Thursday, April 9, 2015

Psycho Asian Comfort Food: Crepes, All Kinds

This was not my recipe, but they awakened a fire in my belly....
a fire that can only be quenched by... more crepes (and better cheese).
One of the single best benefits of having roommates from all corners of the world is a chance to mash up cuisines, creating new, and occasionally wonderful, dishes in the process.

American society contains an embarrassment of riches in the form of cultures from all over the world. I talk about Chicago a lot when people ask me about food, because it's such a very interesting example of mixing and matching, as well as just a all-out-amazing foodie town. Chicago's socio-ethnic history informs modern neighborhoods in a real and visible way, and many neighborhoods exist as a living record of the last hundred years of people and cultures moving in and out of these 'hoods. The city is both a global food experiment, and completely & utterly Chicago and midwestern in expression.

As for me? I know what I like, and I know that I'm a builder. Sometimes I get... mildly obsessed.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

October 1887: French Indochina and Vietnam's Amazing Literacy Rates

Look at these crazy stats! These are for youngsters;
they taper off a few percentage
points as age increases.
In October of 1887, France formally founded French Indochina, and with it solidified a path which would result in modern Vietnamese rates that are through the roof.


Wait, really?

Yes! But let's give credit where it's due: this story spans much more, from French Jesuit missionaries to a 8,000 word trilingual dictionary to a very recent (historically speaking) adoption of the entire written Vietnamese language.

Today's script is called Quoc Ngu, or "National Language," and is the national script of Vietnam. It's most interesting characteristic, beyond the tones inherited from it's Chinese history, are that it is in Roman characters and is pronounced phonetically! This makes it different in appearance from most other SE Asian languages, which generally looks like beautiful scribbling.

However, below the makeover it got in the 17th and 19th centuries, the grammar remains very similar to others in the regional language family (and the grammar is so easy it's almost comical, which probably also helps literacy).

In addition, literacy rates in Modern Vietnam are high. Like, really high. Per UNICEF's most recent data (2013), total adult literacy rate, 2008-2012, lies at a cool 93.4%. For youth it climbs even higher - 96.7% of Vietnamese females 18-25 are literate, and the males figure rests at 97.5%. These are STUNNING figures, and, if accurate (I'm not sure if that data was collected in-house by UNICEF or outsourced), are a serious achievement. We'll learn more about how these great literacy rates run up against the State Party and their media restrictions much later in this series, so keep these in the back of your mind.

To put this in perspective, America has an ongoing literacy crisis (as does much of the world, developed or no). 14% of American adults can't read. A ridiculous 19% of high school graduates cannot read. What. the. f*ck. (Yes, the problem is definitely unions, and not the fact that poverty shrinks your brain from birth. *eyeroll*) These numbers are from a US Department of Education paper published in 2013. If that doesn't break your brain, I don't know what will.

Ok, but backing away from the politics and back to the French (if I had a nickel)...

Friday, April 3, 2015

Market to Table: Banh Mi Op La

I need a new camera. And better dishes. And a kitchen with natural light.
Alarm goes off: It's 6am, once again.

Light is streaming in your windows and you can hear the sounds of the neighborhood waking up around you, making the most of the only part of the day that has both sunlight and fresh, cool air. It won't last.

If you could, maybe you'd roll over and go back to sleep until a more reasonable hour, but, just like everyone else, you know how hot it'll get by midday... but for now, the world is a beautiful, comfortable place. Might as well drag yourself out of bed!

Breakfast this morning needs to be the easiest thing you can handle - as little heat as possible, as much flavor as possible, and, preferably, under 10 minutes. And coffee.

Luckily for you, Banh Mi Op La is just about the least complicated homemade breakfast you could imagine. Come along, and learn how to make this incredibly simple and nourishing Vietnamese breakfast with me!

Honestly, it's so basic, I actually feel a little silly making this a blog post "recipe," but I'd personally never heard of it before I came here and I know you'll enjoy it. It was the first meal I had after I arrived in Vietnam and it's still my favorite breakfast (except for Bo Kho, maybe), precisely because it's so thoroughly easy to grok and how fast it is.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Tipping in Vietnam: A Focus on Service

Bottom line: do they light up your soul? Tip time.
My thoughts on tipping Vietnamese have evolved over the time that I've spent in this country.

At first, I followed the standard model of tipping I'd heard of from other expats: spas and barbers get a tip and everyone else can suck it, because who wants to upset the apple cart? Which, honestly, is kind of an jackass perspective, as virtually everything I'm paying for in a service setting is drastically cheaper than comparable experiences in developed countries.

