Greening My Thumb

As of late the weather here in Hanoi has cooled off a bit (a balmy “feels like 107 F”), I completed The Draft of The Other Thing I’m Writing, and my motorbike and I have become cautiously amicable. These developments have allowed me to embark upon a few projects around the house and explore the city on my own now that I have additional time and mobility and the ability to be outside without melting into a puddle of sweat.

My most recent endeavor has been figuring out how to start growing herbs at home. I have had only minimal experience with gardening and that was in Kenya where it is almost impossible for plants not to grow. The climate here is much trickier so I’m starting small with three potted herbs: rosemary, thyme, and oregano. (I decided to begin with seedlings as opposed to seeds and these were the only ones available. If I don’t kill them all immediately I will expand my herb empire.)

Much like figuring out how to buy a microwave, determining how to begin even a simple gardening project is more complicated than one might think. I had to ask several online forums and neighborhood acquaintances and then visit a handful of shops to track down the elusive seedlings. Finally my efforts were rewarded — but not cheaply. I had to order the seedlings a week in advance and each cost 250,000 VND (about $12). But beggars can’t be choosers.

My guinea pigs (L to R): rosemary, oregano, thyme.

My little guinea pigs (L to R): rosemary, oregano, and thyme.

The next step was to acquire the necessary tools. This required a cross-town trip to the urban district of Ba Đình. With my trusty Google Map and list of plant-related words in Vietnamese, I ventured downtown.

Hoàng Hoa Thám, AKA plant street.

Hoàng Hoa Thám, AKA plant street.

This is Hoàng Hoa Thám where plants and garden equipment are sold. Also sold on Hoàng Hoa Thám: puppies and kittens, decorative fish in fish tanks, carved wooden altars, and stuffed Anime dolls. What’s the connection here? Your guess is as good as mine.

I located one of the mythical garden shops — it wasn’t difficult to find. Like everything in Hanoi, it’s all a matter of knowing where to look.

Pots and window boxes and fertilizer, oh my.

Pots and window boxes and fertilizer, oh my.

With the aid of Google Translate, a lot of sign language, and my rudimentary vocabulary of numbers and very simple phrases, I managed to explain what I needed to buy. I asked if the purchases could be delivered (as most anything can be in Hanoi) but the shopkeeper reassured me that delivery wasn’t necessary. I could take it on my motorbike.

I was dubious.

Then this man appeared and proved me wrong.

Securing the bounty.

Securing the bounty.

He tied up the three pots and two bags of potting soil with twine (total cost: 240,000 VND, or less than the cost of one seedling), and I was on my way.

Road ready.

Road ready.

I drove back home and got to work. The first step was finding a place to put the pots. I read that most herbs need at least six hours of direct sunlight per day, but my patio is very shady so I had a bit of trouble figuring out what the best spot would be. I ended up temporarily settling on this area (you can see the sun has already passed by but it was past 2 pm at this point). Tomorrow I am going to keep an eye on the sunlight and move the pots if necessary. Yes, my plan for Friday morning is equivalent to watching grass grow. This is dedication, people.

Sunny spot.

(Hopeful) sunny spot.

Next step, according to The Internet: filling 1/3 of each pot with gravel to help with water drainage.

Pots filled with gravel. Exciting times.

Pots filled with gravel. Exciting times.

Step three: Potting soil.

Ready to fertilize.

Ready to fertilize.

Step four: Put on the gloves that you should have put on prior to handling a bunch of soil. Oops.

Crucial addendum to step four: The gloves must be pink and sized to fit tiny a Vietnamese woman.

Pink green thumb.

Pink green thumb.

Step five: Make a godawful mess while planting the seedlings. I have an uncanny ability to make simple processes much, much messier than they need to be (see: cooking, baking, eating, showering, putting on makeup, etc. etc. etc.). Now I have another “skill” to add to that list.

I made a mess.

I made a mess.

Step six: Clean up mess while dog suspiciously investigates the scene. Nothing gets by this canine.

Dog inspecting the new additions.

Dog inspecting the new additions.

Step seven: Water! Dog did not enjoy this step.

Watering the herbs.

Watering the herbs.

Final step: Step back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Also you should probably take a shower, seeing that you’re covered in potting soil and sweating profusely. Or maybe that’s just me.

Mission: Accomplished.

Mission: Accomplished.

