That's it for Saigon, and it seems to have gone very quickly! But we've had our final Vietnamese iced coffee and fresh orange juice, and a final breakfast baguette. And now we're on our way to the airport and Hong Kong. A bien tot, Saigon…
Yesterday we escaped the throngs of motorbikes and people in Saigon and headed down to the Mekong Delta for a day trip. Normally we don't go in for any tours or that sort of thing when we travel, preferring to make our own arrangements or just winging our exploration, but with our Vietnamese lacking, and our time limited, we turned to the professionals at Exotissimo Travel. They arranged a day trip to Ben Tre Province, including a car and driver and an English-speaking guide.
After pick-up at our hotel in Saigon, we drove about an hour and a half to Tien Giang, where we learned about our upcoming day's adventures on the big Ben Tre Boat Trip Map. We boarded our boat for ride across the river and over to a coconut handicraft village, where we saw people making souvenirs for tourists out of coconut shells. After a look-see around the place, and a lesson in the utility of coconut, we hopped into a little horse drawn cart and headed to a bee farm.
At the bee farm we enjoyed a snack of tasty tropical fruits and sampled tea with fresh honey. And after much encouragement by our guide, we tried some sticky rice wine, mixed with a bit of honey and kumquat juice. It was potent, to say the least. I can't imagine drinking more than the two sips we "enjoyed" at the farm.
After that, we boarded very small boats and headed up a little tributary for what was the nicest part of the tour. Tall palm fronds surrounded us on both sides as we our guides paddled up the narrow muddy river. Occasionally we'd pass people cutting down leafy stalks for roofing and loading them in their long boats. I could have stayed on that boat for a long time.
But then it was off to the coconut candy factory, where we witnessed a small family production of a sweet and tasty treat. And then it was back into our bigger boat again and we headed to lunch. At a nice restaurant beside the river we had elephant ear fish. Rolled in rice paper with noodles and greens, and dipped into a peanuty sauce, it was pretty tasty. But I have to say, the presentation of that scary fish on the table, with its teeth hanging out and its eyes staring at us, was not the most appetizing. We finished up, and then it was back to the boat, back to the dock, back to the car, and two hours later, back in Saigon. A nice tour, and one that whetted my appetite to see more of the Vietnamese countryside. It would have been nice to spend several days in the area, and to be able to get further away from the tourist sites and visit regular villages and daily life.
Our hotel in Saigon produces its own magazine and, in addition to information about the city, it's filled with advertising disguised as articles (adverticles?) for the hotel's restaurants and bars and shops. For those travelers looking to enjoy the best of Vietnam's cuisine without the dangers of illness, the magazine encourages a visit to their "Asian Reflections" restaurant. According to the copy, some of the best food in Vietnam is not the best for visitors because, "[i]t is a question of stomach, of microbial readiness." If you do not have microbial readiness, you can dine at "Asian Reflections" and, "experience the very same dishes — without the microbial confrontation."
I didn't not have 100% MR when we arrived. As such, I met up with MC (microbial confrontation. old. friend.) in Bangkok a few times. Nothing too serious though. Things have been better here in Saigon, perhaps because I've been eating less off the street. Or perhaps because I've finally achieved microbial readiness, just when we're about to head home.
Our first night in Saigon we couldn't resist a break from non-stop Asian food and we headed to Camargue for a vaguely French/European meal. Seated outdoors beneath palm trees on the upper terrace of a villa/house, the evening had a tropical, languid feel. There was an old fan spinning in the corner, dark wood for chairs and tables, and a calm easiness to the proceedings. I had foie gras and gnocchi (an odd combination of starter and main, and one I probably wouldn't repeat, though both dishes were tasty) and Jason had warm goat cheese salad and steak. Delicious.
Last night, we again went French for dinner and headed to Augustin, a little spot recommended by R.W. Apple in his New York Times article, At Ease in Vietnam, Asia's New Culinary Star. He describes it as, "a bistro you might think had been transported intact from 1930's Paris," and it didn't disappoint. My goat cheese salad was delicious, the chevre older than I'd expected and its tangy was enlivened by a honey dressing on the lettuce. That honey richness segued nicely into my ginger duck breast entree, cooked to perfection and not only sauced with ginger but topped with julienned slices of the fresh root. It was a delightful balance of French and Asian flavors. While we were there, a Frenchman came in and sat next to us. He ate a big bowl of spaghetti Bolognese (!), drank a glass of Beaujolais nouveau, and read Le Figaro. It was almost like we were in Paris.
I seemed to be slowing down on the posting, and I think part of it's because I've lost my "fresh eyes," as I like to call it. When we first arrived in Asia, everything was so different, and I felt like there was so much to comment on. Now after nearly two-and-a-half weeks, I've become inured to many sights and sounds and happenings. Which is not to say that Saigon isn't different than Bangkok or Hong Kong, or that there's nothing new. It's just that my lust for describing it all has diminished a bit. Only a bit though, so I'll be writing more soon, I hope!
Our second morning is only just beginning here in Saigon and since we arrived, I've already drunk three Vietnamese coffees, iced with milk. The coffee was just drinkable in Hong Kong. I blame this on its prior life as a British colony. Bangkok's ubiquitous street coffee stands served a tasty brew, sweetened with condensed milk. But oh Vietnam, the coffees in Saigon, merci a France, are tops!
