Vietnam on my mind

Vietnam on my mind
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Okay, okay.  I know, I fell into the BLOG abyss for a while.  I can’t believe it’s been almost 2 ½ months since posting about some food.  If you thought the “Keep It Sambal” blog was dead, rest assured it’s alive and well but I somehow got sucked into the summer craziness and fell off the map for a bit.

For those wondering, I plan to keep a more routine entry schedule and share some cool posts in the upcoming months.  I’ll explain what that means with the next post.

But welcome back.

Let’s just jump back to where I left off.  After writing my last blog post on Bali back in June, I decided to take a trip to Vietnam and Thailand as part of my last hoorah living in Singapore before I (temporarily) moved back to the States.

I kept hearing how I needed a long time to really do Vietnam right.  So I convinced a buddy of mine to trust me in setting it up and to take a couple weeks off from work and travel with me around Vietnam.   He’s another like minded crazy traveler who is always up for an adventure so it was a perfect duo.

Me and my buddy Carlos in Singapore before embarking on our Vietnam adventure.

Let me just get it out there:

Vietnam blew away all expectations and was AMAZING!

We came away loving the country, food, and people.  The people were warm and welcoming; the cities were well kept; transportation was relatively easy, and the food was delicious.

Streets of Hanoi.  Scooters are the primary form of transportation.

We set up the trip with Travel Sense Asia and I would highly recommend them to anyone going to Vietnam.   Our correspondent, Henry, helped plan our top notch trip and took care of everything we needed.

You can backpack in SEA, which I highly recommend, but this could take months and a lot of planning.   If you have the time, great.  But by using Travel Sense we were able to get the most out of our trip with minimal planning and short timeframe to see and do everything we wanted on a budget.

Great times in ‘NAM

The Food: mostly Pho and more Pho.

Oh my gosh. Everywhere we went the food was remarkable. From the street food to the sit down shops with the best Pho and Banh Mi you could ever imagine, Vietnam is just spot on with their food.

The French influence was a lot stronger than I was expecting.   The Vietnamese take a lot pride in their dishes similar to how the French take food very, very seriously.   Something we learned about the Vietnamese is they cook everything using only the freshest foods and ingredients.  It’s a really unique – and healthy – part of their culture.   They don’t eat a lot of processed food and consequently there are not that many fast food places – props to them!  Kind of amazing when you don’t see a McDonalds or KFC on every corner.

Beef  and Papaya Salad

We started our trip in Hanoi and immediately embraced the way of the “Pho”,  pronounced “Fuh”.   People were eating Pho everywhere.  For breakfast, midday snacks, dinner, this is the quintessential meal all around Vietnam.

Basic Breakfast Pho

Pho originated in Northern Vietnam so Hanoi is considered the capital if you are looking to find the best Pho.

Pho is usually made from a beef based broth but can also be made with chicken or even pork.  Add in your meat of choice, white rice noodles and then you are served a heaping plate of fresh greens like chives, basil, bean sprouts, cilantro, and onions on the side.  These veggies are to be added into the broth at your palate’s discretion.  The same goes with the spicy chili sauces and vinegar soy sauces served on the side.

For me, the cool part about real authentic Vietnamese Pho is that the broth is constantly being slow-cooked in a big pot for weeks or even months with bits of spices and meat added in to keep the stew going.   The other part I love about it is you can also always tell the freshness of the greens because they are served raw before you even put it into the soup.   This way you know if it’s fresh!

The Hill Tribes

From Hanoi we headed up North to Sapa and Lao Cai to do some trekking and check out the Red Dao and Black Hmong tribes.   This was an incredible experience to see how these ethnic minorities live.  The people still live a very traditional lifestyle in the remote and mountainous region of Northern Vietnam.

Some Black Hmong girls taking the cows home – literally.

The food here was much simpler with mostly rice and noodle dish variations.  We were humbled by how these people lived on so little but were still extremely happy.  Most homes had one or two rooms where people ate, cooked, slept, and lived with the entire family  We embraced the culture here and were welcomed in by many of the villagers to drink some rice wine and even played soccer with the local kids.

This is a local “market” in one of the villages. Notice only one room for the entire family. We ate lunch next door.
Playing soccer with the village kids
Trekking in the hill country of Sapa.  It was the middle of the rainy season but still beautiful.
Looking down from one of the villages.

Dog?  Yeah, I couldn’t do it.

One thing we did see was dog meat being sold at some restaurants and markets.  We had an opportunity to try some at a street market in Lao Cai but I just couldn’t bring myself to try it.   The dog meat that was barbecued in the picture (top center) actually looked pretty good and if I didn’t know it was dog I might have gone for it.   It looked almost like a mix between pork shoulder or smoked brisket.  I just couldn’t as a dog lover.  :/

 Next stop, Halong Bay

After Sapa we headed to Halong Bay where we spent 2 nights on a cruise boat.  Don’t let the name cruise boat name fool you, this was a rackety old wooded vessel that had about 20 berthing areas for people to sleep and a nice upper deck and galley area where about 25 of us ate our meals.  Nothing luxurious but comfortable and clean.

