Pepes

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I finally got round to trying Pepes with DC and his parents. I’d heard quite a bit about how it’s a reincarnation of the former Sanur, just that a few dishes were tweaked so it’s slightly healthier and less oily. We started with the tauhu telor, the ubiquitous stack of tofu deep fried with egg and served with kicap manis. It looks like there isn’t enough kicap manis in the picture, but this is the good healthy bit: it’s up to you how much or how little sweet black goodness you want on your tauhu telor as they provide extra in a side saucer. It’s great how the deep-fried egg bits were softly crispy and had none of that nasty oil ooze. They used very tasty good-quality tofu as well. A winner!

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Next was the sup buntut which I enjoyed a lot. The soup had clear, bright flavours and very tender oxtail. DC commented that it tasted like they added Maggi seasoning, but I thought it was fine. Maybe Maggi seasoning adds that authentic Indonesian flavour?

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The sayur lodeh was average with nothing particularly memorable, neither was there anythingparticular to complain about.

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But the beef rendang really lived up to its hype. It really was very excellent. Don’t be deceived by the gloopy looking gravy. (I’m guessing that it’s like that because they use a food processor for the rempah, but I’m not that much of a purist so not complaining about that.) The mix of spices, together with the coconut and the gentle heat of the chilli was an epiphany. I also liked how the meat was quite tender (though beef somehow never gets quite as tender as mutton) and came in large pieces all the better to mop up the sauce with.

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The barbecued squid was a bit of a pleasant surprise. They updated this traditional dish by topping it with chopped ripe tomatoes and they really added oomph! I liked the interplay of charred chewy squid with smoky sweet sauce and sweet, tart tomato. Another good dish.

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Get there before 7pm and you’re more likely to get a table, otherwise call ahead.

Pepes
391 Orchard Road 04-16 Ngee Ann City
Tel: 6836 3456

July in Vietnam: A Close Shave in Sapa

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My experience in Sapa was definitely head and shoulders above that in Ha Long Bay. Here I experienced something a tad more opportunistic. Although the personal danger was higher, somehow I felt far less upset about this experience, and filed it away under things to watch out for in future.

Here’s what happened. I’d booked my short tours in Sapa through a travel agent recommended by, of all people, my pastor. He’d been on a wonderful trip in a large group from church, enough for the travel agent to personally show them around Sapa. I hadn’t the same luck, which wasn’t a big deal. The tour guide who took me on a group tour to Cat Cat, seemed like a nice enough and friendly guy. Dzong was informative and also very fluent in English. After a very pleasant day trip to Cat Cat, he asked the group to join him for dinner. The rest seemed fairly interested but later backed out because they were all on pre-arranged package tours with dinner included.

Dzong invited me to his place for tea. Eager to make friends with a local, I readily agreed.  Turned out that he shared a room with his brother, one in a row of many little rooms in a building. We sat on little stools drinking green tea and eating lychees. Too bad he was really bad at choosing fruit. He obviously hadn’t spent a great deal of time living on his own. We chatted a while about all sorts of random things and I foolishly set the location a bit too far away when I fibbed to him that I had a boyfriend waiting for me in Ho Chi Minh City.

Later that evening we met for dinner and headed out to one of the local barbecue joints serving grilled black chicken and various glutinous rice specialties.  We sat down at the low wooden benches and enjoyed all the delicious local delicacies. Dzong got a half litre mineral water bottle recharged with the local firewater and I obstinately sipped at it while he exhorted me to scoff it down like the locals. No way for something at about 20% bv!

Soon dinner was over and it was time to retire for the night. I was a little buzzed as we walked back down the path leading to both our places. He asked me to wait outside while he picked up something at the pharmacy. Thank God for my curiosity as I wandered into the shop consisting of a single counter and looked around. Before long I realised to my horror that he was picking some prophylactics. That brought me straight out of my buzz and immediately put me on the alert. I kept my distance from him and true enough, he asked if I wanted to go to his place for a drink. It was my cue to profess exhaustion and head back.

