Monday, April 27, 2015

Museum hopping

Once we got past the 4 or 5 "top sights" that a weeklong visitor will hit, we started finding museums without the lines and crowds. In fact it's quite common for us lately to be the only people in galleries, one corridor after another filled with antiquities. Just outside we have to box our way down the sidewalks to get to these places or out to lunch.

The best deal in Rome that I know of is the Museo Nazionale Roma, which is spread out over 4 locations. The 7euro ticket is good for multiple entry in all of the sites over 3 days. (It's worth the price for the bathroom access alone.) The Palazzo Massimo location has the most amazing collection of frescoes and mosaics we've seen, and the best curation and presentation, also.

Across the street is the Terme (Baths) di Doicleziano. Much less remains than of the baths of Caracalla, but it's easier to get to, and the attached museum is a good place for the scholarly impulse with in-depth presentations on proto-history of the region and on epigraphic history.

Palazzo Altemps has some excellent overlooked sculpture and gives a good insight to how antiquities collecting happened in one family.

And Crypta Balbi show how one layer of history is piled on another and how archaeologists work to peel it back. We've seen the same point made elsewhere, but this was the most expansive presentation of it and it's at an interesting location, on a road that was important to the city in Caesar's time and important today. (We ride the bus through it every day.)

Thursday, April 23, 2015


Well, Mt. Vesuvius kept its cool for another day, and we were able to fulfill a childhood dream of Ilene's, who has had a fascination with Pompeii since she read a particular National Geographic article about it and Herculaneum over 30 years ago.

That image above is from Herculaneum which was swallowed in lava. Pompeii was smothered in ash, buried to a depth covering even the tallest temples so that no one knew it was there for 1700 years. When it was discovered, the excavation revealed spooky human-shaped casts made of ash showing how the citizens were frozen where they were caught.

Only a few are still on public display. I didn't expect the Pompeii site to still have the streets strewn ghoulishly with bodies like in that old National Geographic article, but I was surprised at how stripped and denuded it was. The houses and streets are all empty of furnishings, carts or other debris, and that frozen-in-time quality is hard to sense.

What you do see is one lane after another of intact structures, more preserved than any ancient ruins we've seen. Most remarkable is the frescoes still on the interiors of some buildings.

You have to imagine that vaulted room (a public bath house) completely filled in with ash and that piazza (the site of the Temple of Apollo, I think) covered over the height of the columns to get a sense of the eruption.

The visit is also a little bittersweet for us. We've been referring to this trip as the semester abroad we never had. In-depth trips with our favorite professors to Greece and Rome in Ilene's case and to England in my case always seemed on the horizon when we were in college but never did work out. We've always regretted missing them. We're making up for a lot of that now, but the flying visit to Pompeii without the scholarship (and having forgotten so much of our Latin in the meantime) makes us miss our youth a little more.

Monday, April 20, 2015

I Think I Can . . . Climb the Vatican

Even with a couple of rest days built in we've been wearing out our legs, not least because of getting very lost a couple times. The less said about those difficult hours the better. When we get to our destinations, though, we're seeing some amazing sights.

Most churches are open to the public from an early hour, so we used that on Friday to beat the lines for a visit to St. Peter's Basilica. The line usually snakes all the way around St. Peter's Square and doubles back on itself, but we rose early to be there at 7 a.m. before they had even turned all the lights on. Still, there was a mass going on in most of the 10 or so chapels around the perimeter. Looking for a bathroom, I stumbled into some kind of dressing room where a bunch of priests and alter boys were getting suited up. Ilene said she would be pretty jealous if I ended up meeting the pope that way.

It's a dramatic space, of course, with a lot to visit, though a lot of it is roped off for masses. Visitors are kept about 30 yards back from The Pieta.

Next we climbed to the cupola at the top of the dome, similar to the experience we had at St. Paul's in London about 13 years ago, except I'm down one ankle, one knee and one hip since then. The passageways get progressively narrow until you are squeezing between the inner and outer skins of the dome, with the stairs climbing and tilted sideways at the same time.

As I've said before, our apartment is near the Vatican, and this sequence of photos gradually zooms into our apartment from the top of the dome.

