Thursday, February 9, 2012

An Update

Friends, it is time we spoke about sandwiches. 

This little stand, in Hoi An, happens to have some pretty amazing ones: lightly toasted rolls into which all kinds of yummy sliced pork, cucumber, fresh onions and chilis, påté, some sort of mayonaise, and various and sundry spiced condiments are layered. Small enough to fit in your fist, spicy enough to cause watering of the eyes, and delicious enough that one won't last more than 5 minutes in your company.

In short, fantastic. 

But first, as usual, time for a confession.

In the past six months, I have cooked at home less than 10 times. That's right: since I began traveling the world, I pretty much gave up cooking.

There's a good reason for this. In Paris, my apartment didn't have counter space, anything larger than a rusted-out hotpot to cook on, and no ventilation, so the idea of cooking anything that involved ingredients more complicated or fragrant than lettuce didn't appeal.

Plus, pre-cooked meals from the grocery stores were cheap, fairly tasty and, most importantly, were sized perfectly for one person to eat. And sometimes, the drinks even came wearing tiny knitted caps.

And of course, the cafés were always nice to visit.

(This is my favorite café ever: the little place attached to Merci. Yes, those are used books for sale on the walls.)

But mostly I lived on sandwiches. Which was easy, as the boulangerie right next to my apartment served some of the best arm-length baguettes in town. For basically eight dollars you could get a fresh-baked baguette filled with strips of real roasted chicken, fresh tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, fresh sliced vegetables, along with a drink and a slice of homemade chocolate cake. Which was what I ate almost every day.

And now I'm in Vietnam, where eating out at a fancy restaurant--like Morning Glory, the kind of place where Gordon Ramsay and other celebrity chefs come to learn how to cook Vietnamese food--costs you 20$ for a five course meal with drinks. That's a big night out. The average meal on the street costs $1.50 or less. So you'd have to be a bit of an idiot to spend a lot of time cooking.

And though I may be a masochist, I pride myself on NOT being an idiot.

Here are some do-it-yourself gia cuon I got in Phu Quoc. I sense a theme party upon my return home. Friends: get your rice wraps ready.

Sorry. Gratuitous whole fish food photo.

Anyway, I've been living on various forms of sandwiches (among other things, obviously) this past year, and now that I've taken up semi-permanent residence in Hanoi, I've also been searching for the best banh my stand near my neighborhood. So far, the one I like most is in Hai Ba Trung on Trieu Viet Vuong next to a bubble tea stand. There are two women working frantically there from about 11 to probably just after one (as I discovered when I went there the other day just before 2 to discover NO SANDWICHES WERE TO BE HAD), toasting bread in their portable oven, cooking up what look like vomitous masses of egg and ground pork in an omelette pan which--though hideous to behold--are amazing as an addition to their perfectly toasted baguettes, each omelette piled atop mounds of sliced pork, fresh chilis, peppers, sliced cucumbers, onions and mayonnaise, all of it topped off with a fairy dusting of MSG that will make you feel tingly-spined and vaguely stoned for the rest of the day.  

It is the Sandwich of the Century, my friends. 

Sometimes--like every alternate Sunday--I feel a twinge of guilt for how much time and money I might be wasting, wandering around various cities of the world trying to find the next great, cheap thing to eat. People's blogs are a fantastic resource for this, naturally, as eating cheap seems to be the number one hobby sport of English-speakers abroad so, along with wasting time wandering around the back alleys of Istanbul or Rome or Paris, I've also been frittering my time away surfing blogs.

But it is from such blogs that, in Rome, I discovered the world's best pizzeria near the Coliseum (seriously not kidding about this), plus a bookstore that serves shots of alcohol in cups made ENTIRELY out of chocolate.
It is how I discovered the head-sized schnitzel to be found at a particular Gasthaus near the Freud museum (let's not even begin to parse the psychological implications of that image), and it is how, when I plan my upcoming trips to Cambodia and Singapore, I will know exactly where to eat.

But in the meantime, I'm taking a break from travel, and from reading travel blogs. Also, no offense my wonderful friends who've come to see me, from visitors. While I was in Paris, I had visitors every two weeks; my entire December was in fact taken up with one friend after another coming to visit, which was totally delightful, but a LOT of leg work. This, along with my week in Istanbul and my three weeks traveling around Vietnam with Sean, means that I have essentially been walking, sightseeing, and tour guiding for two months straight.
I. Am. Exhausted.

