Monday, 31 August 2015

Angkor Wat ~ Siem Reap, Cambodia

Angkor Wat has been on Mama Chan’s list since forever; like Vietnam, I feel I’m late to this ancient city. The extensive development of Siem Reap to cater for the hordes of tourists means it has drifted far from Cambodian traditions and cultures. Instead it became a small town packed with hotels, bars, restaurants and markets selling cheap clothes and souvenirs. On the positive side, Papa and Mama Chan can enjoy the Angkor Wat experience in style - it’s a perfect birthday treat for Mama Chan.

Unlike my usual game plan, everything was pre-arranged for this trip: spa treatment and body massage at the hotel, hotel dinner, airport transfers, Angkor Wat guide and tuk tuk for a day.

We started the day early to catch the sunrise. Our tuk-tuk driver was waiting for us at 4:45am. After 15mins our first stop was the ticket office, which was already busy at the early hours. Then our driver dropped us off at the Angkor Wat west entrance. It was packed with people already, and lines of tripod already took up every inch of space in front of the pond - ready for “the shot”. 

We strolled around as the crowds were relatively thin, then we headed back to the hotel for breakfast and a little nap before our guide joined us for the day. We wanted to start with Little Circuit to tick the main temples off the list, starting with Angkor Thom, the old city, via South Gate. Our guide talked us through the demons and gods, and how their heads were all stolen. Then the elephant gods on the gates.

Then next stop was the Bayon, the centre of the old city.

From there we talked along the Elephant Terrace and The Leper King Terrace. 

Before heading to Ta Phrom, aka the Jungle Temple, aka the Tomb Raider Temple, I asked to stop at a quieter and smaller temple.

Ta Phrom was absolutely stunning. The way the trees have weaved their way through the temple was incredible.

After stopping for lunch, we headed back to Angkor Wat via a pink temple. Our guide talked us through the galleries on the first level, then the second level where the monks used to live. Shame we couldn’t climb the third level as it was a Buddha day.

On our way to Phnom Bakheng to catch the sunset, the storm also caught up with us. We stayed in the tuk tuk for 45mins as the rain bucketed down. Eventually we gave up and ended the tour, thinking it would have been too cloudy to see anything anyway. Well, when we were back in the hotel, guess what, the sky cleared and we just watched the spectacular sunset from the balcony instead…without Angkor Wat -.-

We had dinner at the hotel, which was 3 courses of beautifully presented Cambodian cuisine. Papa Chan was much more confident about the food here. Much better than the dodgy restaurant we tried in town yesterday. The Amok Fish was particularly good, with chunks of fish cooked in coconut milk and a concoction of herbs.

The following day was pretty relaxed. After a day of meandering around temples in the heat, Mama and Papa Chan were pretty convinced they all look a bit similar. So we had a spa and massage in the hotel followed by beer and pizza in town before catching our flight back. Pizza joints are interesting here, they are all called “Happy” or “Ecstatic” or something hyper.  
We went to Ecstatic Pizza and ordered their signature Ecstatic pizza, which had everything under sun on it. Our waitress asked if we wanted the ‘special herb’ on our pizza… well Mama and Papa Chan both seemed pretty normal on our way back home…they don’t need to know.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Saveur - Savouring the Familiar Flavours

Saveur is a franchise in Singapore that offers casual French fare. Seeing I have been indulging Papa Chan on all kinds of Asian delights during his week-long visit, Saveur would be a nice change of palate, in an environment where he wouldn't feel inadequate in his shorts and baseball cap.

By casual I mean it's bordering fast food. We walked in to a bustling restaurant and were led to a table with nothing on it. A server then brought us a small clipboard with the menu tabulated on multiple sheets; just like how you'd tick a dim sum sheet, only replacing dumplings with pan-seated foie gras! Regardless of the ambience, or the lack of, Saveur is has earned recognition for down to earth and solid cooking, so I went through their signature dishes.

