July in Vietnam: Out on the Mekong Delta

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My next short jaunt out of Ho Chi Minh City was a tour of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong flows through much of Southeast Asia and is of utmost importance to the livelihood of those who live along its banks. When it reaches the sea, the mighty river breaks into many distributories flowing over the vast expanse of the Mekong  Delta, stretching at least a 100km along the coast of Vietnam. Even its distributories are vast, taking some effort to cross.

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At some places, the river was narrow enough to build a bridge across.

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At others, the opposite bank was a bit too far away for a bridge.

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We had to crowd with the motobikes in the ferries to get across. Aside from the usual chickens, ducks and vegetables, one even carried live fish in a makeshift waxed canvas tank.

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The river was their livelihood and people lived along the river even if it meant building their houses on stilts. No matter if there wasn’t land in the front, a hanging garden did the trick.

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Others grew their garden on the balconies, like this house with its dragonfruit cacti creeping down towards the water.

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Further away from the river were places of worship, like this Khmer temple that looked like it had been transplanted from Cambodia.

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This area being close to Cambodia, there was a significant Khmer minority here. Some of the Buddhist temples I saw in this area were of quite a different style from the other Mahayana temples I’d seen in Vietnam. This was definitely closer to the Thai and Lao style temples…

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… even down to the saffron-robed monks running the temple.

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There was also a scattering of other places of worship, like this church here. It looked a little incongruous rising elegantly from the rather scruffy stilt huts along the river.

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As part of the tour, we were taken to see some of the cottage industries. One of them was food manufacture. Here, ladies patiently worked over wood fires making rice paper by hand.

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Others tempered melted coconut sugar to make rich caramelly coconut candy.

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And men did the grunt work of pressing popped rice into blocks which would then be coated in syrup and cut into crispy-crunchy sugary snacks.

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It was lovely wandering through the little hamlets in the area, passing under gardens and other topiary.

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And also chancing on a wedding banquet, where the happy couple was happy to let tourists take pictures of them on their big day.

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There were also some quiet backwaters…

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… which weren’t so quiet when children popped out of nowhere screaming “hello hello!” at passing tourist boats.

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It was lovely to wave back at them…

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… their smiles were such a lovely lift to river experience.

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A Constellation of Prata

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I don’t know what cunning folly took us when we decided to go to The Prata Place for Sunday lunch. My brother topped up the petrol specially for the long drive out to Upper Thomson. It was pretty crowded from the breakfasting masses when we arrived at about noon on Sunday. A pair of regulars were chased off to a smaller table to accommodate our party of five at the crowded cafe.

Even though each of us ordered something different, we hardly had a quarter of what was on the menu. We started off with crisp uppatham (pappadum) redolent with whole cumin. The paper thosai arrived next, a crisp cone accompanied by four types of curry and chutney.

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Everyone enjoyed the paper thosai. Most of it was crispy and the thicker base veered towards soft and chewy. I enjoyed that part the best because the thicker parts showcased very well the characteristic fermented rice flavour.

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The masala paper thosai was made of the same excellent stuff.

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The difference was that it had a delicious masala filling of spiced potato and frozen mixed vegetable.

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Now the curry chicken was top notch. It was thick with spices and was incredibly rich and, well, chickeny. The plus point was that it had a different spice mix from the other curries, so we didn’t feel like we were eating the same side curry for the thosai and prata. I alternately dipped  my thosai with that and the other curries.

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I haven’t had murtabak for a while and was quite surprised to see this thin crispy version instead of the traditional thick and soft one. The change made it a far more manageable portion, though I suspect the calories were about the same from the extra oil. There was plenty of well-marinated chicken from good parts, unlike other places that serve you dried up leftover chicken.

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It was good quality and I enjoyed it, though deep down I still prefer the traditional thick version.

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We also had paper prata and mushroom egg prata. Both were good with crisp outer layers and soft chewy inner layers. My brother liked the mushroom one because it had lots of large size mushroom slices. I wonder where they sourced their jumbo canned mushrooms.

For dessert we had the banana prata. It worked so well because of the cooked banana pulp inside. They used local bananas so it had a slight sour tang which really hit the spot. I can imagine it working well with chocolate sauce or condensed milk too.

