Captivated by today’s Vietnam

Ellen Creager, a travel writer at the Detroit Free Press newspaper, has written an evocative piece about travel in Vietnam, with anecdotal glimpses into Hoi An, Duong Lam, Cu Da, Cu Chi, Saigon, and Hanoi. The story online also includes some fantastic photos (26 here and 18 here).

Makes me want to go back right now!

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Boat ride to Siem Reap

Back in May, I was on a tour in Cambodia, and we traveled for several hours in a very simple motorboat from Battambang to Siem Reap. I wrote a bit about this earlier. Now I’ve posted the photos — see the slideshow to get a sense of life along the river in northern Cambodia.

Motoring upriver in Cambodia

This was not a standard tourist excursion, but it’s typical for trips with Intrepid Travel. I like their low-budget, low-impact, highly local approach to group travel. There were only eight people in our group. No big buses, no crowd scenes. The boat ride was long, hot, and not terribly comfortable — but it was fabulous. We got to see people in their normal environment, working on boats and in the padi fields. We saw dozens of cattle, boats, and small children who shouted “Hello!” and waved when they spotted us.

House on the river, Cambodia

I was struck by how small and simple most of the houses were, especially in comparison to the huge shining wats (Buddhist temples) in their midst. Some of the houses were temporary, constructed for the rice harvest. The annual flood was near, and some families had already packed all their belongings onto long, low wooden boats and were moving on to their rainy-season homes somewhere else. We saw motorbikes and bicycles lashed to the boats (which aren’t all that big). We also saw multiple boats strung together, floating in line like a mother duck and her ducklings.

From Battambang, we traveled by river to the Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and something of an ecological marvel — during the monsoon, the lake grows in size from 2,700 sq. km. to 16,000 sq. km., as the Tonlé Sap River reverses its flow. Water from the Mekong is pushed into the lake in the process. There is great concern that dam projects in China will effect this process, which is vital to rice production in Cambodia.

To view the trip itinerary, see this page at Intrepid.

Ready to hit the road, in Vietnam

My best friend and her family arrived on Sunday, after a bad flight delay from Delta. The customer service from Delta has got to be the worst in the world. Their airport staff are rude and unsympathetic. I have experienced it myself — many times, in many different airports. The story of Delta making a family of four miss their flight from New York to Seoul, Korea, is basically one of gross incompetence.

Anyway, I’m not going to tell that story here. I’m glad they finally arrived safely — even though it was one day late! And all due to the stupidity of Delta and their extremely rude counter staff in Washington and New York. Naturally, when the family switched over to Korean Air, all the staff were very friendly, polite, professional, and sympathetic. What a pleasure to fly with a good airline!

So, the fast notes: Saturday, one of the Vietnamese journalists, Thuy, offered to show me around Hanoi a bit. We visited Phu Tay Ho temple — a beautiful setting, and very nicely kept up. Then we strolled around the botanical gardens. I had to meet Larry at 1 p.m., so Thuy and I parted then. Later I did a lot of walking around the Hoan Kiem Lake area.

Bell at Phu Tay Ho

Phu Tay Ho temple, in Hanoi.

Sunday morning I went to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. This is certainly among the best museums in all Southeast Asia! The highlight is the full-size traditional houses, tombs, and other buildings standing in a tree-shaded park behind the big white museum building. I loved looking at the construction of the walls, roofs, and floors. The techniques are similar to those I saw in the jungle in East Malaysia (Borneo) and also at the museum in Terengganu. The baskets and the big Chinese jars (fired pottery) were much like the ones in Iban longhouses.

My lunch on Sunday

Bun nem: Sidewalk fare, about $1.25 for lunch.

Sunday afternoon I went to Jodi’s hotel to meet them when they arrived. Sunday night I met Thuy and her friend Chung, and after a wonderful dinner of steamed duck soup with glass noodles, we went to someone’s home to hear a concert of traditional Tru singing. Wow, that was so cool! The women were all so beautiful in their ao dai dresses, and even a very young girl (about 11 years old) gave us a sample of her wonderful singing voice.

