A Weekend Trip To Mai Chau

As I mentioned before, during the student exchange program between my school and the Singaporean school, it was my job to accompany the students on excursions to teach them more about the Vietnamese culture. Most of those excursions took place around Hanoi, but during one weekend, we went out of the city to Mai Chau, a small town set in a valley northwest of Hanoi. It’s small and therefore not as well-known as other destinations in the north, such as Sapa or Ha Giang, but it’s quiet and relaxing, and the landscape is very pretty, if not as grand as those of the mountainous towns.

A typical panorama of Mai Chau

Because the drive took so long (the distance is 150 km, but the road is winding and dangerous, so it took us over 4 hours to get there), we opted to leave on Friday evening, so that we could get some rest and an early start the next day. We stayed at a traditional stilt house, surrounded by verdant rice fields and rolling blue hills. For the Singaporean students, who have lived in a city their whole lives, it was quite impressive.

Our hostel

The view from the village

On Saturday morning, we were picked up by electric cars that took us around town to visit some of the surrounding villages and take in the local life.

Colorful woven cloths for sale along the village road

A newly constructed stilt house

Then, in the afternoon, we rented some bikes to go exploring on our own. We went deeper into the hills, through bamboo forests straight out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and beautiful green fields. It rained a bit, but that didn’t stop us, and we were rewarded with a rainbow later!

We also met a family of cows going to the river for a drink

That night, we were treated to a performance of traditional songs and dances at the hostel, which was fun.

On Sunday morning, I left the students to their own devices (they must complete a short film during the course of the program, so a lot of them went off to shoot) while I walked into town to check out the weekly market. It’s not that different from our normal markets in Hanoi, though you don’t often see live frogs or beetles being sold in Hanoi 😉

These ladies are selling betel leaves and tree barks for paan

After lunch, it was time to head back to Hanoi. On the way, we also stopped at a rock quarry so that some of the students could finish their shooting – the quarry is covered in pure white rocks, so it makes for a very striking background for their film.

Iceland in the winter? Nope, Vietnam in spring!

All in all, it was a fun trip, for me as much as for the students. I’m glad I got the chance to check out a part of Vietnam I haven’t been to and discover some new beauties.

Da Lat, part III: The Houses

Da Lat may be the City of a Thousand Pines and the City of Flowers and the City of Eternal Spring, but what I love most about it is the architecture, which is why I saved it for last. You see, it used to be a resort town back in the French colony period, and the wars didn’t touch much of it, so it is full of French-style villas. Our hotel, for example, used to be the summer house of the Governor General of Indochina back in the day. Even the more currently built houses followed the same style, so the whole town looks like something in the south of France or Switzerland.

da lat houseOur hotel

da lat houseda lat house

da lat house

da lat house

da lat crazy houseda lat crazy house

da lat crazy houseThis is the “Crazy House”, a house built like a growing tree trunk. Total tourist trap though

da lat house

da lat house

da lat house

da lat houseMy dream house. If I ever won the lottery, I think I’d know what to do with the money now…

Da Lat, part II: Floral And Fauna

da lat flower - dogrose

 Da Lat is known as “The City of Eternal Spring” or “The City of Flowers”, so naturally you find flowers everywhere. One of the few touristy things that my family did while in Da Lat was to go to the Flower Park, and it was worth it. Yeah, you get the tour buses and the people who go there solely for the photo ops, but the place is big enough that it doesn’t really bother me. All the locals kept saying that the rainy season has ruined a lot of the flowers, so I can only imagine how amazing the city must look in the spring when all the flowers are in bloom.

da lat flower - fuchsia

da lat flower - bird

da lat flower - rose

da lat flower - wildda lat flower

da lat flower - rose garden

da lat flower - park

da lat flower - rose garden

da lat flower - parkda lat flower - tea rose

da lat flower - rose

da lat flower - hydrangea

da lat flower - tea roses

da lat flower - park

da lat flower - cosmos

Da Lat, part I: The Scenery

So, Da Lat. My dad had a conference there, so my mom, my niece, and I tagged along. It is actually the furthest I’ve ever traveled in Vietnam, and one of the prettiest towns I’ve ever seen. It’s up in the mountains, so the weather is super nice (aside from the humidity), and the landscape is absolutely gorgeous, all lush and green. Even the flowers seem more colorful. I didn’t get to explore as much as I wanted to – it’s to be expected when you’re traveling with a preschooler – but honestly, you don’t have to go out of your way to find beauty in this town. We stayed at this hotel on top of a pine hill overlooking a lake, so just walking down the hill and around the lake is enough. Most days, my mom and I just took my niece walking/biking and wandered around all day before meeting my dad for dinner. We didn’t really do touristy stuff, and I prefer it that way – no rushing off, no jostling with a crowd to see this sight or do that activity; it’s a relaxing vacation in its truest sense.

OK, I’ll just let the photos do the talking now 🙂

da lat scenery

da lat scenery

da lat scenery

da lat scenery

da lat scenery

da lat scenery

da lat scenery

da lat scenery

da lat scenery

da lat scenery

Lunar New Year: The Celebration

The last in the Lunar New Year posts is some pictures of the fireworks (we’re lucky to live close to the National Stadium where the biggest firework display is), and of course, the most important part of any holiday (in my opinion, at least) – the food. I was lucky I remembered to take photos of the food at all before they were all consumed. Sorry they look kinda like stock photos with no people – my family are all camera-shy I’m afraid 🙂

lunar new year - fireworks - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - fireworks - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - fireworks - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - candied fruits - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - feast - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - feast - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - rice cake - by 14 shades of grey

And that’s it! Happy the year of the Snake!

