Saturday, April 10, 2010

Vietnam Day Two: War and Food

We got up early in the morning to take a cooking class! This is something I've wanted to do for a long time- well, a few years anyway- ever since I graduated college and learned to cook something other than blue box Kraft mac & cheese. I got nervous when no one showed up to pick us up at the pre-determined time (8 AM), so I checked my email and saw that Connections Vietnam, who we were taking the class through, had CANCELED our class because we hadn't answered the phone the night before when they'd called to confirm (of course we hadn't- we were traveling, and I had no idea they would be calling). I called them, which was harder than you'd think, as I couldn't figure out the hotel phone or the Vietnamese telephone system in general (as it turns out, there are different numerical prefixes for calling landlines vs. cell phones). Anyway, I eventually got ahold of them and someone was at the Guesthouse California to pick us up within 10 minutes. From then on it was smooth sailing.

The girl that picked us up was a 22-year-old named Binh. She was friendly, bubbly, great at English, and very easy to talk to. She told us a little about HCMC on our way to the house where our class would be. We asked her if she rides a motorbike, and she said "Well, of course," and then we asked her if it was dangerous and she said again "Yes, of course. But better now; the government wants everyone to wear helmets." It was true that we'd seen many adults wearing helmets, but the children balanced on laps or perched in makeshift highchairs hardly ever had any sort of head protection, which seemed strange to me.

After about a half an hour of honking and weaving through motorbikes, we arrived at a nice house in a quieter area of the city, and were introduced to our chef, Wo (pronounced "woah"). He didn't speak English, so Binh translated for us (the class was just for Bryan and me), and told us a little about him. Wo is from a whole family of chefs, and he is relatively well-off. He lives with 30 people, all his extended family, and he cooks at a local restaurant. As soon as the introductions were over, Wo led us to a table on the back porch, where a cooking station was set up- a one-burner stove, buckets for rinsing hands and vegetables, and cutting boards and all sorts of fresh ingredients. We got down to business chopping vegetables for vegetarian spring rolls. I had never even seen some of these vegetables- Indian taro, something called mantioch, and a type of mushroom that bore a vague resemblance to a human ear (photo on the right). We began slicing with a tool that was also unfamiliar to me- it was designed for slicing thin layers, like you would do to a potato if you were making scalloped potatoes. At first I think my sloppy technique made Wo a little nervous, but I got better quickly and no one lost a finger. This is me cutting the Indian taro and Bryan chopping carrots- notice his intense concentration.I teased Bryan that if I ever mysteriously turn up missing, this picture will be all over the news.Here's Wo mixing up the spring roll filling, and Bryan and me rolling them up. It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be!Obviously they're not very good for you...
As we cooked, we kept up a steady stream of conversation with Binh and Wo (through Binh). It was interesting hearing the way she thinks about things- she seemed to have a pretty serious bias against Chinese people. At one point, after telling me about the pet monkey she'd had as a child, she told me that she'd heard somewhere that Chinese people eat monkey brains, but she wasn't sure if it was true. I told her that monkey brains are considered a delicacy in some places, not just in China. She joked that "Chinese people will eat anything with legs- except the table and chairs!" and although she seemed uncertain about whether they ate monkey brains, she was much more confident in her belief that they eat human babies. When we seemed doubtful of this claim, she assured us that it was true- she'd seen it on the Internet, after all! She also told us that food that's imported into Vietnam from China is often unsafe and is diluted with fillers like plastic in order to make it cheaper. It was certainly fascinating to hear things from Binh's perspective!

