Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Approach of Tet: A Haircut, Traffic, More Bun Cha, and Flowers

Tet is just around the corner, and Hanoi is overflowing with kumquat trees.

Today the sun finally poked through the ceiling of gray clouds that have hung over Hanoi for weeks. Even though Hanoi seems always to be gray overhead, at eye level things are far more colorful. Since Tet—or Vietnamese New Year—is only days away, the city has begun to swell with traditional peach and plum blossoms, flowers of all varieties, and so many kumquats that one might well expect to see people clutching their stomachs at the mere mention of them in, say, two or three more weeks—after those countless kumquats have all been eaten.

I quite like seeing the kumquats, actually. They’re often put in ceramic planters and carted around the city, usually on the backs of motorbikes, but also on the backs of bicycles, in small truck beds, on the seats of cyclos, and spilling out of the trunks of cars.  

The same can be said of blossoming peach and plum cuttings. They’re very traditional markers of Vietnamese New Year, and the sidewalks of some streets are literally turned pink and yellow from crowds of vendors selling these items. It’s been so cold this winter, though, that many of these vendors have been forced to conduct their business from beneath jerrybuilt hothouses (tarp pulled over upright sticks, in most cases).

Given that Tet is so close, and I have various social obligations to see through over the week-long holiday, I thought it best to make myself presentable. I headed to a local stylist and proceeded to get my hair cut too short and my face and head massaged much too roughly. But for 110,000 dong ($5.64), I have few complaints (except that the haircut really shouldn’t have cost that much).
Don't worry. I was only making a face at the camera, not wincing because the stylist's scissors impaled my brain.

After that, I drove to Quang Trung Street, parked on a corner, and amused myself for a while by taking photographs of passing traffic. If you come to Hanoi, or anywhere in Vietnam, I think you’ll find that this is more interesting and entertaining than you’d ever thought possible. Why? Because you’ll see things you’ve never seen before. After living in Vietnam for seven years, I still see things that surprise me. Though maybe less so now that the practice of driving through the streets with butchered animals on the backs of motorbikes has been outlawed.

Following, then, are just some random shots that I took over the course of maybe 15 minutes. These are admittedly nothing special, though some are kind of funny.

I'm not sure if this is a tree or just a cutting, but I'm sure it will look nice in their home.

This guy is loaded down with at least nine full water bottles, which are HEAVY.
I'm not sure if he's competing with the water bottle deliverer, but if so he's losing. He's only carrying eight boxes.
He's really behind the other two guys, though it's not at all improbable that three or four boxes fell off behind him and he just hasn't realized it yet.
I like to think that this guy has invented a new way to carry passengers around Hanoi. But actually, I'm pretty sure he's just delivering that piece on behalf of a furniture shop down the street.
There have been a few times that I've seen six people on a motorbike, but even when I see four on one I can't help gasping a little bit.

Another foursome on a motorbike, but this vehicle is better equipped to carry them all.

This guy looked really cold, and really determined to find some passengers. One doesn't see cyclos often in Hanoi anymore, unless you're in the Old Quarter, in which case you'll almost surely see twenty of them clogging the streets somewhere with a tour group. And. Going. Three. Miles. Per. Hour.
This is one of the smaller kumquat trees I've seen. I bet it still cost over $50, though. In Hanoi, flowers and cuttings and trees are EXPENSIVE.

In just 15 minutes I was able to photograph three people reading and sending messages on their cell phones while driving. This is one of my many pet peeves with traffic in Hanoi—one of maybe 200 pet peeves I have with Hanoi traffic—and it may rank as number one. MY GOD! HOW ON EARTH can you DRIVE without endangering yourself and EVERYONE AROUND YOU if you’re TYPING something on your cell phone WHILE DRIVING!?  
Put it away, pal. Just...put it away and save us all.

Put it away, you lunatic!

Pleeeeease, do us all a favor and put your cell phone away while driving in the congested streets...

Watching all that traffic go by of course made me hungry, so off we went to have lunch at a well-known bún chả restaurant called Bún Chả Hàng Mành.

Even at 2 p.m. the place was crowded (more than the photo shows), and at normal, peak eating times this place swarms with customers. It’s known for its chả broth, which is good but not that special.

