July in Vietnam: A Ho Chi Minh Finale

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Before I knew it, I was back in Ho Chi Minh City. It was unmistakable from the sheer volume of motorcycles that seemed to populate the city.

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I visited the main sights like the Main Post Office, worth a look for its French-style architecture.

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And the stately People’s Committee Building or Hotel de Ville. Sadly, it didn’t take visitors, leaving me to take (very bad) pictures from across the street.

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Right in the front of the Hotel de Ville was a statue of Uncle Ho, the city’s namesake, comforting a child.

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Then there was the Notre Dame Cathedral that lost all its stained glass in the War. Its facade wasn’t very inspiring…

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… but inside there were rather unique statues of Vietnamese saints at one of the niches.

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There were also amusing Fun With English admonishing tourists to let the mass be.

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I also wandered out into the Cholon district, where the Chinatown of Saigon lay. Some of the temples here outshone those in Hoi An by far with their ornate yet somehow tasteful decor. I greatly enjoyed the contrast between black and gold here, complemented by the red background.

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The light that day was just perfect for this lovely shot of celestial light streaming past the conical joss sticks to reflect wildly off the ceremonial urn.

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There were other bits of detail that I really enjoyed, like this eave guard standing with his fan or some such ready to do… what? Battle with unseen miniature dragons? Beat back the wind?

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And there was this deliciously child-like panorama of a manor house and its out buildings.

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I’ve somehow lost the pictures I took when eating with Delightt, of banh mi so yummy I had to take some on the plane with me, and mushroom pizzas so addictive I had to have one for brunch despite already having had breakfast and plans for lunch. But I managed to take a picture of a very unusual breakfast of banh cuon, the Viet take on chee cheong fun. I must say that the Vietnamese can outcook the Cantonese for chee cheong fun. (The Singaporean hawker version served with that nasty sweet sauce is irredeemable.) Their version was much thinner and finer, so good that it was even better eaten cold. Mine was stuffed with minced pork and mushroom then sprinkled with nuoc mam and accompanied by spamsticks and basil. It was incredibly yummy.

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And then there was Fanny. Delightt and I spent a good afternoon there trying flavour after flavour. They had strange ones like custard apple, peanut and ginger flavours. Most were really yummy, like passionfruit and mango and the usual vanilla flavours. The waitress was incredibly patient with us as we chose to order each scoop separately (they gave one wafer and one grape garnish for each ice cream cup), especially considering that each scoop only cost 11,000 dong (USD0.65). Excellent stuff.

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And last of all was one of the best bits of being in Vietnam – having ca phe sua da (ice coffee with condensed milk). Trung Nguyen was everywhere and I dropped in often to get my coffee fix. It was here that I had the most expensive cup of coffee in my life – civet cat coffee, which was strong, intense and cost me a pretty USD7. It would otherwise have bought me a whole day of gluttonous eating. A pity that the coffee was so strong it started giving me palpitations and I couldn’t finish it.

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Perhaps a fitting metaphor for my experience in Vietnam. Goodbye Vietnam of the bittersweet memories.

A Healthy Picnic Lunch

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DC and I went to check out St John’s Island over the weekend. We hopped over from Marina South Pier by ferry. The 45 minutes ferry ride was comfortable and painless compared to the earlier hassle of finding parking at the ferry terminal. It was one of those incredibly hot yet lovely days and it showed off the island beautifully.

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The sky was blue, the clouds fluffy white and the thick growth of trees a deep lively green.

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There wasn’t a great deal to the island, only a research centre for marine studies and a holiday camp. The rest of the island that was accessible to visitors was pretty much a little park, probably equivalent to a zone or two of East Coast beach.

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Still, it was a lovely walk and surprisingly not quite as hot as we expected as most of the way was pretty shady especially a bit further from the beach. It was a lovely little bit of Singapore that was a nicely contradictory combination of well-kept park and forgotten bucolism.

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There were some mangroves along the coast standing upright in the water that was so clean it was almost clear. Only the sand clouded it up slightly.

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We spent a while peering at the little fish darting amongst the stilt roots of the mangroves.

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While there obviously weren’t any roses here, coming here was a good opportunity to stop and smell and observe. And of course test out the macro feature of my new camera!

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There were also cats on the island. Here’s a pretty one watching out warily both for us…

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… and the spooky black cat with scary eyes.

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Then we adjourned to a shady park bench for a very refreshing Thai-inspired salad redolent of mint and lemongrass. The ever-enterprising DC whipped out cold drinks from a little styrofoam box and it completed our meal very nicely. All we needed to do next was head back to the ferry and home, wash up and have an afternoon nap. Bliss.

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Thai-inspired chicken pasta salad

Ingredients:
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp palm sugar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive or peanut oil (optional)
2 cooked chicken breasts, shredded
1 cup pasta, cooked
2 stalks lemongrass, finely chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped (optional)
2 large handfuls mint leaves
2 heads baby butterhead lettuce
10 cherry tomatoes, halved

Method:

  1. Combine the fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice and palm sugar, stirring to dissolve. I use pellets of palm sugar bought from Myanmar and leave it overnight in the fridge to give the sugar time to dissolve. Taste if you dare at this point to test for balance. It should be incredibly salty, fishy and sour all at the same time. Add more sugar to temper the sourness slightly and more fish sauce or soy sauce if it’s not fishy-salty enough. Don’t worry too much at this stage, you can tweak later too.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the oil, shredded chicken and pasta, then stir in a few spoonfuls of the dressing. Now toss in the lemongrass, chilli and shallot and keep stirring till well combined.
  3. Tear the mint and lettuce leaves into the salad and keep tossing. Taste and add more dressing if necessary. Spoon into a plastic box for storage and keep as cool as possible for your picnic.

