Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lucky Walking

This morning Thuy and Thanh asked me if I would like to walk to a cafe with them tonight, so that's what I just did. Guess what - we end up going to "Rita."

I tell them we must take a picture in front of the sign for my friend. It's a great picture for another reason, though...look how they both come to just past my shoulder, then picture me in the middle of the two of them, holding hands as we walk all over District One.

When I hold hands with them, by the way, it not only feels uncomfortable because I am holding hands with them, but their hands are so low, they pull me down a bit and it is quite awkward for me to walk like that. Oh, another thing about this picture: I am wearing all tailored clothes. The shirt is white silk with blue and white embroidery , and the skirt is made out of shiny textured jean material (not to be confused with shiny silver shark skin material).

Thuy and Thanh both love my silk embroidered shirt. "It's so beautiful!" my fabric friends tell me.

I learn so much at Rita - a very cool outdoor cafe with lots of palm trees - like, that when T and T were little, their parents sold vegetables in the market (the same market). When they got a little bigger, their parents began selling fabric, and when T and T got out of school, they took over the business.

Thuy tells me that they make between 200.000 and 300,000 VND per day (betwee $12 and $18 per day). The average income, I've heard, is about $65 per week, so they are above that. I wonder why they don't "build up."

And I learn that T and T did not learn English in school. Thanh learned it from a dictionary, on her own, and she teaches Thuy and her niece and nephew (the drunk 5 year old). I think that is really something. They have been learning it for years, and Thuy says, "You and K and T are the only ones we speak English with."

Thuy tells me a funny story. She saw K, T and I the first night we came to look at the castle. She and her friends were eating out on the street when they saw three foreigners walk past. "You were in front, holding a map, and K and T followed you." I could tell she was impressed that I was leading them, so I didn't tell her that if that in fact happened (which I am sure it did not) that it was the only time in my life that anyone has followed me while I was holding a map. She said, yeah, everyone was watching you three and talking about you.

When we pass a salon where the girls are wearing really short, tight dresses, Thanh looks over dissaprovingly, and says, "Salon for men." They explain that it's easy to tell. If the girls are wearing short, tight dresses, then the "salon" is just a cover; what it really is is upstairs.

"What if I went there for a hair wash?" I ask them. They say that I would get a hair wash, but it might not be that great; it's not their specialty.

"Oh," I say. I am so naive.

Now, at the Bum Bum, they certainly do not wear short, tight dresses. They wear cute, purple polos and jeans, mostly. The Bum Bum is apparently the only salon that T and T approve of in our neighborhood. There must be 12 of them within a two minute walk, so how we happened on the best one within minutes of moving into the castle is nothing other than destiny.

I learn that they don't like "people from China." This is something Tarn has heard from many people here, but it's the first I've heard it spoken. I ask if it's because Vietnam was occupied by China and I just get a shrug as a response. "Well, what about America? We were here, too. Do you like Americans?"

They both laugh a little sheepishly. "Americans are loud!" Thanh finally says.

And I learn that their favorite "color" is white. I tell them that white is absent of color so it doesn't count, but they don't understand. And here's something that really throws me:

Me: Are you happy about Obama?"

Thanh gives Thuy a funny look.

Thuy: I really like Obama, but she doesn't.

Me: Really? Why?

Thanh: I like white skin.

She knows that this shocks me a little, so I pull her pony tail and tell her that Obama is a good man. She laughs. "I don't like black skin," she says.

I am just the reporter in this case, but here is a little commentary: there are very few black people in HCMC, and they are mostly black African men. What I have heard - and this seems to be true by the way they act and dress - is that they are pimps for Vietnamese girls. Add this to the fact that most of the lotion or face cream you buy in Vietnam has the label "skin whitening" on it. This culture is obsessed with white skin, which is nothing new, right? But the fact that this "brown" skinned, completely gracious woman does not like our president because she prefers white skin to black skin...well, I don't know what to say about that. Mostly, all I have heard from Vietnamese people is support for the new "president of the world." And Thuy is 100% behind him, so...I will just stick with "I don't know what to say about that."

As we are heading back to the neighborhood, we walk past a really old Hindu temple. An indirect light shines on a female Buddha...I think they call her "That Ba" (ba is the term for a woman much older than you), and "That Om" (term for a man much older than you) is not far from her, but he is unlit. Incense is burning in a little holder outside of the gate, and I ask if we can stop. There is a little cannister filled with incense, so Thuy takes out three for each of us and lights them.

"Why do we have three each?" I ask.

"One is for you, one is for your family, and one is for the whole world." Nice.

