The Obama Combo: Bún Chả Hương Liên in Hà Nội’s French Quarter

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Where to order the Obama Combo.

Where to find the Obama Combo in Hà Nội’s French Quarter.

“Jeff,” texted my friend Vũ Nhật Tân, “I want to take you and Jan for Obama bún chả in French Quarter, not far from where you stay. They are now so busy that we should meet at 10:30 AM for early early lunch or 5 PM for early early dinner. OK?”

That’s a text message that was easy to answer!

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The Superpower Street Food of Hà Nội and a Home Cooked Meal

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With Tran Thu Thủy, my Vietnamese tutor, upon arriving in Hanoi.

With Trần Thu Thủy, my Vietnamese tutor, the first photo upon arriving in Hà Nội last week.

I didn’t leave my heart in San Francisco, even though the City by the Bay is home to some of my oldest dearest friends on Planet Earth.

When I have to find where I left my heart, I need to get on an airplane, fly 24 hours (via Tokyo, Taipei or Hong Kong) and begin another chapter, what is now the eighth, in my ongoing love for a country that will always lurk in the background of being an American.

I left my heart in Hà Nội, Việt Nam.

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A Malaysian Tropical Spice Garden Party for William Kraft & Friends

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A late summer lunch with Jan and friends Heidi Lesemann, Bill Kraft and Joan Huang.

A late summer beef rendang lunch with Jan, Heidi Lesemann, Bill Kraft and Joan Huang.

You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough. Mae West

If I had to define patriotism, it would be the tastes of your childhood. If I sample a mixture of brown sugar and butter, I can go all Proust on myself and remember my mother’s cookies. And if I had to define maturity, it would be the evolution of taste acquired over time and exposure to many different cuisines.

Which is another way to say that I didn’t grow up on the Malay specialty of beef rendang!

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Climbing the Batu Caves of Lord Murugan in Malaysia

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The imposing Lord Muruga at the Batu Caves.

The imposing Lord Murugan at the Batu Caves.

Cheyon, Senthil, Velan, Kumaran, Svaminatha, Saravanan, Arumugam or Shanumuga, Dandapani, Guruguha, Subrahmanya, Karitikeya, Skanda. Let’s just admit that Lord Murugan, the son of Shiva and the Commander of the Gods and Victory, goes by a lot of names throughout India, Tamilnadu, Kerala, Puducherry, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Phillipines, Indonesia, Singapore, the surfing island of Réunion and Malaysia.

With the inspiration of businessman K. Thamboosamy Pillai, the Batu Caves outside of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia became identified with Lord Murugan in the early 1890s. Since 1892 the Thaipusam Festival in early January/February is celebrated here with endless throngs of worshippers crowding the 272 steps up to the top of the caves. The imposing statue of Lord Murugan was erected in 2006 and is the largest Hindu shrine outside of India.

Climbing the 272 steps? Unforgettable.

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My Journey to the East: In Search of Hermann Hesse, W. Somerset Maugham & The Singapore Sling

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A puppet shop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

A puppet shop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I do not bring back from a journey quite the same self that I took. W. Somerset Maugham The Gentleman in the Parlour

I can now easily locate my fascination with Asia when I remember certain events and people of my childhood. I’ve already written about Harry Woo of Hong Kong, who worked for my parents, reading to me in Chinese while pointing to his calligraphy. My first memory of a world outside of my family is of being taken to Chinatown for dinner in Los Angeles. I doubt I’ve ever forgotten the blue silk dress and lavish blue mascara of the server. And my pediatrician’s nurse was Japanese and the kindest soul on earth to me whenever I was a sick child.

At least I now recognize that these memories help me piece together those now far away moments of Asian awakenings, creating a map of my life and the new decisions that shape its events.

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Finding the Best Asam Laksa in Georgetown on Penang Island in Malaysia

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A sunset over the Andaman Sea on Penang Island in Malaysia.

A sunset over the Andaman Sea on Penang Island in Malaysia.

