From Vietnam with love: it's all about people - Dal Vietnam con amore:la gente soprattutto

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Bagan and Inle Lake

[part 2 of 2 - Blog by Tamara, pictures by Marco]

Bagan is a fascinating place full of Buddhist temples and stupas dating back to the 1000s. There are over a thousand scattered throughout a lovely, wild plain. Some are decorated with interesting wall paintings (like one of the Portuguese traders who are depicted as twice the size of the Burmese, with beards and giant long noses) and ornate sculptural flourishes, and some have gold stupas on top, but most are in an attractively semi-ruined state. You can climb to the top of some of them and get a wonderful view of temples as far as the eye can see. Since they’re spread out over a large swathe of land, the best way to get around to see them is by horse and cart. I guess you could also rent a taxi but that’s less fun. The carts are actually quite comfortably cushioned and oddly the horses don’t really smell bad. The first day we tried to see as much as we could since we weren’t sure if we’d be able to change our flight to have an extra day. None of us (except for Super Maia) were feeling that hot, Marco and I since we were up all night with sick Francesco (Burma Belly or Airport Water), who was conked out in the back of the cart for most of the day.

We managed to change our flight in the end and took it easier the next day, spending the morning at the hotel pool (although the water was too cold to go in) and then visitng some out-of-the-way, less famous temples in the afternoon. That was my favorite part, because the temples we saw were very beautiful, but there were no hordes of souvenir hawkers out front – just the temple caretaker tending his goats. (Some very cute high-jumping baby goats too). It was nice to wander around inside the ancient temple and really get a feel for how it must have been in the past.

Our last stop was Inle Lake. I liked it so much there that I was sorry I thought it necessary to add a day to Bagan and take one away from the lake. It’s not that easy to reach – we flew early in the morning to a town an hour away from the lake, and then it was another 45 minutes by boat to reach our hotel, which was on stilts in the middle of the lake.

(Actually in terms of getting around we took a lot of flights because getting to each of these places would have required a 10 or 12 hour car ride on scary roads. Not that the idea of internal flights in such a messed-up country is not scary).

We had lunch in the main town on the lake and went to the pharmacy for some parasite medicine for Francesco before heading toward our hotel. We found a restaurant that had amazingly authentic Italian food (gnocchi with butter and sage, fresh tagliatelle with ragu) which was a comfort after the greasy curries. It turns out that a woman visiting from Bologna taught them how to cook Italian food and sent them seeds to grow basil and oregano.

So after a satisfying lunch, we went by motorboat across the lake to our hotel. The lake is really lovely, peaceful and serene. The local fishermen have a way of steering their boats with one leg while standing up. It sounds weird but looks very graceful. Before arriving at the hotel we stopped at a pagoda where the monks, in their free time, have taught cats to jump through hoops. That was a big hit for the kids!

We passed through some villages on stilts on the way to the hotel. Even though the people who live there are clearly quite poor, those villages are so beautiful. I think it had to do with the time of day – late afternoon – but somehow the reflection of the warm light on the water and houses, the fresh breeze and the peacefulness of village life gives it all a magical quality. The houses are all made of wood, kind of rickety and crooked but sometimes decorated with flowers and painted shutters. Everybody knows how to row a boat, even small children, who row themselves home from school.

We spent the next day going around visiting the lake villages, stopping at pagodas and workshops where people were making cloth from silk, cotton and lotus fibers and another where young ladies were making cheroots – little cigars seasoned with tamarind, clove, brown sugar and anise. They reminded me of the cigarette girls in Carmen, especially when our boat driver was flirting with the prettiest girl.

We had to leave our beautiful hotel (our bungalow had the best view of the lake) at dawn to get to the airport in time. It was incredibly cold in the boat on the way back – I had on a t-shirt, long underwear shirt, sweater, jeans, wool hat and a blanket wrapped around me but I was STILL cold. However, it was very beautiful –foggy and very quiet, with fishermen peacefully fishing on the lake as the sun rose.

We spent one last night in Yangon at a formerly grand old hotel that was well past its prime but therefore full of character and came back fairly exhausted from so many early morning flights, rushing from one place to another and parasites. Next time I’d go without small children and with more time to really explore, but in the end it was well worth it.

