Thursday, December 24, 2009

Guest Blogger #7, Angie Griggs, Age Marjie plus 2

Christmas in Vietnam has definitely been memorable. A few days ago our family drew names for our shopping, then went off to the Ben Thanh market, the huge tourist market in Saigon, to do our shopping. It's a little different bartering for the gifts you want to buy, and I must say the crowds were denser than anything I have ever seen on a Black Friday morning. But we succeeded! There is almost anything you could wish for at that market times ten!

Christmas Eve morning we went off into Marjie's neighborhood market to buy fresh fruit for our Christmas Eve salad (and of course rice cakes for our breakfast). Marjie had ordered a full turkey dinner to be delivered at 6pm, complete wth pumpkin pie. Believe me, we waited for it with not a little trepidation. We're so used to delicious turkey and all the fixings, and it would be such a disappointment if the dinner didn't taste good!

Marjie had invited Thuy and Thanh to join us, along with Tu and Monkey Boy. All of the gifts were wrapped, my dad played Christmas music from his mp3 player, and then at 5:30 up drives a guy on his motorbike with plastic bags full of our turkey dinner. Thuy and Thanh had never heard of turkey before. They called it a "big chicken." Thuy jumped right in and helped my dad carve it. We served our guests first, and were pretty relieved when they liked it! We took our first bites, and I think almost everybody ate seconds! Pretty tasty! Even the gravy, much to Megan's enjoyment.
I know none of us will ever forget this Christmas. Reading the story of Jesus' birth in 90' heat is quite a change from the foot of snow that surrounded us at Christmas last year, so we watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas to get in our snow quota. T, T, T and MB loved it.
We are off to Hanoi tomorrow for more great Vietnamese food and adventure. Merry Christmas everybody!

My Two Mothers

Monday, December 21, 2009

Guest Blogger #6, John Bowker, Ageless Plus Four

Contrasts really strike me here:

-A large crowd of people in front of an open front building watching TV and cheering on the Viet Nam soccer team while a dense confusion of motorbikes go by in the street and a loudspeaker somewhere plays a US Hit Parade Song in English. When the team wins, the motorbikes increase with many riders displaying large national flags.

-Pedicab drivers who look you in the eye while grabbing your wallet, compared with restaurant owners who will chase you down the street to return a 3,000 VND (20 cent) overcharge for rice.

-A very active, narrow street market with a large variety of prepared food, clothing, raw fish and meat with a Willie Nelson song playing in the background.

-The lobby of the hotel in our neightborhood with a beautiful Christmas tree next to the front desk, complete with wrapped gifts and the hotel owner's motorbike parked beside it.

What an experience. Thanks, Marjie!

Devon's Back...

I finished washing some dishes a few minutes ago, which was difficult. The washing dishes part was not an issue, but it was the height of the counter that was so awkward to use. The kitchen counter height is a foot or so lower here than back at home. There are oddities of that sort all around here. I regularly snicker to myself thinking of how my friend Eric, who is about 6'3", would fare here. I try to imagine him sitting on the short, little stools at the short, little tables, and I laugh. I would love to see him confidenly striding through the market place only to be clothes-lined by a low cord. I am about 5'10", and I have some troubles. I can only imagine what would happen to him.

I think of my shorter friends Christa and Mikayla too. They are about my shoulder height, and they would fit right in with the locals. Instead of not-so-gracefully bending over the sink to wash dishes like me, they would be standing with perfect posture scrubbing a mile a minute and putting me to shame. While I duck my head under tarps in the allys, they would smile to themselves and continue onward thinking of all the times I had made fun of them being "vertically challenged."

So maybe Eric and I are the ones that are "vertically challenged," maybe Christa and Mikayla are the ones who have it made. New experiences bring new ways of thinking.

Anyway, despite being "vertically challenged" here in Nam, I've been pretty happy with the various new experiences. Except shopping. I squarely failed my first attempt yesterday at the Ben Thanh market in District One of HCMC. I found the wallet that I wanted to buy, and I bought it. Afterwards I learned that I did my bartering poorly and what's more the wallet was damaged. Arrrgh! I did end up exchanging it, but still, "Epic fail!" as my friends would say. I had another chance to shop at the market today, but I happily declined. Shopping as a whole hasn't been a nightmare, but it hasn't been a pleasant dream either.

