Sunday, January 31, 2010

You Very Love...

This morning I experienced love for my neighborhood times about 100. After a three-week hiatus from my beloved rice cakes, my two cake makers were visibly happy to see me. I get special treatment here, being a foreigner who cannot stomach eating the shells of the little shrimps on top of the cakes, so I always bring a book to read while I wait for the shells to be removed and then- when the cakes arrive at my table- while I wait for those hot little suckers to cool.

The green soy milk lady whose stand is next to theirs– well, she gives me special treatment, too. She knows exactly how much sugar I like and that I prefer a whole glass full of ice rather than just half.

Those cakes still make me so happy. Not long ago, as I sat there on a Saturday morning, I sent Katherine a text that said, “This is where I feel most happy in life. Does that make me weird?”

“A little,” she texted back.

The rice cake experience would have been enough, but there was more to come. The elusive tapioca custard balls that I was dying for my father to try the three weeks he was here – were finally back. I bought two. The lady who sells huge mangoes saw me coming and picked out two of the best before I arrived at her stand. My make-up lady, Linh, had two new colors of eyeliner she thought would suit me, and then threw in a make-up brush and sharpener for free. When I looked up from her to my left, I saw that my banana lady had already picked out the bunch of bananas she knew I would like: the ones with a little bit of green left.

As you know, I usually go to Thuy and Thanh’s stand first on Saturday and Sunday mornings to hang out before I do my market run. But today I woke up hungry and went for the rice cakes first. So by the time I got to them, I was already so full of cool market interactions that I’m sure I was exuding my thoughts: “I LOVE this place. I LOVE these people." After a year and a half, these mornings still get me at my core.

T and T greeted me with their typical warmth, then went back to helping a customer- a wrinkled woman wearing a traditional conical hat tied beneath her chin. This woman was in the middle of choosing Tet treats – T and T replace their fabric with cashew and peanut brittle, dried coconut covered with sugar, dried mango and durian candies, cookies and chips for the last month of every (Chinese calendar) year. The woman looked up from a bin of colorful jello and her eyes met mine. She paused for a significant moment, and, while still looking at me, she leaned into Thanh and spoke to her in Vietnamese.

When she finished, Thanh turned to me and laughed. “She say you very love Vietnamese people and you very love this neighborhood!”

That old woman had most very definitely just read my mind.

“She’s very right,” I said. And we smiled at each other for another moment, me and this wise old Vietnamese woman.

T and T were swamped, so I told them I would return later. I needed to drop off my morning groceries, anyway, and planned to come back out for a second run. On my way to the castle, I saw that a small crowd had gathered at Sweet Seamstress'. I peered in and Ut, her son, saw me. “Maggie!” he said, “look!”

He was pointing down to their cat, who was nursing two kittens. The third one had crawled away a little – they must have been at least a week old. They invited me to sit on their floor to play with the wandering kitten. After a while, I proceeded on to the castle when my other neighbor, Henry - whose extremely kind family lives across the alley - called to me. He and his wife just had their third child. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s their third child; Henry’s brother lives there with his wife and kids, too, so it’s a little hard to tell where one family ends and the other begins. I’ve been hoping to get a glimpse of the baby for a week, but she and the baby have remained upstairs, resting.

“They will come down today,” he told me. “You can come over.”

The man next door to him has been dying for about eight months now. Or, at least, it sure sounds like he’s dying. Deaths, births – of kittens and children – eating, sleeping… all of that is shared in this little alley grid that I was lucky enough to find in this corner of the universe. And these people have invited me into their lives with such openness.

I very love Vietnamese people. I very love this neighborhood. An old, wrinkled woman wearing a conical hat even just told me so.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cheers with Milkshakes

Or, as they say here: "Mot, Hai, Ba, YO!" (One, two, three, YO~)


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Comforts of Home

It is 8:30 am and it is 70 degrees F. outside. I wore a coat on my drive to work this morning because I was FREEZING! It rained all day yesterday and continues to rain this morning. The forecast says it will rain through next week.

The rainy season is back, I think. But this is different. Usually it rains short and hard and it's over. This drizzly, constant fall, well, I cannot recall a day like this in the past year and a half.

I am hearing from teachers this morning that they ordered pizza, picked up a pirated movie or read a good book in bed with no air-conditioning last night.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Saturday, January 16, 2010

American Teenagers in Viet Nam

Clarification: Even though these burgers made Devon and Megan very happy in this moment, all three of the kids were very adventurous when it came to the food here.

Megan doesn't like seafood (except for processed fish sticks) so that made all of us a little sad. But she dove into other treats, like Bot Chien - fried rice flour cake, beef with lemongrass and won ton soup. She definitely had her favorites.

Devon ate everything. One night in particular when we were in Hoi An, he and grandpa ordered a combination of regional specialties. It was fun to watch and overhear them sharing about ten dishes, asking, "What is this?" "MMMMM, try this grandpa" and "How do you filet this fish?"

Nolan had a taste for K and my favorite pho stand, water spinach, baked squid, the fresh bread rolls and of course the pork and taro spring rolls.