Perhaps all of our lives changed 518 long and almost forgotten years ago.

On May 20, 1498, in the waning months of the 15th century, Vasco da Gama became the first European to set foot in India. The world would never be the same again. Food would irrevocably never be the same again. And as if ordered by fate, da Gama would die in Portuguese India’s Cochin on Christmas Eve, 1524. His death, 26 years after his first landing in India, still resonates in the 21st century. The geography of the Portuguese explorer’s passing reminds us that, like us, he would not be able to physically extricate himself from having made contact with the East.

In a global world that’s here to stay, we are all still trying to understand each other.

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And The River Sings of Eternity: From Huế to Paris for Tôn Thất Tiết

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Sunset in Paris on the Seine from the Pont des Arts.

My friend Tôn Thất Tiết, who I would describe as a hybrid Vietnamese French composer who is fundamentally Vietnamese, writes the most patient music I’ve ever encountered. Poised from years of Buddhist thought and traditions, his command of stillness inspires me. And like the metaphor of water he often invokes, his music conceals endless energy underneath a calm surface.

Tiết was born in Huế, Vietnam in 1933, went to Paris in 1958, studied with Messiaen’s friend Andre Jolivet and became a French citizen in 1971. In 1993 he founded the France-Vietnam Music Association to promote the development of traditional music in Vietnam.

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Permanent Residents of Paris and A Homage to Nguyễn Thiên Đạo

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The Theatre de Champs Elysses which hosted the riotous premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

The Théâtre des Champs Élysées in Paris, home to the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps.

Paris seems much larger than it really is because of the infinite number of mirrors that duplicate its true space. Carlos Fuentes Terra Nostra

Mirrors and circles come to my mind when I think of my love for Paris. Reflections of the city are found all over the world and, like the circular arrangement of its arrondissements, Paris always returns. Whoever said that all roads lead to Rome must have known that Paris wouldn’t need any help.

My position as artistic advisor to the Hanoi New Music Ensemble gave me the opportunity to return to Paris in May. The purpose of the trip was to lay the foundation for long term French alliances for the new music wave I’m leading out of Vietnam. As you’ll see in the next few years, the trip was a big success, and I’ll be posting more about various aspects of these meetings this summer.

But my wife Jan and I also needed to pay an important visit to an iconic Paris location that we’d never managed to find time to visit on other trips. Quarreling with fate is never productive. And when dealing with Vietnam, Paris is never far away.

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French Connections and A Favorite Paris Restaurant of Pierre Boulez

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A glass of Lillet on Rue du Buci in St. Germain.

A glass of Lillet on Rue du Buci in St. Germain.

Paris is always a good idea. Audrey Hepburn

If there was an Academy Award for the most influential city in the world, Paris would probably win hands down. It’s certainly played a leading role in the world of music, art, literature, cuisine, fashion, history, colonialism, architecture, poetry, sculpture, science, film, romance, photography, you name it and Paris has had a starring part.

My wife Jan and I went to Paris in May to create French connections for the Hanoi New Music Ensemble and the Los Angeles International New Music Festival. It’s not coincidental but my next concert in October is hosted by the Alliance Française in Hanoi. We realized that as Americans in Paris we’d be able to build bridges for the French music community back to their former colony and formidable enemy in Southeast Asia.

I like a good story and this is one of the best!

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Love & Food in the Time of Cartagena

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A lavender door in Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage City.

“The very life of the colonial city was an illusion of memory.” Gabriel García Márquez Love in the Time of Cholera.

My first impression of Cartagena de Indias was of its doors. Some were closed, others open, but they were all beautiful, redolent of a deceased Spanish power that was ultimately unable to control the collision of races and cultures populating its New World and that still search for ways to share life together. In Cartagena, Beethoven’s Fate slams on doors with weighty brass knockers, ancient Janus opens both ways, while Márquez’s dogmatic Bishop in Love and Other Demons conducts his exorcisms with the eternal pounding of sinister fear.

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