Slowly, I've evolved to be more of a tipper (as I was in America, which I'm proud of)

Vietnam's epic and ambitious plans for achieving Developed Nation status are well-known and well-underway at this point and, perhaps surprisingly, there IS a minimum wage for Vietnamese.  However, this minimum wage applies to the entire country, which is still pretty darn agricultural and poor, relatively speaking. City wages might be at the federal minimum, but the costs of living in one of these major metropolitan areas (Hanoi, HCMC, Da Nang) is much higher than if you live out in the provinces, where a lower minimum wage might be enough. Young people come here to try and find themselves and new opportunities, and they can't succeed if they're earning subsistence levels of income. Everyone deserves to have enough cash to enjoy a smoothie with friends on Friday night, right? Let alone attending one of Saigon's many universities....

Getting good service is the standard in the south of Vietnam. And, generally, Southern Vietnamese are quite helpful and friendly (I have... other thoughts... about the few Hanoi residents I've met). If you encounter a situation where you have messy or outright terrible service, I trust you'll recognize that and tip accordingly (0.00 USD).

So what's the best way to approach service situations?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Saigon Sights: The Reunification Palace

The Reunification Palace is one of the most historically and architecturally interesting sights in HCMC, and it shows. It might not offer a lot of spectacle for the casual tourist, but inside it remains a perfectly preserved piece of mid-century Modern Vietnamese, from the open air party solon up top to the bunkers buried below, and it's stunning.

This beautifully modern building, unique in Vietnam, saw every historic event that occurred in South Vietnam from the date of the Geneva accord and the withdrawal of the French to the moment that Liberation forces crashed through the front iron gate on April 30, 1975, terminating the regime.

Let's take a tour through time and space!

This is the state banqueting hall. Banquets with up to 100 guests were held in this room. One of the most notable was the inauguration dinner of President Nguyen Van Thieu and his VP on October 31, 1967. The rooms gold color scheme was intended to create a convivial atmosphere.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

13 Haikus For the Elderly Woman Next Door

There's something about a stoic, silent figure that inspires the poetic in me. What is their mission? My neighbor is usually on her tiny balcony, watching over the alley. Unfortunately, I know little more than that. Here are some haikus I've constructed to help myself make sense of you, elderly Vietnamese neighbor grandma. A year and a half of enjoying you enjoying your little balcony has finally produced something.

Also, I'd been struggling to find a way to incorporate some modern and traditional art in my blog - taking pictures of art museums is pretty passe - and this presented an opportunity for me. Vietnamese art is the product of complex forces within Vietnamese culture and society, and these are a few of my favorites! There are a few galleries in Vietnam that deal art to international clients, which is where I've gotten most of these pictures of the works. Sadly, most are privately owned and my pictures of the art museum were pretty much crap.

And thank you for not calling the cops on our awesome stereo setup on the terrace, neighbor. (And that goes for anyone living in our vicinity who may be reading this, thank you!)

Xin cam on ba.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

192 A.D.: The Chams in the Land Before Vietnam

In my last post we heard a bedtime story about the origins of the Vietnamese people (TL;DR: Viets are spawn of a fairy and a dragon, who then got an amicable divorce and each took half the kids back to their parents' homes). This occurred in one of the earliest Vietnamese kingdoms, Dai Viet, which covered the area of current North Vietnam/South China.

Fast forward about 1,500 years and we encounter the Sa Huynh peoples, the forebears of the more culturally developed Chams. Scholars believe they were Malayo-Polynesian-speaking seafarers from Borneo, and this tendency to dominate the seas never completely left them as they founded what would become one of the regions' powerhouse governments, complete with major religions and early ideas of statecraft imported from the Indians. It was initially centered on the modern central Vietnam coast around Da Nang, although the sea unquestionably was their true dominion.

The Sa Huynh thrived and expanded from roughly 1,000 B.C. to the 2nd Century A.D., which is when we find the Cham peoples' distinctive culture flowering. Cham artifacts and ruins have been found on most of the western islands of the South China Sea (at that time known as the Cham Sea, because they know who's in charge), including the Sprately and Paracel islands, which we'll learn a bit more about much, much later in this series.

This is a very unique Champa sculpture that represents the nine gods (navagraha) associating planets to other deities, and was once worshipped. It's linked strongly to the Indian traditions of cosmology, and very common in India. Similar remnants have been found among the ancient Cambodian Khmer art. Taken at the HCMC History Museum of Vietnam.
Hinduism was imported early on in the kingdom's history from Indian merchants, and was followed later by Islam. Adherents of both religions also revered Cham kings and deities, as well as their ancestors, much like virtually all current-day Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese) do.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fly Cupcake Garden: Savory and Sweet

Welcome to... 

 photo flycupcake.jpg

Address: 25A Tu Xuong, Ward 7, District 3, HCMC
Hours: 9am-10pm
Parking: Motorbike Parking with the attendant on the sidewalk across the street, 5k

Drinks: Consistently great
Food: Snack, Lunch, Dinner, Dessert
Price Range: 20k-250k
Order This: Chanh Da Xay (Blended ice and lime juice, and surpsisingly salty!) and a Red Velvet cupcake

Ambience: Posh. Date Night. Great areas for groups big or small. Perfect for friends or co-workers. More of a place to go with people than to get work done.
Speak English: Yes
English Menu: Yes

