Tuesday, April 29, 2008

French Imprints

The French were in Vietnam for about 100 years. Although they have been gone for over 50 years, there are still some French imprints, albeit slowly disappearing. Not many people learn French anymore; rather, they’ll opt for English, or even Japanese. French probably left more of a mark on Vietnamese people of my parents’ generation.

Vocabulary. Some Vietnamese vocabulary still show sign of French, even though it’s not always that obvious. Western people have the tendency to assume that letters in Vietnamese are pronounced the same way as in their respective languages. Not so; I’ve been learning this the hard way! Here are some examples of French influenced terms I've noticed:
- xe buýt means bus. One of the lesser obvious terms. Xe means vehicle.
- ô tô was the term used for cars, or auto, in Northern Vietnam.
- ga means train station, as in gare.
- mơ đến is obviously modern (moderne)
- xu is cent (sous)

Songs. I grew up listening to French songs from the ‘60’s, followed by Vietnamese verses of the same songs. These included Tous les garçons et les filles (Françoise Hardy) and a French version of Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down). I heard Aline (Christophe) on our drive from Danang to Hue, which made me giggle. My Vietnamese teacher always hums French songs. I also regularly pick up some French music, mixed in with the Vietnamese songs, in restaurants.

Street names. There are still French name streets like Pasteur and Alexandre De Rhodes (who converted many Vietnamese to Catholicism and is touted as having created the Vietnamese writing system, using the Roman alphabet). However, the well known Catinat St. is now known as Đồng Khởi St.

French Colonial Structures. The downtown core boasts Cathédrale Notre-Dame, the General Post Office and the Municipal Theatre as examples of French colonial structures (thanks to my Vietnam guidebook for this info!).

Food. Many of the French influences can be seen in Vietnamese food. Our banh mi is reminiscent of baguette. There are also some culinary terms that are French inspired:
- Bò bít tết refers to steak (usually served at breakfast with eggs. My aunt in Quang Ngai served some excellent Australian beef!). Ok, so this word is based on a French word (bifteck) which was based on an English term (beef steak).
- cà rốt is clearly carrot (carotte)
- cà phê is obviously coffee (café)
- núi, referring to nouille, is a pasta and beef dish sold street side
- sô-cô-la is chocolate (chocolat). One thing The Boyfriend pointed out that I never noticed (duh!) is that all Vietnamese words have one syllable, which explains why chocolate had to be broken down into three words.
- sốt means sauce, as in sốt cà chua, ketchup (cà chua means tomato!).

Pastries. There are many pastry shops here. This picture was taken at Pat-a-Chou (another French term!). At the top is a bánh paté chaud (a vol-au-vent stuffed with pork), on the right is a chocolate stuffed croissant and at the bottom a pineapple pastry.

- bánh flan (as in Spanish flan and not English fruit flan cake, totally different!) is a favourite dessert here and can be found everywhere, from Givral pastry shop to vendors on the streets. I think I eat about one every week…

- bánh su kem (choux à la crème) or cream puffs, are also quite popular here.

Dairy products. Not surprisingly, many dairy product terms come from the French since Vietnamese do not typically eat dairy food. Some French influenced dairy terms include:
- Kem is ice cream or crème glacée (limonade sucrée, dis-moi le nom de ton cavalier…)
- is butter or beurre (and trai bơ is avocado, possibly alluding to its buttery texture)
- phô-mai or phó mát is cheese or fromage (and the most popular brand here is La Vache qui rit or con bò cười!)

Monday, April 28, 2008

Cho Ben Thanh Challenge

I was thinking about food (well, that happens often). More specifically, I was thinking of all the dishes I had NOT eaten here yet (it was in the same train of thought that I did not want to leave Vietnam, regretting anything). Then as usual, I started comparing food to my mom’s. I realized that since I’ve moved out of my mom’s (in 2001), I only eat a number of dishes when I go back home. Dishes I crave. My favourite dishes. This puts a lot of dishes that I don't feel as strongly about on the wayside. Dishes that wouldn’t make my top ten, because it’s already crowded as it is.

