Quynh Nguyen

Bright and dark

Dining with myself

Eating alone is not something that humans are used to doing. Our ancestors, the cavemen and cavewomen, did the hunting and the eating together. We evolved as social creatures, and since then we have assigned the sociality to eating. Cultures have built their cuisines around the dining tables, with plates to share and food to enjoyed together. Therefore the solo diner is often looked down upon, or more accurately, furtively glanced at, with a bit of pity, and sometimes, contempt.

So – what happens to our modern lifestyles where most of the times we have to eat alone? We know that breakfasts and lunches are often eaten alone, with the exception of “free food” sometimes masked as work lunches. And surprisingly many dinners now are eaten alone too, badly devoured sometimes when one’s still at the desk in the office (just bad, I have to tell you, for your mental wellbeing as well as your waistline), or in front of Netflix (another bad habit) or, in the late night, when one’s secretly gulping down a chocolate bar or a McDonalds because “I was so stressed today”.

Our lives and routines today require us to eat alone. It is inevitable and should not be treated as a subject that raises concern. So what do one do when one eats alone – either in the comfort of home or at a restaurant?

1. Watch your speed

If you notice, meals when shared often have a healthy “flow” of going back and forth between you and your company. Either you share a dish, or even if you each enjoy your dish it is more likely you will chat about it, slotting in the intervals and the mini breaks between eating. Eating alone is stripped off of that. No more back and forth, no more tidbits of conversations between bite sizes of food. Just be mindful of this and slow down our eating and even taking breaks between dishes, your tummy will thank you for that.

2. Keep an eye on portion size

Do you know that portion size is on the rise? Over the past 30 years restaurants, retailers, markets… have increased portion size and been charging more for it. So in a way, yes, we grow bigger and stronger  (if we always eat healthily and exercise and keep our stress levels under control and have absolutely no hormonal problems whatsoever but who does that?) but in reality we only grow fatter and spend way more on food. Eating alone takes away the opportunity to share plates, and you will without doubt find you are eating more of whatever it is being served or that delicious dish you have cooked, because you don’t want food to go to waste.

3. Relax

I know – all eyes are on you! Breakfast and lunch in a cafe is okay, but dinner at a restaurant, where all tables around have families or couples locked in an invisible embrace over the table – you will feel the pressure. Relax, and focus on how tasty your food is, how nice it feels to sit there, because if you don’t relax, you can’t digest, you will have an upset tummy and a hard time sleeping at night, which just feeds you more stress, sorry.

4. Strike a conversation

Many times when I eat alone in restaurants people will leave me in peace (especially if I bring my book or magazine – I try to limit the use of phones because I know it’ll give me indigestion). But sometimes another person will decide to talk to me – or I to them. And conversations with someone outside your normal everyday circle – albeit just a one-timer – are still good and healthy. Chat up, talk about the meal, talk about the book you are reading, or if you are traveling then talk about the trip. It’ll spice things up.

5. Walk

I like eating alone especially because it gives me the freedom to do what I want before and after a meal. I can decide whenever I want to sit down and eat, what I want to order, and what I want to do after the meal. All too often when you dine with other people the after-meal thing to do will be desserts or drinks and for me that is something not high on the priority list. I like a good walk after a meal, some fresh air and time and space for the food to go down. So even if you have failed to watch your speed, control your portion or relax, you can still always go for a walk after that big, “solitary” meal you’ve just had 🙂


So chin up when you say “Just one please!” because another day, you might say “Table for two” or “Can I reserve a large table for 10?” Haha!



How not to die (and you know, live better)

I am reading a book called How not to die (by Michael Greger, MD). Funny title right. Well it is not about how to live forever, but it is more about how not to die of (xyz – name the common diseases or medical conditions you can think of like diabetes, hypertension, heart attacks, infection…) so think of it like a handbook to good health. I know this is not a subject that interests many of you but being a bit of a “healthnut” I find myself fascinated by the book. It deals essentially and charmingly with one simple thing that we all do, and offen forget to do well: eat. 

Nutrition plays a much more important role in the prevention of diseases. My grandma always says: “You are sick because of what you eat (and you are in danger because of what you say).” Nothing could be said better. What we eat (or maybe we don’t eat) shapes us not only physically but also mentally and socially. 

