Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hanoi's 1,000th birthday - the countdown begins!

Tomorrow is the start of a ten day celebration to mark Hanoi's 1,000th birthday. Vietnam's capital turns 1,000 years old next Sunday on 10/10/2010 (coincidentally also my 36th birthday!).

To be honest, as much as I love living in Saigon, I'm sad we're not in Hanoi at the moment as I'm sure the build up to next week's celebration would be fantastic.

Even over the last 12 months when we lived in the north, the excitement was clearly visible as the city underwent renovations to dress itself up for the big occasion.

To celebrate Hanoi's birthday I will devote a few posts over the next 10 days to some of my favourite places in, and memories of, Hanoi.

No better way to start off than with my memories of Hanoi's 999th birthday party!

I don't really like birthdays, and turning 35 years old didn't fill me with much excitement, but the fact that much of Hanoi literally shut down for an all day party on my birthday (despite it not being in my honour!) made it a day I'll remember for a long time to come.

On 10/10/2009, the People's Committee closed Hanoi's iconic Long Bien Bridge, normally reserved for motorbikes (and trains!), and opened it to the public for an all day festival.

Hanoi's Long Bien Bridge
The Long Bien Bridge stretches 1,682 metres across the Red River and has quite a chequered history.

Built in 1902 by French architect Gustave Eiffel (yes, the same Eiffel of the tower in Paris!), as the only access point at the time from northern Vietnam into Hanoi the bridge played a crucial part in the war against America.

Given its critical position in Hanoi, Long Bien was bombed a number of times between 1967 and 1972, rendering it completely unusable for periods at a time.

Today, only half of the bridge retains its original structure and due to its dilapidated state only motorbikes, trains and pedestrians are allowed.

For the city's 999th birthday the Long Bien Bridge Festival celebrated the structure that has held a prominent place in the hearts of the northern Vietnamese for more than a century.

Long Bien was turned into an art gallery for the celebration with many artworks hung along half of the bridge. Add to that the street entertainers, stalls and crowds of locals enjoying the chance to walk along the bridge without the traffic, and it was a great day out in Hanoi city.

Georgia and Shell on Long Bien Bridge

Long Bien Bridge Festival

Artwork on Long Bien
Georgia, Shell, Lotta, Darrin, Mackenzie and Rob

Mackenzie and Georgia loved the bridge's playdough artists

Team Somerville on Long Bien Bridge

It's a long walk!

Happy birthday to moi! Shell and me on the Bridge

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

{Saigon Snacks} Bun Bo Hue

It has taken me a few months, but I have found a Vietnamese "foodie" obsession to replace my northern cravings for Hanoi bun cha.

My new dish, and one that you'll find me eating at least once a week in the Vincom food court (yeah, yeah I know it's not exactly a grungy roadside street stall!) is called Bun Bo Hue.

Translated, this means beef noodle soup Hue style. The soup consists of thick bun (vermicelli noodles) with all manner of meaty bits (many unrecognisable to a foreigner!) floating in a rich, tangy broth. It comes with a serving of salad condiments such as lettuce, coriander and bean sprouts to add to the dish and, best of all, a generous helping of fresh chilli and lime which gives the soup a good kick.

Although three times more expensive than what you'll buy outside, for only 45,000 VND a serving, the aptly named Hue Delights food stall in the basement of Vincom dishes up a reliable version that's less likely to give tourists a tummy issue!

Bun Bo Hue

Hue Delights, Vincom Shopping Centre, Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Murtle the Turtle & Hair of the dog!

This morning there was a strange sight outside our house. The girls discovered a terrapin (turtle) wandering along the edge of the backyard.

Not really surprising given we live next to a river, but this guy had clearly lost his way. Worried that it might be dried out, who knows how long it had been wandering around our compound, I put it into a bucket of water so we could return it to the river.

Before we left for our Sunday swimming lesson we wandered along the boardwalk trying to find the right place to set it free. Problem was that the water was so far down our only option was to toss it from quite a height.

