Back to Hanoi

As we got ready to disembark from our Ha Long Bay cruise, Mom reported she was starting to have some stomach issues – seemed she’d eaten something dicey at some point. She got worse rather quickly. We decided to hire a driver to get us back to Hanoi rather than taking the van. It wasn’t a very fun ride for either of us, though for Mom especially. We did make it back to Hanoi and our rooms at the MK Premier Boutique Hotel without incident, though there were some close calls on the three-and-a-half hour journey. Mom retired to her hotel room and unhappily had to miss out on the next couple of days in Hanoi – though she did make a full recovery by the time we were flying onto Bangkok that Tuesday.

My friend Ak was waiting for us in Hanoi. He’d flown in from Bangkok the night before so we could all spend some time together in Vietnam. We were both unhappy that Mom would be sitting out the plans we’d made for our time in Hanoi, but she insisted that we not make any changes while she was recuperating – and I did check in with her regularly to make sure she was OK!

Ak and I had dinner on Saturday evening at Chả Cá Thăng Long whose specialty is (wait for it…) chả cá thăng long, a dish prepared at the table made of fish with fresh dill and scallions, along with the usual Vietnamese accompaniments like vermicelli, fish sauce and peanuts. It was simple and delicious and went great with a couple of cold beers. Ak and I had no problem polishing off everything.

The next morning was our Hanoi street food tour with (wait for it…) Hanoi Street Food Tours. Our guide was Tu and he really knows his food! And he was kind of a riot. Hailing from the south of Vietnam (which I gather is a bit like being a New Yorker in terms of one’s demeanor), his decidedly straightforward approach took a moment or two to adjust to, but once I did, I found him to be both knowledgeable and pretty hilarious – for example, giving us the following advice about photographing: “Just take the pictures. Don’t ask first or they’ll just say no.” Tu himself is a pretty impressive photographer and is really good at the Instragrams. Check out his stream at vietnamesegod.

Tu was also very hands-on. Our very first meal was not at a food stand, but courtesy of a woman on the street with her carrying pole, a gas burner on one side and ingredients on the other. She made us a simple and tasty omelette – with Tu providing her with some very specific instructions on preparation, even grabbing her spatula at one point to help with the cooking and to make sure the omelet was cooked through.

While Ak and I were eating, our chef disappeared – leaving us with her plate and utensils. Tu explained that this was due to the police coming down the street. Apparently, this is a game that everyone plays here: the cops make the technically illegal vendors pack up and leave (or they just take off on their own); then everyone comes back in ten minutes and continues what they were doing.

We stopped at a cool cafe and juice place for a little pick-me-up – coffee for Ak and Tu, some really tasty fresh apple juice for me. A mom and dad were in there with their adorable little girl – and she couldn’t stop staring at Ak and me, likely due to our hairy (and monstrous, obv) visages. She kept looking back and forth, back and forth, with an expression on her face that bordered on terrified. When we tried to get a little closer and say hello, she immediately burst into tears. Eh, I’m used to that – it’s how most people respond when meeting me…

Other food on our tour included grilled pork skewers, crab noodles, a really cool cafe, stewed pork, coconut-coffee slushies (sublime!) and I’m sure I’m forgetting lots – but I took photos of most everything. Surprisingly, thanks to the portions not being crazy big and lots of walking, the amount of food didn’t feel overwhelming at all. It was a really fantastic morning! Our three hours with Tu were over in the blink of an eye and we were sad to see him go. A really excellent tour and I highly recommend it.

Ak and I spent the afternoon at the Ho Chi Minh complex. The mausoleum is currently closed for renovations, but we were able to check out the exterior of the building. We also visited the HCM Museum which was… odd. Given Uncle Ho’s importance to the founding of modern Vietnam, I was surprised at how unwelcoming the museum was. It was quite difficult to navigate, there were signs everywhere instructing “DON’T TOUCH” or “DON’T ENTER” or some other scolding message. The displays were a bit dated and definitely had something of a ‘70s Soviet feel to them – though with that being said, I certainly did leave the museum knowing more about Ho Chi Minh, his life and the history of colonialism and revolution in Vietnam.

After a lie-down and checking in on Mom’s vital signs, we went out for bún chả at (wait for it…) Bún Chả Ta. Ak had eaten here his first night and I hadn’t had bún chả yet, so it was a good choice and we both enjoyed our meals.

