Monthly Archives: July 2013

Last supper(s) in Saigon

Our time in Vietnam ended as it began: dashing around a mad, chaotic city filled with history, traffic and tempting food, wishing we had more time.

With less than 48 hours until our flight home after six long months away, we tried to strike the balance between seeing as much as possible in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon and HCMC) and simply enjoying our last days travelling.

While it was tempting to indulge in nothing but eating and drinking, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to go to the War Remnants museum. The images and stories of the Vietnam War, its victims and continuing impact were humbling. I was moved before we even entered at the sight of the vast helicopters, tanks and other killing machines parked outside. Each room of the museum increased the weeping. The photo below is just one of hundreds of harrowing images (mostly taken by Western photojournalists) in the museum. Note the baby in the centre of the image.

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Elsewhere we were able to see evidence of modern Vietnam; an optimistic, dynamic city moving forwards.

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Luxury brands are everywhere; Vietnam is very much an emerging market.

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I love this picture of a typical super chilled xe om moto taxi driver passing the time between jobs while the city whizzes past.

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This kid is practising to be just like that when he grows up.

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Of course we left plenty of time for our favourite pastime: harebrained forays into the depths of a city to find obscure eateries. On a scuba dive in Nha Trang we met a lovely chick who was a HCMC native and fellow food lover who was happy to share her insider knowledge.

I’m convinced our new friend Phuong was our foodie fairy godmother; every place she sent us was exactly what we were after – breathtakingly good food, unpretentious settings and honest prices.

In southern Vietnam and HCMC, pho is served with far more herbs and accompaniments than its northern counterpart. The noodle soup is still the star of the show but in HCMC the supporting cast is just as important.

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Sure enough at Pho Hoa on Pasteur St the tables were laden with abundant thickets of greenery, plus all sorts of other goodies to supplement your meal.

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The cubic banana leaf packages are called “wedding cakes”. The long doughy sticks are Chinese bread, great for dunking in your soup. Home made condiments like pickled garlic and chilli sauce let you personalise your bowl as you eat.

In the middle of one of these life changing meals, I was reminded of a friendly Geordie we met in our Sydney hostel. When he learnt we were heading to Vietnam next, he wrinkled his nose and said that out of everywhere he had been in Asia, Vietnam was his least favourite. Apparently he wasn’t a fan of the cuisine which he described it as “weird meatballs in water”. This comment caused a loud CHANGE THE SUBJECT QUICK klaxon to go off in my head.

The world is a wonderfully diverse place with all kinds of people and points of view, but there is no way I can talk about food with someone who can’t appreciate a heady, fragrant broth of meaty bones, vegetables and spices simmered for hours (and perfected over generations) until the flavours became harmoniously balanced. I stuck to general weather chitchat from then on.

Phuong actually got a little giddy when she told us about Banh mi Huynh Hoa, 26 Le Thi Rieng street.

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Fresh, crunchy, featherlight rice flour baguettes are crammed with pâté, ham, pork floss and innumerable other slices of meat (I was reminded of New York style deep filled deli sandwiches), and finished with a couple of devilishly hot slices of chilli and some token cooling cucumber.

We had such a good time on the cooking course in Hoi An, we decided to sign up for another recommended lesson in HCMC.

Cyclo Resto was much smaller and more personalised than Morning Glory, so we were able to request specific recipes and learn how to make new dishes.

The “cyclo” part of the name refers to their preferred mode of transport between the market and the school…

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We had a go at winter melon and prawn soup…

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spring rolls…

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lemongrass chicken…

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snake head fish cooked in a clay pot with laksa leaves…

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green papaya salad with dried spicy beef…

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There was a ridiculous amount of food between four of us!

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Part of the lesson was fancy garnishes. I doubt I will ever feel the urge to make a kitsch swan out of a tomato but it’s impossible not to admire the chef’s knife skills.

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I may attempt the tomato rosebud however…

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Although seeing my efforts next to a professional’s, I’ll stick to the simple and cheesy cucumber heart.

Thanks Vu for helping us create a wonderful last supper to toast our travels!

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Unruffling our feathers in Nha Trang

The countdown to returning home is nearly over; just two more sleeps and we will be back in Blighty.

