Four Kitchens, One in Hanoi

A few weeks ago, I journeyed to Sunset Park to meet Village Voice restaurant critic Lauren Shockey at the far-flung Vietnamese restaurant Thanh Da. I’d been introduced to Lauren through a college friend who thought we might get along, as Lauren had spent some time in Vietnam. By spent some time in Vietnam, I thought my friend meant that Lauren had passed through on the backpacking circuit.

But that was not what she meant. Lauren, in fact, had traveled to Hanoi for a residency at La Verticale, the home base of Didier Corlou, a chef who separates his own salt from nuoc mam and plays chemistry with essential oils extracted from local herbs.

I can now only marvel at how pedantic I must have sounded to a woman who’d punched the clock at one of Hanoi’s best kitchens.

Fortunately, Miss Shockey is a kind gourmand who drew no attention to my presumptuousness. She’s also a seriously talented food writer with a new book due out soon: Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris. As the title suggests, the book documents Lauren’s experience as an apprentice at four kitchens around the world. The anecdotes Lauren related over dinner were enough to win my pre-order, but it’s her time in Hanoi that’s really got me curious.

During my stint as managing editor at AsiaLIFE HCMC, I spent a few hours in November 2008 with Didier Corlou, back when he was in residence at On the 6 in downtown Saigon. The man is a hurricane. We had barely finished shaking hands when he hauled me into his kitchen and hoisted uncorked jars of his herbal concoctions to my schnoz while rhapsodizing in a thick French accent about his passions and process. I could barely understand him, but I was rapt. I can only imagine what an extended stay in his world was like, and I’m looking forward to reading Lauren’s chronicles of life with Corlou.

(And for the record, the bun bo Hue and che ba mau at Thanh Da are well worth the long ride on the N train.)

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Filed under Books, Food & Drink, Hanoi, New York City

Bun Thit Not-So-Nuong

Perhaps one of the biggest adjustments to life after Saigon is lunch. Eating on the street became part of my lifestyle, and it’s something that I’ve tried to incorporate into my routine here in New York. Working days in Midtown, I didn’t think that would be easy. But soon after starting my gig I discovered the Midtown Lunch blog, an indispensible compendium to street stalls, cheap eats, and food happenings in the corporate jungle.

I was intrigued one day to find an anouncement on Midtown Lunch for the opening of Cha Pa Noodles & Grill, a new Vietnamese joint just two avenues from the office. Bun thit nuong, my lunch of choice while living in the Ho, seemed to feature prominently on Cha Pa’s menu. It took me a few weeks to carve out time to try Cha Pa, but last night I needed a quick bite before attending a Granta Magazine reading at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, so I hoofed over to Hell’s Kitchen, fleet footed at the thought of grilled pork slathered in nuoc cham.



And then things went wrong.

The first sign of trouble? No bean sprouts. Whatever. I can deal. I stirred the dish to mingle the rice vermicelli, pork, carrot, daikon, cucumber, and peanuts, and alarm bells went off. A plume of steam wafted from the bowl. “Is this…? Are the noodles…?”

Yes, the noodles were hot. I texted a friend: “Have you ever had hot bun thit nuong?” She inquired as to whether I meant the meat. I did not. She was disturbed. So was I. I tried a few chop stickfuls and gobbled up the pork, which was quite good. But overall, the dish was a big fail. The pickled daikon and carrot were there, but the flavor was MIA. Weak nuoc cham. A miserly dash of peanuts. Disappointment. Regret. Longing.

I left a pile of noodles in protest, ordered the bill, and left my $15 (including tip), feeling like sucker. Suddenly moving back to Saigon for the sake of frequenting my Tran Khac Chan Street bun thit nuong stall didn’t seem such a ridiculous proposition. Yes, New York is the center of the universe. But Saigon has bun thit nuong for 15,000 VND, or $1 (plus cha gio). If you think that’s an uneven trade, you’ve probably never had good bun thit nuong.

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The Next 9000 Hours

A question: What do you do with a blog named 9000 Hours in Saigon when you no longer live in Vietnam?

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and I’ve reached a decision. But first, some mildly digressive context.

Before Saigon, there was Rome. At the time I made the decision in my sophomore year of college to apply for a semester abroad in Rome, I didn’t exactly know why I was making the decision. Nor did I understand what a good friend who had recently returned from the same program meant when she told me something to this effect: You’re going to expect that this experience is going to change you in certain ways, but when all is said and done, those expectations will become irrelevant. You’ll have changed in ways you never imagined.

And she was right. I won’t go into the personal realizations that came out of that experience–they matter little to you, dear reader–but I will say I carried this knowledge with me to Saigon. Did I have expectations for what would come out of my time in Vietnam? Of course. But I went into the experience knowing that those expectations might become irrelevant.

So what did come out of it? I’m still processing that. If writing on my experience in Rome as part of an independent study in travel narrative during my senior year taught me anything, it’s that it’s rare to understand the process when you’re in it. Only reflection yields the lessons. Certainly, my role as managing editor at AsiaLIFE HCMC afforded me a fantastic career-building opportunity. It was a completely unexpected development, and one that I’m very grateful for.

