South East Asia travelogue
I don’t usually use this blog for personal items but I am making an exception in case other travelers are interested in my notes on a three week trip, via Hong Kong, to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The focus of our travels is always good food as well as enquiry (rather than well-researched knowledge) about the culture and history of our destination. My notes here expand on the post I recently contributed to the foodie website Chowhound which was the main source of our restaurant research. I recommend this site if you are into restaurant research. I have added here some notes on our hotels (appropriate for those in need of a degree of comfort as well as character) and on the sites, as well as some recommendations for research and reading.
This post is devoid of financial commentary but I can tell you the story here was the same whether amongst Hong Kong’s gleaming towers or Vietnam’s emerging role as a low-cost producer: business just stopped and it wasn’t for Christmas. No decoupling here, then.
Bangkok Bangkok was meant to be first stop but the airport sit-in meant diversion to HK (though four of our party of six ended up in Singapore). But routing back through Bangkok we had taken the precaution of booking at Sirocco (outside on 63rd floor of State Tower building!) to fill our 6-hour stopover. If you only have six hours there can’t be a better and more romantic (or more extravagant) way to see Bangkok! Considering the location would alone book it out for months ahead, the food is actually very good. We stuck to salads and some succulent shrimps. You need a head for dizzying heights and matching prices.
Hong Kong So this is communism. We were met at the gate (yes, the gate) by a staff member from the Mandarin Oriental ready with an electric buggy to whisk us past hoi polloi. Beyond customs one staff turned into two, whose role was to hand us over kerbside to the hotel’s Mercedes S Class driver. I know the Peninsular has 15 Rollers but we were not complaining. Besides, subsequent research confirmed we had got right the one thing you need to get right. If not between the MO and the P, at least be on the Island rather than Kowloon. If you are at the MO, the superior rooms overlooking the harbour are probably worth drawing down an extra year of pension for, and not just for the view.
The breakfast is outstanding, particularly the pastries (from their café, which is also where to go for tea). HK is obviously one of those places where both chicken and their eggs actually taste so make the most of the egg options. The bars in the hotel are fun and seem to be trying to stop the clock at HK’s heyday as a Crown colony but it’s hard to get used to all that cigar smoke again.
For restaurants, we relied quite heavily throughout the trip on our favourite online foodie forum, Chowhound. There are three features of top flight eating we came to associate uniquely with HK: big Cantonese restaurants on several floors; hotel restaurants and restaurants in shopping malls. The former are suggestive of the scale and bustle and glitziness of Royal China in Queensway as well as the same bossiness. A bias against eating in hotels will be seriously limiting in HK but it is even more surprising to eat well for dinner in a shopping mall!
Our dinner selection in first category was Yung Kee on Wellington Steert (near the start of the outdoor escallator). Roast goose and pigeon are the specialties but pigeon was off (bird ‘flu?). Goose was succulent and really tasty. Tried thousand year old eggs (not large so you can do it) and excellent soups. Pickled ginger to die for. First introduction to water spinach or morning glory which was the green vegetable in season while we were in SE Asia. Excellent.
Second category: Golden Leaf at Conrad Hotel. Windowless basement restaurant so you could be anywhere but beautifully designed: opulence but not glitzy. Classy service. We allowed the Maitre d to guide us. Not sure about the pigs’ ears (crunchy rather than crisp) but rated the crispy prawn balls. Outstanding roast chicken, served like side of roast duck with exceptionally crispy skin (cooked separately, perhaps?). Succulent yellow flesh that actually tasted as if chicken was a delicacy. The rice wine was a good choice. It was quite sweet and very strong, the colour of oloroso sherry. With a dried and salted plum dropped in it, it provides a wonderful mix of sweet and sour and salty. We had a feeling this was meant to be an aperitif but we pretended not to know and stayed with it throughout.
Third category: our friend Katherine from the academic staff at the University recommended meeting in a Thai/Canton fusion restaurant in one corner of a mall under Exchange Tower: Lian. It was very good and had a really buzzy bar, although we were sitting apart from it. We ordered conventional Thai dishes which were all comme il faut and beautifully presented. The young Hong Kongers next to us (whose designer purchases took up much of the floor space around their table) left half a lobster but we finished everything and were tempted to whip their wasted lobster when it did not go home in a doggie bag.
