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  • All that goodness in a pumpkin shell.

    The pumpkin ( Cucurbita pepo ) has the singular distinction of being one of the world’s oldest cultivated vegetables. Although it originated in North America, it’s now widely grown here in Vietnam, where it’s known as bí ngô , bí đỏ or bí rợ – and there are two main varieties. The first variety, vàm răng , is heavy and rounded, and it’s grown in Kien Giang, Can Tho, and Soc Trang. These pumpkins look a little like a slightly-squashed football with a thick, green-grey skin and chunky orange flesh, weighing in at around 3-5 kg each. The other one is called the Ban Mê Thuột pumpkin, which has an oblong shape and is lighter at around 1-2 kg each. The skins can be greenish-yellow or fresh yellow, and either smooth or rough with light yellow flesh. Although the tastes of these varieties are very similar, the first has a softer flesh and is more popular. In addition to these two, there is a third variety that’s imported from Japan and has since been grown in Vietnam for the past several years, referred to casually as the Japanese pumpkin. To most Vietnamese people, eating ground pork and pumpkin soup is a part of their childhood. The rich nutrition inside pumpkins is the main reason why parents often try to feed it to their kids – a single pumpkin contains 85-91% water, 0.8-2 grams of protein, 0.1-0.5 g fat, 3.3-11 g of carbs, and many other vitamins and minerals such as calcium, carotene, and phosphorus. Vitamin A is good for the vision, maintaining integrity of the skin, and as an anti-oxidant. In the United States, pumpkins are synonymous with Halloween. Here in Vietnam, beyond cooking, pumpkins are only used in traditional medicines. Its role in cuisine, however, is paramount. It can be said that Vietnamese people are good at taking advantage of many parts of a vegetable for different purposes – in this case, not only is the pumpkin’s flesh used, but also the seeds, skins, and even flowers have their own roles. Flowers are usually wrapped or stir-fried with pork, or made into soup with pork ribs. During summer, sweet pumpkin soup and cakes are one of the more common snacks enjoyed to beat the heat.

  • Getting illustrated doesn’t have to be forever.

    Since ancient times, the henna plant has been used to make a special paste to colour hair, fingernails, and skin for women (and sometimes men) as well as leather, silk and wool. Henna tattoos are temporary skin designs made using henna paste products that resemble real tattoos and then fade away. Sometimes called mehndi , henna has a brown colour and lasts for two to four weeks after applying the dye, depending on how good the paste is and on the skin condition of the recipient. A mehndi may take from five to ten minutes to finish for a small area such as the palms, wrists, or feet. Henna is grown in both South Asia and Africa, although it’s most commonly associated with the culture of India, where henna tattoos are popular among girls – especially dancers who use it adorn themselves in celebrations and holidays. The tattoo is regarded as bringing blessings, luck, joy, and accentuating beauty. Henna is applied on a bride to wish her luck and happiness, and it’s believed that the longer that the henna remains visible, the happier the couple will be. It’s also used on pregnant women’s bellies to bless both mother and child. Henna is known to be longer lasting if well-preserved, usually best accomplished by avoiding direct contact with soap. A mixture of lemon essence and sugar will make it brighter and harder to fade. After the henna has been applied, let it dry naturally over a few hours (or ideally, through the night) and avoid using fans during that time. It has a dark brown or green-grey colour just after being applied, and becomes red-brown when it dries. Here in Saigon, the henna fashion was first imported by a small group of body painting enthusiasts who managed to kick off a trend within a year. As it causes no harm to the skin and doesn’t hurt at all, henna has attracted many locals, regardless of gender, to try it out.

  • Something in the Vietnamese psyche is let loose when the football team scores...

