Hoi An, Vietnam, 2013

hoi an during the day

Hội An is a UNESCO World Heritage city just south of Da Nang, with more than 2,000 years of history. It was once a principal port for the spice trade with Indonesia from the 7th to the 10th century and a major international port as well. Multiple cultural influences have shaped Hoi An throughout the years–from the Cham Kingdom, whose people came from Java, to Arab and Chinese traders, and the Vietnamese who settled there relatively recently.

entrance to old town

quang trieu temple

Our day began at Quang Trieu Assembly Hall, a building built by Chinese from the Guangdong province. Chinese fishermen and traders would use this hall as a rest stop and to exchange goods. Many of the statues you see are scenes from Cantonese musical dramas.

bird in cage on a quiet alley

A lonely bird on a quiet alley.

The main street of the Old Town is Tran Phu. We strolled past old, heritage hotels, tourist souvenir shops, and teahouses until Wang stopped us in front of a larger, wooden building. The Old House of Tan Ky. Seven generations of the family have worked to preserve this ancient house.

old house of tan ky

There are way too many tourists to fit in this house.

The house features a triple-beam structure that stands for heaven, earth, and human, and five round blocks to represent the natural elements (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth): features of Eastern philosophy.

Duc An medicine shop

We then went a few houses down to Duc An Old House, which has been run by the same family for 400 years. It became the most successful bookshop in the 17th Century and carried famous Vietnamese and Chinese texts, as well as political works by Rousseau and Voltaire, to name a few.

In the 1900’s it became a Chinese medicine dispensary. When anti-French revolts and movements began, the house became the darling gathering place for youths and intellects.

tran phu street

Tran Phu street.

lantern vendor

A bike full of lantern frames.

What was most interesting to me–and something you won’t find through pure research on the web or in tourist books–was that some of these houses were also used as opium dens. Upper floors were furnished with cushioned seats or beds for you to cozily drift off into ephemeral bliss.

afternoon tea

Care for some afternoon tea?

But such things were not meant for us to experience, so we made our way to the famous Japanese Covered Bridge, or Chùa Cầu. The bridge was built to create a link with the Chinese quarters across the river, and now connects Tran Phu St with Thi Minh Kai street.

japanese covered bridge

Sculptures of a dog and a monkey sit at one end of the bridge as symbols of sacredness in Japan and of the years many of the Japanese Emperors were born. A roof was constructed so that it could be used as a shelter from both rain and sun. It is the only known bridge to have a temple built inside it, which honors the God of Weather, Tran Vo Bac De.

boat vendor

We walked down towards the Thu Bon river, where the boats were. Hội An is a city to experienced at night–when lanterns light up the river like twinkles of starlight. The sun was waning, and a few of the villagers had already set afloat tea lights in colorful paper “lilies” on the water.

restaurant on street

Our tour included a “bicycle” tour of Hội An: the bicycles were actually a hybrid of stroller and bike. We kicked back in our chairs, while someone else did the peddling for us. Down Bạch Đằng street we rolled, passed various street vendors and brightly-lit restaurants.

local market

Boat vendors paddled up and down the river, seeking to make eye contact with a curious tourist who’d be willing to buy his wares. We rode past the local markets; a cornucopia of vegetables, meats, fish, and fruit poured onto the streets, splayed out in baskets or on small planks of wood.

hoi an lanterns

My favorite part Hội An was the lanterns. Maybe a third of the shops we passed were lantern stores that hung a curtain of paper lanterns, of psychedelic shapes and colors. It was wonderful.

paper cutouts

Another popular craft you’ll see in Hội An were the 剪紙 [jian zhi, Chinese], or paper cutouts. The streets were tiled with meticulously snipped and intricate cards of boats, flowers, dragons, and pictorials of Vietnamese lifestyle. We bought several of these to gift to family members, and a few for ourselves to take home and admire:).

hoi an at night

Da Nang, Vietnam 2013

It had been only two days since we first landed in Vietnam and yet it was time to fly again. We made our way northward to Đà Nẵng, one of the major port cities in Vietnam and the largest city in Central Vietnam.