Mindy is a big fan of Dim Sum which means it has to be lunch. Chowhound tips were all in hotels: Lung King at Four Seasons, Tang Court at Langham, Golden Leaf again. But a single enthusiastic post for a restaurant also written up in Gourmet was the one we opted for, partly because the location fitted in with our morning plans: Dynasty at Renaissance Harbour View Hotel (on the water side of the Peninsular next to the arts centre). We made a few miss hits with our choices (probably our fault) but it was excellent and the harbour view really is fantastic. Pricey but all these Dim Sum recommendations were – but clearly OK for ladies who lunch.
Katherine suggested we pick up an ice cream at XTC (get it?) at the entrance to the Star Ferry for the journey home. After such a big lunch we had to split one (chocolate, needless to say) and she was right.
Everyone has to go to the Peak and if you want to have lunch with a view in a million head for Deco. You can eat from any cuisine in the world but we stayed local and hit two of the best dishes we had anywhere: a warm duck salad (to complement our earlier roast chicken and roast goose) and a pomelo and noodle salad. This grapefruit-like native of SE Asia was the big discovery although none was as good as this first one.
Back to the airport by limo again but a bit embarrassing to have the two waiting MO staff escort you to the back of the economy queue for check in. And so to Hanoi to meet the Grumbars and Youngs after their no-choice BA diversion to Singapore.
Hanoi Our research suggested the Sofitel Metropole was a no-brainer. It probably is. Apart from great colonial character and sense of history it has a very good breakfast buffet and a good pool area (although in winter the sun is barely on it for long). The only decision is between the Opera business wing at the back or the original rooms in the front. We opted for character and along with it got a few slightly annoying eccentricities in room shapes, sizes and bathrooms. We did not see the business rooms so cannot judge how to make the trade off and anyway it may be purely personal.
In Hanoi we mastered the art of crossing the road in a line abreast at a steady pace letting waves of motorcyclists pass us to front or back without hitting us or each other. It’s a bit like the way fish don’t bump into each other. It quickly becomes second nature so the only risk is that you try it in London when you get back. The general rule in Vietnam is one motorcycle (all around 100-150cc) for every two people. We never figured out where they were going but they were clearly all out at once.
The Vietnamese restaurant at the Metropole, Spice Gardens, was well reviewed on Chowhound and, even without the temptation to eat in own hotel for first night (our typical habit), seemed a wise move as an introduction to Vietnamese cuisine. It wasn’t. The idea here was evidently a contemporary twist but across all six eaters we were not convinced. We might have been jaded by fact that new decoration in progress meant that instead of the scent of either spices or gardens we were overwhelmed by the smell of fresh paint but the lasting impact will be a very bland décor.
Some of the disappointment stemmed from poor ingredients (the green mango, for instance, and the minced pork in the spring rolls) but we also needed more guidance and that means the staff need to be not just pretty but communicative and understandable. For instance, the rice paper in a Vietnamese spring roll is almost inedible if you don’t take care to separate two of them and even then need to be moistened (wet lettuce is there for the purpose) if not to be very chewy.
Successful discoveries by asking around locally were two in the same group (also the same owner as our local agent, Vidotours): Wild Rice (set menus) and Club des Orientales, which was the better (and more expensive) of the two: spring rolls, squid, cinnamon pork, pomelo salad. Both are interesting upscale surroundings for what seemed to our untutored taste proper Vietnamese cooking with the best ingredients. I think the latter is what used to be called Emperor’s, which was well known, so don’t go looking for that one. Both are a short walk from the Metropole.
We rated our cheapest lunch one of the best meals of the whole trip: Cha Ca La Vong. One of the things that endeared me to Chowhound was that it could put a modest back-street establishment where no English appeared to be spoken on a truly global map for no other reason than the quality of its single, simple dish. It’s a fresh fish, close enough to perch, self-cooked in mid-table over coals, fired along with herbs and morning glory in a very mild oil that does not spit or splutter (how?), and eaten with rice noodles.
