Really don't know where to start ( sound's familiar), I feel I've crossed a thresh hold in my life, and it feel's good!
The trip to Hanoi was amazing from different levels one from a personal, ( the war, now behind me) the other from a practical, wow, I'm here to study and research! Kind of blow's you're mind!
The contrast's, in Saigon the south, it's a loose, fast pace, kind of dirty, party type atmosphere. Hue, Hoi An area pretty much in the central, a little slower, cleaner and open, lot's of visible rice patty expanses as far as the eye can see. Water buffaloes, and hard working farmers, massive diked area's for aquaculture, to the tiny street vendors hawking everything from food to make shift motor bike mechanic shops.
Now Hanoi, the north, pretty clean ( an objective view on my part ), a bit more conservative, and cosmopolitan. It's hard to describe.
We landed after an hour or so flight from Saigon ( Ho Chi Minh City, what everrrrr! ). Loaded onto a bus for a short ride to a small downtown district called the "Old Quarter". On arrival to this crazy buisy area of motor bikes and people, we had to get off of the bus and transfer to four waiting large golf cart electric vehicles for a ten minute ride to the heart of the city. The street's are amazingly narrow, thus the golf cart transportation, chaotic foot traffic, and motorbike chaos. Lot's of round eye's everywhere you look, obviously a hit with the eureo's, and american's.
The hotel, "Hanoi Boutique Hotel" is situated smack dab in the middle of everything you could possibly need or want. It's been under a major renovation for about a year, and Rosie, my F&B friend said it will be another three or so month's before it's completed. ( Maybe! ) It's a beautiful building, room's a bit smallish but how much time do you spend in a hotel room with so much to do and see? I've already decided to come back in the future with Buck, ( My wife ), more later on why.
The immediate and sourrounding area is rich in French Colonial and Indochine ( their description not mine ) style architecture and old world charm. It's really cool here! Small quaint and easy to walk. I went for a walk one night and got really lost in the maze of streets, late night market's, bars, restaurant's, street hawker's, dark alley's with the usual denizens of the deep, if you know what I mean, I was waiting for Bogie to come out of the shadow's and ask me if I was lost, but no luck. I finally flagged down a Taxi-------.
PANIC!! My roommate Brian, just came by to drop off some money he owed me and to pick up his camera and bag, ------, Oh S---t! NO CAMERA, NO BAG! UTTER PANIC! Where oh where can my camera bag be? ( the camera is a loaner from school just for the trip- all $4000.00 of it!) Some quick phone calls to David to back track last nights events and happening's. Last chance call to a restaurant they had a late night dinner at, and bingo, his whole complexion and demeanor changes, they have his camera and bag on ice for him! Just come by and pick it up the guy says, thank you god, there are actually some honest people left in this world.
Can anyone spell, BIG TIP!
Ok, back to the taxi, I get in trying to remember the exchange rate from US to Vietnamese Dong, in Saigon I exchanged $100 US at the hotel, and received $1,8500.00+ -Dong, man I'm not a math major. We finally arrive at the hotel it's 27,000 Dong, panic, so I call over the hotel lobby guy, turns out it's about $3 bucks US. Whew!
I'm in the elevator on my way to my room when I meet this beautiful female vietnamese uniformed employee who ask's me where I'm from, we exchange professional conversation, during which I explain to her that I am a Professional Chef from the United States, and briefly explain to her why I'm here, her expression completely changes and she proudly announces that her name is Cam Thai Thu, (Just call me Rosie ), and she is the hotel Food and Beverage Manager, how cool is that! To top it off she is also a professionally trained Chef!! Thank you Hilda, there is a god!
She quickly ask's me if I would like to see her kitchen and meet the hotel chef when I was available, and I quickly responded by all means, when? Well before you know it within a half hour I'm touring her brand new kitchen, and she's made arrangement's for me to meet and have breakfast with Chef Le Phuong Lam the following morning. Yesssssss!