They show me how to wave the incense in front of both Ba and Om, and I say the prayer after them. "May you bring me luck, may you bring my family luck, and may you bring the world luck." Then we put the incense in the sand to burn, and we make a prayer sign and bow with our hands at our heads, then down to our hearts.

"Now your family will be lucky, all the way in America," says Thuy.

Do you feel lucky, mom, dad? Angie, Brian? I hope so.

How about you, world. Are you feeling lucky?

Friday, January 30, 2009

Sea, Sand, Squid, Shrimp, Scallops (and crab)

(With an apology to Seattleites who are still battling snow) ...above is a picture of Mui Ne Beach, and to the right is not a picture of the Sahara Desert, but rather the sand dunes just a few miles away from the beach. It's kind of a funny ten-mile stretch of beach resorts - hard to tell where the town is - a four-hour "sleeper bus" ride north of HCMC.

I make no reservations, which everyone tells me will be a mistake, this being Tet week and all. Honestly, I'm just too lazy to make them, and I have some friends here and know I can stay with them if necessary. But I'm able to get a place right on the beach with no problem for $35 per night (quite expensive...non-Tet price would be between $10 and $20).

However, the highlight is not swimming in the warm ocean water nor reading in the sand by the's this:

finding a purely Vietnamese-only tourist beach with some friends after a sand-dune excursion. While kids play in the water and families picnic behind us, we are mesmerized by the system of seafood catching, preparing and grilling going on on the beach. I know I have never had seafood this fresh in my past life, and can only hope to have it this fresh again in my future life.

You see the buckets sitting in front of these women? You would not believe the size of the prawns and squid in them. They are being caught and brought in as we sit on cement steps right behind them. We pick what we want, they weigh it and we pay them. Then the selling women bring our purchase to the grilling women and we pay them to cook it for us. This all happens within a five-step radius, and all we do is point and nod.

We have grilled scallops, squid, crab, prawns...more squid, more scallops, more prawns - we just keep ordering and ordering...and these: they are shrimp covered with glutinous rice. Of course, each dish comes with a special sauce. The mixture I am hooked on, though, is just simple coarse salt with lime squeezed into it - both salty and sour - the just-right addition to perfectly-grilled seafood.
I think we eat for two hours straight. And I don't keep close track, but I think we spend about $10 each, including Heineken.

So this question is kind of similar to "are you a cat person or a dog person?"

"Are you a beach person, or a seafood-on-the-beach person?" If you could choose only one, which would it be? You know which one I am.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Thursday Blog Contest: Pirates! and a prize!

(Blog contest explained below)

Here's just a portion of the castle's pirated TV series, movie collections and music videos, from top left: House (4 seasons), Sex and the City (7 seasons), Alfred Hitchcock Collection (44 movies), Woody Allen Collection (44 movies), 30 Rock (seasons 1 and 2), and the music video collection: 30 live Elvis performances, Michael Jackson #1's, Beattles "Help!", Abba "Super Troupers," Katherine's "Disco Inforno" (sic) DVD- the crown of all our music DVD's, Journey's collection of MTV videos, a Lionel Richie video collection, including "Dancing on the Ceiling" and "All Night Long" (a VERY CLOSE second place to "Disco Inforno" (sic), Madonna (amazing), INXS, and a George Michael and Wham! (close following Lionel's). Notables not pictured: Carpenter's Karaoke, Whitney Houston, Queen, Duran Duran, and a load of single movies, such as "Roman Holiday" and "Frost/Nixon."

We are especially proud of our music video collection and they are the center focus of most castle parties. Katherine and I also watch them for hours.

Of course you want to know how much. OK, movie collections and TV series= 100,000 VD ($6). That's right, 44 Woody Allen movies for $6. Music videos= 20,000 VD ($1.20), movies= 15,000 VD (90 cents).

It's such a fun hobby, along with dress designing and food tasting - this is a fun (yet not at a beautiful) city.

Now, for the contest part: Speaking of our quintessential "Disco Inferno" DVD- if you were compiling a collection of pre-MTV disco hits, which singers or bands would be on there, and what song would he/she/they be singing?

First to get FIVE SINGERS AND FIVE SONGS CORRECT WINS (five out of twenty-one)!

Make your guesses, and I will confirm singers and songs until you get all five singers and all five songs, so if you're into it (Mungo), check back often (but keep in mind I am on vacation until Saturday or Sunday and had this contest post automatically in my absence, so feedback will not be as quick as I would like).