But sometimes, you just need a burger. Right, everyone?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

John's Turn

What a rich set of experiences in four weeks! Marjie suggested that we comment on the things about Vietnam we wish we could “keep” and the things we’re happy to “leave.” So here goes:

- The boys on a motorbike who snatched Carol’s purse.

- Crowded streets and impossible traffic. The norm seems to be very aggressive driving on either side of the road performed with acute awareness of where your vehicle stops and another begins (measured in inches) with the horn constantly providing warnings.

- Electrical wiring, both inside and out. Power lines so thick you can barely read the names on buildings. Casual 220 volt inside wiring such as twisted and taped connections for the wall mounted water heater within easy reach inside the shower. A public toilet with a towel rack and wet towel and bare wires inches above where a hand dryer used to be.
- Persistent smog in the cities we visited. There must be some long-term health effects for residents.

- Friendly, happy people. Thanks to Sharon for taking us to see Marjie when we arrived; Marjie was in the hospital recovering from Dengue fever. Many thanks to Katherine and Franco for their hospitality and use of their rooms in the Castle. Thuy and Thanh took such good care of us – home-made chicken noodle soup when we arrived “to keep us well” and fresh lemonade at their fabric stand. It’s tempting to ask them to become our neighbors, but we could never replace what they already have in their neighborhood.
- Great food, over and over. That includes the vendors in the neighborhood and the wonderful hotel breakfasts while we traveled. The numerous seafood feasts also need to be mentioned.

- Beautiful scenery, with Halong Bay at the top of my list. The cruise on a junk was a perfect way to see the islands.

- Spending four weeks with Devon, Megan and Nolan. What a rare opportunity to have extended time during this busy and quickly changing portion of their lives!

I’m so thankful that we had the opportunity to experience the people and culture of Viet Nam rather than a tour with western hotels and food and only a glimpse of the people from a big bus. Thanks for the memories, Marjie.

Knife Sharpener

Herding Instincts

Road Ready

I will tell you when these are no longer "Lewis Photos."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What is the Reason for this Sale?

An epic Lewis photo.

We Love Our Pomelo Guy

... because he peels and sections it for us. He charges 4,000 VND for a whole peeled pomelo (less than 25 cents). At the store you could pay up to 20,000 VND. Megan is crazy about pomelo. I wonder how she is living without it? She kept this poor guy busy.

He also sells durian. We hate durian and it's a bad day in the market if that is all he has.

Best Spring Rolls in Saigon, Nguyen Canh Chan Morning Market

Lewis was addicted to the noodles and beef for breakfast, too. Nolan must have eaten at least five of these spring rolls per day~ she laughed every time she saw him coming.

Pig Hoof, Ear and Tail

Are these the ingredients in that yummy Vietnamese bologna?

Candle Neighbor's House, Across the Alley

Monday, January 11, 2010

This is Hoi An

Another Lewis photo~

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Devon's Turn

What a trip. Before this trip, I didn't know what to expect. Now, after the completion of the trip, I have realized that it is nearly inevitable to not know what all to expect on such a trip.


This trip included a few firsts for me. To begin, I have never been off the continent of North America. It feels strange to say that I have flown over the Pacific Ocean. We did a lot of travel within Vietnam too; I don't know that I've ever visited that many different cities in one month. HCMC, Nha Trang, Ha Noi, Ha Long Bay, and Hoi An were all the cities we visited, that's five different cities in one month. That's a lot. At least to me.

HCMC was arguably the most exciting of the visited cities. Our time in HCMC started out with a taxi ride which marked our first experience with the roads of Nam. I still remember passing on the left with oncoming traffic. I have not forgotten that thrill.

And that first taxi ride was only the beginning.

Another first for me was attending a middle-school. I was home-schooled throughout my middle-school years, so I never did attend a middle-school here in the States. I find it odd stating that my first middle-school experience took place thousands of miles away from anyplace I have ever lived. My day at middle-school was... notable. Perhaps that is an understatement with my barfing in the cafeteria and later kinda-sorta unofficially getting asked to an official dance. Text fails to give a good reflection here. So, I'll move on.

Sleeper-buses were new to me. I really like my bed here at home, but sleeping on a bed on a bus was a neat experience. The aspect of falling asleep at the place of my departure and waking up at the place of my destination was sublimely a really cool deal.

Now I know this doesn't really have anything to do with Nam, but at one point on that sleeper-bus my left foot fell asleep so heavily that I practically couldn't move my foot. I tried to move my foot at the ankle, but it wouldn't. It felt really weird trying to walk when the muscles of one ankle wouldn't work...

Anyway, back to the subject at hand--

Nam, in general, has good food. That was a good experience, all the tasty food. It seemed that in any direction there was tasty food calling to be consumed, "Devon, Devon!" it would cry. A particularly tasty treat Marjie had in her neighborhood was fresh pineapple. I never quite understood why my Dad liked pineapple so much, but I think I do now. Tasting that amazing slice of happiness was like all the cares of the world melting away. Okay, okay, not like that. But really, that pineapple was one of the most delicious foods of the entire trip. No joke.

