Sunday, December 13, 2009

One Year Perspective

Ok. It hasn't yet been one year since I left Montreal and came to Vietnam, but being in Japan again visiting Jeannette and soon making my way back home for the holidays has got me thinking.

Interestingly, I found an old document in my Google Documents titled "5-year goals". I hadn't even looked at it in a year and a half, from the day I had an inspirational chat with a friend and ran home to write exactly what I think I should do in the next 5 years.

Out of the 5 I had written down, two of them have been achieved. The last goal, however, is to figure out what my other goals are. Seeing that I can knock two off the list, I have started to think hard about what I want to do next with my life (not an easy feat).

I like Vietnam, and I love living there. I love learning this new language, and discovering new things everyday. I can see myself there for a little while. But I need an escape plan for when the time comes.

I think I want to go back to school. I mean, I know.

I thought about going back to Montreal for school, but I've quickly scratched that out. I think that if I plan on eventually making my way back there, and I do, then having a degree from somewhere abroad is probably a better idea.

I'm thinking France, England, Germany - even Thailand or somewhere in the Pacific.

Now I just need to figure out what field I want to study in... and edit my Google Document.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Lenin Park

Literally across my new place is Lenin Park.

It's a small little triangular park dedicated to the Russian communist. Cat my new housemate and I have been enjoying the sights. We sit and stare at kids and teens break-dancing, robo-dancing, spinning on rollerblades and spinning soccor balls on their arms, head, and feet.

Oh and, babies driving around in mini cars.

(I apologise for the poor quality of my camera phone)

Cat and I laughed about how all these kids have to perform amazing things to get attention, and all we have todo is walk through the park and people turn their heads and stare.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


I am testing out mobile posting.
At the moment i am sipping a mango smoothie at a street cafe. Just killing time before i teach. Here a photo of me eating half of a loaf of bread at work.

Sent from jonathan's mobile phone

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Motorbike trip Hanoi - Chinese Border

A couple weeks ago I got a text from a new Vietnamese friend. He asked 'tomorow you want motorbike to china 2 nights. pls tell me soon'. And so unaware of Rebel's horrible return to Hanoi, I packed my bag and hopped on the back of the motorbike with no idea what I was getting into.

It turns out we joined a group of 22 other people - all Vietnamese. A group of young people who use an internet forum to organise motorbike trips around Northern Vietnam. The kind of organising that the communist government wants to stop.

After about a total of 12 hours sitting on a motorbike my ass hurt more than I could ever have imagined. It was a bit of a long journey just to frolic around a waterfall. We made several stops along the way, though. And the actual route was a loop, so we didn't have to backtrack.

Here are some photos of the butt-busting trip.

Eleven motorbikes were in the flot.

It was terrifying going around the mountains. Up up up then over and then down down down into another valley.

Halfway through our trip we stopped at a spring where national hero Ho Chi Minh had hid during the American War. This mountain is called Karl Marx (Cac Mac) and the spring is named after Lenin (Le-Nin). I got to see and touch Uncle Ho's actual bed inside the cave where he camped, although at first I thought it was a dinner table.

I don`t know who in the group decided on the route, but most of the roads where just blasted. And not yet finished. Though apparently they looked finished on the map. Someone must have accidentally bought the map titled "National Highway Masterplan 2008-2020"

This beauty of a road went on for about 13 kilometres. It took about an hour to go through. Not pictured here is the incredible incline that would probably not even be considered on developed roads anywhere else. I couldn't get a photo of the incline because I was holding on for my life. We passed many construction crews. Some of them asking me to come and smoke from their tabacco pipe with them. I kindly declined as what I needed to get me through the experience would have been much stronger.

This was the place we camped out on the second night. I say 'place' as I think that a cafeteria of a park station with all the chairs taken out and blankets spread out would be considered a place. Where else would you house 23 people who come knocking on your door.

I finally arrived at the waterfall. Except foreigners are not allowed in the border lands between China and Vietnam without a proper permit. The solution was to cover my face up like a criminal as we went through the check point. Who would notice?

Yes. Those are two men fishing on top of the waterfall in their underwear.

This is all of us!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Love Café

So what happens when you live in a society where opposite-sex intimacy is not acceptable in public? And what about if, in the same society, people live with their extended family?

You get Love Cafés!

Little cafés where you can sit in a booth that's hidden from view. Near work there was this cute love café down the hill from the main street. Little bamboo huts with bamboo blinds could be had with coffee or a smoothie. All of them come complete with a table and ONE long bench.

