3 May 2016

Hoi An II: Food, Drink and Coffee

In a country filled with fine food destinations, Hoi An is rightly viewed as one of the finest. One of the reasons I wanted to stay there a little longer than most of the other cities on my Vietnam itinerary was so that I could sample as many of the restaurants and local dishes as I could. It didn't hurt that Hoi An has a burgeoning speciality coffee scene, which I did my best to explore.

But First, Coffee
Before my trip, I had identified three cafes that looked like good bets for speciality coffee: The Espresso Station, Mia Coffee (Fancy a Cuppa seconded this) and Hoi An Roastery. I also visited a lovely three-week-old cafe called Rosie's Cafe after finding it on Instagram. Finally, blogger Not Just Another Milla recommended the Reaching Out Teahouse, which sounded like a beautiful experience, but alas: the national holidays in Vietnam meant that it was closed all weekend.

I will blog in more detail about my coffee experiences at each of these cafes in the Vietnam speciality coffee guide I will put together at the end of my trip, but for now, here are the details:

The Espresso Station. 28/2 Trần hưng đạo. The Espresso Station was first on my list of Hoi An cafes to check out but when I got there on Thursday afternoon, I saw that they were closed until Monday — my last day. Luckily, I was able to make it over there before I had to leave to catch my plane. It was a sweltering day but Trung made me a wonderful iced pourover (70,000 VND) with an Indonesian Papadayan coffee. I sat next to the bar while I drank it and watched Trung whip up some very fine lattes. It's a great cafe with really high-quality coffee. There's also a little courtyard seating area if you can bear the heat.

Mia Coffee. 20 Phan Bội. I was pleased to discover that Mia Coffee was located just half a block away from my hotel, a 5–10 minute walk from the Old Town. I stopped by a few times and it was always bustling with locals and tourists. I had a very good Vietnamese-style filter coffee, a fine piccolo and, on the hottest day, some kind of blended coffee–milk–ice concoction that really hit the spot. They roast their own coffee on-site and the cafe has a friendly, relaxed atmosphere.

Rosie's Cafe. 8/6 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. Friends My and Thuy opened up this stylish cafe just three weeks ago and although it's only a couple of minutes' walk west from the Japanese covered bridge (turn right when you see the sign for the Nguyen Tuong Family Chapel), it's a welcoming oasis away from the hubbub of the Old Town. The cold brew (50,000 VND) is excellent and they also serve Vietnamese coffee, cold-pressed juices and sweet treats. I'll share some more of the story of Rosie's Cafe in my Vietnam coffee round-up.

Hoi An Roastery. 135 Tran Phu. Although the Hoi An Roastery website lists just one cafe, I spotted at least two others while I was there. I visited the Tran Phu location and tried the pourover (40,000 VND), which was pretty good. The coffee, which they roast themselves, is from Da Lat and you can buy bags of beans too. They also serve French press, siphon and espresso-based drinks. I had another Hoi An Roastery pourover at Cocobox.

Reaching Out Teahouse. 103 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street . Check out Not Just Another Milla's beautiful review.

Bánh Mì
I had a fair few bánh mì — crusty baguette rolls filled with some combination of meat, egg, salad, fresh herbs and spices — while I was in Hoi An. Here are my two favourites:

Madam Khanh (the 'Bánh Mì Queen'). 115 Tran Cao Van. There is no menu at Madam Khanh's, a petite bánh mì restaurant just north of Hoi An's Old Town. I was asked if I wanted "everything" and I said yes. "Chilli?" Yes, please. The sandwich that arrived was one of the best I've ever had: the meat was juicy and flavoursome, the herbs added just the right amount of crispness and the bread itself was perfectly chewy. In other words, 30,000 VND very well spent.

Bánh Mì Phuong. 2B Phan Chau Trinh. Only a few blocks from Madam Khanh is my second favourite bánh mì spot in Hoi An: Bánh Mì Phuong. My from Rosie's Cafe recommended it to me and on both of my visits (one around 10 am and one around 3 pm), I had to queue for about 20 minutes but it was well worth the wait. You can choose from a selection of fillings (I tried both the beef and the barbecue; the latter was my favourite) and none of them cost more than 35,000 VND. After I ordered, I noticed a sign proudly announcing that the restaurant had been featured on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations.