So, about 2-3 months ago, I started to develop a sort of bad habit in my diet – I find myself able to eat larger portions and fit in desserts after the main meal (which is something I never ever had a thing for). It didn’t just happen overnight, but more over a series of social functions where it was just nice or enjoyable or the right thing to eat a big meal or to have some decadence dishes or desserts. A few months passed by and I noticed my appetite and energy levels started to change: I turned from someone who didn’t need to snack and who would always have stable energy levels to someone who would feel sleepy after I eat sugar treats or start to have fluctuating appetites and hunger levels. Well, that had to stop. 

By cutting down on sugar and the need to eat frequent meals (now I almost always eat 2 meals a day, following roughly a 16-8 Intermittent Fasting scheme ) I begin to have a better grip on my body and my energy levels and my ability to focus on other things (and not what to eat) improves. Comes with that the nice feeling when your stomach is rumbling a little, but you know it’s working and it is healthier to leave some space and time for body to work its magic. 

Another thing I notice is that eating mindfully (without sounding like a hippy) which is just simply slowing down, paying attention to the taste and flavour and texture of the food or even how much you are enjoying it, makes a huge difference in how your body digests it. It almost seems like the more TLC (yes tender loving care, not some strange supplements) you are giving to your tummy, the more it gives back in return. That said, I also went through a phase of Netflixing while I ate, and that also had to Stop – it was just not worth it.

So it can all be done, say hello to a happier and a stronger you, by just eating better. I am just starting my journey, but I can’t wait! 

So let’s think about this

Now let’s think about this.

We are born into this life to live.

Part of the living is working.

Let me get this straight from the beginning – I love working. It gives me a sense of purpose and achievement. It also broadens my mind and tests my skills. It lets me improve processes and help people. It makes me feel content.

But I also have the other parts of living to fulfill.

Now let’s think about time.

Time is probably the only element in life that you can’t escape.

We need time to live our life. So better make time become your friend, not your enemy, not your competitor, and definitely not your dictator.

Now, most of us mortals spend 5 days a week, 8 hours a day working, which makes for approximately 40 hours of working a week.

That leaves us 16 hours per day. In those 16 hours, 8 hours are used for eating, sleeping, personal hygiene activities.

In the 8 hours left, what do we do?

If we’re lucky, we don’t have to spend much of those 8 hours commuting to where we want to go.

But most of us are not lucky, so let’s take out 1-2 hours commuting a day. Dealing with traffic, fun, eh?

So 6 hours left. The questions we might want to think about are:

Can we fit all of the other elements of ‘living’ into this 6 hours?

Can we fulfill our “human” and “humane” needs?

Can we further ourselves and understand our souls?

Do we have enough time with our family?

Do we have enough time for fitness and health? (In the end, you have your own body to take care of.)

Do we have time to understand the purpose of being here, and what good can we do?

Or, are we just gonna pass away like most humans do?

I’m not advocating for the 4-working-day-week if it’s done individually.

Rather, I’m thinking about the whole system of things. The whole way corporations have set out to be from the beginning. The whole school of thought we’re trained to be thinking in.

How about we rethink?

Vâng, tui là người khó tính. (Yes, I can be difficult)

Vâng, tui xin công nhận, tui là người khó tính.

Nhưng bạn hãy thử nghĩ xem, tui và bạn, chung sống dưới một mái toà nhà, thì chúng ta cũng nên hiểu nhau một tí chứ nhỉ?

Tui và bạn, ai cũng có headphone, vậy mà tui đeo vào, còn bạn thì không.

Tui và bạn, ai cũng thích nghe nhạc, vậy mà tui nghe nhạc mình tui thôi, còn bạn thì nghe là cả phòng cùng nghe.

Tui nghĩ âm nhạc nó có tiếng nói lớn lắm, vang vọng lắm. Nó nói về cả một con người, cả một văn hoá. Nó nói về nhiều thứ, mà nếu có người cứ oang oang như vậy, bạn thấy sao?

Tui và bạn, ai cũng ăn trưa.

Tui và bạn, có khi ăn ở trong, có khi ăn ở ngoài.

Tui ăn xong, tui đem ra rửa. Tui rửa xong, tui úp.

Bạn ăn xong, bạn quăng đó. Ai rửa, ai úp?

Tui nghĩ thói ăn nó cũng có tiếng nói lớn lắm, vang vọng lắm. Nó nói về cả một con người, cả một văn hoá. Nó nói về nhiều thứ, mà nếu có người cứ quăng bừa bãi vậy, bạn thấy sao?