Nam Hai, near Hoi An This is a remarkable resort hotel near the famous China Beach south of Da Trang that was both where the US GIs flew into and where they got their R&R. The hotel consists of private villas in walled gardens open to the beach most of which are owned and let back to the hotel when not in use. The style is a fusion of Asian and contemporary which works so well. We had the pick of the bunch which is three villas with a separate common room and its own infinity pool. You also get a maid and a butler but not of the English type. Only the best lookers work in the hospitality industry in SE Asia. And do they smile. Great spa: treatment rooms built out into lily pond; more beautiful smiling people.
We knew there was a risk of rain and it did mar our visit. The safest climate for December was down south but we couldn’t find any really good hotels. I believe that problem is being solved by Six Senses somewhere in the Delta.
The food at Nam Hai was excellent: good breakfast buffet and lunch brought to the villa. Tea with sandwiches, scones and brownies running into canapes with drinks before going out. We tended to keep some of this back for pudding on return or lunch next day.
Made two evening trips into Hoi An by hotel bus. We were disappointed with Brothers Café: indifferent food and too touristy (by the coachload) but Mango Rooms was much better. They have opened a second across the river but it was sadly closed when we wanted to try it. Tuna both on starters and main course lists were excellent. We were perhaps discovering that in this part of the world you want to stay close to street food or stick with simple ingredients well cooked.
Hoi An is where tourists get clothes made for a song that they probably regret later. Several of us had raw silk mandarin jackets made overnight. My excuse was an India wedding in March. It passes as a Nehru jacket. It fits but that does not mean it suits. If you are going to do it, our research suggests 41 Le Loi is the best (both name and address in one – they save time over everything).
Saigon Stayed in Park Hyatt, a world class hotel and probably best by far in Saigon. Quite new but clever design makes it feel ageless. Go for the rooms that have own terraces onto garden and pool. It’s a pity that the hotels that most resonate historically, the Continental and Rex, are not at all appealing. The Park boasts excellent breakfast with the best bacon: really thin and crispy so hardly any harm at all. Breakfast area becomes Italian for lunch and was also very good. Good bar but steep prices and stingy measures – not a good combination.
In Saigon we had the benefit of recommendations from our friends Dickon Verey and his Vietnamese girlfriend, Tram, who took over the ordering. What a difference it makes. It also helps to know how to handle some of these dishes as there is custom in the eating as well as preparation that visitors might easily miss. Her introduction to authentic cuisine was the easily found central restaurant Quan an Ngou. Try it even without guidance and be adventurous (including the snails with minced pork). More mainstream dishes very well done were vegetable spring rolls, squid and grilled prawns.
(Dickon, now working as a stockbroker in Vietnam, was indirectly the cause of our trip having visited the area with our elder son Alex who also became a fanatical convert. Dickon’s love of SE Asia was illustrated by raising funds for and overseeing the building of a community centre for children in a Cambodian village near Battambang, where he based himself. His regular emails to donors and friends probably inspired many to visit the area.)
Tram also tipped us off about a new restaurant, the Deck, which in a very busy city is refreshingly quiet. In District 2, in the curve of the river looking across to a completely dark bank and with the city behind you, you eat by the river watching a few sparsely lit boats passing and water lilies drifting by. Good fusion food and a high standard across a wide range of dishes. Their chocolate fondant is globally competitive.
Lovers of pho (clear soup with noodles and a choice of veg, meat or fish) may know their Pho 20 from their Pho 24 or maybe would not be seen dead in either of these ubiquitous chains but we were very impressed with the latter as a lunch venue. What we would give for either of them on London’s streets (although there is a Pho bar in the food court at the new Westfield mall we shall have to try).
Siem Reap Our hotel research paid off again here. The Residence d’Angkor is the best. We managed to talk our way past security at Amansara (almost anonymous behind great metal gates) but found it cold and clinical (contrast with the same approach to rooted contemporary architecture at Nam Hai) and the Raffles Grand is stuck in a ghastly Victorian time warp. Both are far more expensive to boot.
