Friday 23 August 2013

Vietnam - Summer 2013

Pho king amazing
Wednesday, 24 July

In a single day we have done so much! Jane and I arrived a day earlier than the rest of the cohort and so had 24 hours to explore on our own.  Our hostel was "Little Hanoi Hostel" (not to be mistaken for Little Hanoi Hostel 2 which is not even related!) and were amazingly helpful in recommending our days worth of food.  The National dish is Pho, and Dave (our friend behind our hostel desk) told us Ly Quoc Sur, No.10 Pho restaurant was the place to go.  Run like a fast food joint, the workers were dressed in orange and the orders were made and ready in minutes.  Pho is a beef noodle soup, to which you decide what cut of beef is added.  Hot sauces, fresh herbs, limes and some kind of golden fried bread sticks called quay were freely on the table as accompaniments.  I had a mix of "well done" and "half done" brisket beef in mine.  It felt fresh and natural with a real meaty stock that you could have happily drank on its own.

Vietnam is also famous for its rice paper spring rolls and just half an hour after our Pho indulgence we came across a street vendor frying a whole load of them.  They are seriously nothing like the filo pastry spring rolls you get at home.  Rice paper is ultra thin and so you get so much more filling in every bite and still get the crunch.  Served with a bag of some kind of sweet chilli fish sauce it is the ultimate street food.  My mouth's watering just thinking about them.  Apparently they vary as you go south and so I am looking forward to becoming a spring roll connoisseur.

Water puppetry is another Hanoi speciality and although at first it was interesting, I couldn't stop myself from nodding off.  I wouldn't say its boring but by that time I was soaked through from the rain and the air conditioning was on full blast in the theatre; combine that with jet lag and a darkened room it could have been an Amsterdam live sex show and I would have fallen asleep.  We warmed up as soon as we left and with dinner on the mind I soon woke up.  Another recommendation from our mate Dave was "No.1 Bun Cha" which turned out to be the most amazing Vietnamese meal possible.  It definitely cannot get better than this.  BBQ'd fatty pork meat balls served with a separate plate of rice noodles, a bowl of sweet aromatic broth and sides of fresh garlic, chilli, lime and a big plate of herbs.  It is an event of a meal as you share everything apart from your own personal bowl of juicy grilled meat.  Awesome.  We finished the night sitting on toddler seats drinking "Bia Hoi"; the only beer I have seen which is officially cheaper than water (25 cents a glass!).  It's not great beer but the atmosphere more than makes up for it. 

The rest of the crew arrived today and although they were not staying the night, our hostel were more than accommodating.  As we didn't leave for Laos until 5 in the evening, the Little Hanoi Hostel let us all store our luggage and shower there for no extra cost.  We pretty much repeated our day but with more people.  Lunch at No.10 Pho once more and a wander around the old town.  By 5pm we were washed and ready for our nightmare 30hr(!?) coach journey to Laos.

The Descending Dragon
Wednesday, 7 August
Since my last write up we have been through both Laos and Cambodia to return back to Vietnam 2 weeks later.  It is currently 1am and I am on route to Dong Hoi, about a third of the way down Vietnam's coast.  We took a bit of a roundabout route and flew (only £20!) from South Vietnam (Ho Chi Mihn) to North (Hanoi), only to make our way back down south again, as this meant that we could include another friend of ours for the Vietnam leg of the trip.  In the end we lost a Becky and gained a Lucy so logistics stayed the same. 

