Archive | March, 2013

Hoi An in a few photos

11 Mar

I can’t think of any reason you wouldn’t love Hoi An. Unless, you were not a fan of hanging out with other tourists. Then you’d probably be better off somewhere else.

Because Hoi An is firmly on most people’s itinerary. And there is a reason for that. It delivers on all the clichés. This is what Vietnam looks like from the view of a tourist.

Bike paths lead into green rice paddies with water buffalos and conical hats. In the Old Town, of course UNESCO inscribed, narrow streets take you past low, tiled-roofed wooden shop-houses, temples and French colonial style buildings on your way to the old canals. And to top it off, several of the streets are pedestrianized, others allow only motorbikes to pass.

 

Vietnamese cooking: just a bit more oil, please

10 Mar

Spoiled by our month in Thailand, Vietnamese food has so far been somewhat disappointing. Truthfully, it has been a bit bland and often greasy. But, while we may have slurped some noodles, we also appreciate that we may not have appreciated Vietnamese cuisine to its fullest.

So. We enrolled in two cooking classes in Hoi An. One where a rat lurked underneath the makeshift kitchen and where monosodium glutamate was liberally added to each dish, and one as taken out of an American cooking programme on TV.

Cooking class at Ms. Hoa

Walk across the small bridge from the old town of Hoi An, hold left and you find rows of cheap eateries.

Fried wontons

While his words said “add a tablespoon of oil to the pan”, the spoon Ms. Hoa’s son used was a ladle. So, to start you off with this dish, add the equivalent of four spoons of oil to a pan. Meanwhile, chop half an onion, a chunk pineapple and one tomato. The next step makes this dish tricky to recreate at home (not necessarily a bad thing). Cook ready-made wonton wrappers in the oil until slightly yellow. Add yet another “one tablespoon of oil” (four) into a new pan and cook three shrimps before you add the vegetables. Season with one topped tablespoon of ketchup, a large spoonful of monosodium glutamate, sugar and pepper. Place the shrimp and vegetable mixture on top of the wontons.

Cao Lau noodles with shrimp

Cao Lau noodles, similar to Japanese soba noodles, are a speciality of Hoi An. A pleasant meal, but you might want to leave out the MSG.

The dish is simple to make though: Grate and fry one carrot. Add and cook ten raw shrimps. Then add a handful of bean sprouts, some chopped spring onions, seasoning (monosodium glutamate, sugar and pepper) and at the end some pre-cooked noodles.

Banh Xeo

Ooohh….. this is simply an evil pancake. Its euphemism is a “crispy crepe”. It is tasty, but the crispiness comes from using about half a bottle of oil for each pancake.

Again, start by adding a ladle of oil to a pan. Add the pancake mix (normal batter, though add some saffron). You should at this point have so much oil in the pan that when the batter has sunk to the bottom, there is a nice one and a half centimeter layer of oil on top. Add even more oil at this point, and swirl the pancake around. Wait until all the oil has been absorbed. Fold the pancake over and, yes, add some more oil.

When cooked, place bean sprouts in the middle of the pancake. Leave this for a bit under a lid until the bean sprouts have softened.

To eat, place the pancake on a piece of rice paper, add some salad and herbs and then roll it as if it was a spring roll. Dunk in sweet chilli sauce and eat while you try to forget the amount of oil you are consuming.

 

Chicken cooked with lemongrass and chili

Now, this was very nice. My facial expression below has nothing to do with the plate in front of me. It was simply disbelief that I had to eat even more food after I had politely forced down the pancakes.

Fry chopped up garlic (three cloves) in a “tablespoon of oil”. Add thinly chopped up fresh lemongrass, half a chopped up onion, one spoon monosodium glutamate, a spoon sugar, and a spoon Maggi sauce. Add chicken cut into small pieces and stir until cooked. Lastly, add some chopped spring onions.

Cooking class at the Morning Glory restaurant

Thankfully, the food at the Morning Glory was absolutely glorious. Plus, the amount of oil was cut down to about two thirds of yesterday’s. Still tasty, and finally some Vietnamese food that would not add considerably to our already additional backpacking kilo.

