A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Chi-Xep

Hanoi to Taipei, one last night - then home

a touch of homesickness sends us out to find something other than Vietnamese cuisine

sunny 73 °F

We've had an amazing time in Vietnam and the food has been one of the most incredible things about it. We can't mention our trip without talking about at least one of the the outstanding meals we had or dream about waking up to a hot bowl of pho ga for breakfast. Mmmmm... But I digress. Our last night in Hanoi and in an effort to start waking our bodies up to the realities of our impending Western diet we search for a good restaurant that will serve us something other then local fare. We consult our Lonely Planet Vietnam guidebook to discover that just outside our hotel door and to the left is a charming French/Spanish inspired restaurant called La Salsa touting tapas and wine. Oh, we haven't had a glass of wine since we arrived (okay- we did have two bottles of merlot when we lunched with Mr. Chau, but that's it- really! Oh, right, we had that bottle of sauvignon blanc with Mr. Thai. But really- that's all...)and are suddenly missing our favorite beverage immensely. Why not? We want to see if the culinary scene here can support international food as well as it does it's local. It is not an extensive menu but it doesn't need to be if everything on it is good. We order a nice bottle of Corbieres and start with a salad to share. We are happy to see that the wine is kept in a climate controlled cabinet so a slightly chilled (it can get quite warm here) bottle arrives and real wine glasses. Such a treat! The wine is smooth and not tannic with notes of leather, cinnamon, cocoa and stone fruit. It doesn't take it long to warm up which enhances the flavors and subtly changes the wine. We order a lovely meal that pairs very nicely with it. The warm goat cheese salad arrives first. Warm slices of thick wheat bread with melted goat cheese topped with toasted walnuts and other slices with an eggplant spread (similar to baba ganoush, but without the smokiness) sit on top of lightly dressed greens. Our meals come next: S has duck breast with black currant sauce accompanied with a few tasty potato croquettes and amazing wild mushrooms some that almost looked like thick apple slices, L has seafood paella that is not overwhelming in saffron flavor (she likes that) and is piled with fresh clams, squid and prawns. Having been seriously disappointed with all things dessert in restaurants here in Hanoi (with the exception of the unforgettable green sticky rice ice cream bars - but then again, they weren't from a restaurant, were they?) we opt out of that final dish. We enjoy the remainder of our wine and head back to our hotel, sated and happy.
We wake up the next morning to one last breakfast of pho ga then check out. Our hotel has ordered us a taxi to take us to the airport. We conveniently pay our hotel clerk for the taxi in advance, maybe a bit pricier then we would have liked but then we know she gets a cut out of that and we were going to tip her anyway - she was a sweetheart. The taxi ride to the airport is not as crazy as the ride in. scooter_load.jpgTraffic is much more mellow and there are not as many interesting sights to see, or maybe we've just gotten used to it all!rural_cart.jpg Still, a few last photos are taken enroute.grasses_on_bicycle.jpg We arrive a little more then 2 hours before our flight to Taipei. Noibai airport is a bit confusing: you have to look for the TV monitors that show you which airline is at which queue- there aren't signs for specific airline desks as you see in many other airports. The monitors are small and hard to see but we soon find the one for EVA Airlines (because the employees arrived and turned them on...) and we get in line. They actually don't start checking people in until 2 hours before the flight so we have to wait a little longer before the line starts to move. With our bags checked all the way to Seattle, we head to the gate, a quick pass through security and then it's more wait time. Sure, we could have come later, but then luck would probably have given us longer lines and more hassles. Oh, well. As we head down the gangway to board the plane, the sun suddenly breaks through the ever- present cloud cover and, voila, beautiful day in Hanoi! It figures.
Our flight to Taipei is fairly quick and easy, about 2 1/2 hours but we have a 7 hour layover there. We don't really mind, we plan to do some duty free shopping and check out the beef noodle stand that our friend Suzanne said we absolutely need to try. Suzanne had a layover in Taipei in February on her way to Indonesia and has raved about this noodle soup stand upstairs next to the Starbucks. We are not quite hungry when we first arrive but decide to scout out the place first, then come back later. We see a dozen people with faces buried in huge ceramic bowls of some soupy concoction, happily slurping up noodles and broth. We think "this could be good!". We get a pathetic latte (I already desperately miss ca phe sua!), stroll around the shops, buy some scotch (12-year old Balvenie Doublewood, for those who care), get a quick massage then head back for a little dinner. The menu on the board is confusing. It just reads: appetizers, main dish, meat ball soup and beer and soft drinks. Hmmmm. We guess it must be the meatball soup we need to order, which we do. What arrives is not a gargantuan ceramic bowl of beefy goodness but a small plastic bowl of clear broth with a few sliced scallions floating around in it and a trio of pathetic rubbery meatballs that are cut to somehow resemble the sandworms of Dune. (S. thinks they look like grey Pacmen) I swear to god, if you dropped one it would bounce! This can't be right! Where are the noodles? Where's the highly touted soupy goodness? Where's the rave-worthy beefiness? Suzanne would not, could not, steer us wrong. We glance around at the throng of Taiwanese teenage boys who have marvelous bowls parked in front of them and we wonder what we did wrong. I'm not terribly hungry anymore but I decide to make one last attempt. As I approach the counter for a second time I realize that there is an array of plastic realistic-looking food items in a case under the counter. Aha! Ye Olde Fake Food Display! These items are not on the menu board and one of them looks suspiciously like a wonton beef noodle soup that Suzanne would enjoy. I order one so that we can share and within a few minutes a huge bowl of steaming darkly colored broth with thick noodles, plump wontons and thin slices of beef appears. This has got to be it. It is rich in flavor with a spiciness that is cooled by the Kirin beer we purchased. Tender slices of beef and steamed wontons are consumed rapidly. One bowl is more then enough for two.Taipei_bee..le_soup.jpg We cast fleeting glances at our now discarded and pathetic meatball soup and laugh. I'm glad we eventually got it right.
With that done, we head to our gate to patiently wait for our flight. In Elite class it's a relatively easy 10 1/2 hour flight back to the States. We take off 20 minutes late but land 20 minutes early to a cold drizzly Seattle evening. Sigh. Gotta break out the sweaters and jeans again. It's been a wonderful trip.