The light blue roof is the Russian Orthodox Church I mentioned. Our apartment building is the orange one immediately to the right. We're on the top full floor (not counting the one under the eaves) under the rain gutter on the side nearest the camera. If you can make out a dirty awning under the gutter, that's our veranda. The yellow two-story building at the train tracks at the bottom of the hill (nearest the foot of the blue crane) is the San Pietro Termini, which is where we usually jump on the bus into the center of the city. Where the tracks cross a viaduct over the road (Via del Gregorio VII) is the main business strip of our neighborhood where the tobacco shops, bars and fruit stands are.

Speaking of distant views of apartments, our next visit to the Vatican was on Sunday to see the man himself. Pope Francis has kept up the tradition of making a brief speech and blessing from his window at noon on Sunday. (As well as a Mass on Wednesday.) It looked to me like about a baseball stadium's worth of people were in the square -- maybe 50,000 people -- all of them absolutely silent except for a period where he gives shout outs to visiting groups and the groups cheer back. It was all in Italian, so I wasn't able to follow, but the news reports that he was commenting on the recent drowning deaths of many immigrants to Italy.

In the meantime, we went out of our way to get to the Appian Way and take a country walk, toured some catacombs, hiked all the way back into the city, visited the Baths of Caracalla, visited the Basilica of St. Mary in Trastevere (my favorite), the Basilica of St. Cecilia in Trastevera (including the Roman-era archaeological dig and decorated nun's chapel underneath and rediscovered murals in the nun's choir above), the Jewish Ghetto, the Theater of Marcellus, the Portico of Octavia . . . and we've had a few meals. Basically, I at this point, I eat anything on the menu described as de nonna. For lunch today it was pasta con ragu de nonna and torte de nonna, my new favorite desert.

And then each day we climb back up the hill from the bus stop to our apartment.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Exploring neighborhoods

Someday when I've had a chance to get lots of pictures of our apartment and the surrounding neighborhood, I'll tell more about where we live.

We took the last few days off from ticketed destinations and just explored different neighborhoods. The weather is getting much nicer now. It's chilly in our apartment most of the time because it doesn't get direct sun, but out on the street we don't need jackets during the day.

On Saturday, we went window shopping in the Preti neighborhood north and northwest of the Vatican -- very chi-chi with lots of shady sidewalks and gorgeous clothing, like strolling the upper east side on a quiet spring day. 

On Sunday, we decided to do a cheapo tour by taking a tram wherever it went. Sunday morning is pleasantly quiet, with a few people hitting bakeries and flower shops in preparation for Sunday dinner at mom's house. We saw the park-like areas in the north part of the city and landed in seedier parts east of the main train station and had a long trek back across the city on multiple buses, stopping at different neighborhoods here and there to explore and sample gelato. 

Sunday was also Russian Orthodox Easter, as we were reminded at midnight Saturday when the bells in the church next door went off like crazy.

Today we hit the Tridente neighborhood, including the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. We're generally not very adept yet at figuring out the bus routes except for one well-worn path through the middle of the city, so we often have false starts trying to get where we're going. The adventure today is that we got on a particular kind of micro bus meant for very narrow and hilly streets and, more importantly, makes a one-way circle instead of a back and forth. We got on it at the furthest point in the circle from our goal and got jolted over the cobblestones trying to hold ourselves upright through the worst sudden stops and starts for about 45 minutes, including two passes by the Colosseum. I feel in someone's lap immediately, and my abs were killing me from the effort of trying to stay upright by the time we arrived at the tippy top of the Spanish steps. At least we didn't have to climb them. 

One woman got on the bus with a dog who was terrified out of getting bounced around. When she tried to move to another corner once, the dog refused to lift a paw, and she dragged it like shaggy quivering footstool on a leash.

This was another great neighborhood for window shopping, and we found a great lunch spot. We also made it to the Chiesi di Santa Maria del Popolo where a couple of Caravaggios adorn one chapel. One disappointment though is that when we finally hunted down the Trevi Fountain, we found an empty cement pit that only a skateboarder could love with scaffolding over the statues. Renovations in progress.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Ruins and ruined appetites

On Thursday and Friday we went to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the surrounding area with many other ancient ruins. The ticketing is one for both locations, ticket good for two days, and that's how we did it. We're getting better -- but not great -- at moderating how much we do in a day. We tend to say, "Let's just take a look at that over there and then find lunch." As a result we keep ending up hungry for the first thing we can find, which is often not very good tourist restaurants.

