Saturday, December 30, 2006
Our friend Marie-Paul is visiting from Singapore (where it is currently 26C and sunny) for the New Year. She and I had to make a trip to YouShow Market to get warm coats, hats and gloves. Laurent worked his bargining magic - the spectacle of salesgirls crying that they were losing the store as they dropped the price of a Timberland knock-off from 1050 yuan to 250, then smilingly taking our money should be on the list of things to see in Bejing.
The wooden seats, the fire buckets, the crew and Kowloon terminal haven’t changed in the past 11 years. And this past Christmas Day many of the maids seemed to be enjoying an additional day-off – including one enterprising woman who had set herself up on a bench near St John’s Cathedral doing pedicures for a line of chattering women. Sadly they no longer congregate en masse in front of the Central terminal but are scattered – a certain loss of community – in parks around the area, In a controversial move the Government has boarded up the square, torn down the old terminal, destroyed the Clock Tower – to belated howls of protest – and moved everything to a brand new Disneyfied terminal a good 10 minute walk from Central. Apparently the land is needed for a new highway – just what Central doesn’t need.
Here are few pictures of our trip over to Kowloon on December 26.
Friday, December 29, 2006
Anyway hoping I can at some point load some pictures of our Cooking Courses, Sapa, temples in Vietnam, the Cao Dia temples, the Mekong Delta and our Christmas in Hong Kong. Until then: Happy New Years to all our friends, family and loved ones.
Love Will and Laurnet
Saturday, December 23, 2006
The Christmas decorations had started to appear the first few days we were in Ho Chi Minh City and at each stop the hotels, shops and city fathers were busily decorating. It progressed from city to city – more and more elaborate light displays, fake snowmen and towering Christmas trees appeared every day. And everywhere those bloody bells were jingling.
By the time we arrived back in Ho Chi Minh City on December 19 the city was a riot of twinkling, chasing, flashing, pulsating lights. Palm tree trucks were wrapped in blankets of white lights, strings of lights hung from trees like Spanish moss, Christmas trees and snowmen adorned the fronts of stores and very young, very slim and very Vietnamese Santa’s were welcoming shoppers. And that song was sounding from every available piece of audio equipment in the city. It was getting to be a bit much: we were getting a case of the Christmas grumps – after all this was Asia not North America.
But the evening of December 21 – our last night in Vietnam – our Bah Humbug demeanor was demolished. Lam Son Square and the surrounding sidewalks were swarming with people – most of them children. And it looked like any child under 5 – and a few verging on their teens – was wearing a Santa Claus suit: red flannel, faked fur trimmed from pants to toque, some with matching mittens. Mothers proudly stood in front of storefront decorations holding their babies as equally proud Papas made cooing noises and took digital photos. Shots of elderly grandparents with their families were captured beside outsized Nutcrackers – whose purpose were mostly likely a puzzlement to everyone in the group. Groups of giggling school girls posing with fake snowmen called at friends to take pictures with their cell phones. One young girl took a moonstruck pose in front of a photo of Tiger Woods – and dissolved into a fit of embarrassed laughter when she realized she was being watched by a foreigner.
It was simple fun, it was joyous and it was contagious. We gave in! It was Christmas, it was Saigon and it was a celebration. But we’d be damned if we’d sing Jingle Bells!
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Some unusual architecture in Hanoi and along Hwy 1 brought that old cartoon to mind the past few days. In town the streets and roads are crowded with three or four story narrow buildings with elaborate facades - cupolas, balustrades, baroque details - in vibrant sherbet colors faintly reminiscent of that polyester yarn my mother used to make slippers. In the countryside these rococo concoctions stand alone in the middle of fields or beside squat traditional dwellings.
Those facades may be a riot of French, Dutch and British colonial details but the sides are completely bare of anything other than gray concrete, in most cases devoid of windows or doors.
In town these properties are known as tunnel houses. Under the French administration you were taxed on the width not the depth of your property - so common sense and a desire to avoid taxes says build narrow but deep. The logic for not finishing the sides? Someone was going to build next to you anyway so what was the point of wasting good money! Spend it all on what will show. But often the house next door will not be the same height or profile and is most certainly not the same colour. It gives most towns an endearing crazy quilt in progress appearance that is uniquely Vietnamese.
