Saturday, October 25, 2008

These are a few of my favorite things

These are the ones that I didn't' have to go far to find, but there are others. With two trips to Viet Nam, and time in between in New York to find things I enjoyed there, - most are in the form of food or drink-, others stuff will pop up.

Silk embroidery is one of the specialty handcrafts of the country, and there are two major centers: the first is in Da Lat and the second is in Nah Trang; we were very lucky to find the one in Nah Trang, because we simply were not looking for it. We had been having lunch seaside, and my eye had caught a huge sign that said something about women's crafts. Ironically, no one at the restaurant knew what it was, or perhaps they did not know what I was asking. Curiosity always wins, and so glad it did. The embroidery here is that of a stereotypical Viet Namese with his conical hat, his merchandise and his wheels, without which he probably could not make a living.

I picked that up in Ha Noi actually, not far from Hoan Kiem Lake. You find them everywhere, in little shops, and after a few visits, you begin to know your prices. There are very few which are just black and white, like this one. Most are extremely colorful, and naturally, I have those as well. (See the set of small embroideries top left) They become all the more precious when you have watched the women at work over these huge projects, sometimes, 3 or 4 people are working on one design. I will take you to the art center in another post.

As far back as I can remember, I was always a shawl girl. (woman). That included ponchos, that were hand embroidered, and at one time, my mother-in-law was turning them out faster than I could wear them. I could never understand why every woman in America didn't own at least 10 different shawls. The poncho to the left, for lack of a better word, was purchased in Sa Pa, in the north of Viet Nam. Sa Pa is a mountain resort which was built by the French during the nineteenth century, and if and when you go there, you will think you may have landed somewhere in the Alps. What I loved about this design was the harmony of colors, and the fact that it was reversible.

I had not seen anything like it in Ha Noi. It may not get that cool in Ha Noi, but in Sa Pa, in the evening, this can come in very handy. After all, you are sharing space with Fan Si Pan, the highest peak of the Tonkinese Alps. There are other types of shawls which are just about everywhere. The one I hold very dear was a gift from Van, which I mentioned in another post. She had given it to me when we had lunch at Madame Ann Thuyet Pham. It's a very fine and soft wool, almost cashmere like, and the embroidery is so exquisite, and the color combination of the flowers and petals is nothing short of stunning. Whenever and wherever I have worn it, people have stopped to ask me about it.

Here's another beauty which is a combination cotton/silk and perhaps one other fiber, but I'm not sure. A Ha Noi purchase, and amazingly, when you get back home, you find that it can be worn with a number of pieces of clothing you never remembered you had. Mind you, none of these treasures of mine cost a fortune, but they are treasures nevertheless. Their uniqueness sets them apart from anything else I own.

I am also a costume jewelry fanatic; and for a few years now, silver has been more fashionable than gold, so I was definitely in the right place. For earrings, most of the ones that attracted me were hoops of sorts; interestingly, there were no separate parts, like a post for pierced ears. The earring had a self-closing mechanism which just made life a whole lot easier.

The hoop with the multi-colored metal pieces is the most popular in Sa Pa. Everyone wears them, from the little girls who would be chasing after us (another fabulous story coming), to the older women. But then again, everything they wear is multi-colored, because of the "montagnard" sense of fashion which is somewhat the same as the tribal people we encountered in the North of Thailand. The other silver hoop is less ornate, and I didn't like the way the silver bent itself after using the earring a few times. Lastly, there was a bronze hammered metal hoop that was irresistible. At this time, I will admit that I have lost one of each, but I refuse to let go of the mate.

This necklace would have made Cleopatra jealous. Again, it is worn mainly by the mountain women of Sa Pa, and I bought this during the famous Saturday market, where people from all over the region come and make purchases of just about everything, including foods, fowl, fruit and natural dyes like indigo. There are also things like hooves, and pigs feet for sale. The market is colorful, and a wonderful smell of mountain air mixes with incense and the laughter of children.

The pillow covers you see are again typical of the geometric design and color combination of the north. Ironically, I purchased these in a shop in Ha Noi, before I had ever set eyes in Sa Pa. When I returned, I found more pillow covers, but with different designs and color combinations. Indigo had become prominent. The pillows are set on a love seat in my office, which I purchased when I moved into my new apartment in Bayside in 2004. I never bothered to look at the manufacture, since I assume most everything now is made in China. However, one day, as I got behind the loveseat to find a plug, I looked at the tag, and was shocked! The sofa was made in Viet Nam!

I am a fragrance nut as well. This is deep rooted however, and began with my working for a fragrance manufacturer in my early twenties. They ruined me for life, in that I would change fragrance almost as often as I would my underwear. It had become unthinkable to wear the same fragrance every day.
Some aspects of that habit have not changed, and perfume and colognes are not cheap state side, especially with my taste. Though the bottle of finished, I managed to find Kenzo's Flower perfume which sells for $63 on the internet, for a fraction of the price. I also helped myself to 2 bottles of Burberry for women which you see to the left, and 2 bottles of Hugo Boss. Sai Gon has much more variety than Ha Noi, for some reason, and that is where I will head again the next time. You can also find your favorite perfumed lotions, men's after shaves, make up, - everything you need below duty free prices.

The lacquered sandals you see here are as stunning as they look. They have about a one inch heel and I wore them once, on the Emeraude cruise, at a special dinner. Oddly enough, I had an evening dress to match. These were picked up at the Ben Thanh market in Sai Gon which is an adventure in itself. The day you go there, make sure you have no appointments to keep.

I will try to end this with two important food types which entered my vocabulary since 2005 and never left. One is pho, which is broth with noodles and the other is Ca phe sua (coffee is too simple for this beverage). Of course, one can always go to a Viet Namese restaurant just about anywhere in New York and get both of these items, ready made and served. But, there is something very rewarding when you are home, and decide you are going to make pho, and you get out the biggest pot you can find and go at it. Without the little magic cubes which I found at the Viet Namese market, it wouldn't be pho. Of course, you need rice noodles, of which you will find an astounding variety, lime to taste, but I usually slice a lime and throw it in the broth because I'm a maniac for lime. You can add fish, like prawns, or fish balls which are only available at Asian vendors. Some like beef or chicken, but if you're going that route, why bother? The fish is tastier and healthier. It's the simplest dish of all, and the most rewarding.

By nature, I'm not a coffee drinker. I was weaned on black tea since I was a child, and that's just the way it stayed. From time to time, I will have a latté or a cappuccino, but that's the extent of it. All of that changed in Viet Nam. The coffee there is a remnant of the French influence of café au lait, and they have managed to do something to it by adding sweet condensed milk, and serving hot or cold. The coffee comes with a gizmo that filters it; it's hard to describe, but I have photos for later posts. Making a long story short, it's available here in packets and all you need to do is add hot water.
If you wish to have an iced coffee, then make the hot water anyway, mix your coffee with about 1/3 of a tall glass, and then a fill the rest of the glass with ice cubes. And presto. Starbucks will never make it in Viet Nam, because they just don't need it there.

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