Given I’m currently on holiday in South America I thought it was most befitting that I endeavour to finish all the posts from my previous holiday in Vietnam! And as I’ve just bought myself a nifty little notebook it makes blogging whilst on holiday convenient and a good use of the often long travel times. So here’s the last post in a series covering my Vietnamese eating tour.
Having experienced the hectic pace and vibrancy of Ho Chi Minh, then getting up close and personal with locals and tasting what the Mekong River had to offer in the Mekong Delta, we decided the last leg of our Vietnamese eating tour should involve dedicated recuperation time in prepartion for our journey home. Key to recuperation would be plenty of access to beautiful beaches, lots of massages and an abundance of excellent food. So for our last leg we ventured further South to Phu Quoc island.
Phu Quoc (pronounced “Fu-Wuck”in Vietnamese) is a small island off South West Vietnam that is actually geographically closer to the coast of Cambodia than Vietnam. The island is famed for it’s beautiful white beaches and the local fish sauce which is apparently the world’s best fish sauce. My friend L-bean jokes that the production of fish sauce is such a pungent and nostril assaulting process that the Vietnamese mainland chose Phu Quoc as the production site as it was remote from the rest of the country.
After the preceeding journey through Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta, we’d re-discovered a zealous appreciation for the air conditioner. Lying starfished under a creaking ceiling fan as it slowly circulates warm, sticky, suffocating humid air around you will do that. So we decided to stay at Cassia Cottage, a lovely boutique hotel with private cottages and blessed air conditioning. The cool air conditioning was more than enough to bring a sigh-inducing smile to my face, but the lovely welcome sign and fresh flowers on our bed were a nice touch that didn’t go unnoticed.
It’s amazing what a sight like this can do for a weary traveller. The Co-pilot did complain that the water was too warm to be refreshing but it seemed perfect for me – like lounging in a warm spa. The only complaining I did was in relation to the odd-tan lines I got. The strength of the Australian sun is legendary, but surprisingly I found the Vietnamese sun stronger. A mere 10 minutes in the sun gave me the worst tanlines. The Co-pilot kept sniggering non-discreetly at my panda-like sunglasses tan.
For me, one of the main perks of beachside holidays is having meals in your swimmers right on the sand next to gently lapping waves. The hot humid weather calls for light refreshing meals – none more perfect than green papaya salads and green mango salads! The salads were dressed with tangy lime juice, chilli and some of that local Phu Quoc fish sauce. I have to admit that both the Co-pilot and I were unsure whether we were enamoured with the taste of this particular fish sauce. It was certainly more fishy and potent than the usual fish sauce we’re accustomed to, but it also seemed to have a hint of a stronger ammonia-like aftertaste.
The most interesting meal we had was a dish of stir-fried cinnamon chilli okra. Cassia, the spice from which our hotel takes it’s name, has been farmed and traded on the island for decades. It is a close relative to cinnamon, is frequently substituted or mixed in commercial preparations of ground cinnamon, but on it’s own is better used in savoury rather than sweet dishes. I’ve not had cinnamon (or cassia) in a savoury dish before so I was very curious to try this. The flavour had the unmistakable cinnamon spicy flavour without cloyingly sweet overtones and a kick of tomato and chilli heat added some extra interest for our taste buds. Neither of us are particular fans of the texture of okra, but the unique flavours definitely made the dish worthwhile.
After a full day of relaxing at the resort, we’d exhausted all the interesting options on their menus and decided it was time to venture out and explore what the rest of the island had to offer. Besides, the wind had whipped up on our side of the island (the west side) so we decided to explore the beaches on the wind-protected eastern side. The best way to explore the island is by motorbike, and the Co-pilot was keen. I was less than keen to ride a bike of my own so I opted to sit on the back of the Co-pilot’s bike and grip on for dear life like a clip-on koala toy. Interestingly enough, the intimate position of cuddling the back of the rider is known as a “motorcycle hug” in Vietnamese.
But, all notions of intimacy and any teen fantasies I had of riding in a skin tight black leather jumpsuit and high heels, skidding to a halt in front of some unsuspecting leading man and taking off a tinted black motorcycle helmet to shake out my long billowing hair whilst sending him smouldering looks were very much banished on this holiday.
Please meet Bao, the small Vietnamese child of indeterminate sex that I transformed into for the motorcycle trip. To add insult to injury, the Co-pilot chastised my poor choice of singlet as sun protection and swiftly donned his large man-sized shirt on me. If I look dejected in that photo below it’s because I felt it. It couldn’t be further from the leather jumpsuit. *sigh*
Casting aside my motorcycle outfit fantasy, the Co-pilot and I (as Bao) set off in a motorcycle hug on dusty red roads around the island. We passed some fish sauce production plants, where the stench of fish rotting and fermenting in the sun would herald the location of the production plant long before we had visual confirmation.
After a long, hot and dusty ride, we arrived at Sao Bao beach on the eastern side of the island, covered in a thick film of red dust mixed with sweat and sticky sunscreen. Oh yes. I couldn’t be further from that leather jumpsuit ideal.
