Archive for January, 2007

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Not Drunk Enough, I’m Afraid

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

On our first night in Hanoi, we visited Highway 4, a restaurant we happened to come across while wandering in the old quarter of the city. We first flipped through the drink menu and were happy to find some flights of locally distilled liquor for sampling, of which we ordered two. Most of them had interesting flavours like ginger or rose-apple but some were un-finishable, like the one with the name that translates as “one night, five times, give birth to four sons.”

However, so as not to completely pickle ourselves, we ordered some snacks off the tapas menu. We were not, however, nearly hammered enough to order any of the items on this page:


Otherwise, we had a fantastic meal at a French restaurant here called “Cafe des Arts”. It might sound silly to be eating Western food when we have so much good Eastern food to try but I am weak when it comes to foie gras and cheese platters. Thus, we have prune-stuffed filet mignon with foie gras sauce and – heaven! – mashed potatoes, followed by a tray of French cheeses. We ate there twice in three days.


Completely unrelated, here is a picture of Hanoi traffic from our hotel room.


Traffic is a neat mass of confusion. The only way to cross the street as a pedestrian, is to walk slowly across the road while scooters, trucks and cars weave around you. The key is not to stop!
If anybody is interested, I’ve made an attempt at loading video onto YouTube; see a street in Hanoi.

Food Enroute

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

It has been so rewarding to eat Vietnam with an insider. Our Easy Rider guides were so thoughtful as to order our meals and eat with us each day; that’s how we ate the best food in this country.

Before lunch on our first day, Bang stopped to pick up a few kilos of a fruit I didn’t recognize. It turned out to be passionfruit, our dessert for that meal and the following six. Cut in half, they are eaten with a spoon like pudding. Tart, sweet and juicy.

Along the way. we would stop at small eateries, mostly scrubby little joints with greasy tables and a woodstove in the back. A lot of them had names that were also the address and sometimes someone would be cooking meat over a tiny charcoal BBQ in the front. It was at these places that we would learn that bitter melon soup is eaten at the end of a meal, that tofu can be delicious when it is stuffed with spicy meat, and that crispy, deep-fried chicken can make an outstanding meal.



We also tried honey-barbecued squid stuffed with beef, stir-fried deer meat with morning glory, stewed wild boar, barbecued weasel (I think it was weasel; they didn’t know the English name for the animal but described it as “like a fox with a long nose”), and a fantastic seafood hotpot.

For breakfast one morning, we had Vietnamese steak and eggs, which were cooked as they were brought to the table on a scalding iron hot plate. The steak was actually buried beneath fresh coriander, tomatoes and cucumber and was only one of three different meats on the platter. We figured out pretty quickly that Vietnamese people love meat- I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much in one week.


Plus, at breakfast, there was always hot, Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk.


Sometimes, I’m Not Brave Enough

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

I think it’s safe to say that, while on this journey, Marc and I have been pretty open minded about the food we’ve eaten.  Some of the nerds who have been reading this blog since we left will recall that we’ve tasted fresh, curried, goat in Rajasthan, century eggs in Hong Kong, betel leaves in Gujurat, beef spine in Korea, and – lest we forget – fermented horse’s milk in Mongolia.  All of these things required a certain degree of bravery, a certain forced ignorance of the contents of our mouths as we chewed and swallowed.   But sometimes, we just don’t possess the courage to eat the unusual.

CIMG3725.JPGMost recently, as we travel through a region whose inhabitants will glean sustenance from almost anything, we’ve come across a few things that have proved too much for our sissy Western palates.  There were the fried tarantulas being sold by a couple of women at one of the rest stops on our bus journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh (I wasn’t even brave enough to take a photo, let alone taste one);  there were the crispy, deep-fried locusts which, again, I couldn’t bring myself to try;  and the fertilized duck eggs.   On  menus in Vietnam, we’ve seen ‘Fried Mouse with Onion’, ‘Fried Pork Hearts’, ‘Chopped Snake’, and a whole section dedicated to eels.  But  who am I to judge what is or isn’t edible?  At home, I eat oysters, snails, beef carpaccio and American cheese.  Thus, until I have tried any of these Asian menu items, I am just a pot calling a kettle black.