Burma (aka Myanmar) - the Cities

[part 1 of 2 - Blog by Tamara, pictures by Marco]
We arrived in Yangon, which used to be the capital until the evil and paranoid government built an opulent brand new capital in the middle of the jungle. I liked Yangon although for some unexplicable reason it’s less recommended for a visit than Mandalay. The streets are wide and there are some interesting crumbling old colonial buildings and bustling markets in the Indian and Chinese quarters, people drinking tea on the streets, bookstores selling old English-language textbooks…

Although there are a lot of cars (mostly falling apart, circa 1970s or 1980s) and it’s the richest city (except for that capital which tourists aren’t allowed to visit) it’s obvious at once how poor the country is. Everything is shoddy and in a state of disrepair. Except the temples, that is: the main sight, and pride of the country, is a pagoda with an enormous golden stupa. When I say golden, I mean made of gold, with a decorative little umbrella on top dripping with thousands of diamonds and rubies and topped with a 72-carat diamond that glints in the sunset.

In fact, throughout the country there is a stark contrast between the pervasive poverty and the opulence of countless golden, bejewelled temples. It was even more evident in Mandalay. The name Mandalay sounds orientally exotic but the city is something of a let-down. It’s modern, unattractive, noisy and dusty, with less to show off than Yangon. There’s the large complex in the middle that shelters the ancient palace, which offers a peaceful respite and a fun area for the kids to run around. The wooden palace buildings look almost Japanese in the style of their roofs. Marco missed that outing because he was sick with what may have been Burma Belly (as the old British colonists used to call it) or the water that we all foolishly drank from the “water fountain” in the airport in HCM City. Speaking of Burma Belly, the local cuisine is fairly gross: very oily, fatty and not-so-flavorful curries with strange condiments that include salty little fish. But fortunately there is also the cuisine from the Shan state near Thailand that features spicy salads with lime and cilantro. We ate at a Shan restaurant one night and met a table full of Indian businessmen who work in the ruby industry based in the mining areas where tourists are not allowed. (I wonder if it has to do with the working conditions for the miners or just the usual government paranoia). We were stuck in that restaurant for a while because we couldn’t find a ride back to the hotel, so in the meantime Maia helped the kitchen workers shell little quail eggs and the waiters played with Francesco.

More interesting than Mandalay itself are the areas surrounding it. We hired a very kind and knowledgable guide who took us by car (which is much preferable to the open-air little trucks that they use as taxis, which are not that safe and leave you exposed to the terrible black exhaust) on a day-long excursion. We visited the area where people carve Buddha statues out of marble for all of the regional Buddhist countries, visited a workshop where they pounded gold leaf and then went on to a sacred area where Buddha passed through. I think he was supposed to have raised chickens there. In any case, there are low hills on the riverside FULL of golden stupas an
d temples – very beautiful.

A highlight of our stay in Mandalay was going to see the Moustache Brothers’ show. They are three guys who put on a kind of vaudeville/cabaret in the living room of their humble home for an small audience of about 8 people. They used to perform for a Burmese audience but now they do a show in English for the tourists, probably because it’s safer for them. They are famous for bravely making fun of the government. One of them has been in and out of jail three times and is probably only alive because famous international people, including American actors, took up his cause. Besides the daring jokes about the government, the Brother who speaks English told silly jokes about his wife, who is a traditional dancer She came out and did some dances along with other members of the troupe. It wasn’t spectacular, but the intimacy of the setting and the bravery and commitment of the actors made it really special.


