Seeking Out Street Food

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I’m dedicating this entire blog post to food. No explanation needed. While this is the first time I have ever been outside of the United States, I am fully aware that the identity of a place is so deeply rooted in food and cooking. Vietnam is no exception to this rule.

The food I have eaten during my semester abroad has not disappointed. I have been constantly full, forcing myself to eat more of the delicious cuisine. Even as I traveled from the South to the North, the changes in food and cooking were noticeable.

Prior to coming to Vietnam, I had never tried Vietnamese food before. People would laugh and tell me that I should have tested it out to make sure I could manage to eat it for the next four months but I proved ’em wrong! No testing was necessary. My first real experience with Vietnamese food was with my homestay family. My host mother, even though she worked a full time job, made time to cook the most amazing dinners ever. And while the month went on, I was able to try different types of traditional dishes each night, as well as improve on my chopstick abilities (which are quite good now). Some of my favorite meals that I have had were at her dinner table.

Once out of the homestay, meals were up to me which put a lot of pressure on making sure that I tried a variety of food. Now I do eat sushi probably two (maybe four times) a week, and my favorite pizza place is a five minute walk from my air bnb, my friends and I force ourselves to go out and explore the street food culture that this country has to offer.

Social media has helped out search for the best street food. There is an Instagram account (Foody Hanoi & Foody Saigon) that will post photos, addresses, prices, and hours of operation for every type of street food imaginable. It has become a game of picking which photo to get to see in real life.

Please admire some photos of my favorite dishes. In four months when this food is not walking distance from my house anymore, I will look back at these photos and shed a tear.

1. Banh mì: bread, cucumber, cilantro, pate, pickled onions and carrots, pork. These would be super common in the morning for breakfast.

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2. BEST AND MOST BEAUTIFUL EGG DISH I’VE EVER CONSUMED: Not lying though I went here for breakfast three days in a row. You would be served a hot skillet with fried eggs, ham pork, green onion, and tofu. It came with a baguette to make your own egg sandwich. Add some chili sauce and you have a 10/10 meal.

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3. Fried Chicken & Tra Da: This fried chicken place was located in the market behind our school and I can confidently say it was the best fried chicken I have ever eaten. Plus the iced tea was a necessity. I’m pretty sure I drank so much of it during my semester abroad my body is now 80% tra da.

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4. Phong Nha Feast: A lot is happening in this photo so let me fill you in. Here we have three different colored sticky rice types. Then a large selection of meat that you then wrap in the rice paper with lettuce, omelette pieces, cucumber, and rice noodles, dipping in the fish sauce when wrapped and ready to consume.

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5. xôi bắp: Sticky rice with corn, sprinkled with coconut, peanuts, mungbean paste, and a little sugar. I loved this dish so much it became a running joke about how much I loved xôi bắp.

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6. Kem Xoi: Yup, ice-cream on top of sticky rice. Add some shredded coconut and you have the best snack to beat the Vietnam heat.

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7. Bun Cha: Below you can see the “Obama Combo” at the famous Bun Cha place where Anthony Bourdain took Barack Obama when he visited Vietnam. The combo comes with the noodle dish, a seafood spring roll, and a beer.

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8. Banh Mi Nuong Muoi: Obsessed with this snack. It is bread covered in a fish sauce glaze and grilled over a charcoal grill. Then it is cut up into slivers and covered with chili sauce, mayo, green onions, and pork floss. Plus the vendor who sells this is a father and his ten year old son.

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9. Banh Da Tron: Noodles, fish, tofu, green onions, chili, and lime in a delicious broth. My host mom always joked that on a super hot day you should eat super hot noodles to cool you down. While it still doesn’t make much sense to me, I follow her instructions.

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10. Elephant Fish: Although it looks a little daunting, eating this fish was so fun. You pull apart the fish with chopsticks and put it on rice paper with lettuce, vegetables, and rice noodles, making your own spring rolls.

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11. Pho: You can’t visit Vietnam without trying the tradition noodle dish.

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12. Fresh Spring Rolls: Shrimp, pork, cilantro, lettuce, rice noodles all wrapped in rice paper. Dip this in peanut sauce or fish sauce and you won’t be disappointed.

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And while Vietnamese food has made it to the top of my favorite foods list, I can’t say I ate it every day. I indulged in pizza, occasional McDonalds, salads, sandwiches, and a whole lot of sushi.

Vietnam stole my heart for many reasons, but the food will forever be missed.

See you in 16 days America!

