Thursday, 24 July 2008

Fooding Around Hoi An

Around Hoi An

I still haven't got round to sorting out the hundreds of photos that I took whilst I was on holiday, but at a quick glance, I thought some of these around Hoi An came out rather nicely.

This is a shot of the old quarter from across the Thu Bon river. Most of the yellow painted shop houses now house restaurants and cafes catering for the hordes of tourists that descend upon this laid back town. It was relatively quiet when we turned up (non-peak season, perhaps?) but we did bump into a few large tour groups around.

The colourful silk lanterns are one of Hoi An's specialities (besides the tailors and cobblers ;) and they really are very pretty. I was very tempted to buy one (they do collapse down to make it easier to travel with) but I was already carrying so much more clothes ... maybe next time. The foot that you can see at the bottom of the photo belongs to the shopkeeper who was having a leisurely nap in the afternoon heat - when all the tourists flock back to their hotels to lie by the pool.

A picture of our hotel courtyard. Our room was the one next to the big umbrella. It was lovely and totally peaceful. Also, really laid back like much of Hoi An.

Breakfasts at Ha An

As the hotel offered breakfast as part of all their deals, we tucked into breakfast every morning and lovely they were too. I had heard that the choices were good when I read up on the reviews of this hotel and quite right they were. Buffet style (yay..pig out time! haha), the choices weren't as good as what you'll find in a big chain 5* hotel but I was kept happy enough. There was a variety of bread and spreads, cereals, juices, lots of fresh local fruit, an egg and pancake station, a hot food section with daily local and western specials and a dessert counter - yes, chocolate cake and creme caramel for breakfast :)

Here's one of my plates from our first morning (yes, I went for more than one round - that's the great thing about buffets!). At the top of the plate, I got salad,cold meats and cheese. The meat on the left looked and tasted very much like Spam - good thing I like Spam then ;D I think Jo was a little disgusted at it and even more so at the amount I consumed over the course of the next few days. The yellow-y pile at the bottom right of the plate was baked potatoes with onions and cheese. Trust me it was sooooo yummy. Next to it a bit of bacon and to left half a minced pork filled grilled tomato. Oh wow! It just tasted so yummy and comforting. I think it just reminded me of the soups I used to get as a child - chicken, onions, carrots, tomatoes - emmm... I think after days of non-stop Cambodian and Vietnamese food, Jo and I were very pleased to have something different.

Day 2 - the salad makes an increased appearance on my plate. As Jo and I were quite often going without lunch, I made sure I had a good breakfast - well, I was being greedy and Jo was still eating so much less because of the heat. I was really enjoying the salads with cold meats I was having. The hotel also made a lovely vinaigrette with oil, balsamic vinegar and shallots. Very yummy and it went on all my salads.

This salad made an appearance on our last morning - water spinach salad, which was so good. I would never have thought to eat this vegetable raw. In Malaysia it's either fried with garlic or belachan, shrimp paste that smells heavenly to some or the dumpster to others. I've also had it boiled, served with brown squid and a peanut sauce over it .., thanks! In this salad, the water spinach was mixed with thin slices of tomatoes, white onion, croutons and some other salad leaves. It was crunchy without a 'raw' taste and went well with the onions and tomatoes. I dressed mine with my usual vinaigrette and it went down a treat.

Street Food

We did grab some street food (not as much as we liked to have had) but what we did get was good and simple. There were a few times I was just too hungry to take a photograph of what I was eating. I just shoving the food down until it was too late

Cao Lau - a Hoi An specialty. What makes this dish so special is the yellow noodles used, made from well water which gives it its special flavour. Topped with cha siew (roast pork), beansprouts, bean shoots and crispy pieces of dough. Flavoured with fish sauce, soy sauce, garlic and pepper. My only complain - the serving was too small :)

We also had a serving Banh Xeo that really didn't come up to scratch. Thin crepes made with rice flour, turmeric and coconut milk/water and filled with bean sprouts, minced pork and bits of prawns. This was served with fresh herbs (in this case slightly wilted), rice paper and nuoc nam (fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, water and bits of chili). The pancakes were minuscule and nowhere near crispy enough.

