Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dalat: Bun Rieu Cua

While on a brilliant afternoon stroll yesterday, we exhausted ourselves by tramping up and down the hilly terrain of Da Lat, a former French colonial hill-station set dramatically in the Central Highlands .  As we rounded the bend of another tortuously vertical street, Gavin let out an exasperated cry that he was ready to eat.  Divine providence set in and directly in front of our weary eyes, bathed in a pool of golden sunlight, was a ramshackle sign for Bun Rieu Cua. 

Some of you may remember this delightful paddy-crab soup from our Hanoi trip (read about it here).  Seeing as it isn't a common soup served in Saigon and is the perfect complement to a brisk afternoon spent in the elements, Gavin hopped at the opportunity to slurp it down again.

This time the soup was bigger, richer, and even better.  Loaded with viscous islands of delectable crab fat, a heaping pile of vermicelli noodles, and freshly sliced ruby red tomatoes.  Just look at those Da Lat tomatoes!

Served with limes, chilli peppers, and plenty of greens on the side; including shredded lettuce and bean sprouts.

While Gavin wolfed down his treat, I gazed upon three modern day propaganda posters situated into the hillside at a busy intersection.  The first implored drivers to stop at red lights or at least be aware of traffic signals.

The next, a stern warning from the government about the surging AIDS epidemic.

The final one was a plea for drug addicts to seek help and quit their insidious addictions.

More from this temperate clime as we progress on our mini-trip.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hanoi: Phuong Hang 94

Although we arrived in Hanoi with the presumption that we wouldn't be setting our sights towards seafood, that all changed when we wandered past one of the lively sidewalk seafood stalls.  Walking briskly past one evening, Gavin started perusing the selection of mollusks and crustaceans and immediately sprouted wolf eyes.  Conical shells, slippery bi-valves, and thorny, striped prawns can be a visual feast as well:

Although I am not the biggest clam-digger, my appetite was gnawing at my insides at this point and I was sucked in as well by the promise of succulent, barbecued tiger prawns and some vegetable fried rice.  Gavin settled on tender, grilled squid smothered in tamarind sauce and two giant razor clams sauteed in lemongrass.  I ordered the aforementioned tiger pawns.  Unlike impromptu street-side seafood jams in Saigon, we remained bundled in layers of scarves and jackets while we ate.

We sipped Ha Noi beers, which tasted surprisingly much better than their southern cousin, Saigon.  According to their ad campaign (and no marketing department would ever tell a fib), they are brewed using fresh spring water from the misty, rain-soaked mountains north of the city.  Well, I am no expert, but if water source has any bearing on a beer's taste, I think that Saigon and Tiger must be both brewed with tepid, used bathwater.

We were pleasantly suprised at the immediately satisfying and fresh seafood meal.  The unbelievably cheap bill didn't diminish our enthusiasm.  Now, this is why we live in Vietnam.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

In My Free Time: Life Drawing

As some of you may have guessed by the frequency of our posts and our vacations, we have a lot of free time.  While we do in fact work, our only hectic teaching days fall on Saturday and Sunday and our weekdays are generally free until evening classes commence around 6 pm.  To avoid complete atrophying of the brain, we try to keep busy and celebrate the spare moments in life.

My latest endeavor: figure drawings in charcoal.  My friend Will approached me several weeks ago about doing life drawing together.  While models are relatively inexpensive here, it is pleasant and practical to draw with others and split the modeling costs.

After much internal discourse, a bit of floundering hesitation (it has been several years since I have drawn a nude and remnants of post-traumatic stress syndrome remain after so many hyper-critical art school professors' critiques), and a trip to the local art store (the inks, paints, pencils, charcoal and paper are instantly inspiring!), I was ready for our session.

Now we have sessions once a week and I am rediscovering why I ever wanted to be an artist in the first place: blackened fingers from rubbing charcoal, the pressure-free, unbiased flow of creativity, the contours of the human body that never cease to amaze me - dramatic changes in line and angle at the slightest slouch of the back or twist of the shoulder...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hanoi: 69 Bar-Restaurant

For our last dinner in Hanoi, Gavin and I decided to hit up "The soul of Hanoi's old quarters".  69 got it's name from it's street number, 69 Ma May, (as many restaurants in Vietnam do) so lift your perverse mind from the gutter if you've been chuckling since you read the title.

Located in a restored Hanoian row-house with over a hundred years of history embedded in its flooring, we had passed by it a couple times during the trip and noted its popularity amongst the hordes of tourists.  Apparently, in the past people were taxed according to the width of their homes in Hanoi, so traditional architecture mirrors the populace - lithe and sinewy.  The ambiance was near perfect: dark, narrow wooden walls and high ceilings, plenty of shadowy corners for romantic candle-lit dinners, and an open upstairs seating area for larger parties.

Due to icy winds howling outside and the unknown necessity to leave the doors and windows open (never quite understood that one... possibly it's the shoddy ventilation in the ancient building) we kept our coats on and ordered some scalding, rum-infused tea to light our spirits.

