Jen can run too! or How I found my focus

“Running as a sport is boring. You’re on your own, no one else to play with and either stuck in one place, on a treadmill, or going around in a big circle. Really, what is the point?” Yes, this was my opinion of running not that long ago. As a child I was less analytical, taking part in cross-country and long distance events at school. I ran because it was something to do. Raised as an only child you kind of get used to doing things on your own and this was just another sport that I had a go at and forgot about as soon as the next after-school sports club came along.

Until recently I could only last at the most 10 minutes on the treadmill, wow, it was so dull, and yikes, I was pretty unfit. Now I am running 5k between 35 – 38 minutes. Not as fast as the women’s world record holder of 14:11:15 but hey, it’s a start.

I love trying out new things, mostly because I haven’t found my niche yet, you know, something that I think I can truly master, something that will keep my attention longer than a week. It seems that running could be one of those things. In the last 8 weeks I have been running on the treadmill on and off, at first just to warm up for the rest of my workout, but then the treadmill started to take over most of my time at the gym, going from 10 minutes to 15 minutes, to 25 then to 45. I somehow wanted to go faster and further every week.

I reached a point when being on the treadmill, looking out over the city through a pane of hot glass, felt unnatural. I wanted to be out on the road and feel the real wind on my face, not some little fan blowing out above the computer screen.

Where I live in Ho Chi Minh City, the pavements vary outside each shop front and more often than not, you have to dodge the odd motorbike too, so I needed to find some kind of club or meet up where it was safe to run freely.

Looking online, I came across a club called HCMC Run which is also organising a race in December for a 3k, 5k or 10k. Each week they were meeting up in various locations so on Saturday, I decided to give a 3k a go at their 8th and final training session in the lead up to the race.

Courtesy of HCMC Run
Courtesy of HCMC Run

Work finished at 11:40am, and I went home for a quick bite to eat, had a power nap and then I was out again, powering through District one on my motorbike and getting lost in District 7. In the end I arrived, still early, at Crescent Mall in Phu My Hung.

I walked over to the stand to sign up. ‘Yes, I’d like to do the 3k please’ ‘No, you should do the 6k today’ ‘Erm…. ok?’ I hesitantly stuck my name tag with the red circle, not the green circle I had come here for, onto my chest and found somewhere to sit and cry inside. The 6k actually turned out to be 7.6k and as I hadn’t done any road running since I was 12, nor had I ran further than 5k on a treadmill, I wondered, very loudly in my head, what the hell I was doing. I was going to die.

The crowd was growing; runners, stewards and TV crews stood all around me and I could see immediately that I was the only western woman there. I was fairly shocked by this as I’d seen photos of previous club sessions and there were western women at those and this appeared to be the most popular run club of all of the sessions. It obviously meant that I was a target for inquisitive paparazzi and onlookers. I bashfully played up to the cameras as they rolled around the lines of attendees warming up for the warm up.

A brief intro was given to the hundred or so participants from Philip Nguyen, the organiser of HCMC Run, and then we were put through the brief warm up which consisted of a short jog about 100 metres and some stretches. After 3 metres of running I was finding myself out of breath. Really, what the hell was I doing? I was trying to keep up with the elite in the group so I had to have a word with myself to explain that I shouldn’t run too fast because then I would certainly die. Rather I was to initially go at a slower pace in order to hold onto my energy for longer.

When it was time to start we split into our two groups, the jolly green circles and the serious red circles. I didn’t want to be serious. We were to go first. Phillip did a short countdown and then we were off.

About 200 metres in there was a bloody bridge to cross. Why would they include a bridge that had to be run over 4 times? Are they that sadistic? For the first lap I challenged myself to run across the bridge. It wasn’t a long bridge, but it was a bridge nonetheless with an incline and lots of people posing for photographs, which, unless I wanted to photobomb someone’s wedding pictures, had to be sharply dodged.

Kicking arse! - Courtesy of HCMC Run
Kicking arse! – Courtesy of HCMC Run

Not long into the run, I was finding my pace, slowing down enough to keep my breath and taking the odd rest by walking. I wish I could have ran the whole distance but at this point, it is physically impossible, my heart just isn’t strong enough.