Well, enough from me. If I don't write again before Christmas, then have a merry one!

Guest Blogger #5 Lewis Griggs, Ageless minus 23

While in the beach resort city of Nha Trang, Marjie recommended that we should go to the mud baths. Lets say that I was pretty skeptical of the idea. Then again I'm a boy at heart, and this would just add another facet to our Vietnam adventure.

After loading our eight member clan into the subcompact sized taxi, we honked and weaved our way through town, only to find the road with the largest potholes. At the end of the long windy road was the quaint mud bath resort.

After paying our entrance fee, we all got swim-suited up and climbed up a hundred or so stairs to the first treatment, in amongst the trees. The attendent requested that we shower first. And I asked myself why? We are only going to be wallowing in mud like pigs in just a few moments, what's wrong with a little perspiration added to the mud mix? With the language barrier, I didn't challenge the situation.

Imagine your family, extended family that is, in your hot tub with 15 gallons of mud silt thrown in. Think of it as a supersized warm mud facial that covers your whole body. Once covered with mud, soak for 20 minutes. There was a lot of giggling all around the tub. The mud mixture made us very bouyant. Now we know what it feels like to be a pig.

The treatment continued with a long traditional shower where mud just cascaded off our bodies and across the cement as we started to become somewhat clean again.

Next up was the pressure wash cycle. As we walked through an open stone hallway, many horizontal streams of water attacked our bodies from all sides.

The mineral soak cycle was next. It's a hot tub filled with warm mineral water. Soak time is 20 minutes. The water was clear when we started, and cloudy gray by the time we were done.

Finally we got to the swim and waterfall cycle. The relaxing pool was huge and was about 102 degrees. A little too warm for Michael Phelps. If that is not enough, stand under the warm waterfall and see what paradise feels like.

I have never felt that relaxed in my life. Thanks, Marjie, for recommending the mud baths.

Pop Quiz. Can you figure out who owns these body parts?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Family Display

My family is at the beach - Nha Trang - and I am finishing up my last day of school, then flying to meet them today at 5:00. I hear it was sunny yesterday, but rainy today. I wish you could guarantee the weather when you are a travel agent for your family!

I know it's a cliche, but it truly does feel like the school clock goes backwards on the day before vacation...

The kids came to school with me on Wednesday and all three of them were huge hits. In fact, some seventh grade girls will probably give me the silent treatment for a while because they were not asked to take Megan around school. The energy surrounding the kids wherever they went was pulsating. Perhaps the most pulsating moment, however, was at lunch.

Devon had told me at breakfast that he "didn't feel well." I bought them all lunch in the cafeteria - a pretty safe grilled chicken plate - and at the end of lunch, he came up to me and said, quite diplomatically, "Aunt Marjie, I don't feel very good. Where should I go?" I took this to mean that he was about to throw up and I looked around to problem-solve this when... he did it. He threw up in front of half of the school.

To Devon's credit, he laughed about it the whole way through. He said something like, "I really know how to make a first impresssion, don't I?" And his display didn't even defer an eight grade girl from asking him to the winter dance for tonight (too bad, he can't go). We got him a t-shirt from the PE Department and he sat down in the lobby for most of the rest of the day while Megan and Nolan played dodgeball and took science tests. (Shared with permission from Devon.)

That same day, my mom, dad, Angie and Lewis took a taxi in a downpour (they got to see the flooding right outside the school) to meet us at the end of the day. My students were especially excited to meet my mom, who made them cookies as motivation for a school-wide reading competition (that my 6th graders ended up winning). She also chooses the best table names for groups each month. They were late because of the rain, but my students stayed in my classroom an extra 15 minutes just to meet everyone. I'm so glad my family got to see it all - rain, flooding students, etc. Because it's really hard to explain it all.