~L (and S)

Posted by Chi-Xep 09:43 Archived in Vietnam Tagged food Comments (0)

Dinner with "The Fixer"

overcast 75 °F

S. has made many friends in Vietnam and one of the most politically important is Mr. Thai. A delightful and influential gentleman, he has the connections just about anyone would need to do just about anything in Vietnam. Need to start a business? Mr. Thai can arrange to find a place for you. Need a good contractor? He can find the best in the business for you. Need an emergency visa? He’s your man to make the call. With all this amazing clout he has some amazing friends of his own and some of these people own and operate, you guessed it, amazing restaurants. We met Mr. Thai in the early evening at Cinemateque, hoping to coax Gerry and Hung to join us for dinner. Mr. Thai has a friend who is one of the owners of a wonderful restaurant. And not just any Vietnamese food, gourmet Vietnamese food. Viet Kitchen is located at 24C Ba Trieu Street. The storefront is unobtrusive, almost incognito, and the long narrow hall that leads you to the back is all of 5 feet wide and lined with two topsview_of_Vi..ntrance.jpg but it opens up into a huge courtyard with many tables. This leads into an indoor area that is sectioned off into smaller rooms. The courtyard seating is covered and light and airy. One would never guess from the outside that this place existed! Hung was able to join us but Gerry had to stay at the cinema- they had a full house for a showing of an Italian mobster film. We settle into a table for four in the outdoor section.dinner_wit..s_Hanoi.jpg Mr. Thai asks us to choose what we would like on the extensive menu. Everything sounds fabulous! We pick a couple dishes and then ask him to pick the remainder as he is far more familiar with the food. He does so and we wait anxiously for the dishes to start to arrive. First a nicely chilled bottle of a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is opened for us then the food appears. Banana blossom chicken salad is the first to arrive: thinly sliced banana blossom with shredded cabbage, shredded blossom, carrot and chicken in a light chili vinaigrette. Next up is Crab in Tamarind. Soft shell crab dipped in a light batter, deep fried and served with a rich and tangy tamarind sauce.softshell_..d_sauce.jpg This is followed by Than lon cuon dua: grilled pork rolled with coconut dressed in a citrus glaze.pork_with_coconut.jpg We sigh when we see a clay pot arrive at our table, it is Ca Kho To: fish cooked in clay pot or as the French say it: poisson au caramel cuit dans un pot de terre. Chunks of tender fish seared with lemon grass and a hint of cinnamon, this is accompanied by a huge pot of steamed rice. A platter of baked chicken tenderloin in a thick, fragrant lemon sauce with patties of crispy sticky rice was the last dish served.lemon_chic..ky_rice.jpg Every flavor was subtle yet intense. Every dish was cooked to perfection. The meal was the best we’ve had in Vietnam. But even a brilliant meal like this is not complete without dessert. The menu offered many selections of che but unfortunately there was none to be had that evening- they sell out fast! So Mr. Thai suggests a famous ice cream place down the street where they offer ice cream bars in a green sticky rice flavor. We are intrigued and walk the short distance to Kem Trang Tien on Pho Trang Tien. This establishment has been around for over 60 years and there is always a crowd outside, everyone eagerly munching on a variety of ice cream bars. We each get one in the green sticky rice flavor and happily walk back to Cinemateque trying to eat the ice cream bars before they melt in the warm evening. Turtle_Pagoda_night2.jpgWonderful!