Mushroom Soup 
The soup was served like a cappuccino. The soup was surprisingly thick and creamy under the layer of fungi foam, bursting with mushroom fragrance; the small bits of mushroom gave it a bit of bouncy chew. The airy foam was a good contrast to slightly lift the velvety veloute; the seemingly small portion was quite filling.

Saveur's Pasta chilli oil, finely chopped konbu, minced pork sauce, chives & sakura ebi
This simple pasta dish was a pleasant surprise. At first I thought it looked dry and lacking, but the capellini was drizzled with a thin coat of porky jus, lightly seasoned with a very mild chilli tone; just enough kick to leave a modest tinkle on the tongue. The flavours were clean and light; the tiny crispy dried sakura shrimps were like concentrated flavour bombs to give it the fishy edge. 

If I’m crazily picky I would say the pasta could have been better. It wasn’t quite al-dente, perhaps a tad overcooked.

Duck Confit mashed potato, saute shiitake with parsley & garlic
I guess it doesn't get more French bistro than duck leg confit, and it's something that while it can't go wrong, there is seldom any pleasant surprises. The kitchen delivered in terms of not screwing up something that's impossible to screw up. Nothing was worth mentioning in particular.

Pork Belly Cannellini beans with pancetta & natural jus
While I have risk accepted that pork belly is not the healthiest choice of meat, I wasn’t quite expecting the pork belly to be a solid block of lard. There is no exaggeration when I say there was only 10% muscle – had to send it back. Our server wasn’t too convinced when I explained it’s not edible, but then again she didn’t volunteer either. And I always try to be pleasant until my last course is served.

Our second attempt was much better; at least 55% muscle and I settled for that. The problem of obesity aside, the blocks of pork belly were soft and squidgy; the fatty layers were dangerously fragrant; the gelatinous skin was playfully bouncy and the lean meats were meagre but tender and juicy. It was lightly seasoned to allow the porky flavours to come through. The honey mustard on the side was a good complement to the belly, but wasn't a fan of the grainy and mushy beans that made the dish even heavier.

Personally I would prefer a crispier skin or more seared edges to force more grease out, adding more textures and to alleviate the groggy weight of the lard. 

Salted Caramel Lava Cake Maldon sea salt, Valrhona Dulcey chocolate & homemade vanilla ice cream
The warm lava cake was very well done. Hot salted caramel came gushing out of the thin cake shell as I broke into it, a beautiful contrast to the smooth ice cream.

Generally we enjoyed Saveur. We liked the no-fuss attitude and solid delivery. Dishes were presented in a Singaporean efficient manner, exactly what it says on the tin, well, or menu. On the flip side, other than the lack of surprises, it was missing sophistication, the thoughtful structuring of creations. But come on, I got what I paid for, and it did well to satisfy my craving for some solid French classics. Can't complain.

Saveur @ Far East Plaza
14 Scotts Road
#01-7B 228213
Tel: 6736 1121

You may also like: PS Cafe, Meat SmithFYR Cycene Ond Drinc

Monday, 10 August 2015

Hanoi & Sapa, Vietnam

Here comes the second part of Vietnam, the North. 

I wanted to cover Hanoi and Sapa in one long weekend. Though it would have been nice to cover Ha Long Bay too, I’m not overly keen about it. Yes it’s supposed to be stunning, but it’s also frightfully touristy and there aren’t options to do it in a non-mainstream way to see something different. Maybe another time for another weekend and I’ll mix it up with something else. 

Went solo this time too. I didn’t book any accommodation for the the 3 days, because I booked one overnight train to Sapa for a day-trek, then return to Hanoi on the same day via another overnight train. It’s a fair amount of walking, and previous experience has taught me that it’s better to go alone than to drag the dead weight of someone who’s not physically fit enough.

Landed Hanoi around noon, took bus no.7 then changed to no.9 to get to the Old Quarter area - about 1.5hrs. Traffic is much better than Saigon here, yea there are still a gazillion scooters everywhere, but decidedly less honking and somewhat more organised in a chaotic way.

