Saturday, 23 July 2016

From deep fried rice spring rolls to Khmer Curry - Viet Nam & Cambodia 2016

There’s always a sense of accomplishment when I tick a new destination off of my travel list. I felt an even greater sense of achievement with Vietnam as not only had I unintentionally bypassed this South East Asian gem for some years but also because it was number 50 on my tick sheet. 
Overnight cruise on Ha Long bay
When I told my mum I was going to Viet Nam, her first words were ‘it used to be a war zone.’ And it seems as though that’s the first thing that springs to mind for many people. But Viet Nam is so much more than ’that place that had the war.’ There are so many things to fall in love with about this country. Here are few:
Traffic on pavement -enjoying is phone call
Crossing the streets.  By far the most dangerous thing I attempted on this trip was crossing the street. There are millions of motorbikes as the cost of cars is prohibitive, except for the rich. Here’s what I learnt about crossing the road successfully. First say a prayer (very important). Close your eyes (optional :). Walk slowly, very slowly. The traffic WILL NOT stop but drivers will try to anticipate your next move and weave around you. Whatever you do, do not run or make any quick movements or chances are, you'll end up like a splattered bug on someone's windscreen. You're not safe on the pavement either as they will often mount the sidewalk to bypass a traffic jam or to avoid driving the wrong way down a one way street. Gotta love Asia! I thought I had seen madness on the roads in Ha Noi but, in comparison, Sai Gon was mayhem on steroids. Quadruple the number of non stopping motorbikes. I was also amazed at how much locals could transport on these bikes. I’m talking about stacks of boxes, elongated pieces of timber and even a guy riding with one hand carrying a ladder in the other. Viet Nam has now surpassed China in the contest for the craziest roads I’ve ever crossed.
Didn't mind working with this backdrop

Early morning Tai Ci class
Ha Long Bay. This entire trip to Viet Nam was based around my long term desire to do an overnight cruise on Ha Long bay and it exceeded my expectations. Bhaya was a lovely boat. Nice cabin, good food and great service. Everything ran efficiently and smoothly which I was thankful for because up until setting sail there was the possibility that the cruise could have been cancelled due to a pending storm. The itinerary was turned around slightly to accommodate the weather (further out on the bay as I didn’t witness the storm conditions). More than 1,500 islands rise out out the turquoise bay in this UNESCO World Heritage site. We sailed past the majestic rock formations, through quaint fishing villages. The first stop was to explore Surprise Cave. For me the surprise turned out to be seeing 2 running, barking dogs.  (I had begun to relax on the dog front as I’d rarely seen one on this trip nothing unlike the endless packs of them I encountered throughout Thailand). I thoroughly enjoyed the cooking lesson and learned instantly why my spring rolls, wraps etc fall open so easily. The four course meal that evening was a delight, but nothing compared to the tantalising flavours that exploded on my taste buds from brunch the next day. I was a little groggy eyed as I awoke for the 6.15 am Tai Chi class on the top deck amid the quiet, yet breath taking beauty of the bay but it was a wonderful experience from start to end and one not to be missed. 

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Cyclos. The second most dangerous adventure in Viet Nam, was taking a cyclo ride. The ‘driver’ weaved in and out of traffic fearlessly and I was amazed at how fast he could peddle with our body weight up front - and added to the fact that he only had one arm. My heart stopped beating a couple of times as buses came a little too close or we veered out directly in front of a car going in the opposite direction. Still, I would highly recommend a ride for anyone visiting either city.

Food. Oh those deep fried spring rolls! Words can’t do them justice so just go try them for yourself. I purchased a 50 pack of rice paper to attempt making my own. I had put off sampling street food due to concerns about unsanitary preparations. I made the same mistake in Thailand a few years ago paying over the odds in fancy restaurants because everything looked sanitised. But one night braved a pad thai at the night market as it smelt amazing. 75 pence for the most amazing pad thai I had tasted to that date or ever sense. The food being sold on the street in both Ha Noi and Sai Gon looked even less hygienic. But on my last night, I discovered this gem; the   newly opened ‘clean’ Ben Thanh street food market. I gorged myself on spring rolls, pork kebabs and a stir fry. Then washed it all down with the cane juice I’d wanted to try since my first day but not trusting the grubby looking machines pressing the juice.

