Friday, November 30, 2012

Thanksgiving and Trip to Ho Chi Minh City

Thanksgiving... another in a long list of holidays that just doesn't exist in Vietnam.
However - It DOES exist in American-owned Christian restaurants!  Which is why we spent our Thanksgiving lunch (we were afraid dinner would be too crowded) at the "Bread of Life".  It was amazing. Turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and even apple pie.  Soooooo goooooood.  [But the pumpkin pie wasn't spiced nearly enough] If I closed my eyes, it felt like America. Except... in America we probably would have been at some wanna-be Thanksgiving buffet with my parents [and I wouldn't be eating turkey]. Ha ha ha.

Most of our friends enjoyed some of the food, but since we are the only Americans we hang out with, THEY didn't know what Thanksgiving was either.  Except what they had seen in movies of course (because all good cinema belongs to America).  It was weird though - they totally didn't like "putting fruit on their meat" (cranberry sauce), and nobody was fond of stuffing... more for me! [Xavier said "My weird American friends..." again! Ha!]

The following day we flew to Ho Chi Minh City and enjoyed another late Thanksgiving dinner with the LDS branch (mostly Ex Pats) there. It was awesome!  We met some super cool people, and the food was, again, amazing.  Actually, I'm sure that in America it would have just been "decent" food, but... since we've been eating almost strictly Vietnamese for the last 5 months - it was a fresh breath of air indeed. [They even had crescent rolls - CRESCENT ROLLS people!]

The rest of our trip to Ho Chi Minh City was also pretty great.  Despite the slightly moldy hotel, a bathtub that didn't drain, and prostitutes on the street, it was really nice!  Risa was pumped because they had a nice "natural foods" store [they had Bobs Red Mill and gluten-free stuff! awesome! though one pound of flax cost around $30 US] - something we haven't seen since leaving home.  We also bought a metric ton of clothes. It was super nice to get some threads that dry quickly and aren't sweltering hot (like all of our clothes in America apparently are).  And of course - a trip to Ho Chi Minh wouldn't be complete without wasting a bunch of money at the central market... Which we did. [did not, maybe only $40... on gifts for friends]

While in Ho Chi Minh, we also went to church.  CHURCH!!! Can you believe it!?  It felt so... surreal... we've been holding church in our front room for so long - it was awesome to have other people give the talks and lessons. It makes a big difference to have other members around. It was really really nice. Most of it was in Vietnamese, but they had a translator, and WE were the ones wearing the headsets during church for once. [And I interject to mention that it felt SO nice at church that Michael even fell asleep during Sacrament meeting - just like home :) ]

I should also mention that Ho Chi Minh has amazing food.  Not only do they have all the amazing Vietnamese food you can find in Da Nang [albeit at higher prices], but they also have a huge variety of other stuff too!  We ate Japanese, and Indian, and French, and American, AND Vietnamese while we were there.  Awesome. Though, Baskin Robbins is still as expensive and not-worth-it in Vietnam as it is in America.  Oh well.  Risa was also overwhelmed with awe when we saw that the French bakery had a Blendtec blender.  Girls... they're so weird...

We also went to the Zoo while we were there.  It was... kinda normal.  It was like a normal zoo on welfare.  They had a bunch of animals, but instead of having one of a lot of "different" animals, they had a lot of just a "few" animals.  Take the crocodile pits for instance.  There were probably 50 crocs all lounging around a giant pen - which was pretty cool - but you see my point.  And the "reptile house" had about 30 cages in it, but they were ALL filled with either "boas", "iguanas", or "water dragons".  That's it - it was hilarious. We kept rounding another corner thinking, "what new amazing animal will they show next?" Only to find ANOTHER green iguana. Ha ha ha.

At long last, it was time to leave.  We had acquired SO much new crap [needed clothing], that we barely fit it into the suitcases [shoulder bags].  Amazingly enough, we were still under budget for the trip [by like $15]!  That's the beauty of Vietnam. So - there you have it.  A full account of our trip to Ho Chi Minh City.  I hope you enjoyed it.  Now go do something productive AWAY from the computer. Ha ha ha.

[Post written by Michael with interjections by Risa]

Belated videos from Singapore

I was reviewing some of the old posts and realized I had promised some videos that I forgot to post. So - here they are, not the best quality (sorry!) and I think one of them is sideways because Michael forgets that our phones only work one way... but it is neat nonetheless. Enjoy!

The first video is inside the Chinese Temple in Singapore. They were having services, and it was really really astounding (I am trying to find words other than amazing to use, I think I used that word at least 10 times in the Singapore post...). Sorry it is sideways...