I was worried the turtle might have a heart attack before it hit the water, so for now we have adopted the terrapin (now christened Murtle the Turtle) until the tide is high enough to set him free.

On the way back to the house one of the compound gardeners came over to see what we had in our bucket. He told us that we should keep it and eat it once it was big enough! Ahhhh, no thanks!

Murtle the Turtle
With Murtle safely inside the house we took the girls for their Sunday swim class. There were a few very hungover parents who had been at the Sheraton AFL party yesterday!

Like troopers we backed up and met our friends Lotta and Darrin for Lotta's post-birthday lunch at the Mekong Merchant on Thao Dien. There's no better cure for a hangover than hair of the dog! (although poor Rob was so seedy that he could only stomach a milkshake!).

And best of all, after extensive renovations, Mekong Merchant has re-opened their kids/toy room. Yay!

Lotta and new bub Jonathon
Mackenzie and Rob
Lotta and me - a bit wet from this afternoon's rainstorm!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

{Saigon Scene} AFL Grand Final party

The venue
Hundreds of expats packed the grand ballroom at the Sheraton today for a taste of home - the AFL grand final party. This is without a doubt one of biggest events on the Saigon expat social calendar, a huge day of eating and drinking all in the name of charity (this year for the Loreto Vietnam Australia Program).

For many of the expats in the room who don't normally barrack for Collingwood or St Kilda, and for those of us who don't even follow the AFL, it didn't matter as we all picked a side and spent the best part of 2.5 hours screaming at the big screens!

With food and alcohol being served from 9.30am (I restrained myself until 11.20am!) as you can imagine it got quite messy!

Jane, Cindy and Kieran - for the girls it's a chance to dress up, leave the kids with the nanny and have a fun day/night out!
Me with Dani - colleague and fellow blogger. Check out some great photos of the party on Dani's blog
Despite more than four hours of solid drinking, those of us still standing (just!) moved to Phatty's bar on Ton That Diep street.

Not enough taxis for all the expats? No problem. Take a Xe Om! (a motorbike taxi).

Look at me Mum, no helmet and no hands! Clearly I was drunk. The first time I had been on a Xe Om and I was giggling like a maniac and snapping photos as we sped through District 1. Good fun!

Andrew and Jaon enjoying the ride
Me with my Xe Om driver - clearly I was impressed with myself!
Shame about the result - I'm told there hasn't been a grand final draw since the 70's - but that just gives all us Saigon expats an excuse to have another crack next weekend! (like we need one!).

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam

Tonight as we walked through the compound to our villa, the girls clutching their bright orange lanterns from the Mid-Autumn party, we took a minute to stop and look up at the moon. After all, that's what today is all about for the Vietnamese - a celebration of the moon at its "fullest" and "roundest".

Hmmm...don't want to be a killjoy (or disrespectful!) but I must admit that it looked like any other full moon to me, but beautiful all the same.

The Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival and sometimes the Lantern Festival or the Mooncake Festival, is officially celebrated today, the 15th day of the 8th month on the Chinese calendar.

This date is celebrated by the Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese and dates back over 3,000 years. Traditionally, on this day, family and friends will gather to admire the bright mid-Autumn harvest moon, eat mooncakes and pomelo under the moon together.

There seems to be a few different versions of the stories behind the Mid-Autumn Festival, depending on which country you come from.

The Vietnamese version of the holiday recounts the legend of Cuội, whose wife accidentally urinated on a sacred banyan tree, taking him with it to the Moon. Every year, on the mid-autumn festival, children light lanterns and participate in a procession to show Cuội the way to Earth.

In Vietnam, Mooncakes are typically square rather than round, though round ones do exist. Besides the indigenous tale of the banyan tree, other legends are widely told including the story of the Moon Lady, and the story of the carp who wanted to become a dragon.

Aside from the moon cakes, most of the Vietnamese celebrations include dragon parades and lion dances to bring good luck and fortune.