I tried once to get one. My Vietnamese teacher and I were trying to find a private place from the prying ears of Vietnamese youth (who had taken a liking to hearing me speak Vietnamese, going so far as sitting in the next table and silently observing me). The owner of the love café would have nothing of it, and refused to allow us in a booth. No same-sex couples (it's not like that... I pay him for lessons).

It doesn't matter because the Love Café has been destroyed by a storm. One day, while I was heading for a lesson, the main section where non-lovers would sit had complety collapsed. Nothing but a crushed straw roof.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

My House and Neighbourhood in Hanoi

My camera has been stolen, so until then you will have to put up with photos from my mobile phone.

I should mention that I am moving to a new house soon. I figure now would be a good time to post about my current neighbourhood and house.

I live in the middle of a giant block. Between the two streets is a densely packed neighbourhood that one can access only through the alleyways that sprawl through the block like veins. In order to reach my house, you have to take a right from the main street, turn right, then turn left, go through a covered tunnel-like structure, pass the canal, take a right, then the left, then right, then left, then right, then left, then right again until you get to a dead end. This is about 10 minutes walk from the main road upon which my address is based. Taxi's cannot reach my house, let alone the fire truck (if there even is one in this city).

I find it completely amazing how houses organically sprung up from the ground. Pressures as a result of the loosening up of the tightly controlled Vietnamese market, called Đổi Mới, allowed for the dividing up of previously large tracts of land. As a result, you often see small one-level buildings surrounding by narrow 5-floor houses that were built on what I assume was one large housing-lot. The average house is only about 3-4 metres wide, but stretches 5 metres deep and 5 storeys tall, mainly because local taxes are based on the width of a building rather than the actual area.

Walking through the maze of alleyways, it seems like houses were pieced together like a puzzle, one house being built to another, and other just filling up spaces between two randomly places houses on a lot. The alleys came later, as spaces between buildings for moving people, bicycles and motorbikes. Alleyways hold their own businesses and shops. Along the way to my house from the street I pass by a school, a vegetarian-food lady, many hair salons, guesthouses, food sellers, motorbike repair and wash shops, etc. Within the same block, there are many other alleys that are densely lined with these businesses, mimicking a main street. The block also has a huge square surrounded by houses where vegetables, meat and prepared foods are sold. You wouldn't know such a place was there unless you lived in the area and came across it somehow.

Starting in the morning, people on bicycles ride through the maze of alleys singing a jingle for the products they sell. There's people selling phở, bread, fried rice cakes, and people willing to buy your recyclables, or broken appliances, etc. It's a city within a city. And the best part is aside from the singing of the sellers and the kids playing in the alley, there is no street noise.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Vegetarian Hanoi

I've been here for about 9 months now. On the first day I arrived, I headed straight to this vegetarian restaurant I found on the New Hanoian. It is still one of my favourite vegetarian restaurants, and I go there at least once a week, if not several times a week. However, I have discovered quite a few vegetarian places within a 15-20 minute radius of my house. I use places because most of them are not really restaurants. They are usually people who set up some plastic stools and tables on the main floor and cook out of their kitchens once or twice a day (the picture above is of a street vendor who sells vegetarian Bun Cha and spring rolls at lunch).  Just counting on my hand, there are 6 of these places, if I include the lady who sells vegetarian food out of her freezer in my alley.

I imagine there are many more of these places, as about 4 of them were discovered just by chance of walking by and actually paying attention to what a sign says (ie. there was a certain threshold I passed in learning Vietnamese where I realised I can read and understand the world around me). The best places are usually these, the ones that are far into the alleys and are serving food in their living room! They also usually sell food for less than a dollar.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dairy Is Hot...

Thinking about pocketting that disk of La Vache Qui Rit or that brick of butter? Think again!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Twitter Twit Twittering.... Tweet!

So I've finally given into Twitter. Now anyone can track me down by either checking out the Twitter Gadget on the right side of this blog, or following me on (please add me!).

Now I can let the world know when I am stuck in a squatter toilet with no toilet paper:

delucajon OMG, that Vietnamese sandwich I ate at lunch wanted to get out fast, squatter- and no tp hehe LMAO-literally. sent from mobile 22 minutes ago

In reality, it's because of my new job. As communications officer, I was given the responsibility of "figuring out" social media (probably because I am the youngest at work). How can I resist? I can spend hours reading about how Twitter and Facebook can help raise awareness. And my boss can't tell when I'm on the organisation's Facebook account or my own!

