Monday, January 24, 2011

My Birthday Surprise

I have been feeling a bit stifled.  We live in a city where you NEED two wheels to get from point A to point B.  There is some public transportation in the form of massive green buses, but they are weathered, cramped and sticky.  Without Gavin shuttling me around, my only other options are traditional car taxis or a xe om (motorbike taxi).  These are perfectly viable options when you have a final destination in the form of a concrete address to show your driver, but not so great for exploring.  Two months ago, I realized what I missed most about Istanbul was the freedom of movement provided by good pedestrian paths and reasonable public transport.  Thus, an idea started to slowly hatch.

Gavin tried to teach me how to drive his motorbike a few times, but unfortunately our last lesson concluded with me toppling over into a healthy potted plant.  The bikes here are just too big and cumbersome for me to get comfortable on. 

In Vietnam, there are "strict" laws on who can operate a motorbike.  You must be 18 years of age, have at least one eye, possess a drivers' license, and wear a helmet when you straddle an engine.  Most of the children and inveterate senior citizens opt for the traditional bicycle.  The landscape is uniformly flat and the obvious applies - bikes are cheap, healthy, eco-friendly, and easy to steal.  Alas, I'm not a big fan of daily exercise and cold vanity disallows me from showing up to work dripping sweat.  Woe was me...until from out of the blue, enters The Electric Bike.  Thanks to legal loopholes, anyone can drive sans license, even though you can reach speeds of 50 KPH!  So, like Todd Shaw so eloquently put it - you gotta get in where you fit in.

Ever since our trip to Vung Tau, where all of the cool teens whiz by on e-bikes, I have been inexorably begging for one.  As those close to me know, I can be very persuasive.  Every time I am on the road and I see an e-bike in the distance, Gavin gets a sharp pinch to the gut as I exclaim "There's one!".  After repeating this action about a hundred times I found myself in a bike shop.

After perusing several of the shops on Vo Thi Sau, we ended up at Xe Dap 152 (148B Vo Thi Sau). I picked out the one I wanted, then I had a shaky test drive.  Let's just say it ended with Gavin expressing severe reluctance to have me free on the streets.

But long discussions ensued and eventually I persevered. Today, Gavin and I picked up my very own sleek, charcoal black e-bike.  I now have the means to get me (and whoever wants to hop on back) wherever I want to go, whenever I want to go.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


"Food is always better eaten in doleful little pinchfuls off the ends of chopsticks." - Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Pho Hoa

In the holy interest of trying new things and following recommendations, Gavin and I found ourselves at Pho Hoa on Pasteur Street, proclaimed by many local city dwellers as "The Best Pho in Saigon."  Eager to check it out, we chose it for a late lunch sometime last week.

We couldn't help but admire the decor for a moment before ordering.  Highlights included a massive freshwater fish tank that spanned the majority of a wall.  The colorful carp were enormous and entirely aggressive; thus, we watched large alpha-fish gobbling down their smaller tank mates.  I wasn't aware that goldfish were such voracious carnivores.

This old, dusty, moth-eaten water buffalo had a quiet charisma and turned out to be quite photogenic.  Between the fish tank, the proud ruminant, and numerous paintings of pagodas, Pho Hoa imbues a very East meets Wild West feel.  Sort of like that hackneyed film starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson's nose that mysteriously captivated worldwide audiences.

The first offering that sets this spot apart from the crowd is the fried breads, bananas, and mountain of greens that greets you upon sitting down.  Each table comes with stacks of thin, fried bread and some soft, flaky rolls which can be used to sop up the remaining broth from your meal.

There are massive offerings of artfully stacked limes and chili peppers.

Also, there is a verdant hill in the middle of each table with your greens: lemon grass, mint and basil.

I ordered Pho Bo Nam (well-done flank) and was surprised by the mass of meat and rice noodles delivered to me.  Generally, meat portions are kept conservative in Vietnam, but this isn't your average soup joint.

Per norm, I doctored my bowl up with boiled bean sprouts, greens, chili sauce, lime and hot peppers.  I grabbed the requisite utensils and commenced the feed.
I am not the biggest meat-eater of late, so it was arduous to gnaw through the thick slices of fatty flank.  Luckily, Gavin is an unabashed scavenger so waste was minimal.  The noodles were firm and abundant, but something in my broth flavor was missing.  Maybe it was just the massive tub-sized bowl that took too much of my energy to season properly.  We can chalk that one up to user error.  I know I will return, but next time I will opt for the vegetarian bowl.  Also, the bread was novel and tasty, but did it leave me too full? 

While I was impressed, I beg to differ about Pho Hoa's unofficial title.  Although I have yet to find the best Pho in Saigon, I'm still searching.  So, this fine eatery will kindly be remembered as "The Second Best Pho Restaurant in Saigon".