This prize is easy: if you win, you get a music DVD of your choice sent to you (only, we haven't been able to find another "Disco Inferno.") Too bad. But, Mungo, I know you want Lionel Richie anyway.

Good luck!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

And the winner of the dress design competition is:

I tallied up the points last night (Sunday), from both blog and email votes and here's how they broke down:
#1 - 16 votes
#2 - 7 votes
#3 - 10 votes
Angie, nice job getting all of your friend to help you win. That's a smart way to play. No, really, I love this dress. Let's discuss a prize (or prizes)?
However, I think my mom's comment was very appropriate. She thinks I should have ALL of them made, and I agree. She thinks I should have tons and tons of clothes made, and like Amy emphasized, I do what my mother tells me. I will start with this #1 though, and I think that Michelle and I should have #3 made when she comes to visit. It will be fun to go shopping with her at Ben Thanh Market. (You all can come, too.) I'm counting on the fact that she will be having some clothes made while she is here, too.
Stay tuned tomorrow for a scheduled post of "Castle Tour Videos." I am excited for you to see the castle. I guess I am a little video crazy at the moment.
And, of course, Blog Contest Thursday is scheduled to post at 12:01 am. Thursday, PST, as well, and it involves a prize this time. Remember, Michelle is quite competitive and I think she's really going to go for it on this one since she placed second in the dress competition. By the way, the most passionate votes (esp, Cecilie's, my fashion friend's) were for #3, Michelle. Maybe next time I will have to account for passion??

Monday, January 26, 2009

Tet Scenes from the 'Hood

Do you see what these two men are doing? The one on the left set fire to a stack of US $100 (fake) bills and is lighting a cigarette for the man on the right with them. Are you offended?

Don't be. Look at this next picture: it is Candle Neighbor's sister (not as warm and friendly as CN) burning all kinds of money - US bills, a stack of bills with a picture of what looks a lot like Shakespeare - along with many other paper representations of items such as houses and jewelry. In both scenes ancestors are being honored. Anything they burn today - and there are little fires burning all over Viet Nam right now - is traveling to the ancestors' world so that they can have money and houses and jewelry with them.

The men having the beer - well, I assume they are having a beer with their ancestors. When I passed, they raised their glasses to me and asked me to join them (they always do this to K, T and me). When I saw them burning the US dollars, I said (in poor Vietnamese) "Hey, that's my money!" They all laughed and put on the show for me with the cigarette.
All over the neighborhood, flags are out, altars are set with food, fruit and flowers and fires are burning close by. Here is Sweet Seamstress, Ms. Hao, posing by her should see how clean her shop is, and this is the first day that she has been free of her sewing machine since we met her in August. Everything is clean. People are still sweeping and hosing things down and putting last minute touches of paint on their homes.

At about noon, I heard a loud drumming outside, so I ran outside with my camera. This group of kids were beating a drum, running into houses with lists, writing th
ings down, and doing something else which took a full minute. Later, I played the video for Thuy and Thanh and they told me that they were collecting money for Tet and keeping track of who gave it to them. Again...Halloween mixed with Santa? Groups of happy kids followed, like these two:

Saturday night we did end up going for a stroll down the sculpted ten blocks of flowers and gardens in the middle of downtown, but as you can see from the photo, it was a sea of people and we quickly escaped to the outer regions.
Sunday night K and I joined the rest of the neighborhood on the rooftops to watch the downtown fireworks at midnight. Again, it was so intimate. Families to the left and right and across were lighting incense, bowing to ancestors and lighting paper replicas on fire as the display went on overhead.
I had a feeling I would be glad that I stayed for the neighborhood celebrations, and I really am. I love the concept of this holiday. and want to bring it home with me.
But I think I need you to be in on this one with me. Are you?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Tet with Thuy and Thanh

This morning the doorbell rings at 7 am. K and I both hear it ring three more times before we can make our way all the way down (for K) three or (for me) five flights of stairs.

It's Thuy, and she is quite animated. "We must go shopping now. The market is closing." K, still in sleeping clothes, looks at me like "you go and have fun" and Thuy ushers me out the door, as she barely allows me to throw shoes on with what clothes I managed to roll into when the bell rang. (Later I find out that the market was open for many more hours; I equate Thuy's excitement with that of Christmas morning excitement.)