Cao Lau
One of Hoi An's most famous dishes is cao lau: thick noodles served with pork, fresh greens and wonton crackers and liberally doused with fish sauce. I had the dish a few times and these are my two favourites:

Ms Ly Cafe. 22 Nguyen Hue. There are a lot of tempting dishes on the menu at Ms Ly Cafe, a friendly restaurant housed in a historic building that has been in Ms Ly's family for several generations. I had heard that the cao lau was really good here, though, and it didn't disappoint (about 50,000 VND). I wasn't particularly hungry, owing to the heat, so you might also need another dish if you have more of an appetite than I did. This would also be a nice spot for a romantic meal: the dark-wood interiors and original artwork on the walls give it a sleek appearance.

Bo Bo Cafe. 18 Le Loi. I went here for my first lunch in Hoi An and was immediately worried I had made a huge mistake when a local tour tout came and started chatting to me. Had I fallen into a major tourist trap? The cao lau (about 45,000) was, however, good. Bo Bo is a nice spot for a simple, no-frills lunch; just be prepared to fend off the tout!

Ready To Roll
Bale Well. 45/11 Tran Hung Dao. In Hoi An, I learned, they love to roll things in rice paper. Even things that are already rolled, like spring rolls. At Bale Well, there is a drinks menu but no food menu. All you have to do is say how many people you are eating for and the cheerful, efficient staff will bring you a huge assortment of foods to wrap up: fried spring rolls, barbecued meat, veggies and salad, and, most challengingly, bánh xèo. The latter are crispy rice pancakes that look a bit like a cross between an omelette and a taco. Unsurprisingly, they taste great with meat, wrapped in rice paper and dipped in peanut sauce. The set menu at Bale Well costs 120,000 VND, which is great value. The place was buzzing with Hoi An locals when I visited and there is a really fun vibe.

Ms Vy's Empire
When I started considering my Lonely Planet suggestions and recommendations from other travellers for Hoi An restaurants, I noticed that many of them had one thing in common: Trinh Diem Vy. Ms Vy owns four restaurants in the town and runs popular cooking classes. The Mermaid, near the market, was closed while I was there but I visited Morning Glory and Cargo Club.

Morning Glory. 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc. If you're hoping for a table at Morning Glory on a weekend night and haven't booked, you may be out of luck; the queue is often out of the door. I went there for an early dinner on a Thursday evening and managed to nab a spot upstairs. This restaurant specialises in central Vietnamese specialities with a big emphasis on street food. The staff are very friendly and helpful and will show you to how to prepare/eat your food rather than watching you struggle on. This was useful for me as I'd ordered some fried spring rolls, which came with noodles, greens and rice paper. As you have probably guessed, wrapping was required. I also had a delicious salad with rare beef, green papaya, chilli, peanuts and lime — perfect for the summer heat. The whole meal cost about 200,000 VND including a couple of drinks.

Cargo Club. 107-109 Nguyen Thai Hoc. Just opposite its sister restaurant, Cargo Club boasts an upstairs terrace that overlooks the river. Naturally, the waiting list for the outside tables is rather longer than that for the less desirable indoor spots. I wasn't in a rush so I put my name down for a terrace table and came back 45 minutes later. It was very pleasant to be looking down on the twinkling lights of Hoi An, although the ambiance and food at Morning Glory are more my scene (Cargo Club has a lot of European dishes and there was definitely more of a romantic vibe). I had another local speciality: banh vac (white rose), which are pretty little dumpling-like parcels of shrimp or pork. I really enjoyed this dish and wish I had had it again. I also had another delicious salad, this time with shrimp. Two courses and a cocktail cost about 220,000 VND, although I was ordering at the cheaper end of the menu.

If you only have time for one Ms Vy restaurant, I would recommend Morning Glory; after all, Hoi An has plenty of other great restaurants on offer. I also heard good things about Pho Xua, Secret Garden and Chips and Fish (yes, as a Brit, I would normally avoid a restaurant with a name like the latter, but a couple of locals said that the fish was really very good).