I was actually thinking of one specific dish: mi quang. So I checked out the food blogs and found entries on noodlepie. He mentioned that he ate some at the Ben Thanh market. Why, I happen to live right by Ben Thanh market! So I went searching for the specific stall and ordered mi quang. I then realized that while I’d eaten a couple of times in the market, I really hadn’t given it enough of a chance. There’s so many food stalls with so many dishes, only minutes away. I decided to give myself a challenge to eat my way through, stall by stall. I have three months left! Here is what I have eaten so far:

Mi Quang at Stall 1092, 25,000 dong. Mi quang is a yellow noodle dish, a specialty of Da Nang that has a soupy sauce, but isn’t quite a soup. Like my mom’s, this one had cha (ground pork patty) and shrimp. Unlike my mom, it also had delicious meatballs. When I asked, I was told it consisted of pork and crab. So good and sweet!! Unfortunately, the banh trang (the sesame crackers on top) were very stale so didn’t really add that required crunch. I think I remember my mom deep frying them, which added more decadence!

Banh Cuon at Stall 1006, 20,000 dong. Banh cuon, described on the sign as steamed rolled rice pancake, is stuffed with ground pork. It was good as expected, but nothing special.

Banh cam (mobile), 3000 dong. While I was eating my banh cuon, a lady came by selling banh cam, a deep fried dough rolled in sesame seeds and stuffed with green beans. Perfect meal ending!

Thach at Stall 1010, 15,000 dong. Stall 1010 sells all sorts of sweets, cakes and thach, the Vietnamese version of jello. Well, The Boyfriend would disagree it’s like jello; it’s a bit too crunchy for his taste. Aren’t the shapes and colours pretty though? Some of the flavours include coconut, coffee and la dua (pandan leaf). I'm not sure if the pink is maybe strawberry?

Banh cam at Stall 1128, 3000 dong. I was looking for more banh cam and was pointed to this stall. I’ve noticed these are more densely packed with beans than back home and the sesame seeds aren’t all over the outside, rather it’s part of the syrup that is poured on top. When I took the picture, the lady made me wait to rearrange them so it would look nicer!

Bun Cha Gio at Stall 1124, 25,000 dong. After reading a few food blog entries about cha gio (fried spring rolls), I had to find myself some. It was a bit disappointing, burnt and stale. But a bowl of bun (vermicelli) with nuoc mam (fish sauce) always makes me happy.

Banh cuon thit nuong at Stall 1018, 10,000 dong for two rolls. I’ve actually been to this stall but didn’t have my memory card in my camera. So I decided to come back and try these rolls with grilled meat, herbs and noodles. I’ve never actually eaten these. It was quite good and I especially liked the accompanying peanut sauce.

Banh beo at Stall 1018, 20,000 dong. I also had a banh beo dish, which is dough that is steamed served with minced shrimp, fish sauce and crackling pork skin. Here, they serve it with cha hue (ground pork) and cha ca (ground fish). This is one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Di Xem Phim – Going to See a Movie

The Boyfriend and I decided to go see a movie. First was the challenge of finding what movies were playing. I had dropped by Galaxy Cinema, an “American-style” cinema, nearby and there were three options: Fool’s Gold (I knew for certain The Boyfriend would not be interested), a Jackie Chan/Jet Li movie and a kung fu movie. As I tried to remember the names of the last two movies, I forgot them on my walk home.

We searched the internet to see what else was playing and found one website that had the schedule for four movie theatres in the city. The selection was similar so we decided on the Jet Li movie Thong Linh (or Warlords). This website did not include Galaxy Cinema so I called to find out when it was playing. We settled on the 16:50 show, and I called back to make sure I understood properly.

As we got to the cinema, Thong Linh was actually playing at 16:40. Luckily, we got there 10 minutes early. We were looking forward to some popcorn, to find no popcorn in the popcorn machines and no one working behind the counter. Thoroughly disappointed! We went to our theatre and were ushered in to a given row. Not sure if we could have sat anywhere we wanted. It was already pitch black even though commercials were still playing.

