July in Vietnam: First Impressions

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Vietnam didn’t do well at all in making a good first impression.

It started with getting into Hanoi from the airport. The plane was delayed (not Vietnam’s fault) and I knew for sure that trying to get into town at 11pm was going to be a nightmare. I was sure the $2 Vietnam Airlines minibus described in Lonely Planet  wasn’t going to run at that hour, not when the taxi sharks were all circling at the main entrance.  Determined not to be stiffed, I approached an American couple who agreed to share a taxi.

We bargained with the driver and got him to take us to two different places for a total of $20. For some reason the couple got dropped off first, at a nice colonial-style hotel with twin curved staircases leading up to the main entrance. When it got to my address, it turned out to be a dark, shuttered, deserted street in what looked like a pretty slummy area. Here, the driver informed me that the price was now $40. I just stared at him and laughed, got off and ran up to my own crappy guesthouse. True to my luck, the place was closed even though I’d called ahead with my arrival time. I located the correct unit number and rang the doorbell to the dump of a guesthouse that I stupidly chose out of Lonely Planet (to be fair, it only cost $3 for a bunk bed). The annoying thing was that the guy who appeared didn’t open the gate to let me in. He instead spoke to the driver in Vietnamese, then told me that I had to pay $10.

I was livid. Immediately, I sternly told the driver shame on him for picking on a lone girl at midnight and that he could drive back to the swanky hotel to stiff the American couple instead. I had $7 in my hand and he had a choice to either take the $7 or nothing at all. He left grumbling. The only thing I regret was not taking down his licence number and to complain to the taxi company.

Thereafter, glared at the useless guy who let me in only after I icily informed him that I’d booked ahead. Of course I promptly checked out the next day.

The next morning, I didn’t fare a whole lot better. There were other challenges to contend with, such as the pirate bookseller who tried to sell me a fake Lonely Planet Vietnam for USD13. He tailed me for a good hour even though I’d told him I didn’t want it at that exorbitant price. In that time, I got myself a new hotel room, booked a Halong Bay tour (more about that in another post), bought a local SIM card and test-called Delightt to bitch about him tailing me. He was still waiting for me outside after I bought myself a second-hand real LP at a bona fide bookshop for USD11.

Here’s the transcript of the scintillating cross-cultural exchange that followed:

PB: (seeing the real LP in my hands) F**k off tourist!
Me: Go f**k yourself!
PB: What did you say?????
Me: (ignoring him by concentrating on my real guidebook)

Thankfully, that was the worst of my experiences in Hanoi, though not the worst of my experiences in Vietnam. Things started getting a whole load better from then on and as I wandered around Hanoi, I forgot about the bad first impression and was ready to see more of the country.

July in Vietnam: The Introduction

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Vietnam was the hardest country of my year-long break in 2008. I deliberately kept it to one of the last because I had a hard time there and it was the only country where I had many, many moments of completely not enjoying myself. In fact, I didn’t use up all my visa-free days and cut short my trip to go home, I was that tired. Yet despite all the difficulties, Vietnam was the place that I found myself talking about the most, it was the place where I had the most amazing experiences, where I came across the most breathtaking scenery, and the freshest, tastiest food. It was also the place where I found my own as a solo traveller.

It took some time for the memories to settle down and for the rose-tinted glasses of hindsight to work its magic. Now when I look through the photos I have the warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia. The anger, frustration and disappointment of having been cheated and mistreated have all but faded. The me that boycotted all things Vietnamese and wrote open letters to the Vietnam tourist authority has given way to a me that perhaps forgiven the past and wouldn’t mind giving Vietnam (especially the food!) a second chance.

Still, it’s good to document as much of my Vietnam experience as possible. I hope you enjoy the good, bad and hair-raising as I take you through my Vietnam trip two years ago in 2008.

August in China: Zhuang Country

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Going up the hillside to reach the village and its rice terraces was hard work. Most of us chose to burn our own calories going up, but others chose to burn cash instead. Enterprising locals would take tourists in a sedan chair for that moment of feeling like a king or at least minor nobility. It was unsurprising that most of those going up by chair were on the plump side. And I wonder how the fella in the picture managed to take a good video with all that bumping up the stairs.

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At the bus bay there were many Zhuang women making their handicrafts while waiting for tourists groups to buy their wares. Here you can see their long hair bundled up carefully. They never cut their hair as it’s a much prized symbol of beauty and probably fertility too. Here, all the craftswomen were married matrons. The unmarried girl keeps her hair firmly under wraps as it is only to be unveiled on her wedding night. Our Han Chinese tour guide warned the men to be careful not to accidentally uncover a girl’s hair or he’ll end up being married straightaway. He then said that he was a bachelor and would be happy to be the fall guy and marry a Zhuang girl on some hapless tourist’s behalf. I found that rather tasteless and offensive.

