Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Hen Gap Lai Feast

"Hen Gap Lai" means "See you again." Thuy and Thanh want to have my See You Again Feast at the new barbecue place right on Nguyen Canh Chan - about a block from where the stupid sushi restaurant opened and closed two years ago. So we stake out a spot and call Ms. Hao and Ut to see if they can join us. They can. Thuy's husband, Dung, is on his way too.

Vietnamese celebrations include lots of "Mot, hai, ba, YO!" (One, two three, YO!"). At the end of each toast, I add "Hen gap lai!" and this makes them laugh every time. (You have to stick with what works when there's a language barrier.)

We begin with deep fried squid and lotus root salad with shrimp:

Then it's grilled shrimp - they are so sweet and sticky:

Then a fire pit is brought to the table and a stone plate is placed on it. We wait about fifteen minutes for it to heat. While we're waiting, Thanh translates this conversation: Thuy and Dung are saying that in China, they put heroin in their food so that after you eat it you want more more more of...something. I kept asking, "What? What do they want more of?" I think they want more food, but who knows? Maybe they just want more.

They have so many funny opinions about the Chinese. I tell them they've already had too much beer.

Anyway, here is the beef and okra waiting to sizzle:


(You dip it in a salt, pepper and lime mixture.)

After this course, there is animated discussion at the table; they all want Thanh to ask me something. She laughs and asks, "Do you want baby duck in egg?"

I have experience with this. When teaching in China, on an ordinary day during lunch at the grade school, baby duck in egg was on our lunch trays. None of us could eat it...all furry and beaky and...a baby duck.

"Sorry," I say. "Americans have no courage."

They have figured on this, so they scour the menu and come up with the grande finale: deep-fried whole fish. It was hard to capture its immense beauty:

You wrap the delicious morsels of this fish in rice paper along with rice noodles, star fruit, basil, greens and cucumbers and dip it all into one of Vietnam's many amazing sauces.

The best part of this fish is its crunchiness; you eat the scales and all. I may not eat baby duck in egg, but I will eat fish scales if they are done properly.

Here is Ut, the bag designer:

And we're done.

Here is Dung with Huang. Every night he comes over for a few hours after work, and this is all he does. He looks at his son, plays with his son, makes sure his son is comfortable. At dinner Dung hardly ate anything because he was so enraptured with this child.

Huang has a village that caters to every single need he has before he has it. I have heard him fuss a little, but I haven't heard him cry. Not once in ten days.

We are done with our feast by 8. I drop by Tran's salon to see if she's there for a final massage. I'm in luck. She insists on touching up my lashes and says, "I hope your mother doesn't say 'Marjie, you look terrible!' when she sees you at the airport." They are so cool-looking. I give Tran a big hug when I leave and she kisses me on the cheek. She is, possibly, the purest soul on the planet.

And as I'm walking back to T and T's house - which is just across the street - Ut and his friend are passing on a motorbike. Ut stops and hands me a sugarcane drink that he had just bought for me. See what I mean about the timing in this place? It's like "cue massage." Or "cue eyelashes." "Cue grandma's amazing lunch." Or "cue sugarcane drink after your massage while walking across the street."
Earlier, Ms. Hao gave me a one-of-a-kind bag, too. She put a note inside that read, "I made this for you. I hope you think it nice."

"How can one person receive all of this love?" you might be asking.

I don't really know. I'm almost embarrassed to write about it.

When I get to their house, grandma and Huang are asleep on a make-shift bed on the floor. Thuy will join them here and Thanh will climb a ladder where she will share the loft with her father, two brothers, sister-in-law and nephew.

Part of me wants to join the slumber party, but I take the computer back to the hotel and write this final post instead.

We've already decided that we will say "Hen gap lai" at the hotel tomorrow- none of this "goodbye" stuff is going to happen. I'll eat my rice cakes, get my hair washed, play with Huang, get in a taxi and get ready to go to work tomorrow.

What do I do for work again?


So much happens in the market each morning that I could write about just that. Here are a few stories from this morning:

I'm walking through the main strip as usual when a tiny woman carrying a basket on her head filled with rice, coconut and sugar spots me.

"Hello!" she says, and smiles an almost-toothless grin.