Bits here and there

Apologies, but here's the bits where I couldn't quite find a suitable tag for :(

We received complimentary fruit every morning from the hotel but couldn't quite get ourselves to eat it every day. On our last day I decided to try out my knife that I bought from the market :D A little knife that doubles as a peeler. My knife worked well but the fruit didn't taste quite as good. They were definitely giving us better stuff at breakfast! On the right - the black spotted fruit sitting on the gaudy pink skin is dragon fruit - yup, the stuff I can't stand on the grounds that it doesn't taste like anything much, not sweet nor sour...pointless use of calories my stepmother would say LOL The orange-yellow slices next to it are mango. I usually love mango but these weren't great. The green skin orange is the local orange which is supposedly sweet but these were so sour that both Jo and I had pinched expressions on our faces when we had a segment each. Right at the top of the plate are slices of pear. Again, a real disappointment. Neither juicy or sweet. I hate to say this but most of this went into the bin. I'm not a fan of wasting food but these was no way any of this was going to get eaten anyway.

We had our last meal in Hoi An at our hotel. I ordered some fried wantons and did wonder why they were a bit on the pricey side. And the photo tells us why! Four huge pieces of wanton came smothered in a delicious prawn, mango, tomato and mushroom topping. I didn't even recognise this dish as wantons when it arrived but I had no regrets ordering it. The filling for the wanton was minuscule beneath the "sauce" but the wrapper was crispy and hot. The prawn and mango really complimented each other and as usual, as seafood goes in this town it seems, the prawns were crunchy and totally fresh, even though it had been cut into little pieces. If I remember correctly, there was also some black fungus in there (the same type the Chinese use in their cooking) which added more crunch.

I thought this little ornament of an orange monkey was quite cute. He came with my drink (long forgotten what it was) and I had half a mind to nick him but in the end he stayed put :)

Brother's Café, Hoi An

Shopping can be exhausting! But doing it in 35 degree (Celsius that is) heat and humidity, it can certainly wear down the most enthusiastic of us. So after much of our second day walking around town, Jo and I agreed to have quiet dinner at either the hotel restaurant or a restaurant we pass every time we walk up to the shops - Brother's Café. We opted for the latter when we walked out to dinner and little did we know that the ever quiet cafe was deceptively hiding a very busy restaurant behind in a French colonial building. Set in wonderfully lush well tended garden, the premises went down all the way to the river. It was very pretty with the central eating area set in a side building but as dinner service was in full swing, we were offered a candle-lit table by the river. Terribly romantic and very probably lost on the both of us :D This also wasn't going to be the cheap meal we had hoped for.

First up, drinks - an iced lotus tea for me and a banana smoothie for Jo. Probably a slightly odd choice of drink to go with a meal but she fell in love with banana smoothies when we served them when we checked into our hotel in Hanoi :) My tea was nice and refreshing in the muggy weather but as I'm no tea connoisseur, I didn't think it very different from the "normal" white/green teas. The fragrance wasn't as noticeable as jasmine tea, for example. Jo's smoothie was thick with blended bananas and she was happy with it.

We decided to have a plate of noodles each and get a side of veg to share. Jo got the crispy noodles with pork, which was stuffed full of pork and veg - snow peas, bamboo shoots, carrots, Chinese leaf, tinned button mushrooms and baby corn - sitting on a pile of deep fried egg noodles. Very tasty stuff with lots of "wok hei" - the smokey flavour a good hot wok imparts, if a little oily.

Our huge side of spicy stewed aubergine with vegetables came soaking in oil but was rather good. Big, soft chunks of aubergine and a variety of veg (quite similar to what went into the noodle dishes). It would have been lovely with some steamed rice.

I had the seafood fried noodles, which looks very much like the pork noodles that Jo was had. They were very generous with the seafood. Crunchy fresh prawns, squid and slices of fish. The veg was the same as the other portion of noodles with the addition of some dried shitake mushrooms. The sauce was ultra garlicky ... emm..ultra yummy.

It's no point coming here if you want a bargain meal but the food is very good, portions are huge, the ambiance is lovely and the waiting staff is very attentive. The house specialities are supposed to be the cau lau and white rose (prawn dumplings made from a translucent white dough and shaped like a rose) but we had that at stall in town for less a US dollar, so no point spending so much more at a place like this. We may have left with our purses a little lighter than had hoped but we had a really nice meal.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Mango Room, Hoi An

Our last stop - Hoi An. And we were in love!

Unlike the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and our bad experiences that we had in Hue, Hoi An was godsend. It's SO laid back and as we didn't wander out of the old town, really very charming. Another plus point, nearly every shop were either tailors or cobblers. They can make almost anything up from scratch for fraction of the cost of what you would get them for off the rack. Ahhhh Heaven! We didn't plan to get anything made but left two extra bags filled to the brim with clothes, clothes and more clothes... and a pair of boots each. Yes, hand-made boots that fit like a glove.