My mom and I started our day with a brief stroll through Ho Chi Minh.

My DIY bowl of pho for breakfast, since the broth isn't vegetarian. :)

My hacky soup-less breakfast pho (broth isn’t veggie).

A quiet morning

A quiet morning in Ho Chi Minh.

Families and friends break bread together.

Families and friends break bread together.

And then we took off! Mountaintops peaking over woolen clouds was a wonderful thing to see.

mountains and clouds

We descended through a thicket of  gray, where we lost the sun. Chilly, was my first thought when we landed. This I was not prepared for, in my shorts and light t-shirt. Tangles of cool wind wrapped themselves around my bare legs and arms. Luckily for us, lunch was the first order of business. Hot pot at 4U (For You) Restaurant.

hot hot pot

This being an oceanside city, we went to a seafood restaurant. Naturally, all the hot pot was seafood hot pot. My mom and I fended off the cold with sips of hot tea that grew less hot with each draft that came through the windows. We looked at the other tables’ bubbling pots of warmth longingly and prayed that hot soup would be one of the things served.

Alas, our first dish was a plate of seaweed and sesame mushrooms, stir-fried with veggie ham. And a large plate of plain, steamed cauliflower. Tasty, but too much faux meat for my taste.

mushrooms and veggie meat

a giant plate of cauliflower

Doughy buns stuffed with cabbage. Too much dough, too little stuffing. The dough was too wet: mushy and sticky. We ate only the stuffing.

vegetable buns

Rice noodles stir-fried with red chilies, yam leaves, and peanuts followed. There were more peanuts than noodles. Slices of veggie ham laced the edges of the plate–an afterthought, perhaps to make it “meatier”.

rice noodles with peanuts

Then came the long-awaited soup: a thick, curry soup with deep-fried tofu cubes, fake “beef” slices, and woodear dropped in. Hot, but it would’ve been more comforting had it been less greasy.

greasy curry soup

Lunch finished with a plate of pineapple and grapes to aid digestion. A good way to end a hefty meal. Suffice to say, this was a lot of food and we couldn’t even get through 1/3 of what was served. We shared the rest of our food with the other tables so it wouldn’t go to waste.

fruit for dessert

Overall, I thought it was decent. Good enough. The others in our group looked pretty satisfied with their seafood feast. 4U has a higher price point, so if you’re willing to take a gamble, go for it. If not, I’m sure Da Nang has plenty of better and less expensive seafood options that also have a seaside dining balcony.

the view from our room

We retreated to the contemporary Hyatt Regency Danang Resort for a siesta. This was an absolutely wonderful resort–I highly recommend staying there if it’s within budget. Most of the hotel is open-air, so we were able to soak in the briny ocean air under the comfort of sleek luxury.

the pool at hyatt regency da nang

The hotel spans several buildings, some of them residences. It’s essentially a college campus. In the heart of it is a palm tree-lined Roman Grecian pool over which gentle bridges arch and fountains feed into its waters.

our room at hyatt regency da nang

We lucked out with an oceanview, balcony room. A large, swivel-y sofa chair outside was the perfect retreat. And if you simply couldn’t tear yourself away from the view, don’t despair! The glass shower sits adjacent to the balcony, so all you have to do is roll up the shades to be able to bask in seaside glory as you shower. Our room was spacious, impeccable, and so relaxing.

Cruise down the Saigon, Ho Chi Minh 2013

I was still in a food coma from our delicious lunch at Nhà hàng Ngon, but somehow it was already dinner time. Signet arranged a “cultural” cruise for us down the Saigon River: we were to dine on Euro-Asian food and feast on traditional music and dance.

the cruise ship

We boarded an ornate, rose wood ship and were greeted by women in light blue áo dài who led us to our table. Waiters whipped around the deck with cocktails in hand. Chilled and only lightly alcoholic–just enough to whet the appetite.

appetizers

An hors d’oeuvre of baguette slices were served with a dollop of vegetable slaw or meat slaw (is that even a thing?). Baguettes are clearly French influence, but the slaw may just be a Vietnamese take on what they think foreigners enjoy slapping on their bread. :p (Extra) salty peanuts slid in alongside the plate of hors d’oeurvre.