Here's the finished product. Clearly they were delicious! Wo showed us how to eat the rolls in a way that I'd never seen before- by wrapping them in lettuce and other leaves like mint, then dipping them in a homemade sauce of garlic, chili sauce, and some other seasonings. Yum!After chowing down on the spring rolls, we moved on to making a vegetarian version of pho, a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup that's typically made with beef. Wo had started the soup before we got there, because it takes a few hours of cooking. It smelled heavenly, and it was finished off before too long. It had a lot of the same ingredients as the spring rolls- mantioch, Indian taro, mushrooms, and a similar mixture of spices, plus a bunch of other ingredients- five different kinds of tofu, long noodles, and some leafy greens. It smelled heavenly.
As we cooked the soup, a gecko showed up on the wall. Bryan commented on how we think they're cute, and Binh said she hates them. Bryan was asking her if people keep them as pets, and he meant to ask her what she thought about other kinds of pets. He asked, "What do you think about mice?" and she looked contemplative for a moment and then replied "They taste pretty good- especially the ones in the Mekong, because they just eat rice so they get pretty plump and flavorful." I was mildly horrified, but I couldn't help but laugh, as this was coming from the girl who had criticized the Chinese only moments ago for being indiscriminate in what they would eat!

The soup was ready before long, and we all sat down to eat. I'd downed so many spring rolls that I was hardly even hungry anymore, but after my first bite of pho, I figured I had at least a little more room for this amazing creation. It was SO GOOD!! It had so many components that each bite had a slightly different texture and flavor. Bryan said he was disappointed by his first bite, but his second bite was great and it just got better and better with each taste. It really was tasty! Even so, I couldn't finish the massive bowl that Wo had plopped down in front of me.After stuffing ourselves full of pho, Bryan and I both gave up before we could finish. Wo got out some fruit for dessert, but we only managed to shove down a couple of slices just to appease him. Once we were completely and totally sated, we bid Wo goodbye and headed to the market with Binh. I was a little afraid of what we might see at the market, since our friends had visited HCMC a couple months before us and had seen a beheaded dog on a butchering block (yes, they eat dog in Vietnam), but luckily we didn't see Rover being prepped for lunch. The market was an experience anyway- motorbikes mixed right in with the pedestrians, driving right through the aisles of the market. There were lots of people and tons of fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats, and about a hundred different kinds of rice lined up in bins. Bryan and I drew a lot of stares, even with Binh along with us. As we walked down a line of food stalls, she pointed and said "That's noodle soup," and I asked, "Like pho?" and she said "No, different," and then proceeded to point out about 10 or so more stalls, each time saying, "That's a different kind of noodle soup," and insisting that each type was unique. When I told her that they all looked the same to me, she threw her head back and laughed. Binh also pointed out the fruits, some familiar and some foreign. I pointed to dragonfruit and said, "I've seen those in Singapore!" and she said "Yes, but you must remember- they come from Vietnam." (She's right).After the market, we hailed a taxi and got dropped off at the War Remnants Museum. I'd been a little anxious about visiting the museum. As the daughter of a Vietnam Veteran, I have mixed feelings about the war. Mostly, I don't believe that the U.S. should have gotten involved in Vietnam to begin with, and I think that the U.S. government approved some pretty twisted tactics, such as the use of Agent Orange, which devastated civilians as well as soldiers. However, despite my general disapproval for the war, I still have respect for the men and women who served in the war- particularly those that were drafted and faced with a moral dilemma- to fight a war that they may or may not believe in, or to dodge the draft and pass the dilemma on to some other unfortunate soul? It seems that there was no right answer in this situation, and I feel sorry that anyone was ever forced to make this tough decision. I suppose you could say that on the whole, I support the troops but not the war. And even then, I believe that there were soldiers who acted in immoral, repulsive, and atrocious ways- but that happens in every war. It's just one of the many reasons that war sucks. Either way, I was interested in hearing the story from the perspective of the other side.

The museum was just that- the Vietnamese side of the story, right down to the war being called the American War instead of the Vietnam War. The experience was even more heartbreaking than I had expected. One of the most moving exhibits was on the disfigured victims of Agent Orange, many of whom had been born long after the war, thus prolonging its effects into future generations in a horrifying way. As I stood staring at photos of children with outrageous deformities and debilitating handicaps, I noticed a small, European-looking child next to me saying "Mommy! Mommy! What's wrong with all those little kids?!" The mom replied offhandedly, "It was the Americans, honey. The Americans did it." I sighed deeply and turned away- I wasn't sure that it was the best way to teach the kid about war, but I supposed she was right.

