Wednesday, 31 October 2012

River life 1

Every day I return home by crossing the Thu Thiem  bridge. I look forward to seeing this view each time. Is the tide in or out? Will there be lots of boats or none? 

This scene was captured about two weeks ago just as the season was changing from the wet season to the dry. It's about 3-4pm and the watery sun is trying to burn through the humid haze that's hanging over the city. Massive sand barges are moving their daily loads up and down the river and one lonely little sampan is chugging upstream. 

In the evening this bridge provides a perfect vantage point for the city lights and courting couples gather to admire the view, followed, as ever, by an army of vendors of fruit, local hot snacks and rice dishes. 

At the far end (not the city end) of the bridge, makeshift cafes pop up every evening after dark, so people can meet their friends amongst the rubble and detritus of a  demolished neighbourhood and watch the traffic go by from the comfort of sun loungers (no less) lined up along the side of the road as if it were the beach!  I have not yet sampled this cultural delight myself but I reckon you shouldn't knock it until you've tried it! I will let you know..............

Thursday, 25 October 2012

A change in the seasons

Here is tomorrow's forecast. In the space of a week we have gone from torrential downpours to blue skies and a significant increase in temperatures.

The good thing is that the humidity has dropped. The locals seem pleased with the early onset of the 'Dry Season' that normally comes in December and love to warn Europeans about how very hot it will get by April. 

Oh flipping heck!  I feel a trip to the mountains coming on.Maybe I could sample the wines of the southern slopes in the hills of Da Lat?

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

No - NOT chrysanthemums!!!!

Vietnamese food can be absolutely delicious however, as with any cuisine in any country, you have to be careful what you eat and where you eat it. My untrained western eyes are still having difficulty spotting the difference between    the delicious, the indifferent and the disgusting when trawling my way through menus. 

I have now eaten in top restaurants, traditional street restaurants, from pavement vendors, Westernised coffee shops, Vietnamese food emporia and some of the restaurants owned (mainly by Australians I guess) that serve up a range of western delights plus their own version of some Vietnamese favourites.

Sometimes I am transported by the exotic mix of delicious textures and flavours and occasionally one bite is enough to tell me that one more bite will lead directly to the Saigon squitters or worse.  

One flavour that I have yet to acquire a taste for is the ubiquitous Nuoc Mam, a highly pungent condiment of fermented fish and sea salt that is added as liberally or a lightly as salt and pepper might be. I guess it is the Vietnamese equivalent of Anchovy paste the only difference being that it is has had en extra few months of fermentation and is used in a very wide variety of dishes.

I decided that it might be a good idea to learn more by shopping for previously unknown ingredients and by trying to cook a range of local dishes. Rick Stein to the rescue!  I was given a copy of his South East Asian cook book before starting this adventure and it was one of the first items to find a place in my packing boxes.

The first hurdle was to translate the recipes from English to Vietnamese. The second hurdle was to get at least two natives to agree on a the proper name for any of the selected ingredients. I converted the ingredients to photos to see if that would help. However, as I may have mentioned before, these dear people are not very visually literate and many of them have not yet discovered that they need glasses either.

Armed with my two A4 sheets of photos and some suggested names for the ingredients I started shopping in earnest. The dried goods would surely be the easiest so I went down to my favourite city centre store to make a start. They are getting to know me now. A young lad watches my bike and one of the young girls picks up a basket to follow me around the impossibly narrow aisles of  Phuong Ha (left). I collect this and that but am not able to find some of the more exotic things like Palm Sugar, Kaffir Lime Leaves and  turmeric root. 

At the till, I share my photo shopping list with the owner. She gets a huddle assistants around her and then dispatches them hither and thither to seek out the missing items. In due course they return one by one. Some had been digging in the store room bur others had plainly been shopping in neighbouring businesses and rushed back to re-sell them to me for a small profit. I just love their attitude and their enterprising spirit!

Next, the fresh ingredients. I need the help of Jo's housekeeper, Kim Chi, to help me navigate the local wet market armed, once again, with a photo shopping list. This time I haven't bothered with the translations since  no-one seems to be able to agree.  This market is smaller and better ventilated than the city ones so the smell of Nuoc Mam isn't so overpowering. 
Binh Khanh wet market

Like any market, this place is lively and colourful and the Vietnamese vendors are chatty and cheerful. they don't get many Western people in this local market so my arrival caused a good deal of  amusement.

