Always Low Prices

February 15, 2007

Yes, that’s right. Walmart. When I saw the familiar sign (and slogan), I couldn’t help but check it out. Soon I was on an upward sloping escalator taking me to the first of four floors in what is the largest Walmart I’ve ever seen. To my left and right on the escalator were product after product in huge bins. There was also a woman with a microphone barking directions about what I presume to be the use of the escalator.

The first floor leads in with a fresh seafood area. The space is huge, complete with a U-shaped ice display and no less than 40 large live fish tanks. Moving out of the seafood area, I found every food imaginable. I laughed as I passed recognizable meat hanging from hooks–I guess Walmart has a different set of rules to play with in China. It was overwhelming how much food I was clueless about, but in true American style there were tasting stations set up for various places.

The second floor proved a bit more familiar with packaged foods. Kraft is everywhere. You can’t go far without seeing an oreo product in this part of the world. There were also displays on cooking popcorn and blending drinks. In China, they have infomercial type personalities armed with a headset and some sort of made for TV product. This isn’t reserved for only Walmart. Take a left down a sidestreet and you may here someone preaching the virtues (and demonstrating them) of a set of new knives.

I made it to the third floor before I began to get that feeling I usually have being in a Walmart. Exotic foods had given way to Procter and Gamble toiletry products and I decided to leave.

I probably spent a couple hours in Walmart, observing the people and picking up a few purchases. You can’t argue with their slogan. I paid a fourth of the price that I usually pay for a bottle of water here in China. It was probably an interesting time to visit as the Chinese New Year is upon us (February 18th).

As much as I don’t enjoy Walmart in the US, I was rather pleased with my experience in China. How did it all end you ask? I shot baskets at an arcade style basketball hoop set up outside of the store. It was plastered with photos of Yao Ming and as my score continued to rise, a growing crowd of Chinese onlookers watched with interest.

Only in China.

One Big Package Tour

February 13, 2007

After three weeks in Vietnam, I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed the country. Although it has taken me awhile to warm up to the people (it’s not like Thailand where everyone is always smiling at you), I’ve found once you break through the initial barrier and get away from the legions of people trying to sell you something, the people can be quite warm. In light of what our country was doing here just 40 years ago–this is remarkable.

Despite my improved view of the people, I’m still weary of giving independent travellers a wholehearted recommendation to visit the country. Travelling here is like One Big Package tour. Vietnam wants your tourist dollars, but they’ll tell you what to see, where to stay, and how to travel. Buses connect from Sagion-Mui Ne-Nha Trang-Hoi An-Hue-Hanoi. These buses take you to hotels owned by the bus companies and you are encouraged to stay there. Most of the time it is so convenient it is hard not to. From Hanoi, there are more package tours to Halong Bay and Sapa. After a while it feels like you are being herded around like sheep. And don’t get me wrong–sometimes the convenience of it all is quite nice. Some people love the packages, the tour buses and not having to think about what you’ll do next, where you’ll eat, etc. For me, it makes the travel less interesting. I loved my Halong Bay tour, but by the end playing the game “mafia” with 10 other native English speakers seemed out of place.

All of this is to say that if you like tours, you’ll love Vietnam. I don’t and think it is time for me to move on to a new country. My visa expires tomorrow so it is good timing. I’m headed to China by bus, where I’ll probably soon be yearning for the ease of travel that exists in Vietnam. I’m a bit nervous, but more excited. My first stop is the city of Kunming, a city of 4 million people.

A Gastronomic Tour of Hanoi

February 10, 2007

So I know I always write about food, but this time it is with good reason. Watching the Superbowl on Monday morning at the Hilton, I began speaking with a guy from Chicago who is working in Thailand as an executive chef at a four star hotel. He had also spent some time training in Vietnam.

After the game, we had similar plans–each of us needed to visit embassies to pick up visas. After obtaining our visas, we decided to explore the Old Quarter. Hanoi’s old quarter is a maze of streets that are named after the products and services you’ll find on them. There is a shoe street, a towel street, fruit street, etc. It’s a great place to get lost, explore and see the city at work as you try to keep yourself in one piece by dodging the motos that whiz by. There are said to be 4 million people in Hanoi and 2.5 million motos. I believe it. Making matters worse is that sidewalks are more accurately described as store fronts. There is little room for pedestrians.

