Coughing fits once again

Nothing is worse than being sick while traveling or on vacation. But getting back from an amazing trip and then going back to work and being sick is certainly no fun at all, especially when that cold you somehow caught while on the flight back results in massive coughing fits that are reminiscent of the whooping cough I had to live through in December 2015. It’s hard to forget how miserable that was, how close to death I felt during that time.

I’ve been working from home the last three days to incubate myself. While I have colleagues joking to me over Slack that I am probably just prolonging my vacation, nothing could be further from the truth. I wish I were on vacation and not dealing with hacking up phlegm.

 

First Class Qantas flight

Because Chris has a lot of accumulating Qantas points that he had to use for something, and obviously the only time you can use them is when you fly Qantas, he decided to apply a healthy number of points towards upgrading our flight to First Class. We’ve been flying Business Class to and from the last couple of years, which was already incredible (it makes any business class in the U.S. seem like garbage with the level of attentiveness and service, not to mention the quality of the food), but First Class on Qantas certainly took us to another level of getting the royal and spoiled treatment. We began with getting a booked massage for him and a facial for me, 20 minutes each, and then when we boarded our flight, we each had our own little pod, which could be adjusted so that you and your partner could dine… at the same table together. I took a quick look at the menu and realized that while there were the usual a la carte options, there was actually a multi-course tasting menu… on the plane. I’d never even fathomed the idea of having a tasting menu on plane before. So we chose that option to indulge, and even enjoyed some of the best champagne and Australian shiraz that we’ve ever had on that flight to LA.

For breakfast, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I could select poached eggs, as I’d never seen poached eggs on a plane before (for seemingly obvious reasons since poaching is already the most difficult egg method, but to get it right on a plane would be insanity). So I chose that over toast with avocado, and while the egg was probably more done than I would have liked, the yolk, when broken, still lightly spilled out over my toast. This was too much, I concluded as I chewed. If I had this every time I flew back and forth between Australia, I’d be ruined for every other flight.

 

Last day of summer for now

We came back to Melbourne this morning after transiting in Kuala Lumpur again. I felt tired and like I just wanted to sleep, even though I knew it would be bad for me body-clock wise. As we’re packing our last bags after doing two loads of laundry, Chris asked if I wanted to go to the beach. But then, I thought, I’d have to go through the trouble of putting on sunblock, and I really did not want to do that.

“Well, it’s your last time to go to the beach and have this kind of weather for a long time…. we’re going back to the misery of New York winter very soon… So, it’s up to you,” he said.

Ugh.

“Fine. I’ll go get the sunscreen,” I mumbled.

And so we soaked in the last bits of a Southern Hemisphere summer in what we know as winter. I tried looking for abalone shells at Brighton Beach, but was dismayed to find not even one. I recalled the time in 2012 when I first came to Australia and roamed that beach by myself. To my total surprise and delight, that entire beach was covered in rainbow-colored gleaming abalone shells. I took only five of them then to not be so greedy. Yet in all the years since, I haven’t seen even one. Not to mention, this year, I noticed a sign I didn’t recognize that stated that visitors are not to remove any shells from the beach…. which likely means someone has been taking all of them.

 

Freshness

The theme of food for our trip to Vietnam was freshness. As was the case when we were in Thailand two years ago, everything in Southeast Asia just screams fresh, especially since the cuisines there love to combine cooked elements with raw ingredients to lighten and refresh the palate. While I expected aspects like the mile-high plates of herbs, lettuce, and vegetables, what I did not expect were the fresh rice noodles in all the pho and other noodle soup dishes we had; for whatever reason, I just expected them to reconstitute the dried stuff, but nope. It was obvious from the chew and mouthfeel that these noodles were churned out fresh. No dried noodles here. And the one time I did see dried noodles, it was at the Danang Vietnam Airlines lounge in the dining area, where they had pho noodles that were instant pre set up in bowls for you to add your piping hot pho broth to.