I return her hello and she laughs and laughs. Then she grabs my hand and grips it tightly, pulling me alongside her as she strolls down the alley, talking all the way.

All the vendors are laughing because she is so small and is gripping my hand so tightly that I'm bent over just trying to keep up with her. She does this for a long while - to everyone's extreme entertainment.

Then she lets go and says, "Goodbye!"

It really is rare for the older people here to know English, let alone speak it with confidence. She's pretty cool.

Another scene: Kids all over Vietnam absolutely love to say "hello" to foreigners. Sometimes the hello is joined by "how are you?" and we are constantly returning these very sweet greetings.

Today while I'm walking past the temple, two boys - about ten or eleven - see me and one whispers something into the other's ear. They both look at me and the one who was just dared (I'm guessing) blurts out "F**k!" (I censored that for my mom.) They are both a little horrified at their own courage, and they take off giggling down the alley, turning to catch my reaction. But I'm just laughing, so I'm sure that is a little disappointing.

Kids are so endlessly sweet here...I'm sure if an adult had been there, these boys would have been in big trouble. I know that some kids will grow up to be motorbike cowboys here, but I have yet to meet a good candidate for that.

Monday, January 07, 2013


On Spaghetti-with-Soy-Sauce-Night, I tell Thanh I want to do the dishes.

"No!" (emphatic). "No work for ten days!"

"But what about you?" I respond. "You work every single day."

Thanh just shrugs and says, "We different."

And my hair-washer, Trinh (also my age), during our hour-long conversation I learned that she sleeps on the same bench I recline on during a hair-wash...she and three other girls who work at Salon Mimi all sleep in a row on the salon beds. And they share a tiny bathroom with a squat toilet and a shower head next to a bucket. 

"It's OK," Trinh says. "It's not bad."

I am never more aware of my privileged life than when I'm here, and the fact that I have these friendships at all...well, it has to do with acceptance on many levels. Unconditional understanding of where we are from, who we are, etc. Mostly, though, these are content people. Filled with generosity, love and humor.

I think about these things a lot. So much, in fact, that I haven't been able to read the three books I brought. Too distracted with it all...I've seen too much behind the curtain these days.

What I think about:

My many freedoms: political and personal. Educational opportunities. Career choices. The ability to travel freely around the world. Maybe more importantly, being able to afford to travel freely around the world. Car ownership, home ownership. The time to think about what makes me happy and the means to make those things happen.

And that four years ago I (freely) answered a Craigslist ad that brought me here - to a place where I feel even more free. But in this place the people are not free. They do not have political freedoms and they are captives of poverty and bound by family responsibilities; no one else is going to take care of them if they get sick. So they have each other instead of insurance and pension plans. It would take them a lifetime to save enough to travel to America, but by then they would have hospital bills to pay.

So they accept it. They have enough. They have food, shelter, family and community. I know a lot of rich people would give anything for that.

Last night as I'm teaching Thanh how to use Facebook, she says, "So much freedom in America."

During our Nha Trang get-away, she confessed to me that she would like to be independent, but that it will never happen.

"It's hard," she said.

But loyalty and care-taking is so ingrained into her being that she couldn't go out on her own, even if she had money. At this point, anyway.

"Do you want to come to America?" I ask, hesitantly. I kind of have to ask. But I can't picture her there without the rest of "her."

She thinks for a moment, then says, "No. I don't."

I'm relieved. Because we have way too much, and with that comes so many problems. I want her to have a good life. I want all of them to have "better" lives. But what, exactly, does "better" look like? Does it make this market look like the shopping mall of my recurring nightmares?*

What a strange, strange world. None of it makes sense. I was born there, they were born here.

And the strangest part of all? "Contentment" exists somewhere outside of circumstance.

On Wednesday, a time-machine will take me back to my life. I will be happy to return to it (although today I couldn't remember what I usually eat for breakfast). A few people have predicted that I will come back here to teach - based on my obvious love for this place. The answer is a definite "no" to that. Just thinking about it causes me nothing but anxiety. I hate the heat, and I only endured it because I loved it here so much. But that was a different time, under different circumstances. This place changed me and offered me more than I ever thought possible. But I am content in Seattle.

