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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Ha Long Bay: Fishing Village

We had only 6 short days in Vietnam and so much we wanted to see. We decided to spend more time than most in Ha long Bay (3 days) because we all thought it would be more relaxing than the city. Turns out that was a great decision because Ha Long Bay is goooorgeous. The only thing I was a bit disappointed about was fog. On the first day the fog made the sky gloomy and the islands around us dull. Somehow even that was quite pretty though. Fortunately everything cleared up on the second day and gave us some beautiful views.

On that second day, one of our excursions was a fishing village. The village was surprising, and more of a neighborhood than an actual village. The houses were either boat houses or huts on top of plastic barrels. Our visit included a little look around the village by means of either a small paddle boat or kayaks. My sister, mom and I opted for the paddle boats. It was interesting to get a closer look at the lives of these people. They've all built their entire lives in the middle of the ocean, floating on the surface of the water.

This is a photo that I took of a woman and boat very similar to the ones we saw milling around the village.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The week leading up to Christmas my family spent in Vietnam. Three days in Hanoi, three days on a cruise in Ha Long Bay. The cruise was amazing--it was so peaceful to sit up on the deck of our boat and watch the rocky islands rise out of the mist and loom by. We had ample time to sit and enjoy as there were only a few activities planned: rowing around a floating fishing village, kayaking among the islands, touring a pearl farm, and making spring rolls.

The spring roll-making demonstration took place before dinner on both nights, and we learned how to assemble Vietnamese nem (spring rolls). We made fresh spring rolls, so that we could devour them immediately. My spring roll-making-skills definitely improved on the second night!

To make fresh nem, first you need rice paper. Handmade rice paper is best because it is easier to use. You simply lay it on a damp washcloth while preparing the spring roll so that it becomes more pliable. If the rice paper is handmade, it will have a pattern on it from the mold. Rice paper that is not handmade has to be soaked in warm water for about 20 seconds before using, which makes it stickier and more difficult to roll.

There are many things that can be put in fresh nem, but whatever ingredients chosen, it is best if they are in strips so that the spring rolls are not as bulky and have fewer air pockets. Any meats or eggs should, of course, be pre-cooked. We used carrots, lettuce, strips of scrambled eggs, shrimp, and special Vietnamese pork.

For a dipping sauce, they had a special homemade sauce which cannot be found in stores. They casually listed the ingredients while explaining the spring roll process, and I had to frantically write them down. So, since it is a simple list and I have not yet tried making it at home, I'm not sure of proportions. When I make it, I'll update it. However, you can experiment with it as you like! It may be worth trying because the sauce on the boat was really tasty and perfected the spring rolls, in my opinion.
Here are the ingredients, and let me know how it goes if you use them to make a sauce!

Spring Roll Dipping Sauce
2 parts water
1 part fish sauce
1 part rice vinegar
Lime juice

To assemble the nem, you lay a piece of rice paper on a damp washcloth, then you make a small pile of ingredients near the base of the rice paper. You do not want to use too many ingredients!! We saw a lot of people load them to bursting, and lets just say that their spring rolls were, I'm sure, yummy but not pretty. Also, it is easiest to put all of the ingredients in a pile on the rice paper, not in a carpet across the paper. Once all of the ingredients are on the rice paper, start rolling it up very tightly. When rolled halfway, fold the edges into the center, and finish rolling. Then, rub a little water on the edge of the rice paper to glue it down. Or, you can lick it, and, as our guide explained, no one will steal your spring roll. Finally, dip your spring roll into the sauce for a few seconds so that the sauce seeps into your spring roll. If you do a quick dip, it won't have as much flavor and will be more difficult to take a bite of.

This is a really fresh and simple treat, and is fun to make. Enjoy!


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Election Day

This is my third election overseas.

The first was eight years ago while living in New Zealand.  What I distinctly remember about that time was how interested everyone was in who I was voting for.  It was the first time I really understood how important the leadership in our government is to the rest of the world.  Here was this tiny little island on the other side of the world who was intently keen on our election because the exportation of their lamb and dairy was dependent on the policy of our government.

Four years ago we were in Colombia.  I honestly don't remember a thing about that day.