We were just on time to see Tiger beer and Coors Light commercials while Heinekken was being sold outside. There was also a hilarious amateur-looking commercial, common to cinemas, about turning off your cell phone, except it also included not smoking (yes!), keeping quiet and not putting your feet up (I’m guilty of this when no one is in front of me…). This was rapped in Vietnamese, with scantily clad girls dancing in the background. That’s the way to get a message through!

The movie was actually in mandarin. There were Japanese subtitles, sandwiched between big yellow Vietnamese subtitles on top and smaller white subtitles in English. It was a bit distracting as I would try to read the English subtitles and the Vietnamese. The sound was terribly inconsistent, going from barely audible to deafeningly loud.

Warlords turned out to be a war/epic battles movie with a love story; I remembered why I don’t like and rarely watch these types of movies! Too much gore and violence!

A third of the way through the movie, I asked The Boyfriend when Jackie Chan was appearing. “I don’t think he’s in it”, he said. Weird, I was so sure he was! At a point, I heard a woman behind me talking. I turned around to see her on her cell phone. Obviously, she did not see the rap commercial! Who actually answers their cell phones at a movie theatre?

When we walked out after the movie, we could only smell one thing: popcorn! Outside, bags were pre-filled with popcorn. People were eating popcorn at their tables. We were not sure if popcorn was just an evening offering, but we felt SO cheated!

Finally, when we came home, I realized Vua Kungfu (The Forbidden Kingdom) was actually the Jackie Chan/Jet Li movie. There were two Jet Li movies! How confusing! This kung fun movie was actually in English too. Maybe I would have liked it better. Oh well!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I'm Singing in the Rain

Rainy season has not officially started. However, we've had three rainstorms in the past week or so. Supposedly, it's going to get way worst. The Boyfriend and I have not yet got those plastic rain ponchos that everyone seems to have here. Not sure if these capture the amount of rain, but here are some pics.

View from the bedroom.

Grey skies forecast another rainshower.

The food vendors are ready.

After meeting for lunch with The Boyfriend (our regular yummy shawarma!), I was lucky enough to find a gazebo full of kids when I got caught in the rain.

Another view from the gazebo.

Monday, April 21, 2008

No Weddings and a Funeral

While I did think that it would be cool to be invited for a wedding while I was Vietnam, I never thought I’d be attending a funeral. Unfortunately, my mother called me on Saturday morning to let me know that my uncle who lived in Saigon just passed away. I had met him for the first and only time a couple of months ago, at a dinner for his granddaughter’s birthday party.

I did not know my uncle very well but from my understanding he was a very generous and caring family man.

Feb 26. People enjoying some drinks after my cousin's daughter's party; my uncle’s sitting on the left.

Prayers started with female monks chanting with a plaintive wail. Its cadence had a soothing effect. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about Buddhism and so not much about funeral traditions either.

I don’t know if this means anything in Buddhism, but while prayers were going on, some cows passed by (you can notice the bus in the background, ready to carry mourners to the crematorium).

I’ll have to research this more, but there was a group of men in uniform, slightly reminiscent of the sailor guy from The Village People. They prayed and did a quasi mini-choreography.

They also were the ones who carried the casket. Initially, I was wondering if my uncle had been in the navy. My current impression is that it’s just a tradition and those men are for hire.

I realized I have seen this decorative vehicle once before and wondered then what it was. Now I know. While we drove to the crematorium, fake money was being thrown out the window. Traffic in Vietnam rarely stops but it actually stopped when we passed by.