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No less, Zhuang hair was really a sight to behold. It was thick and black with not a strand of white or silver in it. I wonder if the older ladies simply wove their hair from younger days into their do, but I just can’t think how it could be done. There are apparently many herbal concoctions for making the hair black and glossy, but here they focussed on selling knick knacks and bags to the tourists.

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After being piled into a minivan and driven down and up more windy mountain roads, we ended up at another village where most of the domestic tourists elected to go for the optional cultural show. Most of the foreign tourists milled around outside, simply sitting around and soaking in the village atmosphere, watching corn dry.

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We heard sounds of the cultural show going on inside, complete with traditional songs and raucous mock wedding rituals.  Later, some of the tourists emerged with lipstick and such painted on their faces by enthusiastic villagers. It was amusing but slightly disturbing as I felt that the villagers had no choice but to do this just to earn a living.

Outside, we didn’t fare that much better as we bought imported iced drinks from the hawkers. Thankfully, the local vendors largely left me alone, preferring to target my Polish friend who looks a bit like an off-duty Santa Claus. I sensed that the children were probably more curious about these odd looking people than anything.

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Touristy as it was, I don’t regret going on this package tour. It cut a whole lot of hassle and was probably cheaper and easier than going it on my own. Travelling completely solo wasn’t easy, so I often joined tours to meet people. On this trip, I met some fellow tourists as eating partners that evening. It was fun taking A and T out to explore the Guilin food scene as they got to eat in some very local restaurants with no English menu and I got to sample lots of different dishes I couldn’t have done on my own.

I also observed a solo tourist who suddenly appeared in the village as we waited for the performance to end. He sat for a while on his own near two old village elders. After a while, a vendor came by offering little trinkets but he plumped for a cold beer instead. Soon he was taking a picture of the vendor and then of the village elders. It was amazing how he drew them in so unobtrusively and unexploitatively. If I had more time, I’d probably have done what he did: find his own way around the villages, sit around and interact with the locals in an authentic way, then hitch a ride back with a tour bus.

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The Hike That Became a Food Trail

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I was in Hong Kong at the end of November and having eaten far too much good food, I insisted that Tortoise take me to the islands for a hike. To lose weight. And feel healthy.

We went to Lamma Island where there’s a trail between two ferry points, a good three hours walk. It was the season for lovely weather and this view of the old-fashioned fishing town greeted us on arrival.

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It reminded me of 1980s scenes and also vaguely of cheesy HK flicks starring Samo Hung and gang. My mum loved watching those.

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I knew that my calorie-burning quest was doomed the moment my friend started rhapsodising on the nibbles she had on her last visit. My interest piqued, I immediately perked up when she mentioned satay of some sort. Up the alley just past the sea-front restaurants, the stall had chicken parts and cuttlefish on sticks. No close-up pictures because I was too busy devouring the spicy morsel. Even though HKers generally aren’t very good with chilli, this one was pretty darn hot and my mouth was on fire.

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Tortoise promised succour in the form of taufa (tofu pudding) a bit further down the path. I think I kept whining “are we there yet?” and “can we eat at this stall instead?” as my tongue kept burning. Not long later, we saw this crowd under the tarp. It’s all so charmingly makeshift even the poster advertising its numerous media appearances looks like a primary school project.

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Tortoise and I happily sat down to our taufa and wolfed down the silken custard. I contemplated having seconds but desisted because Tortoise reminded me that there was really good pigeon down the road.

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True enough, there were plenty of signs on the way beckoning us off the straight and narrow. The hike was not to be.

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After turning off the main path, the sign became more explicit. Without a doubt, we were getting warm.

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Pigeon… Preciouuusssssssssssssss…

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After several false turns,  including one where we found ourselves in someone’s backyard and another where we were followed by someone’s overprotective dog, we finally found the place and got our roast pigeon. It was tender, flavourful and had the crispest skin ever. I would have cried tears of joy if I wasn’t wolfing down my half of the bird. Even though it was 2.30 pm, there were loads of people still coming in. One group of expats ordered a huge mound of at least six pigeons for three people!