Tui và bạn, ai cũng có tiếng nói, tiếng cười.

Tui và bạn, có người giọng cao, có người giọng trầm, có người giọng chẳng cao chẳng trầm.

Nhưng về âm lượng, tui nghĩ ai cũng có thể điều chỉnh được.

Tui nghĩ tiếng nói, tiếng cười nó nói lên nhiều thứ lắm. Nếu mà bạn mua nhầm cái loa mà bạn không điều chỉnh âm lượng được, bạn thấy sao?

Tui vốn nói ít, nhưng tui mong bạn hiểu nhiều. Còn bạn hiểu được hay không, chắc tui chỉ có thể hy vọng. Hehe.

Yes, I can be difficult.

You and I, we work under the same roof, so I think there are a few things we should understand about each other.

You and I, we both have headphones, but I put them on, whereas you don’t.

You and I, we love our music. But I listen to them by myself, whereas you make all of us listen to yours.

I think, music can speak a lot about a person. And if there’s someone blasting at you like that, what do you reckon?

You and I, we both eat.

After I eat, I clean my dishes and put them away.

After you eat, you leave them lying around dirty. Who will clean them for you?

I think eating etiquette reflects a person’s personality. And if there’s someone who keeps leaving dirty things around you, what do you reckon?

You and I, we both talk. We both laugh.

You and I, each of us has our unique tone of voice.

But volume is something we all can control.

Your volume speaks volumes about your personality (pun intended). If you buy a speaker with a faulty volume control, what do you reckon?

I like to keep it short, subtle and maybe a little bit sweet. I hope you can taste all of that.

Những gì làm mình vui

Trước giờ mình hay nghĩ về những gì làm mình buồn, hoặc những thứ làm mình không hài lòng, làm mình thất vọng và chán nản. Mình hay nghĩ về những gì mình có thể sửa đổi, những thứ mà nếu là mình thì mình sẽ làm khác đi, những thứ mà mình muốn dẹp bỏ và những thứ mà mình muốn vứt bỏ.

Nhưng dạo gần đây có một thế lực âm thầm nhưng mạnh mẽ mang tên thời gian đã làm mình dần thay đổi. Những thứ mà trước kia mình thường nhảy đong đỏng lên phản đối hoặc biện minh thì giờ đây mình lặng lẽ hơn và điềm tĩnh hơn. Những thứ mà trước kia mình mài giũa câu nói cho sắc lẻm để tha hồ mà tung chưởng (người ta có câu Ngòi bút sắc hơn cả kiếm) thì giờ đây mình mài cho nó tròn lại để bổ sung chứ không phải để chọc thủng. Những thứ mà ngày xưa não mình ghi dấu lại để tua đi tua lại cho bõ ghét thì giờ đây mình học cách buông ra. Cũng vì vậy mà tự nhiên mình để ý và thấy được những thứ làm mình vui nhiều hơn là làm mình giận. Những niềm vui đó đơn giản nhưng lại buộc chặt vào thời gian. Vì nếu không có thời gian, mình đã không bao giờ hiểu ra được những điều này.

Mình vui khi thấy mọi người trong gia đình khoẻ mạnh. Có lẽ không có gì có thể nặng nề hơn cái bệnh ở trong nhà.

Mình vui khi mình mang cơm trưa cho một người bạn, sau bao năm năm tháng tháng người đó hay cho mình ăn.

Mình vui khi S gửi mình những hình ảnh khùng khùng điên điên trên Viber.

Mình vui khi mình nói chuyện với một người bạn thân từ thời thơ ấu, nhưng vì tính cách trầm bổng mà có lúc cũng hay cách xa.

Mình vui khi gia đình mình có người mới. Và đó là một người mình quý.

Mình vui khi mình được tặng sách.

Mình vui khi mình đi may áo dài và diện áo dài.

Mình vui khi mình đánh được màu son đẹp. Vui hơn khi có người chịu khó ngồi tô tô vẽ vẽ son cho mình.

Mình vui khi mình ngửi mùi mưa. Mình vui khi bước ra đường trời tắt nắng mà cũng chưa mưa.

Mình vui khi có người khen mình mặc áo cam rất đẹp trong buổi tiệc cưới của anh.

Mình vui khi mình lắng nghe mọi người tranh cãi (bàn luận). Mình vui khi mình có thể giúp mỗi bên hiểu nhau được thêm một ít.

