Thursday, May 27, 2010

Hoi An Revisited

After a year and many travels, Daphne and I got on a train in Saigon and came back to the place where we took our first trip together, Hoi An. We left Sunday evening after teaching my last class and rode for fifteen hours through the night and morning. There were four beds in our cabin, but after the first stop the other two occupants got off and we had the place to ourselves for the rest of the trip. The train itself contained no new technology that it couldn't have been built in the 1920's and the rooms reminded us somewhat of a jail cell in their style. Having said that, it was by no means run down or dirty and the trip itself was smooth. The rhythmic sound of the tracks below us were meditative and the trip didn't feel as long as it was, except that Daphne managed to finish reading The Good Earth.

When we got into town that afternoon, we decided to avoid another headache hunting hotels and went straight to the same hotel we were at last time we were here, Thanh Binh III. The power was out and the sounds of generators were humming in the streets. Rainy season is slow to start this year and being that half the power in Vietnam is hydroelectric this means that scheduled power cuts are a norm, even in Saigon. Amazingly, the clerk at the front desk of the hotel remembered us and gave us a good rate on our room. Hoi An beats the rest of Vietnam when it comes to hotel rates for value of accomodations.

The following morning, our friend Melanie, who sings at the Hyatt in Saigon, came to join us for a day. We decided to do the walking tour of the Old Town again with her, which was fine because there was a lot we hadn't seen the first time around. For one thing we found a local government building devoted to gathering swallows nests for the use in a popular Chinese dish, Bird's Nest Soup. I haven't tried it myself, but I hear its good.

[And you complained that your government had too many bureaucracies]

[Birds' Nests]

Also, now that I could find it, we got to see the folk performance that we had come in late to last time we were there. It was quite charming, though short.

[Supposedly, this dance is about fishing, but I think its a metaphor for an old man who wants two young women]

[These bars mark the flood line of every flooding season. Last year looked pretty bad]

[Boy showing off his water puppet. Me showing off my photoshop]

We had agreed to save the shopping for later when it cooled down and we were done sightseeing, but it didn't stop Melanie from leading us into every shop along the way, which is pretty much every building. Even I spent a Dong or two on gifts. Later, we went to a tailor to get some clothes made. The tailor we had last time was gone, but fortunately we found a new tailor at Trinh 95 who did fantastic work for cheap. Daphne even designed a pair of pants of her own imagination that came out looking great.

The next morning, we left early for the beach since Melanie had to leave us at noon. When she did leave, we spent the rest of the day there.

The beach had gotten more crowded and loud since the last time we were there. Not as bad as the beaches in Thailand or [god forbid] Vung Tau, but not as good as we remembered. Plus, they were setting up for some rock concert that evening which, by the sound of things, wasn't going to impress.

On the way back to town, wanting to find some new ways to experience Hoi An, we stopped by The Sleepy Gecko where an Aussie guy, Steve, runs motorbike tours through the nearby countryside. We signed up for one two days later and then Daphne, who was in yoga withdraw, asked if there was anywhere where we could practice. Steve gave us direction to An Bang beach, which turned out to be closer and less visited than the better known beach of Cua Dai, and told us to talk to Sam at La Plage.

The next day, we decided to check out An Bang and were pleasantly surprised by how few people were there. There were a few seafood huts set up, as well as an Aussie bar called Phattie's on one end and the more chill themed La Plage on the other.

When Daphne asked Sam about the yoga classes, Sam told her that she doesn't teach the class but instead just does free practice with dvd's and a tv outside. Upon hearing this, of course, Daphne offered her services, free of charge, to teach a class the upcoming Sunday. And with these plans laid out, we went to the sand and laid out for the second full day in a row on the beach. The water was so clear that we could see that this time there were jellfish everywhere, where as last year there weren't. Our stay in the water was always limited to the first jellyfish sighting, at which point Daphne was ready to get out until the memory of it faded and we were back in again. The solitude of the beach during the day was great and as the sun went low, locals started coming, setting up mats and makeshift sun-shields to block the last rays. They swam in their clothes and food was cooked and sold not ten feet from the water.