After a refreshing dip in the water, rinsed free of red dust and grime, we sauntered over to one of the shady bungalows. The view was only enhanced by an icy cold beer and some excellent local seafood. There were many interesting shellfish on my menu that piqued my interest but the sensible traveller within me decided against the tasty filter feeders, particularly when they have ominous sounding names like blood cockles. Instead we opted for grilled chilli salt squid, a blackened kingfish salad and a pomelo fruit shake each to quench our thirst.
When the much anticipated food arrived the Co-pilot and I glanced at each other warily. The pomelo shake had ice that looked suspiciously like un-safe chipped local block ice and the blackened kingfish salad came raw. Bad ice and raw fish. So much for being sensible travellers. The food looked so good we decided to take the risk – besides, we’ve drunk from the Mekong River now – how much worse can it get? We quickly slurped down all the pomelo shake before much of the ice could melt and dressed the kingfish with as much lime juice as possible in a vague hope that lime juice had suddenly gained the powers of a bactericide. I’m glad we persisted as the kingfish, combined with plenty of fresh herbs, cucumber, chilli, ground coconut all cocooned in a rice paper roll was so incredibly delicious and refreshing. The coconut and lime juice added an interesting twist to the flavour and defined it from the usual rice paper wraps we’re accustomed to. The grilled squid was also tasty: tender, pungently fishy and served with an addictive garlic and spice laced salt that we just couldn’t get enough of.
That night we went on a squid fishing tour. I am slightly obsessed with the concept of fishing despite the fact that I’ve never really caught anything substantial or impressive. Squid fishing intrigues me even more as the squid is such a curiously alien-like nocturnal creature with it’s flashing camouflage skin and suckered tentacles. Needless to say I was as excited as a giddy child going to the Easter Show when I got on the boat and couldn’t wait to start fishing for the critters. The Co-pilot and I were not the only tourists on the boat, there were some expats returning from Canada and all the others seemed to be Vietnamese on domestic holidays.
A 20 minute slow putter and some of the most beautiful strewn red-purple lava sunset skies we’d arrived at our squid fishing destination and it was time to stake our spots on the boat. And that’s when the sea sickness started to hit the boat. (Warning – if you get easily nauseous, best to avoid the following passage!)
As we descended from the top deck viewing platform, a tourist from Ho Chi Minh had already dropped to his knees and was hurling over the side of the boat. I could barely believe that he’d succumbed so quickly and felt intense empathy as it was going to be a long 4 hours for him.
As we set up our jigs around the boat and I industriously if impatiently kept hauling up my line to check whether an unsuspecting squid had been snagged, around me one-by-one the squid fishers succumbed to sea sickness. To make matters worse, the locals clearly had no idea how to deal with their nausea as they all systematically filed upstairs to the top deck where the rocking and swaying of the boat was at it’s worst. Along with the other survivors remaining on the lower deck I persisted in my squid fishing efforts and we joked that with all the nauseous people on the top deck, it was probably only a matter of time before someone vomited over the edge and hit one of us. It was ironic then when it actually happened. Someone hurled without warning onto the outstretched hands of another passenger fishing on the bottom deck which immediately rendered her nauseous and immobile. In the photo below, you can just see her hand on the far side of the table as she’d immediately collapsed onto the benches in a mix of nausea, disgust and embarrasment.
With about 12 of the 15 people on board sick, the Co-pilot and I along with the Canadian expat made an executive decision to return to harbour. There was no point persisting for another 2.5 hours and punishing the deliriously sick or goading those remaining survivors to give in. The boat had two small squids to show for our efforts and whilst memorable, I don’t think many of the passengers will be heartily recommending the experience to their friends.
Feeling slightly ill ourselves from merely being in the presence of so many productively nauseous people, we headed into town to find the ultimate cure-all-ails: pho bo tai. The local recommendation was for Pho Saigon and we headed there was two hot steaming bowls of the delicious clear sweet broth. The servings of pho at Pho Saigon were small but packed full of flavour and just what my ailing stomach craved to sooth the heaving threat.
The next night we rode down to explore a section of beach where the locals congregate. Whilst I don’t believe the sections of beach that house Cassia Cottage and Sao Beach Club aren’t prohibited to locals, the prices of food and services offered there may be. In comparison to the relative calm and isolation of the “upmarket touristy beaches” the local’s beach was a buzzing hive of activity with kids and adults running in and out of the water, ball games being played on the sand and enterprising food vendors selling delicious and cheap snacks to the hungry crowds. In comparison to the touristy beaches, this section wasn’t as picturesque, but it felt more alive.
Taunted by the smell of grilled goods we wandered over to the nearby night markets and slowly perused the fare on offer.
A myriad of different grilled meat and seafood aromas enveloped us in their heady saliva inducing spell and we peered at the curious looking things on display. There were grilled skewers and Vietnamese sausages, fresh seafood and bizarre looking conch-like shellfish.
