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Friday, December 3, 2010

Mutton at Mumtaz

Mumtaz is one of the most respected Indian restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City. It is also popular -- so popular, in fact, that Trip Advisor ranks Mumtaz number five out of its 267 rated restaurants in the city. At meal times the place is jammed with Indians doing business deals over the table, foreign tourists taking a clue from their Lonely Planet guidebooks, and curious locals. The restaurant is located on Saigon's "golden mile", Đưòng Bùi Viện (Bui Vien Street), in the heart of the backpacker district. It is in fact at the "Indian end" of Bui Vien Street, and there is another classic subcontinental restaurant Akbar Ali right across the road. Whereas Akbar Ali is cozy and carefree, Mumtaz seems more like a serious business and possibly even a chain in the making (there is another establishment on the Hàn River at Đà Nẵng). Whereas Ali Akbar is obviously a family affair, Mumtaz bustles with corporate efficiency. Staff wear shirts adorned with the Mumtaz name. They are happy to make recommendations from the menu, which is as authentic and extensive as an Indian restaurant menu should be... (For the complete guide to Mumtaz and other Indian restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City, click here!)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Banh Mi Pork Overdose!

As residents of southern California would know, Bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches) come packed with many different kinds of filling. They even do them with fish, as my girlfriend Nga informed me today. She was in bed in our holdout at the City Star Hotel near the Cultural Park, and had asked me to go out and buy a few kebabs at a place I had found round the corner earlier in the year, on my previous tour of duty. On the way out the door I remembered that the kebab stand opened in the evening, and it was now only lunchtime (late lunchtime). Time for a rethink: she suggested I go pick up some Bánh mì instead. "But don't get any with fish in them," she said. That was strange, I couldn't imagine Bánh mì with fish (although I have since discovered that they have them in San Francisco!) I guess Nga wasn't keen on trusting fish served on the street, she is kind of skeptical of street food in general (she reckons she can cook better.) On top of that, she says street food can make you sick. Having observed the kebab stand's meat pole standing idle out in the midday sun yesterday, hours before the stand was due to open, I can see what she means. Anyway, I went out and found a Bánh mì woman at work near Star City, opposite the Cultural Park, and ordered two sandwiches. Communicating through gestures, the Bánh mì woman asked me if I wanted the pork, and I nodded in agreement. As it turns out, pork was about all I got served. Salty, gristly, but scrumptious pork. There were a few bits of cucumber and carrots and so forth thrown into the sandwich, but it was mostly pork. The pork here came delivered either cool and warm, in forms ranging from liver pate to rolls of processed ham wrapped in red plastic, to meat sliced straight from the roasted pig, skin and crackling dripping with juice. I got the hot, roasted stuff, for two. The lady doused each Bánh mì with a salt shaker before wrapping them in newspaper and dropping them into a plastic bag. When I ripped into my roll back in the room with Nga, all that gristle and salt crunched in my mouth like sand. It might have been pork overdose heaven for me, but Nga was unimpressed.

Pork gets loaded into my baguette, in Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam, 2010)

"Why isn't the bread warm?" she sniveled. As you can see from the photo above, the loaves in the stand do indeed look kind of wilted. And having stale bread is the worst offence when it comes to street Bánh mì in Ho Chi Minh City, or anywhere in the world. "This isn't fresh, and it is probably yesterday's bread," Nga declared. Which condemned it to instant fail, in her mind at least. As much of a fail as if it had contained fish! But I still enjoyed it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Uniqlo, and the Japanese Rock Star Look (Revisited)

I have a colleague, a cheerfully gay American, who claims that Uniqlo is the only brand he wears. Like most gay men he is a fastidious dresser, and likes the fact you can throw together a readymade wardrobe at Uniqlo for just a few thousand Yen (this being Japan where we both reside). I don't have the kind of money he has, but my own wardrobe is about 35 per cent to 45 per cent Uniqlo derived these days, and has been ever since I discovered two たんぽぽ (Dandelion) recycled thrift stores across the river in Chiba. Most of the clothes they sell at たんぽぽ are, in fact, slightly compromised Uniqlo garments (Japanese, being Japanese, will throw out clothes if they get a coffee stain.) My wardrobe is now basically second derivative Uniqlo, with faint coffee stains or barely noticeable flaws. The only problem is, many of these items are kind of small and don't fit (me being a Caucasian and all.) Perhaps if I got my social media game happening, I might be able to buy the real thing, with the proper range of sizes to try on.

