So long, 2019! Hello, 2020!

Hello and Happy New Year to one and all! This has been a fast-paced year for Quynh and I (didn’t we just celebrate 2019’s new year?) and 2020 doesn’t look any different. I don’t believe in making New Year’s resolutions, but I *do* believe in reflecting on the past year and making adjustments for the year upcoming. With that, here’s a reflection of our goings-on of the past year:

Jan 2019: First full year @ SIEMENS

I started working for Siemens in Jan 2018 not knowing at all what I’d gotten myself into. Am I an engineer? An electrician? An HVAC technician? This uncertainty had me wondering if I’d be a good fit. Two years later, this is the happiest I’ve been at any job and I can say for sure: it’s a good fit.

I’ve even made a hobby of finding Siemens branches and taking photos when vacationing overseas. OK, so it’s only happened in Hà Nội, but it has happened!

Feb 2019: My first Tét experience

Tết was once described in a movie as “…New Years, Christmas, and Thanksgiving all rolled into one.” I hadn’t experienced a real Tét in the States so I hadn’t any idea what to expect of the real deal. Well, the movie wasn’t wrong!

I learned how to chúc Tét (wishing a happy new year), and because Ong Hung is a neighborhood celebrity, got to practice with half of Mai Dịch.

I started this blog after visiting Ha Noi for Tét and I swear I will finish writing the series of posts from my travel journal soon!

Mar 2019: Mom has a medical emergency

Shortly after we got back to the US from Việt Nam, Viet Momma had a seizure on the way back from the market and ended up in hospital. We had for years surmised she’d developed adult-onset epilepsy. As it would happen, mom had a AVM on her brain that was bleeding and causing seizures.

Thanks to the generosity of her managers allowing her to work remotely, the kindness of her family for letting her couch surf, and the luck that we were financially prepared to help out; Q set off back to Ha Noi until momma got better.

Side Note: I didn’t starve and neither Noodle nor the house plants died while she was gone. I’d like to consider that a personal win.

Aug 2019: First full year with Noodle

We became Noodle’s staff (let’s be honest: cats own us, not the other way around) in August 2018. She had us from “Good Meow-ning” and we took her home that day. She has since converted me into a cat person, liberated our yard from invading feral cats, and climbed almost every surface in the house. She even comes when called!

Nov 2019: First visit to Nashville

We do, too!

With both of us having NO paid vacation remaining, we needed to rely on long holiday weekends to do any traveling. Though we would certainly catch Hell for it later, we skipped Thanksgiving with our family and drove our 18-year-old Toyota the 678 miles to Nashville.

Nashville has a lot to offer, but most of it was closed while we were there. We met great people, ate great food, and (best of all) tried something new.


“O that a man might know
The end of this day’s business ere it come!
But it sufficeth that the day will end
And then the end be known.”

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”

Though we’re not much for resolutions, we do have a couple of things we’re looking forward to this year:

– Returning to Viet Nam sometime in April
– Restoring our weekly hike routine. We didn’t hike at all in 2019!
– Buckling down and blogging more consistently. I’ve got a lot to tell ya, and it isn’t getting done.

Work has occupied a lot of my time lately with long hours at the job site, a long commute, and the customary flotsam that comes about after hours. As such, I’ve been lax in keeping this blog updated. If you’re willing to spend the time to read this, I’m willing to be more consistent in the publishing.

What about you? How was 2019 and what’s in store for 2020?

“Joe! My MPGs!”

Hello all! I know I said I’d be posting an update Sunday night (I meant to! Honest!), but that pillow felt a whole lot nicer than I’d expected. Spoiler alert: I slept like a child.

As our impromptu holiday drew to an end, I still had a few boxes left unchecked. Santa’s Pub? Some other time. Honky Tonks? Maybe if they’re open… now. Athena’s Statue? I am a nerd. The weather was crummy, the traffic going back to DC was stacking, and frankly I felt like death from the absurd amounts of food consumed in such a short time. But, as Bluto said in Animal House, “Did we give up when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!”

Exactly.

I had to choose my parting memory of Nashville, and that would be a Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich.

We had some time to kill until any of the shops opened, so we braved the rain and headed for a downtown pedestrian bridge. As luck would have it, the rain let up long enough for us to walk a bit of downtown and enjoy some music coming from an early morning honky-tonk.

Eventually we stopped by the Red Bicycle cafe for some crepes and coffee. The place was packed but the food and coffee were on point. As we left, a kitter stopped and demanded tribute. “Meow!”, she cried. Now, most kitters would skitter if you got too close, but this one stood fast and demanded pets. I, a weak man, obliged.