Mình vui khi mình biết chậm lại để nghe tâm tư của người khác, nhưng không phải để chỉ trích mà để chấp nhận.

Mình vui khi mình biết nói lời xin lỗi và người kia hiểu được sự chân thành của nó.

Mình vui khi mình được đi shopping với má, mình vui vì má là một người bạn thân nhất của mình.

Mình vui khi mình pha được ly cafe đúng ý và khi mình nằm xuống giường với ly cafe và cuốn sách.

(Cái này hơi lạ, mình cũng không hiểu): Mình vui những đêm mình biết là mọi người sẽ lục đục chuẩn bị coi đá banh.

Mình vui khi mình đọc.

Mình vui khi mình nghe nhạc.

Mình vui khi mình viết.

Mình vui khi mình gạt qua những suy nghĩ tiêu cực, bỏ đi những lời dằn vặt tự tua đi tua lại, dập tắt tiếng nói lải nhải từ trong đầu mình.

Mình vui khi mình chấp nhận những gì khi trước mình nghĩ là dở và hiểu nó là 1 phần của cuộc sống, vd. thời gian, tuổi tác, những khác biệt, tranh cãi… Mình vui khi mình ngưng chất vấn chính bản thân mình.

Things that make me happy

I used to ponder over things that made me sad, angry or disappointed. I slept on things that made me frustrated. I thought about things or people that I’d have loved to fix, things that I’d do differently if it were me, things that I’d like to throw away or eradicate.

Recently, time has had a wonderful effect on me. Time is a strong and powerful force, though it is very subtle. There were many things that would send me jumping up and down (in frustration), now I see them more calmly and more gently. Words that I sharpened in order to fight (for the pen is mightier than the sword), now I learn to work on them so they can build instead of piercing to ruin. Things over which I agonized for days and months, now I learn to let them go. So now in a natural way, I learn to notice more and more things that make me happy. The simple little joys I learn to appreciate with time, for without time, I would never have learned their value.

I’m happy when my family is healthy. Nothing takes away happiness as quickly as sickness.

I’m happy when I bring lunch for a friend at work, after many times she has fed me so generously.

I’m happy when S sends me funny emoticons on Viber.

I’m happy when I talk to my long-time friend and cousin, a friendship that has gone through many ups and downs.

I’m happy when there’s a new member in the family. Someone I really like.

I’m happy when people give me books.

I’m happy when I have my áo dài made.

I’m happy when I pick up a nice shade of lipstick. I’m happy when a friend takes her time to put the lipstick on for me.

I’m happy when I smell the rain.

I’m happy when I get compliments on a dress I wear.

I’m happy when I listen to debates or arguments. When I can, to the best of my capacity, help each side understand a little bit more of the other.

I’m happy when I slow down to listen more. When I listen not to criticize but to learn and accept.

I’m happy when I know how to say sorry and mean it. When the other person understands my sincerity.

I’m happy when I go shopping with my mum. I’m happy to have her as my best friend.

I’m happy when I make a good coffee and settle down with a good book.

I’m happy when I know people are getting excited each night for the World Cup (Strange, I know!)

I’m happy when I read.

I’m happy when I listen to my music.

I’m happy when I write.

I’m happy when I can get rid of the negative thoughts, stop the self-destructive criticisms and learn to silence the nagging voice inside me.

I’m happy when I know how to accept certain things as parts of life: time, age, differences, arguments, and points of views…

I’m happy when I know how to stop doubting myself.

Những gì chạm đến tôi

Trong cuộc sống, có những thứ bạn đọc và bạn thấy nó quá hay và quá phù hợp vào một thời điểm nào đó, nó cứ dai dẳng ở với bạn hoài. Trong cuộc sống của tôi, tôi đã đọc rất nhiều thứ và cũng còn rất nhiều thứ tôi chưa đọc và sẽ đọc, nhưng có vài thứ tôi đọc nó cứ ở lại hoài vì nó chạm đến tôi thật mạnh và thật sâu sắc. Và sau đây là một vài những thứ ấy.

Về thời gian, tôi nhớ bài “Vội vàng” của nhà thơ Xuân Diệu.