So. The below is what I will be cooking when I´m back! Or, at least the mango salad.

Cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth

12 spring onions
1 litre vegetable stock, hot
8 carrot flowers, sliced finely
Sesame oil
1/2 cup spring onion curls
1/2 cup coriander leaves
1/2 tsp coarse black pepper

 

Shrimp mousse
200 gr prawns, peeled
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp coarse black pepper
1/2 tsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp sugar
1/3 cup white spring onion and shallot, chopped finely
1 egg white

 

    • To make shrimp mousse, blend all ingredients.
    • Cut the cabbage leaves in half – discard the thick vein part. Bring a small pot of salted water to boil. Cook the leaves for 2 minutes and then set aside to cool. Cut the bottom white part of the 12 spring onions, then blanch the green part for 30 seconds in the same hot water. Set this aside as well.
    • Bring the vegetable stock to boil.
    • Make the shrimp dumplings by using two tablespoons. Make 12 – any left over mixture can be made into small balls that you add to the broth for flavour.
    • Poach the dumplings in the vegetable stock for about one minute, then remove.
    • Cut the cabbage leaves into small squares (10cm x 15 cm). Put the leftover cabbage in the broth.
    • Place the dumpling horizontally 2 cm from the edge of the cabbage square, fold over the sides (if the dumpling is too big, simply cut off a small piece on each side). Roll (as if you were making a spring roll), and then tie it together with the spring onion.
    • Place the cabbage parcels in the broth with the carrot slices.
    • (To make the soup even nicer, fry some garlic in a pan, add chopped up spring onion, and then some raw shrimps. Add this as well to the soup.)
    • Serve in bowls topped with spring onion curls, coriander leaves, a pinch of black pepper and a few drops of sesame oil.

 

Evil pancakes…again

What can I say? This time around, we carefully put the oil in our pans, trying to get away with using less than told. But within seconds, the instructor was there. And then that was it. Three good squirts with the bottle, and our pancakes were once again swimming in oil.

 

Mango salad

Oh glory. THIS! Now, this is the recipe I will make time and time again when I come home.

200 gr green mango, sliced finely. (The one I was given was however perfectly ripe and that is what I´ll use in the future)
1 cup onion, sliced finely
1 1/2 cups mint
1 tsp sesame seeds, roasted
1 tblsp vegetable oil
2 tblsp fried shallots (crispy onions from a bag should work just as well)
1 tblsp lime juice
1 tblsp white sugar
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp mild red chilli and garlic, pounded

In a bowl, put mango, onion, one cup of mint, one teaspoon of sesame seeds, lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, chilli and garlic mix, as well as vegetable oil. Mix well. Serve on four small plates (as a starter) and garnish with remaining mint, sesame seeds and fried shallots.

Beach bums on Phu Quoc

9 Mar

We missed the beach. Phu Quoc, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, is rumoured to have Vietnam´s nicest beaches. Obviously, we had to go.

From Can Tho, the island is three hours in a bus and two hours on a ferry away. To hold on to the rumour of paradise, keep your eyes closed as you get off the ferry. Keep them closed until you have passed the collection of trash lining the first few beaches. Better yet, continue to keep them closed until the taxi has taken you to Long Beach.

Because Long Beach is one of the lovely places in this world where you go to become stupider. The kind of place where you forget what day it is. You simply sit on this long stretch of golden sand and just let nice things happen to you. Required brain activity is limited to spotting a free sun bed to lie down on, choosing between mango or pineapple when your favourite fruit vendor passes by, and trying to make up your mind about whether the frozen mango cocktail is better than the mojito.

 

Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh

8 Mar

When I was at school we studied the (Protestant) reformation. I distinctly remember that one of the grudges were the sale of religious relics. Bones and other brick-a-brack of religious figures were sold en masse. In Ho Chi Minh City we visited a museum (by far the best in the city) dedicated to the life of Mr. Minh which included a vast array of what can only be described as relics of his life.