Monday, May 03, 2010

In campagna con Co Phuong

Visto che non capita poi tutti i giorni di ricevere un invito da amici vietnamiti, quando Co Phuong, la nostra insegnante di lingua, ci ha detto che avremmo potuto far visita alla fattoria di sua madre in Binh Duong, non lontano da Ho Chi Minh City, non ci abbiamo pensato due volte e, approfittando anche del fine settimana lungo, ci siamo precipitati ad andare a trovarla. Arrivati in zona, ci siamo fermati alla fattoria per un giretto tra le piante e abbiamo colto qualche frutto qui e là.
C'erano pompelmi enormi, durian (il frutto più puzzolente del mondo), mangostani e altre frutta tropicali, tra le quali una che si mangia solo dopo averla cotta e pare sappia di patata.
Dopo cinque minuti e una scalatina sull'albero (beh, sulla parte che poteva reggere il mio modesto peso hehehe) eravamo già nel gazebo a pranzare con la frutta raccolta dai professionisti del mestiere: veramente buona.
Poi abbiamo messo una targa con su scritto "Dopo quattro anni in Vietnam qui Tamara L. Mihalap provò il durian per la prima volta senza subire danni né fisici né mentali. Perché i posteri sappiano e traggano ispirazione da quel gesto coraggioso. My Phuoc, 3 maggio MMX". Ci siamo quindi spostati al podere più piccolo dei due (1o e 2 ettari, rispettivamente), dove c'è un allevamento di polli ora temporaneamente vuoto, una casa che fa da base operativa per la raccolta della frutta e da punto di ristoro e tanti altri filari di piante. Pare che la mamma di Co Phuong, titolare della NT Pomelo, tenga lì dei lavoranti tutto l'anno, provvedendo a far da mangiare per loro e a mandare i loro figli a scuola. I bimbi hanno giocato, Maia era molto stanca (forse per un principio di influenza), Francesco invece sempre attivo.
Mentre mangiavamo pollo e verdure nell'altra stanza i bimbi locali facevano karaoke con le canzoni per piccoli, tenuti d'occhio, tra le altre, dalla sorella di Co Phuong e dalla nonna ottantenne. In piena coerenza con le abitudini vietnamite, dopo mangiato siamo scattati in piedi e ce ne siamo andati, lasciando i nostri ospiti alle loro faccende. A differenza che in altre situazioni in passato, ci siamo sentiti veramente a casa, sarà che ci siamo seduti tutti quanti per terra senza tanti complimenti, sarà per la simpatia e l'opsitalità di Co Phuong e famiglia. Gentilezza per gentilezza, noi abbiamo portato una torta e siamo andati via stracarichi di frutta... chi ne vuole?
Da Binh Duong con amore. Marco

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Holiday in Cambodia

We took the bus to Phnom Penh, which was not as bad as I’d feared but not as good as I’d hoped. In the pictures provided by the travel agency the bus looked quite luxurious, with seats that recline all the way down into beds and a shiny new toilet in the back. It was all lies. But the ride was smooth and it was very interesting to see how things suddenly change once you cross the border. It was like going back in time. Most of Cambodia is very rural, with people working manually in the rice fields, living in wooden huts on stilts with no elecricity. A common means of transportation is a cart driven by oxen. Another thing I noticed immediately is how less populated the country is, which I guess has to do with its sad past.

Perhaps in part because Cambodia is poorer and less crowded, the scenery is much nicer than in Vietnam, which always has the roadside jumble of concrete mess and motorbikes everywhere. Phnom Penh is a pleasant city compared to Ho Chi Minh: less traffic, less chaos, fewer people, wider streets and sidewalks that you can actually walk on, and a nice riverside area. The first day we visited the museum and the royal palace, which made it clear that the cultural influences are Thailand and India. The temples have the same general style as Thai temples and the dominant decorative motif is the apsara, which is a surprisingly buxom nymph with her hands bend back impossiby far. Phnom Penh has two very distinct sides: on one hand, it seems an ex-pat paradise with a lot of great restaurants, wine bars, and shops that sell stylish, cheap clothes in Western sizes. But when you step out of that nice café you are confronted by a beggar with only one leg and arm – another landmine victim. Unlike here, the ex-pats really do live in another world. At least in Vietnam there are enough local people with money to enjoy the good restaurants and shops along with the ex-pats. Of course Cambodia’s past is present everywhere. We went to the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh. It’s hard to find words to describe how overwhelmingly shocking, horrific and sad the place is. One thing that I’ll never forget is glancing down to see that I was not walking over stones in the path – at second glance I saw they were human bones. The bones and scraps of clothing are everywhere. The other thing I will always remember is the place where children were killed. It was so disturbing that I had nightmares that night. In contrast to the recent past, Cambodia’s ancient history is justifiably a great source of national pride. After Phnom Penh we went to Siem Reap, the town where Angkor Wat is. The temples surrounding the town are numerous and diverse, from the massive, well-preserved main temple of Angkor Wat to the falling-down jungle temples half-swallowed by giant vines to the perfectly preserved little boutique temple with intricately carved delicate decorations. I wasn’t sure if it would work out okay to go there with the kids, but it was in fact a great place to take them because you can run around freely in the temples. The minute we got to the one with the towers that have big Buddha heads on top, Francesco let go of my hand and started clambering through the dark passageways like a little Indiana Jones. We visited the temple where part of Lara Croft Tomb Raider was filmed. We got there at sunset as it was closing and the guards were chasing us out…the best way to see it! We visited a few temples further out of town, and I was somewhat alarmed to read a sign saying that the mine fielf in front of one of them was cleared in 2007. Needless to say we kept Francesco strapped into the stroller there. Since we’ve been home I’ve heard from friends about more interesting and beautiful places to see in Cambodia…so I have a feeling we’ll be back.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving a Ho Chi Minh City