Unfortunately, he insisted on being gentlemanly (whether faux or not I care not to explore) and escorted me back to the hotel. I kept insisting that he needn’t go to my floor or to my door but he did. I unlocked the door, said a quick goodbye and slipped inside, closing and locking the door firmly behind me. I was incredibly lucky that he didn’t try any harder because I later found that the door didn’t shut properly and really needed a chair pushed against it.

Boy did that teach me a lesson. I never told my parents about this, not even now, two years from when it happened. I wonder what Mum would say if she finds out, if she ever gets back to reading this blog again!

Having survived that, I thought I’d go on to more challenging things and hired a motorbike plus driver to take me through hill country the long way. Of course, not without thoroughly haranguing the travel agent who arranged Dzong as a tour guide to make sure that the motorbike driver was a decent chap who wouldn’t try a thing on me.

July in Vietnam: Sapa

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I hopped on the night train to Sapa hoping that things would get better there. I arrived early the next morning to vastly different weather. In contrast to muggy, humid Hanoi, Sapa was cool and on the verge of chilly, though still quite humid as it was the rainy season. Higher up in the mountains, the weather felt almost temperate. I was surrounded by beautiful hills and verdant valleys again, the quintessential hill country.

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I took a walking day tour to Cat Cat, followed by a 2D1N trip slight further into the hill country. Hmong tribeswomen immediately attached themselves to our group as we ventured out with our ethnic Viet tour guides. I thought it very odd that it was rare to find a Hmong tour guide and that most came from the cities. One of them didn’t even seem to hold a very high view of the local indigenes, which unsettled me quite a bit. Nonetheless, we proceeded on with a procession of Hmong women joining us on the way.

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We walked on in the drizzle and were amused by how the Hmong women whipped out their umbrellas with alacrity and offered to shelter us. A bit discomfited because the Viet guide told us that they would ask us to buy their wares at the end, we kept slightly away from them. But as they helped us up and down slippery muddy slopes along the paddy fields, it was hard to keep a distance. We were soon won over by their charming ways.

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Before long, we arrived at Cat Cat village and its beautiful waterfalls. We spent ages oohing and aahing over the wonderful views and the almost poetic splash of water obeying the laws of gravity.

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Treks on the other days took us through more padi fields cut into the hillside, making for a breathtaking view through the mist into the valley below.

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As we walked on, we gazed longingly at the pack animals going by…

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… and followed behind our guides, amazed that they were wearing rubberised slippers and getting along fine while we were in proper sports shoes slip-sliding behind them at the treacherous bits.

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We paused to admire more of the wildlife, like these too cute ducks posing for postcard souvenirs to send home.

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This was the youngest of the Hmong women joining us, I think she’s probably about 12 years old. Check out her intricately embroidered clothes, especially her sling bag and belt. Later in the less touristy villages I would see progress in the form of villagers choosing the less labour-intensive and probably cheaper way of wearing western-style clothes bought from the market.

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Hmong women really did have the coolest clothes and accessories from all angles. Here you can see their intricately patterned clothes and accessories, from belts to sleeves, to earrings and hairclips. Exquisite.

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We stopped at yet another beautiful waterfall for a breather (note sign of breathtaking scenery fatigue setting in here).

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And also in huts along the way. It was here that the penny dropped and I realised that our informal guides were decked out in ceremonial Sunday best wear, while those who were actually working the padi fields wore far simpler clothes sans heavy embellishment. It spoke volumes on the value of the tourist dollar here.

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We stopped for the evening at a village where I experienced the most beautiful sight of my time in Sapa. A young river flowed past the village, gushing past the boulders in its path, worn smooth by the rushing water. I perched on one of the boulders enjoying the warmth of the setting sun and dipping my toes into the icy water. It was a great ending to a damp day of trekking.

