Friday, August 13, 2010

Foreign Indulgences

Okay, as much as I ranted about the local food in the previous post, I must admit hauling along quite a number of what you could call “ foreign essentials”, things which are either too dear in Vietnam, too difficult to source out or just impossible to find (for reasons of either legality or culture). Turn the cart upside down, though, and they could be called a Westerner’s “lavish indulgences”, or more harshly; unnecessary excess crap to lug along on an already long flight. Of course I prefer the former term.

Be it as it may, I’d like to share with you now these fine items which are of various values; sentimental, monetary, sanitary or just plain sanity.

First on the list was an essential collection of 20 cds. I think Sarah and I have managed to put together a fine assortment of new albums , cheesy treffers (as they call rubbish music that’s only good for drunken singalongs in South Africa), local (as in Aussie and Saffa) or nostalgic albums. Classified geographically, these are:

Australian: Xaviar Rudd and Izintaba (Koonyum Sun), John Butler Trio x2 (April Uprising and Three), The Whitlams (Love this City), Eskimo Joe (A Song is a City) and Powderfinger (Golden Rule).

South Africa: Jack Parow (Self-titled), The Rudimentals (Set it Proper), Valiant Swart (Die Mystic Boer), The Dirty Skirts(On a Stellar Bender), Max Normal.TV (Good Morning South Africa), Springbok Nude Girls (Goddank vir Klank) and Black Mango Presents (Breathe Sunshine Vol 3).

International: The Flaming Lips (The Soft Bulletin), Florence + the Machine (Lungs), Pendulum x2 (Immersion and In Silico), Kings of Leon x3 (Because of the Times, Youth and Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbeat), Putumayo Presents (Sahara Lounge).

Cheesy World Cup Fever induced purchases: African Musical Safari, K’Naan (Troubadour), Listen Up! (The official 2010 World Cup Album).

*A quick endorsement from Metallica: If you haven’t heard of any of the above-mentioned artists go out and illegally download all of their music (except for the ones in the last category which are all pretty naff), and send the royalties to the Royal Society for Protection of African White Tigers.

Next on the list, (and never far from my mind) was foodstuffs: From South Africa and still in the mail are a fine range of Ina Paarman’s spices, stocks, and sauces. Sarah reckons Ina is like South Africa's very own Martha Stewart, but without the criminal record. Also, choccies (think Tempo and Bar One), four small potjies – quintessential SA outdoor cast iron cooking pots).

Our Australian amassment contained…wait for it, Tim Tams! Mint Slice! Gigantic Kit-Kat Chunky bars! Now before, you say: “But you can get Tim Tams in Vietnam, stupid.” As any discerning chocololic worth his block clearly knows, they’re just. not. the same, so rather keep quiet as not to look like you don’t know your cacao from you co…coffee. They’re made in Malaysia where different criteria are used to determined deliciousness, or is it deliciosity?

Anyways, sadly but not unsurprisingly none of the above consignment made it to Week Two of “The Return”. A half-jack of mezcal complete with two alcohol-bloated little worms only just made it into Week Two.

There were also numerous toiletries: think face cleansers without whiteners – I know it’s hard to imagine – and things that won’t make you break out in a rash and hives from just looking at the chemical ingredients on the label.

There were heaps of shoes in Western sizes, including a pair of gumboots (for Saigon downpours), and “real” football boots. What?! You mean the boots they sell for a hundred thousand uncles on Huyen Tran Cong Chua Street aren’t real?! The fact that your toes were sticking out of them after your first kickaround should’ve made that clear, buddy…

Books! I wish I could list all the books we had, but sadly the two pristine rectangular boxes we sent from Australia by post, containing our books, teaching material and other odds and ends arrived a few days after us, battered, bruised and misshapen sans most of our books. Luckily a lot of Sarah’s cook books were saved the culling and I’m pretty sure it’s not the first time Salman Rushdie’s novels haven’t made it into a country. A lot of our teaching materials were also rifled through and some removed (at least we’ll soon have a new generation of Vietnamese postal workers getting 7.5 on their IELTS tests).

Now to what I believe to be the most important items: A Bundaberg Rum Wallabies overall (great for messy nights out with the boys), my silk SA flag, as well as beanie and scarf and the ultimate South African cultural weapon: Our modern day assegai, that much maligned, often misunderstood hornet's nest in a stadium, the bane of all English supporters existence at the World Cup (or possibly a tight second after the Uruguayan referees in the second round match against Germany). The vuvu. The vuvuzela. 

Lavish indulgences? Please, mate. Essentials.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The food, the glorious food!