We walked past one store after another, each selling delicious smelling goodies and finally (and arbitrarily) settled on a busy stall called Thanh Xuan somewhere in the midst o f all the stalls. Unless you have insider knowledge or have done your research, usually the golden rule is to avoid any stalls that are bereft of customers and have the proverbial tumbleweed lurking about in the foreground – if the locals frequent the store – that’s usually the best sign you can ask for.
Satiated with our meal we wandered over to a dessert bar and ordered a Sam Bo Leung, a sticky mixture of sweetened syrupy fruit, barley, lotus seeds and thin strips of chewy seaweed. As we ordered and sat down we invoked curious stares from the locals. I find the staring peculiar. Particularly when it’s aimed at me. Often the staring begins with the Co-pilot being the focus and I imagine the locals stare at him with interest, noting that another tourist was in town. And then usually the staring shifts it’s focus and intensity to me. I wonder what the locals must be thinking to warrant such blatant, soul-boring staring. I speculate that they must be trying to figure out what my story is. I speculate they ask things like “Is she a local girl or a tourist?” “Is she Vietnamese?” “Is she an ‘escort’?” “Where is she from?” Sometimes the locals attempt to speak to me in Vietnamese, which of course fails and the staring invariably intensifies, often persisting throughout the meal and following us out the door. On this occasion, a Vietnamese man on holiday from the US approached us. After some polite chatting the focused turned to me – “Where are you from?”, “Where are your parents from?”, “Do you speak Vietnamese?”, “Do your parents speak Vietnamese?”, “Were you born in Australia?”, “How long have you been together?” Satisfied he’d mined me for sufficient information he retreated back to the shadows where all the other locals instantly called out to him and he translated my answers into Vietnamese for them. There was some nodding, a last curious backward glance and then the staring stopped. As I look generic-ly South East Asian, I tend to get curious stares in most countries so I’m seriously considering having the answers to those generic questions printed on a t-shirt and stem the onslaught of curious stares once and for all.
There was at least another day of swimming and dining at Sao Beach Club and the night markets but I don’t have the photos anymore as we lost our little digital camera! It has served us so well and it was just lucky that we happened to fill one of our memory cards and had just swapped over to a fresh empty one before we lost it so at least the loss of photos was minimal. The remaining photos were taken with out SLR.
On our last day we caught a flight from Phu Quoc back to Ho Chi Minh. We knew there were 3 hours between arriving in Ho Chi Minh and our flight back to Sydney, so we did what any self-respecting food lover would do: check our bags in, jump into the nearest waiting cab and high-tail it to the city for our last taste of Vietnamese food in the capital. Ever since I’d seen Anthony Bourdain visit, I’d been wanting to try out Com Nieu Saigon for myself.
For starters we ordered the crispy white baby tomatoes which turned out to be pickled white eggplants and the Vietnamese style beef salad. Neither impressed us. The pickled eggplants were rather pungent and unpleasant in flavour and the beef salad had too much Vietnamese basil and incredibly mouth puckeringly astringent green carambola or starfruit to be enjoyable.
For our mains we ordered a Hanoi sour soup with basa, a popular type of catfish regularly eaten in Vietnam and overseas. The soup itself was tasty albeit thin, watery and slightly bland. The basa fillet was not to our liking – although we’d eaten it before, on this occasion it seemed impossibly strongly earth and mud flavoured. Not surprising given that basa are either commonly found in the dirty waters of the Mekong River or farmed in muddy estuaries.
The standout dish for us was the restaurant’s signature dish – the traditional com dap or charcoal grilled claypot rice. If you’ve seen Bourdain’s “A Cook’s Tour” show on this restaurant you’ll be familiar with the crazy, gimmicky, theatrical way in which the rice is served. When the rice is ready, it’s whisked from the coals and sent sailing at high speed through the air from one waiter to another who deftly catches, flips the pot over and smashes the pot open using a mallet. The procedure is flashy, but effective having all the restaurant patrons enthralled. Unfortunately, even though pots seemed to be whizzing overhead every 2 minutes, the show happens so quickly I didn’t get a chance to capture it on camera. And the rice itself is excellent – the crust is brown and crispy, flavoured with a drizzle of oil, spring onions and a mixture of whole and crushed toasted sesame seeds.
Though the rest of the meal wasn’t particularly exciting, the com dap rice redeemed the meal and made the last minute mad dash all worthwhile and a befitting end to an excellent eating tour through Southern Vietnam. We thoroughly enjoyed the whirlwind 10 day tour and the experience has only left me hungry to explore the center and the north towards Hanoi and Halong Bay. That’s another trip hopefully in the not too distant future.
Ba Keo Beach, Duong Dong, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
Tel: (+84) 773 848 395
Com Nieu Saigon
19 Tu Xuong Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: (+848) 3932 2799 or (+848) 3932 2279
Note: There are 3 branches around Ho Chi Minh.
http://www.comnieusaigon.com/ (at the time of posting this page was under construction)