When my mom was ready to get on the bus the other night, she said, "I'm looking forward to the beach, but I hate to leave your neighborhood." This is how we feel all the time. My whole family is now quite tight with T and T - Nolan had a specific vision to make some shorts with a neon green stripe down the side, and Thuy rode her motorbike all over Saigon to find that neon green material. I'm sure that after Nolan's fashion hits the streets of Saigon, even more people will be wanting to touch him. But they turned in clothes to be made by my expert tailor at the top of district one, as well as Sweet Seamstress (who is making Nolan's design dreams into reality) nextdoor.

It will be really nice to come back and have my whole family at the castle for a few days before we all take off to Hanoi/Halong Bay on Christmas Day. I haven't really felt myself until just a few days ago - that Dengue was really awful - so I'm looking forward to giving my family a rightful tour of all the food outside my door that I love so much.

Stay tuned for more kid updates when we return next week (and Merry Christmas)!

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Minute with Marjie

I could spend hours writing about how much fun it is to have my family here, but that will have to wait... the one thing we have all been laughing about is how much attention Nolan is getting from everyone. Everyone wants to touch him - whether it's to stroke his cheek or pat his bottom or just look at him with googley eyes and point him out to everyone who passes.

I took everyone to my Singaporean restaurant tonight and our waiter, who was male, could not keep from touching his cheek - over and over. He brought about ten of the staff over and pointed at Nolan. They all wanted to know how old he was and would he come back soon? It was beginning to get a little bit creepy how much attention they were lavishing on him. Nolan is pretty much unfazed about most things and he just kept poking his food with a chopstick and dropping it into his mouth, much to the entertainment of the entire wait staff.

We are wondering how we can make some money off of this Nolan Phenomenon...any ideas?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Guest Blogger #4 Carol Bowker, Ageless

Greetings from Ho Chi Minh City! Has it really been only four days? It seems like we have had a life time of experiences. When we first arrived Marjie was still in the hospital. Her friend, Sharon, took us to see her first thing. She was weak, tired, and covered in a red rash, but had a promise of release the following day. She gave us Vietnamese money, a phone, and a map and told us to go have some adventures. That we did!

We followed the map (carefully) to Thuy and Thanh's fabric stand. They greeted us warmly and told us to come back at 1:00 when their stand closed. We did and asked them to show us Marjie's favorite pho stand. They said "no;" they had fixed chicken soup for us to "keep us well." We were invited into their home which is behind their fabric stand and served delicious soup and an orange drink. When we tried to thank them, Thuy said "no." Then she pointed to her heart and said we were "one family." It was very touching. Marjie was quite surprised about the lunch; she has only eaten there once, and that was during Tet. Since that time we have seem them quite often. Yesterday they took John and me shopping at the morning market for ingredients for lettuce wraps, hot pot, and deep fried spring rolls, which they cooked for us that afternoon. Everything was delicious.

John and I also had the experience of being cheated by a pedi cab driver. We had taken a taxi to see the Reunification Palace (where President Thieu was taken by helicopter from the roof) and were trying to catch one to return to our hotel. A pedi cab driver just wouldn't take no for an answer. He kept saying "one dollar, one dollar," and practically pushed us into the cabs. Well, it WAS fun. At the end however, when John took out his wallet to pay, the driver's nimble fingers grabbed bills from the wallet and off he went leaving us with blank looks and mouths open. We think he got about $30. We learned.

Marjie is feeling better. She went back to work today; we are at the castle now waiting to hear how her day went. She is planning to take the kids to school with her on Wednesday. Another experience!

Guest Blogger #3, Megan Griggs, Age 14

What was my first impression when I walked out of the airport and got into a mad man's taxi cab? "WOW" I was astounded and excited! The taxi ride was even better then Splash Mountain in Disneyland. It was a thriller experience. We drove on the wrong side of the road and almost ran over a dozen people on their motorbikes. We were trying to get to our hotel that is located about two minutes walk from Marjie's place.

This morning we got a magnificent tour of the market place where we bought huge amounts of food for paying almost nothing at all. As we walked though the alley ways of the market I felt like I was a member of the Cullen family in the series of Twilight. Every eye seemed to be fixed on us as we strolled along trying to mind our own buisness.... Awkward!

