Sunday, October 14, 2018

Food in Vietnam

I came to Vietnam for service-learning and I was not disappointed.  I met a lot of people in the universities and the NGOs and I learned a lot from them.  I shared our experience and explore opportunities for collaboration.  

In the mean time, I have also had a lot of good and interesting food.  Many of my friends and colleagues like Vietnamese food - a lot.  Perhaps it is because Vietnamese food and Chinese food share a lot of similarities in terms of both ingredients and cooking methods; yet there are also significant differences.  There seems to be just enough novelty set amidst strong security through familiarity.  

On a morning, en-route to a community centre in the Mekong Delta from Saigon, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for pho - the famous Vietnamese noodle soup.  I thought the bundles of greens on the table were decoration, like the flowers in some restaurants.  They turned out to be spices/condiments for the noodle soup.  That reminded me that I have much to learn.  

For lunch, we stopped at a rustic restaurant on the banks of one of the major branches of the Mekong River.  They serves big-head prawns that are longer than my hand.  Some are roasted and the others boiled in congee.  Both are delicious.  If I were to choose, however, I would prefer them boiled. 

As a parting gift, our friend introduced us to a special coconut.  Usually the inside of a coconut started as a clear liquid.  Gradually a layer of soft translucent flesh form on the inside of the shell.  In time, the flesh thicken, whiten and harden.  The flesh of a mature coconut is white, opaque and hard.  This special coconut is white, opaque and kind of soft - such that you can scoop it out with a spoon.  It is said that only one in ten coconuts turns out this way.  They normally eat it with crushed peanuts, syrup and ice.  

At the conference, they served us a soup made with meat - pork ribs, I believe - and many vegetables.  Among the vegetables are shreds of banana flowers. It is very good. 

In the evening, on the street near the big market in the centre of the city, hawkers were selling colourful, sweet, sticky rice.  I was told they taste the same, despite the different colours.  I haven’t tested it myself, even though I have seen them quite a few times.  

At the Museum of Medicine, they were big jars of liquor with all kinds of herbs in them.   Some of which contain sizeable cobras.  I suppose these are not exactly food, yet they are edible.   I have not tried those either.  

It is a joy to be in Vietnam, partly because of the food.   And these is so much to discover.  

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Service-Learning conference in Vietnam

PolyU has been sending students to Vietnam for service-learning projects for 6 years.  During this time, we have made quite a number of friends.  One of these friends is now working at the University of Economics and Finance, a new private university.  When UEF decided to get serious with service-learning, they invited us to make a presentation on our experiences at a conference on service-learning, for their staff and many from other interested universities.  I am very glad to have another opportunity to promote service-learning, and explore opportunities for collaboration. 

The existence of UEF and many others like it is an indicator of the vibrant higher education community in Vietnam.  When I looked out from the conference site at the top level of the building, I could see the wide streets and new developments - an indicator of the rapid development of the Vietnamese economy.  The proliferation of Western-style coffee shops testify to the growth of a youthful middle class.  

The audience at the conference was very enthusiastic. There were so many questions that the organiser made us return after lunch to answer more questions.  Mostly familiar questions that we have faced, or are still facing ourselves.  I am so glad that our experiences can be of use to this community.  

I was particularly struck by the fluent English of my interpreter, a young Vietnamese lady who grew up and went to university in Vietnam.  It turned out she picked up her American accent from her colleagues in a company involved in arranging internship opportunities in Vietnam for American students.  

In Vietnam, I see a youthful country working hard to modernise its education system.  I am glad service-learning brought me here, and I would love to come back.  

Sunday, October 07, 2018


If jackfruit is 大樹菠蘿, than is mini-jackfruit  小樹菠蘿?  or  小大樹菠蘿?  I haven’t found out yet.  But I did bring one back from Vietnam in my suitcase, and it did not disappoint. 

It is slightly bigger than my palm, and really does look like a small jackfruit.  The internal structure is very much like that of a jack fruit.  

Underneath the spiky skin is a layer of pale white pith.

Embedded in the pith are pieces of pale yellow edible flesh, each about 2 cm long. The flesh is sweeter than jackfruit, and soft, more like durian than jackfruit. 

Wrapped inside the flesh is a seed roughly 1.5 cm long, 1/3 the size of a seed of a normal jackfruit.  

I like it.  I don’t think I have have seen it in Hong Kong.  Next time, perhaps I will bring back some more.  

Monday, September 24, 2018

Mid-Autumn (中秋)

I do not particularly like the modern style mooncakes - those “iced skin”, “runny heart”, etc.  Not that they do not taste good.  Just that they do not feel like “real” moon cakes.  

My wife bought me some real ones: “ham with 5 kinds of nuts (火腿五仁月餅)”.  I remember that I did not quite like it when I was small, but my father did.  And now I do.  How did it happen?  Is it because the aroma that I experienced in childhood became associated with memories of my father?  Or simply that as I grow older my tastes became more like my father’s?  In any case my wife confirms with me that it does taste good.  