Giusto qualche istantanea per condividere il ricordo della cena di Thanksgiving di quest'anno. Tamara ha lavorato sodo, con qualche tocco di classe basato su ricette originali.

L'antipasto era di noci e salatini e datteri arrotolati nella pancetta, con prosecco.

Il tacchino era americano e aveva attorno a sé tutti i piatti di accompagnamento, come salsa di mirtilli (cranberry sauce), ripieno sia da dentro il tacchino che aggiuntivo, patate e purèe di patate, fagiolini, salsa di cottura (gravy) e cipolle in salsa (spero di non aver dimenticato nulla!). Non mancava un po' di riso integrale, per chi era a dieta. I vini erano un Barbera d'Alba italiano e un Pinot Noir neozelandese.

Come vedete ho ceduto il lavoro di taglio del tacchino a Linh, che lo ha svolto splendidamente.
La serata è passata in allegria, tra discussioni in diverse lingue. Tim, Michelle e Thanh sanno il russo e Michelle pronuncia il suo vietnamita in modo invidiabile. Per il resto, ce la siamo cavata con l'inglese.
Dei bimbi non ho foto, se non di Francesco, ma ce n'erano tanti. Per loro al posto delle torte di Thanksgiving, ovvero torta di mele e torta di zucca, c'era il gelato alla cioccolata! L'unica cosa che è mancata era un po' di vino dolce italiano: non lo importa ancora nessuno... mannaggina.
Dal Vietnam con amore. Tamara, Marco & bimbi.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Trapianti in ambiente controllato

Chi può mai dire se sia certo il risultato di un trapianto? Dipende da tanti fattori, tra i primi l'ambiente nel quale si va a operare.
Se oggetto del trapianto è la tradizione di Halloween, quando i bimbi indossano costumi, maschere e cappelli e vanno a spaventare i vicini al grido di trick or treat!, pretendendo caramelle per risparmiar loro le maniere forti, e l’ambiente è il Vietnam, paese tropicale e con una cultura aliena da spaventi, urli e altre emozioni forti, il successo dell’operazione non è garantito in partenza.
Eppure... eppure, grazie al sapiente lavorìo delle mamme del nostro compound, il trapianto è riuscito, eccome! La comunità dove abitiamo, il villaggio Lan Anh, è un ambiente controllato, dove alcuni fattori socio-economico-culturali (è vero) sono maggiormente omogenei e più facilmente manipolabili, ma nonostante ciò chi ha la tradizione di Halloween a cuore non ha potuto trattenersi dall’esprimere la propria soddisfazione per la riuscita dell’esperimento.
Le foto lo dimostrano: dalle domestiche vietnamite che distribuiscono dolciumi alle fatine in tacchi alti, dai bimbi mascherati da Tarzan, dinosauro, ballerina o mostro nefando ai genitori in maglia calcistica e maschera sardonica, tutti ci siamo divertiti un bel po’!
E per finire questo sabato 30 ottobre 2009, tutti a casa di Daniel e Juliette a mangiare ciò che gli altri avevano portato... non ho le foto, ma giuro che la pasta con lychee, fragole, fagioli e mango era da urlo (di dolore!).
Per fortuna noi abbiamo sfornato una bella zuppiera piena di farfalle chi vruoccole arriminate e l’urlo si è trasformato in un... sorriso.
Dal Vietnam con amore (e terrore)! M.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Auguri a Giovanni e Diu!!!