All this reading on social media convinced me my life would be much better if only I could summarise it in a 140 character message that's beamed across the internet.

So......   follow me!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cockroach Encounters

Photo: Definitely not the largest I've encountered. This was in a bathroom in Halong City. 
The other day while cooking some pasta, a cockroach popped it's head out from my house mates cupboard just above the stovetop. I panicked. I grabbed a can of Raid (or more like Rade, considering the knock-offs they have here) and trembled as I tried to extinguish it's life. 

I thought above writing a post about this in story-form. But then figured it might be boring. So I thought, why not write it from the Cockroaches perspective?
'Exquisite!' I say aloud. A little bit too loud, so I glance over at my little larvae hanging out near the bottle of olive oil to make sure they are still asleep. I've come across a bag of Swiss muesli, a welcome change from the usual cupboard full of dried noodles and bottles of soy sauce in the next house over. Though I usually avoid lighted areas, I slowly make my way to the other side of the door. I am kindly rewarded. Underneath me is some sort of giant shiny cylindrical object that is rattling faintly and spewing steam from its sides while a comfortably hot airy mass hugs it's way up the cupboard. I rub my antennae together, soaking up as much heat as i can before i retreat back into the frigid 35 degree cupboard and it's strange foodstuff.

But wait- Sensing something i quickly freeze my antennae. Just beyond the silvery cylinder, a shadow slowly comes into focus. It looks strangely assembled. I long vertical body, with a silly and round top, and only two visible limbs. It moves closer, and then notice it is awkwardly moving on another set of two limbs. What a strange and sad creature. Surely, it too has come to bathe in the steam and warmth of this cylindrical god i have come to worship.

This sluggish creature moves so slow, i think to myself. It's surely taken it a whole 2 minutes just to saddle up to this silver steam god. Quickly, i notice this creature is also in possession of some strange metal cylindrical god. In one of its limbs it holds it up above the steaming god, closer to me. I then notice that attached to this large limb, there are four more limbs – no- five. Four are wrapped around this new cylindrical deity while another is firmly sitting on top.

SHIT – It dawns on me.... This is the monster from the tales grandma told me about. The ladybug coloured metal cannister filled with a water so potent it will send my exoskeleton into shock. I quickly dart to the other side of the cabinet. I wait to see if this sluggish creature can catch me in time, I can hardly contain my breath. I dash back over to where I emerged and the loudest most shrill screech escapes from the metallic devil. Deafened not only by this deathly noise, but also from my pin-head sized heart pumping, I finally seek refuge inside the cupboard. Shaking, I wait between a package of oatmeal and a bottle of fish sauce.....

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Vietnamese Recipe: đậu phụ sả ớt (tofu with lemongrass and chili)

One of the main things I do here is cook (and eat). I will be posting some recipes that I've found, formulated or adapted.
This dish is for tofu with lemongrass and chilli. I learnt this one in Hoi An,
  • 200g of tofu
  • 2 tsp of oyster sauce (or veggie oyster sauce or kecap manis or you can leave out)
  • 3 tsp of stock powder (optional)
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 4 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 or 2 small red chilli (depending on level of spiciness)
  • 2 stems of lemongrass, chopped (or you can use dry slices, maybe a couple of tablespoons?)
  • 8 large cloves of garlic
  • 1-2 tbs oil
  • 2 tbs water
  1. Cut tofu into cubes, and fry in a lot of oil until the cubes are sufficiently browned. Drain and set aside 
  2. Put garlic, lemongrass and chilli in a mortar and pestle and grind to a paste. You can also use a hand blender.
  3. Fry the lemongrass and garlic mixture lightly in oil on medium high heat, to let out the fragrance. Maybe a couple of minutes.
  4. Then add the rest of the ingredients: sugar, sesame oil, stock powder, oyster sauce and water
  5. When the mixture starts to bubble, lower the heat and throw in the fried tofu.
  6. When thoroughly heated through, it's ready to serve.
This recipe serves maybe two people if you will eat other dishes, à la Vietnamese style. Otherwise I would definitely double this recipe.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Lao Trip Part 2: Kayaking in Pictures

Day One: we had no idea what was in store
We also didn't know we'd be eating delicious vegetarian food off of a banana leaf.
The team.
Along the way we passed many random Lao sightings. Kids fishing, families bathing, livestock...
It started to rain at one point. This is me and Lélé. We bickered about half the time, but quickly smiled for this rainy shot.
Day 2: right before we went into a complex of rapids. Not the scariest, I only thought I would die about 2 times.
I think I got a urinary tract infection after this swim
At the end of day 2, it also started raining.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Lao Trip