Water puppets. Water puppet shows are a Vietniemese tradition dating back to the 11th century. Despite the language barrier I found the show I watched at the Thalong Water Puppet Theatre highly entertaining. I marvelled at the skill involved with controlling the puppets under water. 
Relaxing foot massage 

Cheap (but good) massages. On the day I arrived, I booked a massage at the hotel for later that evening but as I was leaving the receptionist handed me a brochure of Vi Spa telling me they were very good. They ranked up there on Tripadvsior so for £9 I thought ‘why not’ as it would kill time waiting for the puppet show to commence. It was a small mission locating the spa as the street map wasn’t the most comprehensive and didn’t list some of the smaller side road. I wasn’t expecting too much for nine quid but emerged an hour later with a pair of feet completely revived from the twelve hour flight. My masseur was intrigued by my afro hair. She tapped it delicately and cooed ‘ouuu, nice, soft, soft.’ Prompting other masseurs to leave their stations and follow suit.

Church. If you’ve read my previous blogs you’ll note I love attending Sunday church service in foreign countries. I had contacted Hanoi International Fellowship a few days before travel to enquire about their service and a lovely lady called Marian informed me that the manager of the hotel I was staying at attended the same church. I spoke the manager on arrival and he said we could catch a lift with him and his wife the next day. Both George and his wife Christina were very lovely. But the God-incidence gets better; not only was it their last Sunday as they were leaving to return to Malaysia but there was also a baptism immediately after service in the hotel pool. Close to 20 people from around the world - Japan, Venezuela, Nigeria (to name a few) - were baptised. 
Haggling. I look forward to markets in Asia and Middle East to get a good ole haggle on. I always enjoy a good haggle towards the start of the holiday but by the end I’ve usually had enough so I just state the price I’m willing to pay and they decide if they’ll accept or not…but lets just say I always walk away with the goods. One thing I did note on this holiday though was that the quality of some market goods seemed to be deteriorating. 

But it wasn’t all fun and adventure. Taking in the history of this amazing country can be hard going and there were a few solemn, even tearful moments. I used a guide and driver for the main sites. It was a lot more expensive than going it aloe but it saved time and saved me from the fierce sun. Hom took us to the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, Sai Gon Post Office and to Ben Thanh Market where I got my haggle on and came away with a topless hat (that I’d seen another tourist with on the cruise and wanted) and a handbag. When we got to the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as Museum of American War Crimes he told us that none of the guides actually go into the museum. And it was clear to see why. The barbaric and horrific images taken during the Viet Nam war were enough to reduce me to tears. I won’t say anymore on this but click the link if you’d like more info.
I did less of the historical stuff in Ha Noi which is the capital city but in reality Saigon felt a lot more like the capital. I did, however, have to pay a visit to Uncle Ho as it’s not everyday you get to see someone who’s been dead since 1969 . I had read about the length of the queue but still couldn’t believe the number of people who would want to see a corpse. This much loved hero was much better presented than the last mummified corpse I had seen; Luang Pho Daeng the Thai Buddhist monk who died while meditating in 1973 and is on show in a glass case in Ko Samui . Uncle Ho’s body is displayed in a glass coffin, protected by 4 military guards. 

The Mekong Delta that flows through the southern part of Viet Nam is a network of rivers, swamps and small island. It houses several floating markets, Cae Be being the one I visited on my day cruise. The villages are surrounded by rice paddies. The cruise made a few stops at markets and villages where we got to see village people trading, hear traditional Vietnameise folk music and watch rice candy being made. In Binh Hoa Phuoc, I skipped lunch (as I couldn’t quite make out what was on my plate) and instead braved the few dogs I saw and went for a bike ride to explore the village. You cannot fully say you’ve experienced Viet Nam if you don’t hop on a bike at some point. I saw a floating petrol station which was a first, and a dead dog being carried along by the tide.

