The Road Taken from Hội An to Huế.

After a long stay in the beguiling yellow city of Hội An, we decided to go by car to our next stop, Huế, a journey of 145 kilometres. There are two main routes to Huế: the new route, now favoured by trucks and other heavy commuters, which passes through a tunnel, a fast but boring trip, and the scenic route over the top of  Hải Vân Pass, which takes a good part of a day, given the various stops along the way. The road taken, the scenic route, provided plenty of distraction, making for an amusing seven hour journey. This route also brings back haunting memories of the American War, with names such as China Beach, Danang and Lang Co indelibly etched in my memory from that era.

Basket boats near Danang
Basket boats near Danang
More coracles.
More coracles.

You can discuss your itinerary with your driver before you go or just leave it up to him. Our itinerary included a long, hot and fairly tedious stop at Marble Mountain. In hindsight, I would not bother with this stopover. The next stop was along the beach at Danang. By late morning, the intense heat and glare was overwhelming: the colourful basket boats, thung chai, nestled on the sand in the foreground, contrasting so vividly with the concrete skyline of Danang, a modern highrise city by the sea with very little appeal. Then, a quick stop at the top of  Hải Vân Pass, (‘ocean cloud pass’) an important stop for historical reasons and providing great views, then down to Lang Co Beach, for a unmemorable lunch in a beach hut, and finally on to beautiful Hue.

Views looking back to Danang from Hải Vân Pass
Views looking back to Danang from Hải Vân Pass

If you go, organise a car and driver in Hội An  In August, 2016, this cost us around $60 AU. Make sure that your driver has a smattering of English. Most drivers have their own agenda: if you wish to cut out a couple of these stops, the trip would take around 4 hours.

Lang Co beach huts
Lang Co beach huts
Hot and Hungry at Lang Co, Vietnam.
Hot and Hungry at Lang Co, Vietnam.

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In My Kitchen, February 2017

Strangely enough, February is the busiest month of the year in my kitchen. It’s also the hottest month in Melbourne, although this year we have been spared ( touch wood) those soaring temperatures of over 40ºC. The kitchen frenzy comes with the flushing of major annual crops such as zucchini, tomato, cucumber, chilli and now plums. It’s a bumper year for plums. I have another 5 kilo waiting for me in the fridge. Our annual beach camp is interspersed with busy times back at home preserving and freezing crops for the cooler months, as well as watering the garden and clearing away the fire hazardous leaves and fallen branches. The Sagra delle Prugne is around the corner.

Vietnamese tomato and dill soup with fish.
Vietnamese tomato and dill soup with fish.

Meanwhile, we eat simply and cheaply. When not eating zucchini fritters or Moulin Rouge Tomato Soup, I turn to Vietnam for inspiration. Cá nấu cà chua, fish, tomato and dill soup, is perfect for a hot day. I found this recipe last year while in Saigon and now that summer has arrived, I am delighted to make it with my own produce. The fish market at Preston provided the economical red snapper for this dish. Light and sustaining, it tastes like a wet version of cha ca la vong.

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Chopsticks and Vietnamese fish, tomato and dill soup. Summer time in Melbourne.

While at the market, I purchased a big pile of local Southern Squid for $5 a kilo. Yes, there’s an hour’s work gutting and preparing these for the freezer but my little ones love fried squid after a swim in the pool. The best day to buy squid is on the day the market opens for the week. In the case of our nearest fish market, that’s Wednesday morning. Squid needs to be super fresh to compete with is pricey relative, the calamari. How can you tell squid from calamari? Australian southern squid, the most sustainable seafood in Australia, has an arrow shaped tail, whereas the calamari has side wings.

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Hello Southern Squid. Five fresh squid for $7. Now to prepare them for the freezer. More summer jobs.
Arrow head on a Southern squid. I usually discard this bit. Not so the wings of a calamari.
Arrow head on a Southern Squid. I usually discard this bit. Not so the wings of a calamari.

At the same fish monger, I bought some fresh river shrimp from the Clarence river in NSW. These are tiny and eaten whole. They make an excellent beer snack with a little lime aoili. A tempura batter, made with iced water, baking powder and cornflour, protects them as they fry. A pre-prepared salt of interest is also a good accompaniment. I used Herbes De Provence with salt, a batch I made before Christmas. I love special salts and am about to make a celery seed salt and one from our chilli flush. These salts make cheating easy.

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Shrimp tempura with lime aioli and a provincial salt.