My first stop was bun cha & nem at 1 Hang Manh Street (90k dong). I love bun cha, partly influenced by Mama Chan and party because it’s the ideal food in a hot country. The cool vermiceilli is served next to charcoal grilled pork patties, belly and thin chops, together with a tangy sweet vinegar sauce, abundance of herbs, chopped garlic and chillies and a side of crispy spring rolls. We don’t get this kind of bun cha outside Vietnam - the version we are used to is a bowl of vermicelli with lots of shredded lettuces and carrots, topped whatever you like, and mixed with nouc cham! This was a thousand times better - the patties were juicy and smoky, pork belly slices were tender and nutty, the dipping broth was savoury and sweet and tangy, I added a generous amount of raw garlic too and it was stunning. I devoured everything. The man did well to recommend this spot - tick.

With a satisfied stomach I wandered around the Old Quarter. Most of the streets started with “Hang”, which translates to “Buy”. So historically each of these streets were named after what they were selling, like Hang Vai was selling clothes. Things have moved on so it’s not always applicable now, but this is still evident on some streets. Stopped for a good egg coffee, which was whisked egg instead of milk foam on top of ultra strong coffee and a layer of condensed milk at the bottom. It was perfect as long as I don’t disturb the sweetened milk.

The Hoan Kiem Lake was a good spot to rest as the sun sets. The story was a Golden Turtle God claimed a magic sword from an ancient emperor, and so it was also named the Lake of Returned Sword; the little tower in the middle of lake is the Turtle Tower. I couldn’t spot any turtles though. 

Meandered my way back into the labyrinth of streets in the Old Quarter for dinner. It’s time for pho; the dish did originate from North Vietnam after all. The other place the man recommended from his travels was Gia Thuyen at 49 Bat Dan Street. And boy you’d know it’s famous judging from the insane queue. Turnover was speedy though so it was less than a 10min wait.  I even got a portion of fried dough like the locals here to soak up the savoury broth (c.45k + 5k dong).

Unfortunately this one didn’t hit the spot for me. Though it was still a strong soup base with smooth pho and tender beef tendon and brisket, I felt the one at Pho Le in Saigon was better…

I also picked up a sticky rice at Xoi Yen at 35 Nguyen Huu Street for the train, the pho wasn’t that substantial and I didn’t like mixing fried dough with it. The portion was very hearty, topped with gio lua, marinated egg, pork floss, shredded chicken, minced pork, chinese sausage, and the highlight of it all, mung bean puree (50k dong). It was like a massive deconstructed rice dumpling. I’m a sucker for sticky rice and it was delicious. Couldn’t stomach the whole box but I really wanted to.

I went with Fansipan Express for the overnight train. It didn’t really matter as all the companies were just the same train in different coaches. The ticket office was just behind the train station, offered free wifi while we waited to board the train.

The train journey was very comfortable, standard 4 beds per cabin with strong air-con. I slept for at least 6 hours in the 9-hour train ride. 

Arrived at Lao Cai just before 6am. Past the hordes of minibuses and taxis to the far end of the carpark was the public minibus to Sapa which ran at 30mins interval, starting as early as 5am. The ride took just over an hour. As we started to climb the mountains, it was a gob-smacking sight during sun rise, when it rose above a dense layer of fog among the undulating slopes, which peaked just above the fog sea. It was a shame I was so mesmerised by the view I forgot to snap a shot… Stick to the left hand side of the bus on the way to Sapa. 

I slurped a good breakfast pho before signing up to a 1-day trek tour in Sapa (300k dong). Most people stay more than 1 day in Sapa, to venture to further villages and perhaps homestays with one of the tribes. It’s one of the things I wasn’t sure about. All the ethnic minority groups in the region are dependent on tourism as their main source income, so the homestays have mutated to cater for tourists. This means the accommodation would be fairly comfortable, at the expense of the authenticity. On the other hand, if it was a truly rustic experience, as an ultimate mosquito magnet, am I prepared to trek for 7+ hours the following day after an uncomfortable sleep in a relatively wet region, for relatively repetitive scenery? My mind was set on doing 1 day in Sapa.

