Asia Day 22: Bangkok

Asia Day 22: Bangkok

Photo of the day: Khao Soi @ The Thailand Tourism Festival. Photo credit: Aaron.

I woke up this morning really motivated, so I started doing researching on where and what to eat in Bangkok. I planned to visit the Chatuchak Weekend Market after seeing so many good eats in one place; however, Aaron reminded me that there are Chinese New Year festivities going on at Lumphini park as well, and it is Chinese New Year day. There wasn’t too much in terms of description of activities but we decided to be festive and check it out anyway.

A tuktuk and its driver on the streets of Chinatown, Bangkok
A tuktuk and its driver on the streets of Chinatown, Bangkok

But first, we needed breakfast. Aaron was craving some dimsum, so we were on a hunt. Staying in Chinatown, we assumed there would be good dimsum everywhere. The streets of Chinatown was as busy during the day as the night. Today, it was full of people wearing traditional Chinese Qi Pao’s or just their favourite red shirt, since it was Chinese New Year Day. Our first thought was to check out The Canton House, but when we looked at the menu outside the restaurant, there were no dimsum items on the menu. (We saw later during the day that people were eating dimsum inside the restaurant. ) We then stopped at a restaurant called Hua Seng Hong, which had dimsum on their menu so we walked in and were seated in the second floor. After taking our time to select interesting dimsum menus, we waved the server down to order. When we said we wanted dimsum, she asked us to wait. Then another server came and put down 2 options, normal shrimp dumplings (har-gaw) and crab dumplings. We said yes to the crab and no to the shrimp, since we could just get this back home. The crab dumplings were good and flavourful, but then we waited and waited. The server eventually came back and said what else we want to order so we ordered some tea and water. She then looked puzzle and pointed at the menu and we said again that we were wanting to order dimsum. Apparently that was it! Just 2 options! Disappointed, I just picked out the duck with “green noodles”, which looked interesting but apparently they were out of that too, so I just had the egg noodles instead. To be fair, their duck with egg noodle dish was actually really good, full of good flavours. It was served dry which was different than what we expected. So we did not get what we came here for, hence we paid our bill and left. On our way out, we saw a line-up of people wanting to come in, so evidently it is a good restaurant but perhaps we just did not know what to order from them. I did see a lot of people with claypots of food on their tables. 

Duck with egg noodles @ Hua Seng Hong
Duck with egg noodles @ Hua Seng Hong

We then continued our quest to find good food. I noted down a place Mark Wiens talked about called Thai Heng, but it appeared closed when we got there. Again, we kept walking. Interestingly enough, we ended up on the same side street we ate at last night! During the day time, they had another set of different food stalls! We’re in luck! We browsed through all our options and decided on a rice dish with pig knuckles and a side of pickled vegetables. We later found out this was called Khao Ka Moo. Most street food stalls here, also provide you with an array of condiments to put on your food. Here, we had some good chilli oil and this Nuoc Mam-like concoction. These condiments were amazing, perhaps more so than the dish itself. The rice was covered in the pig broth and the pig was good, perhaps too fatty for me. There was also another type of meat on the plate. Aaron says sometimes it’s better not to know what type of meat it really is. I actually liked it better than the pig knuckles. 
Pig knuckles stall
Pig knuckles stall
Pig knuckles rice @ street stall in Chinatown
Pig knuckles rice @ street stall in Chinatown. Photo credits: Aaron.

We were finally full and happy. On our way to our next destination, we decided to try a bottle of a fruit juice that was ubiquitous on the street stalls here. There was a choice of a red, orange and yellow juice. We believe the fruits were pomegranate, orange and some kind of citrus fruit. We decided on the citrus. It was actually surprisingly good. I was expecting it to be sour but it was nicely sweet and I really enjoyed the bits of pulp with each sip. 

Next, we stopped at Wanderlust, a hip coffee shop with very esthetically-pleasing drinks at not wallet-pleasing prices. I got the beautiful avocado smoothie and Aaron just had a cappuccino with espresso on the side. (It was apparently an combo item on the menu – for the caffeine lovers I guess). The smoothie was very nice and light. There was some bits of strawberry and slices of almonds on top, which added to the flavour. I also can taste some muesli or grain product in it as well to an another layer of complexity to its taste. Overall, a more sophisticated avocado smoothie compared to the ones I’ve had in Vietnam. I ended up being very productive there, having uploaded one post and writing up two others. Our hotel wifi is not very good, so I figured it’s best to pre-upload posts elsewhere. 

Avocado Smoothie @ Wanderlust Cafe
Avocado Smoothie @ Wanderlust Cafe. Photo credit: Aaron.

It was 3pm and the festival at Lumpini park started at 2pm, so we made our way over there. We were planning to take the MRT there so we walked over to the Hua Lamphong Station. We also got to catch a glimpse of the crowds going up to see the Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit. I was not dressed appropriately, so we did not end up going in. We also noticed we were very close to the railway station and decided to pick up our train tickets from the online travel agency 12goasia. It was a really painless process to get the tickets through them and now I understand why multiple sources recommend them. They had an online booking system, which was not exactly live since you first send them your request, then they physically have to get the tickets for you and since you a confirmation; however, they did have a pretty accurate inventory of the remaining tickets in each class and we were able to get the tickets of our choice, given the options they provided. I have tried using another agency, which said this class of tickets has already been sold out. Perhaps this agency just pre-purchases it and then resells it to customers. The pick up was easy for us since we stayed close to the train station. We could have wanted till the day of departure to pick it up as well. 