So that was Vietnam. Pretty easy to get to. The direct flight on Vietnam Airlines landed just after 8am. Thankfully as I was here for less than 15 days I didn’t need a visa and clearing customs was quick and pain free. The same couldn’t be said for baggage arrival however, where a snail like conveyor belt produced a bag every six minutes - or so it seemed. I had prearranged all our transfers so after exchanging some sterling for Dong at the airport (at a much better rate than back home) I was away. Pre-booking transfers and guides for some of the tours as I did is a more expensive way of traveling but it makes life a little easier once there. I was very blessed with the weather. I went at the start of the wet season but thankfully only experienced rain once. The heavens had opened up and released a downpour. The nearby shop owners had seized the opportunity and rushed out selling ponchos and umbrellas. I had my umbrella with me as I had brought it to protect me form the sun, but had forgotten my poncho at the hotel. The torrential shower hadn’t lasted long though and soon quietened to a drizzle.

It was time to leave Viet Nam, a country I had always desired to visit, and head to Cambodia which I had no particular desire to go but but wanted to see Angkor Wat so had no choice. 

p.s You incase you’re wondering why I’ve been using Viet Nam instead of Vietnam ….’Viet Nam” was once common usage and is still used by the United Nations and by the Vietnamese government. 

Ha Noi is the capital city but in fact, Sai Gon feels a lot more like the capital.


My first impression of Siem Reap was, ‘I’m going to hate this place. I’m sorry I came. I should have spent an additional week in Vietnam’ What gave me that impression? The beating heat was far more intense than Viet Nam and the country seemed over run with bugs. A huge convoy if mosquitos greeted me as I stood at arrivals filling in my visa application. The streets seemed over run with roaches (and the odd rat), I skipped several meals as the swarm of flies in some restaurants churned my stomach (and I’m talking proper restaurants) and garbage blocked side walks. By the time I left Phnom Penh six days later I thought ‘I may very well return to Cambodia, someday if only for a plate of Khmer curry.’ But there’s a lot more to Cambodia than just their amazing curry (which is a close contender to Massaman curry as my favourite).  What had changed my mind?

Monk taking selfie @ Ankgor Wat
People were warm, welcoming and friendly. Despite recent atrocities there is a strong sense of pride in their heritage. We heard again and again and even saw with our own eyes that people wanted opportunities to better themselves. I met one tuk tuk driver and a guy selling fried chicken from a decent looking stall (a franchise called CP chicken) who had both previously worked at hotels and then left to set up their prospectives businesses. The sense of pride was moving. To most in the Western world driving a tuk tuk or selling chicken at the side of the street isn’t something to aspire to but these guys had risen from extreme poverty to be business owners. From tuk tuk drivers, to street vendors, to tiny restaurant owners I got the sense that this was a proud people who were industrious and like everyone else just wanted the opportunity, to make life better for themselves and their families. 
At every turn I was greeted with genuine smiles and an inquisitiveness of where I was from. "I have been doing this job for more than ten years and I have never seen people with your skin from London!" Exclaimed the tour guide in Siem Reap. "I thought you were from South Africa or America."  This was the perfect opportunity for me to educate him about the changing face of the UK.  By the end of the day not only had I learned a lot about Cambodia but he thanked me for the insight I gave him. 
My standard reply to the question ‘where are you from’ was, I’m from England but my parents were born in Barbados. No one, absolutely no one, had heard of Barbados. I said ‘Caribbean’. No one had heard of that either. I said ‘Jamaica’. Blank faces all around. I said ‘Cuba’ and finally  - a country they knew so I explained it was about 3 hours away from Cuba by plane. But then something almost miraculous and as random as could be happened. I was at a cinema in Phnom Penh waiting for the electricity to come back on to watch The Killing Fields (the street it was on had experienced a power outage from the day before). I got a little bored sitting still so popped out to examine the surrounding street. Low and behold I saw a huge sign saying Tiger Barbados. I was in shock! Someone had heard of the island? I went closer, it read Cambodia Barbados (Both Tiger & Cambodia being brands of beer). Anyway long story short, Jan (not her real name but she said she uses it as it’s easy for her customers to remember), had been looking for a name for her bar when it opened 11 years ago. She saw a lady with a lovely tattoo on her ankle and asked where she had got it. lady said when she went to Barbados and described the island.  Jan said, Barbados is a very beautiful name and it sounds like a beautiful country, that’s what I’ll call my bar. They didn’t serve Banks but hey, someone in this country had finally heard of the gem of the Caribbean.

