Sunday, January 29, 2012

Video Teaser

Ryan and I shot a ton of video with the GoPro cameras as well as the S100 and d7000. We're going to shoot to edit the whole thing together into a video 15 minutes or less. Here's a little taste of the raw material.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

This Is The End

Escape from Mr. Bao's was a bit challenging, it had rained for two nights in a row and was even raining when we left. The dirt road was "slicker than snot on a doorknob".  With the help of Anh Tuan and several locals we were able to negotiate the slippery slopes.

One guy in particular (above right) was riding a scooter down the mountain and he randomly stopped to help us, working very hard for 3/4 of the trip.  The kindness of strangers in Vietnam is pretty amazing.  From Marley's accident, to slipping down a mountain many people were eager to help.  The contrast between the two guides couldn't have been clearer passing this challenge.  With a good guide the task was difficult, but actually fun unlike a few of the earl

Anh Tuan invited our companion on the scooter to come with us to the next home stay and we headed off to Mr. Boi's house (left above).  Ryan in particular was really looking forward to seeing Mr. Boi because he stayed there on his last trip.  As we arrived, we soon learned that the hot water wasn't working which was a pretty big let down since I hadn't showered for a few days.  Everyone in Mr. Boi's house disappeared fairly quickly after dinner rather than hanging around drinking, most likely tired from all of the partying from Tet, which at this point was a minor let down.

Waking up the next morning, I realized pretty quickly that I had gotten into some bad food or water.  Luckily I started some meds and it wasn't too bad, and Ryan was fine. Vomiting and motorcycling don't mix.  The sickness put a little damper on the last day of the trip, but the most important thing is that we made it back to Hanoi safely. Unfortunately we didn't get to visit Marley, but we are going to try to contact Scott to make sure he's ok.

We definitely made memories that won't soon be forgotten.

The Root Of All Evil

Turns out that "they" were wrong.  The root of all evil isn't money it's Phan Van Dan (a.k.a Jean-Claude) our ex-guide.

When Anh Tuan arrived at Mr. Bao's house we had a chance to sit down and chat with him.  It turns out that this was the first (and last) tour that Dan worked for Voyage Vietnam.  He had good recommendations and our trip was planned to have multiple guides (including Anh and his wife), so he could be observed.  Unfortunately, there were eight people who cancelled last minute so Anh Tuan unselfishly allowed Dan to guide our tour. Especially because of the lunar new year celebration and that he had already promised Dan work.  I think that he now regrets that decision.

Anh told us that is six years of running Voyage Vietnam he has never had a guide abandon clients.  During our chat Anh Tuan revealed conversations he had with Dan along the route and told us that Dan should have replaced Ryan's bike at the first sign of trouble, especially because we were still close to Hanoi.  He also advised Dan several times to discuss the plan for the trip with us and to give us options on how to proceed.  He easily outlined a route revision for the second day that would have eliminated our huge 240 km day with night riding.  Instead of discussing and communicating, Dan made incredibly poor unilateral decisions.

We also learned that Dan completely fleeced us on the boat ride.  He charged us four times what we should have paid.  Anh was incredibly disturbed, and in a bit of shock as we sat and talked.  Anh shared his story with us: how he grew up very poor in a village, has always given back to the community with home stays and donations, and how his tour company was originslly financed ($140k) by a swiss client who has been completely repaid.  He outlined his philosophy and his vision which was one of the most customer focused and refreshing interactions I have ever had with a tour company oversees.  Over the next few days, Anh showed us that he practices what he preaches.  The remainder of the tour was completely different, and if we hadn't been so exhausted it would have been a lot more fun.  Meeting with Anh confirmed that Dan was the true root of our problems.


Parade of Homes

After waking up and having a yummy ramen + fried egg breakfast we were invited via cell phone to visit another house in the village.  We learned that during Tet, as no one is working they go from house to house talking, eating, smoking, and drinking.  Pictured above is one of our hosts smoking tobacco from one of the ubiquitous bamboo water pipes.  Despite their limited resources, they were generous with their food, drink, and laughter.

Seeing the differences in construction was interesting.  Some of the houses have sheets of bamboo for walls rather than wood, others have sheets of bamboo that are covered in clay.  They all followed the same basic layout, but some were definitely more ornate than others including support posts painted bright orange with a little embellishment near the joints.

After visiting a few different places, we were invited to play football with the kids.  There was a small terrace near to the village that wasn't yet converted to land for rice or corn.  They made a makeshift set of soccer goals with bamboo frames (Ryan has the only pic, sorry!).  We had a great time running around with the boys from the village and knew that we would be sore for several days afterward.