Male monks (at the front) led the prayers at the crematorium. They had percussion instruments, again giving a rhythm to the prayers. They were all much younger than the female monks.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Randomness II

More random observations:

  • Shampoo salons. You can find these all over the city. You can go there and have your hair washed. What’s funny is that there’s a bunch of girls, wearing the same outfit, usually short, tight and skimpy. Now I shouldn’t assume anything untoward is going on, but it’s hard not to think that.
  • Restaurants. Toothpicks are available at all restaurants. I guess that’s a good thing for tight teeth from braces like mine. Vietnamese are also big on moist towel-ettes, but you have to pay for them if you use them (usually 1000 dong). Sometimes, you get a moist and cool facecloth instead.
  • Laundry. Laundry here is charged by weight. We’ve paid between 7,000 to 15,000 dong per kilo. A good load of laundry probably weighs about 4-5 kg. This includes washing, drying and half-ass folding. Dry cleaning (which I think might just be regular washing and ironing) is 7000 dong per item. Which means our laundry bill doesn’t get close the 50 USD per month our landlady wanted to charge us, thank you very much!
  • Recycling. I made a comment about there being no recycling. I rescind my comment. There is recycling; it’s just done after the fact by the garbage/recycling person, who sifts through the garbage. It’s an unfortunate job, but it is a paying one.
    Plastic containers and cardboards are separated for recycling.
  • Energy efficiency. I don’t think energy efficiency is an environmental concern here like it is back home. However, there is a high degree of energy efficiency; I’m not sure if it’s by necessity or to keep costs low. All light bulbs are fluorescent light bulbs. Our toilet uses a very small amount of water. At home it’s about 13L for toilets built after 1985 and new ultra low models use 6L (Freshwater website).

  • Here, our toilet even gives the option of using 3L!
  • Homeless people. I had not really thought about people on the streets being homeless. I think it’s not unusual for people to spend a whole day on the street: doing business, selling food, cigarettes or drinks. I just assumed they were relaxing, maybe taking a nap. It wasn’t until The Boyfriend pointed it out that I realized that these people actually live there. They set up their hammocks (if they’re lucky) and go to sleep. After inquiring with my teacher, I was told that a lot of rural people come here because money is easier to come by in the city, but they don’t have enough money for rent, let alone owning a house.
  • Bed. Most mattresses here are on the hard side, which means I wake up every morning with a back ache and The Boyfriend’s back has never felt better. It was the opposite back home. Our landlady actually has a bed, but no mattress. She just sleeps on the hard wood of the bed. Yikes.
  • Time Zone Difference. I’ve enjoyed waking up in the morning and finding out the Canadiens’ playoff game score. Especially when they’ve won. Go Habs go!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Happy Hùng Vương Day!

Today is Hùng Vương Day. Hùng Vương is celebrated on the tenth day of the third lunar month. Who is Hùng Vương you wonder? Well, let me give you a little lesson in Vietnamese history, or rather mythology, or rather a little of both. (I had to do some research for this. Luckily I had procured a little booklet in Hue: Vietnam Legends and Folk Tales.)

According to Wikipedia (I wikipedia everything. And yes, it’s a verb, as in to wikipedia!), “Hùng Vương was the first emperor of Van Lang or Lac Viêt (as Vietnam was known at the time). Legend tells of the dragon lord, Lac Long Quân and the mountain fairy, (sometimes a Chinese immortal) Âu Cơ who had 100 children. As the parents belonged to different realms, they parted ways, each taking 50 of the 100 sons to their respective homes. Hùng Vương the eldest went to live by the coast, the domain of dragons. According to legend, he came to power in 2880 BC, ruling an area covering what is now Vietnam and part of China. He founded the Hong Bang Dynasty , which ruled Vietnam until 258 BC. His dynasty existed in Vietnamese prehistory, but much of the lore from this time is now lost to the ages. His sons were always named after him and many stories include either him or another of his offsprings.”

The more myth like version has Âu Cơ lay a sac of one hundred eggs since Lac Long Quân is a dragon lord. From these eggs hatched one hundred human beings. While the children grow up, Lac Long Quân realizes he misses his underwater life. He decides to take half of the children with him to his underwater palace while the other half will stay with Âu Cơ on land. Although half lived on land and the other in water, if either group encountered misfortune, then the other group had to help each other. Âu Cơ and her fifty children became known as Hùng Vương. Because of that, Vietnamese people refer to themselves as the dragon and fairy’s grandchildren.