As part of their Lucky Counter campaign in the United Kingdom, shoppers can score a discount every time they mention a particular Uniqlo product on Twitter. The more you tweet about the item, the lower the price drops (down to a threshold of about 60 per cent off, according to one report I read.) Dang, if I lived in London I'd be taking advantage of that deal! The less I have to do with real cash, and the more I can make use of its derivatives, the happier I will be! Social media influence is the ultimate currency, and one day I hope to be trading in it, investing in it, paying it forward! Why don't they have these kind of campaigns in Japan? Until they arrive, I will have to keep going to たんぽぽ, or buy knock-off shit in Vietnam. They don't have Uniqlo down there yet, but it is probably just a matter of time. As The Sun Daily recently recorded: "Uniqlo, Japan’s number one fashion brand and world leader in casual wear, will open its first store in Malaysia in November in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur." 

These clothes are not quite Uniqlo, but offer a glimpse of how the Uniqlo look could be!
The next time I go to Iceland, I might wear this ensemble, which is about 35 per cent Uniqlo-derived (Japan, 2010)
Not content with being a household name in Japan, Uniqlo is on its way to conquer the world. Like Mugi, like Best Denki Uniqlo champions and epitomizes a "Japanese approach" to retail. Mass produced, but paradoxically unique... that is the Japanese approach! High quality, but (relatively) cheap, with a strong customer service ethos. That's Japanese retail in a nutshell, and it might well prove to be a major export success story for the nation. Uniqlo Singapore is the brand's fourth store in Asia, following the brand's success in China, Hong Kong and South Korea. They opened a store in Taiwan this month, and are big in the United States. One day Uniqlo might even reach the sloppily dressed shores of Australia, my native land, where a pair of jeans might cost you a few hundred dollars, if the shop assistant feels interested in serving you. I am sure it is going to cause havoc when it arrives down there. They sure need some shaking up! 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Churches of Ho Chi Minh City

Even if you are not Christian or religious, the churches of Ho Chi Minh City offer a fascinating glimpse into the cultural life of the people... and its turbulent recent history.

According to Saigonist, one in 10 Vietnamese are Christian (predominantly Catholic).

They are a legacy of French colonialism, but the way they practice their faith is quite different from how things are done in Europe, or the West.

In this pictorial guide, I want to introduce to some of the churches that I have stumbled upon, in my rambles around Ho Chi Minh City.

I know what you must be thinking: SAIGON DOESN'T SEEM THE KIND OF PLACE YOU SHOULD WALK AROUND. The traffic is chaotic and pedestrians figure rather low on the food chain of vehicles. Red lights don't necessarily mean "stop", and footpaths can suddenly be invaded by those on wheels.

I have seen a couple of accidents already in my brief time here. This is a city where you need to have eyes in the back of your head.

That said, it is by walking the streets that you begin to appreciate the true nature of this place. Saigon is a city in which things that are normally kept well inside, such as furniture showrooms, spill out on to the pavements, literally blocking your path. There are fascinating discoveries around every corner, ranging from the sacred, to the profane. It is a hard slog, but it is worth it... (For my full pictorial guide to the churches of Ho Chi Minh City, click here.)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Other Kampuchea

It is not too often that you discover a new country in this CROWDED OLD WORLD, especially one right beneath your nose. It is not often you learn of a new struggle in a mediascape littered with lost causes, but learn of one I have done, these past few days. Who would have thought that Ho Chi Minh City, my current home away from home away from home, is actually a new metropolis, a colony in fact, built on stolen land? Not any kind of stolen land, mind you, but the OLDEST LAND IN SOUTHEAST ASIA, according to those that know: KAMPUCHEA KROM. Once part of the Kampuchean Empire, Kampuchea Krom (henceforth called Khmer Krom) was conquered by the Nguyễn lords who marauded southwards in the late 18th Century, much at the same time that the British blustered their way into Australia. Saigon as we know it is not so much older than Sydney, which was also built on stolen land, much further to the south. Well, the Khmers lost their land, but the land did not lose its Khmers... they are still there today, speaking their own language, and cooking their own foods. I haven't seen them myself, but I am told they are there. Recipes for their meals can be seen online, at sites such as this one. They sing songs, reedy and melancholic, the womens' voices trilling. They have their own heroes, tragic and patriotic. Oknha Son Kuy seems to be the greatest hero of them all: governor of Trapeang province, he was beheaded by the Vietnamese in 1821.

