Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Whimper, Not a Roar

Tet New Year celebrations sentimentally brings up memories of loud fire crackers, lots of people, gambling, laughing, and of course eating. We thought that Tet in Vietnam would be just that - loud, full of family, and food. Well....

Years ago a ban was placed on fireworks and it is highly illegal to light firecrackers or fireworks. However, the government does do a fireworks display, just not every year and this year in my grandmother's village there was a large fireworks display. And we're thinking that was where everyone was. Whereas, we were at the local temple.Before arriving to temple we psyched ourselves out about the crowds, the noise, the chaos, children running everywhere and the incense! But Tet turned out to be much less stressful than we imagined with only about a dozen people total at time, including the 7 of us.

It was much different and low key than we expected, but we were ok with that. At exactly midnight the female monk, who heads the local temple, gathered in the lower temple and began her prepared chant for New Years.What we're used to back home is during the Monk's chanting people are either in deep meditative state intently chanting or walking around and stopping at the offering table or getting a New Year's forcast for the upcoming year. When we first arrived shortly before midnight we each made a prayer at the alter table and then simply wandered the beautiful grounds in relative calm and peace.The peaceful atmosphere was only pierced by either someone "ooohhhing" and "aaahhhhhing" at the fireworks in the distance or the sound of the large bell rung in between chanting.It may not have the festive way in which we are accustomed to celebrating Tet, but it was memorable and festive in its own way.

Home Cooked Meals

With Tet New Year's Eve near not many businesses were open, but honestly we didn't even notice. For one, everything is literally only a scooter ride away. Batteries? Bam! Scooter ride away. Superglue? Bam! Scooter ride away. Beer? Bam! Scooter ride away. Baguettes? Bam! Scooter ride away....you get the picture. It was as if you asked for something and go brush your hair and bam! There it was.

Meals were very simple, fresh, eaten together and at a leisurely pace. It was wonderfully relaxing.After not being able to find something good to eat in the market for breakfast, the next morning we decided on a simple breakfast of crispy pork and threaded rice noodles.Served at room temperature, the crispy skin pork was salty and fatty, matching well with chewy, light & cool noodles. So simple and refreshing.Just grab a bowl and pile up the fixing, creating your perfect bite each time.And of course we were spoiled with a dinner of Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa, a specialty cured and grilled pork. With all the fixings for personalized rolls.We were even treated to leftovers from our Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa meal a couple of days later. Just grilled up, complete with char marks to add fatty smokey flavor.Shrimp used for the rolls were wrapped in rice paper with a bunch of chives and deep fried. Along with these tasty bites, our aunt made a delicious stewed pork, carmalized in sweet soy sauce and served with a hard boiled duck egg that was creamier than any chicken egg we've ever had. And to lighten the meal up - spare rib soup with carrots and potatoes. Seriously good. And again, so simple and memorable with unbelievable tender pork in a tangy broth studded with perfectly cooked carrots and potatoes which have soaked up just enough of the tangy broth, but still have a starchy bite to them.So far the meals we have eaten have been comfort home cooking dishes and not much special foods made/eaten during Tet. That's until New Year's Eve Day we were treated to sticky rice rolled in a banana leaf filled with rice, salty pork and yellow beans. Our favorite way to eat them is fried, so the rice melts together, like the cheese on a grilled cheese sandwich, but the rice on the outside remains crispy holding everything together.The starchy rice with just a little bit of salty pork and creamy sweet yellow bean goes excellently with sour crunchy pickled items.We were warned not to fill up on the sticky rice because New Year's Day (Tet) would mean a vegetarian meals with more vegetarian sticky rice. Other vegetarian dishes during our down-to-earth celebration included fermented tofu with soy sauce and lemon grass. Mainly for refresher between bites and added texture.There was a stir fried green beans, mushrooms, and tofu dish. The vegetables and tofu was light and refreshing and had enough bite to them, but tasted oily and of each other's subtle favor from the stir frying.And a vegetarian soup with broccoli, carrots, and clear rice noodles that had just enough spice to it to add an extra kick to the crunchy vegetables.And to add a little filler due to the lack of meat, our little cousins quickly fried up some battered cauliflower with a little tumeric in the coating to add another interesting flavor the dish.And because there never is a truly vegetarian meal when there are guests, a Vietnamese style cold cut plate was provided. A pressed pork patty topped with sauteed tomatoes and onions and garnished with cilantro and various herbs.And of course cold vegetables or greens, used mainly to cleanse your palette and prepare your mouth for another salty, bitter, sweet, spicy, sour, crunchy, soft, chewy bite.This visit we did have one meal that was fairly unique and new to us - fresh seafood steamed right on the beach. Including the creepy looking mantas shrimp, which are rarely served in the US.And steamed snails, a national obsession in Vietnam due to the sweet, tender, sea tasting morsels that makes the amount of effort needed to pry the meat from the shell questionable if its worth it.That is until someone has meticulously done it for you and stir fried it in green onions, garlic and chilis. Done this way the tender salty snail meat mixed well and added texture to the pungent onions, garlic and chilis. We greedily topped our wonderfully cooked chao (porridge) with the snail mixture for a seriously dynamite dish. The salty and pungent flavors, coupled with the soft cooked green onions and steamed snail meat added extra kick to the thick rice porridge that was heavy in black pepper and fresh ginger. Our bellies never had it so good.