Grandma, Grandpa and I all tried some really good chicken noodle soup for breakfast this morning. They gave us a huge bowl with lots of noodles, chicken and all that jazz but then they gave us chop-sticks... "Great! This ought to be fun!" I said to myself. I attempted to use the utensils that were given to me only to hear everybody around the tiny little stand laughing. I had no idea how to use them! At home all that I would do is spear the meat or whatever we were eating with the chop-stick and it seemed to work pretty well, but my plan didn't succeed with noodles, trust me it doesn't work.

I also got to go to the Bum Bum, it is amazing! Some of the stuff that they did to my face kinda tickled, but it was definitely refreshing. Now my toes have been painted pink, my hair is straightened, and my face has been lushusly moisterized, what a treat! To sum up what I have seen so far, Vietnam is unique, delicious, and hot.

Guest Blogger #2, Devon Griggs, Age 16

Our first Ho Chi Minh City experience involved a taxi ride. Now I've never been to New York, but I can imagine that a HCMC taxi ride is a step up from from an NYC taxi ride. Passing on the right with oncoming traffic is something I'd do in a videogame without a care, but in real life it is quite thrilling.

We made it to the hotel at about midnight or so, HCMC time. I counted one Christmas tree and eleven motorikes sitting in the lobby, and little open floor space. There are motorbikes everywhere! On the streets, in the alleys, in the lobbies, in the family rooms; one must be above the ground level to be away from them. Which reminds me, most buildings here are four plus stories tall, with twleve foot wide alleys in between. The markets are in the alleys, making the walkways even narrower, and what's more, the streets and alleys are teeming with people!

I feel tall here. There are an estimated six million people or so in this city, which is really a lot of people. I'm fairly sure that all of King County back at home doesn't even have two million people, for some comparison. Anyway, Pike Place Market in Seattle is high class compared to the alley market here, and Seattle is just a toddler of a city on the world scale, I have now learned. HCMC, however, is not quite entirely unlike home. Life has been good here so far, the sky is blue, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the time here in Nam.

Guest Blogger, Nolan Griggs, Age 12

I just had the best yogurt in the world. My first thinking of Vietnam was...''so hot, so muggy, so humid.'' Every thing is so cheap. But not cheap in a bad way at all. SWEET SOUR SALTY SPICY CRUNCHY is quite right. It is 1 dollar to 18000 dong. For a coffee it is 30 cents. For a bowl of pho it is 60 cents. SO CHEAP!!!!!! the food is not normal but is still vvvery tasty.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Within the 2 Meter Thick Walls of the Citadel

*This post was written just hours before I got really sick with Dengue Fever and had to spend the week in the hospital. My parents arrived and have been impressively independent - they have already been treated to lunch at T and T's house and have been out in the hood for two days straight. I don't think they even need me...

I'm writing about Hue I've posted pictures of the citadel, which we saw when we first arrived. The view from the train between Danang and Hue was breathtaking, just as we had heard it would be (if only the windows of our sleeper train didn't have an inch of dirt on them!). But the ride along the coast and through the foggy hills was a highlight for both of us.

We arrived in Hue at 4:00 and went straight to the citadel. The air inside the 2m thick walls was so pleasant and breezy and so absent of motorbikes, it felt like heaven. This place, however, is the setting for where "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" - the name of the famous book that was made into a movie by Oliver Stone. I am going to quote the Lonely Planet's descrption of what took place here because I am too lazy to summarize it myself...

"Hue was the sight of the bloodiest battles of the 1968 Tet Offensive and was the only city to be held by the Communists for more than a few days. While the American command was concentrating its energies on Khe Sanh, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops skirted the American stronghold and walked right into Hue. Immediately on taking the city, political cadres implemented detailed plans to remove Hue's "uncooperative elements." Thousands of people were rounded up in house to house searches, conducted according to lists of names meticulously prepared months before.

During the 3 and 1/2 weeks that Hue remained under Northern control, over 2500 people - including wealthy merchants, government workers, monks, priests and intellectuals - were shot, clubbed to death or buried alive. Shallow mass graves were discovered at various spots around the city over the following years.
When the South Vietnamese army units proved unable to dislodge the occupying North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, General Westmoreland ordered US troops to recapture the city. Over the next few weeks, whole neighborhoods were leveled by VC rockets or US bombs.

