Merry Christmas from Asia

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Recently in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh city for my first time there in December. Pleased to see the creativity of the season celebrations in this country.

Above, snowman made from paper cups at McDonald’s in Takashimaya.

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Nutcracker and ballerina. Employing Vietnamese paper cutting skills to create a mobile.
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Christmas tree made from layered wood.

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In front of Takashimaya, Saigon Centre, Ho Chi Minh city

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Christmas is always associated with carousel in Asia. But this is only decorative. There’s also a tiny skating ring – highly popular.

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This little bubble room has quite a queue for taking photographs.

District 1 has street lighting and decorations. Shops play Christmas songs celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. What a Christmas mood. Young people are taking to the streets with huge professional cameras and lenses.

Ho Chi Minh city is truly vibrant like I’ve not seen before.

3 days in Ho Chi Minh City

What to do in Ho Chi Minh city ?

1. Eat softshell crabs
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Quan Thuy 94 Cu
94 Dinh Tien Hoang St., Dist.1,, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

2. Have coffee
The Workshop Coffee
https://goo.gl/maps/eY1ujmWM23p
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Nurse a coffee in an old warehouse. Have a department meeting on the open tables. Low battery? Borrow a charger.

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L’Usine Dong Khoi
https://goo.gl/maps/Go9gZYY3Rsn

Tea Salon 1930 TWG
https://m.facebook.com/alen.yuu/

http://www.villaroyaletreasures.com/
Serve TWG tea

3. Vietnam chocolate
Marou

French style hot chocolate opened by two French men.

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Try
Quán Ăn Nam Lợi
Go for fish noodles
https://goo.gl/maps/PwPBVttc7j32

Quán Bụi
https://goo.gl/maps/mbhGyqzSnp12

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Stir fried Jasmine flower?
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5. Eat pho and wraps

http://www.vietnam-guide.com/5-best-pho-in-ho-chi-minh.htm

Pho Hoa on Pasteur is nearest to where I stay. It’s not my brother’s favourite.

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My brother’s driver brought me here to Pho Phu Vuong. It’s air conditioned, clean and very good service. There’s a photo of a cow where you can point to which part you prefer.

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I’m going to just go for the generic chain restaurants in Takashimaya building.

The best beef pho I’ve ever eaten was in Paris near Little Italy where I studied at Insead, I’ll take a train to Paris just for a pho. I think it was 7 Euros which translated to Singapore $16 in those days. I’ve given up eating good pho, or at least in my opinion, good pho. Because of the price range. Maybe even if I return to Paris, it’s my romantised memory of eating Asian food as a student.

6. Spa – see previous post
Miu Miu

7. Pedicure and Medicure
Fame nails
Pricing is transparent. Classic Manicure starts at 100,000 vnd or Singapore$6.12
Do give a tip if you’re pleased with the results.
No. 18, Pham Hong Thai, Ben Thanh Ward, HCMC
08 38 245 818

8. Watch a AO Show at Saigon Opera House.

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9. Macadamia nuts at Andong market
Must buy: roasted and shelled cashew nuts, dried longan, dried persimmon, dried melon.

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I’ve not even started on Ben Tanh market.

10. Forget about tailoring

I used to wear off the rack Vietnamese long dress Ao zai 25 years ago. Now, unless this is a tailor recommended by Vietnamese who serve an expat crowd, I won’t venture in. Not snobbery, but I think my frame is different.

Instead, consider these gifts such as quilts, lacquerwear, and even ceramics:
http://www.citypassguide.com/en/travel/ho-chi-minh-city/shopping/blog/top-cultural-gifts-in-hcmc

What to eat in Hoi An

Bánh bao vac (white roses)
a type of shrimp dumpling made using two round sheets of rice paper. A bit like ravioli, really.
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Viet.com Cafe
730 Hai Ba Trung
0510 3910 104

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Stir fried Jasmine flowers.
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Morning Glory
106 Nguyen Thai Hok
+84 0510 2241 555
http://www.restaurant-hoian.com/index.php/en/restaurant-morning-glory-hoi-an.html

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Ban Xeoh
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Grilled squid

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Peeled fruits.
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Springroll with lattice skin wrap and yam filling is my favourite. Chinese style spring rolls have white radish and carrot fillings. But in Hoi An, the black fungus, prawn and steamed yam filling with lattice wrap remains quintessentially Vietnamese.

And fish sauce. Smuggle two bottles back, tightly wrapped. The most expensive glass bottled and from the island of Phu Qoc. But make sure you plastic wrapped the bottles or you’ll stink up your suitcase.

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Mango.Mango
45 Nguyen Phuc Chu
0510 3911 863

Bale Well Restaurant
45/51 Tran Hung Dao Street
Hoi An0510 3864 443

Hai Cafe Restaurant Bar & Grill
98 Nguyen Thai Hoc & 111 Tran Phu Street
0510 386 3210

What to do in Hoi An

1. Shop

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2. Visit a wet market

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3. Cooking class

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4.  Respect the locals. A day in the life of a farmer

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5. Catch a open air performance

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6. Float a lantern

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7. Visit the pottery museum

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8. Resist the temptation. Don’t tailor a suit unless you’ve 4 days. 