It was a very laid back trek around the fields, only made difficult by the scorching sun. We stopped at Lao Chai village for lunch. The cold water in the river was clear and incredibly refreshing for a quick dip… We carried on to Ta Phin village after lunch, from there a minibus drove us back to Sapa.

The trek finished around 4pm and I was offered to shower at the tour office before catching the 6pm bus back to Lao Cai for my 8:15pm train. Even had time for a drink with my new friend:)

Back to Hanoi at 4:30am. I headed to the West Lake to catch the sun rise and wandered around the French district before the city heats up.

Then I headed back to Old Quarter for a bun rieu cua at 11 Hang Bac Street. It was literally  a hole in wall. The tomato based soup was infused with freshwater crab, which gave the soup a beautiful sweetness. The rice vermicelli was loaded with a small lump of crabmeat, fried tofu and plenty of herbs on the side. It was a great start of the day, followed by a drip coffee in City View cafe that overlooks the lake.

Then I had a mid-morning snack of banh cuon at 14 Hang Ga Street. It was a thin steamed rice flour pancake, like cheung fun in Chinese cuisine, filled with minced worked and preserved vegetable, served with a fish sauce based broth for dipping and a handful of fresh herbs and deep fried shallots. The wafer thin pancake was incredibly smooth and went gorgeously with the broth. Gorgeous.

Then it was a blissful hour at SF Spa for a hot shower and a full body Vietnamese traditional massage. 

Before heading to the airport, I had another bun cha and nem in Ngon Gach. The hem here is definitely crispier with fluffier rice paper wrapping, but much greasier. The pork was less well barbecued as it had more burnt bits too. It was good, but not as good as the other place. I didn’t finish everything. Instead I picked up a banh mi at Banh Mi 25 down the road. The owner was lovely, the baguette, though served warm and crusty, wasn’t as good as the one from Saigon. 

I had a great time in North Vietnam, and I can understand why a lot of people prefer Hanoi to HCMC, there’s a certain European charm to it. I don’t think I have a preference, thought both ends of the country have lots of offer. I felt very lucky that I could break it into separate trips, I could imagine if I had to travel along the country, it could be very exhausting to cover as much. I might start looking into Da Nang or Haphong next:)

Monday, 3 August 2015

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

I am late to Vietnam. Should have came here 10 years ago, just somehow kept pushing it back when I was London-based. Now I’m only a short flight away, I am splitting the long country into extended weekend trips so I could save travel time. The first part is Ho Chi Minh City, apparently it's still more commonly referred to as Saigon. General consensus was that South Vietnam is not as exciting as the North, good place to start then.

HCMC is the largest city in the country, and I am not a city girl. So I only planned one day in the city with the foodie tour to cover key areas, then one day in Can Tho plus one day to the Cu Chi Tunnels.

We took bus 152 outside Burger King at the airport to the city centre, about 30mins at 5,000 dong pax (+5,000 for luggage - loose term considering Papa Chan only had a rucksack). We were staying at EdenStar hotel and the bus stopped c.50m from it. Since I wanted to catch the bus to Can Tho on day 1 in the afternoon, we strolled around district 1 in Saigon in the morning, leisurely hitting the main sights of Reunification Palace, Notre Dame, the central post office before circling back to the Ben Thanh Market via War Remnants Museum. 

For lunch, we made our first pho stop at Pho Le on Vo Van Tan.

(At this point I didn’t know ‘pho’ was a North Vietnam thing)
Papa Chan was loving the mountain of beansprouts and fresh herbs on the table. I went for rare beef slices, brisket and tendons; Papa Chan added beef balls as extra. The broth was epic, though on the greasy side, it was packed with beefy goodness. We decided this was the best pho we had on this trip.