Wifi Quality: Consistently spotty. Ask them to reset the router if you have problems
Plug Availability: Available near the smaller tables
Air Conditioning: Yes
Outside Area: Yes, Covered 

Bathroom Quality: Very Clean
Toilet Paper Available?: Yes

Overall Impressions:

A nice street-side garden with a vintage/handmade aesthetic right out of the Top Etsy Sellers page, this space opens up inside into a well-lit series of vaulted brick arches, pastels, and elegant patterns that can be seen reflected in the cupcakes on display, of which there are many!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Dressed to Kill in Hoi An, Courtesy of Ha Na Tailor

Red club! BTW Kat's shirt is an outline of Wisconsin with "curdlandia" written across it. LOVE IT.

In January I had what might be my most successful traveling stint of all time, with my sister and her best friend. Finding good travelin' buds be hard, amirite??

We were in sync in almost all things. Foods (all), bedtimes (early), fruit juices (again, all), music (OMG THIS ST. VINCENT ALBUM HOLY SMOKES), opinions regarding gazelles (majestic, obviously). It was a not really a surprise, though, that I was not really into the "let's make me new clothes!" thing, as we approached Hoi An - a city known globally as a custom clothier paradise. I'm not a clothes shopper on the best of days, and presented with unlimited choice? Well, that's just downright intimidating.


All it took was one carefully dropped hint from my sister, and I was off to the races, too (although I managed to spend several hundred USD less on dresses and blazers).

Click through to see the fantastic clothes we got, custom made by Ha Na Tailor!

[p.s. Please forgive the wretched photography. These beautiful women deserved better, but all they got was me and my iPhone 5 camera. haha!]

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Street Food V: The Fry-nal Frontier

TGI Fryday (AKA Tuesdays and Thursdays, specifically). And nope, haven't gotten tired of it yet! And yes, moderate moderation is practiced. These are dangerous waters for an overweight guy in his 30's! But this is science, people. All for science, and the edification of myself and gentlestrangers like you.

Frying has been around at least since the Romans, and very likely was a technique imported from ancient Egypt. Virtually every culture has some version of 'fried wholly or partly in oil/fat' - it helps prolong shelf life for meats and vegetables and satisfies natural cravings in our brain for salt and fat, things that were historically scarce in our diet. It's not very healthy, but also, if done properly, not an oil-soaked horror show (in the case of deep frying, the natural water content being superheated and expanding out of a piece of food repels oil naturally).

I've got my favorite stands around HCMC, and today... we're going on a little fried journey.

Monday, March 16, 2015

2,879 BC: Mythological Origins of the Vietnamese People

Welcome to my brand new series about Vietnam history, mashed up with modern Vietnamese issues and news! So much better than a dry (ha) description of soups, especially since I'll be talking a lot about food and food prep in the context of my Market To Table series (which is debuting this week!). This has been a fascinating and, frankly, way more interesting topic to pursue than my original plan. There's a lot of exciting things I've got lined up, and I'm looking forward to going on this journey with you.

Over the course of 30 posts, I'm going to delve into major events from Vietnam's past, both ancient and modern, and explore related issues. But for this first one, let's keep it light and fun - mythology is awesome!

This post is about legends: kings, fairies, and dragons themselves appear in the birth of the Vietnamese people, and they launch a history that spans many millennia.

There's something special about knowing your people and nation have a long history. As an American, we find this mythology in narrative: endless police procedurals, Hollywood movies, and "The Great American Novel" haunt our collective unconsciousness. We celebrate our most recent origins on the Fourth of July and try to uphold traditions our ancestors brought with them from all over the world. But we're still babies compared to the great civilizations of the world. Check this out.

In Southeast and East Asia, the Viet people were first identified as a group over 3,000 years ago, and were Australasian in origin. Genetically, the geographical home of the main ethnic group, the Kinh, is what is currently northern Vietnam and southern China.

But before we knew this, advanced science and technology confirming ancient migration patterns and the history of our genes themselves, the Vietnamese people knew something truer.

They know their true origins...

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Saigon Sights: The FITO Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine

A re-creation of an apothecary's cupboard, above the stairs.
One of the last days of my roommate Elena's time in Vietnam (as a medical intern), she wanted to visit the FITO Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine, and Antoine and I readily agreed. You can't really visit the HCMC site without noting that this museum is almost always the first or second-rated attraction in the city, and yet I'd never been... even though it's a mere 1 km from my house.

Now, this sounds like it might be a fairly dry subject, but wow. Not only is the museum absolutely captivating, but it's beautiful and informative as well. Those reviews online have it right! It may be a small side trip out of the main D1 area, but it's completely worth it.

Click through for a small photo tour, for those of you who may not be able to see it in person, and feast your eyes!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Drug Laws in Vietnam

Let's get high on information!

