Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Ca Phe + Coconuts


Chinese New Year holiday had been long approaching, but I hadn't grasped the severity of the situation - I didn't have plans to go away. 

Between celebrating Christmas and thinking up a costume for our company's annual pre-CNY party (obviously Godzilla - I had to use my comparative height for something), I just hadn't gotten around to it. But with the potential of sunshine, the promise of 15 days of non-stop fireworks (hello, headache), and with friends' and colleagues' expressions ranging from disappointment to downright confusion in response to my "oh, no plans!", I knew I had to escape. 

So I and a friend decided on the ultimate no-plan plan: arrive at the airport on the day of CNY and see what happened.

Short story short? Eventually (after very Chinese confusion over our 'destination', or lack thereof) we ended up with tickets to Ho Chi Minh City in our soon-to-be-hot little hands. 

Saigon? Sounded like a plan.

Through the magic of The Interwebz, we managed to book into a hostel en route which turned out to be an unexpected gem. Madam Cuc's is manned by a super-sweet and laid-back team of ladies and located within the main backpacker neighborhood of Phạm Ngũ Lão. Wifi and helpful hints (mostly "WATCH BAG!") came free with the room, along with a hearty breakfasts of omelettes and crusty baguettes (hangovers from French colonial history), served with sweetened lemon juice and, respectful pausecà phê.


This drip coffee clouded with condensed milk quickly became an addiction - super strong and surprisingly aromatic, it gets sweetened within an inch of being classified as solid sugar. But somehow it works. We drank it iced, hot... any which way, so long as the stuff kept coming. When we went to stock up before leaving (kids gotta have their fix), we learned that the reason the beans are so flavorful is that they are roasted in butter. No wonder this is the crack of coffee.




While sucking down our buttery, super-sweet caffeinated cream (let's call a spade a spade here), we spent our first two days sans plans, just wandering the city to get a feel for the place. It was pleasantly quiet and beautifully decorated with yellow apricot blossoms, the symbolic flower of the Lunar holiday Tết, another name for the same holiday celebrated by Chinese New Year. We explored the museums and modern monuments and markets. The War Remnants Museum was harrowing - it was incredibly hard to see, but very important to better understand a piece of America and Vietnam's shared history. 


But mostly, we ate our way through the streets. At all hours there are vendors squatting on the sidewalks, selling everything from piles of fresh fruit to be sliced and dipped into chili salt to banh mi sandwiches to freshly-cooked crepes to plastic bags of rice noodles topped with countless condiments. Everything we tried seemed almost overwhelmingly crowded with flavor to us still getting used to the punchy Vietnamese taste profile - satisfyingly sweet, tangy with citrus' sour, always spicy, and addictively salty, all with an almost-unplaceable underlying savory hum from the funk of fish sauce. Bottles of sauces and bowls of sugar and chilis litter every table - more is more is more.




Nothing is more characteristic of this cacophony of flavors than Vietnam's unofficial national dish, phở. We tried bowls of this noodle soup everywhere, but our favorite was low-key local Pho Quynh. Both the phở bò (beef) or phở gà (chicken) are fantastic with their full-bodied broths, but once pimped with squeezes of floral lime, drizzles of fluorescent chili sauce, a scattering of softened bean sprouts, some pickled garlic, and a forest of Thai basil, they are transcendant. Interactive food is always the best kind of food after all.




Other favorites, from either stalls on the square surrounding Bến Thành market to even the more upscale spots (like Vietnamese Kitchen for when you want to #treatyoself) included: gỏi cuốn (cold, unfried spring rolls - sometimes called "summer rolls"), tôm nướng muối ớt (shrimp grilled with chili salt), coconutty bánh xèo (rice-flour crepes) filled with stir-fried vegetables and shrimp, and the shellfish cooked on street corners, perfuming the air with garlic and chili, all washed down with a cold cornerstore beer at a streetside plastic table. Meanwhile, mango-coconut shakes from the Fruit Shake Lady off Bùi Viện or incredible ice cream from Fanny is never a bad idea, whether as a snack, dessert, or both.




After two days in Saigon, we decided to make some vague plans - first, we boarded a bus 2 hours up the coast to a beach town called Vũng Tàu. It had been sold (admittedly in Lonely Planet) as a glamorous former French escape, but being Tết it was more crowded than we had hoped with teens enjoying their Viet equivalent of MTV's Spring BreakSo we borrowed our hotel owner's motorbike and cruised up the coast another hour to a tiny town called Long Hải. Finally - the sand and sun we had sought. We spent that afternoon and evening walking the beach and eating fresh seafood grilled next to the water. 







The next morning, we climbed up to a cliff-side temple and then continued around the point, only to uncover an untouched swath of sand, abandoned except for us and a group of kids kicking a football. 


To avoid any further scalding from the sun (sorry, Mom), we biked back to Vũng Tàu and then on to Saigon to spend the night in preparation for pushing south.The next morning, we joined a two-day tour of the Mekong Delta. Although a guided group tour would never be my idea of an ideal way to spend a holiday, it seemed the best way to explore the area. Better, because we ended up booking a 2-day trip with an overnight homestay, we hoped this would relegate us to a smaller, elite group of only the most intrepid of travelers. We bussed down 2 hours into the Delta, stopping in a small town called Mỹ Tho where we transferred to a small river boat to be ferried among a few islands. We saw locals making honey followed by a ride through the canals on small gondola-like boats, and then on to a coconut candy workshop (coconut + candy?!) followed by a simple lunch.






We boated and bussed again until we stopped in a larger town called Vĩnh Long where we were to leave the others, smugly sneering at those less hardcore, and boarded another river boat to cross to an island. It all sounded very Survivor


As the sun dropped, golden, into the water, we found ourselves at the dock of a stunning wooden villa where we would spend the night. Instead of the forced labor and dirt floor of our fantasies, we were welcomed by a group of wonderful women who let us invade the kitchen to help cook dinner (I am the spring roll queen) before falling asleep in netted beds out of a Bali eco-resort brochure. More luxurious than laborious to be sure, and I wasn't complaining.






After enjoying our final (morning) cà phê for breakfast on the sunlit porch, we floated around a floating market and walked around a workshop with locals making rice paper and rice wine (sometimes distilled with snakes for "medicinal purposes"), before bicycling around the island's narrow paths, dodging motorbikes and trying not to fall into smaller canals.




On the bus back to Saigon, we reflected - though there were some 'touristy' moments (the Disney-esque first gondola ride), overall the tour had been an authentic look at island life, with the 'homestay' and all it entailed as the undisputed highlight. And it wrapped up our trip nicely - after almost a week of making decisions because of our lack of planning, it was nice to have someone else make the plans for a day or two.

We arrived back in Saigon with just enough time to for a final delicious dinner before heading to the airport.

Sometimes the best plans are no plans at all.



Madam Cuc 184
(Although there are 3 branches, we recommend 184 for it's location, tucked off the main streets, and for its sweet staff)
184 Ð Cong Quynh
http://www.madamcuchotels.com/

Pho Quynh
323 Ð Phạm Ngũ Lão


Vietnamese Kitchen
113 Ð Bùi Viện


Fanny
29-31 Ð Ton That Thiep


Delta Tours
267 Ð De Tham
http://www.deltaadventuretours.com/

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