I can’t help but think of the chickens my pal Marcia keeps in Christchurch (bear with me, there is a connection).

We learnt that when you collect freshly laid eggs, it is important to leave at least three eggs behind in the nest (or golf balls, which the chickens hilariously mistake for the fruit of their loins). Apparently, chicken counting goes “one… two… many”; they can’t quantify numbers larger than three.

I can relate; when we had several days before the flight to LHR, I was able to convince myself that there was still loads of time left on our travels. Now the number has ceased to be “many”, I am a squawking, clucking, freaked out chook.

Nothing better to unruffle our proverbial feathers than some downtime in the beach resort of Nha Trang, south central Vietnam.

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While it was a great place to relax, the beach was not particularly remarkable save for the surprising number of Russian holidaymakers there; even TV channels, shop signs, menu translations etc are in Russian in this “little Russia”. It seems Nha Trang is to Russia what the Costa del Sol is to Britain.

Anyway, we ignored the restaurants pushing blinis and borscht and sought out a couple of local specialities, following tips picked up from Vietnamese foodies in the know The Ravenous Couple and my buddy Anh from Banh Mi 11.

First was nem nướng, barbecued pork meat and crunchy crackling. You make a fat cigar by smoothing out a sheet of rice paper, topping with pork, a forest of herbs, as many chillies you can handle and whatever condiments you fancy before rolling up and dunking in some sauce between bites.

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Nem chua (fermented sour pork wrapped in pretty parcels of banana leaves) got the same treatment.

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Then it was time to move on to another street joint to sample what may now qualify as the strangest thing I’ve ever eaten: sứa (jellyfish).

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Before this, the weirdest thing I had ever eaten were deep fried locusts, which were a struggle to force down. Happily, jellyfish is actually really good! It has a mild, fresh flavour and isn’t slimy or rubbery as I thought it may be – it was a crunchy and refreshing topping for my seafood pho. And no sting! I could even imagine it adding some interesting texture to something like paella.

Mark eschewed the jellyfish option, although he experimented with a local vegetable drink which tasted healthy/medicinal, not unlike wheatgrass.

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Knowing our travelling days are numbered (in chicken-friendly quantities), we splashed out on our last day in Nha Trang with a couple of scuba dives. I certainly regarded jellyfish with a fresh perspective!

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In many ways however we are looking forward to coming home. It will be wonderful to be reunited with family and friends. Not to mention a proper cup of tea…

Learning to cook Vietnamese dishes in Hoi An

In the hope of being able to recreate some of the extraordinary food we’ve eaten in Vietnam when we’re back in Blighty (very soon! – sob!), Mark and I signed up for a cookery class in Hoi An.

The lesson at the Morning Glory Cookery School began early at the market – we were given the traditional conical hats to protect us from the fierce sun, and to help our teacher find us more easily in the hustle and bustle.

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This lady wears hers with far more attitude.

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Morning glory (no tittering at the back please; morning glory is a leafy green vegetable also known as water spinach, delicious stir fried with garlic and popular all over Vietnam) has hollow stems which can be split into fine strands for salads etc with this nifty tool.

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It was great having a local guide to answer all my questions in the market and point out details like the many types of noodle available.

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Bean sprout ladies

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Vegetables & fruit

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Different kinds of rice flour pancakes

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It was all too much for some…

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After an hour or so, before we too felt the need for a nap, it was back to the classroom to watch a master demonstration and then try our hand at some recipes. It felt a little like The Generation Game at times but we managed to keep up (modesty aside, we were star pupils…)

First, canh su (cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth)

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Then banh xeo (crispy pancake with pork, prawns and beansprouts rolled up with rice paper, green banana and herbs)

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And goi xoai (spicy green mango salad)

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I hear that the UK has had a bit of a heatwave so I’ll share the recipe for this refreshing mango salad at the end of the post.

We enjoyed the food at Morning Glory so much that we returned to their restaurant that night for their famous pork “roll it” dish.

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This region is known for its good food. Our teacher joked that men who want beautiful wives look in the North or South of Vietnam; those who want to marry a good cook come to central Vietnam to look in Hoi An. I know which I’d choose – looks fade but hunger persists!

