What feels like a million years ago, the Ninja and I lived in a tiny high rise apartment in downtown Hanoi, Vietnam. We were doing the teacher thing, or at least, he was discovering his talent for it while I mostly ran around with my camera trying to eat as much as possible. I’m a predictable traveller and not a good teacher, but I did find that it was possible in a year to get familiar with a lot of what Vietnamese cuisine is. Continue reading
What the hell happened? New years 2011 I remember pulling Tarot cards that were a bit ominous, the Seven of Swords or something, and getting so drunk I kinda blanked on what me and my friends got up to in the secret attic-den in the back of our apartment. Deep shit or acrobatics or just guitars and whiskey sours, probably. But the point is, I once lived with 8 (+) people on a key street corner in the Mile End part of Montreal, and life was easy and thoughtless. I had a boring job I was perfect at. I had a boyfriend who was intriguing but not quite right for me. I saw my family intermittently and I went out dancing sometimes. It was a good life. I had time and space to make art.
There’s a stretch of highway that lines eastern part of Hanoi, hugging the Red River. It’s cheered slightly by the longest mural in the world (endless streams of turquoise, mustard and honey-pink portrayals of dragons and such), but for the most part, it’s a pretty damn seedy part of town. I take the bus from a major transit stop there every morning. Continue reading
Christmas in Hanoi, so far, is the occasional bony Santa-mannequin (the one on our street plays a saxophone!), the odd waft of warbled carols heard like hauntings every few days, and in the expatriate shops at least, a lot of the same cheese that happens at home, but that only serves to remind that I don’t have to do any shopping this year – miraculous, no?
On that note, there is one thing I did want to buy, and that’s a string of fairy lights for the oh-so tropical tree-bush I dragged in from the porch, currently specked with some of the silliest ornaments I managed to scrounge up from the fairly practical items we have in the apartment (a pearl necklace, a four-leaf clover, a tarot card, and a glass bulb of garlic, among other things). And although Christmas traditions aren’t high-ranking in my priorities, I am a little disappointed that due to an exciting new job as a retail supervisor for a bistro in Hanoi, I’m working six days a week minus holidays – and no, Christmas isn’t recognized as such here. (oh, and another job in the evenings teaching adults, because I’m crazy)
I’ll have the evening to phone my family, make apple crumble and martinis for me and the bf, order in some fancy sushi and be quite happy with that. But, if I’m lucky, I might chance on another sweets seller on the street between then and now, and that would mean some genuine child-like squee-ing for a bit of bonus Viet-style cheer.
As strange as these cakes may look, if you’ve had asian sweets before and you’re familiar with the gelatinous texture of them, then you’ll really be in heaven with a spread like this. Maybe the most accessible (or not) is the chè con ong, (aka tea bee, if Google translate is at all correct). It’s an incredibly sticky rice disc, and while I don’t think there’s tea or honey in it, what it does have is a deep burnished almost-caramel flavour spiked with sharp ginger and reads rather properly as gingerbread. It’s perennially popular here around Lunar New Year, and some strange sort of flavour/calendar crossover with the western classic, which amuses me.
Like night and day, heavy and light, this un-identified wiggly cake is … now identified as bánh đúc! It’s made from either non-glutinous rice flour or corn flour (this one is rice), with a soft texture and mild flavour. I dig it.
Back to the rich side, if you’re into shortbread, you might like mung bean cake, or bánh đậu xanh. It’s fudge-dense and sweet and mild tasting, and it stole my heart so neatly that there is in fact a box of it sitting under my Charlie Brown tree and I might have to steal a few pieces from the giftee. Chief ingredients are mung bean powder, coconut milk and sugar, and it’s not uncommon to find the same combination in the middle of mooncakes. Needless to say, it’s good with tea.
Lastly, the most mysterious of the bunch was – until the point of selling – wrapped in a pandan-leaf bundle and tied like a present, and since I’m always curious about things like that, it was the first thing I selected. On purchase, however, the woman unleashed the jiggling interior, snipped it to pieces and bunged it all into a styrofoam container with a tiny baggie of cane syrup and an oh-so-handy wooden spear. That’s not even the mysterious part. What’s got me scratching my head is that although it feels and tastes like a normal gelatinous rice substance it smells intensely eggy – almost in a way that’s off-putting, although I happily finished it, owing to a perverse kind of attraction to strange foods. Anyone know what this is?
And evidently, Christmas fadeout isn’t so bad when you’ve got sticky rice. :)
For more cheer, check out my Christmas in Hanoi set on Flickr (probably updated as the days count down)
The most poetic beer I ever had was a crystalline and lightly carbonated panacea that splintered through my aching and drippy head for long enough to pass a few clear thoughts through a funky impending flu and the layers of dust in the chaotic Vietnamese airline cargo office in backwoods Noi Bai. It was the night staff that actually brushed away all the crumpled discarded forms on the floor, but it was definitely the beer that let me feel like a bit of a badass (with a totally uncool sniffle), and gave me the patience to wait a few more minutes clutching a bundle of indecipherable forms that I didn’t have the right information to fill out. I blessed whoever decided to put that canteen there, and my pocket for having the 15,000 VND (about $0.75) needed for a canister of distraction.
The place had technically closed ten minutes earlier, and my cat was somewhere in the warehouse downstairs. My boyfriend had disappeared with most of her documents fifteen minutes before that, and all I could do was wait, and maybe get a taste for what the past few days must have been like for her. Powerless, shuffled about in loud and dirty places, with no companionship or idea of what was going on, random giggling staff poking through the holes in her carrier, and a rightful small bit of rage at being abandoned for a whole month in Montreal while we’d fruitlessly tried to find someone to take care of her in Canada.
At home in Hanoi, I saw the ghost of her tail more than once. We’d lit incense for her. We gave offerings of flowers and cookies on our terrace shrine, and blessed the blue cat statue that had come with our apartment, as if in some way, our love would be transferred and our foolish decision to have her flown here would turn out ok, and that she wouldn’t hate us.
(She doesn’t hate us.)
Despite running from one un-named airport building to another, from one vaguely-titled office kiosk to the next; up and down floors, passed back and forth between all sorts of personnel and even having to walk two kilometres through the forest in order to find the live animal control desk… the moment when her carrier came into view eventually happened. (I admit it, I cried). 3 hours spent searching, 30+ forms later and 45 minutes after closing, we grabbed onto her and booked it to a taxi.
(Our home street had never had so much colour before. Things I’d never noticed were suddenly places.)
I finally surrendered to the flu that night. Crisis passed, through a mountain of tissues, I watched her pad gleefully around our apartment, flopping in joy on the rainbow quilt that signifies home to her (and us), meeting the blue cat statue for the first time, and talking nonstop, maybe about her trip, maybe about love, I don’t know.
I spent the whole next day shivering, half-delirious and less-than-half conscious, but my purring grey moonstone was safe, and vibrating softly against me…
If you have any questions about transporting a pet overseas, send me a message and I’ll offer any information I’ve got.