2 May 2016

Hoi An I: Things To Do, Places To Shop

After rushing to pack everything into my short stays in Hué and Saigon, I decided to change gear once I got to Hoi An, a beautiful town on the Central Vietnam coast. Hoi An doesn't have an airport or train station so most visitors fly or take the train to Da Nang, which is 20 miles north. I took the train from Hué and it was a beautiful ride through the misty mountains. I booked my train ticket in advance from BaoLau (it was about £4) and the train was pretty full, but it was a holiday weekend. Facing the front of the train, I sat on the left-hand side, which had great views of the mountains and the sea. From Da Nang, it is about a 40-minute ride to Hoi An.

I spent my first afternoon wandering around the picturesque, Old Town, which is characterised by its UNESCO-listed, mustard-yellow buildings and vibrant purple bougainvillea. The Old Town is closed to motor traffic but not to the constant stream of bikes and cyclos. Nonetheless, Hoi An was a lot more amenable to strolling than Hué or Saigon, especially if you go early in the morning before it gets too busy. My hotel was at the eastern edge of the town centre but was still just a 10-minute walk to the heart of the Old Town.

Hoi An Old Town
Many of the buildings in the Old Town are exquisitely preserved. To aid conservation efforts, visitors are encouraged to buy tickets to visit some of the more interesting buildings. 120,000 VND (just under £4) buys you five tickets and you can choose which ones you would like to enter during a three-day period. I visited a handful of temples, assembly halls and immaculately restored family homes. Most of them take only about 15-20 minutes to walk through.

I also enjoyed simply standing by the river and people-watching. Everyone has something to offer: a sampan ride, a ride on one of Hoi An's fleet of colourful motor boats, a floating lantern, some street food... This past weekend was a national holiday and the Vietnamese people were having a great time celebrating with their friends and family.

Japanese Covered Bridge
When I first happened upon the Japanese Covered Bridge, it was almost like being back in Cambridge again. Only, this time, I'm the tourist who won't stop taking photos! You can walk across the bridge for free although you'll have to give up one of your Old Town tickets to visit the attached temple. Like most places in Hoi An, it's even prettier when it's all lit up at night time.

Hoi An's main market is huge, covering several blocks and with vendors sprawling across the pavements and nearby roads. I walked past the fruit and veggie section each day to get into the Old Town and it was always a hive of furious activity. There are also a lot of stalls selling everything from clothing to household goods.

Across the Thu Bon river on the Cau An Hoi Bridge is the An Hoi night market. By night, the street is lit up with hundreds of colourful lanterns, which you can buy along with all manner of other goods, souvenirs and food. The atmosphere is fun and lively and people of all ages were having a good time.

Hoi An is famous for its tailors and although I didn't plan to get any clothes made while I was here, I ended up getting a silk dress that will be perfect for weddings and parties. There are hundreds of different shops in town and the choice was a little overwhelming at first. I started going into a few shops and realised that the prices were fairly consistent (among the shops that seemed to be of a similar quality) but finding a fabric I liked proved more difficult. I like bright pinks, turquoises, purples and emerald greens and I gravitate towards geometric patterns. There was very little fitting either of those requirements — most of the patterns were floral and the colours more muted than I prefer.

In the end, I found a multicoloured patterned silk I liked at Yaly Couture (47 Tran Phu) and took the plunge. I got to pick the style of the dress, customising anything I wanted, and was then measured up. They also took my mugshot in front of a height chart, but luckily no one arrested me. After the first fitting, later that day, the dress was almost right, but slightly tight around my shoulders. I also asked for the neckline to be made more rounded and for the hem to be taken up. After fitting number two, the fit was great but it was still a couple of centimetres too long. Finally, after the third fitting, it was perfect. The quality is really good (it has a lining too) and the final price was about £40. Perhaps I could have haggled more, but I was happy.

I also stopped by Cocoon (now located at 55 Tran Phu) to look at the selection of scarves. There were so many different colours and patterns, and the lovely owner, Ms Ly, showed me some of her silk worms and showed me how to test for real silk (by burning it). I had read that the prices were fixed but the quality very high, which suited me fine. There was also no pressure to buy, which made a refreshing change. I picked up a couple of different silk scarves, which were about £6 each.

Other shops I liked included: Hay Hay (155 Tran Phu) for art and design; Metiseko (142 Tran Phu) for sustainable clothing and homewares; and Reaching Out (103 Nguyen Thai Hoc) for arts and crafts.

