Friday, December 12, 2008


The Green
I'll write a few lines and then paste in an email Leslie wrote - Leslie, who said a little while ago, "I love Vietnam. It's fun. It's clean. Smells good. The people are nice and seem to be honest. And the food is unbelievable."

Flying into Hanoi I wonder if other Americans (and French and Australians, who also fought in Vietnam) are as affected as I am at just the idea of being here. After we land, Leslie tells me that the Vietnamese woman in front of me has been crying hard since we touched down. Ahhh, Vietnam, a country of little sentimentality and deep emotion under the surface. Listen to the music, watch people in unguarded moments if you don't think they they don't know well what the blues are.

Into the city - our first time in Hanoi, we drive through industrial areas, into the city and then into the Old Quarter with ever narrower streets, beautiful old buildings and people everywhere. We're staying at the Classic 2 at 49 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street - $22/night. Photo: Old Quarter

Leslie: Good Morning All,
We've spent 4 wonderful days in Hanoi, a beautiful and exciting city of 4-5 million people - most riding motorcycles! After a gorgeous room with a balcony that promised a terrific view of the city (and it delivered that + unbelievable noise) we moved to a "standard" room on the back side that is quiet and cool but no view - thankfully we old people don't require the whole enchilada! Photo: Spice for sale

Yesterday we spent the day on a tour in a Ford (go figure since about 80% of the vehicles are Toyotas) mini-bus going to and from a town called Tam Coc, famous for limestone mountains rising from a very shallow lake that could be used for rice paddies. We traveled 2 to a row boat the length of the river (about a 2 hour ride) paddled by some incredibly tiny but super strong Vietnamese men and women. It was the most beautiful place I've ever seen - grottos thru the limesone mountains that we paddled thru in darkness and complete solitude as well as ancient crypts and stone carvings and pavillions on the shore line. We had a great time (0745-1830) and had fruit for dinner in our room. But lunch (almost always a yucky experience on tours like this) was at a large, new hotel in this tiny town and was a delightful cooked-to-order buffet (I even got a lady to fix a tiny bowl of soup called Pho that really only is served in the large economy size). We met lots of interesting travelers from all over the world and spent a large part of the day with a retired Israeli man who has traveled extensively all over Europe, the US, India and Asia. He has a son who works at the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok so is headquartered there when in SE Asia but was traveling alone as his wife cancelled to stay home to be with her 98 year old mother following the death of her Dad 2 days before departure. So all in all it was a good way to spend a day. Charles will post stunning pictures in his travel blog later. Photo: Tam Coc

Tomorrow we go to Hue, another ancient city (very small compared to this) which has a site preserved by UNESCO and supposed to be elegant and very beautiful. After a few days there, we fly to Saigon (the fare seems to be $22 USD for the 2 of us, go figure, on Quantas' budget airline which means no food service (but then United barely had food for $2700) and open seating like Southwest (again, United might as well have since they changed the kind of plane we were to use at the San Francisco airport the morning of departure and none of the prearranged seating was good). So all in all a good value!

After 2-3 days in Saigon, we'll go by bus (10 hours I think) to Phnom Penh where we'll meet David for most of the remainder of the trip.

Please tell Dad we are doing really well. We haven't had a moment of illness and have been super safe thus far. How are things at home and what are the plans for Christmas day? I know you're all busy - I miss you during the holidays so take good photos.

So take care all and I'll write again form Saigon if not Hue. It isn't always easy to find an internet cafe (here we have it in our room - ah bliss to be able to write whenever we want! I started this about 4:45 am and Charles can just keep sleeping.

I love you all. Leslie

PS Shirin, is Judo behaving? And how is Chris? I wasn't keen on him getting licensed to drive a MC Humvee and hope it means that he gets to drive around and impress the girls in San Diego but I somehow doubt that's what the Marines have in mind! Photo: Tam Coc

CK here: we're staying at the Classic 2 Hotel, recommended by Alison, an internet friend who is often in Hanoi creating new realities for poor and blind young people here. Rooms nice, aircon, internet in room, breakfast buffet (here he goes again with the food) of some kind of fried garlicky Vietnamese roll, eggs to order, ham, cucumbers, tomatoes, noodles, baguettes, New Zealand butter (for a flashback to our first trips to Asia), and strong coffee.

