Sunday, September 21, 2008

Freaky Fruit 10: The Great Jackfruit Quest

On my last day in HaNoi, I was on a mission. Over the past six weeks, I had managed to procure every fruit I cared to taste from the local markets - except the elusive JackFruit. With less than 24 hours left in the country, I scoured HaNoi.

JackFruit, is fascinatingly, a member of the mulberry family, and grow in big spiky pods, that sprout out of the side of a tree. Think of a spiky bright green chrysalis, more than a foot long.

Now, I had eaten Jackfruit in several processed forms. Dried jackfruit chips are like lovely, like dried apples, but with better texture because, they are almost entirely fiber and puff nicely. But i wanted to try the real thing, and by the time we got to Hue, things were getting desperate. I had not seen them in a local market in days. The first day in Hue, the breakfast buffet served them - all prepared! And they were so yummy! It gave me hope.

As we cycloed through the city that day, I glared at the passing fruit markets for a Jackfruit (they are big, and easy to spot) - NOTHING! I caught a fast glimpse of one hanging from a tree in the front of a house, but it looked a little small (eg. only 10in long). Hue offered me nothing!

My last day in HaNoi, I was on a critical mission. I went to three different outdoor markets - nothing. Two fancy grocery stores - nothing. Finally i settled for more jackfruit chips and pouted. I had managed to taste the yummy fruit, but not to haggle for it and triumphantly hack into it with my pen knife. :(

Although, I hoped to end this blog on a moment of triumph, I will just have to say thanks for reading. Over 120 people have tuned in! Being able to share with my friends and family at home kept me sane when I didn't have many people to talk with - and helped me dust the rust off my writing skills.

Thank you and Happy Travels!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

On Democracy and Communism...

In the south, its easy to forget that Vietnam is a Communist country. Out of 84 Million people, only 2 Million are party members. In the west, we tend to think of Communism as a bad word, and communist rule has certainly done great harm in Vietnam's history (e.g. reeducation camps). That said, Vietnam enjoys incredible political stability relative to its neighbors, and the effective rule of law (since Doi Moi) has kept crime low, allowed businesses to flourish, regulated trade and facilitated foreign investment. Uncle Ho's days of an agrarian utopia are long gone, and the relic left is a lumbering, inefficient bureacracy, that may not be up to western standards, but beats all the local options.

Vietnamese views on government are particularly interesting now, especially in contrast to the political hoopla surrounding the US elections. I would sum up the average Southern view on communism as "Its good if you're connected to the party, and its an effective government, but I don't really care about communism. As long as it doesnt get in the way of the economy, its fine." When my adopted sandwich Mami-San stated, while we were sitting in the middle of the market, that she thought things were better under the French, Lily got a little nervous. We were in public. Mami-san, tho, was unphased. Its not like the KGB is lurking in the corner, and after all, her family is connected.

Hanoi is more Communist - there are loudspeakers all over the city, that proclaim news and propaganda twice a day, and there is less Western influence and business. And its the seat of government. Of course, I decided to be Cheeky and wore my "Obama 08" tshirt to all the Communist tourist sites, including Uncle Ho's mausoleum. This opened me to a lot of shocking commentary from locals (both of whom were men):

Local #1: You like Obama? (yes, I respond. What do you think of the American candidates?) I like Hillary. Yes, she is an amazing lady. Her husband was the first American president to visit here after the war. She went to see the country and met with poor families. She went in their homes, one family were pig farmers and she went right in and sat down in their home. It was right next to the pigs, because they are poor. Right there! I had never seen a politician do that - talk to real people and not look down on them. Our politicians don't do that. Hillary is amazing.

Local #2, reading my tshirt, on the deck of Ho Chi Minh's house: O - Ba - Ma. You like Obama? (Yes, I like Obama). I too. He is a great man. Go Obama. (then there was a little fist pump)

Both these interactions shocked me: first, we take state visits and first ladies making nice with the locals TOTALLY for granted. If our first lady is more egalitarian than the local communists, it says a great deal about the strength of the american ideal of equality. We're doing a great job. Second, someone got excited about Obama, while standing in the SMACK MIDDLE of the communist government. Thats like saying you like Kim Jong Il while standing on the steps on the capital. Then it dawned on me...we are so lucky to be able to choose. I had been working myself into a lather about the barracuda from Alaska and the sad state of American federal vaudeville, but at the end of the day, I will walk into a booth, and vote for things that matter to me. What a gift! I believe that in a few decades, Vietnam will have this too, and just really hope the transition is peaceful.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Off the Beaten Path in Hue... Way Off

Liz and I are not ones to take the easy tours with the large buses and packed itineraries. We scoffed at the proffered (shrieked) tours and explored Hue on foot, on DragonBoat and en cyclo.

First, we hit the big one, the Imperial City, which is quite impressive, despite being partially in ruins. It is also shockingly Chinese-influenced. There is not much Chinese influence in the South, but as we get further northits more and more clear how much Vietnamese culture, writing, religion, trade, and politics were historically influenced by China.

My favorite building was the refurbished court theatre, the backstage of which was left both unlocked and unattended. Didn't they know I was coming? It took all my willpower (and a reminder that i am in a communist country) to NOT put on the costumes and prance across the stage.

