It's five months since I returned from my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, so perhaps it seems odd to be posting this now. Recently I wasn't sure that I ever would post it. I returned to England - having not slept in 36 hours and carrying four gigantic suitcases containing everything from kimonos to chopsticks, from tea sets to boxes made out of cinnamon wood - armed with a notebook full of food-related memories and a host of noodle-related photos on my camera, determined to write an epic entry all about the food on my travels.
Then, as the days passed, I just couldn't bring myself to sit down and write it. This in part was due to laziness - one eats rather a lot in thirty-one days, and since pretty much everything I ate was worth documenting, the mammoth task of writing it all up was just too daunting. There was also a part of me that felt the memories would be ruined by putting them on here, by turning reminiscing into something too much like work.
Recently, though, I've realised how much I value posts about food I've eaten in other countries, like those on Prague, Italy, and the Middle East. Reading them over months or even years after the trips is a little like being there again. I remember dishes I'd completely forgotten, that I loved at the time, and I'm reminded to recreate them. Inextricably linked with those recollections of food are those involving places, sounds, smells, sights - all the little details you drink in while travelling but forget once the greyness of England has reclaimed your soul.
Although I may have lost something by not writing up my memories of Vietnam and Cambodia as soon as I returned, I don't feel it's too late. I still think about that trip every day, without fail, and I still feel almost crippling pangs of nostalgia and pining at certain moments - a song comes on my playlist from an album that I listened to almost continuously while out there (Ben Howard, Every Kingdom, should you be wondering); I find myself chopping up jagged shards of palm sugar that I bought in Cambodia; I go to sleep under a beautiful silken elephant bedspread, a souvenir from Siam Reap; I drink a cup of lime leaf or lotus leaf tea; I eat dinner with the chopsticks I purchased in Saigon. All these things serve to jog the memory in a powerfully bittersweet way. If something can conjure up that much emotion so long after the event itself, I feel it is worth writing about. I also hope anyone who reads it will enjoy it too - I promise not to be too self-indulgent - and maybe find inspiration to hopefully travel there themselves one day or, at the very least, cook up a new and exciting noodle dish.
I thought about the best way to arrange this post, since there is just so much to say, and I decided that the best way would be to work chronologically and geographically. I started my trip in Hanoi, so will begin there.
Well, technically, I began my trip in Saigon. After a gruelling 24-hour journey, involving two flights and a seven-hour stopover in Dubai, we arrived in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City (I'm still not sure which name to call this city by, and find myself alternating as the whim takes me). My initial impressions were of the humidity and the chaos of the place; the taxi ride to the hotel was a constant succession of pulsating neon lights and car/motorbike horns. Said neon lights were an interesting medley of advertisements for 'Massage' and 'Karaoke' (which often implies a brothel), and the giant outlines of pagodas, often affixed to restaurant facades. It reminded me of New York, only rather more ramshackle and mad. After checking into our hotel, we wandered the vicinity for a while, but in my exhausted state I found all the sights, smells and lights somewhat overwhelming. I saw delicious food being piled into bowls on every street, but - not speaking any Vietnamese and having no prior experience of east Asian culture - had no idea how to approach any of it and found the whole thing a little too intimidating. I went to bed, figuring I'd have more energy in the morning.
Wandering Saigon for a morning, my main highlight was finding the most wonderful smoothie stall, right near our hotel. These smoothies are so far from the stuff we get in the UK in (hugely expensive) bottles that you'd barely recognise them. A poster displayed a list of every fruit imaginable, including some I'd never tried or even heard of, and you could ask for your own combination to be blended up in front of you. I played safe with mango, pineapple and passionfruit. It came in a glass taller than my own face, garnished with slices of fresh pineapple and passionfruit seeds. After the tiring journey of the day(s) before, and coupled with the intense humidity, it was like drinking nectar.
This had a profound and lasting effect on my entire trip; wherever we went next, my first priority was to find a smoothie stall. I drank at least one every single day, my favourite being a 'mango shake', which I think tastes so good in Vietnam because they add a lot of sweet condensed milk to it. I never watched as these smoothies were made, preferring to be blissfully ignorant of how fattening my beverage of choice truly was. Besides, in the exhausting heat, I figure I'd earned it.
The most incredible part was that these smoothies never cost more than the equivalent of 80p. I couldn't believe it. In England, you'd pay at least £5 for the privilege of having fresh fruit blended with ice before your eyes and put in a plastic cup. In Vietnam, where the tropical fruit is so much fresher and sweeter, it costs a fraction of the price. As an ardent lover of fruit, I could barely believe my luck. Coming a close second to a mango shake was a papaya shake, which I drank every day in Cambodia. Papaya is one of my favourite fruits, and when combined with condensed milk or - as I had in Hanoi - coconut cream, makes for basically a dessert in a cup. I never found a smoothie stall as good as that one in Saigon, though, which perhaps explains why it was always so busy. Moments spent perched in its dingy alleyway on little plastic stools, sipping sweet, cold fruit as the sweat ran down the back of my neck, were moments to be savoured.
Visiting Ben Thanh market in Saigon also prepared me for the wonder that is the Asian market. I was assaulted by the scent of dried shrimp and fish, sizzling meat on a grill, wafts of aromatic noodle broth emerging from giant cooking vats, the omnipresent aroma of the infamous durian fruit (more on that later, it deserves a whole paragraph!) and the heady scent of freshly ground coffee.
The market sold all sorts of clothes and souvenirs too, but this is a food blog, so I'll keep it gastronomic.
There were piles of translucent, vivid orange dried shrimp, in all grades and sizes; huge stiff fillets of dried fish hanging from rails; piles of vivid guava, dragonfruit, rambutans, mangoes, custard apples, bananas, pineapple; huge jars of tea leaves and coffee beans; numerous jars of different types of chilli sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce. In the middle of it all there were stalls selling food to eat there and then. Overwhelmed by it all, we followed our eyes and noses to a busy stall producing delicious-looking food. I ordered fresh spring rolls and bun cha, two classic Vietnamese dishes I was keen to try.
Once you've had a fresh Vietnamese spring roll - slightly squidgy rice paper wrapper, crunchy vivid green herbs, soft tangle of rice noodles, tender and flavoursome prawn, pork or crab, sweet-sour dipping sauce - you'll never want to touch those greasy Chinese restaurant versions again. They're a textural delight, filling and delicious. Bun cha - cold rice noodles with grilled pork, herbs, and a sweet-sour dipping sauce - is in the same vein. Everything is so fresh, crunchy and vibrant, healthy but indulgent at the same time.
This was the moment I, to be nauseatingly clichéd, fell in love with Vietnamese food. Before my trip, I'd been a bit 'meh' about Asian food. I would eat it, and enjoy it, but my idea of going out for dinner as a treat never stretched to Asian food. I considered it fuel, rather than something to be seen as special. Now, given a choice of restaurants, I will always go for Asian food. I have been completely won over by its freshness, its healthiness, its miraculous understanding of texture and contrast, all thanks to Vietnam.