Dragging ourselves away from our oasis of a hotel (Ha An, which I would definitely recommend to anyone to who's heading out that way), we made our way to some food and ended up at Mango Room. Set up by a Vietnamese-American guy, it's quite a hip little place down by the river serving up some really good fusion food (so what isn't fusion nowadays?).

As we've been pretty good throughout this trip, we decided to reward ourselves with a couple of cocktails. Here's my mango mojito with lots of mint and ice. Could have been a little stronger on the alcohol front though.

Jo's passion fruit cocktail - not sure what it was but there was lime, passion fruit and ... rum? There's seems to be a trend here... me with my mango and Jo with her passion fruit :)

To accompany our drinks, a plate of nachos with salsa, which were on the house...I think. We could have been so sloshed by the end of the evening and not have noticed it on the bill..heh.. This dish was quite good - it wasn't amazing. Home-made (made in-house rather than brought in) tortilla chips with a salsa of tomatoes, onion, black beans and mango.

Next up, our shared starter of fresh rice paper rolls with prawn and mango served with a peanut based sauce. It was OK, not fantastic. The prawns were fresh and the mango, sweet. Nice combination but the sauce was a bit lacking...and Jo isn't a peanut fan. Bummer for her :(

My main course of pan fried fish (talapia?) with a of buttery sauce of onions, tomatoes and black pepper. Yup, black pepper was definitely up there as a main ingredient, which was the downfall for a very nice dish. The fish was very fresh, the taste was great but the little black crunchy flecks of pepper made this dish really spicy and quite unpleasant. It came served with boiled beans (boring) and a prettily wrapped parcel of rice vermicelli.

Jo's main of pan fried beef and prawn rolls. A little surf & turf going on there and it was delicious! Thin slices of tender beef wrapped around whole plump prawns. I really regretted not getting this dish for myself - yes, it was that damn tasty. However, the heavy hand of pepper stuck again. You can see bits of black pepper everywhere! What a shame ... both mains could have been real winners. This was served with the same beans and rice vermicelli.

Dessert? Who needs dessert when there's cocktails :D Here we have a twist on the Spanish classic of sangria - passion fruit sangria. It was like drinking fruit juice with lots of fruity bits in it - watermelon, dragon fruit, slices of lime and passion fruit. Emm yummy!

The meal wasn't cheap at around £10-15 per person if memory serves me correctly. But they're serving to foreigners like us who'll happily send too much money on holiday and we left pretty damn happy - ahh..thank you alcohol..happy days :)

Tea in Hue

I would say we were a little ... unlucky in Hue. One bad encounter after another really put a damper on our time there...ok, it was only for a night but we were pretty happy to move on when the time came. We always knew we would look back and laugh at our experiences but it ain't no laughing matter when you're stuck in it :)

After a long dusty day sightseeing, we headed back to our hotel - Villa Hue, a small hotel which offers practical training to the students from the Hue Tourism School. The hotel was really nice, very nicely decorated and the rooms were huge. It was a real bargain considering the price we paid. BUT (yes, there's always a but ;) the staff were a little slow in understanding what we wanted. I knew this before we got there and was determined to be patient, very patient but after a few hours, my patience wore thin. That aside, they did give us some vouchers for free cake when we checked in and we determined to use them.

I had the mango mousse cake. It does look a little sorry but it did taste rather good. Light sponge with two layers of mango mousse, one more intense than the other.

Jo's passion fruit mousse cake did look a lot better than mine and was constructed in much the same way. Two thin layers of light sponge with two layers of passion fruit mousse. I'm not a fan of passion fruit and was happy to stick to mine (we did taste test each others, of course :)

We also got cookies with our coffee. It's the little touches that count, isn't it? And this hotel has definitely got that bit right - glasses of ice water when we used the Internet in reception, little cookies with handwritten quotes (totally random ones) to wish us good night - very sweet.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

A Morning Aboard Ship in Halong

We woke up to some pretty amazing views .. I could have been quite happy sailing around the bay for a few more days but time was short and we were due to board a train to Hue that evening from Hanoi. Ahhh... but it was so peaceful, so calm... I could really get used to this...

We were provided with a morning snack before going off to tour some caves. We were each given a plate of an assortment of mini pastries. Jo's plate above had (clockwise from top) a dinky croissant, a pain au raisin and a muffin. My plate held (clockwise from top) tiny pain au chocolat, a pain au raisin and a flower shaped concoction.

