Monday, June 14, 2010

The Times They Are A-Changin'...

This morning I put three mangoes on T and T's home altar, then identified myself to the house god and the money god, repeating after Thanh: "I am Marjie. I go home today. Give me lucky, happy and money." We did the prayer gesture three times, then put the lit incense in the sand.

I should have prayed for lucky before going to get rice cakes on my last morning, because she wasn't there. I usually only get cakes on the weekends so I can take my time enjoying them. I went to T's house a little distraught, so after the incense lighting, Thanh said we would at least go to her house to say goodbye. But...she wasn't home. Maybe it's for the best. Maybe I would have choked on those cakes while crying over them.

I got banh cuon from the vendor who never acknowledges me instead, then had two last amazing spring rolls. Because everyone knew it was my last day, many mutual wishes for lucky and happy were exchanged. Tomorrow is the half year Tet day, so Thanh made sure I tried both of the traditional treats present in the market: sticky rice and mung bean wrapped in bamboo leaves (good) and rice soaked in wine (not so good).

I stopped by Nam's house to see if Minh could rustle him up - we'll see if he comes by later. I also sat with Nam's mother for a while - she is sitting up now, but still quite gaunt and twisted from her stroke. She gave me a very gracious farewell.

Last night T and T came over and swung in the hammocks with me for a while. After Thuy went home to cook "salad and cow" for her new husband ('s family?), Thanh and I went to get a double shot of pomelo/pineapple juice and also took a trip to the neighborhood temple. There we lit three sticks of incense to Phuoc Ba- one for the world, one for our families and one for us. We wished the world, etc, "lucky, strong, and busy."

On the way home...I still cannot believe this... right across from wonton soup man we saw a BRAND NEW SUSHI RESTAURANT. It's indoor, bright, polished and cheery - completely unlike all of the other plastic stool restaurants on the street. I eat wonton soup all the time and never saw this going in. Sushi on our street. Wow. I wish I still had a camera so that Katherine would believe me, but it was swiped the other night at the restaurant (don't want to talk about it).

The new road that went in behind our house connects our street with the city in a major way. New sidewalks went in a few months ago, and now buildings are going up all along the new road where the Crispy Vietnamese Ravioli stand is. Thanh says that things will continue to change very quickly on our road. This frightens me.

The T's and I have plans to go to dinner tomorrow night, after we turn in my motorbike and get our hair washed at the Bum Bum (and after I get a last massage and swim and work out at the nicest gym I will ever belong to). I told Thanh I wanted Nguyen Canh Chan Sushi on my last night- nothing raw though! I'm not quite sure why that appeals to me, since it represents the change I dread, but it does.

And after that, we will all go to the airport. T's told me last night that their father wants to come, too. I am very honored - he is really cool. He always says "Maggie! America good!" every time he sees me.

America - it will be nice to see you again~

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The New Queen of Nguyen Canh Chan and more Neighborhooding

Katherine bought this really cool big yellow cushy chair when we first moved in - I sat in it all the time during "debrief sessions." Before we left for the airport I asked her who should get it and she said, "T and T's mom."

This morning I woke up really early and decided to take the chair over. I probably should have taken it over at night, because every vendor (now they all know we are leaving and have been giving stuff away) jumped up and motioned that he/she would love the chair. But I made my way to my friends' house and placed it down in their living area. It looked so huge and yellow and modern in that small house!

Their mother beamed and sat down in it like a queen on a throne. Her signature greeting to me is to squeeze my hand very tightly, and this time she squeezed it and held on extra, extra tightly (even though I told her it was from Katherine; in this case it was better to be the messenger than the giver). She told me through Thanh that it felt really good on her back. They are so used to sitting on little plastic stools, I bet it does feel good!

My other favorite gift recipient is Ut with Katherine's bike. As we walked by their shop on our way to the taxi yesterday (after K stated the following to the castle ceiling: "Castle, you will never be topped!"), K mentioned how nice her bike looked - Ut had cleaned it and shined it up quite a bit. "That makes me think I should have cleaned it more," she said. We looked in and waved and Ut was still smiling proudly over that bike. I think he will be smiling for a very long time.

