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Cha ca 9 September 2014

Posted by uggclogs in Cooking, food, Happiness, Vietnam.
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Since living in Hanoi, one of the foods I miss is cha ca – or grilled fish. The best grilled fish is to be had in the old quarter in Hanoi, of course. Nothing beats the scenery and the atmosphere of being at Cha Ca La Vong, the most famous (and possibly the most expensive) restaurant. When we first arrived in Hanoi, they were still cooking the fish on coals at the table, and the spluttering heat from the frying pan would invariably end up being a health and safety hazard. This is as close as I have managed to get with my recipe, I am sure it’s still not 100%. I have used and adapted several online versions to get as near to authentic as possible.

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Cha ca

This recipe is for two people, but I suggest you always make too much, as it is so delicious.

Ingredients:

– 500 g of firm, white fish. Ling fish is the best, but cod has worked for me in the past.
– 3-4 spring onions (echalottes will work, too, but are a bit firmer)
– 1 tsp of curry powder
– 1 tbs of tumeric
– 2 tbs fish sauce
– 1 tbs yogurt
– 1 tsp crushed garlic
– 4 tbs vegetable oil
– 1 large bunch of scallion/spring onions, cut on an angle
– 1 large handful of dill, roughly chopped
– Fresh rice noodles (or rice vermicelli, if noodles are not available)

Garnish:

– 1 cup of peanuts, slightly roasted
– 1 cup of bean sprouts
– lime wedges
– fish sauce
– 2-3 cups of Vietnamese mint, basil, coriander and other fresh herbs

Method:

– Cut the fish into cubes of about 2cm/ 1inch and set aside in a bowl.
– Cut the spring onion into very small pieces, as small as you can.
– Mix the cut onion, spices, half of the oil, fish sauce, and yogurt together, and add to the fish – make sure the fish is completely covered.
– Place a non-stick pan over high heat and add the peanuts. Move the nuts around until they start to brown. Remove the nuts from the pan and set aside.
– Place the pan back on the heat, add the remaining oil, and fry the fish until just cooked.
– While the fish is cooking, add the noodles to boiling water and cook briefly until tender and warm.
– Add the scallion and dill and cook a little longer, then serve.

To serve, use small bowls. Half-fill a bowl with noodles, add a couple of spoonfulls of fish and greenery on top. Add any combination of the ganishes that you wish/like. Eat with chopsticks.

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Vietnam gets under your skin 30 April 2013

Posted by uggclogs in only in Vietnam, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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I saw Anh Do’s stand up show last night, in which he draws on his experiences to make an audience laugh and choke up in equal amounts. It was a rather strange experience to see a comedy show (?) where the comedian himself was touched to tears talking about his family. It was strange, but warm and close. And strangely familiar.

Anh Do came to Australia from Vietnam as a refugee many years ago. He identifies as Australian, and is proud of Australians that faught, but his story is so interwoven with Vietnam that he is still distinctly ‘immigrant’, too. His accent is but faint, but still very much there.

Snapshots from Vietnam were shown on a screen behind him, and at one stage he played a traditional Vietnamese song over the top of some images. Instantly, I could feel the oppressive heat, the smells (and stenches), the blossoms. The noise, the motorbikes, the food, the language.

Vietnam has got under my skin. And I missed it so much last night.

It is indescribable. I have been thinking about it all day – that longing that Vietnam conjures up in me that I had never envisioned. Never.

I now have a fascination with the country that I never thought I would have. I devour all news related to Vietnam, I read books about it. Books I never read leading up to going there or while I was there.

What a mysterious, magical country. No wonder the Vietnamese are so proud to show it to you.

Vietnam – at the forefront of gay equality in Asia? 3 August 2012

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Life, only in Vietnam, Vietnam.
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Source: Interweb

It has been a full year since my return from Vietnam. It has been a good, but difficult year for me, and not a day goes by without me thinking about Vietnam and the amazing time that I had there.

I have become one of those annoying people who has a million anecdotes, ready to share with anyone who will listen. Many people are interested, of course, yet I am sure I bore some. So I loathe to spend another post on this love affair of mine with the long, slender country of Sout East Asia. I know some of you are fed up with my constant talking about it.

But the recent news (and I found this through the Daily Beast) caught my eye, because either things have truly changed in Vietnam since I left (very possible, considering how quickly the country develops) or I underestimated the country significantly. Or perhaps there is yet again a disconnect between news outside of the borders and what is happening on the ground. But all the same, it’s an interesting development!