The location of 12goasia was basically at the entrance of the Hua Lumphong MRT station. It was then we realized that it’s probably more economical to Uber, especially with the 40 Baht discount happening right now for the Chinese New Year. 
As soon as we reached Lumphini park, we saw a crowd. Some were paying their respects to the King, since there was a memorial set up. Others were taking photos in front of the memorial. We did not have a lot of expectations coming here for the Chinese New Year festivities, because we understand it celebrations should be kept to a minimum to respect the King. I just expected a few food stalls here and there, then maybe some red and gold decorations and some festive lion dancing and Chinese music. I was so wrong. Apparently this was more than a Chinese New Year celebration. It was a 5 day annual “Tourism Festival”, which took up the entire park. There was a shuttle that ran throughout the park so visitors can explore all the 10 zones, mostly divided on the different regions of Thailand. Looking at the map, we were most interested in the “Local Foods” zone and the “Chinese New Year” zone, so we made our way over there. 
As soon as we entered the Northern Thailand zone, we realized we just stumbled across the most amazing (food) festival ever. We weren’t even close to the “Local Foods” zone and we were around surrounded by street food stalls everywhere we looked. We were overwhelmed, but in a good way. The signs were all in Thai and I still don’t know how to decipher their gorgeous characters so we relied on looking at the food and decided whether or not to get it. Most of the time, it was a “yes”. We decided to try this colourful noodle curry dish. It smelled amazing and I wanted to try something dyed with gac fruit (a popular fruit used in Vietnam used to dye foods), so we paid our 40 Baht (~$1.50 CND) and was given a some colourful noodle with a ladle-full of delicious hot curry. We then were given the opportunity to put our own toppings, including cucumber, onions, cabbage, pickled vegetables, bitter melon, green beans, and bean sprouts. The choices were endless. It was a nice light curry with good textured noodles. I would probably leave out some of the vegetables next time, such as the pickled vegetables and the bitter melon, but otherwise it was a great start to our afternoon! We then walked a few steps and we confronted with a dilemma. We saw something that looked like Khao Soi. It was probably Khao Soi because that was what people around me kept mumbling. I have never had this dish before but I’ve seen it many times in food vlogs and I knew it was something I would really enjoy. I understand that I would probably get the chance to eat some in Chiang Mai, but after my bad experience with Bun Bo Hue in Hue, I decided not to wait. The other part of the dilemma is that we are only 2 minutes into this festival and there was so much more to explore. We didn’t want to fill up now and miss out on other great eats later! But I couldn’t wait. Well, I guess I had to wait because there was a huge line. So we divided and conquered. I waited in line and Aaron went on to explore other surrounding options in the zone. It worked out quite well and we kept doing this throughout the night. The line moved very fast and I got my hot bowl of Khao Soi in no time. It was just what I expected. This will be the dish to beat in Thailand. It was the most amazing combination of tastes (sweet, savoury, spice) as well as textures (the creaminess of the coconut-based curry, along with the crunch of the deep-fried egg noodles and the pillow-texture of the egg noodles. Aaron and I were both agreed this is our new favourite dish and we must have many more during our trip. 

Colourful noodles stall. Photo credits: Aaron.
Colourful noodles stall. Photo credits: Aaron.
Loading our curry with vegetables
Loading our curry with vegetables

We excitedly made our way to the other zones to see what else there is to try! I was tempted by the coconut ice cream stall and again stood in line patiently. Aaron went to explore and bought a bag of mini curry fish puffs, which he said he was given a sample, then had to buy since it was so delicious. It was really good. I am usually not a fan of curry puffs but these bite-size goodness with such rich flavours of fish and just a hint of curry makes it really hard not to love. We nibbled on these and soon reached the front of the line. We ordered the coconut ice cream in a coconut shell and happily made our way to a nearby bench to enjoy it. I was once again impressed by the quality of the food here! This coconut ice cream is better than the one we had at Wanna Waffle in Hanoi! It had little frozen pieces of Pandan in there. As well as real coconut meat and a some yellow sprinkles, which tasted like Rice Crispies. I was actually quite sad to finish it and kept scraping at the shell for more meat. 

Coconut ice cream. Photo credits: Aaron.
Coconut ice cream. Photo credits: Aaron.

It was time to explore the other zones of this festival! I love how there was a stage in every zone with different types of performances, in additional to the centre/main stage. It was definitely a lively festival. Then there was a time when everyone around me seems to have stopped and there was a song playing over the speakers. I just kept buzzing around but noticed Aaron stopped too. Apparently, it was the national anthem playing and everyone was to stop what they were doing. Oops! I eventually caught on and paused too. 

We finally found the food zone but the food choices weren’t that impressive. It was either that or we were getting full. I really enjoyed the acoustic pop performance though. Soon, we made our way to the Chinese New Year section, which was made quite obvious with the red lanterns and a Money God staying outside. There was also a nice, large lighted dragon display, as well as some other dragon sculptures. There was even an altar set up for people to pray and light incense. Again, we were not too interested in any of the food choices. What I really wanted was for some Thai milk tea, but couldn’t seem to find the stall anywhere. After watching a brief, but mandatory lion dance, we wandered back to the other zones. Then, there it was. The smell of rich tea entered my nose. I looked and I see cans of condensed milk with tea steeping in some pantyhose looking contraption. I immediately lined up. Aaron, being the good Malay, realized this was actually Teh Tarik and not Thai Milk Tea. Works for me! I guess it makes sense because we are in the Southern Thailand section and this borders Malaysia. They also sold roti with condensed milk so we got some of that too. The tea was amazing, as expected, full of rich tea flavours along with the creamy and sweet condensed milk. The roti was alright. Not as good as the ones we’ve had in Malaysia.

