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.