We do a whirlwind tour of the market and buy eggs, shrimp, pork, and vegetables. She tells me her father and mother want to give me a Tet greeting, so we go by her house. I greet them, "Ciao Ba" (how you greet those older than you) and try to say "Happy Lunar New Year." Their ancestor altar is filled with flowers, fruit and food: Singapore noodles, egg and pork soup, more boiled rice cake, greens and rice.
Thuy's father (who always says "America very good" to me) invites K, T and me to come back to eat the ancestor food with them. I tell him T is in NZ, but that K and I would be happy to come back. Thuy is still on fast forward mode...rushing me back to the castle and saying, "Maggie. Come back at 9:00. Get ready" and, when she sees the mess our kitchen is in, she says, "wash up for cooking."

When we return at 9, we are greeted with Lucky Money envelopes (later we are relieved to discover that there is only 10,000 VND in them - 60 cents) and the ancestor's food has been put on the table; after the ancestors have enjoyed it for a few hours, the family gets to eat it. The father gives us a warm Tet greeting and leaves. "He go drink with friends," Thuy says.

But there is another man staying in the house to drink with us: John - Thuy and Thanh's five year-old nephew. They take care of him on weeknights, and today he and his sister Tu are eating the ancestor's food with us. But John gets to drink beer today, too, and I'm telling you, he chugs that beer down more quickly than I ever could. It's one of Vietnam's

beers, "333," and though Thanh says he never drinks beer, he could have fooled me. He loves it.

As soon as he is done, he begins to fly and stagger around the room. He is a torpedo, a pinball, jumping into K and my arms. We are not quite sure how to react to this drunk little human, but we play and play and play with him. He puts on a few dragon masks and prances around the room; it
is quite a show.

If you look into the background of these pictures a bit, you can see how small their living space is. The table is a fold-up one and must be kept against the wall. The cooking area is about one-third the size of my small kitchen; the living area is about one-half the size of the living room in my condo. They store all of their fabric in piles against the walls, then there is a staircase that leads to a small landing, and another staircase leading to a small room which T and T share. The parents put a mattress on the floor to sleep at night. I've been told many times that wealth is often measured by how many stories you have. They represent 90% of the world, we in our castle - only 10.

Fast forward to 3:00. Thuy and Thanh are at our door- our very own Tet Cooking Elves. On the menu: Banh Xeo (ban se- ow), a egg/coconut crepe filled with pork, shrimp, onions, and bean sprouts. Here is the finished product:

I have eaten quite a few of these, and I would have never guessed that they could be made in a wok. Thuy makes my favorite taro/shrimp/ground pork/onion spring rolls while Thanh takes charge of the crepes.

First, she stir-fries strips of pork, shrimp and onion in really hot oil. Then she puts a scoop of the egg mixture (we used a batter mix, two eggs, water and coconut, but here is a recipe that you can use that uses coconut milk and self-rising flour: and swishes the batter around until it is really, really thin. She turns the heat way down, adds the bean sprouts, then and allows it to just sit there and cook for a long five minutes. When it's done, she flips it over and it is perfectly browned.

How to eat it: rip off chunks of the crepe and wrap lettuce around it, with basil inside, and dip it in the fish sauce mixture.
During dinner, both Tu and John come and ring our doorbell. They are carrying little plastic piggy banks, which seems kind of Halloween-y, doesn't it? We give them 5,000 VND each and they come in for a while. Thank goodness, John has moved on to an orange drink and does not seem to have a hangover.
When our cooks leave, K and I decide to hold our own Tet cleaning party. We have tried everything to get rid of our ants, yet they remain as prosperous as ever. OK, well, I have not yet tried Chris Brown's Cheeto method. He reminded me recently that when we ran a little ant experiment in our class ant tunnelling thingy last spring, the one deadly element that killed that entire colony (it was not on purpose) was the simple placement of a (crunchy) Cheeto right on top. I just hate to think about why that was the deadly element.
Anyway, I had asked Thuy a while a go, "How do we get rid of ants?" Are you ready for her ancient Vietnamese secret? Here it is: RAID. So our Tet cleaning looked like this:

I am leaving for the beach tomorrow, but I have figured out how to schedule posts for the week. Here is the schedule:

Monday: Scenes from Tet in the 'Hood

Tuesday: Dress Competition Winner Announced

Wednesday: A Video Tour of the Castle

Thursday: Blog Contest Thursday (with a prize!)

I told Band Member AmyT that I really missed her comments the past few weeks and she told me that she got out of the habit when I left over Christmas. So AmyT, I created the scheduled posts just because I rely so heavily on your cool comments. And I had a lot of free time today.
OK, have a good week everyone!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Market Taste and Nam Castle Visit

I'm off for a week and have a whole weekend in front of me with no work and no travel... nothing, nothing, nothing. So I get to take my time through the market on this Saturday before the Eve of Tet. I took a very short video...I am learning that videos must be short and that I can only upload them at certain times of the day. So here you get a glimpse of the morning market. It is a little different today because many of the usual vendors are closed for Tet and you will see special food items. I'm not sure if you can hear my little narration, but that is basically what I'm saying. This is about where the market starts, about two alley blocks from the castle.