Classes and Workshops
Hoi An is a real food hub and I thought about taking a cooking class while I was in town. I really enjoyed the one I did in Oaxaca last year and had heard good things about Ms Vy's classes in particular. In the end, though, the Hoi An Photo Tour office caught my eye and I decided to do that instead. If I'm really honest with myself, I'm much more likely to put photography training to use than cooking lessons.

Six of us met with the instructor, Etienne, who had just won an Asian photography award and was very pleased. We did one of the 'sunset' tours although there no interesting sunset and throughout, the sky remained a dull, featureless white haze. However, Etienne helped us all to make the best of the bad light and after a quick summary of some of the basics, we headed off on one of those colourful boats down the river to a nearby village. We spent three hours talking to the villagers and watching them work in the rice fields, make hay and prepare peanuts, among other things. I was a little nervous about taking portraits of people I didn't know but Etienne knows these villagers very well and they were all happy to be photographed and to chat with us.

We headed back to Hoi An for a quick workshop on night-time photography. I would have liked a little longer on this, as it's a skill I would like to improve. For a four-hour workshop, the price was 790,000 VND (about £25), which I thought was very reasonable. Etienne is a talented photographer and a good teacher and I feel as though I learnt a lot.

An Bang beach, regarded as one of the best beaches in the Hoi An area, is about three miles from the Old Town area. I thought about walking there but in the end decided to be brave and borrowed one of my hotel's bikes. A few minutes into the ride, I relaxed a little (although never taking my eyes off all of the roads!) and enjoyed the journey to the beach. Once you get past the Old Town, you can follow the same road all the way, so it's pretty easy. There are bike parks next to the beach (I paid 20,000 VND (about 60p), but you could probably get it for half that if you haggle).

On Saturday, I turned right along the beach and walked to the end of the first section of sun loungers, paid my 30,000 VND (again, you could probably negotiate if the 30p is important to you) and enjoyed some relaxation time in the sun, dipping into the sea to cool off. It was around noon when I arrived and already quite busy, but it was heaving by the time I left at about 4 pm.

When I returned on Sunday, I kept walking past the first stretch of loungers and carried on for another 300 metres or so until I reached a quieter stretch. There were maybe 10 loungers in the cluster but there were never more than four other people there (everyone was down at the other end), so it was much more peaceful. I also had a nice bowl of chicken and rice for lunch and, with a couple of drinks and my lounger/parasol rental, the total was 100,000 VND (about £3).

To vary my ride home, I cycled southeast towards Hoi An beach before turning right and following the river back into town. Both routes take you over the river and next to the rice fields, which were a gorgeous shade of rich yellow.

Other Ideas
Spa time. There are numerous spas in town, all of which claim to offer the best massages, facials, manicures and pedicures at very reasonable prices. I had planned to get a manicure but my nails are in a bit of a state at the moment so I'm holding out for Hanoi.

Sampan or boat ride along the river. You don't need to find a boat operator; they will find you.

My Son. I thought about taking a half-day tour to the ancient Cham temple complex, but I wanted a break from guided tours. You can also hire a driver or go by taxi, but if you're travelling alone, the price may be too high. Another excursion possibility is the stunning Marble Mountain. I passed it on my way to Da Nang airport and with the multi-storey pagoda balanced precariously on the side, it is an impressive sight.

In other words, you can easily spend three to five days in Hoi An and, as you'll see in my next post, there are enough restaurants to keep your tastebuds tantalised for much longer than that. The town does have a bit of a contrived, 'Disneyland' feel to it (much more so than Saigon and Hué); for instance, they pipe music through speakers throughout the Old Town and the repertoire includes Andrew Lloyd Webber, Madonna and The Beatles. Another thing that struck me was the way everyone under the age of 30 carries a selfie stick. Many of the teens — especially couples — film themselves as they walk down the street, stopping every few feet to pose for another selfie. Selfies and selfie sticks are, of course, everywhere but I've never seen this saturation before.

28 April 2016

Hué II: Bex and the Citadel

I couldn't quite drag myself out of bed as early I would have liked this morning, but after a quick breakfast at my hotel, I headed straight out to Hué's UNESCO-listed Imperial City. The site is huge — the steep walls run in a 2 x 2 km square, surrounded by a moat and just north of the Perfume River.  This imperial enclosure is nested within a bigger citadel and do note that the ticket desk is just before the moat by the main gate. It only takes 25 minutes or so to walk there from the hotel zone, but there are plenty of people who would love to give you a boat, bike, cyclo or taxi ride if you think it's too far.