After breakfast, chef Lam and Rosie emerge from the kitchen, and what was supposed to be a 45 minute to 1 hour interview, turns out to be a 21/2 hour discussion on food, philosophy, politic's, culture, and everything else I'm supposed to be researching in the first place. At the very onset of the discussion, they specifically asked me what I wanted to know, and I quickly responded, for the next few day's, if you will have me, I AM YOU'RE STUDENT, PLEASE TEACH ME! And did they. I don't want to short change both Chef Lam and Rosie with a brief description on their combined education and experience, you'll have to read my final Fulbright Report, to learn the specifics, if I tried to do it here I'd be writing for the next 2 hours. But I must say, I was treated like royalty during my stay, every nook and cranny was open for me to view, inspect, and especially taste.
I must share one experience with you I thought was special, and close to my heart as a professional cullnarian.
The day before we were to leave for Ha Long Bay, the chef invited me to have dinner with he and his staff when the restaurant closed for the evening. Earlier that day Rosie was gracious enough to motor bike me throughout town on the back of her bike to shop for gift's, imagine this, Rosie, about 5'6, about 90 pounds dripping wet, and me about 6' and roughly 200 pounds on the back of a small motor bike, spooky, and definitely not for the faint of heart. Well after about 2 hours of motoring around the city, we finally ended up at the local farmers market to purchase the evening's fair, all local fresh produce and protein, in this case, freshly processed chicken and duck.
On arrival back to the hotel, Rosie request's that I meet them all at 9:00 pm for dinner, 8:55 I arrive and nothing is going on in the restaurant, but it's bustling in the kitchen, I think, somethings wrong, in a professional kitchen, if service is at 9:00 we should be eating promptly at 9:00, period, no excuses!
Rosie exits the kitchen obviously annoyed and flustered. I asked her if everything is alright, when she tells me that at the last moment she received a contract from the hotel manager for a VIP breakfast for 40 vietnamese businessmen for 7:00 am the following morning, and that they were in the process of doing the prep work for the meal now, and that our dinner date would have to be postponed or cancelled, ( mind you, by this time I'm starving! a major embarrassment in any culture, especially in the culinary field ).
So Rosie, thinking on her feet, the consummate professional, ( I love this woman, switches to plan "B" ), she asks me to wait a moment, and returns with a single conduction flat top, a device that cooks with, well it cooks with no flame!) Do you know how to use this, she ask's, I reply, yes, of course, a smile the size of a major happy face t-shirt emerges! GO TO YOUR ROOM, PLEASE! I'm ordered.
10 minutes after I arrive in my room theirs a knock at my door, it's one of the prep cooks with a large tray of all the fresh ingredients we were supposed to have for dinner, the duck, chicken, fresh vegetables, a pot of PHO' mushroom broth, fried wanton skins, and a complete setup for 1! The cook starts to prepare my meal on my desk, and my knowing how it works in the kitchen, they can't afford to be short handed during prep, I politely stop him and say no! I cook! His response, oh, you chef! he politely and respectfully bows and leaves. What class! I'm overwhelmed with astonishment, joy and left with a new found pride in my profession.
I'm perplexed, filled with excitement, Brian's out with family having dinner, I'm starving, it's now close to 9:30pm, and I have no one to share the moment with as I prepare my meal. Buck! I gotta call Buck! I SKYPE my wife and share the moment with the love of my life, scanning the images of the moment with my MAC, oh technology! ( I'll spare you the corny details, but it was her birthday, DO THE MATH! ) After a personal discussion and loving goodbye, I sit down to one of the most amazing meals I have ever had in my professional life, and I cooked it in my hotel room, alone, go figure! You couldn't have scripted it any better. The following morning at breakfast, I tried to convey my gratitude and respect for what Rosie and Chef Lam had done for me, but they would not have nothing to do with it. The ultimate definition of "Professionalism", and now, They are my friend's!
The beauty of Ha Long Bay