Wednesday, June 25, 2008

White Beauty

I saw a disturbing advertisement for Pond’s White Beauty products when I went to see Iron Man a while ago. Not only was it disturbing, the ad was SO lame, pretty much your generic ad: girl uses White Beauty product, girl walks by café, all men turn and stare because she’s beautiful now! Pond’s (Unilever) is not the only company offering such products; there is also White Radiance from Olay. I meant to write about this after I took some pictures but security here is very strict, even at the supermarket. I was told I was not allowed to take pictures! Supposedly, it's easier to find pictures on the internet!

White Beauty and White Radiance beauty products.

I have to stay that I would describe myself as a person who doesn't push her opinions on others. I believe that people can do whatever they want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone. So my dismay at this product surprised me. I dislike that the term "white beauty" implies that beauty stems from being white! What if you're not white? What's more infuriating is that there is a market for this in Asia which means people agree with this and are willing to buy a product to whiten their skin. I don't think beauty should be driven by a Caucasian standard!

A bit of internet research revealed that Pond’s White Beauty is a line of skin lightening products. My knowledge of beauty products is not very extensive so I’m not sure if this is a product only offered in Asia. However, I couldn't imagine such a product being sold in Canada without an uproar! I couldn’t find much information on the product in Vietnam. Most of the information came from India. This product line was launched in India last fall. There's an Indian commercial where most people don’t even look Indian and the girl who uses the product looks Caucasian. Finally, here's another blog post on this topic.

I had a relative (my mother's cousin's granddaughter, I think... only Vietnamese people would keep up with such relatives!) over this week. She saw my white bottle of extra strength moisturizer (I live in Canada!) and asked whether it worked at whitening. From my stay here, I have learned that Vietnamese are obsessed with keeping their skin white. Motorbike riders cover themselves rigorously to not get dark skin. A salesgirl once commented when I told her that I was from Canada “Why aren’t you whiter?”. Well, I’ve been here for a few months and the sun rays are very strong!

Entirely covered up motorbike females riders are not a rare sight in Vietnam.

Here's a vendor selling long gloves for motorbike riders.

The term for being tanned in Vietnamese is đen, which translates to black. There is a term for brown but that is not used. Again, I'm not sure if it’s just the negative perception of having dark skin. If only they knew how many people go to sun tanning salons in North America! Here's a Vietnamese point of view on this issue.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating to stop using sunscreen. I try to use sunscreen regulary because I don’t want to burn. The potential of skin cancer is very serious although I think Asians have a lower risk due to the higher pigmentation in their skin. I just don't like being encouraged to look white to be beautiful.
On a sort of side note, growing up, my mother referred to her numerous freckles using a Vietnamese term, which translates to "bird shit" (pardon my language!). I have noticed an increased amount of freckles on my face and I have decided they're cute! It seems having pale white skin is ingrained at an early age!

Aside from all of my issues with “white beauty”, you also have to wonder what is in this product? Is there a bleaching agent? The commercial mentions detox vitamins. I have never heard of such vitamins, but I’m not sure I would want it on my skin!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Night of ăn nhậu and Karaoke

A bunch of us continued with The Astronomer’s birthday celebrations and met up in District 4 to go ăn nhậu. An nhậu is one of those Vietnamese terms that can’t be translated accurately. An means eat and ăn nhậu refers to eating snack-y food to accompany drinking. Usually, ăn nhậu is used to describe men getting together to drink and eat snacks. A typical snack is dried squid which I guess is sort of equivalent to peanuts or pretzels at bars back home.

After mentioning to my Vietnamese teacher that I had ăn nhậu on the weekend, she informed me that this term has negative connotations. It usually implies men drinking excessively on a regular basis. Therefore, as a woman, I should not use the term to describe my activities or risk people assuming I’m a hard core drinker. Rather I should have said I went out for a birthday celebrations, where I ate and drank a bit...!

On this evening, our snacks were various shellfish and the alcohol of choice was nep ruou, rice wine. The rice wine came in bottles costing 10,000 dong (0.63 USD). That’s a steal because a bottle is potent enough to get a few people happy and singing. The goal was to open The Astronomer up enough so he would be singing karaoke later. His Vietnamese teacher H thought that one could not leave the country without this quintessential Vietnamese experience!