CIMG3738.JPGWhen we do get past the fried mouse though, there are some tasty things to be had in restaurants and from street vendors hereabouts.   We had a fantastic $0.80 lunch of BBQ pork with spicy vegetables and rice from a street vendor in Cantho, several marvelously delicious Vietnamese iced-coffees (we are up to 3 per day now),   and bright, fresh salad rolls dipped into spicy, peanuty, vinegar sauce.

It’s hard to prove but there seems to be an inverse relationship between the seediness of a food stand/restaurant and the brilliance of the food it produces:  the seedier the joint, the more tasty the food.  For example, on our first night in Saigon, we made it a priority to find and procure a decent bottle of wine to enjoy on the balcony  unexpectedly attached to our room in the guest house.  But what to consume with the wine?   After eating out so many times and for so long, there are times when we just want to stay in, and this was one of those times.  So, imagine how pleased we were to see a woman with a stall a block from our place selling Vietnamese sub sandwiches for $0.40.   Even better, there were a bunch of locals beating a path to her stall which is always a good sign.  We stepped right up to order two and watch as the fresh baguettes were filled with crisp veggies, a little soft, French cheese, and several kinds of unidentifiable meats and sauces.  When we got back to our balcony, I admit that I did open the baguettes and pick out the chunks of pork fat but otherwise, to quote Marc, “Those were the best forty-cent sandwiches I’ve ever had.”

CIMG3801.JPGAlso of note, are the frog’s legs and the pho (pronounced like the ‘fu’ in ‘full’), a lovely, beefy soup with rice noodles, fresh basil and lime.  How could we visit Vietnam and not have pho at least once every two days?   The version to beat is the one I had today at a place called Pho 2000 where, according to the prominently displayed photos, Bill Clinton visited for lunch.  His people must have known the right people in order to find this joint.

CIMG3744.JPGThe frog’s legs with mushrooms and garlic were something that Marc ventured to order while we were in Cantho.  I tried my first-ever bite of amphibian thigh and agreed that it tasted of chicken but with the delicate texture of a fish;  quite remarkable, actually.  The wine that he ordered, however, could be described as “grape juice with added alcohol” or as “a cross between a wild-berry vodka cooler and prison wine”.   Vietnam can cook a mean frog leg but it’s got a ways to go in the wine department.  I guess French colonialism can only penetrate so far.

Phnomenal Food

Sunday, January 7th, 2007

I expected Phenom Penh to be a cross between a small Indian city and rough Ulannbataar, instead of a French colonial city with France’s refine tasted and inexpensive wine. Three restaurants we sampled provided some world class food for shoestring budgets.

On New Years Eve, after walking the riverfront reviewing menus of the many tourist-friendly restaurants, we selected the Dutch-owned Frizz for it’s authentic Khmer specialties and lengthy wine list. It was one of the best meals we have ever eaten. The beef with smoked eggplant was truly unique, with a subtle mix of tangy sauce and earthy spices. Amok, our second dish, is a common Cambodian dish of curried fish wrapped in a banana leaf and Frizz does an exceptionally good job in presentation and flavor. The hot evening called for a bottle of house white in an ice bucket to bring our bill to nearly $20 USD.


CIMG3304.JPGAcross the street from the notorious Tuol Sleng genocide museum is the Boddhi Tree, a restaurant which deserves fame in its own right. Jan and I ordered triple-decker sandwiches with goat cheese, grilled eggplant and other vegetables. After craving goat cheese for months, it was a euphoric treat.




CIMG3320.JPGOn our last day, we visited Friends Restaurant which trains street kids for opportunities in the restaurant industry. A small army of students and a few teachers, all of whom seemed to be in their late teens or early twenties, runs a slick operation with attentive servers, a creative menu and tasteful décor.

We selected dishes from the tapas menu, crustini smoked eggplant dip, marinated fish and cucumber salad, crispy shrimp wontons and cashew chicken with mango. Our drinks, green peppercorn strawberry margarita and chili pineapple margarita, complimented the tequila with sweetness and a little heat to create exceptionally creative and tasty margaritas.

CIMG3326.JPGStill eager to explore the menu, Jan finished off with splendid caramelized pineapple and ice cream, and I tried the lemon and blueberry cake. Again, we kept the meal under $20 USD.


CIMG3261.JPGLonely Planet also directed us to a supermarket where we took advantage of the colonial legacy to self-cater a meal to remind us of France. Few pleasures beat brie, a good baguette and a bottle of wine sitting on a patio on a beautiful day. We already feel Phenom Penh’s epicurean luxuries pulling us back.