When we returned from the football game, Anh had arrived.  We learned that Anh has know Mr. Bao for 10 years and has brought numerous people to their little hamlet.  The Bao family was so considerate and it was clear that they were accustomed to hosting foreigners. They bought two cases of beer, and a giant case of bottled water for us to drink.  That night, with Anh translating we ventured out to another house nearby.  The dirt paths were super slick and we decided to have our final meal in Mr. Bao's house rather than elsewhere in the village.

They put together another phenomenal meal for us. As we ate dinner, the beaming smiles were refreshing given all that we had been through.  After dinner, Anh sat on the floor with the younger villagers and sang songs late into the night.  It was clear that he was a welcome part of their family, a clear contrast with Dan. 

After a bit more time with the iPad playing infinity blade, we went to sleep to prepare for our next big day.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tet Fiesta

Subtitle: Then There Were Two

For our next home stay we traveled to Mr. Bao's house.  His house is in the middle of a Red Zhao community sitting on the side of a mountain.  Unlike the prior home stay, the houses were much more spread out.  They formed a zig-zag line down the hill, lining the path of the small mountain streams that provide water.  

The house sits on a concrete slab and is made out of wood and bamboo with a thatched palm roof and is open to the air on top and on bottom. All of the beams inside are fitted together without fasteners.  Even the wooden shutters are cut to pivot without metal hinges. The houses are long rectangles, made mostly of shared space.  From the outside you can tell which end of the house holds the kitchen because the roof is stained black from the smoke of the wood fire used for cooking.  

Immediately as you walk in the front door there is a small shrine.  Because of the lunar new year, the shrine was completely decked out with food, lights, money, stalks of sugar cane, and brightly colored paper decorations.  We learned that the sugar cane is important so that the elderly ancestors can walk easily when they return for Tet. A large hutch containing a small, very old television identifies the living space.  There are a few partitions, but no real walls.  Elevated platforms line the edges of the house where bedding is laid at night. Thin curtains provide a small amount of privacy.  It wasn't quite clear to us how procreation would be possible with so little privacy, but there was no shortage of small children.   

Upon our arrival, our stellar guide instructed us to "enjoy the culture" and went to sleep off his hangover from the night before.  So much for having a translator.  After a little while the teenage children started preparing the food for dinner, which was a lot of fun to watch.  We shot some great video of the food prep. 

During the time that they were cooking, one of the men of the house started the prayers.  He prayed in front of the shrine for two hours, a special ritual for the new year celebration (a.k.a. Tet).  Tet is the most important holiday in Vietnam.  After the lunar new year, people take 7-10 full days off from work.  Many services are shut down as people return home to their villages. 

Before dinner started, many people from the village began to arrive.  We later learned that it is good luck to have visitors stay and that Mr. Bao invited many people to his house for dinner.  There were several tables set and lined with people.  When the prayers were finished, dinner was started.

Drinking locally made rice and/or corn liquor (basically moonshine seen above) is very important in the culture of the red Zhao people.  For every meal during Tet there are tiny shot glasses lining the large metal plate that holds dishes  Throughout the meal, people propose toasts and it is impossible not to participate without offending.  We developed a few strategies to try to keep from getting completely wasted - including filling our glasses with beer or coke before rice wine could be added.  At one point our attempts were thwarted and the liquor was mixed with coke and we taught our hosts a new word - cocktail.  The amount of alcohol consumed also leads to one of the main teen pastimes - driving scooters like maniacs, usually with at least three and sometimes four people per scooter.  

Our guide Dan had been bragging constantly throughout the trip about how much he could drink.  He would tell stories about drinking 7 liters between he and a friend, and boast "I'm a tank, they don't know, but I'm a tank". Throughout the meal Dan's gregarious boasting was becoming uncomfortable.  He would shout toasts to the entire room, something that Mr. Bao didn't even do.  Eventually, Dan proclaimed to us that he was drunk.  Ryan lightly teased him a bit saying that he was embellishing and more of a scooter tank than a big water tank.  Dan seemed offended that he was called-out, even in a joking manner.

Dinner went on for a bit more before the next proclamation from Dan.  He stated that we offended him and that we were disrespecting his culture.  He then proceeded to stand up and state that he was leaving.  He went outside and called Ahn Tuan, the company owner and informed him of his intention.  Tuan talked with Ryan and assured us that he would leave his own family's Tet celebration and join us for the remainder of the trip.  