After nightfall, at the end of the 10 hour train ride from Sapa to Hanoi we caught glimpses into many of these houses as we crawled from the countryside into increasingly larger towns. Often the interiors were concrete walls adorned with ornate picture frames, set with elaborately carved furniture, some harshly lit by overhead neon but always with the illuminating glow of a TV set at one end of the room. Unlike Potemkin's houses these elaborate facades were filled with families - cooking, eating, playing games, occasionally watching us go by - living their daily lives.
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Street and stall vendors are not grabbing, rude or persistent - normally a friendly "no thank you" is all that is required. Though various "extra" services have been offered by cyclo-drivers (pax the Rex Hotel but more about that later) again there is no open or offensive solicitation.
Dien, our guide here in Hue and Hoi An, seems to sum up the attitude to things like the French and American Wars as most Vietnamese see it: It is history and the past, now we have to concern ourselves with building a future. And it appears that they are doing exactly that.
The ride down from Hui to Hoi An included dramatic climbs up the Van pass at the top of which there is an incredible view of Da Nang and China Beach of TV fame. A visit to the Cham Museum (sorry I couldn't find a website for the museum but it is one of the finest collections of Cham artifacts in the world) and the Marble Mountains rounded off another day in Vietnam.
Now we are settling into the Palm Garden Resort - a lovely Zen influenced room in the Jasmine quarter. A view of a rather wild and erratic China Sea, a walk-in shower the size of my bathroom at home and free Internet make for another day of roughing it in Vietnam.
Saturday, December 16, 2006
We've just returned from a delightful morning at Tinh Gia Vien attending a cooking class with one of Vietnam's national treasures - the delightful Madame Ha. Perhaps her style of cooking is a trifle elaborate for the home cook but the ornate presentations were a layered omelet becomes a Phoenix, spring rolls provide the body of a peacock and sculptured carrots are the scales of coleslaw dragons are fit for a Hue Emperor.
We were the only two in the class and we laughed at our mistakes, basked in compliments on our omelet technique and helped created some memorable dishes. Our Dance of the Phoenix was served to a table of ex-pat Vietnamese who were visiting from Venice Beach. One of the most memorable mornings we have spent in a long time.
I finally was able to upload some of the Halong Bay photos (just click to view.) The connections here are not the best and I have not been able to access my blog to see how it looks. Hope everything looks okay.
Friday, December 15, 2006
We are now in Hue after a touch and go experience with our friends at Vietnam Airlines. We were up and out of the Hotel by 0500 with our bleary-eyed guide Hai. I had an uncomfortable feeling at the airport when I couldn't see our flight on the departure screen: Cancelled for lack of interest! We had to standby for Da Nang and then take a car back the 80 kms to Hue. Wonder of wonders we got on, by the time we had arrived at the baggage carousel our bags where there and the driver was outside waiting for us! Vietnam Luxury Travel had done an incredible recovery job. Enroute we saw China Beach of TV fame, incredibly ornate cemeteries and some of the most baroque catholic churches I've seen outside of Austria! This country is a constant source of surprise and wonder.
We are now checked-in to a grand hotel from the 1901s - the Saigon Morin. Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard spent their honeymoon here - now the Beaulieu-Hobbs duo is ensconced in a room the size of a football field with rose petals scattered on the bed! Life is tough!
Monday, December 11, 2006
- It's been bloody cold here and unfortunately overcast and frankly the constant honking his driving me crazy!
- The good part of the drive to Halong Bay is through a deeply depressing coal mining area - the soot coats everything and dulls even the normal vivid green of the rice paddies.
- Halong Bay is truly a World Heritage Site
- Being very ecologically inclined I chastised two Korean women for climbing over the limestone formations in the caves - I was then gently told by our guide Hih that before the area became a World Heritage Site, the local fisherman used explosives to catch their fish!
- We had more shrimp in three meals on the Bai Tho Junk cruise than I've had in the past four months in Ottawa.
