Wednesday, February 14, 2007

You Are What You Eat

... maybe that's why I'm sick like a dog this past weekend.

Let's back up a bit. As everyone knows, Lunar New Year is nearly upon us. Customarily, like any major holiday celebrated by any culture, one goes out to eat with family. Being that VA and I recently came ashore, the Tet dinner was combined with a "welcome to VN" dinner. So it had to be a bit more interesting than usual.

I had a minor headache in the afternoon prior to dinner, the first tinge of illness since coming here. Bought some Panadol (paracetamol 500mg - Tylenol to North Americans) at an Old Quarter drugstore for 6k VND. It worked a bit and I felt better.

Then we headed off to dinner, which entailed a 45 minute drive into the mountains. We ate at the Asean Hotel; the dining area was a floating pontoon with a thatched roof, accessed by clambering over a gangplank.

Before we were seated, we of course had to pick out our food. The reason we came out this far was to eat baba, and the host picked out two nice, big, juicy babas.

What's a baba? I couldn't find a wiki about it, and we unfortunately didn't have our camera. [Edit: it's part of the softshell turtle family.] It's basically in the turtle and tortoise family, but it costs more than those animals. They were supposedly raised in ponds nearby. There are baba restaurants inside the Hanoi city limits, but eating baba bereft of the mountain air and views takes something out of the experience, or so I'm told.

So how was it prepared? Of course one needs to drain the blood into some vodka for shots (I had three); and don't forget the juices from the pancreas or some other internal organ (I had one green tinged shot). The animal was split into a few dishes - I remember the salt fried legs and the shells in a soup.

The meat was dark like venison, but it wasn't gamey like I expected. A couple of baba doesn't feed a whole lot of people, so we also had "cho rung" - or forest dog.

It was wrapped in a burlap sack to be weighed, so I didn't get to see the animal. I'm sure it wasn't a dog, 'cause the sack was too small, and besides, one is only supposed to eat dog on certain days of the month. I'm pretty sure that evening wasn't one of those auspicious days.

The forest dog was in a few dishes also - because you pay by the animal, you gotta maximize the number of dishes you get. It was pan seared with lemongrass, steamed, deep fried and of course put in a soup. No bloody shots though.

The hosts were telling us how the meat was really fragrant and much tastier than dog. My palate could discern these distinctions. It was chewy, but tasty enough. Sorta like a cheaper cut of pork.

That night, I got really sick, with a fever and all. I was in bed for about 48 hours straight and I'm still trying to get over it 96 hours later.

Thankfully, VA didn't get sick though. I think we've determined that it was from those bloody shots. No more "really-nutritious-it'll-give-you-strength" drinks for me.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Curing Rotten Apples

Another resource for myself: being a recent Mac switcher and a pusher of words, I'm really annoyed by the lack of a forward delete key. And no, I'm not using both hands to hit two buttons (FN and DELETE) just to do something that a single key should do.

Enter Ukelele, a robust key mapper freeware and DoubleCommand, a more limited but easier to configure key mapper. I'm a happier switcher now.

Eatin' Good in the Neighborhood

A common query from family and friends must be answered: the food so far is good, but nothing has bowled us over. The last time I was impressed by a meal was in Napa, three plus years ago, so my definition of being impressed is a bit different. For the most part, I would welcome eating at the establishments we've been to so far.

Unfortunately for ya'll, we're not the type to eat and snap pics. We're trying to not look like overwhelmed tourists here.

So far we haven't eaten in any street side plastic stool joints. If you dodge the moto fumes, the food at these places smell pretty tempting. But we're waiting for our bodies (read: stomaches) to adjust to this hemisphere before diving in. Therefore we've been limited to restaurants that cater to the local middle class.

For example, I had breakfast this morning near the office at an almost empty tablecloth restaurant. Simple order of eggs, bread (banh mi style loaf), butter (which one has to order) and the de rigeur ca fe sua nong (no ice for me, as of yet). 20k VND or $1.25 - nice!

One place that deserves a mini-review is KOTO (biết một, dạy một - Know One, Teach One). It is across the street from the Temple of Literature. The whole good samaritan aspect of this restaurant is better detailed elsewhere (like on Our Man In Hanoi).

The food itself is pretty good, and geared a bit towards the foreign crowd, who dominated the dining room on our lunch time visit. Prices were more reasonable than I expected - I thought there would be a good conscience tax, but there wasn't really (50k VND for the bun thit nuong). Service is better than the typical Hanoi joint with full sized chairs, but maybe a bit too ever present for a local; a bit of tweaking and they would be unimpeachable.

I wonder how much money KOTO makes, and whether the training costs eats into margins quite a bit. F&B is a growth industry here and an establishment that can deliver good, consistent and reasonable fare should be able to expand and take some market share.