When I think about aspects of Vietnamese cuisine like this, I think, no one in the modern world, or, well, New York City, who works full time could ever regularly have meals like this. Who has the time or energy to source fresh everything, whether it’s specific Vietnamese herbs or just-churned noodles, or freshly pressed tofu? I’d be running all over the city all day… which can’t work if I have a job. It’s totally intangible, though I do dream of having such ready and easy access to all these beautiful ingredients. Fresh food is really what most Americans don’t eat at all or do not get enough of. Vietnam even has me questioning the taste of chicken, as I distinctly remember having chicken three times during this trip, and while chewing, thinking, ‘Wow, this tastes… more chickeny, with a stronger, more assertive flavor that screams, hey! I’m not the bland meat! I have my own flavor, thank you!’ The piri piri chicken in Portugal last November was incredible, one of the best chicken dishes I’d had in my life, but that was because of the flavor of the marinade, the spices, the chili oil, and the charcoal grill… not the actual chicken meat itself. In Vietnam when I had chicken, I knew it was the actual flavor of the chicken flesh itself.

And sadly, I’m sure the average American would eat the chicken we had in Vietnam and say it’s gross or doesn’t taste right… because they’ve been accustomed to the bland and the boring chickens of mass-grown and produced America.

 

Da Nang

One of the surprising places we visited on this trip was Danang. I didn’t really know what to think of it at all other than knowing that many large and fancy hotel properties and golf courses were being constructed there due to the beautiful beaches there. I knew of Marble Mountains, of My Son Sanctuary, which is a sanctuary made in a similar style to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. But other than that, I had no expectations. So when we arrived and spent an evening eating and roaming around the streets of the urban area of Danang, I was a bit shocked. It probably felt the cleanest of all the cities we’d visited, not to mention the most developed. The streets reminded me of walking through Seoul, which was also supplemented by the fact that endless signs in Korean and Korean barbecue restaurants and spas lined the streets (this is clearly a major South Korean tourist destination). Lots of bright lights adorned buildings and bridges. The one major bridge had a dragon descending upon it and was constantly changing color; I read that for special occasions, this bridge actually shoots out fire! And it’s a bridge both for cars and pedestrians!

The food we ate here was delicious, as well, as Chris declared the main meal we had on Thursday evening to be his favorite and the best meal we’d had in Vietnam, which is saying a lot considering how much we’ve eaten thus far. We found a tiny banh xeo place in the back of an alley and feasted on banh xeo and grilled beef wrapped in lalot leaves. The two surprising things about these banh xeo were that 1) the sauce accompanying it was not the usual nuoc cham (“all-purpose”) light dipping sauce that was ubiquitous and that my mom and I make at home, but rather a thick, fermented shrimp/hoisin/pig liver sauce that had a brownish-red hue. Chris gorged on that sauce. And 2) these particular banh xeo actually had scrambled eggs on the edges of them. People often mistaken banh xeo for having egg in them because they are yellow, but they’re actually yellow because of the turmeric it is spiced with and usually have no egg product in them. but these ones definitely had egg scrambled at the edges!

“Maybe you can try this at home next time you make banh xeo,” Chris said, giving a not-so-subtle hint that he wanted this.

We ended the evening at a hole-in-the-wall che spot, a Vietnamese bean, jelly, and fruit place, where we shared a bowl of assorted colored, flavored, and textured jellies, taro, jackfruit, and a huge lump of durian added in, all mixed with a pandan and coconut milk liquid base.

Definitely gaining weight by the end of this trip, but it will all be worth it.

