Sunday afternoon, and I have a hangover.
A fitting state perhaps to welcome in the start of the festive season, although the combination of last night’s beers, 5 hours sleep, Martha wailing like a banshee, and Florence enthusiastically using me as her personal drum-kit, was not quite the ideal scenario first thing this morning in terms of remedying a sore head.
I used to love December back in the UK. It can be the most indulgent month of the year, and also the most random in terms of habits.
On the social side, for example, people start warming up their red wine and adding in fruit. More pastry gets consumed in one month than during the whole of the rest of the year. For some reason, we also decide it important that we simply must meet up with certain friends for Christmas drinks, often people we haven’t seen or heard from since the previous year when we committed to do the same, but one of us bailed out due to being “crazy at work”, “down with the flu” or “double booked” for the night.
All of which build up is to brace ourselves, and line the stomachs, for the inevitable culinary onslaught of turkey, brandy butter and sprouts, which arrive in supersize quantities on Christmas and Boxing Day. These three food stuffs I happen to like but, combined, and washed down with random liquor prised from the family drinks cabinet, tends to result in thoroughly confusing our digestive systems and placing us, for a few days only, on a par with the world’s livestock in terms of damage done to the ozone layer.
The weather can be quite dull in the UK at Christmas, and despite there seldom being any actual snow (although this year I read may be different) there is an uplift in mood which, however stressful the last minute shopping might be, makes December, in my mind, a unique and nostalgic period of the year, in so many ways.
Here in Saigon, there are no cosy log-fire seasonal moments to be had, as the city’s thermostat seems reluctant to drop much below 30 degrees. I have yet wear a jumper on any occasion since arriving here 9 months ago, and possess half a wardrobe of old suits, initially shipped out here, still crinkled from being folded up enroute, and destined themselves never to experience the Saigon humidity.
Climate-wise then, Lou and I do not feel that Christmassy at the moment living as we do near the Mekong Delta, in Vietnam, in December. However, all is not lost. As luck would have it, it transpires that the Vietnamese, as with other neighbouring countries in the region, are mad for celebrating the festive season.
The country does not really contain a strong religious persuasion of any kind, which makes the sudden lurch towards covering every inch of public space in fake snow and sparkly trees, all the more fascinating.
Downstairs in our apartment building there is a supermarket off the front lobby entrance, with the amusing strapline of “Fresh Your Life”. As of last week, there is a now a whopping great Christmas tree, inundated with red, silver and gold decorations of competing fluorescence, stood 5 metres from the supermarket entrance, and with various wires precariously running round the floor in all directions, to keep the lights glowing 24/7.
Outside one of the more upmarket “compounds” down the road from us, in front of where the security guards sit and scrutinise the comings and goings of the compound residents, now sits an enormous Santa Claus, complete with grotto, reindeer, and a snowman, each with flashing rainbow lights of all shapes and sizes, akin to the overly decorated houses you’ll find at the ends of many streets across the towns of the UK, where front gardens are full of marauding plastic gnomes and miles of fairy lights cover the edges of the houses themselves.
We have been tipped off that Saigon is only just getting going on the festive promos.
I believe the next 3 weeks are going to be a daily game of spotting new and whacky sights as we’ve been told the city is supposedly unable to contain itself as the month progresses, the central areas becoming full of frenzied street parades and parties, with people (possibly every citizen of the city from what I have heard) heading towards the main Cathedral on Christmas Eve, and ensuring a complete traffic standstill for the entire evening.
As usual, December is zipping by already and finds us quite busy. Lou has taken on (as you would expect, given the alternative choice of person in charge of such things) organising everything for Christmas, including the logistical challenges of receiving and sending presents and cards, and then keeping fingers crossed that all things arrive in time and intact (the postal people here open every parcel, and anything wrapped, which doesn’t leave you 100% confident on delivery actually happening.)
The girls are both doing well. Martha’s propensity to polish off food these days is, on the one hand, admirable, and on the other, quite startling. Her wailing seems to be more about trying to communicate and, if we could translate, then much of the time I’d not be surprised if some of her commands to us were along the lines of “spoon it in quicker”, “yes, more would be nice actually” and “is it time for dinner yet?”
Florence is very happy-go-lucky at the moment, embracing school, friends and practicing on a daily basis the art of ‘how far can I push my cheekiness today?’