So from Hanoi we did probably what brings most of the tourists to the country; Halong Bay with an extra night on Cat Ba island (£68 with ODC travel).  It was totally worth every penny as this including so much!  Transfer from Hanoi was about 3 and a half hours and we were greeted onto the boat with fresh cold coconuts to drink and escorted straight to the sun deck on top.  The weather was beautiful and the scenery was lush; like nothing I have ever seen, other than on Lonely Planet.  After sunning ourselves and getting to know the other groups on board for about an hour, we had arrived at a little floating station where we were to collect our kayaks; all included in the price of course!  The Kayaks helped us get right up close to the magnificent limestone karsts, feed some monkeys that inhabited them and cool down in the clear water. 
Lunch was a three course delight before docking at some limestone just big enough to have its own beach to swim and relax.  As the sun set we began our cooking class and learnt how to make Saigon spring rolls (Saigon being the old name of Ho Chi Minh City).  Different to Hanoi spring rolls mainly due to its size.  Oh how I love a Vietnamese spring roll!  Vietnam is famed for its fresh spring rolls but it has to be fried over fresh for me any day of the year.  Saigon spring rolls were bite size, deep fried and folded like a boss (right).  Dinner just blew my mind as dish after dish kept coming out; all of this is included in our price?!  We had stir fried cockles, jelly fish salad, fried tofu, the best spring rolls ever, fried prawns and a whole grilled fish.  All washed down with a Saigon beer, the only thing I have had to pay for today.  We finished our day dangling our legs over the side of the boat and fishing for squid; it couldn't get better than this.  Everyone on the boat was fishing and as the moon got higher in the sky people gradually retreated to their beds dreaming of fresh calamari for breakfast; leaving just me and my brother.  Half an hour later we had a box of 14 squid and asked the cook if we could store them in his fridge.  I forget his response but we ended up going to bed with a belly full of the freshest squid you could ever possibly eat.  Oops...
After such a buzzing day, the morning brought the news that a typhoon was on its way and that the Cat Ba part of our trip had to be cancelled.  A little saddening but we got half our money back with no hassle and were back in Hanoi a day earlier than planned.  We couldn't help but feel that we had done Hanoi now but we ended up finding an amazing restaurant (New Day Restaurant) and having another wonderful evening drinking Bia Hoi and eating street food. 

Today the typhoon arrived.  There is not really much to do in a typhoon.  We visited what we could but our main goal was to kill time before getting on this tiny sleeper train designed with the average Vietnamese man in mind.  6 beds crammed into a dirty, sweaty cabin and I am on the top bunk overlooking the only stranger in here.  Poor guy.

The Queen of Spring Rolls
Wednesday, 14 August
People come to Dong Hoi for one reason only; to see the cave.  There really isn't anything else so we stayed just the one night, saw the caves and then left for Hoi An; my most favourite place so far.    Pink blossom trees, colourful silk lanterns and classical music playing in the streets; Hoi An is simply beautiful.  Out of all the cities, it was here that we had the most time dedicated on our itinerary.  We couldn't have judged it better.  Aside from being the famous arty, ancient UNESCO world heritage site it has a whole load of its own food too! 

We found a hostel on arrival and went straight out to eat and potter.  Hoi An by night is far more impressive with the lantern lined streets and the candle lit river.  There are 3 main dishes to tick off here; White roses, Cao Lau and the Hoi An Spring Roll.  We had the white roses(left) on our first night, which are a cross between Dim Sum dumplings and Ravioli and were the perfect finger food with drinks.  Fitting in with the mood of this place, we finished the night drinking on a boat listening to and joining in with live music.

The next day we decided to go our separate ways and do our own thing for a bit before regrouping for our 5 course cooking class ($20) in the evening.   Being left to my own devices isn't usually a good idea.  It started with me sitting on a barbers chair for a shave and getting my hair cut.  We didn't exchange a single word, I sat down and he started cutting.  Hmmm.  Hoi An is famous for tailoring and I couldn't help but pick out some fabrics, get measured up and put my orders in.  I should have totally become a designer, I had great fun combining the different patterns and creating shirts from scratch.  I designed two for $35.  With about an hour left to kill I decided to hunt for the Cao Lau...  just a snack to keep me going before the cooking class I thought.  I found a crowded indoor market and ordered the finest bowl of noodles.  Cao Lau is a type of noodle, made using a highly secret recipe making it something of an urban legend.  Kind of greasy, thick, meaty noodles served with different soups.  This stall did just two versions and having finished my first bowl I made the mistake of trying to ask to "taste" the other version.  Two full bowls of Cao Lau later I was stuffed and heading to the river side restaurant for our 5 course cooking class. 