Despite protests from us and assurances that we were joking; Dan put on his helmet and drunkenly rode off into the night.  When we returned to the house the tables had been cleared and Mr. Bao handed me a cell phone.  They had called one of their daughters, who told us in English that we should not worry and that we could stay in their house for the night.  The entire family was very understanding and gracious, especially because we don't think that they understood why Dan decided to leave.

From then on, we communicated mostly through pantomime and gestures.  It really wasn't much different from when Dan was there.

Ryan stayed up for awhile playing infinity blade on the iPad with some of the boys.  I crashed, sleeping under a massive pile of blankets to protect from the cold.

Then There Were Three

If you aren't sitting down to read this post, then you should be.  

In the morning we set out through the mountains to rural villages to distribute clothes.  The people were generally thankful for the clothing we were giving to them.  But many of them looked-on with more shock than thanks.

About half way through the mountain trip Marley dropped his bike again.  For some reason his head was out of the game and his riding skill was regressing.  We covered some super rough ground with limited traction including a few areas where they were in the midst of building the road. The road-to-be consisted of numerous pointy football-sized rocks loosely packed together across the path. This was all on the side of a mountain and, at times, without any sort of guard rail or berm for protection. 

After navigating football road, the riding surface was solid pavement and the tight switchbacks opened up into sweeping turns. Marley's confidence in the bike was continuing to suffer without clear reason.  Ryan, Scott and I broke away from the pack for a spirited ride at a faster pace.  Dan, the guide, stayed with Marley. We went on for a bit (maybe 20 mins) and stopped at the next town.  Scott turned around and headed back to find Dan and Marley.  Ryan and I were enjoying tea from the local shop when the chase car driver came by and pantomimed that a rider had gone off the road.  With a pit in our stomachs, Ryan and I backtracked until we came to the scene.  Marley had apparently lost control and took a gravitational excursion about 10 ft down into a rice patty.  

By the time we arrived, they had pulled him out and he was laying flat on the ground by the side of the road.  He was complaining of back pain, but was alert and able to move all of his extremities.  Despite multiple local people trying to get him to sit up we were able to keep him laying flat while we waited for what seemed like an eternity for the ambulance to arrive.  The ambulance was minimally equipped and didn't have a back board.  So we lifted him on a sleeping bag and transferred him to the stretcher without bending him in half.  Overall, given the steep mountain passes that we have been riding down, he was quite lucky to only fall a short distance to a muddy water landing.

With heavy hearts we got back on the bikes to ride to a late lunch (3:30pm). Feeling sick and coming down from the adrenaline rush, we barely ate. A bit later we got a phone call from Scott saying that Marley was feeling better, but that the ambulance ride was frightening.  They skipped the district hospital and took him directly to an international French/Vietnamese hospital in Hanoi.  We haven't heard much more, but plan on stopping to see him in the hospital if he's still there when we return to Hanoi.  

After lunch we rode into the evening (again, grrr) to arrive at our first home stay.  The home stay ended up being pretty disappointing, bordering on bogus.  It was in a "tourist" village where the houses were super close together on the outskirts of a larger town.  In addition to our hosts, there were several Vietnamese guys gathered for a guys-only no-vegetable meat-only Tet meal.  For the meal we were the spectacles rather than guests.  It was clear from the start of the meal that one goal was to get us rip roaring drunk. The only beverage available was rice liquor, no water or coke.  

The other sport of the evening was to watch for looks of horror as they served us pig heart and liver, which was rather tasty.  We made it through dinner without getting too drunk mainly because it was late and a few of the visitors bailed.  

We also managed to turn the spectacle back on them by teaching them a new american saying.  They were already familiar with saying "bottoms-up" so we added "pinkies-up".  They thought it was ohh soo cool with no idea that the joke was on them.  After dinner the remaining guys challenged Ryan to arm/knuckle wrestling and challenged me to leg wrestling. After they were soundly beaten, we had earned a little more respect...but not much. 

We went to sleep while our hosts and our guide continued to drink, basically in the same room where we were trying to sleep, until around 3 am.  Luckily, we were so tired from the flood of emotion during the day that we fell asleep quickly.

Unfortunately, our sleep was interrupted at 4 am by the slaughtering of a pig.  I won't go into detail here.  But I will mention that it didn't sound too humane and was pretty tough to hear anything else.

We were definitely happy to roll out of there in the morning, headed for our next home stay.

Bánh cuốn

Ryan has two favorite Vietnamese foods - you have already heard quite a bit about bun cha, so this is to introduce you to banh cuon.