As we sat waiting for our table to be called to the buffet, we were treated to the first traditional dance of the night. I’ve struggled to find the name of this; but it was a very lively and airy dance with a lot of swishing of dresses and twirling.

vietnamese dance

Then we were finally unleashed unto the food. A seafood buffet that the others in our group had been itching to dive into.

My mom and my meals were specially ordered for us, since there were very limited vegetarian options. Since it would be a while before we were served, I decided to throw convention to the wind and start with dessert first. And a glass of wine.

dessert and wine

A table of shot glasses filled with white chocolate and milk chocolate creme piqued my interest–or should it be the flan? I did fancy the cream puffs as well, and the glazed donut holes…there’s no shame it trying it all, now is there?

We grew antsy with the slow service and took matters into our own hands by making rounds at the buffet. There were a few dishes at our disposal: vegetable vermicelli that was a bit too wet and a spinach and feta pastry that was much too dry.

buffet food

When we sat down with our pickings, the rest of our dinner was also finally ready. A bowl of pho to start. Noodles went down smoothly, but the broth tasted distinctly of MSG.

pho

Sushi was next. Too much rice, and rather odd fillings chosen for the roll: mushroom, celery, carrot, and tomato. Cucumber, pickled vegetable, and avocado would have suited me better.

sushi

Then came a small bowl of curry with a plate of baby, buttery baguette-bread-not-really-baguettes. The vegetables were chunky, meaty, and soaked up the curry well. I liked this one the most.

curry and baguettes

And then–a plate french fries! Gotta include some vegetables for those vegetarians. But wait! What if…what if we drop handfuls of these fries on the sides of a plate of cucumber salad?! Yes, that’s perfect. The American tourists will love this.

french fry salad

Let’s throw in a bowl of pumpkin soup too. They like that creamy, buttery stuff.

That’s what I imagine was running through the chefs’ heads as they drummed up dishes for us. It was quite an amusing meal; I guess they just don’t have many vegetarian guests:).

I don’t know about you, but I have this quirk where if I don’t particularly enjoy what I’m eating–even if I’m served a lifetime’s worth of food–I’ll continue looking for things to eat. I was definitely full by this time, but I simply wasn’t satisfied.

banh xeo

So I found a bánh xèo [Vietnamese crepe] station and ordered one with vegetable filling. This was just satisfying enough.

Those who didn’t spend over an hour waiting for their food to arrive had finished and were dancing on the floor to some swing music. I desperately wanted to join, but alas, the food in me would not have it.

bamboo dance

The dance floor emptied to make way for múa sạp tây bắc, or the bamboo dance. Múa sạp originates from the Northwest highlands of Vietnam. Four to six people hold two sticks of bamboo each while 8 other dance in and out of the bamboo in a 4/4 rhythm. The audience was invited to join in, but most were too shy.

music and dance

The rest of the night was filled with dances from different countries–Spain, the Phillippines, and even Russia. A fabulous Filipina took the stage and filled the air with sonorous notes of Latin love songs.

view from saigon river

I think the cruise ships had more lights than all of Saigon’s buildings.

City streets, Ho Chi Minh, 2013

our lady churchWe stopped briefly by the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, a beautiful brick church in downtown Ho Chi Minh. A vestige of French colonialism.  It’s precariously located on the edge of a rotary — our bus driver had to sweep around multiple times before there was a gap in traffic during which we could be unloaded.

Construction for the cathedral began in 1863 and completed in 1880. The two, imposing bell towers reach a height of 190 feet. The bricks from which the cathedral was built were all imported from Marseille; in fact, all building materials were imported from France.

