Vietnam wrap up

Goodnight, Saigon!  Our time in Vietnam has come to an end.  We were there for more than two months and we managed to see at lot in that time.

We started in the capital.  We started in the cold.  We ended in the South.  We ended in the heat.  We saw the coast and we saw the rice paddies.  We saw huge cities and we saw tiny villages.  We ate and drank and made friends and memories.

When we left South America I wrote a wrap-up post full of numbers.  I thought I might do the same for our time in Vietnam.  But, when I began thinking back on our time there, it wasn’t the volume of things that stood out to me at all.  Instead, it was the small and significant moments that we enjoyed.  So, here’s a small wrap up in the form of my Top Five Most Memorable Moments in Vietnam.

1.  Making friends in Ha Noi

New friends on a night out in Ha Noi

My memories of Ha Noi are mixed.  I loved the architecture, I hated the cold.  I loved the food, I hated the damp.  But one memory of Ha Noi that’s entirely positive is the memory of meeting a group of new friends out at a Bia Hoi one night.  We ate and drank and translated for each other and laughed a lot.  Amazing people.  Amazing night.

2.  Kayaking in Halong Bay

Andy is paddling happily in Halong Bay

This is something that I have literally wanted to do for years.  We spent a cloudy, misty hour kayaking together around the jade green waters of Halong Bay.  The cliffs rose above us, the water lapped at the kayak and I thought, again, how much wonder there is in the world if you go looking for it.  A fantastic experience to share with my husband.

3.  Cooking up a storm in Hue

Bun tron made for us by Trang in Hue

When we arrived in Vietnam we didn’t plan on spending six weeks in Hue.  But we fell in love with the small city, the great food and the wonderfully kind people at the New Life Hotel where we lived.  Our favourite staff member, Trang, even taught us how to make one of her family’s favourite meals- bun tron.  We cooked with Trang and our new friends Russell and Asia and enjoyed a delicious, authentic meal.

4.  Sunsets on Phu Quoc

Sunset over the Gulf of Thailand on Phu Quoc Island

Andy and I love a good sunset.  Whenever we have a chance we like to pour a glass of wine and watch the sun dip below the horizon.  There’s something very calming and contemplative about watching another day end and Andy and I often have our best conversations at sunset.  On the island of Phu Quoc we spent every evening with our toes in the sand and our eyes on the skies.

5.  Seafood pig-out in Saigon

The remains of a very successful shellfish dinner in Saigon

It was our last night in Vietnam, and I like to think we went out in style.  One last time we squeezed our American bums on tiny plastic stools, ordered icy cold beers and tucked into a feast of Vietnamese food.  This time it was freshly grilled shellfish and we managed to stuff ourselves on scallops, mussels and cockles.  What a way to end our adventures!

This is just a quick sample, a small number of the endless moments of fun, contemplation, deliciousness and laughter that we shared with each other and with the people of Vietnam whilst we were there.  We went to Vietnam hoping to recharge our batteries and regroup.  To get ready to restart our “real life.”  We left feeling rejuvenated, peaceful, full and excited about our next steps.  Thanks for all the memories, ‘Nam!

Saigon Crab Feast 2012!

After more than two months of traveling in Vietnam, here’s something I’ve learned.  Vietnamese restauranteurs can be very tricky.  In Hue, there was a restaurant called Hang Me near our hotel.  Hang Me was famous for making some of the best Hue-style dumplings in Vietnam.  It was located on a block with several other restaurants which also served Hue-style dumplings.  And those restaurants were called Hang Me Me, Hang Mi and Hung Me.

These other restaurants were clearly trying to capitalise on the success and popularity of their neighbour by giving their establishments such similar names that some people (mostly tourists, I’ll bet!) ended up confused and eating at the wrong place.  Seems a bit dodgy to me, but from what I can see, it’s fairly common practice.

So, when we decided to go out for a meal of Saigon’s famous soft shell crab, I really needed to do my homework.  You see, most people agree that the best soft shell crab in Saigon can be found at Quan 94.  Unfortunately, finding Quan 94 isn’t as simple as it should be.  You see, Quan 94 is located at 84 Dinh Tien Hoang.  And at number 94 Dinh Tien Hoang is another restaurant, that also serves soft shell crabs and is called… Quan 94.

The busy and sometimes confusing streets of Saigon

We had our cab drop us off a few doors down so that we could scope out the street and make sure that we were in the right place.  We could see both restaurants, and both places had staff outside waving to potential customers and urging them to come on in.  Hmmm.  Once we’d confirmed the address with the staff at the restaurant located at #84, who seemed very used to people asking whether they were in the right place, we grabbed a table and got ready for our feast!

The entrance to Quan 94

A tray of live crabs greets you as you enter Quan 94

We were the only tourists in the whole place, but the staff spoke some English and we already knew what we wanted to order.  We started with a few very cold Saigon beers to celebrate finding the correct restaurant!  And then, we chowed down.