Milk tea!
Milk tea!
We were both getting really tired, but Aaron really wanted some Pad Thai before we left. The most popular Pad Thai stall was already closed for business. We found one stall next to them which was still selling and we grabbed the last plate. It was still very good! I mean, how can you go wrong with Pad Thai in Thailand? Despite being the last plate, it was still nice and hot, which we appreciated. Again we noticed there was no meat in it. I guess that it is the norm to not be served with meat here.

Pad Thai topped with extra chillies.
Pad Thai topped with extra chillies.
We were pretty happy with our afternoon/evening spent here and it was time to go home. We again Ubered, but with the really bad traffic (at 9pm!), it was probably faster and cheaper to use public transit. Lesson learned for next time!

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Asia Day 21: Hanoi – Bangkok

Asia Day 21: Hanoi – Bangkok

Photo of the day: Duck noodle @ street food stall in Chinatown

We got up a little earlier today to enjoy some final hot bowls of Pho at the hotel before our journey to the airport. The front desk was quite stressed when she found out that our flight was in 2.5 hours and we were still not checked out yet. So we quickly packed up and caught an Uber to the airport. We got to the airport with 1.5 hours to spare but it soon became apparent why the staff at the hotel were stressed. It took us almost 1 hour to check in (although we already checked in online), get through immigration and security, to finally reach our gate. Since the Vietnamese Dong is a closed currency, we spent our final 100,000 VND on a bottle of Starbucks Frappucino. The comedic thing about these small Vietnamese airports is the need for a shuttle to drive us 100m to board the airplane. I guess it would be kind of dangerous for us to walk along the runway.

The short flight to Bangkok gave me some time to start reading the Rough Guide for Thailand and learning more about its culture, food and sights. It was also then that we realized that we have yet to book our flight out of Thailand so we had to figure that out before going through immigration. So grateful for free airport WIFI. The Suvarnabhumi International Airport, was a big change from the smaller airports we’ve been used to in Vietnam. It’s modern and huge and full of people. There were many tour guides and drivers with signs in mainly English and Chinese, patiently waiting for their guests. There were official cellular carrier stalls set up with long queues of tourists hoping to get a local SIM. We joined the line and got ourselves connected. The SIMs here were definitely more expensive, costing double how much it costed in Vietnam. I got a 30 day 4.5G plan for ~$20 CAD and Aaron paid ~$30 for a 30 day, super fast 8G plan. Uber is again an option for transportation here so we got to our hotel in Chinatown within 45 minutes. We chose a higher-end hotel in the middle of Yaowarat or the Chinatown of Bangkok. This area is supposed to have very good street food and given we will be here during Chinese New Year, we thought it would be most appropriate.

Hello Bangkok!
Hello Bangkok!

It’s already 5pm and we did not have any food since breakfast so we were on a mission to find good street food. We settled in quickly and asked the hotel for recommendations for good food. They basically just said walk out and you will see food. I am already really missing the extremely warm and friendly service from the hotel staff in Vietnam, where we paid half or less of the cost that we paid for our accommodations compared to here in Bangkok.

People eating and lining up for a seat at this popular seafood restaurant in Chinatown, Bangkok
People eating and lining up for a seat at this popular seafood restaurant in Chinatown, Bangkok

As soon as we walked out, we noticed how busy the streets were. A lot of people were gathered around this seafood restaurant but the line up was too long for us tonight, since we were really hungry and wanted food right away. We kept walking and saw many seafood restaurants and shark fin and bird’s nest restaurants. There were also many fruits vendors, the most popular of which was the king of the fruits – the durian. We read there was a lot of good street food here but where were they all hiding. We finally found gold when came across a small street with many busy food stalls. To be consistent with our noodles-as-our-first-meal-at-any-new-destination tradition, we sat down for a plate of Pad Thai. We could not read the menu at all so we just said “Pad Thai?” then stuck in 2 fingers. We were happy that they were snack-sized, so we can try other food. We enjoyed how it wasn’t too sweet, like some of the ones we’ve had in Canada. There was a good mix of vegetables and we noticed it was a vegetarian version, with tofu and no meat. We then paid our 45 Bahts (~$1.73 CAD) and were on our way to the next stall. It is interesting how whenever there are multiple prices on a menu either here or in Vietnam, we always end up paying the higher price. I don’t mind paying more if they actually gave us the larger size or the more expensive option but I hope it’s not the mere fact that I am a tourist that I have the pay an inflated price.

Pad Thai at a street stall in Chinatown
Pad Thai at a street stall in Chinatown

Next, we had some duck noodles. We were asked to choose our noodles so I picked the egg noodle and Aaron had the glass noodle. I was very happy with my choice because it went so well with the broth the toppings. There was a variety of surprises in the noodles, not only duck meat, but also pork blood, liver, and ?tongue. It was all very tasty, especially the liver. 
Ducks on display @ a street stall in Chinatown
Ducks on display @ a street stall in Chinatown
We wanted to wander along Yaowarat some more but did not notice anything else we wanted to try so we walked back to this magical street for some pork skewers (Moo Satay). I appreciated how the vendor was very diligent in doing some good quality control, looking at each skewer carefully before giving it to customers. The ones which were undercooked were sent back to the cook. We had one order, which was 10 little skewers and came with a side of onions and cucumber as well as peanut sauce. This was exactly how Malays eat it too! They were sliced very thin so it doesn’t take a long time to cook. The stall was super busy and business kept coming so this was a way for them to not have a huge line-up. The knife skill of the lady selling this was amazing as she quickly chopping up a whole cucumber and onion to top up the supply. We paid our 60 baht (~$2.30 CAD) and enjoyed our little skewers on one of the table set up behind the stall. They were perfectly cooked and tasted even better when eaten with the veggies and peanut sauce. It’s been a long travel day, so we called it a night. I enjoy travelling but getting from point A to B is always so tiring and makes me feel like I’ve waste one whole day. It’s Chinese New Year day tomorrow! I already see a bunch of people visiting the temples in hopes of lighting the “first incense of the year” for good luck.