Monday Jodi’s family and I all went out for pho bo for breakfast, at Pho 24 on Thi Sach Street, followed by a walk around the lake and a visit to Ngoc Son temple (in the middle of the lake). Lunch was at Quan An Ngan, on Phan Boi Chau Street — really fantastic, and quite a bargain too.

Kids at Ngoc Son temple

Johnny and Lydia, jet-lagged at Ngoc Son temple.

After lunch, the Hoa Lo prison and then the water puppet show at the theater just north of the lake. We all really enjoyed the water puppets a lot (except maybe Johnny … we’ll ask him later). The accompanying music was excellent, and some of the skits had us laughing out loud. Even though the audience is mostly Western tourists, the show did not seem tacky or stupid (not dumbed down for stupid tourists). Production values seemed quite high, and the dozen puppeteers really showed a lot of skill in their manipulation of the wooden puppets. When they came out for a bow at the end, we all applauded them enthusiastically.

Jodi's family at Hoa Lo prison

The Schmitt-Young-Nguyen family, at Hoa Lo prison, Hanoi.

Tomorrow we are leaving for Ha Long Bay — blog posting may become very sparse!

Sunday in Hanoi

My day: Wandering aimlessly, drinking lots of water, enjoying Hoan Kiem Lake, stopping for cold drinks, and realizing how little interest I have in shopping.

Uncle Ho is watching you

Hanoi has this big section called the Old Quarter, sprawled around a big lake that today, Sunday, seemed to be the lounging-around destination of a fair number of local residents. My guidebook recommends the French colonial architecture, but in fact, this area is wall-to-wall shops, and just about every shop is selling stuff for foreign tourists. A fair percentage of nice things — silk and other soft goods. A lot of cheap knick-knacks too, but nothing (I am very happy to report) that looks like it came from Bali or Thailand.

Above the shops in the Old Quarter

Nice experience: Getting my camera repaired (see below).

Disappointing experience: Having the taxi on the ride home charge me double the real rate, which I knew because I had paid it in the morning. The rotten thing is, tourists are warned that there are these crooked taxi meters, but what the heck can I do about it? The meter runs, it goes too high — but am I going to fight the driver over $6 instead of $3? I ought to, but I don’t. I just don’t feel like arguing over $3. And yet, it makes me not want to be here. It makes me feel like the city is full of crooks (everyone tries to overcharge foreigners for just about everything here). In Cambodia, tuk-tuk drivers back down if you make it clear you know the real price. Here, taxi drivers and xe om (motorbike drivers) argue back and hold their ground. Even a fruit seller tried to extort a dollar from me for 10 cents worth of rambutans (on that, I held MY ground). I think the government needs to conduct some tourism training, especially for taxi drivers. Sure, Western people have money. But no one likes to be cheated all day long.

Now, about my camera: Back in Cambodia, the control that allows me to switch modes became a bit wanky, but it still worked. Today, I managed to drop my camera into a puddle. Luckily it was still in its case, and I grabbed it really fast, and a very nice shopkeeper ran out with a roll of toilet tissue to help me dry it off (see, not everyone here is trying to rip me off).

You might wonder how I became so clumsy. I was in fact very excited about seeing an old Honda motorbike — I need to admit that so you’ll appreciate how miserable I was when I discovered that the mode control was now completely unusable. I could manage to take pictures in automatic mode, but it was not stable — the mode would change itself without any activity by me. I broke my camera because I was eager to take pictures of a motorbike.

It would not have occurred to me to try to get the camera repaired, except for this: Last night I was reading a book I brought with me, Catfish and Mandala, by a Vietnamese-American guy who bicycled through Vietnam a few years ago. His bike got really messed up on arrival at the Saigon airport, and he took it to a local shop to see if it could be fixed. He was pretty sure it was un-fixable, but he was wrong. The quality of the repairs surprised him. So I walked into the next camera shop I saw and asked if anyone there could fix my camera.

