Pictures from the Saigon Tweetup on November 25th, 2014

Just a few pictures from our merry little Tweetup last night at Game On in downtown Saigon.

2014-11-25 21.03.12
The Saigon Tweetup!
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@layered, @LeHaTu, @jon7b, @ericburdette and @ChristophK2003 (more active on @evecoo). Thanks to @CotterVN for snapping this pic!
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@layered, @LeHaTu, @sapuche, @dfgvietnam and @lienh.

 

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Tics of Twitter

I never really used Twitter much before moving to Saigon in 2010. Before that, Twitter was mainly my medium for updating my Facebook status from my old (and decidedly un-smart) phone via text message. Over a couple years in Saigon, however, I came to rely on Twitter as a place to get recommendations on where to find things and how to get stuff done. One specific example is this: In the midst of one workday, I felt like a turkey sandwich. Don’t know why, but I just felt like one. I posted that thought on Twitter, and a few people got back to me about where they’d found decent turkey sandwiches in Saigon, and that evening I had a turkey sandwich for dinner.

Being in another country and culture, Twitter was a way for us expatriates in the city and the nation converse with each other about our ups and downs and where to find a decent hamburger too. It was pretty nice tool for a place with no large online resources and a culture where a substantial amount of getting things done relies on who you know.

With an above average number of intelligent and tactful users, Twitter for expatriates in Vietnam was great. And when we learned that we would be moving to the U.S., I was hoping to find a place in the Twitter community in Eugene, Oregon too. I started out by following a few folks I found through searching, including a few local companies too, but there is a completely different attitude regarding Twitter in the liberal Northwest in the Land of the Free.

My takeaways so far have been this: There are a lot of people who call themselves “social media experts” and seriously just flood Twitter with posts, retweets and links so that it just clogs up my flow and I can’t stand it. Being in a university town, there are lots of college students on Twitter too. Let’s just say that I’m glad I didn’t have Twitter when I was in college, otherwise my silly moodiness would’ve been captured forever by the Library of Congress. The local companies that I tried following just further flood Twitter with links and stupid questions in the lame attempt to “engage” people through this medium.

What was a very helpful tool in a foreign land is exactly the opposite in the land where it was invented. There seems to be a purposeful effort to not engage with others on Twitter without ulterior motives and I have yet to find a community of users even slightly like what I experienced in Vietnam. Oddly enough, I now use Twitter to keep up with people in Vietnam more that I use it to find out what is happening around me locally.

So there you have it. A common online service which became immensely helpful as I explored the largest city in Indochina has become basically a tool for keeping up with those awesome users back there who initially drew me to Twitter in the first place.

Plans for the Fall

Many of you who know my wife and I are aware of the big change that is coming up in our lives. But for those who don’t know what’s up, or are a bit fuzzy on the particulars, I thought I’d lay out some details to set the record straight, so to speak.

My wife, Ngân, has received a scholarship from the Fulbright Program and will study her master’s degree in international studies at the University of Oregon starting in September. I have decided to go with her while she studies and find a job in Oregon during this time. We are both excited about this big change in our lives, but also a bit stressed with the moving aspect of it.

Ngân, who has never been to the U.S., will be experiencing some culture shock, for sure. And I will likely experience the same. However, we are tough, smart and tenacious people and are looking forward to this challenge.

To all of my friends in Vietnam, I will miss you terribly.

To all of my friends who might be along our travel route, I hope we can meet up.

As one final note, we will not be immigrating to the U.S. The Fulbright Program is administered by the U.S. Department of State, and Ngân has signed an agreement that she will return to Vietnam after her studies are completed.

Lots of changes, lots of excitement and lots of great things lie in wait for our future.

Travel plans are as follows:
-Ngân will travel to Massachusetts in early August for a month of intensive English training and orientation.
-I will fly into Virginia in mid August.
-We will be in Ohio in late August / early September.
-We will take a road trip / move to Eugene, Oregon in early September and arrive there before classes start.

Chinese Wedding Party

The other weekend, Ngan and I were invited to a Chinese wedding party by one of the elevator attendants at our apartment building. Receiving the invitation was a surprise, but we were honored to have been invited. The elevator attendant, his wife and their daughter (the bride) all speak Chinese (I believe it’s Cantonese) with each other, but they are also bilingual and speak Vietnamese with others.

Now, if you’ve spent any time in Vietnam, you’ve been to a wedding party, and I was expecting something similar as we drove through the ever-narrowing streets towards our destination in Chinatown. The facade of the restaurant was very low key, and upon arrival I realized I’d driven past in numerous times without noticing it. As the party progressed, there were a few key differences between Vietnamese and Chinese weddings:

1. Punctuality

Vietnamese people are known for being less than punctual, and this has it’s pros and cons. However, this wedding party was something else. The time on the invitation said 6, and we arrived about 6:15. However, the party (i.e. the serving of the food) didn’t start until after 7:30! I was very hungry and grateful for the food when it finally came.