For dinner, I ordered fried tofu squares with a satay sauce along with a side of morning glory sauteed in garlic.  My tofu was tasty and filling - I especially liked the small helping of cabbage salad on the side as I am a devout lover of coleslaw!

On Gavin's quest to try all the specialty soups of North Vietnam, he ordered Canh Cá (previously described here)The broth was brought to our table simmering on an iron pot of hot coals.   Our server helped us prepare it properly - throwing handfuls of dill and fresh lemongrass into the steaming broth, stirring until soft, and then spooning the broth, herbs and chunks of succulent white fish over vermicelli noodles and, finally, topping with mounds of peanuts.

At about this time, we both felt a strange woozy feeling in our guts and noticed that the lamps in the restaurant were swaying.  No, we had not previously ingested psilocybin mushrooms, but we both swore that we were experiencing a minor earthquake.  We spoke to the waitress, but she discounted our observations.  "We don't have those in Hanoi!"

Both feeling like we were going batty, we later turned on the television at the hotel room and discovered that we did in fact feel the effects of a devastating 6.8 tremor hundreds of miles away in north-east Burma.  A slightly unsettling way to end a fantastic trip north.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

What We're Listening To: Destroyer (Guest Post)

Merge Records 2011

This has been on heavy rotation at the homestead.  I was planning on doing a write-up for this album, Dan Bejar's ninth under the Destroyer moniker, but I asked Micheal Goertzen, a good friend of mine and unabashed Bejar acolyte to share some of his thoughts via email instead.  I hope you enjoy his words as much as I did...

I read a number of reviews and some of them truly seem to miss the point, flagrantly saying Bejar has become irrelevant and that it sounds like an 80’s album. Isn't it supposed to be these things? The great thing about Bejar lyrics is they're not supposed to be "understood." One could say Bejar is making himself irrelevant in the most gorgeous Sade-esque way…Even when I'm not fully engaged in this album or it feels like he's repeating himself, it's never offensive or something I want to turn off. A lot of it is smoother than Destroyer's ever been. 

"Blue Eyes": "You're a permanent figure of jacked-up sorrow..." and that chorus with the title-name. It's like revisionism going through another revisionist filter. It's like he's making fun of artists representing beauty in their work…or like he's made a kitschy joke for himself. Or maybe he likes blue eyes. Seems silly to write about all the possibilities of what probably isn't. 

Right now, "Savage Night at the Opera" is my favorite song. For some reason, the chord progression and the sound of the lead guitar sound like nothing I've ever heard, and with these headphones Dan's "Da-da-dums" are right in my head. Great line: "I heard your record. It's alright." Or is it? Great phrasing of "infinite sense of value." 

I love the guitar intro to "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker." And that groove at the two minute mark! Who's Kara Walker? I read something about him basing those lyrics on her words.

"Poor in Love": When I first heard this song, I felt Bejar had copied a previous melody from a New Pornographer's song he wrote. The one that goes: "The bells ring: No no no no no no no ...." But now it's one of my favorites on this album. I think something of my early U2 love is kicking in here, too; regarding chord changes, bass, and steady kick-drum. "Why's everybody sing along when we built this city on ruins?" Love that for whatever it is, and just the further variations on it. Here he's a singer with an anthem for an empty stadium.

"Kaputt" is apparently the title of an Italian novel Dan never read...This song is lush though doesn't do much for me. Part of the flow. "Step out of the toga and into the fog. You are a prince on the ocean" is pretty awesome for reasons unknown. 

"Downtown" is the kind of generalization, a bit like "Blue Eyes" or when Mr. Bejar says "love," which really works because he is so often writing in a mythology of specifications and underground esoterica. If I think about Vancouver downtown or Vancouver's Chinatown (the first song which I didn't jot anything about), it's not really worthy of that kind of lionization though I think poetically it seems more like what [urban] America could represent from some skewed dimension. But I think that's an important aspect of this album, where Dan is over-generalizing, to the point where he's made it specifically unique. Yeah, I know, I'm hook-line-and-sinker believing that Bejar is smarter than the common man and does everything for a notable reason. Even a line like... "why I married Jane from down the lane. Went insane..."  I don't [particularly] like it, but I'd still appreciate hearing Bejar's reasons for such triteness. I'm of the camp that doesn't understand how someone can't wholeheartedly love Destroyer. It's a blind stance to take, but I have something irreconcilable with someone who says that Destroyer doesn't do anything for them, since, to me, the music and the lyrics are always so rich, like the best works of art: always revealing more or giving something different upon repetition.

Now, "Song for America" seems thematically slippery and weird. I think Dan grew up in California, but still it seems like he writes outside of nationalities; neither American, Canadian nor Spanish. "And animals crawl towards death's embrace. Winter, spring, summer, fall. Fox kick[s] a ball on a Sunday strung-out in the rain.” Is this a development of Lars von Trier's vision in Antichrist? A day out in Stanley Park?