After I saw this painting in a Bui Vien bar (Cyclo?), I realized that this might be an area of interest for some people coming to Vietnam. After all, it's not like drugs don't exist here - just like gay people, Visa, and Coke-Cola, they're everywhere you want to be. Here's the information I've collected on this topic - I hope it's useful... or at least interesting!

I would guess that roughly half to two-thirds of the foreigners I know in Vietnam smoke marijuana at least occasionally, and a fair amount of younger Vietnamese as well. The truth is that drugs are easy to procure here in Saigon... but that doesn't mean they're legal. Far from it, in fact. They are super, duper illegal, and trafficking will net you the death penalty (so... please don't do that).

Current friends who smoke up tend to do so in their own homes and limit their purchases to marijuana. The people I knew that did harder things, like ecstasy or MDMA or cocaine or what-have-you, have all moved away back to their godless, liberal Western countries, so more power to them and I hope they're staying alive and healthy. I've never heard anything about an acquaintance getting caught for drugs, but maybe that was the point (mwahahaha). So, for the reason that I only have sources about marijuana, I'll focus exclusively on weed in HCMC.

Let me be clear:

If you're into heroin or opium, this is not the article or nation for you. You are playing a very dangerous game bringing an appetite for these drugs into the country, and ANYONE carrying even a small amount of heroin is given the death sentence. So, again, please reconsider your life choices if this is your intention, and seek help.

Also, I'm not advocating anyone smoke marijuana. Many people do recreationally, including in America (but who knows what will happen under Trump!). Be safe and discrete. Whatever you do, do NOT take your stash or anyone else's across borders! Do not be a stupid drug user, and you'll have many lovely years of getting high in low-risk, beautiful settings ahead of you.

Click through for rumor, vague laws, innuendo, hearsay, bribes, and the death penalty - everything I've been able to find about drugs in Vietnam!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

5 Things I've Learned From Writing This Blog

Keepin it real, since 1982.

As I approach the second anniversary of this blog, I'm ready to take it to the next level... but first I'd like to stop and recognize just how much I've actually learned from this experience. It's been a bona fide journey of personal discovery!

It's a bit surprising that I'm still writing, after all. How many projects in my life have I been as committed to, over such a period of time? Still, I'm not complaining, because this is slightly more interesting for those around me (from a social media perspective) than journaling to myself where no one will ever see it.

I enjoy the composition of pieces and the flow of pictures and text, and the flow of ideas and concepts and observations from post to post. I'm building something, but I can only place a single brick at a time. Maybe it will grow up to be a book, or a professional blog, or maybe it will be a delightful hobby forever - but whatever it is, I've learned an awful lot from doing this.

Here are my top five lessons!

1. Patience Pays Off

Patience with myself, patience with Vietnam, and patience with new experiences and cultures in general. I'm not a very patient person. In fact, despite my introverted ways, I'm not very good at moving my internal setting to 'chill' - I've got a lot of pointless, havoc-wreaking anxiety that makes me very impatient with myself, and by extension, sometimes those around me (although I try to be cool).

So remember, Ben: Deep breaths, and baby steps to the bathroom. Baby steps to the kitchen. Chill.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Quan Khoi: The Greatest Seafood Restaurant in the World

Ok, seriously? This is 1/4 of a shrimp,
and it's bigger than a soy sauce bowl.
Let's get hyperbolic about seafood!

[NOTE: this is NOT my go-to place for fish hotpot... that's a story for another post!]

There are an awful lot of quality seafood restaurants in Saigon, and, obviously, I haven't eaten at all of them (I think such an undertaking would take years, even if you ate at one per day).

And frankly, I don't think I'll have to try any more. Quan Khoi is just that good. Thanks Ray and Skye, I owe you guys one.

I was first introduced to this magical place last year, and it used to be located in Tan Binh District to the NW (which its wetnaps still identify as home).

Recently, however, it took it upon itself to up and move much, much closer to my house, which can only be considered a win for all involved (well, for me, certainly).

There are 5 great reasons that I'm pledging my loyalty to Quan Khoi:
  1. It has shrimps as big as my forearm.
  2. There's this dish where they fry the fish, then fry the bones after you've eaten the fish. It is DIVINE.
  3. Prices are reasonable, and they seem to understand my very, very broken Vietnamese almost all the time.
  4. The fried rice uses broken rice (com tam) and it is the perfect combination of oil and crunch... but not too much of either. Craveable. Do order with the garlic morning glory.
  5. There is frequently a box of kittens in the restaurant.
Even if I kept looking for a better place, I'm not sure such a search would be a worthwhile use of my time - why bother, when I've got truly exceptional staring at me off the plate?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Cafe Tram: Atmosphere to Spare

Welcome to...

Address: 100 Trần Huy Liệu, phường 15, District Phu Nhuan, Hồ Chí Minh City
Hours: 7am-10pm
Website: N/A?
Parking: Motorbike Parking in the entry alley, Free

Drinks: Excellent and Consistent
Food: Snack, Lunch, Dinner, Dessert
Price Range: 40k-70k
Order This: Anything with the fresh bread, and watermelon juice. Coffee is fresh and delicious.