I don’t think the three guys in the shop — one playing solitaire on the computer, one napping in a lawn chair, and one watching TV in the back — spoke much English, but somehow we managed to communicate about my camera’s problem. I left it there and went off to find an ATM, because I had spent almost all my cash. Note: A lot of ATMs seem to be out of cash these past few days.

Three ATMs later, I somehow managed to find the camera shop again (some minutes of panic while that seemed unlikely to happen), and my camera was — yes! — fixed. The little control is working the way it did when it was new, almost three years ago. Price: $12. Probably triple the local rate, but I didn’t care.

Old Honda

A walk, a temple, and a park

Local people played badminton, practiced kick-boxing, pushed babies in strollers, power-walked, stretched and performed calisthenics — about 6 p.m. in a pretty green park beside the Văn Miếu temple in Hanoi. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Children ran around, laughing, watching the kick-boxers, playing catch with a denim hat. Three grandmothers chatted beside a big fountain. Flowering trees with lavender, yellow, or red-orange blooms brightened as the sun sank lower.

So strange to remember this is a place I was supposed to believe was my enemy when I was a kid — Hanoi. I saw postcards of smiling Ho Chi Minh in the gift shop at the temple. A young soldier in uniform leaned against a wall surrounding a reflecting pool, chatting with some girls, with that red star on his army-green hat.

Old man in the park, Hanoi

Yesterday (Friday) I completed the workshop for journalists in Saigon, and the participants really honored me with their thanks and their compliments. They made a Soundslides as a gift for me (link to come) and gave me a pair of lanterns decorated with folk paintings — what a surprise! Kit from the U.S. Consulate said she heard that they thought I spoke clearly and was easy to understand. Good to hear that!

Anyway, I’m a bit tired now. New photos on Flickr. I arrived in Hanoi about noon and went for a walk, ate some phở, drank cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee), marveled at the crazy traffic, and eventually found Văn Miếu, the Temple of Literature. Very beautiful and calm. The park next door, however, was almost as interesting! At least three badminton matches went on simultaneously. (I saw a lot of people playing badminton in Cambodia too.) People bring their racquets in canvas cases and play without a net. Tonight a woman played for almost an hour with a boy who was probably her grandson, and both of them laughed continually, obviously having a fine time together, smacking that little shuttlecock around.

Another popular game is similar to Hacky Sack, but instead of a footbag, a variation on a shuttlecock is used. I saw this game played on Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh, and also in Saigon, but apparently it is super-popular here in Hanoi. In the park, a middle-aged man wearing a sleeveless undershirt managed to keep up with a much younger, bare-chested guy who seemed tireless.

Inside Văn Miếu

Rain clouds rolled in, and I took a motorbike ride back to the hotel — it’s really an act of faith to enter the street traffic here. Arriving safely in one piece makes me feel lucky.

Heart of Saigon

I fell in love with Saigon tonight, walking the crowded streets on a quest for bánh xèo.

Banh Xeo 46A

Tuesday evening, and the streets teem with people. The roads are filled with motorbikes (moving), and the sidewalks are filled with them too (parked, mostly). People fill almost all the spaces where no motorbikes have parked, and almost all of them were eating. They were eating on the sidewalks, perched on tiny plastic stools. They were eating inside their shops. They were eating while balanced cross-legged on the seat of a parked motorbike.

As I was walking, starting out about 6 p.m., the streets seemed to become more crowded. Everyone is outdoors. As I reached a big roundabout northwest of the cathedral (with a weird tower structure), it became challenging to weave my way through all the people standing around on the the sidewalks. I found Hai Ba Trung Street, which was wall-to-wall shops, and the energy of the city went over the top. I felt excited just to be here. (Maybe it was the adrenaline from the adventure of crossing the streets, motorbikes whizzing past front and back all the while.)

Every few blocks, I stopped to consult my map. Closer. I crossed Dien Bien Phu Street. Closer still. I crossed Vo Thi Sau Street. There was the church, on my left. On my right, a narrow alley, well lighted and lined with shops. Not too many motorbikes.