Sadly tonight's party at our compound didn't have either, just lots of loud music, acrobats and magicians, but it was all about the kids anyway and Georgia and Mackenzie loved it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam

Tonight we went to the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations at the Australian International School - an annual event eagerly anticipated by all the students, regardless of their nationality.

Kitted out in their Chinese-style Vietnamese dresses, this was Georgia and Mackenzie's first Mid-Autumn Festival party and they loved it!

Over the last few weeks the students at AIS have been learning about the festival traditions and making colourful lanterns, hung throughout the school's grounds for tonight's festivities. The girls were proud to show off their work which will be donated to local orphanages after the festival.

The Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival, is held on the 15th day of the eighth month on the Chinese calendar (tomorrow, Wednesday 22 September). It's a date that parallels the autumnal equinox of the solar layman's terms, that's when the moon is supposedly at its "fullest" and "roundest".

This is an important family event in Vietnamese culture where family and friends will gather to admire the full moon, eat moon cakes and pomelos.

One of the many cultural traditions associated with the festival are lion dances, just one of the performances we enjoyed this evening. We also watched traditional drummers, acrobatic lion dances and a disturbing man who amused the audience by hanging various heavy items off his eyelids (I kid you not!).

Here are a few photos of tonight's festival:

Traditional drummers
Lion dances

Creepy man with very strong eyelids!

The kids were suitably gobsmacked!

Tommorow is the official Mid Autumn Festival and we've been invited to a celebration organised by our compound's management. I'll fill you in on more of the traditions and stories associated with the Mid Autumn Festival in tomorrow's post.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

{Saigon Snacks} Blu Bar & Grill, Riverside

Mackenzie at the Blu Bar & Grill, Riverside
For Team Somerville, Sundays in Saigon have fallen into a regular pattern. Sunday morning swim school with Mr. Tony at the AIS pool followed by lunch at the Snap Cafe.

Today we decided to mix it up a little with a new lunch venue. Not as exciting for the girls (because it's hard to beat Snap with its massive outdoor jungle gym and sand pit) but good for us parents who need variety once in a while!

Today we had lunch at the Blu Bar & Grill, a cafe cum restaurant within the Riverside compound in District 2.

They serve a brunch menu from 11am to 4pm, mostly international dishes such as eggs benedict and breakfast burritos, and some with an Asian twist such as a vegetable ommlette  with chilli soy sauce and steamed rice. Good food and friendly staff.

A great outdoor/indoor venue on the Saigon river (with overhead fans to keep diners cool) and a playground within the compound for the kids once they get bored with eating.

Most of the dishes are under US$10, but best of all there's a complimentary salad bar.

Riverside is next to our compound (Villa Riviera) on the river. Would be great if the management of both compounds could come to an agreement about extending the river boardwalk so we can dine here on a regular basis!


The Saigon River
Blu Bar & Grill, Riverside Apartments, 53 Vo Truong Toan Street, An Phu Ward District 2

Saturday, September 18, 2010

{Saigon Snacks} The Boat House

Back at the Boat House restaurant again tonight (second Saturday night in a row!).

Its riverside location in the BP compound (one of the most expensive compounds in D2) means that dining here is not cheap by Vietnam standards i.e. US$10 - $20++ for mains.

I've found the food here to be a bit hit and miss. My pasta tonight was just ok, yet the fish I had last weekend was fantastic.

Regardless, the atmosphere and riverside location, with a paved boardwalk where the kids can play, keeps us coming back.

Tonight's drawcard was the music festival under a big top tent at the back of the restaurant. Lots of bands, as well as a fire dancer from Vanuatu that the girls loved.



The fire dancer
Reggae band - Bad Neighbours
The Boat House - BP Compound, Thao Dien, District 2

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sleeping in Saigon

Sleeping on the job!
No matter how long I live in this country I will never fail to be shocked (and somewhat amused) at the ability of Vietnamese people to sleep anywhere at any time of the day.

Walk around the city streets at lunch time and you'll see lines of construction workers taking a nap on the concrete pavement outside their building site or a Xe Om driver curled up on the seat of his motorbike (looks uncomfortable!).

