Monday, December 30, 2013

A Tale of Two Le Pubs

Garlic Butter Fries -
a real thing that was brought to our table.
As I believe the Bard so eloquently phrased it...:

Two le Pubs, of unequal dignity,
In fair Saigon, where we lay our scene,
From Vi'tnamese to gastro mutiny,
Where mango shakes are mostly cream.
From forth the kitchens of these two foes
Two pairs of entrees stake their claim;
Whose mismanaged qual'ty overthrows
their chances at glory 'n fame.
The downing of their soggy chips,
And sides of server apathy,
Which, but for our cries, nought could fix,
Made dining out an agony;
Now if you with patient ears attend,

With what I write, your dining plans mend.

Strangely, there are two different restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City called le Pub. I thought perhaps they were two branches of the same restaurant - nope! Totally separate restaurants, and there are a lot of differences lurking behind the label (even though they have very similar logos!).

Let's start with le Pub in District 3 - closer to my house, and closer to my idea of a grown-up restaurant.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Buckaroo Ben in the Street Food Dimension, Part Deux

I've been told by many locals that street food is the way to get the real Vietnamese experience - restaurants are fine and all, but if you want to eat like a Viet, you eat on the street.

This edition brings another dessert cup, a whole bunch of fried things, rice in all forms, and even a surprise cream puff. Did not expect the cream puff.

Here's my second round-up of treats from the streets. Enjoy!

Sticky Corn with Sweet Coconut Sauce
Average Cost: $.25 USD
Mandatoryness Level: Skip it
Best Attributes:

-It's traditional, but that doesn't make it acceptable to my western palette, even one that's been saturated in Vietnamese tastes for 7 months. Instant regret. Not even a rumbly tummy kept me from throwing this one away.

-The texture and taste of what is essentially creamed sweet corn with coconut sauce is just not my cup of tea.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Oh Nothing, Just My 1st Graders Singing Christmas Songs and Dancing

It's Christmastime in Vietnam!

Despite being a primarily Buddhist/Atheistic country, it's been a great surprise to learn and see first hand how much Vietnamese people TOTALLY DIG Christmas.

It's the lights. The tree. The songs. Santa. Decorations are everywhere, and people flock from all over the region to the area around the Notre Dame Cathedral in downtown District 1 to take dozens of facebook profile pictures in front of the decoration displays.

I anticipated a week like any other week, but from the traffic to the atmosphere, it's been a pleasant surprise.

To get into the spirit of the season, I've been singing Christmas songs with my first graders for several weeks. Although I'm pretty sure my ears will bleed if I ever hear Jingle Bell (sic) again, it was still pretty darn adorable.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Roommate Christmas in Vietnam!

Last Monday, my four roommates and I held our first ever tropical Christmas BBQ and House Decorating Bonanza! This should be a tradition everywhere. There's nothing like fire-crisped meat and vegetables, Christmas tunes, and strands of lights.

We each prepared or brought something, and ended up with a huge feast. Beers were enjoyed, ice water was had, and over the course of two hours we laughed, talked, drank, and ate.

While food was being prepared and the BBQ was being (painfully slowly) fired up, we also got out the scotch tape and set out holiday-ifying our place! It just wasn't the season without some crazy cheap ornaments, tinsel, and holiday lights, right?

Click on for pictures of our house, food, and the fun we had celebrating a Christmas far from our homes!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Gifts, Goodbyes, and Grub: Expenses Dec 16-22

Let me preface... it really can be cheap to live here, I promise you!

This week saw a lot of activity (besides me losing my voice). Multiple friends left Vietnam (hence, parties and meals!), I got a whole hell of a lot of house stuff accomplished, got more Christmas presents (still have to ship them, of course...), and had social engagements almost every night. 'Tis the Season! I addition to that gaping money wound, I also chose this week to present a donation to the English program at one of my schools and give a holiday tip to the maid. So much money... money hemorrhaging everywhere. Things to think about when I get to budgeting!

Click on for the details - even without rent this week, I spent a solid stack of real (USD!) bills.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What is Tet, and Why Am I Preparing For It?