Sure enough, outside of Morning Glory’s doors we continued to eat exceptionally well. Even the little shacks on the nearby An Bang beach served gourmet seafood treats like steamed lemongrass clams and tamarind crab. Cheaper than chips too!

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A Hoi An speciality is cau lao, a noodle dish with slices of roast pork, croutons made from deep fried squares of noodle dough, beansprouts and herbs.

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The components of the dish are assembled in little separate piles, which locals are able to mix together deftly with their chopsticks. Our attemps were a bit messier!

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The distinctive cau lao noodles make the dish special: chewy and rough in texture, a bit like a chunky Japanese soba noodle. Unlike the soupy depths of broth in pho, with cau lao you get just a dribble of cooking juices to wet the noodles.

Apparently, the dish is traditionally made using water from specific Cham-era wells in Hoi An which impart a particular flavour – I doubt all of the street stalls selling it abide by that rule these days! Even so, the ancient wells around town are guarded under lock and key for only a few lucky people to access.

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Hoi An lights up at night. The beautiful lanterns and fairy lights hanging from the trees next to the river give the place a dreamy, festival-like feel.

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Children sell candles which you can float down the river in colourful paper boats for good luck.

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As well as food, the other thing Hoi An is known for is good tailoring. I hope our expanding waistlines didn’t cause too much trouble for the tailor we chose!

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Goi Xoai (Vietnamese spicy green mango salad) from Morning Glory Cookery Class
Serves 4 as a starter

200g green mango, sliced finely
1 onion, sliced finely
1.5 cups Vietnamese mint and mint
2tsp sesame seeds, roasted
1tbsp vegetable oil
2tbsp crispy fried shallots
1tbsp lime juice
1tbsp white sugar
1tsp fish sauce
1tsp red chilli and garlic, pounded

4 rice crackers, to serve

In a bowl put mango and onion slices, 1 cup of mint, 1 tsp sesame seeds, lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, chilli & garlic mix and vegetable oil.
Mix well.
Serve on 4 small plates and garnish with the remaining mint, sesame seeds and fried shallots. Season to taste and serve with rice crackers.

Culture (and more eating) in Huế

After the buzz of city life in Hanoi, hiking with hill-tribes in Sapa and the coastal beauty of Ha Long Bay, stopping at Huế gave us a dose of culture.

The first day, we went to the Imperial enclosure to check out the citadel, the Forbidden Purple City and other historic buildings that survived American bombings.

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This statue depicts what may well be the campest guard ever…

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Thien Mu pagoda

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The second day we scrapped the idea of hiring bicycles in favour of a scooter after being reassured by another traveller how easy they were to drive. Mark was a natural and I felt totally safe being his passenger.

The scooter let us get out of town to check out some impressive tombs. The roads were long and uphill; bicycles would have been a real slog. We visited the Khan Dinh, Minh Mang and Tu Duc tombs.

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Food in Huế is excellent; the area is associated with the old royal court. Apparently at least one of the emperors was a fussy eater and helped to create a fine cuisine!

One of the most famous dishes is bún bò Huế, or noodles and beef in a spicy broth. Brilliant for waking you up and getting a sweat on!

This is one of several bowls we enjoyed while we were in Hue; other versions have more offally bits of meat in which gives a richer flavour to the broth but can be more “challenging” to eat.

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One of the best meals we’ve had in Vietnam so far was at Lien Hoa. It’s the kind of vegetarian restaurant where even the most avid carnivores wouldn’t want meat; everything was skilfully balanced and seasoned.

These guys are my new obsession: bánh bèo, or soft rice flour pancakes with crunchy toppings. I love the contrast between the textures.

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This salad’s Vietnamese name is “vấn vương thương nhớ” but the English translation made me chuckle: “separated twelve predestined affinity”. I think the meaning has to do with the fact that the components of the dish are presented in separate piles which you mix together with your chopsticks so the flavours mingle.

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Similarly, the diverse mix of experiences we have had throughout Vietnam so far have felt like a “predestined affinity”.

