Cooking Class at The Saigon Culinary Art Center

The large classroom/dining room was for another group, but it was very colorful.
The large classroom/dining room was for another group, but it was very colorful.

2/18/15
A lovely, private cooking class with just three of us. We had pho ga (chicken noodle soup), grilled pork, rice (in rice molds, my favorite part of the meal), a colorful salad and fresh pineapple for dessert. Tasty, healthy and enough food I may not eat the rest of the day.

Our chef was 26 years old and from Sapa, but he's moved his family here to Ho Chi Minh City, working at the International Hotel 5-6 days a week and teaching 2 days a week for the last 6 years. "No time for girlfriend. No money for girlfriend. Yet!" he smiles.
Our chef was 26 years old and from Sapa, but he’s moved his family here to Ho Chi Minh City. He’s managed it by working at the International Hotel 5-6 days a week and teaching 2 days a week for the last 6 years. “No time for girlfriend. No money for girlfriend!” And then he smiles, “Yet!”

Making the soup gets a bit complicated, but I can share the salad recipe:

I even made the little carrot roses!
I even made the little carrot roses!

Vegetable Salad with pork and shrimp
Shred or julienne:
• Carrot
• White onion
• Cucumber
• Red pepper or chili pepper (seeds removed)
• Tomato (we didn’t use any)
• Mint
• Cilantro and/or basil
• Pineapple

Top with 2 boiled and peeled shrimp and a few slices of cooked pork. These have been marinated in:
• 1T sugar
• 1T lime juice
• 1T fish sauce
• 1t chopped garlic
• 1t chopped chili

Dressing (mix until sugar is dissolved):
• 1T sugar
• 1T rice vinegar
• ½ t salt
• Black pepper
Serve with shrimp crackers, top the salad with crushed peanuts and garnish with basil leaves and carrot flowers.

Putting the finishing touches on the pho ga (chicken noodle soup).
Putting the finishing touches on the pho ga (chicken noodle soup).
The rice molds were great and easy. Just wet everything with water, work quickly and the rice won't stick.
The rice molds were great and easy. Just wet everything with water, work quickly and the rice won’t stick.
We marinated the pork for 20 minutes before grilling in something similar to the salad dressing plus additional lemongrass and garlic. Tasty! It's topped with lightly sauteed spring onions. And the rice came out in a firm cake.
We marinated the pork for 20 minutes in the salad dressing with additional lemongrass and garlic. It was then quickly grilled. Tasty! It’s topped with lightly sauteed spring onions. And the rice came out in a firm cake.
dessert!
dessert!

Ex-pats and new friends in Ho Chi Minh

A sight I seldom saw in Bien Hoa is common here: monks. Even in the backpacker quarter, they walk through.
A sight I seldom saw in Bien Hoa is common here: monks. Even in the backpacker quarter, they walk through.

2/16/15
I’ve been so lucky in meeting interesting people here. Uiri is a Canadian. Born in Russia and raised in Poland, his family left for Canada when he was a teenager to escape WWII. He speaks four languages and was a pastry chef. He retired last year and sold his house when the taxes when up too high. Now he lives on his boat in Toronto during the summer and travels all winter. He says is life is much less expensive this way and now that he is alone (his wife died not long ago) he can do what he pleases.

Peter and I met on the street. We both had to step around a young western man, passed out on the street. We both looked to make sure the man was breathing, then walked on. He was not injured, probably just drunk. He was looking for a print shop. I needed a book on Turkey. I had just bought a new SD card for my camera and he filled it full of books on travel, plus some fiction. He’s in Vietnam doing some translating, though originally from Tennessee and has lived the last decade in Thailand.

Then last night I met Jim Wilson, a Brit. He’s in his 70’s, suffering a few health issues, but a wealth of stories. What a hoot. We shared a lovely curry.

I love travel. I’m updating my first book and will try to do the same to my second, and then work on the two new books I have planned. And trying to learn Turkish and Turkish customs. Plus see a few things and keep up with the blog. I’m busy on this vacation.

Two dragon dancers, working the streets with their buddies--bringing good luck and also tip.
Two dragon dancers, working the streets with their buddies–bringing good luck and also tip.

2/17/15
I have booked a cooking class for tomorrow, something I’ve really want to do in Vietnam. It is the Tet holiday, starting today, and lots of businesses are closed or don’t have their full schedule going, so other day tours I looked at were not available. What I have been doing is getting pampered. Yesterday I got a facial hair wax and pedicure. The day before, I got a shampoo and massage. Today I’ll look for a collagen treatment for my face and neck or a hot oil treatment for my hair. It’s very cheap and I take advantage of it. I’m on vacation, after all! I take little care of my appearance, but I do like to look healthy and clean. Combined with lots of sleep, fresh vegetables and fruit, it could be a health cure.

