Thursday, 2 July 2015

Hai Van Pass - Hue to Hoi An

The entrance to the Old City
              A city bleeding its history of grief and turmoil, one really can feel the pain emanating from the walls of the Imperial city of Hue. I’ve read accounts of people saying they felt or had haunted dreams. As Anthony Bourdain said, “Hue is, in many ways, a city of ghosts, of memories and spirits.” Not that I’m a superstitious one myself, the past really can be felt here. My first time through Hue was brief. So brief, once I returned I decided I had never actually been here before. This time I slowed my pace dramatically. Casually walking around the Imperial City, the Dong Ba market, actually entering the Citadel, rode scooters to the surrounding tombs. A visit to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is only a couple hours away with tunnels to explore. An experience I regret not making the time for. Many I have talked to, myself included at first don’t feel Hue has much to offer. They pass through in a day, maybe two. There’s so much to see here behind the quiet shroud of a resilient past.

Bun Bo Hue
              As everywhere in Vietnam, there is the provinces specialties that can never be missed, and this time I didn’t want to pass them by. Only a small breakfast at the Dong Ba market of Banh Canh Cua, a tapioca noodle soup with crab and quail eggs, followed by a 3 hour exploration of the citadel slowly pacing along I was ready for another feed. Into the old city, out for a wander until I found something street side, and I was not disappointed. Something good usually comes out of wandering with only an idea of a destination. Banh Trang Nuong is what I found. The best way to describe it would be a Vietnamese pizza. A rice paper with pate, chili paste, herbs, fried shallots and egg poured over top as the food glue. It was then grilled over charcoal and cut into wedges, a perfect light snack. Later in the week I took a cooking class of Hue’s more known dishes. Banh Beo, a rice flour steam cake. Banh Khoai, a crispy Hue style pancake, thicker than the Banh Xeo of Hoi An.
              On my final morning before hitting the road I went in search of my last Bun Bo Hue. In five days I’ve had four bowls of this and been slightly disappointed, but this bowl changed everything. As I approached, she was hunched over her cauldron dishing out the one thing she serves. I sit down, get the initial stares followed by smiles and order a bowl. Sliced beef, light dumpling like beef balls, and what every other bowl has been missing. A large cube of blood curd. I kept wondering if they were holding out on the foreigner, assuming I wouldn’t appreciate it. I just wanted some blood. All this though over a pile of ‘bun’ noodles with a plate of shredded banana flower, beansprouts and herbs on the side. Satisfied, both with my Bun Bo Hue and giving this dreary city the time it deserved, I was southbound towards the Hai Van Pass with Hue at my back.

              This was the first time I set out alone on a motorbike. The feeling of freedom rushes in, the same feeling I had leaving Pakse onto the Bolaven Plateau. Once the construction thinned and miles away from the city limits, my attention couldn’t help but be drawn from the road. Growing hills on my right, a fishing village on my left. I mainly had to watch out for buses, they don’t stop for anything or one, and fair enough, they’re bigger. I began to rise in the mountains, the views becoming nothing short of amazing, simply unforgettable. Winding around the sides of mountains, climbing in the alpine trees with the Pacific Ocean opening up on my left. A sight that was burned into my mind on my previous trip, even when I couldn’t properly appreciate it behind the window of a bus. I pulled over a handful of times to snack on tamarind and gape out at the vista before me.

              The pinnacle neared, the once was American bunker at the top of the Hai Van Pass lay in ruins overlooking the land. Stopping off for some rocket fuel, Vietnamese coffee, of course I had to climb among the old walls like a child. From this point on it was downhill into Danang, the only section of city I had to navigate through. Weaving down, I was sent on a bit of a joy ride by some construction in the city, inevitably getting lost. Usually detours take you back to the original road, but not the case here. I found myself in the middle of traffic which is less intimidating than it looks. Just flow with the mob of bikes like water down a stream. Long after accepting I was lost, just enjoying the cruise, I thought it wise to find my way back to highway before the sun set. Eventually locating myself after an extensive examination of the map, I was en route to Hoi An.

              The remainder of the drive was straight through flat countryside, then almost only blinking the dull yellow buildings of Hoi An were all around me. I’ve been awaiting this moment for some time since my last departure. The contrast of such a relaxed town where one can walk the river and enjoy a coffee with the hustle of the hundreds of tailors and vendors.
Bale Well
            I saw it on the way in to my hostel, a restaurant on my mind since I arrived back in Vietnam. Down a quiet side street, Bale Well sits on a corner always with the buzz of conversation. For 110,000 ($5.50), enough to fill a table for two comes to me. A plate of pork skewers, spring rolls, pickled vegetables, herbs and greens, peanut sauce and chili sauce get delivered one after the other. Lastly and the star of the table, Banh Xeo. A crispy, thin rice flour pancake with shrimp and beansprouts. This is one of my favorite meals in Hoi An. If roaming the market as I do, there is about a dozen stalls serving up Mi Quang and the areas well known Cao Lau. Essentially both are noodle salads, but don’t let that deceive you, there known for a reason. Hands down though, my number one eat in Hoi An is from the now known as Banh Mi Queen. My absolute favorite sandwich in the world thus far. I found her on my first visit here in a small corner just off from the market, and later found out Anthony Bourdain also visited this spot on No Reservations. I was stunned when I searched out the shop and found it missing. I heard of this Banh Mi Queen but my loyalty held true… for a day. I wanted a Banh Mi. I strolled by the location I was given and sure enough, there she was. Been crowned queen and upgraded to a store front with tables inside. I’m unsure of all the ingredients on this thing of beauty, I just say everything. Some mysteries are better left unsolved.
The best sandwich in the world
              While here, I generally avoid the tailors as best as possible, stroll the streets, lounge in cafes, eat lots and recharge. I’m definitely not a suit guy but I figured this time, what the hell. I’m in the Eden of cheap tailors. I spent about seventy dollars getting a jacket and pants made in just over a day. If you’re going to do it, this is the place.
            Renting a motorcycle and traversing around have been highlights over the past year. Whether India, Thailand, Laos and now Vietnam, the experience is priceless. Next time I’ll be on two wheels for the length of this beautiful country, but this is definitely the only way over the Hai Van Pass.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

