Friday, July 27, 2007

I'm back more excuses

I have been home now for almost three weeks. The trip to Viet Nam was an incredible experience. From the moment we landed in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), greeted by our hosts, the nuns and students of Tinh That Buu Tich, to the final two days in Hong Kong - each day was filled with new sights, tastes, experiences! I had my ups and downs, from coming down with a respiratory bug (no, not SARS) to missing my family, but being on the other side of the whole thing which now feels like a dream, I can say whole-heartedly, IT WAS WORTH EVERY MOMENT!
I am completely smitten with Viet Nam - the people I met were warm, kind, generous and very helpful. The land is beautiful with lush country-side, beautiful beaches, captivating historical sites, wide, serene rivers and mist covered mountains. The two large cities that I did visit were a bit overwhelming (Saigon and Hanoi); traffic, noise, pollution were the big three challenges I had a hard time accepting. Unlike Western ways where we pretty much follow the rules of the road, it seems there, rules are (choose one): not recognizable to this Canadian, non-existent or mere suggestions. I would not drive in Viet Nam - there are many excellent drivers (actually everyone who was driving in that mayhem must have been a good driver in my opinion) that one can hire (cycle, motorbike, bus or taxi).
Our first week, as I mentioned was spent in the peace and quiet of Tinh That Buu Tich Monastery. Our hosts were Su Co Tam Khong and Su Co Tam Phat, the two nuns who run the facility for several girls. Tinh That Buu Tich is a Buddhist monastery, hence many of the students are novice nuns (but not all). Under the kind, yet firm parentage of the two Su Co's, the girls study, chant (3 times a day), garden, do laundry, make incense and basically take care of the buildings, animals and each other. While doing all of this, they still manage to be young girls, giggling, fooling around and enjoying their days. It was a joy to be amongst them and I miss them, now sitting here thinking about it.
As is customary in a Buddhist monastery, all food was vegetarian (vegan). We were (as guests) treated to three delicious, fresh meals each day. A young nun, Hue Duc, was the main cook. How, at 25 years of age, this young lady came to be such a good cook, I can only imagine. We did not eat what we typically call breakfast, lunch and dinner but rather at each of the 3 meals (morning, noon and evening), Hue Duc and a helper or two, would bring to the retreat house, a soup, rice or noodles and several assorted dishes of vegetables or tofu (there were 4 of us: Sister Tinh Quang, the Johnstones and myself), with some fruit to finish the meal.
Somehow, she managed to create an endless variety of new tastes for the duration of our visit (about 1 week). (Had I been in her shoes, I would have been stressed to the max trying to come up with all these menus!) One morning, Barbara and I, asked if we could watch her in the kitchen and learn some tips. The "kitchen" was a spotless, tiled room with a glass-doored food locker, one small table to hold the rice cooker and fruit, a wood pile and the "stove". This stove was a closed in counter which had three openings on which a large wok would sit. Underneath, was the fire box. So depending on which wok was being used, a small fire was lit under that wok. To light the second burner (so to speak) Hue Duc would pull out one of the burning sticks and move it to the next fire box. I did not see any refrigeration. (Pictures of some of Hue Duc's dishes and herself are included in this entry).
I am hoping that Hue Duc will be able to send me some of her recipes or at least instructions on how to prepare some of her dishes. I found that some of the students did understand English (especially to read) but did not have too much opportunity to practice speaking it. So, hopefully, the task of writing in English some recipes will not be to daunting for her. (Once I receive these I will post them again with pictures on this blog.)
From Tinh That Buu Tich, my companions and I joined up with an Intrepid tour group, facilitated by a competent young Vietnamese man, Toa Chu. Intrepid is an Australian tourist company, which organizes, with the assistance of local peoples, travels throughout Asia. We chose an "Original" package which took us from Saigon up the coast to Hanoi. During our ten days, as a group of twelve (maximum number per group), we traveled by plane, overnight train, bus, motorcycle, cyclo (think reverse 'rickshaw' bicycle) and overnight boat. Despite our reservations about all kinds of imagined dangers (rats on the boat, head lice from the bed linen on the train), we emerged unscathed - and dam proud of ourselves! (How many other 50-something women had traveled from Hue to Hanoi by train in a sleeper car with three other people, or floated in dreamy Halong Bay on a junk...disappointingly I did not see the anticipated rats.)
Once in Hanoi, our trip was coming to a close. We had our last group dinner and parted ways. Of the twelve of us, three quarters were from Australia - this was my first time meeting and spending time with people from Australia. They were wonderful folk and lots of fun.
Departing Hanoi, we landed in Hong Kong. What a wonder that city is. I realize this was only a teaser (two days) but a mighty impression it did make on all three of us. (Very 'civilized' traffic by the way, but lots of it!) I hope very much to go back to Hong Kong for a longer stay but with my hubbie next time. Let the planning begin.
Until next time, keep posted for more pics and recipes from the land of incense and blossoms!