It remains to be seen whether A. this spot provides enough sun, B. my new friends survive my clumsiness, ignorance, and Hanoi’s tropical climate, and C. whether my dog will decide to eat or urinate on the new additions. Or both.

I’m keeping my green thumb crossed.

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Hungry Ghost Day

Today is the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar year, also known as Ghost Day of Ghost Month, according to the Chinese calendar.

On the first day of each lunar month, most Vietnamese pay homage to their deceased ancestors with offerings of fruit and tea, incense, and faux currency that is burned in order to ensure the welfare of spirits in the afterlife. (I wrote about this practice a few months ago.) On Ghost Day, though, the observance is much more solemn and the ceremonies more elaborate. It is the second most important holiday of the year, following Tết (the lunar new year).

Lighting the fire for the offerings.

Lighting the fire for the offerings.

On Ghost Day (Rằm Tháng Bảy in Vietnamese, translated literally as “Full Moon in July”), the borders of the realms of heaven and hell and those surrounding the living become porous. Whereas the offerings made on the first day of the lunar month are intended to appease and honor one’s deceased relatives, Ghost Day (sometimes called Hungry Ghost Day) holds a nobler purpose: to help wandering, “homeless” souls find their way. Traditional vegetarian foods like sticky rice and gelatin, in addition to seasonal fruits such as lychee and watermelon, are offered. More than just Vietnamese “hell money” is burned – paper-mâché versions of everyday items like shoes, gold and silver bracelets, conical hats, children’s toys, and stacks of fake American dollars go up in flames. Pagodas are adorned with flowers, and around the city ceremonial baskets are placed in markets to help feed unknown souls who have lost their way. In some regions in the south of the country, lit paper lanterns float down rivers after dark to help guide wandering souls home.

Paper-mâché clothing, toys, and jewelry.

Burning paper-mâché clothing, toys, and jewelry.

Lychee, watermelon, sticky rice, and pork cakes.

Lychee, watermelon, sticky rice, and pork cakes.

As with all holidays in Vietnam, there are certain superstitions that accompany Ghost Day. Clothes of any kind shouldn’t be bought unless they are the paper versions that are used as offerings to the dead. Buying anything white or any form of transportation is frowned upon. It is a very inauspicious day for weddings and groundbreaking construction. The whole month is called Tháng Cô Hồn in Vietnamese, or the Month of Lonely Spirits, and is believed to be a particularly unlucky time.

Stacks of fake American dollars are a popular offering.

Stacks of fake American dollars are a popular offering.

Money money money.

Money money money.

Today, for the first time in weeks, my neighborhood lost power. I got caught on my motorbike in a downpour, my housekeeper forgot her cell phone and missed an important call, and the Internet signal mysteriously disappeared for several hours. All of these small inconveniences are coincidences – right? There’s no such thing as bad luck, or hungry, wandering ghosts. It’s all just silly superstition.

Isn’t it?

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Ha Long Bay

Apologies, reader(s), for the radio silence. The Other Thing I’m Writing has been taking up most of my time and energy lately, but I hope to have a substantial entry in this blog soon. In the meantime, here are some photos I took this past weekend in Ha Long Bay (“bay of the descending dragon”), on the northern coast:

A seemingly abandoned fishermen's floating village in Ha Long Bay.

A seemingly abandoned fishermen’s floating village in Ha Long Bay.

Woman inserting grains of sand into oyster shells in order to stimulate pearl production.

Woman inserting grains of sand into oyster shells in order to stimulate pearl production.

Pearl farmers.

Pearl farmers.

Gorgeous lighting inside Surprise Cave.

Gorgeous lighting inside Surprise Cave.

View of the bay from the top of Surprise Cave.

View of the bay from the top of Surprise Cave.

Sunrise.

Sunrise.

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A Matter of Perspective

Sometimes I find myself getting frustrated at certain inconveniences of living abroad. I have to wander around to several shops in order to gather all the vegetables I need to cook one meal, for example, or can’t watch a movie because the power is out. I try not to focus on these inconveniences (or blog about them, for that matter) because I know they come with the territory of living abroad and I don’t want to be a poster girl for obnoxious #expatproblems. Suffice it to say there are aggravations and I have moments of frustration.

But then something simple happens to make me forget the inconveniences and I realize, again, how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to live abroad. And more specifically, to live in Hanoi.