My first stop is at Thuy and Thanh's (one block away from this video). They have sold all of their Tet goodies, but they still sit in their spot...Thanh has a little side business selling jade jewelry - she had a silver necklace with a female Buddha on it made for me when I returned from Christmas break- not sure what she's called -- possbily "Kwan Jin" -- but I love it. And Thuy had a hat for me. It's a floppy yellow hat with a big floppy flower on it. She told me I was supposed to wear it on my way to and from school. I'm not really sure what to do about this, because the hat is not "me." Tarn says he can see it working in certain situations. And I say yeah, like if it was 1920 and Gatsby invited me to a party on Long Island. Like then. Anyway, I wear the necklace all the time, and have yet to wear the hat.

But I digress.

Thuy and Thanh are super chill this morning. They get ten whole days off; I think it is their only vacation for the year. We chat for a bit, then they speak to each other. Thuy turns to me and says, "Maggie. Tomorrow. Do you want to eat the food of Vietnam?" I love this question just as much as I love Nam's "Number One Point."

"Yes!" I say, but I am concerned about their family Tet celebration.

"No problem," they say. So Thuy, Thanh, Katherine and I have a date to make Banh Xeo, the coconut rice crepe filled with pork and bean sprouts on Tet Day at three (after a morning shopping trip...and this time they get to join us). I am especially happy that Thanh gets to join us for the fun tomorrow. She works so hard.

Then I stop and buy another Tet boiled rice and pork cake, shown here in its leaf casing, but this one is smaller and has purple rice on the outside. And the envelopes pictured are for Lucky Money.

Then I go to one of my favorite places on the planet: to my turmeric rice cake ladies' stand. I love love love these women so much. I think I would love them this much even if they didn't make my favorite Vietnamese dish, but I'm not 100% sure about that.

They are so jolly and gracious and we pantomime conversations. Look at them, don't you want to be best friends with both of them? Every once in a while I get the cakes to go in the morning, but my favorite thing to do is to hang out at this stand on weekend mornings. Almost every time I eat here, I meet someone interesting. I meet Vietnamese people who are impressed that I eat the cakes. Today I meet a Vietnamese guy from Montreal, home visiting for Tet. "I can't get these in Montreal," he tells me. "How do you know about them?"

After this exchange with my Cake Women, I realize that I must run home and put some Lucky Money (a 50,000 VND bill - about $3. A plate of cakes costs 10,000 - about 60 cents) in an envelope and return to give it to them. I am having fun with Lucky Money, and everone seems so appreciative - not only for the $ - but for the gesture from a foreigner.

They giggle and laugh and say "Cam on!" (Thank you.) I am walking back to the castle when I see Nam and his nephew, waving and laughing at our front French doors. They have Tet gifts for me, so I invite them in. Yesterday, I gave Nam an envelope with another 200,000 VND in it and he was really, really pleased and amused.

They have another boiled rice, bean paste and pork cake for me (if you don't look closely you will think it's a watermelon), and you can see his nephew has a little jar of what appears to be homemade pickled carrots and cabbage. Of course, Nam is quite thorough in his explanation regarding how to eat the cake.

"Don't cut through the leaves with a knife," his nephew translates. "Cut the strings with scissors, take the cake out of the leaves, then slice it with a knife. Put this stuff in the jar on top."

And of course, the repeater must tell me this three times. Then I get a very long Tet blessing that goes something like this: "May you have a blessed year. Blessings to you and your family. May you be blessed with a lot of money." What a quality person.

When Katherine wakes up, she says "Who was here?" I tell her about my morning. "I love it when you have ten adventure stories to tell me when I'm just waking up," she says. Today we have plans to stroll through the Tet flower market and hang out downtown. We are both so happy to be doing nothing nothing nothing for a few days. She is heading back to a beach in Cambodia next week.

I am having luck with video loading this morning. I took this one on the way back from school yesterday (on Nam's bike, of course). The balloons and other items in the roundabout are all Tet related. This video misrepresents the craziness of the motorbikes, though, because it seems that half of the city has left for Tet. I will take another one when I return.

Now I had better go and eat some boiled rice cakes since we now have five of them in the fridge. Happy Lunar New Year's Eve!

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Kitchen God Tale ~ Gung Hay Fat Choy!