Nevertheless, I do think that it will be a bit confusing to return after these two weeks. (I think I usually eat eggs for breakfast.)

OK. Now, for some final food wrap-ups:

*1. Speaking of that recurring nightmare, I keep meaning to mention this: the sushi restaurant that caused me so much worry? It closed after only one month. "Very bad," said Thanh.

2. I saw Pomelo Guy the other day, but he was just walking through the market and was not selling pomelo. Today a woman who HAD to be his twin was selling it in his spot. It was dry and very disappointing. I'm hoping for a miracle the next two mornings.

3. Deep-fried Spring Roll Lady closed her cart two years ago and moved back to the Mekong Delta, her home. I finally dragged Thanh to her area of the market this morning to make inquiries, and that's the story. So she closed up right after I left. I probably gave her the majority of her business.

Everyone else sells and sells, day after day. And they will be selling to me for two more days. Nothing could be better, from my perspective...

Correction: THIS is the Best Soup I Have Ever Tasted

Thuy has been wanting to make me this soup all week. Today was the day...so much for my earlier statement, "This trip is not about food discovery, it's about food memory." I said that right before heading to Nha Trang and trying everything on Thanh's mighty list.

But this soup was OUT of this WORLD. I mean, just look at it! How can something with squid, shrimp, eggplant and basil not be divine? And for the sake of the picture I didn't show this part, but underneath is a bunch of shredded banana roots. The combination of textures is fantastic.

I ask if it's hard to make.

"No," Thuy says. "It's easy. So easy."

I've heard that before.

Thanh begins describing the process. It's complex, of course, and involves fish bones, lemongrass, sugar, fish sauce and lime. She gets to the tenth step and mentions "fish in liquid."

"Wait a minute. What is 'fish in liquid?" I ask, already knowing that this soup is way beyond me and my Seattle ingredients.

"I show you," she says, and heads into the kitchen. Here is the kitchen, by the way:

Such deliciousness comes out of such a small space. See the flowers next to the altar? I bought them for "Mom," thinking they would go into a vase. No, they stayed in the plastic wrapping and went to their proper place.

No running water in there, either; you have to get that from a hose in the bathroom. The dishes are done in the back corner, over to the left. Dishes are piled there, then the bucket of water comes out of the bathroom.

Anyway, Thanh retrieves a red bucket from somewhere in there and sets it on the floor next to me.

"Fish in liquid," she says.

I pry open the lid to see multiple fish parts floating in a brown chunky liquid.

"Where do you keep this?"

"Under the stove."

"For how long?"

"Long time. Maybe one year. Want to take to Seattle?"

She thinks she can seal a container and that I can take it on the plane.

"Won't it smell?" I ask.

"Yes, I think."

It's a pretty long flight for that. I will just have to come back.

Thanh cooked lunch earlier. I just can't keep up with all of my meal invitations. Here's what we had:

1) Prawns with garlic

2) Eggplant cooked over fire (slowly) and topped with green onion and nuoc cham. One of my favorites.

3) Pig intestine and beans. The beans were great! (I figured that was adventurous enough, just to taste the flavoring of the intestines.)

During the afternoon, Thanh and I had a map-making competition. It began after I showed her my product: a map that took an hour to make and required me to walk all over the neighborhood. (This is a necessity; I have already misled many people trying to direct them in this place).

"I can make a better one," Thanh says in a very matter-of-fact tone.

"No you can't," I say. So I spend the next hour perfecting mine and come back to see the neighborhood mapped out in the most clear way possible. Alleyways marked by numbers and everything.

"Why didn't you make this for me four years ago?" I say. Katherine can attest to the fact that I have absolutely no idea where I am, ever. So, anyway, if you come to my neighborhood, you will now get a really good map. I took Thanh's and labeled it well; T and T laughed at me, though.

"It's all food!"

Of course it is.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Rainy, Sleepy Morning

Between Breakfasts

In between breakfasts (rice cake appetizer at 7, something else at 10), I find "other" things to do. I sit in T and T's house and use the computer. I get my hair washed. I go visiting. This morning I went to see Sweet Seamstress and her brother, Ut - two doors down from the castle. Ut is pretty shy. Remember when he worked up the courage to ask what Katherine would do with her bike when she left because he wanted it so badly? Well, he still rides it with pride. 