Yesterday morning, N. and I were on our way to check out a new brunch menu at a restaurant in the Old Quarter when his motorbike got a flat tire. Flat tires are a pretty common occurrence in Hanoi – monsoon rains leave a lot of potholes and although cleaning crews are always working, a lot of debris ends up in the road, particularly downtown. Both of us have encountered flat tires before but always close to home where we know of nearby garages that do repairs. This time we were in the middle of a crowded street in the labyrinthine maze of Hoan Kiem without a clue where to go.

I waited by the bike while N. popped into a nearby hotel and asked for directions to the closest repair shop. (I couldn’t hear the conversation but can only imagine it involved a lot of sign language.) We were instructed with a vague wave down the street – I walked while N. drove the bike so as not to further damage the tire. Half a block away, a woman wearing a typical long-sleeved cotton shirt and pants in 100-degree heat – to keep from getting a tan, but that’s another blog post altogether – beckoned us over. On the ground, a red air compressor with “xe om” (“motorbike”) sat, its coils and tubes bright in the sun.

N. was initially concerned that the mechanic would only fill the flat tire with air and we would have to find another place to patch it, but as it turned out we had stumbled onto a one-stop repair shop. A man with half-moons of grease beneath his fingernails squatted beside the bike with a metal tin full of tools. As he removed the punctured tube from underneath the tire and placed it in a bucket of water to look for the hole, a man sitting next to a street food stall of fried chicken cartilage walked over to us. With a big grin on his face, he waved his arms and said “Vietnam!” gesturing to encompass everything around us. He said a few phrases more, and though the words were lost in translation, the meaning was clear: here, there is a solution to every problem on every street corner. This efficiency and creativity and entrepreneurial spirit: this is Vietnam.

10499027_266474376872858_889150215_n

The mechanic located the puncture and patched it up. After double-checking to ensure that there were no other holes, he fit the tube back beneath the tire and filled it with air. N. and I stood watching the process and discussed how much we thought we would be charged for the service. Fixing flat tires is commonplace but the mechanic had to use a patch and rubber cement, which may raise the price. Also not to be minimized is the fact that we are obvious foreigners with limited Vietnamese language skills – it would be very easy to charge us double or even triple the amount that a local would pay (and this does happen, albeit not as frequently as in other countries that I’ve visited).

He washed the grease off of his hands, placed the tools back in the tin box, and stood up, smiling. “Thank you,” we said, “Cảm ơn.”

“How much?” N. asked, indicating his wallet.

“Thirty,” replied the mechanic in crisp English.

“Thirty?” I asked incredulously. He nodded.

N. paid the mechanic 30,000 VND – about $1.5 USD. We thanked him once again, waved to the man who had spoken to us before – who had resumed his place on a squat plastic stool in the shade, chatting with a woman selling green beans off of a newspaper-covered sidewalk – and drove away on the newly repaired bike, joining the cacophony of honks and beeps around us.

This unremarkable event – we got a flat tire, we got it fixed – encapsulates so much about what makes Hanoi the special place that it is. One: the convenience and efficiency. We popped a tire on a random street in the middle of downtown Hanoi and within half a block, a solution in the form of a portable garage – basically, a guy with an air compressor, toolbox, bucket of water, and mechanical knowledge – appeared. Two: the congeniality and friendliness of most locals, as demonstrated by Mr. “Vietnam” and also by a woman who kept insisting that I take a seat in the shade while the bike was being repaired. Three: the unbelievable affordability of everyday services. And, last but not least, four: the honesty of the mechanic, who could have easily overcharged us for his services, but didn’t.

Incidents like this make me appreciate the simple, good moments that can be glimpsed in everyday life here in Hanoi. Yes, there are difficulties and challenges, and at times I find myself annoyed with circumstances beyond my control. But there is also a beauty and a goodness present just below the surface, a kindness that softens the edges of frustration. One just has to look from the right angle, in the right light – and there it is.

It’s just a matter of perspective.

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Temple of Literature

Some photos from the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, a Confucian temple constructed in 1070 and home to the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university.

Confucian altar.

Confucian altar.

No altar offering is complete without Choco Pie and Minute Maid OJ.

No altar offering is complete without Choco Pie and Minute Maid OJ.

Some tree dwellers outside the Imperial Academy.

Some tree dwellers outside the Imperial Academy.

