a little bit of silliness....click on the picture to create a fly for it to eat....

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Charity bazaar ...

Today we (Amanda, David and me) went to check out the charity bazaar put on every year by an industrious group of women.  There were stalls operated by many of the countries that have interests here in Vietnam, and also the many NGO's doing their best to help. Koto had a stall selling yummy drinks, tasty food and some of their merchandise.  From what I hear they made about 22,000,000vd which is about $1,100 aus...result!   I made friends with a lovely lady on the Australian stand and got invited to Kiwi drinks next time they're on at the NZ embassy.  I also found cute gifts for Toni and Jann (won't tell what they are...lol.) 
Then we caught the local buses into town to do a bit of shopping...Amanda had to replace her slashed bag and stolen wallet.  While we were in town David caught these three shots of some examples of the skills that Vietnamese couriers/bike riders/ delivery men exhibit in transporting their goods.

We watched this huge column of balloons being constructed, shoved expertly into the plastic bag then off he shot with them.

These bags were full of fabric we think, they were loaded up to the point that we wondered where the driver was going to sit...there was about 3 inches of seat left showing.

Take a close look at this one...no ties.  This pile of orange juice containers wasn't fastened on in any way, just balanced! Amamzing!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Perfume Pagoda

When the alarm went off this morning at 6.30am I grabbed at my phone and jabbed what I thought was the off button.  "Hello Co, can I help you" said a very sleepy sounding Ms Thu (kitchen trainer and all round great girl!)...ohmigod...I had dialed and woken the poor woman up at sparrow'sfart!  I was so apologetic and thankfully she let me off and hopefully went back to sleep.
After my homey tasting Frosties I met up with David and Amanda on the corner of their street and we strolled down to the meeting point to catch up with Danny and our tour guide.

Sunflower seller
 We met up with our guide; a bright young man called Zhung, we got into the car and took off on our adventure.  Driving through the Vietnamese countryside is always an experience.  Pretty soon we got out of the city.  We saw the rice fields lying fallow...apparently it's not the time for rice, it's the time for banana trees. The drive took nearly two hours but it really didn't seem like it.  At one point we past a village where noodles were drying in the sun.

These excellent shots were taken by David 

The last stretch of the road was a bit nerve racking; the road surface went to hell.  You couldn't really call them potholes, they were more like craters...and the road  wasn't that level anymore.  In fact it undulated like the ocean.  Thanks to our four wheel drive we got through and pretty soon we came to the river.  After a visit to an Asian loo (scary when it's hard to squat!) we found our boat and it's tiny female 'driver'.  I felt a bit guilty sitting back while this petite woman powered us up the river.  All the boats we encountered that were being rowed were operated by women, the men only drove the one's with the outboards.
Our engine room...what a powerhouse...she moved the five of us without even raising a sweat.

The river was millpond flat thankfully because there wasn't much hull showing above the water line.  We passed all sorts of lovely things, ducks, cows, waterlillies.
These guys were roosting on the steps of a mausoleum

The cows seemed to enjoy a paddle

Gorgeous waterlillies studded the banks

Me, David, Zhung, Amanda and Danny - hand held shot!

All good!
After about 45 minutes we arrived at the base of the mountain.  Ignoring all the food and junk stalls touting their wares we took a look at the signpost to figure out where we had to go.

 The route was pretty much steps all the way.  The first 200 meters were even and smooth, then they turned into rocks cemented together into rough irregular steps.  I had bought some rice, peanut and sugar cakes to give us a bit of energy but eating them while scaling the first steps just about took me all my effort!  Thankfully everyone else was feeling the same way and we had a wee pause till we had finished eating.

And then the climb proper began!  It was actually a lot harder than I expected.  I thought we were going to be climbing the slope but it was steps and they were a real challenge...but we slogged on.  Ignoring the invitations of the many stall holders on the way we were intrigued to see small animals in cages as we climbed.  I was more upset than intrigued.  Especially when Zhung tapped one of the cages and scared the hell out of an already terrified squirrel.  These animals are available to worshipers to buy, then release at the temple in order to accrue karma.  It seemed problematic to me that Buddhists could torture animals when they won't kill or eat them.
This little guy tugged at my heartstrings but I refuse on principal to contribute to animal cruelty...paying to release them will only encourage them being re-caught and resold.

 We also saw a monkey chained by the neck which we ignored as well.  Thankfully there were also some free range creatures including dogs, pigs and some of  the healthiest chickens I have seen since getting to Vietnam.
This little guy actually came up for a scratch before collapsing on the ground.

After the scrawny chooks you see in Hanoi these little gems looked positively bursting with health.