[We're taught to wait 30 minutes after eating before we swim?]

[Beach Boys]

And, just like last year, the sun said its last goodbyes with a light shower and a rainbow.


The next day, we went to the Sleepy Gecko to do our motorbike trip. I was a bit disappointed that I had to drive an automatic motorbike and only became more so when I found out what the trip demanded out of it. The majority of our party for the trip was made up of funny old Aussie men who can't tell a story without making a joke out of it and being as indirect as possible with giving honest details about their lives. Aussies would make excellent spies.

The trip started simply enough with a countryside drive. Steve showed us some farms, taught us about what was planted, how its done, how they fish, etc. Then, he took us to a small canteen and proceeds to give us beers, rice wine[note:wine read 'vodka'], and snake wine, where in a snake is put into the jar that holds the rice wine.

After ensuring that everyone had a good buzz, he leads us to an area that is heavily flooded for farming and then makes us drive across several rickety bamboo bridges that look like something Indiana Jones would struggle with. Fortunately, no one was hurt though we're told that it happens. A few of those later he took us to see how they make beach mats and the women let us have a go at the weaving process. I was a natural, Daphne did...alright.

For the climax of the trip, Steve took us to a secluded beach where we had a short dip. For the finale, we then had to drive along the coast, on the sand, in our less than capable motorbikes. Needless to say this was no easy task, especially with two people on a bike and especially on an automatic Yamaha. We must have driven one kilometer before we got to the road again, by which time we were completely drained and ready for a cold beer. We were so wiped out though, that we were in bed that night by 9.

[The catch of the day]

The next day was my birthday! We rented a bike and, since we had only seen one of the Marble Mountains the last time we were there, we drove out to see the other four that we missed. We found when we got there that the other mountains had a lot less attractions than the main one, so after visiting two of them we aimed our sights at the mountain called Monkey.

To get to Monkey, we had to drive 20 km up the coast of Danang, the third largest city in Vietnam, which was lined with empty beaches and massive would be resorts that were waiting for the coming tourist boom. Monkey had only one finished road and it was all uphill. It took most of the remaining gas to get to the top. The winding road was hypnotic and we had to pop our ears several time for the quick changes in elevation. At the very top was a government complex that had two big white domes on a couple of their buildings. The place looked like something from an old Bond movie and we were turned away at the gate, never knowing what the place was for anyways. Just below that there was a lookout point where we could overlook the South China Sea and get a temporary reprieve from the sun.

The way back we did with the engine off, since it was all down hill and I was low on. In fact, I ran out of gas right in front of a gas seller on the street shortly after we got off the mountain. On the way back, we stopped in to Phatties at An Bang beach for a seafood lunch and a couple of beers.

[Daphne stole a fedora]

After being undercharged for unknown, and uninvestigated, reasons we headed back to the hotel for a shower and out on the town for some wining and dining.

Not surprisingly, we spent our last day on the beach again, worn out from two days of adventuring.

[They are very serious about their boat]

At sunset, we set out some yoga mats at La Plage and Daphne led a class with me and three, much more capable, women.

It quickly turned into a spectator sport, as a crowd of locals, tourists and even dogs came to watch us. I earned a lot of laughs from the locals.

[These kids show off their own skills while we practice]

Our last morning, we took a last swim in the hotel pool before heading to the train station. The train doesn't arrive into Saigon until 5am the next day.

And here, a sadness, for this was to be Daphne's last day in Saigon. Those that read of our first trip to Hoi An may be experiencing a deja vu, for again she left for Singapore and again with no promise of return[well...maybe a hint]. The reasons I won't get into. I'll only say that it was not for a lack of love on either of our part but instead had to do with those nitty gritty details of our lives that no amount of love can erase. And so, once again we say goodbye.

[And we wait]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Some short boops about stuff that happened while I wasn't blogging. I'll be back to the original format soon.