Over the next month, most of the area inside the Citadel was battered by the South Vietnamese air force, US artillery and brutal house to house fighting. Approximately 10,000 people died in Hue, including thousands of VC troops, 400 South Vietnamese soldiers and 150 US Marines, but most of those killed were civilians."

So the peace Jessica and I felt there upon our arrival somehow didn't flow with the history of what we were reading. How is it possible that this place saw so much pain? The grounds were so well-kept and absent of any of the city's past. I guess that's what time is supposed to do, isn't it?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Thank You Emporer Duc

Emporer Tu Duc (1848-83) expected 50 dishes to be prepared by 50 cooks and to be served by 50 servants at every meal. If I had a lot of money, I think I would spend it that way, too. Anyway, ETDuc is to thank for the variety of food in Hue. Although we did not try an elaborate imperial dinner, we had many good tastes there.

The famous soup in Hue is the one pictured here: Bun Bo Hue. Again, my internet research led me to the restaurant known for this local soup...with more spaghetti-like noodles than in pho, and the balls of meat are tasty and a little spicy. Other than that, I was honestly a little disappointed in it. I am so spoiled by the soups in my market...this soup is great, but it's not my market soup, and I definitely could only handle eating one bowl, prepared by three women and served by one moody man. Spoiled, spoiled, spoiled.

My favorite tasting experience occurred in the public market right before it closed the night after our motorbike trip. As we passed this woman, she beckoned us over with the catch phrase "no meat!" Jessica and I both agree that walking through markets with a lot of raw meat makes you want anything but meat. So we sat down and she served us a smorgasborg of "vehicles for glutinous rice." (Jessica's catch phrase).

My favorite glutinous vehicle was the one up front in the picture - believe it or not, the green filling is pesto. I could have eaten 50 of them, both prepared and served by this one friendly-yet-overcharging woman. The dish behind it was good, too - crunchy little tofu squares were topped with glutinous rice and shrimp powder. She kept placing plates in front of us, which was a very effective strategy. As usual, I should have asked "how much?" because I'm quite sure she charged us double. I guess that 60 cents per dish instead of 30 isn't that bad, I said, you lose perspective when you live as cheaply as we do here in Vietnam. And when you are spoiled and live steps away from a market where people don't cheat you...

Another night we ate in a restaurant that served traditional Hue food, and it wasn't until later that we discovered that the entire family who served us was deaf; we read it in the guide book later and then remembered that they used a lot of gestures when we ordered. There we had three regional specialties:

1) Banh Khoai - a pancake with shrimp, meat and egg that you wrap up in lettuce, figs and green bananas and dip in peanut sauce(pictured underneat the top dish here).

2) Banh Cuon - rice steamed rolls filled with Pho beef and lettuce - dipped in nuoc cham sauce (fish sauce), and

3) Banh Beo - pictured on top here - shrimp and meat sauce over glutinous rice.

#1 won the prize for me. I could have eaten ten of them, prepared and served by five members of a deaf family.

Honestly, though, the vote for best overall food may have to go to a Japanese restaurant called "A Japanese Restaurant." This place is run by a Japanese man who has made it his mission to educate Vietnamese street children. 52 kids have been put through school because of his efforts, and this restaurant is run to help a percentage of them learn the hospitality business - a kind of Hue-style FareStart. Every taste was extremely delicious, and was prepared by someone who was given a break. Just like at FareStart, you feel grateful for the opportunity to eat for good karma.

Last but not least, here is Jessica with our two local Huda beers. Not bad, out of the choices available for Vietnamese beer. But it doesn't win any prizes, and I was so tired, I could hardly even drink this one huge Huda made by a local brewery and served by one long-haired Vietnamese bar owner.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Cemetery Fantasy Land

Of course I have been hearing how great Hue is for a year now - this former imperial city and its citadel, the royal tombs surrounding it, and (of course), its reputation for food. "The Food Center of Vietnam"...are words that have drawn me, yes.
I will talk about some of those things - because we loved Hue (I may end up calling it my favorite city in Vietnam) - but not today.