One of the women selling drinks made us all laugh out loud...she asked us to buy, we said no...she said 'Later, you come back to see me...my name is Minh.  What is my name?'... 'Minh!' we chorused cracking up!  What a saleswoman...if we were going to spend any money ever it would be with Minh!
Chuckling quietly we continued up the seemingly endless mountain till we finally arrived at the top.  They are building another pathway to accommodate the huge crowds that flock to worship at the pagoda during peak season.
Danny, Amanda and Zhung

The best of things...
I loved that they built the path round a tree then despaired when I spotted a landslide of rubbish that had been dumped down the side of the mountain.

The worst of things...
In the middle of nowhere but notice the satellite dish.

To get to the top was a real achievement as far as I was concerned.  It was also worth it.  The Perfume Pagoda is inside a huge cave.  It's a well used temple where people come to offer alms and pray for what they need.  As prayers go on continually there is no photography inside but here's a view from the top of the steps.
After all the ups there comes the down...

The cave of the Perfume Pagoda
We found so many images in the stalagmites and stalactites, some natural and some carved in.  When we found yoda halfway up the wall  we got such a case of the giggles that we had to hightail it up and away before one of the monks or their acolytes came and shushed us. 
Coming back down the mountain was not much easier than going up, but of course there was the chance to see Minh again.  As we neared her stall we started calling out...'Minh, Minh.' like a bunch of demented schoolkids.  But our Minh had a great sense of humour as well as good sales skills and she laughed with us.  She sold us icy cold drinks...which I really needed by then and we went on our way content that we had supported the best candidate on the hill.  I got some good shots of pretty stuff on the way and fairly quickly we got back to the base of the mountain where lunch would be served.

 We had a tasty lunch of roast mountain chicken, fish, pork stir fry, yummy spring rolls, a beautiful omelette with rice and garlic greens.  Yummy.  Just as well I didn't see these bottles of snake wine till I'd finished eating.  If you look closely you can see not only snakes but gorgeous giant gekkos and even whole birds.  (Shudder)

Zhung and Danny on a rather nice stairway.
The trip back down the river didn't seem to take nearly as long as the one up and before we knew it we were at 'basecamp' and in the car on the way back to Hanoi. 
We're not sure what Zhung was doing under here, we think sleeping...

The trip had been a fascinating one as far as I'm concerned encompassing all of the very best about this complex country.  The wonderful appreciation of history, spiritual life and human achievement alongside the woeful disregard for wildlife and the environment. Seeing the construction of intricate and thoughtful ways to convey the pilgrims to the Pagoda alongside the lack of forethought with the rubbish confounds me.  But that's the conundrum that is Vietnam ...and for all that I still love it.  Coming here could prove to be addictive.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A day of extremes...

Rocky...my mate
Today was one of extremes of feeling about being here.  I started the day so frustrated I cried about the greed of Customs wanting to gouge a charity.  Then as the day wore on and I spent a little time with the trainees, with Rocky and with the staff here my mood lightened. 
This evening David and Amanda kindly invited Jonny and myself to join them at the night markets in the city.  We stopped for a bite to eat before hitting the stretch of well lit stalls that comprise the night market.  While chowing down on our steak sandwiches 'Hanoi style' a doughnut seller came to spruik her wares.  She caught sight of Amanda and immediately they struck up a conversation.  When she had gone I asked Amanda if the woman had some connection to Koto...but no, she had simply remembered Amanda from the previous times Amanda and David had bought from her.  It wasn't just sales flannel either because she commented on how much Amanda's hair had grown...now that is customer care!

70 seats turned over roughly every 1/2 hour during the evening is a lot of food to come out of this kitchen.

After our tasty dinner David and I calculated that they must turn over something in the region of 500covers a night!  For dessert we went for a Papparoti - 'the father of all buns!'  There is a chain of these hole in the wall  bakeries producing only one item.  A sweet bun with a crunchy sweet coating and a buttery filling.  Virtually all the buns are sold before they even go in the oven.  People queue up and wait till they are cooked then pay quickly and grab the nearest paper bag of heaven!!  We enjoyed ours then sauntered off down into the market. 