E' stata un'"ammazzata" ma ci siamo divertiti e abbiamo finalmente visto - io c'ero già stato per lavoro, ma Tamara no - la capitale del Delta del Mekong, ovvero Can Tho. Cos'abbiamo fatto? Siamo andati, con amici e conoscenti italiani sia residenti a Hochiminh City sia venuti per l'occasione, al matrimonio di Giovanni Ronchi e Diu, celebrato appunto nella cittadina del Vietnam meridionale. Perché un'"ammazzata"? Perché tra viaggio, in un autobus stretto stretto, nel traffico tipico di qua, e l'attesa per il traghetto proprio alle porte di Can Tho, alla fin fine ci sono volute 6 ore e mezzo per andare e altrettante per tornare e coprire una distanza di circa 170 chilometri in ciascun senso. TIV, This is Vietnam!

Il matrimonio è stato molto simpatico, si mangiava benissimo e l'unico problema, se si può chiamare tale, è stato il volume della musica, tanto alto da far fuggire qualcuno fuori sul terrazzo a riprendersi... Con Tamara abbiamo mancato la cerimonia a casa perché troppo stanchi, sembra sia stata divertente, con Giovanni e tutti gli amici in ao dai, l'abito tradizionale, che portavano i doni di rito, fiori, frutta e altro cibo, a casa della sposa, per poi celebrare insieme una cerimonia che speriamo prima o poi di vedere.

Al rinfresco siamo arrivati abbastanza in orario, c'erano almeno 15o persone, subito è cominciato lo spettacolo danzante, poi sono saliti sul palco gli annunciatori e hanno presentato le famiglie e gli sposi, i quali hanno fatto la loro parte di scena prima pronunciando un breve discorso e bevendo un sorso di un liquido in bottiglia simil-champagne ma non meglio identificato, pare, poi versando tale liquido in una torre di bicchieri pieni di ghiaccio secco, producendo una fumata bianca e infine tagliando la torta che stavolta, a differenza del solito, era vera.

Mentre mangiavamo un menù di sei portate, fatto con ingredienti veramente di prima qualità, alcuni cantanti volontari (parenti e amici, pare) ci hanno intrattenuto accompagnati dal vivo da un tastierista, con risultati più o meno positivi e con buona pace dei compact discs che avevo portato in caso di necessità. S'è bevuta birra con grandi blocchi di ghiaccio dentro, come d'uso. Finita la festa abbiamo avuto un grazioso ombrellino fatto di fili di lana intrecciati e fil di ferro con attaccata una bomboniera con confetti italiani. Abbiamo lasciato che i boys andassero a continuare la serata e ci siamo ritirati dopo un bicchiere della staffa al vicino Hotel Victoria.

Last but not least, gli sposi erano entrambi belli e felici e si sono intrattenuti cordialmente con noi ospiti... per fortuna qualche minuto in più della magra media vietnamita :-) . Congratulazioni e complimenti per la buona riuscita della cerimonia agli sposi e tanti auguri di lunga e felice vita insieme!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Miranda, Adriano e Martina con noi a Ho Chi Minh City

Eccoli qua, i nostri intrepidi viaggiatori, Miranda, Adriano e Martina. Mentre la crisi in Italia impazza loro cosa fanno? Se ne vanno a spasso per il Vietnam, da nord a sud senza dimenticare il centro. Per qualche giorno sono stati da noi e abbiamo esplorato, insieme ai bimbi, la cucina vietnamita e quella... marchigiana! E' stato interessante vedere il paese con gli occhi di chi ci viene per la prima volta e ascoltare i racconti dei viaggi e delle persone incontrate in due settimane di girovagare. Inoltre la loro venuta è stata provvidenziale per le nostre... caffettiere moka, a corto di guarnizioni, articolo che potrebbe sembrare banale ma che si è rivelato introvabile qui in Vietnam, e anche per un certo ingrediente segreto di una pastasciutta che ci piace fare e che stava pericolosamente esaurendosi in dispensa. Grazie a tutti e tre della visita e arrivederci presto! Dal Vietnam con amore. Marco