Saturday, May 12, 2012

Reflection Post; Vietnam

I have felt extremely restless in the last few weeks, and I think it has something to do with missing Asia. I know, how silly... to miss a country that is clearly not your home. And guaranteed, if I was there now, I would be missing home. But for the last three years of my life, I have had a trip to my beloved South East Asia looming in the distance. Without the anticipation of being back there, I feel a little bit lost. And bored. And restless.

Whilst longingly looking through the pictures of my very first overseas trip, Vietnam, I decided the best way to help quell this feeling would be to do a bit of a reflection post. Whilst in Vietnam my love for food, especially Asian food, probably tripled. I have never been on such a food high as I was there every single day.

I loved Vietnam SO much. I can't even explain it. Craig is convinced I only feel this way about it because it was my first overseas trip, but I just feel such a strong love for this beautiful country, its amazing scenery, wonderful people and delicious food. Thailand was fun, Bali was awesome and Malaysia was an awesome experience... but nothing compared.

I love the uneven streets, the muggy heat, the smell of food cooking on the sidewalks, dodging motorbikes, smiling politely at all of the touts trying to sell you things, eating on the sidewalk, drinking cold Hanoi beer. I loved the people, so keen to talk to you and ask about your life. I loved seeing everyone out exercising in the parks in the evening, doing things from aerobics to ballroom dancing to shuttlecock in the park. Compared to Malaysia and Bali, it is so far from commercialized. There are still many people who don't speak English, and it is refreshing. It is so easy to absolutely immerse yourself in the culture. I think a lot of people find it scary because it is such an uncommercialised part of Asia, but after visiting Thailand, Bali and Malaysia, Vietnam is definitely the place we felt safest out of all of the countries we have been too.

But, this is a food blog... So onto the food!

These were white rose dumplings, a specialty in Hue. Hue was the lowlight of the trip for me, so its lucky the food was such a redeeming feature. These delicate little dumplings stuffed with prawns were absolutely amazing. I wish I could find these in Melbourne.

The Hoi An version of white rose dumplings, along with some crispy and spicy wontons. These were consumed in Hoi An at a restaurant that was up high on the balcony, and we watched the world go by along the lantern lit cobblestone streets whilst sipping on a bottle of Da Nang wine.

Spring rolls- Vietnam is famous for them. They change as you move from the North to the South. The pastries are different and the fillings. Traditionally, you wrap the spring roll in a crisp lettuce leaf and dip into the nuoc cham sauce.

Banh Xeo- these were different in each town too. Tumeric flavoured pancakes wrapped around yummy goodies like prawns, pork, fresh herbs and bean shoots.

This was an amazing meal we had at one of the best restaurants we found on the trip, Morning Glory in Hoi An. We have since recommended it to others travelling there and they have found it equally as great. The dish on the left was a noodle soup with varied toppings and on the right, the best stuffed squid I have ever eaten.

The above two photos are also of a stand-out restaurant. We visited the beach side town of Nha Trang during the rainy season, which I wouldn't recommend. There was not a hell of a lot to do, and the sea turned a murky brown colour because of the constant rain churning the sand. Despite making a trip to the mud baths and hot springs in the mountains, all that was left to do was eat and drink. And thank god we found Louisiane, a bar directly across the road from our hotel. This gorgeous bar and club was a little fancier and more expensive than any other we visited, but the food was absolutely amazing. The top photo shows beautiful sesame seed crusted pork, and fish in a black bean sauce. The lower photo was prawns four ways. We came back to this bar the following day and spent an entire day drinking, reading and eating whilst the rain absolutely bucketed down. It was a godsend of a place!

This was a hot-pot restaurant in Nha Trang that donates all profits to a local orphanage. Hot pot is such an interesting way of eating. You basically cook the meat yourself in a hot broth, then roll it up in rice paper rolls and eat it. In the balmy heat, I am not sure sitting in front of a steaming pot was the most sensible thing to do, but it was a fun experience anyhow!

The above two dishes were from a funky little pub near our hotel in Saigon. We loved their quirky t-shirts they sold saying things like "Keep your hands on your dong!" (Dong was the Vietnamese currency). Rice paper rolls are obviously a dish that Vietnam is famous for, and bottom picture is one of my favourites Bun Bo- tender pieces of beef with peanuts, herbs, bean shoots and vermicilli noodles. It is almost like a more salady version of Pad Thai. I didn't get a photo of the best Bun Bo we had, which was in a tiny little shopfront in Hanoi on our very first day. We were too scared to cross the road because of the hundreds of motorbikes so we could only go round and round the block on the first day (we became much more confident after that!) and lucky there was awesome Bun Bo on the block. For a bowl of Bun Bo and two beers we paid something like $5. It was amazing! Another meal we had that I didn't photograph was in the same strip, Bun Cha. It is basically pork meatballs with spring rolls, vermicilli noodles, pickled vegetables and rice. Really yummy, except we ate in a families living room with the family peering at us very curiously as though we were the first Westerners to ever eat in their little food house.

This is the Night Market at Phu Quoc Island. Phu Quoc was a last minute addition to our trip, after our travel agent had convinced us it was the best place she had ever been. I am so glad we went. The island is the same size as Phuket, but amazingly deserted and uncommercialised. At the time we went there were only about 12 accommodation/resorts on the whole island. The beaches were clean, you didn't get hassled and it was the perfect veg out spot. The beaches were scattered with beach side restaurants and if you didn't eat at one of those or at a resort, your only option was the Night Market, where you simply choose whatever meat or seafood you wanted and they cooked it for you. This was probably the best and cheapest seafood ever!

This was one of the beach side restaurants on Phu Quoc, right next to our accommodation. It was so simplistically beautiful. Wooden tables, a lantern, plastic chairs, the beach right in front of you, feet in the sand. You basically ordered seafood by the kilogram and we paid $12 for a kilo of prawns, half a kilo of calamari, two beers, two cocktails, rice and mixed vegies. It was just wonderful, and perhaps one of the best locations I have ever eaten in.

These are sea urchins. We went on a scuba diving trip whilst on Phu Quoc Island. We were accompanied by some beautiful Vietnamese men (especially Ting, my scuba master who took such great care of me!) and got the shock of our lives when they started diving into the water and bring out these great big spiky sea urchins. We were the only Westerners on the boats game enough to eat them, and they were really tasty and interesting! They barbequed the roe with some spices and you basically ate it with a spoon- it has the same texture as olive tapanade but with a fishy taste.

Vietnam is hugely French inspired. They were colonised by the French for many years, and the above beef casserole is a perfect example of French inspired Vietnamese food. A red wine stew with Asian flavours. I have replicated this dish since I have been home, and the star anise and ginger flavour with the red wine is just beautiful. Also, coconut crumbed prawns- yummy!

It was only about half way through the trip that I began my obsession with taking photos of the food (something I haven't stopped doing since) so half of the amazing things we ate are missing (such as breakfast pho!) But I think this captures just how wonderful and diverse the food is over there. Everything is fresh and contains load of spice, herbs and vegetables. We dropped kilos each whilst over there as the food is so nourishing and healthy.

I cannot recommend a trip to Vietnam enough, and will help anyone who asks plan one. It was such a memorable experience and I think often how much I can't wait to go back and do it all again. It was also the time when I really began my love affair with food, especially the South East Asian kind, something that is now one of my biggest passions.

Until I visit again one day, I will just have to dream. There is talk between Craig and I of discovering Europe next year if we can organise the funds, so perhaps I will have my love of South East Asia quelled by the rich history and culture of Europe... or maybe, I will just always love Vietnam the most.

L x

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