At one point Amanda complained to me that a woman had pushed her at least four times.  As she told me this the woman rushed past us, pushing a small child over in her haste. Vietnamese don't have much use for personal space but to push a kid over was extreme so we decided she was just a cow!   It wasn't till later on when going to pay for something in a shop that we discovered what had actually happened.  The woman had slashed Amanda's bag open down the side with what must have been a razor or scalpel and stolen her purse.  How she got just the purse in amongst all the books, clothing and sundry other essentials is beyond comprehension.  What a shock!  So she'd obviously been legging it after finally grabbing the wallet and the child was collateral damage.  After getting over the disbelief we found a police station and Amanda made her incident report to a very helpful young policeman.  She knows that nothing can or will be done but a report must be made.  Interestingly enough the hotel receptionist the police used as a translator told us that the night markets were a hot spot for theives, but Amanda thought she was doing the right thing by having the bag zipped up and held close to her body. 

The razor cut down the side of Amanda's bag

Obviously the thieving little buggers have figured out a way to get around that - they just slashed though the side!  I'm just glad they didn't slash my friend...better her bag than her skin.  It certainly put a damper on what had been a lovely evening...buggerit.
But we are going to visit the Perfume Pagoda tomorrow so will make an offering and pray for some good karma.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pike River mine disaster...

I just have to say how saddened I am by the news of the complete loss of life at the Pike River Mine disaster in New Zealand.  My heart goes out to the families and friends of the men lost.  From what I can see in the international media they have acted with a dignity and humanity that is an inspiration to us all.  Particularly the mother of the young man tragically killed on his first shift in the mine. 
Commiserations Greymouth.


With the help of a wonderful woman in Sydney (thanks Ruth) the boxes of donated equipment (and some of my equipment) were sent over here by a FedEx. 
They arrived promptly and I got all excited at the prospect of really being able to get started teaching Doan and working with him to update and improve the pastry menu. 
BUT....and there is always a but....now it seems the goverment has decided that we need to pay tax on the value of the goods. 
Despite Koto being a registered charity in Australia and a Social Enterprize over here they still want to gouge us.  Ruth provided a detailed contents list and valuation of the boxes...not enough. 
So everyday it drags on a little more.   Every day it becomes a little more frustrating.   Everyday I become more depressed.  OK, it dosn't help that I'm sick - I'm like a bloke when I'm sick...I don't take kindly to my body letting me down and I'm like a bear with a sore head. 
Small things take on huge importance and it's really easy to make me cry!  I just want to get on and do what I came here for....grrrrrrrrr 
It seems odd to me that in what was once a communist country the government is working against those who are working for the people. 
I will just have to absorb a little more of the zen like Vietnamese attitude...Hanoi-time.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Here's something to make you chuckle.  When I moved into my quiet room I found there was no hot water...apparantly I hadn't turned the hot water button on.  Here's the hot water button...say it out loud.

Dinner at a local cafe

Jonny and I decided to catch a bite at one of the local cafes. 

We find one with a nice clean visible kitchen.  Upstairs we make our choices from the menu, stir fried steak with peppers and lemongrass and deep fried squid.  When we ask for rice and vegetables the waitress tell's us emphatically No.  Apparantly no rice and no cabbage...shame.  So we settle for chips....in Vietnam and we are eating chips!!!
As it happened the chips were not bad, crisp and hot (if lacking salt...soy sauce dosn't quite taste the same.) . 
The squid is really nice, panned rather than in a thick coating of batter and reasonably tender.  Along with two Heinekens the whole meal cost only 180,000vd which is about $8aus...not too bad.

On the way home we pop into a supermarket to pick up milk.  I hadn't noticed that it's a Japanese food shop and am pleasantly suprised to find Devondale Milk!  Smart milk even!!! Extra calcium with less fat...just what I need.  Mind you, the one litre of milk cost $2! 
It'll be worth it in the morning when my Frosties taste like home.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Koto restaurant and Koto Training Centre

The training centre and the actual restaurant are in different parts of the city.  The restaurant is near the old quarter which is the tourist hub of Hanoi.  The two day's I spent in the kitchen there with Mr Doan were interesting to say the least.  Opening at 8am for breakfast buffet the kitchen dosn't stop till dinner service is over.  There is no end to lunch service to allow time to re-stock mise-en-place and clean down in between so everything gets done at a dizzying pace.  With only one oven for the whole kitchen and a tiny fridge for his section it was hard for Mr Doan to work far ahead.  I found it almost impossible to teach much because we were continually lurching from one crisis to another.  Thankfully soon Doan will soon be relocated in the catering kitchen at the training centre where he will be in a position to supply both the restaurant, catering and eventually a cafe that is in the planning stages.
A view of the restaurant from the kitchen

 The trainees and staff do a great job despite these contraints, they work with limited equipment (as many charities do) and still provide a sterling product.
Lunch service with Chef Doan on the far left and Chef Phuong on the far right.
 Today however, was spent at the training centre helping to present a class on Sweet Sauces.  The trainees have been doing their Soups, Stocks and Sauces unit of the syllabus.  Trainers Ms Hue and Mr Doan (a different Mr Doan) both teach in class at the same time so if trainees need extra help it is on hand.
When the trainees are undergoing induction they are taken to the restaurant to spend some time observing and doing a little work experience.  After that they are asked if they wish to undergo kitchen training or front of house training.  Generally the split is around 50/50 but for Group 17 there were only 7 trainees who opted for the kitchen.