The pastries were ultra buttery and just sweet enough to keep me going before we went cave exploring. The flower shaped pastry turned out to be short crust pastry topped with sweetened grated coconut. Good thing this dinky little thing ended up on my plate - Jo isn't very fond of coconut :)

The caves were pretty darn amazing but let down by the hordes of tourists whose only mode of communicating with each other was by shouting, camera flashes going off every two seconds and staff from the boat reminding us to move on (to ensure we followed their rigid timetable). Ahhh..complains ;) I can only imagine what this place is like at peak season! My photos from the caves are pretty fuzzy but I refused to use my flash in there but I did get this photo overlooking the bay as we were leaving. Pretty amazing, huh?

Back on board, we were served some proper, filling breakfast before we disembarked. This time it was buffet style (yay!!) and I got myself a slice of ham, some toast (which looked like it needed a bit longer in the toaster), half a grilled tomato, baked beans, a few slices of grilled sausages, a weeny bit of bacon and a slice of smoked salmon with 4 capers :D It wasn't too bad - standard breakfast fare. I went overboard with dinner the night before (dim lighting + hungry tummy = fuzzy photos..hehe) and I had to calm down a little for breakfast.

Their offer of a local speciality was pho bo - rice noodles in a clear beef broth with thinly sliced beef, garnished with coriander, sweet basil, spring onion, chillies and lime. The broth was nice, delicate and refreshing rather than the usual in your face beefy goodness. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would probably have gone back for some more if a) I hadn't eaten so much the night before b) the dining room wasn't so small, with so few of us that I felt the staff were counting how many trips I made to get some food.

Some fruit (watermelon, orange, pear) to make myself feel as if I've eaten something healthy that day and some chocolate cake to un-do all the goodness of the fruit :D The chocolate cake was quite light, almost fluffy with a dash of butter cream in the middle and a spread of chocolate ganache over the top.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Sailing In Halong

Halong had been on my list of must see places since I watched Indochine years and years ago, when I fancied myself in love with Vincent Perez...ahh.... ;) Halong was certainly beautiful but the itenarary imposed on us by company that ran the boat, Indochina Sails, was so rigid (2.30pm - swim, 2.45pm- take shower, 3.oopm - visit fishing village -you get the idea), I almost imagined that I was back at school :)

After a 4 hour journey from Hanoi that started at 8.30am, I was starving and really looking forward to lunch. To start, cream of pumpkin soup that was served in an elegant little bowl. The white swirls on the soup was coconut cream. A thick smooth soup with good pumpkin flavour that was a definite welcome to my tummy but I was so hungry, I was wanted more, MORE!

As soon as we were done with the soup, the bowls were whisked away and replaced by plates of green papaya with dry beef salad. A more polished version of what we had in Hanoi by Hoan Kiem lake, it was very tasty but yet again the whine......It was dismally small.

Next up, fresh rice paper rolls with prawn and mango. On the side was a little dish of nuoc nam or as they called it on the menu, 'traditional fish sauce'. As fresh rice paper rolls go, this was very light and refreshing but oh-so-tiny! You can tell by the photo on the left how small they were. Not so much on the length but the width - it was less than 2 fingers wide. I'm all for fine, delicate dining - just as long as I'm not feeling ravenous. I thought they were taking it a little far with the small servings, sigh... they could have at least served up two rolls.. I would have whined a little less lol

Yummy fried Halong shrimp with tamarind sauce. The prawn (yes, ONE) was very fresh, almost crunchy in it's freshness. The sauce was bordering on sweet rather than sour (as I assumed a tamarind sauce would at least be slightly tart). Togther, it made very good eating.

Pan fried chicken breast with lemon - which was actually pan fried chicken leg with lime leaves in tomato-y oil. It was rather delicious with nice caramelized bits and I was quite thrilled to find it was dark meat. I was still starving after eating this and shovelled down the decorative tomato flower that can be side at the top right of the photo. It would have done quite nicely with some pipping hot white rice.

This was the Special Indochina Sails Grilled Fish, which looked liked a posh version of cha ca, another dish we enjoyed while we were in Hanoi. The fish was was deep fried in saffron tempered oil and served up with deep fried dill, chillies and garlic. On the side was a handful (small;) of vermicelli and a sauce that was not particularly memorable. Compared to what we had at Cha Ca La Vong, I actually preferred this version. There was more flavour to this with the bits of deep fried chili and garlic.

