Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! (Happy Lunar New Year!) and Singapore

Tết or Vietnamese New Year, is the most important celebration of Vietnamese culture. The word is a shortened form of Tết Nguyên Đán "Feast of the First Morning of the First Day". Tết celebrates the arrival of spring based on the Vietnamese variation of the Chinese lunar calendar.  Tết is celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year.  It takes place from the first day of the first month of the Vietnamese calendar (around late January or early February) until at least the third day. Many Vietnamese people prepare for Tết by cooking special holiday foods and cleaning the house. There are a lot of customs practiced during Tết, such as visiting a person's house on the first day of the new year, ancestral worshiping, wishing New Year's greetings, giving lucky money to children and elderly people, and opening a shop.  Tết is also an occasion for family reunions. During Tết, Vietnamese visit their relatives and temples, forgetting about the troubles of the past year and hoping for a better upcoming year. They consider Tết to be the first day of spring and the festival is often called Hội xuân (spring festival).

While everyone in Hanoi was preparing for Tet, all I could think about was upcoming ten day holiday vacation that was scheduled from school.  During Tet, the city shuts down almost completely as the locals celebrate the New Year with their family and friends.  Well...when you live in Southeast Asia and school is closed for 10 days...what's a girl to do, but travel!  So it was off to Singapore with Penny, Rob, Perrine and Daniel for a week of sunshine and adventure.  

Singapore was absolutely awesome and definitely my kind of city (clean, modern and organized).  Here are some pictures from our trip.  Enjoy! 

Shopping on Orchard Road is amazing!  Every store imaginable!

The view from the catwalk at The SuperTree Park at the Gardens by the Bay.  These 16-story-tall vertical gardens collect rainwater and generate solar power.  You can see Marina Bay Sands, the conservatory and the Singapore Flyer in the background. 

                          It was super windy, but the view was amazing! 
                               Beautiful dragonfly statues in the lake
This was an awesome statue at the Gardens by the Bay entitled "Planet" by sculptor Marc Quinn.  White painted bronze and stainless steel and depicting a gigantic sleeping baby based on Quinn’s own son, the entire seven-ton sculpture balances on one arm, with the body and legs floating in the air. 

                                       The Super Trees at night

The Singapore Flyer is the world’s largest observation wheel. Standing at a stunning 541 ft from the ground, the Flyer  is an great way to get a panoramic view of  Marina Bay, the island and beyond.

                               Sunset from atop the Singapore Flyer. 
                            What a beautiful view it was from the top!

 A tour through Little India was filled with beautiful buildings and bustling with culture.
                We passed the Mosque just as prayer time was beginning.
                                             The streets of Little India

Marina Bay Sands stands 679 feet tall overlooking the Singapore skyline.  The mixed use space houses shops, a casino, 2,561 hotel rooms and several restaurants high atop the 57 story structure.  Opened in 2011, Marina Bay Sands is an impressive addition to the city skyline. 

 The view from the rooftop deck bar looking across at the infinity pool. 

Drinks on the rooftop with Daniel, Penny, Perrine and Rob.  The view and the experience were worth every penny.

It was an awesome trip!  

November/December Updates

I know...I's been ages since I've updated the blog.  No particular reason, I guess it just got away from me.  

So here's what you've missed...

By November, school was good and crazy!  I took over teaching 4th grade and quickly remembered what it was like being a classroom teacher.  I have to say that the transition wasn't so bad as I have a lovely class of 5 students (2 girls and 3 boys) and an awesome teammate.  Nevertheless, it was certainly time for a quick getaway to Mai Chau Lodge for the weekend for a little fresh air and greenery.  

 Beautiful mountain views
 The view from the mountain cave across from the lodge
 Some much needed rest and relaxation away from Hanoi
 Some of the locals we passed along the way
 The dirt road we traveled on our bicycle tour of the area

Bring on the holidays!  School ended on Friday afternoon at 3 and I was on the first plane home at 11 PM to spend 3 weeks with my family and friends.  Three airports and 25 hours later I touched down at JFK and was thrilled to be back in the USA.  Call me crazy, but two days later I was on yet another flight, this time to TX to pick up my nephew and fly back to PA with him so my sister wouldn't have to fly with both babies.  He was such a good little traveler.  

 A little juice...
and he was sleep before takeoff! 

The next few weeks were busy with Christmas shopping, holiday parties and way too much food!  By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, everyone was home and together for Christmas.  

 Jacob helping with the lights for the tree...yes it was as crazy as it looks
 Helping Mimi decorate the tree
 After several tries, this was the best one
Christmas morning!  Two little Santa's, neither of which wanted to cooperate for the camera!

After five months of cabs and walking everywhere, I was beyond excited to drive my car!!  Oh, how I miss getting behind the wheel anytime I want, adjusting my own heat and listening to what I want on the radio.  It was absolutely blissful!  First stop...the salon for a much needed haircut!  Thank you Erin! 

