Posts Tagged ‘banh mi’

Good Morning Vietnam…or…Watch out for Purse Snatchers

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, full of excitement, in anticipation of having an amazing time in Vietnam.  After Cambodia, I was really excited to be in a more modern city, and had hopes that Vietnam would be significantly different.  Cambodia had been a great visit.  I loved the sightseeing and the beach, but like Sri Lanka, I felt that as a tourist I was a target, that Cambodians got dollar signs in their eyes upon seeing me, to the point that I felt uncomfortable at times.  So, I wanted to see what else SE Asia had to offer, and I’d heard so many great things about Vietnam that were inviting.  Fellow travelers boasted about the beautiful countryside and jungles, the amazing beaches, and the food.

First impressions of Saigon were positive, all the energy of a big modern city, influenced by the French, and convenient for travelers.  As Dore & I headed out our first night there, the proprietor of our guest house gave us a warning to watch our bags, keep them in front, and hold onto them.  Tourists were targets of a different kind in Vietnam, still in hopes of big money, but in a different ruse.  We wandered through District 1, an area that caters to travelers with lots of outdoor eateries and bars, t-shirt and book stores, and massage spas.  Feeling the vitality of the city, we returned that night excited for the prospect of the next few days.

We spent the entire first day walking the city, taking in this Eur-Asian mecca.  The city is spotted with pocket parks; it has its own Cathedral Notre Dame, and an interesting combination of Asian and French architecture, both colonial and modern.  After dinner at a street side eatery, we wandered, doing some window shopping and perusing the area.  And then it happened, just like that.  We were standing on the side of the road looking at a spa massage menu, and in the blink of an eye, a scooter pulled up beside us, cut the strap on Dore’s bag, and was down the street with it in hand.  When you are told to beware of purse snatchers, take that advice seriously, because within a short time after that we met several other people who had been victims of the same kind, including a guy who had his iPhone grabbed right out of his hand.  Thankfully, Dore was not hurt, but now camera with pics that hadn’t been downloaded and phone are gone, as well as our enthusiastic feelings for Ho Chi Minh City.

We tried to stay positive for our time there, but needless to say, that had become difficult.  Regardless, we made the best of it.  We did end up going back for those massages the following day, which helped some.  And then there is always food.  One thing the French did for Saigon was leave them with a taste for really great food.  You cannot turn a corner in HCMC without passing a Banh Mi cart, this is the amazing baguette sandwich that starts with pate and then conforms to the desires of the customer dependent on the ingredients available.  There are cheese and wine shops, as well as patisseries everywhere.  One morning we had crepes, one night we had a fine French meal.  And speckled in there were lots of stops for Vietnamese coffee, which is now my favorite coffee ever.  It is rich and delicious with chocolate undertones.  Hot or iced, it is amazing.  This year, Vietnam actually became the largest exporter of coffee in the world, beating out Brazil and Colombia.  Well deserved.

We did manage to see some sights, too.  One afternoon we visited Reunification Palace, where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked during the Vietnam War.  It is comprised of living quarters, conference rooms, meeting rooms, and underground bunkers.  Having been built in the 1960’s, the style is art deco, decorated with fine pieces of Asian art, furniture, and rugs.  Afterwards, we visited the Museum of Fine Arts, which had one level of Ancient pieces, but mostly displayed contemporary paintings, drawings, etchings, and sculpture.  It was really great to see modern art from an Asian perspective, and I was happy to learn that there are lots of impressive Vietnamese artists.

The next stop was Mui Ne, a surf beach (i.e. ex-pat community) almost directly east of HCMC.  As I shared in my last blog, it was on this journey that I decided that no matter how beautiful Vietnam is, I wouldn’t be able to see it like I want to this time around.  Still though, Mui Ne is a nice little fishing village, fun ocean and waves, stand-up paddleboards, kite surfing, and an amazing Indian restaurant called Ganesh (we ate there twice).   It was a wonderful relaxing time, allowing for time to unwind after so many cities and the drama of Saigon.  There is a fantastic night market along the beach consisting of dozens of seafood restaurants displaying live seafood in tanks, allowing you to pick exactly what you want to eat.  The lobster was amazing; razor clams were great, too.   The one downside to Mui Ne, I was coming in on a paddleboard and was knocked off by the surf in really shallow water, the board hit the sand and popped back up to jar me in my ribs, 5 weeks later I’m still healing what has to be a cracked rib.

From Mui Ne, Dore & I parted ways again.  I headed to Da Lat, in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.  This city is considered by many to be Vietnam’s Little Switzerland or Paris, and when you are there you do feel like you are in the Alps rather than Asia.  Surrounded by farm country, this area supplies most of Southern Vietnam, including HCMC, with produce.  They grow everything from vegetables to flowers to fruit to coffee.  It is beautiful hilly green country, covered in jungle where it has not been cleared for crops.  I took a moto tour one day with an amazing guide, Viet.  We hit a flower farm, coffee plantation, silk farm, Elephant Falls, the big smiling Buddha, and the Crazy House.  The Crazy House is this wacky guest house in Da Lat designed by a Vietnamese woman who studied architecture in Russia.  It reminded me of an Asian art deco version of something Gaudi would have designed in Barcelona.  Bizarre, interesting, and oddly beautiful all at the same time.