2. Language

Normally at a Vietnamese wedding party, there is an MC who talks for a bit at the beginning. The MC at this Chinese wedding party just had to read everything in two languages.

3. Music

All of the songs were in Chinese. Singers would come and go and guests would run to the stage and give them cash tips, which were usually passed back to the three-person band. After their set, the singers would leave the party (and maybe head to another wedding party?).

4. Dress

Not one single person at the wedding wore an ao dai. For those who aren’t aware, the ao dai is considered traditional Vietnamese dress, especially for women, and it always makes an appearance at weddings, either being worn by the bride and/or groom and also by plenty of guests. At this particular wedding party, it was like the people wanted to make the statement: “We are not Vietnamese.”

5. Food

One distinctly Chinese dish that we were served during the party featured abalone. I have only seen dishes with abalone at Chinese restaurants before and had never tasted it. It was very rich.

6. Lucky money during the party

At a Vietnamese wedding, when the MC is finished, there is usually loud music and it is not interrupted until the party is over. However, at this Chinese wedding the band stopped, chairs were set up on stage and the bridge emerged wearing some traditional Chinese garb. Older people sat in the chairs and the bride and groom would offer them cups of tea. After the older people sipped the tea, they handed the bride and groom red envelopes of lucky money (for Vietnamese people, lucky money only makes an appearance during Tet, the lunar new year).

We couldn’t stick around til the end of the party, but it was a very unique experience and I’m glad we were able to attend.

Obligatory April Post

Just realized that I haven’t posted anything this month. I attribute this to the fact that Ngan and I have been traveling quite a bit. Tomorrow will mark the third weekend in a row that we will not be in Saigon. Here’s what we’ve been up to lately:

-April 14-15: Singapore. Yep, I’d never been there and wanted to visit to see what it was like. And I did. Clean and expensive city.

-April 21-23: Nha Trang. Ngan had never been there, and they last time I was there was Christmas, 2006 (when my youngest niece was born). It was a nice visit and I introduced Ngan to sunbathing and the basics of floating (she can’t swim).

-April 27-May 2: Long Xuyen. It’s a long weekend due to two holidays and it’s time for a visit. Looking forward to it.

This traveling stuff takes a lot of time, but I like it. Hopefully this summer we’ll hit a couple more destinations in the country and region.

An Giang: The Best Food in Vietnam

I get really tired of reading about people who consider themselves to be “foodies” in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, especially when they brag about how they found this awesome food cart that was only 50 feet from their hotel in the backpacker area. Come on.

Before I moved in Saigon in June, 2010, I lived in Long Xuyen, An Giang, for nearly five years. I still look on my time there with fondness and try to get back to visit friends and family any time there’s a holiday.

On the occasion of Tết, I was able to spend eight days back in Long Xuyen. I met tons of old friends and went back to eat at all of the shops and stalls where I used to eat. And I also confirmed my theory that the food in Saigon is crap. Yes, sorry to disappoint all of you supposed “foodies” who continue to roam the streets of Saigon pouncing upon everything and calling it wonderful.

I’m not sure what exactly makes food in Saigon sub-par, but one theory that I have is that the meats and vegetables used simply aren’t as fresh as they are in the Mekong Delta. Perhaps the dust and pollution makes the food here less tasty, or worse, has affected the cooks to the point where they can’t taste as well.

Anyway, without further ado, here are some of the best dishes and meals that I had in An Giang during the Tet holiday.

My mother-in-law’s xá xíu, or char siu in English.

On the grill
On the table

Unlike the bright red variants found in restaurants, this is much more traditional. It is marinated for several hours and grilled with charcoal, which gives the meat a delicious, smoky flavor. It’s served with đồ chua (pickled carrots and turnips) and everything is dipped in soy sauce with chilies. Absolutely delicious. I think I could eat a couple pounds of this stuff.

Bột Chiên, a delicious street side snack.

Freshly served up
Being doused with sauce

Bột chiên is as close to a comfort snack food that I can find in Long Xuyên. I always order everything they have,  and they fry it up with an egg and serve it with a distinct sauce and grated, pickled papaya. Nothing in Saigon even holds a candle to the bột chiên in Long Xuyên.

Bò Chiên Nước Mắm at Quán Bình Dân

Sizzling on the grill
Okra covered in chili sauce on the grill

Beef doused in fish sauce and then grilled. Does it get any simpler? Does it get any better? As much as I love the beef, I am also crazy about grilling up okra covered in sate sauce and then dipping it in fermented tofu. Awesome. And yes, still have not found anything this good in Saigon.

Cháo Trắng Với Cá Cơm và Đu Đủ

Perfect late night snack

I love this stuff. Rice porridge with beans and coconut milk, served with tiny pickled fish and pickled, grated papaya. Simple, cheap and delicious. I certainly have not found the savoriness of this dish in Saigon. The places I’ve had it here are very bland.

Bò né at Quán Tùng

Sizzling goodness

Affectionately known by some as the breakfast of champions, this is quite the way to start your day. Beef, macaroni, onions and an egg all served in a sizzling skillet (cow-shaped, to boot) with a side of lettuce and tomato, just to make you feel a bit less guilty. You eat it with a baguette as well.

