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Cholon, or big market is the area of Saigon where people of Chinese descent traditionally lived.  It is know to them as Dī’àn – or embankment, due to the large embankment built next to the river to stop flooding.

Originally a separate City, it was merged with Saigon to form Saigon-Cholon – The Cholon part of the name being dropped in the 1950’s.  Later many ethnic Chinese left Vietnam, changing the racial makeup of the area, though walking around you can get a feel for the heritage of the area.

The area is blessed with more temples than any other area of the city, dedicated to the many Gods of the Taoist and Buddhist traditions. Each one a place where someone can make an offering to hope that some wish will be fulfilled.

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My favourite part of nearly all Vietnamese Chinese temples are the rockeries or Hòn Non Bô – little miniature worlds where the gods live in a kind of mountainous Island.

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Worship is the main draw of these temples – they see many more worshippers than tourists.

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And these aren’t the only places of worship.

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The Religious sights might be the main draw, but commerce is the main reason the area came to be – Buying and selling is still the heart of the community.

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ms loan

cau lauHoi an has some great specialities.  In fact it’s one of the best places to eat great food in Vietnam.  There are tasty cheap eats down the market, upmarket Vietnamese places in old traders houses, Cafes, even places that serve some pretty edible pizza – but for me, this is the place to try great examples of the local food.

Ms. Loan is one of many almost identical places lined down the Khu am Thuc eating area.  The restaurants take turns feeding the customers who wander this far down, and I ended up being fed by the family here – lucky for me.

mi quangThe most famous dish from Hoi An is Cau Lau noodles – Thick, rough rice and wheat noodles, with lots of green herbs and lettuce is topped with a little broth, some roast pork, and finally some offcuts of the same noodles deep fried till crispy.  It’s one of my favourite noodle dishes.  Simple, and the pile of herbs and a squeeze off lemon give it a fresh light flavour.

white roseAnother noodle dish we tried was Mi Quang –  Turmeric coloured noodles with the same herbs, but a rich tomato and crab fat sauce, with braised pork and a quail egg.  Another great dish, Richer than the Cau lau, but still light because of the mix of green herbs.

won tonsWe also tried two other local dishes. White Rose is a steamed rice noodle stuffed with prawn, and topped with lots of crispy shallots – with a sweet vinegar dip.  The local wontons are flat triangles stuffed with a little pork mince, then topped with a great sweet and sour salsa of green beans, tomato and peppers – another winner, almost like a local plate of nachos!

So, If you’re in Hoi An, get down to Ms. Loan’s for some local specialties.

Not in the same league as Angkor in Cambodia, but still a great place to visit due to the beautiful natural environment around the Temples.

The Temple, dedicated to Hindu Gods, was used as the religious centre for the Cham people when they controlled much of Southern Vietnam. Work began building a religious centre in the 4th century, and the temple complex was used continually till the 14th, the longest of any similar site in South East Asia.

With the decline of Cham power in the region the temple was abandoned.  Sadly, during the American war, the temple was damaged significantly, destroying many of the buildings.

 

 

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Hue has some of the best food in all Vietnam.  As Imperial Capital and home to the ruling dynasty for 150 years, quality of food has resonated into the everyday meals of the people here. Unique to the town are the steamed rice cakes – many wrapped in banana leaf parcel which is peeled apart to eat and served with a spicy fish sauce.

Here are some of the few I tasted:

 

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Banh Nam – a steamed rice flour and rice cake, topped with a chopped shrimp meat stew.  One of the best, with a light texture and a rich flavour from the shrimp sauce on top.

 

 

 

 

 

banh ramBanh bot loc – A strange jellied texture from tapioca starch coats a piece of crispy pork belly and an unpeeled shrimp.  One of the weirder ones, but still good- once you get used to the sticky jelly and the crunch of the shrimps shell.

 

 

banh beoBanh Beo – or “water fern cake”.  My favourite, steamed rice flour dough in little soy dishes, topped with a kind of shrimp floss and piece of pork crackling.  Simply add some spicy fish sauce and loosen with a spoon – then pop the whole thing in your mouth.  mmmm.

 

 

banh 1Banh? – I actually didn’t find the name of this one, but basically its another variation on the theme.  A crispy piece of pork crackling is topped with a shrimp, then a really sticky rice noodle dough, and finally some more chopped shrimp.  My least favourite,they got stuck in my teeth, but still tasty.