She finds everything amusing, and the honesty attached to life as a 3 year old can be great fun to observe – she was helping water the plants yesterday and, deadpan, turned to me afterwards and said “Daddy, I’m so helpful”.
I have been back in Saigon more of late, recovering from various travels throughout September and October. I spent most of the last fortnight however in Bangkok, and pleased to report that the city is now almost flood free (although sandbags still sit outside many of the shops) and there has been some restoration to normality, although much of the country outside of the capital is still a long way from recovering from the damage done by the now receding waters.
Last month we all took a long weekend to explore Hanoi, the first flight for Lou since we arrived, and all went well. We stayed in the city’s Old Quarter, which is a charming district full to the brim of chaotic local life, with narrow back-streets and a jumble of architecture, trading, traffic and street vendors all living on top of each other (some of Lou’s photos taken there are at the end of this post).
Hanoi has several lakes and, in most parts, more space to walk the pavements and side streets with kids and a stroller in tow, compared to what is on offer in Saigon. The weather when we were in Hanoi was delightful, autumnal, blue skies and nice breezes, and made for a great couple of days.
We had a list of recommended local restaurants to sample, and ate some top food, our ultimate favourite being a bowl of Pho (noodle soup) at one of the popular local Pho Houses.
The place consisted of an open kitchen at the front of the building, with enormous cauldrons of boiling broth surrounded by various plates piled high with all the component contents: bamboo shoots, leaves, limes, fresh strips of beef, chilli and the noodles themselves. The noodles are pre-cooked and start in the bowl, before the broth is ladled over and the remainder of the ingredients are sprinkled on the top.
It was one of the best we’d eaten, partly the taste and also the mission of actually buying, sitting and then ultimately eating the meal, given the cramped seating plan and our extra baggage – in the form of two children, a buggy and a backpack.
The system for ordering and eating in local Pho restaurants like this one is simple. You pay for your meal as you walk in, and are then presented with a smallish room of diners, sat on old wooden benches up and down metallic tables, with only a hair’s breadth between each person, all of whom sit hunched over their bowls, lips just inches from the soup.
You pay, wait your turn, spot an opening and dive in. At this stage I had Martha strapped to my chest, Flo nervously grabbing at my leg, and a collapsible buggy, stubbornly refusing to live up to its name.
One table took pity on us, and we made for the corner two “seats”, and just managed to squeeze in.
We decided to tag-team the noodles, and Lou ate hers whilst I entertained Martha (still strapped to me) and Flo (sat on my knee and not sure what was going on). I was peckish, and my food was sat in front of me looking delicious. I waited my turn in the growing heat of the place, having to duck left and right as Martha, excited, was flailing her arms all over the place and jabbing me in the eyes.
I felt in control of the situation until a fellow diner, an elderly lady sat opposite, decided to pick me up on my parenting skills.
At first she frowned when Martha reached out to grab the edge of the scalding bowl of noodles precariously perched on the edge of the table, and then she gestured at me, from what I could decipher, basically pointing out that this wasn’t a clever predicament for me to have overseen.
I flinched back a half smile and a nod, but made the mistake of passing a chop-stick to Martha to keep her amused in the meantime, at which the lady reacted with a piercing glare and half stood to remove it from Martha’s hands. I haven’t yet learnt the Vietnamese for “ hey lady, my daughter, sit down, eat your noodles, and leave it alone” but I tried to frown this very statement back whilst resisting the urge to gesture anything more socially unacceptable.
Food, as usual, continues to play a central role in our lives out here (as does getting mixed up in odd encounters with the locals)…
Last week, in Thailand, I sampled duck tongue and fish stomach (both interesting, however the stomach was the hands down winner) but perhaps more exciting than that, today we’re following a strictly English diet, having started the morning with an egg and bacon brunch, we’re now planning tonight to cook our first Sunday roast since we came out to Vietnam – the prospect of which is enough to cure my hangover. Although by “cook”, I should more accurately state for the record that Lou has, in fact, ordered a pre-roasted chicken from a local deli, which is going to be delivered to our apartment at 5pm – talk about festive indulgence!
Here’s to December then: to random food and drink, over the top celebrations, and to happy days.
Have a good one, wherever you are.