Across the street and in front of the church is a tiny square, a flower garden where a statue of Our Lady of Peace stands to this day. The interior of the church was modest: white-washed and wooden pews.

interior of central post officeWe then walked westward across the street to the Saigon Central Post Office [Bưu điện Trung tâm Sài Gòn]. The post office is now more of a tourist attraction than it is a functional building. Its architecture is a blend of Gothic, Renaissance, and French influences. Some sources say that the building was designed by Gustave Eiffel — yes, that Gustave Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower –, but Wikipedia claims that it was actually designed by architects August Henri Vildieu and Alfred Foulhoux.

One can still buy traditional post stationery and even use an old-fashioned glue pot to stick stamps to letters. We unfortunately had only half an hour to explore both the church and the post office, so the most we were able to do was stand outside and snap some pictures. If, however, you fancy a taste of the old-world romance, this article has a couple beautiful pictures of the post office.:)

saigon central post office

for some reason I found this balcony interesting

for some reason I found this balcony interesting

a busy cart on a street corner

a busy cart on a street corner

on the other side

Nhà hàng Ngon, Ho Chi Minh, 2013

nha hang ngon sign

The tubers we had after our bunker crawl at Củ Chi was simply not enough to sustain us for the rest of the day. We hopped back on the tour bus and eagerly poured out onto the sidewalk, ready to be led to lunch at Nhà hàng Ngon.

reflection pool

Nhà hàng Ngon is a charming Vietnamese restaurant housed in what used to be a French villa. You enter through a leafy arch of trees and shrub-lined paths. Fairy lights sway gently in the warm air.

dining terrace

The building is painted in a warm, canary yellow with tailored, white borders accentuating the arches. Seating ranges between cafeteria-style–with rows on rows of tables–to elevated terraces with cloth canopies draped overhead. A courtyard with reflection pool sits in the center of the restaurant.

woks and spices

Along the perimeter of the restaurant are the food stalls where dishes are made to order. You are handed a small piece of paper, which is stamped when you place an order at the food stall. Sort of like dim sum, but instead of carts of food coming to you, you walk around and shop for the food you want.

making spring rolls

While the options were bountiful, it was largely vegetarian-unfriendly. Plenty of grilled seafood and skewered meats to go around, however. There was even escargot!

skewers, escargot, stuffed cake things

We were seated on the second floor–my mom and I had our own “vegetarian” table. our first dish was some tofu Gỏi cuốn [summer rolls] stuffed with carrots, vermicelli, lemongrass, and scallions. A peanut dipping sauce came on the side.

summer roll

Next was a plate of steamed vegetables: okra, carrots, squash, string beans, broccoli and cauliflower. No seasoning, just plain vegetables.

plain veggies

Then came the bowl of yellow curry with mushroom, eggplant, basil, mint, tofu, and some stewed veggie skewered “meats”. And a baguette for dipping into the curry, of course. This was an exciting departure from the plate of veggies; however, the curry was a tad salty. The baguette was warm and fresh, but dry.  Whether this was done purposefully so they could complement each other, I do not know.

curry and banh mi

Rotating waiters would drift by the table to refill your beautifully refreshing glass of iced lemongrass tea. Sweet just the right amount.

veggie pho

I never expected to see so much use of faux meat in vegetarian Vietnamese cuisine. Our next dish was vegetable pho. There were veggie fish balls, konjac, fried bean curd sheets, fried tofu cubes, an assortment of veggies–pickled and fresh–, and some shallots and scallions to top it off. The soup was flavorful enough (but had an MSG taste to it), and the noodles were pretty good.

three color dessert

For dessert we had Chè Ba Màu, or “Three Color Dessert”. A drink with pudding as its base, with green jelly, grass jelly, and some coconut jelly layered on top of each other. A wash of slightly sweetened coconut milk tops off the icy drink. This was so delicious and refreshing! Loved the variety of textures you work through as you scoop out the different jellies and beans and pudding.

Overall I really enjoyed my meal at Nhà hàng Ngon. In all honesty I can’t say there was a dish that stood out or that I can remember absolutely, but I still look fondly back on this meal as one of the most enjoyable I had in Vietnam.