A few of the 116 doctors' steles commemorating royal exam graduates between 1442 and 1779. Vietnamese students attempt to rub the turtles' heads for good luck on exams (hence the barrier).

A few of the 116 doctors’ steles commemorating royal exam graduates between 1442 and 1779. Vietnamese students attempt to rub the turtles’ heads for good luck on exams (hence the barrier).

Lotus pond.

Lotus pond.

Beware the vicious ficus monster.

Beware the vicious ficus monster.

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Easy, Tiger

Easy, Tiger

Learning some very interesting phrases from my Lonely Planet phrasebook.

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The Taste of Evil

I have met my culinary nemesis. He is oblong, lime green, and covered in warty bumps.

His name – dare I utter it? – is bitter melon.

Behold, the bane of my existence:

bittergourd

I have never failed at cooking a dish as spectacularly as when I attempted to wrangle this horrid “vegetable” into edible form. Here’s what happened –

I joined a CSA here in Hanoi a month or so ago for a few reasons: the produce at the local stores is expat-priced; the CSA delivery is convenient and the products organic, etc.; but the main reason is because I liked the idea of being challenged to cook with ingredients I wouldn’t necessarily gravitate towards in a market or grocery store. This approach worked with local varieties of eggplant, pumpkin, spinach, cucumbers, and herbs like Vietnamese mint, pepper leaf, and perilla (tia tô and lá lôt). Everything was going according to plan.

And then I encountered bitter melon.

Bitter melon, also known as bitter squash, bitter gourd, goya, or karavella, is a tropical vegetable that grows in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. It’s used in a variety of ways in different regions – in China, it’s often an ingredient in stir-fries; in Nepal, it’s pickled; in India, it is added to curries or mixed with roasted coconut. In Vietnam, bitter melon is sliced and eaten with dried meat floss or made into soup. During the Tết holiday, it’s an important part of the ceremonial meal – stewed bitter melon (canh khổ qua) is a traditional dish that is meant to evoke the hardship and poverty of past struggles in observance of the new year:

"Canh khổ qua," bitter melon soup

“Canh khổ qua,” bitter melon soup.

In retrospect, I should have paid more attention to this symbolism.

My first inkling that I may have bitten off more than I could chew with this ingredient (har har) came when I began researching recipes online. Most of the top results clustered around a single theme: “how to reduce the bitterness of bitter melon.” Some results went a bit further, albeit less eloquently – as one person asked on yahoo answers, “How do you make bitter melon taste good?” adding, “I already tried it stir fried and raw. Both taste horrible.” Also of concern were the number of sites that passionately advocated for the vegetable’s health benefits – supposedly it can cure everything from type two diabetes to cancer. (But beware, pregnant women, as “the laxative component of the vegetable may lead to premature contraction, vaginal bleeding and miscarriages.” Yum.) I knew by the time I stumbled across The National Bitter Melon Council, a group “devoted to the cultivation of a vibrant, diverse community… [based on celebrating] this underappreciated vegetable” that I was in for a challenge. If people are forming councils with the tagline “Bitterness defines our humanity!” to promote the consumption of a food, it can’t be a tasty treat. Most vegetables don’t require their own PR team.

Seriously, I couldn't make this up if I tried.

Seriously, I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

Usually I’ll find a local recipe that features the exotic ingredient in question, but unfortunately the Vietnamese methods of preparing bitter melon were off the table for me because all the recipes I found involved stuffing the melon with pork, which I don’t eat. I decided to use a vegetarian Indian recipe instead (Stuffed Karelas in Makhani Gravy), figuring that any vegetable stuffed with lentils and spices and doused in gravy couldn’t be too bad.

The goal: stuffed karelas in makhani gravy.

The goal: stuffed karelas in makhani gravy (courtesy of http://www.tarladalal.com)

I decided to try to minimize the bitterness of the melon as much as possible after reading so many complaints about its taste. I began by treating it like an eggplant – I sliced off the bumpy skin and removed the seeds (both of which increase bitterness), sliced it in quarters, placed it in a colander, and sprinkled salt over it to sweat out the juices. I let it sit for about 20 minutes while making the lentil and spice filling, then rinsed off the salt, squeezed out the excess liquid, and patted it dry.

Then I took a little nibble of one of the slices and nearly gagged.