Dessert - a fruit cocktail, little cubes of watermelon, dragonfruit and pineapple, with yogurt. As the pieces of dragonfruit were so small, I quite happily ate it with the other fruit. The yogurt was light, refreshing and rounded up the meal nicely.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Fooding Around Hanoi

Green Papaya Salad

Wandering around the Old Quarter near Hoan Kiem lake, we found this lady with her little stall selling what we thought were noodles. It wasn't until we had sat ourselves down on a teeny-weeny stools did we realise it was green papaya salad topped with fresh herbs, peanuts and bo kho (dried beef) served with lots of nuoc nam. Having never eaten green papaya salad before, I found it very light and refreshing eve if the dried beef was a little hard and chewy at times. Jo wasn't too keen on this dish as she's not a peanut fan (the woman was very generous in her portions and that's Jo scraping all her peanuts onto my plate - I love peanuts! :) There were extra bottles of chili sauce for those who wanted their salad spicy.

We sat by the woman for about 15 minutes and loads of locals stopped by for an afternoon snack. She had everything prepared and once someone sat down she'll grab a plate from a stack by her side and start piling on shredded papaya, cut the fresh herbs with a pair of scissors, load on the meat, sprinkle on the peanuts and splash on the sauce, kept handy by her side in a red carrier basket (seen in the bottom right of the above photo). Dish is served in no more than a minute or 2 of sitting down and all for less than US$0.80, brilliant!!

Fanny's Ice-Cream

I spotted a recommendation for this place in the guidebook and couldn't resist! Could you? Fanny's Ice Cream (lol) is located by Hoan Kiem lake and decorated with the air of a French cafe. There are loads of flavours to choose, from the usual suspects - chocolate, vanilla, strawberry to the more 'local' flavours of yam and mango. I went with chocolate chip (I'm still not quite sure why I went for such a boring flavour...) which was...well...boring, mango in the middle which was made with real mango and really yummy and last, the flavour at the other end of the bowl was com (young sticky rice). Having read about it I went to Fanny's hoping to try (as it's a season flavour) this strange, new flavour which was creamy, sweet and mellow. Quite delicious.


Who can resist a bit of cake? Especially chocolate cake? Another of the French colonial legacies in Vietnam - French style baked goods. Gluttons that we are (me more so than the heat and humidity really wore her down), we indulged in a few bakery visits around the Old Quarter. Some were better than others but here's a particularly yummy chocolate mouse cake (more mousse than cake), which was light enough for our dinner filled bellies but chocolate-y enough to satiate our cravings.

Highlands Coffee

A local chain modelled after your usual American coffee shop (think Starbucks, CoffeeBean). A godsend in the oppressive afternoon heat! Jo and I were at the point of snapping at each other (yup, you'll know what I mean if you've ever spent everyday, every minute .. with another person, travelling) when we called a coffee break. Located in a building overlooking the Haon Kiem lake, we plonked ourselves on a couple of sofas by the windows which thankfully had a nice breeze coming through.

I'm a real sucker for ice-blended coffees - icy, creamily smooth..emm.. My guilty conscience usually tells (commands) me to say no to the cream but I happily lapped most of this mountain of creamy goodness (the waitress didn't ask if I wanted any, she piled it on all her own and I couldn't possibly have let her down LOL). The little brown specks on top of the cream are bits of ground coffee, which I usually dislike (why would anyone want to bite into hunky bits of coffee??I'm happy just to drink it, thank you!) but these bits were so fine, it passed right by my radar for bitter coffee bits.

Jo opted for a fruity slushy/smoothie. I think it was mango... it was nice and icy and really refreshing.

Cafe 69, 69 Ma May Street
Sadly, as average priced food went, Cafe 69 was probably the best we had while in Hanoi. Slightly downtrodden on our food choices so far, we headed to this restaurant just metres away from our hotel. With a bar downstairs and a restaurant up a flight of rickety stairs (yes, another of those, argh!), Cafe 69 is a restored Tonkin tube style house (according to a sign by the main entrance - though I have no idea what a Tonkin tube style house is - Google has let me down this time).

First up, some Bun Cha (yes, i know....what were we doing eating this in a restaurant when there's a stall selling this at nearly every street corner?looking back..I honestly don't know..) with vermicelli, grilled meat patties, spring rolls, greens and a dipping sauce of fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and chillies. I really quite enjoyed this but I'm guessing this was nowhere as good as those roadside stalls we passed with wafts of smoke from meat being char-grilled. The spring rolls made with rice paper wrappers were filled with minced pork, wood ear fungus and glass noodles were crispy and delicious.

While the spring roll that accompanied the bun cha were made with rice paper wrappers, these were made with flour-based wrappers - much to my disappointment. I love the other sort and was really hoping (rather greedily) for a full portion. The filling was similar and nothing to shout about. We also had some very yummy caramel pork - luscious chunks of pork belly braised in a dark caramel sauce with lots of garlic and chillies. The meat was melting tender and went beautifully with rice.