Củ Chi Tunnels, Vietnam, 2013

The Củ Chi tunnels are part of a vast network of tunnels that run underneath Vietnam and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. Củ Chi specifically runs 75-miles long in total. The tunnels were critical to the Viet Cong’s resistance to American forces, and was used by the Viet Cong not only as supply routes, living quarters, and for communication, but also as hiding spots during combat.

fruit trees

Papaya, mango, cashew, and jackfruit (clockwise from top left)

We were greeted by a surprisingly thriving fruit garden that lay between the parking lot and the entrance to the tunnel grounds. Generously-bosomed papaya trees bowed to the weight of their fruit; mangoes bobbled precariously overhead; and jackfruits the size of newborns coyly grazed our heads with their spikes. We even got to see a cashew tree! Apparently cashew nuts are seeds of the cashew apple (a pseudo-fruit) that grow on the exterior of the apple.

underground hut

Our first stop was an underground hut, where we were shown a short 15-20 minute video of the history of the tunnels. On the left wall was a model of the tunnels: living quarters, kitchens, and escape routes. Many of the tunnels had an escape exit that led to a body of water (usually a river), so that soldiers could easily raft down the river if the tunnels were ever bombed or otherwise compromised. American forces typically didn’t expect this, and many Viet Cong were able to escape this way.

cuchi_trap

A demo of the hidden entrances to the tunnels. Really amazing how people manage to fit in these and find the entrances. One of the squishier members of our group decided to give it a shot and got stuck for a little trying to get out! Only light baggage allowed😉.

The tunnels had plenty of trap doors and strategic air filtration systems that were able to deter attempts to flush the entrance with gas, water, or hot tar. Walk over the wrong patch of ground and you could meet a grisly (and rather medieval death), as shown below.

death traps

Chickens roamed the cafeteria area freely. There was also a shooting range to practice in, if you so desired! I thought about doing it, but the rounds were rather expensive — about $20 for 5-10 bullets(??).

chickens and shooting (but not together)

Can you find the baby chick?

We also walked past tents demonstrating daily chores of people working in the Viet Cong.To make banh trang (rice paper), you ground rice and mix it with water so that it becomes a slurry. The batter is then spread onto a cloth stretched over a pot of boiling water. Cover with a bamboo lid and let it steam for about 30-45 seconds. A rolling pin (of sorts) is then used to lift and transfer the rice sheet to a cooling “rack”–a long, woven board of bamboo.

rice paper

There was another tent where we got to see how old materials–namely rubber taken from tires of destroyed jeeps–were repurposed to make sandals because they’re water resistant and don’t slip.

shoemaker

Many Viet Cong actually led double lives. Scarves disguised the identities of “normal” women who worked in rice fields but then tunneled into headquarters at night to fight in Viet Cong attacks.

the fighting bunkerAnd then it was our turn to experience tunnel life. We went down “The Fighting Bunker”, a dark and dank hole that no one should have to subject themselves to living in. The air–well, there really was no air–was so stale, so humid, and basically all CO2. There was no way to move or walk about. We had to army crawl our way to get from one room to another, and to the end of the tunnel. While this tunnel was less than a hundred meters (maybe not even 50m), the several minutes it took to inchworm our way on elbows and knees was exhausting.

We were congratulated on successfully navigating the tunnel with a highly-anticipated meal, Viet Cong-style. On the menu was a single item: a starchy, dry, potato-like root (I forget what it’s called). It was like eating flour. Dip in crushed peanuts for protein and fat intake. On a generous day, treat yourself to some freshly-roasted cashews.

starch and protein

So concluded our tour of the Củ Chi tunnels. Tunnel life is fascinating, rough, and dangerous. I left with so much appreciation for what I have thankfully not had to go through (hopefully ever). Visiting Củ Chi is absolutely something you should experience if you are ever in Vietnam.

