Friday, 10 May 2013

My first magazine column

Oi Vietnam - May 2013
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If you are lucky enough to be in Hoi An on the night of a full moon, you will witness a delightful transformation taking place in the streets of the old town. In the evening, a calm descends over the old town. The electric street lights are turned off and all the lanterns are lit. No traffic is allowed on the streets, not even bicycles. This is a night for promenading and connecting with Vietnam’s rich cultural heritage.

The full moon is an auspicious night all over Vietnam. It is a night for people to remember their ancestors. Families and friends will gather around courtyard or pavement altars to drink tea and wait to see the moons reflection in their cups. On these table altars are the yellow flowers purchased that morning at the market, incense sticks, maybe a little clay figure of the jade rabbit and a collection of offerings of fruit, tea and wine. Some may make offerings to Chang’e who, according to Chinese mythology, drank the elixir of immortality and floated up to the moon. Some may honour the spirits that connect this world to the past and to the future, to the spirits that run in the rivers and blow through the trees and that bind all humans to the natural and the supernatural.

Synonymous in particular with the Lunar New Year festival (Tet), that takes place in January or February, the market women sell sunshine yellow chrysanthemums and marigolds. Bunches of flowers are swept up into baskets and bicycle panniers; they are tucked under arms and squashed in with the groceries to be taken home for the evening’s celebrations. They make tributes of yellow flowers that signify hope and family happiness or, perhaps, a wish for a new baby.

Another aspect of Vietnamese life is their love of playing games. Any time of day or night, groups of men gather around card games or chess boards but on Full Moon Night you can see Chinese Chess up close because games are staged outside some of the ancient houses and temples. Dressed in traditional Vietnamese costume, men play the game by candle light and welcome onlookers. If you want to take part, they will even introduce you to the rudiments of the game.

Other full moon festivals in Vietnam are Ram Thang Bay during the seventh lunar month when families give thanks to parents and ancestors and make offerings to pardon lost or wandering souls.  The famous ‘Mid-Autumn Festival’ in the eighth lunar month, which is celebrated throughout East Asia, is a time for homecoming and harvest and is marked by the exchange of moon cakes. In ancient times, Confucian scholars used to make up poems for impromptu performances on the night of this festival each year. Now this tradition is remembered each month in Hoi An as poetry readings are staged around the town.

To find out about future full moon dates,

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

A little of what you fancy ..............

Dear friends,

 as I write, I am sampling an elixir I purchased from a Chinese herbalist only yesterday.

I went in search of the magic root, Ginseng and was proffered a pint bottle of Ginseng Tonic Wine for 45,000 Vietnam Duong (£1.35) At 26 degrees of proof, this has the makings of an excellent alternative to Harvey’s Club Amontillado Sherry……… the only difference between these two fortified wines that I can discern on first tasting is that Sherry has never, in my long experience, ever caused made my top and the left side of my tongue to go numb. Interesting.  

In fact, as it slips down my throat I am getting the same sensation in other parts and a slight ‘Ginseng rush’ at the back of my skull and in my temples. Hmmmm.

But, I am not worried – no, not one bit, because on the label is a photo of an octogenarian running like a young buck!

One more sip……. Hmmm…………. Not so bad.

At this Chinese herabalist, I also bought just under 100gsm of whole, Korean Ginseng which costs $200 per kilo! Here is my stash for your perusal.

The herbalist's abacus

And another sip……………. Hmm …………. A bit like drinking Fisherman’s Friends……….. though I have never known them to make my lips go numb either.
My herbalist

My Ginseng Root being gently heated before slicing

slicing the root

This all happened because I went out with new friends Barbara and Vu who started an enterprise called Saigon Street Eats about 6 months ago 

We met when I went on one of their tours in March and sampled some amazing foods on the ‘Saigon seafood Trail’ evening tour during which we ate, amongst other things clams, oysters (not like the ones at home at all), conche, winkles, snails, razor, scallops and some things that looked like little penises! It was an excellent evening out and the best way I have yet found to discover hidden Saigon.

To help me with research for my next book, I asked if they could take me into some of the city neighbourhoods of Saigon that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to find.

Ooooh – slight ache – frontal lobe………. Have another sip.

Here is a sample of some of the things they helped me to discover as I tagged along on one of their tours yesterday morning. 

Can't type any more - fingers have gone squishy...................... pictures will speak for me.

Breakfast of soup, noodles and lots of fresh weeds
Look at the size of those grapes

Sweet potatoes and bananas

A fine collection of wires
no words

Vu Checks his lottery ticket numbers
Oh look - I can still type. This lady is selling betel leaves for chewing. She also has betel leaves wrapped around arnica nuts and two choices of ground limestone (white or pink chalk I guess) that you add as a condiment to release the drug more quickly into the blood stream.  

Chewing the leaves and nuts is popular amongst the older generation. It stains the teeth and gums a deep red which used to be considered attractive. Some older women still have black teeth.

The ingredients used to blacken the teeth can take several forms.
In Vietnam it is common to use red sticklac, a resin obtained from secretions of a tiny aphid-like insect that sucks the sap of a host tree, as a dye.
The resin is diluted with lemon juice or rice alcohol and stored in the dark for a few days. It's then applied with pressure to all the teeth. An application of iron (mainly from iron nails) or copper from green or black alum and tannin from Chinese gall reacts with solution to give a blue-black insoluble coating

 What a palarva!

This photo was taken outside a banana leaf merchant. Tons of banana leaf are used every day in Vietnam, to wrap food for steaming and baking .  But actually, I was more interested in his vintage bike!

The rice & catfood merchant

Add caption

dried squid
dried seafood in the market. Tons of dried shrimp / prawns are sold every day in Vietnam

More egg varieties than we eat at home

Little baskets of silver fish

My stalker

Aren't these ladies great!

Colourful canopies

Lottery ticket sellers

Young man selling lottery tickets

It's lunchtime now

Government issue weighing scales

Spooky Banyan tree full of ghosts

How exotic!
Canon ball fruit and flowers

Into the temple gardens to cool down and get a manicure

What a brilliant morning out it was. Thanks to Barbara and Vu for being great hosts and helping me to discover more of the delights of Saigon. I did loads of sketching along the way and have lots of great materials for my next book.  

Oh look - and I can still type. One hour later I still have a little Ginseng rush going on in the skull and, who knows, maybe I will go out for a run later!  

Hen Gap lai !