Monday, March 29, 2010

New Year Markets and the Shutting Down of Towns

As mentioned in an earlier post, families will forgo the possibility of making double the income during Tet New Year in order to spend time with families, especially those who can only afford to go home once or twice a year. New Years is a sacred and special time of year for all of Vietnamese. It truly is a universal celebration among all regardless of religion or economics. Shop owners will close up shop for up to a month to travel home to celebrate with their families. For those visiting Vietnam during Tet New Year it means double the price for everything, all the while there aren't many places to spend that hard earned cash, especially in small villages like Ninh Hoa.

So for our first full day in Ninh Hoa we wanted to head out to the market for some breakfast, but quickly found that while there seemed an appearance of a busy typical day at the open market many vendors weren't operating and finding a nice breakfast was going to be more challenging than expected. Everyone is ready to make a buck right? Not so during Tet New Year it turns out.

There were plenty of vendors selling typical marketing items, but we were wanting some breakfast.We wandering around the marketing hoping to find some specialty New Year's Food prepared and sold only during Tet.We soon realized foreigners are extremely rare in Ninh Hoa, so after being harrassed for money we soon spotted a section of vendors selling Vietnamese desserts Che and Banh Xeo Crepes and decided this was going to be as good as it gets. So we pulled up plastic chairs and ordered up some grub.While not extraordinary in anyway, the fresh crispy crepes and refreshing che desserts satisfied our hunger pangs and at a little less than $5 for all of us to eat until we didn't want anymore was fine with us. The hive of activity is a lot to take in and to be able to sit down and people watch verses wandering around hungry while old woman begging followed us made the pitstop worth it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ninh Hoa Neighbors

We're back in Ninh Hoa, Vietnam. This time for Tet New Year. We've brought a crowd and we're staying with crazy Uncle Seven.

We couldn't have asked for a better host. He was our constant alarm clock, concierge and party instigator. He sure loves a good time.Uncle Seven's house is a lot more "modern" than grandma's house with a westernize toilet that flushed (sometimes), bedrooms, a living room and off the main street surrounded by rice fields. It was nice and quiet.Ninh Hoa is a picturesque vietnamese village where life moves at a much slower pace. That is unless you live in the house directly behind Uncle Seven's house.Every morning we would get up as the sun was rising along with the sounds of roosters crowing. We each would take a quick cold shower, brush our teeth and basically get ready for the day to the throbbing sounds of techno music blaring out from the neighbor's house.

We were so thrown back by this tiny house just cranking the techno music that we thought it must be a pool hall or something along those lines. But no, the neighbors just like to get ready for the day with loud techno music.

Now when traveling with technology/audio geeks, and we mean that in the nicest way, the benefit of reliving moments caught by video and sound recording can be priceless.Below is a time lapse video, complete with a sound recording (so use those speakers!) of what we heard every morning. Something we will not soon forget.