We have ended up at a few good family places, including one in our neighborhood a couple nights ago known for its seafood. Longtime readers will remember that language confusion in Asia often resulted in way too much food being brought to my table, and that happened again here. In most places, the rhythm of when and how you order and get the next course and pay the bill is a mystery to me, though we usually get through it without incident. This time -- I guess it was family style and we ordered for two families? -- our table was groaning with plates. At what turned out to be the antipasti with several plates of cold meats and seafood, we were stuffed and said, "Surely there's not more. It's some weird thing were they bring all the courses at once." But, no, that was the antipasti and next was primi (pasta) and then, a new one for me, a primi part B (gnocci) before the main courses, which in my cases was a quarter chicken, a steak and a big piece of pork. Then came soda, a tower of fruit to pick from, lemon tortes and, finally, coffee. 

The lines and crowds weren't bad at all in the ruins, and it was a lot of fun to see the Colosseum at fairly early in the morning. The views from the Palatine Hill over the Forum are beautiful, and it was fun to come across the Circus Maximus, which was much bigger than we imagined. You can walk down in the track there.

The last day and a half we've shifted from destinations and tickets to wandering neighborhoods. Today was Preti and window shopping at the department stores, longing for the nice clothes.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Working and touring routines

We've been trying to get a rhythm going with our working and sight-seeing, and it hasn't been perfectly smooth. We've had a lot of frustration with internet access and wasted time. And it's been much colder than we expected.

On Monday we visited the Capitoline Museums, which features mostly sculpture and archaeological finds. One of the cool things about it is an underground passage between buildings that exits out onto a veranda above the Forum. And it was a delight to see some famous sculpture familiar to us, such as the bronze bull and horse fragments. We walked around a lot of the rest of the ancient city during the afternoon.

On Tuesday, we tackled the big one -- the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel. We did our best to plan but miscalculated somehow and, wow, what a line we waited in. Two-and-a-half solid hours in the cold, plus the walk there. Once inside the building, visitors are herded into cattle chutes up and down stairs, through anonymous corridors, etc. It's insanely crowded, shoving and shuffling for another solid hour before reaching the chapel.

The Sistine Chapel is amazing. A memory I'll treasure forever and a privilege. But not one I think I'll try for again unless I can cut a couple hours out of the journey. And it makes me gunshy about some of the other sites we have planned including even more popular museums in Florence. Twice we've walked past the entrance to St. Peter's Basilica and seen lines I couldn't imagine ever waiting in, but I think we're going to have to get used to the idea.

Other parts of the Vatican Museums were less crowded, including Pinocoteca, which has been the highlight so far for me.

Along with seeking out meals, shopping, inevitably getting lost several times, and the uphill climb to our apartment building, that was two long days on our feet, so we took today off to stay close to the apartment and get work done on our computers. Tomorrow we take our chances with the line at the Colosseum and explore more of the ancient city.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Commencing the cappuccino tour

It's been 5 years since I've posted here and a lot has changed -- mainly that no one uses Blogger anymore. But setting up something else that everyone who is interested can see (e.g. the Facebook refugees) would take bandwidth I don't have.

Ilene and I are on a two-month trip to Italy and Greece. That's 4 weeks at an apartment in Rome, 2 weeks TBD elsewhere in Italy and 2 weeks in Athens or nearby.

We left New Haven 4/1 in the afternoon, had an uneventful flight on Alitalia, and arrived about 9 a.m. local time on 4/2.

The first couple days were a little stressful, because this is meant to be a working trip with a lot hinging on our internet and phone access, and that wasn't going well initially. We're set up now, and when the internet works, it's fine. But it doesn't always work.

The weather is much chillier than I expected, and we've been soaked with rain the last two days.

But apart from that, we're getting the hang of things and looking forward to a good mix of hitting the tourist sites, learning the local way and getting some work done.

So far, we've mostly wandered around and done some shopping to get our apartment set up. We spent a lot of time yesterday in the Trastevere neighborhood and popped into a couple museums -- the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte and the Museo di Roma -- both minor compared to major museums but interesting stops. (In both cases we were dodging the rain.) We were disappointed that a particular Caravaggio wasn't hanging at the National Gallery.