Ambience: A relaxing garden oasis in the middle of Phu Nhuan District - practically paradise
Speak English: Thiiiiiiiiis much
English Menu: No

Wifi Quality: Excellent, but you may have to skip the free wifi and ask for the one with a password, I usually have problems connecting to the free network.
Plug Availability: Excellent, even on the patios
Air Conditioning: Yes, several different rooms.
Outside Area: Yes, Covered

Bathroom Quality: Very Clean
Toilet Paper Available?: No

Overall Impressions:

It may not look it, but this shady and narrow entranceway disguises the entrance to one of the most peaceful and beautiful hangouts in Ho Chi Minh City.

This place is fantastic, and for a long time was my favorite cafe to go and relax. The waitstaff is not always right by your side, but the place is deceptively huge, and there is constant pruning and garden care chores to perform, so I give them a pass. It's a popular weekend spot for Vietnamese and foreigners in the know alike.

All in all, if you're going to really just go to a single cafe on your trip to Saigon (HA! as if possible), make it this one... you won't regret it.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Celebrating Tet in Ho Chi Minh City

I'd eat this Tet.

[NOTE: Hey, look at this! My 30 posts about everything are starting! How fun!]

The anticipation of Tet always starts somewhere immediately following (Solar) New Years Day, and it's pervasive. As in, the signs are literally everywhere.

As Tet (lunar new year) was a freakish 4 weeks later than in 2014, we were privileged to experience the country in a state of suspended celebration - loving the solar new year, while hanging on to the promise of the lunar one, 6 weeks later. It made for a country where, as our visiting friend Katrina noted, it was like an entire country of people who forgot to take down their Christmas trees.

True enough, Kat... true enough. It's because it was more than like that, it was that. And it was on purpose.

But there's more to Tet than just recycling Solar New Year's. This holiday, sometimes (and inaccurately) known as Chinese New Year, is imbued with traditions both ancient and modern, and it's an interesting time to visit Vietnam, if only because of how very different the atmosphere is.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Dare to Fail Gloriously: What Happens When No One Reacts to Your Work?

It's usually about this time that I just put the laptop away and start
surfing reddit and imgur.
I'm pretty lucky in the fact that there are usually at least a couple dozen people who check out each post, and oftentimes more (maybe as many as 4 DOZEN! or MORE - like 5 dozen. So crazy). But not always.

Sometimes it gets me down. I've read a fair amount about blogging. The ins and outs, and the way you need to divide your time among many different tasks, the hard work of building, engaging, and maintaining an audience, etc etc etc... it's actually a ton of work, and a lot of it is promotion stuff that I, frankly, am not very good at.

One of the pieces of advice I see repeated regularly is that the ratio of content creation to promotion is much more lopsided than I previously assumed. In my incredibly naive brain, it went something like "IF YOU WRITE IT... THEY WILL COME."

Humph. Not good enough, apparently. There's this thing called 'social media' of which blogging is an intrinsic part, and you simply can't do one without the other. In fact, many self-described blogging 'experts' say the actual ratio of your workload should be about 20% content creation, and 80 DAMN PERCENT promotion. I hate self-promotion (although one of my new year's resolutions is to tackle it head on this year).

So every so often I'll see that I've been particularly prolific, turning out what I consider to be a series of high-quality posts that address a wide variety of subjects, but they get no views. In fact, several of the pieces that I feel are my best, thematically, content-wise, and in structure and form, get very few views.

Trip to Bummertown? Maybe a temporary layover...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Three Vital Skills I Learned from Acting Classes, and One I'm Still Working On

I don't always use memes, but when I do, I use five of them.
I've always valued the training I received in theatre school. It was a really rough time for me mentally, but as I've grown older ('matured'?) I am able to look back and be amazed by just how many wide-ranging situations I've navigated by dint of my training.

I am continually surprised at how these various skills (and, my god, what a bizarre, heady, useful range of skills they turned out to be!) have come in handy here in this brave new world of traveling abroad. As I get to know myself better, and fall back in love with who I am, I wanted to take a moment to detail here how they've helped me on my worldwide, and inner, journeys.

I graduated with a degree in Technical Theatre. Practically speaking, I was a carpenter, designer, stage manager, stitcher, props designer, and periodically unemployed person before deciding that my career in theatre was unappetizing and way too uneven, to say the least. I wanted out, but I had no idea what to do, where to go, or how to get there. It was like coming to the end of a road and discovering that the last bridge I crossed had been struck by meteors (that I helped direct there) and the road up ahead goes off a cliff into a ravine, like the train tracks in Back to the Future 3.

For years I thought I didn't have a hoverboard or means of escape... but I was wrong*.

I bemoaned my theatre degree for years. I made terrible mistakes. I bemoaned my life choices. I lathered, rinsed, and repeated... and instead of being an agent of change in my life, I became one who reacted, instead of acted. I was a passive, unhappy meatbag of a person.

