I hooked up with Tom and we traveled north to the Central Highlands and the southern part of the Truong Son mountain range. Along the way, we met a couple gals: one from Seattle the other NYC. They were teaching English in HCMC and were out on vacation. They were packing a couple of badminton rackets; luckily for them, they had forgotten to bring the shuttlecock, because I was ready to play right there on the bus. In Jr. High, I was a bad-ass badminton player -- it's just in the blood.
We were all headed to the Da Lat, the city of eternal spring, known for its towering waterfalls and serene lakes. It was nice to see mountains again and just be somewhere that wasn't so hot and full of fumes. I immediately fell in love with Da Lat, its narrow windy roads and charming small-town feel. Surrounded by agriculture, Da Lat provides Vietnam with much of its fruits and vegetables. The market was still bustling at 5 pm, when I arrived. Out in front, elderly ladies carried baskets full of strawberries, some of the wild Fraise De Bois variety, and huge heads of cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, still on the stalk. The next morning, I returned to sample the enormous variety of fruits: large purple Dragon fruit, polished green Milk fruit, bumpy-surfaced Custard Apple and huge red, spiked Guavas. I sampled all of them at the fruit shake counter. The poor lady had the hardest time trying to understand that I just wanted to try them individually.
Most backpacker types come to Da Lat to do the outdoor adventure activities. My body’s old, but my mind likes to think it can still play the game. The first day we took a 30-mile mountain bike trip. The pictures at the agency failed to show the steep climbs. I must have pushed that fuckin’ bike for three miles. We got out into farmland and up in the evergreen forests. There were uninhabited lakes, roaming cows and hillside cemeteries. The vista views from the tops of the mountains were beautiful; I just don't know why we had to go to more than one.
Sore from the bike trip, the next day we played golf on Vietnam’s premier course. If you go in the afternoon, it's a third of the price. I've only played a few times, but have a well-developed swing. In high school, I had a friend whose dad was a golf pro; we used to hit plastic golf balls late into the night, while other kids drank stale beer out at the local lake. The club house manager insisted we take a caddy; I told him he could come, but he'd have to play too. I’m not into having servants. It was fun and the golf course was just beautiful: tiny lakes, rolling hills, angry trees and suspicious sand all placed there to mess with you. Who's good at golf anyway? Our caddy said he was “good” and I out drove him almost every time. I just wanted to par one hole; on the first par 5, I was on the green in 3 and then, it took me 7 putts to get it in the hole. Golf is just a pretty place for older people to go for a walk and pay an extra ordinate amount of money to not have to hang out with people like me. As you can imagine, I was awarded the good sportsmanship trophy and for the first guy ever to carry his own bag.
I was in a groove in Da Lat -- sports by day, quiet dinners with the gals at night. All we needed was a little danger for some added spice. That came on our final day. We organized a canyon tour with an adventure company, specializing in taking people hiking, repelling and rock climbing along some remote rivers. First by jeep, then by feet, we trekked down this mountain to get to a puny puddle of a stream. I'm thinking I could find this in Prospect Park. But, one stream led to another and, if you put enough streams together, you’ve got a full-fledged turbulent river cascading down a razor sharp canyon.
I began to realize that the rock climbing and repelling aspect of this trip wasn't purely for our entertainment. Other than turning back, it's the only way to get down this river. We practice a bit and I'm beginning to get used to leaning backwards over a cliff. For someone who's afraid of heights, the “no-look” method is better anyhow. The first quarter-mile goes pretty smoothly. We repelled off a few cliffs about 70 feet and I was so excited, I wanted to do it again; but, rock climbing proved much more difficult than it looks. In high school, I once did 80 pull-ups during a test in PE. It's no great feat when you only weight 99 pounds. The next year, Congress passed a law that made the testing in PE fairer for all the different shapes and sizes of kids. Their logic was that if you had fallen in a hole you would only have to pull yourself up once. Thank God for taxes. We sat for lunch and threw rocks into the surrounding jungle -- it was a good Boy Scout-type outing. The next part of the trip required us to be in the river, as the jungle on the sides was both too steep and too thick. We bundled up all of our belongings into zip lock bags and swam, crawled and floated down the river. The Vietnamese guys ambushed us thinking that a good dousing of river water was funny. I explained to them that we were already wet and that their timing was off by about an hour. No matter, Tom and I kicked their asses, in part, because they were packing all the equipment. We slid down some long, slippery waterfalls feet-first and down into a small lagoon. Our guide then insisted that we try it head-first. "Fine, whatever makes you happy ", but afterwards, I realize these guys have no first-aid kit or plan to get you out of this place in case of an accident. What do you want for eight dollars? They brought lunch after all.