To mop up the big soups and fried things, one needs a large cloth napkin. These lovely cotton towels, seconds, turned up in a linen shop in Brunswick for $2 a set. I bought them all. They soften and improve with washing.

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Japanese tea towels turned into napkins

Last week I celebrated the summer zucchini plague on Almost Italian. This zucchini slice is handy and well known. I added almond meal to the mix for a lighter version. It comes with grated carrot, zucchini, chopped capsicum and herbs.

Succhini slice, enhanced with extras.
Zucchini slice, enhanced with extras.

This hungry lad has finally learnt to make a good tuna pasta in my kitchen. It is an easy dish for a 12 year old to learn. Practice makes perfect Noah.

Kids in the kitchen
Kids in the kitchen

And what would be an IMK post without my little Cheffa, Daisy, who always drags her stool to the bench to help with anything I am making.

hungry days by the pool.
hungry days by the pool.

Good food does come at a price around here, not so much in monetary terms but certainly in labour. Thank you kindly Liz, at Good Things, for your gracious hosting of this monthly link up.

Amazing Grace in Hội An, Vietnam

Strolling along the empty streets of Hội An early one morning, I came across this graceful couple. It was 10 am in Nguyễn Duy Hiệu. They were dressed for a wedding perhaps. A photographer nearby recorded the occasion, and so did I. They swanned about the street with not a care in the world. Young, beautiful and happy, they soon disappeared into the yellow cloaked city.gr2-001

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Resilient Vietnam

There was a story that went with this post. It appeared for a month and was then removed. I am not sure how this was done. The story, from memory, concerned the amazing resilience of the Vietnamese people. That despite everything, the French colonial period and the American war, which saw the bombing of the Purple City in Hue, the Vietnamese people still welcome foreigners into their country, and are friendly and courteous. I’m posting the removed photos again, along with this brief summary of my original thoughts. Should I be Paranoid?

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Elderly gentleman guards his wares, HoiAn.
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Bridal couple choose the Citadel at Hue.
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Night time diners and card players, HoiAn.
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Night time coconut milk seller, HoiAn

Central Market, Hội An, Vietnam

The Central Market in Hội An is chaotic, hot, crowded, boisterous and, at times, very annoying as young women spruikers hang about, determined to take you to their clothing stalls on the upper levels. Inside the market building, though hot and close, is reasonably well-ordered. Around the perimeter, along the narrow streets between the buildings, women sell fruit and fish laid out along the road as motor bike shoppers weave through pedestrians, determined to buy their goods from the back of their bikes.

Fish for sale, Hội An Central Market, Vietnam
Fish for sale, Hội An Central Market, Vietnam

Amidst all this pandemonium, enter the renovation team. One man on a motor bike steers an overloaded makeshift trailer through the busy market lane. A woman sits astride a load of wood and tin, shouting loudly to clear the way. Pedestrians, motorbikes and chickens give way. The building load moves through. The market returns to its normal level of chaos.

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Shining on the Perfume River, Hue. Vietnam

If you take a stroll down the banks of the Perfume River at night, you will come across a scene of flood lit bridges, sparkling dragon boats and a little commerce as the locals, along with a few tourists, enjoy the fresh evening air after a hot and humid day. One of the delights of that stroll is watching the lights change colour on the Truong Tien Bridge, making the river shine and glow. The open space, parklands, good walkways and absence of motorbikes makes for a pleasurable night out for families and young couples in love.

Shining Bridge of Hue, the Truong Tien Bridge
Shining Bridge of Hue, the Truong Tien Bridge

In 1897, the French Resident Superior in Central Vietnam, Levecque, assigned Eiffel of France (known for the Eiffel Tower in Paris) to design and build the Truong Tien Bridge. The construction was completed in 1899. In 1946, 1953 and 1968, this beautiful bridge, symbol of Hue, was destroyed due to mines and bombings in the French, then American wars. The bridge was finally renovated in 1991-5 and the lighting system was installed in 2002.

More evening cruise boats along the banks of the Perfume River, Hue, Vietnam
More evening cruise boats along the banks of the Perfume River, Hue, Vietnam

The Perfume River (Huong) is named after the flowers from orchards upriver which fall into the water, giving the river a perfume-like aroma. The River flows to the northeast to Huế and passes the palaces and tombs of the Nguyễn emperors. After a day touring the tombs of the Nguyen emperors in the countryside, I can recommend a slow trip down the river, a relaxing end mesmerising way to end a long day.