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July in Vietnam: The Bad and the Downright Ugly at Ha Long Bay

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I didn’t just whinge to my friends about my bad experience; I thought I’d do something about it by writing to Hanoi Travel Management. Upon advice from the venerable Lonely Planet to complain to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, I wrote to both email addresses then supplied on the website (anthu_sodl@hanoi.gov.vn and travelmanagement.hanoi@gmail.com) but never got a reply. The website has since changed and I think the tourism agency now has a bit more money  to have proper email addresses and I really hope they’ve cleaned up more of these cowboys in Hanoi.

Dear Hanoi Travel Management,

I visited Hanoi in July this year and had a very bad experience with a Hanoi travel agent and a Ha Long Bay cruise. I hoped to forget about it. However, since travelling through much of southeast Asia and having not had any other bad experience similar to this, I hope that informing you of this incident will help Hanoi to make itself more attractive for tourists to return to again and again.

In July, I was walking around the Old Quarter looking for a reputable travel agent for a Ha Long Bay cruise when I saw the A*Z Queen Travel Cafe sign advertising that it had been listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook since 1995. Reassured by this claim, I stepped inside and booked a tour with them. Only much later, after I had paid up, I realised that this A*Z Queen Travel Cafe was not the same one as the real one listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook. The address and telephone number were completely different! This A*Z Queen Travel Cafe was posing as the real one and even advertised on its sign that it was listed on the Lonely Planet guidebook even though it was not the same operation!

I continued with the tour to Ha Long Bay as I had already paid the money. On the tour, the “tour guides” treated the tourists like cattle. After we got off the bus, we were split up and ordered to join various different groups. Those who were staying the night on the boat had their passports very rudely taken from them by sullen and aggressive staff. As you could imagine, this set a very poor mood for the cruise that followed.

As a solo traveller, I had the worst treatment. I had booked a 3 day 2 night tour and even though many others on the bus with me had booked the exact same tour, I was swapped between groups throughout the entire 3 days and 2 nights. At first, I was put together with a group of people who were also on the 3 day 2 night tour to visit some caves. Later in the evening, the rest of the group left while I was left with the boat. Another group of people on their second day of the 3 day 2 night tour came on board instead. When I asked the “tour guide” whether I could join my original group, he said I could not because I was on my own and everyone else in the group was in a pair. He told me that the boat had an odd number of beds (13) and I had to take the last bed on board. He became upset when I repeatedly requested to be put together with the original group where I had already had friends in.

In the end, I had no choice but to stay on the boat since they had already taken my passport. For the activities over the next two days, I was placed in different groups for different activities. It was a very alienating experience for me. I certainly did not enjoy the tour as much as I would have had I been with the same group throughout. The biggest irony was that I saw my original group on the last day and was put together with them for lunch. They were in Ha Long Bay at exactly the same days as me but according to the tour guide, because I was a solo traveller, I had to be in a different group. Poor logic in their part resulted in a very bad experience for me.

In the evening of the first day I went canoing with another group on the boat. All the canoes provided were double canoes. Since I was travelling solo and the tour guide had deliberately placed me in the cruise boat as the odd number traveller, I had no partner. Therefore, I asked one of the tour guides to join me in the canoe. I expect that it should be standard practice that the tour guide joins the odd number traveller for canoing since the cruise boat deliberately caters to an odd number of people.

However, this was not the case. The tour guide told me brusquely that he did not know how to swim when I asked him to canoe with me. Instead, they pushed me onto the canoe and set me adrift alone in the bay. Of course it is impossible for one person to control a two-person canoe, especially not someone who has little experience canoing. I had difficulty avoiding the big cruise boats in the bay. This was extremely dangerous and irresponsible of the tour agency, tour guides, cruise boats and canoe operators because even though each boat was tailored for an odd number of people, the canoes could only take an even number of people. I cannot stress enough how dangerous this was. The lack of concern for the safety of tourists is appalling.

To add to this, the cruise boat almost left behind a pair of tourists who had not returned at the set time. We had already informed the boat staff that there was another pair who had not yet returned, but the boat still set off without them. Thankfully we had not yet left the bay when the boat turned back to pick them up. However, this is again unacceptable that the boat would leave without even checking that all had returned to the boat.