Our entire visit was taken up by a kind of one-upmanship of who could find the best Mr. Minh relic. Look! His glasses. Come over here – look, his hat! Even better – his sandels! Model replica of his house? I can do better than that – model replica of his maternal grandmother's house! Maternal? Here is a model replica of his paternal grandmother's house!

In the end it was a draw. Mr. Minh's chopsticks and rice bowl & Mr. Minh’s watering can (with a painting of him using it displayed behind).

That is what we thought until we saw a small brown lump wrapped up in see-through plastic. It looked like a boiled sweet. Surely not. But yes, there it was. A sweety that Mr. Minh had given to a young woman who had kept it (presumably for many years and subsequently donated it to the museum after his death. Perhaps it was worshiped in her village before that time. I like to believe there is a village Pagoda somewhere out there that once was used to display the sacred sweety). How the sweety was authenticated however, was not elaborated on.

The next city we visited, Can Tho, a few hours drive south also boasted a military museum. Although on a smaller scale the same pictures and similar memorabilia could be found. My girlfriend and I were sorely disappointed to find the same looking chopsticks, rice bowl and microphone (that the great man used to declare independence of Vietnam) as we saw in Ho Chi Minh City. I felt cheated. Which chopsticks were the authentic ones? But then again, surely the man used more than one set of chopsticks in his life. Perhaps there are as many (authentic) chop sticks as there are museums in Vietnam. Surely his cadres were careful enough to preserve enough authentic chop sticks to ensure every citizen easy access to a local museum to see them. Or perhaps it was a travelling exhibition and we had the good fortune to follow it (inadvertently) from one city to the next.

The museum in Can Tho had an entire second floor but unfortunately the lights didn't work. Pleading (and charming) the two female guards to put the lights on for us to see yet more delights the museum had to offer was pointless. Some of the exhibits were being changed and thus it was closed to tourists. However, one of the guards was more than forthcoming about taking our picture in front of what can only be described as a religious shrine of Mr. Minh at the entrance. Although a little apprehensive of her potential reaction (all museum staff members were dressed in military-looking uniforms and the museum in Ho Chi Minh boasted strict signs about no photography) we adopted the traditional Asian V-sign. To take a more sombre tone would have been too gracious and respectful for the pitiful site behind us.

In the museum (in Ho Chi Minh) one of the few other tourists noted our amusement at some of the exhibits. He told us that there is one in Hanoi which has a collection of his disguises. God I hope we can try them on and reenact scenes from his life.

 

 

Floating Market of Can Tho

7 Mar

Not much time to write but here are a few more pics of our trip down the Mekong Delta floating market(s).

 

 

 

Visiting the Mekong Delta from Can Tho

4 Mar

One of the highlights of southern Vietnam is visiting the Mekong Delta. But after our tour de farce of the Cu Chi Tunnels, we were not eager to go on yet another 30-people excursion. And whatever inclination we might have had to let someone organise everything for us disappeared completely when we met the two Dutch girls we keep bumping into. Their tour to the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City had resembled a floating circus of tourists and touts.

Fortunately, our luxury is time. We could easily spare the three hours it takes to bus down to Can Tho, the largest city on the Mekong Delta. And to be honest, I found it just as fortunate that the city is just out of reach for most of the organised trips.

Can Tho

Though its population is 1.5 million, Can Tho comes across as a sleepy city. There is not much to see except a nice waterfront. But then again, few people come here to stay on land.

 

Can Tho is said to be one of the friendliest places in Vietnam. Perhaps because the locals were keen to keep up their stellar guidebook reputation or simply because tourists were few and far between, Can Tho was a pleasant place.

Besides a few women in front of the harbour (“Wannaboat? Wannaboat? Want a boooat?!?”), the place was hussler-free. Parents even made their children wave at us and greet us with the standard for children in South East Asia, “HEEELLLOOOOOOO”.

And people struck up conversations, which led us to join a local yoga class for free.