The time the rain came. Six months of dry skies, we're sitting at Lam Cafe, sharing a chocolate banana pancake and drinking a couple rhum lemons. We stare out into the street as we see drops of rain coming down. The drops turn into a downpour in no time, signaling the beginning of Vietnam's rainy season. An American expat cheers the rain but then gives everyone the news: its going to flood, and there will be cockroaches. Then rats. True to his word, the water level was six inches high in mere moments and cockroaches started making there way into the cafe, the staff swinging their brooms at the archway and pouring boiled water onto them. One rat makes a dash inside, hiding behind the drink fridge. The whole time the American's hooting and hollering to his friends, drunk less so on booze than he was on Saigon.

Getting Daphne's bike fixed. Daphne's telling the mechanic his sudden price hikes are unreasonable. She points at her scar and at the bike damage and says, 'same accident! you said less!' As she repeats the word 'accident' for the third time, a woman instantly crashes her bike right in front of the bike shop. We decide to go to another mechanic.

Educating. After doing a reading about a blind marriage that led to divorce. One of my fifteen year old students says that divorce is very bad for the woman. Why? Because then she's no longer a virgin. I tell my student that in the West, chances are slim that she was a virgin when she got married in the first place. I observe his fifteen year old brain exploding behind his eyes.

Trip to Vung Tau. Vietnamese Freedom Day we take the hydrofoil to Vung Tau, the closest beach to HCMC. So did the rest of Saigon. After going to what was supposed to be a cleaner and quieter beach nearby, Long Hai, we found it to be just as crowded as Vung Tau and the ocean fortified with floating trash from one end of the beach to the other. In Vung Tau we try to get a place to stay but everywhere appears to be booked[which is what we should have done before going]. One place that is available and nice is $60 for the night. Thinking it too steep, we decide to go inland to the guesthouses, only to find that some of them cost even more. We head back to the $60 place, but the room is no longer free. I decide that if we're going to spend that much money then we should get more value instead of overpaying for four walls and a bed. We settled in the very cozy Royal Hotel for $100, enjoying a comfortable bed, good breakfast and spending all of the next day by the pool. For us, there's always a silver lining beyond the ring of floating trash.

Educating II. One of my students shows me a neat trick with the VN Dong bill. You can fold it so that it looks like Uncle Ho is smiling or scowling depending on how you hold it.

Books. There aren't enough of them in English. Just photocopied stuff for backpacking hipsters. Alchemist, Life of Pi, Bill Bryson, etc. When I come back from the States I'll be lugging back a suitcase of just books.

Waterpark. We spent the day at the waterpark with some of my coworkers from school. Favourite ride was one that looked like a toilet bowl. Its the first place I've seen where the Vietnamese obey the queue, which they don't even do at the airport. Also, its the most shaded water park I've ever seen. Fun times were had.

Educating III. My students don't know what Communism is. 'You are,' I tell them. Though the more I live here the more I realize that Vietnam is actually the most Capitalist country I've ever been to.

Vietnamese and sunlight. Many Asians prefer being pale, but the relationship between the Vietnamese and the sun borders on phobia. Although its 37 C outside, they're still running around fully covered in jeans, sweaters, stockings, gloves, masks and conical hats. I see some covering their heads with a jacket as they run through the street, as if they were avoiding getting their hair wet from the rain and not blocking the sun. But what really takes the cake is their behaviour at the traffic light. Instead of waiting behind the white line they instead will line up as much as 50 metres further back where there is shade. On one such occasion, I had seen a man stop at the white line just as the light turned red, he then proceeded to inch his way back on his motorbike slowly towards the shade some 15 metres back. Just as he makes it away from the sun, that's when the light turns green. I laughed out loud as I sped away.

Education IV. Category game. Name a genius. Student:"Hitler?" Me: Jaw on the linoleum floor. My students explain that they learned in history that Hitler and Napolean were brilliant leaders[Daphne also had a student once who said he admired Hitler]. I checked with my students to see if they were aware of the bad things he did, which, thankfully, they were, but they were still convinced that he was a great leader and it seems that his skills in leadership have made him a suitable role model here in Vietnam. Instead of arguing against his political abilities I chose to put things in perspective for them. "A good leader doesn't conquer for greed, he leads those that want to be led. Vietnam has been invaded many times by people who did not have Vietnamese interests at heart, Chinese, Japanese, French, Americans, and they were all beaten away because they weren't wanted here and only came for themselves. That's why Hitler was defeated. That's why Napolean was defeated. If they were truly geniuses, they wouldn't have lost because they would have never put their noses where they weren't wanted." This finally got nods from my students, who at first could only reply to my questions by saying, "that's what they told us in school." Days like this make me happy to be a teacher. Days like this also worry me though.