It turns out that both are fairly hard to find, mainly because it takes some specialized equipment.  Basically a large flat piece of metal is heated with a wood fire. With true artisanal skill our chef ladled a thin rice flour and water mixture onto the disk and placed a lid on top to let it steam.  What results is a huge floppy rice noodle that the chef skillfully tears with chopsticks and laced with crumbly meat goodness.  

They are served on a plate and accompanied by a bowl of broth with two white sausages. It takes a bit of practice to be able to eat without unrolling the soft noodle, spilling the crumbles everywhere and making a huge mess, but it is oh so worth it. 

Worth Every Hardship

As a crew we have been through a lot together: bike failures, spills, being behind-schedule, and late rides in the dark. Friday made everything worthwhile.

Finally we were back on schedule and we had two things planned for the day - deliver clothes & rice to a poor village in the mountains and drive a short bit to our next port of call.  

Our guide and support truck driver bought a huge amount of rice and loaded it into the support car.  We headed out toward the mountain town for delivery.  The route to the town was full of fantastic views and amazing village life.  Stacks of dried corn stalks dotted the rocky landscape, waiting to be used as fuel for cooking.  It must have taken weeks to clear the rocks for each small house and hut.

Giving rice and clothes wasn't what any of us expected.  We actually ended up in a small town at the government building with a crowd waiting for us to arrive.  After getting off of the bikes, we stood there for a few minutes as a spectacle for all to stare at.  Then, the president of the local community invited us into the building.  Once sitting down inside, we were showered with tea, butter cookies, and chocolate.  The local president also kept trying to get us to drink beer.  She was quite persistent despite all of us (including our guide, Dan) saying "no, no, no!"  She even opened a few cans and set them in front of us in desperation.

After relaxing a bit, it was time for the "ceremony". Apparently the leaders from all of the smaller satellite villages had traveled to the town for the occassion.  We posed awkwardly - holding bags of rice and clothes and smiling for pictures.  The village leaders didn't show much emotion.  But the president was actually very pleased - mostly evidenced by her interest in giving us as much beer as possible. 

After the delivery, we had some time to take things at our own pace while heading back to our hotel.  We were able to stop along the way to shoot video and take lots of photos.  The scenery was absolutely beautiful and it was the best part of the trip, so far.

After returning to the hotel and having lunch in the worst restaurant of the trip (we ate there three times), we packed up the bikes and headed out for our next stop.  The next leg was even more beautiful.  Ryan has called it the "grand canyon" of Vietnam.  The pictures just don't do it justice.

We settled in at the hotel for our first truly hot shower of the trip.  Dinner was decent and we ended up passing out quickly after returning to the hotel. 


Thursday, January 19, 2012

240 km

Thursday was a huge day.  Our guide isn't necessarily the best when it comes to communicating the plan for the day, which is generally fine, because we just follow him like little ducklings. We started out at 7a and headed to the next town over for some more bun cha. This one was tasty and was a bit different than the alley soup that we had earlier, including cucumber that added another flavor dimension.  The texture of the pork was a little different too, more like a sausage than a thick piece of bacon. With our bellies happily full, we rolled out, headed for ba be lake.

Last night we had elected to travel north across the lake by boat.  We had thought that we were saving seat time and taking a short cut but it turns out that we lost 2 hours on the boat.  If you ask me, the ride was definitely worthwhile. The lake is surrounded by steep mountain cliffs that are lined with lush green trees.  after crossing the lake, we headed up the ba be river.

For lunch we stopped at a small village along the lake.  We had more traditional food including some tasty cooked veggies, tofu with tomato sauce, and the ubiquitous spring roll. We got some fantastic pictures of the kitchen, one is shared above.

After the lake the scenery was fantastic.  Beautiful views of villages and terraced farms.  The riding was challenging.  The roads were narrow with tight switchbacks and covered with slick gravel.  We hit a 5 km section that was dirt and heavily rutted with a few mud holes.  I never thought I would be so happy to see potholed asphalt.

After the up and down of the switchbacks, the road opened up and We were driving along a river that was flanked by mountains on both sides.  We all began to get irritated when the guide just kept going and going, passing national geographic quality scenery without stopping for pictures.  Around 5:00 we learned that the reason we had been going non-stop was that we were making up lost mileage from the day before. Couple that with the lake and we were pretty behind.  The last part of the journey was a 50 km stretch crossing a mountain pass in the dark.  The weather was refreshingly cool, and we could hear and see bats crossing our paths.  We arrived safely in Meo Vac and had a good dinner with a new dish we hadn't tried yet - tasty pork sausage. Ryan and I ended the night sharing some of the local grain liquor with our guide and returned to the hotel to rest up for the next adventure.  Luckily the beds that we returned to were barely a step up from sleeping on the floor in hardness.  Luckily they were warm.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

From Pho to Snake

Tuesday morning brought a special breakfast pho with Tuyen, Ryan's guide from the last motorcycle tour.  The pho was pretty tasty and Tuyen taught us a great trick to keep lime seeds out of your soup.  The best part was the atmosphere of the tiny local joint.

