22 November 2006

Teacher's Day 2006

Teacher’s Day is a big deal in Vietnam. Last year I got bunches of flowers, presents, and cards. This year I got a CD and a card. But this year I also participated in a Teacher’s Day program arranged by my Vietnamese language school.

The event was held last Sunday evening at a hotel in town. Two and a half weeks ago was the first I heard about it. My teacher arrived for our lesson with a sign-up sheet. It seemed that the students would be putting on a show for our teachers and we were to choose an event in which to participate.

I glanced through the choices; sing a Vietnamese song, do a traditional dance, participate in a play. I told my teacher I would go for the dance, wondering how they were going to get it all together in less than three weeks. She said no, I shouldn’t do the dance, but enter the Ao Dai Fashion Show. I looked down the page to see this event that I had apparently missed.

Ao Dais (ow yai) are those beautiful, long tunics and pants that they actually still wear here, when not in jeans or mini-skirts. They are lovely, but look a bit like bondage, what with a no-breathing-room, fitted bodice, and made of polyester, unless you can afford silk. Not really practical for this climate. Nevertheless, I knew I wanted to get an ao gai at some point, so why not now? The deal was further sweetened by the fact that a silk company was donating the silk and I would only have to pay for the tailor, a mere $18. My only concern was there would not be enough time to get them sewn, but this is the land of 24 hour tailoring, and my teacher assured me it would not be a problem.

There were a total of ten of us, and the following Saturday we converged at the language school to get measured and to choose fabric. Two woman tailors set about measuring; rather one took measurements while the other transcribed. I did like the fact that it was in centimeters so I had no idea just how big or small I really was. These women did not speak English, but I did get it across to them that I did not want the traditional, mandarin, high-neck style. I do have limitations.

When I finished up there, I went back to the outer room where some of the other women were looking over sketches of very non-traditional ao dais. What was up? Turned out we had our own private designer. I choose one with a V-neck that buttoned down the front. I added sleeves to the sleeveless sketch. But where was the fabric? I really am a fiend about choosing the fabric I will wear.

We were not going to be able to choose. The designer said she would write down our color choices and then she would go to the factory to pick it up. Then began the insanity of ten women trying to describe the hues they wanted. One lady wanted the color of my tank-top, which she had seen while I was getting measured. Another wanted the green in a postcard on the wall. I wanted a magenta – just try saying that in Vietnamese. We all did the best we could, the designer took photos of us, and we were finished. The products were to be completed in a week, we would come in for final fittings, and it would all be done before the big event.

What with working and living on one side of town, and going to the other for fittings, I was getting a bit worried that this just wasn’t going to work. Not that it mattered since they weren’t finished last Thursday, with the party being just three days away. This was getting nerve wracking. I finally got the OK to go in Friday at 5pm. Even if it didn’t fit, I could do any adjustments myself.

I arrived at the language school to find that only the tunic was there – no pants, no tailor, and two buttons were still missing on my pink outfit. Not a color I would have chosen, which was actually more of a dusty rose, so not a bad choice by someone else. It was explained that the pants would be done by the next day, Saturday at 4pm, when I could pick it up. Obviously, I couldn’t even take the tunic home.

I called the following day, ready to pick up my outfit and was told it wouldn’t be done until the next day, Sunday, and that the tailor would bring it to the hotel where the function was being held. Sorry, that just wouldn’t do. These are form fitting numbers, made of sheer fabric, and one must get the right bra. After a bit of negotiation and several back and forth phone calls, we arranged for a delivery guy to bring my ao dai to my house on Sunday morning at eleven.

At twelve noon the next day, Sunday, I get a call from the tailor, in Vietnamese, saying it would be delivered at 4pm. Or at least I thought that is what she said. That would give me about an hour before I had to leave for the hotel. Fortunately, I then got a text message in English confirming the time.

When my ao dai arrived, the first thing I noticed was how damn delicate the fabric was. I was sure to trash it within minutes of putting it on. I also needed to iron it, which I managed without burning the super-fine silk. Then I tried it on. An amazing fit for never doing anything other than taking my measurements. However, ao dais are designed to be worn with a bullet bra, which I don’t think have been on the market since the 50’s. I came up with something, and was pleased with the classy look. I need more of these, albeit in something other than fragile silk. By the end of the evening, I didn’t have any food stains, but it was quite wrinkled, even though I did my best not to move too much. I was sure it would rip apart.

As noted in my last blog, the ride into town took forever because of Bush Security. But arrive I did, and rode the elevator to the fifth floor, and walked outside to the pool, where it was being held. I had expected some rather informal affair. I walked out into a scene of lights and cameras and balloons and buffet tables. It was a clear, warm, perfect evening. Waiters walked around with trays of drinks. I mingled and talked to several people I knew, and met many others.