Shop in the market stalls and you'll find workers taking a break under a table, at any time of the day, sometimes with nobody awake to serve the customers!

In office buildings around the city, it's not uncommon for the lights to be turned off for an hour over lunch so workers can have a sleep under their desks (this practice is less common in foreign-owned companies). 

As a foreigner I find this concept bizzare. Not just from the viewpoint that as an employer I would not look favourably on an employee who slept in the office (even if they are using their lunch break to do it) but also because I think sleeping in public is creepy!

I find it difficult to sleep on a plane due to the fact that anyone could be watching, let alone sleeping outside with hundreds of people walking right past me! (Ok, so may'be I'm at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum to the Vietnamese!)

Why is it that Vietnamese need a sleep at some point during the day? In South America the lunchtime siesta is common due to the extreme heat, but if you're working in an air-conditioned office why the need for a nap?

Is it just laziness or a cultural quirk? In Australia if you were caught sleeping on the job it would be grounds for dismissal.

In Vietnam, on the other hand, employers (me included) seem to accept the fact that at some stage during the day their staff will have a nap! Is this due to the fact that wages are so low that employees don't suffer from the guilt of sleeping on the job and the employers, in turn, don't ask too much from their staff? I'm starting to think that might be the case.

Which brings me to the point of this thread. Today I had a sick day (Georgia and Mackenzie were kind enough to share the virus that kept them home from school earlier this week!).

I spent much of the morning either sleeping or moaning about my sore throat, rising temperature and aching body. When I eventually surfaced around 12:30pm for lunch I found my housekeeper asleep on the couch!

Granted, she is heavily pregnant and entitled to do whatever she wants on her lunch break (although I did note that she slept for 1 hour and 20 minutes then took another 15 minutes to eat her lunch!), but what was more surprising is that she had no qualms about doing this knowing I was at home!

Of course I would never say anything to her as I understand it is completely acceptable in her culture, but it does make me wonder what she does when I'm not here!

And why would I not confront her you wonder? Well, I too suffer from employer guilt because I've hired someone who works very hard (mostly!) running my household and caring for my children for way less than the minimum hourly wage in Australia!

Many foreigners, and no doubt local employers, convince themselves that the rate of pay is acceptable because the cost of living here is low.

But, what it generally means for us expats is that if our staff do something we'd normally consider a sackable offence in our own country (like sleeping on the job or not ironing our clothes properly!) we let it slide because we figure we don't pay them enough to whinge! Yet another example of me becoming "Vietnamised"!

Note, this of course doesn't stop me bitching and moaning to Rob whenever I discover our housekeeper hasn't done something I'd asked of her, but usually I'm told to shut up and reminded that we could never afford the luxury of a full-time housekeeper in Australia! Point taken.

Just another day in Vietnam!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Alice in Wonderland - A Charity Cabaret

The singing flowers
This afternoon we attended Alice in Wonderland - a charity cabaret for kids at the Sheraton Hotel. A fantastic event, organised by a group of long-term Saigon expats, to raise money for various charities.

Today's kid-styled event followed on from the adults only cabaret show held at the Sheraton last night. A night, I am told by one of the organisers, that was filled with fun, debauchery and far too much alcohol! But hey, when it's for a good cause who cares?

Last night was a sell out, as was today's event - which included a dance class so the kids could learn some of the show's less raunchy moves followed by a condensed, kid friendly version of the cabaret (3 acts) and a dance party.

And as a unique twist on today's event, for every child ticket sold (adults were free) the organisers invited a child from a local orphanage.

I'm told this will be an annual event. Keep posted at

Georgia and Mackenzie loved the show!
The Mad Hatter, Alice and the Queen of Hearts

Georgia and Mackenzie with singing flower, and show organiser, Chris Byrne

Friday, September 10, 2010

{Saigon Snacks} Saigon's best indian food

We've had a few weeks break from Friday Date Night, either due to work or travel, so we decided to make an effort tonight. (Although I must admit after a big week at work the thought of slobbing around the house with a $2 dvd and a bottle of wine was tempting!)