My captor, “Smudge”

Folks inside the cafe pointed and smiled as I’d been captured at paw-point by the toughest cat in town. I paid my ransom with chin rubs and pets until a neighborhood doggo came through and occupied my hostage taker. Seizing the moment, Q and I snuck out to the car.

We shopped around a bit at a local leather shop (Nisolo) then made our way to my final box. Now, Nashville is to hot chicken as Philly is to cheese steaks. Hattie B’s and Prince’s are the Pat & Gino’s of Hot Chicken, and I was determined to get one of ’em.

Until I saw the lines! We swung by two Hattie B locations with lines out the door and no parking in sight. Prince’s was out of the way, but a local spot “Party Fowl” caught my eye.

Side note: “Pine’s Party Fowl” was the name of my team during the Siemens Cookoff this year. What did we offer? CHICKEN SANDWICHES!

The place was packed but the bar was open. Having read reviews, I opted for a medium-spicy hot chicken & cheddar and a local brown ale. Q was fighting off a serious head-ache, but I devoured my sandwich like I’d not eaten in days. This concoction of fried chicken, bacon, cheese, and spice was everything I’d hoped it would be since I’d first tasted a Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich. I would get it again in a heartbeat, but spicier.

Hot chicken & cheddar @ Party Fowl

Bellies full and wallets lightened, we headed home. Twelve-ish hours later, we reached the driveway at 2:00 am. The cat, thoroughly convinced we were dead, was beyond happy to see us and did not leave Q’s side all night.

The cat is GLUED to Quynh

We’d happily return to Nashville, though likely we’d be flying rather than driving. If we had it to do again, we’d probably plan better on the “What’s open on Thanksgiving” side of things, as well as figuring out how not to eat to the point of gluttony. I’d also be curious to come back and check out the myriad state parks in the surrounding area.

Thanks to all who followed this blog for this trip!

If you are what you eat, I am everything.

Good evening, all! Do you know what’s nice about Black Friday? Stores and restaurants are actually open!

After a quick hotel breakfast, we made way to Bicentennial Park near the State Capitol Building. The park’s carillon played the Tennessee Waltz; peacefully carrying across the plaza to all passers-by.

I really enjoyed the sense of pride displayed in this park. Several small monuments showcased Tennessee’s contribution to WWII, the transformation from territory to statehood, even the timeline from 10,000 B.C. to now. Clearly inspired by the monuments back home in DC, this was a stop worth making.

Tennessee WWII memorial
Tennessee WWII memorial

Next to the park is the Nashville Farm Market, an indoor / heated outdoor market featuring local vendors and uniquely local food. Q enjoyed walking through the garden center while I hemmed and hawed over coffee. Neither of us bought anything (some Black Friday shoppers we are!), but definitely a place we’d like to come back to.

Who doesn’t?

“Onward!” shouted Quynh as we climbed in the RAV4. She had selected our next target: a coffee shop chain in the 12 South neighborhood, Frothy Monkey.

12 South is a cute neighborhood that has, for better or worse, been overrun by hipsters. This has brought an abundance of beards and boutique shops to the area, and murals on the buildings that set the scene for every Instagraminista’s next post. The coffee shop had a line out the door (I would find out why later), so coffee was abandoned for neighborhood sight-seeing.

Down a few stores is Imogene + Willie, a Nashville clothier housed in a 1950’s service station. Though the clothes felt solid, $265 for denim is about $200 more than I can justify. We left impressed with the merchandise (I can see why their jeans are raved about) but ultimately bewildered that enough people purchase to make the business viable.

Not my photo! Photo by Imogene & Willie

As we bounced from store to store Quynh began to fall in love with the myriad yoga studios here- 3 on one block! We found a few murals, explored White’s Mercantile (purveyor of US Made and Southern Made goods), and enjoyed lunch at Burger Up.

Found near a restaurant dumpster.
Caught this couple almost holding hands

Lunch was delicious, as burgers with fried eggs often are. This restaurant makes their aioli and Jack Daniels maple ketchup in house, and it’s so good: we bought some. Is it worth 8/10 dollars per bottle? Time will tell, but in the moment: YES!

The Woodstock Burger (somewhere under the egg, promise.) at Burger Up, 12 South

Full of burgers and beer, we jumped across town to the West Nashville / Nations neighborhood to find a store specializing in ethically made products for Q. The store is small and honestly, shopping with me in tow is like hunting with the game warden. I saw myself out and over to a table at, you guessed it– The Frothy Monkey!

🐒

I now understand why the line was out the door. This “coffee shop” also serves beer and wine all day, as well as a full breakfast menu. I enjoyed my Irish coffee, caught up on the day’s news, and enjoyed a bit of people watching. Fact: the two barista I saw looked like Zoey Deschanel and Woody Allen. Shoulda grabbed a picture!