After lots of visiting with family and friends, it was time to head back to Hanoi :(  While it was sad to say goodbye to everyone again, I was excited to head back to my apartment and to get back into my Hanoi routine.  Little did I know, what an ordeal it would be.  When I booked my ticket flying in and out of JFK...I'm not sure what I was thinking.  Winter travel in and out of JFK can be tricky depending on the weather and sure enough we had a major storm the night before I was scheduled to fly out.  Of course, I checked the flight status before we left home and it was still listed as on time.  By the time we got to the airport (4 hours later, what should have been a 2 hour trip), the flight was delayed!!  Go figure!  Three hours later, I was finally checked in and the waiting began.  "Attention passengers of Korean Flight whatever, this announcement is to inform you that your flight has been delayed!  (No kidding!!)  Our new departure time will be 8PM!"  Needless to say, 8 PM came and went and I was still sitting at JFK.  Thank goodness for airport bars and credit cards!  By 11PM, the plane was boarded and we finally took off. Of course, you know that this means that I would miss my connecting flight in Seoul and despite my best attempts to find out any information before leaving, no one seemed to know when I might be able to get out.  By the time we landed in Seoul, I had been rescheduled on a flight to Hanoi the next evening, which meant a stay over in Seoul.  Korean Air was absolutely amazing, they rescheduled flights, made arrangements for my luggage to be stored, put me up in a hotel and paid for all meals and transportation.  Not too shabby!  I've been very spoiled traveling internationally...if I had have been stuck in the states, I would have been spending the night in the airport.  65 hours later I arrived back in Hanoi, just in time for work on Monday. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Vietnamese Cooking Class

I love to cook!  I love to cook for myself, my family, my friends, anyone really, but I absolutely love being in the kitchen. In fact, I usually tell people that I'm happiest when I'm in my kitchen.  Since moving to Vietnam, I haven't done a ton of cooking outside of spaghetti and sauteed chicken partly because it's super cheap to dine out and partly because I have no clue where to begin.  It's not nearly as simple as pinning a new recipe on Pinterest and then heading to the grocery store to pick up the ingredients.  Don't I wish!  Outside of two shops we've found in Tay Ho, it's difficult to find the basics here, let alone some obscure American products that no one has ever heard of.  When I do find something that looks familiar, it costs an arm and a leg because it's been imported.  Just yesterday, I found a package of Oscar Mayer ham for sale in a shop for $7.25!!  They must be kidding me!

Today I set out with some friends for a Vietnamese cooking class.  I was really quite keen to get started learning some new Vietnamese dishes.  Class began with our instructor Anthony teaching us how to make beef stock from scratch for our traditional Pho.  I learned that the secret to a good pho is the stock.  It must be cooked low and slow and extreme care must be taken to remove the "scum" from the top.  Pho broth should be light in color and not too strong.  
Chef Anthony grilling up spices to be added to the beef broth.

4 hours later...the broth is done and it's time to eat the Pho. 

Final product! 
Next, we traveled to the market via cyclo to buy the ingredients for our meal.  This is really a very cool way to see the city of Hanoi.  There is nothing like crossing intersections riding on a pedal powered bike with taxis and motorbike whizzing around you.  I've learned to just sit back and enjoy the ride. 
A brief moment when my life wasn't in danger...the street actually looks quite peaceful.  It's an optical illusion! 

Donut hole anyone?  Perhaps if they were covered up from the dust and dirt of Hanoi, I might consider treating myself. 

Anything and everything can be bought from the back of a bike.  Fresh veg anyone? 
 Soon we arrived at the market.  Everything is fresh...and I mean EVERYTHING!  Somethings are a little too fresh for my liking.  Lots of fruits and veggies to choose from.  Thank heavens for a wonderful product called Vegi Wash.  It was recommended to us by a doctor who can to school to "introduce" us to the hazards of Hanoi in August.  It simply removes the dirt and germs from produce, and trust me, there are plenty of both to be removed. 
Women sit around all day selling produce.  It's common for Vietnamese women to shop between 5-6 AM and then again between 3-4 PM when produce and meat has been newly delivered. 

Eggs!!  Chicken, duck, and quail. There are also Balut (developing duck embryo that is boiled alive and eaten in the shell. It is commonly sold as streetfood)
Moving right along to the seafood section!  Looks just like the seafood counter at the Giant right?!  Snails, eels, prawns and a variety of shell fish are available here. 
Fresh veggies line the streets of the market. 
WARNING!!  The following pictures are a bit, how shall we say...vivid! 
Can I interest you in some fresh pork?!  Just walk right up and pick your cut.  You can touch every single piece to find the right one. 

Just the basics...beef bones, water, onion and a symphony of spices.

Chef Anthony assured us that every part of the animal is used.  Yep, you got it...that's a pigs foot (or pigs trotter).
Step right up...who's next?  The merchant is chopping bacon for a customer. 
Chef Anthony offered us a chance to taste the balut.  I certainly didn't, but Rob and Daniel were brave souls. 
Ahhh, fresh rice noodles...much more my speed!  

 After gathering all of our ingredients, we walked back to the cooking school to begin.  By now, the beef broth was simmering away and almost ready.  The cooking started with a few knife lessons and lots of chopping.  First thing on the menu...deep fried spring rolls.  

Chop, chop, chop!

Check out those impressive knife skills

Taking a turn chopping the pork shoulder to make minced pork.

Time to fry them up.
 Now it's time to make the Bun Cha (my new favorite Vietnamese dish!)  Chop up more pork to make grilled pork patties and grill up some pork tenderlion over a charcoal flame.  Serve some fresh rice noodles, coriander, mint, spring onion and some amazing sauce and enjoy!  You can even dip your freshly friend spring roll in for some added flavor. 
Perrine taking a turn rolling the pork patties. 

Bun new favorite! 

Chef Anthony whipping up a grilled chicken and veggie dish.  I wish I could have eaten more, but I was stuffed by this point. 

We even got certificates at the end! 
Cooking class was great fun!  It was so nice to spend the afternoon with friends, relaxing and doing what I love.  Now I can't make any promises that I'll be able to recreate these recipes when I come home for Christmas, but I'll certainly give it a try.