Trong chương trình giáo khoa Ngữ Văn từ lớp 1 tới lớp 12, tôi nhớ nhất bài thơ này. Vì ý nghĩa về thời gian của nó sâu sắc đến nỗi nó vượt cả thời gian. “Xuân đương tới nghĩa là xuân đương qua. Xuân còn non nghĩa là xuân sẽ già.” Những câu thơ quá đẹp vì nó quá thật. Mà sự thật thì thường có những yếu tố sau: Đẹp, đúng, và đôi khi sẽ mở mắt ta hoặc sẽ làm ta đau lòng. Bài học về thời gian thì bài thơ này không dạy tôi, nhưng bài thơ này gói gọn những cảm xúc của riêng tác giả về thời gian quá đúng ý tôi mà đến bây giờ, nghĩ đến thời gian, đến sự trôi qua lẳng lặng và lặng lẽ và liên tục của nó, tôi không thể quên “Vội Vàng”.

Về tầng lớp, tôi nhớ “Anna Karenina” của đại văn hào Leo Tolstoy.

Đây là một đại tác phẩm, một đại tiểu thuyết, một tiểu thuyết duy nhất và đích thực theo lời ông tự nhận xét về kho tàng văn học của chính mình. Đây là một tác phẩm đồ sộ với những nhân vật đồ sộ cả về tầng lớp, tính cách lẫn danh vọng. Anna Karenina khiến tôi nhận ra rằng tầng lớp là một phần không thể thiếu của xã hội. Người ta có thể dùng nó, có thể đau khổ vì nó, có thể lợi dụng nó, có thể chống lại nó, có thể khoe nó, nhưng không thể thoát khỏi nó. Tầng lớp không chỉ được nhìn qua một lăng kính trắng đen rõ rệt rằng ai thống trị và ai bị thống trị, ai cao và ai thấp, ai xấu và ai tốt, mà nó cũng lộn xộn, rắc rối và đầy màu sắc như những con người tạo ra nó.

Về bản năng, tôi nhớ đến “Blindness” của nhà văn José Saramago.

Một cuốn sách tuyệt vời và nó thật đến nỗi tôi muốn nói rằng đây là hành trang cuộc sống cần đọc. Một nhà văn dũng cảm dám nhìn nhận thẳng vào loài người và dùng trí tưởng tượng của mình để khơi dậy những bản năng của loài người. Tôi nhớ về thời gian đọc Blindness và cảm thấy mọi tâm lý, suy nghĩ, tình cảm, bản năng của con người được tác giả gửi gắm vào tác phẩm một cách chăm chút nhất và đối với tôi, nó là một bản phân tích loài người thật hoàn hảo.

Về trí tưởng tượng, tôi nhớ đến “Neverwhere” của nhà văn Neil Gaiman.

Đây là một bức tranh bằng chữ được tác giả vẽ nên sử dụng thật nhiều màu sắc và thật nhiều tầng nghĩa. Chính vì thế tác phẩm trở nên chặt chẽ, lôi cuốn và phong phú hơn bất kỳ những cuốn khác cùng thể loại mà tôi từng đọc. Sự lồng ghép khéo léo giữa đời thường và con người thường vào một thế giới lạ khiến tôi bị cuốn theo từng dòng chữ, từng chương sách, từng nhân vật, từng cái tên, từng ngõ hẻm, và giúp tôi nhận ra rằng trí tưởng tượng sẽ đưa người ta đến bất cứ mọi nơi.

Về nỗi sợ, tôi nhớ đến “We need to talk about Kevin” của nhà văn Lionel Shriver.

Thật kinh hoàng khi chương sách này dẫn đến chương sách khác và mở ra một nỗi kinh hoàng khác, một sự việc khủng khiếp tồi tệ khác. Tiểu thuyết này làm tôi rùng mình và nhận ra nỗi sợ không mơ hồ mà nó rất thật. Đó là sự sợ hãi của một người mẹ mang thai một đứa con khi cô ấy không muốn, đó là sự sợ hãi của đứa con khi đối mặt với một người mẹ lạnh nhạt, đó là sự sợ hãi của cả xã hội với một gia đình suy đồi và nguy hại. Cả cuốn sách dậy mùi sợ hãi.

Về sự rùng rợn, tôi nhớ đến “1984″ của nhà văn George Orwell.

Cảm giác đáng sợ nhất là cảm giác bị theo dõi. Điều rùng rợn của 1984 là cuốn sách vẽ nên một viễn cảnh thật rùng rợn và có vẻ như không tưởng nhưng thật ra lại hoàn toàn có thể.

Về cảm xúc, tôi nhớ đến “The God of Small Things” của nhà văn Arundhati Roy.

