Saturday, December 30, 2006

We Got Snow - NAH NAH!

Eat your heart out Mount Tremblant - we woke up this morning to snow! Not exactly a snowstorm but a good covering that looks like it is going to continue all day. Unfortunately it also means cloud covered skies – the first in four days – and the very distinct heavy smell of burning soft coal. I took a few shots from the apartment windows. The sidewalk sweeper (below left) had already cleaned the area in the picture at the top and has another 1000 feet to clean before she’s finished – don’t think I’ll ever complain about my front walk again.

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.

Riding the Star Ferry

On my first Sunday in Hong Kong, back in November 1995, I boarded a Star Ferry from the Tsim Sha Tsui Terminal on the Kowloon side heading to Victoria Island. It wasn’t a very long crossing but it had the romance of years of history behind it. There was something about the wooden seats with their thick coats of brown paint, the red fire buckets, the spray spattered windows and the crew in their church-basement HMS Pinafore sailor suits that caught my fancy, That crossing and the slightly rundown Central Terminal with its harbour-dominating clock tower were uniquely Hong Kong. And the square in front of the terminal filled with hundreds of Phillipina maids on their one day off in seven, chirping away in Tagalog like flocks of released birds, was a sight I knew I would not see anywhere else in the world.

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

Real Problems with Bloger

Hi there - I've been trying to update the blog for the past two days. First it keeps appearing in Chinese and then when I got that resolved I cannot add links as only half the options appear on the template. Unforunately the Google-Blogspot help system leads absolutely nowhere. It is not possible to actually tell them what you problem is with a blog. One click leads to another leads to another than leads you back to the original troubleshooting page. Very confusing and added to the slow response time since the earthquake (we felt two very distinct temors in Hong Kong) it can get real frustrating.

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

Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Please Jingle Far Away

If this trip has a theme song it would have to be Jingle Bells – we’ve heard it in every imaginable form, in every imaginable location, even in the middle of the Mekong Delta played on traditional Vietnamese instruments. We got to the point where we begged a waiter at the resort in Hoi An to turn it off. He was puzzled but decided to have mercy on us and replaced it with 70s disco music!

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

Potemkin Houses

Back in the 50's I remember looking forward eagerly every month to the Children's Digest - it was filled with adventure stories, cartoons, games and easy recipes for children. That's where I first learned to spread mustard on the bread when making grilled cheese. For some reason a historical cartoon about Catherine the Great has stuck with me to this day. Crude line drawings of poor myopic Catherine cruised down the Volga as General Potemkin pointed out the glorious towns he had constructed along its banks. Catherine was too short-sighted, in more ways than one, to see that they were canvas and wood stage scenery that the wily General had trundle from one location to the other. Everything was facade - even some of the cheering people were cardboard.

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

A Country on the Rise

Having been here for the past two weeks and seeing a bit of how things are done it comes as no surprise that Vietnam is the number 2 emerging economy in the world. The work ethic here (certainly in the service industry) is strong - people work 6 days a week (sometimes 7), often 16 hour shifts. The attitude to clients is friendly, respectful and with a genuine concern for your well-being.

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 Monsoons Are Late This Year!

It has been wet! wetter! wettest! the past few days but the illuminated bridge at Hue was quite lovely in the rain last night. Even the Royal Tombs have a certain glamour in the mist and the fog. We toured the Tomb of Tu Duc - the longest ruling Emperor of the Nguyen dynasty (1848-1883.) Sadly much of the tomb complex is in disrepair and needs conservation before all trace disappears - the Vietnamese are doing what they can but desperately need outside assistance.

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

A Morning with Madame Ha

We're sitting the the lobby of the Saigon Morin sipping coffee, watching the drizzle and listening to Celine Dion singing O Holy Night and crucifying our Lord well before Easter (that woman has a great deal to answer for!) The entire hotel is aglow with Christmas lights and decorations - O Holy Night indeed!

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

Technical Difficulties Are Only Temporary

It's been over four days since my last update but the technical end of things have been causing all sorts of problems. What with difficulties getting a Photo CD burned, incredibly slow response times in Sapa (we were in the middle of the mountains so go figure), BlogSpot being inaccessible and my dropping and breaking my camera things got just a bit out of hand. Also to be honest Sapa was just so damned overwhelming that at the end of a day of trekking all we wanted to do was sit by the fire and drink hot wine!

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

Harried, Harrassed and Hurried

We have been on the go for the past few days and it has been difficult to get into an Internet cafe for any length of time. We are currently between the Junk cruise of Halong Bay and the overnight train trip to Sapa. So just a few highlights - there are pictures to come, honestly!

  • 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

Hanoi at 60

Not much different from Hanoi at 59 frankly - scooters still buzzing around. Only difference is that the temperature dropped today and its been slightly chilly. The locals, of course, have donned winter parkas.

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!

A Quick Update

Sorry that I haven't been posting as much as I wanted to. Its been go, go, go for the past few days. On top of that I didn't bring my laptop with me so I have to depend on Internet at Hotels or cafes. The Rex in Saigon wasn't too bad but the Shearton in Hanoi wants $1 USD a minute for a connection.

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

Saigon When It Sizzles - 2 (And a bit about Hanoi)

It's hot!

"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.


December 6-7

For a few shots of the past few days click on the date link and watch the sideshow (it's not necessary to sign in as a member.)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

PHO - the Beef Version

Serves 4

8 ounces thick rice noodles

For Broth
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

For Soup
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
lime wedges
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.

Cook's Illustrated

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Saigon When It Sizzles

It was a long haul but finally got here after 36 hours of travelling. Smooth flights, not a ripple so only had to take two of those little brown pills! However there was a moment or two of panic just as we were landing in Ho Chi Minh - We almost touched down and next thing we were up going up and around again for second approach. Apparently a "small flap problem" according to the Pilot. United is flying old 747s into HCMC from Hong Kong and call me cynical but I had the feeling that both the Chief Steward and Pilot may have flown in there a couple of decades ago in a different capacity! But I must must be getting better at this flying thing, Laurent only has light bruising on his right arm.

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

The Adventure Begins....

Well by tomorrow at this time I will be about 2/3 of the way across the Pacific. I leave at 0730 from Ottawa with a connection in Toronto - 16 hours and 23 minutes later I should be landing in Hong Kong. After a quick shower, massage and nap I'll be meeting Laurent and we'll head out to Ho Chi Minh City, getting there around 2230 local time. I figure by the time we check into the legendary Rex Hotel I will have been on the go 36 hours - and won't I just be a joy.

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

The Lottery

Today is World AIDS Day and I was hoping to write something inspirational and thoughtful. Then I remembered a piece I read last year in EVERYTHING IS NOT REAL, a blog that has been sadly discontinued. Christopher could write frivolous, naughty, nasty, informative and touching. His entry for World AIDS Day last year moved me immensely. As I know I could not write anything as appropriate to the day I am taking the liberty of reproducing it.

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


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.