Life in Saigon, Ho Chi Minh, 2013

Breakfast was early–we had a long day ahead of us! The Sheraton’s buffet was everyone’s dream except ours. There was a dearth of vegetarian options, mostly limited to fruit and salad. It was also packed at 7am. In Chinese we say it’s like a 菜市場 [cai shi chang], or street market: Chinese grandmas and grandpas shoving their way through a pulsing crowd, with handfuls of leek and bok choy in hand yelling at everyone and everything. So if you want breakfast without a line, get to the door before breakfast opens up.

sheraton breakfast

I managed to snag 2 slices of passionfruit, some jackfruit, star fruit, some pomelo, and red guava! Fruits I wish we could find as easily (and cheaply) in the US. I can only eat apples, bananas, and oranges so many times every day. When I was growing up, my mom made me eat a banana literally every day; when I hit high school, I felt like I was old enough to tell her no. And I didn’t have a banana for all 4 years of high school, until I got to college and had no other options.

We couldn’t have the pho, the rice, or any of the other (mostly seafood) dishes. But the banh mi station was our saving grace. French baguette, a crispy fried egg, and some pickled veggies. Slather sweet, sour, and spicy sauce on top. It wasn’t the best banh mi I’ve had, but it was good enough to tide me over for the morning.

Saigon on a hazy morning

Saigon on a hazy morning

Most Vietnamese eat a much simpler breakfast: coffee and pho. Street vendors can make $100/day just from selling coffee alone. This was evidenced by the tiny woman with a coffee cart right across from the hotel–it was early rush hour, and she already had a queue of at least 10 people. (I wanted a picture, but she kept glaring my way…).

Rent in Ho Chi Minh can get really expensive; it’s no better than what we see in NYC or SF, topping out at $3,000/month. Utilities average $100/month. The average Vietnamese takes home only around $500-700/month.

morning traffic

Morning traffic

Currently, the written Vietnamese language uses the roman alphabet, totaling 24 letters with the exception of W and Z. Its earliest form used Chinese characters, but evolved to using the alphabet after French occupation. Traditional Chinese was taught using Taiwanese textbooks before that, because Vietnam had (or has?) a peaceful relationship with Taiwan.

catching up

Catching up with friends

Spoken Vietnamese is a mix of Cantonese and French. And like China, they follow the Lunar calendar and hand out red envelopes on New Year’s. Students get 2 weeks of break for New Year’s, and workers get 9 days!

Vietnamese history totals 4,000 years. When the Chinese Communist party took over in 1975 and united southern and northern Vietnam, they also stripped everyone of their money. Businessmen, scientists, and chefs all fled. Refugees had to pay upwards of 20-30,000 VND to escape, an extraordinary amount at the time.

Businessmen melted all their gold, molded it into chains, and painted it black to disguise their wealth so that they could escape safely.

trash and phones

Trash collection next to a mobile phone store

Our tour guide, Wang, told us that he actually came from a very wealthy family that owned a prep school before the takeover. His brother escaped by rickshaw to Hong Kong, spending 40 nights on the sea before he reached land. He luckily had no encounters with the widely-feared Thai pirates that would smuggle and rape refugees.

A short side story on my family history

When my grandma was escaping from the Communists, she and my grandpa fled from Zhejiang Province [浙江省] in China to Guangzhou, where all the ferries to Taiwan would depart from the mainland. By the time they arrived, there was only one ferry left and it had already started to move away from the dock. My grandma was a few months pregnant with my aunt (the oldest and only) at the time. My grandpa jumped first as the ferry chugged further away; my grandma leapt and her feet scraped the edges of the ferry, but my grandpa caught her in time. And that’s how my mom’s family first settled their roots in Taiwan.