We decided to do some site seeing and took a cab over to the Ho-Chi-Minh museum and mausoleum. The museum grounds were kind of pretty in a very cold, bleak, stylized communist way.  The fountain above is a good example of what I'm talking about.  Instead of being crafted from large chunks for material this was just tiled in a utilitarian fashion.  It has to be one of the ugliest fountains I have ever seen.

We also wandered around unsuccessfully looking for a lake that contains the remains of a crashed B-52 bomber. What we did find was a small open air food market including the anatomy lesson on a wicker platter.

Ryan and I have invented a new sport, I really think that it is going to take off, it is called scoot shooting.  The goal is to take pictures of motorbikes and bicycles loaded with ridiculous items.  We are compiling a list and will encourage people to "collect them all"!

 After the worst cab ride in history, we ended up at dinner - a snake restaurant. Before dinner, they take you to the cage where you pick your dinner (still living). They ceremoniously kill the snake near your table, drain blood into rice liquor and disappear with the body.  They made about 5 tasty dishes out of the snake, definitely an experience that I won't soon forget.

One for the Books

Kreg and I have a saying about motorcycle trips, "that's one for the books". It isn't clear exactly when we started saying it, but it is fully incorporated into every trip.

The emotion behind the saying is hard to define, particularly because it changes depending on the situation.  When you venture off on two wheels, you have incredibly good situations and others not so great.  It isn't clear whether the books in question are record books, travel logs, proof of insanity, or memoirs.

After a late night we woke up early to head out and pick up the bikes.  We met our touring companions, Scott and Marley.  Scott is a TV and movie sound engineer from NYC, and Marley is his son who is taking a year off between high school and college.  Scott has been commuting in NYC on a BMW F650gs, and Marley hasn't really ridden much.  Ryan is a natural with anything motorized so, despite his relative lack of seat time he has solid bike skills.  We also got to meet our guide, Dan, who has been riding motorcycles for 25 years, since age 12.

After a tasty bowl of pho we packed up the bikes and headed out.  I was instantly in heaven.  Riding the Honda Baja is almost identical to riding "junior" the Suzuki that I rode with Kreg to West Virginia.  I say almost because junior was a lot less bouncy because he didn't have a completely blown rear shock.  I bounce like a hoopty everytime I hit a big bump.

We escaped the big city unscathed and headed for the countryside.  About 10 minutes outside Hanoi, Ryan got stuck on the big highway.  His shift lever was moving, but it wasn't actually changing gears and he was stuck in fourth.  Luckily there was a traffic jam due to a useless stoplight so we were huddled down on the shoulder waiting for a fix.

We only made it to the next town when the shift lever stuck again.  This time, Dan took the bike to a nearby motorcycle shop where they were able to work out a ginger repair.  Unfortunately the repair was incomplete and left Ryan without a first gear.  Given his skill he was able to compensate pretty well, until the bike started dying at speed.

It happened at least four times and was getting tiresome especially as the traffic was lightening and the countryside was becoming very pretty.  We finally pulled over and talked with the guide.  After checking for fuel, Dan went to work.  After what was probably two hours, but felt more like an eternity Dan had changed the spark plug, the ignition block, battery, and finally "fixed" the plug wire. At that point in time the bike still would not start, as a last ditch effort we tried to push start it and got it going again.  With nightfall upon us we were able to find a hotel in the next town, and Dan called Hanoi to order a replacement bike for Ryan.

After dinner at a local restaurant we crashed exhausted from the day.  It truly was "one for the books".

Monday, January 16, 2012

Horrible Beginning, Tasty Ending

After the drama from the morning I was looking forward to settling in in our hotel. It is clean and safe, it is a smoking room, not by our choice, but isn't too stinky. Two nice double beds, a stark contrast from the backpacker hostel up the street with it's 12 bunk shared rooms. 

We decided to head down the street to the Voyage Vietnam (our tour company) offices from our hotel. The office is on the third floor of a building that houses an Irish pub (complete with Guinness signs, but may not have actual Guinness?). The guys weren't in the office so a quick phone call arranged a meeting for later. 