A Valley Unknown - Mai Chau

Thang Co, for those interested
Only a few hours southeast of Hanoi, over the mountains lies a valley of green pastures, a quaint farming village and a local ethnic feel unlike many other places I’ve travelled. As much as I have a love for Hanoi, I wanted to get away for a couple days. I had already been to the majestic Halong Bay, the rice paddy covered mountains of Sapa, the most northern market in Lao Cai (if you are to ever go try the Thang Co, a dish made from horse stomach and other good bits, a true local delicacy), and by no means should any of these be missed. This time I was looking for a place I had never heard of. A place off the beaten track as much as possible, which isn’t always the easiest thing to find. Mai Chau was it. Only recently being discovered by tourists, few had or made the time to go. I bought my ticket and was on the minibus the next morning to a homestay.

              As it was winter in Hanoi it was generally grey skies, a little dreary with a chill in the air. Rising in elevation, climbing up the side of the separating mountains we drove into a fog so dense I could hardly see the edge of the road. Somehow protected from the more harsh weather on the coastal side, as soon as we reached the top and crossed over the fog cleared almost instantaneously. The sky was blue for the first time in days lighting the valley below. The sight was captivating looking out over it all. An oasis defended by the surrounding mountains.
View of the valley

              Arriving in my homestay, a large room in a stilt house with multiple beds and the eating area below. I claimed a bed, opened the windows and was lost in amazement just by the view I stared out at. A much needed lunch was prepared family style. A soup, stir fried vegetables, salad, grilled meat, fish and rice. More than one could ask for, I was gracious for the hospitality. Every meal consisted of similar spreads, but the dishes themselves would vary.

The fields of Mai Chau
              Jumping on a bicycle for the first time in a while, it was the best way to explore the valley. Peddling along the paths in between the fields while people were tending to their winter crops: cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi. Some were preparing the fields for the coming season for planting rice. Such a communal feel as everybody worked side by side. There was fish farms to help sustain the village as well. Skimming around the outskirts of the valley beside thick bamboo forests, they creaked in the wind reminding me of the noise in 90’s horror films as they are creeping through the cottage in the woods.
View from 1000 step cave
              I was brought to one of the oldest houses in the village by a local who explained the intricacies of building a bamboo house. Traditionally on stilts as livestock were kept underneath. There was only two rooms, one for sleeping and entertaining, the other a kitchen. The bamboo itself had a unique method of been treated. Being cut in winter at its strongest, it is then submerged in water for 6-12 months to kill off any worms that may be living there. After this it is then set over fire to be smoked strengthening, drying and protecting it from bugs. Once ready the whole village gathers and builds it as a community.
Local market
              After I was taken to the local market, not very different from any I’d seen before. Fresh local produce, the sweet smell of earth and herbs in the air. Moving on to the meat section is where I saw something for the first time. A whole dog being butchered not much different than when I had seen a lamb done. I know most would cringe, cry, feel nauseated or just move away with haste. I guess it was my chefs curiosity of food, but I stood and watched with excitement. Not every day I come across something I’ve never seen before.
              Mai Chau was exactly what I was looking for. A beautiful, peaceful quiet retreat for a couple days away from the cities and tourism. Not if but when I come back to Vietnam I’m sure I will be making another visit to the valley on the other side of the mountain, hoping it is just as stunning as this time.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Street Food of Hanoi

             Hanoi is one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia. A place I could see myself settle for a period of time. Not forever I’m sure, but until whatever is in my blood decides to tell me to move on. I have now been here twice, spending just under a month in total. This time only discovering the city some more for what it is for me. There was so much I missed my first time, as first times are never perfect. There are multiple reasons as to my love of Hanoi. It can be fast paced, but there is always a place to sneak away and escape the hustle and bustle. The people have always been accommodating. I feel comfortable here for some reason or another, but the tip of the iceberg is the FOOD.
Throughout the Old Quarter alone there is always a new restaurant down an alley, tucked away. Or a café you haven’t yet relaxed in and enjoyed a cup of delicious Vietnamese coffee. A random street stall that popped up and you missed every other night somehow. Vietnam in general is the one place I’ve spent an extended period of time in and never once had a craving for something else. I’m not sure if it’s the freshness and quality of ingredients, the variety of simple yet complex flavours that are hard to perfect, years of dedication to their craft. The fact that every place is slightly different, because this is true of all Asia, or at least where I have travelled. It must just be a genuine love of Vietnamese food.

