Hello Uncle Foreigner

Apr 8, 2015

Living the life at the Villa Pinkhouse

The people in our (temporary) neighborhood

The cutest little VWbug of course belongs to the cutest hostel in Dalat
The cutest VW bug, of course, belongs to the cutest hostel in Đà Lat. Pinkhouse forever!
Our accommodationsThis is how to do a coffee break
The neighborhood coffee shop was adjacent to the Easy Rider office, offering convenient parking for all.
We had a sweet little balcony in our roomOur view from the balcony
Our room at the Villa Pinkhouse had a sweet little balcony, left, overlooking a quiet neighborhood, right.
Meatball banh mi
Eat bánh mì every day!

The Villa Pinkhouse, our hotel in Đà Lạt, is down a small alley at the top of a hill in the northwest of the city. Its neighbors are another hotel, a primary school, an outpost of the Easy Riders motorbike touring company, and a small coffee shop. It’s run by a lovely family in which all of the young men speak fairly fluent English, and the older members smile and speak happy Vietnamese. We loved all of Đà Lạt, but this area especially spoke to us.

The coffee shop just across the way from the hotel. This was not one of your grab-and-go affairs, but a French-y kind of cafe, where one sits and chats for hours. We spent a crisp, cool morning there at one of the low tables out front, watching the neighborhood wander by. Delivery people, children and parents, tourist arrivals, fellow coffee drinkers, friends.

Vietnam is big time about the coffee. It’s the number two exporter in the world, behind Brazil, we were told many times. At home, coffee is brewed strong — with or without a stripe of sweetened condensed milk — through a three-part tin contraption that sits on top of your tiny glass. At the coffee shop, another patron showed us how to stop from making a wet, brown mess by resting the finished filter in its own lid, rather than directly on the table. It’s satisfying to both the gadget- and caffeine-loving parts of my brain.

We met a lot of friendly folks down that alley, despite its small size. There was that Easy Rider who gave us the world’s softest sell on a trip out into the countryside. “Sorry. We already have plans.” “Oh well. Have fun with your other tour guide!” Consistently those guys — who are an institution in Đà Lạt, as are their copycats — were super nice the many times we met them around the city, but also super relaxed about not making a sale.

And then there was the lady selling bánh mì from a cart at the mouth of the alley. She spoke no English, but we had a good chat anyway as she prepared for us a wonderful pork meatball sandwich. She and Peter had similar beaded bracelets, so they were instant friends. And I managed to put together the right words in Vietnamese to explain that we wanted one sandwich and one plain baguette. Oh, and how much is that? Language success!

Down the hill a bit was another hostel — Đà Lạt actually hosts a lot of visitors, but don’t call it a tourist trap. We’re all living like locals. Locals with a lot of free time, that is. Anyway … This place had an open-air cafe, and it was a great place to sit with a glass of Đà Lạt wine. We went with the red: extremely light-bodied with a mild fruity taste. As we sat, we could watch across the street as the children of those business played. One afternoon, someone received a delivery of wooden planks with which the kids barely resisted whacking each other. They watched us, too, and eventually built up the courage to start yelling hello.

Our little slice of the city was good to us. Good food, good drinks, good people. A perfect home away from home.

Apr 6, 2015

The abundance of Đà Lat

To market, to market

Dalat from the river
Beautiful buildings in DalatAt the central market
The central market saw a lot of action, from both tourists and locals alike.
Looking down on the market from the hillPotted plants at Dalat's flower gardenIt's avocados!
The flower garden was pretty and green, but not more so than the city that surrounds it.
Greenery around the cityA side street with brightly colored buildingsThis was our backyard!A little coffee shop where we stopped for a drink
As a city, Đà Lat is just so cute!

Vietnam is like an elongated S that snakes its way up the east side of the Indochina Peninsula. Saigon is near the bottom, and the city of Đà Lạt is a few inches north on the map, which represents about an eight-hour bus ride or an hour-long plane ride.

Đà Lạt is up in the central highlands, so despite its southern latitude, it’s temperate all year round. They get a lot of rain in the summer and blue-sky days in the winter. And all this geography adds up to an incredibly fertile plain, which means fresh produce is king here. (The people at our hostel in Saigon, when they found out we were coming here, really talked up Đà Lạt’s flowers, but you can’t eat flowers. Usually.)