Ryan is my food tour guide since he has been here before and has a knack for finding amazing treats. I have to warn the sensitive vegetarians that Ryan is a pretty big carnivore so consider this fair warning. He asked one of the waitresses at the bar where to go for bun cha, and she pointed to the alley immediately next to the bar. At the enterance to the alley there was a woman cooking pork between two bamboo sticks over a rectangular charcoal grill stoked by an electric fan :-). 

Behind the woman cooking there are squat plastic tables with short little chairs (think of a play table for kids). Ryan and I sat down and were served a fantastic soup and a plate full of sticky rice noodles. The lump of rice noodles were cut into 4 chunks with scissors (this may have been just for the white folk, we were the only non-locals). Picking up a hunk of sticky noodles and dropping them into the broth instantly separated the hunk into tasty strands. This repeated, instant transformation was one of the best things about the dish. In the soup the barbecued pork was combined with cabbage as well as a sweet, spicy, vinegar broth. We also had a super tasty spring roll filled with noodles, cabbage and pork. 

I don't think that you could have a more literal translation of street food because throughout the meal in the alley there was a near constant flow of scooters and bikes passing behind Ryan. I kept wanting to snap a picture, but the food was too good and it wasn't a place that you linger after finishing the meal. 

After the meal we decided to head down to the lake which is a central fixture of the old quarter, surrounded by busy boulevard streets and french colonial architecture it was a great way to walk off lunch. On the way to the lake we ran into two girls that had been on our bus from the airport - Maggie and Kristen. They are both Americans teaching English in Korea and are currently on winter holiday. 

The whole city, and particularly the area around the lake is decked out for celebration of the lunar new year - Tet. Flower arrangements as well as mandarin and pear trees with fabulous pink flowers dotted the landscape, a stark contrast with the constant flow of motorbikes and honking taxis. 

As many people are off of work for the holiday and excited for the prospects of the new year the shops are completely decked with wares. We found a fun store with reproduction propaganda posters that Ryan and I are fighting over. 

Walking around the lake with Maggie and Kristen we stopped for Vietnamese coffee, and took a lot of pictures. There were several couples decked out taking wedding photos around the lake. 

After our walk we returned to Voyage Vietnam where Ryan was reunited with the guide from his trip three years ago. After sharing some strong jasmine green tea in their office we headed down stairs to the pub. We shared a couple beers with the guides and the girls, the perfect way to while away an afternoon. 

Soon it was time for dinner. Being a French colony, Vietnam has some tasty French cuisine. Luckily tour-guide Ryan had a spot in mind - the green tangerine. When you first walk through the door off of the street you are greeted by a pretty open air courtyard complete with trees and hanging lights with small wire tables lining the edges. We were lead inside and seated upstairs. Our first course included cheese and a crab dip layered between thick sheets of pastry. Ryan chose rabbit stew, I had a duck breast, Kristen chose the pork and Maggie the rack of lamb. The food was good, with fun presentation and the complex sauces one anticipates with French cuisine. 

After dinner my jetlag caught up to me and I crashed at the hotel. With the aid of ear plugs to block out the club next door I fell asleep instantly.  


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Trouble in Bangkok

After three mostly uneventful flights from Indy to Detroit, Tokyo I finally arrived in Bangkok.  The Tokyo flight was delayed almost an hour but since I had nearly 5 hours to kill before the flight to Hanoi it was no big deal.  One of the attendants on the Tokyo flight recommended the day hotel that offered pay showers, which wasn't too far away in the adjacent terminal.  I enjoyed a clean, hot shower and left to find a place to nap away the next few hours.  Periodically I would wake up and look for Ryan, as I was supposed to meet him in the airport.

Around 4:45 I got a text from Lisa saying that Ryan had emailed me.  The free wifi in the Bangkok airport only lasts for 15 minutes and you have to get a password from the information desk.  Not so convenient.  After getting access to the wifi, I read Ryan's message and he's been looking for me close to the check-in counter. 

Since I had printed my boarding pass at home, I was already passed security and despite walking almost a km though the airport I couldn't join Ryan.  On the last minute of my wifi, I sent him an email to meet me at the gate.  

I walked back to the gate which had just opened.  When I arrived, I was horrified to learn that my ghetto airline could not accept passengers who hadn't passed through Thai immigration.  Rather than cleaning immigration during my 4 hour layover I had been relaxing resulting in 45 minutes to get out of the airport, only to come right back in.  There was a gentleman from Canada who was in the same predicament and so we took off. 

