Celebrating Sam’s 11th birthday

Since I am not going to be home for the official Sam’s birthday party, we go over to Ryan and Jon’s for a family celebration on the actual day. It is hard to believe that Sam is 11. How time flies!

We have some gifts for Sam and Sarah has made him a bunch of cookies. Since his birthday theme is Shark Tank we get him a stuffed shark which he likes. We also give him a new Pokémon game for his Nintendo Switch and a apparatus for making copies of pictures you like by tracing.

Sam opening a present
It is a stuffed shark!
And here is a Pokémon game!

After present-opening time, we go to Fiesta Del Mar for lunch. Alex opts to stay home. Sam has chicken street tacos, his favorite. Everyone gets something they like. After lunch I suggest some birthday dessert but Ryan and Jon have already promised a trip to an ice cream place so they head off to get ice cream and we go home.

Happy Birthday, Sam!

Kendalls visit. 1/2/20

One of the first things happening in 2020 is a visit from Eileen and Jim Kendall. They are on their way home from visiting Ali and Van, Eli and Vea. They were going to spend a night in a hotel but I suggest that if they can manage in a double bed that they are welcome to stay here. They accept and we have a nice dinner and some good conversation and, a special bonus, Jim sings and plays some of his new songs on his guitar.

I am trying to keep the menu healthy since we are still on the diet. I plan a chickpea stew and a golden beet and blood orange salad. It seems to go over well. We also kill off a couple of bottles of wine and some snacks but who’s counting that!!

Chickpea stew and salad of golden beets and blood oranges with arugula and feta

We stay up laughing, talking, and reminiscing about the “old” days. But as you can see from their picture, they have hardly changed at all since our days in Hopkinton.

Eileen and Jim Kendall

December doings! 12/1-31/19

Lots of goings-on in December!  After we managed to leave our Southeast Asian jet lag fog behind, we started off by trying to make the Vietnamese sour soup in our own kitchen. It turned out pretty well! Plus searching for ingredients at the Asian market was fun.

Home made Vietnamese sour soup

One of the first weekends in December Jon, Alex, and Sam came over to help decorate our Christmas tree. It turned out looking beautiful. Afterwards we all went out to lunch.

Sam is intent on having everything just so.
Alex helps with the decorating

George and I celebrated our birthdays on December 8 at Albatross in Danville. I forgot to take pictures. The restaurant turned out to be quite an albatross!

Before Christmas Sarah spent four days making a Panettone and it turned out pretty much like the one we had in Florence last year. So delicious!

Sarah’s panettone
Panettone with citron and raisins

Unfortunately on Pilat Eve many of us were sick. Sarah was just starting to get over her bad cold and I had just caught it. Sam was sick too and Ryan stayed home with him. We had some delicious bites but saved the singing for Christmas Day at Jonathan and Ryan’s. I did make an annual favorite, rum cake!

Rum cake

On Christmas morning John, Sarah, and I exchanged gifts and had our traditional breakfast, bagels and lox with Schneider Weiss beer.

Traditional breakfast

Later on we went to Jonathan and Ryan’s for Christmas dinner. Jon did a fabulous job cooking a a prime rib roast, mashed potatoes, death by broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and I brought along creamed spinach and John made gravy. After dinner we all sat around and sang Christmas carols following the bouncing ball on YouTube.

Leigh, Sam, Ryan, Alex, John, Sarah, Jonathan, and Mary

I spent the rest of December trying to recuperate from my cold so New Year’s Eve was a quiet affair. We made a scallop dinner for ourselves and were in bed by 10 P.M.

New Year’s Eve dinner

Last day. 11/28/19 and wrap-up

The last day of our trip and Bangkok is on the schedule. We have decided not to go on the excursion. We just cannot imagine a two to three hour trip each way on the bus. The temperatures today are supposed to be in the mid-90s with lots of humidity. I am still coughing from my cold and John is toured-out. We will have to visit Bangkok another time when we feel up to it.