After exploring the Imperial City, we contracted two cyclo pedalers to take us to a couple of outlying tombs - which we estimated were 20-30 minutes away on a bike. More like an hour, into the hills. These poor dudes pedaled us about five miles in all - happily. The six bucks we paid them is more than many Vietnamese office workers make in a day. (And we got out and walked ont he big hills - by the end of the day everyone was jovial)

The day ended with an excellent temple where I meditated with a very beautiful buddha statue, followed by an incredible gastronomic dinner of seven courses. On to Ha Noi!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Hot and Not Bothered in Hoi An

From Nha Trang, we took a lurching night bus (with sleeper berths) to Hoi An. Here is Liz demonstrating our amusement - after 8 hours of lurching and swaying, and "sleep" interrupted by a horn So Loud that it could actually blow things off the road, we were less coy. Thank God for sedatives.

But we arrived in Hoi An, which is my favorite place in Vietnam. Its full of beautifully-preserved old buildings and temples.

Hoi An has rightfully earned its reputation as the "foodie mecca" of Vietnam. The local specialties are all good, the street food is a snacker's soft tofu in sweet ginger sauce, served by an old woman who mocked my lame attempt at a squat. Also, they like ginger. I like ginger. Everyone got along.

I managed to eat - I kid you not - seven times in one day in Hoi An. This was partially because it was so hot - north of 100degrees and very humid. Even the fishermen hid under the bridge. So of course we had to escape the heat somehow, and what better way than to sit by the river with a 25-cent mug of fresh beer and a bowl of noodles. Also, Hoi An is just naturally sedate, unfettered and relaxing, as you would expect from a town of fishermen. I could have spent a week there.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Rescue Diving in Nha Trang

Note: No one was harmed in the making of this post, Mom.

We hit the reefs while in Nha Trang, and got to see something that will only interest scuba divers: a live rescue scenario.

Our dive trip was broken up into multiple groups, and one of the dive guides was working on her Master Certification, for which you need to complete a rescue cert. At any moment on the trip, one of the other instructors would "drown" and she would have to go through all the necessary procedures to save them: ordering people to get the rescue equipment ready, fishing them out of the water, getting them back on the boat and resuscitating them.

I have had the good luck to never have been in a dive emergency, and was glad to get to watch this. The protocol involves ordering other people to do stuff (like get the oxygen and rescue rope ready), while going hands on to save the person in the water. The toughest part seemed to be to get the victim out of his BCD, which was making him float facedown water. its a heck of a lot easier to get out of a bcd underwater than at the surface. She also performed in-water cpr, which I had never seen before. It was really cool to watch (although I felt bad for her for being tested in front of an audience).

My friend the Barracuda has been after me to get my rescue cert since our trip to Belize. I think I will - not only because you learn interesting things (always true with diving), but also because the girl being tested was SO stressed. I can't imagine what a shitshow it would be in a real scenario. And, I'm only 12 dives away from being eligible for my Master Cert!

Finally, the underwater life in Nha Trang was quite sad - the coral is mostly dead, and there is relatively little sea life. We did, however, find a terrified octopus, which is always fun.

Freaky Fruit Vol 9: Jackfruit...or so we thought

I happily plowed through a bag of dried jackfruit in Long Xuyen, and have been looking for the fresh variety. I thought i bought it yesterday, after some haggling in the market in Hoi An. Alas, it was not a jackfruit. But we ate it anyway.

What it turned out to be was Soursop, which i had seen in juices at restaurants. Its got a smooth green skin with little spikes, and inside is a white flesh, about the consistency of mango, with large watermelon seeds.

As promised, it was sour, and tasted kind of citrusy, but more like the green apple Airheads candy that I used to eat as a kid. The fruit itself is very delicate, and tends to damage easily if bruised, like a peach. Ours was a little worse for wear, but a nice eye-popping surprise nonetheless.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Happy Independence Day!

We had the good fortune to start our vacation on a major national holiday - September 2nd is Vietnam's 4th of July, the day they freed themselves from French colonial rule, and also the day Uncle Ho chose to croak in 1969. How very apropos!

Saigon was covered in Communist flags, and squares and parks were being decorated for speechifying, but as is true of national holidays everywhere, the most important part was that everyone got the day off! BookInHandTraveller and I made it to Nha Trang by midday, to find the beach town kind of sleepy. Only us whiteys on the beach. But by about 5pm, the beach was FULL of locals - all enjoying the evening breeze and beautiful views.

By this time, I had been pedicured by not one, but two nice old ladies, while reading my book on the beach. They alarmingly offered to (unnecessarily!) wax parts of my person and claimed I was getting ugly, and attempted to sell a massage by kneading me seductively. It was a cornucopia of ineffective sales tactics, which I always enjoy watching.

Aside from the hard sell, the ladies were also dressed for a midwestern winter - only their eyeballs were showing through the long sleeves, gloves, long pants, hat, facemask... and it actually made sense that the locals only came out at night - as one lady put it "Vietnam hate sun." What she means, is that Vietnamese (and many other asians, apparently) have such a strong aversion to dark skin, that they will swelter to avoid it. I have been surprised here by who is referred to as "dark." Also, drugstores sell "whitening" potions (from respectable brands) that will mildly bleach you. And your loved ones.