The place where we went to ăn nhậu. Notice: no women!

The birthday boy with the bottle of rice wine.

The Gastronomer joins in on the shots while C2 looks on.

*CAUTION* This may be disturbing to some. Hột vịt lộn in tamarind sauce. Hột vịt lộn is a fertilized duck egg with an embryo inside – you might have seen this on Fear Factor or Survivor! Read Jay’s and Rachel’s experience with balut – the equivalent in the Philippines. I grew up eating this so it doesn’t bother me but I like eating this better simply boiled, still in the egg shell with a bit of salt and pepper. Whenever a white person asked what the eggs were at Asian markets back home (yes, you can find them back home if you really look), my mom would advise them “You don’t want to buy that!”.

Clams backed with peanuts and scallion oil (delicious!). In the background are blood cockles (a type of shellfish) in tamarind sauce.

The girls enjoying some clams (V, H, C2 – C2 because her name starts with C and she’s Canadian too!).

The whole group.

Being a Saturday night, most karaoke bars were either booked up or didn’t allow reservations. After many calls to different karaoke bars, H found one where a room was available. The room was actually very impressive looking and at 118,000 dong an hour (8 USD), not a bad deal! There was a large selection of English songs with an even larger selection of Vietnamese songs. After singing each song, a grade was given; we ranged from 75% to 100%.

And the award goes to…
Best undiscovered talent: The Astronomer
Best prepared after years of singing in front of the mirror: The Gastronomer
Best duo of the night: C2 and the Gastronomer with their rendition of Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise (the only 100% score of the night). Never knew Asian girls could be such good rappers!
Cutest singer of the night: H singing Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini and stating it was her favourite song to sing!

The Astronomer got right into it with The Beatles "Baby You Can Drive My Car".

H singing a Vietnamese song.

The Astronomer singing We Will Rock You.

Best duo of the night!

Singing is not my forte. Slapping The Boyfriend is!

How cute! The birthday boy is serenading The Gastronomer.

Miss Universe Contestants

Last Saturday, I met up with some friends for dim sum at the New World Hotel, for The Astronomer’s birthday (24! So young!). As I was walking along the hotel outside, I saw signs advertising New World Hotel being the Ho Chi Minh host hotel for Miss Universe. I did not realize then that I would be walking among the beautiful contestants very soon. Miss Universe is to be held in Nha Trang (north of Ho Chi Minh City) next month. I’m hoping to go to Nha Trang before I leave, not to bump into The Donald but for the beaches!

The dim sum restaurant, Dynasty, was on the second floor right by the elevator. As I was waiting in the lobby with The Gastronomer and The Astronomer, contestants kept coming out of the elevator and going to a conference room. They were hard to miss with their sashes. Kids were waiting to get their pictures taken and so I decided to become a paparazzi and take some pictures also. I thought it would make for an entertaining post!

The girls were very accommodating and always stopped to smile, even though their handlers kept rushing them through. All of them were taller than me (not a difficult feat!), but even more taller in heels. I left early and missed Miss Vietnam but The Gastronomer snagged a picture! I never saw Miss Canada either… Check out the pics below because really, no need for words!

The Astronomer posing with Miss Universe 2007.

Miss Russia, Ukraine and Turkey.

Notice contestants were all legs!

Miss Slovenia and South Africa.

Latin Americans like to stick together: Miss Brazil, Paraguay, Honduras and Guatemala.

Miss Norway and Finland.

Miss Israel, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Nicaragua going down the stairs.

Miss Australia was posing with some rugby players.

H, The Astronomer's Vietnamese teacher got to pose with Miss Vietnam!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Vung Tau (June 14-15)

The Boyfriend and I had been planning on spending a beach weekend in Vung Tau (or Cap Saint-Jacques as it was known by the French) for a while now. However, The Boyfriend has been trying to get his visa renewed and so did not have his passport. All hotels in Vietnam require passports and we didn’t want to risk going without one. He finally got his passport back this past week and so off to Vung Tau we went.