We began with an order of deep fried soft shell crabs.  We watched as the cook grabbed the fresh crabs, cut them into chunks with her scissors, dunked them in the batter and tossed them into a wok full of oil.  Literally moments later a plate of crunchy, hot crabs was delivered to our table, along with a sweet and sour type dipping sauce.

Piping hot freshly fried soft shell crabs

The crabs were almost too hot to eat, but we were starving and so excited!  The batter was crispy and light, not too thick and well fried so there was no glugginess about it.  And the crabs were insanely good.  Soft, full of sweet white meat and so flavourful that we didn’t need the dipping sauce at all.  We inhaled that first plate of crabs like we thought they might try to run away from us.

A mouthful of the best fried soft shell crab I've ever had!

Andy is enjoying his dinner of soft shell crabs!

After demolishing the fried soft shell crabs, we decided to take a little breather, order another beer and pace ourselves.  We sipped our frosty cold drinks and watched the cooks and waitresses preparing the food to order.  The glass noodles with huge chunks of fresh crab seemed very popular and I watched as they made order after order for the crowds.

The chef makes orders of glass noodles with crab for the busy restaurant

As we watched the food coming out of the woks, we got hungry again.  So, we ordered soft shell crabs in tamarind sauce.  This time the crabs were batter-less and stir fried with ladles full of tamarind sauce and some onions.  The sauce was sour and sweet and the crabs were the perfect amount of soft with a little chew to them.  I’ve never had soft shell crabs cooked this way before, but I’d certainly have them again.  This plate disappeared almost as quickly as our first round of food had!

Tamarind and soft shell crabs with onions and black pepper

This piece of soft shell crab looks like it's trying to escape! Don't worry, I didn't let it!

We probably should have stopped eating at this point.  We weren’t really hungry anymore.  But we’d been sitting in the restaurant for over an hour watching order after order of crab spring rolls pass us and be placed on other tables.  We’d watched the local customers wrap these piping hot spring rolls in lettuce leaves and happily gobble them down.  We couldn’t leave without trying some of the rolls for ourselves.

Crab-filled spring rolls with lettuce and herbs, rice noodles and a dipping sauce

And I’m SO glad we tried them.  The crab spring rolls were 100% crab meat.  No fillers of bean sprouts or mushrooms or cabbage.  Just a small roll crammed full of sweet crab meat.  We ate them wrapped with the leaves they gave us and dunked the rice noodles in the sauce provided.  These were probably the best spring rolls I’ve ever eaten.  Amazing end to our meal.

The crabby interior of the spring rolls! Delicious!

With our bellies full of crabs, our hearts full of happiness at finding the right restaurant and our heads full of thoughts of our pillows, we strolled hand-in-hand out into the sweaty Saigon night.

Good morning, Saigon!

Our time here in Vietnam is winding down.  We had planned to stay here for about six months, but we’ve had an offer from Sydney that we just can’t refuse.  And, since moving back to Sydney has always been the end goal for this year, we don’t want to refuse the offer.  It looks like almost three months in ‘Nam will have to do.

So, we had to leave Hue.  Our little home away from home.  We’d been in the small city for about five weeks and we’d made some really lovely friends there.  But, since we wanted to see more of Vietnam, we had to hit the road.

Ready and waiting for the train at the station in Hue

Here's some of our luggage waiting on the train platform. We're also both wearing small backpacks.

Our train, which originated in Ha Noi, approaches the station in Hue

And, in Vietnam, hitting the road means… TRAIN RIDE!  A twenty hour train ride to be exact.  We got soft sleepers with air conditioning again, but this time there were only top bunks available.  I was worried about my 6’3 very tall husband, but the bunks were even big enough for him!  We were very comfortable.

Andy is relaxing in his top bunk!

The train left Hue at 11am and was scheduled to arrive in Saigon at 5am the next morning.  We didn’t actually arrive in Saigon until 6am.  The trains all run on Vietnamese time, which is much like South American time, so we’re used to it by now.

The journey took us from the central coast of Vietnam, down the eastern edge of the country and into Saigon.  We passed miles and miles of electric green rice paddies, tiny towns with ornate ancestor temples and even a few mountains in the distance.

View of the landscape through the VERY dirty train window

This lady was out working in the rice paddies as we sped past

We stocked up on lots of snacks and pot noodles for the journey, but when the food cart rolled through the train car at 5.30pm, we simply could not resist the smell of fresh, hot rice with spring rolls and greens.  Dinner for two for US$4.  Hit the spot!

Andy had rice, greens, spring rolls and mystery sausage for dinner

I enjoyed rice, greens, spring rolls and lashings of hot sauce for dinner

After our dinner, we settled into our bunks to read and watch movies.  The tiny (and, thankfully, silent!) Vietnamese ladies on the lower bunks went to sleep at about 6pm.  Andy and I stayed up until closer to 11pm.  We both had trouble falling asleep at first, but eventually the train rocked us to Snooze-ville.

And when we awoke, the pale grey light of dawn was filling our cabin.  We packed up our backpacks and watched as Saigon, and a new day, approached.