The trip to Lao was incredibly amazing. Not only because everyone living in the house went, but also because it seems we packed so many different things into one trip. For one, our transport was quite varied:
  • Walking
  • Mountain Biking
  • Swimming
  • Tuk-Tuk
  • Jumbo (like a tuk-tuk, but a retrofitted pick-up truck)
  • Rickety wooden boat
  • Long ferry boat
  • Kayak
  • Elephant
Compared to Vietnam, Lao is a peaceful sleepy country. The city of Luang Prabang, where we spent most of the week, is a World Heritage City. I suppose mainly because of this UNESCO designation (of which Quebec City is as well), the city is a tad bit too touristy for my liking. Too many French-style cafés serving baguettes and croissants. I suspect the average Lao or Luang Prabang resident doesn't (or can't afford to) eat in these restaurants.

Here are some photos of my trip

Kids egging on a monk to throw down jackfruits.

After losing 3 house mates because of the treacherous climbing and the unkown reward, we came upon this beautiful set of cascading waterfalls. Amazingly deep and blue. We spend way too long here.
The village we overnighted in during our kayak trip. Complete with chickens, boars, palm trees, a giant hornets nest in the room, friendly Lao people, and the drunk Lao guy who we heard vomit all night long.

We took an hour and a half boat ride to see a whole in a cliff (a cave, they call it) with 2000 buddha's in it.
The scariest ride I have ever had in my life. I kept thinking of how the inability to sue people for responsibility in much of the developping world means that safety provisions haven't been instituted. It was raining and muddy going up these mud cliffs. I kept seeing my housemate's giant elephant slip in the mud, and wondered how my seemingly less-experienced and smaller elephant would be able to climb it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

How The Incompetence of Hong Kong Immigration Officials Ruined My Trip

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my trip to China did not go exactly as planned. I was supposed to go to Guangzhou with Diep, where he would buy clothes (and of course, so would I), and then head to Hong Kong with Diep for 3 or 4 days, meeting a friend who I had previously met while travelling in Malaysia. It was a very simple trip, one that required me to get a visa for China, and one that required Diep get one for Hong Kong.

The trouble started when we picked up our visas (for HK visas, the Chinese Embassy handles the processing). Instead of the double-entry visa I was supposed to get (once entering China by land at the Vietnam border, and again when coming back into China from Hong Kong), I only got a single entry. Fixing it would mean 90$ USD and 5 more days, both of which I could not afford. The plan then was to get another Chinese visa while I was in Hong Kong. They would be less expensive and can process them in a couple days.

Second trouble: The travel agent advises us Diep cannot travel to Hong Kong by land. He must arrive at the international airport. I thought this was ridiculous, as all the research I had done about HK visas did not make any mention of this condition.

I took it into my own hands. I called the HK Immigration department. I also e-mailed them. And my Hong Kong friend also called them, to confirm in Cantonese. All the same answers were given: Vietnamese citizens do need a visa, but that there are no different types of visas. If you have a visa for Hong Kong you can enter however you like. You could teleport if you wanted. We hadn't gotten the visa back by then, and so we decided to just wait.

Despite this, the visa Diep got had some random stamp at the bottom, only written in Chinese characters. A translation by my roommate who can read the script: The holder of this visa must enter Hong Kong by international airport. Crap.

Finally it dawned on us, and this was later confirmed by the travel agent: The reason why the visas issued by the Chinese embassy say this is because you can't travel through China to get to Hong Kong; you would need a Chinese visa for that! Good news: Both Diep and I already had Chinese visas, and the agent confirmed this with us. When we crossed the border into China, Diep confirmed with the immigration official that this was the case: She said if he has visas for both, then he can enter HK. We were relieved to have this burden lifted off our chests.

After spending a couple days in Guangzhou we headed off to Hong Kong. Only a couple hours by bus, and my friend organised everything for us. She was waiting for us at the hotel she had arranged for us to stay at. We get to the border and... refused. I spent an all of 20 minutes in Hong Kong waiting for Diep to come out of the same kiosque as I had. Finally, after some hassling, I managed to convince an officer to take me to Diep's interrogation room.

It turns out, despite all the confirmations by Hong Kong and Chinese immigration officials, Diep has no choice but to enter by international airport. We were told that instead of paying $400 USD to fly from Guangzhou to HK, we could take the ferry to the airport, and then pass through customs from there. Only, we had to go back to China... except.... my visa is only a single entry, and I had already left China! No problem. Nothing a 2-hour wait in a stale waiting room can't solve!