2 năm trước khi tôi có được quyển sách này tôi đã không đọc nó. Tôi không đọc vì tôi biết rằng mình sẽ không hiểu và không cảm được nó. Gần đây tôi đọc và tôi thấy tác giả dệt những dòng cảm xúc thành một tấm thảm thật dày và thật nhiều màu sắc cũng như văn hoá Ấn Độ. Đây là một tác phẩm đơn giản nhưng nó đã làm lung lay cả mạch cảm xúc của tôi bởi vì nó lạ đến mức hơi kỳ quái.

Về quá khứ, tôi nhớ đến đoạn đầu của bài báo tựa đề “Leaving ‘Tracks’ behind” của Robyn Davidson.

“The past caves away and dissolves behind us, leaving a few clues with which we try to reconstruct it. Hopeless task. History lives in the present.”

Tôi nhận ra rằng quá khứ là một sản phẩm của suy nghĩ, của tâm trí, và quá khứ thường hay thích đánh lừa mình. Nếu chúng ta mải đuổi theo quá khứ để gầy dựng lại nó thì thật là vô nghĩa và phí hoài thời gian.

Về sự thanh tao, tôi nhớ đến bài tản văn “Một thứ quà của lúa non: Cốm” của nhà văn Thạch Lam.

Ông viết văn diễn tả rất hay, và ông có thể dùng những từ tinh tế nhất, chính xác nhất đến từng nét nghĩa nhỏ, để diễn tả một món ăn, một nếp nghĩ, một món quà từ thiên nhiên, một tặng vật là cái hồn của xứ Bắc.

Về cảm giác thư thái cho riêng mình, tôi nhớ đến bài luận “The world as I see it” được viết bởi nhà tư tưởng Albert Einstein.

Những gì ông viết chạm đến tôi theo một cách mà tôi từng nghĩ sẽ chẳng bao giờ mình hiểu được. Tôi nghĩ rằng thật khó có thể giải thích trọn vẹn những điều ý nhị sâu xa mà bạn hãy dành vài phút để đọc bài ông viết bất cứ khi nào bạn muốn.

Article: 10 things I miss about Australia (Reposted)

Last Christmas and New Year’s celebration, Steve and I had a chance to go back to visit Australia and the family. It was my first time there, and also my first time in a Western country. I had a chance to explore Melbourne and Sale, a small lovely city in the Gippsland region of Victoria. It was a lovely and unforgettable experience.

Coming back inspired and nostalgic, I wrote a small article about Australia and the things that made me fall in love with the places I visited.

The article then got published in the Victorian Probus Magazine, thanks to David McGrath and Frances McGrath (Steve’s parents) who read it out loud during their Australia Day’s celebration gathering.

Here is the link to the article: http://issuu.com/ralfie11/docs/probian_february/13?e=11134064/7025291

I am going to do a repost of the article here on my blog.

10 things I miss about Australia

Number 1: The fresh air

I cannot stress it enough. Every time I travel outside of Saigon, I feel refreshed. In Australia, it was even more so. The air was fresh, crisp, cold and totally free of pollution. One sniff of the air and I didn’t even need any coffee to wake me up. Compared to Saigon where the air is now so polluted and grey, fresh air is really a luxury.

Number 2: The quietness

In Australia, noise really stands out. No honking in traffic, no shouting, no loud talk in restaurants. At night, no ambulance alarm or anything. It was really quiet. For the majority of our trip, we stayed in Hurstbridge and were surrounded by the bush, it was even more quiet. We also spent a few days in Paynesville, a quiet little town surrounded by the water. The most distinctive sounds are birds chirping or flying, trees fluttering in the wind, or waves crashing onto the shore.

Number 3: The coffee

I know, I know, a lot of you are looking at me skeptically. Vietnamese coffee is supposed to be one of the best in the world, right? But I do miss the availability of good Italian coffees in the city: cappuccinos, espressos, flat whites, you name it. Cafes are ubiquitous in Melbourne laneways and a cup of good, strong, creamy coffee is almost always available. Price is not always good, of course.

Number 4: The traffic

In Melbourne, you can read the traffic. People actually follow rules, there are lanes, proper lights and roundabouts, and there are GPS devices installed in the car. Therefore it felt extremely safe in traffic. I also like having choice when it comes to getting around: cars, public transport (trains, trams), walking… For a motorbike-phobe like me, it’s really a big deal.

