Thursday, January 31, 2013

Vietnam: Food

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One of the great joys of travel is getting to taste the foods of different cultures; above is Vietnam's most famous culinary contribution, the pho noodle, in this case, in a beef broth. Flavorful, filling and fabulous! It was my first breakfast in Vietnam, at a booth in the Ben Thanh market, seen below along with the regular spicing bowls you will find anyplace Vietnamese food is served:

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Among the other foods you'll see at the market, or probably any market, include fresh fruits, in this case dragonfruit, which belies its bland white flesh specked with black, coffee--of which the Vietnamese are justly proud, for its smooth, non-bitter flavor--and seafood.

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While I was on the beach at Mui Ne, I particularly enjoyed the Thai Hoa resort restaurant's scallops, and once ate about four pounds of grilled clams without bothering to take a picture.

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At a local Mui Ne restaurant, I ordered red snapper grilled in the local manner, and got this--delicious, but I kind of doubt traditional Vietnam cuisine involved aluminum foil:

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It was awesome, as I think fresh red snapper is one of the great delights of the sea. Local beef, the one time I had it, was tasty but a little tough. This is "five tastes beef":

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Hai Ba Trung in Saigon has a collection of fine dining places reminiscent of Xintiandi (look here). I ate at the upscale French place called Camargue, with a final tab approaching fifty bucks. However, I followed foie gras with a confit of crispy baby pig leg with seasonal vegetables, and it was scrumptious.

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On the other end of the spectrum was the 20,000 VND ($1) for a delicious street sandwich which saw some kind of wurst or sausage-y meat laid in a baguette with cucumber, tomato, Chinese parsley, onion, spicy Vietnamese vegetable and some sauces.

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What else do you finish a meal with but dessert?! Mostly, you should choose fresh fruit, especially if durian is on offer. Or durian ice cream otherwise. Bananas are still more popular in Vietnam though, and I had banana fritters, taro ice cream with chocolate sauce for desert after polishing off the crab spring rolls and goat meat curry at Nha Toi, near the War Remnants Museum.

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Follow that with a cup of coffee and it brings this food post, and my series of posts on Vietnam to an end. I didn't really talk about the people I met, like Eno and Wen and Loc and Mai, Gil and Andre and the Canadian farmers, eh? I think I got my money's worth out of five nights here, but I didn't get to do some of the things I would like to, so that just sets me up for another trip to Vietnam. Perhaps working south from Hanoi ... I hear they have some great restaurants there.

Meanwhile, tam biet, Vietnam, hen gap lai!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Vietnam, HCMC: Saigon Zoo and Botanical Garden

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European royals have been "collecting and trading" exotic animals since the Middle Ages, and in fact the Lion’s Tower, part of the Tower of London complex on the banks of the River Thames, was built around 1270 to house King Henry III’s growing menagerie. Chinese Emperor Wen 'the Cultured' set aside land for a royal hunting park to shelter the 'Pere David's Deer' perhaps 200 years before that. (You can read about my visit to the modern day Milu Park on those same exact lands here.) King Wen may have provided the first example of a "zoo" to preserve an endangered species, even if he was doing so for his private benefit.

The modern concept of a zoo, intertwining dual purposes of preservation and breeding, alongside public education and display, is a fairly recent phenomenon, dating to the mid-nineteenth century ...

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... and so the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Garden's claim to being one of the world's first zoos (founded in 1864) is not an idle boast. Certain parts of the zoo, however, are definitely sub-par, with too many buildings in need of repair:

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The reptile house, monkey house, and small cats area are particularly in need of a redo, with small spaces and concrete floors a hold-over 70s zoo management philosophy.

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The large animals fare somewhat better, and the zoo houses many varieties, a sampling of which is below:

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The Botanical Garden

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I love plants and flowers, something I picked up from my Dad, who not only photographed them, but often illegally carried seeds from one continent to another and germinated them--or attempted to. I hasten to point out that I don't. Smuggle plants and seeds. I do photograph them, but often not as well as he does. I do end up with better final shots, but that's because I use a digital camera these days, where 50 failed tries cost no more than one perfectly set up shot, and by 'brute law of averages force' I come out with one nearly-perfect image. Which I'll share below.

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The zoo seems very popular, though I did visit on a Saturday afternoon. Lots of schoolchildren in uniforms running around, families, young couples, a good cross-section. There was even a photo shoot going on:

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Vietnam, HCMC: Cu Chi Tunnels, War Remnants Museum

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One of the highlights of a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, about 1 1/2 hours north of Ho Chi Minh City, is the opportunity to fire a vintage AK-47, for a mere 350,000 VND per 10-shot clip (about $1.67 per bullet). I wasn't that interested in it, so I went in on a clip with a young couple of fellow-travelers in my tour group. From the beginning: I arranged the previous evening with my hotel clerk for a tour to Cu Chi, which is highly recommended, part of the network of multilevel tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the "American War" to hide in and move around without attracting notice.

A comfortable, air-con bus wheeled around the downtown area picking up from the hotels (me at about 8:50 AM); by 9:10, we were on our way north out of town. If you've ever been on a Great Wall of China tour, you'll know what happened before we got to the destination: a stop at a handicrafts workshop and showroom. This one was a little different, more worthy if I may say, because all the workers were handicapped by defoliants.

The Cu Chi tour itself begins with a jingoistic b&w video and a brief lecture using a map and this cutaway of the tunnel layout:

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They've done a reasonable job contextualizing the site, as your group follows a very well-worn path around the jungle, looking at a few types of tunnel entrances. There are stations along the way including a small encampment, a disabled US tank, and an armament workshop, complete with audio-animatronic VC.

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The most interesting station was one that had a series of VC traps that were scattered around the area, with wall paintings illustrating them "in use."

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After a break where you could either grab a quick snack or shoot a rifle, it was finally on to the part where you crawl through the tunnel. And I did it. It was nasty and dark and I felt almost stuck every inch of the way, but I did it--twenty meters of it, to the first exit ladder, anyway. I was so freaked, I forgot to take a picture, but I did get one of our tour members who didn't go in to take this shot at the exit (there is another exit at 70 meters, and a final one at 140 meters). It is creepy down there and I look a lot happier than I felt:

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War Remnants Museum
Until US-Vietnam relations warmed up, I'm told, this place was called the War Atrocities Museum. I don't know why they decided on remnants, though, because virtually every display is little more than photographs mounted on the wall (albeit with English as well as Vietnamese descriptions). There are a few scraps and weapons and such, but it's mostly photos. And it's mostly photographs taken by US military or press photogs, quite a number of which I remember from Life magazine. First up, the most iconic of the War's photos, centered on Phan Thi Kim Phuc, fleeing the napalming of Trang Bang in June, 1972. She survived.

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Here is a rather famous shot of some US soldiers 'waterboarding' a suspect VC soldier:

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Some photos to give you a good feel of the place, including some victims of defoliants, some anti-vehicle mines, a display of weapons, and some war remnants:

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And finally, a picture from the beginning of the walk through the museum, of Uncle Ho with some children, and a statue in the big open hallway, which is probably meant to call to mind Peace, or something like that:

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