We had an awful flight to Hanoi, involving huge amounts of turbulence. As a nervous flyer, I found this rather traumatic. I found it much more traumatic later, however, when we arrived in the city and saw that the storm into which we had flown had actually uprooted trees from the pavement and smashed them into houses. A spine-chilling moment if ever there was one.
Hanoi is not what you would call pretty, but I loved it. It has an old-world charm about it, with its narrow streets, even narrower buildings, bustle of shops and markets, and beautiful lake. It is full of life in a very different way to the much more modern and Westernised Saigon. It was also my first experience of tropical weather, and the first and last outing of my lovely new leather sandals on my trip. After a couple of hours trudging around deep grey puddles, they were swiftly relegated to the bottom of my backpack and replaced with a nasty cheap pair of foam velcro sandals. So constant and torrential was the rain that a maroon plastic poncho became my best friend. I like to think it helped me to blend in with the locals. Until they saw my face or the colour of my hair, that is.
Also, I know this is a food blog rather than a travel blog, but if you're going to Hanoi, I'd highly recommend staying at Hanoi Guesthouse. It's right in the centre of the city, it's a very attractive little hotel (they put rose petals on our beds for when we arrived - shame we weren't actually a couple), and the staff are beyond friendly; they will go out of their way to make sure everything is perfect for you, bringing you cold drinks every time you come back after a hot day sightseeing, arranging Halong Bay tours, booking train tickets, etc. Also, the pineapple pancakes at breakfast are delicious.
My first meal in Hanoi was at a restaurant across the street from our hotel. I had cha ca thang long, a dish of white fish cooked in a turmeric-rich broth. It was cooked in a burner placed on our table, in front of me, which was quite exciting. The fish is served with its sauce and a large amount of fresh dill - surprising, since it's not a herb I saw at any other point in Vietnam - plus a scattering of peanuts. And, of course, rice. It was absolutely delicious. The fish had been grilled first to give it a lovely caramelised exterior, and then the aromatics of the broth turned it wonderfully moist and flavoursome.
I also had an utterly bizarre plate of food at another restaurant one night. The waitress recommended the 'fish in passion fruit sauce' to me. I was sceptical, but as I love fruit in savoury dishes, and as I didn't want to doubt her taste, I ordered it. What arrived in front of me was a plate of deep-fried fish chunks, smothered in what can only be described as a passion fruit coulis. You know, the kind you get on a cheesecake or a meringue. That is where passion fruit coulis should stay. It is not made to be put on fried fish. The entire thing was totally bizarre, a strange hybrid of main course and dessert. Even I don't like that much fruit in my main courses.
The highlight of our stay in Hanoi was doing a street food tour with Hanoi Cooking Centre. This was a brilliant idea, and I'd really recommend it if you travel to Hanoi, because it demystifies the initially rather intimidating world of street food.
Food in Vietnam is very unlike our English restaurant scene. The best food comes not from restaurants, but out of tiny ramshackle stalls or buildings specialising in a single dish, often perfected over decades by the families that run the stall. I saw women sitting on the middle of the pavement, with a mat on which were placed little bowls of ingredients, shaving green papaya with potato peelers, ready to sell their papaya salads from that very spot. There were vats of noodle broth bubbling away down dark, dingy alleyways, often with a large queue of hungry Vietnamese to match. People sit on tiny stools, the kind we have for children at nursery, in the middle of the street. They don't order, there is no menu, they just sit down and are brought whatever the speciality of that stall is, to wolf down with simple wooden chopsticks from a communal pot.
If you're new to all this, though, it can be a little confusing. Our wonderful guide from the cooking school took us to his favourite street food stops over the course of a morning. We tried some of Hanoi's best street food; as a local, he knew all the best places to take us. First, we breakfasted as the Vietnamese do, with a bowl of steaming pho (pronounced 'fur').
This is often cited as Vietnam's 'national dish', and it's true, there are signs proclaiming 'PHO' nearly everywhere you go. Pho is generally available in two types, though some places specialise in just one. There is pho ga, which is made with chicken, and pho bo, which is made with beef. For both, the making of the broth is an incredibly long process, involving up to 24 hours of simmering bones and aromatics. This flavoursome, clean liquid is ladled into bowls containing a tangle of thick rice noodles, beansprouts, and the meat. It might just be shreds of chicken, or you might also get little meatballs made of chicken and sometimes chicken offal. It might be slices of cooked beef, or beef meatballs, or slices of raw steak that are cooked to rare by the hot broth. The pho is served alongside lime halves and vinegar; our guide told us that the lime is used for pho ga, and the vinegar for pho bo.
I was initially sceptical about the idea of soup for breakfast. Breakfast for me is strictly a sweet meal. Very occasionally I might make myself some eggs on toast, but almost without exception my breakfast consists of fruit with porridge, muesli, or toast. Meat for breakfast is definitely not something that would ever fill me with happiness.
Yet during the frenzy of a month's travelling, a constant medley of euphoric energy and sheer, humid exhaustion, a bowl of cleansing broth in the morning became more than welcome. I actually began to crave it. One of the best bowls of pho I ate was at Dong Hoi station, before catching a train to Hue. I'd woken at 5.45 to get to the station and hadn't eaten. We brought baguettes and jam with us, but rather than eat those, I went to a little stall outside the station and was presented with a beautiful china bowl of broth, topped with the most delicious pink beef slices. It was exactly what my tired body needed, which is perhaps why it remains in my memory as such a highlight.
Pho is more than a bowl of soup; it is the ultimate in comfort food, the ultimate one-bowl meal. Filling, nutritious and soul-saving, pho brightened a couple of very emotional and draining days in Vietnam. Sitting hunched over a wooden bench, squeezing tiny lime halves into the bowl, inhaling the meaty aroma, its steam condensing on your already-sweating face, tangling the slippery noodles around your chopsticks...it's a ritual, one I came to love, and one that I miss the most now I'm home.
The next dish we tried on our tour was one of my favourites; ban cuon. This is a deliciously squidgy pancake made from rice flour batter, which is steamed and then wrapped around a pork and mushroom filling and sprinkled with fried onions, dried shrimp and Vietnamese herbs, served with a dip of fish sauce and lime juice.
One thing that's so addictive about Vietnamese food is the contrast in textures. Here you have deliciously gooey pancake, rather like dim sum dumplings, tender, flavoursome filling, and the crunch of the fried onions and dried shrimp. It's salty and umami-rich, brightened by the sweet-sour-salty dipping sauce. A plate costs 30p, which is just insane. I watched the women at work making the ban cuon: ladling batter onto a sheet of muslin stretched over a bubbling pot, removing it after a few seconds with a palette knife and deftly sliding it onto an oiled work surface, where it was stuffed with its filling before being sliced into pieces and served. It was one of the most delicious, fresh, satisfying things I've ever eaten, and something totally impossible to truly recreate outside Vietnam.