 

 

War Remnants Museum in Saigon

It’s a funny thing about museums covering war and conflict; at some point, someone get up in arms about how biased a museum can be, or gets angry about the the self-promoting nationalist propaganda that a city or country’s museum takes. Prior to coming to this museum today, I skimmed a number of TripAdvisor reviews, and a few very angry Americans touted this museum as “Vietnamese propaganda,” “completely biased,” and “anti-American” (to this last point, I would respond, ‘Well, the U.S. did decide to come invade Vietnam and harm then and future generations of Vietnamese people, so if you were Vietnam, wouldn’t you be anti-American, too?’) But if you think about it, every country does this. I mean, it’s not like the JFK Presidential Library and Museum reveals that he didn’t genuinely care about civil rights for black Americans, and that he was really supporting whatever would get him reelected. The Vietnam War memorials, many of them all over the U.S., but the largest one in Washington, D.C., doesn’t mention the fact that the U.S. sprayed Agent Orange, among a whole rainbow of colors of other toxic chemicals, all over the country of Vietnam in a miscalculated attempt to destroy the food crops of guerrilla warriors, when in fact they completely screwed up and instead destroyed the crops of civilians, not to mention poisoned anyone who came into content with that substance for life, plus their second, third, and now even fourth generation family members.

In my history courses in high school covering recent U.S. history (in American history classes, “recent” means 1900s and onward), the Vietnam War is a quick few paragraphs in a textbook, and then it’s done. There’s a quick mention of Agent Orange and that the U.S. retreated, and that was pretty much it. I still remember coming back from my Advanced Placement U.S. History class on the day that our very left-leaning teacher did a lesson on the Vietnam War. He said, “The U.S. lost! We actually lost! We weren’t used to losing! So we had to get the hell out of there and FAST!”

I realized in that class that I knew absolutely nothing about the Vietnam War. My brother and I were results of the Vietnam War; he and I would not exist if that war did not happen. Our dad served as a Private in radio communications on the U.S. side during the war in Qui Nhon in south central Vietnam. Our mom also somehow got a job with the U.S. Army also working in radio communications in the same city. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So, I headed home that day. And at dinner, I told my dad what my history teacher said. “Mr. Schmidt said that the U.S. lost the war,” I said naively and ignorantly. “Is that really true?”

My dad looked flabbergasted. He dropped the fork onto his plate, and he looked at me as though I was crazy. “We didn’t lose!” he exclaimed. “We retreated! There’s a difference between those two things!”

Actually, there kind of isn’t. As I read more on my own, I realized, this country really did lose. And we kind of deserved it. My dad never elaborated more than that. He rarely liked to talk about the war, and for very obvious reasons, neither did my mom. It was one of those subjects that I always wanted to ask more about, but was too afraid to upset either of them about.

Today, we went through all the exhibits one by one in the War Remnants Museum (originally called Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes, then renamed to Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, then finally renamed to this final name in 1995 after diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam were normalized). I noticed callouts regarding radio communications in central Vietnam and thought about my parents. I saw Qui Nhon marked as a major combat unit in South Vietnam and learned it was designated as the tiger region. And, much to my complete disgust and horror, I saw real photos of the effects of Agent Orange on innocent south Vietnamese civilians, some of whom were in the womb when their mothers were affected by this chemical. It was an entire exhibit devoted to the atrocities that fell upon these innocent people in this beautiful country all because my home country decided to recklessly spray whatever they could in an attempt to win a war. Of the bits my dad did share with me, he said that he learned of Agent Orange while he was in Qui Nhon, and he heard the officials telling everyone not to be concerned if they got it on themselves because it wouldn’t harm them; it was only meant to harm the crops and fields. My dad thought they were crazy; he didn’t trust anything that they told him, and he stayed far away from all of it as possible. And thank God he did. So many American soldiers came back to the U.S. with terrible health ramifications that the U.S. government refused to acknowledge or compensate for decades after the war ended.

There was the photo of the conjoined twins who had their own arms and legs, but shared a torso. Then, there was the baby with a massively enlarged skull that looked as though bullets had gone through it. She had been diagnosed with hydro-encephalitis, a disease in which there is a build up of fluid in the brain ventricles, and thus the pressure of the fluid ends up causing life-threatening brain damage. She died a month after the photo was taken. Then, there are the many photos of babies born who basically look like skulls with empty eye sockets. They were blind and would never be able to see. They were doomed to never properly grow into adulthood. This is just a quick snapshot of what I remember and some of which I took pictures of. But it’s not even a smidgen of all the awful health outcomes of those affected by Agent Orange.