The food at this Orient Express hotel is good, both poolside (brilliant barbecued chicken) and in the garden restaurant (excellent red chicken curry which we never equalled and wished we had had twice). Part of the delight eating here is the style of the hotel which feels quite traditional with dark teak, lots of colonial touches and is built around lush beautiful gardens with water features of which the swimming pool (dark tiles) is an integral part. The restaurants outside make the most of this setting. The bar is pure colonial, a first floor shuttered logia overlooking the Siem Reap river, which also provided the best setting for internet access of anywhere we stayed. (I thought I had a problem with my laptop monitor but on return I worked out it must have been a power supply issue, due to the different voltage.)
Beyond the hotel our culinary quests were disappointing. The town has lots of backpacker places but nothing between them and the hotels (that we found). What we ate was more Thai than Cambodian. The best food was in the country near a site called Kbal Spean, in a simple tourist restaurant on the approach road which the guides all know. (Go to Kbal Spean if you are fit enough to climb up 1.5 kms of quite steep jungle trail to see ‘the river of a thousand linga’: carvings in the river bed. You just don’t see these everywhere.) In Siem Reap we tended to stick with fish when not chicken. These vast ancient cities were there (and vast) because of the Tonle Sap lake: water for rice growing and abundant fish. No need to change it.
Of course, the temples are the only reason to be in Siem Reap. Where a few years ago there were very few hotels there is now quite a range at top and bottom and the gap in the middle is apparently being filled by about 100 new ones planned or under construction, which look like they are aimed at package tours. The message is clear: if you are going to go, go soon. And you should.
Our tour organiser has a good local agent and made some intelligent choices both to ensure we were not templed out and that we avoided the crowds very effectively. These were obvious initiatives so I am not sure why they were so effective unless it is because so many of the tours are large parties that are harder to organise. Angkor Wat is best seen at dusk, Ta Prohm is perfect at dawn and by the end of the former and at the start of the latter we were remarkably close to being the only people there. Daytime, larger crowds can be absorbed at the Bayon, Baphou, the royal enclosure and the terrace of the elephants without spoiling the experience. Everyone loves the little pink sandstone gem, Banteay Srei, which works well with Kbal Spean. But all of these sites will be spoiled immeasurably by more large parties, including as more Asians themselves travel. Shades of the Nile, which all six of us also visited before more and bigger boats spoilt it.
Luang Prabang We stayed in another Orient Express hotel, Residence Phou Vao. Like Siem Reap, this is also set in beautiful gardens but in a much larger plot on the edge of the town, with the most spectacular view of the surrounding country. The town itself is hidden from view by Mount Phousi and its temple which at night is illuminated so it appears to be floating in the sky. Our rooms shared the same wondrous view.
Though its facilities (rooms, spa) and management hardly compare with better known Orient Express properties, it may be the best upscale place to stay (until Adrian Zeccha opens his new Aman hotel in an old hospital). But the cooking is mucked up: an attempt at sophistication that either talent or ingredients are not quite up to – and who needs it here anyway? Not surprisingly, the pricing is also over ambitious. You can tell a hotel restaurant by its breakfasts. We tended to eat in our first nights but the breakfast test suggests this is not best practice.
When it came to lunches and dinners, we also got the order of locations wrong. We suggest the best culinary orientation to be had day one, and only available lunchtime, is at Tamarind (which also runs cooking classes). It is not just the idea of lots of tasting dishes but also the explanations that Australian owner Caroline can offer. There are lots of dipping dishes eaten with sticky rice, in your hands, but also a selection of fresh and dried meats char-grilled on lemongrass skewers or even inserted inside the strands of split lemongrass, like a cat’s cradle, and then grilled, to infuse even more flavour. There must be similar ways to spice up your brochettes when you next barbecue.
If you get up early to feed the monks you should also catch the morning market. You won’t necessarily find mole or snake in the restaurants but it’s not just the meat that’s different in the market: almost everything in the fruit and veg department is unfamiliar. Much is already cooked or cooking so you also get to see the unusual preparation. Perhaps that’s one reason we were happy to have something French at l’Elephant. A baked aubergine dish hit the spot perfectly but even lamb cutlets were excellent.
