lighter, too.

I felt a little sad that the incense sticks weren't in a nice container - Slide is brand of imitation pringles potato chips.  The style of worship here is undoubtedly not like the style of worship at the time these structures were built around 1300 years ago. But it is definitely still a very holy place.  Incense sticks were wedged in a few cracks in the wall here and there, as well as on the table.

I was sort of reminded of some of the ancient tombs in Orkney that have Viking graffiti scratched in the walls.  These towers have graffiti scratched in the brick walls, too. Who knows how old it is, though.  Some of the names look French:

Seeing these photos again reminds me of the builders on my street.  Vietnam is a country of brickworks!  The Champa were master brickworkers, and they were also master stone carvers.

This is a frieze from around the base of the second tower.  There are still a few carvings higher up on the outside of the towers, but most works have long gone.  There are lots of examples of the kind of work at the Quy Nhon museum.  There are alcoves in the towers, for example where this would fit perfectly. 

When you get inside the towers, be sure to look up:

None of the pictures I took could give justice to experience of looking up through those long chambers.  It made me think of the stories people tell who have been resurrected from near-death experiences of the 'long tunnel' that leads towards the light.

I also speculated that it might have a telescopic effect on the stars at night.  Does anybody know if that speculation makes any sense?  I've heard that from the bottom of a well you can see stars during the day.

Those trees would not have been there originally.  They're not even really trees - they are self-seeded plants that are growing directly in the mortar at the top of the tower.  I think I've mentioned before that the plant life in Vietnam is extremely tenacious.

Dioxin aside, there is nothing standing in the way of new life in beautiful lush Vietnam.