EKH

 

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A Closing Hymn

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Notre Dame Cathedral in District One, Saigon

I have found such peace in my Sunday morning routines. I “sleep in,” which in this country means I wake up at 7:30 am rather than my usual 6:00 am wake up call. After breakfast with my homestay family, I hop on a motorbike and head to the Notre Dame Cathedral in District One for mass in English. My host family is Buddhist but has made sure that I have access to mass every Sunday morning. The first weekend with them, my older host brother drove me around to visit several churches I could go to. They don’t come with me but as soon as I come back home they are patiently waiting for me to tell them about the service.

This Sunday morning, I woke up feeling a little lonely. During the Summer, my family sits in our normal pew at our hometown parish. At my college, I have my huge church network and am never able to attend mass without knowing at least twenty people. It is a community that has helped me be able to grow in my faith. However, in Vietnam it has been a faith community of two beings: me and God.

As I sat in a pew by myself but surrounded by local people and tourists from all over the world. I was immediately at peace, as hundreds of voices begin worshiping together. I remembered that no matter if it is a congregation in Ho Chi Minh City, Loudonville NY, or Marlborough CT, I am in the presence of brothers and sisters who are all there to do what I am there to do.

Maybe it is because I’m in Asia so everything I experience is cool and exciting, but mass here is always perfect. I leave feeling ready to take on the week of new experiences, whatever this study abroad experience throws at me. Every week, whatever the mass is about usually can relate to my life at the time, perfectly. You know those moments where you just want to shout to God, “Okay, I get it. I hear you loud and clear.” Where He is speaking so clearly to you directly and there’s no way to pretend you aren’t hearing it. His timing is perfect and He tells me exactly what I need to hear. As the choir started singing the closing hymn, the words on the television screen spoke so deeply to my 20 year old soul.

“There’s a longing in our hearts for love we only find in you, our God.”

So much of my study abroad experience is about learning about independence. I needed an adventure that would allow me to find myself, connecting with me after loosing touch of that over the past two years. The concept of this closing hymnal lyric is something that I am constantly trying to reflect on, wrapping my mind around the greatness and power that this line demonstrates.

My experience in Vietnam has taught me that I am so much more than who I hang out with, what my relationship status is, and what my weekend social obligations are. I used to put too much stress on finding love in places and people that left me feeling more empty.

At the youngest age my parents taught me that God loves me and I love God. It was a simple equation that I could repeat back, but never took time to grasp the concept. I think it is so difficult to understand because it is an overwhelming concept and idea of love. While away from my family & friends, I have felt the unconditional love of the Father in the strength that he gives me each day. It is beautiful to discover what real love feels like, looks like, and exemplifies. If you ever need a reminder, just look at the cross!

Last year I was not able to comprehend this idea of love. I thought I knew what it was and what it would look like. To be honest, I still don’t always know what real, authentic love looks like. However, Vietnam and my time here has allowed me to prayer and discern unconditional love in a different level. We want a love that we can only receive from God the Father and when you recognize that, it is a beautiful thing. I don’t think I am there yet. There are days where I think I have a hold on the idea but there are other days where I find myself settling for a love less than God wants for us.

I surely don’t have this down but since arriving in Vietnam February 1st, I set goals to better understand God’s love and how I find God’s love in others. I thought it would be a good time to do this since  I was going to be away from all relationships: family and friends. It’s a challenge figuring this out with no guidance from others but I needed the definition of love to be discovered from my relationship with God, and God alone.

I am thankful for the prayers that my family & friends back home have offered up for me. This process would be a lot harder without them. I continue to pray for guidance, answers, and peace in this process.

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I have a thing for faith based tattoos I guess?

Finally, one more religious update from Vietnam: I got my third tattoo (Are we surprised?) It is a constant reminder that God is by my side through this journey and in every journey before and moving forward.

Sorry (but not really) for another “Jesus-y” blog post. It’s the most meaningful aspect of my study abroad experience. I can’t talk about this journey without talking about Him!

Happy Sunday Blog Followers!

In His name,
EKH

A Day in the Life

 

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The view from my classroom

This may seem like a boring blog post, but I felt the need to aimlessly write and what better topic than my daily routine. If you know anything about me, you will know that routines are a big part of my life. I enjoy structure, knowing what I will be doing at every time. Studying abroad has really tested my ability to be comfortable without a program of events. There are many times where I do not have a minute by minute cue-to-cue, but after living in Saigon for a month and a half, routines are starting to be developed. So here is a typical day in the life of myself on my semester abroad.