Our guide also showed us this curious water beetle, which he chopped into pieces and put in the dipping sauce. Apparently the juice inside this bug is highly valuable, and it imparted this bizarre floral fragrance to the sauce. I wasn't so keen on it, but initially I thought he wanted us to eat the whole bug, legs and all, so I was a bit relieved (although quite up for trying it, as none of the boys were!).
Another street food dish I loved was ban xao, a rice pancake but this time fried until golden and crispy. It's folded over beansprouts, herbs and shrimp (sometimes other things too, like pork) so it looks rather like a cornish pasty, and at our stall was then cut into pieces (with a pair of rusty scissors - so far removed from the flashy chef's knives of Western cooking) and stuffed inside Vietnamese spring rolls, to be dipped in another sweet-sour dipping sauce. Again, this is all about a contrast of textures, and the crispy fried pancake against the sweet sauce is delicious.
On our street food tour we were also introduced to bia hoi, fresh beer - as a hater of beer this did not excite me, and I was not converted - and Vietnamese coffee, which is fiendishly strong and sweetened with condensed milk. I found it far too sweet, and since even the one sip I did have left me shaking for a good two hours afterwards, it's probably a good thing I didn't develop a taste for it. I did rather love the ritual of putting the simple tin coffee pot over the cup and letting the inky black liquid percolate, though.
We were also taken to a market at the beginning of our tour, where our guide demystified some of the more unusual Vietnamese ingredients. There were huge leafy piles of herbs I've never seen before, and have never seen since. We tasted Vietnamese coriander which, unlike the version we get here, had long, straight leaves. We tried Vietnamese 'fish mint', a minty herb with a strong fish flavour that is apparently an acquired taste, though I liked it. Most Vietnamese food is placed on the table with a tin plate of just-washed fresh herbs, droplets of water still clinging to their leaves. These are placed in spring rolls, scattered over bowls of noodles or immersed in soup at the table, before eating. In England it would seem bizarre to munch on bunches of fresh herbs as part of a meal, but I really enjoyed this tradition in Vietnam. It made the meal seem so much fresher and healthier.
I also got this amazing photo of a chicken for sale. Gruesome and horrible, but quite cool, I think.
Other interesting market highlights were net bags of fertilized duck eggs, i.e. with the embryo inside. I never got to try these (and I'm not too sad about it), but I did find it interesting when our guide explained that the Vietnamese eat them largely for the extra protein from the baby duck bones. Given that meat is expensive in Vietnam, and very few Vietnamese dishes contain much of it, or anything protein-rich, fertilized duck eggs are a valuable source of nutrients. The eggs are kept in a net bag rather than simply in a bowl in case the eggs hatch and the ducks crawl out, which I found a little creepy.
We also saw baskets of fresh turmeric and galangal, bags of live frogs, tubs of huge snails, big plastic bowls with live fish swimming around (the live animal stuff did upset me a bit - one major drawback to life in the far east is the decline in animal welfare standards), meat being hacked up with cleavers while rivulets of blood ran down the ground, and rows of bottled fish sauce. Apparently the best Vietnamese fish sauce is made from black mackerel rather than anchovies, which I found interesting. The key to good quality is if you shake it and see lots of bubbles, and no sediment, as our guide demonstrated for us. I nearly bought a bottle to take home, but thinking of the consequences of it smashing in my suitcase deterred me.
For someone used to buying their produce neatly wrapped in plastic bags in the sterile environment of the Western supermarket, Asian markets are something of a revelation (in both a positive and a negative way). Everything is so much more vibrant, so much more present - you can see, touch, smell and almost taste your ingredients before purchasing them. The fish are still thrashing, the frogs still crawling around - a far cry from the supermarket fish counter, which sometimes houses week-old specimens (though I'd probably prefer that to seeing my fish decapitated in front of me). The fruit is neon-bright, piled high in abundant plenty. The floors are covered in puddles, a mixture of monsoon rain, blood, and fish guts. Motorbikes zoom through aisles barely wider than a human being, up and down steps, so your shopping trip is frequently interrupted by a near-miss moment or the screeching of motorbike horns (a near-constant sound in Vietnam). I couldn't quite believe these mopeds were just screeching around the market without anyone batting an eyelid.
After a relaxing few days wandering the wonderful shops of Hanoi, eating street food, strolling around the lake, getting amazingly cheap (non-dodgy) massages and drinking papaya coconut smoothies, we had a three-day tour of Halong Bay. Nothing special to report here, food-wise - the cruise ship food was lovely, but a lot of it was quite Westernised - but photos of the scenery speak for themselves. We swam in the bath-warm turquoise water, kayaked around the amazing rock formations, and had a fun few hours jumping off the side of our boat into the sea. It was idyllic, in the truest sense of the word.
Our next stop was Phong Nha Ke Bang, a national park in north west Vietnam that has only really just opened to tourists. Containing over 104km of caves and underground rivers, including the largest cave yet discovered in the world, this park houses a treasure trove of geological and ecological interest. If you want all the facts, click the link. If you want to hear what I thought about it, well, it was basically like Jurassic Park.
We arrived at Phong Nha Farmstay, our accommodation for two nights, located in the middle of lush rice paddies near a local village, having just emerged bleary-eyed from the overnight train. We were almost force-fed breakfast (more pineapple pancakes), then rushed onto a tour of the park along with a group of other guests. I initially thought we'd been the lucky ones when we got to ride in the open-topped jeep instead of the minibus; wind blowing through our hair, rock music blaring on the stereo, incredible scenery all around...but then a tropical downpour began. Oops. It took me two days to get dry clothes again.
We spent the day walking around the jungle, exploring gigantic caves (if you think you've been in a cave before, you really haven't until you've seen something of this magnitude), constantly reapplying insect repellent, and generally marvelling at the incredible beauty of the scenery: lush vegetation, towering cliffs, rushing rivers. The park is very near the Laos border, which makes me want to go to Laos, as the scenery was just insanely beautiful. Everything was so, so green - you don't get vegetation that green in England. Cows and water buffalo were roaming everywhere, camel-coloured dots breaking up the intense green of the horizon.
We went swimming in one of the rivers, many of us finding ourselves clinging onto the safety rope to avoid being swept away by the current. The water was cold; it was a relief to find ourselves somewhere substantially cooler and breezier than sweaty, polluted Hanoi. I'm a big lover of outdoor swimming, particularly refreshing after the cramped heat of the Vietnam night train. You haven't really done it until you've done it in a sweeping valley surrounded by towering cliffs and creeping jungle.
On our second day in Phong Nha, we borrowed bikes from the farmstay and cycled to Phong Nha cave, which we accessed by boat along its underground river. It was magical and mystical and beautiful and wonderful, dark and silent except for the plash of the oar hitting the water...until our boat driver put some Asian rave techno music on his phone to accompany the return journey. Something of a mood-killer.
