Tag Archives: Vietnam

Vietnam Part 2 – “Is that cats? Or the band?”

Next stop on our trip was the old Imperial capital of Hue (pronounced Hway). There is an airport at Hüê but it was closed so we caught a bus from Da Nang airport, a journey of around three hours. The bus ride was an event.  Vietnamese roads aren’t great and, as mentioned, the driving is terrible.  It’s sometimes best not to look – seeing a fully laden tourist coach or truck heading straight towards you on the wrong side of the road is both scarily common and just plain scary!

The bus driver had no teeth.  Which I’m sure is an occupational hazard of driving up and down those potholey roads all your life.  After a while, I guess your teeth just jolt out.  I’m surprised he had bones! The only solace from the bumping and the impending doom was that I had a Buddhist monk sitting next to me.  Surely nothing bad would happen to us with a man of God on board.  After one particularly scary near miss he took out an Ipad and began typing away.  I took a peek over his shoulder to see if he was maybe sending a terse email to the guy upstairs but he was just on Facebook.

Minh Mang Tomb - Hue

Minh Mang Tomb – Hue

Hue is a great place to soak up some of the culture and history of Vietnam and the ideal way to do this is via a Monuments Tour.  First stop was the tomb of the Emporer Minh Mang.  This was pretty sensational, consisting of three main areas – the main gate, the temple and the tomb.  The Minh Mang tomb was very elegantly laid out, very orderly and symmetrical. When we were there, these ponds were filled with lotus flowers which was gorgeous.

Minh Mang Tomb - Hue

Minh Mang Tomb – Hue

Minh Mang was  quite the lad; fathering a total of 151 children from his 40 wives. Not so Khai Dihn, whose tomb we visited next.  On his death, one of his concubines  said that Khai was “not interested in sex” and “physically weak”.  This, along with his love of fashion design has  lead to speculation that he may well have been the gay prince of Vietnam.

Emperor Khai Dinh

If the Minh Mang tomb is a model of restraint and orderly design, then the interior designer of the Khai Dinh tomb, was to steal a phrase from the Luxe Guide’s description of the Cao Dai Temple “clearly Liberace or on drugs or possibly both”.  It’s awesome!!!!!  An absolute riot of gold and the most lovely intricate mosaics!

The Khai Dihn Tomb: Hue

The Khai Dinh Tomb: Hue

Mosaics - the Khai Dinh Tomb Hue

Mosaics – the Khai Dinh Tomb Hue

There was also a third tomb but you know, after you’ve seen the Khai Dinh, there’s only one way to go…and it’s not up.  Also, the open air café next to where the bus stopped was selling freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and who doesn’t want a bit of that?

Me actually, it wasn’t great.  Freshly squeezed sugar cane juice tastes, quelle surprise,  like sugary water.  Still, the prevalence of the fresh stuff could explain why the mojito’s in Hüê were the best I had.

Mojito's in the rain

Mojito’s in the rain

In the afternoon we went to the Thien Mu Pagoda which was beautiful – we reached this via a boat ride.  The Pagoda is situated on the banks of the river in some very pretty gardens.  The complex does have a dark heart though.  In one of the outbuildings is a car from the 1960’s one of those ones with the fins you always see in the movies.  “Cool” you think.  “Even the monks in the ‘60’s had wicked style.”

Thien Mu Pagoda

Thien Mu Pagoda

Car - Thien Mu Pagoda

Car – Thien Mu Pagoda

Then you read the plaque on the side and find out that this was the exact car that a monk, Thich Quang, drove to Saigon in 1963.  When he got there, he stopped the car, sat down in the middle of an intersection, poured petrol over himself and set himself alight in a protest against religious persecution.  Those monks from the ‘60’s were hardcore.  No arseing about on Facebook for them.

The actual act is on You Tube for anyone who wants to see it – I haven’t watched it (and won’t be watching it) because it’s a person burning themselves to death and hence the type of thing that is likely to  give me the screaming heebie-jeebies for months.  But the link is here.