The blog post pretty much says it all! What the heck is Tet, and with so much time off, why am I doing anything but laying around eating banh mi and re-watching Fringe?

So first, I guess:

What is Tet?

Tet is the Vietnamese lunar new year. It is considered the first day of spring in Vietnam and, because it's a lunar holiday, happens on a different date each year - usually the end of January and the beginning of February. While it's also celebrated in Cambodia, the tour books all say it's a pretty fun time to visit - very colorful. Staying in Vietnam for the Tet holiday is problematic for a couple reasons.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Quan Bui: The Restaurant That Could Cook No Wrong

This is one of those magical dining experiences where you go in knowing that everything you get is going to be basically perfect.

Unlike the banh xeo place, we have literally NOT FOUND a bad thing on the menu, and this is after eating here on an almost weekly basis for months. That's a pretty bold statement, but I'm pretty serious - this restaurant is on my "take every guest" list of places. No matter what we've gotten, big groups or small, not one person has ever said "...nahhhhhh."

That's a hard recommendation, nerds.

Quan Bui is a small restaurant in District 1 that specializes in traditional Vietnamese cuisine. Everything's made fresh to order and between the presentation, atmosphere, service, and flavor, I'm not sure that there's a quibble to be had.

From the moment you enter you know you'll be taken care of. You can sit on the ground floor or ascend the incredibly steep staircase to the first floor where an air conditioned room and an outdoor patio filled with plants await.

The minute you open the menu, though... you know you're going to have to do some soul searching to fulfill the particular craving you've got. For, I can guarantee it, if you've got a particular need in your soul, you can get that itch scratched here.

Since I really can't speak highly enough of the food, I'll let it do the talking this time. Click on for a photo album of (merely) the dishes I remembered to take pictures of before digging in!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Saigon Sights: À Ố Show at the Saigon Opera House

Wow, finally... a post about the theatre! A fitting choice for my 100th (!) post!

Theatre's usually a dress-up time for me - the closest thing I could manage after 12 hours in my work clothes was jeans and a snazzy bow-tie (I have LITERALLY been waiting since I got to Vietnam to pull out the bow-tie!!), but I shouldn't have worried. The house was packed with expats and visiting tourists in casual duds.

The visitors were there with good reason. The À Ố Show currently in residence at the Saigon Opera House brags that it's changing the guidebooks, and they're pretty much right on the money. That is no undeserved brag, my friends. This is an honest-to-god piece of art, and I enjoyed every second of it. If I hadn't seen it's artistic antecedents several times in America (Cirque du Soleil, you've gone and had a love child with Vietnam, didn't you?) I would have had absolutely no idea where this came from.

As it turns out, the show was a blast. My inner theatre professional thought it was practically perfect in every way - funny, moving, beautiful, well-designed, well-choreographed and executed, thoughtfully-conceived, and an all around pleasure!

Click through for pics, the Opera House, and my thoughts...

Monday, December 16, 2013

Shopping and Rent: Expenses December 9-15

I made a number of financial decisions this week, and I spent an absolutely insane amount of money.

For one thing, I decided to pay ahead on my rent (~$150) in order to prepare for my Cambodia trip next month - slowly getting used to the paid-once-a-month model.

I also bought a lot of things for our house! I got an amazing set of tables and chairs for the terrace, and it looks awesome - I think the porch is finally done. It's so peaceful and nice out there!

I just finished a picture frame project for the 5th floor, and I bought some christmas lights and decorations - I couldn't help myself! I also bought some things for the BBQ grill and got a bucket to make watering the plants easier (now that it's the dry season, especially important). Lots of house stuff.

I also have some friends coming in late December, so that entailed new pillows, sheets, and an air mattress for them.

Click through for the gory details of my money-drenched week...

Psycho Asian Comfort Food: Sweet Sriracha Pancakes with Maple Soy Dipping Sauce

I'm trying to figure out what the line down the center of this picture is... 
Man, cravings! Sometimes they hit, and you can't be held responsible for what happens when you satisfy those needs.