(I first had baguettes in Vietnam in 1967. The first 7-8 months of my tour I was in a Marine infantry company out in the countryside, patrols, ambushes, operations, and so on - in the last 5-6 months of my tour I was in a different sort of unit and went into Danang for about a week each month and then (as now) walked around, checking out the scene and I discovered that the Vietnamese make great baguettes - what a great discovery!)

We walked to the Dong Xuan Market - 3 floors of everyday stuff, mostly clothes, some food and household goods - such narrow aisles, so many people. Leslie bought some vaseline, a calculator (try converting 16,800 dong/dollar in your head), a bottle opener and some pepper - altogether about $4USD. Photo: intersection, no lights, no stop sign

It's a well-known fact (research has shown) that Vietnamese pork is good for you and so we head to a bun cha restaurant on Ta Hien Street for (surprise) bun cha. Bun cha is a signature Hanoi dish: charcoaled pork in a fish sauce based soup, with cool noodles and mint, cilantro, lettuce, etc. - ideally served with fried spring rolls (nem). Oh, did you say you wanted to see a bun cha recipe? Okay, you came to the right place:

Sauce: Mix nuoc mam, rice vinegar, lime juice, water, sugar (maybe warm this mix). The proportions I like are 1 nuoc mam, 1/2 rice vinegar, 1/2 lime juice, 2 water and sugar to taste. Serve with thin-sliced vegetable like jicama (maybe susu or su hao in Vietnamese can also use kohlrabi, chayote, daikon radish). Some people like shredded carrot.
Pork patties:
Mix chopped garlic & shallot, nuoc mam, sugar (palm sugar is nice) and egg with ground pork Make small patties and charcoal them.
Pork strips: Mix chopped garlic, shallot, nuoc mam, sugar (palm if you have it). Marinate thin sliced pork chops in more of the mix. Charcoal, let rest for a few minutes and slice.
Serve meat in a bowl with juices. Some serve with the sauce and some just in the juices. In either case the meat will end up in the sauce you've made.
Serve with cool thin white noodles, lettuce, mint, basil, sprouts, chillis, slices of lime
Sides: chilli sauce, vinegar with garlic, unsalted peanuts bean sauce, whatever is around.
From Noodle Pie (my VN food guru): There are a couple of 'secrets' to a good Bun cha, most important is the fish sauce. Learning how to gauge the right amount of sugar, vinegar and nuoc mam (fish sauce) is the tricky bit. The line between fish sauce heaven and a big bowl of crap is a fine one. I like mine a little stronger than Quan Ho Tay offered up, but then that's why there's a pot of vinegar with garlic on the table. The other secret is how the meat is grilled. It needs an extremely hot flame and should be charred on both sides. When it is placed in the bowl small flakes of black char fall off and dot the fish sauce. Standard Bun cha comes with small bites of grilled sliced pork. Photo: bun cha cafe

So we're walking around the Old Quarter seeing, once again, how Vietnamese cities are deep, with tiny lanes cutting through solid blocks of 2-3-4-5 story houses and shops deep and dark and people everywhere, reserved, polite, friendly enough (that is to say, there is an abundance of gravitas here - not to mention beauty). Endless alleys and shops and people selling prepared food, fruit, vegetables, baguettes, flowers, coffee, clothing, cigarettes, beer, and on and on. Sidewalks crowded with parked motos and bikes and streets crowded with motos beep beeping along, bikes and (thankfully not too many) cars and trucks. Women walking, trotting along in that way they move with don ganh (sticks with a basket on each end - often very heavy) selling everything imaginable (today we saw a woman selling live eels, another teapots, another bras, many selling vegtables and fruits - like one woman with one basket with limes and the other with red chilis, ginger, shallots and garlic - "everything you need," according to Leslie) - a moveable feast, a moveable market. Different foods on sale at different times - pho in the morning, bun cha midday, and other things later.

Whew, long post. Did I mention fried bananas for 4000 dong (less than $.25)? Or cafe sua da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk) for 10000 dong (about $.60)?

I was thinking today that the first time I remember understanding how beautiful Vietnam is was in 1966 on patrol near Hill 55, taking a break and I was in the open side of a dirt floor hooch, sitting on the floor smoking a cigarette looking out on the green padi (you ain't seen green until you've seen Vietnam) framed with banana trees and there was a little girl beside me, chopping vegetables with a huge knife and I'm thinking, I hope I can come back someday, someday when the killing stops and here I am, with my life partner, the woman I love. Thank God

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