Pho Bo
Pho Bo/Ga – The soup known worldwide, one of the most popular street foods in the country, Pho. When this is placed in front of me, it’s like seeing the white light at the end of the tunnel. As I walk towards it, seasoning up the broth to my liking and take a sip. I’m there, heaven does exist. Or at least my version of it where there is waterfalls of this. Rafts of noodles, the fish strips of beef. The grass smelling of herbs and bean sprouts for trees. Enough of the analogy, but a bowl of this is like a perfectly sounding orchestra in your mouth.
              A strong clear broth flavoured with onion, lemongrass, daikon, roasted ginger, star anise and cinnamon is the base. Warmed rice noodles of about fettucine width are placed in the bowl, with the different accompaniments. This can vary from the north to the south and serve them separate on a plate to add your desired amount. Beansprouts, green onions, thinly sliced white onion, Thai basil, sliced fresh chilies, lime wedges are quite common ones. Thinly shaved raw or cooked beef is placed on the noodles and hot broth poured over top. The aroma start filling your nostrils. This being Pho Bo, there are variations using tendon, tripe and meatballs. Then of course there is Pho Ga which is made with chicken opposed to beef. 

Bun Cha
Bun Cha – 1 Hang Manh, Hanoi – I discovered this my first day back for lunch. I don’t know how I missed this the first time, but I was kicking myself for it now. At least I found it early this time. Believed to have originated in Hanoi, it is less common throughout the rest of the country. A look at the dish and it doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to it. Simple flavours but the balance of those is not easy. A plate of cold ‘bun’ rice noodles different from Pho, these more like the shape of spaghetti and linguine along with a heap of Vietnamese herbs and greens (served with just about everything). Then comes the bowl of room temperature broth, sweet and sour based on vinegar, sugar and fish sauce. Floating in it are char grilled slices of pork belly, mini minced pork paddies and thinly sliced green papaya. A plate of sliced chilies, garlic and lime is never too far away to add at will. Some people would get another bowl and mix everything together bit by bit, while others would just dip the noodles and herbs in with the pork. Whatever works, just be sure to give it a try.

Note: The address above also serves crispy and succulent Nem Cua Be (crabmeat spring rolls).

Bun Thang
Bun Thang – This soup is similar to Pho Ga, same same, but different. It uses the rice noodle (bun) same as used in Bun Cha. Placed separately on the top an array of shredded chicken, pork roll, herbs/green onions, sliced omelette, mushrooms and a small dollop of shrimp paste. This gives the broth its unique flavour as it is mixed in. Not overpowering, but a touch of depth.
Bun Rieu
Bun Rieu – 11 Hang Bac, Hanoi – A nice change in the soup department instead of Pho all the time (not that it’s a bad thing). Using the ‘bun’ rice noodles this soup is with a crab and tomato broth with a touch of sourness, generally using tamarind or lime. The paddy crabs are used to make both the broth and the crab like cakes floating in the red orange liquid. Fried tofu and green onions thrown on top to add to its glory. Sure enough, before I could take a bite, the chili paste and fresh herbs that are always there were pushed my way. There is a couple variations of this dish. ‘Bun Oc’ is one of them to look out for done with snails opposed to crab.
Bun Bo Nam Bo
Bun Bo Nam Bo – 67 Hang Dieu, Hanoi – A beef noodle dish that happens to be one of my favorites. Translating to ‘beef noodles in the south,’ it may not have originated in the north, but is still abundant everywhere. Using the ‘bun’ rice noodles again, they were placed room temperature on top of the typical greens and herbs. Carrot, papaya, beansprouts, fried shallots and garlic set over the noodles, followed by cooked tender strips of beef. A warm beef jus vinaigrette is drizzled over top to pool slightly in the bottom and then let’s not forget the roasted peanuts. This dish would often be my appetizer before going to walk the streets for more, but the first time I had it, it turned into 2 bowls and my dinner.

Banh Mi
Banh Mi – Now in my own opinion this is the best sandwich in the world. I have other favorites, but this one trumps them all. A quality bread is essential in a sandwich. The baguette being introduced in the colonial period and tweaked a bit as most cultures do. Light and airy with a thinner but crispy crust. The fillings from there vary from shop to shop. Multiple parts of the glorious pig generally end up on it. Pork belly, grilled pork, Vietnamese sausage, pork liver pate and pork floss naming some. Variants to this could have chicken, egg and tofu. Then there is the fresh vegetables and sauces that bring it to life. Thinly sliced cucumber, greens/herbs, shredded pickled carrot and daikon, chili sauce, mayonnaise. Not one stand being the same, always on the go and rarely more than a dollar. Although my most favoured Banh Mi is not in Hanoi, but in Hoi An they can be found country wide.         