~L & S

Posted by Chi-Xep 19:54 Archived in Vietnam Tagged food Comments (0)

Hanoi again

semi-overcast 80 °F

Second day back in Hanoi and we plan to meet another friend of S at Cinemateque. In the meantime it’s a good opportunity to do the last bit of souvenir shopping and maybe hit the Temple of Literature, do a bit of culture. We step into the streets of Old Quarter Hanoi again, finally armed with a decent map, and making our way north we lose ourselves in the sights and smells of the city. Steph_and_..et_girl.jpgDown a street that sells silk, another selling trinkets, we head down the small side street where we purchased our wonderful fruit smoothies, was that only a week ago? We sit and order a hoa qua (we think) it is what we would otherwise call che in the pho restaurants back in Portland. It is a mixture of fresh fruits, condensed milk, coconut milk, tapioca pearls and shaved ice. A little chopping with the long handled spoon and you have yourself a tasty early afternoon treat during a hot muggy day that holds us until lunch. Off again and down streets that are selling cooking wares (L picks up a small tart pan for a mere $4), restaurant supplies, metal and glass cabinets. Down more streets with storefronts selling hinges, rope, store fixtures, hardware (“Home Depot Street” we call it)Laura_and_..er_shop.jpg, and shops that sell nothing but tape! “Costco Street” is lined with bulk items: rice, flour, cases of colas and beer, huge jars of spices, and boxes of noodles. We are lost, good thing we have a map. It’s almost lunch time and the vendors have set up charcoal grills on the sidewalks, tiny plastic stools have locals perched on top of them as they dip their chopsticks into noodles and soups. We consult our map and decide to head back toward Hoan Kiem Lake through streets of brightly lit lanterns and wedding decorations.Lanterns.jpg Wedding_flowers1.jpgWe check out 69 Bar on Ma May Street. We are constantly barraged by the request “Yoo-hoo, cyclo, Madam?” A kind “No thank you!” with a smile will deter them. 69 Bar is located at 69 Pho Ma May in a restored old house from early last century. There’s a marker on the front of the house, noting that it was a safe house during the resistance when the Vietnamese were struggling to shake off the French. The house is dark wood and has a low ceiling with a narrow, steep wooden stair case that leads to the second floor and a lovely covered balcony with higher ceilings and shuttered windows that are open. Fans on the ceiling help to circulate the still air and we sit. First we order a couple of iced coffees, S. has hers black and I get one with chocolate and coconut (why not!?). On closer inspection of the menu it divulges that they have banana blossom salad, a treat I have been dying to try again since we had it at a Bia Hoi at the start of our stay. We also order a serving of Hue style spring rolls. Now, I must say, as much as I love all the new and wonderful foods that have been presented before me on this marvelous trip and as much as I was ecstatic to find banana blossom salad again, we will definitely be going back to 69 Bar to get the Hue style spring rolls again!! The. Best. Spring. Rolls. Ever! Filled with a shrimp mousse, taro and carrots they are wrapped in rice wrappers and deep fried served with a very mild chili vinegar fish sauce. What a find! Oh, and good banana blossom salad, too.lunch_at_69_Bar_Hanoi.jpg
We have missed our opportunity to visit the Temple of Literature today as the afternoon climbs to early evening. We make our way back to the hotel to freshen up and head over to our little oasis at Cinemateque to meet S’s friend.