Spotted behind The Frothy Monkey

Folks, in case you’ve not noticed: all we do is eat and sleep while on holiday! I promised Quynh we’d go to a local vegetarian restaurant for dinner, but we’d have to clear some room first. We parked in Downtown Nashville and walked around a bit to burn off the day’s grazings. Some of this downtown reminded me of Philly, then you get to the honky tonks and you are definitely in Nashville. We missed a drunken performance from Kid Rock by six hours, bummer!

Spotted in a downtown shopping arcade.

Q’s vegetarian choice is a recently relocated local favorite, The Wild Cow (or Mad Cow as I remembered it). We lucked out and got sat next to a couple of regulars who had, uh, enjoyed everything the bar had to offer. Great folks who gave solid recommendations for dinner as well as where to buy good beer for the trip back home. The food was great, but neither of us finished… How could we? All we do is eat!

I write this lying on the couch struggling to live, my stomach stuffed to the brim. Tomorrow we’ll be checking out and hitting the last few bits of Nashville before starting the trek back to Maryland. I have a few more boxes to check before we go, but so far this visit has me wanting to come again.

Until tomorrow!

No plan survives first contact…

Operation Random City is on! After a white knuckle overnight Odyssey, full of gale force winds and swaying tractor-trailers, we pulled safely into the parking lot at Hyatt Place Nashville Airport. Though windy and dark, I-81’s isolation from civilization lent us a beautiful view of the stars and an almost story book view of sleeping town’s streets lit up in wait.

With barely a half-night’s sleep between us, we dove into bed at 7:30 and slept like it was our job.

Quick note about our hotel: Q picked this hotel from Costco’s travel services because they had a great price and a great location (and, you know, COSTCO!). I’ve never been to a Hyatt property, but the décor is modern and thoughtfully layed out with amenities that aren’t half-assed attempts at a renovation. I’ll post more on this later, but so far a fan!

What was intended to be a two hour nap turned into a five hour refresher. Since most everything is closed on Thanksgiving day, we ventured over to Nashville’s #1 attraction: The Parthenon. What we didn’t account for was the park being under renovation to reposition a monument and make the park pollinator friendly! Aish…. While we didn’t get to appreciate [what will eventually be] the splendor of this park, we did get to enjoy the detail and artistry of the Parthenon’s exterior.

Nashville’s Parthenon. Not pictured: EVERYTHING under renovation 😫
My man on the right is about to have a bad time (horse hoof)
“What sharp teeth you have, Grandma…”

Our Tenne-Greco excursion ended and nect began our search for food. Neither of us had eaten anything but kimbap for the last 15 hours. Now, folks– I had always figured DC was the same as anywhere with people staying open year ’round to feed the masses. Apparently Nashville is a bit more traditional. Thanksgiving in Nashville means almost everything that isn’t a chain (and even most chains) were closed. Thanksgiving dinner was looking endangered.

Of the five restaurants we called, zero were open. With Trip Advisor guiding us, we drove around the neighborhoods looking for open restaurants, sadly to no avail. This led to a fairly non-traditional leap: Indian (Asian, not indigenous). We showed up to Sindoore just as they opened and feasted on bird, veggie, potato, and bread; Thanksgiving was saved!

This pilgrim ate with the Indians.

There’s a saying in conflict that goes “No plan survives first contact…” which means no matter how well you plan, something will go awry. Things we learned today:

  1. Overnight driving is cool… if you’re both well-rested from the onset.
  2. Kimbap is the best road trip food ever.
  3. Nashville is not D.C. and most restaurants are not open on Thanksgiving.
  4. I have located all the hot chicken places I want to try, now I need a bigger stomach!

Edit: We found warmer weather, too! Let’s hear it for a technicality!

Thanksgiving Road Trip!

Hey, everyone! Quynh and I are readying up the wagons for a Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Nashville, TN in search of warmer weather and sights unseen. What’s in Nashville, you wonder? I haven’t a clue. 

Things I know about Nashville:

  • Nashville hot chicken sandwiches?
  • Dukes of Hazzard Museum (Though it took place in Georgia and filmed in CA!)
  • Food hub of the American South
  • There is a place called Santa’s Pub that is a double-wide trailer with a dude dressed like Santa selling beer out of his fridge. This stop will be a priority.

We’ve got a new set of tires, a fresh oil change, kimbap, a playlist full of K-drama soundtracks, and 4 days to burn. Stay tuned!