This second video is of a Punjab style dance troupe that performed for a dance/cultural festival they were having in the Marina Bay Amphitheater. This is just them practicing, but it shows the amazing dancing. I believe they are Sikh? Anyhew, I have a video of their night performance where they are dressed up in costume, but it's 8 minutes long so I figured the short video would be better. It was one of my favorite things in Singapore, the music is amazing and the dancing was a blast - at night they would perform then teach the accumulated crowd some of the steps. I hope you can see it ok!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Oven-Less Baking Success!

Yay! Success!
Sorry - I am really thrilled with myself so you all have to bear with my rant on learning how to bake without an oven. Plus, with Michael gone on a manager retreat this weekend, I don't have much to preoccupy my time - ha ha ha ha ha... :)
I was determined to attempt Pumpkin Chocolate Chip cookies, but, I realized that small cookies would be difficult, so I decided to make a Pumpkin Chocolate Chip bread/cake instead. Instead of chocolate chips I bought a 72% cacao chocolate bar and chopped it up - primarily because the only chocolate chips I have seen here were huge 5lb bags at Metro, and I didn't want to pay for/have that many chocolate chips. I bought a small bowl as well that would fit in my large pot, and some parchment paper for the top. I admit, I was inspired by Gordon Ramsey and his YouTube Christmas Pudding Video as those were the only cues I had on how to steam things. Anyway, in case you'd ever like to steam something, here are plenty of photos to help you along:
 Here is my bread/cake batter in the bowl I purchased to fit in my pot. I had buttered it to make sure the cake would come out ok.
 I put a circle of parchment paper on top, and tied it on with the really terrible dental floss I bought here before we were lovingly sent some from the states (it's so bad, it's not waxed at all so it shreds on your teeth really easily, but I digress), and I put on a rubber band just to be sure it would stay on. (PS - can you see the awesome (and dirty) measuring cups in the background mess? Thank you Miranda!! If you hadn't sent me those none of this would be possible!)
 Here is the bowl in the pot, propped up on some jar lids. I put some aluminum foil strips under the bowl so it would be easier to lift out later.
 After about 40 minutes of steaming, I peeked and saw this! I was surprised because the recipe said to bake it for at least 45-50 minutes, with most comments stating that it took a lot longer to bake. It was springy and I stuck a toothpick in it and it came out clean, so I called it done!
 Here's how the top looked when I took off the parchment paper. It was kind of tacky like a steamed bun, but it was really cool!
 And finally - the finished product. I was rather impressed that the chocolate bits stayed so dispersed throughout the batter, back home a lot of the time everything would sink to the bottom. The cake came out of the bowl with no problems or sticking at all, it was really neat.
 Here's the inside. It was really moist, but after it cooled it sliced well and held together really well too. The only thing I will change next time is to double the spices, you couldn't really taste them, which made me sad, and the quality of chocolate wasn't so good, but it worked! And quicker than baking was supposed to, and without heating up my entire house. Hooray! I have succeeded in baking without an oven! Oh, and I must give a BIG thank-you to my neighbor Alfa who gave me some baking soda, apparently it's illegal or something now here and they don't sell it anymore, and she lovingly gave me some of hers she brought from her last trip home to Indonesia. Baking soda is definitely something I can't jerry-rig myself, so thanks Alfa!

