How to love your lunch

Many people contact me asking how they can get involved in volunteer work when they visit Vietnam. In all honesty, until the last few months I couldn’t have answered this question at all. I was so busy, working every day, I didn’t have the time to even think about giving back to the community. Shameful indeed.

After a pretty ugly burn-out, I decided to change my schedule and outlook. It was at that point when I heard about a project called Green Bamboo Warm Shelter (GBWS).

The GBWS is a project of the NGO Ho Chi Minh City Child Welfare Foundation. The project provides care, education, housing and other daily assistance to at-risk street boys aged 8-16. It is important that they have a safe and enriching environment where they can be provided with resources and opportunities to later integrate them back into the community, either back with their families or in a job. Last year, the project’s main donor pulled out their funding leaving it near to closure.

In response, a group of the oldest boys at the shelter decided to set up and run their own restaurant whereby all profits go to supporting the 15 boys who stay there.

It sits down a small allyway; an unassuming and modest restaurant. Inside Green Bamboo are four long metal tables that could each sit about 6 or 7. Diners are served homely portions by the enthusiastic and caring young waiters.

Each month the menu changes, but the food is generally in the style of com tam (broken rice) including chicken, pork, fish and beef. There are also noodle dishes and vegetarian options. One dish is 25,000 vnd per person, whilst the buffet costs between 50,000 and 150,000 vnd per person.

Green Bamboo is a very special place. A love permiates throughout everyone there; the waiters, the cooks, the staff, the volunteers. You can even taste it in the food. When I have finished my lunch and it’s time for me to leave, I don’t want to. GBWS gives more to me than I ever could to them, and when in Ho Chi Minh City I hope you  have the pleasure of being as captivated by this place as I am.

Green Bamboo Warm Shelter Restaurant is situated at 40/34 Calmette Street, Nguyen Thai Binh Ward,District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Open from 11:30am  to 1:30pm, Monday to Saturday. Make sure you get there as early as possible before the food runs out.

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Tet – Red Flower Yellow Flower

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Today we bought a big yellow flower and a big red flower. These colourful potted plants are being sold all over Ho Chi Minh City. My assumption was that they are being sold for the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, or Tet, which takes place in a few days time. Because I am totally clueless, I wanted to find out what they were called, why they were significant and what I should do with them, so I asked my Vietnamese friends on Facebook and they told me this:

“The yellow one is chrysanthemum variety. And, The red one is cockscomb flower. They can be alive a month in pots. They need more soil, fertilizer to live longer :-)”

“They look beautiful , Jen . I’m glad that you and Gareth are interested in flowers now  That is an interesting question , Jen . I never think of it . I think The yellow one is Hoa Van Tho ( Chrysanthemum ) which brings longevity and prosperity according to their names in Vietnamese . The red one is Hoa mau ga ( cockscomb flowers ) symbolizes humor, warmth and passion . …”

“Hi Jen, Lunar new year ( Tet) is the most important celebration of vietnamese cultural. The word is shortened form of (Tết nguyên đán) . The yellow one is Chrysanthemum flower ( Called “Hoa Cúc”) the red one is cockscomb flower ( called ” Hoa mào gà”). Most of Vietnamese prepare these flowers and Peach blossom ( in the North of Vietnam) apricot blossom ( in the south of Vietnam) for Tet. On the Tet, Visiting a friends’ home on the first day of new year is called ( Xông nhà), children receive a red envelope containing money from their elders ( this traditional is called “Mừng tuổi”)”

“so beautiful! The yellow one is chrysanthemum. it’s mean ” bring a symbol of life, happiness and fortune as well as adding joy to the home. And, The red one is cockscomb flower. A spring full of dreams and hope . i think so. hihi”

“These flowers always appear in my family at Tet holiday, always. Be honest, I have no idea what the meaning of them are . Every year, mom takes me to the flower market and buy couples of the most beautiful one, bring it home. Simply , we decorate the house, our grandparents graves, and the altars. It’s not because of the meaning anymore, it’s the custom, the tradition. I grow up with it and it’s my turn to bring them flowers home ”

Thank you so much to my Vietnamese friends for teaching me a little about your most treasured celebration.

Chuc Mung Nam Moi!!! – Happy New Year!!!

Sweet Serendipity and Seafood

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It took us 45 minutes to decide where we were going to eat our dinner. Gareth had been riding at the front, giving my friend Marie a lift on the back of his rented bicycle. I was peddling to the rear. My stomach was howling with hunger but with so many options to choose from, the task of picking a restaurant had become almost impossible.

Eventually, a bold waitress made the decision for us by standing in the road, forcing Gareth to stop. Her place was called Seafood Garden Restaurant, and would be the backdrop to an enchanted encounter.