There is nothing in the front of the house that would prevent them from opening up new locations, imho. What is stopping them from being a mini-Highlands Coffee? Having a foreign clientele base is nice, having a local burgher class clientele is better.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Forms in Excel

Throwing up a resource for myself: a good how-to on creating VBA forms in Excel. We just switched to OSX and don't have the full complement of MS Office suite. I needed something simple that I would normally do in Access, even though that's more horsepower than necessary for the job.

Without Access, I went poking into OpenOffice and NeoOffice. Those apps look like a burden to install just to do a simple database. Enter this guide in Excel, and a companion how-to on adding command buttons. Yeah, I'm a novice VBAer, so I need the how-tos.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Super Vina Bowl

I watched the Bears-Colts game this morning via a NFL network feed on ESPN-HK. There are few cultural touchstones like the Superbowl, but I was watching it more for the game and not the hype enveloping the event.

This weekend, in my discovery treks across this city, I went looking for a sports bar to watch the game in. Nothing like some brews at 6am. The restaurant near the US Embassy did not seem to recognize that there was a game this morning.

The employees at an ex-pat sports bar didn't know what I meant by either Superbowl or 'bong da my' (American Football, as opposed to, you know, the Mia Hamm type of footballing ;). The ex-pat community that bar catered to were of the Asian variety, and not the North American variety, so that may excuse it a bit.

Overall, the game was pretty good, though it did not seem like a Super Bowl; no build up throughout the day, not to mention the past week; no expensive attempts at creative commercials, just endless English Premiership adverts; no saccharine summaries by Jim Nantz when things were said and done (announcers were Sterling Sharpe, who did a good job, even if he thought that the Bears were "on the edge of a cliff" for half the game, and some other NFL network dude who's better than Nantz).

All in all, it was a good way to kick off a Monday morning. Now I gotta figure out if March Madness will be on the tube here. No soccer for me (unless it's the WC).

About This Blog

So now that we're here in VN, it would be a good time to write an "about this blog" post. So here it is:
  • A/S/L: 30s, couple, Hanoi
  • Here because: work
  • Company/sector: paper pushing, as always
  • Language skills: slowly learning Vietnamese
  • Precautions prior to arrival: Hep shots; banked some Cipro and Tamiflu
  • Background: Asian-American; 50% Viet Kieu

One Week In

It's been about one week in on our grand Vina adventure. We stopped over for a few days in HCMC (our first time) before heading to Hanoi. Our HCMC hotel wasn't five bucks as I said in an earlier post - there are too many zeros when calculating VND currency, I misplaced one - but rather, fifty bucks. Pretty nice place, and I would stay there again; minibar beer was like $2, but we didn't have any.

So what are some initial impressions?
  • United Airlines doesn't use skycaps when going internationally, so no tip for you;
  • a 50lb baggage limit is woefully inadequate when one is moving clear across the world; overweight baggage fees are still lower than air freight shipping, however;
  • a 15 hour flight without in-seat video monitors is ridiculous for 1997, not to mention 2007 - no wonder UA is having financial issues;
  • without fail, the entire plane is quiet except for the row directly behind us; child under five? Check. Kicking your seat? Check. Loud conversation? Check. Pesky father who at every opportunity attempts to double up on the items ladled out by the flight staff? Check. All that noise in Vietnamese? Priceless.
  • HCMC just seemed a bit bigger than HAN, without the geographical interest;
  • Vietnam Airlines' baggage limits are even lower, at 20kg (44 lbs for those not metrically inclined), but the overage fees were really reasonable, something like $5 for 10kgs;
  • it's nice and temperate this time of year in HAN; the locals were moto'ing around in wool caps and scarfs, we were walking around peeled down to polo shirts. A few days later, we were glad we brought some light sweaters. Hmm.. turning local already?
  • the toilets have two flush buttons, one for a full flush and one for a half flush; a good compromise between conservation and effectiveness, a better balance than those 1.7gal toilets mandated in new Stateside construction;
  • the toilet paper is roughly 75% as wide;
  • the serving sizes are appropriate, which is to say they are small; maybe I just like the food here or something, but I haven't left things on the plate like I usually do; the serving sizes might explain the toilet paper issue;
  • Went to MegaStar Cinema - I could get used to being ushered to assigned seating in a movie theatre - after all, it is a theatre;
  • I didn't notice the air pollution this past summer, but after a few days walking around, I'm breathing heavily through congested lungs; the city provides a electronically updated air quality billboard at a major intersection we pass by almost daily - so far, it's only displayed big green smiley emoticons for good air quality. Uh-oh.
  • found the Lang Ha golf driving range; it looked like something out of Van Cortland park in the Bronx, which is to say bare, ugly and grotty. Rates were like the DC area, unfortunately. I'm sure there are nicer joints in town;
We met some new acquaintances who gave us advice about working and living here, and they noted with admiration how calm we were about the whole thing. I hope our calmness is predicated on an open, easy going attitude, and not naviete. We'll see, I guess.