After another nearly 1 km run we made it to immigration, where the queues were unreasonably long with no sign of movement.  Luckily on the way out of the airport we were able to talk our way into the priority departure line fairly easily.

After returning to the arrival section we learned that we needed to go though passport control once more!  Unfortunately the agents here were much less helpful and pointed us back to our airline counter rather than allowing us in the priority line.  After running back to the airline counter which was about two football fields away we were met with more unhelpfulness and ended up back in the same passport control line, but 10 minutes in the hole.

Finally about 20 deep in a queue with the clock ticking we decided to ask people of we could cut in front of them.  Nearly everyone was gracious and let us by. One surly dude from Ireland gave us some gruff but eventually buckled to peer pressure and let us by.  Finally back in the terminal it was a neither jog back to the gate.  We made it just in time for boarding.

The rest of the flight was uneventful. I sat next to several Americans and a brit all going to Hanoi.  After a cheap $2 bus ride and a harrowing walk down the streets of old quarter Hanoi we arrived safely at our hotel. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Sunday Dinner 1-7-12

For this coming semester (and potentially longer as early feedback is strongly positive), Sunday dinner will be held on Saturdays.

For this week we had two special guests - Aimee Kandrac and Brett Yockey.  Brett is one of my residents, and a good friend as well.  Aimee is Brett's handler, making sure that he stays in line at least 70% of the time :-).

As always we started off the evening with a cocktail:

The Cherry Maple Leaf

1 oz cognac
1/2 oz Luxardo cherry liquor
1/4 oz maple syrup
1/4 oz dry vermuth (we used Pernucci)
1/4 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice

Combine ingredients in an ice-filled cocktail shaker and shake vigorously. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice.

The cocktail was incredibly well recieved.  Kathy particularly loved it and declared that it's her favorite so far.

For an appetizer we had a fantastic bean dip put together by Geri and Kathy.

Creamy White Bean Dip

1 15-ounce can cannellini (white kidney beans), drained
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, peeled
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

Puree first 5 ingredients in processor until almost smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer dip to small bowl. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.) Mix mint, dill, and lemon peel in small dish; sprinkle over dip.

A tasty salad was provided by Aimee and Brett:

Green Chickpea Salad

Found on pinterest:

I used a variation of this recipe for last night:
I used spinach, chard and red leaf lettuce and I left out the red chilli...

    1 small red chilli, finely diced, optional
    1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or lemon juice
    1 can chickpeas (400g / 14oz), drained
    1/2 bunch cavalo nero, kale, spinach or silverbeet (chard)
    2 handfuls finely grated parmesan

1. Combine chilli, if using, with vinegar or lemon juice and 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. Season.

2. Toss chickpeas in the dressing.

3. Slice cavalo nero or kale super finely into shreds, removing the stem if it is too coarse. Toss the shredded greens into the salad with the parmesan.

Buttermilk Dijon Mashed Potatoes
Bon Appetit Nov 2000, p 200
10 servings

4 lbs russet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
3/4c (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter
2 tbsp coarse-grain dijon mustard
1 ½ c (or more) butter milk
optional: chopped fresh parsley
optional:  celery and onions

Cook  the potatoes in a large pot of boiling salted water (I also included chunks of celery and onion, which were then removed before mashing the taters) until tender, about 20 min.  drain.  Transfer potatoes to a large bowl.

Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat.  Whisk in dijon mustard.  Remove from heat and whisk in 1 ½ cups buttermilk.  Using handheld electric mixer, beat potatoes until smooth.  Gradually beat in buttermilk mixture.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Beat in additional buttermilk if dry.  (Can be prepared 2h ahead.  Cover and let stand at room temperature.  Rewarm in microwave until heated through, about 5 min.).  Sprinkle chopped fresh parsley around edge.

Stuffed Pumpkin

Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pumpkin, about 3 pounds
1/4 pound stale bread, thinly sliced and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1/4 pound cheese, such as Gruyère, Emmenthal, or a combination, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
2 garlic cloves (to taste), coarsely chopped
About 1/4 cup snipped fresh chives or sliced scallions
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
About 1/3 cup heavy cream
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg


Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Find a baking dish that will hold your pumpkin.

Using a very sturdy knife—and caution—cut a cap out of the top of the pumpkin (think Halloween Jack-o-Lantern). It's easiest to work your knife around the top of the pumpkin at a 45-degree angle. You want to cut off enough of the top to make it easy for you to work inside the pumpkin. Clear away the seeds and strings from the cap and from inside the pumpkin. Season the inside of the pumpkin generously with salt and pepper, and put it in the baking dish.

