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Well,  of course it is!  Ben and I left our “5 star bubble” late last week to return to “TreeTown”.  Gasp, I have to learn how to make my own bed again. Horrors!

So at dinner last night, (I know, how can I possibly eat again? Ask Ben:  I can always sleep and always eat. Charming in its own way, I have always thought.) I was asked what country I preferred:  Japan or Vietnam. So let me frame the answer in this way:   When I was in the marketing  business, one of the ways in which we measured customer loyalty, was by asking clients these three questions:  “ how likely are you to repurchase, how likely are you to buy more, and lastly, and most telling, how likely are you to recommend our product to a friend?”.

So, with respect to the first two questions, I only turn 60 once, and so my next big travel trip will be somewhere new.   On the second question,  neither my wallet or my waistline can afford to buy more! Question three is an interesting one:  all other factors being equal, such as age and stage and means, where would I send friends to, Japan or Vietnam?

For me, the answer is Japan.

We were chatting to a well travelled older man over breakfast in Saigon, who firmly disagreed with that preference.  He said, with some vehemence actually, that “Japan was sterile, fixed in place, no future.” He may have something there:   the birthrate in Japan is one of the lowest in the world, and the population is aging quickly.  I read a novel last year by famous author Haruki Murakami: one of the themes has precocious  girls  growing into successful women who no longer needed or even wanted men in their lives, except for, delicately put, “their equipment”, and even that was optional. In a very over simplfied equation:  no men + no marriage, equals no babies. This is how a culture dies.

So yes. Vietnam is a country with a huge future. (Conditional on the formula of “Communist Capitalism” and Globalism meets huge personal ambition and desire for progress is not derailed by some other external force).  And since I cannot foretell the future, I cannot predict how it will turn out.  However, it may involve lots of cars.

Our guide in Hanoi said that only students use bicycles, because they cannot afford scooters.  And people only use scooters because they cannot afford cars. You can see where this is going.  Saigon is constructing its first subway, so I can predict fewer scooters. Which will be replaced by cars. Cars remain aspirational here, the ultimate mobile symbol of personal and family progress. However, subway says communal good:  car says individual wealth.  We will see how the one Party rules.

Japan is a living museum.  Many of its traditions are dying.  And not being replaced or renewed.  So get there literally before its gone.

So we return to the streets of Saigon:  we had the obligatory (and sad) tour of the “AmericanWar” museum, a culinary evening via vintage Vespas, and a wilder daytime tour of the many street markets. The last two were highlights of our time in Vietnam.  Funny how you can quickly learn to trust a teenager with kind eyes when she says “let me help you”, when she clicks your helmet  into place and says “ready” before she plunges her bike again into the mayhem of Saigon traffic, whispering are  you ready for “The Wild Ride”? *

 

* Actually, that’s a lie.  “Wild Ride” is an infectious mid-nineties honky tonk song by country singer, Dwight Yokum.  It is highly improbable that a teenager born a minute ago, half way around the world, would know that song.  But I liked how it fit with the rhythm of the paragraph as a closing sentence.  And you know, she could have known it, possibly might have heard it, you know, if pigs were purple.  And that my friends, is how “fake news” starts. End transmission.

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Almost a week ago, we left the carefully controlled, cool, precise world of Japan, for the erratic, messy, hot world of Vietnam.  Worlds apart.  Confession: I spent so much time sorting out our trip to Japan, that I ignored the Vietnamese portion of the journey.  I just knew we going to Hanoi & Halong Bay (the subject of this post) and then HoiAn and finishing in Saigon.  (And yes, everyone here calls it Saigon, not the Ho Chi Min City, despite of how much  “Uncle Ho” is revered here).

When I told Ben that I wanted to go to Japan for my upcoming special birthday (60th) he suggested that if we were going to go that far, why not add another country?  I immediately said Vietnam, without checking first what the weather would be.  And it’s the double whammy for Ben of heat (34) & humidity (60%+). I had gone to South East Asia ten years ago, but in our winter.  So we find ourselves at the Four Seasons, and every night, rinsing out sweaty underwear to hang in the very elegant outdoor shower.   I am sure that the maids had a chuckle at the Canadians who are so cheap that they won’t use the laundry service.

Did I mention that my handsome husband Ben was a frugal Scot?