Number 5: The walking

In Australia, I complained that my feet hurt because of walking. Back here, I am thankful for it. A lifestyle with lots of walking actually does your body good. It means you probably don’t have to set aside time for the gym or a treadmill. It means feeling more awake and refreshed in the morning. It means no bloating or feeling heavy. The downside is sore feet, but like any type of exercise, your body will get used to it.

Number 6: The wildlife

In our trip we spotted many creatures in the wild. We went to Raymond Island on a 2-minute ferry from Paynesville to see koalas living in the wild (photos to come). We spotted a big, tall kangaroo just standing on the road looking at us. During our car trip from Paynesville to Melbourne, we saw a little echidna crossing the road, slowly, gently, with absolutely no fear of coming traffic. We saw a wallaby standing by the road looking curiously at the car. Almost bumped into one standing in the middle of the road at night. Birds are everywhere: cockatoos, galahs, kookaburras, hawks, eagles… I’ve never been much of a bird-watcher, but after this trip, I am definitely much more interested.

Number 7: The food

Fish and chips. Steak. Fresh, juicy, bold. The ability to buy good wines almost anywhere, at reasonable prices. Big supermarkets with lots of choices for anything. However, fruits lose compared to Vietnam. 😉

Number 8: The beach

Big bold waves, blue water as clear as crystal, sunny sky. Just beautiful. We lasted in the water longer than Steve’s Dad expected us to. The water felt icy cold at first, but once we’d warmed up to it, it was awesome. I survived a few wave crashes then learnt the technique: face the waves sideways.

Number 9: The backyard

A lot of things happen in the backyard, if I happen to remember correctly about the Aussie culture. We played a bit of backyard cricket on Christmas and it was a lot of fun. I miss running, sweating and being active on a cool, sunny day. We sat on a veranda looking out onto the backyard into the bush, enjoying a glass of wine, having some conversations, and if that’s not relaxation, I don’t know what is. We even saw kangaroos in the backyard!

Number 10: The people

I can only speak about the Australians I’ve met and spent time with on our trip. I miss their relaxed, unpretentious, down-to-earth demeanor. It’s easy to strike up conversations about anything. Although we did spot a few flashy types on Chapel Street, the rest of the city seemed normal. Friends and family were welcoming, and that’s a big part of why I felt at home in Australia.


Screen Shot 2014-06-16 at 11.39.46 AM

The fruits, the rain and Summer.

Note: I have moved my blog to a new address http://www.alcoholicbutter.com/ because WordPress is blocked in Vietnam. Please continue to follow my blog at the new address if you are interested. Thank you.

If you ask me what marks the beginning of summer, I’d say the fruits and the rain.

Summer has the age-old reputation of bringing the sun, the warmth and the festivities to most parts of the world. By bringing light and heat, summer revives living things after a long, harsh, dormant winter and a chilly windy spring. Many cultures celebrate the summer solstice and associate it with fun and madness, with bonfires and dancing, some even take it to the extreme by going naked. However, summer can mean a different thing in a tropical city like Saigon. It’s usually about 2 things: fruits and rain.

The rain of summer. The monsoon rain. That sudden downpour that might last for hours and flood a lot of streets, or it might stop as quickly as it has started. That tropical thunder that hits with a bang. That lightning so striking and so bright against the grey, bland skyline that it almost hurts your eyes.

Here comes the rain.

The smell of earth meets mud meets leaves meets moss meets water meets motorbike fumes fills your nose. It is such a warm yet cool, an aromatic yet pungent, a chilled yet full of tension feeling that rain here brings. Our rain is warm, it is not cold and harsh. It is welcoming. It is engulfing. But it can be strong and it can be long.

Now come the fruits.

They flourish and they show their colors, they offer their sweetness, they offer their flesh. All kinds of tropical fruits come into life during summer. Both the North and the South of Vietnam have their unique offerings. To name a few: lychees, plums, longans from the North. Rambutans, mangoes, mangosteens from the South. Add these special seasonal fruits to our already rich and diverse fruit repertoire and you can imagine what kind of fruit heaven we live in during summer.