It is lovely being on the ship without all the other people. Yesterday we could not find a seat for lunch but today we have the dining room pretty much to ourselves. Wish we still wanted to eat cruise food!

Update: 11/30/19. We are home having spent 26 hours in transit bus riding, waiting and layover, two plane rides (and the rigmarole associated with air transportation), and the car ride home. We each slept about 20 minutes over that 26 hours.

On the way to the Bangkok airport, Thailand looks much more developed than Vietnam and Cambodia. As we drive along the modern highways the terrain is flat with palm trees and little lakes and waterways. It looks a lot like Florida! There are communities of apartments which appear to have air conditioners. There is a lot of commerce and industry. I regret not seeing Bangkok on Thursday but do not regret missing the excursion. There has to be a better way to visit!

Here are three pictures of a fabulous statue in the Bangkok airport. It was so enormous that I had to take all three. It is called the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Based on a Hindu story, the Devas (demons) formed an alliance with the Asuras (gods)to jointly churn the ocean for the nectar of immortality and to share it among themselves. A mountain was brought as a turning point and a serpent was twisted around it to rotate the mountain. Vishnu, the chief Hindu god, sits on top of the mountain to stabilize it

Asuras pulling one side of the serpent
Devas pulling the other side of the serpent
Vishnu on top of the mountain

Would I do this particular Viking trip again? No. I think this is mostly because the ports where Viking docked were mostly so far away from the things you wanted to see that we were scrunched on buses for hours, usually around 4 hours round trip. A 6.5 hour excursion was actually only 2.5 hours of actual experience. Trust me, an Asian bus is more suited to smaller Asians than tall and wide Americans.

On the other hand, it was an unforgettable experience. From sparkling Hong Kong with its fabulous setting, its clean, beautiful high rise towers, and wonderful every night harbor light show to Cambodia’s sad squalor we got to see four unique countries. The people were lovely. They were full of kindness and smiles for us which is amazing considering the fact that their history with outsiders from the Vietnam war to the massacre of the Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge and now the impingement of China in Hong Kong has been devastating to them.

Cambodia, Day 2. 11/27/19

If the first day of being in Cambodia was distressing, today is even more so. Our first stop is at a fishing village. Our guide tells us that most of the people in the countryside who are doing farming and the fishermen are uneducated. That must be nearly 80% of the people of Cambodia. The fishermen and their families look like they live in squalid, unsanitary conditions with the men going out at night to fish and returning in the morning and the women taking care of many children.

The fishing boats of Cambodia are all painted turquoise. The fishing boats of Vietnam and Thailand are all painted other colors so that the marine police can identify them.
These boats cost between $25,000 and $50,000 depending on size
Readying squid for the market
A pretty little Cambodian girl in the fishing village probably has a hopeless future.
Chicken are walking around here and there
The making of ice is big business. Ice is used for the catch that is sold to restaurants and markets. The fishermen dry fish in the sun for their own use due to lack of refrigeration.
Grandmother cleaning fish

Our guide tells us that Cambodian people see the flies that are around the fish and produce in the markets are a good thing. He says if the food is not attracting flies then there must be something wrong with it. Considering that flies carry diseases, it is an odd concept. It also makes me wonder about the food we cooked yesterday!

Next we go to Independence Beach. This beach and its hotel were made famous when Jacqueline Kennedy came here in 1967 hoping to improve relations between Cambodia and the U.S. The sea looks inviting and there are benches to sit on. The garbage is a little less pronounced as this is the first place we have seen trash containers. We watch some young people enjoying the day. They go swimming in their street clothes. There are lots of tall buildings nearby. Most are unfinished. Our guide tells us that there have been problems with the Chinese construction. Inferior quality building materials have caused some of the buildings to collapse killing Cambodian people.

John was here
Abandoned tennis court. 
The beach and sea are lovely
The buildings seen through the trees are largely unfinished

Our last stop is at a Buddhist complex. Traditionally becoming a monk was a way for poor boys to receive an education.
We see a demonstration of Cambodian dance, some large statues of Buddha, and a temple.