Aside from the French influence to Vietnamese cuisine, they have done pretty well on their own.  Noodles are the thing in Vietnam, whether in soup, or fried or steamed and served as the main part of a delicious dish.  Pho, the rice noodle soup which is a breakfast staple, became one of my favorites.  In my opinion, when a person is served soup accompanied by a side plate piled high with greens, herbs, and sprouts to add to the soup as you eat, one cannot go wrong.  I quickly learned to watch out for the soups containing random organs and this blood pudding sort of stuff.  I realize some people may like that, but not me.  I tried it once, and didn’t even finish it.  For those of you who know me well, you know that that is out of character, but in my opinion, it’s an acquired taste, and my taste buds said “yuck.”   The Vietnamese have a couple of different desserts that they make out of beans, and I liked those a lot.  Some were served with coconut milk, others just boiled with sugar water, but somehow they came out as a satisfying dessert.  Like beer, beans are not just for breakfast anymore.  For more pictures of Vietnam, click here.

One quick night back in Saigon, and then I caught a flight to meet Dore in Phuket, Thailand.  The last 4 weeks have been spent island hopping, and it has been amazing.  My favorite part of SE Asia so far, yet that story is to come…

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Food…Glorious Food

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

I had started this blog as a travel log, like most of my past blog entries, but then I was inspired by my cousin Adam to write a blog just about the amazing food I experienced in Bangkok and Cambodia.  Adam, this blog is dedicated to you and Hector, and to all the other foodies in my life.

If you live your life scared of street food, change your attitude before visiting Bangkok, known to have the best street food in the world.  If you think you will never eat an insect on purpose, wait until you’re walking Khao San Rd at midnight with a beer buzz.  If you don’t like spicy, never tell anyone in SE Asia, seems that that’s when they spice it up.  If you like curry, know that here red and green and tom yum are just the beginning.

The streets of Bangkok are lined with food vendors, selling everything from fried dumplings and spring rolls, to curries and noodle soup, to all sorts of barbequed meat and seafood on sticks.  You can find papaya or mango salad, any type of Asian fruit you may desire, and even ice cream served in a sweet bun, in addition to lots of other sweet pastries.  Then, hit Cambodia and add into the mix fresh spring rolls, sticky buns, and Banh Mi, the baguette sandwich inspired by the French.   You can sit and eat at the makeshift cafés, a table or two and some plastic chairs set up on the sidewalk, or take to go.  Depending on the dish it will come in a to go container as we know, or in a plastic bag, or in a banana leaf.

My first night in Bangkok I was to be meeting up with some fellow travelers for dinner.  I had an hour to spare, and my appetite grew as I walked past the several food stalls lining the streets.  I had to sample some of the food before I met up with them.  My first stop was for some vegetarian noodle soup, which I tell you, is hard for them to understand here.  There is meat in almost everything, but I was successful, and the veggies were fresh and delicious, bean sprouts and greens, spring onion and carrots.  Then, I met up with Nico and Lara and we found a restaurant on Rambutri Street where mostly Thai people were eating in this tourist part of town, so we settled in there for many Chang beers and some food.  My first course was Som Tum, Spicy Papaya Salad, and they were not kidding.  In Thailand, everything is made spicy.  Do not make the mistake of asking for “not” spicy, because according to my friends, the request does not translate and things are made spicier.  I had made no request, and it made my eyes water and nose run, but the small red chili peppers have such great flavor, it was spicy in a good way.  This is one of my favorite dishes at home and I’m happy to say that Thai Life in Key West does it justice.  Fresh green papaya, juicy tomatoes, green beans, carrot, bean sprouts, peanuts, and baby prawns in a flavorful fish sauce.  The next course was Tom Yum soup with Prawns.  So flavorful and delicious with thick slices of fresh ginger and pieces of lemongrass, roasted chilies, lots of coconut flavor, beautiful prawns, and fresh baby corn and Thai basil.  Doing it right.

Afterwards, we wandered from Rambutri Street to the well-known tourist street Khao San.  This is the Bourbon or Duval Street of Bangkok.  Lined with bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, and tourists, Khao San is a site to be seen, yet not my cup of tea as a place to spend lots of time, still fun for the visit.  The most interesting thing to me was the cart selling all sorts of fried and sautéed insects…yes, like bugs.  I’m sure lots of you have seen footage of this sort of thing on the travel channel or the food network, but seeing it in real life, the variety is pretty impressive.   So, you’re in a foreign country, have had several beers, and the insect cart is rolling by…what do you do?  Well, sample some bugs, of course.  I did not go for the large and expensive grasshopper or scorpion (they were $3 each), but went for the more simple grub and some sort of smaller cricket.  The grub, not so good, but the cricket was actually tasty.  And these were about 30 cents each.  My friend Jenny had asked me if I was going to eat any weird foods, and I guess now I can say, “Yes, I am.”  It’s part of the adventure.