After my morning run, I came back to set a few last things outside the castle. I'm not quite sure how this happened, but Henry and Candle Lady's sister popped their heads in and I motioned over to where all of our dishes were, like "do you want them?" They still needed to be washed, and I was going to do it (I swear) but all of a sudden, both Henry's and Candle Lady's families were in the castle, doing the dishes, wiping down the counters, sweeping the floors, their kids jumping on the couch and chairs and flying airplanes up into the extremely high castle ceiling - I think there were about twelve people in the house altogether (Franco was still sleeping). They took the carpet, the coat rack, and worn-out shoes.

It was such a party that I kept running upstairs to get more things, like the hangers in my closet and a porcelain Vietnamese doll a student had given to me but I didn't think I would take home. When I brought the doll down, all of the women in the room let out a gasp at the doll's beauty - she wears a green ao dai and a conical hat. Henry's six-month old daughter grabbed it immediately and all of the women laughed and laughed and said something to the effect of, "Well, I guess it's her doll, then!" That baby just smiled and smiled at that doll. A six-month old!

When everyone was done cleaning and taking every last thing, I thought of the Grinch and that last Christmas ornament he grabs before he heads up the chimney - but in a good way. The only thing left was a lone cut out paper snowflake hanging from the balcony; my niece had made it to cool down a very hot Christmas.

Then my neighbors brought me out into the alley to take every combination of people pictures possible - me with the baby and the doll, me with Candle Lady and her sister, me with Henry's wife and baby, etc. Henry asked me to keep my ears open for any job openings in seafood quality control - like so many here, he wants to bring his family to America to make some money. I told him I would, really wishing I had that kind of power. And all of them wanted to did I like Viet Nam? I told them again and again how much I loved Viet Nam - this made them so happy to hear and they wished me lots of happy and lucky back in America.

Yes, Castle (and neighborhood), you will never be topped!

Chicken Soup Here!

"You go home, I very memory of friend. Don't know when friend come back Viet Nam."

This is an email I got today before taking K to the airport. I had put my email address on the bottom of the notes to my vendor friends not knowing if any of them might actually use email. K and I theorized about who it might be, and then K said, "If you write and ask, they will write back telling you what they sold." She was right.

I wrote back, "Thank you! Who is this?" and I got this message:

"Chicken soup here! I am a friend from a small. Some time you go to eat at my place."

Of course! Chicken soup man and his wife looked especially disappointed when they read my leaving note. They wave to me every morning as I pass and I sit down for a bowl of their delicious soup a few times per month. Look how inviting they are...don't you also just want to sit down on a tiny plastic chair and have a bowl?
I texted K with the answer to the riddle as she waited for her flight to Bangkok.
"Chicken Soup Man wrote you an email? That is AWESOME!" she wrote back.
Yeah, "Chicken soup here!" is pretty awesome!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Goodbye K

Only for Katherine would I go out at at 1:30 am to a bar to watch soccer. That's what time the US/England soccer game was here, and K is an avid soccer fan and player, and it was her last night in Saigon.

In fact, she is so avid
that she flies out today to Egypt en route to South Africa, where she will watch Portugal play North Korea in the World Cup. As for the rest of her summer, allow me to bore you with t
he details... after Egypt and S. Africa, she will fly to London to stay with her sister for a bit and then together they will travel in Croatia.

I know.

And then she will return to her beloved city of Montreal to try to find a PE job in a very tough job market. But - Montreal is where she wants to be, ultimately, and she knows that sooner or later she must put in the time to get into the system - so why postpone it any longer?

So on her last morning, we got rice cakes. A double order. Then we climbed up on T and T's stand to do a little business.

What to say now?

My experience in Saigon would have been nothing without this partner in crime I found on my very first day here two years ago. And I mean nothing.

Katherine is... well, she is just comfortable in her own skin. She is solid, funny, 100% loyal, fun, supportive, loves a challenge, is always ready to laugh at herself or at any story she is told, and is, as Rita wrote in her post,"the best listener in the world." This might not sound like a compliment, but to me it is of the highest order: she is an easy friend.