We tried 3 Nagas, also recommended on Chowhound, but only later discovered it has changed hands. The mixed European and Laos food was patchy, if beautifully presented, and the service friendly (as comes naturally in this part of the world) but erratic in taking orders and delivery and rather uninformed. It was also way overpriced and that is totally unnecessary here. However, it was worth it just to provide a new name for the three naggers in our party. L’Elephant has taken over the signature Laos dishes from the old 3 Nagas as a set dinner, by the way, so all may not be lost.
For our final dinner we went to Apsara where we particularly rated the stir fry amongst a range of choices that pleased.
Ideal combination in Indochina (if you can manage three meals a day): breakfast at the Park Hotel in Saigon (even better pastries than Metropole, Hanoi, as well as that bacon) would be followed by Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi for a light, healthy lunch and then a no-holds barred dinner at Club des Orientales in Hanoi.
Agent Our tour organiser was Audley Travel, www.audleytravel.com, 01993 838000. They were recommended to us by friends who had used them recently. We did a lot of our own planning and research but Audley were good at confirming or modifying our expectations. Apart from planning, the key contribution of an agent for this sort of trip is the quality of the local agents and the guides they supply. The guides were uniformly excellent: efficient, friendly, knowledgeable, interesting, humorous, generous, adaptable and (as this part of the world understands so well) highly committed to service.
Reading If you plan to go or want to know why you ought to go, you should do some background reading. Several of us were doing ours on the trip but it was a bit too late to be of maximum value. Revisit Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’ for the atmosphere of Saigon in the 1950s as America started its shadowy involvement with Vietnam. Read John Swain’s 1995 autobiography ‘River of Time’ recounting his time as a journalist in Vietnam during the war and in Cambodia during the reign of terror of Pol Pot, as well as the story told (in which he plays a part) in the book and movie ‘The Killing Fields’. My own favourite was a travel writer whose work our younger son Benjie loves, written in 1950: ‘A Dragon Apparent’ by Norman Lewis, recounting his travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and observing, with discernment but also a very British no-nonsense objectivity, a world on the brink of massive change.
All three books are influenced if not motivated by a deep affection for this troubled part of the world and help make sense of your own abiding question as a visitor: how can people who have known such atrocities and almost interminable war be so happy, open and friendly? And of course these male writers were also seduced by the beauty of the women!
We all felt awe-inspired by the photojournalists whose courageous work is recorded very well in the war museum in Hanoi and there are books about the American war we have not yet read, such as by Larry Burrows (a photographer who died) and Tim Page (a journalist who survived).
But the essence of the peculiar history of which tourists become so aware is the 1950s rather than the 1970s. They contain all the seeds of the massive change: the anachronistic French colonialism and its use of ancient feudal and tribal systems and structures to try to control Indochina; the many different faces of ‘freedom’ for which the Viet Minh struggled; and the practical reasons for Soviet Russia finding in Vietnam so easy and able a proxy cold-war warrior. The odd thing then is why contemporary America saw Indochina in terms not of a local or specific colonial struggle but in the much bigger and more fundamental terms of ‘the domino theory’. It may also make you wonder whether similar interpretative errors are being made today in the face of other struggles which could conceivably be portrayed as global and absolute.
The real historical context and its unsustainable contradictions were well described in a French film called ‘Indochine’ which was in our movie collection at Nam Hai and absorbed all six of us completely. In a busier world than a resort hotel you might find this ambitious epic too long and too slow but it seemed to us to be perfectly pitched for such a long-drawn out struggle.
If you choose to file past Uncle Ho’s embalmed body in his Soviet-style mausoleum in Hanoi (observing the soldiers’ Soviet-style admonishments not to talk, smile or clasp your hands behind your back – let alone put them in your pockets) you will probably find yourself admiring him and wishing him well. As, apparently, do the American veterans returning for some kind of closure. Answers to the apparent contradictions, and to why closure has been possible so quickly, probably have much to do with Buddhism, the one source of continuity throughout the upheavals. That too is perhaps a fruitful avenue for further learning about this area.