Banh Xeo to die for

Ohmigod, I thought I had eaten bánh xèo before. I thought I knew what bánh xèo is. Stupid barbarian that I am! This was so fresh, so crispy on the outside, so succulent on the inside, with salty, chewy shrimps, with a giant heap of fresh herbs and tender mustard leaves, and of course some nice fish sauce and mashed chili peppers. Heaven on a plate.

At first, I was just eating a few bites of the pancake to enjoy it by itself. One of the waiters stopped and patiently showed me how to construct a mustard leaf wrapper lined with mint and basil and whatever all those other leaves were — assuming I had no clue how to eat bánh xèo. I thanked him profusely.

A young woman sat down on the plastic stool beside mine, with her grandfather on the other side. She wrapped his bánh xèo for him, then wrapped her own while he was eating. She practiced her English on me: “Do you eat bánh xèo often?” I told her it is very hard to get it in my country. Later she said, “You seem to enjoy it very much.” (Was I slurping or something?) I agreed. Then, a bit later, she asked, “Do you want to eat another one?” She was very sweet. She also made sure the waiter brought some more mustard leaves for me when I had eaten all the big ones.

Banh xeo cook

Check out the wood fire in a pot! Each bánh xèo pan sits on its own fire. Each one of four cooks has about five pans going at once. This place is serving up bánh xèo at an incredible rate. I couldn’t even count the number of waiters running back and forth.

“How long you stay in Saigon?” the young woman asked me. “You could come here every night, have something different each time. Or just have bánh xèo, you like it so much.”

Khmer food (a summary)

The foods of Thailand and Vietnam are famous; the foods of Cambodia and Malaysia much less so. I’m a huge fan of Malaysian food, and of course I love most Thai and Vietnamese dishes — but what about the cuisine of the Khmers of Cambodia?

Chicken Sour Soup - Cambodia

Chicken sour soup: Served with rice on the side. Tart and refreshing, full of fresh herbs, fresh pineapple chunks, and, in this case, green tomatoes. This was my last meal in Phnom Penh before I left.

I ate some very delicious dishes in Cambodia, including the unique sour soup. Very rarely was any meal as chili-hot as most Thai dishes, and most dishes did not include coconut milk. An exception was the amok (a word that’s not used to mean what it means in Bahasa, from which we derived the English word, which means to go crazy, most often in a murderous rage) — amok is both spicy and made with coconut milk.

Amok Fish - Cambodia

Amok fish: Sweet and hot, a fantastic medley of flavors, with mild white fish, served with rice on the side. This dish seems to be prepared differently in each place that serves it.

Of course, it does not help public relations for Cambodian food when people discover that crispy fried bugs and spiders are favorite local snacks. (No, I did not even think about sampling these.)

Cambodian snack foods

Fried insects: The evening street market beside the waterfront in Phnom Penh (see large).

One very common dish I did not photograph (I become forgetful when a beautiful plate of food is set in front of me — I just start eating and only later realize I should have taken a picture) is beef lok lak, which was really tasty every time I ate it. It’s a marinated, thin-sliced, lean beef, stir fried and served with a black pepper dipping sauce on the side. “English style” comes with a fried egg and French fries. The Khmer version comes with steamed white rice and maybe some salad.

Another ubiquitous dish is morning glory, a very nice sauteed green vegetable (no flowers on the plate), served with or without meat. It reminded me a bit of mustard greens.

The curries I ate were tasty but not at all hot-spicy. (Maybe the cooks toned them down for the Western people?) Our trip leader took us to places that had menus in English and options for Western food, so I’m not entirely sure that I had a lot of authentic Khmer food. I was served two completely bland renditions of fried rice — always a reliable taste treat in Malaysia — so I quit ordering it. Fried noodles were usually instant noodles — ugh! — so I avoided those as well. I did have one awesome bowl of pork noodle soup for breakfast one morning, when Kalina and I struck out on our own — and somewhere or another I ate some very good spicy soup with glass noodles.

For more information about Cambodian (Khmer) food, see the Phnomenon blog.