This is why we’re here,” I wrote in my day-one Đà Lạt notes. A French baguette with butter and local strawberry jam. Simple, but perfect, and my breakfast every day we were there.

The Central Market also featured heavily in our time there. It was your traditional Asian wet market — fresh fruits and veg, straight-from-the-farm herbs, slaughtered-that-day meats. Peter went wild for the gigantic artichokes, and I drooled over the healthy green avocados. There were ripe strawberries with which you could have started a really messy food fight. Oh, and so much dill! We have none of these things at home.

We passed through the market just about every day — sometimes for just a look, other times to pick up a snack or to sit for a bite at one of many prepared-food stalls on the periphery. Vendors there, well accustomed to foreign tourists, ranged from friendly to indifferent — much more laid-back than their wheeler-dealer Saigon counterparts. When we stopped to buy some dried fruits and vegetables, the woman kept giving us free samples as she filled our bag; try the durian, the sweet potato, the dragon fruit.

Outside the market, the city itself was quite green. Đà Lạt’s winding roads were lined with lush lawns, gardens, and trees. Then there was the spot on our map just marked “flowers.” It turned out to be a kind of botanical garden, but all of the vegetation was potted plants. It was pretty, but given the quality of the municipal landscaping outside, it also seemed a little unnecessary. We later advised a fellow traveler that she could skip it. I guess we’re giving the same advice to you, should you find yourself in this part of the world.

But, in all, we were completely charmed by Đà Lạt. Shortly after we arrived, we made plans to extend our stay by another three days, giving us a full week there. Some magazine said that Đà Lạt is Vietnam’s premiere local honeymoon destination, and it’s easy to see why. We were in love with it, anyway.

You've got to come out to the lake

Apr 5, 2015

Adventuring in Vietnam

Moments good, bad, and delicious

The motorbikes of Vietnam are plentiful and fast
Backpacker street in SaigonSaigon from the rooftop
Views of Saigon’s backpacker area from above and below.

Our time in Vietnam was amazing. Exhilarating, confusing, overwhelming, rich and amazing. We visited two cities in a little under two weeks (plus a little bit of countryside), and on the back of our Chinese travel experience, we may have been a little cocky. The ferocity of the tourist-facing sales people was particularly unsettling, and we learned some expensive lessons. But we also met some wonderful people, ate some fantastic food, and had some awesome experiences. Let us take you through some of the moments, people and places that made our trip.

For reference, we started out in Ho Chi Mihh City, went north to the city of Đà Lạt for a few days, fell in love with Đà Lạt and stayed a few days more, and then returned to HCMC to finish out the trip. Also, Ho Chi Minh City is still interchangeably referred to as Saigon.


Spring rolls and noodle soups

Fried spring rolls
Hey, everyone! Serve everything with fresh mint and chili sauce, ok?

We never had a day that was typical, but this one afternoon is representative of our experiences in Vietnam so here’s where I’ll start: On a tip from a local HCMC dining website, we were up in the northern district of Phú Nhuận looking for some Vietnamese tapas. We would never find those tapas; the Saigon restaurant scene moves quickly and this was not the first time we were on the hunt for something that was long gone. The neighbors let us know with a particular Vietnamese gesture, waggling their upturned palm from side to side as if unscrewing a lightbulb: “Nope, sorry.”

But, no matter. We were stranded by the beautiful Nhiêu Lộc canal, the sky was blue and the sun was dappling through the trees. You couldn’t ask for more on a warm February afternoon. There was a cafe with a squat set of table and chairs facing the water, and we made our own tapas.

Because we were out of the main tourist area, the menu was only in Vietnamese. I had cribbed a list of dishes from Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen’s website, but functionally that meant I could only say, “well, this is something with chicken, and that’s probably pork.” So I pointed at a picture of spring rolls, and the die was cast.

We had spring rolls a lot on our trip. We had them with soft shell crab at Chill, a swank bar at the top of one of Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest buildings. We had crap ones at a Western dive in the heart of HCMC’s backpacker district. We even had roll-your-ownies at a small establishment in Đà Lạt. (More on those in a future entry.)

Spring rolls are such a basic idea of what Vietnamese food is … like, everyone knows a spring roll. But they’re such a good crystallization of what makes the cuisine so special.