Friday, November 9, 2012

November Nibbles and Crazy Attempt at Pumpkin Pie

Ok, well November is here - as is crazy weather and weirdness. The end of October into November has been difficult as my severe culture shock ebbed into a relapse of major depression, but thanks to a miracle (most likely prayers and support from all of you), I woke up one day not so depressed, so we are hoping for better things this month. It has been raining like mad a few days, followed by lots of warm, beautiful days, and who knows what tomorrow will bring.
Michael has had some nasty sickness attacking his throat this past week, but large amounts of garlic, essential oils, and other supplements I brought proved the winner and he is feeling better, although being able to trail his location based on smell was not pleasant. Seriously - he even brushed his teeth a few times and he still smelled like garlic. But at least the swelling is gone and he's feeling good again. (I think probiotics have been my saving grace for not getting sick yet - knock on wood).
Anyhew, with the pumpkins we carved for Halloween, I decided I wanted to attempt making Pumpkin Pie. Problem was, I have no oven. So, I remembered hearing about baking cake in a rice cooker, so I figured "Why not Pie?" I googled it and some people had been successful (albeit with much fancier rice cookers than my 55,000 VND model), so we decided to try it.
After steaming the pumpkin-looking squash things in a jerry rigged steamer (my biggest pot with a plastic colander inside as I had no steamer basket), we scraped it through a sieve to smoosh it, and we mixed up the batter and made the crust using recipes from this website. I thought there was way too much sugar in the crust and the pie mix, but we tried it anyway. Here are my photos:
 Here is my first attempt, with the pie crust in the rice cooker pan, that had been all buttered, and ready to go.
 First attempt - trying to cook. I had read about people having to keep the COOK button down on their rice cookers, so after a few different tries I found this solution. (If you don't use a rice cooker, it cooks based on weight or something so, when baking, it may not stay depressed all the time, so you have to do it manually).
In the end..... the crust started to burn after 10 minutes or so and it made a big mess - but the filling was pretty good, although a little under done, and there was a bit of crust that wasn't burned that was pretty tasty. It was a nasty mess so I took no photo. But, I still had some dough and filling left over, so the next day we tried again.
This time, I decided to try cooking the crust and pie separate, the crust in the skillet and the filling by steaming.

 Here's my skillet all buttered up.
 Crust in the pan, it was kind of hard getting it thin enough but not burning it - our gas stove is not the best, neither are the pans here - they are all SUPER thin, so everything cooks really fast or burns.
 This is how my crust turned out, kinda soft in some parts, but the thinner middle was flaky at least.
 Here's the filling, in the rice pot, in a large pot of water. I put a bigger lid on top of this and cooked it for about an hour and a half. It seemed to work!
 Here is the filling all steamed, it looked like pumpkin pie at least, the fork came out clean!
The hardest part was getting the pie filling on the crust. It wasn't a pretty process so I waited until it looked appetizing before taking a photo. It kind of glopped all over and we had to spread it out, but in the end - success! My next attempt - steamed pumpkin chocolate chip cookies. It's daring, but we can dream, right?
**UPDATE** After sitting in the fridge overnight the pie tasted JUST like it had been cooked together, and much more tasty than the night before :)

All right, sorry for the long dialogue. I was proud of myself, despite the nasty burned failure, if you couldn't tell. Anyhew, on to other ditties so far this month.
Crazy Things I Saw:
A Dog On A Scooter - Seriously. I was on the side of the road and saw this dog-like head coming at me about wheel level, and it was a whole dog! The owner had a scooter with a flat floor between the seat and the front, like a Vespa, and the dog was sitting there between his legs. It wasn't a small dog either, it was a medium-sized black dog, about the size of an English Spaniel I would say. Totally nuts!
We also had some more visits from the neighborhood kitties - sadly we haven't seen them in a week now, but they did come and sleep on a towel we left out and eat some more food. Here are some photos of other stuff going on:
 I went to Metro, the huge Costco-like store here in town, to find spices for pumpkin pie, and they had a lot of Christmas decorations out! They were even playing X-mas music, I got to hear Jingle Bells in Vietnamese! Really weird. We might get a tree for xmas, the really big ones were about 1,5 million VND, but the smaller ones are a bit better priced. It's crazy, if you want a package of 3-4 stuffed Santa figures it was about 500,000 VND.
Out to diner at Luna Pub for our friend Xavier's b-day this week, one of Mike's co-workers ordered a pizza that came out like this -
 Yes, that is an egg in the midde of the pizza. No, we had NO IDEA why. Luna is an Italian place that has pretty good western food, but we still had no idea why with the egg.
And last, but not least - we got a lovely package from Mom and Pop Nielsen today, SO HAPPY! They sent us a lovely postcard with Mike Sr. and a desert lizard from Moab or St. George on the front, dental floss (I finally found it here but it is really expensive, thank you!!), peanut butter M&M's - Michael's favorite kind, Halloween stickers (the girls at the office loved them), glucose tabs for Michael (still trying to figure out this diabetes thing with inferior medical supplies), some of our Zelda games, some guitar strings for a friend, and, just to torture me I'm sure - sugar free Worther's for Michael ('cuz it makes him stink...) - from Pop Nielsen. We love you guys!!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Halloween Vietnam style and Highlights from October