The Great Ha Long Bay rubbish dump

Mark gives an alternative view on Ha Long Bay

The guide books list Ha Long Bay as one of the highlights of Vietnam, unsurprising really as it is considered one of the seven wonders of the natural world. Leila’s mum even suggested to us (somewhat unsubtly) before we left the UK that this would be the perfect place to get engaged!

However, the trip was somewhat of a disappointment.

We booked a three day, two night mid-range cruise, staying on the boat the first evening and in a bungalow on Cat Ba Island the second.

It is certainly true that some of the scenery was magnificent – the huge limestone karsts, formed over something like 500 million years of deposition, erosion, sea level changes and tectonic movements, were extraordinary.

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Huge cave systems (the tour guides pointing out the “dragons” and “lions” shaped into the rock).

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The odd monkey.

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The landscape around our bungalow was particularly beautiful – opportunity for the classic photo of women in conical hats working the paddy fields.

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There are three reasons, however, for our disappointment: too many people, a brat and litter. (Edit by Leila: and mosquitoes! Ha Long Bay was where I was munched to death by the greedy blood suckers.)

Perhaps it was our fault for visiting Vietnam at the high season and for not forking out for one of the more expensive tours, but the number of tour groups was incredible.

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Nature’s beauty is best appreciated in solitude and serenity. This is why we enjoyed places like Chapada Diamantina in Brazil so much. Serene this place was not, particularly when our boat and others around it starting pumping out dodgy disco music at sundown.

The brat was an incredibly ill-behaved, shrill, screaming Russian kid, whose mother’s view of discipline was to escape to the front of the boat to chain smoke. After three days of being cooped up with this family I was close to killing them both.

But the main reason for the disappointment, which cannot be put down to poor timing, tour choices, or unfortunate companions was the litter. It was everywhere. Bottles, cans, plastic bags, the usual detritus mixed with polystyrene balls floated the oily surface of the water and littered beaches.

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We couldn’t enjoy the beautiful scenery for the ugly sight of litter in every direction we looked. We even cut a kayaking trip short as we were too disgusted with the state of the water.

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This guy was trying his best to clear what litter he could with a fishing net, but more needs to be done.

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As far as I know we paid no national park fee or tourist tax to cruise in Ha Long Bay. Fees should be introduced and spent on education and rubbish collection. Simple things like forcing all the tour boats to have bins on every deck. I don’t think ours had any, so people left their empty water bottles lying around, to be blown overboard.

Polystyrene is used in big blocks to support floating rafts throughout the bay – this should be discouraged as it breaks off and floats indefinitely in tiny crumbs. Plastic barrels, used here at a pearl farm we visited, work just as well.

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So get a grip Vietnam. If you are so proud of having one of the seven natural wonders within your borders, then treat it like one!

Memories (and some photos) of Sapa, Northwest Vietnam

Really, we are lucky it didn’t happen sooner, or that the damage wasn’t greater.

Even so, the despair hit hard.

“No no no no no! Stop stop stop!” wailed Mark as our images of Sapa flashed into oblivion, wiped from the screen of the iPad forever.

During the few awful moments between accidentally hitting “delete all” and desperately ripping the memory card attachment out of its socket, we lost most of the snapshots we took during the two day trek in Sapa, Northwest Vietnam.

So I can’t share the carefully composed shots of the water buffalo trundling along with a village boy astride its head; the sweep of rice paddies cutting into the hillsides in perfect rows; close ups of the vibrant, verdant plants; the simple and hearty feast we shared with our host family at a homestay in the middle of nowhere and the adorable local children.

Here are the few images we still have.

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Our guide was Sang, a petite 19 year old member of “Sapa Sisters”, a group of savvy local women who organise treks in the area.

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Sang is part of the Black H’mong hill tribe who still proudly wear their traditional costumes. She was great, taking us far into the countryside to escape the bigger crowds of tourists on more mainstream treks. She warned us that this option was longer and more difficult but it was worth it – from Sang’s remote and empty route we could gaze at the stunning scenery and listen to her tales of hilltribe customs in peace.

Also, we felt we should try to burn off the excesses of our Hanoi street food binge, even if we ended up as muddy as water buffalo from the number of times we slipped on the narrow balance beams between rice paddies.