We are pretty close to the Vatican with a view of St. Peter's cathedral dome from our balcony (pix to come when the weather is warmer) and everything in this neighborhood is named after San Pietro. (There are also more than your average number of priests, seminary students, monseigneurs, nuns and novitiates walking around.) Our apartment building is on a hill overlooking the neighborhood, and next to us is St. Catherine's, the only Russian Orthodox church in Rome, constructed and consecrated just a few years ago.

On Friday -- Good Friday -- we walked around St. Peter's square, watching the crowds accumulate and getting oriented. The line for the Basilica tour was intimidating, so we'll have to figure out the best times to try that. This morning -- Easter morning -- it poured heavily during mass, which we watched on the local news.

It let up about noon, and we headed out for lunch. It's apparently Palm Sunday on the Russian Orthodox calendar, as mass was letting out next door just then and the worshipers were carrying palms. When we got down into the neighborhood, we ran into the waves of pilgrims radiating out from St. Peter's square looking for lunch like us.

Cafe con leche edition

Welcome back to This is the cafe con leche edition. You can see photo highlights of our trip here.

Ilene and I traveled to Barcelona for seven nights in the first week of 2012, starting with our usual money-saving New Year's Even red eye strategy. We got to stay in the apartment of a friend of a friend not far from Sans Estacio train station, about a thirty-minute hike from downtown.

Placeholder for journal on Spain trip I never got around to

We went to Barcelona for a week in the winter of 2012. We drank a lot of espresso and never had access to the internet.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cathedral at Chartres

Today we met up with Ilene's aunt and uncle at the Montparnasse train station to take the 70 minute trip to Chartres and see the cathedral. I chose this among the possible day trips because it is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, and I have a policy to see as many of those sites as possible ever since I realized that some of my favorite visits in Vietnam coincidentally were World Heritage sites. I've collected about 20 so far and have about 800 to go.

The cathedral was as spectacular as promised. We happened to arrive just as mass was getting ready to start and the last stragglers from the surrounding village were hustling to get in. They seemed to be OK with us tiptoeing around during the service, though it did mean the gift shop was closed. It was interesting to think that the people of this town have been praying there, burning incense and lifting their voices up to the vaulted ceiling continuously for 800 years. Some things won't ever change I suppose. The kids in the choir, for example, spent most of the service twisting around in their seats and punching one another.

We were lucky to see it in the slow season. The cathedral and the route up from the train station are ringed with souvenir shops and bus parking, all of it agreeably empty on a Sunday in the middle of January, and I could imagine it crowded with tourists and having a lot less fun.

That's probably part of why we enjoyed the walk around the old medieval part of town more than the guidebook led us to expect. Perhaps if you were on a grand tour of Europe and had seen several other medieval towns, this one would be nothing special, but it was a first for us, and we had it to ourselves for the afternoon.

After we returned to southern Paris, we said goodbye to Ilene's aunt and uncle -- hoping very much to see them again soon -- and then raced off to squeeze in our last destination for the trip -- Montmartre in the north of the city. Unexpectedly, it had the most crowds of all, I think because everywhere else in the city everything is closed up on Sunday. Lots of buskers and mimes and other entertainers were out on the steps leading up to Sacre Couer, and lots of people were out enjoying the late afternoon soon.. We got some good pictures of the city, found the spot where the big reveal was filmed in Amelie, hit the souvenir shops and headed back to the hotel.

That's it, except for whatever adventure getting to the airport tomorrow presents. We did as much as humanly possible without giving up sleep entirely. The food has been our only disappointment, but c'est la vie. You can't do it all. Next time it will be a food-focused visit.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Catching up

We started out today with a long walk down to the Marais neighborhood to explore some of the older streets in the city. Our timing was off and shops weren't open until later, so we missed a lot of good chances to spend money. The shop windows really call out to us here, and it's a good thing I don't know enough French to read or we'd never get past all the bookstores we pass.

The rest of the day was devoted to catching up with family. Ilene's aunt, who we hadn't seen in more than 10 years, lives in Germany with her husband, who we hadn't met before, and they took the 3-hour train ride to come visit us. We had a very nice time getting re/acquainted and swapping travel stories as we covered a lot of ground together around the city. We had lunch at a place they recommend near the Eiffel Tower and then walked along the Seine back to the Tuileries gardens to the Orangerie. (Sunny and in the low 50's today.)