For two years we have figured it all out together - finding the castle and discovering the market, learning to cross the Saigon streets from a blind man, seeking the best food, spas and tailors in the city, Sunday night cooking with the T's, throwing up together on New Year's Eve in Thailand, theorizing what happened to the pomelo man this past month (no sight of him at all), organizing massages in the balcony, getting a palm tree up five flights of stairs, teaching these great kids, and getting mugged by a motorbike thief. We have figured it out and then debriefed all of it, most significantly while swinging in the hammocks on the roof. We agree that one word that could best summarize our friendship would be the word "debrief."

I appreciate so many things about how people look at life here, but one of my favorite sayings is "I wish you very lucky." That's what it's all about in this harsh life, what luck might come your way. Katherine came my way in a definite form of lucky, and I wish Katherine nothing but lucky returning to her life in Canada (the country I am so much more familiar with after being in Vietnam even though I have lived two hours from it for most of my life). I will quote Dorothy here in her honor:

"I am going to miss you most of all Scarecrow."

Friday, June 11, 2010

Morning in the Castle Alley

This morning we had a big give-away in the alley outside of the castle. We set up a table and kept bringing items out; every single thing disappeared just like that - even all of our English books, funny plaques our students had given us, and an elf costume of Franco's. K and I brought our pots and pans to T and T this morning (they had already laid claim to the big ticket items they wanted), but they were adamant that our neighbor, Candle Lady, needed the pots and pans more than they did. Candle Lady was thrilled.

Sweet Seamstress' brother, Ut (whom we thought was her son until just a few days ago) very sweetly asked for Katherine's bike, and he broke out into the biggest grin when she told him it was his. SS got the coat and shoe racks, iron and shelves. T and T's brother's wife - the mother of Monkey Boy - came and took all of our dishes and food. Henry - our endlessly gracious neighbor across the alley (laughing grandpa is his father) got some of Franco's shirts, a table, a lamp and some things for his kids. It was really fun - and such an example of a community deciding who should get what. No one here owns many items outside of the "need" column.

K had given Thanh a gift certificate for a facial for her birthday, so yesterday the four of us took an hour and a half at the spa. It was a first for those two - Thanh, especially, would never allow herself such a treat. Afterward she told me, "I forgot all of my worries." (I cannot say it was a first for K and me - we are two people who have become experts on the spas in Saigon, just ask us.)

K and I "did" the market together this morning and I gave out more of my notes. Banana lady gave us some complimentary bananas, Make-Up Lady gave me a free bonus lip gloss with my purchase (better than Macy's) and Sweet Seamstress gave us our last clothes orders "from her heart to ours."

I took donuts to the seamstress I love across town (where Tarn has accused me of running my own sweat shop) and she hugged me for a long time, gave me her email address and told me she would continue to make me clothes and send them to America - all I must do is to send her a picture of what I want. (K thinks this was bad for my addiction.)

Back to the topic of the neighborhood: I've mentioned it before, but many of our colleagues were not so fortunate with their neighbors. I feel so much gratitude to these people who have not only welcomed us into their alley, but who have kept their eyes on our house, paid our electricity bills to keep us in power when we were negligent on occasion, and who have held candles out windows when we came home to darkness late at night. Those kind of people are fun to give to, you know?

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Dear Friend-

I will be returning to my home in Seattle, Washington, USA on the 15th of June. I want to thank you for all of the kindness you have shown to me over these past two years - and for all of the good food. Living in the Nguyen Canh Chan neighborhood has been a highlight for me.

I wish you lots of luck and happiness in your life!

Thank you,

This is the note I had Lisa (remember the student from last year who helped me with my Nam problems?) translate for me to hand out to the vendors I have grown to love over these past two years. I personalized a few of them - one to the rice cake ladies, telling them their cakes were my favorite meal in Saigon - and one to the spring roll lady, telling her how much I love her rolls. Katherine gets a kick out of Spring Roll Lady because whenever she runs into me in the market, she talks to me as if I can understand every word she says.

The others, I just photocopied them and handed them out this morning. I didn't want to leave it to the last minute, and I definitely did not want to leave with no word of goodbye.