Xoi Xeo
Xoi Xeo – Restaurant called Xoi Yen, 35b Nguyen Huu Huan, Hanoi – Another of the dishes I missed my first time around and was blown away when I found it. It was a 3 or 4 storey restaurant on the corner. Outside on the main floor, production is happening like a fine tuned assembly line, loaded bowls flying out. The place is packed, mainly locals. Organized chaos as people are trying to run down with orders and up with food. Not knowing what to expect, I thought I’d start basic and build from there. I ordered the regular Xoi Xeo with chicken. I didn’t wait long and there it was. Sticky rice with turmeric to give it a pale yellow colour on the bottom. Next was a pastel yellow mung bean paste that had been pressed and shaved thinly over the rice. Sliced chicken and a spoonful of fried shallots to finish up one of the most seemingly simple dishes yet so intricate in flavour and textures. A while assortment of accompaniments can be chosen from. My second bowl had crispy pork belly and Chinese sausage.

Banh Goi
Banh Goi – a.k.a Pillow Cakes – A Vietnamese empanada, these are great for a mid-afternoon savoury snack. A light tender dough filled with seasoned minced pork mixed with glass noodles and mushrooms. A light sweet and sour dipping sauce with green papaya, garlic and chilies.
Nom Bo Kho
Nom Bo Kho – 23 Ho Hoan Kiem, Hanoi – A dried beef salad, this is a popular snack. A salad of crisp julienned green papaya, carrot and coarsely torn greens/herbs mixed with a dressing primarily of vinegar, sugar, chili, fish and soy sauce. The dried beef is cut into chucks on top with a spoonful of roasted peanuts. The textures in this salad play off each other. The crunch of peanuts, crispness of papaya, chewiness of the dried beef and the fresh delicate herbs. This salad gives the Thai and Laos som tam (papaya salad) a good run for its money.
Moving fruit vendors
Fruit vendors – As anywhere in any part of Asia I have travelled the fruit is abundant, fresh, diverse, local and seasonal. This is true of Hanoi as well. Markets and portable street vendors are set up all over the city. Some set up on street corners, some carrying it over their shoulder with bamboo and some with baskets on the back of their bikes. No matter where you are, you are never too far away from one of these vendors and their array of fruits, so stop one and try out what’s seasonal.

Egg coffee
Vietnamese Egg Coffee – In many of the cafés throughout Hanoi where it first originated, this unique coffee can be found. It is made by tempering the egg yolks with sugar and coffee. The coffee poured out is almost more of an egg foam. When I had my first one, it was so thick I ate it with a spoon. Liquid tiramisu. Condensed milk and apparently cheese can also be added to this concoction. It’s a must try, but personally prefer my regular Vietnamese coffee.

Balut - For those of you who don’t know, Balut is the fertilized developing duck embryo. Sounds appetizing, I know. It’s commonly sold as street food in the Philippines and south-east Asia. If munching down on some duck fetus isn’t your thing just think of it as a hard-boiled egg. The age at which it is boiled is a matter of local preference. How old do you like your fetus? I’ve read in the Philippines it’s around 15-17 days, and Vietnam 19-21, where the bones have started to develop but are still tender. Looks kind of like an alien egg or maybe a cancerous testicle, I can see why foreigners steer clear of it, but like they say about people the beauties on the inside. Depending on the country there is different condiments. With mine there was salt, ginger and Vietnamese mint. I’m unsure of the age of the one I ate, but no bones were present. It has a similar flavour to any other egg, but it’s much richer. The yolk is quite creamy. Just avoid looking at it in all its veiny delight and when you’re all done slurp back the juice that comes with it.

Snake skin and snake meatballs
Snake and Dog – Another couple for the not faint of heart. As much as people may not want to believe dog is eaten in parts of the world. I know many would and will stay clear of this and unfortunately I have not had the luck of trying this yet. I just suggest for the adventurous eater to search this out. I will be when I return again.

              The snake meal is an experience and one of the most unique meals I've had. I have done this a total of three times and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity each time. It starts with the eating of the beating heart followed by shots of blood and bile mixed with rice whiskey. Shortly after a spread of 6 to 12 dishes are brought out for everyone to share. I have previously written a post about my experience the second time I went to the snake village in Hanoi. Link at the bottom.

Worst meal
Worst meal – Now when I say worst meal, I don’t mean as I had more than one. This was truly the only dish I tried that I didn’t enjoy which caught me by surprise. A little street joint, typical signs of a good meal to come. Small stools, shorter than needed tables, too many people crammed in too small of place and full of locals. Weaselling our way to a seat I ordered fried noodles with greens and pigeon hearts and gizzards. I was excited having chicken offal before but never pigeon in particular. When the plate arrived it looked like a blob of below average instant noodles with greens and pigeon bits throughout. It tasted as such to and I ended up just picking out the pigeon and greens.

              Vietnam is a foodie’s paradise from north to south and should be on anyone’s list if you travel for food. All the food nowadays can be found more or less everywhere throughout the country varying from place to place. All the food originated somewhere and going there is always best. Just throw out your inhibitions of the foreign and exotic and start eating out the world.   