These particular rolls were simple and fried, with a savory pork mixture inside. You wrapped your roll in a mint leaf and then dipped it in two chili sauces — one slightly sweet and one that was a pure, clear spicy wallop. The layered flavored each took their turn in your mouth, none too overpowering and all equally delightful. Each individual component is so simple and fresh, but they combine into a complex and amazing taste experience.

As we ate, we watched a parade of motorbike commuters zip down Trường Sa street, carrying families, couches, fridges, cases of beer, TVs. The oft cited statistic is that HCMC has 9 million residents and 3.5 million motorbikes. It truly is a sight to see. On foot, grandparents and babies, and dogs and their walkers took in the same panorama that we were enjoying. It was both frantic and peaceful, relaxing and stimulating.

At another cafe a few doors down, the view was the same, but the food was something new! All we asked for was “a snack” — one of the workers spoke a little English — and what we got was a confection of spicy beef floss. Imagine a Twizzler made out of steak, and that you love it. It’s something we never would have ordered on our own, but it was really, really good. It had that spicy-sweet-tangy addictive quality of a good barbecue sauce. We sat and chewed and sipped our Heinekens. More bikes, carrying more improbably large loads, whizzed by.

Peter eating at a roadside cafe
When you’re eating on the street, motorbike parking is never far away.

Since our dinner plan no longer existed, after this we decided to take a wander. Something we both really enjoyed about Saigon was its walk-ability. Unlike a typical Chinese city with its monstrous, sprawling ring roads and skyscrapers, Saigon is divided into human-sized neighborhoods each with a vibrant local street life. Buildings are narrow, short, and brightly colored; cute boutiques are packed in next to ramshackle mom-and-pops; and food/coffee carts with plastic stools and tiny tables spill out all over the street and sidewalks (where they exist). There are, too, your Startbucks and KFCs — Ho Chi Minh City is a growing, cosmopolitan entity on the world scene. But there are also beautifully landscaped public parks every few blocks.

At a busy open street market, we stopped for some phở. If you know about Vietnamese food, you know about phở — a meaty noodle soup with fresh leafy vegetables. And as with spring rolls, noodle soups were a staple of our trip. (As this blogger grouchily explains, to say phở is like bún bò is as if “someone described fettuccine alfredo as ‘like spaghetti’.” But as is my habit, I’m going to group them all together anyway.) Something I’ve figured out about street food is that, despite its humble surroundings, it is crazy complex. In the case of the soups, the broth needs to be boiled for hours and spiced just so. To get the meat the right flavor and texture takes a whole day. And you’ve got a dozen ingredients to chop and prepare just to be a garnish. This all results in a dish that costs approximately 50¢. It’s work that only makes sense to do if you’re serving hundreds.

But I’m glad someone does it. The noodle soups we ate were usually found at market stalls. There’s a noodle and there’s a meat. The broth is clear and packed with flavor. To this, you can add vinegar, fresh-squeezed lime, and chilies to taste. It’s served with a plate including fresh cabbage, coriander, mint, and anise leaves. When you throw this into your steaming broth, the leaves wilt beautifully and start infusing the whole dish with bright flavor. Especially the anise. I do not hesitate to say that this is the best “simple” street food on the planet.

And that’s how it was done. All afternoon, we were kind of lost but not really. There was a plan and it failed. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? If we knew exactly what was going to happen every moment, there wouldn’t really be a point in leaving the hotel room. And so, we amble on …

Saigon from above, again

Feb 25, 2015

Celebrating the brand spanking Year of the Sheep

Happy Chinese New Year!

Some delicious ducks hanging in an apartment window in Chengdu.
Ducks drying in the window of a Chengdu apartment for a tasty meal

This year, we took our winter vacation a little later than usual, which meant that we were on the road for the start of Chinese New Year. And preparations for the two-week long holiday began before we left, in early February. Restaurants rolled out spiffy new dishes and menus, families brought home nice fat chickens and ducks, and the city hung red lanterns all over everything. Because Spring Festival, as it’s also called, is a big deal.

A significant percentage of China’s population is on the move at this time of year — and the same is true in Vietnam, where the related Tết festival is celebrated. At the start of our journey, when we stopped in at the Pug in Chengdu (where we were greeted like the regulars that we bizarrely are), the staffers were excited about their upcoming 11-day vacation. It’s a working holiday, they told us, at the owners’ new outpost in Bangkok. “It’s nice that everyone can have more than one day off at a time,” the bartender said.