We passed lots of rural houses along the way, which invariably resulted in wild cries of 'HELLO!' from the local villagers. The children often came out to high-five us as we cycled past. It was a huge contrast to Hanoi, where there are so many tourists that the locals often seem quite jaded about them. I wasn't quite prepared for the ambush we experienced on passing a local school - every child in the playground rushed out to wave and shout hello at us.
I realise this was meant to be about food, and I've got rather sidetracked. Phong Nha was without doubt the highlight of my trip. I met some wonderful people there, had a fantastic time, and was surrounded for a couple of days by the most heartbreakingly beautiful landscape I've ever seen in my life. I also saw my first firefly during the second night, which was slightly ridiculously exciting. Less exciting was being casually groped by a group of Vietnamese men on a motorbike, but I tend to forget that part when reminiscing nostalgically. 'Getting away from it all' doesn't even do justice to how amazing it was to be out amongst the quiet of the rice paddies and the palm trees and the sunset.
We did eat well, too - on the way back from Phong Nha cave we stopped at a little restaurant and gorged ourselves on fish, rice and vegetables for some tiny amount of money. I forget what we ate, though, because I was too distracted by the magic of the place.
Next stop was Hue, the old imperial city. It is known for its luxurious food traditions, a relic of the days when it was the centre of Vietnamese royalty. To please the royal palates, Hue's chefs came up with a huge array of dishes, many of which were designed to be eaten as small bites, tapas-style. Our introduction to food in Hue began with a very untraditional but still delicious passion fruit jam, served with the toast our hotel plied us with when we arrived. I hadn't actually expected breakfast at 11.30am, but it was deeply welcome nonetheless. I still have a plan to make that jam at home one day.
The indisputable highlights of Hue were the citadel and the Royal Tombs. We visited the former on our first day there, emerging from the hotel to glorious sunshine and finding ourselves, half an hour later, sheltering at the entrance to the citadel to avoid the torrential rain that lasted all of the afternoon. After a while we just went with it, running shrieking through the puddles and getting enjoyably drenched. The beauty of Vietnam is that even if you do get soaked in the rain, you dry off within minutes once it eases off and the sun comes out
I also spotted my first real elephant (zoos aside, of course) in the citadel grounds, which was more than a little exciting. The citadel buildings made me feel like an extra in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; they were absolutely stunning, particularly where little purple flowers had carpeted the moats. In a way the rain made it even more atmospheric, the resplendent reds, oranges and golds of the buildings shimmering reflected in the deep puddles, the colours seeming so much brighter and more impressive against the backdrop of the gloomy skies.
Hungry after our sightseeing, we visited the giant market, where I went on a fruit-buying frenzy, keen to try all these exotic unfamiliar specimens I'd seen so far on my travels. I tried pomelo, like a giant sweet grapefruit, which is often used to make a delicious salad. I tried mangosteen, which looks like a squat brown tomato, with a very thick skin and a soft, juicy, lobed centre, reminiscent in texture of a banana, that is incredibly sweet and fragrant, tasting a little like a lychee. I tried green-skinned oranges, which were quite sour. We sat outside the market and devoured our treasure armed with a penknife and some hand sanitiser. A woman addressed us as we roamed the stalls - "Where you from?" When we replied "England", she looked surprised. "Oh but you very slim! You look like Vietnamese!"
Which I take as a massive personal compliment, and a very sad but true approximation of the state of Western obesity rates.
Hue was one of my favourite places on the trip, for reasons I can't quite place. It has a certain grandeur about it, built on either side of the huge, majestic 'Perfume River', and home to the glorious citadel and Royal Tombs. It's also full of life, but in a quieter, more understated way than Hanoi or Saigon. Maybe it was because it was the first city we'd visited that felt spacious, that gave you room to move and breathe without the constant assault of motorbikes. The food was also excellent, as you'd expect from somewhere with such a reputation. On the first day we ate a selection of dishes from a stall in the market, including some strange dumplings with an eerie translucent exterior that looked a bit like alien eggs, but I think housed prawns. They were tasty, if a strange texture. We also ate grilled pork skewers and noodle soup. On the first night we went to a restaurant called Anh Binh, and I had the most glorious vermicelli noodles with crab meat, which were richly garlicky and incredibly delicious, an Asian version of the Italian crab linguine I used to love at a restaurant near my boyfriend's house. I had something similar again in Saigon on the last day of our trip, because I loved it so much.
Incidentally, I should also mention our wonderful hotel, HueNino. If you're going to Hue, stay here. It's insanely cheap, which I can't quite fathom because it's great. The rooms are nice (although ours had a see-through glass bathroom door, which was a bit weird), but it's the staff that really make it - they're so friendly, and will greet you with iced tea or juice every time you walk in the door. Breakfast is also excellent.
Hue was also where I discovered the joy of Vietnamese motorbike riding. That is, sitting on the back of one while a much more experienced (and brave) local guide does all the driving (read: avoiding other maniac drivers). Our guides, Mr Tri and Anh, took us on a fantastic tour of the best of the tombs, which were absolutely incredible, imposing and dark and vaguely Gothic-looking in places. The real perk was their local knowledge - they took us to a fantastic restaurant where we couldn't spot a single tourist, and we ate bun thit nuong (see below), now one of my favourite dishes - cold vermicelli noodles with grilled marinated pork and a peanut sauce. They were so cool and refreshing in the heat of the day, after sitting on the bike all morning - it's surprisingly tiring being a passenger, I think because I was constantly fearing for my life and holding tightly onto Anh's shoulders for the entire morning.
It's interesting how, in Vietnam, the horn is the indicator. You use it to signal that you're about to do something that might jeopardise others on the road, so basically, all the time. I do maintain, though, that Vietnamese drivers - like Syrian drivers, as I found out two years ago - are far better and safer than English ones, because they expect people to do stupid things on the road the whole time, so are generally better at avoiding accidents than us Westerners, who are taken aback by mad driving.
Bun thit nuong I developed a love for this cheap thrill, though, so when Mr Tri and Anh offered to drive us by motorbike to Hoi An, our next stop, instead of us taking the bus, we jumped at the chance. I was incredibly sceptical about them getting all of our luggage onto two little motorbikes, though, and Mr Tri's "You don't worry, in Vietnam we carry water buffalo on motorbike!" did little to reassure me.
I watched with wonder the next morning as they wrapped our luggage in big waterproof bags and strapped it tightly to the tiny luggage rack on the back of the bikes with leather cords. The only casualty of the journey was my newly-purchased conical hat (they make special ones in Hue that have a pattern woven inside them that you can see when you hold the hat up to the light), which I'd foolishly put in my back - it got rather squashed from the straps.
Aside from the adrenaline rush, one of the major perks of a Vietnamese motorbike guide (or 'Easy Rider', as they call themselves) is the local knowledge. Constantly being marked out as a target for scams and harassment because of my obvious tourist appearance, and the victim of what I call 'tourist inflation', i.e. when prices quoted to you are approximately a hundred times more than those given to the local Vietnamese, it was a relief to be able to travel with locals. There are two main advantages: a) you pay the local price for everything, which is a plus both for financial reasons and also because it gives an interesting insight into how much things are actually worth in this country and b) you see how the locals eat - where they go, what they order, how they eat it.