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We rounded off the afternoon tea session with wak dan ha yun (prawns in lightly scrambled eggs) and ha cheong kai lan (Chinese kale in fermented prawn paste, a specialty of the fishing village). Even though we were quite full from our itinerant snacking, the food was to die for.  My inner Chinawoman would have been delighted to have some rice with the dishes if it were lunch, but we quite craftily saved on calories by skipping it.

We made it to the beach in just under two hours, rather than the 20 minutes we anticipated. Considering the beautiful beaches I’d been to in the past year, this one hardly counted. Some stretches of East Coast Beach in Singapore might possibly be nicer, but it was lovely to (finally) get here just before the sun started setting. Besides, the blue sky, greenery and boats out in the distance formed a pretty setting.

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We mucked about for a short while taking photos and complaining how full we were and then decided that it was too late to attempt making for the other ferry terminal.  You see, we had to meet another friend in HK for, um, tea.

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We turned back quickly, not because there wasn’t time to catch the ferry, but to get even more food. On the way back we took away a piece of tofu cheesecake and some local sweets. The glutinous rice-based sweets weren’t great, but we nibbled on some anyway. On (literally) the other hand, the tofu cheesecake was really good! Light, yet full of cheese flavour. Of course we devoured that on the ferry, and it was all gone by the time we reached HK. We then hotfooted it to Central to meet our friend for virtuous smoothies at Mix, one of those places so peppy it almost gives you a headache.

A bad day for calorie expenditure but another great day for good food.

Klang Valley BKT and more

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Bah kut teh literally translates from Hokkien as meat bone tea. There are many versions throughout Singapore and the Malaysian Peninsula but it is generally pork ribs in clear broth with either Chinese herbs or lots of pepper and garlic, never both together. The chicken version is fittingly known as chick kut teh.

My KL friend was shocked that I’d not tried the famous Klang Valley Bah Kut Teh before. He promised that he’d take me there and give this ignorant Singaporean a taste of the dry version of bah kut teh. When I went up to KL last month, we spent almost an hour driving from KL to Klang. He takes any excuse to trek out there for his BKT fix.

Lai Choon Bah Kut Teh

Lai Choon Bah Kut Teh

We’ll start with the wet version. This one is pretty standard fare, with herbal soup and the option to add more ingredients like taukee (tofu sheets) and taupok (deep fried tofu cubes). I liked the aromatic broth and the ribs were pretty succulent even though I was tricked by a piece of bone masquerading as meaty pork rib.

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The wet version

Next up was the dry version of the bah kut teh. It’s actually described as “stewed meat” on the menu and technically isn’t bah kut teh considering there’s no soup in it. It comes piping hot in the claypot, check out the steam escaping. Thick chunks of belly pork are braised in heaps of dark sweet soy sauce and the killer ingredient, dried squid. Topped off at the last moment with lettuce leaves, the combination of tender savoury meat and squidy goodness makes it totally worth the long drive out. I slurped up every last bit of gravy in the pot.

The famous dry bah kut teh

The famous dry bah kut teh

Even though we were pretty full by then, brunch is brunch, so we had to seek out the breakfast portion of it. We also had the flimsy excuse of getting some kopi to stave off post-food coma for the drive back. Kopi peng (iced local coffee) is really famous at one of the stalls in the area, so we each had one. My friend asked for his to be gao (extra thick). The coffee was rich and strong, sweetened just-so with condensed milk. Reminded me of a toned down version of Vietnamese ca phe sua da. It went down smooth and was just the thing after lunch.

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rich and satisfying kopi peng

Well, you can’t just have kopi and nothing else right? Of course we ordered kaya toast. It’s quite different from the Singapore version. This one comes in a charcoal-toasted bun and has butter spread carefully so that the whole layer melts unctuously into the kaya. And the kaya! It’s more caramel than coconut and has this intense, almost molasses flavour that isn’t over-sweet. It is so excellent I could give up my Ya Kun kaya toast for it.

Best kaya toast in Malaysia

Best kaya toast in Malaysia

Having thoroughly fortified ourselves with Klang delights, we headed back to spend the afternoon playing wii.


Welcome to eat.drink.cook.travel.

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Hello everyone!

I started this blog to record and share my experiences eating, drinking, cooking and travelling. I’ll document meals I’ve had at home and at restaurants in Singapore and overseas. I’ll tell you about wine tastings and wine evenings I’ve had, with forays into the world of whisky and other liqueurs. I’ll share my recipes together with thoughts on cooking and baking. I’ll also show you where I’ve travelled and share with you the adventures of being on the road. Expect  a post a week, with more in the beginning.

Enjoy!

Wai San