Vietnam is having its first pride parade this weekend in Hanoi.

I was fully aware of a vibrant gay community in Hanoi, of course. I even knew a few gay (Vietnamese) men. Yet the idea of same-sex couples possibly being considered for legal marriage, has surprised me.

I have had vivid conversations with Vietnamese denying that there are any gay people in Vietnam. One of my best Vietnamese friends excitedly told me that she had seen “Hanoi’s Gay” one day, and when I pressed her on it, she explained that she had in fact seen a cross dresser. The poor man was classified in her mind as the only gay in Hanoi, a city of about 6.5 million people. I tried to explain to her that this was, of course unlikely, as there were probably quite a number of people in Hanoi that were gay. And just the fact that the man was a cross-dresser or a transvestite did also not necessarily mean she was gay at all. My friend just stared at me blankly.

Time and time again would I have discussions as a variation of this one. Maybe I attracted people who were curious in general, but for a population that did not think gay people existed, they sure were curious about gays and being gay. Sexuality is not something that is discussed much, and vibrators and dildos are banned from being sold. Many of the public policies portray a country in denial about sex, yet statistics show that there is plenty going on, with marriages and babies happening a lot (especially in this fortuitous year of the dragon) but also with the huge number of brothels and “karaoke” bars available. It’s always interesting the first time you go to a non-family karaoke bar and it clicks…

But I digress. To hear that there is a gay pride parade in Hanoi this weekend makes me wish I were there. I would have liked to go to show my support. Any type of demonstration is usually frowned upon, and gay pride can not be easy in a conservative country like Vietnam. And I suppose the gay community still has a lot to fight for, with their second day‘s tag line being “Different, but not deviant”.

But good on them. I will be thinking about the men and women who will participate, and hoping that it will all remain positive.

Good luck!

Mud, mud, glorious mud 16 June 2011

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Today’s adventure started in Bao Lac, a small border town with a surprising amount of new houses, and looking less poor than other towns in the region.

The drive started well, and by lunch we had covered half of the 131 km to Cao Bang. Cao Bang province so far is beautiful, with rice paddies and limestone mountains in the distance.

The sun was also out, blue skies as far as the eyes could see.

Then, about 45 km out, we had to wait in line for some road works. Fair enough, we think. Just a bit of mud, slippery as anything, but it won’t slow us down.

How wrong were we. Firstly, road works are the name of the game. Planning clearly isn’t. So instead of having a kilometer or so of inconvenience, we soon come to realise that pretty much all of the road from here on in is completely torn up. And most of it seems to just have been torn up, without anyone actually working on it.

And with the great amount of rain that we have had every night, the whole lot has turned into slippery, soppy, deep mud. Or sludge.

And then my partner also gets a flat tire. If I thought I was having trouble staying up, I don’t want to imagine his struggles, as he swaggers all over the place.

Twice, I wipe out. It is just impossible to keep the bike on its course – accelerating and breaking both just takes it off into the opposite direction I was heading. I’m wiped out twice, and three more times, I keep it standing, but I am perpendicular to the road.

Add huge trucks. That splatter muddy goo up to your helmet as they pass.

For a little while there I was not having any fun, I was just so scared.

Luckily, after ten kilometres or so, we found a little shack with a young man, his son and mother, who fixes tires. My partner and I got to play with the two year old while dad fixed the bike.

We kept going through mud all the way down the mountain (at least 25 km or more) completely muddy from head to toe.

Interestingly, I have learnt more about mud in one day than I ever thought I would. I could soon spot the most treacherous mud flats, and how to get out of them. When the mud is so thick it cakes onto your tires is the worst, because you lose all traction. Puddles tend to be deeper than you think. Glossy mud is liquid, whereas darker mud is drying.

Also, I learnt that chickens do not tend to change direction. If you can, pass behind it. If not, you better break, as it will run out in front of your wheels.

And soon I was having fun again despite my thumbs hurting from gripping on to the handle bars too tightly, and my shoulders aching from concentration.

Also, mud is strangely colourful (yes, I spent hours staring 5 metres before me, and could not look around at the scenery much). It comes in yellow, red, orange, black, grey, light brown and dark brown. And every shade in between.