I bemoaned a whole lotta things, and never really got objective enough to rise above the bleak, depressed person I was and achieve something brighter, something that my Self always knew I was capable of, but never let myself achieve.

But then I made a choice.

To me, this choice was to build a new dream, something with long-term value and interest for myself. (which are evolving every day). I want to get into sustainable landscape urbanism, with a strong eye toward regional environmental balance. We are social animals, and we should live within our environments, in balance... and in cities.

To survive in a foreign culture, I think that you have to be willing to embrace a certain amount of flexibility. This was definitely NOT in my personal vocabulary when I came, or at least not in my immediate brain. My animal brain knew what was up, though, and kicked into gear. And while Flexibility is certainly a skill that theatre helped hone (along with creative problem-solving and keeping a cool head), there were several skills that I discovered came from the most unlikely of places...

No one was more surprised than I to find that these skills originated in acting classes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Cơm Tấm Ba Ghiền: Broken Rice, Topped With Grilled Perfection


Cơm Tấm is one of the most delicious and popular rice dishes among visitors to Saigon, and Cơm Tấm Ba Ghiền is where to go get it.

Hands down. End of review.

If you expect perfection on your first bite, head here. There is com tam all over the city, but few are turned out so excellently or consistently perfect as at this alley location in the midst of Phu Nhuan District. It's all they serve, after all, and they've been serving it for a long, long time.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Remember to Water Your Dreams!

Greener days, from early 2014. Pre-ShadeUmbrella, Pre-theGardenHasTakenOverTheTerrace era. HI AITO!!
I keep learning a fundamentally valuable lesson here in Vietnam, over and over:

If you don't pay attention to something, it runs the risk of dying.

I've seen it illustrated vividly, time and again, as I cycle from over-care to under-care in the upkeep of our rooftop terrace garden. I'm actually a little embarrassed that I have to be reminded of this lesson so frequently! But every so often life seems to get in the way, and focus gets shifted. The result is that plants will wither and fade, and sometimes die.

Plants and nature are a principle joy in my life - I love getting my hands dirty. For as long as I've had my own place, I've had plants. And, like many plant owners, I've killed a ton of flora in my time. Through a lack of observation, ineptitude, and downright neglect, I've crushed many organisms whose very existence is a tonic for my mind... and yet, reflexively, I still revive the ones I can, toss the ones I've killed, and start fresh.

Vietnam is a casual gardener's dream. It's actually very easy to grow things here with a minimum of effort - all that is truly needed is a pot and some soil... and water, every day. Maybe not much water (most love the excess, though, being tropical two-season plants), but the trick is that it has to be a habit.

The very act of attention becomes nourishing.

The same is true with the ambitions and dreams we hold closest to our chests.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Saigon Survival: How To Navigate Markets and Haggling

Ben Thanh Market is one of the oldest (and most highly valued) buildings in Saigon, and it's huge, crowded, and fascinating.
Learning how to haggle successfully has been one of the most infuriatingly difficult obstacles to enjoying Markets. But let me make one thing clear: Markets are the most interesting and reliable places to buy a wide assortment of things, all under one roof.

That means no jetting around on your moto/bike with increasingly heavy loads and/or slowly putt-putting along until you find the one half-hidden shop that you've heard has what you need! Meanwhile, central markets will often speak in a little English, and are quite anxious to help you... if they think they can make a profit.

Unwanted touching, a lack of common knowledge, and complicated social interactions outside your native language... there's a lot for an introvert to dread about going to Market in a new country, but you know what? It's totally doable. And the more comfortable you become at market, the faster you'll discover new things, people, situations, and more - Vietnam's bustling, dense, and outright sunny street culture is nowhere more reflected than in the local market.

At first, market is a hectic, nonsense sea of insanity, with people reaching and grasping like the zombie lake in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and you're certain you'll drown in a mass of soggy language difficulties and have no chance of escape.

But is that accurate?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

New Year's Resolutions 2015: Foundational and Incremental

Well hello again! What's that you say - February already??  Man, I guess I'd better put all those vaguely anxious feelings and thoughts into a brand spankin' new set of New Year's Resolutions!

In America it is traditional to make promises to yourself on the occasion of the New Year. To me, this symbolizes the endless, circular nature of time, encouraging us to renew our commitments to ourselves and our world as we celebrate another year of not being drowned, electrocuted (well, not to death, at any rate), crushed, stabbed, dismembered, or plowed down by a bus.

(If, perchance, you find yourself in one of the aforementioned situations, my condolences. I hope you're reading this post in a hospital somewhere.)

Where I come from, resolutions can also act as a mental defense against the soul-ravaging bleakness of January and February, giving us some kind of vision or goal to strive for and negating, as much as possible, how truly shitty those months are (especially in those northern states, it's just gawdawful. Stay strong, friends).