If you’re so inclined, knock yourself out.  For those of a not so psychopathic more sensitive disposition, you can learn more about Thich Quang and this fascinating piece of history via a BBC podcast here.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01blrbl

There was a detour on the way to the pagoda.  We were ushered off the boat into a garden and I guess, like me, a few of the others assumed we were at our destination.   We were greeted in the garden by an old lady who told us to follow her.  Which we did because she was going to lead us to the pagoda right?  Not so much.  We start walking through the garden.  Then she pauses and points at a tree.  “Mango” she says, pointing at it.  “Nice” we say, nodding.

We walk on.  She points out other trees.  “Apricot…lychee…banana” and we continue to nod.  “Yes…I see…interesting”.  We keep walking.  She keeps pointing out trees.  We keep nodding and agreeing.  This went on for a while – possibly too long – there  was  a moment towards the end where I think both sides were just phoning it in.  She gave us a bit of “Mango….mango….mango,”  and we gave back some “Yeah…right…whatever.”  It might been more interesting if there had been fruit on any of those trees.  As it was, she could have told us pretty much anything and we would have nodded and agreed like a bunch of dummies.

Anyway, shortly after the mango, mango, mango episode, we ended up at the front gate (exactly where we started) and she asked us all for money for touring her garden.  Huh?  Where’s the pagoda?  There were rumblings….the Germans and the Dutch were not happy about this development but she was not letting anyone go without them paying up.  One of the Dutch tried to sneak past her – I’ve never seen someone so old move so fast.  She was spry!!!  Must be all the fruit.  No one ever explained why we went there.   I suspect  she was the tour guide’s grandma.

Given that the actual tropical garden was kind of underwhelming, it was ironic that our favourite  restaurant in Hue was a place called the Tropical Garden.  This was really cute with tables set in the garden with little thatched rooves over the top.  Very Gilligan’s Island!  I so wish I’d worn my gold lame dress just like Ginger’s.  Until I remembered I only own one in my dreams…

Huh… I just realised my whole sense of fashion, hair and makeup is pretty much derived from Gilligan’s Island and Get Smart….who says tv doesn’t influence young minds?

Mary Ann

Mary Ann

The food at The Tropical Garden was super tasty but the best thing about it is the absolutely terrible band.  I guess Vietnamese folk music is an acquired taste because, our first time there, Mark had his back to them and shortly after they began to play frowned and asked.  “What’s that noise?  Is that cats?  Or the band?”  Mind you, they also set the local dogs to howling so I guess that, much like us canines can also not appreciate the nuances of the Vietnamese folk scene.

By no means should you let this put you off though, in fact I”m only telling you this to encourage you to go and hear it for yourself….we went three nights in a row….

The Tropical Garden Band

The Tropical Garden Band

Our other favourite place was a restaurant / art gallery called Confetti.  This had great food at great prices and nice art.  But you know what?  After the quirkiness of The Tropical Garden, it all seemed a little normal….

So, I have a new camera and have been cooking up some Hüê inspired delights.  Aubergine was a popular vegetable there so first up I have a very simple grilled aubergine / eggplant based on the recipe in Simple Good Food by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman called Grilled Aubergine with Nam Pla and Basil.

My version is called “Hey, Hüê, It’s Vietnamese Inspired Aubergine”

1 Eggplant / Aubergine, sliced into rounds about 1/2 centimetre thick

1 tsp tumeric

1 -2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 tbsp lemon or lime juice

1 tbsp Nam Pla (Fish Sauce)

1 tsp sugar

1 birdseye chilli, finely chopped

Chives, finely chopped

Basil leaves, finely chopped

Mix the tumeric and the olive oil and dip your eggplant slices into the mixture then place them under a hot grill.  Turn them once they start to brown – you may also have to redip them if they get too dry.

Whilst your eggplant is cooking, mix up your lemon juice and fish sauce.  Add the chopped chilli and chives. Once the eggplant is cooked,  place on a plate and dress with the fish sauce mixture. Scatter the basil leaves over the top.