As we continued our travels, the most significant signs of the holiday were the crowded airports and the fact that a lot of stuff was closed. But it was a lot of fun to be a part of the bustle. More and more young people are using the holiday as a chance to travel, not just home but also around, so we made some cool road friends along the way. And now, back at home, we’ve been the surprise guest stars at three different nights out so far. (Watch me kind of speak Chinese in the video above!)

新年快乐, everybody!

Feb 2, 2015

Make room for banh mi

We’re going to Vietnam!

To Vietnam

In Mandarin, the words for Vietnam the country and Yunnan the province sound very similar, resulting in some confusion when talking to our students and friends about our winter break plans. “No, it’s in a different country. To the south.” (If they say something about “Spring City,” I know that communication has failed.)

But Ho Chi Minh City is our destination this winter — to get a break from the cold, to eat some fantastic food, and to up our level of travel difficulty, just a little bit. To prepare, we’ve watched every episode of television made by Vietnamese Australian chef Luke Nyugen. He’s given us a long list of dishes to try. And to facilitate the eating, I’ve been studying the language a bit. Is it hard? Kind of: Vietnamese has six tones to Mandarin’s four, but it is written using the Roman alphabet not characters. (Let comics artist Malachi Ray Rempen show you the difference between the Asian scripts.) There are at least six different words for “you,” depending on the number and gender of the people that you’re talking to, but verbs don’t need to be conjugated and often can be completely omitted. After about a month, I feel pretty solid on asking where the bathroom is: Nhà vệ sinh ở đâu?

So we’re ready to go! We start tomorrow for Chengdu and arrive in HCMC on Thursday. It’s going to be delicious.

Feb 2, 2015

Video: Eating Barbecue with Dave in Naxi

You’ve got to try the pig intestine

Dave lives in Naxi, a suburb about 20 minutes south of Luzhou. He works construction for money, but he is a dance teacher for fulfillment. When we first met him — he approached us at a restaurant to practice his English — we discovered that he had known and befriended the Double Alex! Their school is close to where Dave lives. Sadly, they themselves are no longer around. (Their school, as it turned out, was not licensed to have foreign teachers.)

But life must go on. Now Dave is our friend, and he recently took us to a Naxi barbecue place that he and the Alexs enjoyed. It was delicious. And I had my first taste of Sichuan specialty, pig intestine!

Jan 21, 2015

You’re invited to the wedding

By the way, it’s tomorrow!

Wedding from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

The best dressed guestOur luxurious seafood-rich banquet lunch
Right: The best dressed guest had all of the photographers snapping. Left: Lunch was spectacular and delicious.

Wendy called at about 9 o’clock the night before. Her brother’s son was getting married, and would we like to come? The occasion for the invitation was that her nephew was practicing some English to drop into his speech, which made Wendy think of us. (Ultimately, she advised him against using a foreign language; “He’s not that good,” she said.)

This was my first time attending an actual Chinese wedding ceremony, but I had learned a thing or two already. For example, the actual, legal, “we are officially married” thing is not what I would be witnessing. That happens in a government office to very little fanfare. When our friends Maybell and Claude got married, they did this part in matching hooded sweatshirts one morning when they were both free. But then, of course, you have to have a big, flashy party after — and this is what I was invited to.

Wendy’s nephew’s big, flashy party was at one of Luzhou’s premiere five-star hotels. The event started in the lobby, where there was a backdrop for arrival photos and a welcome table staffed by Xi Xi — Wendy’s daughter — and some other cousins. They gave out candy and packs of cigarettes to incoming guests, and in turn, the guests handed over fat magenta wads of 100 yuan bills as gifts for the happy couple.

The ceremony itself was upstairs in a grand ballroom. The bride’s village sat on one side and the groom’s on the other, Wendy explained. She scooted me towards the stage as her nephew walked the center catwalk, starting the proceedings. The bride emerged from under the stage in a shower of rose petals, and the host made an impassioned welcome speech. The whole spectacle was reminiscent of the televised variety shows that are so popular here.

There were more speeches, the presentation of the parents, toasts with tea and toasts with wine, and the all-important red envelopes given from the parents to the couple. The bride and groom sealed their vows with a hug and a chaste kiss. And then there was lunch.