We sat outside, overlooking the river. Across the other side was the old town of Hoi An; an historic Southeast Asian trading port in Central Vietnam, the yellow façade and dark-wood buildings stood dignified. Paper lanterns were dropped from a nearby footbridge and floated down the slow river, bobbing from the slight waves formed by small fishing boats moving through the pitch black. The deep waters reflected the town’s centuries old ghosts.

The food arrived and soon after so did an older man in his late 40’s who had been sitting a few tables away. He moved next to Gareth and began talking to him. Gareth, as polite as always, engaged him, whilst I chatted with Marie. I heard the man mention tours and then he hurried into the restaurant. I sighed. He returned, placing a couple of red notebooks and a small pile of letters on our table. Out of curiosity I picked up one of the notebooks. Dating back to 2012, every single page was filled with handwritten reviews about this man’s tours. On page one I read the most perfect introduction to the man who I would know later as Mr Trung:

“You might be wondering who this guy is who came to your table and won’t leave you alone… Mr Trung is a very lovely and genuine man… he will take you on a tour of his fishing village a couple of kilometres outside of Hoi An…”

As I flicked through the notebooks, I was humbled. I hadn’t given Mr Trung a chance. I was too quick to jump to conclusions.

I saw that the price of the trip included a sunhat, a pick up from our homestay, bottled water, a visit to a fishing village and a pottery village, fishing by boat on the river, and a cooking class at Mr Trung’s home with his family. It was $17 per person for a 5 hour tour. Possibly a little steep, we had no idea, but we’ve always preferred to give directly to the community. A small deposit was paid for myself and Gareth – Marie was moving on the next day – and we booked in for two days’ time.

At 8:30am sharp, a smiling Mr Trung arrived on his electric pushbike outside the gate. We followed behind him, cycling along the recently harvested rice paddies that bordered our homestay then onward down the quiet main road for the 4km to his fishing village; Thanh Ha.

We secured our bikes on a patch of overgrown grass lying hidden down a pathway off the main road, which ran alongside the Thu Bon River. Dozens of family-sized fishing boats rocked in the light wind as Mr Trung gave us a brief history of the area.

We wandered a little down the river bank. The air was warming. Old fishermen and their wives leaned against the steel rail smoking cigarettes, watching our movements with inquisitive stares.

We took the path to the pottery village. Two women; an older lady and a younger girl worked the pottery wheel; the girl kicked the wheel, spinning it with her foot while the lady shaped and molded the clay into teapots and bowls. We were allowed to have a go ourselves but both mine and Gareth’s attempts looked like the handiwork of an over-excited toddler.

After we paid $20 for a pale green tea set, sold to us as made by the hands – and feet – of these women themselves and thought to be a bargain coming from the so-called manufacturer (the same one ended up being much cheaper in town), we moved on to our next stop; a fishing boat. Four of us; Mr Trung, Gareth, me and a fisherman, sat low, paddling through the shallow stream. We came to an enclave and spread out a net by hand, zigzagging as the boat drifted with the current.

By order of Mr Trung, we banged our paddles against the boat with a relentless fervour to scare the fish towards the net. Pulling the fish into the boat was a two-person job. Our fledgling arms ached. The fisherman beamed. He could rest today.

Back on dry land we pushed on to Mr Trung’s home where we met his gentle wife and two children. A table for two was set up, waiting to be dined upon. Mr Trung brought out a cleaned and gutted medium-sized fish. He laid a bowl on the table filled with a selection of spices alongside lemongrass, ginger, onion and garlic, all ground up ready to mix with a pinch of sugar, salt and vegetable oil. We smoothed the savoury paste over the fish, inside and out, wrapped it in a banana leaf and some tinfoil and cooked it over a hot charcoal fire for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, we prepared our own fried pork spring-rolls, and a simple dish of fried noodles with vegetables. The meal was finished with a glass of caphe sua; coffee with sweet condensed milk.

Lunch was more than delicious; a blissful satisfaction swathed us. We needed a nap after all that food, so we said a gracious goodbye, climbed back onto the saddle and hoped that we would never forget how it felt to be this whole again.

You can book a tour with Mr Trung at Viet Space Travel, 625 Hai Ba Trung Street, Hoi An or Seafood Garden Restaurant, 27 Nguyen Phuc Chu, Hoi An where he is available every night of the week.

Mobile: 0935512007

Email: mrtrunghoiantours@yahoo.com.vn

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With Mr Trung and his wife and daughter

A Dream Come True

I usually can’t hold my own water so the last few weeks have been a struggle to hold back and not explode all over WordPress with excitement. But I have some really great news that I want to share with you. And now I can.