This is a great side dish or, I quite like it just on crackers.  You can also mess with the mix as much as you like.  Add some ginger or garlic or your choice of flavourings!

tnamese Inspired Eggplant

Hey Hue, It’s Vietnamese Inspired Aubergine

And here is my “Minh Mang-o” Daiquiri.

Minh Mango Daiquiri

Minh Mango Daiquiri 1

I large mango, chopped

1/2 cup white rum

1/4 cup lemongrass, ginger and chilli simple syrup (I used the recipe here)

Juice of 1 large lemon

2 dashes Agnostura Bitters

8 Ice cubes

Place all ingredients in a blender and process until smooth.

Makes 2

Minh Mango Daiquri 2

Minh Mango Daiquri 2

 

Enjoy!

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Vietnam Part 1 – “Is That Your Hand in My Pocket or Are You Just Happy I’m Back?”

Like a creepy child in a horror movie…I’m baaaack!!!

Rested, refreshed, relaxed and rearing to get back into this!  Slight problem, I lost my camera whilst in Vietnam and have not replaced it yet, so I thought whilst that was happening, I would fill in the next few weeks with tales from my trip.  Note, due to losing the camera, some of the photos here are from the internet and some are from last year’s trip and there are a few from my phone….so apologies in advance for varying size, quality etc,.

I don’t claim to be an expert in Vietnamese food but I did eat (a lot) over there and will try to describe some of it here.  If, by the way, you are looking for an expert in Vietnamese food, head over to this awesome blog by Mark Lowerson:

http://www.stickyrice.typepad.com/

or if you’re heading to Hanoi, make Mark’s street food tour a must-do.  But more about that later…

Let’s start with the big question.  Is it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?  The locals call it Saigon so, we’ll go with that (less keystrokes).  I love Saigon – there is a vibrant buzz about the city which may or may not have anything to do with the strength of their coffee.  On our second day there, I began to get heart palpitations.  An odd form of jet lag?  A tropical lurgy so soon?  No, just two cups of Saigon coffee that morning!  I dropped back to one after that and all was well.

Saigon Traffic

If the coffee isn’t enough to give you the shakes or you really want to take your life into your own hands, try crossing a road.  Vietnamese traffic is INSANE.  Lanes upon lanes of traffic and little regard for lane markings, crossings, red lights or other traffic regulations.  The first time we were there, we spent quite a bit of time lurking on street corners waiting for locals to cross so that we could follow them.  Sometimes, people would offer to help us across – laughing all the way.  They thought it was hilarious!  We were too glad to be alive to feel embarrassed!

There is however a method to the madness and if you take a deep breath and wait for…not so much a break in the traffic as a lull (which means maybe just 7 lanes of scooters instead of 7 lanes of scooters and cars and buses), then just launch yourself into the road, they will go around you.  Honestly, they will.  Just walk at a steady pace and don’t stop until you get to where you want to go.  The scooterists are trying to gauge where you won’t be.  An even pace allows them to do that more easily.  And seeing as they’re trying really hard not to kill you, don’t make it more difficult for them than it needs to be.

(Note: Retro Food For Modern Times will not be held liable for injuries sustained by any readers trying to cross a road in Vietnam…if in doubt, lurk and follow a local.)

For my mind, the hub of Saigon is the Ben Thanh Market, it is a wet market as well as a place to buy souvenirs, clothing etc.  There are some eating places inside the market which are pretty good and dirt cheap to boot.  Here is Rick Stein sampling some of the wares on offer:

Rick Stein at the Ben Thahn Market

Rick Stein at the Ben Thanh Market

In the evening, the streets surrounding the Ben Thanh close down for the night market where you can get awesome freshly cooked seafood.  Make your selection from the tanks located along the back, choose the way you want your food cooked, sit down and wait.  This is not fine dining, this is plastic tables, chairs and plates.  It’s busy and vibrant and noisy and delicious!  Also, as with most things, feel free to haggle a bit over the quoted prices for the seafood.  We were initially quoted VND 500,000 for a kilo of shrimp the size of a small child.  We eventually settled on VND 300,000 (just over $14 USD / $15AUD).