Link to post on snake meal -

Monday, 20 April 2015

Laos to Vietnam - An Unexpected 36 Hours

          Well there was always this dreaded bus I’d heard nothing but horror stories about after my first trip to Southeast Asia. Luang Prabang to Hanoi. Unfortunately I missed Laos my first time around, but was on my way through and that bus route was my way out. This route is known for a 24 hour ride where buses breaking down along the mountain roads is not uncommon. The road bumpy and winding through stunning landscape that is generally missed through the night even though sleep is barely permitted. It is one of those journeys that no one recommends, but always once it’s over it was worth the experience, subliminally telling you to do it. I had to see if it was as bad as everyone made it out to be, and in the end I think I had a worse, yet better experience.
Cluster of jars
               To begin with I was starting in Phonsavan, in the northeast of Laos. A place very undermined, known for the Plain of Jars. Shrouded in mystery, the significance and reasoning behind these clusters of stone jars is still unknown. Like the Stonehenge of the east, only theories exist. Also, similar to Stonehenge, the rock used to carve these was brought from miles away, presumably by elephants. Bones have been found in some leading people to believe they could have been burial urns. Remnants of rice and spices have been uncovered suggesting the potential for storage containers. This area was once on the ‘Silk Road’ for the spice trade. Many had lids to cover, although few remain on. More local legend than anything, a race of giants once walked the rugged landscape. The jars were used to brew their Lao Lao in large batches. Myth or not, this is what I choose to believe.
Relaxing in my throne

Note: Although thousands of UXOs (unexploded ordnance) have been cleared throughout the main Jar sites, one must still be careful going too far from the beaten track here. This area of Laos was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War and many still lay undiscovered.
              Back to the journey. I was also here to cut off about 7 – 8 hours of the journey it took to get from Laung Prabang to Phonsavan, thinking I was clever. In theory this would have worked well. The bus is supposed to pass through and pick me up around 1 am and I would be on route. 3 am comes along and sure enough I find out the bus has broken down on the way, not even making it a third of the way. Reliable. Strategically planning my remaining Kip, assuming I would be on my way out, I couldn’t afford a hotel for the night. An act of kindness from the hotel I booked my ticket through (I’m sure understanding my frustration), gave me a bed for the night.
Hoan Kiem Lake when I arrived
              I woke up early to try and figure out my options. I had two. Either wait around all day with no money for the potential no show bus again or take local transportation. About the same cost when all said and done, but the local will actually get me there I’m assured. Local it was and he brought me to the bus stop for 9 am. When I say bus, it’s not what most would think. It was a loud, beat up pick-up truck with an extended back carrying around 15 people at any given time along with whatever supplies they’ve bought to bring home. This time there was a new grill loaded up, bags of clothing, bulk groceries and the list goes on. Shoulder to shoulder, legs bent awkwardly, it was a 3 hour stop and go ride until we met another truck coming the other way. Here we had to switch trucks, so I helped unload and load up again, hoping the speed the process if only by a little. About 1 hour further down the road and we came to the border town, only to wait a further 2 hours. Just being told to wait, I finally realized we were waiting for a family to finish purchasing a coconut milk extracting machine. Lending a hand loading it up (not a light piece of equipment, but I want one), we were ready for the final stretch to the border itself. Halfway.
Tortoise Tower, Hoan Kiem Lake
              By the time I made it to the border the sun was setting. The most people we manage in the truck was 19, some hanging off the back. 3 locals were car sick, somehow not used to their own roads yet and I think everyone wondering what I was doing there. There was a line up at the border, so I made the 2 km walk through the border as it was getting dark. The opportunistic motorcycle taxi knew I had no option charging me double to get to the closest border town. His claim to the charge was that it was dark. Knowing that was a load of crap, he was right in one sense. I had no choice.
              Dropped at a hotel, I enquired about an ATM and a bus to Hanoi that night. Last bus was in 1 hour and there was no ATMs in town apparently. All I had remaining was the Kip that I was refunded in the morning for the bus that I didn’t get. Finally I convinced her that it truly was all I had. She got me a bus ticket and took me to a little shop to show me what I could afford for a snack with the remainder of my money. A snack would have to do, since I haven’t eaten all day and couldn’t get money until I reached Hanoi.
Hanoi street market
              It was now 7:30 pm. Exhausted, this was the first bus I think I have witnessed arriving early. I was so thankful I could sit down, fall asleep and wake up where I needed to be. This was the first bus I’ve also been on where you can smoke. I don’t mind the smoke necessarily, but the window they opened each time letting the almost freezing North Vietnamese winter air in was brutal. After a few shivering hours, I manage some shut eye. Not before long a lady was shaking me awake. Disoriented, knowing we can’t be there yet, but not really knowing where I was for the past many hours, I just followed the points. Staggering off the bus, she pointed to a random bus on the other side of the highway. With no reason to question, I’ll end up somewhere, I went to get on. Ushered to the back and only remaining seat, I climbed into the middle, two people on either side. Felt a little like a hotdog in a bun. Trying my best not to disturb anyone although I’m sure I did, I made myself comfortable and was back out.
First cup of Vietnamese coffee

              Not 100 percent sure how, but I woke up in Hanoi. It wasn’t the easiest way to get from Laos to Vietnam, but the most interesting way I can guarantee. Getting to see the local way of travel and life. How they go about shopping and the transportation of their goods. Shared fruits with them along the journey, and got to lend a helping hand where I could loading and unloading their belongings. I couldn’t check in for another 6 hours at this point, I thought I would walk the Old Quarter, happy to be back a second time. It was all so similar. Well first things first. I’m exhausted, but need a brief kick of caffeine. Not to mention my fix of strong Vietnamese coffee I’ve been longing for.


Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Take the Ride - Bolaven Plateau

As it always is, it’s sad to leave such a beautiful, relaxed and social place like Don Det of the 4000 islands was this time. The island slowly drifting out of sight as we made our way back to the mainland. The Bolaven Plateau awaited. Five days of cruising through rural Laos, my first sense of the freedom of a motorcycle on the barely trodden path as much as one really can in Southeast Asia.
              Wasting no time, as soon as we arrived in Pakse (the starting point), we made haste renting four bikes and heading out before sun down, hoping to make it to the first town. For 50,000 KIP or about 7 dollars a day we handed over our passport in exchange for the keys and packed our day bag. Fueled up on some sort of fuel resembling the colour of a magenta glow stick at a rave, then hit the highway. It was late afternoon by the time we were out of the city and it was a straight shot to Paksong, racing the sun.

Picking coffee
              Backtracking a little to see one of the many waterfalls dotted around the plateau, my trip was almost cut short. At 60 kilometers per hour a truck decides to pass me with an oncoming truck, as they do. Passing too closely the back of the truck nudged my elbow sending me into a wobble I’m surprised didn’t send me into the ditch. I thought I was going down to sample the road. After recovering from that scare we drove into one of the coffee plantations. This one Dao Heuang, 2.5 square kilometers of coffee plants, as far as you can see. I jumped in and picked some to help a lady fill her basket. One day someone will drink a cup of coffee picked by me.

              On our way to Sekong, we were hoping to see another couple waterfalls but somehow they eluded us all. Instead we stopped to play a bit of football with a group of local kids. It was confusing at first but we managed to join teams and kick the ball around for a bit. I realized that I’ve lost some skill I once had in the past 7 years along with the level of fitness. 30 minutes and I was knackered. Pulled into Sekong just after dark and the only thing left to do to cap off a great day was to eat, and I smelt dinner on the way into town. We drove by some street vendors and immediately I knew where I was eating. Grilled chicken, sausage and liver with sticky rice and papaya salad. For only 25000 KIP, around 3.5 dollars I had a feast I couldn’t finish.

Tad Soung
              The drive to Tad Lo, the most popular town on the loop was nothing short of spectacular. Rural Laos was captivating. There’s 2 main waterfalls here. Tad Lo and Tad Soung, a few kilometers out of town. In rainy season I’m sure it is a beautiful sight, but it was just a trickle of water over the edge. Being able to sit on the edge and gaze over the land treating it like a viewpoint was just as good. Stopping off at the market we bought some food for a picnic on top of Tad Lo. Bought some sticky rice, chicken lap and veggies, craving a fresh salad. The lady renting us the bungalow gave me a cutting board and some form of machete. Sliced up in a bowl with a squeeze of lime, works for me.

The makings of my salad
              We set off on the last leg of the loop for us, back to Pakse and sadly the return of the motorcycle. It was a direct route straight back with nothing but a coffee break. In a small village there is Mr.Vieng Organic Coffee. Just recently undertaking this new venture, he grows it himself, dries, shells and roast it all by hand in small batches. Something that is rarely done anymore. The roasting of a couple kilograms take 30-60 minutes of constant stirring alone.

Mr.Vieng roasting coffee
              Unfortunately Pakse is on the horizon and as they say, all good things must come to an end. Riding across the Bolaven Plateau was one of the best things I’ve done. The true sense of freedom bursting forth. This has inspired me and changed the way in which I would like to travel in the future. No reliance on bus tickets or trains, just yourself, your bike and a map. From city to city and everything in between. Put those two wheels between your legs and take the ride.

Watch my ride around the Bolaven Plateau on my YouTube page:


Monday, 26 January 2015

Checked into Circus School

Pai Circus School
             762 curves, bends at high speeds, sometimes hearing the squeals of the wheels as the minibus threatens to go up on two wheels. A bit of advice is to abstain from drinking the night before, I’m not one to get car, sea or flight sick but this ride hung over almost changed that. Not sure how though, like most of the bus rides throughout Asia I arrived in Pai. A small quaint town, a hippy haven surrounded by the mountains of northern Thailand. 