A thought I had right before doing my rounds this morning (there are twenty two vendors on my list - I did about twelve this morning), I considered that some of them may not be able to read. I was right. Rice With Mung Bean Lady had her neighbor read it to her, and Banh Cuon Lady set the note aside without reading it. She did say "Thank you" though, so I think she understands. Spring Roll lady grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly, towel lady made the motion of tears streaming down her face (while laughing) and Garlic Lady kept asking when I would return. Banana Lady knows English quite well - she is so gracious and kind...she said she knew she would see me in the market again.

Rice Cake Lady will get her note on Sunday, when Katherine and I have our last cakes together. K leaves Sunday afternoon, and T, T and I will go to the airport with her. Tarn leaves today and I said goodbye to Alice last weekend because she left for Bangkok to begin year two on her master's, and Steven and Sharon fly out midnight on Tuesday, just like me. Last night, after the graduation ceremony, ten of us went to a nice, quiet restaurant and dined mightily. It was as if I hand-picked all of my favorite people to be there at this goodbye dinner, but really it just happened. It was really nice. I will include this picture even though it includes only half of me...

As for T and T... Thuy cries easily. She is openly emotional and has scrunched up her face with tears a few times in the past few weeks, especially the night that Tarn took us all out for seafood. Thanh, however, stays pretty stoic. This morning, however, I brought them flowers from the ceremony and Thanh did not greet me with her usual lightness of being. She looked at the flowers and went inside the house for a long time. When I went to check on her, she was coming down from the loft wearing sunglasses. You don't have to guess what my response to that was...

I still have the feeling that I have been living in a surreal Disney neighborhood, a kind of Old Saigon Street of Dreams designed especially for me.

These past two years seem as if they were designed especially for me.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Top 20

Since what I will miss of my castle-food-neighborhood-good-friends-limitless-travel-maid-massages-hair-washes-hammocks-on-the-roof-amazingly-sweet-students life here is pretty obvious, here is a list I've been making of the things I will not miss (perhaps because it makes it easier to leave...I have had a few panic attacks lately) (listed in no particular order except #1):

1. The heat. I really can't take being sticky all the time any more.

2. The rats I run over on my motorbike every day. They are flat rats that have already been run over by many other motorbikes so if you were to pick one up it would float in the wind, like a paper rat.

3. Horns honking incessantly. Even though I know objectively that horn honking is not rude here, it will always seem rude. I have been staring each honker down, like "did you REALLY need to do that?" I have not honked my motorbike horn once this entire year.

4. Vendors telling me to "sit down" in a very commanding voice. I don't know why I react so strongly against this, but I refuse to sit down when even my sweetest vendors tell me to.

5. The vendors pointing to all of the food they sell every time I pass. Yes, I know you are selling pineapple today. You have been selling it for two years and I will buy some if I want it...again, why does this irritate me so much? A few vendors I truly love never, ever point to what they are selling. I adore them.

6. Parking my motorbike in very small spaces next to other motorbikes that have the potential to sear my legs in new places.

7. Hearing about motorbike thieves at least once per week now. Friday night, my neighboring teacher friend, Sarah, had her bag around her neck and a motorbike thief grabbed it and dragged her until she lost consciousness and broke her arm and injured her head. These attacks are getting more and more frequent, it seems.

8. Teenagers speaking in a language I don't understand. Yes, they are endlessly sweet - but what are they saying? They are teenagers, after all.

9. Parking my motorbike in my house. It's just not great decoration.

10. My countertop and sink that is made for a very small person. I am tired of leaning over to cook or do dishes, so therefore I hardly ever cook or do dishes. The other day I forgot how to make one of my favorite signature recipes...

11. Being an Amazon. At home I feel so normal-sized!

12. The air pollution. I don't even want to think about what my lungs look like now.

13. The dengue fever potential flying around in the mosquitoes here. I got the flu last week and had the same symptoms I did with dengue - I was terrified!

