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. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Tourist Attraction

After 2 months in Hanoi, I can safely say that I qualify as a walking tourist attraction!

The novelty of an African American person walking through the winding streets of the Old Quarter is a sight be behold!  Sometimes the photos are taken without trying to be noticed and other times entire groups simply walk right up and ask to have their picture taken with me.  This weekend it was a gaggle of teenage girls who were mystified by me and tripped over each other trying to stop for a photo opportunity, to which I politely smiled and obliged.  I'm not really sure who all sees these photos or if I'm the topic of conversation over someone dinner table, but my new found celebrity status is taking some getting used to.  

In other news...schools been in session for nearly a month now and is going well.  Of course there are challenges to being on a founding team and opening a new school...but all in all, I'm really enjoying my international teaching experience thus far.  One of the major differences that I notice is the focus on student learning.  Not once has anyone mentioned the words "high stakes testing", "PSSA" or "test prep".  Our schedule includes a 30 minute AM recess for everyone and an hour lunch/recess combination.  I actually have time in my day to plan and do very little work at home.  It's a completely different culture!  

I'm all moved into my apartment now and am really enjoying it.  I miss my pup terribly and wish that she was here with me, but it's incredibly comforting to know that she's being well taken care of by my parents and is enjoying being a country dog rather than a suburban dog.  Pictures to come this weekend...after the cleaning lady makes an appearance on Friday.  That's another one of my new found appreciations...a cleaning lady.  It's amazing to come home to a clean house and not have to worry about mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms on the weekend.  

It's finally starting to cool off here and by cool off I mean that the high temp for the day is only about 86 and the humidity levels are topping out at about 50%.  To us westerners, the change is blissful.  You can walk around without sweating through a shirt in 5 minutes and the hair that you spent 20 minutes flat ironing actually looks straight for more than 20 seconds when you walk outside.  The locals on the other hand have referred to the change in weather as "winter coming early"!  Coats, tights and sweatshirts were all the rage late last week as the morning temps dropped to 70.  It really is funny to watch!  I don't know what they will wear when it's really cold out!  Stay tuned!  

I've really been slacking off on keeping up with the blog, so my new goal is to update it every Saturday.  We'll see how long that lasts. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Halong Bay

The Legend of Halong Bay
The legend of Hạ Long has it that, “Once upon a time, soon after the Việt people established their country, invaders came. The Jade Emperor sent Mother Dragon and her Child Dragons down to earth to help the Việt people fight against their enemy. Right at the time invaders’ boats were rushing to the shore, the dragons landed down on earth. The dragons immediately sent out from their mouths a lot of pearls, which then turned into thousands of stone islands emerging in the sea like great walls challenging the invaders’ boats. The fast boats couldn’t manage to stop and crashed into the islands and into each other and broke into pieces.
After the victory, Mother Dragon and Child Dragons didn’t return Heaven but stayed on earth at the place where the battle had occurred. The location Mother Dragon landed is nowadays Hạ Long Bay and where Child Dragons descended is now Bái Tử Long. The dragons’ tails waving the water created Long Vĩ (present Trà Cổ peninsula) and formed a fine sand beach over ten kilometers long”.

Four hours outside of the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, the coast of Vietnam meets the South China Sea and Halong Bay appears on the horizon.  The view is simply breathtaking!  
Living overseas, long weekends are an invitation to travel.  Unbeknownst to me, Vietnamese National Day is celebrated on September 2 giving us a much needed 3 day weekend.  It didn't take long for the wheels to start turning...hmmm...where should I escape to?

After a little research, we decided on a Halong Bay cruise for a little R&R before the school year officially starts.  We chose Indochina Junk based on their online reviews and booked tickets on their "Halong Bay - Off the Beaten Path" tour.  

The day began with an 8AM pickup at our hotel for the 4 hour trip to the coast.  As we crossed the bridge and left the city limits, I could feel the relaxation set in as we traveled through the winding roads of Vietnam.  After a month of city living I was more than ready for some green grass, wandering cows and a break from all of the incessant honking! 

Once we arrived at the bay, we boarded a small boat that ferried us to our floating hotel; The Dragon Pearl III.  There were only 14 guests on board from all over the globe; UK, Italy, Spain, Morocco, France, Belguim, Germany and the US
Dragon Pearl III

As we set sail into the bay and left Hanoi behind, we enjoyed a seafood lunch and drinks with the other passengers before exploring the boat.  
Our cozy room

Enjoying our water view

A view of the sundeck.  It wasn't particularly sunny and I was just fine with that. 
The view as we left the harbor.

Heading out onto the open sea.  The rocks are made of limestone and jut out of the ocean everywhere. 
The water was a million shades of emerald green.
We soon arrived at our own private beach for an afternoon on hiking, kayaking, and swimming.  Our guide took us to an island cave that was once inhabited by a family of fisherman.  According to her, the caves are cooler (I beg to differ!) than the elements outside in the summer and provide warmth and protection from tropical cyclones during the winter months. 
There were 100 steps to the entrance of the cave. 

Perrine overlooking the bay on our way into the cave. 

Inside the cave...very cool!

Water and minerals formed this column in the middle of the cave. 
A view of the bay from the cave entrance.

The sails were up on the boat in the bay below.  

Kayaks all lined up and ready to go.  We paddled 5K around a huge island.

The sun was starting to set on the beach as we got back to land, but there was plenty of time left for a great swim in the warm water. 

The best part of the entire cruise was relaxing on the sundeck as the sun set.  Everything was quiet and still as the stars speckled the night sky.  Luckily, the rain from earlier stopped and we got to eat dinner on the boat deck with the other guests. 

 After a great nights sleep, we awoke to a rainy Sunday morning.  After a quick breakfast, it was off to the Vung Vieng Fishing Village for a tour.  The village consists of approximately 100 villagers who live on the water and fish for a living.  The entire village is self contained including a woman who floats around the village selling items from her mobile grocery store. There is even a school for the children to attend.  The teacher sleeps in a room off of the main school room and is hired by the villagers to instruct the students.  Children as young as 4 row themselves to school in bamboo boats.
The Fishing Village

A family enjoying their Sunday morning.

Floating store

Fisherman returning with the days catch

Floating house ~ Families with small children line the perimeter of the house with netting so that they children don't fall into the water. 

Rainy Sunday morning in the hammock

Elementary school classroom

Computer classroom where students play games.  No wifi here!

Beautiful cave that we rowed through on our way back to the boat.

The trip to Halong Bay was absolutely amazing and right on time.  I really needed a quiet weekend away from the nonstop movement of Hanoi.  Its a definite must do when you visit Hanoi!