The Orangerie is a seemingly under-appreciated little museum with two nice reasons to visit -- a small collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings in a very nice space and the 8 panels of Monet's Nymphae. They are enormous paintings that he designed especially for this space, and they have a powerful effect in the 2 large oval rooms. Again, we felt quite privileged to get the chance to see them.

Next we went across the street to have coffee in the smart shopping district north of the gardens and the Louvre, to do some more window shopping and then say goodnight. Ilene's aunt and uncle are joining us on a day trip to Chartres tomorrow, which I expect to be the highlight of the trip.


Friday, January 14, 2011

Another country, another riot

I'm exaggerating, but we did cross paths with world events in a minor way today, reminding us of my adventure with the riots in Bangkok last April. You may have heard that there is a lot of popular unrest in Tunisia right now. It's getting major play on CNN International anyway. When we left our hotel this afternoon to explore some residential and less touristy neighborhoods (i.e. Belleville), the President of that country was still hanging on to power. As we walked around we came across a small demonstration of a few hundred Tunisian expats apparently in support of the street protesters in Tunis. The shouting in French that we could make out included the complaint that Sarkozy is an accomplice. By the time we got back to the hotel the President of Tunisia had fled the country and on his way to Paris.

We had a less ambitious agenda today and hopefully found our grove. It certainly led up to our best dinner so far. We started with a visit to Saint-Chapelle in the morning, a 13th-century cathedral founded by Saint Louis, famous for the beauty of its stain glassed windows which make up almost all of the exterior walls.

From there we hiked down to the Latin Quarter to visit the Musee de Moyen Age -- the Museum of the Middle Ages. We were disappointed that the section built over the 1st century Roman baths was closed. We did get to see some very cool tapestries, including The Lady with the Unicorn, which is actually a series of 6 tapestries.

We walked around the neighborhood of the Sorbonne for awhile looking in the bookshop windows and then tried out an ice cream shop that's supposed to be famous. It's been warm enough that we can take our coffee breaks at the sidewalk tables.

Then we took a nap to try and get on the right sleep schedule and to have the energy to hunt down a decent dinner. We can never nap for long in the daytime here because there's an elementary school below our window that has about 7 recess breaks a day I think. It sounds like the kids are in our room sometimes.

In the evening we hiked around Belleville and got chased into a cafe by the rain to have some hot chocolate. We eventually made our way to a proper neighborhood family-run restaurant. Maman running the front, Papa in back, heavy doses of plain peasant food with heavy gravies and sauces, fromage blanc with raspberry sauce for desert and a neighborhood kid who came in for awhile to sing pop songs for tips.

Tomorrow we expect to have a family reunion with an aunt of Ilene's who is visiting Paris for the weekend.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Art out the ears

More of the similar today. Still getting over the jetlag, we slept through the alarm and got a late start. We went to the Guimet Museum of Asiatic Arts first to see what was collected from places we've traveled to in Asia. It was curious to find that both we and artifacts from the Champa ruins in My Son have made the journey from that mountaintop in Vietnam to this room in Paris. We also re-acquainted ourselves with the woodblock prints that we saw so much of in Japan years ago.

After that we went by foot across the Seine, under the Eiffel Tower (not up it) and back east toward the center of town. After lunch at a bistro in the diplomatic district, we went to the Musee D'Orsay, which picks up in the mid-19th century where the Louvre leaves off. It's housed in a renovated fin de siecle train station and is on a more human scale that makes it much easier to appreciate the art. We saw some of the best-known -- and quite moving -- works from the French Impressionist and post-Impressionist eras. We didn't see as much as a typical visitor might, though, because a lot of the space is closed for renovations right now. We did enjoy quite a bit the special exhibit, which was on the career of Jean-Leon Gerome. One of his gladiator pictures in particular looked very familiar as soon as I walked in the room and saw it. I stood staring at for a long time wondering where I had seen it before. It turned out to be on loan from the Yale University Art Gallery where we've see in many times.

That took up all of the day and was enough art for us. We spent the evening walking up Boulevard St. Germain, checking out the shops and looking for someplace to eat. We still aren't having great luck with the food, being too disorganized, tired, distracted, illiterate in French and cheap to do much better than to fall into tourist traps. I'm still getting by on a lot of croque monsieur and croque madame. It's not healthy, but I figure I'm burning plenty of calories with all the walking we're doing.

Tomorrow we have a medieval history day planned.