Ben Thanh Night Market

Ben Thanh Night Market

Eating at Ben Thanh Night Market

Eating at Ben Thanh Night Market

In my mind the Ben Thanh neatly divides the city.  Looking out from the main entrance as shown below the high-end area of the city is to your left, the backpacker district to your right.  Both offer a myriad of delights for foodies, eaters and shoppers!

Ben Thanh Market

Ben Thanh Market

If shopping at the market, be prepared to haggle hard.  Also, be careful with your belongings.  We didn’t notice it this time, but the first time we went;  Mark looked down to find a girl with her hand in his pocket!

One of my favourite foodie magazines has a section called “24 hours in…” where they describe what you can do in a city in 24 hours.  So, stealing shamelessly borrowing heavily from them here is my perfect Saigon 24 hours…

I would start with Pho for breakfast, of course!!!  Next door to the Ben Thanh is Pho 2000.  Pho, for those of you who do not know it is a staple of Vietnamese cooking, a beef (usually) noodle soup.  It is eaten for breakfast or any other time of day!  In the south it comes with herbs, beans sprouts, lime and chilli; the Northern version is more austere.  Pho 2000 has the distinction of being the shop visited by Bill Clinton on  his 2000 trip.

Bill Cliton at Pho 2000

I would then head into any of the nearby parks to watch people do their morning tai chi or dancing.  Maybe even join in.  That has to be a great way to start the day.  I’m sure I’d be a lot better tempered if I started every morning by dancing!

 

Next, I would stroll up Le Loi for some heavy-duty shopping.  Bunga is an amazing clothing shop and also has a branch on Pasteur – both of these are a must.  A few doors down from Bunga , L’Usine has great art & design and sells the fabulous Marou chocolate.  Sandwich a square or two of this in one of the lovely croissants you can buy a the bakeries on Le Loi and munch while you shop!  The gorgeous wrapping makes this a fabulous gift too!

Marou Chcolate

Marou Chocolate

For a light lunch , try some Bahn Xeo  – delicious Pancakes flavoured with turmeric and crammed with bean shoots and prawns and pork and loaded with herbs on the side!  Lots of places also serve it with a rice paper coating which adds a great chewy element.

Bahn Xeo

Bahn Xeo

For those of you who want to try this at home, Yotam Ottolenghi, has a vegetarian version which you can find here:

Bahn Xeo

Spend the afternoon soaking up a little culture – visit the very pretty Notre Dame Cathedral and the awesome colonial post office building.  Then head over to the Reunification Palace and the War Museum for some history.  The War museum has, amongst other things, a great collection of posters from all over the world of countries protesting against what we call the Vietnam War but locals call the American War.

Notre Dame - Saigon

Notre Dame – Saigon

Saigon Post Office

Saigon Post Office

Detail - Saigon Post Office

Detail – Saigon Post Office

Anti War Posters

Anti War Posters

Anti War Poster

Anti War Poster

 By  now, you’re probably exhausted and thirsty and the sun is probably long over any yardarm you care to mention,  so head over to the Hotel Continental (another gorgeous colonial building) for a cocktail or two in memory of Graham Greene who stayed there whilst writing “The Quiet American”.

Hotel Continental Saigon

Hotel Continental Saigon

Whilst sipping, decide where to dine…low end down at the backpacker end of town you can have a decent meal and drinks for a few dollars.  Try the cafes around D Pham Ngu Lao for cheap, cheerful and tasty meals.

Alternatively, you can go high-end.  Hoa Tuc is one of my favourites, a renovated opium den serving amazing food.  The sugarcane shrimp is to die for!   Xu also serves amazing modern Vietnamese food upstairs and later you can dance in the bar downstairs until the early hours!  Be warned though, as my friend Monica found out, the durian tiramisu is not to everyone’s taste!

Durian Tiramisu

Durian Tiramisu

Ok, so that’s my perfect Saigon day….Next time, we’ll head to the centre to Hue and Hoi An.  Have a great week whereever you are!

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