Vung Tau is an hour and fifteen minutes by ferry (hydrofoil) from HCMC. A one way ticket costs 140,000 (about 9 USD). We booked our tickets on Thursday for Saturday morning and many of the morning departures were already solidly booked. We therefore booked to leave at noon and come back at 3 pm the next day.

The Saigon River is not very clean...

Big net on that fishing boat!

It was bright and sunny as we approached Vung Tau!

I searched for hotels and we decided to splurge on a nicer one with a pool. A standard room went for 55 USD (up until now, our stays have not gone over 27 USD!). We wanted a pool because although Vung Tau is on the water, it is highly polluted due to offshore drilling. We were not willing to go swimming downriver from HCMC! All the pictures of The Petro House seemed very nice. It was described as a boutique hotel.

We were rather disappointed to see our small and smelly room, with a window facing… a wall! We went back to the reception and demanded another room. We were told that they’d show us another room and if we weren’t happy we would have to get a deluxe room. The second room had a view of the pool. It still wasn’t what I’d imagine a boutique hotel room to be, but it was much better than the first room we got. This proves that it’s true: you should never accept the first room you’re assigned at a hotel!

The pool at the Petro House.

As described by the hotel brochure "the only Gourmet and Garlic dining room in Vung Tau". I've never eaten at a Garlic dining room before...

The much better view from our second bedroom.

On our arrival, we decided to lounge at the pool. We decided that we could go for a walk later to see the sunset on top of a pagoda. The weather was perfect and the sun was shining brightly. Unfortunately, the pool was as small as a private pool; fortunately, we were the only one using the pool (and the only two lounge chairs!). When we decided we were ready for our walk is when it started raining. And pouring. And raining some more. I even convinced The Boyfriend that it stopped raining. As we walked around, we realized it wasn’t true. So we spent the rest of the evening at the hotel. No sunset for us!

The rain or dirty waters didn't stop some from going for a swim.

The next morning was bright and sunny again. After breakfast and a quick dip in the pool (we were alone again!), we got a taxi ride to the Niet Ban Tinh Xa Pagoda where we were expecting a nice view. It wasn't quite high enough on the mountain. So we walked back toward the ferry station and stopped for a drink. We'll have to come again to explore some more and hope for better weather!

Can you see the back of the giant Jesus statue?

At the Niet Ban Tinh Xa Pagoda.

At the Niet Ban Tinh Xa Pagoda. This Buddha isn't quite as big as the reclining Buddha in Bangkok!

Vung Tau coast.

Fish traps on the coast.

As we leafed through our menu, The Boyfriend pointed that the picture strangely looked like... a Big Mac! Can you sing the Big Mac song?

A little red tugboat pulling a rig. (The Boyfriend's observations. I wouldn't notice these things!)

I think these were for rent, right by the road.

As we waited for our ferry back, this little boy was wearing a big furry hat, in sharp contrast to the girl in a straw hat, fanning herself!

This is our hydrofoil. It can hold over 100 passengers!

Can you see the water spout (which is like a water tornado)? Again one of The Boyfriend's observations.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Cho Benh Thanh Challenge II

I realize that I still have a lot of stalls to eat at if I’m going to finish this challenge! So here are the latest updates:

Bo la lot & banh hoi at Stall 1090, 20,000 dong. Bo la lot is grilled ground beef wrapped in la lot (betel leaves). They’re the little green cylindrical packages. I remember my mom using vine leaves when she could not find betel leaves at Asian markets. I asked to substitute the usual bun (vermicelli) for banh hoi - very thin rice noodles, usually steamed instead of boiled. I really enjoy these thin noodles. The beef seasoning was excellent, but I’m used to a better quality meat. I couldn’t resist ordering a chao tom (ground shrimp, grilled around a sugar cane) for an extra 15,000 dong.

Banh Canh Ga at Stall 1084, 25,000 dong. I had spotted a stall selling chao (rice porridge) and had the intention of eating there, but it was closed. Looking lost in the middle of food stalls in Cho Benh Thanh will quickly attract vendors asking you to come eat at their stall. The lady assured me her stall had chao ga (ga = chicken). Once I sat down, the lady at the counter offered mien ga (clear noodles) or banh canh ga. I ordered banh canh gabanh canh is specifically the fat noodles above. The broth was excellent, sweet and flavourful. Banh canh is not my favourite though; I don’t hate it but I don’t love it.