It dress contest just happened to fall during the only time of year that everything in Vietnam is closed for ten days. Yesterday, after I took you shopping at Ben Thanh Market, I went to give my seamstress some "Lucky Money." She was quite happy with the little red envelope - she hugged and kissed me - and told me that she would see me in three weeks.

I am very happy that these hard-working women get some time off, but it means that the dress-making will have to be put on hold for a while. I am staying around this weekend for some Tet festivities, but will head to Mui Ne beach on Monday for (can you believe it) another week off. And I just recovered from my last break. It will be our only break for the rest of the year, except for a few long weekends. (BTW, Tarn is getting on a plane right now heading for New Zealand for two weeks - he hasn't been home in three and a half years. He is going home for his dad's wedding.)

So the voting can continue on for a bit - at least through the weekend. I will anounce a "winner" before I leave Monday morning. There is a fierce competition raging because I think my sister may be forcing her children and friends to vote for Dress #1. Just so you know.

And now, you need to hear the story of The Kitchen God, Tao- since it is a Tet story - because he is also leaving today (but he is going to heaven, not NZ), on this very day, the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, from many fires in kitchens all over Vietnam:

The Kitchen God is an overseer of a household's moral conduct (not its culinary skill). Throughout the year, The Kitchen God monitors the family's virtues and vices by watching from a position on a kitchen wall or hearth mantle. (He is not an actual statue but rather a paper depiction that hangs above the stove). He also protects families from fire (which he invented) and other disasters.
A few days before New Year's, The Kitchen God is dispatched to make his report to the heavens. He is fed a feast of cooked chicken (which must include head and feet), his lips are smeared with honey (so that he will speak sweet words about the family) and then he is ceremoniously burned. His spirit travels upwards, through the smoke - on a red carp (fish) that turns into a dragon- to the Jade Emperor in Heaven. To ensure Tao can fulfil his heavenly obligations, a live carp will be placed on altars today; tomorrow, it will be set free (where all of these carp will be set free I am not certain).

Some say that the honey will seal his lips shut so he can't say anything at all when he gets to heaven. I like that. There is usually some kind of clause, isn't there?

Speaking of clauses, the other day, one of my co-workers commented on what a crazy story this is. I don't know, though...remember Santa and his naughty and nice list and flying reindeer and toys made in a workshop in the North Pole?
Moving on...during Tet, you should eat certain foods to ensure good luck, long life, and prosperity. For example, you should eat this:

It's a boiled rice, bean paste and pork cake, given to Katherine by one of her students. It was wrapped in dong leaves (and boiled overnight, then drained in a collander), but Katherine unwrapped it and put it on a plate in the fridge. When we showed our landlord, he really laughed that it had been unwrapped and left on a plate, like cake.
Or you can eat this: strips of really fatty, chewy, bacony strips, combined into a loaf. You eat it with bread. The boiled
rice pork cake i
s actually quite good, but I am leaving this one alon
After school today, Nam takes me to the neighborhood
pork-on-sugarcane stand because I am home early. Still, she barely has any left, so I buy up the rest of her supply- only because Nam makes me. I try to order just half but he scowls and is like, "Oh, come on...just buy it so she can wrap it up and go home." And, as you know, I do what my mother says - even if I don't want five deep fried spring rolls.
But she doesn't have any noodles left. His eyes dart around...he is thinking about how to repair this. We go by his great aunt's and he runs in and asks her something. He comes out perplexed. We go to another house, he yells something inside and then waits. He gets no response. He tells me to get off and wait and he zooms off down the alley.
It seems that everyone I know walks by at that moment. "Hi Maggie!" says Ut, Sweet Seamstress's son. "Hello!" says one of the Bum Bum girls (my pedicure girl). "Ciao Chi!" (greeting to a woman from a woman of around your own age) says the woman who feeds me shellfish around the corner from the castle. Even Thanh passes and greets me warmly. One of my students had given me a box of chocolates earlier (Modiva, instead of Godiva), so I offer a chocolate to all of my passing friends. Suddenly I begin to feel self-conscious about being a helmet-wearing, chocolate-giving statue in the alley. These people have no idea why I am standing here, and neither do I. Five minutes have passed. I start to wonder...did Nam mean to tell me to walk home?
Suddenly, he zooms back around the corner, holding a bag of noodles up like a medal, like he has just returned from a challenging leg of The Amazing Race. Somehow, somewhere, my driver used his connections to procure some noodles to go with the food that he has just forced me to purchase so his friend can close shop.
I like to think that the Kitchen God is pleased with this behavior.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Top Three Dress Contest Entries and First Shopping Trip to Ben Thanh Market

I lied, I didn't need another day to get this together. It's 11:25 pm and I am lying here dreaming about dress designing. Three entries for my dress contest really stood out to me, so here you go:

Entry #1:

Maggie London Printed Stretch Satin Dress - submitted by my sister, Angie and her co-worker, Marie - at the very last minute. When I saw this dress I gasped...isn't it cool?