Cooking up some satays @ street food stall in Chinatown
Cooking up some satays @ street food stall in Chinatown
Pork Satay served with peanut sauce and vegetables @ street stall in Chinatown
Pork Satay served with peanut sauce and vegetables @ street stall in Chinatown

Insects anyone?
Insects anyone?
 

Reflection: Vietnam

Reflection: Vietnam

Photo of the day: Pho with Saigon beer @ Pho Quynh

I decided to do a reflection post for each country instead of waiting for the end of the trip due to the length of this trip. So here is my reflection on my adventures in Vietnam!
Culture

I really love the culture of Vietnam. The people are very hardworking, waking up early and then working late into the evening. I did not see one panhandler on the street. Everyone tried their best to make a living, whether it’s selling little donuts, giving rides in cyclos or selling animal helium balloons. 

It is also in Vietnam, where you have to walk into oncoming traffic like you just don’t care. No one will stop for you, only weave around you, so stop waiting and just walk, slowly and carefully. 

Their food times are interesting. Early mornings are very busy then at night. Lunch time is always the most difficult time for us to find good food as a lot of places close early. It’s as if lunch isn’t a thing. People just have big breakfasts.

Another thing I love is their service. At the street stalls, there was never a line-up. You want to eat, you get a seat. Then you are presented with some piping hot noodles or rice after a few seconds of ordering it. The hotels here are also worth mentioning. They provide such superb service. I am not sure if it was because we stayed at more boutique hotels but they were super considerate and attentive to our needs. It’s definitely the best service I’ve received from the hospitality industry to date. 
Weather

This was the perfect time to come to Vietnam. The southern parts were warm but not suffocatingly hot. At night, I felt the need for a light long sleeve and long pants at times. In the central/northern parts of the country, it was very pleasant during the day in the 20’s and chilly at night requiring a light cardigan and jeans. We only had a couple days if light rain lasting 30 minutes maximum each time. This is compared to the huge flood in Hoi An, which occurred just one month prior.
Language

Because this is a tonal language it is not very easy to learn. The good thing is once you grasp the basic pronunciation of the words, you can still try to sound out the words, perhaps with the wrong tone. Ordering food wasn’t a problem but when it came to asking for other things (a drink, extra condiments, the price on things) it wasn’t always straightforward. The areas we were in were touristy enough, though, that most people spoke some English.

Top food picks

  1. Banh Xeo @ Banh Xeo 46A, HCMC
  2. “Roasted chicken fried rice” @ Quan Pho Ngon – Com Rang Ga, Hanoi
  3. Bun Bo Nam Bo @ 67 Hang Dieu, Hanoi
  4. Avocado coconut smoothie @ Five Boy Number One, HCMC
  5. Dinner at Morning Glory, Hoi An
  6. Pho Tai Bo Vien @ Pho Quynh, HCMC – first meal in Vietnam 


Top sights

  1. Hoan Kiem Lake at night, Hanoi
  2. Lantern-filled streets of Hoi An at night
  3. Nguyen Hue walkway, HCMC
  4. View from Bitexco Tower, HCMC
  5. Imperial City, Hue


Firsts

  • First time speaking Vietnamese (minimally)
  • First time eating so much street food on one trip
  • First time taking a cooking class while travelling
  • First time sitting on little colourful stools on the side of the street while enjoy a great meal
  • First to eating Vietnamese food so many days in a row
  • First time taking a train in Asia
  • First time getting a Traditional Vietnamese massage
  • First time breaking my suitcase and needing to buy one in the middle of a trip
  • First time meeting my relatives in Vietnam!

To be honest, I did not think I will love Vietnam so much. It is not the most popular tourist destination compared to other Southeast Asia countries and my family kept telling me it is very underdeveloped, unsafe and there was nothing to see. Of course their opinion is based on what they experienced 30+ years ago because they haven’t been back since. Definitely, I’ve been warned by multiple locals about being cautious of my belongings and I did have some fears about the safety of crossing the street but the amazing food and culture is not something to be missed! If I were to come again I would love to spend more time in HCMC (I heard that’s where the best Bun Bo Hue actually is!) and Hanoi (perhaps not around Tet season so I can try all those places that were closed this time). Goodbye Vietnam! Till next time!

Asia Day 20: Hanoi (last day in Vietnam!)

Asia Day 20: Hanoi (last day in Vietnam!)

Photo of the day: View of Hoan Kiem Lake from i-Feel Coffee and Lounge

I can’t believe today will be our last day in Vietnam! We are both pretty sad about leaving and were craving some good Pho before we left. Unfortunately, our hotel ran out of Pho for breakfast so I just stuck to a breakfast sandwich instead.

Breakfast sandwich @ our hotel in Hanoi
Breakfast sandwich @ our hotel in Hanoi

Our tourist attraction for the day was the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. It was supposed to be the highest ranked museum in Hanoi per TripAdvisor, so it made my short list. I looked into the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Hoa Lo Prison as well but I don’t I can handle seeing the embalmed body of Mr. Ho Chi Minh or another graphic presentation of the POWs during the American war again (flashback: HCMC War Museum). The Museum of Ethnology is a museum showcasing the 50+ different ethnicities in Vietnam. The most interesting part of the museum is the “open-air” exhibit of the different types of houses built by these different ethnicities. It was pretty neat to see videos on how these houses were constructed by hand. It is located around 8km from the city centre so we needed to Uber there. We did a lot of walking and climbing into the stilt-houses (up “stairs” which probably does not meet North American safety standards) and worked up quite the appetite. 