I started sobbing while looking at these horrific photos; it was difficult to remain composed. I’ve visited a number of very tragic and moving war museums, including the Atomic Bomb Museum in Hiroshima and the Apartheid and District Six Museums in Johannesburg and Cape Town, but for me, this somehow hurt so much more and felt closer to me. It felt more real to me than the others, and maybe it’s because my parents were there that I felt so terrible. My parents could have been affected by that; my relatives on my mom’s side were affected. My mom lost many siblings during the war, and I don’t even know all the stories to this day. I know she had nine living siblings; I know only the stories of three. What happened to the other six…? The horrors of the war still stay with my mom, and very likely with my dad, which is why he doesn’t talk about it, either. But with Agent Orange specifically, I felt enraged that the country I call home could be so reckless and stupid, and worse, actually defend what they did and even lie about it, even to their own people. And when people actually were affected, they didn’t care about them and ignored them. It’s so typical of the Land of the Free to do something so cold and cruel like this. The U.S. got away with war crimes, and to this day, this country denies the impact that Agent Orange has and claims that the 4.8 million Vietnamese affected that the Vietnamese government claims is grossly over-estimated. For a country that refuses to provide their own affected soldiers who have come back from the war treatment and compensation, that is just disgusting. More and more, I felt embarrassed to be an American standing in that museum.

And then I think of the current political situation back home, with President Dipshit, the oldest child to ever run the country, and his insipid, selfish, racist, and short-sighted government shut-down, and I think, do we really have any hope of being a better place when a large chunk of this country support this moron?

 

 

 

Motorbiking in Vietnam

Most people in Vietnam do not own cars because they are far too expensive. As one local Vietnamese person told me today, a person can spend his entire life saving to buy a car. But why would he do that if he could use that same money to buy a house? So instead, pretty much everyone in Vietnam owns and rides a motorbike. They are far cheaper and easier to attain, the license is easy to get, and they’re an efficient mode of transportation. And the Vietnamese certainly use them to the max — sometimes, we saw as many as five people, an entire family, on a single motorbike!

The first time I rode on a motorbike was in Qui Nhon, the major seaside city in south-central Vietnam that is closest to my mom’s village where she grew up. We stayed in the city and visited relatives frequently, and when there were times we needed to get from point A to point B, we needed transportation because the distance wasn’t quickly walkable, and thus the only way to get transported was to get on the back of my cousin’s motorbike and hold onto his waist. My mom initially refused, saying she didn’t feel safe, but my cousin insisted, saying there was no other way to get around. So she had to cave in. And so that began a series of motorbiking rides for me. It was certainly fun, even if it resulted in my losing one my favorite cardigans that was tied around my waste, and it was fun this trip to go on a motorbike tour with Chris to see the countryside of Hoi An.

It was just the two of us and our two local Hoi An guides and their bikes. They took us to many little towns and areas outside of Hoi An proper, including a pig farm and a pottery village. With them, we got to have pretty in depth conversations about life for local people and the change in times. One of our guides spoke really great English, and with her, I realized she was probably a bit more well off because she said that she frequently would fly to Hanoi, where her family was, for visits. Pretty much everyone else I asked said they would either take a bus, train, or their own motorbikes to visit family that didn’t live locally. They even laughed when I asked them if they flew. “That costs too much!” one of the guides in Hue said to me yesterday.

With this guide, Trang, I asked her if she had any family in the U.S. This time, she laughed, and she responded, “No! No way. My family is poor, just in Hanoi.” It’s funny that she would respond this way because to my mom and her family in her village in Binh Dinh province, several hours outside of Qui Nhon, they would say that Trang’s family had money given they lived in the “big city” that is Hanoi. City people in general have more money than those in smaller towns and in the countryside. Yet, it’s clear that Trang and her family likely look at any family in Vietnam that has relatives in western countries as “rich.” It just goes to show again that it’s all relative, the statements that we make and the judgments we come to.

