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Whirlwind Saigon

5 Nov

This time last year we were finishing up our time in Saigon and heading south to see where Anh was born near Can Tho. Little did we know, I was also pregnant with our little lady. Such a special time then, and even more so looking back. I love thinking that her first days were spent where her father was born, eating the foods he ate and we still love, and seeing all of the sights from his homeland. But anyways, let me (finally) get on with photos and happenings from our amazing travels.

A long, but pleasant flight on All Nippon Airways from DC to Saigon via Tokyo Narita touched down late on a Sunday evening and upon arrival we were blasted with the heavy humid air of the city. It felt so so good. A quick note about flights – if you aren’t splurging for business or first class, look at the equipment for your flight and consider opting for economy plus. We paid an extra $500USD each but were the only two seats by the window and enjoyed the extra legroom, food options and no having to get up for or move away from annoying seat-mates.

Our hotel was near Ben Thanh Market in the heart of District 1, a convenient jumping off spot for our two days of touring. As we would discover over our two weeks in Vietnam, the hotels are certainly dated in relation to our American expectations, but amenities were great. You can get a great hotel for less than $100USD/night, just know that you won’t have a Westin Heavenly mattress.

After only a few hours of sleep, we were roused around 4:30am by a loudspeaker proclaiming “Bánh mì ở đây! Bánh mì ở đây!” Fresh bánh mi (baguettes) being delivered and for sale by bike. I assume this happens across the city, we weren’t on a block with particularly high traffic or concentration of food stalls any more than other districts. Every morning in every city we heard a variation of this – who needs an alarm clock?

Our first food (beside the dragon fruit, baby bananas and lychees from the room) was from the hotel’s breakfast buffet. They had European continental items – powdered eggs (probably), sausages, ham and cheese – as well as Vietnamese options. From this first morning I fell in love with bún (noodles) for breakfast. I still miss it.

Bowl of noodle soup with Vietnamese ham and a bowl of sliced watermelon, pineapple and dragon fruit.

Chả lụa (Vietnamese ham) noodle soup and fresh fresh fresh tropical fruits.

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Tofu Mustard Green Soup – Canh Cai Dau Hu

29 Oct

When we came home with our little one, we were so blessed to have both families nearby to prepare food for us so we could focus on settling in as a family and not worry about nutritious food. My sister in law made a soup I had never tried before to go along with the dry lemongrass pork ribs that Anh loves. Way easier than I thought, Canh Cai Dau Hu – Tofu, Mustard Greens and Pork soup – has quickly become a staple. It cooks up fast and will fill you up even if you don’t have time to prepare a protein. In other words, most days that involve back-to-back nursing sessions, botched naps and blowouts 🙂

Bowl of tofu, mustard greens and ground pork soup.

Simple and straightforward soup

Canh Cai Dau Hu

Serves 4 with two other dishes, or 2 with plenty of leftovers!

  • 1 bunch baby mustard greens, rough chopped
  • 1/4 – 1/2 lb ground pork (you can also use chicken)
  • 1 package soft tofu, cut in cubes
  • 1 small shallot, finely minced
  • 4 inch knob ginger, minced and divided
  • 6 cups water
  • 3-4 tbl Fish Sauce
  • 2-4 tbl Sugar
  • 1-2 tbl Mushroom seasoning
  • 1 tbl neutral oil

Heat oil in a 5 court pot and cook shallot until fragrant. Add 1/3 of the minced ginger, 1 tbl fish sauce and ground pork and mix well until cooked through.

Add water, 2 tbl sugar,1 tbl  mushroom seasoning and 1tbl fish sauce and bring to a simmer for 5 minutes. Skim any gunk that rises to the top for a clearer broth. Then you may add the rest of the ginger and cubed tofu. Simmer another 5 minutes and taste, adjusting as needed.

Gently stir in the mustard greens and cook for another 5-7 minutes. Make any final flavor adjustments and top with black pepper.

Serve with rice on the side or in the same bowl.

Ngày Đầy Tháng – Our Daughter’s One Month Celebration

31 Aug

You may have noticed a significant absence over the past 10 months. Most notably I left you hanging on our amazing trip to Vietnam.

I was working on a very important project that pretty much kept me out of the kitchen. Yesterday we celebrated the Đầy Tháng, or First/Full Month of our daughter, born late July. We are so over the moon, and I’m getting back in the kitchen.

But first, a little bit about this beautiful first month rite, as I’ve come to understand. Celebrating a baby’s first full month stems from traditional Vietnam where infant mortality was unfortunately quite common. It was considered back luck in inviting negative spirits if you named a baby before they made it to this important milestone. So traditionally, we would not have named our daughter until this event when our extended family would have come to meet her for the first time and share blessings for her future.

We set the table with sweet offerings and prepared incense to say prayers and thank the higher being for creating such a perfect life in our daughter. Even my parents shared in this, which was very special for me.