Toss the bread, cheese, garlic, and herbs together in a bowl. Season with pepper—you may have enough salt from the cheese, but taste to be sure—and pack the mix into the pumpkin. The pumpkin should be well filled—you might have a little too much filling, or you might need to add to it. Stir the cream with the nutmeg and some salt and pepper and pour it into the pumpkin.  Again, you might have too much or too little—you don’t want the ingredients to swim in cream, but you do want them nicely moistened. (It's hard to go wrong here.)

Put the cap in place (or foil if it’s too tall with the cap) and bake the pumpkin for about 2-2.5 hours—check after 90 minutes—or until everything inside the pumpkin is bubbling and the flesh of the pumpkin is tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of a knife. Because the pumpkin will have exuded liquid, I like to remove the cap during the last 20 minutes or so, so that the liquid can bake away and the top of the stuffing can brown a little. NEXT TIME: Try baking pumpkin halves separately from the stuffing and then assemble at the end, may reduce the cooking time.

When the pumpkin is ready, carefully, very carefully—it's heavy, hot, and wobbly—bring it to the table or transfer it to a platter that you'll bring to the table.

You have a choice—you can either spoon out portions of the filling, making sure to get a generous amount of pumpkin into the spoonful, or you can dig into the pumpkin with a big spoon, pull the pumpkin meat into the filling, and then mix everything up. I'm a fan of the pull-and-mix option. Served in hearty portions followed by a salad, the pumpkin is a perfect cold-weather main course; served in generous spoonfuls, it's just right alongside the Thanksgiving turkey.

Or just cut it in half and serve each person a half filled with stuffing― or if baking separately, put a half in a bowl and top with stuffing.

It's really best to eat this as soon as it's ready. However, if you’ve got leftovers, you can scoop them out of the pumpkin, mix them up, cover, and chill them; reheat them the next day.

Bonne Idée
There are many ways to vary this arts-and-crafts project. Instead of bread, I've filled the pumpkin with cooked rice—when it's baked, it's almost risotto-like. And, with either bread or rice, on
different occasions I've added cooked spinach, kale, chard, or peas (the peas came straight from the freezer). Nuts are a great addition, as are chunks of apple or pear or pieces of chestnut.

yield: Makes 2 very generous servings or 4 more genteel servings

Martha Turner's Carrot Cake
The quintessential carrot cake. This is one of a few cakes that actually uses canned fruit. The pineapple makes it moist and tart. Thanks to Martha Turner of Greensboro, North Carolina for the recipe.

Cake Batter
2 cups all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry measuring cup and level off)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
4 large eggs
2 cups sugar
Want to have to special boil such as corn or Camilla
2 cups peeled and finally grated carrots (four large carrots)
One 8 ounce can of crushed pineapple in juice
3/4 cup (about 3 ounces) pecans, coarsely chopped.

Cream Cheese Icing
12 ounces cream cheese, softened
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened.
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup (about 4 ounces) pecans, coarsely chopped and lightly toasted
6 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted after measuring.

3 2-inch deep 9-inch round cake pans, buttered and bottoms lined with buttered parchment or wax paper

1. Set the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat at 325°.
2. Stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon in a bowl, mixing well.
3. Whisk the eggs in a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the sugar and continue whisking briefly until light, about one minute. Whisk in the oil in a slow stream.
4. Stir in the carrots, the pineapple with its juice, and the pecans, and then fold in the dry ingredients. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the tops.
5. Bake for about 45 minutes, switching the position of the pants top and bottom and back to front, once during baking, until the cake layers are firm and golden any toothpick inserted into the center emerges clean.
6. Cool the cake in the pans for 10 minutes, and then invert into racks to finish cooling. Remove the paper before icing.
7. To make the icing, in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle, beat cream cheese, butter, and vanilla. On medium speed until very soft and light, about five minutes. Decrease the mixer speed to low and gradually beat in the confectioner sugar. Once all the sugar is incorporated, increase the speed to medium and beat for five minutes longer.
8. To assemble the cake, place one layer on a platter or cardboard rounded spread with one third of the icing. Top with another layer and spread  with another third of the icing. Place the last layer on top, bottom side up, and, using a large offset spatula, frost the top inside the cake with the remaining icing. Sprinkle the toasted pecan pieces on top of the cake, and pressing the sites.

Storage: keep under cake dome at room temperature.

Makes one 9-inch three layer cake, about 16 servings.