Saturday, December 09, 2006
Some Birthday treats:
- flowers from our tour guide - lovely but not as nice as the 24 roses the Rex Hotel sent up to atone for the incident in the Health Club ( more about that later)
- a birthday cake from the Sheraton Hotel - expect the picture to appear in their magazine
- cooking lessons at the Metropole
- a lovely dinner including Champagne
- being with Laurent
- the greetings sent by my friends and family - love you all!
Anyway here are a few observations/highlights/thoughts:
- If you get a relaxing message at the Rex Hotel - expect them to want to recreate the entire American journalist experience for you (more about that later)
- The drive to the airport in Saigon took 50 minutes to go 7 km - those bloody scooters again
- When we got there our 1130 flight had been rescheduled for 1100 - couldn't be delayed the way everyone says AC always is.
- The flight was on a beautiful brand new 777 - very attractive and attentive service and a great flight - Vietnam Airlines is doing something right!
- No I did not look at the dog being sold as meat at the market during our cooking school tour.
- The drivers in Hanoi are scaredy-cat chicken-shits compared to the drivers in Saigon
- People here are incredible - friendly and helpful
- The Vietnam War is known here as The American War - depends on your perspective
- The "Hanoi Hilton" is pretty bloody scary.
- A little of the Water Puppet Theatre goes a long way.
Hope to have some pictures and something more tomorrow.
Friday, December 08, 2006
"For Saigonese, Christmas also offers a rare opportunity to enjoy the feeling of chilly air. The greenhouse effect has reduced the time when the termperature in Saigon drops to its low point of 18C from about a week to only a few days." Saigon Business News - December 2006
Well it doesn't look like the deep freeze will be setting in over the next day or two - it's been 30-32C the past two days.
The scooter is the transportation of choice in Saigon - scooter outnumber cars about 3 to 1. The buzz of Vespa engines at times sounds like a squadron of very angry, very large hornets planning to attack. And as the Rex is located in the heart of the old city that sound is constant from 0530 until 2359! At first the thought of trying to cross a busy intersection gives raise to panic if not outright terror - and at night the sight of a pair of compact headlights coming at you can be hypnotizing. Then you realize that it is a well-choreographed ballet - drivers are very adept at weaving there way around moving cars, trucks, buses and pedestrians. Laurent says its a hell of a lot safer than Beijing!
Hanoi addendum: We just spent an hour in a cyclo - a bicycle-powered rickshaw - going through the 36 streets of old Hanoi. The noise of scooter horns, reeving motors and the smell of exhaust tended to take the joy out of the adventure. Still don't know how they do it - saw a couple with papa driving, momma on the back and the baby squashed between them! And nobody is wearing a helmet. Our guide explain that if you wear a helmet it's difficult to recognize friends or talk on the cellphone. Okay!
PHO - not just for Breakfast
Who the hell wants bacon and eggs when you can have a bowl of rice noodles, chicken and herbs swimming in hot broth. It's the national dish of Vietnam and though here in the south its a breakfast treat, you can have it for lunch and dinner. Vendors sell it on the street, there are glossy PHO24 fast food chains everywhere and the most upscale restaurant features it. I've made it at home a few times and it really is one of those one-dish meals that's quick and easy for that weekday meal.
The beauty is that almost anything can be added to it: beef, pork, tripe (oh yeah!), deep fried onion, basil leaves, coriander stocks, hot pepper slivers, lime juice - the possibilities are endless. It's healthy, it's economical and it's good - but not good enough to have for breakfast lunch and dinner. Below I've included the recipe I've used from Cook's Illustrated for anyone who wants to try it at home.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
8 ounces thick rice noodles
5 cups low-sodium chicken broth
4 medium cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
2 inch piece fresh ginger , peeled, cut into 1/8-inch rounds, and smashed
2 cinnamon sticks (3-inch)
2 star anise
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
12 ounces sirloin steak , sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch strips
Ground black pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cups bean sprouts (about 5 ounces)
1 jalapeño chile , sliced thin
2 scallions , white and green parts, sliced thin on an angle
1/3 cup loose-packed fresh basil leaves , leaves torn in half if large
1/2 cup loose-packed fresh mint leaves , leaves torn in half if large
1/2 cup loose-packed fresh cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons chopped unsalted roasted peanuts
Deep Fried Onions (optional)
Tomato wedges (optional)
Adding herbs and other flavoring elements at the last minute creates a soup with many clear, distinct tastes.
1. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Off heat, add rice sticks, and let sit until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and distribute among four bowls.
2. Bring all ingredients to boil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low; simmer partially covered to blend flavors, about 20 minutes. Remove solids with slotted spoon and discard. Cover and keep hot over low heat until ready to serve.
Assembling the Soup
3. Season steak with salt and pepper. Heat oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add half of steak slices in single layer and sear until well-browned, 1 to 2 minutes on each side; set aside. Repeat with remaining slices.
4. Divide the noodles and sprouts among the bowls
5. Add the steak, then ladle in the broth.
6. Sprinkle on the remaining ingredients and serve immediately, passing lime wedges separately.
Note: Cooked chicken or pork can be substituted for the beef.
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
I was totally wiped when we arrived but the ride into town gave me second wind so after we arrived at the Rex Hotel we had to have a nightcap on the Rooftop Garden Bar . It definitely has atmosphere and as long as the Celine Dion wannabe wasn't contriving to delight us even the music had a 70s style to it.
Sunday, December 03, 2006
Fortunately my Doctor has given me a few little brown pills that he assures me should help settle the total anxiety which accompanies everyone of my airborne adventures. Its hard to believe I worked for an airline for 33 years!
Our friend Blake is looking after Reesie but Mr Reese has been looking at him like he was Uncle Pervy offering him candy in the school yard. I'm sure that once he has Blake trained to rub his tummy in exactly the right way and has convinced him that human food is indeed good for dogs, everything will be fine.
So for the next 30 days we will be taking cooking classes, trekking near the old colonial summer capital of Sapa, cruising Halong Bay in a Chinese junk, chugging through the countryside in an Orient Express-style train and generally seeing as much of Vietnam as we can without doing the "if this is Hue it must be Tuesday" routine.
I will be trying to post as often as possible including a picture album but I'm not taking a laptop with me so it may be a bit difficult. However there will definitely be a Christmas post from Hong Kong.
Friday, December 01, 2006
December 1, 2005
I have lottery fantasies.
I dream about being able to buy fast cars and designer clothes until they come out of my ears. I want houses in London, New York, East Hampton and Rio. I want to be able to travel first class and work out at The Third Space and get reservations at Annabel's just because of who I am. I want to be able to take hot dates on tours of the National Gallery. When it's closed. Because I'm one of it's biggest benefactors.
Needless to say, twice a week, I am disappointed.
This morning, on the way to work on the tube, I was reading a Times article, written by Annie Lennox, about the millions and millions of people in Africa who are suffering with HIV and AIDS, and dying, and how the governments of the richer nations, such as the one I live in, have pledged support over an eight year period. And how they absolutely must stay committed to this goal.
One of the kids she spoke to on a recent trip to Africa was dying of AIDS. But before he got sick he lost his mother, father, brothers, sisters and pretty much everyone else he cared about to the same disease. He was totally alone in the world. With no hope. And certainly no dreams of fast cars or a nice comfortable house, anywhere. And that shit isn't even near the important stuff.
There are approximately 6,450,000,000 humans on Earth.
Most of them are not 33 year olds who have careers which afford them access to guest lists to the best clubs and bars the city has to offer. They don't have friends who will stick with them no matter what (and slip them Jil Sander dress shirts every now and then.)They don't have housemates who have Thai cuisine prepared and ready to eat when they arrive home. They don't have comfortable beds to sleep in at night.
When I think about it I kinda did win the lottery.
About 33 years ago
EVERYTHING IS NOT REAL - Christopher
Most of us can say the same thing. If you haven't already done so please click on the red ribbon and light a candle.
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
A quick read of their website reveals some standard advertising puffery - embraces typicity of terroir, unrestricted by ‘estate' appellation - not for Fairview the brash vulgarity of the Antipodes. But a visit to their Goats Do Roam site reveals a sly sense of humour when it comes to marketing.