The exterior of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
The exterior of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology

The stairs to one of the houses @ The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
The stairs to one of the houses @ The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology

Aaron wanted to check out a cool co-working space the other side of West Lake, so we were off on another Uber trip.  Unfortunately, they were closed for the holidays. Luckily, there was another nice cafe/bakery nearby called Joma Bakery Cafe which had quite a nice ambience to do some work (lots of light, nice soft music), so in we went. We both didn’t really feel like salads or sandwiches so we decided it was a cake and coffee for lunch kind of day. I had my favourite carrot cake and Aaron had the banana cake. Both were not bad! Aaron had his Americano and I had one last Iced Coffee with condensed milk in Vietnam. 

It was almost sunset, so we took a walk along the West Lake. It was a very nice area with many modern service apartments and it was great for people watching. There were people at street stalls drinking beer and eating snacks, people walking their dogs, fishing, dating, meditating and exercising. We even came across a temple (Phu Tay Ho) with rows of incense vendors and fortune-tellers outside of it. There is a Chinese saying that “If you enter someone’s house, you must acknowledge them. If you enter a temple, you must pray to the gods.” So that is what I did. I made my rounds to pay my respects and made a small donation and then we were on our way again. It seems that it will take our Uber a while to get to us, so we decided to make use of the exercise equipment at the park. Some did not work the muscles too much, and were good for elderly to just move their joints, while others used your own body weight and did provided some resistance training. It appears our Uber driver has given up and turned around. That is always a bad sign and makes me feel that I am stranded since I am somewhere that Ubers do not drive to. We tried walking out to the main road to see if that would help. It was not the most pleasant walk as I was speed walking trying to avoid the bats flying around the side of the lake. I was taught that bat bites equal rabies until proven otherwise and I had elected not to get my rabies shot!

Sunset @ West Lake
Sunset @ West Lake

We eventually made it to the main road and summoned a Uber, which actually did come after 15 minutes or so. It was nice to finally go home, to a familiar place, without bats. We dropped off our stuff and then headed out, in hopes of getting some good Pho during our last night here in Hanoi. We walked to Pho 10, which was always full of patrons sitting on little stools outside. Not tonight. We were confronted with the closed gate sign again. Defeated, we continued walking down the block and reached another noodle place which seems busy. We sat down and ordered 1 Bun Cha for Aaron and 1 Pho Bo Ga for me. The pork was quite tasty from the Bun Cha but the quantity was small compared to at Bun Cha Huong Lien. My Pho was pretty good, but was missing the extra chillies on the side, like when we were in HCMC. Sanitation is also not a priority here as the server just handed us the leftover veggies from the patron next to us we left. We decided to pass on raw veggies tonight. 

We then walked for the last time to the Hoan Kiem Lake in hopes of catching the Water Puppet Show at the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre. We heard mixed reviews of it, saying it is a tourist trap and that there were no translations and people not knowing what was going on. But we thought it was a cultural experience worth a visit. I actually quite enjoyed it, more so than any museums I’ve visited here. It was a good 50 minutes of traditional live music, good use of pyrotechnics, amazing puppetry techniques and comedic story lines mixed with mythical creatures. Not a bad way to spend 100,000 VDN (~$6 CAD). We thought we would end our night watching over the lake at i-Feel Cafe and Lounge, whose entrance was hidden in some clothing store. It was nice to enjoy one more avocado smoothie. I was pleasantly surprised that they added coconut milk to it! It still could not compare to Five Boys though. So that was how we spent our last day in Vietnam! Next up: Thailand!

Asia Day 19: Hanoi

Asia Day 19: Hanoi

Photo of the day: “Roasted chicken” @ Quan Pho Ngon – Com Rang Ga. Photo credits: Aaron.

We are definitely feeling the effects of being here during the Tet holidays today. We made sure to ask the front desk about which attractions are still open over the next few days, so we can plan accordingly. After having a simple breakfast at the hotel, we were off!

Festive balloons in time for the Tet holidays
Festive balloons in time for the Tet holidays. Photo credits: Aaron.
Aaron grabbed a coffee and got some work done at La Place Cafe, while I went to get my nails done. Based on my online research, Orchid Spa is the best nails salon in town. I was very disappointed to see the sign outside its storefront saying “closed for the Tet holidays”. So, I went to join Aaron at La Place and enjoyed a refreshing glass ofjasmine calamasi iced tea, while doing some more research. Apparently, there was another nails place nearby, which was quite popular, so off I went again, on a mission to get pretty nails. It was a quaint shop in an alley with a room full of customers getting their nails done, so I knew I was in the right place. There was a language barrier but I managed to get across I wanted a pedicure. After ~40minutes of soaking, snipping, polishing and even a free foot massage (which actually really hurt at times), my mission was accomplished! Pretty good for ~ $5 CAD.

Feeling happy about how my nails looked with sandals now, it was time to satisfy my hunger. We wanted to go check out the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, and I found a good Bun Bo Hue place nearby. Unfortunately, we saw the dreaded closed storefront again. Disappointed, we started frantically doing searches on our phones. I decided to just open up Google mMps and click on nearby restaurants and found one with a picture of a huge chicken leg on a bed of fried rice. It did not even exist on Foursquare but we wanted to check it out anyway. As soon as we turned the corner, we saw a very busy food stall with plates of roasted chicken legs in front of a flaming wok. In front of this open kitchen was a sidewalk full of people sitting on colourful plastic stools enjoying plates of fried rice with roasted chicken. We were both immediately sold and ran across the street towards this amazing sight. One thing I love about the service in Vietnam is, there may appear to be no seating, but they will almost definitely create seating for you. We quickly sat down and ordered 2 plates of their special “roasted chicken” with fried rice. Aaron also ordered some soy milk to go with his meal. He really enjoyed this and thought it was the “real stuff” since he he can taste the bits of soy bean in it. But we must get back to the main dish! Similar to when we had Com Ga in Hoi An, we started with some soup, full of flavour and herbs. Then came the chicken rice. It was an amazing sight. A huge roasted chicken leg on top of a bed of tasty rice. The chicken leg was already delicious, but you also have that option to dip it in an interesting “salsa” they’ve prepared. In the “salsa”, was likely tomatoes, lots of spices and perhaps chicken sauce? We were both super excited about our random food find and talked about how this is better than any museums or attractions we can visit.