From ca phe to cafe

Our Southeast Asian travel blog is temporarily relocated to Paris. Instead of ca phe sua da, we've been having a lot of cafe, (which is a single shot espresso here.)

We arrived at our hotel with no trouble at mid morning on Tuesday and with the usual jet lag. Taking a lesson from our trip to London when, eager not to waste a minute of the trip, we sleepwalked through Westminster Abbey on the first morning and remember nothing about it, this time we took a little nap first.

We started off with an easy trip to Notre Dame Cathedral on Tuesday afternoon, and it was an incredible privilege to be in one of the world's oldest, largest and most beautiful buildings. It's difficult to describe what it's like to see something so grand for the first time, and I expect it will end up being the highlight of the trip.

This morning we started off with the Louvre, thoroughly intimidated by how much there is to see. Despite it being the slow season now, we found it plenty crowded in the galleries, although the only line we've experienced is with the coat check. I hate to imagine what it's like during the busy season. In all honesty, it's very difficult to let the art make an impression in an environment like that, and I've come away from other museums more charged up from the experience. We managed to see a large portion of it including all the most famous highlights. Winged Victory was my favorite. I've heard so often that the Mona Lisa is smaller in person than people expect that I expected it to be smaller than it was.

After we felt thoroughly dosed with art, we walked the distance between there and the Champs Elysee, down the length of that, up to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and all the way back again. And then, at twilight, back into the Louvre for another dose of 18th and 19th century sculpture. (It's open late on Wed. night and still crowded then, too.)

The view from the top of the Arc de Triomphe was fun to see, though we're not having great weather for it. It's been overcast all the time and drizzling some of the time. But it has been warm enough that walking around outside is comfortable. We've even eaten at a sidewalk cafe and had crepes sitting on a park bench.

We haven't had great luck with the food yet. It's difficult to coordinate the guidebook recommendations with our budget with the sightseeing destinations. The perfect place is never just outside the museum. I've been eating a lot of ham and cheese sandwiches.

We put in 10 miles easily today, and out legs are killing us. We have a similar agenda for tomorrow. We got one of the 4-day museum passes -- Wednesday to Saturday -- and have to keep up the pace for it to work out as a legitimate bargain. It does save some standing in line for tickets, though that's not too much a concern during the slow season.

We're having a lot of fun and learning a lot. Ilene says she understands Saigon better after seeing Paris -- how much the colonists were trying to recreate Paris there. None of the legendary rudeness yet. Lots of patience with our lack of French. I got the bartender at our local brasserie to talk football with me. I've been discovering how much "travel" in my mind is equated with "travel in Vietnam." I keep having to remind myself that I don't have to be anxious about knowing where my next source of drinking water is going to come from -- that even though I'm not at home I can still get water out of a tap whenever I like.

I'm getting tired of espresso and tried to get a "French press" style coffee. Nobody knows what I'm talking about, though. That's my mission for tomorrow.


Friday, June 4, 2010


This isn't my first post about che (pronounced jay-uh), but there seem to be more kinds than I'll ever have a chance to try. Some are almost as firm as cakes, most are like a tapioca pudding, and my favorites are more like watery beverages and very refreshing like a sweetened iced tea. On English-language menus, it's often called "sweet soup," served either warm or chilled, and the one pictured here looks at a glance like lentil soup when it is ladled out. It's made with different kinds of sweetened green or red beans, cooked in a kettle over a charcoal brazier, poured over ice and has coconut shavings on top, garnished with a shake of oil from banana leaves. It costs about 25 cents and the shade of the ancient banyan tree is thrown in for free.


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Ca Phe Sua Da

Vietnamese style coffee and condensed milk. It's the best part of any afternoon here.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Cao Lau

Cao lau is easily my favorite Vietnamese dish, and it's so frustrating that you can only get it in Hoi An and surrounding area. The well water in the region is supposed to be the secret ingredient, and so far no entrepreneur in Saigon seems willing to challenge that perception.

There are some Vietnamese who have heard about this dish their whole lives and never had it because they've never been to Hoi An. It's one of those things that people go to a lot of trouble to pack up and carry home with them on airplanes to deliver to homesick transplants or to the unititated. Which our friend in fact did last week -- his carry-on bag included the fixings for 10 bowls of cao lau for his family who had never had it before, the broth in a recycled water bottle and all the rest in plastic baggies ready to assemble.