The cooking class began with a tour around the local market to collect and buy the ingredients for our meal.  For starters we cooked the Hoi An Spring roll.  Now, be it down to the fact that I cooked them or for some other reason, these are hands down the best spring rolls in Vietnam and therefore the best on this earth.  We learnt how to make the sweet fish sauce too!  Course after course we took it in turns to cook with the guidance of a lovely lady.  For the 3rd course we not only learnt how to cook the Vietnamese pancakes but also how to eat them.  We quickly realised that we had eaten these earlier but in completely the wrong way.  They are a cross between pancakes and omelette's with prawns, pork and bean sprouts served with a bowl full of salad greens and rice paper.  Given those ingredients with no instructions I think most people would eat them incorrectly.  The proper way is to use the rice paper to wrap up little bits of the egg pancakes and greens to make your very own kind of spring roll.  I love food that you construct whilst you eat!  All 5 courses were fantastic (especially the fish in banana leaf!) and I could not recommend this place enough.  If you're going to do a cooking class, do it at Yellow Flower River Side Restaurant in Hoi An.

Yesterday we booked a ferry to Cham island with a snorkeling trip.  The snorkeling was diabolical with gear that didn't really work and nothing to see in the waters anyway.  The island was alright and had vendors barbecuing sea urchin but the day could easily be cut from a tight schedule.  Our epic evening of street food was the memorable part of the day.  The river in Hoi An is lined with tables and street vendors each cooking just one specific item be it the pancakes, spring rolls, barbecued meat etc.  The hand written menus contain what all the vendors are making and the waiters will take your order and fetch it from whoever is cooking it.  What a brilliant idea!

For our final night in our favourite place we decided to book into a posh hotel and enjoy some luxury.  Dinner there was a "Vietnam street food experience" which was more of an encounter than experience in comparison to last night.  We finished our time in Hoi An with a big night out and headed to Da Nang in the morning.  China beach and seafood is what Da Nang is famous for and both resulted in disappointment.  In fact the seafood was probably the most soul destroying part of the trip so far.  It had enormous potential with the menu in the form of 20+ big red buckets filled with various sea creatures.  Most tables were filled with Vietnamese on holiday tucking into some of the most amazing looking seafood.  We pointed at squid, prawns, fish, crab and clams and excitedly awaited its arrival to our table.  How do they know how we want it all done we thought, whilst looking around at peoples crispy fried squid and chilli crab.  Everything we ordered had been taken from the bucket, put into boiling water and then put on our plate.  I can't think of anything more depressing.  

Hedgehog, Snake and Rat...
Tuesday, 20 August the answer to things I have eaten recently.  Da Nang didn't really have much to offer.  The world's best collection of Cham Sculptures Museum wasn't enough to keep us for longer than 24 hours.  With a team down to 4 we took a night train to Nha Trang, a popular party spot for the Australians.  Full of tourist attractions, we used the time to make the most of Western amenities.  Sitting in a rubber ring in VinPearl Waterpark felt a million miles away from sitting in the inner tube of a tractor tyre in Laos.  Both I loved! Since then we spent a day fishing ($40 each!?), ate Hedgehog (Edited: having Google translated the word "Nhim" it turns out we ate Porcupine), tried, but failed, to go ostrich riding and had a mud bath in Thap Ba Hot Springs.  The mud bath was well worth it.  We spent a good few hours sitting in the mud, sunbathing until the mud went hard and then washing it off in a mineral bath.  Waterfalls, Jacuzzis and pools easily occupy the rest of your time.

Some of our favourite food has been eaten here.  The Vietnamese pancakes are enormous and sold dirt cheap on the streets.  The roads are filled with little red stools and locals tucking into these pancake wraps.  We totally know how to eat them now too! Rice paper wraps, greens, pickled salad, rice paper sauce and chillis, all ready on the table for the construction of the ultimate pancake wrap.  We also picked out a live snake and had it prepared for us.  The famous "snake 7 ways" was once on my bucket list but I have recently learnt that it was developed purely for tourists; not a local delicacy or ritual.  Fried in a light batter seems much more common and we all picked at the tiny ribs with a smile on our faces.