9. Chill by the beach. There’s a free hotel shuttle from Essence Hotel. But how come no one is swimming ?

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10. Support local artists

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11. Just walk

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Both sides of the river have rows of eateries. Ask your hotel for a map. Otherwise they’re on Google map.

Despite being an old town with rich historical heritage, and Japanese, Chinese influence, we didn’t see any elaborate cuisine like in Hue. Most of the food is very similar in HCMC or Hanoi except for the flower ravioli.

12. Eat

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My favourite pancake ban xeo.

Cafe hopping in idyllic Hoi An

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Hoi An is a pretty idyllic UNESCO town. Charmingly framed with pink bougainvillea, yellow  Alamanda at the UNESCO site. Cafes, happy faces, affordable light snacks. The main activities are centred around tourism. To enter the town, you need to buy a pass which you need to carry around you in case someone asks.

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With the beautiful bougainvillea, you absolutely forget the rundown Chinese buildings. My grandmother used to live in one of these quarters in Singapore.

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Always inspiring to just have a coffee and pick up gardening.

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In tiny pots.

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Or just take a walk.

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Screened out the noise of motorcycles.

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Hoi An, Vietnam

Not too long ago, we took a 4 day trip to Hoi An and surprised how convenient it was. There’s a direct flight by SilkAir to Danang. From there its a 1hr drive to Hoi An.

As we were staying with the Essence Hotel in Hoi An, we negotiated for the hotel transfer. It’s important to tell them the exact number of bags. As the hotel sent us a pick-up for 4 adults and 2 children without space for one extra luggage which had to be tied to the top of the vehicle.

Our hotel is not on the main shopping area. It’s next to a rice padi field which is quite therapeutic from the hustle and bustle.
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Padi fields next to the hotel.
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But we need to take a taxi about US $1 to the UNESCO heritage site or shopping area or wait for the free hotel shuttle. As we have 4 adults and 2 children, it’s totally worthwhile as there are taxis which can accommodate all of us at the same price. Or you can cycle with the free bikes as many Caucasians do.
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So, yes, Hoi An Essence has a great location beside the padi fields, nice comfortable rooms, and a breakfast spread that I look forward to every morning with pho, springrolls and fruits. When things go wrongly unexpectedly, you want a safe pair of hands to guide the polite and courteous local staff. I’m very pleased to note that one of the staff who spoke good English was trained in Singapore.

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Essence Hotel
132 Hung Vuong , Hoi An, Vietnam

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Metered taxis are available for low cost. Most popular taxi companies are Mai Linh (0511-356-5656) and Taxi Xanh ((0511-368-6868)

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Delicious springrolls and noodles pho every morning with tropical fruits. The western spread is not fabulous but it didn’t matter to me.
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Relaxing ambience at the hotel which charged something very reasonably at about $120 per night. Rates change according to season.

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Papaya Salad

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100gr green papaya, peel and julienne
100gr pork, trimmed of excess fat, thinly
slice and Cut each slice into strips.
100gr shrimp peel and devein
50gr carrot julienned
50gr onion sliced finely
50gr mint leaf
1 tsp sesame
2 tsp peanut
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp black pepper
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp Seasoning Maggi
2 tsp chili sauce
2 cloves of garlic, sliced finely
2 cloves of shallot, sliced finely
40 ml lime juice
1 tsp fish sauce
Papaya Salad With Shrimp & Pork

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Serve salad with fish

METHOD
1. Put the papaya strands, carrot and onion in water and leave them to soak for 10 to 15 minutes.
2. Season the shrimp and pork with pepper, fish sauce and ½ tsp sugar.  Mix well and marinate 10 minutes. Place in a hot pan with ½ table spoon of oil and fry quickly until cooked.
3. Combine shallots, garlic and 2 table spoon of oil in a heavy skillet and bring oil to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook shallots & garlic, stirring occasionally with chopsticks, until light golden brown, 5 – 7 minutes. Careful not to burn! (=> Mixture of garlic, shallot and oil)
4. In a big bowl place green papaya, carrot, onion, mint leaves, sea salt, sesame, peanut, 1 ½ tsp pepper, chili sauce, lime juice and (3). Toss well with your hand or chopstick. Add shrimp and pork on the top. Transfer to a serving platter.

If you skip the shrimp and pork and only use the vegetables, this can be a lovely side dish for your meal.

While in Hoi An, Vietnam, we took a cooking class. There are many different schools which offer a visit tour to the market. Some may even organise a class for your private family of 4.

Hoi An at night

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Hoi An. There’s something mysterious about lanterns in the dark. 

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Dumpling fried or steamed. Wrapped or exposed.

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If soup is not your thing and you must hold your sandwich.

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Or skewered. After a while, I wonder if this is Vietnamese or Malay influence or simply Middle Eastern.

Eating Cultures

Dogs packed to be sold for meat

Dogs packed to be sold for meat

When we last visited Hanoi in 2007, we saw numerous dog-meat eating places near the airport. This was pointed out to us by our friend who was living in the city. During our recent trip, they were gone. Was there a clean up? Apparently not so. Merely relocated as the land had become expensive and used for residential purpose.