Halong Bay is one of the 7 Wonders of the Natural World and as such gets A LOT of tourists.  It’s definitely worth checking out when in Vietnam but just be prepared for large crowds at the popular areas.

Halong Bay.

On our Halong Bay cruise, we were able to take a cooking class which was pretty cool.  We learned the traditional way to make Vietnamese spring rolls using rice paper, cucumber, carrots, pork, tofu, and cilantro. Very basic but there is definitely a technique to making the rolls come out nice.

A great date night appetizer.  Just saying. 🙂

Here are the prepped ingredients before rolling.

The Real Saigon

Our last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh or also commonly referred to as “Saigon”.  Here we visited many of the historical landmarks of the capital city and learned a lot about it’s significance in the Vietnam War.  We also visited some of the Chu Chi tunnels in a town outside Saigon where much of the heavy fighting and casualties took place.   We also toured the War Remants museum where there was a big display of the aftermath of the bombings, Napalm and other chemical warfare effects on the local population.   This was tough to see and gruesome but gave a real perspective on what went down in Vietnam and reinforced the notion that “War is hell and should be avoided at all costs”.

Chu chi tunnel fighters included the local women and children.  To quote an American soldier in Vietnam at the time “The Vietkong were nowhere but everywhere at the same time” echoing the difficulty and endless fighting.

Back to food.

Saigon had some great food and some really interesting regional specialties.   Some of my favorite meals were of course the phenomenal Bahn Mi.

These were the best spots for Banh Mi.   Little street carts on the side of the road never disappointed.

To the Mekong

We took a river tour of the Mekong delta and tried some of delicious local bananas, papayas, dragonfruit, jackfruit, and pineapples.  We also tried the local delicacy: honey tea and beeswax.

For lunch we tried the local fish that was deep fried in some kind of batter.  It was served with a noodle soup, prawns, and spring rolls.  Though I was skeptical about where this fish came from and the how clean the Mekong delta water was, it tasted awesome.

Mekong Delta fried fish.

Another regional specialty we tried was the Scorpion and Cobra snake wine.   This snake wine is made by taking a whole scorpion and cobra and putting into a rice wine to ferment mixed with ginseng and other herbs.   According to our guide, the Mekong Delta is known to have the best snake wine in all of Vietnam so we bought some to take back with us.

It miraculously made it back to the U.S. with me and was put to good use with some summer beach pre-game festivities 🙂 🙂

Bottle warning should have read:  Does not go down smooth.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

After Saigon, we had officially concluded our 12 days in Vietnam and had a few days to spare so we headed to Chiang Mai, Thailand to enjoy some good Thai food and just relax.

I had already been to Thailand once but only did Bangkok, Phuket, and Krabi.  We both wanted to see more of the eco-tourism spots and give Thailand a second shot since our first experience left a little bit of a bad taste.

If you like Thai food and a more laid back atmosphere compared to Bangkok, Chiang Mai is the place to visit.  We stayed at the Dusit 2 hotel and I can only say good things about our stay.  We were splurging a bit but for $70 a night, but it was worth every penny for a 5 star hotel.

I know that seems like nothing but that get’s you a lot in Thailand.  Plus I like to conserve and ball on a budget so this was a treat for me.

The highlights of our short Thailand trip were the cooking classes, cheap foot massages  (like 5 dollars for an hour),  and of course the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.

The cooking class we took was really top notch and we were told by some ex-pats on their honeymoon that this kind of 4 course cooking class in the states would run $100-200 per person.  I think it was maybe $15 and included your choice of soups, salad, appetizers, and main dish.  Great value considering you were getting fed too!

We even went to the local market where we picked out the ingredients and got a cool lesson in the local herbs we would be using.   We had a great time learning what ingredients go into the Thai dishes and how to properly prep and cook them.

Definitely recommend taking a cooking class in Chiang Mai for a fun evening and it’s also a great way to meet some new friends.

This was our cooking instructor  “Big Sexy”.   Me and Carlos were more interested in drinking our beer at this point rather than listening to instructions.  Our food still came out killer.
Prepping the herbs and spices. We actually grinded out the spices like the tumeric and chili’s for all the dishes.  Can’t get fresher than that.
Frying up the eggrolls. YUMM.
My finished product –  Tom Yam.  Thai spicy!!!!
How my Khao Soi came out.  Heavenly.

For my main dish I chose to cook Khao Soi – or an egg noodle curry.   This is a common regional dish found in Northern Thailand, Laos, and Burma.   It’s a coconut curry base with similar spices to a Massaman curry.  We first made up the curry sauce and added onions, shallots, garlic, and then added the lightly seared chicken.  After the sauces, chicken, and veggies were simmering, we added the egg noodles and finished it off with some wontons crisps and cilantro and a chive garnish.

Excellent is an understatement.  Next time you’re at a Thai restaurant try the Khao Soi if it’s on the menu.

This was definitely a trip of a lifetime and I would highly recommend it to everyone if they are up for adventure and like good food.   I’ll for sure make it back to both these countries again.

Last but not least, the Elephant Sanctuary.   Me and this guy clicked.

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