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Every single thing I’ve eaten in Saigon has been delicious. Seriously, there have been no average meals, not even any quite nice meals. They’ve all been transporting and wonderful and I want to blog all of them. I’ve a pile-up of notes and photos that I can’t possibly post quickly enough. So I am going to skip to the end, to our last meal in Vietnam, which was a fitting end to a truly wonderful trip. And never fear, at home I’m going to catch up on all those other memorable meals, and gradually post about the restaurants, the markets and the mysterious purchases…but for now, I can’t wait any longer to tell you about the unexpected pleasures of Vietnamese snail soup!

I had had Bún Ôc Thanh Hai on my “Things To Do: Urgent” list for Saigon, but for some strange reason, I could never persuade Mr Lemur that now was the moment for snails. I kept telling him that several trustworthy sources had written great things about it, but weirdly he was unpersuaded. We postponed it day after day until we only had our final day in town left. And then something wonderful happened: I saw on Facebook that a good friend from Iowa was at the airport in Cedar Rapids, leaving for Ho Chi Minh City. ZOMG! I replied quickly, letting her know that we were in Saigon, but worried that she wouldn’t get the message if she had no internet when she arrived. Several hours of modern communication hilarity ensued, with email, Facebook, this blog, cell phones and Skype all being called into use to establish contact. Finally we got in touch and arranged to have lunch on her first day, our last one. But…I still really wanted to go to the snail restaurant. Could Awesome Photographer M be persuaded to leap into Vietnamese food hardcore on her first day? Mr Lemur sagely recommended that I not lead with the snails. It’s a highly recommended local cafe, I said. They’re known for this one dish but it’s a full-service restaurant, I’m sure you can have something else if you don’t fancy it. Happily, she was in. Read the rest of this entry »

Before I flew to Vietnam, I did some research on places I didn’t want to miss and top of my list of sources was of course Anthony Bourdain. I’m a big fan of his – some of my foodie friends find him sexist but I have actually found him to be pretty aware of the gender politics of growing, cooking and selling food – and his love for Vietnam is well known. So, I watched his Vietnam episodes of No Reservationsagain and made some notes in the bible of my travels, a little black moleskine notebook. I marked out several places that Tony recommended in Saigon for my attention, a couple of which also came up on food blogs. Great, all very organised. When we arrived in Saigon, I noted that I had starred Côm Niêu as especially interesting. The trouble was, I didn’t at all remember why! Thus began one of our more perplexing evenings…

Saigon can be a confusing place. There’s the whole Communism thing, for a start. Everywhere you look are reminders of the country’s revolutionary politics, from old-style posters of Uncle Ho to the ubiquitous red star flags that decorate the streets. And yet, in conversation with a Vietnamese guide, we learned that neither education nor healthcare are free here, which doesn’t seem terribly leftist. Then there’s the enthusiastic embrace of consumer capitalism, which suffuses the wealthier parts of the city. There’s so much building work going on, it’s going to be a totally different place in a few years. I suppose it’s something close to the Chinese model which can be perplexing from a Western political perspective. That said, I find Saigon completely charming: it has a combination of laid back urbanism and youthful energy that makes it an exhilarating place to just walk around.

We spent our first night in the Mekong Delta in a rural home stay near Vinh Long. These are a popular part of the more adventure oriented tourist experience and I have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, it can feel a bit anthropological, with our hosts as exhibits of native ways. Tours tend to bust out the folk dancing or traditional music, and it’s kind of uncomfortable to feel forced into the position of white observer of primitive spectacle. On the other hand, home stays are more or less small B&Bs, which put one’s tourist dollars back into the local economy. And, after all, I did come here to learn about and engage local cultures, especially culinary ones. Going to markets is one way to achieve this goal but staying in someone’s house and cooking with them must surely be another. Yes, it is brokered by a travel company, but sadly I don’t have any friends in Vietnam who would invite me to stay, so this is my next best thing. This home stay was a lot more low key than the one in Northern Thailand, and we spent most of our time cooking taro spring rolls.
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Vietnam is obviously not a country with many Christians, although we did pass through some Catholic villages in the Mekong that were prettily decked out with bunting and sparkly stars. But these few religious observances aside, Christmas is a huge sparkly secular party here. And in Saigon the party is epic – everything is decorated, and absolutely everyone is on the streets. It’s like New Year’s Eve in Times Square or Hogmanay on Princes Street – multiplied by massive motorcycle madness!

