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.