"Bay of Pigs" doesn't seem to fit, like some of the reviews say. When it starts, it makes me think the album is over. But then I settle into it after the opening, "Listen. I've been drinking as our house lies in ruins," and "the world is black stones dressed up in the rain." The song is filled with sequenced non-sequiturs, many of them gems, like previous offerings have been (particularly from Destroyer's Rubies). Some of my best-loved lyrics are on this track.

Michael Goertzen lives in Istanbul and is a freelance writer and sometimes teacher. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Doughnuts anyone?

After a long day of marching around town in the blazing heat looking at churches, going to markets and getting lost in alleyways, we needed a break and a treat.

For a brief respite from the enduring heat, we dove into Thế Giới Donut, a doughnut shop and a vibrant high school hangout on the corner of Hai Ba Trung and Vo Thi Sau.

After looking through the extensive selection, we decided on a Cinderella and a Shining Star doughnut to share.  We weren't expecting much as we carried our booty upstairs to munch on...

Yet, delighted we were upon our initial bites to discover a soft, creamy, cake-like dough slathered in sickeningly sweet pink frosting.

The High School Musical ambiance was also slightly entertaining - graffiti covered walls and passed out students post sugar high.

While Top Pot will always have a special place in my heart as the best doughnuts in the world, these were pretty damn good.  You can find Thế Giới Donut locations spread out across Saigon and I promise even the most cynical of folks will be delighted with these snacks.

Friday, April 15, 2011


I first tried a sapodilla at work, offered to me by a Vietnamese co-worker.  Upon my first bite, I knew I was destined to get more.

What an unassuming delicacy.  With a dusty, grayish-brown peel, thin vein-like cracks, and bulbous shape it resembles a russet potato more than a decadently sweet tropical fruit.

Pick out a soft one, violently chop in half, and peel the skin back. This reveals a sunset colored mealy flesh.  Cut out the black seeds at the core, generally between 2 and 5 in number, and slice into sections.

It's difficult to express the sensation this fruit leaves in your mouth.  There are hints of ginger and cinnamon, along with components of buttery, melt-in-your-mouth French pastry.  Extremely rich, sapodilla works best as a pairing with vanilla ice cream or as a lone dessert.  Close your eyes and forget your enjoying something relatively healthy - you'll swear you're taking a bite of pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hanoi: Mediterraneo Italian Restaurant

After the previously discussed ordeal at the Italian embassy, we had worked up a sizable appetite and were ready for some pizza and pasta.  Luckily, I had anticipated the need for some authentic Italian and, with a rare burst of foresight, did some research before leaving Saigon.  My search brought me to Mediterraneo, located near our hotel at 23 Nha Tho in the heart of Hoan Kiem District.

To be exceedingly charming in a city bursting with charm can prove to be difficult,  but it was hard not to be taken aback by the quaint beauty of Nha Tho Street.  It's lined with boutique eateries and cute shops filled with high-end hand-made goods and is a perfect locale for a languid afternoon spent window shopping.  The end of the street runs into the courtyard of the towering Saint Joseph's Cathedral.  Mediterraneo is pretty hard to miss with it's bright blue sea-faring exterior and cozy open-air second-floor balcony complete with traditional bleach-white furniture.  (The facade is a tad more Ionian than Adriatic, but that can be excused).

Upon sitting down and ordering a carafe of house red wine and our meals, we were brought a lovely basket of freshly baked bread-sticks, flat bread, and rolls.  Especially unique and delicious was the Sardinian-style crispy flat bread baked with rocks of sea salt and fresh rosemary. 

I ordered a classic Mediterranean ensalata to start with.  Fresh mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, boiled eggs, potatoes, and leafy greens - all slathered in a homemade honey dijon dressing - made for a hearty sheepherders' delight.  Gavin prefers simple salads and was bemused by the inclusion of potatoes and egg, but I found it to be a perfect choice for a brisk afternoon with an oaky red wine as a complement.

I ordered one of the several vegetarian pizzas on the menu with eggplant, spinach, zucchini and plenty of cheese.  I drizzled liberal quantities of chili oil over mine and enjoyed every mouth-watering bite.  The crust was razor thin, yet remained crisp under the thick layer of toppings.  A proper wood-burning oven can clearly work wonders under competent hands in Hanoi's temperate climate. It was the best pizza I've had since we were last in Italy.

Gavin appropriately celebrated with a Northern standard from his family's hometown - the classic Tagliatelle Bolognese.  The homemade pasta was pitch-perfect and the meat sauce had a light, whimsical character that enhanced the fresh noodles rather than drowning them in acidity.

Our meals were superb.  The only problem was that our swollen abdomens let out a surly groan at the very thought of dessert!  However; we managed to fit in an espresso before heading back out into the chilly elements.  Props to this spot - I am going to gingerly amble out onto a flimsy limb and say it was the best Italian I have had (and may possibly ever have) in Asia.