Day trip to Hue

Hue is known for a number of things in Vietnam. It’s been said that the most beautiful women in Vietnam come from Hue. Whether that is true or not — I have no idea or opinion; it’s just something I’ve heard. It’s also known for its rich and varied cuisine, reputed to be the best in all of Vietnam. It’s known for its most famous dish, bun bo hue, or lemongrass beef noodle soup with thick round rice noodles, pig’s feet, and blood cubes. It’s also known for imperial Vietnamese cuisine given its history. It was once the capital of Vietnam where the Nguyen dynasty emperors lived and subsequently built their many elaborate and extensive tombs. So many of the most laborious dishes in Vietnam are said to have come from this general region. When I think of the things I ate growing up that my mom would buy and take home from Vietnamese bakeries in San Jose, I think of banh beo, which are tiny steamed rice cake discs topped with shredded shrimp, drizzled in scallion oil, and dunked into nuoc cham dipping sauce. I also think of the far more elusive banh it tran, which I just recently discovered the name for. It’s a sticky rice ball that is stuffed with mashed mung bean, minced pork and shrimp, topped with scallions, and also dipped into nuoc cham before eating. This was one of my favorite snacks growing up that my mom would get me. I realized I hadn’t had it in ages when I was reading about Hue for this trip.

We visited a number of sites on the tourist track today, including the Khai Dinh (a Nguyen emperor) tomb that had both elaborate eastern and western architectural influences, as well as the Hue Citadel or Imperial City. We were short for time in Hue, much to our regret, but a day trip with a small group tour was all that worked. This also meant that lunch was already arranged and included, and sadly other than the small bowl of their version of bun bo hue, the dishes were all fairly generic.  I also felt a bit rushed while at the Citadel to take the photos I really wanted. And to make things worse, the group we were with was probably the worst group we’d ever traveled with: most of them were mutes, some were completely disinterested in the backstory of these sites being told by our English-speaking guides, and another was a total loud mouth talking about everything he knew about Asian culture overall.

I’d really like to go back to Hue, if not just to see the other sites that are in this historic city, but also to really taste the real food of Hue that makes my mother and many other Vietnamese people I know salivate.

The next Venice and the kindness of strangers

After spending the morning paying a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s dead body at his mausoleum (and cutting an entire city block’s long school group so that we could ditch the queue and get in faster), we boarded our flight down to Danang in Central Vietnam, and then spent the evening exploring Hoi An, a little ancient town that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was exactly as it looked in photos I’d previously seen – a  small river with boats beckoning tourists to hop in for a ride, floating lanterns lit by candles dancing atop the water, old storefronts decorated with lanterns of endless colors. Each and every street was decked out with lit lanterns hanging across it. And while it was beautiful and worthy of many photos, it irked me that I heard so much English everywhere, not just from the swarms of tourists on the main drags, but also even from the shop owners and workers. I saw signs advertising menus and souvenir items fully in English and with prices quoted in U.S. dollars. This is not what I wanted to come here for.

One of the restaurants on my list, Morning Glory, is a reputed establishment in Hoi An, known for their mi quang and cao lau noodles, both specialties of the city. Unfortunately, when we arrived, there was a huge crowd of tourists waiting to get in and be seated, and when I tried to tell the host at the front that we were a party of 2, I was dismayed to see an Excel spreadsheet fully in English of all the dinner reservations by time and party size on her screen. While we were waiting, we briefly looked at the menu and noticed that everything was priced at about three times the cost of anything else on side streets that had a more “local” feel. So Chris insisted we not eat there and we wandered off to lesser traveled to streets and ate at three different spots for a third of the price. We didn’t  come to Hoi An to feel like a tourist and be around other tourists. We came because we wanted a local feel.