Posted by Chi-Xep 19:37 Archived in Vietnam Tagged shopping Comments (0)

Sapa- Part Two

sunny 75 °F

The beds were rock hard and even with adding a little padding by putting the comforter from one bed underneath us we still find it difficult to get decent sleep. But we are excited to be here and looking forward to the day. We discover that the power is out and probably is all over town. Who knows when it will be back on, but we still have hot water in the bathroom tank so we can wash up. We have to pack up and check out this morning. They will gladly store our luggage while we hit the town again before our shuttle arrives at 5:00PM to take us back to Lao Cai for the train. We have a light breakfast of baguette and butter with guava jam and Sa Pa honey then out the door and around the corner to our scooter man.

He sets us up with the same one we had the day before. Five bucks for the whole afternoon! We don our helmets and, promising to return with the tank full this time, we head off down the hill in the direction of Ta Van and maybe beyond. mountains_..addies3.jpgThe air is hazy still, the road is bumpy and, at times, slightly washed out. It can be slow going as you negotiate your way down ruts, through streams and around huge pot holes. Often the road just opens up and you’re flying down a decently paved section. Just as suddenly it ends and you have to quickly brake as you encounter a steep dip in the road that would otherwise have you flying over the handlebars. Along the way we see packs of hill tribe people leading a few adventurous trekkers who will be guided all the way to the minority village and back. We get about 12 km down the road and come to a fork: one way leading further into the valley and possibly eventually to the river below, the other way seems to lead off still clinging to the mountain side. We stop when we see a sign for mountain coffee. We park the scooter outside under the awning and hesitantly peek inside the dilapidated wooden shack. There is a family going about their business, a boy helping a young man with a coil of cables which look like they could be extension cords (Vietnamese style!). The electricity is out here, as well- the television is off, there’s no radio going- both common wherever you are! There are a few tables with tea cups and pots set up surrounded by low plastic stools. We say “ca phe” and they invite us to sit. Several minutes pass as we watch the life of the family unfold. The young man sends the boy up a bamboo ladder to a second story storage area. He retrieves a bunch of fans that the young man precedes to clean and make ready for use. Ah, that’s what all the cable/extension cords are for? Chickens cluck and putter around the dusty stoop, a few piglets are seen running down the other side of the street. The teenaged girl brings us a traditional Vietnamese drip coffee in glass cups set in a bowl with hot water. The process is slow going as we wait for the coffee to finish dripping through its metal filter. The sweetened condensed milk is already at the bottom of each glass and soon we are sipping on some of the best coffee we have had in Vietnam yet: strong with not a hint of bitterness, it is smooth and lovely and we thoroughly enjoy it. We pay our 5000d each, which is about 30 cents (and we can hardly believe it!). Getting back on the scooter we head down the road a few more kilometers before we decide to head back up to town. A word to the wise: carefully check your helmets when you receive them before you start heading down the road, mine had a faulty clash and kept coming unbuckled then the wind would sweep it back and it almost went flying off a few times. I had to jerryrig it by tying it onto my head. Back in town we see about exchanging it for another. View_from_..in_Sapa.jpgOur motorbike man is off taking a nap, but one of his buddies swaps out the helmet for another - we notice that its chinstrap is tied in a knot, but at least it fits better and feels more secure. We head off in another direction toward Lai Chau which is 195km away. We aren’t interested in making that trip, nor would we have the time, but it takes us up further into the mountains closer to Tram Tom pass- the highest mountain pass in Vietnam. This skirts the North side of Fansipan, the tallest mountain in Vietnam at 3143m. The road would take us to Thac Bac (Silver