Saturday, August 27, 2011

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

(Written on 5/14/2011 from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

After jumping from Tel Aviv to Istanbul to Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City I arrived in Vietnam at the airport – completely exhausted and with no plans, no hotel, no wifi, and no clue.  Thankfully, after a few months of travelling I’ve gotten used to the nomad mentality and am comfortable navigating my own way through uncertain circumstances.  Although, in this particular situation I think “unprepared” was even an understatement.
Thanks to my brilliant sense of direction (okay…quite honestly it was thanks to the taxi driver and my new found millionaire status – it’s 20,000 Vietnamese Dong to $1 USD) I managed to find my way to downtown Ho Chi Minh City.  As we whizzed by full families of 4 on motorbikes and inched between trucks and cars, I held my breath and stared out the window in awe.  Thank GOD I did not have to navigate my way through this treacherous traffic….I can guarantee if I had a rental car I would have taken out half the city.

When I arrived to the “recommended” hotel by the taxi driver, a young man crossed the street to the cab, helped me with my luggage and in broken, yet very stern and serious English said, “Cross when I cross.  Stay with me.”  It’s a good thing I follow directions because for my first ever street crossing in Vietnam, an escort was very, very necessary.
That night when I finally decided to venture outside the safety and security (and air conditioning) of the hotel sliding doors, fear of crossing the street by myself kept me from going anywhere except for the same block as the hotel. 
They may as well forget about painting lanes on the streets here because the constant flow of traffic – trucks, cars, bicycles, scooters – weaves in and out wherever it wants to.  And the only reason traffic in one direction stops isn’t because the light turns red, but actually because the cars in the other direction just start moving.
After being careful to only take left turns and stay on the sidewalk, I found a little street stand underneath a faux tent (made out of blankets hung on street lamps) and with those little Fisher Price tables and chairs you used to play with as a child.  I plopped down until I was on the chair (and about 6 inches off the ground) and continued to order (or try to) some eggs and fried rice cakes.  The food was good but not the biggest or best I’ve ever had.  But for 75 U.S. cents, I think it was sufficient for a sleepy night and a hungry girl.  J

On day 2…I CROSSED THE STREET!  This was in fact a triumphant moment for me – that I actually made it across alive.  Once both feet touched down on the opposite sidewalk, I looked down at my toes in disbelief.  I checked to make sure all limbs were intact, and I grinned from ear to ear, content with my clearly Darwinian ability to survive.  I nearly broke out in a happy dance…but since none of the locals were rejoicing for their own victories, I kept on moving…
Now let me give you some “Crossing the Street in Ho Chi Minh City 101”…the crazy thing is if you walk slowly, not stopping, and not making any sudden movements then the cars and scooters and busses will weave around you.  It's like playing real life Frogger – as I step out into rushing traffic, my pulse quickens as I stare at cars and bikes that look like they are coming directly for me.  I’m convinced that crossing the street would in fact be safer if I were blindfolded and walked at a slow pace.

This picture doesn't even do the traffic justice
Once I (yayyy!!) made it to the market I stopped in the “food court” for beef pho, a sweet Lotus drink, and caved when I saw some mangosteen at a stand.  1 dollar later I was trotting back to the hotel to tear into my favorite fruit.  Okay…admittedly I was distracted for a bit by a street hawker with pork and rice.  But right after that (oh yeah…and ice cream) I got back to the hotel and started to devour my sweet little pretty fruits (insert voice of the Wicked Witch….I must have some weird obsession with that movie because it keeps coming to mind).

Unfortunately the mangosteen weren’t totally ripe but they did bring back great memories of my trip to Malaysia in 2009 with my aunt and uncle.  I walked in on my aunt devouring 2 kilos of the fruit by herself, squatted over a trash can in the hotel.  She looked like a child caught red handed with a jar of cookies…and ever since then it’s burned into my memory as “mangosteen of shame.”
My aunt's mangosteen addiction in action...
As I passed out I continued my love affair with mangosteen in my dreams until I was up again…heading off to the market for the 2nd time.  I met up with a chef who was leading a Vietnamese cooking course, and he took us through the market.  I found out that the “food court” opens up at 2 or 3 AM everyday so they can feed all the other employees in the market while they prep to sell their seafood, meat, fruits, coffee, herbs, clothes, shoes, bags and everything else you could imagine.

Back above the Hoa Tuc restaurant, Chef Phoun led our class through 3 magnificent recipes.  Fresh spring rolls to die for (with peanut sauce), a char-grilled beef salad, and Vietnamese fried rice wrapped in lotus leaves.  Watch out folks…I’ve got more recipes and more to cook for you when I get home.  J

Peanut Sauce

Fresh Spring Rolls

Char-grilled Beef Salad

Lotus Fried Rice
Today my question for you is when was the last time you had people over for a fantastic and fun meal?  Not one of those days or parties where you felt obligated, busy, and too stressed to cook.  But a day you truly enjoyed with friends or family and worked together to make a final product.  I encourage you to set up a “dinner date” cooking experience with a few people.  I always think cooking with others is better than just cooking for others, because you get to enjoy the time together.  Have fun!

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