Then we made our way to Thanh Buoi bus office on Le Hong Phong street in District 10, which had a shuttle bus that took us to Ben Xe Mien Tay in the west of HCMC (115,000 dong per pax). A very comfortable 3hr ride plus a 10min break. The bus stops on the outskirt of Can Tho city. We could have taken the shuttle bus that took us to the hotel, but we were drawn to the line of food stalls and after sitting for 3 hours, we were up for a stroll.

On our way into the city centre, we passed this hole-in-wall noodle stall with lots of locals. It wasn’t pho as the noodles were thin, but the texture was smoother and bouncier than vermicelli. The broth was clear with a thin layer of grease, it had much depth and flavour; the ruby hue came from tomato, not chillies.

By the time we finished strolling along the pier, it was getting late. We made our way to the hotpot valley near the university area, but stalls were already packing up. Instead we sampled the street food carts lined along the river. This Banh Trang was delicious. The dried rice paper was roasted to ultra crispiness over coal, topped with mince, herbs, spring onion, chilli sauce and mayo, folded together like a thin calzone. We also tried some glutinous rice with bits and bobs and some skewers.

The next morning was an early start. The Cai Rang floating market starts at dawn and wraps up around 10am. We walked to the pier around 6am and rent a small boat at 300,000 dong.

The boat owner also took us to a rice noodle factory where we were shown how the noodles were hand-made. I have no idea what these are called, the transparent noodles were thinner than pho, much more chewy with a playful mouthfeel and even smoother. We decided these were the best type of noodles out of the 4 we had. The lean slices of pork weren’t as good as beef, but the broth was crystal clear. We couldn’t work out where the all the meaty flavours were coming from! I could have this breakfast everyday…

After the 3-hr tour, we returned to the hotel for 2nd round of breakfast before heading back to HCMC. We had a quick bun bo hue with added gio lua, a type of wrapped sausage meat. Compared to the other types of rice noodles, this was relatively dull.

Dinner was taken care of by the Foodie Tour with Saigon on Bikes. Absolutely brilliant.

On our last day, we took a day trip to Cu Chi Tunnels. I wanted to go to Ben Duoc as opposed to Ben Dinh, where most organised tours visit. I heard Ben Dinh was never part of the 280km underground tunnel network. It was later developed with wider tunnels to cater for western tourists.

It wasn’t that difficult to get to Ben Duoc by public transport. It helped that I was starting to decipher Vietnamese, so the squiggles on buses were no longer alien to me. It didn’t help that it was pouring down - I mean torrential rain all morning. Took Bus 13 from Pham Ngu Lao 23/9 park, all the way to Cu Chi Bus terminal, approx 90mins 6000 dong. From there switched to bus 79 for another 45mins 5000 dong and we were at the park entrance for Ben Duoc. Ta-da!

A tour guide was included in the 90,000 dong entrance fee. He explained how the tunnels worked and guided us through different sections of the tunnel. The entrances to the tunnels were well disguised and minuscule. Papa Chan panicked slightly after a while as the air got a bit thin underground, and the odd bat didn’t help. He loved the experience though:) 

Before leaving for the airport, we stopped at the much reviewed Pho Thanh Canh near the backpacker street for their Pho Bo. Seriously overrated - mediocre broth, gristly lean beef, small serving of noodles and stingy herbs / beansprouts, not to mention inflated prices. 

Not wanting to leave Saigon with a sour taste in my mouth, I headed to Huynh Hoa for a Banh Mi. And you know it’s good stuff when the place is surrounded by locals plus rings of scooters getting dangerously close to queue.  

I wish I could tell you everything that was packed into the baguette… but first the lady was operating at the speed of light, I mean she was churning out over 30 banh mi per minute - I timed her. Secondly the sandwich was stuffed with A LOT of things - a few types of meat, a few pickles, some vegetable, definitely identified some cucumber and carrots, pork floss, maybe some beancurd skin.. I don’t know. All that mattered was: it was freaking delicious.

Though most people found Saigon less exciting than the North; I really enjoyed my 3 days here. Well, technically I didn’t spend that much time in the city. Perhaps I had relatively low expectations. Hanoi and Sapa in a couple of weeks - we’ll see.