Posts Tagged With: groceries

A Day in the Life, Vietnam Edition

Every OAT trip includes some kind of “day in the life” activity that attempts to give travelers a taste of what normal, non-touristic life is life in whatever country we happen to be in. These are unavoidably somewhat artificial (“Today’s activity will include contracting hepatitis while bathing in unfiltered sewage!”) but they do make an honest attempt given all the constraints of time, safety, etc. But we did pretty well yesterday, since our “day in the life” started with a big part of every Vietnamese’s life: getting somewhere on a motorbike. This was probably not the safest activity that OAT could have chosen for us — a couple of our group just straight-up refused to get on them — but it was probably the most fun one. So off we went in crazy city traffic…IMG_8716

IMG_8520That’s Alice in the red helmet at right.

IMG_8526We putt-putted and honked our way to the outskirts of the city, eventually making our way to the countryside, past rice paddies and temples.

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IMG_8593Our first stop was a place where guys hang out for hours, drinking and watching some entertainment. Your first thought is no doubt “bar” or “strip club”, but no, it wasn’t either of those. If you’re a Vietnamese city male, your go-to entertainment on a Sunday afternoon is the local….. bird cafe.

Say what?

Bird cafe. Songbirds are a very big deal here, in particular a type of bird called a bulbul, which is found throughout Asia but not in North America. It’s name is Persian for “nightingale” but it actually belongs to a different family. They sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars here, and at the bird cafes they hang in cages by the dozen, the staff moving them around from space to space to get them acclimated to their surroundings and keep them singing.

IMG_8534IMG_8536Notice all the guys in the lower photo, basically hanging around and staring at the birds. This goes on for hours. There are huge bulbul competitions, sometimes involving as many as 2,000 birds; they are judged on both appearance and the perseverance with which they keep singing. Hard to see this catching on the US. (“I’m heading out to the bird cafe to have a few glasses of lemongrass tea with the boys.” “Like hell. That’s the third night this week and I’m sick of picking feathers out of your clothes.”)

The next stop on our motorbike outing was the marketplace where, we were informed, we would have to go shopping for dinner. Phil gave us some money and a shopping list, and divided us into two teams: “Tiger”, and “Dragon”. I was the Dragon Leader, which is a title I have always coveted.

IMG_8575Various items were assigned to various people within the teams, but the catch was that we had to ask for all the items in Vietnamese. Remember what I wrote about the impossibility of saying anything correctly in Vietnamese? Now the linguistic rubber was about to meet the metaphorical road. My particular item was sugar, which in Vietnamese is Đường, which you pronounce by shooting yourself since you’ll never get it right. It’s sorta like doo-ong, except that the first syllable is spoken WAY down in your throat, and you glide into the second syllable all the way up top to your palate. Basically it’s the sound that a bullfrog makes, and I am proud to report that after three attempts Phil declared my pronunciation perfect. Off we went, me bullfrogging for all I was worth, and by golly we scored two plastic sacks full of sugar. Here’s more of our team in action, successfully buying a bag of limes.

IMG_8566Groceries in hand, we biked out to the countryside to a village where the headman was a former South Vietnamese paratrooper, Mr. Hoang. After the war he spent two years in a reeducation camp and was eventually fully “rehabilitated” into a position of responsibility in this small village.

IMG_8612He showed us around the village, which included a stop at a local family who derived their income from that most venerable and stereotypical craft, basket weaving. They put us to work. The head of this family was a former Viet Cong soldier.

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IMG_8624Then we went to Mr. Hoang’s house for lunch, where his wife put half of us to work in the kitchen, chopping vegetables. The other half of the group want out to the backyard to use that sugar we bought, along with limes and lemongrass, to mix up some drinks whose name I forget but which involved a whole lot of rum.

IMG_8628Drinks were poured and toasts were raised. The very first toast, in fact, was raised by the four men who actually fought in the war: Mr. Hoang and the three veterans in our travel group. That makes this a fairly remarkable gathering:

IMG_8633That toast drunk, more followed, with everyone getting into the act. Alice and I being teetotalers, our drinks were rum-free, but a couple of our group more than made up for our abstemiousness.

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Things got pretty happy, but everyone settled down for a lunch, which was of course yet another multi-course extravaganza. This one, though, was outdoors, in a shaded grove behind the house.

And then it was time to go. Hugs all around, especially among the vets, and everyone boarded the bus… except for me. Phil had cottoned to the fact that I am an adrenaline junkie — it may have been my look-ma-no-hands continuous camera-clicking from the back of the motorbike — and arranged for me to motorbike back the city instead of riding the bus. So I had my own personal tour of the back alleys, farms, graveyards, rice paddies, and other cool locales from my perch at the back of the bike.