Some of the best food from my trip was consumed during a motorbike stop. Many of these 'restaurants' seemed actually to be the converted living rooms of houses lining the roads - sometimes you'd be sitting at a plastic table slurping noodle soup while the children and teenagers of the house lounged around on hammocks and watched cartoons. One house we visited had a group of tiny-eyed puppies in the back yard, which couldn't have been more than a week old. On the ride to Hoi An, I ate the best rice dish I think I've ever had (see above) - fried rice with seafood and pineapple. It was a delectable combination of incredibly fresh seafood, juicy pineapple, tart tomatoes, caramelised onion, and slightly spicy aromatic rice, complete proof of the fact that in simplicity lies deliciousness.
Combine this gastronomic pleasure with the absolutely incredible views of bright, bright blue sky, emerald ocean and mountainous terrain that were also part of our ride to Hoi An, and you have a pretty memorable day. We stopped at 'Elephant Springs' along the way, for no other reason than to allow us to swim around in a waterfall and jump repeatedly off a giant stone elephant sculpture. We saw Danang, and I was glad I hadn't included this industrial beach resort town in our itinerary. I got hideously sunburnt, unable to feel the power of the midday sun, masked as it was by the wind rushing past the motorbike. This was all forgotten after a few days in Hoi An, however.
Hoi An is a beautiful little riverside town. It's the tailoring capital of Vietnam, and shops advertising personalised clothing made in hours are on every single corner. There isn't much of note to do, but you can happily pass your time browsing the huge number of souvenir shops, getting clothes made (in my case two shirts, a skirt and a ballgown, while the female Vietnamese shop assistants cooed over my 'beautiful' white skin and 'golden' hair, which in England would simply be perceived as 'pasty' and 'brown'), sipping fruit smoothies at stalls by the river, marvelling at the fresh produce of the markets, and sampling the food, which is surprisingly good and untainted for a tourist town.
Or you could also do as I did, and go on a cookery class with the Red Bridge cookery school.
After a serene ride down the river, with verdant palm-tree lined banks on both side, you arrive at a little oasis of calm and culinary accomplishment. You wander around its kitchen garden, and if you're anything like me you'll marvel at the sight of lemongrass growing out of the ground, and keep smelling curious herbs like 'pineapple basil'. You then watch as a chef demonstrates how to make a series of dishes, and - if you have the same chef as me - laugh at his ridiculous and occasionally mildly offensive banter. You try everything he makes, proclaiming how good it is, particularly enjoying the seafood stir-fry served in a hollowed fresh pineapple. You then have a go for yourself, learning how to ladle thick rice batter onto muslin over a pot of water to make squidgy rice pancakes for stuffing; learning how to stir-fry aubergine with garlic, lemongrass and ginger to make a delicious spicy stew; learning how to pour rice batter into a hot, smoking pan to make the crispy pancake you tried in Hanoi.
I had a brilliant time learning to cook Vietnamese food, and found myself barely able to eat the lunch they provided for us (mackerel grilled in banana leaf, see above), so much had we eaten over the course of the morning while we cooked. The beautiful setting of the cookery school, the fact that it has its own outdoor pool which you can use (in retrospect, not the best idea after ingesting such a huge quantity of food - I'm surprised I didn't drown) and the entertaining chefs would make it enjoyable even if you weren't that into cooking, but as I am, I relished the opportunity to attempt Vietnamese food, and learn a little bit of what makes this country's cuisine so special.
Hoi An brought more delicious food, mostly at the Morning Glory 'street food restaurant', which also has its own cooking school. This place aims to reproduce the street food classics of Vietnam, but in a slightly more formal setting, along with some other more modern dishes invented by its own chefs. On our first visit here I had a local speciality, Cao Lao - a salty broth with herbs, marinated pork and crispy flat croutons, with a tangle of very thick noodles, much thicker than I had tried before in Vietnam. It was deeply moreish and savoury, the ultimate comfort food. Apparently all Cao Lao noodles are made with water from the Ba Le well in Hoi An, but I'm pretty sure this is just an urban myth. The exact recipe is also a closely guarded secret.
On our third night we also ate at Morning Glory, where I had my first taste of pomelo salad and started a new addiction. The sweet, juicy flesh of the pomelo - like a milder, sweeter, larger grapefruit - coupled with the traditional sweet/sharp/salty/sour Vietnamese salad dressing, coupled with crunchy peanuts, crunchy vegetables and - optionally - prawns or meat, is an absolute delight for the tastebuds. It tastes healthy, nourishing, yet its contrast of textures and flavours make it a real treat. I also had a delicious smoky marinated mackerel, wrapped in a banana leaf. Wrapping meat or fish in these leaves and grilling them has an amazing ability to preserve the moist succulence of it while lending an addictive smoky flavour.
Hoi An was where I tried my first banh mi (glamorously perched on my rucksack, above - no time for food styling on holiday!) This is another classic Vietnamese street/snack food, and its exact makeup varies. Generally, however, our banh mi were usually a sturdy baguette (Vietnamese baguettes are fatter than French ones, and have a much crispier crust with a very airy, fluffy interior) stuffed with crunchy pickled vegetables, various cuts of pork, some pork pâté, salad, and - optionally - chilli sauce and garlic mayonnaise. They are, it has to be said, the ultimate sandwich. Way better than a BLT or a brie and bacon, they are again a masterclass in texture and flavour contrast, plus deeply satisfying food to eat on the go. We got ours from reportedly the best banh mi stand in Hoi An, and they didn't disappoint.
I also first tried sugar cane juice in Hoi An. I had no idea what to expect when I watched a man use a purpose-built machine to crush thick shards of sugar cane into a clear, frothy and slightly green-tinged liquid, but I was pleasantly surprised. Sugar cane juice is not nearly as sweet as its name would suggest. It has a mellow, sweet, refreshing flavour that is hard to describe - rather like one of those citrus-flavoured mineral waters you can buy. I think sometimes it's mixed with lime juice before serving. Anyway, it's possibly the most refreshing thing I drunk on my entire trip, and when we cycled the Mekong Delta a week or so later, in 36C heat and at considerable speed, it was the most welcome thing ever to pass my lips.
Hoi An provided me with my first dessert of my entire trip. Vietnam isn't big on desserts, like many Asian countries. They have their share of strange bean cakes, but generally your sweet fix will come from a smoothie or some fruit from a roadside stall, if you're desperate for it. However, one of the restaurants I ate at in Hoi An had a very Westernised dessert menu, and I couldn't resist ordering ice cream in various tropical flavours (ginger, lemongrass, and cinnamon, I think); I also returned to its cafe one afternoon, in need of sugar, and ate a delicious piece of pineapple upside-down cake and ice cream. It was nice to indulge in something a bit more unhealthy than all the virtuous lean meat, fish and noodle dishes we'd been subsisting on so far. That said, I didn't find myself missing Western desserts and cakes after a while, and returned to the UK with noble intentions to cut all such things out of my diet and maintain this healthy Asian way of living. You can imagine how long that lasted.
