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.

July in Vietnam: The Imperial Capital of Hue

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It was early morning when I got into Hue and hopped out of the night bus. A lovely long day of sightseeing across the Perfume River awaited.

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Here in Central Vietnam, there was a slight change in personality. Somehow I felt that people weren’t quite as hardened by war and that commerce, tourism and the free market had penetrated somewhat.

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The first stop was the Imperial Enclosure, a large citadel built by the Vietnamese emperors. These were largely in the Chinese style, given the vast influence exerted by their vast northern neighbour. First, I had to get past the outer moat.

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The walls surrounding the Enclosure were thick earthen ones with squat yet somehow very fitting gates and gatehouses built into the packed earth.

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And then there were the grand linkways between the various buildings topped by intricate carvings and prosperous sayings.

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The buildings themselves were very grand. Again, the strong Chinese influence was unmistakable, particularly in the Thai Hoa Palace, a receiving hall for the emperor.

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Further towards the back of the Enclosure were little residences of a slightly less grandiose nature, like the Truong San Residence, recently rebuilt after being devastated in the war. The pretty garden with rockery and pond added lots of charm to the place.

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I liked the little details I saw while wandering through the city in miniature. Looking up at the eaves of gates, I wondered why the decorations were made that way, whether for good luck or merely for ornamentation, perhaps to please the whim of a favoured concubine.

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Other decorations were more for impressing visitors, like this stone qilin (unicorn).

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There were also old cannon left behind from the old days. I wonder whether these were just for show or they really were meant for battle.

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Nonetheless, these weren’t spared the Fun with English sign of “No laying sitting on the selics.” Evidently done by someone with poor copyrighting skills.

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Outside the enclosure but still within the compound of the ancient city, there was plenty of living city. People carried on their daily business amidst the backdrop of beautiful lotus pond fringed by banana trees.

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After walking round imagining what life in ancient Hue would be like, I went to Y Thao Garden, a restaurant that specialised in imperial Hue cuisine. It had a little garden in the style of the imperial palace.

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The menu here is a Viet version of the degustation menu, with lots of little course that never quite seem to end. The only problem for a one-person meal was that the little courses weren’t as little as expected, as evidenced by this starter of deep-fried spring rolls masquerading as feathers atop a pineapple-carrot phoenix.

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Then came the less highly decorated poached prawns with salt and pepper.

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Followed by a slightly greasy but very yummy pancake called banh khoai. It was stuffed with meat and beansprouts and dipped in a peanut-based sauce.

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Next came a meat salad of sorts, a bit like the Lao/Thai larb gai. Combined with herbs and topped with ground peanuts, this aromatic mixture was eaten by scooping some up on a crunchy prawn cracker.

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I so full I was about to give up when the rice arrived. I thought it was going to be a run of the mill fried rice but boy was I wrong. This appeared to be fully vegetarian. The rice was cooked in a lotus leaf  with carrot, lotus seeds, black fungus and other vegetables. The fragrance of the dish blew me away. I don’t know what they did to make it taste so good but they sure did the right thing.

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Dessert was slightly less inspiring. There was only one, masquerading as table flowers. They’ve changed with the times and use plastic flower stems as the base, sticking on little soft pastry desserts. The filling was yellow mung bean, which was encased in a soft glutinous rice pastry, then painted over with some glossy jelly. It was pretty but not particularly tasty. Nonetheless, it was overall a great introduction to Hue imperial cuisine.

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Y Thao Garden
D Thach Han
Hue, Vietnam

[edited to include name and address of restaurant]

A Viet Gem

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We dropped by Viet Lang for a dinner with friends one weekday evening and were pleasantly surprised by how good the food was. Every dish we ordered was good, quite a change from most restaurants were there were invariably some items that were pretty run of the mill.

We started off with the imperial spring rolls, which had a filling of chicken and prawn encased in a net wrapper and seaweed of some sort, then deep fried to perfection. Wrapped with lettuce and aromatic basil leaves, then accompanied by a fish sauce based dipping sauce, the rolls tasted really fresh and had wonderfully contrasting flavours and textures.

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Next up came a dish that was awful to look at, especially in the badly taken photo below, it looked like something the dog brought home perhaps. But oh the flavour! The smokey eggplant really was smokey, which added an extra dimension to the dish, a bit like a very lovely Vietnamese take on babaganoush.