I’ve met some of the ex-pat community over the last couple days. They invited me for a drink last night. I nursed a single beer (with huge pieces of ice, da, since it’s so hot here) while I mostly listened to these older men talking. They are very funny and interesting with simply amazing stories. Some of the stories are exaggerated. Some are surely outright lies. All are entertaining. The men also explained some of the Vietnamese customs, like the roving dragon dancers going down the street. They also pointed out the plain-clothes police—all with large red bags collecting “gifts” for New Years.

Most of the men have been in SE Asia for years–a decade or more. They are all Brits, aged 40 to early 70’s–misfits who would not fit in at home. They were well traveled and some claimed to have built and lost a couple of fortunes. Two were retired, but working side businesses. One was a writer, but he wasn’t interested in talking. Couldn’t figure out what the other two did. Almost all had spent time teaching English at some point. They obviously knew each other well and told stories and inside jokes on each other. It was entertaining for awhile, then the bravado got to be a bit much. A few were bigots and Jew haters and told you so in no uncertain terms. That got old quickly. They mostly thought women a rung or two lower than men. Plus they didn’t have anything positive to say about Americans. (“Present company accepted.” Of course.) I found it odd that they would revel those last two items, since at lease one of them seemed very interested in me. Not a long term relationship, of course, but he would have been happy with a long weekend. He had a few health challenges, but made sure I knew “everything that counts” was working OK. Definitely more than I wanted to know!

There was one women who dropped by for a single beer while she was walking her dog. She’s in her early 30’s, a Brit, working 3 part-time English teaching jobs–which she likes better than her last more-than-full-time job in Human Resources. She’s been here 5 years.

The entire group thought going to Turkey a bad idea. They decided I won’t last over 6 weeks and will come back to Vietnam. “It gets in your blood.” Well, I guess we will see, won’t we?

So kind of a negative group, and I won’t meet up with them again. Also, the drinking, smoking and marijuana use was a bit too much for me. Chocolate is still my drug of choice.

Below are photos of a small troupe of Dragon dancers. They have a Chinaman, carrying “gold” to bless everyone with. The gold is really paper that will be burned at the end of the day. Two are dressed as a dragon, two more push an enormous drum down the street. I took photos and was blessed, so I tipped them.

HCMC Feb 2015, Tet, 8 HCMC Feb 2015, Tet, 3 HCMC Feb 2015, Tet, 5 HCMC Feb 2015, Tet, 4

Flower Market in Saigon before Tet

Flowers and plants are important to the people of Vietnam. You can find flower (hoa) shops and markets selling potted plants and trees on every third corner. But they have a special significance before the most important holiday of the year: Tet, Vietnamese New Year. While it coincides with Chinese Lunar New Year, they it is a unique celebration, apart from China, a country they don’t like much. (when something breaks they say, “made in China!”)

Tết celebrates the arrival of spring, which usually falls in January or February. The word is a shortened form of Tết Nguyên Đán, or “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day”. Technically it is a 3 day festival, but many businesses close for 1 or 2 weeks.

I’m still learning about this holiday, but preparations for it are all around me as I walk the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. These photos were taken at a flower market set up in a park in District 1, near Ben Thanh Market. They are from my camera phone and taken at dusk, so they are not the best quality.

Flower market before Tet, HCMC Feb 2015, 4
She’s on a narrow ledge, “cleaning for Tet.”

Flower market before Tet, HCMC Feb 2015, 9 Flower market before Tet, HCMC Feb 2015, 8 Flower market before Tet, HCMC Feb 2015, 7 Flower market before Tet, HCMC Feb 2015, 6 Flower market before Tet, HCMC Feb 2015, 5 Flower market before Tet, HCMC Feb 2015, 1 Flower market before Tet, HCMC Feb 2015, 3 Flower market before Tet, HCMC Feb 2015, 2

The Mekong Delta

Mekong Delta, Feb 2015, 83While in Ho Chi Minh City, I took a day tour to the Mekong Delta. It was a much longer bus ride than I’d expected. It took three hours each way to cover the 110km. The guide insisted it was only 2 hours, but I can’t agree.

The guide’s name was Niem and he was pretty informative. The highlight of our trip was a boat ride to the floating market, a wholesale market focusing on fruit in the area we visited. Before roads and scooters, there were many markets like this, but few remain.

We also visited a Handicapped Village where they made coconut candy and products from coconut like oil or carved items. We had honey tea at a Bee farm. Lunch was on a small Island for lunch and we had a free hour to wander the “village” on bicycles. We listened to some traditional music and had a short paddle boat ride too.