Bun Rieu at Stall 1128, 20,000 dong. I do not usually feel like eating soups due to the hot weather here even though I am a total soup fanatic. After a morning shower, it actually felt cool so I thought I should take advantage of the weather and have some soup. Bun rieu is a vermicelli crab soup and is one of my favourites in the winter. It’s hard to explain what it is since my mom actually makes the rieu (the lumps at the bottom) from a can and simply adds eggs. Authentic rieu is made from a tiny crab mixture. The norm here is to serve fried tofu and huyet (blood). I had a nibble of the blood just to say I did, but it’s not really my thing. They served this with bean sprouts. I like my version better (even if it’s from a can) because I add a ridiculous amount of tomatoes and iceberg lettuce! It was still good though.

A condiment for bun rieu is mam (middle container), which is fermented shrimp paste. It’s stinky and salty, but it’s a must for this dish!

Banh beo at Stall 1170, 6,000 dong. I realize I've included banh beo in this eating challenge before. That’s because there is a lot of overlap between the food stalls. I’ve noticed this stall in the northwest corner of the market because it always seems very busy. Maybe because of its low prices! This is my cheapest lunch yet. At this stall, the banh beo were a miniature version. You could have cha or nem for an extra 3000 dong. I opted for nem since I haven’t had any since I got here. Nem is ground pork that is cured and is not cooked. This was good although the nuoc cham was a tad on the sweet side, even for my taste (and I like it sweet!).

Bun moc at Stall 1266, 25,000 dong. Bun moc is a pretty simple soup: broth, noodles and pork patties. The broth was very flavourful and the cha was very good too. It was good, but I was sweating buckets which made it a bit harder to enjoy. I find it hard to eat soup in the hot weather.

Bun cha gio & nem nuong at Stall 1044, 30,000 dong. I’ve been obsessing about cha gio (fried spring rolls). This is the fifth time I’ve had it in a week… These were good because the vendor heated them up on charcoal grills so they were crisp and hot. The filling had big chunks of pork, which I’m not used to because my mom usually uses ground pork. The nem nuong (grilled pork meatballs) were perfectly flavoured; they were just very fatty. Again, I’m used to my mom’s and she uses leaner meat. The little joint near my place definitely makes them better!

Rau ma, 6000 dong. I accompanied my cha gio with a rau ma juice. I’ve never had this green juice and my mother tells me it’s very cooling. Not just cool temperature wise. Vietnamese people believe that certain foods make you hot or cool internally. Well, rau ma may be cooling but it tastes the way it looks, like drinking grass. It was fine when I was drinking it, but the minute I swallowed, it was just grotesque.

Com chay thap cam at Stall 1014, 15,000 dong. Being the first (along with the 15th) of the lunar month, most com tam (rice) stalls offer a chay (vegetarian) option for practicing Buddhists. Thap cam is sort of the special (I can’t think of the correct English term!) which includes pretty much a little of everything offered. In this case, there was a lot of tofu, some okra, some faux chicken at the bottom and pickled vegetables over a bed of rice, accompanied by a sauce made out of chau (fermented tofu). It also came with a canh (soup) with big chunks of squash. This was pretty good; I liked certain things more than others. I wish I had a better idea what I was eating though!

Bo bit tet at Stall 1054, 25,000 dong. I’ve had bo bit tet (beefsteak) a couple of times in Vietnam. The best I’ve had is still at my aunt’s; she used melt-in-your-mouth Australian beef. I headed for Cho Benh Thanh around 9:00 (that’s early! I’m usually lazing around at that time) for breakfast. The bit tet came out on a sizzling cow-shaped plate with one egg, topped with pate, onion and crispy slices of garlic. Vietnamese love their pate, another French influence. The piece of beef was pretty small. This was accompanied by a banh mi (Vietnamese baguette bread) to sop up all the sauce. Quite a heavy breakfast! I’ll have to hit the gym extra hard today!