The ticket price is 150,000 VND, which is the most expensive attraction I've visited in Vietnam so far but still under £5. There is a lot to see, though, and I spent a good three hours there. By 9 am, the weather was scorching so I spent a lot of my visit skipping into the nearest shaded area or into some of the cooler pagodas. There is some information in English, although not a great deal; you can, of course, hire a guide. The imperial was home to the Nguyen dynasty of emperors, who ruled from the early 19th century until 1945. Their legacy lives on, however: about 60% of the country has the surname Nguyen (pronounced ng-wee-uhn).

While I was there, I visited a number of different buildings, from the emperor's reading room, to the queen mother's pagoda (the queen mother being the only person who has more power than the emperor — and only a little bit and in family matters) and the royal theatre. Many of the buildings were destroyed during the wars with France and the US, but a lot of restoration work has been taking place. The lacquered red and gold inner walls were particularly impressive.

The Hué Festival, a biennial festival held in the city, starts on Friday. However, preparations were already underway inside the citadel: golden dragons, pink lotus flowers and dozens of lanterns were being set up throughout the site. There were also a few workers touching up the paintwork on some of the buildings and statues.

It was almost noon by the time I left the citadel and decided to visit one last pagoda: Dieu De, which is just over a mile east of the imperial enclosure, outside the citadel and across a tributary of the Perfume River. On the way, I stopped for lunch at a small but busy kerbside cafe near Cau Cho Dinh. There wasn't a menu and they didn't speak any English so I ordered what the man sitting next to me was having: a chicken drumstick with rice, shrimp soup and a fried spring roll. The food was mostly OK (and pretty good for 60p), but the spring roll was absolutely delicious: light, crispy and with a melt-in-the-mouth texture. I wish I had known how to ask for more of those!

Outside Dieu De, the street was laid out with neon-pink incense sticks, which were arranged in flower shapes. The pagoda itself was deserted, other than a few locals who were having a siesta inside the slightly cooler buildings. It was a colourful and calming place to visit, though.

By then, the afternoon heat — and the promise of rain that never came — drove me back to my hotel after a quick stroll through Dong Ba Market and a pit stop for snacks and air con at the neighbouring supermarket. I spent a few hours chilling and chilling and then set out just as the sun was setting — sadly, it was too hazy for the Perfume River sunset scene I had hoped for.

For dinner, I headed for a street food cart on Lê Thánh Tôn (about a block north of Tong Duy Tan). I had read a great post about Hué's regional cuisine on the Legal Nomads blog and one of the dishes in particular intrigued me. Banh trang trung is a fried rice cracker topped with beef, egg, scallions and garlic that resembles a pizza. It doesn't taste like pizza, of course, but it was delicious. The cart is located next to 14 Lê Tránh Tôn and is open in the afternoon and evening. The dish was delicious and the owner was very friendly — he was pleased when I told him his cart had been recommended and even took my picture. It's a little off the beaten track but worth the walk.

I wanted to see the imperial enclosure by night so I crossed back into the citadel and headed towards the lights and music. It turns out that they were doing some kind of dress rehearsal for the Hué Festival and there was plenty of costumed singing, dancing and general pageantry. These guys asked me to take their picture outside the main gateway to the imperial enclosure.

Hundreds of people were sitting and watching the festivities and I stayed to watch a few of the set pieces. I didn't really understand the words (in one song, the only words I knew were Hué, Hanoi, Saigon and Vietnam) but the gist seem to be that there were many wars and much fighting but thanks to the Nguyen emperors, the country became strong, unified by the lotus flower. The ambiance was lovely, in any case, and it was nice to see something of the festival, even if it's probably going to take a while to get the smell of incense out of my hair!

Although I've now seen a lot of the key sights in Hué, I would have liked to have an extra day here to explore more and to try more of the local specialities. The food is so cheap — I haven't paid more than 80,000 VND for a meal — but the heat has left me with a small appetite. If you're looking for more food inspiration for Hué, I would definitely recommend the Legal Nomads blog post. On a separate note, there are a lot of French tourists here — conversely, in Saigon, Brits, Americans, Aussies and the Dutch were more common. At least it means that I get to practice a language that I can speak (unlike Vietnamese, sadly).