In my very first blog post, written in March 2012 when this blog was over on Blogger and called Heading to Hanoi, I said this:

Just like most people we (Gareth and I) found ourselves in jobs that neither of us particularly wanted to do. I have personally had a dream to become a travel writer. Maybe, just maybe, this trip is the key to that dream becoming a reality.

Since then I have traveled as a backpacker through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, finally settling into city life in Saigon as a part-time English teacher and occasional blogger. Last year I met a wonderful woman, also an English teacher and blogger, called Kris Zimmer who invited me to be a contributor to her blog ZUPADream. Although Kris has now left Vietnam and is living in Canada, for her out of sight out of mind is not something she lives by. Kris was generous enough to encourage an editor of Vietnam’s biggest English language lifestyle and travel magazine, Word, to read my posts. So, to cut a long story short, the editor liked my stuff and asked me to write a piece about the HCMC Run event that I took part in on December 8th.

To revert to my Liverpool dialect; I was bloody gobsmacked! I couldn’t believe that little old me would be having my work published in an actual magazine. I have always enjoyed writing, putting the pictures in my head into words on a piece of paper or a computer screen has always come easily. Now, if I work hard and stay determined, writing will be more than a hobby, it will be my career. And that is a dream come true.

Yesterday the January edition hit the streets and with it, my article. I obviously had to get a copy immediately and photograph myself holding it.

My article and I
My article and I

If you would like to read it for yourself then click here and flick through to page 12. It’s called Conquering the Bridge. You will see my name at the end.

Warriors in Running Shoes – HCMC Run 2013 Race Report

The finish line is in sight
The finish line is in sight

Streams of sunlight crawled across the early morning sky as the sea of blue-clad participants stretched and jogged in place. During the next couple of hours, approximately 5,500 people were about to flood the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. A tidal wave of runners would stretch from Crescent Mall in District 7, up to almost 4km away.

Amongst the crowd were children and the elderly, students and expats, and there were even a few hardcore barefoot runners. Some were there to have a good time and test the benefits of their healthy lifestyle, whilst others were there for the battle, warriors in running shoes. Many were embarking on their first ever competitive race, I was one of them.

Three groups awaited their respective gunfire, the 10k racers – those who were supposedly pro- or semi professional athletes, as they were expected to conquer the outrageous incline of Phu My Bridge – were up front and the first to burst the banks, at the rear was the massive pool of 3k runners and sandwiched in between both groups, a deluge of 5k-ers.

I came across HCMC Run when I was looking for a safe place to do road running in the city. In the weeks leading up to the event, free training sessions were organised to help raise interest in the race and to promote a healthy and active way of life. Straight after I ran their 7.6km route one Saturday afternoon, I signed up to this excruciating 4am start.That’s what endorphins will do to you!

Three weeks later, I stood restless, one of thousands, wearing the obligatory blue t-shirt covered in sponsors’ logos and a bib that wasn’t going to be splattered with gravy, oh no, instead it declared with pride my temporary identity, 6145, and the beast I was to combat; 5km.

5 minutes after the 10k group had departed it was our time to be let loose. The cascade of runners was soon flowing around the shore of The Crescent and pounding across Starlight Bridge (Cầu Ánh Sao). It was at this point that I noticed the sheer number of barefoot runners. Their speed was staggering to witness and it inspired me to forget my own aches and pains and to press on.

Given my newly rediscovered competitive nature, I was there for the fight. My pace was strong, my breathing was in rhythm, I was overtaking other runners more often than I was being overtaken. This was an environment I was built for. This was a natural state of being for me.

The route followed along some main roads, none of which appeared to be officially closed for the race. Traffic was effectively managed, to an extent, by the local police who stood at certain points with warm smiles, openly enjoying watching and occasionally helping the stewards to direct runners around corners. However, having to stop and wait for a dick of a lorry driver to cross a junction where the traffic was surging in both directions, wasn’t ideal. And yes, I took the opportunity of those few moments to flip the douche off.

Soon enough, I felt the roar of the finish line in my belly, then I heard it, and no matter how painful that stitch was, or how tight my calves were, I was sprinting until I couldn’t feel my legs anymore. And the awareness of my accomplishment overflowed as I made that final push across the finish line, proving that I can do anything.

I am proud to say that after nearly three weeks of somewhat intensive training, I was able to run the whole course, bearing in mind when I did the 7.6km training session I had to walk for a large part of it. My next goal is to build up my fitness to do a 10k but ultimately I want to run a marathon within two years.

And of course, the most important part: my official time was 32:19 and I came in a very respectable 24th out of 312 female 5k runners and 213th overall out of 1069*. I could get used to this.

*beating 567 blokes 😉

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.