A few of folk at the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine don't see the humour. They feel that those of us not fortunate enough to have been born in France may be confused by the label. Bien sûr! I've always thought of the Côtes du Rhône region as being populated by African children who live in straw huts surrounded by goats!
Sunday, November 26, 2006
The decorations will go up today - a week earlier than normal - and the weather is perfect for it. Unlike the past three years when it was -25 or blowing snow or both today is partly cloudy and 8. Of course the irony is that this year decorating should take all of 20 minutes - put the lights, bow and pine cones in the big wreath, hang it up; put the bow on the small one, hang it on the door. How complicated can it be? Hmm. I'll get back to you on that. (Bad estimate: try 2 hours - the hook for the wreath had been removed so I had to go out and get another one. And I couldn't find the only extension cord that fit. There is a reason I gave up my Project Management course! Posted by Willyam at 6:05 pm)
In other years it has been at the least a 4 to 6 hour struggle with evening-up balcony swags, wrapping frozen strings of lights around garlands and positioning things just so. Last year it took the better part of two days because of the cold - securing a bow can take 10 minutes when your bemittend fingers are frozen. Multiply that by 6 and there goes another hour of sunlight.
For the past four years a picture of the be-garlanded house from the year before has been taken, Photo-Shopped to a fare-thee-well and used as our annual Christmas card - this year's is printing even as I work on this post. As you see from the pictures, the spirit has always been traditional, almost Dickensian. I guess for next year's card we will have to consider Zen with a Haiku greeting.
Saturday, November 25, 2006
Last week the CBC reported on a classical music education programme in the barrios of Caracas and other cities in Venezuela. Started more than 30 years ago it is gaining worldwide attention because of the incredible caliber of musicians it is producing and its social benefits. This weekend's Guardian features a lengthy article on the System and its impact locally and internationally.
When I went to school - yes smart ass, we had schools back then - music was part of the curriculum until Grade 13. That seems to have ended in Canada just as this programme was starting in Venezuela - a touch of irony?
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
December 1st is World AIDS day and Bristol-Myers Squibb has agreed to donate $1.00 to the National AIDS Fund for every candle lit at LIGHT TO UNITE up to $100,000. This is a US based imitative. Unfortunately I could not find a Canadian equivalent, but AIDS does not recognize borders and neither should we.
Please take a moment to click on the red ribbon or on the link: light a candle - in memory of a friend, as a prayer for a friend or just because you care about others.
Monday, November 20, 2006
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Our friend Jack sent along this photo he took yesterday afternoon on the streets of Beijing. He says that it is a traditional Chinese wedding procession - these days it is not something you normally see except in movies. Apparently everything came to a standstill as it went past - even the normally chaotic Beijing traffic!
Saturday, November 18, 2006
Friday, November 17, 2006
What brought it to mind was a comment on CBC radio this morning that 156 years ago today James Lock & Co, St. James St, London sold the first bowler hat to Sir James Coke. It was meant to protect his gamekeepers from low hanging branches - and the butt end of a poacher's gun! The reason Laurent purchased one during our trip to London 25 years ago - that's as mysterious as why it's considered a bold fashion statement by the better-dressed ladies in the Andes!
Thursday, November 16, 2006
The original quote wasn't cheap but what drove it higher was the dry rot in the veranda ceiling. Can any one explain why dry rot is wet? Given that most of the supporting joists were more sponge than wood, it's a wonder I didn't fall through the floor last December while blithely decking the railings with boughs of holly! Of course, it may be that at -20 dry rot becomes rock solid ice rot. Memo to self: Put up this year's decorations a week earlier when you'll only get soaked through not frozen to the bone. Either way I'll probably get one of those colds that lingers through the entire winter.