Afterwards, we headed off in search of the massage place Tu had pointed out earlier, advising they did a great foot massage. Well, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the picture I’d taken of the place contained its location in the metadata and pulled up the spot in Google Maps and we found it with no problem – even including a quick stop on the way at Bánh MR HEO, a little bakery specializing in pig-shaped waffle-y treats (IKR?).

Massages were fine. The place wasn’t exactly the most luxurious nor as clean as an operating room – but then the massages were US$5.00 – so the price-to-value ratio was just about unbeatable.

During my massage, three Western dudes came in and were carrying on a lively conversation in a language I couldn’t identify. At first, I thought it was Russian, but the sounds weren’t quite right. Was it Norwegian? Probably not. Turkish? I don’t think so. Anyway, I finally asked and it turns out they were Hungarian – they actually chatted me up a bit about the origins of the Hungarian language, which is to some extent shrouded in mystery. In an odd coincidence, the gal who was on the cruise in Ha Long Bay with us was also fluent in Hungarian! Maybe the fates are telling me to visit Hungary…

Back to the hotel then. Mom still alive and improving – but she did decide to skip tomorrow’s scheduled tour to Trang An. More to come on that!

You Are Doing It Right

It is actually just as delicious as it looks
I LOVE LOKUM

IM’ing with my friend the other day. She advises that she has only one row left of the box of lokum (that’s “Turkish delight” for any readers who are unsophisticated rubes…) I brought her from Istanbul. (N.B.: for those of my other friends who only got a sample of lokum, the reasons she got an entire box were that she specifically asked for it before I left and she was super-preggo… Of course, I’m still trying to figure out why I didn’t just bring home an entire suitcase-full, given that my own personal stash of lokum was gone by my third day back. God, I am an idiot…).

Now, despite being pretty sure of her answer, I had to ask, “Horizontal or vertical? That is, one row with one of each flavor? Or one last row of all one flavor?”

She replied, “Horizontal. One piece of each. What do you think I am, some sort of monster?”

She also followed up with the advice that she’d been eating it only while her husband was at work, so she wouldn’t have to share.

And this is why we’re friends… We really get each other.

Make History: Support the African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project

AAOHPMy friend, Dan Royles, is raising money via Kickstarter to support his work on the African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project.

Speaking as an HIV+ gay man who is white and solidly middle-class, I think the work Dan is doing is incredibly important, valuable and necessary. African Americans are disproportionately represented in new HIV infections, yet few of us have much understanding of what is being done to change this. Dan is preserving the voices and stories of those who are educating their communities about AIDS and HIV and working to keep this epidemic from being further marginalized – and giving historians the opportunity to learn from those whose work is not only unsung, but often unknown.

I hope you’ll join me in making a pledge to Dan’s project. And, perhaps even more importantly, I’d be extraordinarily grateful if you could share the link to his Kickstarter page among your various networks. I suspect most of my tens of readers have much larger social networks than I do. As I post this, there’re nine days left to raise nearly $3000, so the more people who see Dan’s project, the more likely he’ll reach his goal. Please share his link or this post far and wide. Thank you.

Alexis Morell Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan

So, I sent my friend Jean a link to the Colour Me Good ’80s coloring book (also available: the Ryan Gosling coloring book… swoon). And Jean, being a true friend, was at my desk in the blink of an eye, having immediately printed out the Alexis page for my coloring pleasure.

Now, I’m not much of an artist and have never had any talent for drawing. But, I have to say, my coloring job here is a fucking masterpiece. Though I sure wish I’d had a brown pen for the hair…

Also, it’s pronounced “Dinasty” – like in “dinner.” ‘Cause I’m fancy like that.

Keep Smiling, Keep Shining…

Drat – I realized I forgot to reattach my beam rack and trunk to my bike this morning. Meaning that despite packing my gym togs in my backpack, I don’t have my sneakers or padlock with me – thus being forced to skip the gym (again!) and instead spend the evening comparing the various models of Hoverounds and Jazzy Chairs to determine which is most appropriate for my active lifestyle*.

But, lucky for me, I’ve got friends who’ll help out. Or should I say, “lucky” for me, I’ve got “friends” who’ll “help out.”

Me: UGH. I forgot half my stuff for the gym, so now I can’t go. Actually, I have my clothes, but not my padlock. OH WELL – guess I’ll have to go home and finish off the Freixenet before it goes flat…

Compulsive gym-goer pal: I’ve got a lock. Here.

Me: Oh… Um, yeah. Thanks. But I’ll never remember the combination.

CGP: It’s (easily remembered 3-character alpha-numeric combo).