To pick up where I left off on Friday’s post, there isn’t a single raison d'ĂȘtre for returning to Saigon, but rather the amalgamation of factors which I touched on. Yet, one item that is high up the list, peeking over the top edge with greedy little eyes is this country's gastronomic delights, in extreme plurality.

Despite being a self-confessed hedonist, okay, honestly more of a glutton than a bon vivant, I haven’t had time to revisit and resample all of the epicurean delicacies we so salivated over in Australia. Sarah and I would sit down, with a bucket tied under our chin and knotted behind our ears, which acted as a catchment area for our drool (remember Australia is in a serious long-term drought and any moisture whatsoever is as welcome there as it is on Frank Herbert’s Dune). We’d then remember all our old haunts and reminisce about our favourite dishes:

“Oh, do you remember the ca ri hai san at that com binh dan with the purple taro soup side?” *slabber slabber slobber* or “Beef and cheese, beef and cheese!” that coming excitably from me thinking about that delectable cholesterol bomb at Barbecue Garden, as I dribbled salubriously into my bucket. Memories rekindled and drool arunning, we’d go on for quite a while, before I stomachs would join the festivities, pounding at the door, asking to be fed in substance and not in spirit alone.

In the nine days that we’ve been here, I’ve managed to gulp down mounds of noodles in various forms: mi quang, hu tieu, mi xao and more pho than you can throw a rubber chicken, infused with cilantro and rubbed down with mint, at. I’ve eaten pho probably every day for breakfast, otherwise for a snack or lunch. I’ve got bean sprouts emerging from my nostrils like a newly seeded wheat field, beef brisket on the brain and broth sloshing around in my stomach like a LG top-loader on high. I’ve had goi cuon, bo kho, banh xeo, bo bit tet, com heo nuong and xiu mai, suon heo, soft-shell crab covered in what looked like green Rice Krispies, green mango salads, green papaya salads, freshly baked banh mi's and a steamy, fluffy banh bao filled with well, thap cam, a lot of interesting bits and pieces, some identifiable, some not. 

 There's a marinated rubber chicken submerged in there somewhere.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s still to come. I’m watching and waiting in the dark, biding my time, sourcing out the best bun cha (my all-time fav) and pho Hanoi joints, like a serial killer stalking his prey…I think I need a bucket again, the dribble is making rivulets down my chest and pooling in my belly button.

Any recommendations as to your favourite Hanoi food spots in Saigon? I’d love to hear them.

Adios en lekker eet.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Round Two

The keyboard has been dusted and the mouse de-cobwebbed but my mind is still rusty from a lack of writing and an overwhelming, yet much-anticipated, return to Vietnam.  Sarah and I have been back for exactly a week, having touched down in the sauna that is Saigon for another crack at this spinning, whirling city existence. I wasn’t sure what to expect or what emotions would unwrap themselves from my intestines to coil themselves around my aorta and Hoover my eyeballs, but I’m definitely better prepared and to date the chemical balances have played their part, but can you ever be totally prepared for this place? It’s absolutely nuts, in the macadamia flavoured ice-cream laced with noisy pecans kind of way. It takes some time (nearly exactly a year) away to find some perspective as to how unique – and I use that word brazenly against the better wishes of that fierce invalid home from hot climates Switters – this country and city really is. Who designed this place, or did it just organically grow, like a life-force of it’s own into the chaotic coexistence of rushing people? If I were an anthropologist I’d have my a buffet plate full of this place.

I’ve probably had a dozen or more people ask me, puzzled at why we’ve left the ‘greener climes’ and prospects of Oz behind to back track, “Why did you come to Vietnam?” Sometimes I spluttered a reply that sounded, to me, more like an excuse, trying to justify the decision. Bollocks and brittle bones. None more of that. It’s a step forward in the direction we want to go and I can feel it in my marrow, in that shining ball we have inside us, that things just feel right. It’s the same feeling that I had when I asked Sarah to marry me. Every sinewy fibre says it feels right. For those of you who live in this clamorous, pecan ice-cream of a city, with its wealth of gastronomic goodies, ambition and potential, its accommodating locals and carefree lifestyle, just look around you and rephrase that question to: “What took you so bloody long?!”

That said, I am glad to be back to what feels like “home”, of which I guess I now have three. Having spent the last two months living a transient lifestyle out of a suitcase between Australia, South Africa and Oz again, I am relieved to have finally settled again. Next week we’ll unpack our new life on the dizzying heights of the 9th floor in a larnie new apartment block, fully equipped with touch-pad security, a 25m pool, tennis courts and shiny (and as yet non-sweat stained) gym in a leafy and unexplored corner of District 7.

I’ll try and document, in pictures and words, this new experience. I vow to keep this rickety clunker of a computer mote-free and keep those devious devils of rust and lethargy at bay and blog it out to the end.

Take two.