And so, keeping in mind the massive scale of the goals I have for my future (however far that might be) here I am once again. The goal this year is to take small, constant steps toward a future I create for myself without letting myself lie fallow. My dreams are much to big to take in one year, or even two. But five years? That suddenly sounds sorta, kinda doable!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Saigon Survival: How to Get a Tow Truck for Your Motorbike in HCMC... and How I Know This

D1 in the distance... so close, and yet so far. I had to leave it here for a bit...
Broken down on a highway or rural part of HCMC? I know the feeling.

Boy, do I ever.

Yesterday I had the unfortunate luck to develop a flat tire on my way to Vietnamese lessons (which are going much better than last year, btw!). The number of extenuating circumstances, however, were really just improbably high... 5 hours after it all started, I was finally on my way, my bike repaired.

But how did I get there?

Story time!

And BONUS - scroll to the end for contact information for what might be HCMC's only English-speaking Bike Tow Truck service.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Psycho Asian Comfort Food: Banh Mi Pizzas

1/2 kilo of pork from the Deli... along with all the fixin's!
Well, hello strange feelings brought on by a vacationing with my sister!

After an exceedingly long time apart (2.5 years... this will happen when your family lives on other ends of that great big expanse we call the States), I finally got to see Vietnam with Lex and our childhood friend, Kat. It was amazing... and exhausting.

So what's the cure? No, it's not a cowbell... but you're on the right track (do pet pigs wear bells? They should).

For these Strange Feelings of home and family and belonging, I knew I needed something with the gastronomic power of a nuclear bomb. Something fatty, cheesy, light, airy, and with some vegetables, because I love vegetables. But preferably not too healthy, because these are Strange Feelings, of course, and that would just not be appropriate.

The solution? Banh Mi Pizza.

Yes. BANH MI PIZZA. Go ahead. Click through. Learn how glorious it is having an oven, and just how I'm making use of it...

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cao Lầu: Hội An's Most Famous Dish

Cao Lầu is Hoi An's most famous and mysterious dish, and, I argue, it's most delicious! This is a reason to visit as often as possible - while you can get great ribs outside of Memphis, you literally can't find Cao Lầu anywhere but Hội An.

But what is it? And what makes it so incredibly satisfying? And why can't you get this dish - literally - anywhere else in the world?

First and foremost, it's all about the noodles. These are a lye-water kneaded noodle, and are toothsome and thick, soaking up the scant sauce ladled on top. They are created using rice flour mixed with water and wood ash (specifically from the Cham islands, two dozen km offshore), and then cooked with firewood three times.

These are not your average noodles, my friend... and it shows!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Street Food IV: The Voyage Home, and What I Didn't Find There

Pork Sticky Rice (Xoi Man). Mandatory? No, not really. But pretty good.
Wow, it's been quite a while since I posted about my street food adventures, huh? Let's rectify that!

In between/during my Autumn posts, I got to visit my homes in North America, and I really appreciated for the first time what kind of environments I was bouncing between. The rapid changes threw their differences into sharp relief. It highlighted the good in each and reminded me that even the negatives sometimes serve a purpose.

One thing that really made me blink, however, was Chicago's lack of street-level activity. I'd never really noticed it before, but the streets are pretty dead here in America. Relatively speaking, of course. Now, I'm not generally a guy for crowds, but I really enjoy the vital atmosphere typical of virtually any Vietnamese street, and there's a LOT to be said for convenience, price, and quality.

Ok. True story: the weeks I was in the midwest were unseasonably cold (and then unseasonably warm... thanks Denver!) and Chicago's true character is naturally more visible in the warmer months of April-September, so there's that. Even then, however, Chicago doesn't have much of a street food scene to speak of.

To me, this has some clear benefits and losses.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

I'm Legal!: How to Get a Driver's License in Ho Chi Minh City

Hey, look at this guy!

And what's that he's holding? Why, it looks like some kind of identification... MY GOD, IT'S A DRIVER'S LICENSE. Honest-to-God official, state-issued proof that I can walk into an office, hand them money, and pick up a real license 10 days later... with no driving test.

Yes, my friends, after 20 months of living in Vietnam, and a full 17 months of driving a motorbike (with no police incidents and only one minor fall!), I'm finally street legal, and covered by any kind of insurance that might involve an accident on the road.

For the moment, that is. Because, of course, there's a catch.

Read on to learn how easy it is (in Saigon, at least, although I hear that Da Nang and Hanoi are similarly conducive to foreigners)...

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Filipino Food Digression

As long as I'm on a foodie kick on the blog, let me share with you all the delicious things I ate on my trip to Central Visayas in the Philippines!

I learned that there's a lot to love about Filipino food. It's the punch in the face you didn't know you needed, and tastes like home... no matter where your home is.

I was staying in the Iloilo/Guimaras region, and I got to see a very different kind of Asian culture. Rice is a staple, as in Vietnam, but the food as a whole is much more bold - vinegar makes a frequent appearance, as do features from Spain and other Filipino regional styles, which makes for eclectic, exciting eating.