My heart maybe weak but my mind definitely wasn’t. Even though my feet, calves and thighs were throbbing, my mind was fixed in place, thinking of nothing other than the moment, a strange sensation for someone who can’t even finish making a cup of tea unless I’m reminded.

I surprised myself by how much I was actually able to do. Maybe I was fitter, stronger and faster than I realised. I was being passed by runners but I was also passing others myself and I felt like I ran more on the second lap than I had on the first.

Halfway across the bridge, for the fourth time, I could hear the crowd shouting and whooping those who were crossing the finish line. I wanted that. It filled me with adrenaline and I ran stronger than I had before. The crowd was nearing and I sprinted the final leg. As I high-fived Philip I saw my time; 51 minutes. I couldn’t believe it. I finished and I wasn’t all that slow.

We did it red circle, we did it!
We did it red circle, we did it!

I decided there and then to sign up for the 5k race in December. I am going to do it and I am going to do it well.

So, if you’re around HCMC on the 8th December, come by to District 7 in the morning and watch the race. And look out for a curly auburn haired woman who looks focused and ready to give her all, that will be me.

HCMC Run

If you want to sign up for the race you have until 20th November. You can do it online, just go to their website, details below, and get it done.

website: www.hcmcrun.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/hcmcrun

How to make Banh Canh i.e. my ultimate FAVE Vietnamese noodle soup

It’s been a while since I wrote about food. I know, I am as shocked and appalled as you are.

The dish I am going to tell you all about today is my number one noodle soup from Vietnam. The noodles are soft and chewy, and the broth, which can be cooked using pork, chicken, shrimp or crab, is thick and full of warm homely flavours. It can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner and I always have it after I have been to the gym. It makes me feel full for ages afterwards, unlike most other noodle soups that leave me peckish a couple of hours later. This soup is none other than Banh Canh and I am going to show you how you can make it yourself. It is actually a fairly simple dish, even making the noodles is easy, and only took me about 90 minutes to do from start to finish.

Banh Canh from a local noodle vendor
Banh Canh from a local noodle vendor

I want to utilise my time left in Vietnam by really learning how to cook Vietnamese food while I have such easy access to the ingredients. However, I do understand that many of you won’t and I will try my best to offer any alternatives that you may be able to use instead although all of these ingredients are completely authentic so I recommend that you go to a chinese/asian supermarket and stock up if you can.

Here we go!

Ingredients for the noodles

1 cup/150g of rice flour

1 cup/150g of Tapioca starch

half a tsp of salt

1 cup/200ml of boiling water

I have heard that you can substitute the rice flour for wheat flour but I haven’t tried that myself yet.

If you want to make the broth but not the noodles then you can use Japanese Udon noodles instead.

Ingredients for the broth

1kg of pork or chicken bones

1 peeled white onion

salt

chopped spring onion

Stock cube

Any protein of choice – I used Cha Chien, a fried pork roll

1 tbsp of annatto seeds (Hot Dieu Mau in Vietnamese) for the colouring oil

This is all you need
This is all you need – I don’t include chicken in this recipe, but you can

First things first, the noodles.

Add the flour, starch and salt into a mixing bowl then add the boiling water and mix together. When the dough is a little cooler you can then begin to kneed until it is soft. Ideally the dough shouldn’t be sticky after a little while but I found mine remained sticky so next time I am going to  reduce the tapioca starch a little and increase the rice flour.

Leave the dough covered for 30 minutes to rest.

Simply roll out the dough onto a floured surface so that it is approximately 3 inches wide and as thick as a chopstick, then, with a long knife, cut out strips of noodles that are as wide as they are thick. Don’t worry if they look like a bit out of shape, when they are boiled with the broth they become more rounded and, shall I say, noodle-like.

The noodles are now ready to be cooked. See, easy!

Easy noodles!
Easy noodles!