The shower that followed that epic ride was well deserved and extremely welcome. I still have mud on the back pack and my rain coat, but the bike and me were thoroughly hosed down (not at the same time, mind).

Ready for tomorrow’s (last) adventure.

Good night Cao Bang.

Ha Giang to Cao Bang 14 June 2011

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Today started off with a bit of a downer. My bike had a flat tire. Luckily, this being Vietnam, there was a bike repair shop only 20 meters down the road.

So I rolled the bike there, had it fixed for $2.50, then rode it back to the hotel to load everything back on.

Within 15 minutes, we were on the road again, only to discover the temperamental side of Ha Giang. The mountains were again shrouded in mist, and a few specks of rain came down as we set off.

Within the first 15 km, I am finding the bike hard to control, and a strange, rhythmic squeaky sound is telling me why: another flat. And 8 km out from the nearest town. And out of range, so I can’t call my partner.

So, I decide to drive the bike at about 10-15 km an hour towards Meo Vac. I finally get within range, and can call my partner, so he won’t worry.

Then, at the nearest repair place, it gets fixed again, at $3.00 this time. But I am nervous, as he hasn’t found the cause of both flats. I am picturing a stop very 10 km to fix the stupid tire.

So, setting off on our detour, I stop often to check the bike. Am I going ok? Luckily, as the day wears on, nothing happens. So I am cruising.

The ride from Meo Vac to Bao Lac, where we are now, is very different, mostly warm and sunny, along the rivers in deep valleys.

The ride is tiring and beautiful.

Loved the day!

Ha Giang is good for your soul 13 June 2011

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Yes, we are back in Ha Giang. This is my third time. And I still haven’t had enough.

Last time we were in Ha Giang, I had a lot of things to deal with. I felt devastated and fragile. But the mountain passes shrouded in mist gave me time and space to process my emotions.

Today, we are back. And this time, the mist, which made everything mystical, beautiful, heavy and wet (and freaking scary when buses popped out of the mist in front of you) had lifted.

Imagine valleys stretching one after the other, each as different as the one before. One moon landscape, the next rice paddies. The next again limestone mountains full of caves, then valleys of corn waist high.

Meandering along steep mountain paths, alongside rivers bursting at the seams with clear, frothing water. Playful shades of fresh green mingling with more established leaves from yesteryear, fading into blue in the distance.

Hairpin turns along breathtaking drop-offs into nothingness.

Buffaloes and little black piglets keeping you on your toes.

And that does not even begin to describe Ha Giang.

Today, we rode 160 kilometres through cool, clean air, which after Hanoi onset of summer was a marvelous relief.

And then there’s the people. Little half-naked urchins with gigantic, black eyes, women in flashy coloured minority costumes with hoes slung nonchalantly over their shoulders, elderly men with missing teeth lounging on a plastic chair at the front of their house. And each one of them smiling, welcoming. Nods, smiles and waves.

The children sometimes run to the road when they see you coming, yelling “bye!!” as you pass.

How could this be but soothing?

I will never get enough of this place. It wins hands down every time. We discussed whether we should see a place we hadn’t been yet for our last domestic holiday in Vietnam, but the pull of the clear, tall mountains was irresistible.

If you get the chance, go to Ha Giang. It is not really on the tourist trail yet. And you might be better off with a motorbike, as it is so much fun. But if you are ok with that, and relatively hard beds, Vietnamese style, it is amazing.

Signing off from Dong Van. Keep an eye out for tomorrow’s installment, as we will attempt to move on to the next province, Cao Bang.

Reverse Culture Shock 6 June 2011

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A wonderful friend of mine, who recently returned to Australia after 10 months of living in Hanoi just wrote an email to me. She’s back in Brisbane, noticing things about Australia and Australians that she’s never noticed before.

Her time in Amsterdam, also about 10 months, did not have the same affect, maybe because she had left the Netherlands frustrated with the bureaucracy and the never ending “niet mogelijk” (not possible) that she was met with all the time. But partially, of course, because the Dutch are not that different from the Australians, culturally.

But this time, returning after Vietnam, has left her a bit shaken.

How strange that is, the notion of culture shock. Isn’t it funny that we adjust to norms of society (albeit slowly). Things that astounded and perhaps even bugged you when you first arrived, have become normal.

Instead of walking around with wide eyes, I walk with confidence into traffic, knowing full well that I will (most likely) not be hit. I’ve noticed that reading back through my initial posts from Vietnam in 2008, I am smiling at the marvel that comes through. There is just so many things to learn, too many to understand at first.