She also bought and boiled some mini taros (芋頭), another food that we ate once a year at Mid-Autumn Festival.  

Just this afternoon I got a pomelo (柚子)from our Staff Association.  It is bright yellow, and from a certain angle, from a distance one can mistake it for the moon.  

It is raining tonight.  Chances are that we won’t be able to see the moon from Hong Kong.  Fortunately, my colleagues have created a replacement using our office’s logo.   

One of our three daughters came home for dinner, and we ate a lot of fruits and mooncakes afterwards.  Knowing that our other two daughters are safe and sound, even though they are away from Hong Kong, my Mid-Autumn festival is complete.  

Sunday, September 23, 2018

A University President

Joseph Sung (沈祖堯), formerly vice-chancellor and president of the Chinese University of Hong Kong,  is quite well-known among university students. He tried hard to interact with the students, to understand them, and to guide them in the way that he believes university students should behave. As far as I can tell, from his writings and speeches, he wants them to love learning, to be curious, to follow their own hearts, to be humble and respectful towards their teachers as well as others, and be responsible.  There are many things in his new book that I find quite agreeable.  And I would like to think that service-learning is an excellent way to achieve some of the qualities that he has been promoting.  

One incident involving him stuck in my mind.  In 2016 we were organising a conference on service-learning to be held on our campus.  Because of his popularity among students and what we knew about his views towards community engagement, we decided to invite him to be a keynote speaker for the conference.  We didn’t quite know how he would respond, given that there is certainly an atmosphere of friendly competition among the universities in Hong Kong.   It turned out he accepted very quickly.  I remember going over to his office to brief him on the conference, and he was very kind and courteous, even though he was very busy.  

We were all very excited.  When he actually came to speak at the conference, he talked about his own experience, particularly in going with the students to carry out community service projects in China.  It was quite touching and very well received.  

People may not realise it is not common for the president of a university in Hong Kong to speak at another university in Hong Kong.  You are more likely to see the president of a university from the Mainland, or some foreign country, speaking at your university, rather than one from another university in Hong Kong.  I leave it to you to explain why. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Children with special need

My wife and I were eating at a food court in Hung Hom.  I noticed there was a family of 4 sitting on the opposite side of the table.  There was a boy of roughly 10 years old and a girl perhaps 2 years younger.  The parents were feeding the children.  I thought it was a bit indulgent since the children seemed to be of an age when they should be able to eat by themselves.  But I didn’t want to pry or to stare. 

Suddenly, a hand reached across the table to grab my water cup, spilling some of the water.  I was startled and instinctively reached out to steady the cup.  The parents reached out to stop the boy, and started to apologise.  

It was only then that I realised that the boy seemed mentally handicapped.  He was not able to speak and only made occasional single syllable sounds.  He could not hold a spoon or fork properly.  Apparently he had finished his cup of water; that was why he reached for mine.  He did not seem to have a clear sense of private property.  The father, on the far left, seemed to be responsible for feeding the girl, sitting in the near left; while the mother, on the far right, was responsible for the boy, on the near right.  More than once, the boy grabbed the girl’s food and tried to stuff it in his mouth, but ended up spilling the food.  The father got a bit upset and scolded the boy, saying that he did not deserve to eat because he spilled the food.  The boy did not show any sign that he felt guilty.  I suspected that the boy had the mental age of only 1-2.  The girl seemed to be similar, although she seemed to be in better self control, or perhaps she was just more timid.  

The father watched his watch several times.  Then he said the time was almost up and they’d better get going.  And they left.  

I suspect it is rather unusual to have 2 children with special needs in the same family.  Was it hereditary?  Something in the genes, perhaps?

Even though the father scolded the boy for grabbing and spilling the food, I got a feeling that the parents do love the children.  They wore clean clothes.  They looked healthy, neither too thin nor too fat.  The parents fed the children with care.  They seemed to be taking the children to some kind of program, perhaps at a community centre nearby.  I felt there is a loving relationship in the family.  

But the parents must be hard pressed to take care of their children.  They must always be on the alert when the children are prone to cause a disturbance whenever there are other people around.  The situation will get worse when the children continue to grow physically but not mentally.  I have a cousin who is now in his 50s with a mental age of around 5; I do have some understanding of what the situation is like.  

We don’t know the family.  We have never met them before and we have not met them again since.  But we feel for them, and we have been praying for them.  On the other hand, who does not have demons to deal with?  It is just that some demons are more visible and obvious.  Perhaps the invisible ones are actually more insidious.  

Monday, September 17, 2018

Broken Window Theory (Hong Kong version)

Why are so many broken windows in this group of buildings in Hung Hom?  

They include a hotel, office and residential buildings.  

All built by the same developer, in similar styles.

There are other hotels, office and residential buildings in the same area.  

None suffer such extensive damage.  

One obvious possible explanation is the (poor) quality of the glass used.   

These images have already become an icon of the (shoddy) business practices of some of the real estate developers in Hong Kong.