Mr Doan observing a trainee's technique.

Creating a Bain Marie to make a sabayon when you don't have enough saucepans...

The sabayon half way to being made

Theory revision  
During the course of the class I demonstrated Sauce Anglaise, Lime Curd, Apple Sabayon, a Stock Syrup, and a Passionfruit Coulis.  The students went on to produce their own Anglaise, Curd and Sabayon with varying results as you would expect from first attempts.  One young woman stood out however, she had real ability and her sauces were invariably excellent. Later in the wash-up room Mai confided to me that she wanted to become a Pastry Cook. I will be keeping an eye on her for the duration of my stay and I'll see if I can't involve her in some of the masterclasses.
Now I'm off to bed, I've developed a nasty sore throat and what feels like the flu...thankfully I have finally been moved to a quieter room so hopefully I can get a good nights sleep and knock the bugs on the head.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fun run...

 I was feeling a little nervous this morning at 7am when I met up with David and Amanda to go to the city for the charity fun run.  As anyone who actually knows me will tell you...I don't do running.  In fact I don't do much excersize at all other than swimming, but as it turned out I needn't have worried. 
Me, Amanda and David before registration
 Thousands of people had gathered to enjoy themselves circumnavigating thelake. 

Singers movitated the crowd pre race
There were groups from major banks, restaurants and hotels.  One group wore japanes costume and not only looked great but they had choreographed a dance sequence which they performed at points throughout the run.  Check out the video at the end of this blog. It was very 'Mardi Gras'.

Each time you make it round a stamp is given.  Serious runners could run fast and collect heaps of stamps - David is a particularly good runner; he took part in a fun run in Saigon recently and came 6th out of 7000 runners!  Since we weren't sure of the fitness levels of the trainees we decided to wait and see.  As it turned out the kids just enjoyed collecting the stamps.

All the kids taking part from KOTO came from Group 18.  They have only been with the program for a couple of weeks so their english was going to be very limited.  KOTO not only provides them with an education to improve their own lives but instills in them a sense of gratitude and obligation to 'pay it forward' to help others not as lucky as themselves.  The Vietnamese people as a race seem to me to be incredibly supportive of each other in general.  If one of the laden scooters ever drops it's load and blocks the laneway, there is no honking of horns and abuse to clear the way...they all rush in to help fix the problem.  It's inspiring.
We ended up doing a sort of run/walk.  The kids found it hilarious when my shorts kept falling down (due to the weight of all the crap I had in my pockets not because I'm skinny sadly), they cracked up when Amanda and I did the Ministry of Silly Walks, in fact they found joy and fun in just about everything. 
By the time we had circumnavigated the lake three times ( a respectable 3.6km) the trainees and I were knackered, Amanda and David were still coasting of course, but it was decided to finish with a flourish so we all sprinted for the finish line.

We did it!

I am continually heartened by the propensity that these underprivileged kids have to pure joy, David tells me that prior to coming to KOTO many of them worked all hours at often crappy jobs just to keep body and soul together and had seldom had the chance to just be kids and play.
Just before we waved them off on the bus back to the training centre one of the girls approached Amanda and just said "Happy".  It said it all...for them to have the chance to muck about, see us being silly and know that they were doing something to help others was priceless.
Then came my reward; Amanda and David introduced me to a fabulous cafe they had found.  Vietnam produces great coffee but sometimes it can be bitter and far too strong for my palate.  Cafe Mai has their own roasters and makes a kick arse iced coffee.  Condensed milk is put in the bottom of a glass, then ice and coffee are poured over, you stir it up at the table.  I was expecting rocket fuel but was very pleasantly surprised at the mellow, nutty but full bodied flavour, and they used just the right amount of condensed milk...not too sweet.   We sipped, nibbled and basked in the glow of a great morning.
I'm sure I'm going to feel like crap tomorrow when my joints seize up but it was worth it, way worth it.

Everyone here learns very early on how to pose successfully for photos, my problem here was I didn't know how to tell them I was filming them and wanted them to keep running...so I ended up sounding like a broken record...but we got there in the end.

This is the sychronised dance done by the japanese styled group...they maintained their energy levels well considering they stopped to perform at regular points round the lake.