Which gets me to the last part of this rambling post. If anyone out there thinks they'd like to do what I'm doing--travel around the world for a year--or if anyone has just won the Amy Lowell and is trying to figure out what next year's game plan might be, know this: you either travel, or you write. It's nearly impossible to do both. I'm always torn between wanting to ramble outside in the streets all day and wanting to hole up at home, phone switched off, reading and writing and being really really dull by myself. It's hard to do both; the writing depends--for me at least--on boredom and regularity to get done, but travel means constant planning, constant change, constant excitement and challenge and rental leases and new language classes and discomfort. Travel is supposed to fuel one's writing, but it also makes the writing itself, day to day, a distant dream.

Writing while traveling is kind of like cooking at home when you live in Vietnam. I mean, you COULD do it, but why would you want to?

Anyway, that's what I've been doing this past week: forcing myself to stay inside, writing at home. But there are still some things I've seen, in Hanoi and around Vietnam, that I'd just like to mention here that have struck me in one way or another. Here they are, dear reader, in no particular order.

1. A room full of middle-aged Vietnamese women in bikinis, grinding numbly to house music in front of a bank of mirrors. They call this an aerobics class in Vietnam.

2. Traffic post-Tet. It's like 2/3 of the city magically evaporates overnight.

3. Bun cha. 

4. Hoi An.

5. Vietnamese iced coffee.  Before I came to Hanoi, I'd never drunk a cup of coffee in my life. Now I'll never be able to stop.

6. Walking in the Botanical Garden and around the Ho Chi Minh memorial site on Sundays, watching the badminton players, the few runners, and the one woman with the red fan do her fan dance exercises late in the afternoon.

7. Sponge cake in the bakeries. Noodles drying on a rack in the street.

8. The crazy man who walks past my apartment building certain afternoons. If I'm out, he'll grab my arm, stare wildly into my face and make a bowing motion. He looks, disorientingly, just like a poet I used to work with at the university.

9. Yes, Hung Phat tea. And yes, there is also a place called Hung Long near my place. The store--wait for it--is a men's tailoring shop.

10. The graphics of Communist party propaganda. I don't know who the artists are they hire for these billboards, but by God some of these artworks are amazing to look at in their sheer kitschitude. 

11. Suspension bridges.

12. Bicycling the backroads while slightly drunk.

13. White egrets in rice paddies. Trust me, they were there. But by the time I stumbled off my bike, drunk, to take their photo, they were gone.

14. Hai Ba Trung.

15. Fresh watermelon juice.

16. Fresh mango juice.

17.  The view outside our hotel in Cat Cat.

18. How kind and cool the ex-pat and ex-pat friendly community is in Hanoi. Within less than 24 hours in the city, I had messages from five different people offering to help me settle in, give me information, have me join their writing groups. Hanoi's traffic may be the deadliest in the world, but the community in general here is probably the nicest.

20. How cheap medical care is in Vietnam. Trust me, by now I know.

21.  This fish dish I had in Phu Quoc. I have no idea what it was. It was the most delicious thing I've ever eaten in my life. When I am on my deathbed and someone asks my what my biggest regret in life was, I'll tell them it was not forcing someone to teach me how to cook this dish.

22. At the local temples: offerings of food for New Years. On the one side of the altar, a stack of Heineken, on the other a stack of Cokes. In the middle, boxes upon boxes of ChocoPies.

23. My apartment in Ba Dinh. After Paris, this place is utter paradise.

24. The road-wise chickens outside my apartment. Why did the chickens in Vietnam cross the road? They didn't, stupid. That's why they're fucking alive.

25. Cheap language lessons.

26. Seriously, Vietnamese iced coffee.

27. The eight year-old street kid selling breath mints after 10 p.m. I love watching him try to sabotage the 25 year-old karaoke singer (who also seems to be selling breath mints) by trying to yank out the volume cords of the singer's rolling karaoke machine mid-song.

28. The numb look everyone in traffic seems to get.

29. The fact the buses never come to a complete stop. To take a bus in Hanoi, you have to both jump on and off a constantly moving vehicle.

30. How no one even bats an eye here whenever I start to freak out. 

31. Nem ga. 

32. All the sandwiches. 

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