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Chicken on tour: Hue and Halong Bay

29 Sep

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Hue:

After a bus ride over the mountains by  Da Nang (Which was one of the first places American ground troops saw Vietnamese soil. In fact you can still see the outline of their massive base and some listening domes/radar balls on the mountains north of the city,) we arrived in Hue, on the bank of the perfumed river.

We were here for one night only. A brief visit! On arrival we were greeted by oppressive heat baking us on the concrete of the city. On first glance there was very little to recommend the city. However on the first afternoon we visited the citadel within which is contained the Imperial City. This was home to the Nguyen dynasty. It sustained heavy bombardment during the Tet Offensive and there are still many signs of that throughout the complex.

Imperial city

Imperial city

The next morning we took off on a moped tour. It was excellent. The whole group (16 of us) as pillion passengers on the back of mopeds. We visited a rice museum (more entertaining than it sounds, the 86 year old woman made it- she was full of beans), a fortune teller (Yes I succumbed and got my palm read. It all bodes well. To my future wife: we’re having three kids apparently.) A conical hat maker (the traditional hat of the Vietnamese people.) We also visited the mausoleum of Tu Duc, saw some chanting Buddhist monks, the only colosseum in Asia, (where they used to pitch elephants against tigers).
All before midday.

After a grossly unsuccessful attempt at getting lunch and food to bring with us on the overnight train to Hanoi- meaning I had a 13 hour train journey with just Pringles and Oreos, we set off for the train station. Only that the restaurant supports some children’s charities I won’t name them. But it was quite an achievement not to be able to serve a few baguettes in 90 minutes.

Best food: Very tourist orientated food in our area. So no real recommendations here.
Best beer: Huda – really good and never saw it again in Vietnam.
Best attraction: Moped tour. Few different operators. Well worth doing.

Halong Bay:

Halong Bay in all its glory

Halong Bay in all its glory

Halong Bay is one of those places that grabs your attention. I won’t even try to put it into words, I will let the pictures do the talking. These are just a few of the may pictures I took during our cruise around the islands. The bay is located about 4 hours drive from Hanoi and is home to 1969 islands.

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As you can see we were blessed with the weather. The day before and after was grey, dull and it rained heavily. This is one of those places I want to go back to. I haven’t ticked it off the list just yet.

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Best food: We had a great seafood lunch on our cruise around the islands

Best attraction: The cruise around the islands. Try and do an overnight one if your budget allows.

Chicken on tour: Hoi An

29 Aug

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Hoi An:

After another night on the Reunification Express (which links Ho Chi Minh City with Hanoi) from Nha Trang to Danang, we hopped a bus and about an hour later arrived in the town of Hoi An. I had heard a lot about this town, everyone I spoke to loved it. It’s also a town famed for its tailors (there are over 300. Now you know.)

It’s a picturesque little town, and they restrict it to pedestrians and human powered transport between certain hours. Having been in Vietnam for a whie, this silence and calm was greatly appreciated. It’s full of shops selling all sorts of souvenirs, as well as a food market down by the river. There were some definite bits of canine available for purchase at some stands. You will not be seeing any recipes for slow cooked Rover here. Across the road was the fish market, which transported me back to my previous life, my feet getting soaked with fish, water and ice. How I miss it.

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A group of us did a cooking class in one of the restaurants on our first evening. Many are available throughout the town. We prepared marinated beef salad, spring rolls and king fish marinaded with chilli and lemongrass cooked in banana leaves. All eaten with a great sense of satisfaction afterwards.

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We had an ungodly early start (5:30) the next day to visit the Cham tower ruins at My Son (seen above) about an hour from the town. My advice- stay in bed.

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Later that day some of us rented bikes and we headed off into the countryside. We cycled past fish farms, paddy fields and at one point, *we think* through someone’s house when we got a bit lost. It was brilliant. There were a few unfriendly dogs (Paul- you would not have liked, at all.)
After intentionally getting lost in the countryside we intentionally headed for An Bang beach. There are a few beaches near Hoi An. This is less mobbed and you won’t be pestered so much by the hawkers. There we went for a dip and enjoyed a few beers in Soul Kitchen/Bar overlooking the ocean.

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A few of us eager to get some Vietnamese food ventured towards The Mango Rooms for dinner that night. One of the group had sniffed it out and I’m glad he did. I had a great meal of spring rolls, followed by noodles, all washed down with a mango mojito. Our shared dessert of chocolate and banana won tons with coconut cream was a definite hit.

Best food area: All over town, especially down by the river at night.
Best meal: The Mango rooms
Best beer: Larue (Blue label- it’s delicious)
Best attraction: Getting lost on some bikes.

Tip: If you want shirts/suits/dresses made apparently this is one of the best places in the region. A friend got some dresses made here and says they’re deadly. If you don’t fancy hauling your new gear around Asia with you, many places in the town offer postage services by air and sea to get your stuff back home. I decided against getting any dresses made.

Next stop: Hue.

Chicken on tour: Nha Trang

27 Aug

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Nha Trang:

After 8 hours on an overnight train from Ho Chi Minh City we pulled into the train station in Nha Trang just before dawn. The train journey was painless and I even managed to grab a decent amount of sleep in my bunk. It was my first overnight train journey and I have certainly been converted to their merits. There is something very relaxing about the jostle and rhythmic click clack of the train on the tracks.

I knew nothing about Nha Trang, but I was very excited to visit it. Purely because one of my favourite restaurants in the world is called Nha Trang. So there. It’s a seaside town, very popular with Russian tourists. Most signs are in Vietnamese/English/Russian. Not the prettiest town on the planet but most holiday resorts aren’t.