Entry #2:

Wrap-Around Dress by Butterick, submitted by my mom, Carol. I like this one because it is simple and I can wear it to school. I have always really liked wrap-arounds. I guess my family knows my style or something. Here's an entry from a non-blood:

Entry #3.

Dress by Lauren. I will allow Michelle to speak for this dress (are you in sales?): She says,

"I love contests, prizes, the hard work and sweat that comes from being competitive! And, to involve shopping, can it get any better???? I immediately took valuable work time to find a dress, fabric and notions to make this a fun summer, cocktail party dress that will make you the bell of the ball and the envy of every woman in attendance!"

Isn't it cute? I really love it. And it's so different from #1 and #2. I like the idea of making this dress and then being invited to an Academy Award party, or hanging out with Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda in NYC.

So go ahead and vote, if you have strong opinions. But most of the 360 people who read this blog every week (there is a counter for things like that) remain voyeurs, which is cool. But while you do or don't vote, excuse me while I take my sister, my mom, and two people whom I have never met (but will meet Michelle in March after she bikes here from Hanoi!) shopping.

I went to Ben Thanh Market today after school to do a little research. You see, it's not easy becoming a designer...there is so much to learn. At first I was making all kinds of mistakes - I was buying the wrong kind of material for the wrong item. For example, I was buying pant material and wanting a shirt out of it. I kept getting the "nooooooo" from Sweet Seamstress and my seamstress at Ben Thanh kept sending me back into the market to get the right stuff.

But now I am on the path to enlightenment - at least I think so. OK, here we go: on the link for dress #1 on, it tells you what kind of material the dress is made out of. The Maggie London one is made from "stretch satin." OK, so let me show you a few pictures of the aisles in Ben Thanh:

Here is one of about twenty aisles, and here is one stand out of about 100:

As you can see, it is overwhelming. So this is what I did: because I knew I was looking for "stretch satin," I just walked through the aisles (at least 20 like these) and asked the vendors "Do you have any stretch satin?" until I found the sweetest two ladies who spoke some English and who seemed really interested in helping me. I showed the first one the design (which I had printed out) and she says, "Oh, let me take you to my friend. She has all kinds of stretch material that would work for that dress." So nice.

I couldn't find a pattern like that in the picture of , so I'm just going to show you a few patterns I liked, and then a bunch of solids. The sky is the limit. I liked the blue/white/black and the paisley in the middle here:

And I liked this brown with gold design, too:

And here are a bunch of solids... these will all work for dress #'s 1 and 2. (Dress #2 should be made from stretch, too - it says so on the pattern- see how intelligent I am? It can be valour (sp?) stretch or satin stretch or polyester stretch)

As for dress #3, these two women sell the spectrum of silk, too. All kinds of patterns and solids. Silk is easy here, they all tell you "made from 100% Vietnamese silk." Now that I know how it's made (see "36 Hours in Dalat"), I really do stand in awe of it.

They have the exact color of the silk in the photo and also the one that Michelle suggested, which I would call a "light mustard." And this is a patterned silk pictured here:

I learned so much today, it was really fun.

Well, what do you think?

Blog Contest Thursday: What is this?

From one of the Tet Flower Markets, Ho Chi Minh City. I need one more day to compile dress contest results, so check in again tomorrow (if interested).

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Absolute Wonder, Flower Markets and Jelly Drinks

My morning rice woman never smiles at me. I kind of like it, really; she could care less that I am the neighborhood Foreign Amazon. She is not Banana Rice Cake Gracious nor Pineapple Lady Nasty. She is all about the rice. Purple rice, green rice, white rice with red beans and tapioca sauce, rice with sausage, coconut and peanuts. She doesn’t really ever look at me.

So a few weeks ago I am at her stand and she is not smiling nor looking at me. She is scooping out my favorite (of course, the one with tapioca sauce) when a girl approaches, quickly invading my personal space – a girl with a huge gaping smile and wide crossed eyes. As she gets within inches of my face and stares right into my (blue) eyes, I realize that she has something –maybe Downs— but I’m not quite sure. She is staring and laughing, staring and laughing. She says “hello”– a staple greeting everyone here knows for people who look like me.

“Hello,” I say, laughing.

