Thursday, March 31, 2011

City Snapshot: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City was our final stop in Vietnam. We were told in advance it would be the most Western, and I can definitely see where it gets that reputation. The French style of architecture is more prevalent here, a lot of the streets seem very modern. You can sort of see that in the photo, which was from the roof of the Rex Hotel. War buffs will recall that the hotel was the host of many a press conference during the American-Vietnam war.

By the time we reached this city we had been traveling incessantly, I was still dehydrated from a brief illness, and we were confronted with the hot and humid weather that we had expected but somehow had avoided in the northern and central regions. For these reasons, I wasn't as on top of pictures here as I was during the early part of our trip, which is a shame because this city is a fabulous place to observe the contrast of capitalism and communism. Walking down the street, we passed department stores and plenty of Western name-brand places (the kind I can't afford). We also continued to see the colorful, blocky propaganda posters that undoubtedly address about each person's important place as part of the whole, and also undoubtedly reference good ol' Uncle Ho.

We went into a department store that had its own food court and bowling alley. We went to a restaurant so trendy that we had to dine in the lounge area because we didn't have reservations. Matt and I had drinks on the roof of the Rex Hotel and my mojito cost seven dollars. Sitting on the roof, surrounded by old white people and looking out at the view in the photo above, I almost forgot I was in Vietnam.

However, the city streets still share much with the country's northern capital. We found street food (we ate banh mi here) and a crowded, bustling market indistinguishable from those we saw earlier on our trip. Ribbons of incense smoke twisted out of temples and assaulted our noses. We saw a barbershop set up on a street, the entirety of the shop being a mirror hanging on a fence, a chair in front of it, and the barber with a bag of supplies.

If I ever have an opportunity to return to Vietnam, I hope to make Ho Chi Minh City the primary destination.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Missing Dairy and Learning to Like Fish

Breakfast pho
So, I enjoy the occasional bowl of phở, but my taste buds are wired for Western food. I love cereal with milk for breakfast, I'm used to corn as a major grain (I live in the US, after all), and I come from a very steak and potatoes kind of family. As a (soon to be former) San Diegan, Mexican food is pretty much just "food" to me. Growing up, the only fish I ate was tuna, and while I have expanded my seafood appreciation to include ceviche and the occasional sushi dinner, I am not a seafood person.

I knew going into our trip to Vietnam that it would be a long two weeks for my tongue and stomach, and used our breakfasts at the hotels as a reprieve from Vietnamese food. At the same time, we wanted to try as many legit places (the kind with Vietnamese patrons) as possible while also trying some famous dishes, because sometimes things make it into every guidebook for a reason, right? I could fill a lengthy tome describing our culinary experiences, but I'm going to limit it to a few of my favorite dishes.

In Hanoi, we decided that regardless of my feelings for fish, we had to try the famed cha ca. It's a dish of bite-size pieces of monkfish that has been marinaded in galangal, turmeric and some other stuff, and then it's cooked at your table with dill and other herbs and served with rice noodles. There are a number of restaurants that serve it; in fact, there's a whole street called Cha Ca that you can visit to get your fill. For our first dinner in Hanoi, we chose Cha Ca La Vong, a generations-old family business that claims to be the origin of the dish and where the only menu item is cha ca.

They are prepared for tourists.

It was a-mazing. For me, it was all about the dill. The turmeric marinade was delicious as well. I got seconds. OF FISH. That never happens. Probably the second favorite thing I ate in the country (the favorite will be divulged in another post).

Just before entering our bellies.
In Hội An, in addition to our fantastic and tasty cooking class, Matt and I ventured into the market for food and drink. During an afternoon walk we stopped for some extremely delicious fresh juice, which I later realized was an extremely big mistake on my part. I ordered lime juice, which was almost certainly watered down with tap water to make the tartness palatable. I am nearly positive that this is what lead to me getting "holiday tummy," which was the only tolerable euphemism I can find to describe it.

My cursed lime juice and Matt's smart choice of carrot juice.

We had better luck that day for dinner, when we decided to try Hội An's most famous dish, cao lầu. Our meal wasn't obtained without a little searching though, because while we had visited several local markets at that point, we still weren't what you'd call savvy so we didn't realize how early many of the vendors close shop. Fortunately, we could never take too many steps in Vietnam without being solicited to try food or buy wares, so a pair women welcomed us as their last customer's of the day.

I could never find it again in a million years.

The legend about this dish is that the noodles are made with water drawn from a secret Cham well. I'm not sure I buy it, but it's a nice story. We watched them plate our food (as we did nearly everywhere), starting with the noodles, then adding greens, marinated pork, and at last, the delicious crispy toppings (some sources tell me it's fried dough, some say pig skin). Were the noodles good? Yes. But I enjoyed the tender pork and delicious mystery crisps far more.

The noodles.

"Tourist Pork," according to our cooking instructor,
is the lean pork that the Vietnamese don't want.

The masterpiece.
In Ho Chi Minh City (you may know it as Saigon), the standout dish was our first meal there. Our flight was late and so we arrived in the first sweltering hot city on our itinerary with an empty stomach. While our traveling companions headed off to find air conditioning, we found a street vendor selling banh mi (complete with dodgy mayonnaise).