But first we had to drive out of busy Ho Chi Minh City. Broken into 24 districts, Saigon (curiously pronounced “Sai Gong” by the locals) has three districts called Chinatown, centering on ChoLon wholesale market. ChoLon means Big Market. The Chinese that live here now are descendants of traders who came in the 17th century. Most still speak Mandarin or Cantonese, in addition to Vietnamese.

While the streets seemed as packed as ever, Niem told us that we were lucky to be here during a time that the streets were so empty. Everyone is going back home to the countryside for Tet. HCMC is huge with 10 million people and 6 million scooters. “In Việt Nam, you have motorbike, you have girlfriend. No motorbike, NO girlfriend.”

Jackfruit are huge!
Jackfruit are huge!

The Mekong Delta is centered on the Mekong River. The area covers 40,000 sq meters and 13 provinces. This huge area is considered the rice bowl of Vietnam. It is famous for its rice and fruit. Eighty five percent of the people of the area make their living through agriculture. The fruit production alone boggles the mind: mangosteen, durian, longan, jackfruit, mango, pineapple, watermelon, guava, pomelo, water apple and orange.

 

This is on the drive south from Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta. Among the rice paddies are what my guide called "tombs." I really need more information, but he said simply that people were buried close to where they were born.
This is on the drive south from Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta. Among the rice paddies are what my guide called “tombs.” I really need more information, but he said simply that people were buried close to where they were born. I understand that they are buried beneath the tomb and the box on top is empty.
I keep trying to get a photo of five on a motorbike. This is only three, but the child is standing. On the highway. That can't be safe.
I keep trying to get a photo of five on a motorbike. This is only three, but the child is standing. On the highway. That can’t be safe.
Lots and lots of stores along the way with huge baskets like these. They are presents for Tet holiday, starting shortly.
Lots and lots of stores along the way with huge baskets like these. They are presents for Tet holiday, starting shortly.
Arriving in the Delta area, we board a boat on the Mekong River.
Arriving in the Delta area, we board a boat on the Mekong River.
This is a simple design for a boat--small, compact and useful for living, fishing, business and hauling.
This is a simple design for a boat–small, compact and useful for living, fishing, business and hauling.

Mekong Delta, Feb 2015, 16

A remnant of French occupation, a Catholic church.
A remnant of French occupation, a Catholic church.
We stopped at this boat, where the woman cut up fruit for us to buy. It was a great tour group and most of us bought different fruits to share with everyone.
We stopped at this boat, where the woman cut up fruit for us to buy. It was a great tour group and most of us bought different fruits to share with everyone.

Mekong Delta, Feb 2015, 29

Our guide, Niem, holding bees. We went to a "bee farm" and tasted honey tea and bought products made from honey.
Our guide, Niem, holding bees. We went to a “bee farm” and tasted honey tea and bought products made from honey.
Did you know bananas grow upside down?
Did you know bananas grow upside down?
Banh Trang, or rice paper wrappers. These are the tortillas of Asia. Any food can be wrapped in rice paper like a burrito. These are drying on racks int he sun. They keep forever, as long as they stay dry.
Banh Trang, or rice paper wrappers. These are the tortillas of Asia. Any food can be wrapped in rice paper like a burrito. These are drying on racks int he sun. They keep forever, as long as they stay dry.
This woman is making rice paper wrappers. The rice is pounded into a flour, then mixed with water to make a very thin batter. The batter is spread atop a clothe screen and cooked over boiling water for about a minute.
This woman is making rice paper wrappers. The rice is pounded into a flour, then mixed with water to make a very thin batter. The batter is spread atop a clothe screen and cooked over boiling water for about a minute.
The majority of the fruits for sale in the floating market were watermelon for Tet. The green melons have the familiar juicy red fruit we see in America. But the yellow ones are just for show--"to make the house more beautiful."
The majority of the fruits for sale in the floating market were watermelon for Tet. The green melons have the familiar juicy red fruit we see in America. But the yellow ones are just for show–“to make the house more beautiful.”
That's star fruit.
That’s star fruit.
Guava fruits are wrapped to protect them from fruit bats.
Guava fruits are wrapped to protect them from fruit bats.
We were taken on a short boat ride, too.
We were taken on a short boat ride, too.

A capsule hotel in Ho Chi Minh City

My hotel, located in the backpacker district, mostly low cost hotels in District 1. Capsule hotels were started in Japan, mostly for businessmen (called "salary men") to use when they worked too long or were too drunk to make it home at night.  This area has lots of restaurants that cater to ex-pats and tourists, along with souvenir shops and tour companies.
My hotel, located in the backpacker district, mostly low cost hotels in District 1. Capsule hotels were started in Japan, mostly for businessmen (called “salary men”) to use when they worked too long or were too drunk to make it home at night.
This area has lots of restaurants that cater to ex-pats and tourists, along with souvenir shops and tour companies.