And a local feel we certainly got. After enjoying banh mi sandwiches at a local spot that was known for its house-made pate and mayonnaise, we both were overwhelmed by how light the bread was; crunchy on the outside, but probably the lightest and airiest insides that we’d had… ever. Even though we both ate a sandwich each, we didn’t feel full at all and instead were able to enjoy two more dishes at two other spots. We proceeded to a mi quang restaurant and had these noodles with mixed seafood and meat, and then ended the evening of savory foods in a tiny alley where of the three dishes they served, one was their main specialty: banh canh, a tapioca-noodle soup dish with fish cake and vegetables that had noodles with a chewy and nearly addictive texture. It was served with a baguette (delicious and airy, just as we expected), pickled chilies, and teeny tiny limes that had an orange flesh and tasted more like a cross between a lime and an orange. Yet while we were entering the alley to be seated on Chris’s favorite tiny stools, the camera bag he was holding accidentally knocked over some bowls, resulting in two getting damaged. We were apologetic, and I realized I never looked up the translation for “sorry.” So at the end of the meal, we paid 30,000 (about $1.30 USD) dong for the bowl we shared, and gave an additional 20,000 dong (about $0.86 USD) and waved towards the bowls we broke. The workers initially seemed confused at the extra money we put on the table and looked at us and each other quizzically, but when we motioned towards the bowls, they hesitated, then all broke into big smiles. And while we said “thank you” in Vietnamese, they looked at us warmly and said “thank you” in English.

And even walking out of the tiny alley as they closed up their food stall, I tried to take a photo of their stall sign, and one of the workers noticed me taking a picture and even adjusted the light so that I could get a better picture. When he looked at the frame on my screen and saw that another light was in the way, he adjusted it so that it pointed another way. He smiled at me, and I thanked him and said goodbye.

The little moments of travel when you have interactions like this are always enjoyable and heart-warming, and remind me that even when stupid things happen, the kindness of strangers is something we rely on. So many good people exist in the world and just want to be good to each other. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that, but these moments serve as a good reminder to me.

Pho Chien Phong

The vastness of Vietnamese cuisine can be surprising. When thinking about how large the country is in terms of land, it really doesn’t seem like that big of a place…  until you think about the fact that it a densely populated country of over 95 million residents, plus a healthy number of visitors who arrive from around the world every single year. People often talk about the diversity of cuisine in China and India, but Vietnam, though far smaller in both population and size, is quite different depending on the region you are in. For example, com ga tam ky, which is Vietnamese style chicken and rice, is really found everywhere mostly in Quang Nam province, or in its city by the name of the rice type, Tam Ky. Pho has regional differences between the north and the south. Bun bo hue, or spicy lemongrass beef noodle soup with pig’s feet, is a Hue dish, but much beloved throughout the entire country. In Northern Vietnam, you can find goose (well, they call it goose, but I read that it’s technically called Muscovy duck, which can be likened to goose in terms of what they eat and how they live). In Southern Vietnam, the banh mi cold cuts are far more varied than in the south due to historical reasons — since in the past, meat was more readily available in the south vs. the north.

During this trip, I’ve been surprised by a number of dishes we’ve come across. We tried  the grilled muscovy duck, which was delicious, rich, and fatty. We also had a dish I’d never heard of before called pho chien phong, which is basically flat squares of fresh rice noodle battered, then deep fried, and tossed with stir-fried greens and beef slices. Rice is the king here in Vietnam, whether it’s in pure rice, broken rice, or rice noodle form, and here was just another way of eating it. We could hear each component being prepared as we waited for our food. The fried squares of rice noodle, beef, and vegetables came on a plate that was nearly towering over. It was a hearty and filling dish, one that overwhelmed Chris. The fried noodle cubes were like poofy little pillows, hollowed out when you bit into them, revealing the light and soft rice noodle square inside.

This is one of those dishes that seems like it’s Chinese, but given the use of rice noodle in this manner, is most definitely Vietnamese. The amount of preparation to cut each of the noodles into shapes like these and then to batter each is only a Vietnamese thing given how painstaking it was.