Last year, the Vietnamese government made Hùng Vương a public holiday, as an occasion for the Vietnamese to express their gratitude to the Hùng Kings and to bolster Vietnamese cultural identity. This makes the total number of public holidays in Vietnam 9.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Street Food

For a number of reasons, I was slow to delve into street food here. One, it’s hard to find vegetarian street food and so The Boyfriend and I usually go to a restaurant. Two, I’ve been a bit shy about going up and ordering, not sure about the system and not very confident in my Vietnamese (I’m slowly getting over this!). Three, my stomach has paid the price for eating street food a few times (actually, I'm currently recovering from a bout that has lasted a few days after lunch in my alleyway).

Street food isn’t quite what I imagined here. I imagined a sort of food district, where there would be street vendors selling their food. In reality, you can find street vendors on any street at any time (but mainly at meal times), especially down alleyways (and there are a LOT of alleyways in this city!). There are areas where they are more concentrated, but they are everywhere.

So here’s a sampler of street food I’ve had so far with my personal colour commentary! I should really have more so I'll make more of an effort to have my camera with me.

Making Banh Cuon. One day when The Boyfriend was sick (over a month ago), I decided to venture out by myself and find some street food. I found a sign with banh cuon, literally meaning rolled dough – the only comparison I can make is very a thin crepe, stuffed with ground pork. The amazing thing when you order from these stalls is that they will make it right in front of you. No old food sitting there for hours! She already had a batter prepared that she poured onto a flat surface and that gets steamed. Then she added a mixture of minced meat and mushooms, and rolls it.

Banh cuon. I also got two pieces of cha (ground pork cold cut) – one fried and one steamed, and a half a piece of banh tom (shrimp cake). Top this with fresh herbs, fried onions, steamed bean sprouts and nuoc mam (fish sauce) and you’ve got a perfect lunch for 14,000D.

Baby bananas anyone? There are also mobile vendors, such as the fruit ones. They often have one or two fruit that they sell in whole.

Fresh cut fruit at 5,000d a piece. There are ladies who sell a variety of fruit, already cut up. There’s nothing more refreshing when coming back from the gym than a fresh piece of papaya, pineapple, watermelon with some salt and chili to dip in. Mmm mmm mmm! And it’s healthy (except for the salt. The Boyfriend swears I’ll be suffering from hypertension but I swear my blood pressure is actually low!)

Sugar cane juice. Along with food vendors, are drink vendors. There, you can have a sinh to (a fruit smoothie), iced coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice or my favourite, nuoc mia (sugar cane juice) for as low as 3000D (less than a quarter!). Sugar canes get squeezed through, with a piece of lime, to produce a sweet, frothy juice with a hint of sour from the lime. I've seen some on Spadina St. in Toronto in the summer, but they charge $3!!

Passion fruit juice at 5,000 dong. I stumbled onto this drink when The Boyfriend and I went to the gym around 1 pm. As we were to find out, many business here close between 11:30 and 1:30, sort of like siesta time. So to bide our time, we got drinks and watched a football (soccer) game at the stadium nearby. The lady cuts up the fruit right in front of you and mixes it with sugar, water and ice.

Passion fruit juice. It is such a beautiful drink and SO aromatic! The seeds do make it a bit hard to drink with a straw though.

Com. Com means rice. At lunchtime, an assortment of meat, fish, shrimp and vegetable dishes are sold with rice all over the city. Plastic tables and chairs are set up and all the workers come out to eat. A lunch costs about 20,000 dong depending on how many items you want. There is also usually a soup. This picture was taken in our alleyway. I'll have to take more close-up pics.

Frying cha ca. Cha ca is ground fish fried up into a patty. This food vendor popped out of nowhere one day at the end of my alley, selling banh mi cha ca. She starts frying around 3 pm and closes shop when her food runs out around 6 pm.