“Hello!” she says, really loudly.



It’s the hello game, and it goes on for a bit. Kids love to play it with us, too.

People around the stand, both vendors and shoppers, look up.

She sticks out her hand and I shake it and she squeals.

"Hellllllloooooooooo!" she screams.

Then, suddenly, there are two of her. She is a twin, and her twin also has Downs.

Now they are both staring and laughing, staring and laughing, invading my personal space and gazing – I must say, with absolute wonder, into my eyes.

“Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello!”

Many people are laughing and smiling at this show. I just keep shaking their hands and returning their greetings. I look over at my rice lady and she is holding my little bag o rice, the corners of her mouth turned up a bit. Just a little bit.

Yes, the girls know how to say hello to foreigners, they know how to shake hands with foreigners, and you know what else they know how to do? They know how to hold their hands out and ask for money.

At this gesture, the crowd around me sucks in a collective gasp and the girls are scolded straight away. But my rice lady, she laughs. A big laugh. She looks at me and does the hand-circles-around-the-head gesture, the international language for "They aren't right in the head." Then she scolds them.

I think it's funny that she feels she needs to explain this to me, but it is the first time she has ever acknowledged me, so I just nod my head in understanding.

And, since then? Well, I see "the twins" all the time. I'm pretty sure they stalk me. I love to see them for a few reasons. 1) they are really, really sweet and 2) it is something to have two human beings look at you with such wonder when you haven't done one single thing to deserve it. They love to have their picture taken, too, which is why I thought to tell their story today. And the rice lady? Do you think she smiles at me, now that we have shared this funny moment and connected? Nope. She still gives me nothing. Except for yummy rice. Which is fine.

Ah, this neighborhood. This morning I am making my way through the busier-than-usual Tet market and when I turn the corner, a salon is blasting Abba's "I Have a Dream." What a juxtaposition. Pig ears and tails, smelly Durian fruit, incense and "I Have a Dream."

Speaking of Tet, I happened to wander into one of the many Tet flower markets in the city after school. The entire park is filled with potted flowers of all kinds. I really wanted my dad to be there with me, he loves his flowers. And speaking of juxtapositions, here is another one: a place called "Seventeen Saloon" with a Totem Pole (that looks just like one in Snohomish), a Tet Tree with Chinese Lanterns, fake fruit, wrapped gifts and a golden calf.
And speaking of really good things to eat...oh, wait, I haven't spoken of that in a while...I was at a different market today, just wandering around, and I found this display of jelly drinks. I love jelly drinks, but these looked extra special, and I had good instinct, because they were extra, extra specially good. Mine is pictured here, and these are the layers:
1) red stringy jelly
2) custard
3) green stringy jelly
4) lotus flower seeds
5) cream
6) ice
You mix it up and it's so yummy.
Everything is closing for Tet. Today I tell Nam to pick me up at the gym at 5 and after school I find out the gym is closed for the week. I have to find another ride home and then stop by Nam's great aunt's house to try to communicate to her (she seems to understand English only at her convenience), that Nam did not need to pick me up at 5. I point to a motorbike, make the Vietnamese negative gesture by putting my hand up and twisting it and I say Nam's name. It's a great pantomime. I do this five times (and I am so Obama tired, too). I am not successful. I know this because I see Nam's nephew on the street later and he tells me Nam went to pick me up at 5 and I wasn't there. It's so hard to have a mom to look after.
Oh, and I keep meaning to tell you why I haven't mentioned Thuy or Thanh or cooking Sundays. Well, evidently, they don't get shipments of fabric during Tet, so instead they turn their fabric stand into a Tet Candy and Cookie stand. It is open from 5 am until 9 pm, so they are busy and tired. Cooking classes will resume after Tet. Everything, I hope, will resume after Tet.
Tet of the Tet Offensive, by the way. You've all heard of it, right? If not, Google it and read the post on Tet again and you will have new insight.
Our internet is finally working again. We didn't pay our bill on time, which is becoming a very terrible theme. The guy across the alley from us, Henry, has been paying our bills when the various companies come to shut off our internet, water, electricity. He is so nice. The other day he had me get on his motorbike so he could show me where to pay most of our bills. Everything is done by cash here. The real estate agent I met last night told me that all of her transactions are in cash if she is dealing with Vietnamese people. They all have huge safes in their homes and keep stacks of dong in there. And, she says, bars of gold. They often pay her with them. So I guess they will be OK when the economy crashes, right?
I tried to stop this post a long time ago, and now I must. Stay tuned for Blog Contest Thursday tomorrow!