It was recently One Of Those Nights, and I was feeling hungry and kitchen-adventurous. Talk about cravings - here's all my cravings, rolled into one weird little dish that was fun to make and eat.

The pancakes don't have any further butter on them. I used my fingers to rip them up and dip a little bit in the sauce I made. I suppose you could pour it on, but a little goes a long way, in my opinion.

That said, if you've got a good twist on this for my next pancake outing, holler back! Aito thought maybe bacon in the pancake would be good. I must agree with him - perhaps next time. (UPDATE: IT WAS GREAT).

Read on for my "recipe" and some pictures!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

And Now For a Word From Our Sponsors...

A couple weeks ago I came into my first primary school of the day to be greeted by this nonsense. There was a massive promotional push to get kids to drink a particular brand of Vietnamese milk (Dutch Lady) happening this morning.

Because I have to walk through the courtyard to park my bike in the rear of the school, I had to navigate it past maybe a thousand children playing with the mascots, getting pictures taken, and generally running amok because there was some kind of change in their schedule.

You remember how fun changes to the school day were when you were little? It was crazy! All bets were off when things didn't follow the normal day! And it always felt so great to bust out of the routine. This was like a mixture concert, basketball contest, circus, and toy giveaway, and it was totally crazy.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Mentally Mapping the City

I never appreciated what I had in Chi-town.
God bless you, grid system.
"Where in the twisted hell am I??"

is something I find myself saying pretty much every week, whether it's because I'm lost in some maze of alleys or because I've just realized that I'm living and working in Vietnam (both can be equally disorienting). Let me try to give my definitive answer on locating myself in space and time* here...

I never really knew Chicago until I biked it. The same holds true for Saigon. This time, however, I've got a few extra cc's under me!

Sure, I took public transportation all over Chicago prior to biking, but it was always a passive, stare-out-the-window kind of knowing. It wasn't until I had to navigate and triangulate my position on two wheels in motion that I truly felt I knew where I was, and how I'd get to where I wanted to go. It was a good feeling.

A similar process of knowing is happening here in HCMC, but the difference here is that the City is so massive and the map is so unpredictable, it would take years and years of non-stop exploration and practice to effectively know it all. Hell, even my taxi drivers don't know it all! When I took taxis, they often had to stop and ask another driver for directions. I stick to the places I need to get to, and add to my repertoire as I need to.

So that's something I've been doing in my spare time - figuring out just where in the sam hell I am...

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bánh Khọt Cô Ba Vũng Tàu: Breakfast for Dinner

lThis is probably the easiest review I'll write about a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh (UPDATE: Psych... no it wasn't). I know that going into it. The challenge will be how to look critical - as far as I know, these pancakes can do no wrong. They even cancel out the blatant misfires I've had - that good.

Bánh Khọt Cô Ba Vũng Tàu is my favorite bet in the city to get enormous rice pancakes filled with stuff. Delicious, delicious stuff. In fact, this is the only place where I allow myself to blatantly order things with seafood in them (damn you, The Gout!) and enjoy it - I don't really care if my toes hurt for a couple days afterwards. Totally worth it.

For those of you new to the Banh Xeo ("Bahn Say-Oh") party, the Southern version is a huge rice pancake filled with stuff, usually seafood, and made a nice toasty yellow with the addition of turmeric.

Since I'll never be able to make something like this dish at home (it takes a lot of ridiculously special equipment and training), I haven't bothered to find out the details. So bear with me as I take you through eating one of Vietnam's most surprising dishes...

Monday, December 9, 2013

4/5ths Of It Food: Expenses Dec 2-8

The first step to taming your spending is knowing where your money is going - and, three weeks in, I'm finally developing a picture.

Most of my money is going to food. This is fairly unsurprising - I mean, I really like food, and I'm in one of the food capitals of the world. There is literally food everywhere. Go half a block and you'll meet at least one street food vendor.