Summer surrounds us when it comes. It’s easy to be wide-eyed with so many colors and sounds and tastes. Summer wakes up a part of me and I feel more. To me it was the long hours of daydreaming and of having all the time in the world to read and see and imagine and write. It’s the mixed feelings of apprehension, excitement and slight dizziness when I first jumped into a big pool and tried to learn how to swim under the heat of the sun that to this day I still remember. It’s when I smell the rain and it opens me up from the inside. It’s when I regain that touch with nature in a city so busy with its construction sites and traffic. It’s the rush before the rain hits, it’s the emptiness when it comes, it’s the sleekness of the road that shines under dim yellow lights. It’s a woman riding a tiny, weak bicycle, covered in a thin plastic raincoat. It’s the street-food vendors who use raindrops to blur their worries. I feel as if the whole city is waking up and coming to terms with itself, when the rain comes, when summer comes.

The Vietnamese family

I want to write something about Vietnamese families, but I really don’t know how to start. We are so diverse and each is unique in our own ways that it is hard and probably inaccurate to sum up the key points. But leaving this matter undiscussed is like missing a big part of the Vietnamese culture that I love to analyze and analyze to love. So this post will be me trying to “decipher” the “Vietnamese family psyche” in my own way. 

Many of my readers are probably already aware of this, but I will say it again anyway. The Vietnamese family in general is very tight, whether it’s a nuclear family or a big clan consisting of many relatives from different parts of the world or from different backgrounds. Vietnamese tend to regard even remote relatives as “family people”. This has come from our ancestral origin, living in tribes and in collective communities. This tightness also has served many economic purposes as the majority of South-East Asia lives on agriculture: farming, cattle-raising, fruit gathering… in which people need to ‘recruit’ a lot of people to work as (sometimes free) manual labourers. 

The Vietnamese family, despite its collective and expansive nature, can be excruciatingly pragmatic and cunning especially in family businesses. Brothers (figuratively speaking) can share a business but can also step on each other to get the bigger share of the profit. Anecdotal evidence has shown that some people like to turn ‘family gatherings’ into ‘business meetings’, that what started as a light-hearted business proposal might lead to a “bloodshot” relationship between family members, that asking a relative for help might be an euphemism for asking someone to work for free. 

Business put aside, the Vietnamese family is a lot of fun. Hidden inside every real Vietnamese is a good cook waiting to let their talent shine. So naturally our gatherings are full of good food, boisterous laughter, women cooking and showing off their skills, while men drink beer and just have lazy fun. On the surface it is a lot of fun. Behind the surface we bury the hard work, the sweats, the disagreements, the disillusionments, the financial worries; we just shrug them off because “C’est la vie!”. 

The good Vietnamese families are extremely caring. Hospitality is second nature to them. To an objective outsider, they seem to be overdoing it. To an insider (me – a person so lucky to have been born into a good family), they make you feel eternally grateful and a little bit bewildered. My parents, as happy as they are that I am growing up to be holistically independent, still love to cook for me (sometimes!). They love to give us things, sometimes it can be as simple as a bottle of home-made apricot syrup. My dad is happy to help me fix things around the house. They can be so caring without coming across as overwhelming and overprotective.

The women do have a say in most matters in many Vietnamese families. I have to say, in general, Vietnamese women have a say in a lot of things. Women are seen as the ‘home commander’, so naturally she takes on many responsibilities such as controlling the expenses, managing the home conditions, taking care of the kids… Also naturally the women like to take control of their husbands 😉 Kids usually look up to Dad but will listen to Mum, that’s the irony of it. For a society strongly influenced by Confucian values with a favoritism for the men, ours is surprisingly matriarchal. 

The Vietnamese family like to live close to each other, either in a communal area with a few houses, or in a big house in which sometimes up to 3 generations live. I grew up with 7 other people: grandparents, parents, uncle & aunt and brother. We have our own rooms in the house but the living room and the dining room are shared. One person would cook for the whole family (sometimes another person would take over the cooking) and we would eat together. After the meals (lunch and dinner, twice a day) we would migrate to the living room for a short while, to have dessert, tea and to talk about the day, before going to our bedrooms to watch TV, read, study or do our own things. And we are one of the few families who have a more independent and less collective mindset. 

Each family is unique, and as much as I admire Tolstoy and his great work Anna Karenina in which he opened with “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, tonight I have to disagree with him. I believe he was looking at happiness too much as a fleeting state of mind, and perhaps less so as a human ability. And I believe, as a human ability, happiness varies from person to person. I think families and in particular Vietnamese families can be very different to each other and very unique in their ways of happiness and sadness, in their joys and in their sorrows, in their anger and in their excitement. And while I’m philosophizing about all this, they probably just live. 🙂