After a hectic few days in Ho Chi Minh city, a good few of us decided we needed some R&R so we headed for the Thap Ba mud baths. Here we marinated in thinnish brown mud. Rinse until clean, then add to warm spring water and slow cook until hands are well and truly wrinkled. Add some swimming in very warm pools and you have a very chilled out silver chicken. It set us back about VND 100,000 (just over €3- including transport) so serious value!

Another site we visited was Vinapearl island. It’s a theme park/aquarium/waterpark. There’s a cable car over to the island. It’s the longest sea-crossing cable car in the world, or so I’m told. I’m a fan of roller coasters etc. I’ve been on some big ones, but this place housed the most awful ride I’ve ever been on. It inverted and spun you (very slowly) about 100 feet up. You had plenty of time to see the bit of concrete you would come in contact with should anything go wrong. Never again.

In terms of food we were only there for a night but we had an excellent meal in Lanterns, a few blocks from the beach. I had a Vietnamese chicken curry which was excellent.

Best beer: Saigon (green label)
Best food: Lanterns
Best attraction: Thap Ba

Next stop: Hoi An.

Chicken on tour: Ho Chi Minh City

2 Aug

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The first thing that hits you is always the smell. That damp, perfumed heat. Asia.
That aroma greeted me on arrival in Ho Chi Minh City airport the other day.

My journey from the airport to my hotel was a rapid introduction to this frenetic city, formally known as Saigon. The chaotic traffic. Cars trying to pierce their way through the swarms of mopeds. The constant horns blaring. The smell of food cooking on the street side and vendors selling every imaginable good.

My first few days in the city were a blur of mixed up sleep patterns and jetlag. On the second night I did the Saigon Street Eats seafood tour run by a very nice couple Barbara and Vu. They take you to a ‘Snail Street’. The Vietnamese call all crustaceans snails and this street specialised in them!

We ate sea-snails cooked in butter sauce, scallops with green onion and crispy pork fat, mussels, and incredible clams in a fragrant lemongrass broth (pic below). There was also a wasabi oyster at one point. I may not rush back for that.

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In terms of the sights of Ho Chi Minh city. A few musts are the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi tunnels. The museum has some of the Vietnam War’s military hardware on show but also an extensive collection of photographs that portray the conflict and its aftermaths.

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Another very interesting place to visit are the Cu Chi tunnels (above), which are about an hour and a half out of the city. They were used as hiding places by the Cu Chi rebels. We got to go through a 100m stretch of the tunnels (widened twice to allow for western bodies I am told) and my word, they were cramped. Also extremely warm down there. It was like bikram crouching yoga! The whole complex again allows you to see firsthand the varying barbs of the conflict. From the traps used by the rebels, to the tunnels and their various roles as well as the weaponry used by the Americans. You can also fire real, live guns if that’s something that tickles your fancy.

Ben Thanh Market (seen below) in the city is also worth a wander through. You can get everything from coffee to clothing and a lot in between!

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Highlights:

Food area: Ben Thanh Market (at night the streets around it become a row of restaurants)

Best dish: The clams in lemongrass broth on the seafood tour.

Best beer: Saigon (green label)

Best attraction: Cu Chi tunnels.

Next stop: Nha Trang.

P.S. I’m blogging from an iPad on these travels. So apologies if the posts are a little less polished then normal!

Review: Lola, Sablon, Brussels

17 Jul

On a recent trip to visit my partner in dining/good friend (longtime readers of the blog will have met him in various posts before) in Brussels, I got some good news from home (exam results) that warranted (serious) celebration. So him being the local in the know we toddled off to Lola, a restaurant in the Sablon district of Brussels.

Lola is a long narrow-ish room with soft lighting and comfy chairs. It is always busy (apparently) and I was lucky to be able to grab a booking for that evening, albeit a late one.

To start, there was an intense pea amuse-bouche. Served chilled it was very refreshing and full of flavour. Myself and Shane opted for a crab tower for starters. It was speckled with herbs, generous chunks of ripe mangos and topped with a cumin flavoured crisp. It was an incredibly generous portion of crab. Shane’s better half opted for white asparagus. It had been poached in a very flavoursome cooking-liquor and then was topped with diced egg. Again it was a very generous portion.

Lamb cutlets, goats cheese and ratatouille.

Lamb cutlets, goats’ cheese and ratatouille.

 

For mains I went for lamb cutlets. They were delicious. 4 (large) cutlets arrived, very tender and perfectly cooked, with a pink centre. They were topped with little chunks of goats’ cheese and served with a ratatouille and stunning gratin potatoes. The kind you’d sell your granny for. The goats’ was a wonderful contrast with the sweetness of the lamb. Shane, in a flash of émigré patriotism, went for the fillet of Irish beef. He thoroughly enjoyed it and I even managed to taste it- again the meat was cooked simply but with attention. His better half went for chicken, and there were no complaints from that quarter.

Looking all fondanty, on a jaunty swirl of caramel.

Looking all fondanty, on a jaunty swirl of caramel.

 

After an evening of good food, we were tempted by the dessert menu, however we thought the prudent thing to do would be to order a chocolate fondant between us. With a salted caramel accompaniment it went down a treat. As did a glass of port for myself and himself.

The service throughout was excellent. They were very attentive and never got in the way or intruded. In fact you barely noticed them. With a coffee each and a bottle of wine the total came to €227. It certainly isn’t a cheap meal, but it is fantastic value. The surrounds, service and attention to detail in the cooking made for three very happy diners that night.

 

Many thanks to all who made that evening one of celebration. In every sense. You know who you are.