Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Big Fat Pig

Amazingly, I took this photo in front of what's probably a one- or two-million-dollar house in Hanoi. The owners keep at least ten chickens, five dogs, and this gigantic pig in their front yard, which is basically a road. They do have a wonderful view of West Lake, though, once you get past all the rubble, dust, and mountains of bricks––belonging to the multitude of construction crews constantly at work there.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Friday, November 19, 2010

New Blog

Hi all!

Sorry for the lapse in posting, but I've been spending my free time over the last few weeks giving my novel, Lotusland, another revision and starting a new blog to help promote it. The blog can be found at:

I'm hoping to get a bit of notice for it by word-of-mouth prior to blitzing agents for representation when I go back to the U.S. for the holidays. So if any of you wonderful people want to have a look at what I've been working on (okay, off and on) since 2004, I'd be eternally grateful. I've included five full chapters and five chapter excerpts -- a peek at ten of the twenty-nine chapters that make up the novel, in fact. The whole blog is a work-in-progress, but I hope it's easy to navigate for everyone.

I'll try to get back to this blog soon. Thank you!


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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

More Favorite Cafés in Hanoi

Hey, it's hard work having mouse-catching duties for a school, a cathedral, and a long row of cafés...

I’m behind in my posts, I know. I have many drafts of posts, full of photos that I’ve already uploaded, but providing the text for those posts is more time-consuming – so I put it off. I’m good at putting things off.

Today, though, I thought I’d slap together some photos (and a bit of text) from a couple cafés in Hanoi that I frequent. They both serve decent coffee, but it’s the environment of each place that I appreciate more than anything.

The first café I’ve included here, So Hot, draws me to it for different reasons. One is the location. It’s right next to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, and from just about anywhere in the café one has a nice view of it. Two is the interior. I’m not saying that I want to decorate my own home the same way, but it’s just so different from other cafes, and each of the three floors, thanks to the open windows and abundant light, is comfortable despite the somewhat narrow space. The third is that they give complimentary glasses of nước ngô (sweet, corn-flavored water) with one’s drinks, which might sound strange to some but personally I think the stuff is pretty tasty. The fourth is that I like to commune with a cat that someone tethers to a tree in front of the café. I have my little idiosyncracies, what can I say…

Plush and posh. On a Wednesday afternoon at 2 p.m., I had the place almost entirely to myself.

On weekends, as expected, it does get crowded. Better to come early and claim a window seat with a view of St. Joseph's Cathedral.

The coffee here is pretty good, and at 18,000 dong ($.92) there’s nothing about it one can really find fault with. So Hot offers your standard Vietnamese drinks as well as a medium-sized selection of Asian and Western dishes. Nothing here will knock your socks off, but people come here for the atmosphere rather than for great meals.

Prime real estate -- the best seat in the café, in my opinion.

The service isn’t bad, either, in the sense that the employees won’t bother you for English lessons or lean against a near wall and stare at you. When I asked about the nước ngô, I was invited into the kitchen to see what the cafe uses to make it. (One boils green corn husks and corn silk with water and sugar for ten minutes.) With free wi-fi, this is the sort of place one can while away hours in a day.

Nothing like strong black coffee and sweet corn water to get you going...

So Hot is located at 2 Nha Tho Street, sandwiched between an old yellow school and a row of ground floor sidewalk cafés, and with awesome views of St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
(The cat mostly stays sleeping behind the big tree in front. If you don’t see it at first, just say “Mèo ơi” and I can almost guarantee that it will start meowing at you.)

I'd snuck up on it while it was asleep and was about to get some close-up shots, but the security guard clapped his hands and the cat immediately woke up. He was pretty groggy, though, as you can see here.

I asked the security guard if the cat had a name. He said no, then asked me if we name our cats in America. When I said that we do, he then asked if we eat cats in America. I said no, there'd be no reason to name a cat if we were only going to eat it.

Demanding people get on my nerves, but demanding cats are funny and cute. This one can never get enough petting.

The second café I’ve included here is Segafredo, an Italian café located on Xuan Dieu Street in West Lake.

I come here several mornings a week to write. It’s a good place to get work done. Even when there are a lot of customers, it never feels very crowded. It can get a bit noisy with the music they constantly play (warning: their song selections tend to be irksome, unless you’re really into boy bands and Abba), but overall it’s a nice workspace.