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Mosque

UPDATE (27/2/2012): Last time we checked, this place is still closed to the public...aarrgghh!

Living in Istanbul, the ever-present sight of lithe minarets piercing the gray sky was a constant reminder of the influence of religion on daily life.  While Saigon has numerous pagodas, Roman Catholic churches, temples, and various other houses of worship (check out the infinitely fascinating and strange brand of syncretism embodied by Caodaism), the topic of spirituality is rarely broached.  Apropos, we recently visited one of the few local mosques not to worship, but to rejoice and bathe ourselves in the mystical powers of curry.

Quan Com Cary An Do Hoi Giao (Special Mosque Rice Curry Restaurant) is an unassuming outdoor eatery situated behind the cerulean mosque on 66 Dong Du in the bustling atria of District 1, in the midst of the hotel and tourist area, on a street littered with Halal Indian, Malaysian, and Turkish restaurants. The relatively small population of ethnic Malays, Muslim tourists, and expats frequent this spot.  A good place to run into co-workers and disciples alike.

To access the resturant you must first drive your motorbike into the front courtyard of the mosque.  A parking attendant will help you find a spot, then with appropriate trepidation, walk back into the complex.  You may feel as though you are going someplace you shouldn't be wandering, this is natural, but summon your inner courage and continue on until fragrant wafts of exotic spices mingle with your nostril tufts.

The cafe is tucked between the mosque and the Imam's spartan lodgings.  We got the pleasure of seeing him shuffle home from work after his midday prayer session. 

The dishes here are served in small portions and are family style.  The menu is concise and practical.  Mutton, chicken, beef, or fish curry and a few vegetable sides.  We chose chicken curry, diced potatoes, stalks of spicy okra, peas, a bowl of white rice and naan bread.  The potatoes and okra were so popular at the table that we had to order second helpings!

 The naan proved to be the perfect compliment.  It was soft, flavorful, chewy and a tad greasy.

I loaded my plate up with the veggie curry, potatoes, and peas -  then tucked in.

After working up a sweat during your next prayer session, treat yourself to a delightful meal and nourish your inner core with a little Malaysian comfort food.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Late Night Soup

By the time we make the drive home through cool, thick air after a big night out we are usually hungry.  In a city with a lack of late night options outside of the Pham Ngu Lao, it was a genuine relief to find a dusty gem of a kitchen in our direct homeward path (a bright light on the south side of a murky section of CMT8 between To Hien Thanh and  Le Thi Rieng Park).  They keep it simple here and serve one kind of noodle soup - Hu Tiu Nam Yang.  This delectable, steaming bowl includes fresh slices of pork, shrimp and liver along with thick rice noodles, bean sprouts, a tasty broth, and assorted field vegetables that you add at your own leisure.  The Vietnamese version of Mexico's menudo and Turkey's kelle paca, if you supplement this soup with enough spice, a ponderous interstitial alchemy leads directly to profuse sweating and instantaneous sobriety.
 Typical to Vietnam, the soup is prepared in a booth in front of the restaurant seating area.  We like to play fussy Americans, so we customize our soups by shouting incoherently at the soup man and pointing strenuously at the pig parts we'd like to avoid.  Gavin tends to take it sans liver, whereas I prefer to go vegetarian. 
 When our soup arrives I fight the automatic feeling to dig in.  Instead, I spend some time doctoring it up.  I used to do puzzles, but now my left brain is satisfied through tedious, repetitive activities like soup decoration instead.  I like to add mounds of fresh lettuce, either a crispy iceberg or a sweet butter variant like the night I took these pictures.  I also add plenty of lime, bean sprouts and fresh hot chili peppers. 

If you have ever been to a Pho restaurant, you may recall the different sauces provided to dress up your soup properly.  The ubiquitous sweet brown hoisin, spicy Sriracha, and an oily, ground-chili paste.  Here in Vietnam, you have these same sauces and many more!  Cloves of garlic, Nuoc Mam (fish sauce), ketchup, neon-orange mass-produced hot paste/gel/sauce, fresh chili peppers,  dried ground peppers, unknown pickled vegetable juices, etc.  I love a challenge, but my face resembles a pomegranate if I go too spicy here, so I usually stick with the milder ground chili peppers.

We have become quite the regulars here!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Hideaway Cafe

Gavin surprised me with a lunch date this week.  He took me to a cute little restaurant called Hideaway.  It had been recommended to him by a co-worker as a spot where sandwiches meet appetites.  It is tucked into a narrow alleyway off Phan Ngoc Thach and is cute, verdant, and very welcoming.  We chose to sit inside on a huge comfy bench in a bright, cozy room.