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(The swastikas don’t mean what you think. They’re a very ancient Hindu symbol, appearing widely on temples and other structures throughout Asia. The Nazi corruption of the symbol came thousands of years later.)

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IMG_8684On we went, past the revolutionary statues in the city, back into the maw of traffic, and home again to our hotel. Helluva day!

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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Poke Your Eyes Out

That’s “po-keh”, which sort of rhymes with “okay”, as opposed to “poke” that rhymes with “croak”. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We are back on the Big Island, comfortably ensconced in our beautiful annual rental house for the next month or so, and enjoying our view of the blue, blue Pacific while all our East Coast friends and family gnash their teeth in envy. Feel free to gnash along: it’s gorgeous here. Photos in later posts.

Our first order of business upon arrival was picking up our rental car, which was, um, shall we say, more “expansive” than anticipated. Expecting a midsize SUV or large Jeep, we were presented with a Lincoln Navigator, a Brobdingnagian exercise in libertarian consumerism of such exuberant eco-criminality that Greenpeace now has a price on my head. A technology-laden behemoth, it is the size of a full-grown bull elephant and has a fuel economy measured in “crushed dinosaurs per mile”. At speeds above 60 mph, or whenever in four-wheel-drive mode, it requires its own convoy of refueling tankers. But it is roomy, quiet, and comfortable, so we’ll live with it. At least until I have to parallel park somewhere.

But mostly I wanted to talk about food, that being one of the sybaritic mainstays of our annual sojourns here. As you may know, the de facto state food of Hawaii is…. Ha! You were going to guess poi, weren’t you? But no. Poi is indeed a traditional staple here, but for historic reasons dating from World War II rationing, the go-to food in these parts is pig parts in a can, i.e. this stuff:

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Hawaiians eat more Spam than any cohort in the known universe, or at least the U.S., an average of 5 cans per year for every man, woman, and child in the state. And as you can see from the photo, it comes in a wide variety of disguises flavors to suit every taste. That is, every taste except ours, since we never touch the stuff.

What we do eat a lot of here, is poke, which is a genuinely traditional Hawaiian food that has gone mainstream. Poke (remember, it is pronounced po-keh) can take many forms but is most commonly served as marinated ahi, i.e. raw yellowfin tuna. The word itself is Hawaiian for “sliced”.

Japanese cuisine has a strong influence on poke’s preparation, Japanese being the second largest ethnic group in the state, slightly behind Filipino. For one thing, poke is prepared with an enormous variety of marinades that include both Japanese and Hawaiian influences, such as soy sauce. And for another, at even the most hole-in-the-wall poke restaurants, it is presented with a certain symmetric Japanese aesthetic, as you can see from this photo of my lunch a few hours ago:

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We had this little masterpiece at “Da Poke Shack”, just down the road from our house; it is possibly the mostly-aptly named restaurant in existence. That’s seaweed salad in sesame oil at the upper right, white rice with dried seaweed and sesame seeds at lower left, and two flavors of ahi poke in the other two diagonal corners. It is a little bit of culinary heaven that has now made its way to the mainland US with varying and usually dubious degrees of authenticity. I can assert from personal experience that if you are eating it anywhere outside of Hawaii with fish more than 10 hours old, you are not experiencing the good stuff.

Having thus officially alerted our digestive systems to our arrival in Kona, we moved on to the largest local farmer’s market, a frequent stop of ours. We bask for a while among the tropical fruits, a spectral riot lilikoi (a.k.a. passion fruit), rambutans, soursops, mangoes, tiny “apple bananas”, carambolas (= star fruit), and of course pineapples. The faces there are comfortingly familiar: we see the same multi-ethnic smiles at the stalls every year.

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(This picture dates from three years ago, and we bought lilikoi from the same woman today. I showed her this photo on my phone; she gave Alice a big hug and asked me to email it to her.) We loaded up with a few bags of fruit, our eyes ever larger than our stomachs, before moving on somewhat reluctantly to the more conventional and cringingly expensive grocery shopping at the Kona Safeway. We will be entertaining a lot of visitors during this year’s stay; there will be many such trips to the farmer’s market, the Safeway, and to the KTA, a local family-owned grocery chain.

So in summary, we’re here, happily nestled into our house in the delightfully-named area of Kahalu’u-Keauhou. More posts later as this year’s adventures unfold.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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