Me: Oh… Um… Well, I don’t have my flip-flops to wear in the shower. And my toenail is kinda effed up right now, so I’m sure I’d get a fungal infection immediately. It’s a total cootie vector.

CGP: I’ve got some extra flip-flops. Here.

Me: …

Me: …

Me: ALL RIGHT! I’LL GO! Jesus…

CGP: Have a great weekend!

That’s what friends are for!

Oh, and she also implied that I’m fat – which is actually an improvement. She usually just states it unequivocally. Also, her name rhymes with Shmemily.

Well, excuuuuuse me!

So, apparently being ill does not absolve me from posting regularly on my blog, according to a friend who shall remain nameless’ (though her name rhymes with Weena del Trampo) post on my Facebook complaining about the dearth of postings.

But yes, I have indeed been rather ill. I’ll spare my gentle readers the graphic details, but my ailments were located south of the equator. Here is a fairly accurate representation of what I was experiencing:

At any rate, I will do my best to return to posting with my usual frequency next week. Today, I have to finish writing my annual work performance self-review – a process almost as delightful as the photo above.

Une autre bonne semaine à NYC

Arrived without incident at JFK on Thursday afternoon. Took the Airtrain to Jamaica Station, then the E to West 4th. Incredibly easy  and only $7.50.

As usual, Ralph had a feast of cheese, salami, bread, wine and other treats waiting for me at his place. He also introduced me to Tête de Moine, a wonderful Swiss cheese that is served with a special device called a Girolle. It was absolutely delicious – plus when it is shaved off with the machine, the cheese resembles chanterelles. It was lovely…

Friday was a work day for both Ralph and me, though I did find time to walk up to Murray’s for a bagel and cream cheese. That evening we saw Follies – and both thought it was a fantastic show, funny and moving and beautiful. And I think I’m starting to become a hardcore theater queen – I recognized Danny Burstein (who played Buddy) from when I saw him in South Pacific as Luther Billis.

Post-theater dinner at Toalache, where we had margaritas, guacamole and tacos. Perfect for an 11PM meal. Then our usual visit to Posh for a bit of dancing and debauchery – though Ralph was disappointed that I didn’t do the robot more. But what could I do? The songs just weren’t robot-y enough… Of course, I did still break it down.

First stop on Saturday was at a street vendor in Soho. Ralph had sent me a super-cool (and super-appropriate) robot t-shirt for my birthday. He’d also kindly guessed that I’d wear a size small, apparently forgetting that I am un gros cochon. I’m happy to report that I successfully exchanged it for a size medium. Oh, and did I mention that the robot print glows in the dark! Perfect for when I’m out at the club, sippin’ that bubb…

Next stop was Sol Moscot, purveyor of eyeglasses on the Lower East Side. I found the perfect pair – and my vision coverage for new frames kicks in in the next few months. A good excuse for another trip to NYC… Not to mention that when people want to know where I got my cool specs, I’ll be able to respond, “Oh, they’re from New York. You can’t get them here. It’s impossible…”

After that, we decided to sample the macarons from bisous ciao. The verdict? Mostly excellent, especially salt caramel (duh) and blood orange with chocolate ganache.

That evening, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life at Film Forum, an interesting movie about Serge Gainsbourg. Dinner at Po on Cornelia St. It was sensational – we both had a marvelous grilled lamb with cherry tomato salad, along with an excellent bottle of wine. Oh, and I might’ve had some panna cotta for dessert – and a couple of glasses of vin santo… So, yes, it was an excellent evening.

Sunday was  lovely sunny day, so we walked along the promenade on the Hudson down to Battery Park City. Spent an hour or so in the Skyscraper Museum – small but quite interesting exhibition about the world’s tallest buildings. We got a glimpse of the September 11th Memorial, but despite being open to the public (visitor passes are booked months in advance), it’s still surrounded by construction. But what little I saw reinforced my view that it is a great success as both a memorial and lovely public space.

We also saw the still-under-construction 1 World Trade Center. I have to remind myself that, despite it being a deeply symbolic structure, it is ultimately a commercial office building. Which is too bad, in a way. I still think Daniel Libeskind’s original design is superior to the current design. I don’t dislike the building that is going up – but to a large degree, it’s just another glass tower, albeit a very tall one. But who knows? It’s not finished yet and may surprise me.