“Bitter” is a description that really doesn’t do justice to the taste of this horrid, malignant vegetable. “Inedible,” “vile,” and “nauseating” are more appropriate adjectives. I’m not saying this because I don’t like bitter foods – I can eat olives by the jarful, “hypothetically.” But this was next-level bitterness – vomit-inducing, mouth-rinsing, internal organs-puckering bitterness.

But I wasn’t deterred from my mission yet. I had a back-up plan: blanching the melon to reduce the bitterness even more. I heated a pot of water on the stove until it boiled and put the vegetable in the boiling water. While it boiled, I prepared the makhani gravy. I added pureed tomatoes, onion, garlic, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, red pumpkin, toasted cumin seeds, and kasoori methi, and salt to a saucepan to simmer.

Back-up plan: blanching.

Back-up plan: blanching.

Then I went to add chili powder to the gravy and my hand slipped. At least a tablespoon of spicy chili powder fell into the pan and was soaked up by the puree before I could fish it out with a wooden spoon. “Ah well,” I thought naively, “the gravy will be a little spicy.”

I removed the bitter melon slices from the pot and submerged them in ice water to stop the cooking process. When they cooled, I picked one up and tasted it with the corner of my tongue. And promptly spit it out.

The blanching had done nothing to soften the bitter taste of the melon. It was like licking paint off of a wall, acrid and medicinal. Basically it tasted like this little girl looks:

sour-face

Not. Delicious.

“Okay,” I told myself. “All hope is not lost. I’ll just forget the stupid melon and serve the gravy over rice. I can eat the lentil stuffing on the side – there’s no reason to waste all this food just because the melon was a failure.”

I walked back to the stove and dipped a spoon into the gravy to see if it needed any seasoning. I brought the spoon to my lips and the next thing I knew, I was coughing and spluttering, my mouth burning and eyes watering. I ran over to the sink and tried gulping down mouthfuls of water to get the taste out of my mouth but it was useless. I had forgotten, in my concentration on un-bittering the bitter melon, that the chili powder sold here is exponentially spicier than any other chili powder I’ve ever bought. A quarter of a teaspoon is more than enough to season a large pot of stew. I mistakenly added twelve times that amount.

The gravy was inedible, the bitter melon was inedible, and although there was nothing crucially offensive about the lentils, I was done. Defeated. Conquered. Vanquished by my opponent, the “underappreciated vegetable” that holds the cures to all ailments.

Don't let this cutesy facade fool you -- this melon man has no soul.

Don’t let his cutesy facade fool you — this melon man has no soul.

I ordered delivery. Surrounded by plastic bottles of soy sauce and crumpled receipts, I came to the conclusion that cancer and diabetes and god knows what other diseases might just be worth the tradeoff if I never have to take one more bite of that horrendous vegetable ever again.

You win this round, you warty, misshapen demon. You win this round.

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Châu Long Market

In lieu of a substantive update (which I hope to get around to soon!), please enjoy these photos I took last weekend of Châu Long market in Hanoi’s Ba Đình district, dear reader(s).

Fruit and vegetable stall.

Fruit and vegetable stall.

Eggs! Duck, goose, quail, chicken-without-fetus, and chicken-fetus. (The cage-free and factory-farmed eggs were described as "eggs from happy chickens" and "eggs from unhappy chickens," respectively.)

Eggs! Duck, goose, quail, chicken-without-fetus, and chicken-fetus. (The cage-free and factory-farmed eggs were described as “eggs from happy chickens” and “eggs from unhappy chickens,” respectively.)

How much would you pay for a bag o' frogs?

How much would you pay for a bag o’ frogs?

Cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!

Cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!

Woman chopping meat with a cleaver.

Woman chopping meat with a cleaver.

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As I remember, after waking up in the morning, people do not get out of bed and clean their mouth with water for three times, then eat a boiled egg, one bowl of fermented sticky rice, which is believed to make inner parasites to get drunk. After fermented sticky rice, sour fruits are eaten in order to kill the parasites. [sic]

Nguyen Thi Ty tells Xinhua about Duanwu, a festival that takes place today. It is believed that parasites living inside human body make an appearance on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, when they must be eradicated by ingesting certain fruits, sticky rice cakes, and fermented sticky rice pudding.

“The Festival of Killing Inner Insects”

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Born to Be Wild

Today I rented a motorbike.

Pedestrians of Hanoi: you’ve been warned.

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