It’s certainly not worth 70,000 dong ($3.59) for one bowl of bún chả and one piece of nem, especially when most other places will serve you the very same delicious food for between 15,000 dong ($.77) and 25,000 ($1.28).

Bún Chả Hàng Mành is fine, but it’s also a bit of a racket. The place where I normally eat bún chả is better and cheaper. I blogged about it earlier here.

Bún Chả Hàng Mành is at 1 Hàng Mành Street in the Old Quarter.

With our bellies full of noodles, herbs, grilled meat, fish sauce, and green papaya, we headed to Vườn Hoa Hàng Đậu, which is basically a big flower market on Hàng Đậu Street between the Old Quarter and Trúc Bạch. During the lead-up to Tet, this small park is filled with flower sellers, some buyers, lots of families, and camera-toting people like me.

True, she's a little girl and not a flower, but she was worth the photo. Too bad my taking her picture made her run about 100 meters away and crash into the back of her father's legs. I guess that haircut I got earlier made me scarier looking than I realized.

Peach-blossom bonsai trees.

The curvier their trunks, the more expensive they are. Each of these cost more than $100.

Getting ready to deliver a 7,000,000 dong (~$360) order of orchids. I hope he's a good driver and doesn't drop it along the way.

These flowers and cuttings ain’t cheap. Most of the potted flowers and cuttings cost between 1,000,000 dong (~$50) and 9,000,000 dong (~$460). I’m sure the prices went higher, too.

Orchids were a popular item here, but too rich for my blood.

But the main draw here are all the cây quất, or kumquat trees. The street here almost seems to burst into flame as you’re driving past, such is the effect of all these fruit-heavy kumquat trees.

The trees are often seen dressing up business offices, building lobbies, café and restaurant interiors, and people’s homes. In many cases they’re used just like Christmas trees, ornamented and strung with lights, but they’re smaller and more manageable. You can also eat its fruit whenever you feel like it.

Following are more shots from Vườn Hoa Hàng Đậu. I'll try to do more later on the Tet holiday, if possible.

Snazzy little fella. He obviously came for the ladies.

These are red daikon. They sell for more than $20 each, if I remember correctly.

These are plum blossom bonsais. They're very popular during Tet. I think they're my favorite Tet flower.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fermented, Dried, Flame-Grilled Saury ( 熊野の丸ぼし )

Today my friends M & T, from HanoiLife, invited me to their apartment for something special: 熊野の丸ぼし (kumano no maruboshi), or, in English, dried saury (sanma) grilled on an open flame. What made this particularly special was that the fish had been flown in directly from Kumano City, Mie prefecture, which is on Ise Bay midway between Nagoya and Ise.
Apparently Mie prefecture is well-known in Japan for this particular dish. If I understand correctly, the saury are caught in Ise Bay after journeying north via the fish-rich Kuroshio Current. Once caught, the saury are fermented in sweet sake and then hung to dry in the open air.
Photo credit:

Because the saury are hung from the tail, their fat and the contents of their innards concentrate slowly downward in the chiai (the long muscle that gives half of the saury's flesh its dark color), which over time imparts a bitter flavor to the fish.

Because the saury is fermented in sweet sake, and because it has a deeply bitter taste, drinking sake with this dish is a near-imperative. Actually, beer works well, too. In fact, we had beer and sake with this dish—nothing like going completely overboard on an early Tuesday afternoon!

To my surprise, and to my stomach's great pleasure, M & T also ordered two platters of food from a Japanese restaurant called Showa (the actual spelling on their signboard, however, is Shyowa). 

This was my first encounter with Showa’s menu, and I must admit to being impressed. The sushi came in very thick pieces – like an open-faced onigiri if there is such a thing – and the restaurant was quite generous with the raw salmon and tuna it included.

There was also a delicious kim chi, California, and saba (mackerel) roll, and the fried chicken and shrimp, which were excellent, really put me over the top.

Shyowa Restaurant is located at 619 Kim Ma Street in Hanoi. Tel/Fax: (04) 3766-8389.

I guess I've been in a Japanese food-mood lately. Hanoi has its fair share of interesting Japanese restaurants, but having friends who get the occasional order of specialty dishes flown directly from Japan also doesn't hurt!
Arigatou M & T for sharing your bounty from Mie prefecture and for introducing me to a new Japanese dish!

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