Bò né on Nguyễn Thái Học Street

Even more sizzling goodness

This is yet another variant of bò né in the town of Long Xuyên. Note that at this particular place, there are no noodles and there is a generous dollop of pate. Another excellent breakfast. And I have never, ever found bò né in Saigon that comes close to the goodness of bò né in Long Xuyên.

Hủ Tiếu Mỹ Tho

Another evening snack

“What is hủ tiếu Mỹ Tho?” the so-called Vietnamese foodies say while scratching their heads. It ain’t hủ tiếu Nam Vang (i.e. it doesn’t have shrimp or quail eggs) and it’s a lot better, in my opinion. There’s lots of meat. And then a little more. Very filling for less than a dollar a bowl. And the owner still remembered me, even though I hadn’t been there in over a year.

Cháo Lòng

Tons of nutrition looking at you

Many people might not agree with me about this one. But I have to say, don’t knock it before you try it. “Cháo” is rice porridge and “lòng” is inside. Basically, it’s rice porridge with a lot of pig offal in it. I like it with lots of chili peppers and a kind of fried bread called “bánh củ cải.” Put it all together and it’s delicious. I am also sentimental about this dish because when I was saving money for the move to Saigon, I ate dinner here almost every night. When you’re saving money, dinner for less than 50 cents makes sense.

Hủ Tiếu Khô at the Swimming Pool Cafe

Noodles and broth separate, please

Why order your hủ tiếu dry, you may ask? I don’t have a good explanation. But it’s just delicious. The pork is savory, the noodles have just the right amount of tenderness and it makes one hell of a breakfast. A good buddy introduced me to this wonderful dish years ago, and for two months, I lived across the street from this cafe. An amazing, and unique, dish.

Grandma’s food in Tân Châu

Check out the spread

On the third day of Tết, Ngân and I went to visit her grandmother in Tân Châu, not far from the Cambodia border. I found out later that her grandmother has been involved in making and selling food for her whole life, and it surely showed. The flavors in these dishes absolutely came alive. There was thịt kho, a traditional Tết dish, mì xào giòn (crispy noodles) and tender chicken stewed in herbs. The food was so good I found myself not being able to stop eating. Possibly the best food that I had in An Giang on this trip.

In Conclusion

If you’re looking to experience the real flavors of Vietnam, get out of the city and get away from the tourist path where all of the flavors have been dumbed down and all of the meat and vegetables have lost their crispness due to refrigeration. Personally, I think the dishes I listed are some of the best in the country. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself.

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The holidays and Tết thoughts

This particular season the holidays have been stretched out for some time for me. I was grateful to have the opportunity to travel to Ohio for Thanksgiving with my extended family, although unfortunately Ngân didn’t come along this time. My time in the states was brief, but it was nice to see family and friends that I hadn’t seen for over three years (an exception were my parents who traveled to Vietnam last December for our wedding).

I flew back into Vietnam and wanted to hit the ground running, but stumbled instead due to delayed flights and congestion which left me very hard of hearing for a week or so. I finished a class in early December. A friend’s wedding was near Christmas. I had a wonderful Christmas morning with Ngân and a great Christmas party with a close group of friends (featuring homemade eggnog!).

The New Year has just passed and now it’s time for the pre-Tết squeeze. People are restless waiting for the holiday to arrive. I’m looking forward to a decent amount of time off. However, I just got started with a tough new class in finance, which I will be able to pull through, but it sure looks hard at the beginning.

When speaking about Tết to other expatriates in Saigon, there are usually two reactions: 1. I can’t wait to get out of the country. Or, 2: I can’t wait for Saigon to empty out and for the traffic to die down.

I am neither one of these. I have, and will always, as long as I live in Vietnam, go to Long Xuyên for Tết. It’s where I met my wife. It’s where we got married. It’s where my wife’s family lives. It’s where some of my best and oldest friends in Vietnam live. It’s where I started in Vietnam. It’s my “quê hương thứ hai.”

I have always believed that expatriates who leave Vietnam during Tet are missing out on the country at its best. Fewer vehicles are out on the streets, which makes every town and city more peaceful. There are always invitations to eat and drink. You can take a nap or go for coffee at any time and it’s normal. Now that I have in-laws here, I basically have a supply of savory thịt kho, bánh tét and fried lạp xưởng almost any time I want – who would pass that up?

Certainly, I can identify with the expatriates who wish to stay in Saigon to experience a peaceful city; I would enjoy it too. But the thought of trying to celebrate a holiday in a sprawling, impersonal hunk of urbanization is too much for me. For Tết to be Tết, I need to be surrounded by friends, family and a friendly town that I know well.

Everyone in Vietnam enjoys Tết, and this includes expatriates. I guess I have certain things that I need to do, certain people I need to visit, and certain things I need to eat for the Lunar New Year, and all of them can only be found in Long Xuyên, An Giang.