After work we met for drinks at Shri (a regular haunt as it's in the building where Rob works and has the best views in town) followed by dinner in the backpackers district on Bui Vien Street.

Tonight we ate at Mumtaz on Bui Vien, a halal Indian restaurant with a huge expat and tourist following. Despite its grungy appearance this place serves up the tastiest Indian food I've had in a long while.

We made the mistake of ordering our dinner "spicy", but even though we immediately corrected ourselves and said "but not too spicy" it was certainly hot! But delicious all the same.

The Mumtaz waiters are particularly attentive. One guy seemed quite concerned that we were struggling with the chilli, despite continually telling him the food was fantastic, so he kept coming over to top up our mugs with ice water the second they were emptied and bought us a little cup of plain youghurt to finish off the meal and stop the tastebuds from burning!

The masala papadums were divine, especially the array of condiments they came with, and the chicken tikka was the best I've had.

And best of all, most likely due to its location in the "grunge" district, this place is ridiculously cheap with most mains priced at around 80,000VND (about US$4!). Highly recommended.

Mumtaz - 226 Bui Vien Street, District 3

Friday, September 3, 2010

A long weekend in Phu Quoc - Day 2, Part 2

As the rain continued, but thankfully at a lighter pace than earlier this morning, we headed south of Duong Dong townn on a bumpy, boggy red-dirt road to a remote stretch of Long Beach that hosts a number of pearl farms.

Around 8kms from Duong Dong, the first major pearl farm you'll come across is Phu Quoc Pearls, an Australian-owned pearl farm. We were keen to visit this one as the guide book said it had a cafe serving New Zealand Ice-cream. Just our luck, it was closed!

Not to worry, the helpful Mr Van Khoa told us there were a few more farms down the road. Another 10 minutes drive and we were at a Japanese-owned pearl farm.
The Japanese-owned pearl farm and shop on Long Beach
Out the front we were approached by one of the staff who demonstrated how pearls are farmed. Watching her get the pearl out of the oyster was fascinating. She did two oysters and gave the girls a pearl each.

Here's what we learned...for pearl farming a farmer needs oysters that are old enough and large enough to be "nucleated" to grow a pearl. Some farmers collect them from the sea, others grow their own (takes 1-2 years).

The next part of the process is for the farmer to nucleate the oyster with a "foreign" object. In the case of saltwater oysters on Phu Quoc that foreign object is a piece of thin plastic-like tissue prepared from a mother of pearl shell.

Once the oyster has the implant it is given a few weeks to recover from the surgery before being transferred back to the oyster bed in a cage where the farmers tend them for 2 to 3 years until the pearl develops.

Most pearl snobs would argue that natural pearls are better, but for a novice like me who couldn't tell the difference it doesn't really matter! I'm not a fan of pearls, I find them old fashioned, but the girls were fascintaed with the jewellery inside the store so we bought them a bracelet each for $150,000 VND (under $10!).

Heading back towards the resort the rain finally eased off so we decided to have a late lunch at one the restaurants just outside La Veranda's gates. The resort is on Tran Hung Dao Street, a paved side street that runs off the main road (also, confusingly, Tran Hung Dao). The side street houses a few of the cheaper, but popular hotels, such as Mai's Place and the Charm Hotel, as well as some rustic-looking restaurants serving up fresh Phu Quoc seafood.

We chose The Palm Tree. Set up in 2004, this is a family-run establishment that is at the owner's house (as so many of Vietnam's restaurants probably are!). Dining is in an outdoor covered pavilion. There are plenty of seafood dishes to choose from, as well as pork, beef and chicken. The most you'll pay for a dish is 80,000 VND (around US$4.20!) unless you choose the Hot Pot which is just under US$10.

While the setting is basic, and as long as you're not perturbed by the owner's mangy looking dog that comes close to your table begging for scraps, this is a great introdution to Phu Quoc's seafood for very little money. The best dish we ordered was a mackerel fish done in a tamarind sauce. Delicious!