14. The obstacle course on my daily ride to school. Sometimes it's kinda fun, but lately it has really bugged me.

15. Asian cable TV.

16. Ants attacking any sugar I leave out for even five seconds.

17. The cockroaches that apparently still inhabit a box above my bathroom. Don't you just hate the way they run/scurry across the floor?

18. My weak shower that gets my toilet wet. I hate this shower. My Phinney condo has the best shower I have ever showered under, and it will shower me again beginning on the 20th.

19. The stand-off with the deaf/something-else-wrong-with-her- pineapple lady. She's the one who sells onions and garlic, but she got very irate with me when I bought pineapple from a vendor sitting right next to a vendor I had (unknowingly) bought from the previous week. I have not bought from either one since. And the second one - well, she has the best looking avocados lately. I am afraid to buy them because vendor #1 also has avocados - but not at all as attractive as #2's. What a pity.

20. The frogs that are skinned alive - heads snipped off and still jumping - that sit in a bucket next to the banana lady each morning.

OK, 20 is a good place to stop.

Of course, for each of these complaints there are five positives. Katherine and I - while debriefing in the hammocks one recent night - talked about how we had changed over these past two years. We came up with the same word to wrap it up: resiliency. Vietnam has made us both much more resilient.

AmyT, who comments regularly here, taught in Hungary for two years. Years ago we were out to eat and I found a hair in my food. When I mentioned it, she asked me a simple question: "Human or animal?" and when I answered "human," that told me what my reaction should be - absolutely nothing. I wanted that same thing she had. Maybe another word for that quality is "perspective."

Resiliency and perspective. I hope these qualities stick for a while~

I Call it "Crispy Vietnamese Ravioli"

...but it's actually called "Chao Luoi Phan Thiet." The "Phan Thiet" part means it's from a place near the beach town Mui Ne. The other part means something like "Rice paper packets filled with minced shrimp and pork, grilled over coals and wrapped up in more rice paper and filled with mango, cucumber, basil and lettuce and then dipped in the best peanut/fish sauce ever."

Thanh took me here a few weeks ago - one of her customers just opened this stand on the sidewalk of the "new road" right behind our house. She had never tried this dish before, and had promised her customer she would come by. Fortunately, she brought me along. Now I am hooked, and I got Katherine hooked as well as a few friends from school. For a while, I was calling it "Packets of Deliciousness," but was told that "packets" did not sound very appetizing, so it was therefore renamed "Crispy Vietnamese Ravioli."

The "ravioli" are grilled on skewers over coals that are lit in a wide metal bowl, and when the packets are brought to your table, you wrap everything up just like you would with the many variations of salad rolls here and dip it all into the sauce. The sweet strips of mango contrast with the crispy about crunchy, spicy, sweet, sour, salty and amazing.

And - according to Thanh, the sign reads "5,000 VND per chopstick." That amounts to about thirty cents per stick, and since each person uses two chopsticks, we pay about sixty cents per person for this meal.

After two years, we are still finding the best food in the city right outside our door.

Directions for Alice and Liem (and whoever else reads this in Saigon): You can see the Van Do buildng directly across the street as you eat these on the "new sidewalk." Just go across the bridge from District 4, turn right on Tran Hung Dao and take another right on Nguyen Canh Chan. At the end of NCC, you turn left onto the "new road." Walk down a few blocks and you will run into the stand on the sidewalk. She is open from 2-8 every day.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

My Mini-Me Club

I led an after-school club this year called the "Cross-Cultural Club." We started out doing many cross-cultural activities, such as studying festivals and celebrations from around the world and doing art projects to go along with them. Food was a part of the deal, too. One time we made fresh salsa and quesadillas and once we ordered Indian food. After first semester- when my club was assessing what we wanted to do for the rest of the year- my members were straight with me.

"Ms. Marjorie, all we really want to do is eat," they said. A tear appeared in the corner of my eye; twelve twelve-year-olds who liked to eat as much as I do were sitting wide-eyed in front of me, wanting me to lead them, simply, to eat.

So our second semester "Eating Club" was born. We spent the rest of our time learning about food and finding restaurants to order from for our after school Thursday club. We tried Lebanese, Thai, Mediterranean and Italian (no pizza or spaghetti allowed) and even went on a field trip to a Mexican restaurant for a five-course meal (of guacamole and chips, quesadillas, tostadas, tacos, carnitas and rice).