    Football’s not the only sport that Vietnamese people get passionate about, but it’s unquestionably the one that commands the most devotion amongst fans. There’s a very prosaic Vietnamese saying that covers it: Eat with football, stay awake with football, and sleep with football . If soccer is a worldwide disease, it’s an epidemic here. Locals get fairly hot under the collar over the AFF Cup and the Tiger Cup, but the event that causes the majority of the fuss and bother is the Southeast Asian Games. Vietnam couldn’t seriously hope to win the World Cup – and to be fair, they’ve never won the football event in the SEA Games either – but they’ve come close, and so many locals feel that Vietnam is in with a chance. The event is organised biannually, and is eagerly anticipated by local Vietnamese. Many refuse to miss the live coverage, rescheduling work hours to make sure they’ll be in front of the TV – and some have been reported to have quit their jobs altogether where unavoidable timing conflicts emerged. Most employers, however, are more sympathetic, and some companies will shut their doors to all business so that both management and staff alike can focus on the game. It’s not in the Vietnamese character to enjoy the sport alone at home on the couch, however – sports voyeurism is conducted outside, in cafes and bars and beer garden restaurants, so that the sheer number of interested onlookers will help to whip up the excitement. On the streets, people will be driving around in a particular frenzy, and the mantra on everyone’s lips will be the same: Vietnam Vo Dich – Go Vietnam. Although this kind of thing has been going on for decades, the peak was reached in the semifinals of the 2009 SEA Games during the match between Vietnam and their nemesis Thailand, which culminated in a Thai defeat. Victory celebrations lasted the entire night; people were out on the streets with their red T-shirts on, fervently waving the Vietnamese flag, pictures of Ho Chi Minh, and banging plastic cups, drums, pans, lids, pots, bottles, and anything else that would make a sound. Students fled their dormitories and congregated outside, making a huge cacophony. A procession of motorbikes formed spontaneously, snaking its way through the Saigon suburbs, all chanting “Vietnam is the champion”; they became a writhing mass of fire-engine red that locals simply referred to as a storm. Much beer was consumed and many newly-met drinking buddies swore lifelong friendship, and virtually no-one in the city slept.

  • Beyond sand and sea, Nha Trang has something to offer to everyone... even on a rainy day.

    Looking at Nha Trang today, it’s hard to believe that the area used to be deserted until the 20th century. The city itself was established in 1924 by decree of the Governor-General of French Indochina, and since then it grew rapidly to become the bustling resort town it is today. Given Nha Trang’s short history, it’s not surprising that there are very few historical sites there – but whatever the city lacks in the sightseeing department it makes up for with its long sandy beach, as well as many modern attractions that have been built to draw in visitors from all over the world. The reason why most visitors come to Nha Trang is its beaches and warm sea water. Nha Trang Beach is by far the most popular among visitors, since it’s just a short walk away from the downtown area of Biet Thu. While the location might be convenient for a quick dip, the beach gets crowded and somewhat dirty due to the sheer number of people who attend it. For a more enjoyable experience, find a restaurant or bar that has cordoned off a portion of the beach for private use. As long as you order some beverages and snacks, you’ll be free to use the parasols and beach chairs; as an added bonus, you’ll also avoid being approached by touts selling fruit and steamed seafood. If you’d rather get away from the crowds, check out Bai Duong Beach a short 1.5 km ride north of the downtown area. While this beach is smaller, it is cleaner, much less crowded, and you won’t find a peddler in sight. Also, this beach is better for swimming: the water is warmer and the grade of the beach gentler – but be careful, as there are no lifeguards on duty. The only inconvenience is that you’ll need to bring your own refreshments or buy them from the coffee shops across the street. Water can be purchased cheaply at the hotels adjacent to the coffee shops for VND10,000/1.5 litre bottle.

  • Vietnam’s own heavy metal is fading away.

    It was December the 17th, 2003, when the Vietnamese State Bank began issuing the 5,000, 1,000, and 200 dong coins now in circulation. The coins for VND2,000 and VND500 followed on almost four months later. They were quite distinct from one another, with the larger denominations cast in the same coppery colour while the VND500 and VND200 coins were a silvery white. All of the coins featured the Vietnamese emblem. They were issued in the anticipation of coin-operated technologies in public transport and payphones, which the administration planned to introduce shortly afterwards. The thought was that the general public should have some time to become familiar with the coins before the introduction of these systems. Said systems took a little while to appear, and some – like the MRT – almost never happened. Nobody foresaw the sudden irrelevance of public phones, either. In the meantime, with the rise of Vietnam’s economy, coins very quickly became more of a nuisance than anything else, and the general public rapidly grew impatient with them. It’s been over ten years since these coins were issued in Vietnam and they’re already difficult to find on the market. Try to pay for certain items with coins, and you’ll soon see the general disinterest Vietnamese people tend to have in them. Vietnam, in fact, is one of very few countries with coins and paper money of identical values – and here, all of the coin denominations are available in far more convenient paper versions. When they were first issued, however, it was a different story. Back in 2003, the coins were welcomed by young people as a kind of curiosity, while elderly people seemed pleased to see coins again after a long time of having only paper currency. They were frequently used, especially in larger cities like Hanoi and here in HCMC – and to encourage people to keep using them, the administration and other organisations began to set up as many automatic vending machines as possible. At one point, coins accounted for a full quarter of all change available. However, after a certain period, the automatic machines themselves fell out of vogue, while vendors in local markets, grocery stores, and on the street were starting to directly refuse them, frustrated with their ever-increasing stocks of heavy shrapnel. Nowadays, supermarkets do accept coins, although they will generally exchange them for paper money at banks when they do.

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