6:00 AMI wake up, which seems super early to me, but everyone in my host family wakes up at 4:30 am so I am a late sleeper. I have really enjoyed becoming an early bird. The city is so alive early in the morning with the busy markets, people cooking on the sides of the street, and children walking to school. Vietnam has turned me into a morning person.

7:00 am: My host mom buys me a new food to try each morning from the local market next door to my house. Breakfast continues to be my favorite meal in and out of the United States. Some of my favorites include Xôi Bắp (sticky rice with corn), Bún bò Huế (a noodle and beef dish), Phở, and Banh mì (a traditional Vietnamese sandwich). I could dedicate a whole blog post to food, and I probably will, so I’ll spare you the long list.

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My neighborhood in the morning

7:20 am: After breakfast, my host mother or host brother will drive me on their motorbike through the busy streets to my University. I live in District 1 and my school is in District 3. It is about a 10-15 minute motorbike ride, depending on the time of day & traffic. At first riding on the back of a motorbike was terrifying. Look up pictures of Ho Chi Minh City traffic and you will recognize why. Yet, I can honestly say that it is the best part of my day.

7:30-9:00 am: My first class does not start till 9 am but since my host mother works, I leave the house a lot earlier than all of my other classmates. I spent the next hour and a half in a coffee shop. Within walking distance from my school, there’s at least six different coffee shops so every day I can choose another one. I also visit  Đức Phát Bakery and grab a pastry or two. This quiet morning time has become a crucial part of my daily routine. I use it to write, blog, FaceTime home, reflect on experiences of the week, catch up on some homework, and most importantly I use it for prayer. It has become a great way to start my morning.

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Let’s pretend I’m studying when really we all know I’m looking at lunch menus

 

9:00-11:30: LANGUAGE CLASS! While it may be one of the hardest things I have ever had to study before, learning Vietnamese language has been an incredible experience. I am surprising myself on how much I am actually picking up on from studying in a classroom, to using it at my homestay, in the local markets, and in daily interactions with local people. I have learned numbers, pronouns, directions, food, daily phrases, introduction questions, time of day, and a couple other helpful phrases.

11:30-1:30: Lunch break is nice and long and allows us to explore the city finding some hidden gems for good & cheap food. Vietnamese cuisine is like nothing I have ever experienced before. It is AMAZING! (Coming soon: Food Blog Post).

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“Lunch Lady” aka the best meal I’ve gotten here

1:30-3:30: Afternoon class is usually a lecture on one of our topics. I am studying culture, social change, and development at Hao Sen University so many of our afternoon classes are lectures on the American War, economic developmental theories, ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, and a wide range of topics.

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Exploring Saigon

3:30 to Right Before Dinner: This has become my time to explore the city before heading back to my homestay. Whether it is finding a cool cafe to sit in and do homework, going out for drinks with some friends, shopping, or just aimlessly walking down the streets to find a new adventure, Saigon is filled with endless things to do. Vietnam has an app called “GRAB” which serves as an Uber but for motorbikes so at around 5:00 pm, I call for a GRAB motorbike to pick me up and take me back to my homestay for dinner with my family.

6:30 pm: I usually have dinner with my host mother and my two host brothers at our house. My host mother is a great cook and always prepares an amazing spread. Dinner is a great time to continue learning Vietnamese words and to get more of my questions about the culture answered. My older host brother is very intelligent and loves to discuss elements of Vietnamese culture and tradition with me at dinner. My host mother speaks English very well. We keep a notebook at the dinner table and every night I write down two or three new english words for her to study for that day.

8:30 pm: Dinner is followed by a trip to the local park near my house. My host mom takes me jogging in the park every night. It has become a tradition that I really enjoy. The park at this hour is still very busy. People of all ages hang out here, exercising, dancing, eating food, or just hanging with friends. Plus at this time, the sun is down and the Saigon heat is more bearable.

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Beer & noodles along the Saigon River with my Host Mom

9:30 pm: Some nights I go straight to bed, other nights I will meet up with my friends. Tonight my host mother had bought sun dried squid off the street and we enjoyed a late night snack as we cheered “một, hai, ba, yoo” with our beers. Then it’s off to bed and ready for another amazing day!

While I will always be a type-A person, thriving off detailed schedules and plans, this adventure has forced me to get comfortable with being more easy-going and adapting to whatever is happening around me. I am fortunate to have amazing teachers, program staff, homestay family members, and friends who make each day fun and filled with adventure. Every day here is different and I am thankful for each new experience.

EKH