According to Mae, our guide, dog-meat is considered a delicacy by North Vietnamese, not the South. If you see any dog-meat restaurants in the South, it is likely to be owned by a North Vietnamese. Although they do not wish to admit it, the North Vietnamese are quite influenced by Chinese culture and eating habits. Dog-meat is considered nutritious, warming for the body but can only be eaten for 10 days from the 21st to the end of the month (lunar calendar). Hence dog-meat restaurants are only opened during that period. Otherwise, eating dog meat is harmful to the body. The Northerners eat cat meat too, which they term “little tigers”.

Another difference between North and South Vietnamese custom is the tradition of inheritance. In the North, largest share of the property is given to the eldest son, similar to the Chinese. In the South, largest share of the property is given to the youngest, who usually stays behind to look after the parents.

Mae is a Taoist, so she doesn’t eat dog meat. Why do Vietnamese eat beef as in pho if they are Buddhists/ Taoists? In Singapore, the Buddhists/ Taoists do not eat beef but Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Thais do. Told by Thais, its because Buddhists are not choosy over their food, I didn’t find the explanation convincing. When McDonalds’ first came to Singapore, as children we were not allowed to eat hamburgers. Only Fillet O’Fish. Cows help the rice farmers in the padi fields, my mother insisted. Out of gratitude to the cows for giving us rice, we do not eat beef. [Hindus do not eat beef because cows are considered sacred.] So I was very surprised when I found that the Vietnamese and Thais who also plant padi and ethnically close to the Chinese in terms of religious beliefs, do.

Turns out, they don’t eat water cows (water buffalos) “shui niu” but they eat yellow cow “huang niu”. Being a Vietnamese Chinese Taoist, Mae eats beef from yellow cow, not the water cow. Mae even had an account of how she was once tricked by a beef pho seller into eating “water cow” meat. Before she stepped into her home which had an altar, she vomited everything. Immediately, she knew she had committed the ultimate sin. Cleansed herself, and burned her joss sticks to be forgiven.

Every culture has its own list of taboo food. When I first went to the UK for training, I was shocked by the rabbit meat on the menu. Unfortunately, as we were huddled in an old run-down castle, with no transport, and the nearest town 2 hours away, I swallowed a little of the meat. Personally, I don’t like to eat exotic meat, even though nothing stops me from doing so. Of course, exotic is subjective.  Sea cucumber, sea urchin, puffer fish, Duck neck/tongue, geoduck, shark’s fin, snake, I do not consider as exotic.  Skewered chicken backside, horse, monkey, dog meat, ostrich and turtle meat I won’t touch.  Beef – only in American or Japanese restaurants or Vietnamese pho.

As a child, I disliked eating pork, to my mother’s inconvenience, although I like to eat frog’s legs very much. Once upon a time, I ate coagulated pig’s blood cake in Pig intestine soup. When it was banned in Singapore, I thought I would miss it. Now I can’t imagine doing so.

I used to feel sorry for the expatriates in Vietnam, seeing how pathetic the raw meat/ vegetable section looked like in a supermarket in a department store.  Until I went to a Vietnamese wet market, and then I felt really sorry for the expatriate. The Vietnamese wet market I went to, patronised by local Vietnamese, is opened from 9am to 9pm, filled with great variety of fresh herbs, vegetable, meat and live seafood still swimming in tanks. Alas, as I can’t speak Vietnamese, I don’t know what the real price of the food items were.

Skinning a frog at the local market

Skinning a frog at the local market

Coagulated pigs' blood

Coagulated pigs’ blood at Vietnam market

Chicken feet, silkworms

Chicken feet, silkworms in Vietnam market

Recently, I met someone who’s turned vegetarian, out of compassion for animals. Has her complexion and health improved, I asked, hoping to find some compelling reason to convert. Meat sans seasoning has no taste, she offered. Whereas fresh vegetables from local farms are very sweet.  Maybe in due course.

Sliced Squid cake rolls

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Cube squid and mix ingredients

Cube squid and mix ingredients

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Pound

Pound

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Slap mixture against bowl and sprinkle some cornflour to form a ball

Slap mixture against bowl and sprinkle some cornflour to form a ball

wrap with cling wrap

wrap with cling wrap

Roll in aluminium foil or banana leaf to prepare for steaming

Roll in aluminium foil or banana leaf to prepare for steaming

If you’re using banana leaf to roll the squid cake, then secure both ends with toothpick. Soak the banana leaf in water for about 30 mins to make it more pliable for rolling.

Twist ends to look like sweet to secure

Twist ends to look like sweet to secure

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Steam for 30 mins until cooked

Steam for 30 mins until cooked

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Cover the steamer with lid when steaming. Turn off heat after 30 mins or longer if more rolls are steamed. Allow to cool for 15 mins. Be careful of hot steam which can scald.  Remove aluminium foil and wrap. Slice the squid cake.

You may want to fry the squid cake before serving, or serve in steamed version with dipping sauce.

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