The young people dress up in the traditional Cambodian clothing and show us what some of the dancing hand gestures mean.
Here they are dancing “the coconut dance.”
A former monk on the left tells us about life as a monk
Buddha pointing towards heaven with one finger up indicating he has no more incarnations to go.
Buddha getting his hair cut off to become a monk
Buddha has died and is in a reclining position
Inside the main temple is a seated Buddha

On the way back to the boat our guide, Senh, really unloads about what has happened to Cambodia and the Cambodian people. He talks about Pol Pot and the rise of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s. Pol Pot had a view of Cambodia as an agrarian socialist society. So he forcibly removed the urban population to the countryside to work or collective farms. Anyone who was considered an enemy of the Pol Pot government was killed. This included intellectuals, minorities, teachers, doctors, and certainly anyone who spoke English as they could be secret CIA operatives. These mass killings plus malnutrition and poor medical care killed between 1.5 to 2 million people, a quarter of the Cambodian people. With the approach of the 21st century Cambodia was devoid of a generation of people who could have helped the country to advance. They are still largely uneducated. Senh said that if you have no education then you do not even know what to dream about.

So we are feeling pretty sad about the conditions that these sweet, smiling people have to live in as we return to our fancy boat and have our dinner where we can send back any food that does not meet our standard and go to bed in a king size bed with clean sheets after we have seen the Cambodian people swinging in their hammocks. I think I will not post pictures of what we ate for dinner today.

Cambodia. 11/26/19

Today we have a cooking class in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. I am expecting Cambodia to be a lot like Vietnam but it is far behind in development. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge basically wiped out, as in killed, a whole generation of people who were educated teachers, doctors, and professionals. So Cambodia is struggling to get back on its feet and is relying on Chinese investment to help. It looks like so far it has not helped enough.

Views from the bus –

Trash and rubble is everywhere
Cattle taking a rest alongside the road
It is pretty sad and depressing
Upstairs apartments
Electrical transmission

Most of the roads are partly dirt due to construction or lack of maintenance. The bus has to go very slowly, probably about 20 mph or less. Then the bus driver cannot find the Don Bosco School where we are taking our cooking course and must make u-turns in the middle of the street with motorbikes and people everywhere. Finally we reach our destination and need to walk down a hot and dusty road to the school. Everything is set up for us to cook.

Everything is set up for us
John is ready!

We are making two dishes, Fish Amok, which is fish in a curry paste steamed in banana leaves and Khmer meat pancake with sweet fish sauce. The parts we actually do are to make the curry paste, cook the meat, make a basket out of our banana leaves, cook the pancake, and make the fish sauce. Chef makes the batter for the pancake and steams the Fish Amok.

First up is to make a curry paste in the really heavy mortar and pestle. We are dripping with sweat by the time the paste meets chef’s approval

Making a little box out of the banana leaves is harder than you might imagine. You have to fold the banana leaves just so four times and secure it with toothpicks. We are all laughing pretty hard at our feeble attempts. John has made an unrecognizable box and mine is leaking the sauce that the fish is in slowly out the sides. They go into a big steamer.

We make a spicy fish sauce with spices and chilis and coconut milk. Then we cook a combination of pork and shrimp to put inside a rice pancake. With only minor conflagrations we cook the meat. No one cooks a successful pancake. Plus they did not tell us to put the meat into the pancake and roll it inside like an omelet. Mostly everyone’s pancakes just look like scrambled eggs.

Spicy /sweet fish sauce combination
Cooking the pork and shrimp combination on the propane stove
Meat and shrimp with rice cake (the part that looks like scrambled eggs) with sweet and spicy sauce
The steamed banana leaf package with curried fish inside
John has a beer
They make us a fancy dragon fruit dessert

It has been great fun learning about Cambodian cuisine. The people are so lovely and sweet that it makes you so sad for the situations they live in. We especially wonder about our female tour guide. What kinds of hard times did she have to go through to get educated. She tells us that most of the girls in the country side are uneducated and marry around 16. They cannot go to school because it is not safe for them to walk to school and the Buddhist monks do not teach girls. How hard must it have been for our tour guide.