Falls) but it’s getting late and we are getting hungry and thirsty. It’s a good thing we didn’t make that trip, the wet season is over and there was no water running off the falls. Apparently it was dry as a bone at this time. We decide to make our back to Sa Pa and check out the Victoria Hotel- probably the most posh place in Sa Pa proper. We hardly look like their usual customers, but we are welcomed to the bar area. As much as we’d hoped to have a cold beer in the dining room, with its magnificent view of the town and the hills, we are seated in the garden just outside the bar. We order a couple of Tiger beers, and just about faint when the bill comes and they are four dollars each! If we’d ordered lunch, we’d be flat broke! Still, the hotel is absolutely beautiful. In the garden there are three little goats tied up- they’re the lawnmower. There’s a children’s play area that opens onto a rabbit pen, where some very tame rabbits are stretched out under a small tree. Inside the lobby, a Flower H’mong woman is weaving the colorful cloth for which they’re well-known. The lobby restrooms are the best we’ve seen- even superior to the Hanoi Opera Hilton. L is not sure about the restroom attendant- they have someone to hand you a clean towel after you wash your hands. “Do you tip her?” she inquires softly. No, no need.
The rest of the day is easy. Lunch is at a local joint where we noticed roast pig on a spit earlier that day. grilled_lo..rk_Sapa.jpgWe accompany this with perfectly fresh deep fried shrimp and a couple of Tiger beers. Way cheaper then the Victoria! grilled_po..ch_Sapa.jpgWe managed to run into a couple of English gents we had met earlier in the week at our hotel in Hanoi. Small world! They are leaving for the train back to Hanoi that evening as well. Perhaps we’ll have the chance to raise a glass. We need to fill up our gas tank on the scooter before we return it which is easily and quickly done for only 25,000d, about $1.50USD. We return the motorbike, enjoy a lemonade and a game of cards on the balcony of a café, and then just hang out in the lobby of the Pumpkin Hotel while we wait for our shuttle, which arrives more or less on time. We see that our British friends are also on this shuttle. Once again, we squeeze 14 people into the 12-seater and start our journey down the mountain to Lao Cai. We see the villages of the Red Dzao people- lower in elevation than the H’mong, which means they really have a trek to sell their wares in Sa Pa every day. red_dzao2.jpgAs we descend, the air grows heavy and the temperature rises. It was so easy to forget we were in a tropical climate while visiting the mountain communities! Lao Cai is bursting at the seams with tourists lounging in the plethora of restaurants and beer joints lining the streets around the train station waiting for their departures. Ours is not a long wait but just enough time for a quick beer with the Brits before they have to catch their train. We have a little more time so we cross the street to enjoy a hasty bite of “my xau ga”. We share a table with an older woman, who happens to be from Portland, Oregon as well! Okay, no, really, seriously, this is a small world. Finding and getting to our platform for the trip back was so much easier in Lao Cai then the crowded station at Hanoi. We share a berth with a young man from India and another from Vietnam. The air is still and sticky and the AC doesn’t appear to be working well. The expected cold ride turns into a hot and muggy one that is even more uncomfortable then the chilly ride up. Always expect the unexpected and be prepared for anything. When you get back to Hanoi at 4:30 in the morning expect to pay an inflated price in a taxi to take you to your hotel, (one fellow offered us a taxi for 70,000d- almost three times normal rate!) but don’t expect your hotel to be open and ready to receive you at that hour. The Church Hotel’s doors were open but the lights off as our desk clerk and bell man were sleeping on cots in the lobby. We set our things down inside and patiently waited outside (where it was cooler) for them to wake up. Thankfully we were allowed to check in at 8am after someone checked out early to catch a flight. A much needed shower and a nap were the only things on our mind.

~L & S

Posted by Chi-Xep 08:56 Archived in Vietnam Tagged motorcycle Comments (0)