But enough about traffic problems and onto the food. One particular street of interest for Adam and I was Cha ca street. Cha ca is a fish dish that consists of fresh rice noodles, dill, spring onion, scallions, coriander, peanuts, and mom tom–an incredibly smelly shrimp sauce. The fish is fried with turmeric root giving it a nice yellow color. According to Adam, the traditional way of eating Cha ca is to cook everything yourself in a pot of hot oil presented table side. Just 10 months ago, this is how he sampled Cha ca at the very restaurant we were sitting in. Back then the food stall had a dirt floor and simple wood tables; now it is an elegant restaurant catering to the growing tourist market and the waiter prepares the dish. Things are changing fast in Vietnam.

Prior to our Cha ca experience, we stopped for Bun cho (sp?), another dish employing fresh rice noodles. Instead of fish, marinated pork is grilled and then served in a bowl with other greens. At less than 75 cents, it proved once again that the best way to eat in Vietnam is on the street.

Touring the markets with a knowledgeable chef was a great way to get a sense of the food and culture. Once you know what something is you are much more inclined to try it. And I want to know what everything is in Vietnam. They eat dog on a fairly regular basis. I actually saw a dog get sold for this very purpose, but that is the less appealing side of Vietnam cuisine and I’ll save that story for another time.

We rounded of our day of eating with some excellent Vientnamese coffee at two different places. I’m not a big coffee drinker, but it is some of the strongest and best I’ve had. Looking back, a lackluster Superbowl Monday turned into a pretty good day, although I’m still bitter about the Pats. There is no way Rex Grossman never would have beaten Brady and company.

Tailor Made

February 1, 2007

With Courtney’s departure imminent, we decided to take a few days to relax in Hoi An, a UNESCO world heritage site in the central part of Vietnam.  We had read and heard about the tailoring industry that the town has become famous for, but on the bus ride we each casually mentioned that we probably we would not purchase anything.  Funds were getting tight, right?

On our third day in Hoi An, we weren’t shopping for clothes but rather a bag to put them in!  Each of us sampled having an item or two made before deciding it was worthwhile to get more.  All told, I have a new suit, a new jacket, 5 shirts, four ties, sandals, and a new pair of dress shoes.  How much for all this?  Just about $300.  The experience of the process is great too.  I had Courtney, two Vietnamese girls, and the tailor sizing me up during the various fittings for my clothes.  Even better, the company has my measurements in their database just in case I decide I’d like more stuff. 

When we weren’t shopping, we biked around the town visting museums, old houses, and pagodas.   Of course we also sampled some of the regional dishes that Hoi An is famous for.  My favorite was cao lao which you can read about here.  

Hoi An was a pleasant place with good food, nice clothes and a laid back feel–they’ve even outlawed touting! (a policy that would be welcome in the rest of Vietnam)  I’d recommend it to anyone making a visit to Vietnam.

A Turkish Cooking Lesson

January 29, 2007

Courtney and I love Turkish food. It would be hard not to after spending 9 months in the country and sampling everything possible. Perhaps my favorite contribution to Turkish cuisine is the “doner kebab,” usually lamb, but sometimes beef or chicken cooked on a vertical rotating spit. The meat is used in a variety of dishes, but it is always good. While in Turkey, I often wondered about the process of preparing and cooking the meat. I wanted to bring doner to the States! (crossman are you still in?)

So why am I talking about Turkish food in the seaside resort of Nha Trang in Vietnam? Interestingly enough (oddly?), a Turk has found his way to this beachy locale. Murat, a self described “madman” (his response to why he lived in Vietnam), proudly boasts of having the only Turkish restaurant in Vietnam. His food was excellent, and Courtney and I were happy to have a break from Pho Bo, the national dish that is a rice noodle soup. Even more bizarre than finding the Turkish restaurant was that our attempts at speaking Turkish did not strike Murat as the least bit unusual.  We had a couple of meals with our new Turkish friend, and I told him I wanted to know how to make doner. “10:30 AM tomorrow,” he said. With that I had a date to learn one of the most essential items of Turkish cuisine. It’s more detailed than I thought, but perhaps some of you will get to try some day.

Now I just need to find a way to import a machine from Istanbul.

Go Fly a Kite

January 23, 2007

On the island of Ko Phangan in Thailand, Courtney and I waited for enough wind to allow us to take kitesurfing lessons.  All of our waiting (4 days!) was in vain–you need at least 10 knots to fly these kites!  I’ve been wanting to try since seeing the huge and colorful kites on Lighthouse beach in Chatham. 