I had the preconceived idea that I would struggle with food in Cambodia. Once I’d found some fly free eateries and dared to put anything outside the hotel in my mouth, to my surprise, I enjoyed it more than Viet Nam’s cuisine. And it’s all down to that Khmer curry, an aromatic curry with a coconut milk base. They also have another local dish called Amok and I took a cooking class on my last day to learn how to make it. The class was a great idea and it commenced with a trip to the local market, Boeung Keng Kang, to look at the produce we’d be using. I took the opportunity to purchase a bottle of fish sauce at a snippet of what I pay at home and some fish paste.   Never before in my life have I cooked with fresh turmeric (and I try to buy fresh ingredients where possible). It had never even crossed my mind but I goggled and found Sainsbury do it for £1.50 per 100g so may have to add to my shopping list. I found myself chopping lemongrass for 12 solid minutes to get it as fine as I needed it - as opposed to just sticking it in the food processor for 10 seconds. And my arms got a good work out on the pestle and mortar; grinding and crushing the paste. Four hours after the class had commenced, I sat down to tuck into my 3 course meal.
But be warned. Not everything is a culinary delight. I was duped by a nut seller along the river front promenade. I saw a large stack of nuts that looked just liked the ones they sell in the Caribbean. I parted with my 50 cents and cracked open a peanut it anticipation - and almost spat it out! I couldn’t understand why my roasted peanut was so soft and mushy. And it wasn’t a bad nut cause I tried several others and they were the same. I was baffled until I asked the waitress at a restaurant and she explained they were boiled. My advise? Stay clear of boiled peanuts! The Cambodian breakfast porridge didn’t quite taste as off putting as it first looked…but I’ll stick to Quaker.
I thought the War Museum in Viet Nam had cast a somber mood on the holiday but nothing could prepare me for the sheer savagery I’d learn of and the perturbation I’d feel about the history of this country. The full day city tour of Phnom Penh started with a tour of the Silver Pagoda, the Royal Palace, National Museum of Khmer Arts, Royal Pavilion, the busy Central Market, and Wat Phnom where I learned how the capital Phnom Penh received its name.
 Then came the visit to Toul Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes and Cheung Ek Killing Fields. I learned what had happened there and saw the photos of the victims, followed later by the remains of their skulls. But as I saw an image of a grown man holding a baby by its legs and swinging it so its head bashed against a tree it was too much. My stomach wrenched, my anger boiled and my eyes flooded with tears. I had seen enough. Before leaving I had the privilege of meeting Chum Mey, one of only 7 known survivors of the Khmer Rouge S-21 Tuol Sleng camp. As harrowing as this experience was it is definitely a must do to learn of the horrors that took place here under the Khmer Rouge.
It was the second time on this holiday, I found myself in tears; it was time to lay off SEA history. 
The more I travel, the more I learn about history (and see present day effects) is the more I am horrified & sickened by the atrocities of man :’(
So I had ticked countries 50 and 51 off of my world travel sheet. There are no direct flights form UK to Cambodia but was easy enough to get to from Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City. It was a 45 minute plane ride into Seim Reap. The visa on arrival cost $30 and was a simple process as I had brought.

I saw a lot, I tested a lot, I learned a lot. I ended my holiday the way I started it, with a relaxing foot massage - and a quick pedicure.

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