The song and dance numbers went well, and then it was time for our fashion show. We had been given instructions about walking slowly around the pool and pausing at certain points, where we were to “turn around charmingly”. That over, I went back to eating. We had a massive array of fantastic food.

It was a lovely evening, and a wonderful way to honor our teachers. And now I have real ao dai. (which needs to go to the dry cleaners.)

The pictures included here having nothing to do with the event. They are of the street where I buy fabric.
Happy Thanksgiving!

20 November 2006

Bush In The House

For about six months now, I have been waiting for Bush’s visit to Vietnam. As soon as I heard that he would be here for the APEC meeting, I knew I had to do some sort of subtle protest. I decided that I would wear a CODEPINK t-shirt and just sort of stroll by wherever it was he was staying. A friend even made me pink earrings to go with the outfit. All I could hope for was that some of his homies would take note; just as a reminder that even on the other side of the world, we haven’t forgotten about him.

As it turned out, he came into town on Sunday and there was no way I could partake in my mini-street theatre plan. I was booked for a Teacher’s Day reception in the evening and it would have been too much to make the trip into town twice in one day.

At 6pm, I got into a taxi wearing my brand new, pink silk, Vietnamese outfit. (more info to follow in a later posting). We drove over the bridge to District 4, and then the traffic all but stopped. I was sort of daydreaming and didn’t notice the delay for quite some time. I don’t remember ever going out on a Sunday evening, so assumed it might be the norm.

Eventually, we got through District four and into District 1, heading for District 3. As our speed increased, we zoomed by the New World Hotel, and my driver mumbled something and pointed. Half asleep, I grunted and turned my head to see if I could figure out what he had said. Oh! He had said “Bush”. Now I noticed that the streets were lined with police in flack jackets and helmets, toting weaponry. I glared at the hotel and mentally transmitted feelings of ill regard. I was glad I was wearing pink.

Turning the corner I saw that all the streets around the hotel were blockaded. I wondered why he would stay in that particular hotel. 5-star; it is not. Later that evening someone pointed out that hotels like the Hyatt and Sheraton are jammed together like sardines in the center of town, making it pretty much impossible to cordon off the area. So the big brass, for the sake of security, had to slum it, I guess.

Mental telepathy might not be the best form of protest, but it did feel good.


19 November 2006

Kem Chuoi

Kem Chuoi, (chewy), literally means ice cream/banana, although it really is just frozen banana, coated in coconut milk and peanuts. I first had it soon after arriving in Vietnam. It was when I was with one of the young women from my first job, and she had the driver stop at a little shop on the side of the road to buy kem choui. I instantly loved it.

It is not something that is commercially produced. People make it at home and sell it in their shops; hence, I hadn’t had another for over a year. (my neighborhood has none of these family stores.) And then two weeks ago, my Vietnamese teacher arrived with three that her daughter had made. She wasn’t sure if I liked them, so apologized for not bringing more. When she found out I truly adored kem choui, she said that our following class would be a course in making them. I tried to give her money for the ingredients, but she wrote down the necessary items, totaled them up, and showed me that it only cost about one dollar to make 24 frozen bananas. Two days later, she arrived with everything.

One starts with making coconut milk. The canned stuff I already had wouldn’t do, explained my teacher, it simply doesn’t taste right. That morning she had gone to the market, (where she goes every morning at 6:00am.) She bought a fresh coconut and had the seller shred it using some sort of machine. We put the coconut in a saucepan, then added about half a cup of boiling water, and stirred it until it had absorbed the water. Then, over a strainer, we squished handfuls of coconut meat into a bowl, removing the milk. The leftover shredded bits can be used in other things, but we tossed them.

We added a little salt and some sugar, (I opted for less sugar), and about three tablespoons of cornstarch. The milk then goes back in the pot, this time over a low flame. While this is cooking into a thick paste, you slice the bananas in half.

I must explain that not Just any old banana will do. Of all the types available, only one is suitable. It’s a short, fat nanner. All the others contain too much water and when frozen, turn to ice. As I sliced, my teacher laid out the cellophane pieces in which we would wrap our frozen desserts. These were actually small bags that are cut open.

The banana half is placed on the cellophane then flattened with the side of a large knife. Onto this, you ladle the thickened coconut concoction, sprinkle it with roasted peanut pieces, wrap it up, and put it in a plastic container. 24 pieces later, it was done, the kem chuoi’s placed in the freezer, where they would need several hours to freeze.

My teacher told me that you can basically put a coat of anything on top of the coconut milk, like chocolate or fruit. She said that on special occasions she layers all the ingredients in little molds and puts fruit on top. I am hooked on this simple, yet incredibly tasty treat. I still have over half of them left in the freezer. Usually after class, we sit down to eat them as we gaze out over the darkening skies of Ho Chi Minh City.

I feel the need for one now.