Posts Tagged With: Dragon

Weasel Poop Central

Dalat is a college town of about 400,000 people with a large (13,000 students) regionally well-known university. It’s only about 30 miles from Nha Trang as the crow flies, but it’s a 3-4 hour bus ride; Dalat is up in the mountains at about 5000′ (1500 m) elevation, and the road to it is steep, winding, and very slow. It does take you through some scenic valleys with narrow waterfalls threading down the cliffsides.

Dalat IMG_8729-HDRThere used to be a rail line connecting Dalat with Saigon but the Viet Cong blew it up during the war and it has never been replaced. It does have an airport with twice-daily flights to Saigon, though. (People seem to randomly call it either Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as the mood strikes them, though the latter has been the official name since 1975.)

There is a certain amount of nostalgia for the railroad, though, at least among the very small community consisting of a burnt-out expat American who opened a restaurant called the Train Villa Cafe, which sports a railroad car behind the building. He used to be the general manager of Tower Records in Singapore, but he moved here in 1991, married a local woman, and (according to Phil) has been running this restaurant and drinking himself to death since then. We ate lunch there, and he did arrange for some of the local hill tribespeople to come and perform some traditional music for us.

Dalat IMG_8767They are called the Kho, part of a larger set of hill tribes that are collectively known in the West as Montagnards. The Kho themselves are subdivided into a number of groups, including the Khmer in Cambodia. They have a very characteristic style of dress — dark blue cotton with vertical colored stripes as you see in the photo — and speak their own language. This particular family of musicians had been educated in the cities and spoke Vietnamese as well. The Kho language is significantly different from Vietnamese; Phil does not speak it.

We continued on to our hotel, a large ornate place with the inexplicable name of the Sammy Hotel. No one seems to know who “Sammy” was, but the architecture is pretty purely French Colonial and — because of our frequent travel with OAT — we have been upgraded to a very large and pretty snazzy suite, with a full living room and two baths. Yay!

The weather was deteriorating by mid-afternoon but we headed out anyway — eventually getting poured upon — to visit the Linh Phuoc Buddhist temple, a large and impossibly ornate complex in which every exterior square foot — and quite a bit of interior space as well — is covered by elaborate dragon-themed ceramic mosaic tile and statuary. It is an utter riot of color and detail, something that Antoni Gaudi would have happily designed if he had been into Buddhism.

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Dalat IMG_8891-HDRThe interior is no less elaborate, and includes some creepily realistic statuary along with all the ceramic frou-frou.

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Dalat IMG_8870By the time we left we were in a full-on downpour, which continued for the next four hours; it is the monsoon season.

It was still pouring at 6:30 PM when we were picked up at our hotel by a cheerful young woman in a rain poncho, riding a motorbike. (Vietnamese use their scooters to go anywhere at any time; monsoon rains are of no consequence.) Her name was Nhii, and she is the 26 year old daughter of the host family with whom we had dinner at home last night. As I have mentioned before, every OAT trip has a generous dollop of interaction with the locals, and each trip usually includes dinner at home with a local family.  Nhii put us into a taxi, and then led the way home through the driving rain on her motorbike.

Dalat IMG_8908Those are Nhii’s parents at left, and our travel mates Hazel and Bruce on the right. Nhii’s father is a retired archivist with the government; her mother is retired from a bank. Nhii herself is a receptionist at a hotel and the only one of them that spoke any English. (Hers was pretty rocky but serviceable enough for the occasion.) The language barrier put things off to a slow start, but as we started showing each photos of our various grandchildren, things picked up. Nhii’s mom is an excellent cook and served us a nice meal that included pho, spring rolls, sticky rice, and a salad that had a large number of hard-boiled quail eggs in it. The evening was enjoyable enough, but we would have liked to see more of the house (we never got out of the living room and dining room) and learn more about their lives. (We learned a lot more about Nhii since she could converse.)

The rain had stopped by the time we headed back to the hotel, and we slept well enough in our Colonial Overlord room to take on more ambitious sightseeing today.

Dalat is a major center for wholesale flower cultivation and sales; it is sort of the Holland of this part of Asia. Flowers are big, big business here, and the best way to illustrate that is to show you this panorama looking into the valley adjacent to the downtown part of the city:

Dalat IMG_8812-PanoWith the exception of the tile roofs in the foreground, every single building in that image is a greenhouse, hundreds and hundreds of them filling the valley. Here’s the interior of one of them, and happy Alice — who is an avid gardener, unlike myself, and much in her element here — with a sample bloom.

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Dalat IMG_8931I am informed that that is a gerbera daisy.