One member, Truong, is the most Mini-Me of them all. He is obsessed with what he is going to eat for each meal, loves the taste of food, and knows almost as much about it as I do. Pre-Eating Club, he knew how to pronounce "gnocchi," he had already tasted carnitas in this Mexican-food-deprived- city, and he already ordered Masala curry every chance he got. His parents, at times - when they know they will not be home for dinner - give him money to order whatever he wants. So he knows the best menus all over the city and places calls from his cell phone at school so it will be there when he gets home. Needless to say, I get a big kick out of this kid. We are kindred food spirits (here he is pictured with an empty plate).

When we went to the Mexican restaurant, he kept telling me he brought enough money to order extra food for himself, in addition to our pre-set five courses. Well, he was quite full afterward, but there was one thing we didn't get that he had his heart set on: nachos. At the end of the meal when we were all getting ready to go, I saw Truong up at the counter pointing at the menu, getting his wallet out and paying the cashier.
A few minutes later, he was handed a take-out bag.
He walked past me and said, "Ms. Marjorie, I ordered nachos to go." And then he turned and added, "Supreme."
The other day I had an extra menu on the front desk for an Italian restaurant my staff sometimes orders from at lunch. I saw him pouring over it when the rest of the class was signing yearbooks.

"What are you going to order today?" I asked him at the end of class.
"Pasta Arrabiata and Pizza Gorgonzola," he answered. I was so jealous.

The purpose of after-school clubs is for kids to find a place to belong, where they are pursuing an interest in something that other like-minded people share. It certainly worked for me.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

A Few Updates

Honestly, every day I have things to report and now Blogger is not blocked anymore. However, it was blocked for long enough that I got out of the habit of writing. But - not fair to keep all of you hanging about the T's mom...

Happy to report that she came back from the hospital on Thanh's birthday, after ten days of fever. The most I can understand about what was wrong was that she had a problem with her lung but that it is being treated with medicine. She now lies in a stretched out hammock most of the day. Thanh stayed by her side for the majority of the ten days, just monitoring her fever. On the day of her birthday, she was close to exhaustion and slept all day. She had mentioned to me a few weeks ago that she was interested in trying sushi, so Tarn, Katherine and I were able to whisk her away for dinner that night.

As with most other foods we have introduced her to, she didn't really care for it. She had no idea that sushi meant "raw" in most cases. She picked at the rolls and ate a little of the deep fried shrimp and avocado and kind of liked the miso soup, but overall I'm sure she is just fine with Vietnamese food. I find the quest and the disappointment amusing with her, but with anyone else I would probably be really annoyed. The fact that she hasn't tried many foods and shows interest is great - the fact that she doesn't like it when it's in front of her confuses me, because she is such a great cook and knows flavors so well.

As for Thuy, no honeymoon for her. At the stand at 4 every morning, setting up by herself, then to the hospital to be with her mother at night. Not one word of "why me" complaining, either. It would have been her third time out of Ho Chi Minh City in her entire life.

In other news: Our friends Steven and Sharon had their baby, Hazel, last weekend. Sharon had really battled to have her baby naturally in a country where having babies is not really something that involves personal choice of experience. Everyone gets drugged up, period. So that was a battle. And the day she was born - already a week late - Sharon experienced contractions in the morning so Steven took her to the hospital - on the motorbike. When she arrived, they told her she wasn't suppsed to come until Monday for her C-section...oh, wait, the appointment is Friday...when she told them, "I am having my baby now!" But they sent her home, saying it would still be hours. So they went home - on their motorbike. When they got home, the contractions started to come very quickly, so they turned around and went straight back to the hospital - on the motorbike, where Hazel arrived within just three hours. Sharon hopes for a better all-around experience next time.

As for me, I am finishing up saying goodbye to my 6th grade angels and starting to pack up my stuff. Every day, Katherine and I both lament and welcome the fact that we are going home. Like my dad said a few times - what a place of contrasts!