And people always tell you different things – the sage advice from an expat who has been in Vietnam for four years is completely different from that of an expat of 6 months or that of a local.

Granted, sometimes being from the outside may mean that you have a better view of certain situations. For example, a Vietnamese person who has been to Thailand might give you a better explanation of something that puzzles you in Vietnam than someone who has never had the chance to go abroad, and can’t imagine doing things differently.

Cultural differences can be funny:

I once asked a group of Vietnamese who had been to Thailand what was different culturally about Thailand, and one of them said “In Thailand, people wait in line. Even to use the toilet.” Another straight away piped up saying “that’s because they don’t all have diarrhoea.”

Frighteningly, some expats seem to become experts on Vietnam by merit of having been in Vietnam for “the long haul.” Never mind “I have no Vietnamese friends, I speak hardly any Vietnamese, and I don’t enjoy any things the Vietnamese enjoy”; I am an expert.

I am not absolving myself in saying this. I do not know nearly enough Vietnamese people or language to claim I understand living here in the slightest. I am still baffled all the time. And just as you start getting one aspect of life here, you are completely wobbled over by another. But I am also sure that some things that used to confound me are now starting to make sense.

And there will be things that I will find strange going back, including traffic rules and issues of personal space. Paradoxically, perhaps my experience in Vietnam has not made me an expert on Vietnam, but it will give me a chance to understand Australia and Australians better.

Ode to a corner cafe 22 May 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Vietnam.
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I, like all other Vietnamese I’ve met, have a favourite cafe. In fact, it seems the Vietnamese have a favourite just about anything.

Let me take you to the best pho street stall in Hanoi.

You can buy cloth elsewhere, but don’t let anyone make you an ao dai other than the 2 by 5 metre shop I go to. It is the best in Hanoi.

I could have a coffee here, but let’s go across to the other side of town to the little old lady with the basket. Her coffee is the best in Hanoi.

And so on.

A friend of mine theorised yesterday that it must stem from the plethora of choice that is available in this city. The overwhelming choice makes you go to one place, try it, if it’s good, it’s not only good enough, it is the best in Hanoi, saving you the anguish of ever having to try it anywhere else.

There may be some truth to that, but I also think there’s more.

I won’t go as far as to say my local cafe is the best in Hanoi, but I am certainly very fond of it.

It is, in fact, located directly next to another cafe, which I have also been to, but which I don’t like as much.

On the face of it, the cafes are identical. Both are an open room, with near identical umbrellas and wicker chairs outside on the side walk. Both serve coffees, juices, smoothies, salted pickled apricots in syrup and coconuts in summer.

Yet one day, early on, I came to realise that at one cafe, coffees were 15,000 dong per glass, whereas the other only charged 12,000. Their coffees tasted identical to me, so adopted the cheaper one.

So the initial choice was callous, a financial incentive (nominally only, as 3,000 dong is in fact around 15 cents). Nothing to be too fanatical about.

But then, it became the place where they know everything about me but my name: every day they would smile, nod, humour me and my language abilities. And ask questions.

Age, height, nationality, marital status, if I have children.

They are happy to see me. They like it when they see me go past. They noticed the one time I ran home.

And then it no longer was an unemotional decision for me. I started going for the familiarity. The wonderful woman running the shop (whom I call younger auntie) knows my usual orders.

And I have become a favourite after the day I came with a Vietnamese colleague who swore black and blue that the other shop had better coffee. To settle the matter of where we went, we had a very public rock paper scissors match, which I won. So she loves me, too.

The coffee has gone up in prize. But I still go to the same shop, because we have a rapport.

So perhaps that’s why people want you to come to their favourite shops. It’s the place where everybody knows your name.

Charming Hanoi 6 May 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Life, only in Vietnam, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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Hanoi is a seductress – and she is putting on the charm.

She knows I am leaving in two months’ time. She knows I am looking forward to starting a new chapter in my life. She knows this and she is not happy.

So she is putting on the charm.

I can smell flowers (for the first time in three years of living here).

The weather is mild, clear, sometimes sunny, but not hot or sticky yet.

The people seem extra friendly; the neighbours are nodding and smiling to me.

I don’t seem to be getting ripped off in taxis or at the market.