Sapa- Part One

the night train to the north country

sunny 74 °F

Sa Pa part one:
The late (9:10PM) train from Hanoi takes 8 hours: of course you have to be at the station about 40 minutes beforehand. We needed all of that time to figure out where we were supposed to board, because it’s a bit chaotic, and apparently a mad rush to Sa Pa on weekends. A few travel tips: we used Pumpkin Travel, which has a private coach with soft sleepers. It’s relatively clean, with four berths to a cabin. We shared our cabin with a couple from Saigon. It was pretty comfortable in terms of SE Asian travel. The WC is a stainless steel floor with a handle in the wall (hold on tight, ladies!) and a hole in the floor. We both had to use it during the trip, so we tried to keep water to a minimum. L was in the upper berth, and she said she got cold because she was close to the AC and couldn’t find a way to turn it down. On the ride home, she’ll have her sweater handier.
We were quickly lulled to sleep, although the upper berth can be a bit bouncier. So, if you want a lower berth, ask for #1 or #2. 3 and 4 are the uppers. At around 5AM, the most amazing music started playing- acapella women’s voices that sounded so gentle and harmonious- it was like fairies were singing us awake. I think it was some music from the hill tribes. We arrived at Lao Cai Station, which is on the Vietnam/China border. Our shuttle driver was there to greet us, and we were fairly rapidly crammed into a 12-seater (I believe there were 14 of us). The trip to Sa Pa from Lao Cai is 28km and takes another hour. We couldn’t see much, as it was still early, and we were jammed in to the van. We ascended the winding roads, passing other shuttles, being passed by shuttles and motor bikes on their way up. As we got closer to our destination, the banana trees receded in the distance, and lush rice terraces and Asian pines came into view. When we arrived in Sa Pa, we saw a charming downtown area in where numerous hotels and restaurants are located. Sapa5.jpgWe stayed at the Pumpkin Hotel, where the rooms are clean and the amenities spare… I sat down on one of the beds, and it was like a stone slab. We investigated, and they were box springs instead of mattresses! There’s no air con, because it stays cooler up north. Despite the horrid bed, the room was tidy, and the staff friendly. We didn’t ask for another room- it was a weekend booking, and the town was going to be full. We'd been expecting cold and rain, so we packed sweaters and ponchos. Much to our surprise and delight, the weather was beautiful- sunny and warm with a mountain breeze.View_from_..in_Sapa.jpgWe were told by the clerk that breakfast would be at 8:30- time enough for people to rest and clean up before hitting the town. When we came down to the dining room (three flights of stairs, no elevator, but the ankle’s doing much better), there was a large contingent of Hill women in their tribal garb watching us through the hotel windows- just waiting for new tourists to latch onto. L & I each had a bowl of pho and a cup of hot Vietnamese coffee. My Hanoi friends will be pleased to know that their pho is superior!I grabbed my walking stick, and L got her camera. As soon as we opened the door we were surrounded by about six Black H'mong women selling their wares. We began walking up the street, and they followed us like an entourage. Several of the women had babies on their backs in slings fashioned from colorful blankets, and a few carried plaid umbrellas in case of rain or too much sun. Those who didn't have babies with them wore baskets on their backs, and those baskets were full of weavings, jewelry, needlework- an assortment of bright handicrafts. Black_H_mo.._street.jpgWe noticed many other tourists who were moving through the town with their own entourages. It was not as overwhelming as it may sound- the hawkers in Hanoi's Old Quarter can be more aggressive physically and verbally. The H'mong and the Red Dzao people had more of an ease to them. The streets and steps in town are steep, but it's market day and we have a lot to see!
Eager to shed our entourage we sought out a place to rent a motor scooter. We noticed a couple of German lads on scooters and asked them where they got them. They pointed down the street, right next to our hotel, and told us that it was pretty cheap. We investigated and found a man eager to rent us a scooter for half the day. We paid the 90,000d (about $5USD) and headed off up the hill. Happy to be free we set off into the valley toward Cat Cat Village, a local Black H'mong tribal village. You pay an entrance fee on the road then park your scooter in a small lot and start on a stone paved, stair stepped trail down into the valley.view_up_from_Cat_Cat.jpg It is the only way into the village. The going was hot and no shade available. S's ankle still being weak made for slow going but the view was amazing. We got part way down the valley and knowing that her ankle wouldn't be able to handle much more (she was such a trooper!) we rested and perused the few H'mong dwellings were they were working their trade: stone carvers, weavers, embroidery and clothing.Cat_Cat_tr..working.jpg We managed a peak through some huge bamboo stalks further into the depths of the valley and enviously watched a group of children playing the water of the river below. Knowing that the climb back up would take some time we turned around and carefully made our way back to the road. We were greeted by the proprietor of the scooter parking lot who invited us into her shop to sit and rest in the shade of her balcony with a view of the valley. With a fresh bottle of water we relaxed while we cooled off.Cat_Cat_view3.jpg
-S & L.

Posted by Chi-Xep 02:29 Archived in Vietnam Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

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