Enter Mui Ne Beach in Vietnam where the wind blows everyday.  From about 10:30 to 4:00, one can count over 30 kites in the air.  We decided to take the plunge (quite literally at times) and spent the next few days (5 hrs of lessons) learning the basics of kitesurfing.  It is definitely not easy, and the sheer power of the kite can be intimidating, but it is a lot of fun.  The lessons progress from flying a small kite on land to “bodydragging” in the water with a larger kite and longer lines before finally trying to incorporate the board.  My attempts at getting up on the board resulted in a lot of swallowed sea water, but I think if I have another day or two I’ll get it.  It is one of the more fun sports to watch–check out this video below.

January 23, 2007

Kite Surfing

The Cambodian wiffle

January 14, 2007

I’m generally a big fan of haircuts in foreign countries.  Though it requires a certain leap of faith, I’ve been happy with the results.  In Armenia, my barber cut the hair of the national soccer team and spent well over an hour ensuring that each of my hairs was the correct length.  In Turkey, $5 got you a shave, haircut, and bizarre lighter-to-the ear technique.

Given my past experiences with the international barbers and considering I hadn’t had a haircut since October, I decided to give Cambodia a go.  At 2500 riel, or 70 cents, the price was certainly right.  I caught a few stares as I walked in as most “barang” (foreigners) go to the more expensive salons from what I gather.  I would soon find out why.

After a brief exchange, I communicated I wanted a shave and a haircut.  The shave came first and I soon realized I was in trouble.  Soap had replaced shaving cream and the new blade felt like a month old Bic.  Still, after some pain and watering eyes I did have a clean shave.  I was hoping for the best for my haircut when the barber began nonchalantly lopping large clumps of hair off my head.  The point of no return was passed and I soon realized my fate:  the dreaded Cambodian wiffle.

Pictures may or may not be forthcoming, but I’ll just say my very own parents had a good laugh at my expense when we last spoke via videophone.  Courtney says I look like 007, but I think she is just being nice.  I feel more like I’m six and wearing “jams” shorts than an international spy.

Never again?

January 13, 2007

Never again?, originally uploaded by edward_casabian.

January 7th marked the 28th anniversary of the end to the genocide in Cambodia. We spent the previous day in the Tuol Seng genocide museum, known as S-21 during the period of Khmer Rouge rule from 1975-1979. The museum tells the story of the horrifying prison camp, in which only 7 people are known to have survived out of the 14,000 held captive. It was a sobering experience, similar to a visit to Dachau in Germany or the Armenian genocide museum in Yerevan. Pictures show events that most people would not think possible; one exhibit showed the skulls of victims and identified the method in which they were killed (many were killed with blunt objects as the Khmer Rouge deemed bullets too “expensive”).

S-21 was but one of many places where the terror of the genocide was realized. In total, the Khmer Rouge killed nearly a quarter of the population of Cambodia. You can see the genocide everywhere you look in Cambodia; just a few days earlier we visited the city of Battambang. Courtney and I hired moto drivers to tour the city. We saw killing fields where people were thrown to their deaths. We listened to our guide, Baht, tell his story during the period of the Khmer Rouge. Though he considered his family lucky (only his oldest brother was killed), listening to his stories it is hard for me to consider anyone lucky who lived in Cambodia during this time period.

During our visit to the genocide museum, I sat down and began leafing through a comment book for visitors who wanted to write their impressions of what they had seen at the museum. Overwhelmingly, the message was clear. People from all over the world wrote that we can never let this happen again.

And yet it is happening now in Darfur, but there are things people can do. At the very least, send a webfax to your senator and congressman or sign a petition. Visit websites like Save Darfur and get a sense of what is happening there. Also, Nicholas Kristof of the NY times has written extensively on the subject.

It is all too easy to say or write “never again” but if people really mean it, there are plenty of opportunities to make never again a reality.

Angkor Wat: A “new” seventh wonder of the world?

January 7, 2007

Angkor Wat, originally uploaded by edward_casabian.

I think so…

check out http://www.new7wonders.com and vote. The ballots close on 7/7/07 and considering that Angkor isn’t in the best of shape, it could probably use the funding that may come with the new status….

In addition to checking out all the temples here in Siem Reap, we celebrated the New Year (a full 12 hours earlier than all you east coasters). Although the Cambodians celebrate their New Year in April, there were more than enough travellers to make it a fun filled evening. Beer cost a mere $1 and we even had some champagne!