The following morning I was extremely pleased with the breakfast at my guest house.  They offered the traditional continental breakfast of Asian guesthouses for Westerners: eggs, toast and fruit, boring.  Much more exciting to me, they also offered Asian breakfast of rice, sautéed pork with ginger and veggies, and fresh salad, including the best lettuce since I left the states.   The following mornings featured something very similar.  A really great way to start the day, especially before heading out to walk, and walk, and walk around Bangkok.

So, the best food in Bangkok is on the street and in the markets, which makes it very easy to sample many things while wandering the city.  I sampled several dumplings while there, and my favorite came from a woman near the Amulet Market.  Most often there were three kinds of dumplings: bamboo, kale, and shrimp, very lightly fried.  Tradition here is to cut them up and put them in a plastic bag with a soy-chili-ginger sauce.   This is also tradition with fried spring rolls, which are served with lettuce and basil leaves, sweet & spicy sauce on the side.  I don’t know if it was tradition to wrap the roll in the lettuce with basil, but that’s what I did.  So good.   I also tried fish that was steamed with spices in a banana leaf.  The fish was so fresh and delicious, and just lightly cooked, so almost like sushi.   The spices gave it really nice flavor, and the texture reminded me of tartar.   For a meal, there is a woman who whips up Pad Thai, as well as other noodle dishes, on Rambutri Street, and it was the best Pad Thai I’ve ever had.  Another traditional dish that you will find anywhere is noodle soup.  There are lots of different versions made with a variety of noodles, as well as a variety of meat and fish.  I had one of these noodle soups my last night in Bangkok, at a stall down the street from my hotel.   Flavorful rice noodles (my favorite) loaded with fresh herbs, ginger and veggies.

On the sweeter side, there were grilled bananas served in a sweet coconut milk; ice cream in a sweet bun with or without fruit sauce; and then there are khanom bueang, thin mini crispy pancakes covered with a sweet cream and fresh spiced coconut.  These were a personal fav, especially at 10 bhat, about 30 cents each.

The one other meal I ate in a restaurant was on Nico and Lara’s last night.   We shared some prawn rolls to start, prawns in pastry and fried, served with a sweet and spicy chili sauce.  And then I had another of my favorites, Green Curry with veggies and tofu.  It was delectable.  They made it with a couple of types of eggplant, one of which was small, green, and round like a grape, but firm in texture.  Really flavorful and different than any eggplant I’d had before.

While there are some similarities, the food in Cambodia is very different.   For one, it is not spicy.  It can be, but on request.  Seafood is a staple here, as is the dish Amok, made with any type of meat or veggies, but fish amok is the very popular and traditional staple.   The fish is wrapped in a banana leaf with a coconut based curry paste, accented with fresh lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, turmeric, ginger, garlic, shallots, and dried red chilies.  If you eat it at the right place, it is absolutely delicious.

The best and the cheapest foods are found on the street here, too, or in food stalls found in the markets.  Again, noodle soup is a traditional dish, made similarly to in Bangkok.  Aside from Amok, the dishes which set Cambodia apart are sticky buns, a doughy bun stuffed with a pork and fermented cabbage, and Banh Mi, the traditional baguette sandwich inspired by the French colonization of the region.  Made slightly different depending where you get it, these are stuffed with cucumber, pate, spring onion, cilantro, and a cucumber-carrot sort of slaw, add chile paste, pork, or cheese, if you like.  These sandwiches are awesome, and cost anywhere from $.75-$1.25.  A solid meal for little money.

The beach in Sihanoukville is a constant barrage of people selling things, including lots of food, seafood especially.  The sellers will cook you fresh squid or octopus right at your table, they carry trays of crawfish (which they call lobster) lightly spiced, and all the restaurants serve fresh fish and prawns.  You can also find all types of tropical fruit, including durian, which is infamous for its odor.  You can smell it from quite a way off, even if not opened.  It definitely has an acquired taste, but not as bad as I thought it was going to be, since the smell is so off-putting.

One more new dish for me, and absolutely delicious, was Som Lo Machuyun soup.  A Cambodian version of egg drop soup, and perfect for those who do not like spicy.  Just slightly on the sweet side, made with pineapple and tamarind, it also contains tomato, bitter melon, egg, fresh basil, and possibly a squeeze of kefir lime, too.  This is the dish to try.

What else to do in Bangkok and Cambodia, besides eat, and according to what I have seen so far: get massaged, it’s cheap and good; The Golden Palace in Bangkok, and of course, Angkor Wat, the awe inspiring temples of the Khmer people near Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Link here for more pictures of food, including market photos.  The meat in the markets here can make even the biggest of meat eaters a little unsettled.

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