Interlude: Bangkok city-break.

After a few months of teaching, I really needed a break. An old friend from the Manchester / Bury area of the UK was going to be in Bangkok for a few days, stopping off before continuing to New Zealand. He suggested meeting up, and I don’t take any persuading to go to Bangkok – it’s one of my favourite cities. I booked my flight.

We made arrangements to meet, and I went by river taxi, along the Chao Phraya River, passing the Grand Palace:

And Wat Arun along the way:

I got off at the last boat stop, then jumped on a bus (the fare was nominal – about 10 or 15 pence / 20 US cents). Thai people are so lovely; I showed my map and the address and other passengers explained to the conductor, then they all told me where to alight and how to get to the hotel. I was quite far south, near the Asiatique centre (I’ve not been there – it seems quite touristy, but maybe next time …) and didn’t know the area but looked for a nice coffee shop, asked the lovely lady for help getting on the free wifi, and waited to meet my friend Alan.

Al and his travelling partner JJ were staying in a VERY nice hotel. They had free boat shuttle to the BTS station so we took that then grabbed a taxi to the Grand Palace. For non-Thais, the entrance is 500 THB (£12) but it is a must-see sight.

Alan from Bury, UK
Alan & JJ waiting for the river ferry to Wat Arun.

I was changing hotels next day, moving from Banglumpoo (near Khao San Rd) to Silom, a backpacker area to a business centre. Next day we met up by the boat ferry, took the BTS a couple of stops, and just hung out in the air-conditioned malls. Alan was asking if there was fast food in Bangkok:

And he was curious about durian, so after he left, I shot this:

I used to love durian but I told a student this and she bought me three pieces. I couldn’t keep it in my hotel fridge (yes, it really does stink), couldn’t throw food away (at least not in my hotel bin, see above reason), so I ate it … all three sections.

I felt like I had food poisoning; dizzy and nauseous. I couldn’t eat for about four or five days, absolutely no appetite.

I stayed at Red Planet, Surawang Rd, near Chong Nonsi BTS station and a great food court, full of locals, full of various curry smells.

No farang (westerners)

And as I have become vegetarian, I bought this: three items and rice for 50 THB (about £1.20)

Sorry for the blurred image – I must have been in a hurry to eat.

My hotel had a view of the Oriental Express Hotel:

It was the week after Tet in Vietnam, so there were still celebrations for the New Year.

But I couldn’t forget Vietnam:

The differences between Bangkok and HCM ?

Bangkok has an efficient and clean public transport system (BTS and Metro. The buses are better and safer than in VN but still a little dirty).

The noise. Traffic stops at red lights in Bangkok, people know when to cross the road without the danger of being hit. Motorbikes drive on the road NOT on the pavement. Traffic drives in one direction only. AND honking … this is considered impolite in Thailand, so the streets are busy but cars are not constantly beeping and hooting.

The taxis are generally trustworthy. If they don’t use a metre, say thanks you and look for a new taxi.

The food smells great, from expensive restaurants to cheap street food.

The people smile and are polite. They queue in order at train and metro stations.

Most people smoking are tourists, not Thai.

AND … in all my travels in Thailand, I have never seen anyone use the side of the road as a personal toilet; I see this just about every day in HCM. The Year of the Pig indeed.

But, unfortunately, I had to go back to HCM with Vietjet and, of course, before my 90-minute flight, there was a 2 and a half hour delay. Then back out into the Sai Gon sun. The taxi touts, the smokers, the noise, the horror, the horror …. and then back to work, back to screaming kids, apathetic adults and erratic wifi.

Yet Thailand is only 90 minutes away …

Sai Gon eating and coffee bars 2: the beat goes on.

The previous blog found me after work, Saturday evening, discovering a great coffee bar, and very cheap Robusta Honey coffee (25 000 VND). Before the coffee, I went here:

Quán Hủ Tiếu Nam Vang Liến Húa at 151, Nguyễn Duy Trinh, Phường Bình Trưng Tây, Quận 2, Phường Bình Trưng Tây, Quận 2. This is referred to as a ‘hawker stall’, ubiquitous in HCM. They also sell Chinese dim sum (but I was too late), so I had seafood noodle soup.

45 000 VND (£1.50 $1.94). Hope to go back and try the dim sum soon.

Again, closer to home, a busy, no-nonsense pho joint:

In the less than glamorous Cat Lai area of District 2, near the port so constant container lorries in the main road, trucks and cement mixers on this road and the non-stop flow of Hondas and Yamahas, a small oasis of great traditional pho (noodle soup:

One seafood, one beef. Typical spread, accompanied by fresh herbs and salad, lime and fresh chilli, with crushed chilli to really pump up the heat. Great food, best in the area, around 40 000 VND each (£1.30 $1.73) but … it’s now closed, been taken over by Chap Coffee … looks exactly the same, but I’ve not tried their food … yet. Now, back to District 3.

Nhà Hàng Hoàng Ty at 106 Cao Thắng, Phường 4, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh. Famous for its seafood, and this restaurant is ornamented with classic bikes. As for the food …

Seafood porridge, fried rice and mixed seafood soup. This is a very popular place, so it gets busy and noisy at peak times. Well recommended.

Sai Gon eating: coffee bars and street food.

A compilation of various restaurants and coffee houses. First up, seafood in District 2.

Vietnamese from costal areas dislike seafood in Ho Chi Minh, as it can never be as fresh and certainly not as cheap as their home town. Having said that, I really enjoyed the Hải Sản (seafood) at Phố Ốc (271 Đường Nguyễn Duy Trinh, Phường Bình Trưng Tây, Quận 2, Hồ Chí Minh).

Taken from Google images. No copyright infringements intended.

Clams in lemongrass (and heavy on the chilli) with Vietnamese sea snails. The leaves are slightly bitter, in contrast to the sweet, tangy sauce. Washed down with Tiger Beer (Singapore).

Even closer to home, a small restaurant specialising in just a few dishes, O Hai Quan.

Bún riêu cua

Rice vermicelli soup with tofu, tomato and crab. The purple sauce in the small dish is the extremely pungent shrimp paste (mắm tôm). Prices from 35 000 to 40 000 VND (£1.14 – £1.30 / $1.50 – $1.71).

Party time – the Vietnamese love a party, love eating and making noise … a LOT of noise (I can vouch for that – I often suffer dreadful drunken deafening wedding party karaoke – but that is for another blog) and I was invited to a house-warming shindig over in the north-western suburbs. There was food, there was beer and yes, there was karaoke.

Late night drinking means early morning coffee. Back to District 2, and a chain called Ding Tea.

https://www.facebook.com/DingteaCantavilQuan2/

Hazelnut Coffee was 46 000 VND, Passion Fruit Milk Tea 39 000 VND. Total 85 000 (£2.77 $3.64)

Was actually heading for Highlands Coffee when I saw this new store. Probably would have paid about 70 000 VND just for one coffee there (but it IS good). Based in the Cantavil Shopping Mall complex.

I used to work in District 10 and live in District 3. At weekends I had a three-hour lunch break, so I would go home, rest and change clothes, but for lunch, I’d stop off here:

This is a very popular diner, and easy for non-Vietnamese speakers – just point and take a seat. They also sell vegetarian food. This spread, including two fish dishes, a vegetarian pancake-type dish, soup, rice and side salads was around 140 000 VND (£4.55 $6). Service is quick, and the customers always seem slightly bemused by a westerner tucking in and enjoying the grub.

So, it’s Saturday, had three classes, starting around 7.00 am. It’s now 6.30 pm and I’ve just finished a noisy, very active class of 7 & 8 year olds. I need food, I need coffee. Fortunately, my centre is based on a busy street (Phố Ốc is to the left, tonight I turned right) with coffee shops and restaurants all over. A quick stroll and I found:

Robusta Honey coffee

Laha Coffee at 169 Nguyễn Duy Trinh. Very small, just three or four tables (mainly a take-away joint) but great ambience AND great coffee. This was just 25 000 VND (£0.94 $1.24).

The food, and more coffee, I’ll save for the next blog … now it’s time to eat !

2019 – The Year of the Pig

7th February 2019

Lunar New Year in Vietnam, the country’s biggest holiday. Shops will be closed all week, if not longer, schools closed (hooray !) and roads can be relatively empty though not necessarily safer.

For the significance of the pig in Asian astrology, this link will provide some information:

https://chinesenewyear.net/zodiac/pig/

The New Year started on Tuesday and I was lucky enough to be invited to a typical family celebration with four generations of Vietnamese. In a garden on the outskirts of HCM, I was introduced to a grand-uncle, his children and nieces & nephews, their children and grandchildren. Outside we had this spread:

The traditional banh Tet is in the centre (Tet cake made from sticky rice and beans, sometimes with meat, sometimes sweet with banana).

The family very considerately made me eggs as I’m vegetarian. After the food, I took a nap in a hammock then headed back to town.

Yesterday, I went to Nguyen Hue walking street. Every year, people go there, admire the flower displays, take photos, people watch, dress up, see and be seen. It gets busier as the sun goes down and can start to feel uncomfortably overcrowded … and just try getting a taxi home.

This photo is from 2016 (Year of the Monkey) but it is so beautiful, I thought it was worth posting. Yes – I asked permission before taking the photo.

However, it is not all wine and roses; there is a downside to Tet. That the shops are closed all week is a minor inconvenience. It is a time of partying, of drinking and some people think nothing of getting on their motorbike and driving afterwards. Crossing the road is daunting anyway, but at Tet it can be suicidal. My first experience was in 2016. I was crossing a street in District 3, a busy, one-way street. Normally, pedestrians walk slowly and the bikes swerve behind or in front of them. Not this time. One driver swerved deliberately to hit me and I had to jump to avoid being struck. That same week, a friend of mine was knocked down by a drunken rider and left with severe bruising on her leg, and was unable to walk properly for weeks.

Then we have the noise. My area is a nightmarish aural atrocity city, wedding parties and open – air karaoke prevalent seemingly all the time.

My Tet began last Saturday – no school, no need to get up at 05.50 BUT … at 06.45 the loud speakers on the street started blaring out a Vietnamese folk song which merged into the monotonous metallic muffled mumblings of the news filtered through loud-speakers and I do mean ‘loud’.

And then the karaoke began, the jolly old karaoke.

Some people in my area seem to think they are responsible for entertaining everyone by cranking up their wretched, impossibly loud, sound system, not to a ‘Spinal Tap’ 11 but to a stadium-filling 111. The … ‘singing’ then begins. Imagine the most obnoxious person you know, the big mouth, the narcissistic know-all. Imagine said person drunk and then given a microphone … welcome to my life. Karaoke isn’t a sprint … it’s a marathon, an all-dayer. One would think that after some hours the novelty would wear off, or at least the vocal chords would give out. Not a chance. The screaming and screeching continues ad nauseam.

I appreciate it’s a holiday and a chance for music and celebration but having to listen to moronic moaning is excruciating. One can forget watching a quiet film or reading a book. Studying Wittgenstein ? Good luck … it ain’t gonna happen.

Crime also rises during this period. I’ve been informed that because many leave to city (to return to their family home) swarms of undesirables come to the city and commit petty theft. Nguyen Hue is a major attraction and therefore a major pick-pocket hotspot. And some of the thieves are terrible – I had a young lady put her hand in my pocket with all the grace and delicacy of a raging hippo. I told a policeman or security guard and he merely nodded. Maybe they were under surveillance … maybe.

Like a lot of holidays, it does tend to drag on too long. However, next week, I’m off to Bangkok to meet up with an old friend, eat some scorching curries and to enjoy a week of traffic lights and road safety. And NO karaoke.

Eating out – Vietnamese style

A quick guide to some local food.

Chap Cafe

A local joint in a side street surrounded by new residential blocks, Chap Cafe has a lunchtime contract to feed workers from a local engineering firm.

This dish is Bang Da Cua (noodle soup with crab meat). As usual in Vietnam, it comes with a plate of herbs and green leaves, banana plant and chilis, lime the ubiquitous fish sauce. This cost 35 000 VND (£1.20 / $1.50).

The cafe has a so-so reputation among locals, it’s OK but nothing special. I spiced up my bowl with chili flakes and fresh chilis and plenty of lime juice.

I’ve taught my engineering students about British politeness. They would now classify this cafe as ‘not the best / not the most delicious in HCM’.