Chicken components !
I start with a picture of chicken breasts. This was not instantly recognisable because this is not how the Viets buy chicken at all. The photo I had looked like a tray of breasts at Tesco in Leeds. What I was finally offered was an entire breast carcasse with the skin on - how absolutely FANTASTIC!  

I cannot remember the last time I saw breast with skin let alone attached to the bone...........and they were enormous. This carcasse was a big as some small turkeys. This would be perfect for making the stock for my Pho. See here some of the other delights the chicken lady had on offer.

 One of my other main ingredients was prawns. We visited a delightful woman who had two trays of different prawns and some squid on the side. 

There was a bit of a cafuffle while we sorted out the price and the number of prawns I required because somewhere in the translation she thought I asked for 12 kilos - a shock she had to share with neighbouring stall holders!!!  

Anyway, I finally selected the 12 prawns I needed and she then meticulously topped and peeled each one not forgetting to ask me if I would like the eggs she found in some of the females.

We left the market laden with at least a dozen carrier bags of all kinds of ingredients. The most difficult one to buy turned out to be one of the most common of things. No-one seemed to understand my photo of coriander. 

One guy, who spoke quite good English thought he knew what it was and asked me to wait while he went in search of a particular stall holder who had already packed up for the day. 

He dragged him out of his hammock, got him to unlock his cold store and finally they proudly emerged with a large bunch of yellow chrysanthemums! Maybe, now,you can begin to see  my problem!!

Friday, 5 October 2012

Sunday sketching

I went sketching with a fellow student last Sunday and we have decided to make it a regular date. Here is my first local sketch. these boats are so characteristic of Vietnam. The whole family probably lives aboard and the open area at the back serves as living room, kitchen, bathroom, workshop and fishing deck.  In the background you can see the outline of the Bitexco Tower that dominates the new skyline of Saigon. In the middle there is a typical row of makeshift homes, coffee shops, engine repair shops, etc that back onto the river.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Biker babe

It's never too late to become a biker. I shied away from the nifty fifties and the naughty nineties, and anything bigger just frightens me a little. I have gone for the Asama, eco-friendly, silent, electric bicycle.  I have no idea what the top speed is - there's no speedo but it does have a battery meter, a big headlight, 45 kilometre range, a practical basket on the front and room for a passenger on the back.

Jo came with me to buy it from the dealership in the centre of the city and instantly, I became one of the roaring hoards of bikers on the streets of Saigon. It's not nearly as bad as it looks. You just have to keep looking forward and go when it's your turn or when you can fight your way through!  

I also have all the necessary accessories; a helmet with visor, a full length cape for rain storms and two face masks to protect my face from the muck and save my lungs from the fumes!  Today, I was able to follow Jo back home through the traffic. Tomorrow, I will be on my own on my first journey to college! It's brilliant! 

Look out Vietnam, I'm mobile now!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Sounds of a calm evening

Tonight is still and warm.  A breeze is blowing through the house and, sitting in my upstairs window I can hear such a variety of foreign sounds.

The rhythmic chanting and occasional gong ringing at the local temple wafts through the moist warmth.

From the high street just a hundred metres away or so, the perpetual burrr of moped and bikes is drowned out, every 15 minutes or so by the distinctive warbling horn of the buses as they warn bikers to make way. 

In the background, the constant chattering of the cicadas and crickets in the darkness of the undergrowth.

A lone swimmer sploshed into the swimming pool and almost silently glides up and down illuminated only by a single yellow light lifting a streak of turquoise tiling out of the gloom below me.

Children are playing and laughing behind the privacy of a bamboo blind and in my room the fan whirrs to and fro and grinds a little as it returns from the farthest arc.

An impatient knock at my door tells me Chloe Mai is home!

Number 46

Isn't this brilliant! This little bus pulled in to the buss station while I was waiting for the 88 the other day. It has to be the smallest bus I have ever seen.  

According to my bus route map, it serves just one little district to the south of the city - like, for example Armley. It looks like a district that may have been slightly isolated by the building of all the new bridges that now fly across the network of rivers and canals that run through and around Saigon.

the No. 46 doesn't carry the same livery as the rest of the buses ( two tone green as you can see) so maybe it is an independent service.  Anyway, about a dozen people squeezed into the back  and off they set!