There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Return to Saigon, Cookery and Music, Part 1 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos


Our morning arrival in Ho Chi Minh City followed a journey which had been long and tedious, though otherwise unremarkable. I am not complaining, I can think of few memorable experiences that would be welcome on a plane.

As we trundled our cases through customs Lynne realised that the photographs for our Cambodian and Lao visas were in her other handbag – the one she had not brought with her. This presented a problem that needed solving before we left the big city, so as Phu the driver piloted us across the city to our hotel we sought advice from Phu the guide. 

We checked-in, had a nap and ignored lunchtime – it just did not register on our body clocks - and then Phu (the guide) returned. Advice, he had told us was not enough, we would need help.  He was right, the solution involved rather more than finding Tesco’s and shovelling coins into a slot. Vietnam has no Tescos – nor any coins - and we would have had difficulty finding a photographer.

We took a taxi across the city centre (the area still known as Saigon) to a shop-front photographer.

After enquiring what they were for, our pictures were taken and pulled up on a computer. Before cropping to size, the photographer deftly removed the inappropriate background and then the bags from under my eyes. This was kind of her – after an overnight flight they were at their most capacious – but it was a passport photo and those bags are permanent features of my saggy face. She had less work to do on Lynne, but we both looked ten years younger when the photos were printed.

Lynne is prepared for her photograph
We dined with Phong, the manager of Haivenu Travel's Ho ChiMinh City branch and the man who did the hard work for this trip and our 2012 visit. We ate at Hua Toc one of half a dozen restaurants in a quiet courtyard off a busy street. The clientele were mainly tourists, with a sprinkling of Japanese businessmen – the city centre is home to many Japanese expats.
Spinach & Green Mango Salad,
Hua Toc, Saigon 

Phong had arranged an upmarket Vietnamese menu, fishcake wraps with spicy fish sauce, spinach and green mango salad with barbequed chicken and shallots, stir fried fillet of beef with watercress, pan fried tilapia with sautéed pineapples and finally banana and sago pearls in coconut cream.

Pan fried tilapia with pineapple, Hua Toc, Saigon
It may look like fish and chips, but the 'chips' were definitely pineapple
It tasted as well as it read and we were just awake enough to appreciate it. Thanks are due to Phong for the meal and the meticulous organisation of our entire journey.

Lynne & Phong, Hua Toc, Saigon
Before bed we watched ten minutes of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’. Being a millionaire in Vietnam is no big deal (1 million Dong buys around £30) so maybe they use a different title. The top prize was written as 150 000 (presumably 150 000 thousand, less than £5000). ‘Ask the Audience’ involved quizzing individual audience members, but otherwise the format and music were unchanged.


A good night’s sleep put my mind and body into the same time zone, though Lynne was less refreshed.

As arranged we met Chef Mai at Ban Thanh market at 8.30 where we were joined by a French foursome for a look at the produce before our cooking lesson.

Tropical fruit was abundant – and of high quality – exotic looking dragon fruit, pineapple, papaya, juicy mangoes, mangosteen, rambutan, longan, huge pale green custard apples and piles of durian smelling, as durians do, like overfull chemical toilets left out in the sun.

Durian & Dragon Fruit
Ban Thanh market, Saigon
Vegetables come from the cooler upland regions round Da Lat, 200km to the North. Many were familiar, but we had not previously seen lotus roots in their natural state (though we have often eaten them) or elephant ear plants whose stalks are used in soups.

The meat section was also high quality and included those parts of the beast we have difficulty finding at home; tails, tripe and huge marrowbones – though what you would do with cows’ tendons was a mystery.
Impressive ox tails, Ban Thanh Market, Saigon

There were many types of fish, mainly from the Mekong delta, some brightly coloured. Tilapia and bassa are becoming increasingly well-known at home, but many others were new to us and have no English names. There was fresh fish – much of it still alive – piles of dried fish and, incongruously, packs of imported salmon.

A selection of fish, Ban Thanh Market, Saigon
I am not a vegetarian and I know animals die for my food. I am not squeamish - I can skin and butcher a rabbit when required – but I am not uncaring. I believe it our duty to ensure the animals we eat live a natural life and have a quick death. I have often enjoyed eating frogs (they really do taste like chicken) and if there are many small, often sharp and shattered, bones, well that is a minor inconvenience. I had heard that frogs are not well treated in eastern markets but this was the first time I had seen a woman sitting on a low stool using a large pair of scissors to cut the legs off live frogs. Like Lynne and our French companions I averted my eyes and hurried past, which seems an inadequate response, but I don’t know what else we could have done. I will not eat frog again.

Soft shell crabs, Ban Thanh Market, Saigon
Just so we can all take our minds off the frogs
A short drive across town brought us to the Mai Home kitchen, more elegantly (or pretentiously) styled the Saigon Culinary Arts Centre.

Crossing the city it was clear that the shoals of motorcycles are as vast and undisciplined as they were two years ago, but I do not remember there being so many sites cleared for new building. Vietnam’s economic miracle is well behind China’s, but momentum is gathering.