So Vietnam.  How to capture in words or even photos, the frenetic energy, the  tangible dynamism, the passion for growth?  Hanoi, the capital, is overrun with scooters, nimbly moving in and out of lanes, carrying full families (and dogs on occasion) or elegant women covered completely in colourful “scooter burkas.” ( I just made that up, but truly, the fabrics are pretty, but under the helmets, only the focused black eyes show)

While I make no claim to be an expert on comparative religions, something of the difference in cultures may be found there.  In Japan, Shintoism & Buddahism coexist quite comfortably:  as our guide said, “Shintoism is a form of animism, so we can worship spirits in nature and ask them for help during our life.  Buddahism deals with the afterlife & reincarnation, so we revere and ask the ancestors for help in the next life”. So as Ben observed, you’ve got it covered both ways.  Practical.

Here in Vietnam,  some people are Buddhists,  a smaller number are Christian, and the majority, well, the guide said with a shrug, nothing.  Based on the rate of entrepreneurial activity, the welcome given to foreign investment, and the aggressive property development that we observed in our week in  Vietnam, you might come to the conclusion that all that matters is growth. Communist capitalism if you will.

But ancestors matter too:  in fact they have  one day a year where they celebrate the lives of their dead family members, with food, music and parties.  Sounded like Mexico and the Day of the Dead to us.  In fact, we saw a lot of parallels between the people of  Vietnam and Mexico:  both nations have endured centuries of colonization and the devastating affects of imperialism.  And yet they remain hard working, positive, warm, friendly, accepting of others.

How did we spend our three days in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi?  Well, we ate.  (Ben and I are putting on weight like the Titanic took on water. Sigh)  We spent a sobering hour in the “Hanoi Hilton”, so nicknamed by downed American flyers, including John  McCain during the American War.   That prison has a more gruesome past, as the place where the French imprisoned, tortured and sometimes guillotined the Vietnamese who tried to over throw their 100 years of brutal French domination.  The notion of French Indochina no longer has romance for me.

 

We spent a fascinating hour with an American expat & veteran who became involved in the anti-war movement after his discharge. As a result, his parents refused to talk to him for years:  the pain of that remembrance brought all three of us to tears.   Another expat of the same generation took us through her fabulous art gallery home:  the moment I walked in, I thought of San Miguel de Allende.   As it happens, she has good friends who have just moved there, and she is planning a trip soon.

 

 

 

So, in the interests of saving time, and frankly, just having a lark, I chose a seaplane transfer from Hanoi airport to Ha Long Bay, one of the most beautiful places on earth. (And how else can you meet an investment banker from Istanbul with multiple passports, including Canadian, who keeps a pied a terre in Dubai for tax purposes.  He was so handsome that 2 giggling Chinese girls had their photo taken with him. He drew the line at a kiss, however. )

Legends say that in ancient times, dragons appeared to fight off the invaders from the north (mmmh, I wonder what country that would be) and when they vanquished them, they dropped emeralds in the sea that became the beautiful islands we see now.

We only spent one night at sea, and while it was nice to be sleeping on a boat again, but I am not sure that I converted Ben to cruising.  Might be because they made us wear these silly outfits.

 

 

 

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As most of you know, we spend the winter in the lovely colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, about three hours north of Mexico City, high in the dry mountain desert.  San Miguel has had periods of great prosperity, and in those times, impressive mansions and ornate churches in the Spanish Baroque architectural style were built.   In the early 19th century, at the start of the Mexican War of Independence,  the Spanish military laid waste to the town, looting the homes of the conspirators and destroying their factories and fields. The population dropped quickly from over 100,000 to 12,000 or so.  

Their gift to an unimagined future, was that all of those beautiful buildings would be preserved. 

Kyoto, has a similar, but much more recent past.  In WWII, it was exempted from the US aerial bombing program that the rest of Japan suffered.  So much of the old town still has cobblestone streets,  lined with ancient homes, shrines, and temples.  Like San Miguel, it is a holiday destination, and is incredibly popular with Chinese, Korean and Japanese tourists. Popularity has its price:   the streets on weekends are overwhelming busy and we were thankful that we could retreat to our air conditioned car, even if we were barely moving.  Parking? Not possible. 

Food markets in foreign places are my kind of tourist attraction.  The Kyoto market was  painfully crowded but we managed to see some interesting and unique foodstuffs as we shuffled along.  Green tea marshmallows, black sesame ice cream, little bits of pastel spaghetti  that turned into pretty surreal creatures when deep fried! 

There are an astonishing number of restaurants, crowded into tiny laneways along the river.  After walking up and down a “restaurant row” for 20 minutes, we settled on a busy sushi spot. Ben says that traveller wisdom has taught him to find a place that is full of locals who know good food and students who know a good deal. Outside one such spot, we  put our name down on a long list and sat with about ten others to wait. Forty minutes later, we were seated at the sushi bar, watching those wizards with knives work their magic, yelling out traditional greetings and goodbyes all night.  Great entertainment and excellent fresh fish.  