I’ve finished my job in Bien Hoa, Vietnam but am not ready to fly to Turkey just yet. I’m in Saigon for a few days to do some writing and take a few day trips. I am in the backpackers section of District 1, HCMC which is convenient to everything I need. As a teacher and a vagabond, I need to keep my expenses low, but I’m just not well suited for hostels. The perfect compromise for me is a capsule hotel, my first, but it won’t be my last. The cost is about $9 a day and they let you pay in US dollars or Vietnamese Dong (which I have an over-abundance of at the moment). Many hostels are $16-25 US Dollars a day with far less privacy. While I think hostels are a good idea, I’ve had bad luck with them in my travels. Perhaps I’m just too old for most of them? They are a good deal for a small group, though, as you can take over a private room and really lower expenses.

Capsule hotels are spreading across the world as a cheap accommodation for a few nights on the road. According to Wikipedia: “A capsule hotel (カプセルホテル kapuseru hoteru?) is a type of hotel developed in Japan that features a large number of extremely small “rooms” (capsules) intended to provide cheap, basic overnight accommodation for guests who do not require the services offered by more conventional hotels.”

Here’s a tour of mine.

The main desk in the front lobby. It's narrow and there isn't much room. to pass with bulky luggage.  There is a small "bar" where you can eat take out food and a couch and chair where you can up on/take off shoes or wait for a taxis. They arrange tours, trips to the airport and laundry.
The main desk in the front lobby. It’s narrow and there isn’t much room. to pass with bulky luggage. There is a small “bar” where you can eat take out food and a couch and chair where you can up on/take off shoes or wait for a taxis. They arrange tours, trips to the airport and laundry.
These are the lockers in the lobby. Except all they hold are your shoes--no locks. You put your street shoes inside and wear slippers in the hotel. Keeps things clean. This is a very Asian concept, and a good one.
These are the lockers in the lobby. Except all they hold are your shoes–no locks. You put your street shoes inside and wear slippers in the hotel. Keeps things clean. This is a very Asian concept, and a good one.
You wear this slippers in the hotel. They double as shower shoes. It's really very clean.
You wear these slippers, provided by the hotel. They double as shower shoes. It’s really very clean this way.
This is the ladies bath and shower. These hotel are more popular with men, so there is only one floor for women. Still, of the 16 or so capsules on my floor, only about 5 were filled. It was fairly quiet and reasonably clean.  They also give you a towel and a small basket to take from your capsule to the bathroom--very convenient.
This is the ladies bath and shower. These hotel are more popular with men, so there is only one floor for women in this 6 floor hotel (the ground floor is just reception and lobby). Still, of the 16 or so capsules on my floor, only about 5 were filled. It was fairly quiet and reasonably clean.
They also give you a towel and a small basket to take from your capsule to the bathroom–very convenient.
This is my locker where I store my luggage. It is jam packed, too! The bellboy helped show me how to arrange my things so they would fit, then how to program the lock with my own code. Ingenious. The locker is located across the narrow "hallway" from my sleeping pod.
This is my locker where I store my luggage. It is jam packed, too! The bellboy showed me how to arrange my things so they would fit, then how to program the lock with my own code. Ingenious. The locker is located across the narrow “hallway” from my sleeping pod.
These are the sleeping pods, two high. I asked for a bottom "bunk" as it reduced my climbing. Yes, it is small, but no worse than my tent, which I slept in all summer. It is clean, has wifi, TV, mirror, charging station and comes with a pillow, comforter and my own air conditioning unit. It's about the width of a twin bed, or slightly larger and perhaps 6.5 feet deep. I can sit up comfortably. There is just a curtain you pull to "close" the capsule for privacy. My only "complaint" is that the mattress--a futon--is very thin and hard. I slept on top of the comforter just to get a bit more cushioning. I covered myself with my over-sized towel (provided).
These are the sleeping pods, two high. I asked for a bottom “bunk” as it reduced my climbing. Yes, it is small, but no worse than my tent, which I slept in all summer. It is clean, has wifi, TV, mirror, charging station and comes with a pillow, comforter and my own air conditioning unit. It’s about the width of a twin bed, or slightly larger and perhaps 6.5 feet deep. I can sit up comfortably. There is just a curtain you pull to “close” the capsule for privacy. My only “complaint” is that the mattress–a futon–is very thin and hard. I slept on top of the comforter just to get a bit more cushioning. I covered myself with my over-sized towel (provided).