I thought the most obvious attribute was the contrasting flavors. Vietnamese food often features such flavor pairings, like Salty, Sweet, Sour, and Savory, but usually to a much more subtle effect, and usually telling a story through texture, too. Filipino food stomps into the room with a bottle of brandy and a bucket of fried chicken skins, and tells you to get the cups! Flavor, texture, nutrition (or not), this cuisine has got it all going on, and it loves to tell you all about itself... and it wants you to know that you, too, have a home in the Philippines.

A very special thank you to my friend Rey! I couldn't have properly labeled this post without you. Thanks for a truly mind-expanding trip! Some of the best food I've ever eaten, hands down.

DISCLAIMER: I haven't tried most of these recipes, but they're on my list!



Tapa - Beef
Sinangag - friend rice (With lots of garlic!)
Itog - Egg

Served with a dish of vinegar! This extremely simple meal can be ordered just about anywhere, and is most commonly made for breakfast with the day-old rice from the night before. This was my favorite breakfast. It's as delicious, with fewer ingredients, as many of my favorite Vietnamese breakfasts.


Only one of a few Silogs, as you'll see below!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Vietnam's Visa on Arrival (VoA) Process

Vietnam visa.jpg
Vietnam's visa process is just a little stranger than most other countries, because of course it is. Of course it is.

My mother visited last year, and prepared my sister some instructions for when she prepared her trip to visit (she's arriving TODAY!!!!!).

Since it's all such good advice, I'll post it here. Easiest blog post ever? Yeah, probably.

Thanks mom!

"Vietnam visa" by Alex Steffler - originally posted to Flickr as Vietnam visa
Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Click through for the gory details (ha ha, just kidding! It's actually pretty easy. The waiting is the most obnoxious part)!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Eating My Way Out of a Vietnamese Bakery

Don't call them hot dogs! They are better than hot dogs!
French influence has percolated just under the surface of Vietnamese culture since the days of French Indochina. The fallout has been largely beneficial in the modern era, with the best of France rubbing off on Vietnam in the form of food and architecture.

This goes double for the world of baked goods!

These breads and pastries I've sampled from around Ho Chi Minh City are always surprising and almost always delicious, with few exceptions!

Take a look at this photographic diary of some of the most interesting pieces of breaded bliss I discovered over the past few weeks!

Above: a braid of sweet bread cradles a halved piece of pork and garlic sausage, with chili paste, spring onions, and a hardboiled quail egg. There's a sticky sweetness to the pastry although it's decidedly savory overall. A small lunch!

A small aside - I'm sorry in advance that I don't have the various Vietnamese names. These are often simply lined up in a glass case, with no placard to define them. I've done my best to transport you there via my photos and words. If you can help me name these, please let me know in the comments or email me from the sidebar!

Feast your eyes...

Sunday, January 4, 2015

5 Kinda Great Vietnamese Holiday Songs

yeeeeaaaaahhhhhhhh they're oooooookayyyy
Last week I threw down the gauntlet of holiday songs, shazaaming the hell out of a few cafes and coming up with my least favorite Vietnamese holiday tunes. Here's the other half: the ones I kinda like!

I've been pretty consistent that there's one thing that I just can't seem to get into here, and that's Vietnamese music. I just... don't care for it much. Yes. Let's just leave it at that.

It's a bit late in the season, but here are 4 songs I've heard over the holidays that... well, they don't make me want to self-lobotomize with a chopstick, they're that good.

But don't take my word for it!

And lately... well, I can't put my finger on it, but it probably has something to do with feelings. Stockholm Syndrom feelings. Because, these songs... they are making me bounce a little. Just a little! (It might have something to do with my slow acceptance of standard cafe music, check it out.)

The 5th is another Evil Bonus, direct from me to you! Watch at your own risk! You WILL NOT stop singing it.

I could only find four. I may not hate ALL the songs I hear, but I'm not a miracle worker.

Bah Humbug - Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Banh Mi Field Guide, as Narrated by David Attenborough

*to be read in David Attenborough's voice*

I love you. Eat me as soon as possible.
Day breaks over the delta and marshy southern lands of Vietnam. The smells of frying pork, breakfast stews, and freshly caught fish begin their outward trek from market and front gate alike, reaching families preparing for the days hustle. Children mount their parents' backs, and, together, across this fair land, breakfast awaits for the hungry traveler.

The newborn baguettes, golden and fresh out of the oven minutes ago, soak up the early rays and shed their blankets, their crusty exteriors jostling for a view of the passing pedestrians. In a matter of minutes, bakeries are sending these out to stalls across the land, awaiting their chewy fate. They are unaware that they are, simply put, lambs... to the slaughter.

To complete their day's chores, no matter the stratus of hierarchical society these diligent citizens occupy, they crave a fuel that will awaken their body and their mind. The Banh Mi Sandwich is one such creation. Young and old, poor and rich, there are few that can resist what some expert* has labelled the Ultimate Sandwich. (*I'm that expert)

On paper, it looks simple.