Next… the broth

Add the pork or chicken bones to a pan of boiling water for 5 minutes then remove from the pan and rinse the bones under cold water. Place into a clean pan of water, add the onion and the salt, and boil on a medium heat for about an hour. Don’t forget to remove the foam that collects around the edge of the pan, as this will keep the soup clear.

Banh Canh should have a yellow-orange hue to it so to get this, add a tbsp of annatto seeds to oil on a medium heat in a small pan and allow to simmer for about 30 seconds then strain the oil and bin the seeds.

When the broth is nearly ready season it with the stock cube, maybe some chopped spring onion and some chopped garlic. If you have some fish sauce in the cupboard then add a bit of that to taste. It’s really up to you. Add the coloured oil at this point.

Ladle enough soup into a small pan to fill three quarters of your soup bowl, the noodles will absorb some of the broth later. Add a handful of noodles for each portion, and whatever pre-cooked protein you want in your soup, (I used a Vietnamese fried pork roll called Cha Chien but you can use any kind that you like)  then bring to a medium boil for about 90 seconds. Take off the heat and remove the foam that collects around the edge, and serve with chopsticks and a spoon. Add chopped chilli, a squeeze of fresh lime, a handful of bean sprouts, and some leaves of mint.

For a thicker soup, combine 1-2 tbsp of tapioca starch with water and stir it into the soup before serving.

Refrigerate or freeze any leftover broth. The noodles can also be kept frozen but it is best to use them fresh.

Homemade Banh Canh
Homemade Banh Canh

Banh Canh is ridiculously healthy and very simple so give it a whirl and let me know how it goes.

Where reality TV is real

Recently I have had a new obsession. After I wrote my last blog where I mentioned the backlash towards the female contestants on the most recent series of The Great British Bake Off, I realised that I needed to give it a go myself and make my own judgement call. So, I spent a whole week watching every episode whenever I had a spare 2 or 4 hours to put aside for a TGBBO binge. And it was just brilliant and all I’ve been doing since, in between working and sessions at the gym, is baking and eating cakes.

Reality TV is more popular than ever these days and everyone loves a bit of it every now and then, don’t they? So, even though I’m not a fan of most of the shows on offer in the UK, (although I do love The Apprentice and I’d like to take this opportunity now to apologise, on behalf of all Scousers, for the abomination that was Desperate Scousewives)  I would never judge someone for being a fan, except if they like, maybe, Geordy Shore. They’d get sooo judged…

I agree that perhaps a large proportion of TV viewers watch reality TV as a form of escapism, which is probably why the genre is so popular. However, I believe that these shows promote an unattainable life of glamour, sheer perfection, unceasing excitement and a never ending flow of cash when, in reality, that’s bollocks.

Now, let’s be honest. These kinds of reality TV shows truly exist either to (a) create/endorse celebrities and/or products, or, in the sense of The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den, (b) to promote an image of British business that is just a little bit bullshit. In essence, they are money makers. The producers behind the scenes of these shows are laughing all the way to the bank because they know exactly what the people of Britain want; to be given a brief glimpse of an often elusive lifestyle that is beyond our reach.

It is easy to criticise the materialism and celebrity worship found in most reality TV shows but with the state of the UK economy at the moment why would anyone want to return to the Kitchen Sink realism of the 50’s and 60’s? We’ve got fictional shows such as Shameless, we don’t need to see actual REAL LIFE, do we?

Since June 2012 I have lived and worked in Vietnam, so I haven’t been able to flick through the channels and fall into the clutches of a TOWIE episode for a while. Instead, I have had to watch about eight English speaking channels, half of which only show Thor or Source Code on repeat.

About three months ago, my friend, Vi Trang, introduced me to Vietnamese reality TV. She explained to me that these shows were very popular, in some cases, even on prime-time slots. You may be thinking, ‘well, duh!’ yes, reality TV in Britain is also shown during these times. But reality TV in Britain is nothing like these two shows:

Overcome Yourself (Vượt Lên Chính Mình)

The purpose of this reality TV show/gameshow is to help very poor people pay back their debts and finance their small family-run businesses.