Onwards, to Nha Trang, apparently the party capital of Vietnam - so god knows what I was doing there. Ah yes, I went for the diving. We did two dives off the coast, which was wonderful for me because it was the first recreational diving I'd ever done. I learned to dive with the Royal Navy in Gibraltar, and as you can imagine it was pretty hardcore (as discussed in my post here), mostly safety stuff and obsessive briefing. Here we swam around and looked at pretty fishes, and there was no requirement to separate myself from my breathing and/or vision equipment - score! I saw lionfish, scorpion fish, rainbow fish, and my first octopus, which was not impressed at being poked with a stick and squidged threateningly out of his hiding place.
There isn't much to say about Nha Trang, in terms of food, as I don't really remember eating much of it for some reason. I do remember a slightly traumatic second night there, which saw me wandering around the city at night (a crazy medley of rushing motorbikes and neon lights advertising Westernised bars and drinks deals) feeling hideously emotional and unsure whether to throw myself under a passing moped or go and get some pho. I opted for the latter, seeing as the Vietnamese motorbike drivers are so good at avoiding obstacles that I'd probably just have ended up standing in the road being beeped at. The pho was your standard bowl of noodley broth, but, as chicken soup is so reportedly adept at doing, it quieted my raging soul a little and let me leave my worries behind, lost in the ritual of slurping and twining noodles round chopsticks. A true testament to the power of food.
Further escapism came in the form of a three-day motorbike tour of the central highlands of Vietnam. This would take us from Nha Trang to Dalat and back again, via, oh, just the most incredible scenery you've ever witnessed in your life. Well, I suppose that depends on how exciting and travel-heavy your life has been, but this certainly made a lasting impression on me. My photos of the central highlands don't really do it justice, because it's hard to grasp the sweeping majesty of the panoramic vistas when rendered in 2D. Suffice to say, though, that it was incredible. I've said 'lush vegetation' quite a few times above, in reference to Phong Nha, but this was even lusher, if that's a word (which Blogger spellcheck tells me it isn't).
We passed sugar cane plantations, coffee bean plantations, beautiful verdant rice paddies, towering hills lined with palm trees. We frequently had to come to a screeching halt to allow crowds of pigs, goats or water buffalo to meander at their own pace across the roads. We stopped at a huge waterfall and clambered around slippery muddy rocks to try and get closer to where it hit the river.
The downside to going up 1500m into the mountains is that we got drenched. I remember several hours of biking through thick cloud that poured rain onto us with a vengeance, thanking heaven for the visor on my helmet. Our motorbike guides had, of course, come prepared for this. I was given some very durable thick green waterproofs, which made my journey a bit of a breeze, as the only bit of me getting wet was my feet. My travelling companion was not so lucky - he was given a flimsy neon yellow rain poncho, which kept his torso dry but not much else, and that was when it hadn't ripped to pieces, as those things do easily.
Our motorbike guides were, I suspect, completely and utterly mad. They were also great fun, largely because we had no idea where we were going or what we were doing most of the time, so never knew what to expect. Our trips were frequently punctuated with stops for hot tea: the cooler temperatures of the highlands made this a real reward, and that was the only tea I managed to drink in Vietnam, it being too damn hot the rest of the time to stomach it. This also meant that our first food stop, where we ate a delicious broth with shrimp and pork meatballs and rice noodles, was also the first time I'd eaten noodle soup when I wasn't sweating profusely from the humidity.
I don't think we got the most favourable impression of Dalat. Supposed to be incredibly beautiful, like a cross between Vietnam and the French riviera, Dalat is where many Vietnamese go for their honeymoon (including our motorbike driver). However, we arrived in the dusk, in the pouring rain, and went straight to our hotel, where we shivered away wishing we'd thought to bring jumpers or socks - it was like England in temperature. We went and had something to eat, wandered around a little night market where I tried artichoke tea (as horrible as it sounds), but were so exhausted by the journey and the cold that we just went to bed afterwards. The next morning we left early.
I'm sure Dalat has its charms, but unfortunately I never saw them. It's known, though, for its flower and fruit/vegetable production - because its climate is so much cooler than the rest of Vietnam, things can be grown there that you won't find elsewhere, like strawberries, artichokes, and a huge variety of fresh flowers. We visited one of the huge greenhouses where they grow these flowers. I nearly bought a jar of Dalat strawberry jam, before remembering that I come from England, where the strawberry is pretty much our national fruit. I also remember passing lots of persimmon orchards on our journey, and seeing huge bags of them piled up by the road, waiting to be transported somewhere. For some reason they harvest them when they're green, which I presume means underripe. I wonder why - perhaps for making some kind of chutney or paste for savoury cooking, perhaps.
It does amaze me a bit that the Vietnamese use unripe papaya and mango so much in their cooking - when unripe, the taste of these is pretty similar to any crunchy vegetable, so it seems like such a waste, when a ripe, golden papaya or mango is such a beautiful thing!
On our way to the next stop, we paused to visit the 'weasel coffee' farm. If you haven't heard of weasel coffee, it's basically as follows: in the past, weasels in the wild would eat coffee beans. They were discerning, and would only sniff out and eat the best coffee beans. Some bright spark came up with the idea of harvesting the beans that the weasels had excreted, and grinding it to brew coffee. The result is hugely expensive and considered a real delicacy in the coffee world. However, the practice has become hugely industrialised, and weasels are now just kept in small cages and force-fed coffee beans. This means that they are constantly high on caffeine and unable to sleep, and the entire practice is just disgusting. I was really upset at seeing the poor weasels in their cages, some chasing their tails out of madness, some simply slumped in a corner having appeared to give up hope. I was really tempted to let them out of their cages, but figured it wasn't really my place to do that. Our guides asked us if we wanted to try the coffee, but I refused; I was so horrified by the sight of the weasels. If you do ever go to south east Asia, and are offered weasel coffee, I'd urge you to think twice about implicitly condoning something so awful.
Our next stop was Dak Lak, a beautiful lake in the middle of the highlands. We stayed in a small village there, and when I went for a walk by the lake at sunset (spectacular views), I was accosted by some of the local children. All they could say in English was 'hello', but they made up for the language barrier by shouting it with great vehemence while they waved and made the peace sign at me. I took a photo of them with my camera, and they were mesmerised to see themselves appear in the little preview screen. They also didn't seem to grasp how cameras work, that you're supposed to stand still for photos - so I have about fifty photos of various blurry Vietnamese children in a state of wild excitement. It was lovely, though - they were so friendly.
The food at Dak Lak was nothing too exciting, but very good. The best part was the stir-fried 'morning glory', a long, green leafy vegetable that frequently appeared as a side dish to meals in Vietnam. It seems to be fried with garlic until tender but still crunchy, and is really delicious - I could eat it by the plateful with just some rice for dinner.