We ordered goat cheese bruschetta for an appetizer.  The goat cheese didn't bring enough of the barnyard and the portions were scant, but it was pleasant having ripe, crisp tomatoes in Saigon.


I opted for the Mediterranean chicken salad, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  It was full of grilled eggplant, peppers, and squash along with fresh greens, kalamata olives, paprika chicken strips and crunchy slices of crostini.

Gavin chose a grilled pesto chicken sandwich, which tasted like it was purchased from an airport cafe.  Not "I'm a dick and I'm going to complain to the waitstaff" bad, but insipid, stiff, and uninspired.  The bread was far too sweet, there was only a thin, translucent slice of eggplant and the hint of pesto conservatively applied to the bread left Gavin with a vermouth-dry mouth and a strange craving for salt.


I would go back.  I would try new things and maybe shy away from the sandwiches, but the ambiance alone makes me ever-so-slightly anxious to return.

The best part of the whole meal was this strange creature out front.  He was jocularly panting and blocking our bike when we tried to leave.  That's a memorable face!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


After work a few nights ago, Kip, Gavin and I headed out on the town.  We started the evenings' festivities off at a pretty classy joint inexplicably named Arnold (176 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia).  Like walking into Saigon circa 1955, the expansive and atmospheric dining room glows with neon lights and the hippest of the hip dance the night away to Vietnamese classics and international pop standards (think Motown, not Katy Perry).  This is the type of place that all of our grandparents frequented in the Eisenhower years.  They had a live band of dexterous septuagenarians and were inviting diners to join them on stage and sing.  Most of the singers had serious chops and although the below video has grainy sound it conveys the mood of the place fairly well:

For dinner, I ordered a plate of "Crab Vermicelli with Handle."  The menu had some of the wackiest translations I have seen to date!  We split the large portion of crab, noodles and veggies three ways plus ordered a massive helping of shrimp.  I didn't eat the strange crustaceans because I dislike shrimp like I dislike stomach cramps and biting flies; however, the boys enjoyed them.  Wine was ordered and by the end of the night I was invariably singing on stage.  I regaled the small group of late night stragglers with an off-key, screeching rendition of Yesterday. I managed to embarrass myself thoroughly.  As I got off stage, Gavin and Kip were nearly falling out of their chairs with laughter.  I was told by a Vietnamese singer that she loved me, so I guess I wasn't that bad.  I convinced Gavin to ask one of the wait staff for a dance.  He was blanked by the gal due to his towering height.  That didn't stop him from wiggling around the dance floor so vigorously that he was seriously sore the following day.

Monday, January 10, 2011

In the Classroom

I came to the realization the other day that while most aspects of our lives have been documented on the blog, I have wholly neglected to discuss our jobs.  We teach English.  I have been working solely with children; whereas, Gavin seems to cover the vast spectrum of humanity - bubbly, cherub-cheeked children, petulant teens, and even a few adult classes.

I love my job and I find my students endlessly entertaining.  Even the naughty ones.  Kids in the classroom setting are unpredictable and most importantly, fun.  I never pass the threshold without some semblance of a lesson plan scribbled into a notebook.  That said, I rarely follow it in the younger age groups, choosing to run with the energy of the collective instead of sticking to a preordained schedule.  With this approach of structured chaos, I have accordingly developed a stock of games that I can easily fall back on at any time and mold to the lesson of the day.  In one two-hour lesson, my students swiftly move from relay races, running dictations, and flashcard grabs to game-show quizzes, ball throws and memory games.  I really try to incorporate my creative background as well, so coloring, drawing and constructing are also mainstays in my classes.  After running in circles for an hour straight, the students really enjoy unwinding with a box of crayons, a picture hunt worksheet, and a glass of Merlot.

This is one of my beginners' classes.  They are wild!  To tame these insatiable balls of energy, we created calendars in small groups.  Here they are showing off their work:
 They are between 8 and 10 years old.  Although many of them are at different levels of English, they are all fairly good at this point and I am consistently surprised by the size of their vocabularies.  We can thank the Disney channel for that one.
 The boys have a pretty hard time staying still for a picture!
I also teach some very small children. 
They range between 4 and 5 years old.
We spend a lot of time dancing around, running from flashcard to flashcard, shouting at the top of our lungs and coloring.  They have an English vocabulary of about 10-20 words.
Repetition of daily vocab embedded in different activities is the theme here.  We focus on four words a day (at most) and exasperatingly repeat them over a hundred times through the lesson.
This class learns about the life of a very exciting family and their charmingly ambiguous alien/bee larvae friend Beeno.  The course books are always eventful and my activities generally hold their attention.  Here they are enraptured in a board game this past weekend.