Later we have dinner at the Chef’s Table. It is the same as the dinner we had a couple days earlier. I have a better picture of the apple dessert though. It is really yummy and is constructed out of thin layers of caramelized apple into the shape of an apple.

Apple dessert from Chef’s Table

Recovery Day 2. 11/25/19

John seems almost better today but I am still going through a lot of tissues and feeling sort of miserable. We have breakfast in the room where I get a totally uncooked sausage. It is red, raw inside. Yuck! That is two culinary mishaps so far on this trip. What’s up with that!?

Today is a day at sea so we have nowhere to be. While I nap John goes to a culinary demonstration which turns out to be tiramisu. I have actually made tiramisu once with a recipe that Sarah gave me. It turned out well. I really don’t intend on ever making one again so I don’t feel bad about missing the demonstration. John also spends some time looking at the art around the ship using the Viking Art Guide App.

Around noon he comes back to get me for trivia. The topic is movies. I know one answer out of 15. John only knows a few. We are carried by the rest of the team and score a somewhat respectable 12 which is definitely a losing score. I feel like a movie dummy.

After looking at the lunch offerings in the World Cafe we decide to go down to The Restaurant which is open for lunch on sea days. Lunch is much fancier at The Restaurant than at the World Cafe.

I have a spicy tofu dish which is really good except for the corn. I have been trying to eat vegetarian at lunch.
John has a pork banh mi. He says it is very good.
As a consolation for being sick we order dessert. I have a brown rice pudding which is not picture worthy and John has a banana Napoleon.

In the afternoon I catch up with writing posts for my blog. I had gotten two days behind. Even though John takes lots of notes, once a few days have passed I have trouble remembering everything we did. It will be easy to remember what I did today because it was basically nothing. I am not going to post these entries to social media since they are mostly just about what we ate. John and I find it interesting to post all our culinary delights but most people just find it boring.

As the afternoon wears on we run into a line of thunderstorms. We go to the Explorer Lounge where we can see the lightning in action! Later we go to dinner at “The”.

My starter is cured lomo with peppers and artichokes. It is okay.
John has borscht Rothschild (whatever the Rothschild means)
John’s main course is parrot fish with couscous. It is slightly overcooked but he really likes the couscous.
I have what is supposed to be pad Thai. It is terrible. It is not pad Thai. It is a mashup of the spicy tofu dish that I had for lunch, fettucine, and tomatoes. I send it back and order something else.
I get a double portion of cocktail shrimp.

As we are leaving dinner people are streaming into the Star Theater for a presentation by Patrick Roberts who is a violinist. He plays mostly pop tunes with a prerecorded backup orchestra (that is too loud.) He does do a creditable performance of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. We enjoy our evening.

Patrick Roberts trying to be a sexy violinist.

Recovery Day. 11/24/19

Today we are supposed to have another tour of the Ben Thanh market except this time we go around with an herbalist/doctor. John is still recovering from his cold and mine is in full swing. So we decide to stay on the ship, nap, and try to recover.

In the early afternoon the ship leaves Ho Chi Minh City and is on route to Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Tomorrow will be a day at sea and another chance for us to recuperate. We leave via the Soai Rap river which empties into the South China Sea. We see aquaculture farms and rice paddies along the way.

Aquaculture and rice paddies

After spending the afternoon doing nothing we have dinner at The Chef’s Table where we have the menu – La Route des Indes.

The amuse bouche is a carrot and cardamom cream
The first course is spicy tuna tataki
Then a ginger and tarragon granita
The main course is beef tenderloin with four warm spices and purple potato mouseseline, mushrooms, and gravy. I have mine without the warm spices since I think the spices make the beef taste like pumpkin pie
The picture does not do this dessert justice. It is a reconstructed apple tarte tatin with a butterscotch sauce. I don’t usually like dessert but I will make an exception for this tarte tatin

After dinner we hurry back to our room for another night of healing sleep.