The greenhouses are not made of glass, but rather nylon, which we were told is a technique invented by the Israelis. Water condenses on the interior and drips into the gutters that you can see running the length of the structure, thus minimizing the need for an external water supply.

Besides flowers, the other cash crop in these parts is coffee, and so of course we were morally obliged to visit a coffee plantation. Since we live in Kona (Hawaii) for about five weeks a year that was not exactly new and exciting for us — and I don’t even drink the stuff — but here you go anyway:

Dalat IMG_8937-PanoWe got The Coffee Spiel. There are three types of coffee here, being Arabica, Mocha, and Something Elsa-a (Robusta, I think), and the differences are [at this point my brain turns off due to total indifference]. So of course they sat us down and served us a sample, which everyone duly admired, except for Alice, who literally shuddered and sotto voce averred it much inferior to Kona coffee.

Dalat IMG_8942Those are our travel mates Yvonne, Karen, and Joan. Yvonne looks a little dubious.

But this was not the main event. Oh no, far from it. This particular coffee was conventionally grown and processed. At no point did it emerge from a weasel’s digestive tract.

You may perhaps have heard of kopi luwak, the fabulously expensive Indonesian coffee that is processed from beans that have been eaten and excreted by a civet cat. Well, guess what? They do it here too. They call the creature a weasel here, but it is the same animal, Paradoxurus hermaphroditus if you’re taxonomically inclined. It is not related to the ferret-like thing that we in the West call a weasel, but looks rather like a raccoon. Here’s one in its cage at the plantation.

Dalat IMG_8975So the deal is, they feed the coffee “cherry” — the red fruit with the bean at its core — to the animal, which dutifully poops it out the other end, its digestive enzymes having dissolved the fruit and worked some chemical miracle upon the bean. The poop is dried in the sun and the beans then extracted by machine (thank God). You then process the beans and charge a zillion dollars a pound for them because people are insane. I mean seriously, this is certainly the only consumable substance in the world where declaring, “This tastes like shit,” is considered a compliment.

Dalat IMG_8948Note the sign above. For the record, I was not tempted to take any away. I am however going to start an emo band named “Weasel Feces”.

Alice, who is a coffee snob, was very disdainful of the whole thing but upon actually tasting it — they gave everyone about a half a shot glass to try — declared it quite excellent after all.  And as I looked on in head-scratching wonder she actually plunked down money to buy a few ounces, at a price that scaled to US $90 a pound.  That’s about three times the price of good Kona coffee. She is unable to testify that it is three times as good.

That adventure under our belt, we climbed onto a flatbed hitched to a tractor — this has been an especially interesting trip, transportation-wise — and literally headed for the hills, traveling a short distance up into the hills to visit a Montagnard/Kho village. Our first encounter was with some fierce children (one was wearing a Batman teeshirt so you know this is serious) who took a break from chasing each other around to threaten to eat us.

Dalat IMG_8994We navigated this existential threat — I taught two of them to play Thumb War in case my grandsons ever visit here — and spent some time talking to the village headman and his wife, who was patiently weaving through part of the conversation.

It’s an interesting society, matriarchal for starters; property is handed down through the women in the family, and arranged marriages have been abolished.

That’s as much of Dalat as we have time for. Tomorrow morning we fly to Saigon for the last leg of the trip. We’ll be there for three nights, then leave for home on Saturday.

 

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Who Are All These People, and What Are They Eating?

People who are not actually familiar with Hawaii — and this includes the large fraction of tourists who are focused entirely on their mai-tais — can easily overlook its complex and yeasty ethnic makeup. Hawaii’s demographics don’t look anything like the rest of the US; in fact, they don’t look much like anything anywhere. More than 20% of Hawaiians identify as mixed-race; taking that into account — because it makes the numbers add up to more than 100% — the breakdown of the largest groups is:

  • 58% Asian
  • 39% White
  • 23% Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander
  • 7% Hispanic
  • 3% Black

That’s quite the mix (and I should add that the absence of blacks is quite noticeable as one walks down the street here in Honolulu).  Precisely because it is such a melange, the faces of the locals make for quite the panoply.

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(I’m not sure why that first guy reminds me of Leonardo DiCaprio, but somehow he does.)

OK, what does this mean for us in practice on our visit? It means that there’s all sorts of cool food, that’s what. (What, did you think this was going to be some kind of anthropological treatise?) We are here visiting our old friends Laura and Brian, and they wisely realized that yesterday, our first day here, was a happy confluence of two food-related events: a farmer’s market at local Kapiolani Community College, and — insert drum roll and Asian gong sound here — a Chinese New Year parade.