At the Mai Home kitchen the six of us were guided through the preparation of fish spring rolls, green papaya salad with pork and shrimps and a Vietnamese chicken curry.
At our work stations, Mai Home kitchen, Saigon

We bought rice paper from a ‘factory’ in Cai Be two years ago but my attempts at producing spring rolls have been lamentable. Now I know how to make them so they do not disintegrate in the pan I will have another go.

Now those are proper spring rolls
Mai Home kitchen, Saigon
We also made the sweet chilli dipping sauce that accompanies most meals in Vietnam and Thailand. At home we buy it ready made, but the ingredients, sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and chillies are readily available so we can make our own. In England we can only easily get Thai fish sauce which (Mai told us) is made from tuna, while the Vietnamese version, like Worcester sauce, is based on anchovies.

The filling for the spring rolls involved snake-head fish and dried ear-mushroom, but we can find suitable substitutes.

The same cannot be said of the green papaya salad, the main ingredient is irreplaceable. Green papaya is shaved by hand into spaghetti-like strips and used as a salad vegetable. The papaya, with mint and other herbs, is topped with ready cooked pork and prawns (tom and thit in Vietnamese) and eaten with the dipping sauce.

The chicken curry was the only actual cooking we did, the rest was chopping and mixing. It was a simple dish relying on coconut milk and a commercial curry powder. Those who like to eat wet coconut based curries (and that includes me) would be better off in Thailand - or southern India - rather than Vietnam.

Eating our morning's work
Mai Home kitchen, Saigon
For lunch we ate our morning's work, and pretty impressive it was, too, even if I say so myself. We must have been good, we have certificates to prove it.

And we got certificates!
Mai Home kitchen, Saigon

In the afternoon we went to see another Mai, this one a musician rather than a chef. At the Truc Mai Music house, Tuyet Mai and her son Nhat played a variety of traditional instruments with great skill and panache.
Mai on a dulcimer (of sorts) accompanied by Nhat on monochord
Truc Mai Music House, Saigon
The monochord (if it has a Vietnamese name nobody used it) we have seen before. I could understand how manipulating the gizmo on the left tightened or slackened the string and allowed the performer to bend a note or apply vibrato, but I could not see how plucking the single string nearer to the gizmo raised the tone. After the performance I had a go and learned that as you pluck with the bamboo pick you lay the side of your hand on the string, thus shortening it and raising the note.

Letting an idiot loose on a monochord
Truc Mai Music House, Saigon

She played a series of bamboo tubes by clapping at one end to send a puff of air through the tube. Lynne and I could sometimes produce a note, sometimes no sound at all. Mai produced complex tunes with apparent ease.

The skilful can produce a tune from this while the beginner struggles to get a note
Truc Mai Music House, Saigon
Another set of bamboo tubes were set up as though you might rig a sail on them and struck with a double ended striker so both ends could be used at once or in rapid succession. Sliding the striker over the tubes produced a mellifluous glissando.

A sort of a bamboo xylophone
Truc Mai Music House, Saigon

The finale is best described as Fred Flintstone’s xylophone; tuned slabs of rock struck with wooden hammers. It looked crude, but sounded anything but.

One CD purchased, we returned to the hotel for a coffee and then strolled down to the market to buy some coffee beans to take home. Our walk took us past the opera house....

Saigon Opera House

....and the Hotel de Ville.

Lynne and a bougainvillea outside the Hotel de Ville, Saigon

On the way back we turned down Dong Khoi and walked to its end at the Saigon River.

Dong Khoi, the former Rue Catinat, Saigon
Dong Khoi was known as the Rue Catinat when it was the heart of French colonial Saigon. It was here that Graham Greene’s Thomas Fowler lived, where he met The Quiet American and drank Dubonnet with French policemen and American diplomats. The street has mirrored the fortunes of Saigon. As its colonial elegance faded, the American occupation turned it into a street of brothels and seedy bars. Under the first communist regime it became drab and run down, then came liberalisation and the Vietnamese economic miracle, so now it boasts names like Armani and Louis Vuitton. The Majestic Hotel, the shop called 'Nguyen Frères' and the small Hotel Catina (sic) are the only obvious remnants from colonial days.

The Saigon River at the end of Dong Khoi
In the evening we returned to Dong Khoi to eat, not at the Majestic (French food, French prices)....

The Hotel Majestic on the corner of the Rue Catinat (Dong Khoi)

... but at Pho24, a nationwide fast food chain which, unlike Kentucky Macpizza Whoppers is essentially Vietnamese and relies on fresh ingredients rather than trans fats. Cheap and wholesome, it was exactly what we needed.
Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos
Part 3: Chau Doc

1 comment:

  1. Great that you've got a photo of the Majestic, which is where we stayed. I agree that Pho 24 is a real find. The frogs bit reminded me that we watched them being skinned alive when living in H.K. Who would want to be a frog?!!! Hilary