Monday, May 29, 2017

Book Review: 'The Green Metropolis' and HCMC

David Owen’s amazingly prescient and clear-eyed book from 2009, The Green Metropolis, deconstructs exactly what city planners, environmentalists, and the general population get right about cities… and what they get very, very wrong.

His book offers staggeringly simple reasons to rethink how we approach the twin questions of:

  1. “Are cities good or bad for the environment?” and
  2. “Cars… OMG?”
His answers boil down to:

  1. Very, very, very good, and
  2. Yes, cars, OMG.

His arguments, citing a veritable mountain of statistical evidence laid bare in his clear, concise writing, chronicles the rise, fall, rebirth, and future of human cities since the invention of the automobile. He argues that these high-density urban environments are not only more environmentally green, but actually shift the entire conversation from cars and drivers back to fundamental quality-of-life issues for all humans, from the very young to the elderly, and how best to satisfy them.

Owens’ three basic themes are clear: live smaller, live closer, and drive less.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Tib Chay Restaurant: Upscale and Affordable Central Vietnamese Vegetarian

Tib Chay restaurant in Ho Chi Minh’s District 1 is a fine choice for getting your Central Vietnamese vegetarian food fix! Check it out – colorful, flavorful, and reasonably priced.

One of the best things (out of many, many best things!) about eating in Vietnam is the incredible variety. While it may be occasionally difficult to find street food that is truly vegetarian (for example, fish is not considered a meat), a huge chunk of the population is Mahayana Buddhist, and one of the traditions is eating vegetarian on the 1st and 15th days of the lunar month. As a result, there are a fair amount of prominent vegetarian restaurants, from cheap to expensive, that serve exclusively veg food any time of the month. Sometimes you just can’t with the pork again, you know?

Slightly off the beaten path, Tib Chay revels in the royal traditions of Central Vietnamese food. Central Vietnamese cuisine is distinct from the Northern or Southern traditions, and centered around Hue. This ancient city was the home of the last Vietnamese royal dynasty, and the food reflects the court: sophisticated and colorful. Dishes are often defined by their small size and elaborate preparation.

Our main dish (seen above) was the house rice, served with veggies and lotus seeds. I’m not usually a fan of anything culled from the lotus plant, but these seeds are an exception to the rule. The vegetables were juicy and well seasoned.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Musicality of Vietnamese Tones

Daily conversation in Vietnam "resembles the singing of birds", wrote Alexandre de Rhodes.

Vietnamese tones are one of the most complicated aspects of Vietnamese language to understand, hear, and speak for foreigners, especially those not used to singing.

Take it from me! I've actually quit Vietnamese lessons twice before I got to this current point - tones and weird vowels plus a very relaxed dialect in the South have made it exasperating at times to speak and, especially, hear. Fortunately, I've been able to grasp a little more this time around, which I attribute entirely to simply living around and among Vietnamese for almost 4 years.

One of the keys to my (limited) success in the language is that I've changed how I think about tones.

In my mind, there are two components to nailing tones: mental and physical. You need to think in them and feel them (hey, here are my acting class lessons coming back again!).

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Introduction: Laos, Top to Bottom (January 2016)

Last January, I went to Laos with my friend Mariana. This is the introduction to a series of posts about my trip (links to the series will follow at the bottom of each post, including this one, as I publish them).

Really, the first thing I have to say is: WOW. It's a beautiful country, and I daydream about being here often! Especially the North... sigh. 🙏

Even here in Vietnam, countries that are neighbors for a loooooong stretch of border, I rarely hear anything about Laos, or see any Laotian people. It was a black hole in my knowledge of the region. I was very interested in comparing my experiences in Laos to experiences in the Philippines, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I wanted the food, the nature, and the culture, and I got all three in spades.

We visited the North and the South (leaving out some of the Center, sadly, due to time), and experienced a country rich with tradition and history, just beginning to bloom on the international ecotourism stage... all while dealing with ghosts of the past and pressing modern concerns.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Country as Kin: Personal Pronouns in Vietnamese Society

"tweet tweet bitches, bow down!"
In American English, we use a set of pronouns to talk about people and animals, generally regardless of age, position, experience, whatever.

Vietnamese is... a little different.

One seriously unusual highlight of this country is that, even over the course of a 1,000+ years of occupation and struggle (the Chinese, the French, the Americans and Australians), Vietnamese are STILL quite recognizably Vietnamese. Their food is not Chinese food, their language is not French (although, thanks to Alexander de Rhodes, Vietnamese written language uses the Roman alphabet and is vastly improved from the original Sino-influenced script). And, while some in the South might act more cosmopolitan than their Northern brethren, the country remains solidly Vietnamese in many, many aspects.

One possible factor in this cultural longevity and tenacity could be the important functions provided by personal pronouns in the Vietnamese language. In them, we find the basic foundations of Vietnamese society.

Read on for my meditation on that most unlikely of subjects, the humble Personal Pronoun...

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

He's Come Undone (33rd-Year Edition)

I can't articulate WHY... but this speaks to me.
Real talk.

For a while in 2016, it indeed looked like I'd come undone. A better metaphor is that it was like being unmoored and lost at sea.

Unmooring a vessel means to lift up the anchor and release ties to the dock, releasing it to the weather, the sea, and the skill of the crew. It's always the start of any journey, and no ship leaves dock without a destination. I unmoored myself from Chicago when I left to travel abroad. The thing about journeys is that, when you have a stated end goal, your journey will end in either success or failure.

In other words, becoming unmoored is the first step to achieving your dreams. However, being unmoored is also the first step in getting truly lost.

This year, I ran into some headwinds at sea.

I had a series of jobs that I didn't like. I felt like my real talents were going to waste, but wasn't always able to articulate those talents in a way that made sense, to myself or employers. I attempted to start a few businesses, and was marginally successful in one of them. I got a job I loved, and then got fired from when I demanded a contract (oof, disheartening - she operated in America, FYI). I followed a lot of irrational hope, in hindsight.

In the meantime, all my internal plans were in disarray.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Nuong BBQ, Meaty Kinds

My absolute favorite: octopus with spring onions
and green chili sauce!
You can't walk far in HCMC without tripping over a restaurant full of people sitting around tables, open flames lighting up the cluster of beer bottles. It's a magical thing.

Roasting meats and vegetables over a flame evokes some of our most base food instincts. It's comforting... it smells like survival. (Check out this great Smithsonian article "Why Fire Makes Us Human"). It also just plain smells AWESOME.

I have always been a bit of a pyromaniac. I love building fires, cooking, and gathering around them in the cool evening.

Evenings aren't so cool here in Vietnam... but the principle is the same! They're a way to gather with family, share the kill, and mingle over an invention that literally changed our very nature, in rich communion with our fellow humans.

Also, of course, BBQ is just plain great!