Along the way, we came upon some hills flanking the river. They were so steep, I couldn't imagine even walking on them, but there were little patches of tobacco growing all over the place. They planted them there, because it cuts down on the poachers. My bottom half was getting cold, so I quickened the pace. The jungle is such a spooky and mysterious place. I was just waiting for a big snake to slither out of the brush to eat me. The river began to widen and you could hear the rush of water ahead. Our guides pushed us up onto the bank and wouldn't let us go any further. It was the first precautionary measure I witnessed all day. We walked along the bank to the edge of the cliff where we got a glimpse of the 100-foot waterfall barreling down into a cloud of mist. The thing was every bit wide as it was long. Tom and I looked at each and just laughed.
Tom went first and there were moments when I had thought I lost my friend -- at various places, the rocks cave in and you disappear completely in thousands of gallons of whitewater. I can't recall ever having so much fun. I think I fell two or three times on the slippery cliff as the water just bowled me over. Standing back up to continue was quite a task. I can't imagine what the insurance would be if they allowed us to do this in the States. We hiked a mile straight up this mountain to the awaiting jeep, gave hugs to our guides and started bragging about the achievement. In Da Lat, they call it Canyoning.
BICH VAN THIEN RESTAURANT
One thing you miss when your traveling is a good home-cooked meal and the conversation of family and friends. I was very lucky to get both from the lovely Mr. Nguyen Xuan Khue and his talented wife Chau. I met them through my friend Bill Yosis who's an extraordinary pastry chef in NYC. Those of you that would like to sample of Mrs Chau's cooking can do so at Boi, a new upscale Vietnamese Restaurant in Manhattan -- I hear it's getting good reviews. I may be a long way from home, but I still read the restaurant reviews (what's up with Marian Burros?)
Mr Khue is the GM of a posh Hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. I swung by late one afternoon to say hello. He was in a meeting, so I picked up the Herald Tribune; we don't get those rags in the places I stay, we're content if we get toilet paper. The cover story was about the Chicken Flu: hundred's of thousands of chickens buried alive, and the farmers just devastated. The KFC I hear is now selling Bangers and Mash and Fried Fish – hell, I consider that an improvement. Mr Khue comes down from his meeting in his crisp Italian suit and I feel a little under dressed (thongs, Addias sweat pants and a tank top); that's the other thing I miss about home, my clothes. He's very pleasant and invites me to dinner. No time to change, we wait for his car; he's got a personal driver and you’ve got it, a Mercedes.
He lives out in a more residential area down a windy alley. The place is
beautiful. Two sprawling fruit trees cover the courtyard where his restaurant,
Bich Van Thien, begins. It's about half full with Vietnamese enjoying the cool
night breeze, some up in the mezzanine, but most on the patio. A long angular
stair case sits to the side and leads you to their 5-story home. Mrs Chau, a
chef by trade, is soft-spoken unless the conversation turns to food. Their very
hip kids are home for the Tet holiday, one studying in Singapore, the other in
Paris. We sit down for dinner and out comes the food. There's a salad of Banana
Flower, Sprouts and Peanuts, Battered Prawns with a sauce from Mandarin Orange
and Chilies, Spring Rolls stuffed with Pork, Wood Ear Mushrooms and Water
Chestnuts, a simple, but amazing soup of Watercress and a Sour Pork Broth, and
the kicker, Gio Heo Dam Thuoc Bec, a steaming leg of Pork in a chafing dish.
It's placed at the center of the table on a small butane burner. I can smell
black cardamom and fresh star anise as they lift the lid. All around it were
gorgeous vegetables like Chinese broccoli and mustard greens, vermicelli noodles
and condiments. Mrs Chau begins by putting the heartier vegetables into the pot
first and the noodles into individual bowls. We each pull the meat from the leg
and ladle the broth into our bowls. I love family-style interactive food and
especially when dining with Asians. Westerners are too slow and too preoccupied
with what silverware to use, what wine glass to swirl and what silly protocol to
follow. Asians eat and the more you eat the happier the host seems to be. The
pork was wonderfully delicate and rich at the same time. The technique of slowly
simmering hearty cuts of meat in very light, but intensely flavored broth with
no wine or reduction, leaves you with an unusually clean feeling. I ate the
tendons, sucked on the cartilage and went back for more. Mr Khue smiled and told
me that maybe I was Asian after all.