The next day we rode an elephant, which would perhaps have been more exciting had our elephant not been the most reluctant quadruped in the history of the earth, more concerned with stopping and wrapping its trunk around various items of foliage than actually carrying us anywhere. I know this because the man riding behind us, who got on his elephant about half an hour after we got on ours, overtook us. The elephant took us through the lake, which was quite funny - its little trunk stuck up like a periscope, and every now and again it would grab at some lotus plants from under the water.
Then, a mere 240km on the bike later, we were back in Nha Trang. I remember the return journey because we stopped for some of the most amazing seafood I've ever eaten, again in one of those little roadside establishments that seems to be more like someone's house. There was a fish and tamarind soup, some spicy grilled fish steaks (I think tuna), stir-fried squid with pineapple, mango salad, and fried whole white fish. I remember our guides being apologetic, saying that because it was seafood it would be a bit more expensive than our meals had been so far. By this, they meant it would cost £2 instead of the usual £1.50. I couldn't believe it, and told them that the same meal would probably cost around £40 in England. They laughed, thinking I was exaggerating.
That night, we took the overnight bus from Nha Trang to Saigon. We stocked up on banh mi for the journey, and also these lovely little buns that were like Chinese barbecue pork buns, except they cost about 5p, not the £4 or so you pay in England. There were white ones with a meat filling, and pale green ones with a sweet desiccated coconut filling, which were so tasty - the perfect travelling food.
The bus was clearly designed with no human being in mind, and was one of the least comfortable experiences of my life. I didn't sleep at all. However, the experience prompted me to seek out a breakfast more indulgent than the baguette and eggs offered by our hotel, and for this I thank it, because we discovered a great little roadside cafe just outside the hotel that made the most wonderful fruit salads and pancakes.
Every morning in Saigon for four days we would go there, and I would order a pancake, either pineapple or mango, and a plate of ripe papaya. The pancake was a giant crepe, crispy on the outside and soft in the centre, folded around a golden mass of juicy, stickily ripe pineapple or mango. The papaya was the most incredible marigold colour, so much more vivid than I've ever encountered over in the UK, and meltingly delicious. Honestly, remembering those breakfasts makes me almost want to cry. It was such a nice experience just to sit there and watch the bustle of Saigon's backpacker district going noisily past while indulging in my favourite thing, exotic fruit. I did, though, in a nod to my native country, order a Lipton's tea one morning. Unfortunately I forgot that tea cools down to drinking temperature in the UK in about four minutes, but in Vietnam, where the air is practically the same temperature as the just-brewed tea, it takes somewhat longer. Burnt mouth.
.As an interlude during our time in Saigon, we took a two-day cycling tour of the Mekong Delta. You can do this tour by boat, but I'm so glad we cycled it. You get to see things that you wouldn't see from sitting on a crowded tourist boat, plus you completely exhaust yourself, in a good way. I think we cycled more than 30 miles each day, or around 6 hours, which when you consider the rough, often very muddy terrain, and the 36-37C heat, makes for a pretty tiring trip. There was also the rain, which made the ground almost impassably muddy in places. Mekong mud is brick-red, and I can confirm that even five washes will still not remove it entirely from a white T-shirt. I can't remember if our bikes had mudguards, but the state of our besplattered backs definitely suggested otherwise. Plus, helmet hair after all that humidity? Not an attractive thing (see photo below for proof).
Despite the lack of glamour, it was a great trip. The highlight of the first day was travelling through durian fruit orchards, where I finally got to sample this infamous fruit. If you haven't heard of the durian fruit, you clearly need to up your fruit-based knowledge. This gigantic, spiky fruit is notorious throughout Asia for its pungent smell, often described to resemble rotting flesh. So powerful is this aroma that the fruit is banned on most forms of public transport. I've seen stalls selling durian fruit in Chinatown in London, and they always display signs stating that you cannot return or refund the fruits, presumably because people buy them, get them home, and then worry they've brought Satan in fruit form into their kitchens.
Naturally, I was expecting revelations from this fruit. It certainly has a forbidding exterior. Some durian fruits reach at least a foot in size. Their spiky outer casing is incredibly sharp - if one fell from a tree onto your head, I reckon you'd definitely be brain damaged, if not dead. Inside, there are several fruits, round or oblong shaped, a pale yellow colour with a texture that slightly resembles banana and a big stone inside. Our guide cut one open and handed me a piece.
I sniffed it. There was no recoiling from the assault of rotting flesh, no wrinkling of the nose. In fact, I realised that the smell of the durian fruit was something I'd been inhaling for most of my trip in Vietnam so far. Its sickly sweet pungency pervades the markets and street stalls; although durian are usually sold intact, or peeled but tightly wrapped in cling film, so strong is their scent that it somehow gets everywhere, overwhelming anything else in the air.
It's not nearly as hideous as I'd been led to believe. I'd say the smell is more like rotting fruit - a very sweet sickliness that reminds me of the smell of dustbin trucks. It's really not that unpleasant. I tasted the fruit, which has a texture somewhere between buffalo mozzarella and banana, in that its stringy but also squidgy and mushy at the same time. I have to say, I quite liked it. The American boys in our tour group had been going on about how disgusting it was and how they'd tried it the day before and still couldn't get the revolting taste out of their mouths.
I told them to man up. It was fine, and actually quite nice. It occurred to me that its sweet, vanilla-y, almost custard-like nature would work very well in an ice cream. (And a few days later I tried just that, at an ice cream parlour in Cambodia - but read on for that...) However, it was so sickly sweet that I could only manage a few mouthfuls. It's not something I'd crave and eat by the bowlful, unlike papaya and mango, or my new favourites, mangosteens.
We also tried rambutans on our bike ride, as they were being sold in huge piles by the side of the road. These taste a little like lychees, but their texture is much firmer, they are round instead of oval, and they have much less perfume and juice about them. They're more subtle and crunchy, and a great snack for exhausted, saddle-sore, sweating cyclists. We also sampled jackfruit, which is a beautiful glossy yellow colour and has a firm, crunchy texture and delicate flavour. It reminded me a little of crunchy persimmon fruit.
The food on our cycle tour was excellent, often prepared in the homes or restaurants of the local residents. Seafood and fish were the staples: fat grilled prawns with lime juice and salt, crispy 'elephant ear' fish shredded and placed into fresh spring rolls with noodles and herbs, banh xao pancakes, lemongrass chicken, tamarind fish soup, fresh pomelo, taro chips. On the second day we watched the locals making coconut candy, which is a sort of caramel-like sweet made with coconut milk, and popped rice - like rice crispies, made by tossing rice around a very hot wok.
You can see why they call the Mekong Delta the 'rice bowl' of Vietnam - its proximity to the river and its lush, fertile vegetation, fruits burdening the boughs of their trees, suggests abundance and plenty. I'd like to have seen more of the different towns along the river, but I think our two-day preview was a good introduction. A particular highlight was on day one: sheltering from a sudden tropical downpour, we ended up packed into a sort of corrugated iron bus shelter with a load of the local Vietnamese. Unable to speak a word of English, and us barely able to speak any Vietnamese, the only logical consequence followed: the boys in our group ended up in a furious arm-wrestling contest with a strapping young Vietnamese man. Much hilarity (and shouting) was had on both sides.
After returning to Saigon and spending the morning being driven to the 'Chinatown' area and back on a rickshaw, we took a 45-minute flight to Siam Reap, Cambodia, which has the cutest airport ever - basically a little wooden hut surrounded by palm trees. After a short tuk-tuk ride we found our hotel, the wonderful Golden Banana - if you're going to Siam Reap, stay here. The rooms are beautiful, the courtyard gardens are gorgeous, the pool is fantastic and the food is great. We explored the town in the evening.
I was expecting Siam Reap to be simply a convenient location to stay to access the temples of Angkor Wat (which is why we were there), but it's a pretty little town in its own right. Quite touristy, yes, but in a charming rather than a nauseating way. The locals were much friendlier than in Vietnam, although infinitely more hassley in trying to get you to buy their stuff. After a while I managed to acclimatise my ears not to take in the constant cries of 'Hello lady, you buy something?' One shopkeeper adopted the interesting tactic of whining shrilly at us until we were forced to give in. The market is fantastic, particularly the food section, where I bought big bags of palm sugar and dried coconut powder, along with lime leaf tea which is delicious.
Apart from a visit to Tonle Sap, the gigantic lake in the centre of Cambodia where we visited a fishing village, a crocodile farm and got to hold a python, we spent pretty much all of our time in Siam Reap at the Angkor Wat complex. Suffice to say it's one of those tourist attractions that is totally worth it. You could spend weeks wandering the atmospheric ruins, pretending you're in Tomb Raider and marvelling at the ingenuity of the builders of the past. My favourite temples were those that had been completely overgrown by trees, some with roots bigger than me, snaking their way amongst the stones and causing walls to crumble under their weight.
Surrounded by unbelievably green vegetation and palm trees, the temples were quite something. My favourite was Bantreay Srei, 30km outside Siam Reap and surrounded by moats, featuring some wonderful stone carvings of monkeys. The weather was ridiculously humid the whole time, which made clambering over ruins a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, some enterprising Cambodian women had set up shop outside the temples selling sticky rice cakes - sweet banana encased in sticky rice, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled until the outside turned crunchy and caramelised while the inside was gooey, sweet and sticky. These were the most delicious snack, sweet, filling and incredibly moreish. Better still, they cost a dollar for two (see below).
We ate very well in Siam Reap. On our first night we had fresh spring rolls and seafood fried rice with pineapple at a family-run street food stall. Our waiter was an adorable little boy who seemed to take great pride in this role. On the second night we ate at the Golden Banana, and I had my first taste of 'Amok', one of Cambodia's most famous dishes. This is basically fish in a coconut curry broth, but the hotel variation was fish steamed in a banana leaf and topped with an incredible concentrated coconut sauce; sweet, rich and spicy, it was fabulous against the tender smoky fish. We then had another version of this the next day at the temples. Sweating, exhausted and in desperate need of sustenance, we were advised by our tuk-tuk driver to eat at a little souvenir stall in front of one of the temples. It was the kind of place I'd normally avoid like the plague, being smack bang in the middle of a tourist attraction, featuring a lurid yellow 'English menu', and therefore inevitably offering inferior overpriced food. Yet when our food arrived - a huge bowl of steaming, vivid green broth, rich with coconut milk and sweet/sour/salty in that beautiful way south-east Asian broths are, containing juicy chunks of meaty fish (see below) - I was forced to eat both my lunch and my words.
That's the great thing about south-east Asia - places that in Europe would be awful eating establishments often produce the most delicious food. Our amok was fresh and absolutely delicious, just the thing for reviving our tired souls. Similarly, we had another excellent meal at a touristy restaurant near the temples - stir-fried chicken with pineapple and tomato, which sounds bizarre but is a great combination, the sweetness of the pineapple balancing the savoury acidic tomato.
We ate twice at Haven, a restaurant that provides work for orphaned Cambodian children (one of the things that struck me while visiting both the town and the countryside of Siam Reap was how many social welfare projects the Cambodians have going on). The food here was excellent: both times I had salads, the first a green mango version and the second a chicken and banana flower one. These were quite typical south-east Asian salads: crunchy vegetables with a sweet/sour/salty dressing, perfect for the humid weather.
Also perfect was the ice cream from Blue Pumpkin Café, which I'm devastated we only found on our last day. There were about thirty different flavours, so many of them unusual and incredibly enticing: ginger and black sesame; lemon and kaffir lime; banana and galangal; dragon fruit; pineapple and candied pineapple; honey and star anise...I had real trouble deciding, but eventually had a gigantic bowl of ginger and black sesame, four spice (which tasted a bit like mixed spice made into ice cream - delicious), and durian fruit. I did think when I tried the durian fruit that it would make good ice cream, and I wasn't wrong - it has a lovely sweet custardy flavour to it which works very well combined with sugar and frozen.
Our flight back from Siam Reap to Saigon was atrocious. We took off into a lightning storm, and the plane was thrown around from side to side in the turbulence. I honestly, hand on heart, thought I was going to die. Everyone else on the plane was shrieking, and I promptly burst into hysterical tears. Perhaps alarmingly, my first thought was not for the value of my own life or the inevitable grief of my family, but instead of what a shame it would be if all the beautiful things I had bought in the Siam Reap market were to end up smouldering in the wreckage of the plane. So at least I have my priorities sorted.
When we made it to Saigon alive and intact, I nearly wept with relief. I was in such a good mood I sang along loudly to our taxi driver's CD of power ballads as we zigzagged through the nighttime bustle of Saigon. There was only one thing that was going to calm my agitated nerves, and that was a big bowl of beef pho, eaten at a streetside cafe overlooking a madly busy road alight with speeding mopeds. It seemed only fitting to end our trip with that most simple but delicious Asian classic.
And that was my frenetic, beautiful, terrifying, delicious trip around Vietnam and Cambodia. It was without doubt the best four weeks of my life, and has instilled me with both a fervent desire to go back to that part of the world, and a passionate love of south-east Asian food, a cuisine I wasn't hugely keen on before I went. The combination of seriously comforting ingredients - rice, noodles, meat, coconut, broth - with sharp, vibrant dressings and crunchy vegetables is just unbeatable.
I've often found myself returning from European holidays feeling disgusting and in need of a long session in the pool or on the treadmill and a desire to eat nothing but leaves for a week; not so with Vietnam and Cambodia, where every day I felt healthy and full of energy thanks to the nourishing food. The Vietnamese and the Cambodians really do know how to make the most of contrasting textures and flavours in their food.
It's luxurious and nutritious at the same time, the perfect fuel for a life lived in the hectic, humid madness of these two incredible countries.