The pork is braised and is generally attended to more carefully than in other dishes (no gristle!) The rice noodles are made with a special lye solution that give them more chewiness and texture. The fried pork rinds give it a lot of flavor like croutons in a salad. It's served with only a little bit of pork broth, so it's not really a soup like other noodle dishes, which is a nice change.

And I think I've got a lead on what might be one of the best possible versions. That's because we go there with our friend who is a life-long resident of Hoi An and a born ambassador and tour guide who knows everyone in town. We've been back to this place a few times, and I love it. I didn't write down the details, but they're there in the picture if you look closely enough. To any other travelers reading this, that's the place you want to track down.

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Hue-style cuisine

These are some examples of Hue-style dishes. I haven't learned the names of each one. Most of them are based on some kind of rice flour wrapper or paste that is gummy in texture, filled out with shrimp or shredded pork and cooked by steaming. The one that looks like a yellow cake is a kind of pork-loaf similar to a pimento loaf. For almost all of them you spoon Vietnamese fish sauce over them. (That's the sauce made from fermenting sardines in clay jars in the sun and then pressing the mash to get the oil. Like with olive oil, the first pressing is most prized.) This isn't my favorite style of food here, because the texture of the rice paste is a little off-putting, but I do like the ones in the tiny bowls with dried shrimp and fried pork skins. It's like a good bar snack.


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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Pix from Hoi An and Hue

Photo highlights from the side trip to Hoi An and Hue are in the slideshow on the right and here.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Hoi An and Hue

Our most memorable and special experience on our previous trip to Vietnam was going to Hoi An with our friend who is a native there to visit her family, and we've been looking forward to a return visit on this trip. The best part is breaking bread with locals and getting to experience life off the tourist trail. This time we were invited to tag along on a family expedition -- 15 people total in a rented van -- to visit relations in the countryside, tour some caves, hitting the historic sites in Hue and than return for a full day in Hoi An.

We ran into some bad luck, though, and had to let the group go ahead of us from Hoi An for a couple days while Ilene rode out a case of food poisoning. We missed the country cousins and the caves and took a bus to catch up with the rest in Hue on the third night.

Hue was the capital of the country during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the citadel of the royal forbidden city and a lot of the royal tombs still remain along the Perfume River in the city center and in the surrounding countryside. We spent a full day touring those with our friend's family, as well as hitting some of the famous local cuisine and the market to buy souvenirs like tea and chili paste.

Then it was back to Hoi An for our last night. Hoi An is a small city on the coast that at one point was an international trading port until the river silted over, and the old town still shows traces of the Japanese and Chinese influence there. In the morning our friend organized an odd little boat excursion around the island near the old town. It was on a tiny skiff that seated the four of us and the ferryman. When we first got in, we were being paddled by a toothless old man and after awhile we came across another boat being paddled by his brother, who was missing a leg. They traded places because the one-legged brother, about 5' 4" and 80 years old, was the stronger paddler. Ilene and I couldn't take the guilt and took up paddles ourselves and tried to get us around the island a little quicker, but it was still a solid hour of work.

The main reasons we returned to Hoi An were to enjoy our favorite local dishes and to go to the beach. It was my only day at the beach in 6 months despite traipsing all over southeast Asia within spitting distance of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Two years ago when we came here we went to the main town beach, well-known to tourists, and our friend also took us to another beach where we were the only foreigners. Since then, word has gotten out and there are plenty of tourists there now. There's plenty of room for everybody, but it was nice to have the bragging rights before.

The other thing that has changed in two years is a serious erosion in infrastructure -- both metaphorically and literally. The monsoon season last year brought disastrous flooding to Hoi An, and the streets are still unusable messes in some places. Electric supply also seems to be falling further behind demand. Our experience -- four power cuts in three days -- may be just chance, but we do hear anecdotally that this is becoming more common throughout the country. It's pretty disheartening to come back from a hot day seeing the sites, planning to lay down in front of a fan, and to see that the hotel lobby is dark again.

As before, the best part of the trip was spending time with our friend's family. She has the most photogenic nieces and nephews in the world, and her sisters and sister-in-law are fantastic cooks. They put on a couple of delicious spreads for us. You gotta love it when you hear a chicken clucking in the kitchen on your way out to the beach and then find a chicken dinner waiting for you when you get back.


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