DINNER WITH THE KHUES
I returned for the next few days and worked with the gals in the kitchen. Their chef went to the market at 6 am every morning to pick up the freshest fish, meats and produce. There's very little refrigeration in Vietnam, which makes the use of the market a daily ritual for everyone. The pork is still warm. It is literally slaughtered the night before and is often times being cleaned and butchered as you make your purchase.
If you look closely at the pictures of the market you'll see a shot of very fresh pig blood, intestines and brain. I enjoyed my time with the Khue's, in their kitchen and at their table. We ate lunch together everyday, different friends would visit and each time we'd sample some very traditional Vietnamese cooking. One day we had Canh Ca Chua, a soup made from freshwater Carp, Carambola, Pineapple and Tomatoes and a sour fish stock made from, I believe, dried fruits. Another day, the festive Bo Nhung Dom, where we took thin slices of beef and dipped them into a simmering pot of spiced vinegar and with a sheet of rice paper made hand-rolls, filling them with okra, cucumbers, lettuce and balm mint. The dipping sauce was a pungent mixture of macerated pineapple, fermented fish paste and pounded garlic and Birdseye chilies; once again, a great combination of flavors and temperature -- sweet, sour, spicy and savory along with hot and cold. The use of raw, crisp and clean vegetables against hot and spicy is touchstone of this wonderful cuisine. After lunch, we'd lounge in the house and I'd talk to Mr Khue about his travels and enlightened philosophy on life. He is an amazing man, speaks five languages and has lived and traveled extensively throughout the world. Most of their family now lives in the US, but he prefers his home. From his stories of the war, his opinion on politics and the economy in SE Asia, I began to understand a little more. My life as a chef hasn't afforded these types of encounters -- too busy either working or trying to do things that don't take any effort or thought. The Vietnamese work hard as well, but they know how to relax, and even better, make a home.
HERBS-AMARANTH,VAP CA,PURSLANE,CHINESE CELERY
FRESH WHITE BEANS, CRANBERRY BEANS, ENGLISH PEAS
HAVING A SALAD ROLL AT THE MORNING MARKET
My first night in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) was an eventful one. It began at Ngon, a restaurant specializing in traditional regional Vietnamese food. As I arrived, I could see a crowd of people gathered on the sidewalk; the place was packed, so I ducked in a side door and right into the bustling dining room full of pushy waiters and insanely busy food runners. Bowls of pho, platters of steamed ugly-faced fish (serpent) and trays of skewered meat whipped by me at Vietnamese speed (that’s not too fast, but with a lot of added commotion.)
The hostess came to my rescue and sat me at the bar in the center of the restaurant. It was an island shaped bar with the dining room wrapped around it, which made it perfect for people watching. Behind the bar were five young ladies working; they needed that many because all the cocktails were made from freshly squeezed juice. I ordered a banana drink with pineapple, lychee and mint. One of the women carefully blended my drink with shaved ice and the obligatory condensed milk. It was so fresh-tasting I wanted to lick the blender. I ordered a beer instead and went for my customary scout of the kitchen.
The layout of the restaurant was cool, no matter where you were, you could see out into the other rooms. There were no walls, all open-air. All along the exterior of the restaurant was outdoor dining, long, low tables with little benches to match. Tropical plants and lanterns were scattered around and families sat eagerly awaiting their food. Throughout the patio were food stalls much like you'd find on the street. There was a woman making a variety of soups, she was sitting on a stool, surrounded by steaming pots of aromatic broths, fresh noodles and funky vegetables. The next stall boasted a huge mortar and pestle where a young cook was pounding fresh birdseye chilies and garlic. This was the beginnings of a green papaya salad. I turned the corner and met a gust of smoke coming from a guy desperately trying not to burn his carefully skewered pork.
Then all of a sudden, I felt a tug on my shirt. It was the hostess dressed in a long green gown. It was time to order. She led me back to my barstool and gave me the look my grade school teacher, Mrs. Hasslet, used to give me. She obviously didn't know that I'm the prestigious Runaway Chef .