Today I am working at the American Institute (yes, same as an embassy) here in Taiwan.  This is a first for me to actually be at an embassy as the final votes are coming in.  I am not dead tired, waiting during the wee hours of night to find out the results.  It's the middle of tomorrow for me.  Just as many other embassies and consulates around the world are, AIT is hosting an election party for American passport holders.  All the red, white and blue around in decorations and clothing is quite festive.  Actually, the thought never crossed my mind.  I could have come up with a great outfit, but I have black on today.

What I will remember about this year is the reality of being a diplomat for the American Government.   Regardless of the outcome, the mission here has a job to do.  I am just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the greater picture, but I still represent America to those who are watching around the world.

Another reality of being a diplomat is that you are more vulnerable.  While I was typing away at my desk this morning the duck and cover alarm went off followed by the clear warning that this was not a drill.  I had glanced through the news earlier and saw that two polls in America were on lock-down and there had been a shooting that killed a person.  I don't know if this alarm was in any way related to the elections going on far across the sea, but I realized that all it takes is one crazy to wreak havoc.  I made my co-worker come sit on the floor with me where we were sheltered from potential harm.  It was a 10 or 15 minute break with alarms going off.  Once again it reminded me how deeply our leaders effect the world.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Lin Family Mansion and Garden

Lin Yin-Yin came to Taiwan from the Fujian province of China in 1778.  His son, Ping-Hou,  came with him and prospered as a rice & salt merchant and trader.  During the reign of Emperor Tao-Kuang there were clashes amongst various Chinese groups in Taiwan so Hou built a mansion with walls around it.  Hou's sons continued to prosper in the business and added more halls to the structure.  Eventually the property expanded to  a sprawling house with 5 courtyards.    The Lin family was the wealthiest family in Taiwan during the Qing dynasty.  

I loved this mansion.  It was built to house a family, not for hundreds of visitors to pass through.  The gardens have a sense of intimacy with small rooms scattered around for the women to enjoy needlework or the men to enjoy reading.  The layout of the rooms give an airy feeling despite the fact that the heat index was 120F on the day we visited.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Snapshots from a Street Market

I stumbled across this street market on my way to meet a few friends.  Sadly, I didn't have time to stop and poke around.  I always find the best places when I least expect them!

Threading on the street - Threading is a way to clean the skin of all hairs with a piece of thread.  

Traditional swallowtail architecture.  

Street barber shop

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Peking Duck

Peking Duck is considered a delicacy here in Taiwan.  The dish was developed during the Imperial era in Beijing.  Maddie and I joined our office for a special lunch to welcome a new officer.  The ladies were so excited!  It was a lot of fun to share this experience with them - and a Peking Duck meal is certainly an experience.

The duck has been raised for 65 days on a farm to fatten them up.  The meal must be ordered before hand to give plenty of time for preparation and to be slow cooked by hanging in an oven.  Ours was truly an authentic meal with the thin, crisp skin being the point of the dish and little meat served with it.
Duck with crispy skin on side
The meat is laid in a pancake (tortilla like) with cucumber and spring onion and a sweet bean sauce poured on top.  Roll it up and and it makes a tidy little sandwich.
Wrappers with cucumber & spring onion to wrap with duck
Duck soup
Although only a small amount of meat is served as the main meal, all the meat from the duck is used in a different dish.

Duck Salad
In addition to all the dishes with duck, platter after platter of other foods were brought to our table.   Honestly, this feast beat an American Thanksgiving!   

Seafood soup
Green beans
Tofu and hot peppers
papaya with passion fruit sauce
Bamboo shoot salad
Beef salad
Finely diced shrimp

Packing up left-overs in plastic bags  
An interesting cultural note is that food leftovers or takeaway from food stands are packed in clear plastic bags.  Fried rice, soup, sauces, anything at all are poured in and a knot is tied on top.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Treasure Hill

I went on a tour of the Treasure Hill area of Taipei with a group from AIT.  I love when I have the opportunity to explore the city with a group of people.  I have to admit, I thought Treasure Hill was rather lame.  It has a great concept behind it, it's just sort of limping along instead of thriving.

Treasure Hill was an illegal settlement, founded by military veterans in the 1940s.  Today Treasure Hill is a worldwide community of artists.  You can apply to live here for a period of time to explore your art.  I expected the area to be vibrant and full of creative minds with little shops and cafes.  It's not.  It has great potential so I hope it takes off.

Treasure Hill Temple

Inside the temple

The streets of Temple Hill

Fixing hair for a selfie

Tea time

Bread Oven