I suppose I am projecting. I know I am leaving, so I am enjoying every moment of it. I am still being told that I am fat, tall and a westerner. Yet I am also being told that I am beautiful, which hardly ever happens.

I know going back home, I will miss all the things that have in the past also driven me nuts. The traffic, the noise, the constant people around me.

I will miss the way the Vietnamese spend their lives on the side walks, how they meddle in everyone’s affairs, and how they can be quite in your face.

I am sure there are things I will not miss. But they are already by far being outweighed by the things I will miss.

So I am making lists for all the things I need to/ want to do before I leave. Seeing this museum and that landmark (the famous B52 is a must) eating the last bowl of that food and seeing those friends one more time.

It will be hard to leave.

Most of the time, I am not so bad with goodbyes, because I never feel that it will be “for ever” – a globalised world means that I can keep in touch with the people who matter, and I can see them if we are ever in close proximity again.

However, leaving Vietnam will feel different. Many of the people I know here might never travel, or even own a passport. I feel that unless I return to Vietnam, I truly might not ever see them again. Luckily, they all have Facebook…

So, lovely Hanoi, you are succeeding. I will miss you. But first, I am getting all I can out of the next two months!

Cycling the Mountains 5 May 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Life, only in Vietnam, Traffic, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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Last weekend, I went with a friend into the mountains to see a part of Vietnam that I had already seen, but in a way that I have been wanting to see it since I have arrived.

Disclaimer: I am Dutch. I like bicycles. How stereotypical.

When I was 12, my family went on a cycling holiday (riding from our house to the boat, take a boat to Germany (Kiel) and then cycle through the north of Germany to the Netherlands, covering around 50 – 60 km a day).

Many members of my family cycle for sport, transport and fun.

Several uncles, aunts, and cousins have racing bikes and cycle a lot, including for competitions.

My uncle decided that upon retirement (64 years old) he would join a tour from Istanbul to Beijing, riding a bicycle the whole way. What an awesome thing to do, right?

So I have a very romantic notion of bikes. I have been wanting to explore Vietnam on a bike. But I have not had the guts or the company to try (my partner is more into the motorbikes, which I admit are good fun, and faster, too).

So when my friend called and said that there was a spot that opened up on a tour that she was signed up for, I realised this would probably be my only chance! And having a follow vehicle made it a very good, easy first try, to see if I would even enjoy it.

Friday, we left on the overnight train for Lao Cai.

Once arrived, we were served breakfast, and loaded into the bus to Can Cau (120 km north) to see the local market with the Flower H’Mong. We then cycled back to Bac Ha (about 20 km) which was mostly downhill trough beautiful countryside.

That afternoon, we cycled with our guide through the countryside surrounding Bac Ha, and seeing a local village nearby. (Total of about 6 km).

The weather was glorious, slightly overcast, dry, warm but not hot nor humid.

Sunday, we explored the Bac Ha market (which I have blogged about before), had breakfast, and then set off back to Lao Cai.  By Lunch, I sent my partner a giddy message that I had already done 45 km, and only had 26 to go. The first 30 of those had been mostly downhill, and I only got nearly killed by oncoming traffic once.

After lunch (at some random food stall along the way with a marvellous spread of awesome, wholesome Vietnamese food, which we knocked back in no time) we continued, and about 10 km out from Lao Cai we stopped for pine apples, loaded up the bikes onto the truck, and did the rest of the (more busy) roads in the safety of the car. We stopped off at the river crossing to China to take a photo of us standing in front of China, which was pretty nifty, and obviously a very popular thing to do.

Conclusion? I loved it. But next time, I would want to do it without the guide, as it was like travelling with someone on a schedule, and I often felt pressure to keep going even when I wasn’t ready to.

But what an amazing way to see the country side. Half of the people we encountered smiled and waved. The other half were wondering why on earth we would want to ride a bicycle.

Most of the locals were so welcoming and friendly! A young girl, maybe around 14, decided to ride and chat with us in Vietnamese for a while. Most of them had never seen foreigners that spoke a word of Vietnamese, which was amazing. One lady looked so proud and happy that we had taken the time to learn her language, she clasped her hands together in front of her chest and just asked me lots of questions, then hardly charged us any money for what we wanted to buy.

It was a wonderful adventure, and even though I only rode 80 something kilometres over two days, it is something I really enjoyed doing, and wouldn’t mind doing more of…

Now I just need to convince my boy that he should come with me next time.