Back in Ho Chi Minh we spent a day visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels (above left) and War Remnants Museum before leaving on our two day tour of the Mekong Delta.  A tour along the delta is a common way of getting to and from Cambodia.  Our tours itinerary took us around the markets and plantations that thrive along the river and we spent the night in a home stay out in rural Vietnam.  It was great to wake up to the flow of the Mekong and get out into the floating market.  Boats selling produce from the local farms attract wholesalers and tourists.  Our boat regularly got "hijacked" by other boats selling things.  They would literally lasso our boat and ride along side us to take orders; breakfast and coffee served like never before.  Our guide, who named himself "handsome slim", took us by boat to see various Vietnamese traditions in practise; from local markets to the making of rice paper noodles.  Among this we went through mangroves and fed crocodiles using a fishing rod with meat tied to the end of it!  For lunch we dared the BBQ on a spice plantation where frogs, still in their skins, were bubbling away over the heat.  Eurgh.  The rat next to it, strangely, looked quite tempting.  Tempting enough for us to buy a couple at least.  Everyone stared at us as we carried our banana leaves back to our seats; there was really no mistaking what animal it was.  I almost feel ashamed to say that it tasted delicious! Tiny succulent morsels of honey roasted white meat.  Like miniature chicken wings.  Nom...

There's something about Sapa
Friday, 23 August
I am currently on the most uncomfortable journey of my life; travelling back to Hanoi from Sapa.  Having left the Mekong and flown back to Hanoi we had to decide whether it was worth spending our final days visiting Sapa.  We hadn't originally planned this into our itinerary but having spoken to other travellers throughout our trip, trekking in Sapa was clearly something of significance.  The issue was time; we had arrived back to Hanoi on Wednesday and our flight leaves for home on Saturday.  Most tours were 3 days long.  The proposed plan from our local tour operator was that we could catch an overnight bus on Wednesday, trek Thursday and Friday and catch an over night train Friday back in time for our Saturday morning departure.  We were assured that trains are rarely delayed.  Hmm... having used Vietnamese transport for 3 weeks now, they were clearly lying.  Instead we took the much less attractive option of coming back on a 10 hour day train on the Friday with only hard seats available.  This is where I am now.  By "hard" they mean wooden park bench hard.  By "10 hours with no delays" they mean 14 hours with a 4 hour stand still due to another train breaking down.  Was one day in Sapa really worth it?  Totally!

It was the perfect end to our 5 weeks.  Situated higher up, the weather is a little cooler and the landscape is a lush green.  Our tour guides were local women from the rural villages in Sapa and were extremely friendly.  We trekked for most of the day with the local women helping us the whole way.  They taught us their way of life, invited us to their houses, showed us how to use various devices to make clothes, mill rice and the rest.  A full, thoroughly enjoyable day.  Yes the women weren't helping us and being uber lovely for no reason, it turned out that they all owned little stalls and wanted to sell things at the end of our walk.  I made the mistake of buying a bracelet from a little girl at lunch only to be hoarded by several hundred of them seconds later (left).

In the evening, after a long hot shower, we went out to eat at "Vietdiscovery" as a recommendation from our hotel (when asked where can we find real local food).  They weren't joking, it was the furthest from Western food you could get.  Packed with Vietnamese on holiday it was clearly a gem stone find.  "Horse penis" was one of many unique items on the menu.  We sat on the floor perched at the end of a big Vietnamese party.  They filled white bowls with an alcoholic concoction that ended up purple in colour and the more they drank from it the more welcoming they were for us to join them.  We really enjoyed our meal but it was the company and the live music that made our final night special. If you want a real local experience, you must dine at Vietdiscovery! I am hoping that my lasting memory of this trip is not this train; my backside aches in all seated positions now and I only have 21 hours of travelling to look forward to.  Peace out and hopefully see you on the other side.  :o)