Overview of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. 11/23/19

NOTE: Along with John I have also caught a cold.  Because I need to take colds seriously, we have cancelled our excursion for 11/24, and 11/25 is a day at sea. This gives us two days to try and get well before we visit Cambodia. I probably will not have much to write about for those two days.

If you enjoy bus rides than this is the cruise for you. Today, especially, the ratio of time on the bus to time actually seeing something interesting is especially poor. Our excursion of six hours included about one hour and fifteen minutes of seeing something interesting. Since our boat is docked an hour away from the city, that is two hours sunk in just going back and forth. Driving in Ho Chi Minh City is especially tedious because there is so much traffic. And this is on Saturday when there is less traffic.

There are masses of people on motorbikes and scooters
The people wearing green jackets or helmets are employed by Grab, the motorbike Uber of Vietnam

We finally reach a temple, Jade Pagoda, to see. It is a combination Buddhist/Hindu place built in 1900. Our guide suggests we go in and put our hand on our hearts and make a wish. Our guide, along with the majority of Vietnamese, does not belong to any organized religion. I find it uncomfortable to be making wishes and taking pictures where people are worshipping. Our guide does not come in with us so other than the Buddha we have no idea what we are looking at. This took up 20 minutes of our non-bus time. Some of the statutes in the Jade Pagoda –

A Buddha
A revered figure
Another revered figure

Now we crawl along in the traffic while the guide points out a couple of things. Here’s the Opera House.

Opera House in Saigon

Here is the Post Office built by the French.

Saigon Post Office

We stop for five minutes to take a picture of the reunification palace.

Reunification Palace

Interestingly our guide,who is a young woman, says that there are still a lot of people in South Vietnam (she refers to South Vietnam as if it were still a country) who are angry that North Vietnam took over the South. She also says that the Americans did not lose the war. They just gave up.  She also told us that South Vietnamese and maybe all Vietnamese hate China and Chinese people and especially Chinese tourists. She says the Chinese are rude and crude. She gives us examples of bad behavior.

Then we ride around a block a couple of times so she can show us where the iconic picture of South Vietnamese trying to get on to the last U.S. helicopter was taken. She says it was not on the roof of the U.S. Embassy but on the roof of the C.I.A. Building.  We cannot see what she is referring to.

Then we go to a wood lacquer workshop where art is made by inlaying pieces of wood, eggshells and other things. There is a short presentation and then a “buying opportunity.” They have western toilets and there is some weak air conditioning so we are pretty happy about that.

Man working with eggshells
Finished eggshell pictures
Close up of eggshell picture
Mary in store for “buying opportunity.” We are part of the green fan group.
Part of the showroom

Our last stop is at the Banh Thant market which we saw yesterday. John and I walk in. It is crowded and very hot. We walk out. John stops at the men’s room while I wait outside. Unfortunately it is a place for sex workers to be standing. We all side eye each other. I move to another spot. John comes out and we spot our bus. We are early but the bus is air conditioned and quieter so we are happy to get aboard.

After this we go back to the ship. We take showers. Neither of us is feeling well but we go for dinner and cobble together a dinner out of four starters – shu mai, summer rolls,spicy prawns, and pho. It is quite enjoyable.

Our starter – spicy shrimp and summer roll
This is followed by lobster and pork shu mai
Vietnamese pho

I am really glad that we have cancelled our outing for tomorrow and that I have two days to try to kick this cold before we land in Cambodia and have our Cambodian Cooking School excursion.

Saigon Cooking School. 11/22/19

Today we take the bus into Ho Chi Minh City (hereafter indicated by HCMC or Saigon) to meet with a local chef, go to the enormous Ben Thanh market, and then make our way to the Saigon Cooking School. At the school we will prepare a three course meal for ourselves and eat it! But first a few words about HCMC.

