17 January, 2011

My bit of Việt Nam. Part 2.

You might as well have slapped me.  Right hard, too.  The shift in temperature and humidity was that shocking.  And this was Hue, Vietnam's old imperial capital, in the winter.  I'd clearly left the wild, mysterious, and cool North far behind.
Hue is where you come to see the ancient Citadel, and the Forbidden Purple City, formerly reserved for the exclusive use of the royal family.  Or rather, you come to see what is left of the City after heavy bombing and heavy hand-to-hand combat between the Viet Cong and American armies. 

Try explaining eunuchs, over a hundred concubines, oh, and a horrendous war to tots ten and under; it wasn't simple.  
Fortunately, the whole area is now a UNESCO site, and restoration works have been underway for some time now, as the government has come to realize the significance (both economic and historical) of the heart of old feudal Vietnam.
If you ever go to Hue, you must take in some of the imperial tombs, like that of the flamboyant, lavish Khai Dinh and the serene, poetry-loving Ming Mang; a view of the latter is pictured below.
But between tomb visits, a visit to the charming temple dedicated to the eunuchs and general wandering, a person's got to eat.  Preferably well.  Let that be written on my tombstone.  My discovery (laugh at me if you were already in the know) was deep-fried banh bao. SO good.  I already knew (and adored, in a guilty, fast food kind of way) banh bao, light, palm-sized doughy buns, stuffed with any number of different kinds of meat or vegetables, then steamed.   They're pictured below--in this instance filled with a well-sauced chicken and costing 50 cents each (20,000 D being currently equivalent to 1 USD). 
Fried ones (pictured in bottom half of the photo) aren't oily at all.  They're nicely browned, but don't gleam, not even slightly, with fat.  Now why didn't I finagle my way into the kitchen to find out how they got that crispy outer surface and eye-rollingly delicious interior?  I may have been distracted by the delicious vats of pho...
For the brief time we spent in Hue, we were regulars at that corner shop.  All the girls were waving goodbye on our last visit as we pulled away.  I also took a more formal cooking class while in Hue, learning to make Central style dishes, which are clearly different from the rest of Vietnamese cuisine.  But more about that another time...

We made our way from Hue to the Danang area (passing by the beach of China Beach fame), and dropping our bags (for a few days) with a sigh of relief in little Hoi An.
There, the boats are painted, as dictated by tradition, with eyes to ward off the crocodiles that once filled the waters. 

A former port town with its own deep wealth of international history (everyone docked there, from the Persians to the Japanese to the Dutch), Hoi An is extremely picturesque, with a beauty preserved so carefully it can verge on the artificial.  Not to dissuade you, but imagine a Vietnamese, cultural Disney.  Because it is a UNESCO world heritage site, there are very strict limitations on what the locals can do.  The character must be maintained...And yes, all this justifiable attention means a lot of tourists.
Nevertheless, it is very walkable, very family-friendly, and wonderful for thoroughly checking out the market and various street foods on offer.  Not to be missed: the local specialty, cao lau, a thick wheat-noodle dish heaped with pork and herbs, sauced with an addictive, rich broth, and topped with sinfully crunchy, fried crouton-like square bits.  Some people go there for the scads of tailors offering made to measure, inexpensive clothes.  For me--just as with the local canines--it's (nearly) all about the food.  
(As with my cooking class, more on the market(s) later. Promise!)
Before the cloth--especially the silk--gets to the aforementioned tailor shops and stalls, it has to be made. 

The poppy seed-like bits seen below are silkworm eggs, deposited by an adult silk moth.  After fourteen days, these hatch into silkworm larvae.
The silkworms are exclusively fed mulberry leaves.  In our house, here in France, silkworms used to be raised in the attic, as the Cevennes region was a major supplier of silk to the Lyon textile industry, way back before it was dealt a mortal blow by the development of cheap artificial fibers, like nylon.  They say that in a roomful of voracious silkworms, the sound of their chewing is clearly audible.  I think of that when I'm putting away the previous season's clothes...
Silkworms do nothing but eat for twenty or thirty days; predictably, they grow very quickly.  They molt several times.
Then they make a cocoon using their spit glands.  The cocoon is made of one single thread.
The cocoons here are from different types of silkworm.
According to Wikipedia: "A cocoon is made of a thread of raw silk from 300 to about 900 meters (1,000 to 3,000 feet) long. The fibers are very fine and lustrous, about 10 micrometers (1/2,500th of an inch) in diameter. About 2,000 to 3,000 cocoons are required to make one pound of silk. "  To get that silk, the cocoons are boiled, and several strands of silk are combined to make a single thread.
The threads are cleaned, dyed and then woven into gorgeous, light-weight fabric.
Here, you can see the green thread being pulled through the red threads to make a shimmery length of silk cloth.
The weaving machine is infernally loud and clackety. 
Loud enough to cover the grumbling of my stomach, as I consider how reasonably soon I can get back to the market--and what will be on offer. 


  1. Love this! The silk!! Please tell me you bought some...

  2. Rose,
    I splurged in the North: I bought a traditional, straight hand-woven linen skirt made of hand-dyed indigo, with lots of detailing, from a Lao family. (Lao are a smaller tribe, maybe 10,000 left in the whole world...) During our travels, we came across older ladies making clothes for their grand-children's dowries, shaman coats with mystical symbols and drawings on them, women turning hemp into thread by splitting the lengths of hemp thinner. Oh, you would have loved watching them make hemp fabric too...Also thread-making, using these large, outdoor devices. Clearly, I needed more time to see it all!

  3. Tammy,
    I meant to write you when I read the part 1 post but something happened and I don't think I did. So, welcome back. It looks like a wonderful trip and such an experience for you and your family. I've never seen silkworms before and had to call my daughter over to have a look too. Incredible. I'm so glad you're back. I missed seeing your beautiful photographs.
    aidan x

  4. Hello Aidan,
    Huh, very odd. The answer I'd already written to you seems to have vanished. I'd written that you made my day, which had been shaping up to be one of Those Days, until I saw your kind message. So thank you.

    The silkworm is funny: it's sort of the chicken of the bug kingdom: it has been domesticated for so long that not only can adult silk moths no longer fly, they couldn't even survive in the wild...Who knew!

  5. Dear Tammy,

    my name is Elena Krasnova, I am researcher working for the White Sea Biological Station of Lomonosov Moscow State University. I am preparing a popular scientific article about invertebrate silks for Russian magazine
    "Priroda" (translated as "Nature").

    I need some pictures to illustrate the article including images of the
    silkworm cocoons. Could you, please, allow me to use your picture from this site?

    I especially like the one under the paragraph:
    "Then they make a cocoon using their spit glands. The cocoon is made of one single thread".

    Or some other one with the same topic. If it is possible send me, please,
    files with full resolution.

    Elena Krasnova,
    PhD, researcher,
    WSBS, MSU,


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