Stunning viewpoint
             Eager to get off the bus and avoid anything with wheels for a bit, I asked for some directions to walk up to where I had planned to stay. Either I was too stunned to follow simple directions (probably the case) or if I was just misguided, I ended up in the opposite direction to where I expected. Everything happens for a reason. Turns out the hostel was booked solid and I stumbled upon the Pai Circus School getting the last available bed. About forty bungalows and a few dorms, just about everything made from bamboo, the bunk beds, floor giving a feeling of sleeping outside. Protected only from rain, the cold at night crept in, this was my kind of place.
 A dozen or so people practicing poi or staff in the common area overlooking a view of the town and surrounding landscape caught my attention immediately. A view few if any other places had to offer. This was something I’ve always wanted the chance to learn with some basic instruction and what better place to do it. They taught a total of twelve different ‘circus acts’ from poi, devil sticks, hula hoop and more. For me it was all about the poi, staff and practicing my juggling and introducing juggling clubs to myself. For only six hundred Baht, about twenty dollars, you could have full access to their equipment, lessons every day and the chance to use fire once confident enough that you won’t burn yourself. It’s actually a lot safer than you would think with a few simple guidelines. 
Pai Canyon
Pai is one of those perfect towns to jump on a scooter for the first time if you’ve never had the guts to do so before. The town itself is not too busy, but most of the driving is done in the countryside, weaving through the mountains. Waterfalls are dotted around the area all accessible by either scooter and/or a short trek. Only a short ride out of town was the Pai Canyon, which is what struck my interest. A spectacular sunset view, and completely different from what I had expected. I guess though when I think of a canyon my mind goes directly to the Grand Canyon. Ultimately dangerous which always makes things more worth it, you can walk along the raised rock walls that have been carved out over time. Free of safety railings you must watch where you tread. A simple misstep could send you for a thirty meter fall, but the further explored the greater the rewards.
Teeth in the cave wall
Being a stop on the Mae Hong Son loop, many rent a bike from Chiang Mai. Pai being the first stop then continuing on to Mae Hong Son and so on. On quite a tight budget myself, I couldn’t afford to do this unfortunately. A common stop on the way sixty kilometers from Pai is the Tham Lod Cave, the biggest cave in Thailand. The drive alone is well worth it, cruising through rural Thailand at your own pace with some beautiful viewpoints along the way. Once at the cave, a local lady guided us through with a little lantern emanating the dimmest light. Pointing out different rock formations, some even resembling different animals, it was about a one hour hike with a bamboo raft back to the entrance.

Practicing staff
             Most of my time in Pai was spent relaxing, practicing poi, staff and juggling over the view around the Circus School until my ninth and final night. It was time, let’s light these things on fire! A quick dip in the liquid paraffin, hold it to the flame and then slip into a trance. The flames swirling around, just you and the fire. It feels as if you’re moving so quickly, the rest of the world temporarily frozen. Just moving with the music until the flames slowly fade and extinguish. Slipping out of the state of trance, focus comes back to the rest of the world. I have always loved playing with fire and now have a legitimate reason to continue to do so into my adult life. Nine days was more than I had planned here, but still not enough. I see why people remain forever, but unfortunately for me it was another 762 curves back down to Chiang Mai.    

Watch my first attempts spinning fire on my YouTube page.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Handful of Thai Recipes

Nam Jim Thale – Spicy Seafood Dipping Sauce

Nam Jim refers to dipping sauce in Thai, and there are many different ones, this one used primarily for seafood but is great with fresh rolls as well. Traditionally done with a mortar and pestle, it can easily be done in a blender. As with a lot of Thai dishes, there should be a balance between salt, spice, sour and sweet. 
Thai Eggplant
10 cl garlic, chopped
10 small green chilies, chopped
1-2 bunches coriander, chopped, the roots chopped as well
60ml fish sauce
60ml lime juice
1 tbsp palm sugar 
In a mortar and pestle pound the garlic, chilies and coriander roots to a paste. Add fish sauce, lime juice and palm sugar, mix until sugar is dissolved. Adjust to your tastes so it is balanced. 

Nam Prik Pow – Chili Jam

Chili jam is added to numerous Thai dishes such as salads and soups. Can be used in stir-fries or as a condiment. 
Chili Jam
100g garlic – peeled and roasted
100g shallots – peeled and roasted
15 big, red dried chilies – roasted and rough chopped
250ml oil
40g palm sugar
10g sugar
Pinch of salt
In a mortar and pestle, pound the chilies until a powder, then add the garlic and shallots. Continue to pound until smooth. Heat the oil in a wok and cook the chili paste for about 5 minutes. Add the sugars and salt. Let cool and store in the fridge for up to 6 months.

Tom Yam Goong – Thai Hot and Sour Prawn Soup, serves 4

This soup is famous and is a great example of the bright flavours of Thailand. This version is quite spicy so depending on your spice tolerance you can definitely cut back on some of the chilies. Adding a spoonful of the chili jam from above is a great addition to this soup.
300g prawns, washed, peeled and deveined. Keep peelings and heads
Tom Yam Goong
750ml water or chicken stock
6 cl garlic, crushed
6 shallots, sliced
2 stalks lemongrass, lower 1/3 only, 1 inch pieces
10 thin slices ginza (galangal), ginger can be used
200g straw mushrooms, halved, can be replaced with other mushrooms
2 tomatoes, cut into thin wedges
20 small green chilies, whole for less heat, halved or minced for more
45ml fish sauce
5 kaffir lime leaves, stem removed, torn into pieces
30ml lime juice
10g coriander, chopped
Place prawn heads and peelings in stock or water in a pot and bring to the boil, simmer 5 minutes. Remove prawns, then add the garlic, shallots, lemongrass, and ginza, simmer 2 minutes. Add mushrooms, tomatoes, chilies, kaffir and fish sauce, simmer 2 minutes. Add prawns, simmer 1 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in lime juice. Garnish with coriander.