The night before, we had been advised eat to dine in our hotel with the best tempura chef in all Japan. Really.  Naturally, the multi course Michelin starred meal was wonderful, and for Western palates, unique and interesting.  Each morsel of fish or vegetable was coated with a barely perceptible,  translucent batter. (Not the average fish & chips from your local pub!)  My first ever morsel of Kobe beef was wrapped in a mint leaf and it was extraordinary.   White asparagus was my favourite of the vegetable courses.  The dinner was almost surgical in execution:  one man in white, one knife, one fry station, and not a wisp or whiff of grease.  The meal ended with a deep fried egg yolk topped with black caviar and an elaborate berry parfait from the in-house French patisserie.  The very elegant older Japanese woman seated to our left ate 15 courses with relish, but left the dessert behind.  Pity. 

 

Kyoto is associated with the tradition of the Geiko (Geisha) and Maiko (a geisha in seven years of formal training).  They live and practice their beautiful ancient art forms in preserved historical areas called “flower towns’.  The world of the geisha, like some other ancient traditions in Japan, is not, as Ben would say, “a growth industry”:  fewer younger women are choosing the role for economic and social reasons. 

An article I read pointed out that there will be broader consequences when the tradition withers away:   for generations, the “flower towns” have supported a whole eco-system of crafts people, including families who make their wooden platform shoes, the exquisite hair ornaments, the wigs, the fans, the umbrellas, the musical instruments  and  the 12 delicate, unique and expensive silk kimonos required for each Geisha.  Some of their outfits can cost upwards of $25,000 USD!   For the entertainment events that they host, they commission the best chefs, the best seasonal banquets, the best sake & tea, and the most beautiful floral arrangements.  These are supplier relationships, professional and personal, have been cultivated over generations. 

Another factor in the profession’s decline is that there are few wealthy patrons who are willing to personally sponsor a geisha, or pay to stage the elaborate musical and dancing performances that are the highlight of their artwork.   So modern geishas take roles in movies or theatre, work with the local hotels to create special events for groups, or leave the industry after training to work in hospitality.  

But here is the final indignity:  geishas and maiko are being mobbed by untutored tourists who demand photographs, grab at their outfits and try to steal souvenirs from their hair, costumes, or take valuable pieces of jewellery.  So they are confined during the day to their small group homes in the historic district, and their clients arrive only after dark to avoid the curious tourist crush. And their cameras.

Frankly, Kyoto was a bit of a disappointment for us, with the huge crowds and the artificial, somewhat Disney like atmosphere ie. women choosing to rent geisha kimonos and mince along the streets.  Perhaps it was just our tour, but the palaces, shrines and their gardens were pretty and historical, but really not very interesting.    Could I say that about San Miguel, which is mobbed by Mexican tourists every weekend and sometimes feels a little Disneyish itself? A question to think on.

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Those of you who are familiar with Japanese cuisine  would recognize the name of a popular conveyance for a mid-day meal.  Plastic or wood, lacquered or enamelled, to call them just a “lunch box”, is like calling tango just a dance:  it may fit in the same genre, but the underlying meaning might be very different. 

A Bento Box is an expression of a mother’s care, a wife’s devotion (or indifference) and a single persons defiant independence.  Like a Bento Box, Tokyo is incredibly clean, the city (or Box) divided into neighbourhoods which are discrete entities, and the city is clever or beautiful or charming in design by turn.  And much more green than than we expected:  there are many public parks for walking through, preferably in a Zen state of mindfulness, or just for admiring from a distance ( like the huge ones for the personal use of the Emperor and family).

In totality, the city is unfailingly neat. Precise.  As are most of its inhabitants. 

 

An unexpected and welcome feature of our visit to Tokyo was the attention paid to personal hygiene.  Unlike in Beijing, where you must “mouth breathe” to survive in the crowded subway cars, nothing to do with bodily functions and odors is left to chance here:  most Japanese bath once a day, and some women bath twice.  The toilets themselves made me giggle, and when was the last time you laughed out loud while on the toilet?  There are buttons which control the pressure of the spray of water up your nether regions, fast or slow, front or back, and then will deodorize and clean the bowl after you go. When Artifical Intelligence is applied to bodily functions, the Japanese will be the first to apply “deep learning” algorithms to the lower intestine.  