Sunday night, Ralph got us tickets to see Arias With a Twist, Joey Arias’ show with puppeteer Basil Twist. I think it was described as a drag-queen-on-acid-journeying-through-space-and-time – which is pretty much spot-on. Funny, innovative, with great visuals. We both enjoyed ourselves – though I realized what an old man I am when I commented after the show that I found it rather loud. Oy…

A small dinner of grilled artichokes and pizza in the East Village, then chez Ralph to finish off the macarons. A perfect end to an action-packed weekend.

Monday, I took the entire day off (i.e. no working remotely – yay!) and was up and at ’em early. First nipped down to Broadway for my usual stops at Topman (stocked up on tees) and Uniqlo (underpants – saw cute pants, too, but didn’t have the patience to try things on). I also picked up a pair of shoes at Chrome – which seems ridiculous, as they are an SF-based company whose shop is a five-minute bike ride from apartment. But they were having a San-Genarro-Festival-inspired sale, and the shoes I’d been coveting in SF were on sale for $25 instead of $60. So what if I had to wear them on my hands for the flight home..?

Picked up a spicy turkey sandwich, broccoli rabe and cauliflower to go at Torrisi, then headed over to Ralph’s studio. We shared lunch on a bench on the recently-opened Phase II of the Highline. The weather was glorious, the food delicious, the views delightful, the company charming. The Highline seems like a place that one could never grow weary of…

Then off to the American Museum of Natural History to see frogs! Turned out to be rather a trek, as a water main had flooded the uptown A and C subway tracks. I eventually made it to 72nd St. on the 2 train and schlepped myself to the museum. Frogs were fascinating (though pricey at $22). Also spent some quality time with the wapitis in the dioramas (though really I just like saying “wapiti”).

Dinner that night with Ralph, Michael and Justin at Hudson Clearwater. I’d read about this place before my trip and it sounded interesting. It’s sort of hidden – the address is on a street corner in the West Village, but the entrance is actually around the corner and there is no signage. Of course, I was also nervous that it wouldn’t have much going for it beyond the “secret” location – and that I’d be blamed in perpetuity by everyone for taking them to some lousy restaurant.

Happily, this was not the case. I liked everything about this place. Obviously, the highlight was spending the evening with dear friends that I don’t get to see as often as I’d like. As for the restaurant, the room was charming and lively, even though a bit cramped. The bartender was highly-skilled and gregarious. Our waitress was charming and helpful. And the food was excellent. I had a subtle and velvety vichyssoise, followed by a perfectly cooked pork tenderloin, with a salty crust and tender white beans. Shared a chocolate ganache with fresh fruit for dessert. A fine time was had by all…

Tuesday morning I worked in the morning, then headed up to the Metropolitan Museum after lunch. I have to say, this is probably my favorite museum in the world – walking up the Grand Staircase felt like meeting up with an old friend. The highlight of my visit was the Frans Halls show. Small, only a dozen or so paintings – but mesmerizing. I couldn’t tear myself away from Portrait of a Bearded Man – it is  sublime and, to my untrained eye, felt unexpectedly contemporary (something I noticed in much of his work being exhibited).

Strolled down Madison Ave. to another much newer but no less important temple of culture and beauty – Maison Ladurée’s just-opened outpost, their first in the United States. Framboise, fleur d’oranger, pomme verte, chocolat, caramel à la fleur de sel, pétales de rose, citron, et noix de coco. Plus, the store is like a jewel box, the boxes are beautiful, it’s like being in Paris, etc. Le sigh…

Once I was back down in the Village, I needed a snack (les macarons were for later…), so I had a dainty little sandwich from Amy’s Bread – and a not-insubstantial cannolo from Rocco’s. They are really the best cannoli I’ve had – and apparently now vermin free! On my last visit to NYC, the Health Dept. had shut them down…  Oops! But certainly glad to see them back in action.

Dinner that night at Smorgas Chef. I don’t know where I’d read about them, but the temptation of Swedish meatballs was too great to resist. Oh, yes – they were good. And the serving was quite large – sufficiently so that I had a serving leftover which I ate on the plane the next day (they were still delicious, too).

Finally, chez Ralph for les macarons and Prosecco. Ralph declared Ladurée the victor in our ongoing quest to find (and devour) the best macarons. I have already promised him a blind taste-test of local selections when he’s here in SF next…

And then, poof! It’s 545AM and I’m in a car on the way to JFK. Before I even realize it, I’m back in SF. And while it’s nice to come home (and to see my little kitty-cat), I sure do miss NYC… But I’ll be back soon – I need those new eyeglasses!