“Roasted chicken fried rice” @ Quan Pho Ngon – Com Rang Ga. Photo credits: Aaron.
Roasted chicken or deep fried chicken? It doesn't matter. It was amazing!
Roasted chicken or deep fried chicken? It doesn’t matter. It tasted amazing! Photo credits: Aaron.
 

We inhaled our meals and headed down the block to the Women’s Museum. Interestingly, Aaron was the one who really wanted to check out this museum. It is one of the higher rated attractions of Hanoi, so I agreed. Plus, I told myself that I should probably do at least one touristy thing a day. As a non-museum fan, there were some interesting bits in there, especially about wedding rituals and also child birth traditions. The building itself was very modern and nicely laid out. 

It was time to get ready for our next appointment. You guessed it. Another spa date! We noticed we haven’t really tried a traditional Vietnamese massage yet, so we booked one at the #1 ranked spa in Hanoi based on TripAdvisor – Hanoi Ciel Spa. It definitely did not fail to impress, as it was the most professional and luxurious spa we’ve been to in Vietnam. It was a little tricky to find as we had to walk through a narrow alley full of vendors, while trying to file single file with motorbikes, but we got there. The service was amazing and the massage itself was very good. The difference between the Vietnamese massage and the usual Swedish massages I get is the fact that they incorporated a lot of point pressure as well as punching and deep kneading. At one point, I thought I would get a huge bruise from the massage. One thing I will miss about the spas here, is the “foot ritual” they perform prior to the massage. There was also a foot soak of some sort in hot, herbal water, which is nice to clean off my dirty feet before they smudge all the dirt from it to the rest of my body. The extra touch I got from this spa was the fact they also did a mini foot massage as well. 2 free foot massages in one day! Overall, I was very satisfied with my experience here. The only thing which was awkward was that they asked me to complete a TripAdvisor review immediately in front of them after the massage. Otherwise, it was perfect! Also, I would suggest making a reservation beforehand, given we saw a gentleman coming in requesting a foot massage and was turned away. They were also closing for the Tet holiday starting tomorrow so I was so glad we managed to squeeze this in before they closed

We were in a post-massage daze so we decided to go home and rest for a bit. I decided to complete a bunch of reviews on TripAdvisor that I promised to do for various establishments. 

Aaron has been wanting to try the local draught beer (Bia Hoi) since we got to Vietnam, so we decided tonight was the night. I read that they started at 5pm, then would sold out before the end of the evening, so we decided to go for a pre-dinner drink. We walked to the “Bia Hoi Corner”, where a lot of tourists hang out to enjoy cheap beer. It was quite the sight with many people sitting on little plastic stools, just enjoying some beer with friends. Traditionally, this was an activity for males to bond with their buddies but now, some women go as well. Unfortunately, after asking a few of the vendors for Bia Hoi, we found out they were all out, so we just sat down anyway and enjoyed some Hanoi beer with a side of deep fried chicken cartilage, as traditionally, you should always have some deep fried snacks with your Bia Hoi. Then let the people watching begin! There was an interesting point of the night when the police came and the owners frantically started stacking up the unused stools and pushed them to the side. I guess they were not supposed to take up so much of the road.

Bia Hoi Corner in Hanoi
Bia Hoi Corner in Hanoi
 

Deep fried chicken cartilage with mysterious sticks of ?lemongrass @ the Bia Hoi Corner
Deep fried chicken cartilage with mysterious sticks of ?lemongrass @ the Bia Hoi Corner

I found a good fried Cha Ca (fried fish) place, so off we went to get some dinner. On the way there, I saw a mother carrying her daughter over a gutter, possibly trying to get her to defecate? I was not sure. I just saw the baby girl was bottomless and the mother was mumbling some soothing words to her. One more time, we were faced with the discouraging “closed for the Tet holiday” sign. We settled on a restaurant called Bia Hoi Ha Noi. Contrary to their name, they did not have any Bia Hoi. They had a very large menu with a bunch of random dishes – which is always a bad sign. The place was busy and full of locals so it couldn’t be that bad right? The owner was staring at us and the menu and started pointed at the most expensive dishes on the menu. We did not take her advice and just ordered some morning glory with a beef noodle bowl. Of course, we ordered some more Hanoi beer because apparently, that’s what you do here. The table next to us of a few men, had a whole crate of Saigon beers to go through! The food here was ok. The morning glory was a little over cooked and the noodle had some weird bitter-tasting vegetable in it. The noodle itself was like instant noodles. I was quite disappointed but reminded myself that I cannot always expect to have amazing food finds like the one we had this afternoon. We headed home and decided to start making a dent on the tropical fruits that are provided to us daily by the hotel, which we never had the chance to eat yet. We had the mango and it was sweet but also had an interesting salty flavour to it.  

Today was the 28th day of December according to the lunar calendar. This is the day to doing some spring cleaning to wash away the bad luck from the previous year and we saw a lot of that today with vendors cleaning out their stores. It also marks the beginning of when a lot of businesses will take some time off for the year. It was nice to see that these hardworking folks are actually taking some time off to spend with their families. I guess the next couple of days will be quiet for us as the city slows down. 