It was such a nice change from Cambodia -- a real dining experience. I started with crab soup with morning glory, mint and fish cake. The fish cake was thin and dark, almost black, and had a rich, earthy crab flavor to it -- I thought it might have been made with crab blood, but I've never seen a crab bleed. Next, I had a few salad rolls filled with dried fish shavings, lettuce and crunchy pork crackling. The sauce was a simple mixture of chilies, fish sauce and vinegar. I had to have the pork, so out it came -- long tubular moldings of meat, deliciously grilled over an open fire. After devouring two down quickly, I thought I'd better learn how they made it, so I took the last one apart. It had been made from thinly sliced pork marinated in garlic, lemongrass, lime, toasted chili powder and cilantro, then wadded up and pressed into a finger like shape. Its shape helped it from drying out, as they appear to love to char the hell out of it. Satisfied, I walked out the front door and said goodbye to the hostess, as she was sitting on a stool with the Gucci-looking Maitre d’ having a bowl of noodles. That's the good life of the front of the house.
Out on the town I go, fully fed and back amongst the "civilized". The streets
were packed: cyclos, cars and pedestrians all out for a little late night
stroll. I had thought the Chinese New Year was over, but oh how I was wrong. Why
celebrate for a few days when you can drag it along for weeks!
I traveled in Yugoslavia many years ago and everybody would come out about sundown and just walk up and down the promenade: families, punk kids and young couple in love just out strolling. This was a bit like that, but most of these folks were on cyclo's. I cruised the gut for awhile, but at midnight nothing happened so I stumbled into a place called the Cowboy Bar. It was classic -- you could have been in Texas at one of those cheesy tourist bars with the giant moose-heads and cowboy garb hanging everywhere. There was a cover band, they played a little Waylon Jennings, Cher's "I found someone to take away the heartache", then brought it up-to-date with a song by the Darkness and on to Justin Timberlake (what does it feel like to be everywhere, Justin?). You’re the king of the world, and still you can't sing. My friend says he's cute and looks good in a t-shirt and that’s a good reason to pay $15 for a CD. They finished their set with Metallica -- the Vietnamese in the bar were digging that, so I moved closer to them.
At night, people have a harder time figuring out where I'm from so I tried mingling with my peeps. I met a guy in a band, he had the black biker boots with the buckle wrapped around the heel, a studded belt, a Misfits t-shirt and an vintage army hat, like the one I saw Bono wearing last year during fashion week at 65 Thompson. If there was a guy in the room that, by mere association, was going to make me look cool, he was the guy. We started to talk about music and local clubs that might have live bands playing their own music when an argument across the room broke out. It looked like some guy was taking exception to another guy messin’ with "his" girl. As the argument intensified, we both moved closer; nosiness is not cultural we all share it. I recognized the girl, she was kinda spunky, and I had seen her earlier flirting with one of the guys over by the restroom. I'm assuming her boyfriend did too. It appeared this wasn't an argument that was going to be resolved by the slender cocktail waitresses or by the “huge” 125-pound bartenders that had now come out from behind the bar. The shouting escalated and the shoving began. Somehow, the bartenders and, now, a crew of busboys from the restaurant upstairs managed to push these guys and their entourages outside, it was like a scene from the upcoming Vietnamese version of Romeo and Juliet directed by Ang Lee and staring Jackie Chan. We jetted outside to watch the action. As I pushed my way to the door, I recalled similar fisticuffs in Seattle at a rock club up on Capital Hill. Same deal -- a couple of guys fighting over a girl. I remember it well, because it sparked a heated argument with the gal I was dating, over whether I would fight to win my girl’s hand. "Are you crazy?” I told her. "I'd sooner kick your ass than his". The Seattle fight was more funny than anything else; two bodybuilding white guys with one of them ripping off his shirt and pounding his chest and shouting: "you want a piece of me?" over and over again. I had raised my hand after the fourth time he said it to answer the question. Had he bothered to look in my direction, I would have told him that I needed to see him rip off a lot more before I could fairly make that decision. They ended up swinging relentlessly at each other and never touching the other -- that is an art. This fight was a bit more real, almost too real. I've seen this rage before in Asians and I'm not quite sure where it comes from. When channeled, it's dangerous. These guys were tapped into some deep anger and the joke of it all quickly faded. It made me sad to see someone so obviously in pain; this guy was trying to take his girlfriend, not his country. There was genuine rage and it spread into the crowd of people and a melee occurred. People were flying everywhere as the police arrived. I was relieved when I saw them, but they did nothing -- they just watched. I reached for my camera, thinking this is nuts and the rocker friend grabbed my hand and explained, "This is communist, you can't do that". WOW, I can't take a fuckin’ picture? I don't know what I believe about communism, but I sure as hell believe in freedom. It would suck to live like that. The cops never broke up the fight, the bus boys did and they shut the bar down or rather locked all the people in. So, I left, I didn't feel like being in a bar you were locked in. I walked back through a busy street and off to my hotel. Vietnam was outdoing itself.