The drink comes to the table with a little stainless brewing "cup" resting atop your cup. You wait as the coffee percolates into the cup below, which is filled with condensed milk. After a few minutes, you stir and, if you're having it iced, pour it over a tall glass of ice. It tastes like melted cold coffee ice cream! And it's so so so good.
At the market yesterday I bought one of the little brewing cup contraptions, and when I return home, I will endeavor to create condensed soy milk (my coffee milk of choice) in my kitchen and revisit the magic that is Vietnamese coffee.
We've arrived in Saigon now, and while our time in Bangkok was great, six days passed in a flash and I didn't have time to do all that I'd wanted. So here's my list of things I missed doing this time and will have to do on my next visit to Thailand.
I'd wanted to take a longtail boat tour up the klongs, or small canals, especially on the Thonburi side of the river. Alas by the time we got around to trying to arrange one, we were told that the river was up too high to navigate the small canals and the tour could only take us up the main stretch of the Chao Phraya. Since we'd traveled that many times already, we decided to save our money for another time.
I'd also read about traditional Thai floating markets. There are some that are close to Bangkok that apparently are quite touristy, but if you set out early or make an overnight trip of it, you can visit some less touristy, more authentic ones.
We saw several wats (temples) but didn't make it to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, and one of the most famous landmarks in Bangkok. It always looked neat as we passed it along the river, and I'd like to take a closer look around.
And the food!! I never found coconut custard concave tarts, or kanom krak again. And I never ate sticky rice and mango. And I forgot to order banana flower salad the final time I saw it on the menu, though every time I saw it I wanted to. And who knows what countless other treats I missed? Hundreds! Thousands!
Yes, it's clear: a return trip to Bangkok is in order.
Surprisingly the place where I thought the most English would be spoken, Hong Kong, is the place where we've encountered the least. (We're now in Saigon, and so far, so good…) I've been thinking about my problem early on during this trip with the crab, and I think the language difference contributed a great deal to the experience. It wasn't that I was just overwhelmed by the crab, it was that I also felt totally isolated. Before I ordered it, I'd tried to ask the server if it was difficult to eat, but the communication barrier was too great. So I ordered it anyway. And when I was stuck, I didn't really feel able to ask anyone for help or direction.
While I love that travel can make even the most familiar tasks unfamiliar and challenging (say, going to the bathroom when it turns out to be a squat toilet where there's no toilet paper…), it also has a way of majorly bumming me out. Sometimes the ability to do basic things, things I take for granted when at home, can be overwhelming when that ability is lost. Like when you've got some food and you don't know how to proceed (be it crab or some strange container of soup), or when you discover a different type of squat toilet in a new country and realize you only mastered one kind and now there's a new one to figure out and you just really want to pee.
In Hong Kong the day after the crab dinner, we ate lunch at Spring Moon at the Peninsula Hotel. While the food was great, the best part for me was being able to communicate with the staff. I'm a very social person, and being able to communicate and share experiences makes dining more enjoyable for me. At Spring Moon, the server took the time to explain where the tea we were drinking came from. He told us why it smelled as it did, how it grew, how it was an organic tea, etc. And that vastly improved my drinking of it. I like to extend the experience of eating through knowledge. And crab night, I couldn't do that. That's what made it so bad. Well, that and when I touched the slimy claw.
The good thing is that most of our other meals have been more successful, either because the language barrier wasn't as high, or because I ordered something I knew how to eat, or I was just feeling better. The same thing happened to me in Paris before I spoke French at all, but doesn't happen much anymore. It's just part of travel I suppose, and there are ups and downs, good days and bad. If everything were the same as at home, there'd be no reason to leave. So don't get me wrong, I relish the hairy crab experiences and the squat toilets at the temples. It makes the non-hairy crab and the toilet seats all the sweeter in the end.
Sorry for the lack of updates: somehow I've become sick. At first I thought it was allergies, but my allergy medicine didn't seem to do anything. The sneezing and runny nose grew worse, exacerbated by temple incense, crazy aromatherapy oils at the Chatuchak market, and Bangkok exhaust fumes. By yesterday, I was exhausted and worn out. So after an early dinner, we borrowed a DVD from the front desk, and I crawled into bed to watch Gone with the Wind. It was the perfect sick-in-bed movie, and I managed to stay awake until Rhett abandoned Scarlett to go join the retreating Confederate Army and she headed to Tara with Prissy, Melly, and the new baby. Today, after twelve hours of sleep, I felt a little better, and we managed to see some more sights. But now I'm beat and all I want to do is watch the rest of Gone with the Wind. Tomorrow we're off for Vietnam. As for one big final night out in Bangkok? Frankly my dears…
I brought Best Food Writing 2005, edited by Holly Hughes, along with me on this trip so that I would be inspired to write great things about the food I've been eating. Alas, all the walking and sightseeing and eating wears me out, and by the time I get in bed, I can barely manage to read more than a page or two. Still, the book is filled with great food writing, and I'm looking forward to reading more of it when my energy level rises.