WELCOME TO VIETNAM…ASIAN BREAKFASTS...AVALON CRUISE NEWS
HANOI - I arrive in Vietnam and the first sign I notice on the side of the road is a giant, powder-blue sign affixed to an apartment building with giant red letters that scream “English for Future.”
Yeah, I guess you could say this country has adapted rather quickly. It was only 40 years ago that the USA, the country where I was born, was bombing the living bejeezus out of this part of this most beautiful of countries for reasons most Americans never quite understood. But a lot has changed. The government here labels itself as a Socialist republic, but the key here, like most parts of the world, is commerce. Followed by making a buck. Followed by making money, if my point wasn't clear already.
“We understand that American people are different from the American government, just as Vietnamese people are different from the Vietnam government,” my tour guide in Halong Bay told me. Maybe it’s just what people say, but everywhere I’ve been in the last two days I’ve found warm, generous people eager to practice their English – and apologetic when they don’t get it right. And I call say is – I think – “thank you” and “hello.”
It’s been a real eye-opener, and I’ll get into more about that in a future column on our website and in the paper. It’s important, but there’s a bigger subject I feel compelled to tackle at this critical juncture in the world’s history: breakfast.
I’ve been to Japan and China and Hong Kong and now Thailand and Vietnam, and I still don’t understand the breakfast thing. I mean, what’s with the rice and the noodles and the fish and the spicy chiles IN THE MORNING? Every breakfast buffet I go to in Asia, and in North American or Pacific nations or European markets that cater to Asians, I see similar layouts. When I left my hotel in Hanoi Sunday morning at 7 a.m. to find an ATM, the sidewalks already were filled with people squatting on tiny stools or on their haunches, dipping into bubbling bowls of soup and noodles with the most exotic-looking bits inside. (I don’t quite know what the deal is with the al fresco dining, whether they simply enjoy it or don’t have room in their apartments to sit down for a meal. I suspect it’s the former but if anyone has thoughts on the matter I’d seriously like to know. As someone from a culture in which many people don’t even acknowledge one another on the street, I find this communal eating thing to be really cool).
Anyway, I know North Americans are pretty unique in our breakfast habits – pop-tarts and toaster waffles and crazy cereals with cardboard-like marshmallow-ish products shaped like yellow stars and green clovers. I know it’s not healthy and that it’s pretty amusing to most folks in the world. Or perhaps frightening.
(As a side note, I urge anyone interested in the great breakfast debate to pick up Bill Bryson’s great book about living in the U.S. - The Lost Continent - and the chapter in which he analyzes the massive rows of horrible cereals at his local supermarket in New Hampshire. It’s brilliant).
So, yeah, we’re a little strange when it comes to breakfast – and I’m not even going to get into the chicken and waffles with maple syrup thing they do in the southern U.S. for lunch. But in our defence, I have to say we’re not alone. Italians are, I can say without the shred of doubt in my mind, koo-koo for Cocoa Puffs.
Well, Cocoa Krispies if you want to get technical about it. I was at the Turin Olympics for the Star and there were two kinds of cereal each morning; Corn Flakes and Cocoa Krispies. Last time I was in Italy I wandered down to the breakfast buffet and found…Cocoa Krispies. I think the Italians have a secret crush on the stuff. I really do.
But the point is these are exceptions. For most of the world outside North America and Europe, breakfast appears not that different from other meals of the day, which I find kinda depressing. I mean, I love lunch and dinner (and, just like the hobbits in Lord of the Rings, second breakfast and tea) just fine, but breakfast is such a key meal for me and I enjoy that it’s completely different from other meals.. And I want cereal or yogurt or good, Swiss birchermuesli and big loaves of crispy French bread (plenty of that in Vietnam, thank you) and butter and six or eight kinds of jam and probably some bacon or sausage and, sometimes, pancakes with maple syrup (cooked in bacon fat and crispy around the edges when I make it for myself at home) or raisin bread French Toast or sometimes a toasted sesame seed bagel with cream cheese and blackberry jam, which sparks looks of mock disgust from members of my own family.
My hotel here in Halong Bay, the lovely Novotel (see photo of the pool bar and the infinity pool - very nice) has strawberry jam and honey and, I think, orange marmalade (nasty, wicked stuff) but not raspberry or blackberry or pineapple, which is disappointing. The Sofitel in Bangkok had papaya jam with lime and a bunch of other tropical jams such as pineapple and passionfruit, all of which I scooped onto a plate and mixed together with wild abandon, tossing culinary caution to the wind in a certain devil-may-care, go-for-it, manly gusto attitude that I thought might’ve attracted a few ladies to my table but, alas, no.
I’d love to come back to the breakfast buffet here at 11:30 a.m. and try the Asian food they have laid out for breakfast. I’m sure I’d love it. The kitchen here at the Novotel makes a fabulous bowl of pho, the famous Vietnamese noodle soup with chicken or beef and basil leaves and crunchy, flavourful green onions. I wish it was a little more spicy, but they’ll bring you limes and chiles and, I think, tamarind sauce if you want a little more fire in your bowl.
(This is a bit of a tangent (gee, really?), but what's with the scrambled eggs in France and here in Vietnam. They barely cook them, and you get this soupy, yellow gunk on your plate instead of nice, fluffy eggs. And don't get me started on uncooked bacon, a specialty all over Europe and in some parts of Asia.)
The food for the Asian buffet at breakfast is great. I just can’t eat it in the morning. I haven’t quite figured out what congee is, but it looks like I could probably manage it. I think it’s a bit like oatmeal or cream of wheat, which my Dad and I used to eat on a cold winter’s morning in California when I was a kid, albeit with brown sugar and honey, not fish sauce and scallions and chiles. My Dad also used to eat something called Wheatina, which I haven’t seen in 50 years. It was filled with all sorts of tiny bits and my sister and I used to call it “bird seed.”
Not unlike Jerry Seinfeld, I was always more into breakfast cereal. One time, when I was a kid, I counted 31 boxes of cereal at my house. And there were only two kids in the family. I still have probably ten open boxes at home in Toronto, and that’s a little strange.
So that’s my take on the most important meal of the day. Looking at the tiny, slim folks that surround me in Vietnam, I can almost guarantee you they’re completely right in the breakfast department and I’m doomed to an early death by too many brown sugar-cinnamon Pop Tarts (the ones without the icing on them, in my defence) and white-bread toast with sugary jam and too many bowls of Captain Crunch.
OVER TO STAR ENTERTAINMENT/TRAVEL GUY RICHARD OUZOUNIAN, WHO FILES THIS REPORT ON AVALON CRUISES...
Avalon Waterways is betting big on the successful river cruising market by launching three new ships in 2012, leasing two more to its family and adding a series of routes around the world.
The brand new Avalon Ankgor will debut in Sept. 2012 on a 14-day Mekong River itinerary that will make it the only passenger line to cruise all the way from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City, without a land break, on a ship custom-built for this route and featuring only 16 staterooms.
In Egypt, they will be upping their offerings by 30% over 2011, through chartering the MS Mayfair and the MS Kasr Ibrim, adding Lake Nasser to their waterways for the first time.
And on their consistently popular European routes, two new luxury ships, the Vista and the Visionary, will join the newly-christened Panorama, adding 20% more voyages on their journeys that run through France as well as extending all the way from Amsterdam to the Black Sea. They'll also be adding themed "Legacy" cruises, such as Jewish Heritage and European History, joining others like Tulip Time, Art and Impressionism and Burgundy and Provence Jazz Cruise.
For more information visit www.avalonwaterways.ca