A spillover room across the hall from the ballroom was allocated for last minute invites, like me. I estimate that there were about a hundred of us happy surprises, because Chinese hospitality is no joke. And our banquet lunch was your usual abundance; dishes piled on one another in the center of the table. “This fish is very expensive,” Wendy proudly told me.

Unfortunately, I had to teach a class that afternoon, so I could only join in one baijiu toast (Wendy wanted me to do six!). And then I cut my own celebration short. But the party raged on well into the evening, I hear. And that’s how you get married in China.

Jan 20, 2015

Welcome to the new and independent Hello Uncle Foreigner

We say goodbye to Tumblr and a media empire is born

The new site, Jan 2015

Update your bookmarks: Today, we’re very excited to launch the new Hello Uncle Foreigner under our domain! Tumblr’s been a good home, but Peter and I are looking forward to taking this project even further, now that we can write our own code.

Making the transfer, we’ve had the opportunity to go back through all of our old stories which has been both fun and educational. If you haven’t been with us from the beginning, we invite you to go on back to September 27, 2011 and see how it all began.

Jan 10, 2015

Huun-Huur-Tu comes to Chongqing

And we do, too

Huun-Huur-Tu on stage at NUTS Club in Chongqing, December 2015
Peter filming 小舟 at 16th Bystreet Music Bar in Chongqing
Peter, in action, at 16th Bystreet Music Bar
A mixologist at NUTS Club
The bartender pours some kind of ’tini at Nuts Club.

I’m not going to lie, this weekend away was a little difficult. We only had a few days free, Peter had a cold, and the trouble I was having purchasing concert tickets at one point had me in tears. (A Chinese-language website, international banking and computer-related issues all conspired to let me know that I was a failure as an adult.) The dark, cold winter days only amplified our discomfort.

But we weren’t in Chongqing to be comfortable, we were there for the music. And the hot pot. But, mostly the music.

First up, 小舟. We dropped in on our favorite hole-in-the-wall venue — the 16th Bystreet Music Bar — to find him and his friends doing a loosey-goosey jam. 小舟, unbeknownst to us at the time, is actually a Beijing folk-rock artist of some renown. Sound at the Music Bar is kind of crap — the house drum kit has the timbre of a bucket of nails — but these guys were really great. With each new player to take the stage, the style meandered from traditional to funky, or sometimes both at once. The audience was small but into it, and the staff particularly was having a good time. You could tell that they love working at a live music venue.

The whole reason for our trek, however, was the legendary Tuvan throat singers of Huun-Huur-Tu. Peter has loved these guys since the early ’90s and the second he saw that they’d be at Nuts Club, he said we had to be there.

Nuts is now in the basement of a downtown shopping mall. (Lots of stuff is in malls in China.) Jogging through the empty corridors, past closed-down shops — we were late, because getting anywhere from anywhere in Chongqing takes FOREVER — we followed the sound of music to find our destination. New Nuts is slightly bigger than the old club, and they now have one of the best bars in China with a meticulous staff.

When we arrived, the four men of Huun-Huur-Tu were already on stage, wearing their traditional Tuvan costumes. Between songs, Sayan Bapa — one of the group’s original members — addressed the crowd in English, explaining the meaning of each piece. “Each of our songs is a short story,” he said. About friendship, love, loss, homesickness and, of course, horses. All very human things, but some more specific to the nomadic Tuvan culture than others. Before a song about caravan migration, Bapa joked, “[it] usually takes three months, but we’ll play a shorter version.”

Some of their songs are as old as the 12th century, he told us. And the group plays mostly traditional instruments — including one wooden clopper that mimics the sound of horse hooves perfectly. But their vital spirit and the plain emotion that comes through the music keeps the experience from feeling musty. Live, the overtone singing becomes something you feel as well as hear, and it was almost as if you, too, were there on the central Asian grasslands, with the nomads. And the horses. It was a truly fantastic performance.

After the show, the guys changed into street clothes, and sat around the merch table eating takeaway noodles. We shook their hands on our way out, but being shy (and unsure of which language to address them in) we didn’t say much beyond “thank you” (and 谢谢).

Huun Huur Tu from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Jan 1, 2015

Video: Give sports a try

We’re all the winner

Give Sports a try from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo. Music: “I’m Not Even Going to Try,” David Devant and His Spirit Wife.

The kids of Tianfu middle school don’t have to try; they were born cool.