 

 

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Banh Khoai – these are simple steamed fermented pork cakes.  They have a slightly sour favour and are found on tables at almost all the Pho/bun places around the city – They’re common for a reason!

Hue–Tombs and Temples

Hue was the last Royal Capital of Vietnam.  Sadly though, the old quarter of the city and most of the palace was destroyed by American bombing during the fight to recapture the city from the Viet Com.  Luckily, outside of the city there still remains the tombs of some of the last Vietnamese emperors, a world heritage sight.  They give some insight into what it would have been like in the Imperial Capital.

 

The eight tier Thien Mu  pagoda, just outside the city

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A shrine in the tomb of Minh Mang

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More of Minh Mang’s Tomb, built to specific Confucian design and set in beautiful grounds.

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Tu Duc’s Beautiful and expansive temple complex

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The ruined living quarters for servants – still expected to tend to their Emperor after his death.

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Elephants, horses and Mandarins stand to attention for their dead emperor in the after life

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Flowers decorating the grounds

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Street food in Hanoi leaves a lot to be desired.  Most of the food is bland and they don’t really have any condiments to jazz it up – unless you want saltless chilli sauce, or vinegar with garlic slices in it.  The staff aren’t to excited about serving foreigners either because of the language barrier – this is especially annoying when they only serve one dish.  Just give me what everybody else is having!!!  Oh,and they don’t have the price of anything on the English menu – is this an excuse to rip you off – prices vary wildly.

Luckily, there are a few exceptions  – Sadly exceptions rather than rules.  But one place where you can try a cross section of the nations street food is Quan An Ngon.  Its set in the courtyard of an old French colonial villa, the staff are attentive and friendly, the food is good, you can see all the food being prepared and it’s only a little more than the price of street food.  It’s also very clean – something that most places in Hanoi don’t seem to care about – you might say I can’t expect certain levels service and cleanliness in a developing country, I say go to Thailand and see how it’s done there – and it’s cheaper!!!

Anyway, At Quan An Ngon you get exactly what you expect.  I’m not saying it’s the best food in Hanoi, far from it.  It’s just really good.  And the choices are endless – Each dish being cooked in it’s own mini street food stall.  We go for a selection of rice paper rolls – Pickled pigs ear with crispy vegetables; Shredded pork skin; Sour pork sausage with green papaya and more pig skin; and finally the classic pork and shrimp roll. All text book rolls, fresh, tasty and coming with a dip specific to the filling.

After this we had a huge Banh Xeo.  A crispy rice flour pancake stuffed with beansprouts, herbs shrimp and pork belly slices.  This was Amazing, so fresh, the way I imagined Vietnamese food.  we also had spicy chicken wings,which weren’t the same standard as the rest of the food, but you can’t win them all.

On a second visit we try the shrimp hash steamed on sugar cane, another winner.  Steamed shrimp mousse with a great fresh taste, and an interesting presentation, like some weird drumsticks.  The waitress then cuts the mousse into wrappable pieces which you match with what I can only describe as pieces of rice noodle pancake.

This time we also eat a crispy salad of papaya, banana flower, mixed herbs and strips of dried sweet beef – This is dressed in the usual sweet sour light dressing common in Vietnam and dusted with some extra crunch in the form of crushed peanuts.  When I eat salad as fresh and crispy as this I always wonder at how something so simple can be so tasty, so good. Why cant the creators of limp flavourless salads taste stuff like this – maybe then I wont have to eat soggy lettuce again.

All in all a great meal, and if you’re in town definitely get yourself to this place.  Or try eating at every stall in town till you find something decent.

Always in pairs, huge Chinese dolls guard the gateways of many of Bangkok’s temples.  However, none are as impressive as the examples found in the famous Wat Pho – home to the country’s largest reclining Buddha.

The statues are known as “Up Chao” in Thai, meaning ballast, and actually many were brought from China for this purpose.  The main trade from Thailand to China was in heavy resources such as tin, lead, wood and rice, on the return however the lighter Chinese products weren’t enough to weigh the ship down in the water, so these cheap concrete statues were perfect for the job.  However, many of the statues in Wat pho were believed to have been specially made by Chinese artisans in Bangkok as a  thank you to the royal family of the time.

 

 

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