Another completely inexplicable (to us)  passion of the Japanese was Kabuki Theatre.  These highly stylized and formal plays were created  around the time of Shakespeare.  Of course Shakespeare’s plays are now performed by both men and women, but the Kabuki tradition is still male.  (And that is just one of the ways in which a favorable bias toward males is displayed in Japan:  this is not a culture that has embraced gender equality.) The audience was very engaged, clapping enthusiastically at points in the action or dialogue that meant nothing to Ben and I.  Apparently, the play we saw has been “wildly popular”  for 400 years! So we returned our simulcast displays and snuck out during intermission.  

We spent some time in 2 art major galleries:  the beautiful Nezu was full of Japanese treasures from the Bronze Age and gorgeous grounds, some captured in my photos. The National Arts Museum had a special exhibit of Impressionist paintings, collected  in the 19th & early 20th century by a wealthy European businessman and art lover.  That exhibit was packed, with people 3 deep,  proceeding silently in an orderly fashion from painting to painting.  I asked our guide why it was so popular and she said well, it’s a national holiday but also, the Japanese will revere anything that is also revered in the West.  Hence all of the Prada skirts and Louis Vuitton bags I presume. 

I don’t pretend to understand or be able to communicate the nuances of Japanese culture:  the movie “Lost in Translation” actually made sense after only a day here.  For example, Ben called the incessant bowing, “Death by a Thousand Thank -Yous”.   Now, we are staying in one of the city’s  top hotels, so sure, a little “bowing and scraping” might be expected.  But they do tend to fall over each other.  Their smiles actually became broader when they learned that we are Canadians.  

How could I forget another mystery to Western eyes, Sumo Wrestling!  We went to a small “sumo stable”, one that had been prominent in its time but no longer.    What surprised me was the obvious dedication and physical effort these young men (the oldest was 37) put into their daily morning routines. ( I thought the “sport” was just 2 obese guys noisily pushing each other around).  About 30 minutes into the practice, they were sweating, red with exertion and from being slapped, pushed and pummelled by the other fellows.  Two men lined up across from each other in a small circle of  sand , crouched down on all fours, ape like, staring each other down.  When one made his move, they smashed into the other, trying to get purchase on a chest, an arm or the piece of cloth wrapped around the loins (and no, there were no wardrobe malfunctions, and given the pimply state of some exposed bums, it would not have been a thrill. There was one cute one though)   The objective was to push the other either on his back or out of the ring, and the bouts were fast and furious.  They practice daily for only 6 competitions a year  that take place in major cities on raised platforms surrounded by a least a thousand fans. As a national sport, it is diminishing in popularity, being replaced by more lucrative spectator sports like basketball and baseball.

 

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Very little gets me out of bed early in the morning.  The aroma of coffee perhaps.  The sound of the Sunday newspaper hitting the front door.  The prospect of heading out predawn to a fish market, could only happen in Tokyo.

My destination is Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the world, and the source of fish and seafood for chefs, specialty fish and grocery stores all over the globe. There are high end sushi chefs  in New York that design their evening menus around what is fresh and best at Tsukiji this morning.

Since I chose to put this market visit  on our Tokyo itinerary (and dragged poor Ben along) I made a sincere effort to be, if not alert, at least not comatose.  In ill fitting rubber boots and neon bright vests, we met our attractive young guide at the hotel at 4:20am and the handsome sushi chef just outside the market. (He does not have a restaurant:  he is a chef who is great demand by a global, celebrity filled clientele.  If you had to choose between say, David Chang of Momofuku restaurant fame, and this fellow, I know who I would pick 🙂 We were warned repeatedly about getting in the way of the small one man forklifts that buzz around the stalls like determined hornets at a picnic.

The normal, almost excessive, politeness of Japanese culture does not apply here.   This is a place of business, most of which happens between the hours of 4 and 5.  In the words of my Finn friend, “You Snooze, You Lose”.

Our chef host for the morning was a good customer of the wholesaler who provided our passage into the market.  (The public is allowed in at 10, after the real commercial action is over. ) After the shrimp and tuna auctions, we walked carefully to their stall  to watch the process of breaking down a large fresh tuna, dodging forklifts, trucks, and splashing in puddles tinged with blood. But absolutely no fishy smell, anywhere!

Even at wholesale prices, these fish are expensive:  the one in my photo was $6,000 USD.  (Whole tuna prices have exceeed half a milllion!) First, the carcass is carefully partitioned into quarters along the length and then sliced through with an extremely long specialized knife:  it was at least 10’! The  man was incredibly focused as he sliced into that tough shimmery grey skin, looking for just the right angle to separate out the precious loin.

Next, an expert butcher carefully sliced off large portions for sale to high end sushi restaurants.  For a watchful restaurant customer, (she had already taken photos of her chosen piece, presumably to email back to the chef) he cut and packaged up a sizeable chunk like it was a delicate piece of Japanese porcelain.  Our guide told us that sushi of this grade is reserved for special occasions, perhaps seen on a family table only a couple of times a year.