Banh mi cha ca at 10,000d. Ground fish fried up into a patty, sliced and added into a crusty bun, with salt and pepper, cucumber, rau ram (Vietnamese herb) and chili. I asked for scallion oil for good measure. The bread is room temperature, but the freshly fried fish warms it up nicely. This is pretty much the Vietnamese version of a po’ boy. This picture is the second time I had this sandwich; they tried to sell it at 15,000 d. When I told them I paid 10,000 a few days earlier, they said 10,000 has less fish. Sure… The lesser fish 10,000 dong banh mi was plenty for me!

Xoi gac and xoi dau den. Xoi is Vietnamese sticky rice. There are a variety, both sweet and savoury. This picture I took when I went on a food tour with The Gastronomer in District 4. By then, I was too full, but I had to take a picture because it's so pretty and colourful.

Banh chuoi. Last week, my Vietnamese teacher came in and said she saw banh chuoi (banana cake) that was tantalizing. So we went down and got a few pieces. Some of the banana pieces are reddish and I was told that this is made on purpose to make it look nice. I didn't really understand how they do this. My mom used to make this, using stale bread and for the longest time I thought this was banana bread. Wrong... It was good, but a bit too sweet for my liking. I'm sure my sister and mother are salivating!

Banh khoai mi. We also got a piece of banh khoai mi, something my mom bakes on a regular basis. Khoai mi is cassava, a root vegetable. I especially like the crunchy outisde.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Racing Sunday

I’ve recently met The Gastronomer and her boyfriend The Astronomer, from the food blog Gastronomy and they were nice enough to inform me about races organized to celebrate La Semaine Française au Vietnam.

I had some mixed feelings about running. One being I haven’t run in Vietnam. Two, I wasn’t really running much before I came to Vietnam. Three, the heat! However, races are always fun and another way to see a city. So I decided to sign up. It didn’t hurt that it was absolutely free and you got a tee-shirt (a too large tee, unless they're trying to tell me something???).

My options were 3 km, 7 km (for women), 10 km (for men) and 21 km (half-marathon). I was pretty certain that I could handle 3 km, but felt a bit wimpy doing so. I decided on the 7 km. I ran once during one evening prior to the race, just to make sure I could handle it.

Unfortunately, a couple days before race day, I ate something in my lunch that did not sit well. I was still hurting from it on the morning of the race. I also was not used to running in the heat. The 7 km consisted of running around a street course in downtown (by the Opera house and Louis Vuitton) twice; I pretty much ran one and walked one. I won’t even mention my time because it was not very good. Instead I will share a few interesting observations about the race:

  • Running in traffic. As expected, roads were not closed for this race. This means that we were running among cars and motorbikes, on the road.
  • Heavy security. Motorbikes did accompany runners around the path, stopping traffic and sounding sirens when runners went through an intersection. This gave me a bit of a feeling of importance, like I was a queen followed by heavy security. (ok, I have a rampant imagination). It also makes for a more embarrassing situation when you’re walking and a motorbike is following you, wondering why you’re being such a slow poke.
  • Vs. at home. Compared to racing at home, it wasn’t quite as well organized. We were half an hour late while they went through the top ten half marathon runners. This made the early morning start to avoid the heat pointless. The 10 km started, with the gun shot by the French ambassador, 3 minutes later the 7 km and finally the 3 km. No time chip, time mats, water stations or markers. Instead, there were volunteers pointing the way.
  • Segregating. Not sure why, but they segregated men from women in the 10 and 7 km race. So when The Gastronomer decided to run 10 km, there was confusion with people telling her she was finished.
  • Runners. Runners ranged from serious looking Vietnamese runners (running barefeet!!) to a Vietnamese woman in a denim skirt (I think she beat me!). There were also a few expats and kids running.

Airborne barefeet runner finishing the 10 km race.

This is me pretending to run (I'd had enough by then!), towards the finish line.