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The next dish, prawns steamed in young coconut, came masquerading as a drink. We wondered why the waiter was serving us a drink halfway through the meal but soon realised that the prawns were cooked in the coconut shell. It was very unusual because of the light touch to the flavouring. It was just delicate coconut juice, prawn and coriander that shone through, and was very, very good.

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Then there was the Hue-style grilled chicken with fried glutinous rice. The chicken was decent and quite tender, which I liked. Here, the unusual part was the fried glutinous rice. It was a bit like a cross between fried polenta and plain tangyuan (glutinous rice balls). DC loved it but I found it a bit stodgy after so much food so far.

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Then there was the Hanoi style hot pot with beef and seafood. The hot pot came with accompanying raw meat, seafood and vegetables and it was up to us to cook it ourselves.

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The ingredients were fresh and of very good quality, particularly the beef and seafood. The broth at the end was full of flavour and the glass noodles soaked it all up, showcasing the fresh flavours nicely.

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Last but not least was the pho bo. I was a bit sceptical when one of our friends specially requested for it but was amazed by how good this traditional beef noodle dish was. It beat any other version I’ve tried hands down with its lightly spiced broth and very good quality beef that melted in the mouth. A definite re-order for next time.

We didn’t have any space for dessert, but are definitely planning our return!

Viet Lang @ The Arts House
1 Old Parliament Lane #01-03
Annex Building, Old Parliament House
Tel: 6337 3379
E-mail: vietlang@wellborn.com.sg

Traditional Teochew

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We went out with family for the famous Teochew food at Ah Orh, mainly because DC’s grandma wanted to have braised goose. I have no objections whatsoever to one of my favourite types of fowl and happily joined in. The star dish of goose was excellent, where the slightly gamey taste of goose was very well set off by the flavourful spices. I liked how mellow the dish was. We made some halfhearted comments about taking some back for those at home, but ended up polishing off the whole dish instead. There were some other bits to the dish as well: tau kwa, braised pork belly and cucumber. I liked the soft, yet rather dense texture of the very fresh and creamy tau kwa and also the cucumber chunks that very nicely soaked up the goose gravy. It’s well worth coming here just for the goose I think.

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But won’t you miss out if you only eat the goose here? The hae cho (prawn rolls) here are pretty good. They’re made with yam, so a little different from the norm. I’m not sure how much prawn really goes into this but I think the stuffing is prawn, minced pork, yam and maybe chestnuts. All that is wrapped in tau kee (beancurd skin), deep fried and then eaten with a burnt caramel sauce. I quite liked this version although the yam made it rather heavy after a couple. I had to go easy on this to make room for the rest of the meal.

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They made a decent rendition of oyster omelette, with barely cooked oysters atop a nicely executed omelette. DC’s mum wasn’t too keen on the fact that the two had obviously been cooked separately. I guess she’s far more discerning than me on this! For me, oyster and egg make such a magical combination that as long as they’re decently cooked, I’m happy.

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The weakest link in the meal was the braised fish head with bitter gourd. The taste was all over the place and not harmonised at all. There was bitter and salty and chilli-hot, and that didn’t enhance the slightly over-fried fish pieces. It didn’t help that the fish was rather bony and we were spitting out bits of bone more than chewing and enjoying. This was a dish I wouldn’t re-order.

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Special mention must be made of their sambal kang kong. I liked how there was plenty of wok hei and a very flavourful sambal with bright flavours that really stood out. It was quite a spicy dish too, so beware!

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We weren’t really going to order this because we’d stuffed ourselves silly. But how to go to a Teochew restaurant and not order orh nee for dessert? I am a huge fan of yam paste and while this version looked rather disgusting (pardon the photo), I was surprised by how much I slurped it up and even fought DC for seconds! This yam paste found that sweet spot of silky yet with the occasional little chunk of yam to remind you that it’s made from real yam and not powder. It wasn’t overly oily or lemak either and while I was sceptical that there wasn’t pumpkin (and very little gingko nut, to DC’s dismay) but mainly red date, the paste did fine on its own. You have to save some space in your stomach for this dessert!

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Ah Orh Seafood Restaurant
Blk 115, Jalan Bukit Merah, #01-1627
Tel: 6275 7575