All right, so while we saw some Halloween stores and costumes in Malaysia and Singapore, sadly there just isn't much of anything here in Vietnam. Gameloft tried to get something going by having a costume contest, but we were so tired after getting home from our trip that Michael was unable to participate - that and they had the contest/celebration the day BEFORE Halloween, on the 30th of October. It was weird. In the end - Michael said that all 6 people who ended up dressing up (6 out of about 300+ people) were dressed as Zombies. E for Effort, right? And then to celebrate the occasion the office gave out Cheese flavored wafers (like wafer cookies back home but with cheese instead of chocolate or vanilla frosting stuff - kinda strange) and fruit (Vietnamese don't really like candy). So Happy Halloween Vietnam style!
Our friends that were celebrating were going to a pub where foreigners accumulate called the Golden Pine - they were having a costume party there with lots of alcohol - but we didn't feel like that would be a good place for us so we had our own festivities at home. I made apple cider, and our neighbors Harouth and Alfa joined us for some pumpkin carving, treats, and a viewing of The Nightmare Before Christmas (our first download from the internet, woot!).
Here's a view of the cider - man it made the house smell good! It also made us very homesick to smell the spices of fall and look outside and see palm trees and sun...

Momma Nielsen sent us a really cute Halloween card and postcard for our fridge, and I got a little creative with some oranges that were on sale this week. I was attempting to draw on them with a pen, but in the end they turned out better than I expected.
Here's a photo of one candy bowl - lots of M&M's and Power Ranger Chocolates! Some of the rangers were milk chocolate flavored wax, and some were white chocolate flavored wax, but it was really fun!
Here's our table with the movie, bowls of candy (I experimented and bought a few different things from the store, none turned out too good sadly enough), and the weird pumpkin-looking-squash-things we were determined to carve anyway.
Me attempting to carve the squash.

Me and the finished product! I was quite pleased with my little face. It was lots of fun, and it looked like some variety of pumpkin.
Here are our two pumpkins on the doorstep, Michael did the one on the left.

After Harouth and Alfa came over, Michael helped Harouth carve a Batman symbol. Harouth is Dutch and had lived in the US for a few years when he was younger, but had never carved a pumpkin before, so it was an experience for him. It was a lot of fun.
"Hey! What are you looking at?"
I put the pumpkins in the fridge to use later, and the light lined up just right!
Alfa is such an amazing cook. With only an hour notice or so she whipped up a batch of finger cookies for our get-together. They have raisins for fingernails and they were some of the best lemon cookies I have ever had. It really pays off to live next to someone who is so good at cooking!

Here are some Highlights from the month of October -
michael chewing on a frog leg
cats on the porch
anything else in the photo folder
Can you tell what this is? It's Michael's new favorite food - the name rhymes with Bog and it would normally be using that appendage to hop around... Frog legs, anyone? I still can't bring myself to eat something I have always considered a pet and too cute to eat...
We were visited by a lovely mother cat and her two kittens this month, we are trying to feed them as they are skin and bones, so hopefully they will come around more. Here is one of the babies.
Here is the other baby. He was really skittish. What amazed me was that even though they were all noticeably hungry, the mother cat waited until both the kittens had eaten their fill before she went over to the food pile and ate. It was really touching.
Now we know where these came from - this is our kitchen table. We don't get them anymore though since we put a mosquito net in the window.
There was a tropical storm warning early this month for our area that kind of got me all freaked out. So, I did what I'd been taught to do - I made 72hr kits! Our friends said if the storm actually hit (a lot of the time the warnings don't mean a storm will come) we could be without power or water for a few days, which means no toilet, shower, or anything. To prevent issues, we now have enough food for 3 days for each of us - not huge meals but easy enough to carry - and there's about 10 5 liter bottles full of tap water to use for sanitary purposes stored under the stairs. I feel like a real Prepper now! The oreos are just in suggestion to have one fun treat in the kit to help you feel more normal - plus I always keep some sugar on hand for Michael in emergency situations. :)
Women's Day was celebrated across Vietnam this month. These flowers were really pretty when they were alive - a gift from Michael. I actually liked the holiday - it celebrates all women, regardless of if they are mothers, secretaries, married or single, you just have to be a woman and you get a present. It's pretty big out here, Michael was even assigned to pick out a gift for someone at work. They gave him 200,000 VND to spend - he ended up getting a fishbowl with some fish in it - and apparently it was a really sought-after prize for the ladies at work.
About the same time our kitties were coming around, Xavier and Geraldine had a really young baby kitten dropped at their door in a rainstorm last week. He was SO cute! It was fun to play with him during lunch, he was so popular at work they had over 20 people request to keep him as Xav and Geraldine are allergic. The new owner was rather excited. We were offered him early in the morning, but alas, we haven't made up our minds about trying to keep an animal clean, safe, and fed while we are here. But, maybe in the future.