(Laura and Brian themselves are pretty good exemplars of Hawaii’s ethnic potpourri. She’s a Jewish girl from Massachusetts; he’s ethnic Japanese from the Hawaiian island of Kauai. They have a daughter in her 20’s, whose consequently stirred-up gene pool makes her beautiful in proper Darwinian fashion.)

So, food. For breakfast we worked our way through the farmer’s market, chowing down on everything in sight like a small group of well-behaved army ants, or perhaps a genteel Sherman’s March to the Sea, navigating through a mass of both locals and Japanese tourists, the later all in sun hats and moving in amoebic little groups as though chained at the ankles. As we ambled with feigned patience from stall to stall, our diet included the following, all locally made and in no particular order:

  • Assorted local fruit juice blends, e.g. passion-fruit/ginger and strawberry/blackberry
  • Grilled local gigantic shrimps on skewers. (You eat the whole thing, shell and all.)
  • Seared ahi tuna sliders with mushroom tempura sticks
  • Kimchee sausage on a stick
  • Assorted homemade popsicles including honeydew with ginger and dark chocolate with Chinese spices
  • Ice cream bananas, which is a type of creamy banana, not a type of ice cream
  • Kahlua pig
  • Dark chocolate plus Kona coffee-covered macadamia nuts
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Brian bites the big one.

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Alice, still hungry.

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One could persuasively argue that poi = taro hummus.

And this was breakfast, mind you.

Having eaten our fill — a sentiment that would immediately prove both naive and ironic — we headed home for some down time, inexplicably becoming peckish along the way and so stopping en route to pick up some poke (marinated, seasoned ahi sushi),  boiled peanuts (a Hawaiian local favorite), and chicharron, which sounds Hispanic and is: it’s pork rinds.

We variously napped and pigged out some more at home before driving downtown for the Chinese New Year parade. And of course, upon arriving there, the first thing we did was start eating again, kicking things off with some roast suckling pig from this guy.

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OK, so we just ate. What’s your point?

Honolulu’s Chinatown, like so many American Chinatowns, pretty clearly has its best days decades behind it and has a rather characteristic seedy feel that you will also experience in its counterparts in Washington DC, Philadelphia, and even — though it is vastly larger and somewhat less tatty — San Francisco. It all has something of a time-warp-y feel to it, with tattoo parlors and dusty arcane-looking herbal remedy stores, the ones with dried lizard skins in the windows.

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Good place to pick up some dried lizard for either your arthritis or your black arts.

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An 1890’s bawdy house that became the “Club Hubba Hubba” just after World War II. I don’t think the women are still there. God, I hope not.

But the important thing is, that we kept eating. Strolling through the crowded streets as the dragon puppeteers suited up for the parade, we continued to glut ourselves on mango ice cream, lobster chips, and almond cookies, all the while reminding ourselves that we had dinner reservations for later. This was roughly equivalent to reminding a cokehead sucking on a crack pipe that he has a job interview scheduled in three hours.

(Speaking of cokeheads, I feel compelled to relate a minor incident. As it happens my arms are covered at the moment with some painless but very nasty-looking bruises, souvenirs of a short hospital visit just before our departure during which I came under the ministrations of a technician who had, apparently, never inserted an IV or taken blood before. The side streets of the parade route had a number of stalls advertising local worthy organizations — Jaycees, local sports clubs, and the like — including a meth clinic. Despite my pleadings Alice rather stodgily forbade me from walking up to them, arms out with black-and-blue marks on full display, and asking for help. I suppose that in any marriage you need to have at least one responsible adult present at all times, but still.)

The parade itself was a raucous and colorful affair, full of dragons and martial arts displays and little old ladies carrying fans whilst sitting on festooned flatbed trucks, smiling and waving delicately to the crowd as they represented assorted charitable Chinese organizations that we of course had never heard of.

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There were drummers, a platoon of kids on BMX bikes, and of course beauty queens riding on top of convertibles: “Miss United States: Samoa/Guam/Hawaii/Mariana Islands”. “Miss Chinese Chamber of Commerce” and her first four runners-up, the latter in a convoy of Mustangs whilst the winner rode in a Corvette, and all waving gamely with that odd rotary side-to-side waving technique perfected by Queen Elizabeth II. And game they had to be: how would you like to be the last of those girls, smiling at the crowd while sitting on a top of a car with a sign announcing that you were the fourth runner-up? “Hi, I’m Jessica! Those four girls in front were all prettier than me!”

Anyway, we had a wonderful time, and saw many dragons.

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And a couple of hours later, we of course went to our dinner reservation and had a big and wonderful meal.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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