The weather of Nam was quite different from here at home as well. The continuing warmth of HCMC was something that I am not well acquainted with here in the Seattle area. How is that? I will say that I now have a better appreciation for milkshakes. =)

All of Nam was so much more than these words, but these are a few samples. I hope the readers have enjoyed my blogging.

And I want to thank my Aunt for her enabling my family to take this amazing trip to Nam. It has been a great experience, one that I will certainly not soon forget. Thank you very much, Aunt Marjie.

This is Devon Griggs, over and out.

Lewis' Eye

Lewis took some really good pictures while he was here, so every once in a while I am going to feature one of them...

Friday, January 08, 2010

Reflections on our trip by Carol.

For months we looked forward to our trip to Vietnam. Well, we're back and it seems like a dream -- a very, very good dream, however. Marjie took her best experiences from living there for 1 1/2 years and consolidated them into a very full and complete 3 1/2 weeks of adventures for us.

We experienced the motorbike madness of Ho Chi Minh City; enjoyed meeting Marjie's roommates, Katherine and Franco, and her good friends, Thuy and Thanh; sailed a junk on beautiful Halong Bay where we stayed in huts with attached full bathrooms on Monkey Island; visited cultural museums in Hanoi; stayed in two resort towns, Nha Trang and Hoi An, where we soaked up the sun on the beaches and swam in warm ocean water; had clothes and shoes made; visited Marjie's school and met many of her students; shopped in her neighborhood market; and ate many, many meals of delicious Vietnamese food. It was all wonderful, but I think my favorite was her neighborhood which I am going to write about next.

We stayed in a hotel about a five minute walk from the "castle." It wasn't a fancy hotel, but it had air conditioned rooms, tiled bathrooms, a refrigerator and TV, comfortable beds, and was very clean. The cost was $11.00 per night. Leaving the hotel we could walk down the street and purchase a dish of spring rolls and fried noodles, a bowl of pho', rice cakes, rice and chicken, or any number of dishes and drinks at the stands along the side of the street. Turning a corner and walking down an alley brought us to the morning market. There we could buy anything we desired from individual vendors. Along one side might be fresh fish, rice noodles, a stand selling pho', underwear, kitchen utensils, cosmetics, Thuy and Thanh's fabric stand, bananas and other fruit. The other side might be beef, grains, fresh rolls, children's clothing, toys, and a stand selling cooked clams and scallops on the half shell. The market opened at 6:00 and closed at 1:00; it was very crowded with people doing their shopping for the day. Then for two hours the streets became fairly empty as many people rested during the hot part of the day. Because it is so warm there, many of the homes are open to the outside. The living area of homes include the street in front of the homes, where you see many people relaxing, visiting, and children playing. It is noisy, friendly, crowded, and inviting, and makes me realize that we in America live in a very isolated, sanitized environment.

One day I asked Thuy if she would teach me to cook pho'. She agreed and we met the next morning to purchase the ingredients. At the first stand we bought the spices, the next we bought the rice noodles, then the beef, the herbs, the bean sprouts, and the sauces. That evening we cooked at Marjie's. She showed me what to do telling me to "taste and think" about the flavor throughout the cooking until I got it right. The pho' that night was delicious; hopefully I can replicate it here.

We couldn't have asked for a more unique, eventful, or wonderful time. We loved Vietnam; it is easy to know why Marjie decided to stay for another year. Thank you, Marjie, you were an excellent tour guide!

Same Old, Same Old- Happy New Year!

I was reading Facebook updates Tuesday night and many people were commenting that it was nice to "get back into routine." I felt the same way. Getting on my motorbike and riding to school against traffic on the sidewalk felt so great!!

We sure had fun, but I don't feel very rested after this vacation and plan to do only that and gym stuff all weekend long.

I have asked my family - who is now back in the (much colder) greater Seattle area - to write reflective blogs sometime this weekend. They are busy sleeping off their jet lag, though, so we will see if that happens.

I am wondering, specifically, what part of Vietnam they would take home with them, if they could. (As well as what they would leave here. Which is obvious to me but maybe not to you.)

I don't even know where to begin to tell the stories of our three weeks together traveling through Northern and Central Vietnam, or how great it was for me to see my family become addicted to T and T, my seamstresses, my pomelo guy, rice cake ladies, spring roll lady, make-up lady, wonton soup cart guy, seafood alley people, yellow rice stand crew, the Bum Bum girls, etc, etc, etc... However, one morning in particular - I think it was Christmas Eve morning - all seven of them ran around collecting food for a few hours, and we used the castle as a Home Base Reporting Center for Neighborhood Eating. That was fun.

As for pictures, we have millions of them. But here is one of my favorites - Nolan and his new shorts with the neon green stripe - THE SHORTS THAT TOOK A VILLAGE TO MAKE. Remember, Thuy rode all over Saigon looking for the color he wanted and Sweet Seamstress really got a kick out of his design expectations. And here they are, on the flesh. Nolan was very very happy with those as well as his green and red checkered shorts and his designer shoes from Hoi An!

Ok, family, I am taking more time off. You tell a story - or whatever. It was so much fun to have you here.