Nam Prik Gaeng Kheo Wan – Green Curry Paste, makes 100-130g (4-5 tbsp)

Something you rarely see done properly or fresh anymore, it really makes a difference. A blender can be used, but the mortar and pestle is traditional and more stress relieving.
Dry – 1 tsp coriander seeds, toasted
½ tsp cumin seeds, toasted
Making Green Curry Paste
½ tsp black peppercorns, toasted
½ tsp salt
Fresh – 5g ginza (galangal), chopped, ginger can be used
15g (1 tsp) lemongrass, lower 1/3 only, chopped
5g (3 tbsp) kaffir lime peel, chopped
20g (1 tsp) coriander root, chopped
10g (2 tbsp) shallots, chopped
5g (1 tbsp) garlic, chopped
5g (1 tsp) shrimp paste
5g (1 tsp) turmeric, chopped
20 small green chilies, chopped
30g (1 cup) sweet basil leaves
Put dry ingredients into a mortar and pestle and grind until a powder. Add fresh ingredients and pound for about 10 minutes until the paste is smooth. 

Gaeng Kheo Wan Gai – Green Curry with Chicken, serves 4

One of the most spicy and well known dishes of Thailand. This dish can be made as thick or thin as you like it. Often it is served thinner almost as a soup. A couple things that make this dish stand above others is the use of fresh coconut cream and fresh green curry paste.
Tip – To make your own coconut cream is the most expensive method, but you also end up with the coconut water to drink and the best flavour. Open 2-3 coconuts, scrape the meat from the shell and place in a food processor. Press through a sieve to remove any bits left. If you don’t want to go to these extremes for the natural separation that occurs in the wok, any oil can be used, but the flavour won’t quite be the same.
300g chicken breast, thinly sliced
Pea Eggplant
250ml coconut cream, keep 30mls aside
250ml coconut milk
100g (4 tbsp) green curry paste
3 large Thai eggplant, cut into ½ slices
50g pea eggplants
40g (2 tbsp) palm sugar
30ml (2 tbsp) fish sauce
2 kaffir lime leaves, torn into pieces discarding the stem
30g (1 cup) sweet basil leaves, save some for garnish
1 large red chili, sliced
Put the coconut cream into a wok and fry for 3-5 minutes, continuously stirring until the oil begins to separate. Then add the green curry paste and fry for 1-2 minutes. Add the chicken and cook until the outside has turned white. Add the coconut milk and bring to the boil, then adding the eggplants. Simmer for 4 minutes. Add the palm sugar, fish sauce, kaffir and basil leaves. Turn of the heat once well combined and garnish with slice chilies, basil and a drizzle of the remaining coconut cream.

Pad Prio Wan Phak – Sweet and Sour Vegetables, serves 4

45ml (3tbsp) oil
Sweet and Sour Vegetables
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 onion, cut into bite size pieces
100g cauliflower, cut into bite size pieces
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into thin slices
1 cucumber, cut into 1 inch pieces
8 baby corn, halved lengthwise
220g pineapple, cut into bite size pieces
1 large red chili, seeds removed, thinly sliced
2 tomatoes, cut into bite size pieces
70g snow peas
60ml (1/4 cup) water or stock
Sauce – 15ml (1 tbsp) lime juice
30g (3 tbsp) sugar
15ml (1 tbsp) fish sauce
15ml (1 tbsp) oyster sauce
15ml (1 tbsp) soy sauce
45ml (3 tbsp) tomato sauce or ketchup (might need less sugar if using prepared ketchup)
Heat the oil in a wok and fry the garlic and onions. Add the cauliflower and carrot followed by the cucumber, baby corn, and pineapple. Stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, snow peas and stir-fry 1 minute longer. Add water or stock, bring to a simmer. Add the sauce ingredients and stir to combine. Adjust if necessary, serve.

Som Tam – Papaya Salad

Very popular among both Thai people and foreigners. This can be made as spicy as you like it and is traditionally prepared with a mortar and pestle. Locals generally eat this with sticky rice.
200g green papaya (unripe mango could be used), peeled and grated into thin strips
3 cloves garlic
Papaya Salad
10 small green chilies
2 long beans (green beans can be used), cut into 1 inch pieces
5g (2 tbsp) dried shrimp
30ml (2 tbsp) fish sauce
30ml (2 tbsp) lime juice
10g (1 tsp) palm sugar
1 tomato, slice into thin wedges
30g (2 tbsp) peanuts, roasted
Place the garlic, chilies and long beans in the mortar and pestle and pound roughly. Add the green papaya pounding again to bruise the ingredients. Then add the dried shrimp, fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar and stir together with the pestle and spoon until palm sugar is combined. Add the peanuts and mix together. Serve with sticky rice.

Khanom Kluay – Steamed Banana Cake, serves 6

A very simple cake to prepare and a nice alternative to the traditional banana bread everyone is used to. These can be steamed in banana leaf boats or little individual bowls. If you don't want to grate your own fresh coconut, you can used unsweetened desiccated coconut, just soak for 10 minutes before hand. This is also gluten free!
Banana cakes getting ready to steam
5 bananas, mashed
120g (1 cup) rice flour
30g (1/4 cup) tapioca flour
130g (1 ½ cup) sugar
½ tsp salt
125ml (½ cup) coconut cream
100g (3 cups) grated coconut
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl until well combined, saving ¼ of the grated coconut. Place into banana leaf boats or bowls, sprinkle remaining grated coconut on top and steam for 30 minutes. Can be served warm or room temperature.