We took the bus to Shenzen, and we were told that we can take a taxi to Shekou Port, and from there take the ferry to HK airport. This was confirmed not only by HK officials but the Chinese officials who escorted us back into China with the other criminals who had been refused entry.

We took a 45 minute taxi ride to the port and finally reached the medium by which we would enter the country: by water.

We get to the ticket counter, and the lady informs us it is impossible to enter Hong Kong by the airport in this way. It is only for departures.

I should mention that I was extremely sick at this time, displaying what some may describe as swine-flu symptoms. I felt like shit, but I kept my determination up until the ferry. I was ready to cough in the lady's face and then jump the boat to hijack it and make my way to their dumb Special Administrative Unit of Hong Kong.

Instead we turned around and went back to Guangzhou. I then spent all of my Hong Kong money on new clothes in Guangzhou, and decided to head back to Hanoi.

I can't understand how a government can be so incompetent and unaware of it's own laws and regulations. Diep has a 90$ Hong Kong visa in his passport that he'll never be able to use (and 90$ is a lot of money in Vietnam).

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Photos from Guangzhou, China

Diep and I find this cute café that sells Chinese sweet soups, very similar to Vietnamese chè. I had black sticky rice, young tofu (or silken tofu), and coconut milk. Not as delicious as Diep's green tea jelly cubes in young tofu flavoured with almond!

Beijing Street - one of the main commercial streets in Guangzhou. Just a big shopping mall with cobblestones. It was interesting to see this display (in the photo) where is exposes the foundation of a road that dates back 3000 years. Another view of Beijing Street.

Diep in the side mirror of a tuk tuk. There is something strange about being on a tuk tuk - arguably a remnant of a less-developed country - in streets lined with glistening and modern skyscrapers.

Here we were eating at a Vietnamese restaurant in China, after passing the border. Consistent with the Vietnamese attitude toward China, here are our bowls and plates. Sterilised and wrapped in plastic. And then they give us hot tea to further clean all the items.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Clouds over Hanoi

It hasn't been raining too much over here, not as much as a expected. When it does rain, though, it rains like hell.

The other day I decided to leave work early. I'm glad that I had, because as soon as I climbed my up to the 4th floor it startd pouring like crazy.

I waited a couple hours before heading out to the western food market to buy black beans and hamburger buns (8 months is way too long to go without eating a homemade veggie burger!).

As Lélé and I putted away on my electric scooter we spotted a giant rainbow hugging the horizon. In the food store we noticed the strange glow coming from outside. The outside was bathed in a subdued golden colour. When we got out of the store, this was what we saw:

I don't remember the name of these clouds (skimming the Wikipedia article on clouds and googling 'Nipple Clouds' didn't work), but I know I've read about these clouds before.

I remember a couple summers ago in Montreal there was an amazing rain storm and I remember standing on Roz's balcony on Clark Street with Butskies and Roz staring in amazement at the texture of the clouds. That was the first time I had seen these clouds.

Here in Hanoi I was equally amazed. Driving back to the house, Lélé and I noticed how everybody had stopped their motorbikes to take photos of the sky with their mobile phones.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Travels Beyond Hanoi: China

I realised recently that I haven't really posted much about my travels outside Hanoi. So here is my effort at providing a concise but informative post about my recent trip to Southern China.

Here's the number one observation:

Young Chinese men love purses. Or man-purses or murses. Whatever you prefer to call them. Whereas in Montreal only a select few men would dare stroll around will a shiny-white Gucci bag (I'm thinking of one particular friend here), in China they were everywhere. I couldn't walk on the sidewalk in Guangzhou without being whacked by a Prada purse strapped underneath the arm of a tall Chinese 20-something in Capri pants yakking away on his touch-screen mobile phone.

And here's my second observation:

Clothes are cheap, stylish and plentiful. Whereas in Montreal I usually avoid clothes with a 'made in China' tag in favour of something more local... in China, this is local! Guangzhou (also known as Canton) is a huge clothing manufacturing city. Diep led me to the area full of 'fashion cities', buildings with hundreds of sellers wanting you to buy the latest knock-offs of DSquared and D&G for about $5-10 USD a pair. Hell yeah! And a new pair of shoes for under $20?? I'll take three - and I did.

The fashion district in Guangzhou, China

Although my trip didn't go exactly as planned (this will be the subject of another post), I am really happy with this entirely new wardrobe I've come home with. I didn't even spend more than $150!