Next, as we tried to buy water from the boats around the canoe stand, one of the boat crew shouted at us that it would cost us more to take it up the boat. She showed us a piece of paper with the charges for bringing our own drinks bought from elsewhere on board: an extra 10,000 dong per bottle of water, more per bottle of beer and USD10 per bottle of liquor. We had not been informed this before, whether upon booking the tour or entering the boat at Haiphong. Even more illogically, almost all of us had openly taken with us large bottles of water when boarding and nobody had mentioned anything about extra charges to us. A very ugly scene involving a group of tourists in the boat and the boat crewed ensued.

The next morning, I chose to pay extra for the water because I just wanted to leave the bad experience on the boat behind and also because they held my passport and would not return it until I paid. Other tourists did not feel the same way and there were some unpleasant confrontations.

There was also a scene involving some girls who had brought a bottle of vodka on board. One the crewmen discovered the empty bottle in the room the next morning and flew at one of the girls with the bottle. He would have hit her on the head with the vodka bottle if not for the swift intervention of other tourists on board.

In the light of the experiences above, the fact that the cruise boat made us suffer other annoyances, such as switching off the electricity at night thus leaving us with no fan and no aircon in the stuffy cabin, seems almost inconsequential.

I am glad that this experience is over and as a result, have no plans to return to Hanoi or Ha Long Bay.

If you would like to take action on these errant operators, the contact details of the travel agent and the cruise boat are below:

A*Z Queen Travel Cafe
Address: 116 Hang Bac Str, Hanoi, Vietnam
Tel: (84.4) 210 5096 and (84.4) 828 1996
Mobile: 0904 518 042
Email: thaohien1221@yahoo.com.vn

Cruise boat details
Tourist Boat Cong Nghia (Tau Du Lich Cong Nghia)
QN-2068-H (2 star)
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I am sure that Vietnamese people are not in general like the people I encountered on this Ha Long Bay cruise. I thought I’d let you know to take action on the bad eggs in the tourism industry.

Regards,
Wai San

July in Vietnam: The Good at Ha Long Bay

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I’m going to start off with the good stuff that happened at Ha Long Bay. It was a fairly typical package tour where we were packed into minivans and trucked off in the direction of Hai Phong, stopping at the expected craft centre on the way. After being herded up to my junk and getting my passport confiscated for “safekeeping,” we headed out to Ha Long Bay proper. I was rather underwhelmed, mainly because I’d already been to El Nido, the “Ha Long Bay” of the Philippines. Of course El Nido beat this place hands down. However, taking a look at my photos again, Ha Long Bay is undeniably beautiful. It’s just a pity about the greeny-brown water.

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Our first stop was at a cave complex of sorts. I imagine it would’ve been really pretty on its own. Too bad about the garish spotlights in pink, purple and green. I really didn’t appreciate the suspect taste of whichever tourist association that put up those lights. Needless to say, my already bad mood blackened further at that point.

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At least the mood was lifted slightly by the Fun with English signs. Don’t you think it’s cute how they made sure that there was symmetry in the use of phrasal verbs. I know it’s not allowed, but I’d sure like to see how someone could write down a stalactite or draw into one!

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There were plenty of boat vendors trying to sell us wares at obviously exorbitant prices. They made for nice pictures though.

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There was also a completely pointless excursion to catch a glimpse of some local village after which they extorted money from tourists by insisting on a donation to the local school. I wouldn’t have minded donating if I actually got to see the school and meet at least a teacher, but not being let off the little boat till money changed hands was going too far. This was the one time being an inconspicuous solo traveller helped on this cursed tour. I quietly slipped back onto the boat while the others quarreled. At least the gloomy stalactite formations were vaguely picture-worthy.

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The best thing was probably the weather. It was fine for most of the time and even if the water wasn’t clear, the sky was a lovely blue that contrasted against the foliaged cliffs nicely.

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With the cliffs in the distance, it was almost reminiscent of a Chinese watercolour painting. Very pretty indeed.