We didn’t mourn the iPad incident for long at all. Losing photographs happens at some point to every traveller, via bad luck, accident or theft. It could have been much worse and even if it was, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Photographs are a wonderful way to create keepsakes out of the sights you encounter while travelling. But they are not the same as memory.

In his book The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton ponders whether the modern way of living life through a lens means we have forgotten to really see the things we are trying to capture. Do we rely so much on cameras to remember for us that we fail to pay proper attention to our surroundings?

Perhaps the loss of the photographs was a blessing in disguise; it has made us more determined to hang on to the wonderful memories we created in beautiful Sapa.

Hanoi: a city built on street food

I started prepping Mark for our visit to Hanoi months before we actually arrived.

“We will be eating as much as physically possible,” I said matter-of-factly. “I don’t want to hear any ridiculous excuses like ‘we just ate’ or ‘I’m already full’ or ‘we’ve already had four bowls of pho today’. We’ve only got three days there and I have a long list of places where we have to eat. We will probably get a bit fat but so be it; we can diet when we’re back home. We will just have to man up and eat through the pain!”

Mark chuckled at me as I went back to my complex system of cross-referencing recommendations from Vietnamese friends in London, tips from my days working with Pho restaurants, online forums, twitter, guide books and maps.

After that, I reckon I could run a military dictatorship, no problem.

As planned, we arrived and were soon negotiating the famous crazy Vietnamese traffic and the narrow alleys in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where street food glory is found in abundance.

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The tangled electrical wiring is as crazy/dodgy as the traffic.

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Let me give you an idea of our typical schedule over the three days we spent in Hanoi. We would get up at around 7am, have some tea and fresh fruit at our guesthouse before heading out for two or three bowls of pho at different street stalls around town. Then we may have a mid-morning snack of banh mi sandwiches (just to keep our metabolisms ticking over) before it was time for lunch – probably bun cha noodles to have a change from pho.

Sometime mid-afternoon, one of us would point out that it was probably beer o’clock. We would find the nearest bia hoi (fresh beer) joint (25 pence a glass). Inevitably we would be offered a snack like bo la lot (beef wrapped in betel leaves and grilled).

For dinner we would go more upmarket and eat at an actual restaurant rather than perched on tiny plastic stools at the side of the road. We would aid digestion with a stroll around a night market where we would be tempted by snacks like bánh cuốn (barbecued pork wrapped in rice paper), giant prawns or slices of sour green mango dipped in salt and chilli powder (my favourite).

Here are some of the highlights – this is the stuff that made the extra chub around our waists worthwhile.

bun rieu cua (crab noodle soup)

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Pho tai nam (noodle soup with roasted and rare beef) at Pho Gia Truyen. This baby was superlatively good, combining the different flavours and textures of savoury cooked beef and thin slivers of very rare, pink meat in a silky broth. I actually felt sad as I neared the end of my bowl, knowing I would measure all other pho against this one.

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There was a long queue of locals outside; one woman smiled and said “this place, number one!” as if congratulating us on finding it.

Mark queuing patiently

Mark queuing patiently

Giant prawns, grilled over charcoal:

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These guys managed to escape our greed…

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Cha ca at Cha Ca La Vong. The dish is prepared with oodles of green herbs, which are stir fried with fish and other ingredients at your table.

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As the sign says, this is all they serve here. It’s funny how restaurants with only one or two items on the menu have only recently become a trend in London; they’ve been doing it for ages here.

Pho ga (chicken noodle soup) at Pho Hang Dieu

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And around the corner, pho bo (beef noodle soup) at Pho Thin

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At Pho Thin they stir fry the beef before adding it to the stock, which gives an amazing smoky flavour. It’s also served with a thumbs up and a smile!

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Another incarnation of cha ca flavours, this time wrapped in rice paper at Highway 4:

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Also some pork ribs in barbecue sauce, also from Highway 4:

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Check out the crackling on this pork:

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Dinner at Quán Ăn Ngon:

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Believe it or not, we also managed to find time for non-food related sights and activities. I was going to talk about them here but I’ve just made myself hungry with all these pictures; I must go and find sustenance. Toodle pip!