The details are still being finalized, but soon the 82 year old market will be moved to a new location outside of the city.   It is showing its age, with its rusted girders, bare bulb lights hanging down and ramshackle stalls. Only 2/3 of the stalls here will move with it and a lot of traditional family businesses like this wholesaler will disappear.

 

 

 

 

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(Sing to the tune of “Hungry Heart” by the Boss. )

TreeTown, is of course, my tongue in cheek moniker for Oakville, the town where I now live with my handsome husband of almost 3 years! We just arrived here from our winter vacation home in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, and it has been unseasonably cold.  As in, a foot of snow fell yesterday on our poor, beleaguered daffodils! But you know, all Canadians are hardy souls, snowshoeing to school & work, building igloos for outhouses, using icicles as tooth picks, etc etc.  

Whenever I come back to Oakville from the beauty and warmth of San Miguel, I try to think about what I appreciate about this place. ( Sometimes, like when I slip down the ice on our front stairs, I have to go a little deeper into that gratitude well 🙂

So what is wonderful about springtime in Oakville, Ontario?

Those harbingers of spring, robins, are so plump they risk toppling forward on their shiny red breasts. 

Reuniting with the sailing crowd, the gardening guild, my spinning buddies, the book club and my precious neighbours who are always up for a coffee and a chat.

Homes built in the last century have huge yards that, for a brief period,  are carpeted with hundreds of bluebells which are the intense azure blue of the spring sky and Lake Ontario.  

You can jog for 5 miles along a flat road nicknamed the “Gold Coast”,  where the homes have yards so big that the garden services guys need porta potties.   Now, I wonder if that is because they are worried that they can’t make it back to the main house in time, or because “The Help”, is not allowed to use the indoor facilities.  With so many bathrooms, who would miss an errant flush or 2?  Does “The Help ” say it all?

 

The Boys of Summer:  outside the window of the gym, I can see the intrepid paddle boarders in wet suits, going up and down 16 Mile  Creek (really a river) with measured, slow stokes as they push the ice out of the way.  These lads start training early!  By mid summer, they are effortlessly moving up and down the water, dodging sail and power  boats, and dazzling the ladies with their naked finely carved V shaped backs and broad shoulders. Oh my.

Apples, apples & more apples.   In  Mexico, apple choices are limited to those miserable & mean green apples, mushy Macs, only good for sauce,  and yellow and red Delicious, that are anything but.  There are Royal Galas occasionally, but the quality is uneven.  

So think about the average grocery store apple aisle in Ontario, where you can gaze on many glorious apple varieties that are still tasty, firm, and aromatic, even if they have sat in bins since harvest in the fall of 2017.   Pink Lady, Spartan, Idared, Cortland, Fuiji, Ambrosia, and the aptly named Honeycrisp. 

And not least in my gratitude journal, is waking every day to the sound of three sets of church bells and the pretty sound of song birds, all looking for love & like me, hoping that the snow will finally melt.

 

***  of course, nothing and no where is perfect.  So what drives me around the bend about living in Oakville? Beyond the wealth that permits a family to have a Mazeratti as a third car?  Range Rover driving, Lululemon wearing, Starbucks swilling, iPhone chatting, (while driving to hot yoga class course)   “yummy mummy’s.”  These women could likely run a Fortune 500 Company, but since hubby has taken on the big kahuna provider role, they are left to nash over drapery choices for their enormous, picture perfect homes which have stunning modern kitchens that rarely see a dirty pot or  pan.  (Whole Foods takeout & Pusatari’s Gourmet do very well here)  And does the idea of a room devoted just to gift wrapping make you slightly nauseous?  It’s a strange bubble out here.  I am still working my mind around it.

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Asked a good friend from Toronto, upon reading my latest email account which attempted to cover all of the wonderful  food that we have consumed in our past 3 months in San Miguel de Allende, our winter vacation home.  Our great dining experiences have not just been in restaurants either:  there are some really good cooks here who have never donned the whites.  And fortunately for us, some of them are our friends. (This means you Cathy, Lorain, and of course, Sharon)

But in 7 short days,  it’s over. At least for the next 6 months, where my husband Ben and I will be sitting in front of a desultory bread basket in Oakville, Ontario looking at a menu of over priced and average food, wondering when can we get back!  So as a pictorial reminder to me and and as a temptation to all of you who have been thinking about visiting us or coming again, here is a sample of what you missed this winter.

P.S. And the answer of course,  is not really, sometimes we get off our butts and waddle around.  Until the next meal, of course.

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