Beef Noodle Soup @ Bia Hoi Ha Noi
Beef Noodle Soup @ Bia Hoi Ha Noi

Asia Day 18: Hanoi

Asia Day 18: Hanoi

Photo of the day: Our finished Bun Bo Nam Bo @ Apron Up Cooking Class. Photo credit: Aaron.

Started the day off with a nice jog around the lake. It was nice to be out earlier in the day. The streets are a lot more lively with the locals enjoying their breakfasts at street stalls and doing stretches and dancing some morning rumba by the lake. I wanted a simple breakfast sandwich today but the hotel staff convinced me to “eat a large breakfast to start off the day with energy”. Aaron ordered a Pho Bo and it tasted really good so ordered a bowl of that too (on top of my sandwich!) Their fruit juices are also great and not too sweet. 

Morning @ Hoan Kiem Lake
Morning @ Hoan Kiem Lake
Legit bowl of Pho Bo @ our hotel in Hanoi
Legit bowl of Pho Bo @ our hotel in Hanoi

We already had activities planned for this afternoon/evening so we decided to take it easy this morning and to check out the French Quarter of Hanoi. The architecture definitely gives a European vibe, most notably The Opera House. We hung out at Cong Cafe – a local franchise and got some work done. Unfortunately there was someone consistently smoking cigarettes so it wasn’t the most pleasant experience.

The Opera House in Hanoi
The Opera House in Hanoi

Aaron had been wanting to try the fried donuts that are sold on the streets here. It’s at almost every street corner. A lady was very adamant in getting us to try one so she ended up getting our business. There were two of them working together. When it came to paying, one started being really interested in chatting with me while the other one starting preying on innocent-looking Aaron. As I was wondering why she is so talkative suddenly I overheard the other lady asking Aaron for 150,000 VND (~$9 CAD) for a few small donuts. I immediately turned around and said “WHAT? TOO MUCH!!!” Then they laughed and said “No! 50,000! (~$3), which is definitely still a rip off but Aaron was happy to “contribute to the local economy”.

I meant to eat a huge breakfast so I don’t need lunch but that never works. For lunch, we decided to eat at the restaurant Anthony Bourdain took the former President Obama, Bun Cha Huong Lien. It wasn’t as packed as we thought it would be given the fame but they did have a few floors. We were asked to go upstairs where there are posters of Mr. Obama everywhere. There was even a “Combo Obama”, which we were one beer away from getting. We decided to each just get a Bun Cha (their BBQ pork in fish sauce dipping sauce along with a side of dry vermicelli and a big side of vegetables). The pork was very flavourful, but a little on the charred side for my taste. The dipping sauce was sour and sweet with little bits of char. It wasn’t my cup of tea and I think it would prefer it dry. Overall tasty noodle dish, if I had to choose between this or Bun Thit Nuong though, I would choose the Bun Thit Nuong. We also saw other people getting the seafood roll and decided we should get one too. It was very crunchy with a very nice seafood taste. Definitely would recommend! I saw some people dipping it in the dipping sauce, which is again weird to me since it’ll be soggy. 

The menu @ Bun Cha Huong Lien
The menu @ Bun Cha Huong Lien

Bun Cha @ Bun Cha Huong Lien
Bun Cha @ Bun Cha Huong Lien

Seafood roll @ Bun Cha Huong Lien. You can really taste the crab!
Seafood roll @ Bun Cha Huong Lien. You can really taste the crab!
 

I also wanted to look into taking some Zumba classes since we’re in a big city again and I didn’t get to go in HCMC due to my illness. Unfortunately the gyms are mostly closed for the Tet holiday. Weird story while I was walking along looking for gyms. There was a strange man who just walked up to me and grabbed my glasses off my face! I immediately took it back from him and said “What was that?!?” Then he casually walked away. That was really strange. I’ve super careful with hanging on to my purse but didn’t know I had to hang on to my glasses as well!

It was time to head back to our hotel to be picked up for our cooking class we signed up for! It was an easy sign-up process. We found the most popular cooking class on TripAdvisor (Apron Up) and just sent them an email. They were very quick to respond and their pricing is reasonable ($32 USD per person). We also emailed another cooking class ran by a local restaurant who also had good reviews but I found out they have significantly inflated their price over the years to almost double usual rate so I decided against that one. Our instructor, Phoenix, met up with us at the hotel and then walked with us to a nearby local market. On the way there she showed us different local fruits and snacks. She also does a walking food tour as her other job so we benefited from her expertise in that area as well. We (mostly she) picked out some key ingredients needed for our meal tonight and then we headed to the kitchen! It was a small kitchen tucked in the back of an alley. It looked clean and cozy. Supposedly it can hold 12 people but we were lucky to be the only ones to sign up for the class this afternoon so we ended up having a private class! Phoenix was patient in showing us how to marinade the meat for the Bun Bo Nam Bo, cut the vegetables for the papaya salad, roll the spring rolls and Banh Gio’s and prepare the egg mixture for the egg coffee and the sauces for all the dishes. It was a fun-filled 3 hour of culinary joy and great cultural experience as well since our instructor was so chatty! It was a very hands-on class and it felt great at the end of the night when we got to eat the feast that we have helped to prepare. This was such an awesome way to spend the afternoon/evening and I am excited for our next cooking class!

Getting veggies @ the market
Getting veggies @ the market

Getting meat @ the market
Getting meat @ the market

The kitchen @ Apron Up Cooking Class
The kitchen @ Apron Up Cooking Class. Photo credit: Aaron.