Buddhist monks of Khmer Krom.
In a country already divvied up into provinces and districts, crowded into communes, sewn into strategic hamlets, it is refreshing to find alternative maps, alternative names, written in a strange, flowery script. To the Khmer Krom, Ho Chi Minh City is called Prey Nokor (ព្រៃនគរ ). Vũng Tàu is known as O-Kab (អូកាប់), while Phú Quốc is called Koh Trol. Reunificaton Hall was actually given a Cambodian name when it was built (the Norodom Palace (វិមាននរោត្តម)). Óc Eo (អូរកែវ), the former capital of the ancient state of Funan, is located in Khmer Krom. If the southern Khmers ever regain their independence, perhaps Óc Eo might be born again.

Here are some websites and weblogs on the Khmer Krom cause, and the land that they inhabit:

Khmer Krom News
Khmer Krom NGO
Phu Quoc Island

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fouling the Nest

During my Australian life (realUniverse#1990s) I was employed as a journalist for Cumberland Newspapers and worked at many of their titles in Sydney and on the NSW Central Coast. One of my gigs was at the North Shore Times where, as well as being general office shitkicker, I served as the resident restaurant reviewer. I didn't understand why all of my colleagues thought it was a shit job, I myself assumed it would be something of a prized position, and definitely a lurk... anyway, as soon as I lobbed up at their office in Chatswood, one of the first things I got asked was: "Can you do the restaurant reviews?" Some female reporter there had been doing it but she was more than happy to let me take over if I didn't mind, and anyway she was going to be far too busy from now on with her new brief (which was writing about real estate, or something like that). Being the new guy, I was kind of obligated to oblige, and help her out. Being the new guy, I was expected to take on the tasks that others didn't want; I had to be a shitkicker, at least temporarily. I shifted in my seat, smiled, said, "Yes, of course I can!" and then the job was mine, just like that. Possibly the other journalists there regarded it as a waste of time, not "serious" enough for them, or an impediment to their career... but while the guy I sat next might have dreamed of being a Rugby League reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald, I was after nothing more than a free feed! And nothing is better than getting free food, than being paid to eat it! Of course, nothing is really free in this world, and I had to work for those meals, I had to fawn and flatter for them, and write nice things in print. I had to spend the odd evening in a drafty restaurant somewhere with the staff photographer mopping up curry with naan and making small talk, when I could have been at home. Naturally, I wasn't allowed to write anything negative should the food disappoint because the restaurants were also advertisers, and advertising was the name of the game at Cumberland Newspapers, it was their bread and butter you might say. In any case, even if the food was good, and it usually was, the restaurant review system didn't seem like a fair way to go: as the establishment in question always knew I was coming, they naturally laid on a good spread, waiters buzzing around like moons and all the rest. Had I visited incognito, guerrilla-style, it might have been a different story, a more honest story! That's why websites like urbanspoon are so much more honest, and so much more candid... they're democratic, and tell it how it is. I wasn't allowed to do that in my reviews (or in any of my "harder" stories, to tell you the truth.) And maybe that's why, in their wisdom, my fellow journalists at The Times hated writing the reviews... they knew it was just glorified copywriting. They had places to go, and bigger fishes to fry. They were aiming for the top, which left me the bottom to colonize.

The United Colors of Crows Nest, near North Sydney (Australia, 2011)
Journalistic ethics aside, I was on a roll at the North Shore Times, and as well as scoring lunches at French and Swiss bistros that I would not ordinarily be able to afford, I scoffed Korean bulgogi, bowls of pasta, gourmet hamburgers, and plenty of good Chinese. It was mighty convenient that I was living a 10 minute walk away, across the highway from the Royal North Shore Hospital, just past St Leonard's railway station near Crows Nest. I had a Hong Kong girlfriend and a leafy backyard... what could be better than that? Okay, my Trekkie flatmates were kind of anal, and they had a psycho cat to boot (and boot it I did, from time to time, when they weren't watching!) I split up with my Hong Kong girlfriend after just a month or two together, and the sea monkeys she gave me when we started out together died, dissolving into a milky cloud. But anyway, I had Crows Nest, just a matter of blocks away! Back then, before I had moved to Japan, I used to think Crows Nest was kind of sophisticated, exotic even, but not really that edgy. There were gorgeous multicultural treats in easy walking range, Italian pizzerias run by guys with names like Vince, or Dino (or Pino), and Thai takeouts with humorous/sarcastic names. In due course, I reviewed many of these establishments for the North Shore Times. I was totally spoiled for choice: North Indian, Japanese, Korean, there was even a Mongolian place in which I lunched with the Cumberland crew (I had to pay for this one). When I was off-duty, there were two bottleshops in roaming range, and for harder fare, my mate Jimmy (of Pablo Velasquez Shoeboarding fame) lived up the road, on Ernest Street. Whatever you needed, he could supply. The majesty of Sydney Harbour was also just a short stroll away, anyway really... whichever way you headed, you were destined to run into it. The water seems to be all around you, in this part of the world.