Saigon is nothing like Hue. It is modern and bustling. The traffic is monumental. No one seems to pay much attention to the traffic laws. The prices in the market are inflated about 70% and you are expected to bargain the seller down. (Not my favorite way of shopping so we buy nothing.) It is a big city of 10 million people hustling to get by. It is not clean. Due to the extreme heat and humidity and very little air conditioning people sit out on the sidewalk if they can find space between the motorbikes.

We are docked outside of HCMC so it takes 45 minutes to an hour to get into the city
Our port, Saigon Premiere Container Terminal, is located in Nowhere, Vietnam. There is no town to walk to just a huge parking lot filled with newly arrived cars
Apartments are high rise and also in smaller units in HCMC
We are told not to take our phones out to take pictures because motorbikers snatch them from your hands as you are taking a picture. I risked one of men selling coconuts to drink

We meet our chef outside the market and she takes us inside to talk about the various fruits and vegetables that we will use.

Chef talks about limes and kumquats. Lemons are expensive so these green kumquats are used for a similar flavor
Behind our chef are turmeric, young ginger, lotus root and she is holding a banana bud
Here she is discussing the difference between Thai basil and lemon mint
Some more of the coconuts to drink from
There are oodles of spices, teas,and coffees. (There is a special weasel coffee which is made from coffee beans that have passed through the weasels’ digestive systems. Farmers collect the poop to make it. Yum)

After our visit to the market we take a short drive over to the Saigon Cooking School where there are cookers and ingredients for each of us. We put on our aprons and get to work. It is all quite comprehensive and we use a real propane cook top. I manage to set my towel on fire. The first dish we make is sour soup with prawns. We cut up all the vegetables and cook it ourselves!

John looking Iron Chef-y
A look down the table at our cooking accoutrements

The ingredients to our sour soup with prawn are water, elephant ear stem, okra, prawn, bean sprouts, tomato, pineapple, tamarind paste, rice paddy herb and saw tooth coriander, sugar, fish sauce, salt chopped garlic and cooking oil. We sit down to eat our creation.

Sour soup with prawn or in Viet canh chua tom

Now the chef expects us to move a little faster. I really have almost no time to take pictures. Finally I give up with the picture taking and just concentrate on the cooking and getting my phone out of harm’s way. Our next course is lotus stems salad with prawns and pork, goi ngo sen. The ingredients are sugar lemon juice, fish sauce, long chili, garlic for the dressing and pickled white radish and carrot, fresh lotus stems, pickled lotus stem, prawns, lean pork, onion, Laksa leaves, peanuts, fried shallots, and deep fried lotus roots. We have a tool to cut the carrots into fancy julienne and a peeler which is much more difficult to use than my OXO one.

Our chef is mixing the lotus stem and carrot in the picking juice
Our delicious salad, lotus stems salad with prawns and pork or goi ngo sen

Our last dish is chicken stew in a clay pot with ginger, basil and coconut juice or ga kho gung. This takes quite a bit of cooking and pressing of the tamarind paste. This is where I set my kitchen towel alight but smother it so quickly that no one notices. They are really busy chopping and stirring and trying not to get burned or set their own towels afire. So we are dealing with sharp knives, a really hot propane flame, and a clay pot that you cannot touch unless you are using your towel (which puts it really close to the open flame.) Chef tells us to concentrate!!

John enjoys a Saigon special beer as a reward for all his hard work
Chicken stew in a clay pot with ginger, basil, and coconut juice or ga kho gung (forgot to take a picture before I had eaten most of it)

Our chef whose name is maybe Ugen or maybe some thing else compliments us on a job well done and says we have all graduated from The Saigon Cooking School. Yay! She gives a folder with our recipes and a coaster to commemorate our day.

We cooked, ate, and had fun!!

It has been a long day of learning and cooking and we arrive back at the boat about 7 hours after we left. Everyone is pretty tired out but happy that we had this experience.