So that’s the point, I guess–my justification for continuing to write under the banner of 9000 Hours in Saigon. 9000 Hours in Saigon is no longer about a place, but an experience that in part informs who I am as a writer and a person. The content that appears on this blog will be influenced by that experience and the many unexpected developments that came out of it.

I started this blog when I expected to be in Vietnam for a year, or roughly 9000 hours. A little over two and a half years (or roughly 22,500 hours) later, I’m back in the States. So it’s time for a shift. I will continue to write about Vietnam and things Vietnamese here, and likely, some more travel will seep back into these posts. As I process those 22,500 hours, the picture I imagine will become clearer. Here’s to the next 9000 hours.

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A New Home, Full of Smiles

This past Sunday was a special one for Smile Group, a grassroots organization that supports disadvantaged HIV/AIDS-affected families in Ho Chi Minh City.  After operating out of the Thao Danh drop-in center for more than a year, Smile Group has found its own house in a beautiful building with an enclosed courtyard shaded by a mango tree. You can tell by the photos how excited the families are to have this new space for their meetings and activities.

What will they do with that new space? Lots. One of the best things about Smile Group is their focus on enrichment. Documentarian and social worker Leslie Wiener’s photographs never fail to express the ability of Smile Group’s activities to foster community-building among HIV-affected families, some of whom face deep stigmas in their physical communities. With ample accommodations, Elisabeth Nguyen will make yoga sessions more sustainable by enrolling in a course on teaching yoga for children (with her costs covered by the Global Fund for Children). Leslie is also seeking opportunities to have Macs supplied to the house to teach the kids practical computer skills. And of course, the dancing, singing and musical performances will continue, not to mention invaluable workshops on living with HIV/AIDS.

Thomas Maresca’s “Living Positive” cover story that follows the lives of three Smile Group families is no longer in the AsiaLIFE archives, but you can read the profile of Leslie that I contributed to the July 2009 People Issue (issue 28), still available in the online archives.

Here are some more photos from the day, courtesy of Leslie:

A bit of new school…

And a bit of old school

Crashing the dance floor

The gang’s all here

Enjoying the new house

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Filed under Causes, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Tiffany Chung Opening at Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York

If you needed proof that there’s no escape from Saigon…

I’ll be returning to the States next week, with a stopover in New York at the beginning of November. Serendipitously, Tiffany Chung, a Saigon-based artist and co-founder of artist-operated space San Art, will be opening her new solo show, Scratching the Walls of Memory, at Tyler Rollins Fine Art in Chelsea (529 W 20th St.) on November 4 from 6 to 8:30 pm. It will be a two-week reunion of sorts, as another San Art founder, Dinh Q. Le, and a few other folks from the Saigon scene will be in the Big Apple. This will be a great opportunity to speak to some of the people on the forefront of developing contemporary arts infrastructure in Ho Chi Minh City.

For a bit of background, check out my cover story on the contemporary arts in Saigon (issue 25) and my Q&A with Dinh Q. Le (issue 27) in the AsiaLIFE archives. The Q&A is also available for faster viewing at San Art’s press section.

More information on the show from Tyler Rollins Fine Art:

For her second solo exhibition at Tyler Rollins Fine Art, taking place in November and December 2010, Tiffany Chung will present a new series of works inspired by maps of urban regions, featuring embroidery and appliqué works on canvas in addition to a number of drawings on paper. Chung has been fascinated with maps for many years, not only for their graphic possibilities but also for what they say about both our relation to the past and our visions of the future.

Her exhibition, entitled scratching the walls of memory, explores the topographic after-images of some of the past century’s most traumatic conflicts and includes maps of the Berlin Wall, the Korean DMZ, and the atomic bomb blast zones in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The exhibition marks a turning point in her work, as it is the first time she interweaves important historical events with personal and family history.

Chung is considered to be Vietnam’s most prominent female contemporary artist. She is noted for her sculptures, videos, photographs, and performance work that use an exuberantly pop aesthetic to conjure hyperreal visions of contemporary Vietnam, which function as candy-colored counterparts to the more typical “traumatized” representations of Vietnam’s recent history…

Continue reading at Tyler Rollins Fine Art.

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AsiaLIFE Shouted Out by Expletive-Rich Website

Three things I love: typography, Saigon and the f-word.

A new website called What To Fucking Do in Saigon distills many of expatriates’ pet loves and hates about Ho Chi Minh City into tidy little bits of advice for what to do in the thanh pho, all featuring the grande dame of curse words. The schtick often breaks down though, offering declaratives rather than imperatives. One such entry shouts out the Spotlight pages of AsiaLIFE HCMC, where we feature snapshots from night spots around town.

Does this mean we’ve arrived?

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Editor. Writer. Occassional District 7 Lecturer.

RMIT Lecture

Yes, I was Googling myself.

That’s how I found this: a news bite on RMIT’s website about the lecture I gave to first year students in the school’s Professional Communications department. We’ve covered youth and education in Vietnam on a few occasions during my tenure at AsiaLIFE (check out the September issue, volume 30), and I always look forward to getting in a space with Vietnamese youth to get a better sense for their aspirations. And to share with them the cardinal sins of PR professionals.

Thanks to lecturer Jade Bilowal and RMIT for the invitation (and for selecting fairly flattering photos).

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