My dad was a student of Whilem Rhiech and he took his studies and founded an
organization called the Radix Institute. It's based on the belief of orgone
energy is our life force, and that by releasing and perhaps controlling it we
bring more vitality and health to our lives. While most fathers were out playing
golf mine was holed up in little wooden box that supposedly was a good conductor
for orgonomy. What I learned from my dad is a good sense of self-preservation
My mother was a classical violinist with a strong penchant for the environment. She realized the pen was more powerful then the bow and founded an organization called SOS, Save Our EcoSystem. She's made radical changes in local and national policies towards the environment and seems to impact everybody she comes in contact with. She used to make me use the same paper bag to carry my lunch to school with for weeks, it got so old it felt like a beaten up old towel. I was a favorite in the lunchroom, while other kids were rolling out there pristine lunches with all four food groups, bologna sandwiches, Doritos, a red delicious apple and a Twinkie, I broke out the organic peanut butter, banana, mung bean sprouts sandwich on sesame seed rice cakes and some homemade dried fruit. What I got from her is everything good that I might be.
Politically they followed suit, my conservative father believed in less government, that people should help themselves through hard work and self-determination. My mom was a radical liberal, and fought hard to protect rights and opportunities for the less fortunate. I'm not sure what I believe, I know it's horrible but I didn't even vote in the last election. I've never really aligned myself with any social or political organization it's not that I don't care, I guess I'm just like alot of other Americans, just caught in the daily routine of our own shit.
S-21 Museum threw me into a tailspin, it was the security prison for the Khmer Rouge where they detained and tortured those they believed were a detriment to their regime. Their leader, Pol Pot implemented one of the most radical restructurings of a society ever attempted; their goal was to transform Cambodia into a Maoist peasant dominated agrarian cooperative. Two million people died as a result of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. A tour of S-21 was not something I wanted to do; walking through torture chambers where the tools, and fixture's used to persecute your fellow man is not pleasant. There were places where kids were hung from steel rods and lashed with spiked whips, interrogation rooms where they'd submerge your head into foul sewer water until you told them what they wanted to here. The most disturbing rooms contained pictures of the victim’s, mug shots as they entered the facility. You could see their souls in their faces like the horror that surrounded them deepened their humanity. Other pictures were too graphic to even look at; I don't need to see somebody dismembered to believe that it happened. Beyond the pictures were the buildings containing the cells, they were small, barely enough room to turn around in and each with steel shackles bolted into the cement floor and many appeared to have blood stains. I stopped for a while and just stared at the walls, man, people can be pretty fucked up. I walked outside to the balcony to get some fresh air and looked out onto the courtyard. Before Pol Pot this was a high school, kids took recess and played on that grass. That steel rod used to be a swing set, and the cells a classroom.
After S-21 I took a ride out to the Killing Fields where the prisoners were taken to be exterminated. They had built a small monument filled with skulls from the deceased. The actual pits they had dug to burry the bodies in surrounded it. Nine thousand bodies were found in the 129 communal graves some bludgeoned to death to save bullets.
I know so little about the world, even now with our current affairs, maybe I was given too much freedom so nothing ever really stuck, more likely I'm lazy. "If it doesn't happen to me it's of no consequence". My parents might not agree on much, but I bet they would both agree on one thing, I need to be better informed. Can one of you two send me a registration form?
At the center of any great city is an open market, Phnom Penh the capital of Cambodia has a terrific one. You can buy everything, Electronics, polyester pant suits, live chickens, curdled blood cake and precious stones are all here to test out your bargaining skills.
I stuck to the food portion of the market and here's some of what I found.
Big tubs of pickled garlic, cucumbers and shallots, vats of Nam Priks, fermented fish and shrimps.
A woman chopping dried fish, another a bundle of lemongrass.
A lady comfortably resting in a hammock while butchering a pig, look closely and you'll see the hoof, ear and nose.
Quails and infant quails, it may look like a chicken but trust me the larger bird was a small quail.
Many types of fish several of them still alive. As you can see I found one trying to escape, not to be a rat I didn't tell anyone. He squirmed his out to the street where another vendor air-dried him. One thing I realized is that while there's rarely any refrigeration, the product is so fresh it could be safer then the food we eat.
If you think about how our meat and fowl is raised, this stuff is a dream come true. It's chemical free and it's totally free range. The deep rich colors and flavors of the beef and pork have an overwhelming fresh quality to it. I remember when I was a kid, we started raising chickens and we all thought there was something wrong with them because their eggs were so strong.