Prepping the filling for the Cha Gio
Prepping the filling for the Cha Gio. Photo credit: Aaron.

The completed meal @ Apron Up Cooking Class. Photo credit: Aaron.
The completed meal @ Apron Up Cooking Class. Photo credit: Aaron.

Asia Day 17: Hanoi

Asia Day 17: Hanoi

Photo of the day: Half and half burrata prosciutto pizza with the Milano salami and Da Lat chorizo pizza @ Pizza 4P’s

We slept in today and almost missed the hotel breakfast. They were super nice about it and did not rush us at all. I just had a simple breakfast with some toast, yogurt and boiled eggs. They thought I didn’t order enough and also gave me a lemon crepe to try as well as a plate of fresh fruits. 

Nicely presented lemon (lime?) crepe @ our hotel in Hanoi
Nicely presented lemon (lime?) crepe @ our hotel in Hanoi

Onwards to our tourist attraction of the day: The Temple of Literature. This worshipping site was destroyed by the war and later restored. It also housed the first university of Vietnam back in 1076. It was a nice place to look at nice courtyards and architecture and to learn a little about the history of temple. The temple was mainly dedicated to Confucius and there is a huge statue of Confucius along with his principal disciples In the main building of the temple. Another interesting part of the temple was the stone stelae on stone tortoises, which was used to record the successful candidates of the state exams. Aaron asked if I wanted my name to be mounted on a stone on a tortoise and I thought that would be pretty neat. 

Stone stela on a tortoise @ The Temple of Literature
Stone stela on a tortoise @ The Temple of Literature

We were getting hungry so we decided to get some lunch at the “Cheesecake Factory of Vietnam”. The restaurant was called Quan An Ngon. The menu was huge with all sorts of Vietnamese dishes. Around the restaurant were different stations for each type of food. Apparently, the point of the restaurant was to bring all the street food vendors together under one roof. We decided to have a bit of a seafood feast with the coconut juice shrimp and grilled mackerel, along with some morning glory (my new favourite vegetable) and rice. Aaron also pointed at a picture and we ordered that too but the service here was spotty and we had to ask for the rice and also this mysterious starter that we didn’t get until the end of the meal. The shrimp was amazing. They were huge and when dipped in the warm coconut juice and lime/salt mixture, it brought out the fresh taste of the shrimp even more. Our server even came by to help us carefully peel the shrimp for us! The grilled mackerel was good but a little on the salty side for me. Our mysterious starter eventually came after some prompting. We found out it was Banh Goi, kind of like a Vietnamese samosa, filled with vermicelli, pork and mushrooms. It was very good. 

Banh Goi @ Quan An Ngon
Banh Goi @ Quan An Ngon
Grilled mackerel @ Quan An Ngon
Grilled mackerel @ Quan An Ngon
Morning glory and boiled shrimp in coconut juice @ Quan An Ngon
Morning glory and boiled shrimp in coconut juice @ Quan An Ngon

We, then, headed over to Highland Coffee by the lake to catch up on some work, while watching the lake scenary turn from day to night. 

It was time to get some dinner! We decided to change it up and get some pizza! I know. I’m ready for the haters. Why am I eating pizza in Vietnam, you might ask? My taste buds actually need some new excitation, from all the Vietnamese food we’ve been eating. This pizza restaurant, Pizza 4P’s, owned by a Japanese owner has amazing ratings on Foursquare. We needed to try it. They have many interesting pizza choices, including some Japanese inspired toppings such a miso and okonomiyaki. The setting and service was very upscale, probably the most upscale we’ve had since the beginning of our trip. We started with the shrimp, avocado and bean salad and then tried the half and half option of their burrata prosciutto pizza with the Milano salami and Da Lat chorizo pizza. Aaron had a glass of a Chilian Cabernet, which was a really smooth, sweet red wine choice that I really enjoyed. The salad was very tasty, with the lemon dressing and somehow tasted very Vietnamese. It must have been the basil they used. I guess cannot truly get away from the Vietnamese tastes! The pizza was a thin-crust pizza with a huge ball of burrata in the centre. (We already ordered the smaller cheese size.) Our server helped us cut it up into quarters and laid it flat on each slice of pizza. First bite of the cheese was amazing. It was mild, soft cheese and worked very well with the prosciutto. Then there was the salami and chorizo side, which was super tasty as well. I still preferred the burrata side more though. On further reading, we discovered that the cheese was made in a cheese factory in Da Lat, with 2 Japanese cheese makers involved, one of whom studied cheese making in France. Interesting! I am so glad we decided to come here. My taste buds got their necessary excitation.

Pizza ovens @ Pizza 4P's
Pizza ovens @ Pizza 4P’s
Shrimp, avocado and bean salad @ Pizza 4P's
Shrimp, avocado and (huge) bean salad @ Pizza 4P’s
 
Gelatin aperitif @ Pizza 4P's
Gelatin aperitif @ Pizza 4P’s
Aaron wasn’t quite full, so we decided to get some dessert at Wanna Waffle. It was a cute waffle place hidden inside a Circle K convenience store. Aaron chose the classic waffle with Nutella, chocolate sauce and coconut ice cream. The coconut ice cream was legit! You can really taste the real coconut flakes in there. This was much better quality than the other ice cream we’ve had in Vietnam so far. With our bellies satisfied, we headed home. The hotel provided some free Da Lat wine for us to try, after hearing that our anniversary was coming up. The taste was different, perhaps because it was made from mulberries. Nonetheless, it was nice to end the night with a glass of wine while blogging.
Classic waffle with Nutella and chocolate drizzle and coconut ice cream @ Wanna Waffle
Classic waffle with Nutella and chocolate drizzle and coconut ice cream @ Wanna Waffle