I should note that for this spending/tracking experiment, I'm just spending money like I normally would here. It's probably true that I curtail it a little bit (you can't observe something without changing it!) since I'm keeping such close tabs on it, but for the most part I'm letting myself run willy nilly.

Because my long-term money goals are ambitious (for me, at least), my next step after collecting data will be to create a budget that allows me to have fun and live a comfortable (delicious) life while also saving substantial portions of my income (hopefully in a way that lets me remit it to the US). Look for my first budget experiment in January 2014!

But for this week... my god, 83.3% of my weekly expenditures on food?!:

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Saigon Sights: Lâm viên Cần Giờ (Monkey Island)

District Can Gio.
Recently it was the most glorious holiday (TEACHER'S DAY!) and I was able to rearrange my office hours to take a much-needed trip outside of the city - fresh air, fewer people, fewer bikes, nature... and monkeys.

So many monkeys. And so many pictures!

You can see the map of Cần Giờ District (yes, still part of Ho Chi Minh City, crazily!) that we traveled to. Our destination was Lâm viên Cần Giờ (Cần Giờ Forest Park), in the southern region - almost as far south as you can go while staying both on land and in HCMC's expansive boundaries.

Lâm viên Cần Giờ is a designated UN Biosphere Reserve, recognized as such for the best practices exhibited by the Vietnamese government in regrowing the massive and extensive mangrove forests following the destruction of over 80% of the total biomass through American gas attacks during the Vietnam War. Today, the area is a quiet haven for thousands of monkeys (called a troop!), a group of crocodiles (called a float!), and a beautiful and calm alternative to the endless shouting, honking, bustling throngs of Ho Chi Minh City.

It's picture slideshow time!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Teacher's Day 2013

Teacher's Day!!!

Was there ever a holiday so fantastic?! Vietnam holds an annual national holiday recognizing the hard work of (and low pay of most) teachers every year, and this year it landed on Wednesday, November 20th. Both of my schools cancelled classes and I got my office hours moved to Friday - the better to go to Monkey Island with!

On this day, kids sing songs, dance dances, and shower teachers with all sorts of presents, cards, and cash. Parents and administrators alike seemed to take this 'gift' thing to heart, as you'll see below. I got an absolutely unnecessary amount of gifts - honestly I just love interacting with my kids. That's usually reward enough... but this did not hurt one tiny bit!

Here's one of my photo album posts - just to explain how big a deal this is, here's a set of some of the craziest parts of this fun day (and indeed, whole week). If you're thinking of teaching in Vietnam, I guess I'd say this was an endorsement!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Cost of Smartphones in Vietnam

This is $10 of minutes that I purchased at
my local convenience store.
"How much does your phone cost?"


"How do you use a phone there?"

These are fairly common questions I get, and I think it's worth a response simply because the system here is so unlike the system we have at home in the US - it took a bit of a learning curve (and I still have questions!) to familiarize myself.

RECAP: So basically, in America, you don't have to bear the entire cost of a new smartphone because they are subsidized by the carriers. In return, you're limited to their network and most likely locked into a long, expensive, two-year contact, paying anywhere from $50-100 - or more - to provide that phone with service and whatever internet packet you've signed up for.

The system in much of the rest of the world is different. I recently bought a secondhand smartphone (my very first capable smartphone!!) and, having lived the dream for a couple months, want to tell you all about it.

Read on for numbers and money, and to learn how much your phone plan sucks!

Monday, December 2, 2013

More Gas, Please: Expenses Nov 25 - Dec 1

My second week of formally tracking every single "cent" I spend is off to a good start, and I'm starting to notice things that I had no idea were happening. I love budgets.

I've had good money news this week - I get paid once a month (CRAZY, I KNOW) and I've learned that my probation period at work is over. I'll notice several changes:
  1. Taxes reduced from 20% to 10%
  2. A fixed salary every month, no matter what
  3. A higher salary
THESE ARE GREAT THINGS!! Hopefully this will allow me to start putting much more away, now that my big ticket items are purchased (phone, bike). I'm looking forward to seeing much more money remitted to the US in these little posts in the upcoming months!

Things I've learned this week: