Here’s another request blog; a friend, Pete (who has featured in some of my lessons) is planning a party this Friday. His daughter, who is turning 18, has requested some Vietnamese food.
However, Pete lives in the UK, which is still under lockdown (quarantine), so many restaurants are closed. Furthermore, he lives in the middle of the country, so had no access to really fresh sea food (the Vietnamese only say sea food is fresh IF it was swimming in the sea just ten minutes before).
Additionally, Pete won’t be able to get his hands on some vegetables or ingredients so we’ll have to take that into account. Having said that, here are some tips for making Vietnamese food in a western kitchen.
Banh xeo is like a pancake filled with beansprouts, shrimps, salad, grilled meat …
Grilled pork is ubiquitous – a street food stable served with rice and pickled vegetables.
Fried spring or summer rolls – can be a bit fiddly (difficult) to make, and require special material. Probably available in Asian supermarkets, but hard to get in small towns (or just order online like everyone else in 2020). Contains salad leaves and shrimp and vegetables).
Pho (pronounced ‘far’) is THE traditional food of Vietnam, and is normally eaten for breakfast. It’s basically noodle soup with meat of your choice. Shrimps (prawns) or just vegetables could be substituted. Another ubiquitous dish.
And now, without further ado … how to cook Vietnamese:
First, one of the UK’s most loved, and sadly missed chefs, Keith Floyd. Keith came to Vietnam as part of an east Asian cooking show. In Sai Gon, he made this dish, beef cooked in sweet and spicy stock: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fO6cSQ8Vly8
The scene starts at 06.39
But, I hear you protest, how can a westerner make authentic Vietnamese food ?
For fans of the fowl, connoisseurs of the chicken, I haven’t forgotten you. Here’s an interesting recipe, lemongrass chicken (lemongrass, which is ten-a-penny in Vietnam, that is, very cheap, can be so expensive in the UK. I once saw 5 lemongrass on sale for £1, that’s over 30 000 VND): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJtMlTnqyw0
Lee was a composer working in the Jazz field, and played alto saxophone. Famously, Lee played on ‘Birth of the Cool’ by Miles Davies in 1949, as well as on the ‘Miles Ahead’ album of 1957. In addition, Lee made dozens of albums as leader, playing alongside Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams & Jimmy Giuffre … to name just three.
Dave Greenfield of The Stranglers (March 29th 1949 – May 3rd 2020)
Dave was the keyboardist in the English punk band The Stranglers, whom he joined in 1975 and played with until his death. His playing can be heard on their biggest hit, ‘Golden Brown’ which reached number 2 in the charts in 1982: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-GUjA67mdc
Little Richard ( December 5th 1932 – May 9th 2020)
Richard Wayne Pennieman was one of the original rock ‘n’ rollers, and was a true original in his performances, his clothes and his stage presence. Little Richard is even credited with advising the Beatles, especially Paul McCartney, how to sing. This is one of his most iconic songs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cj059o9OwqY
After Brasil, Vietnam is the world’s biggest exporter of coffee, and coffee shops are ubiquitous. There are high-end chain stores, with near London prices, down to street coffee which, being honest, is probably more ‘street’ than ‘coffee’.
Here are a few recent caffeine-driven excursions:
OK, this first one is no longer in operation. Can’t think why. Branding is important, even in a Socialist country. This joint is located at the base of an apartment complex in District 2. The lady that stays there is, I believe, an artist and is extremely friendly, not ‘grumpy’ in the least.
Now, staying in District 2, just a short ride away, is this library cafe:
It looks like it’s based in an old house, with large plants and dusty old books on even dustier shelves.
The coffee, however, was a disappointment, probably due to my ordering the wrong drink. I wanted a hot latte and got an ice version. Perfect for the heat, but not what I was expecting. Oh well, never mind.
Still in District 2, ‘Ventura Coffee’ was near my old apartment by the port of Cat Lai. This was a great place, and had live football and a beautiful dog:
Damn fine cappuccino, too.
Here are a couple of signs on the wall:
Back to my new manor (are in which I live). ‘Coffee Time’ on Nguyen Duy Trinh. Fine coffees and juices. Nice decoration, and outside seating. Free Wifi, naturally. We had a hot latte and an ice coffee. The cappuccino is also recommended.
And of course, all this coffee makes a guy hungry. Back at my new apartment, we have a restaurant where they catered to my no-meat diet. Delicious crab-noodle soup. Around 40 000 VND (about £1.35) and worth every penny. Extra chilli sauce !
A major attraction of living in Sai Gon is the cost of living. Teachers are not usually well-paid and as language teachers, we maybe do less than twenty-five hours a week (which is more than enough, depending on the students).
My arrival was not without problems. I will not mention the name of any institution, as I probably have more to be thankful for than otherwise. Having said that … moving across the world to a new culture and a new job is rather nerve-wracking – there will be problems, predictable and marvellously unexpected. One thing that can be counted on is paperwork. It must all be in order … and it will all be expensive.
First, in order to work as a teacher in Vietnam, one needs a BA degree (any subject, though anything involving linguistics would be an advantage), an official teaching certificate, such as CELTA: (this is a Google image)
Then a police background check, a CRC. There is not ONE agency that provides this service, so it is good to look on the internet first to check prices. They do vary considerably. I use Disclosure Scotland.
The teacher should also be a native-speaker but I have worked at centres that employed teachers from the Baltic States, and Spain.
Then there is the visa. One needs a WORK VISA to enter the country and be legally employed.
The ‘DN’ (top right corner) designates this as a business visa, and are issued for varying periods of time. I obtained mine by post from the Vietnamese Embassy in London. Therein, the first ‘issue’. My school had to send me an invitation (to be presented at the Embassy). Unfortunately, I was sent an invitation with the wrong entrance date, then told it would take a week to amend their error. Meanwhile, I’d paid for my (non-refundable) ticket and I had some unnecessary stress hoping I could get the paperwork in time.
“All’s well that ends well,” as the bard said. However, I had to pay for an express service which I believe was £140 ($180), and that was without postage and postal order fees (which brought the cost to over £170).
Furthermore, the three certificates (BA degree, teaching certificate & CRC) have to be notarised, then sent for stamping by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and then stamped by the Vietnamese Embassy.
It set me back around £500, and that was without the work permit fee, the flight and money to keep me going until payday. However, one cold (London) morning, I flew, changing once at Bangkok, to Sai Gon and walked out to look for the staff who, I was assured, would be waiting for me. Walking out into the noise, the heat, the chaos that was … and still is … my life.
I had been told I would be driven to a hotel, where I would stay for three days, at the school’s expense.
Just like in the films, a young lady was waiting for me with a board welcoming me to Sai Gon. Yes, she was young. So young I was wondering if they had sent a student instead. Said lady then informed me that we would be taking a taxi and that I would be paying for it, but not to worry; it would be deducted from my first pay check, and because I was travelling with a local, I wouldn’t be ripped off by a tourist taxi.
I was a little taken aback by this news (I had been travelling for around twenty four hours, therefore not at my best), but it was compounded as Ms Information (as I later dubbed her) told me that I was also expected to pay for my complimentary hotel but again, not to worry, it would be deducted later.
I wondered what other joys lie in wait. I didn’t have to wait long. The assigned hotel had a power cut and wasn’t sure if they even had a room for me that day. After waiting with Ms Information in a cafe near the school (damn fine coffee if I remember, and I paid for it without being prompted; couldn’t handle any further deductions from a pay check I’d yet to receive), we returned to the hotel. A room was free but no wifi in the room.
On that note I thought, as I’m paying anyway, I’m going to choose my own hotel (I’d been to Sai Gon several times previously).
Later that evening, I met my manager and all was cleared up; no taxi bill, no hotel bill. I met some of the teachers, including the young lady whom I was replacing. She was young, blonde and beautiful, three things I have never been. Her students are going to hate me … and I wasn’t far wrong.
That weekend I observed some classes. Some teachers were very accommodating and helpful, some clearly didn’t want me in their class. I was left in no doubt that one in particular did not consider it her job to help me at all. And she didn’t. Each to their own.
Now, I was staying in my hotel, and getting the street motorbike to school. Ms Information would phone a street bike to take me home, very kind. I managed to find a room in District 3, which was ideal for me. Lots of shops and markets, lots of things within walking distance (I do not ride a motorbike).
This was situated in a small alley off a main road, Nguyen Dinh Chieu, in between a lingerie shop and a pharmacist. I felt at home.
The door was unlocked by inserting one’s hands through the black square and unlocking a padlock. There was no recycling. All rubbish, or trash if you are American, was dumped outside. It was rarely there a few minutes before some neighbour would pounce on it and rip it open looking for … who knows ? But the debris would be scattered outside the door. I took to dumping my rubbish, or garbage if you are American, further down the alley. At this point, I downloaded the Grab Bike app and was able to use their services to get home, easily halving the cost of the street bikes:
Probably not the image the company wants to promote, but more realistic than the twenty-somethings with pearly-white teeth and a perpetual smile. And footwear. I informed Ms Information that she no longer needed to order me a motorbike, I could book myself, with Grab. Maybe you can guess what happened … yes, I jumped on a bike she ordered for me and was on my way to the old hotel. So, back to my digs:
The room was basic, no fridge or cooking facilities, but a shower and private bathroom. Furniture provided. Kindle on bed and bottled-water on standby.
The simple life. I think I paid three million Vietnamese a month plus electric which could be up to another million depending how often I used the air-con. In all, I paid a maximum of four million VN Dong – about £135 / $175 a month, for a six-month contract.
Yet, nothing especially Viet or Asian about it. It evoked more of a Leonard Cohen in Greece feel. Nothing wrong with that of course … “You get used to an empty room.”
However, one Tet, when most of the tenants were away, I think someone broke into my room, as my suitcase which was always padlocked and contained my laptop, Kindle and money, wouldn’t open. It seemed that someone had tried to open it and had broken off their implement.
After that, I changed the door lock and spent a million on new, European-made security locks and bolts. Nothing from Taiwan, sir, give me that impressive and weighty German monstrosity. It’ll do the job.
But … at the end of my six months contract, I wanted out. The next place was just a few streets away, living above a clothes shop. I forget the rent, but it was similar to the first place, perhaps a tad more. Renting can be risky in Vietnam. At short notice, the owner can decide to take back the space, and the tenants have only a short time to find a new place.
The clothes shop had that exact fate. As you can see, it has gone, but this was the location, number 19. A husband & wife team sold shirts and Tshirts, living behind the store front. I had two floors upstairs, with a little verandah for outdoor cooking, and a shower that was apparently a danger-hazard. I was advised to fill a bucket with hot water and use that as opposed to standing directly under the sprocket. Power cuts were not unknown.
One night there was shouting and screaming – more than is usual in Sai Gon – as a house but three doors away was on fire. Exit flat sharpish and waiting in the street for the all clear before my year’s work-contract was up and I was ready to clear out of Viet Nam and head home.
Which I did. London … in winter. I took care of some paperwork, a new CRC, new work Visa and back on that plane for a lovely thirteen-hour flight. My new place, however, was an apartment. Way out in the sticks, near Cat Lai, the busiest port in S.E. Asia:
The local area was terrible: containers, night and day, honking of horns, trucks stomping over speed bumps, few amenities, few restaurants, not an ATM for miles and karaoke … open-air, all day and most of the night karaoke.
The apartment was great, and the swimming pool was fantastic – even if everyone if the neighbourhood felt it was their right to come and use it.
And then the rainy season began … the jolly old rainy season. Here are some arty (I wish) shots. A little Impressionistic:
For Christmas, they made this effort, which just looked like giant spiders from my vantage point:
One night, the Moon looked spectacular. Unfortunately, my phone camera couldn’t do it justice but anyway:
I mentioned karaoke. There were some people whose hobby was warbling, screaming, croaking, belching etc into a microphone, turned full whack, and ‘entertaining’ everyone within a two-mile radius. How could it get worse ? Wedding parties.
There was a vacant lot opposite my flat. It served as a car wash weekdays, but at weekends was rented out for wedding parties. These are noisy. Really noisy.
The first two hours usually have a professional singer or band. Most guests start to leave at that point … but not all. Some stay and avail themselves of the free beer, the karaoke and the microphone … for hours.
What starts as a romantic event ends up like this: Imagine these gentlemen screaming and shouting and whooping all day. Welcome to my (old) life.
And then we have the neighbours. Lovely people, but they were from Central Viet Nam so couldn’t take the heat. Thus, they installed three air-con units, the third of which blew directly into our balcony, sprinkling us with dust, muck, dirt, goodness only knows what kind of air-bourne viruses … and heat.
Enough, as they say, is enough. Time to move.
So now I’m still in District 2, but near shops, near a main road, near amenities, not a container in sight (or sound) … and we can have pets.
Of course, my very first night there, a local restaurant had … karaoke. However, we have a police office in the next street, so they make sure karaoke is contained and punishable by (I don’t want my English humour landing me in hot water, so add your own comment here) ………………..
Since then, very little except, around Christmas time all night, and for many nights, they decided to dig up all the roads:
Vietnamese food can be wonderful, albeit a little samey (to a casual eater, it can appear to be no more than bowls of different types of noodles with different types of meat, topped with a forest of fresh-ish vegetation).
I’m not knocking the local food, I’ve written blogs about my favourite dishes, but sometimes … an ex-pat will miss that little something from home. Never fear, in District 1, in the shadow of Bitexco, we have a number of stores selling, and usually at a very good price, various items from around the world:
And finally, I mentioned we are allowed pets … allow me to present my puppy, Dali (if you’ve been following my teaching blogs, you’ll no doubt appreciate the moniker):
This is in the backpacker district of central Sai Gon, a new underground food court and mini ‘street-market’. The goods, and prices, are aimed strictly at tourists, while the food was typical food court fare. However, it looked quite nice, there was clearly a lot of thought and effort into the design.
The redeveloped site of Asiana Food Town and Shopping Centre.
The dimsum was OK … nothing special. Time for some typical Viet sweets:
In the interests of reportage, I should go back and try other dishes … MANY other dishes 🙂
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.
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.
And as I have become vegetarian, I bought this: three items and rice for 50 THB (about £1.20)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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 !
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 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.
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.