Last month I jetted down to Australia on Vietnam Airlines, and had the opportunity to revisit some of my roots. Two days after Christmas, a somewhat overcast day, I met up with Chris Mae, my old partner in crime from Japan, and his brother Garnet, the renegade film-maker, and cruised around the lower North Shore for a while, looking for mischief. Chris had just got a new skateboard for Christmas, and he was very pleased with himself.

After a nice round of lawn bowls we went over to Cremorne to eat some Mickey D's, and then Garnet suggested we drop in to have a chat with Jimmy, who still lived in his original crib, on Ernest. Back in the day Jimmy's was the place to hang, and if you were lucky he might get out his projector and show you Bladerunner on the big screen, or something from the Star Wars saga. Unfortunately Jimmy was out, but he told us to hang tight, and wait an hour or two. We decided to go for a walk, and look for some good grub. This was Crows Nest, after all: there ought to be plenty of fine dining selections at hand! 

Mumu, a grill joint, on Alexander Street, Crows Nest (Australia, 2009)
So, we went for a walk, looking for something promising. The sun came out, birds were flapping around, and all was well with the world. We walked up the road, to Alexander Street. Church was in session, and all the faithful were dressed up for the occasion. Looking around, it seemed like every second restaurant was a grill joint. MUMU (70 Alexander Street) was a case in point, and promised "grill,  tapas and bar"... who could imagine a better combination? According to my beloved North Shore Times, this place has the largest al fresco dining space in Crows Nest. It might have been nice, but Garnet is a vegetarian, so it wasn't really appropriate. Damn!

Grill'd, another grill joint, on Willoughby Road, Crows Nest (Australia, 2009)
We moved on, to Willoughby Road, to pass another grill joint, Grill'd (49 Willoughby Road). Nobody out to eat yet; perhaps it was too early. According to Menufest: "The Grill'd concept was born when Simon Crowe, the company founder, decided to do something about the lack of a decent, healthy hamburger in the Australian market." Lamb, chicken, beef and vegie burgers are on the menu here, which should have pleased Garnet. But, for some reason, he wasn't going for it. We walked on, passing Wrapido, and a Commonwealth Bank branch. Then we stumbled upon a place which is apparently renowned in this part of town: Pino's Pizzeria. We all agreed we could do with a good pizza, so we pulled up a seat outside.

Garnet Mae at the Pinos Pizzeria in Crows Nest -- the one that gave me Bombay Belly!
Garnet Mae prepares to dine, at Pino's Pizzeria (Australia, 2009)
Postscript: who would have thought that I would go all the way to Australia to get a dose of the runs? I have been to Vietnam six times in the last three years and even though I often dine on the streets there, I hardly ever get an upset stomach... nothing too bad anyway, maybe an overdose of fibre. I have lived in Japan for nine years and eaten raw chicken, raw horse and canned whale meat and felt none the worse for wear, accrued bad karma notwithstanding. It took returning to my native Australia to get a really intense case of diarrhea, one that lasted for nearly a week, and followed me all the way to my love nest in Ho Chi Minh City... and I believe it all started at Pino's Pizzeria. Mind you they were good pizzas that we quoffed there, me and the Mae brothers and their two halfJapanese descendents... mine were heavy on the anchovies. It was probably the anchovies that unsettled me. If I had been like Garnet and limited myself to the Vegetariana (artichokes, mushroom, onion, olives and capsicum) I would probably have been okay. Probably. Anyway, at least I have a chance to provide a really honest Sydney restaurant review, after faking it for so long. Incidentally, urbanspoon rank Pino's as one of the top restaurants in Crows Nest. Don't listen to my sad gripe; the majority can't be wrong!

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