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As we’ve travelled around the Mekong Delta over the last few days, there has been a constant refrain in our ears: Hello! Hello! It’s a cliche to say that people here are really friendly, but it is actually astonishing how eager to engage everyone is. The Mekong seems to be chock full of adorable moppets, all of whom yelled hello in English with great verve as we passed by. Now, there are lots of cynical reasons that one can think up to explain the situation. Maybe the moppets find white people inherently hilarious, especially when, like us, they are lumbering through their villages on bikes. This one is actually quite likely. Perhaps Vietnamese people are highly conscious of the burgeoning tourist economy and want to do their part. Again, quite probably, but I don’t think that’s all it is. People in Thailand were friendly and helpful but this exuberant enthusiasm, this desire to talk to the strange people – even in tiny children – is a whole other atmosphere. It reminds me a little of Cuba, where everyone I met wanted to talk, and even suffered my terrible Spanish gladly to chat about politics. I haven’t quite got to comparing political systems with the moppets yet (though seriously, I need some explanations) but I have been utterly charmed by the welcome we’ve received here.  Read the rest of this entry »

The south end of Banglamphu quickly sloughs off the frat boy reek of the Khao San Road and becomes a rather charming neighbourhood. Apparently there are some trendy parts, which we made a foray into by going to a couple of rather cool bars (of which, more later) but mostly it feels quiet – or as quiet as you can reasonably get in an Asian metropolis. We came down this way partly to eat at Chote Chitr, an old shophouse restaurant that’s been written up in a lot of venues. Unusually, it features both in budget travel guides and in very upscale publications. My friend K gave me a fancy culinary journal that featured it and since my Bangkok guide also listed it with a helpful map, we figured it would be worthwhile but possibly very touristed. By here’s the odd thing: while Chote Chitr does cater to foreigners with an English language menu and distinctly tourist-oriented prices, neither the restaurant nor the leafy square it abuts are overwhelmed with tourist business. Read the rest of this entry »

I suspect that Chiang Mai is a city that reveals itself only very reluctantly to the outsider. On the surface it’s all flash bang tourist frontages offering elephant tours or jewellery or wifi and pizza, arbitrarily mixed with motorcycle repair shops and building projects. Since the old town is spread out over a mile square, it’s a messy and daunting prospect for the pedestrian. Although I have found a few delights on my own, the Lemurs have also done very well on recommendations from friends and fellow bloggers. For our last dinner, we went to Huen Phen restaurant, recommended by Naomi as one place that solves the Thai menu paradox. What’s the menu paradox? If a menu is in Thai we can’t read it and hence can’t really order the delicious food within. But if the menu is in English, we can read it but the food will also be translated, dumbed down to western palates. Catch 22. Huen Phen, however, has an English menu but still serves authentic Northern Thai dishes. Read the rest of this entry »

So far, I haven’t had the best luck with street food unless it’s been a very detailed recommendation from a trusted source. Not that I’ve eaten anything unpleasant – just not life-alteringly wonderful. I’ve been waiting for that moment of foodie discovery, the chow hound’s Holy Grail of discovering a totally new and amazing source of deliciousness. It’s not as easy as it looks, here in a Thailand full of tourist traps, fruit shakes and ho hum pad thai. On my last day in Chiang Mai, I went for a walk on my own, across the river from the main city centre to check out a neighbourhood reputed to have quiet leafy streets. Yeah, right. Quiet and leafy in Thai terms translates to balancing on the 30 cm between main road and concrete wall as motorbikes and vans hurtle past you at a rate of knots. Maybe I never found the right turning and the pretty streets were hidden just a block away. There’s a lot in this city that you’ll never find unless someone takes you there. Either way, I had had enough and decided to make my way back to the hotel when, right on cue, I noticed something rather interesting going on across the street. Read the rest of this entry »

If you listened to the more cautious advice on eating in Southeast Asia, you would eat only cooked food, only hot food, only food prepared in front of you, only food in proper restaurants, no raw vegetables or non-peeling fruit, and definitely nothing you find down an alley. Food safety is an important thing and I definitely don’t want to catch hepatitis or food poisoning while I’m on holiday, but the problem is that if you followed all of these rules, you would basically eat nothing interesting in Thailand or Vietnam. So, I am breaking these rules one by one and instead following the advice of food bloggers like Eating Asia who know a lot about street food and balance culinary adventure with food sense. I’m eating street food at busy stalls, where I can see from the local clientele that standards are high. I’m choosing stalls with a lot of product and hence a lot of turnover – nothing is sitting for too long when a vendor is popular. I’m trying to go at busy times – kanom jeen or jook at breakfast, somtam at lunch, grilled meats early in the evening market hours. You can tell when food looks forlorn, stale, or, in one horrifying case, covered in bees. Really, it wasn’t a major piece of deductive reasoning to decide that bee-covered fruit is not the healthy way to go.
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