They have a western menu, too, and prices to match. The waiters and waitresses are some of the nicest I’ve ever run across in Hanoi, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem with an order. The food is not much to blog about, unless one wants to complain about the prices, but the coffee and espresso drinks aren’t bad at all.

I usually get a medium-sized Americano, which costs 33,000 dong ($1.69), and if I haven’t had breakfast I might also pay 60,000 to 80,000 ($3 to $4) for a veggie omelet or a bacon, egg, and cheese croissant.

They also have a decent selection of desserts, including a carrot cake that’s worth trying. The place is nearly deserted at night, especially on the weekends, which is a little strange since West Lake simply crawls with Westerners – who comprise most of the café’s clientele.

Segafredo is at 36 Xuan Dieu in the West Lake district of Hanoi. Tel: (04) 3718-0212. Website:

That’s all for now. I’ll try to do better with my next blog posts!

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Xôi in Hanoi

Here, xôi thập cẩm includes glutinous yellow rice, shaved pork skin, paté, a fried boiled egg, red Chinese sausage, Vietnamese sausage, strips of cooked chicken, and dried mung bean shavings. It also comes with a complimentary bowl of chopped cucumbers and red chilies in vinegar. Not bad for 34,000 dong ($1.74).

One of my favorite places to eat in Hanoi is called Xôi Yến. It’s located on Nguyen Huu Huan Street, and has, in my opinion, the best xôi anywhere in Vietnam.

Xôi is a Vietnamese dish made from glutinous rice and comes with all sorts of different toppings. In Ho Chi Minh City, where I lived from 2004 to 2007, I would often have xôi for breakfast. It was a sweet version of xôi, with dried coconut shavings, roasted sesame seeds, and crystallized sugar sprinkled on top. It’s especially good with soybean milk, and no xôi vendor worth his or her glutinous rice operates without a few bottles on hand.

Xôi Yến and I go back a long time. I used to eat there on occasion in 1997, back when I was teaching at the University of Foreign Trade and living relatively far away, in Dong Da district. But in 2002, when I was living much closer -- on Tran Quoc Toan Street -- I came here more often.

These places are invariably run by teenagers and young 20-somethings. While they may not offer what I'd call polite, attentive service, they sure know how to make excellent xôi.

My most pleasant memory of Xôi Yến, in fact, is of going there at around midnight with a couple friends, ordering giant bowls of xôi thập cẩm (mixed xôi), and then suddenly being ushered inside from the sidewalk as a caravan of police showed up in trucks. The police proceeded to confiscate tables and chairs and fine various late-night restaurants – they weren’t supposed to be open that late, nor were they supposed to have tables and chairs spilling out into public space. Once we were herded inside, the owners pulled shut their long metal accordion doors, turned off the lights, and lit candles. My friends and I were the only foreigners inside, and not only did the owners let us continue to finish our meals in the near-darkness, but they let us drink free beer for the half hour it took for the police to finally leave. It became a little party – the sort of thing you could only enjoy in Vietnam.

Balls of dried mung beans.

Some of the toppings available with xôi.

I still visit Xôi Yến, though not as frequently as in the past. I live just as close to it now as I did back in 2002, but xôi tends to be quite heavy, and since I like their thập cẩm best of all, it’s an incredible amount of food that I always end up facing. One feels it in one’s stomach for hours afterward. But every now and then I feel a craving for it, and if I’m downtown I’m liable to stop there for a quick meal.

Xôi Yến is open from early morning until late at night, and it's never less than crowded.

Xôi Yến is located at 35B Nguyen Huu Huan Street in Hanoi, just a couple blocks from Hoan Kiem Lake. Tel: (4) 926-3427.

Much nearer to where I live is a woman who plants herself inconspicuously on a small street corner and sells xôi all morning long. She told me that she usually wakes up at three or four a.m., cooks the rice and prepares her toppings, then packs it all into shallow, wide straw baskets, ties them up to her bicycle, and rides through the pre-dawn darkness five kilometers to her selling spot in Truc Bach.

She, too, serves different types of xôi – white or yellow glutinous with toppings such as roasted peanuts, crushed sesame seeds, shaved pork skin (rước), fried shallots, dried mung bean shavings, etc.

Locals crowd her corner every morning, and for good reason. One bowl, which is a filling breakfast by itself, only costs about 12,000 dong ($.62).

A young xôi connoisseur.

An early morning view of Truc Bach's back streets from the xôi lady's spot.

Wikipedia gives an interesting overview of what kind of xôi can be had in Vietnam:ôi

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