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We couldn’t resist the chocolate prata. It was a special paper prata with chocolate sauce and chocolate rice on top.  It tasted like a local and extra unhealthy version of chocolate crepe. (What’s the difference between paper prata and special paper prata? They fold the special prata into the roof shape and charge you 20 cents more.)

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To wash all the oily, artery-clogging goodness down, we had teh bing and teh halia. The teh bing was the best I’ve had in a long while. I had to stop myself from drinking the smooth, fragrant brew at one go. It was just the right sweetness too. Those who had teh halia said theirs was good too. Plenty of ginger fragrance but not too biting on the tongue.

Five drinks, two packs of uppatham, two thosais, one murtabak, four pratas and one chicken curry cost us $33. Excellent value.

The Prata Place
1 Thong Soon Ave
Springleaf Estate

Self-Discipline at Amoy Street Hawker Centre

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A friend came back on holiday and we went to Amoy Street Hawker Centre to satisfy her cravings for Teochew porridge and kway chap. We made it there just before the lunch crowd, so it wasn’t too bad finding seats. To our amusement, the practice of using tissue paper to chope seats is still going strong.

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Our first stop was at Teo Heng Teochew Porridge (1st floor). It’s quite different from other Teochew porridge stalls which are also chap chye beng stalls in disguise. The choice here is limited to pork and innards, braised duck, squid, fishball products and tofu products. We didn’t see any steamed fish nor stir-fried dishes. Seems like the only vegetable you can get is giam chye.

That certainly didn’t faze us because what my friend really wanted was her giam chye fix. We ordered braised duck, stuffed tau pok, tau kwa and of course giam chye.

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Each bit of the dish was good. The classic Teochew braised duck dipped in chilli vinegar was as it should be, slightly chewy and taking in the flavour of the soya sauce it was cooked in. The stuffed tau pok had a satisfying mix of textures: crisp cucumber shreds, firm bits of pork and that unique spongy-crisp feel of tau pok. The best of the lot were the giam chye and tau kwa. The tau kwa was creamy and soft while the giam chye was stewed till just right. It was salty, slightly sweet and slightly tangy, almost melting into the porridge. Needless to say, the friend was very satisfied. We spent slightly over $8 for the stuff in the picture and two bowls of porridge.

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We moved on to Ah Hing Kway Chap upstairs where we ordered a single portion (about $4) to share: small intestine, tau kwa again and of course giam chye. You can tell that we aren’t big eaters at all. We both liked the soft, slippery kway. The small intestine was pretty decent, though not the best I’ve had. It was a tad rubbery from cooking too long in the hot soy broth. I liked the tau kwa, though it came in second to Teo Heng’s far superior version. My friend didn’t like it, she found it too mushy. The most disappointing part was the giam chye. It was FAIL in so many ways, not cooked till soft, too sour, too sweet. In a word, FAIL.

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By then we only had room for teh halia at Rafee’s Corner. This is one of the best teh halias I’ve ever had. There’s enough ginger to give a throat-tingling kick, the tea is strong enough, it’s just the right sweetness, just the right amount of condensed was added. If there’s any detested evaporated milk in there, I can’t tell. And the best part is that they tarik it for you at no extra charge. 80 cents a cup in the CBD is just an amazing price.

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Because of our great restraint at lunch, I got hungry early in the evening. Luckily I had the foresight to takeaway some bak chang from Hoo Kee on Level 1. I’ve seen rave reviews of it on both Makansutra and ieatishootipost. After steaming to reheat, this pretty sight beckoned.

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It was good! I enjoyed it so much that I forgot about adding the accompanying chilli sauce. The glutinous rice was firm, the pork tender, the chestnuts sweet and floury and the egg yolk perfectly crumbly and fragrant.

I’m not a bak chang fan. I used to hate having to eat it for breakfast when the season came round, but this I’ll willingly have any time of the day! The only complaint I have is that it’s the most expensive bak chang ever. This one with salted egg and chestnut costs $2.80. Madness considering that the same amount could get you a decent bowl of noodles.

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