If you have any suggestions on things to see or do in such a short time (Santa’s Pub, OBVIOUSLY!) please don’t be shy!

Screenshot 2019-11-26 at 16.38.30
Taking bets on when Q falls asleep…

Hà Nội Round Two: Day 1

Quỳnh and I returned to Hà Nội for Tết 2019. Visiting for Tết, as I would come to learn, is completely different from visiting any other time of year. Businesses close for the week, streets are empty (because the businesses are closed), and every sign and advertisement is wishing you “Chúc mừng năm mới!”

Ngày 1 / Day 1

3 airports, 8 in-flight movies (New York to Korea without sound), and 21 hours in the air and I finally land at Nội Bài airport. One might wonder as to why, with such an itinerary, I would watch movies without sound. Dear readers, the answer is simple: I had my headphones plugged into wrong jack.

As I (and consequently the fella next to me) learned, the headphone jack is not standardized across manufacturers. Sitting in the middle I had a jack to both my left and my right, so I picked based on my last flight. I received the in-flight announcements, and intermittent sound that didn’t match up with what I was viewing. Of course, that’s because I was listening to whatever the guy next to me was playing!

Well, by this time I had forgotten about the jack to my left and the guy to my right wasn’t saying anything so I figured perhaps I just had a busted screen. After those movies I’m not any closer to being a lip reader, but I’m muuuuch better at making a narrative!

C’est la vie.

I landed at Nội Bài, greeted with that familiar humidity and men in green uniforms. At the customs line I figured I would try the Vietnamese I’d been practicing all month. I approached the officer and, beaming with pride, hit him with the clearest Vietnamese I could muster. He smiled and said nothing, looked over my passport, stamps me, and says “…. đội mũ…” I had missed the first part of what he said, but I understood mũ (hat) but doi? I thought “doi” meant hungry! Oh no! So I did like any foreigner would do: Smiled and laughed. I know he said something about my hat– my inner optimist thinks he liked my hat, loved it even. As it turns out, the Vietnamese have three words for wear. He used one of the two I didn’t know. Since I missed the first part of his sentence, my memory shall always be that he liked my hat 🙂

I found my luggage, walked into the busy arrivals area where mom & Quynh awaited me.

One happy dude with his two favorite ladies. Not pictured: Sweet 80’s Viet jams on the radio.

To make things easier, we booked an Airbnb through a friend and stayed in the Nghia Tan neighborhood of Hanoi. Our homestay, Hanoi 1991, was clean, fun, and perfectly located. As I arrived around lunch, mom made a delicious multi-plate meal (all vegetarian) and watched us dig in.

Mom’s “Welcome home!” meal. If I could cook half as good as she, this would be Nha Hang Really Fat Joe’s.

 

 

 

Mom’s banquet included Tết-staple Bánh Chưng (sticky rice cake), braised radish and vegan Viet ham, bún (rice noodle), mushroom pate, and toast! Now, no meal in Hà Nội is eaten properly unless you’re on some kind of children’s furniture- so we busted out the tiny blue plastic table that would be the site of every home cooked meal in the house.

Quỳnh warned me we had a lot of folks to see today. Feeling the onset of food coma rapidly approaching, I teased my body with a quick nap and a hot shower. Within two hours of lunch, we were off to meet Ông Hùng (Grandpa) in Mai Dịch.

Dad spruced up the house with a bit of peach blossom for Tet.

 

His smile wide, “Xin chao!” passes his lips with a hug following close behind. He asks me a question as he surreptitiously lights his cigarette. (His granddaughter has been lecturing him about smoking)

“Coffee or tea?”

Not one to wait for the indecisive, Ông brings me instant coffee and readies tea. You know, just in case.

Visiting Ông is always a good time. Smiles and laughter come easily, wine and tea flow freely. The unmistakable aroma of Vinataba cigarettes fills the air and in a flash every memory of our previous visit passes before me.

Though we expected to have a meal with the Mai Dịch family, Dad was out in the province and Co Xuyen was teaching. We opted instead to enjoy a table full of Tết snacks and bring each other up to speed on the goings on of the last month. As cigarette number two folded in the ashtray, we saw ourselves out and headed to Grandma’s for dinner.

Readers, in case you don’t know: Tết is a holiday where you are obliged to go around to visit everyone you know to wish them well. With family you’ll eat meals and in between meals you’ll go “Chúc Tết” (read: well wishing).  During said well-wishing, you will be watered and fed (sometimes liquored) regardless of your stomach’s capacity. My advice? Make it work!

Grandma lives in a flat down an alley across from Hồ Chí Minh’s mausoleum. Many of the alleys in this area look identical. My landmark here is a street vendor selling Bia Hanoi and cigarettes. Quynh told me once that this same vendor has been there since she was a kid– I hope this vendor is hear for a while because without her I’m lost.