DRagon boat ready for business on Perfume River, Hue
Dragon boat ready for business on Perfume River, Hue

My other posts on Hue: https://almostitalian.wordpress.com/2016/08/04/almost-vietnamese/  and https://almostitalian.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/hues-culinary-surprises/

Floating Market, Cần Thơ, Mekong Delta.

There are two floating markets near Cần Thơ in Southern Vietnam. The first market, Cai Rang, around 6 km from the town by boat, is the biggest floating market in the Mekong Delta. This is a busy wholesale market, with vegetable and fruit vendors indicating what they’re selling by attaching the item to a long pole above the boat. It’s best to arrive there by 6 am.

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Boat vendors, floating market, Can Tho, Vietnam

To get to the markets, make a booking the day before with a local tour company such as Mekong Official Tours Information Bureau, opposite the Ho Chi Minh statue in town, or organise it with one of the boat ladies at the Ninh Kiều pier in the town of Cần Thơ.

On the Hậu River, the bigger branch of the Mekong River.
Life on the Hậu River, the biggest branch of the Mekong River.

It’s best to take a small sampan, a small four person low-lying boat that can weave in and out of the water traffic at the market and navigate the narrow canals in the countryside. The boats are safe and the women are skilled pilots, though you may wish to check that they supply safety jackets as well. It’s nice to know they’re there, even if it’s too hot to wear them.

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Things get busy on the water at the floating markets near Can Tho.

You meet up with your guide just after 5 am, as it takes 45 minutes by boat to reach the first market. Take a few morning snacks for the journey or buy fruit and snacks on the river. There are many floating restaurants and small snack vendors en route. Usually the driver will peel and shape a sweet pineapple wedge for you, and the guide will supply you with a bottle of H2o for the trip. Our hotel made us a breakfast pack of filled baguettes and pastries, which I swapped with our guide for something more local and delicious.

Women boat vendors at Phong Điền market.
Women boat vendors at Phong Điền market.

We opted for a 7 hour tour on the water. This included Cai Rang and Phong Dien Markets, a trip up some canals to visit a farm, a visit to a rice paper and noodle making business, and a snake farm. The snake farm was the most disturbing feature of the trip. Huge pythons, kept in tiny cages, are force-fed, then tied up and massaged all day by snake farmers who walk up and down on their bodies, making their skin softer and more pliable to remove after they’re killed. The skins are dried and sold for fine leather. Avoid this visit at all cost.

skilled navigators
Skilled navigators of the Mekong.

Can Tho is four hours by bus from Ho Chi Minh City.  The bus company Phuong Trang has the largest number of services to Can Tho daily. There is a stop for 30 minutes in the large Phuong Trang highway service and restaurant point, which is huge and well supplied with all sorts of snacks and clean amenities. When you arrive in Can Tho, a shuttle bus will bring you to your final destination, if you have the address of your hotel ready. This is included in the price of your ticket. Cost from HCMC ( August 2016) is 100,000VND/$5.90 AU. The seats are comfortable, the bus is air-conditioned, the obligatory DVDs are not too intrusive, and the views of the Delta region and glimpses of Vietnamese country life are absorbing. I recommend the bus over a private car for this trip. The Phuong Trang bus company is in District 6, HCMC, a small taxi ride from the district 1 hotel area.

Our amazing guide for the day. Funny, affectionate and informative.
Our amazing guide for the day. Funny, affectionate and informative.

Rare in Vietnam

Come to the centre of Ho Chi Minh City and walk down spacious Nguyen Hue Street which runs from the People’s Committee Building to the Saigon River. It is 60 meters wide and 900 meters long and is totally dedicated to pedestrians.

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The heart of the city. Nguyen Hue in Ho Chi Minh City.

This may not seem remarkable unless you have travelled to Vietnam and attempted walking in the city. Footpaths or sidewalks are generally wide but are invariably cluttered with parked motorbikes and cars, street stalls, red plastic chairs, miniature pop up restaurants with small carts and barbecues, basketware and roosters in cages, parked or moving bicycles, laundry drying, the contents of shops, people sipping tea or playing cards, motor cycle repairs, renovating materials, broken bricks and uneven surfaces, making it necessary to walk along the road instead.

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Nguyen Hue was once a flower market. Now a broad pedestrian space.

But then who walks in Vietnam? It is rare to see a pedestrian, other than the occasional loony tourist. The only other walkers are poor female vendors with long bamboo carrying poles full of fruit or other goods to sell, or an ancient shuffling grandmother.

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No motos allowed. Yet.

Vietnam 1966-2016. Ceremonies and Memoirs. Part 1.