I arrive at the front of the shop and Ut is holding this bag - quite nervously. Passing it from hand to hand. Finally, Sweet Seamstress nudges him and gestures toward me. He hands me the bag and says, "For you, Maggie." (He speaks very little English.)
Timing is so strange in this place. I find out later that he had tried to get SS to bring it to the stand, but she said he had to give it to me. I guess he was working up his courage when I happened to come by. I'm pretty sure it's the best give I have ever received. Well, actually I will have to think about that, but right now it feels that way. It's beautiful, a one-of-a-kind Ut design. I tell him how much I love it, and how he should sell them in the neighborhood - or in America (don't ask me how we communicate, it just happens).
He just shakes his head and says, "Only one."

Later I am walking by Nam's mother's house (just past the fabric stand on the left). Usually his sister-in-law sells fruit right outside, but she has disappeared momentarily. I peek in and see that she's awake, lying still on her hard bench. She sees me and beckons me in. So I slip inside and pull up a plastic stool. She gives me her hand and we smile at each other...usually there has been someone there to translate. But now it's just the two of us. She points up to the wall where she is pictured at age 70 (I know numbers and she tells me that).

"Beautiful," I say in Vietnamese.

She nods. It seems she is telling me, "That is who I am, not this."

Then she asks me what number child I am, and I answer, "Two."

Then she removes her hand from mine and picks up her other hand - the one that lies limp from her stroke - and places it in my hands. She indicates that she would like me to massage it to get the blood flowing.

So I do - I massage her from her fingers to her elbow and back. I stop for a moment and she nudges me with her good hand, like a cat. I laugh and keep massaging. She laughs, too.

After probably 20 minutes or so, her daughter-in-law - who returned to her station shortly after my entry into the house - peeks in and gives a little gasp. She is quite surprised to see me sitting there.

And then there is nervous activity and Nam's sister is fetched, who then fetches her English-speaking friend, and our secret moment disappears.

In Just One Day

T and T's mother cooks lunch almost every day. I brought her some purple potatoes before we left for Nha Trang and yesterday she made purple potato soup with shrimp to go with this pan-fried fish. She used to cook for a living. She is amazing. The thing is that I never see her cook or eat; the food just magically appears.

Mom, these shirts are yours. (Yes, T and T insisted on THREE shirts for you, and they chose the material. Which one do you like best? They have a clear favorite.)

This is my lovely seamstress across town (not to be confused with Sweet Seamstress), Thu Ha. My mom had a shirt copied three years ago and loved it, so I took the same shirt and had it copied three more times. This seamstress is a master copier, but she can also take a picture of a dress and your measurements and execute a fitting perfectly.

When I was home for about six months, I received a notice that I had a package waiting at the post office; Thu Ha had sent me two embroidered pillows. Of course, they matched my living room colors perfectly. She has a sixth sense.

Yesterday Trinh washed my hair at Salon Mimi, and since no one was there, we chatted for over an hour. As I'm walking back to my hotel, she rides up behind me on her motorbike and asks me to join her for lunch. We ride helmet-less through the alleys to a fish soup stand and she buys me lunch with her tip money. Seems you can't do anything for anyone in this neighborhood without getting it back in some form.

The soup is definitely the best I've had, ever: shrimp, squid and fish balls topped with thai spinach and other greens.

Here is Huang saying good morning:

He is wearing a hat because it is "so cold" this morning. Actually, the weather has been great ever since Sunday, which was miserably hot. So lucky.

Last night Thanh took me to Cho Lon - Chinatown. Because Tet is nearing, everything is Tet-related. About fifty of these shops line the streets; everything is yellow and red.

I met four former students at Yogurt Space last night (yogurt, ice cream and donuts have taken over this city in the last few years): from left: Linda, Justine, Alex and Jack. They look exactly the same, except they are a million times more beautiful and handsome - these kids are now 10th graders. I will go to the high school on Tuesday to see all of the others (except that many of them are now in the US).

Josh, take note: Upper Left Apparel has gone international!