The alleyway to Grandma’s house. You know the way, right??

When we arrived, Grandma and Dì Trang had cooked their butts off. In typical Joe and Q fashion, we were a bit late (eek!) but everyone was lighthearted and glad to see us. My cousins Tú and Vũ were there and seemingly tuned into grown men in just two years! Tú looks like a Viet rock star. Honestly, I’m envious of his look– I look like Gomer Pyle and he could be Viet John Stamos (90’s John Stamos, of course).

Sisters Bông and Ỉn (pet names for kids) also grew up overnight. Both had been so small only 20 months ago, now they were walkin’, talkin’ people!

Dinner was had with everyone gathered around the tatami mat eating and talking. Though I was full to the gills with airplane food, lunch, beer, and tea; the food was too yummy to say no! Finishing dinner, I listened intently (but none-the-less confusedly) to the conversation. I didn’t understand much of it, but basically everyone was nominating me to get Grandma to come upstairs and take a group picture. It took a fair amount of begging, some butchered Viet, and a lot of cramming but we got a great picture in the end.

img_20190204_1913455030172233791749339.jpg
Left to right: Chu Hai, Bong, Di Trang, Di Saboche, Mom, In, Grandma, Vu, Me, Tu, Quynh

Mom, Q, and I headed back to the home-stay and ended the night with some flower gelatin mom bought (yes, more food!). It might be the food, or the dimly lit room, or the occasional scooter passing within inches of the door, but it hits me that truly I’m back in Hà Nội. It’s hot, it’s noisy, and it’s polluted. Traffic is crazy and I’m sleeping on a bamboo mattress. I love it.

Next time: Day 2!

Chào mừng quý khách!

Welcome, honored guests, to Fat Joe’s. Two years ago, my wife and I returned to her hometown of Ha Noi to get married. During that visit I fell in love. With my wife of course, but with also with a city and country that has one foot firmly rooted in and clinging to tradition, the other dancing on the cutting edge of modernization.

Fast forward two years: The novelty of visiting a foreign country has worn off and we’re back for Tet holiday. I’m still enamored by the pulsing dichotomy that is Ha Noi, if not more so than before. We had originally planned to retire in Viet Nam, now our goals are firmly aligned for a 2-3 year time horizon.

This blog (Sometime vlog? Sometimes journal?) is a diary of everyday life from now ’til then. At the very least I hope to introduce someone(s) to another perspective of life. At best I hope to inspire someone(s) to ignore the unnecessary and travel a bit.

So here’s to you, dear reader! In Viet Nam it’s common to name a restaurant after “Fat XXX”. I invite you to enjoy your meal in my virtual VIP booth here at Nha Hang Joe Beo (Fat Joe’s Restaurant).

=====

Chào mừng quý khách đến nhà hàng Joe Béo. Hai năm trước, vợ chồng tôi trở về quê hương Hà Nội để kết hôn. Trong chuyến thăm đó tôi đã yêu. Với vợ tôi, tất nhiên, nhưng với một thành phố và đất nước có một chân vững chắc và bám lấy truyền thống, chân kia nhảy múa trên đỉnh cao của hiện đại hóa.

Chuyển tiếp nhanh hai năm: Sự mới lạ của việc đến thăm một quốc gia nước ngoài đã biến mất và chúng tôi trở lại vào kỳ nghỉ Tết. Tôi vẫn bị mê hoặc bởi sự phân đôi xung là Hà Nội, nếu không muốn nói là nhiều hơn trước. Ban đầu chúng tôi đã có kế hoạch nghỉ hưu ở Việt Nam, bây giờ các mục tiêu của chúng tôi được liên kết chặt chẽ trong khoảng thời gian 2-3 năm.

Blog này (Đôi khi vlog? Đôi khi tạp chí?) Là một cuốn nhật ký của cuộc sống hàng ngày từ bây giờ cho đến khi. Ít nhất tôi hy vọng sẽ giới thiệu ai đó với một góc nhìn khác về cuộc sống. Tốt nhất tôi hy vọng sẽ truyền cảm hứng cho ai đó để bỏ qua những thứ không cần thiết và đi du lịch một chút.

Vì vậy, đây là cho bạn, độc giả thân mến! Ở Việt Nam, người ta thường đặt tên một nhà hàng theo tên “Fat XXX”. Tôi mời bạn thưởng thức bữa ăn của bạn trong gian hàng VIP ảo của tôi ở đây tại Nha Hang Joe Beo (Nhà hàng Fat Joe’s).