Fifty years marks a significant milestone for all sorts of events, wars especially. Last week I met an Australian man, a Vietnam vet, who had come to Ho Chi Minh City with his extended family to take part in the Long Tan ceremonies. The battle of Long Tan took place on August 18 1966, on a rubber plantation not far from Saigon. The outcome of that battle, in terms of deaths and injuries, included 18 Australian deaths, with 24 wounded and 250 – 800 Vietnamese deaths (Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army) with 500-1000 wounded.

 “245 Vietnamese bodies were officially counted on the battlefield. However, this was only recorded as the official count due to a deadline set by the Australian government. Importantly, many more bodies were found over two weeks after the battle but the official death toll was never adjusted. “¹

The Vietnamese are also mourning their losses this month and this year: small ceremonies are taking place throughout the country from north to south, though these are not newsworthy in the eyes of the international press. Some are public and loud, important to instill a sense of history in the Vietnamese youth: others are quiet and respectful, as they should be, and take place in Buddhist pagodas or simply in front of a family’s ancestral shrine.

Buddhist Pagoda, Can Tho, Vietnam
Buddhist Pagoda, Can Tho, Vietnam

¹ http://battleoflongtan.com/facts-figures-battle-of-long-tan/

Masterchef at Quán Bụi in HCMC, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon- the city still happily goes by both names- is a surprisingly advanced city, a modern Asian Tiger. Wide boulevards, generous public spaces, landscaping, cleanliness and well designed buildings feature prominently in District 1, the central and oldest quarter of HCMC. It’s a relief to find wide footpaths that are pedestrian friendly, one way streets, traffic lights, at least in District 1, which makes walking a pleasure.

Thee centre of Ho Chi inh C
The centre of Ho Chi Minh City.

The restaurant scene here is undergoing a renaissance. Many expensive restaurants offer refined versions of Vietnamese cuisine, alongside the usual internationally acclaimed restaurants you would expect to find in a modern Asian capital city. Leading the way, in terms of modernising Vietnamese classic cuisine at an affordable price, is the restaurant Quán Bụi. The goal of the owner, Danh Tran, is to provide casual dining ,offering high quality Vietnamese food, with daily sourced healthy ingredients, in a stylish environment. Quán Bụi opened in 2011 and now has four branches around the city. We lunched at the relatively new branch at 39 Ly Tu Tong, district 1. It is situated on the second floor and is a little tricky to find.

Goi (salad) is a popular starter in Vietnamese cuisine. Goi generally consists of one main ingredient such as cabbage or morning glory and is topped by fried onions or peanuts then mixed with meat or seafood and herb leaves. The composition is then gently tossed with a dressing made from vinegar, sugar, spice and seasoning, as well as the all important ingredient, fish sauce, the ‘invisible enhancer’. Fish sauce is either incorporated in the dressing or comes as a side dish.

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Mango and shrimp salad

We begin with a mango and dried shrimp salad, a huge serve and a little different from the Thai version. The mango was grated, as in Thai papaya salad, but the fruit was riper, then tossed with rehydrated dried prawns, mint, nuts and jellied fish, the latter an intriguing element.

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Goi- a great starter.

An unusual version of deep fried tofu arrives topped with crispy fried fresh coconut. The overall flavour is sweet, an unusual sensation in a main course, providing a counterbalance to the other bitter or spicy dishes. Mr T shoved some fresh chilli in the middle of his tofu cubes, a habit he picked up in Java, Indonesia.

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Fried tofu with coconut

The eggplant dish was described as chargrilled, and I was hoping for a smokier flavour in this dish, similar to the Thai version. Stripped of skin, the young green eggplants were grilled, then topped with fried nuts, herbs and dressing.

Grilled eggplant
Grilled eggplant

White or brown steamed rice are offered as an accompaniment. Washed down with a few beers, five Saigon beers to be precise, the total came to around VND 500,000/ AU$30. Expect to pay more for fish or meat based meals. Wine is by the glass or bottle and is imported. The serves are generous and the setting is stylish with enough ombra to suggest a hint of Graham Greene.

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The chef is Thanh Cuong who won the Masterchef Vietnam series in 2015. I hope to try at least two more branches of Quan Bai before leaving Vietnam. This food is clean, beautifully presented and traditional with a modern twist.

http://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/art-entertainment/148720/hcm-city-based-cook-wins-masterchef-vietnam-2015.html

Header photo taken from a wall in Quán Bụi, First Floor, 39 Ly Tu Trong, District 1, HCMC