Mom and dad holding daughter in front of table set with offerings and food

The second part involved moving a flower over her mouth and stating our wishes for her future. My mother in law explained the significance as imparting the wishes to her and giving her the ability to clearly communicate such wishes for a successful future.

Her grandmother, or Ba Ngoai, went first — which reminds me I need to ask what she said!

Mother in law holding our daughter

Then I shared my wishes for our daughter, using a new flower.

Holding flower to daughter's lips and stating wishes for her future

Followed by my mother, who enjoyed being a part of the ceremony!

Maternal grandmother holding baby for ceremony

Once the incense burns down and offerings are made, it’s time to eat!

Incense sticks in front of ceremonial offerings and food

Vietnam in My Heart

18 Nov

Jet lag is in full control of me, as are the post-adventure blues. Anh and I just returned Sunday morning from two weeks in Viet Nam, which was such a remarkably moving experience. The country is breathtakingly beautiful from South to North and its people so hardworking, humble, and kind. And resilient. Everywhere you turn, people are building a better future for their families, community, and country as a whole.

Seeing where my husband was born and spent the first few years of his life was such an honor. We met some his babysitter, neighbors, and saw where his mother, aunts, and grandmother lived before marrying out to other families and starting their own home. The shack that he was born in is no longer there, but instead the concrete structures that line canals all over the country.

Standing in front of the place where his childhood home stood.

The green house behind him is where his family’s home stood. Just beyond the open doors you can see the water.

We were struck by the quality of life the people we met enjoy. They don’t have three cars, five flat-screen TV’s, and the trendiest new clothes, but they’re happy. There is a different measure of success and happiness in Vietnam – food on the table, family nearby, and maybe a Japanese motorbike, are most important.

Motorbike with a toy car strapped to the back.

I was constantly amazed at what the Vietnamese people are able to carry on the back of their motorbikes. There is a very happy kid waiting for this special delivery.

My father’s number wasn’t called in the draft, so we did not experience the war like many other families did. Still, I was unsure how the people I met would respond to me – an American foreigner in their country with whom we have had a complex relationship. The concern was only in my head.

Everyone was so welcoming, warm, and thoroughly impressed (and amused) by the Vietnamese language I have picked up and dishes I prepare at home.

Seeing my in laws in their home country, with their people and culture was such a joy. They are totally different people in their own environment and you can see that they, too, are happier when in Vietnam. It has something to do with the pace of life and priorities. They are a hard working people – families grow their own food and find a way to buy what they need that doesn’t come from the land – but they are not stressed. Everywhere we went, our days and nights were filled with conversation and laughter.

Women selling river crab and having breakfast at the Hoi An Market.

Women selling river crab and having breakfast at the Hoi An Market. We had a conversation with them about the cost of seafood in the U.S., and they of course were amused that I married a Vietnamese. A novelty for many we encountered!

We were fortunate to have guides in each stop who were all more than happy to shed light on the community mores, socioeconomic or political issues of the day. Although it is a communist country, everyone we spoke to said it has no impact on their daily life. They are able to do as they please and live their life free from interference. There is no north – south animosity, and any traces of resentment for those who left Vietnam after 1975 has washed away with the rains.

Guide looks out over the water by Hai Van Pass.

Anh, one of our guides from Ann’s Tours, look out over the water for a quick stop on the north side of the Hải Vân Pass (Ocean Cloud pass).

For the first time, my father in law was open about his experience in the South Vietnamese military throughout the war. His stories were matched by others we met from the south and the north who all said that for most, the war was not their own. When they received word that the war was over, they put down their guns and joined the other side in the fields to celebrate together. The post-war road was a difficult one, and families and the land suffered greatly as a result of the conflict, but the people have moved on.

As a foreigner, however, it was jarring to see such an overwhelming communist party presence everywhere you turned. There are official facilities in each village, town, and city – always the best real estate and buildings. No one is quite sure why they need to be there as there isn’t a lot of need for the services they provide, but that’s besides the point. There are roadside banners trumpeting communist philosophy and notable quotes from Ho Chi Minh as you drive through town or along highways flanked by rice fields. Not to mention the propaganda billboards extolling party loyalty and urging people to pursue certain careers or tend to the land. Quite like our own victory garden, war production, and war bond propaganda during WWII.

Propaganda poster in Saigon near Ben Thanh Market

Propaganda poster in Saigon near Ben Thanh Market

Banners and billboards lining the small road leading to Vi Thanh

Banners and billboards lining the small road leading to Vi Thanh

There is a romance about this lush, resilient country that is hard to put in to words. We will definitely be back, and I am excited to see how Vietnam continues to thrive in the future. My only wish is that they do not fall prey to other industrialized nations who almost always seem to lose sight of what really is most important – our family, enjoying life, and how we spend our time with the community.

The food of course was amazing, so stay tuned for posts on the cuisine and our adventures from our time in Vietnam!

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