We were lucky to find a contractor who understood historical restoration and did an incredible job. Luc and his guys used as much of the existing material as they could - restoring gingerbread, adapting railings and recreating details. Unfortunately when they pulled off the veranda ceiling the above horror (a double click with give you an idea of the real extent of the disaster) was revealed. Luc gave me a choice between a completely new veranda at $4500.00 that would last for 30-40 years or a solid repair job at $1600.00 that would last 20-25. The way I figured it 20-25 years from now I'll be in one room with a dresser, two chairs and a bed so the choice was an easy one. I must say the $1600.00 job looks like a million dollars. And the new windows and storm panels for the front dollar are perfect replicas of the original. Sadly that's the only problem when you restore a heritage home - all that work and money and the house looks just like it did before you started!
One word of advise to anyone thinking of buying a heritage home - and yes there are other fools out there who do that sort of thing: make sure you win a lottery and do it while you're young.
Monday, November 13, 2006
I met Ryan 31 years ago this summer just past. It was a bright sunny Sunday afternoon and I was walking down the canal in Ottawa whistling a Rossini aria. Suddenly one of the most melodious baritone voices (think Leonard Warren sings Verdi) I had ever heard said: Di tanti palpita - Tancredi. I knew that I had to become friends with anyone who recognized that piece of operatic ephemera.
And friends we became - despite living in different cities, often on different continents. It was the sort of friendship that meant we wouldn't see each other for a year or two but spoke, wrote (he was always better at it than I), or e-mailed once or twice a month. As with all friendships there were periods when a certain coolness developed. I recall a frosty ride on the Underground from Salder's Wells to Baker Street seated at either end of the carriage - the icy glares freezing unsuspecting Londoners in mid-doze over their late-edition Daily Mirrors.
But those periods never lasted very long and were quickly pushed aside by happier events. "The Lad" - as he always called Laurent, Ryan and I in MossBros tuxedoed splendor heading down to Glyndebourne on the afternoon train from Vic Station. Christmas Eve celebrated with family and friends in the McClaren St. apartment under the watchful eye of Queen Alexandria. Ryan avowed that the portrait was an early example of Photoshoping - Alex's head on a Tiller Girl's body. A sunny weekend in Cooperstown, happily combining two of his passions - opera and baseball. The Cracker - that odd mixture of Times Obit, book reviews, books-he-had-read quotes that arrived every Christmas. A surreal vodka-drinking visit to a political cabaret in Krakow - he was the only person I know who would take Polish lessons for a two week visit. Trashing all the singers but our beloved Ewa Podles over late night port and desert after the opera in Toronto. Simply sitting before diner on his last visit in May, listening to and revelling in the most infectiously funny recording of Perichole's drunk aria - in Russian!
A week after learning of his death I watched the first episode of his TV programme, Ancestors in the Attic . I wanted to reach into the TV and hug him for all those wonderful memories then slap him because he had robbed me of experiencing more. A gentle note from his cousin Dayle reminded me that the slap was a selfish reaction and the hug a loving one. Thank you Dayle - you're right, the hugging feels better.
If you had any faults - and like all of us you did - the greatest was that you did not love yourself enough to realize how much you were loved. You are greatly loved. "The lad" and I miss you.
Your "darling boy"
Sunday, November 12, 2006
I wrote my first blog back in 2000 while working at the Warsaw Business Journal. I found my job there as web editor through one of my best friends, Bev Toomer. She, her husband Kev and Silver and Sobie - the real important ones - are family. Distant family at the moment as she is Afghanistan, he's in Sri Lanka and the pups are on Galiano Island. But that's a story for another time.
Back then I promised readers a daily update of ex-pat life in Poland. That promise was well-intentioned but more often than not it was a broken one. Blogging on a regular basis can be time consuming and lets admit it most of us don't have that much excitement in our lives that warrant a daily post. Basically I've started this blog to keep a record of our trip to Vietnam in December. We'll see how that works out.
By "our" I mean my partner Laurent and I. We have been together 29 years at the end of this month. He is a diplomat in the Canadian Foreign Service and has travelled extensively, so for a good (or bad depending on your point of view) 16 of that 29 we have lived in different cities. Could be the reason it has lasted 29 years! He is currently working in Beijing - two years down one more to go. We'll be meeting up in Hong Kong on December 5th and heading out to Saigon that evening. We haven't seen each other since our trip to Alaska (see above) six months ago so frankly the 5th can't come soon enough!