Anyone could be a spy for the government in those days; it was impossible to successfully get out. Wang’s mother paid a smuggler to take him to Thailand, but the guy took the money and left Wang stranded in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s reign. He was a teen at the time, and it took him 6 months to find a way out of Cambodia. A soap trader took him under his wing and made him tan on the deck of the ship every day so that he would look less Vietnamese.

roadside shack

A shack off the side of the road

Even more incredible was that Wang’s mother sewed gold and money into his underwear: enough to buy 3, three-storied houses. A lot of cash. It was very heavy, and Southeast Asia’s steamy climate is unforgiving. But Wang said he couldn’t risk taking the underwear off–and so he wore the same piece of underwear. For weeks. Until he reached Thailand.

He then used the money to get into the trading business, and eventually make his way back to Vietnam to raise a family. Many Vietnamese soldiers, on the other hand, bought their way back by marrying rich Cambodians and abandoning their marriages after taking the money.

early morning fishing

The daily catch

It is no wonder that with so many wars, that it has taken Vietnam so long to recover. There aren’t even highways in Vietnam yet, just local (and typically one-way or one-lane) roads. (Fun fact: the first time toilets came to Vietnam (before 1975), people actually used it as a fish tank or to wash vegetables!)

Amazing what you can learn on a bus trip. Our primary and secondary education in the US simply glosses over the ramifications of wars we forcefully waged on other countries. I was looking out the window as Wang was telling his story: each frame of passing scenery unfolding generations of struggle unknown and forgotten by us, but in which others continue to live.

Song Ngu Seafood, Ho Chi Minh, 2013

We landed in Ho Chi Minh just in time for a late dinner. Our tour bus picked us up from the airport to take us to our first meal in Saigon. We arrived at Song Ngu Seafood Restaurant, one of the more expensive and surprisingly few seafood restaurants in Vietnam. Song Ngu has been around 20 years and has created a menu advertising not only traditional seafood recipes, but also a fusion of Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Malaysian.

song ngu sign

I had no idea that this was a restaurant frequented by businessmen, well-off travelers, and the Vietnamese upper-middle class; I think it was the neon signs glowing in an otherwise dark street, like a Vegas liquor store beckoning, that threw me off. Female servers greeted us in áo dàithe Vietnamese national costume. A tight silk tunic splits at the rib cage to highlight the smallness of the woman’s waist, and is worn over pants. The men wore áo, or tunics, as well.

My mom and I eagerly waited for our vegetarian meal. It’s always interesting to see how chefs fiddle with the menu to accommodate vegetarians. We were first served deep fried lotus seeds as our appetizer. It came on a woven plate with a banana leaf to absorb some of the oil (I’m guessing?). This might have been one of the best discoveries on this trip. These things were so addicting. I think we finished the entire plate before any other dish arrived…

fried lotus seeds

Next was a noodle salad reminiscent of Thai green papaya salad: with cilantro, ground peanut, deep fried shallots, and some red chilies.

noodle salad

A small bowl of soup came after. I was skeptical at first because of the fishcake-like things, but my mom taste tested it and assured me it was konjac. It was very thick and lightly-flavored, and unfortunately not all that memorable.

"fish" soup

And then came the spring rolls😀.You can’t ever really go wrong with spring rolls. Deep-fried goodness stuffed with crisp, fresh veggies, (veggie) meat, and the occasional vermicelli. The spring rolls came with a side of veggies: cucumber, pineapple (!), basil, and lettuce. There was a plate of deep fried tofu cubes as well, with thick, dark soy sauce. Neither of us were sure what the “correct” way to eat the 3 dishes was, so we just made up our own way of eating it. Fried food is always delicious. Especially topped off with some Tiger beer.

spring rolls and tofu

The carnivores had a much more luxurious feast by far. Cua rang me–sauteed crab in tamarind sauce; crispy grouper; fresh clams in coconut milk. One of their dishes was “Drunken Tiger Prawns”: enormous and fresh prawns are cooked tableside by lighting the entire bowl on fire with alcohol. I’m sure there’s a joke about the consequences of drinking somewhere in there, but I’m too lazy to come up with one.

drunken prawns

An unamused, solemn-faced band serenaded us on zithers, with the Dan Nguyet–two-string guitar, also known as the “moon lute” due to its shape–as accompaniment.