Below is a shot of one of the exhibits from the second floor, looking down.One striking difference between this museum and any museum I'd ever seen in the U.S. was how graphic everything was. I saw photos there that would never be displayed anywhere in the U.S.- not in a museum or on the news. Some of the photos were haunting- American soldiers posing with the mangled bodies of dead Vietnamese people, massacre photos of piles of dead bodies with babies mixed in with the adults. I remembered seeing some graphic photos in the Holocaust Museum in DC, but this went a step farther than that- perhaps because some of the photos were in color, making them appear more gory. There was also this well-known photo of the naked little girl running from a napalm attack. I've seen the photo before, but not with the inset that this one had- the little girl as a scarred adult, holding her beautiful baby.I was saddened by seeing so many photos of soldiers who appeared so callous- some of them looked downright psychotic, smiling as they posed with the dead, or grinning as they tortured a captive. They appeared to be completely mad- like they'd either entered the war because they were already a little off and didn't mind the thought of hurting people, or like they'd been driven completely insane by what they'd seen since they arrived- maybe both. Then I saw this photo, and I thought it created a sort of balance to all of the hardened soldiers. I think his eyes express what a lot of others were probably feeling- despair, loss, and a deep desire to just go home.The museum was stiflingly hot, but we spent a few hours there anyway. One exhibit was dedicated entirely to the photographers who'd died while reporting on the war. I was shocked at the staggering number of casualties just among the photographers. Looking at the exhibit made it more clear to me why the media was so important in swaying public opinion about the war. Some of the photos were just heart-wrenching. Another exhibit was of art inspired by the war- this piece, called "Mother," is made entirely of bomb fragments and shrapnel.There was lots more to see outside- helicopters, tanks, planes, giant mortar shells. I look so awkward in this photo because I was trying to explain to Bryan that there is no appropriate pose or facial expression for a photo taken at a war museum.
There was also a big complex dedicated to prisoners of the war who were held captive on a Vietnamese island. The complex included replicas of some cells, and something called a "tiger cage," which was made of barbed wire and used for torture. Prisoners were placed in the small cages for long periods of time as punishment. There was also this antiquated guillotine, which looks like it was used during medieval times rather than as recently as the 1970's.
We had spent hours at the museum, and it was a pretty emotionally taxing experience. I mean, I didn't break down crying or anything, but I did leave with a heavy heart. Bryan and I headed to Le Pub in District 1 and we each drank a Saigon and took some time to digest our day, which had been jam-packed full even though it was only about 5 PM. We hung out there for awhile, chatting with the manager, a New Zealander who had moved to SE Asia around the same time we had. Eventually we decided that we should eat dinner, despite the fact that earlier in the day I had sworn I couldn't eat any more for at least 24 hours. We ate at Ngoc Tho, another restaurant with a big vegetarian selection (Vietnam was so easy for me!). The bonus to that place was that there was a dog roaming around, and halfway through our meal, someone brought out two adorable little puppies. Of course I abandoned my food and spent awhile playing with them. I talked to a little British girl, the daughter of some expats that had moved to Vietnam about a year ago. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to be eight years old and have your parents tell you that you were moving to a country you'd very likely never heard of!

After hanging out at the restaurant for awhile, we strolled around town a bit, slowly working our way back toward the hotel. When we were back in Singapore, we'd decided to visit the Mekong Delta during our trip, and I'd looked into it a bit. Most of the advice I'd read said just to book a trip through a tour company, since it would be cheaper and easier than trying to do it independently. District 1 is chock-full of little tour company offices, so we comparison shopped a bit and discussed it awhile before booking a tour through Viet Fun (which we chose largely because Bryan liked the brochure and I liked the name. Viet FUN! YEAH!) We stopped at a sidewalk food stall for a drink, and sat at short, kid-sized tables to drink it. The stall had tons of seafood available, including these paper-thin squid hanging from the top of the cart!
And that was the end to another jam-packed day in Saigon. We went to sleep eager to get up and check out the Mekong Delta!

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