Today I am talking about this quirky little side trip that Jessica and I took during our day-long motorbike ride. I did some research on TravelFish and found a reputable guide named Mr. Trung who works with the You and Me Restaurant in Hue. When we met him, we felt like this man dressed in trousers and a sweater was going to be our Vietnamese father for the day. Jessica, who was his passenger (I followed behind) found out quickly that he had been born in Hue and was in the thick of the fighting in '68 (central Vietnam is where most of the hard fighting was...the Tet Offensive took place in Hue), so he went to Danang for a while to escape all of it before returning years later.

Something I did not know about Jessica before her visit is that she is a Seeker of Cemeteries. She kept asking me about them but I provided very little information to satisfy her curiosity. Thankfully, she was asking Mr. Trung about them, too, so that might have been the reason for our side trip.

Anyway, after riding outside of town for almost an hour through boat and water buffalo scenes that Jessica referred to as "a series of postcards," we came upon the most peculiar town. We drove past a row of very high-end houses and down a long dirt road when suddenly, we seemed to have arrived in "Cemetery Fantasy Land." Ornate towering pagodas stretched for miles and miles on each side of the road. The scene immediately reminded me of Bryce Canyon, where the hoodoos give you that same sense that you are looking at valleys filled with castles.

Mr. Trung explained that this village was extremely poor during the war - poor and very hungry. Many locals escaped on boats after Saigon fell, and - apparently - became quite successful where they landed. With their newfound wealth, they sent money back to bury their ancestors and relatives in style. And you should see the style - these pictures cannot capture the magnitude of the scenes. One side of the road is where the Buddhists are buried, and the other side is for the Christians. What a juxtaposition to see Mary or Christ standing with arms wide open at the top of an ornate pagoda~

Well, the Lover of Cemeteries and I could not get enough of our grave exploration. This town is not mentioned in any of the fourteen or so guidebooks that have accumulated at the castle over the past year. Mr. Trung says there is no other cemetery like it in Vietnam, and I believe him; I sure haven't seen any like it. I just wonder why it is not on the tourist track, and I wonder why some of the country's poor don't just take up residence out here in these beautiful structures...

After interacting a bit with the water buffalos who were hanging out at the site, we got back on our bikes and drove out to the beach where we drank out of coconuts and ate some fish under a little private tent. I wish I could tell you that the meal was perfect, because the setting sure was (if you ignored the random piles of garbage that are ubiquitous on all Vietnamese beaches).

Stay tuned for more traditional reports on Hue~

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

How to Kill a Cockroach

The best way to kill a cockroach:

1) Get him running across an open space while you are holding a large, heavy book (I have found literature collections to be great for this)
2) Hold the book right above his running path and then DROP it . This will smash him well.
3) After a few days - when you are out of large, heavy literature books to drop - pick up the books (which may or may not have been sitting there for a while) and scrape the corpses from the bottom into the toilet.
4) Flush.

Cockroaches, ants... you stop sweating this kind of thing when you live in a place like this; you just learn to kill kill kill. And you get really good at it and share your killing strategies with others. You stop sweating it until you realize you are killing way too many of them on a regular basis and you think that they are coming from inside the box that is lodged in the corner of your Rapunzel Room bathroom ceiling.

Then you tell your landlord, who is usually pretty responsive. He may tell you to go and buy a can of Raid, but don't let him pull that one on you like I did. I let him pull that one on me for a week, until I could see multiple antennae coming out of the box and hear them like a carnival at night and until Katherine found one on her bed and until I came home to five of them on my bathroom floor. Then I sent him a text late at night that said, "We can't live like this anymore. Please get a professional exterminator here tomorrow."

He did get one, and we came home to many, many cockroach corpses. I guess we will be coming home to them for a while now. Big ones, little itty baby ones... the cockroaches are dying. When I asked how many were in the nest in the box in my bathroom, he smiled, shook his head and said, "Many."

That is the best way to kill a cockroach.