zither band

Our entree was a claypot of mushrooms, bok choy, tofu, carrots, cilantro, and more ground peanuts. While I enjoyed the abundance of veggies, I couldn’t help but feel that our vegetarian meal was so plain in comparison. But of course it’s always good to have food to eat regardless:).

veggie claypot

So concluded our “seafood” feast. We headed back to the Sheraton Saigon Hotel for the night. I was surprised to see Christmas lights and a giant Christmas tree in the hotel lobby: perhaps a vestige of French influence.

sheraton saigon

Last Day in Siem Reap, 2013

As we finished our tour of Ta Prohm and headed back along the forested path to our bus, Steven suddenly brought our group to a screeching halt by a cluster of unassuming bushes. He excitedly picked off one of the leaves and peeled it apart at its midrib to reveal a sticky, clear mucus stretched between the two halves. He explained to us that he and all the other kids in the village used to spend their playtime staring into these leaf-juice-bubbles like a telescope or using them as magnifying glasses.

steven's leaf

Growing up in the middle-class suburbs of LA, I found it fascinating that kids could get so much enjoyment out of a leaf. It was humbling–made me realize how (and I really hate this word because of its overuse in social media, but here it is) privileged I was. My playtime as a kid was lazing around in front of the TV, watching Scooby-Doo and Pokemon marathons, or playing Zoo Tycoon on my computer. Not to say that playing outdoors is inferior in any way; it’s just that I had greater access and freedom to do different things. Go hiking? Sure. Play house with my Beanie Babies? Totally. Go to the movies? Yeah, why not.

band of tro players

A cheery band serenaded us on the tro as we said our goodbyes to Angkor Wat.

A boy and his cow.

A boy and his cow.

Our time in Cambodia wouldn’t be complete without a delicious lunch–a light cucumber roll with picked bean sprouts and carrots, paired with sweet and sour sauce; red curry vegetables with a dollop of coconut cream to go with rice [“bai bai” in Khmer]; a delicious sesame roll; and a mini fruit platter of papaya, pineapple, dragon fruit, and and mango to boot.

last lunch in siem reap

I practically rolled out the door with such a filling lunch. Thankfully, our tour had arranged for us an hour-long massage for this very purpose.

massage parlor

Refreshed and no longer feeling the weight of a pot of curry and rice, we headed to the airport. Siem Reap airport is wildly busy for such a small hub–make sure you have enough time before your flight! Even though there were only 5 families in our group, it took the check-in counter more than an hour to get us all through.

siem reap airport

Goodbye, leah hai, Cambodia! How unfortunately quick 3 days passed, and how unforgettably magical was my experience here.

siem reap sunset

Ta Prohm, 2013

tree rising from rubble

The legs of the jungle, like the legs of a giant octopus, slither into the abandoned orifices–windows, doors, arches–of a decaying Buddhist monastery.

a scene out of tomb raider

It ensnares the sandstone columns, driving its roots deep into the veins of sanctuary walls. Ta Prohm.

entrance to ta prohm

Ta Prohm was constructed in 1186 AD and dedicated to the mother of King Jayavarman VII. Sanskrit inscriptions provide statistics on the temple’s wealth–housing 80,000 workers, 2,700 officials, and 615 dances. It was home to 500kg of gold, copious amounts of diamonds, pearls, precious stones, and silks.  (This all turned out to be an exaggeration of the actual numbers, in order to honor the king).

carvings and collapsed hallways

Its abandonment over the centuries left it susceptible to looting, and many of its relics are lost. Our guide, Steve, pointed out that many of the carvings, interestingly enough, were of dinosaurs (see the stegosaurus-like animal 2nd down). The Khmers may have known about dinosaurs for longer than we have!

central pavillion

Fig, banyan, and kapok trees parade their embellished home: hermit crabs of the forest. This is the central pavillion (I believe), where one must fend off pushy tourists for your share of this captivating stranglehold of stone terraces and flora. The impasse of centuries.

snapshots of ta prohm

 

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