Lunar New Year: The Decorations

The Lunar New Year is officially over, but we still have the rest of the week off. Before getting back to regular posting, I’m going to share with you a few (read: a lot) photos of the New Year. First up is the decorations. There are two things that can’t be absent in a home during Lunar New Year: a branch of peach tree blossoms (in the northern part; in the South people prefer a yellow-flowered tree called Ochna, or “mai” in Vietnamese) and a kumquat tree.  We also decorate with a lot of fresh flowers, both inside the house and outside.

lunar new year - decoration - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - kumquat tree - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - gladioli - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - tulip - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - delphinium - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - peach blossoms - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - roses - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - chrysanthemum - by 14 shades of grey

Of course, that means that the flower market was always crowded the day before New Year’s Eve.

lunar new year - kumquat trees - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - flower market - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - kumquat tree - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - flower market - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - flower market - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - flower market - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - flower market - by 14 shades of grey

lunar new year - flower market - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - camellia - by 14 shades of grey

People sometimes also hang up traditional woodcut paintings and calligraphy prints, but our family have our own tradition: a collage of that year’s zodiac sign – which this year is a snake – that we made from scraps of magazines and colored paper. We started making them when I was in first grade; we have all 12 animals now, so instead of making new ones, we just add to the old paintings pictures of some “events” that happened in our family during the previous year – like my niece’s third birthday, for example. Making these collages on New Year’s Eve is a fun little ritual that we have.

lunar new year - dragon - by 14 shades of greylunar new year - snake - by 14 shades of grey

Lunar New Year: Rice Cakes

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

It’s Lunar New Year this weekend, my first Lunar New Year at home in seven years. Back in LA, I did have some sort of celebration every year, but it could never compare to actually being at home for it – the bustling streets filled with peach blossoms and kumquat trees, the nippy cold (it’s been annoyingly warm these last two weeks, but as luck would have it, it’s going to cool down tomorrow), the smell of incense in the air, the excitement of preparing food and decorating the house… It’s better than Christmas, because with Christmas even when you’re not with your family you can still feel the atmosphere, but with Lunar New Year, you pretty much have to be in the country where it’s widely celebrated (Chinatown doesn’t count) to get the truest sense of the holiday.

Anyway, one of my favorite traditions of the Lunar New Year is the making of rice cakes (bánh chưng). It’s a cake made of sticky rice, mung bean paste, and pork, wrapped in arrowroot leaves and boiled. It may sound simple, but there are a lot of little details involved, from the quality of the ingredients to how you wrap and boil the cakes, to get the perfect rice cakes – everything tender but not mushy, the rice green from the arrowroot leaves, the bean paste bright yellow, the pork cooked through but still pink. Here is how my family makes our rice cakes (it’s not an actual recipe because everything is eyeballed, but I thought it’d be fun to share with you guys):

arrowroot leaves by 14 shades of greyarrowroot leaves by 14 shades of grey

sticky rice by 14 shades of grey

pork by 14 shades of grey

What You Need:
– Three parts sticky rice, one part mung beans, one part fatty pork (we usually do 6 kg of rice; 3 cups of rice per cake)
– Fish sauce, salt, pepper, onions or shallot
– Arrowroot leaves (you need at least four per cake), bamboo strings

1. Soak the rice and the beans up to 12 hours. Let dry, salt them well. Cut the pork into two-inch pieces. Marinate the pork in fish sauce, pepper, and onions.

2. Steam the beans, mash them into a paste (it looks a lot like mash potatoes actually.)

3. Now you’re ready to wrap the cake! There are a lot of ways to wrap a rice cake, but since the cakes have to be a perfect square, most people like to most a mold. My dad usually cuts the arrowroot leaves (carefully washed and dried) and folds them into a box. It’s a little more complicated than using a mold, but it’s easier to wrap once you get the box shape down. Put in a cup of rice, then a layer of bean paste, a couple of pieces of pork, followed by another layer of bean paste and another layer of rice. Make sure that the leaves are touching the rice on the right side, or the cake won’t be green enough. Fold the tops of your “box” down and secure it with bamboo strings.

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of grey

rice cakes by 14 shades of greyIt’s much more difficult to wrap it like this, without a mold or shaping the leaves into a box first

4. You can also wrap the cakes the Southern way – simply lay down the leaves, put the ingredients on top, and roll it all up into a cylinder. But then it’s called bánh tét instead of bánh chưng.

rice cakes by 14 shades of greyrice cakes by 14 shades of grey

5. Put your cakes into a cauldron that’s been lined with more arrowroot leaves, put in enough water to cover them, and boil them. The boiling time depends on how many cakes you have, of course, but with 20 cakes, we always have to boil them for at least 12 hours. The cauldron is important too – cauldrons made out of zinc are best because they keep the leaves green (as you can see below); aluminum will turn them an unappetizing brownish yellow.

rice cakes cauldron by 14 shades of greyrice cakes by 14 shades of grey
No, that’s not some witch’s cauldron

And that’s about it. We’ve only cut one of the mini cakes my dad made for my niece from leftovers, saving the big ones for the Lunar New Year feast on Monday, but as far as we can tell, they all turned out perfectly. OK, I’m off to finish cleaning up, so have a great weekend everybody! I know I will.