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 :D.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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