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We had a little time to canoe in the bay, a nice prospect in the sunset if not for it being horribly dangerous (more later). I bring you this last photo having survived unscathed from nearly being run over by huge junks at the jetty and single-handedly steering a two-man canoe all by my little self back from the sunset.

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Enjoy.

Blue Cheese Biscuits

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I’m going to admit upfront that I’m not the biggest fan of blue cheese. But I wanted to make something a little special for two important men in my life. I knew that it had to be something special and something that wasn’t the usual type of baked good that comes out of my oven. I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone by getting a recipe from Nigella. (The other “bird” of course being me wanting to try out every single recipe in her book.)

These blue cheese biscuits really rocked, they were aromatic, robust and very tasty. In fact my aunt, who usually just pecks at food, ate up the entire plate of ugly bits after they were warm out of the oven! They’re also a very good introduction to blue cheese. While still tasting emphatically like blue cheese, the biscuits have a more tempered and less punchy in-your-face flavour. While I could only take a bite of blue cheese before getting overwhelmed, I could snack on these little gems for ages. I especially like the green-blue pistachio-y hue of the biscuits, makes them look so pretty in the jar for giving away.

A note of caution: it gets very, very pongy on the preparation and even more so when baking. My cheese-averse mum had to banish herself to the balcony while I made them. A couple of days later, she was still complaining about the smell in the kitchen storeroom (beats me how the smell got there!).

On the ingredients, I’d say don’t buy a very expensive blue like a roquefort. I snagged a schizophrenic blue from Fairprice that was labelled Danish on one side and British on the other for $7 and had cheese to spare. The cheese should probably be quite salty, but if it isn’t, add a pinch of salt. Lastly, Nigella’s recipe called from blue cornmeal. Needless to say, my local supermarket hadn’t any in sight, despite there being both a Cold Storage and a Fairprice Finest (which sucked, it didn’t even have blue cheese!). I resorted to getting some corn thins, a sort of health cracker like rice cakes, and crushing them for a cornmeal substitute. They gave a nice, slightly chewy texture to the biscuits fresh out of the oven. The only(!) problem was that they went soft soon after and needed a little (pongy!) while in the toaster before crisping up nicely. Next time I’ll try doing them with all plain flour instead, or with the prescribed blue cornmeal and tell you the difference.

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Ingredients:

175g blue cheese
100g unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
125g plain flour
50g corn thins, crushed to a powder
1 beaten egg for glaze

Method:

  1. Squish the cheese and butter together, then mix in the egg yolk till it forms a pungent blue-green paste. Using your hands, work in flour and corn thin powder till just combined into a soft dough.
  2. Shape into a rough disc, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for half an hour or till ready to bake. It’s a good time to preheat the oven to 200ºC at this point.
  3. After the dough has been nicely chilled, dust a large piece of aluminium foil with flour and roll out the dough to about half cm thickness.
  4. Cut the dough into little squares about 2 by 2 cm. Transfer to a lined tray. Gather together the scraps and roll out and cut. Glaze the biscuits with the beaten egg.
  5. Bake the biscuits for about 10 minutes till just tinged golden at the sides.
  6. Remove and cool on a wire tray. Eat warm or leave to cool and store in an airtight bottle.

Makes about 100.

Peperoni Pizza

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I’d wanted to go to Peperoni for a while and was delighted when Misa wanted to check it out too. We had girly gossip over the most amazing truffle pizza where the truffle was earthy and almost buah keluak-like in flavour. The thin crust was excellent and freshly made, I how loved the flavours of yeast and bread and the crisp-chewy texture of the crust mingled and really made this pizza work. It’s not just the truffle and melted cheese, it’s also the excellent crust that made this pizza. It’s not quite perfect though, because the egg wasn’t runny as it should be. Still, a small defect. I’m going back for more soon!

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It was a pity that the linguine vongole had an off day. The clams weren’t very fresh and it affected the whole dish. Such a waste since this dish is potentially such a winner. I hope they do this better the next time I get there!

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Peperoni Pizza
6 Greenwood Avenue Hillcrest Park
Tel: 6465 6556