The show opens telling the back-story of the contestants and their family then leads into three rounds. The 1st and 2nd rounds are called “Xóa nợ” (pay back the debt) when contestants have to overcome two challenges related to their jobs in 1 minute and 30 seconds. If they succeed, half of the debt will be reduced.

The final round is called “Cấp vốn” (financing): The contestants randomly choose two of the advertising panels of the sponsors for the show. There are different amounts of money at the back of each panel. The contestants receive this money and use it to support their life or business.

The Golden Tintinnabula (the small bell on an ox or horse’s neck)  – (Lục lạc vàng)

This heartwarming show helps poor households in rural areas from all over the country by gifting them with a couple of ox or buffalo.

Each year, philanthropists, together with local authorities give a couple of oxen or buffalo to families in difficulty (in each episode different families have different touching stories). Agriculturalists later train these families in how to take care of the cattle.

Funnily enough this show is broadcast every Sunday at 8.30 p.m. on one of the most popular Vietnamese channels.

And there are more where they came from.

When I heard about these shows I was immediately touched by the raw honesty of them. In a country that is affected so badly by poverty, rather than brushing it under the carpet, the Vietnamese media has embraced its responsibility to draw light to the problems. Of course there are still TV producers and businesses behind the scenes who are hoping to make a profit or promote their products, however, the most important thing to remember is that here, in Vietnam, poverty isn’t taboo.

On the contrary, the idea that Britain has a poverty problem is often scoffed at by our government and news agencies. The pantomime villain of British politics, Michael Gove, was once heard to have uttered such tripe as people are in poverty because of their own ‘decisions’ and are ‘unable to manage their finances’. Perhaps some re-education on this matter wouldn’t go amiss, Mr Gove?

But let’s be real, the poverty in Britain is nothing like the poverty found in Vietnam. Vietnamese poverty is hell. It is backbreaking work in unbearable temperatures. It is having a disability yet still needing to work at the same level as able bodied people in order to survive. It is doing whatever you can do to earn a dollar a day by breaking ice, going through bins to find recyclables, selling lottery tickets, selling your body. These are some of the jobs of the poorest poor.

Yet Britain has its poverty. Just take a read of Jack Monroe’s blog, A Girl Called Jack, which is filled with statistics and anecdotal evidence of the poverty that she has endured and that exists throughout the UK. We have people now who cannot buy enough food for their families because their housing costs are so expensive. We have pensioners who are struggling to afford their energy bills each month because the costs have sky-rocketed. We have millions of people unemployed, desperately seeking work because of a whole load of reasons that are not their fault. Poverty is insidious and it is growing in the UK.

Thankfully some newspapers, such as The Guardian, are embracing Jack’s message and the message of other activists and campaigners by bringing awareness to the problems. This is a great first step however I think we need to do more, perhaps by taking a leaf out of the Vietnamese’s book and doing something radical.

How about a TV show similar to Dragon’s Den but for people who want to set up or grow their own small business, like a family member who makes greetings cards but wants to be able to afford some advertising to get some customers and start a venture, or the friend who has always dreamt of training to be a masseuse but can’t afford to pay for the lessons because they have to live hand to mouth each month, or a bloke at the pub who has always talked about wanting to open up a pizzeria but has been in debt for as long as he can remember. There are millions of people all over Britain with creative and innovative ideas for their lives. They mightn’t set up multi-million pound enterprises, but at least they might get the chance to make a difference to their family’s lives. And that is really all that ever matters.

Britain has its needs and it is about time that the media accepts its full responsibility to help and improve the lives of the downtrodden and the debt-ridden families of our great country. Let there be no more articles printed blaming the poor for all and sundry, instead let us together call for change, a change that leads to the empowerment of the less fortunate in our own towns and cities.

I have loved watching The Great British Bake Off; the immense pressure to bake a perfect Victoria Sponge was like nothing I have felt before, but I would also love to watch something that pressured and challenged my country as a whole. This is about changing our culture from the inside out. We have to do it ourselves because no one else is going to. This is about us all doing what is honest, equal, good and right. And while we do so, let’s make poverty in Britain as taboo as a woman in 2013 showing her ankles.

Saucy!
Saucy!