I call Daphne for lunch. She was supposed to meet me in front of the school to show her bike to an interested buyer. On the phone she says,"I'm around the corner at the wonton noodle place." "Why aren't you here?" "I don't have my bike with me. I got stopped by the police." This is bad news because Daphne, like myself, doesn't have a license. Meaning that her bike can be taken away for one month and to get it back she has to get a license and pay a 500,000VND fine[27USD]. So I meet her at the wonton place and ask for the full story: She did an illegal turn and got pulled over, the cop grilled her, and then let her go with a warning and nothing more. Yes, Daphne had punked me. Although, she did not tell a lie on the phone, she told it as it was, her bike wasn't there[it was still at work] and she had indeed been pulled over, the two just weren't related. She stopped laughing, however, when I told her that I already told the prospective buyer that there was no more bike for him to see.

Monday, May 3, 2010


[Part five in a series on Vietnamese food]

Bakeries are alive and well in Vietnam and while most of the shelf space is wasted by gaudy looking birthday cakes or moon cakes during the Moon Festival, there are also some that carry some rather tasty, uniquely Asian delights. Here is our favourite place:

Moon cakes are a traditional Chinese pastry that usually combines savoury and sweet fillings as well as a salted egg yolk to represent the moon. These are given as gifts during the fall Moon Festival and most people I've met don't like them. Some are better than others, perhaps chicken filling is a better choice than clams?

[Moon Cakes]

Other sweet pastries line the shelves with fillings such as red bean, lotus seed, black sesame, and dried fruits, to just name the ones I like, and many of them follow the Moon Cake tradition by having a salted egg yolk in the middle.

[I would NOT recommend the Choco-Pies on the top shelf]

[My favourite, top shelf, half red bean half lotus seed filling]

Daphne wouldn't forgive me if I didn't mention the egg tarts and cream puffs that are behind the cake counter. Also very yummy, and also her favourites.


[Part four in a series on Vietnamese food]

If you have sensitive tastes when it comes to food, Vietnam might not be the place for you. Although I have met people here who can't eat shellfish or are vegetarians, without the language it can be quite difficult to stay faithful to your dietary piques. Asking for no meat still won't ensure that the broth isn't meat based or that the water spinach isn't cooked in fat.
However, I have found this amazing gem in District 4 that serves exclusively vegan food to an all Vietnamese clientele.

Now, I'm probably the furthest thing from a vegan you'll find[I ate duck fetus a month ago] but Daphne and I became regular visitors to this establishment for its amazing variety of unique and delicious foods we couldn't find anywhere else. Located near a few Buddhist monasteries, its purpose is likely to cater to the neighbourhood's monk population, though I had a feeling that the majority of the customers, like us, just came to eat something tasty.

[This is what tasty food looks like]

Banh Mi

[Third Part in a series on Vietnamese food]

The mark of the French is not only found in the yellow-walled villas and a few street names that escaped being patriotically changed, but also shows up in some of Vietnam's mainstream cuisine. Coffee culture aside, you can't go far without running into a baguette[banh mi] sandwich stand. Fillings and price vary, usually containing paté with some fresh vegetables and some kind of meat. If you're not in a rush, its worth your time to stop for a banh mi op la served hotplate style.

[Our favourite banh mi lady wearing her traditional Vietnamese pj's]

First, they'll cut up some small Vietnamese deli meats. On a hotplate, an egg is cracked and then joined by several meats, fish cake...


And then served with a banh mi similar to French baguettes but airier, some soy and chili sauce and a plate of vegetables.

It takes skill to pack everything into one baguette. I recommend saving the cucumbers for last, as they are cleaner on the hand and keep the mess fairly contained.

Bon appetit.