Serves 2.

March in Laos: The Real Monkey Business

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Did you figure out how we got from tree house to tree house? Check out the picture below and see if you can now.

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There were cables strung up across different parts of the valley and also to each tree house. We were all kitted up with harnesses and a pulley and we were all set to go across the zipline. After a few zips across picturesque valleys and a couple of treks on foot, we went across the final cable to get into our tree house.

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It was loads of fun because of the incredibly high speeds. It was hard to appreciate the scenery while going past really fast. I think it was also less scary seeing the river coursing down the valley so far below when you’re worried about whether or not you’ll crash into a tree on the other side.

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But you do slow down in the end. Occasionally if you don’t build up enough momentum you end up slowing down too fast and have to climb the rest of the, thankfully, short way back to the receiving platform.

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There were some problems with rats at another tree house and this cat was despatched to get rid of them. Of course it didn’t have its own harness, so into a sack it went. It wasn’t too happy about the disrespectful treatment and gave its ride a good scratch when freed. At least it must’ve been in cat heaven hunting all the rats on the tree.

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It’s a pity I didn’t get any good pictures while on the zipline. Most of the time I was going to fast to frame the picture well, other times it was unfocussed and most time I was just having too much fun to even want to consider marring the experience by watching my camera fall hundreds of metres into the river below.

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Nonetheless, the dusk views from the tree houses were pretty amazing. It was good enough seeing this, it didn’t matter that we hardly saw any wildlife.

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Except this lizard that one of the local guides gamely displayed on his shirt.

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It was a lovely two and a half days running round the forest ziplining like rabid monkeys across the cables over and over and over and over again. It was great getting to know the others in the group swapping stories by candlelight at night, then going to sleep and waking up to another day of ziplining again. It really was worth coming all this while to Laos for this.

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March in Laos: Eating in Luang Prabang

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Laos in general and Luang Prabang in particular had lots of great food. Siamesecat and I started off one misty morning with a glass of thick, sweet and strong coffee chased down with a glass of steaming hot tea. Sitting on a wooden bench watching the morning bustle while sipping hot robust coffee was one of those subliminal moments of the trip.

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After having our caffeine and sugar fix, we table hopped to the next stall and tucked into the typical breakfast of foe (yup, almost exactly like Vietnamese pho). I don’t know how they make it so tasty, but thin flat rice noodles with hot broth, topped with herbs and raw vegetables to your preference hit the spot for me every day.   This morning the noodles came with pork strips and tomato. I could have noodles three times a day and not get sick of it. The trick was to experiment with the toppings provided at the table. They typically have salt, sugar, msg and chilli powder but there’s normally lime, basil, coriander, mint, sweet chilli sauce, various types of belachan (fermented shrimp paste) and fish sauce. I especially liked trying out the pongy variations of belachan at the different places.

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Foe is normally served in really small portions, which was fine with us because it gave us all the more reason to snack along the street. Here I’m stuffing my face yet again at a barbecue stand selling grilled animal parts like spicy minced pork patties, water buffalo jerky and belly pork. It was all mmm good.

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For lunch, we again had noodles, the one here a beef version with popped rice cracker-cakes on the side. If you look carefully you’ll spot the two small tubs of belachan on the table. One was the typical shrimp one and the other made of tiny river crabs. We noticed a lot of Lao people take a chilli padi, dip it in belachan, take a chomp and double dip it while waiting for their noodles. I guess the heat from the chilli kills the germs.

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Heavily fortified by all this food, Siamesecat and I proceeded to wander the streets. It was evening when we came across this vampire-phobic cat lying on a bed of garlic. It was obviously bed time.

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It looked incredibly satisfied at the end of that yawn!

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As the sun began to set, Siamesecat and I decided that we really should have something quite special. While we both loved noodles and never got tired of them, we had to try the slightly fancier food too.

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We found a restaurant along the Mekong and enjoyed the view while waiting for our food.

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This place served mainly set menus catering to tourists. We figured that it was as good as any other. Not having any locals to take us to truly authentic places, at least this would allow us to try a bit of everything.

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The set dinner started with watercress salad, a fresh minty salad with sharp watercress and other herbs dressed in a type of mayonnaise. Then it progressed to dried pork sausage with very spicy buffalo skin dip. The pork sausage was like a slightly less fatty salami with lovely smoked overtones while the dip had strips of rather tough buffalo hide bound by a fiery chilli paste. Crispy sheets of dried riverweed with sesame seeds helped to balance out the fire but the extremely spicy beef stew didn’t help things out.

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Siamesecat and I then hit the night market for incredibly cheap buys like a beautiful silk and cotton mix pair of fisherman pants for about USD2.50. There were pretty handicrafts and all sorts of ethnic and hill tribe knick knacks on sale. Apparently a lot of these items were brought over the border to Thailand for sale in their own tourist markets.

I stopped to buy something that couldn’t be exported easily to Thai tourist markets: more food. Supper that night was baguette filled with ping kai (barbecued chicken) and lettuce. It was up to me to choose my sauces again. This time it was at least three kinds of chilli sauce, two of which had some kind of fermented seafood incorporated within, and two types of soya sauce. Amazing.

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