Stumbling distance from our hotel.

This is probably the one Vietnamese dish I'd tried the most before my visit, and probably the single best thing to come out of French occupation of Vietnam. The French contributed the tasty, crusty bread, and the Vietnamese contributed the delicious fillings. In the US, I usually order BBQ pork, and it's served with cucumber, carrot, jicama, cilantro, jalapenos, and mayo. In HCMC, we took two of whatever they were making, which included like three different meats/meat products (including one pate) and all of the usual veggies except the jalapeno. Instead, it was smothered with hot sauce. We took our sandwiches to the park across the street and ate what turned out to be one of my favorite meals.

Whew, okay, so despite my intentions this turned out to be quite lengthy. But honestly, the food was like, 50% of my experience there so it's hard not to gush about it!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

City Snapshot: Hoi An

After Hue, we traveled through Đà Nẵng to Hội An by van. Hội An is an old town, and it is quaint and charming to the point of feeling contrived. It seems like the public face of small towns in Vietnam, where all the women weaáo dàis and everyone puts on a happy face for tourists, which are everywhere in town. I didn't like that it felt like an act.

But it's hard not to fall for the ivy covered buildings, the wooden boats, the glow of the paper lanterns in the evening. Contrived or not, it's a beautiful place. Much to my delight, pedestrians dominate the streets. There are motorbikes and even a few cars, but they are far fewer than in any other city we visited. It made our time in Hội An feel slower and more relaxed, and allowed us to drop our guard a bit while walking to better take in our surroundings. Hội An has a nearby beach, which Matt and I did not visit, but we did make use of one of the many cooking classes offered around town, which included a market tour and several incredible dishes that we got to make and eat.

We also found time to drink fresh beer, try the famed cao lầu noodles and enjoy a walk in a less touristed area with riverside homes, roaming chickens, and children that chirped hellos to us as we passed.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Cars and Bicycles and Motorbikes, Oh My!

Hi friends, here comes another post about our trip to Vietnam. This one is about traffic, which is probably the singular most striking thing about my visit there. There are more motorbikes than cars (I mean a lot more), and far fewer traffic lights than you find in the United States, but really, it's the lack of order and regulation that stands out. The drivers purposefully maneuver their vehicles with a startling lack of regard for road safety.

I took this short video while we drank fresh beer in the Old Quarter. It's not a very busy corner but you can get a sense of the variety of conveyances and the traffic patterns. You can also see Matt's video, which is a little longer and features me eating a donut, here.

We arrived in Vietnam at 10 pm and our guide and driver for our time in Hanoi picked us up at the airport. It was dark, traffic was light, and we were exhausted, but we still noticed a motorbike piled high with flowers, the driver on the way to a nighttime wholesale market.

photo by Matt
Our guide seemed accustomed to the awe we expressed and she explained that the following day, she would teach us how to cross the street. Her instructions: don't run, don't stop, keep a steady pace and they vehicles will go around you.

Let me tell you, I don't even like jay-walking in San Diego. But that is the only option here. Even if you find a rare street light, chances are, people turning (either direction) will just go right through the red light. Vehicles will use both sides and the middle of the road, and motorbikes will use the sidewalks, for both driving and parking. You would think this kind of chaos would deter pedestrians and bicyclists, but people have to get around, and they do so in any way that they can. I would be terrified to ride a bike there. I was on edge most of the time because the sidewalks are so crowded we often found ourselves walking in the street.

photo by Matt
And I'm not sure there are limits to what the people there will put on motorbikes. In addition to flowers, we saw cases of beer with nothing tying them down, trees, a bicycle, and of course, children of all ages--on the back of the bike, standing on the foot rest of a scooter, and sandwiched between other riders.

Family car
The crazy thing is, even though the drivers all have to be really aggressive (they'd never get anywhere if they weren't), drivers seem to be more aware of the other vehicles and movement around them, and the average speed seems to be significantly slower. As a result, we only saw one accident the entire time we were there. It was on our last day in Ho Chi Minh City, a girl was heading straight for a car and lost control of her scooter, which slid. Fortunately, she was able to pick herself up, and she seemed to generally be okay.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

City Snapshot: Hue

Tomb of Tu Duc
The city of Hue has a very different feel than Hanoi. Much of that is due to small size and the lush foliage just outside the city limits. It also feels more touristed, in a resort sort of way. The town is pretty small, but it was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty (of which the last ruler was Bao Dai) so it has much history. With its famed Citadel enclosing the Imperial City, and the numerous tombs in the surrounding area, there's no cause to wonder why Hue draws tourists.

While our first sightseeing destination, the tomb of Khai Dinh, was a spectacular display of beauty and opulence, my favorite experience in Hue was our visit to the tomb of Tu Duc. Here was a guy with an aesthetic I can appreciate. In contrast to Khai Dinh's tomb, which, while nestled on a hillside, is a massive structure of stone and concrete, nature has a distinct presence in Tu Duc's resting place.

The image above is not of his tomb, but of another structure he used during his retreats from the palace. During his day, the man-made lake was stocked with fish and he used the island on the right, also man-made, for hunting (this according to our guide).