Sunday, 22 March 2015

Week 13: CAMBODIA - Siem Reap (and Angkor Wat) → Phnom Penh

Image of the week: Matt and an (almost) empty Angkor Wat, just after sunrise.
More images at the end of post


Where in the world

Onwards to country number five. A fifty minute flight from HCMC in Vietnam to Siem Reap in Cambodia, where we stayed for five nights. This of course course included a visit to the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat.

Then a four hour drive by taxi to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, where we stayed for three nights.


Immediately, I get the sense the country has a past, and many stories to tell from it. 

History is a big part of Cambodia's identity. From the vast ancient site of Angkor, the capital of an empire that once controlled most of Southeast Asia and is twice the size of Manhattan, hidden from the world behind thick jungle until missionaries discovered it in 1860. To the horrors and atrocities Pol Pot inflicted on his own people during the brutal four year Khmer Rouge regime, as recent as the 1970's. And, everything in between,

And Cambodia's past can be felt today. I came across people, my parents age, with missing limbs. A reminder of the country's recent conflicts and the land mines used in them. Old, gnarly trees grow stubbornly sideways, breaking through pavements, making the place feel like it's been there forever. 

But the thing that struck me most were the people. They seem happy, they're smiling, they're pleased you want to visit their country, that you're helping its economy, creating jobs for them. They're grateful for what they have, even if that's not much.

What's also unmistakable is the speed of development. In Phnom Penh, great building sites mark the spot for the latest swish apartment block, sprawling entertainment arcade, slick mall. Even Siem Reap is slowly catching up, with a couple of high-rises of its own. When I read about secluded still-pristine islands around the coast, there's always a caveat that they've been earmarked for extensive redevelopment - a huge golf course, a new airport - so visit quick, before that unspoilt beauty vanishes. 

Thanks to it's recent past, Cambodia's progression and economic development has been delayed compared to it's neighbouring countries. It's working hard to catch up.

the Siem Reap river

The drive from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh took us through rural Cambodia. Baked red dusty earth, small mangos at the end of long stalks hanging like green teardrop pendants from the endless trees that line the dead straight road between the two cities. Housing is rudimentary, made from wooden slats or sheet metal, raised on stilts to which hammocks are tied, both people and livestock taking shade under the first floor of the house. It reminded me a lot of rural India, with the same level of development.

My other observation: there are a lot of expats in Cambodia. More than you might expect. More than I noticed in Vietnam, I think. Many are from France; I'm told there's a good French-international school in Phnom Penh, allowing whole families to up and move here. 

And a lot of the expats are young, early to mid-20's. Some have come for a change of scenery, to help with NGO's, to start their own business. It's a country westerners want to live in, and I'm beginning to see why.  

The best things I ate this week

Royal Khmer cooking class in Siem Reap

A big mention must be given to the rather fantastic Royal Khmer cooking class at Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Siem Reap we attended. Even though it was my own fair hands that rustled up each of the five courses (under the guidance, supervision and teachings of Chef Ming Tin), they did all taste excellent. I'm under no illusion that was mostly thanks to the teacher, rather than the student.

The class begins at 10am with a short drive to and walk around the local wet market to provide a glimpse into the daily lives of Cambodians and the comestible wares they trade. Don't worry, the hotel doesn't purchase its ingredients here - lots of flies.

The markets of Cambodia are the best smelling I've come across on these travels so far, by the way. Garlic, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, turmeric, chillies, great piles of just-made curry pastes all mingling and getting cooked in the unrelenting sun. Makes you damn hungry. 

The meat section - less fragrant.

The remaining 2 - 3 hours of the class involves Chef Ming Tin talking through the history of Cambodian and Khmer cuisine, demonstrating five typical Khmer dishes and then overseeing your own creations. You eat all the great stuff you've made, and you're given a little Khmer recipe book to take with you.

Often seen as the dowdy sibling to the other cuisines of Southeast Asia, I don't think many people know much, if anything, about Khmer / Cambodian cuisine (I certainly didn't). There are few better ways to get a firm grasp of the basics than by listening to someone who knows what they're talking about, and having a go yourself. And I'd certainly recommend doing that here.

This was the first time I'd held a knife or been near a stove in three months, and the building was still standing by the end of it. Thumbs up all round.

Course 1 - Green mango and prawn saladThey eased us into it. Green mango, peppers, carrots, prawns, dried shrimp, smoked fish, fish sauce, garlic, lime, sugar, shallots, peanuts, basil leaves. 

Course 2 - Sour fish soup with pineappleChicken stock, fish sauce, tamarind juice, sugar, chillies, tomato, pineapple, seafood, galangal, deep fried chopped garlic, ma orm leaves. 

Course 3 - Red chicken curry - kari sach moanStock, chicken, onion, potato, coconut milk, fish sauce, sugar, salt, peanuts, curry paste (galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, chilli, shrimp paste).

Course 4. Wok-fried black peppered beef - sach ko loc lakMarinade: beef, sugar, loads of black pepper, garlic, oyster sauce, soy. Seasoning: Chinese wine, garlic, dark soy. Dipping sauce: lime, black pepper. Dark, sticky, succulent, so much flavour. So totally great,. 

Course 5. Pumpkin custard - sang Khya L'peouv. This is brilliant. Take an old pumpkin, remove the seeds. Fill with a very yolk-heavy custard made with coconut milk. Put the whole pumpkin in a steamer on low heat for about three hours until the custard has set. Leave to cool, slice, remove the skin from the slices. 

So very excellent, and so easy. A very popular Cambodian dessert, and also in Thailand. It would make a great centrepiece for a dinner party too. 

Classes are $85 USD per person.

Royal Khmer Cooking Class at Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor, Siem Reap

food from top left: green mango and prawn salad, sour fish soup, red chicken curry, pumpkin custard, black-peppered beef

What to eat in Siem Reap..

And then, the other good things I ate in town.

Pumpkin soup. Oh, how much I loved this soup, lifted by lemongrass, had at dinner in the Restaurant Le Grand at Raffles. Probably because it reminded me of my dad's lentil corba (soup); smooth and comforting with a citrus zing. So uncomplicated, so very joyous.

Restaurant Le Grand, Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor, 1 Vithei Charles de Gaulle, Khum Svay Dang Kum, Siem Reap

Beef salad with lemongrass. A good, sprightly plate. Grilled beef, lime, coriander, chilli, peanuts, cabbage, carrots, garlic, fish sauce, shallots. Hard to go wrong. Nice upmarket atmosphere if you feel like putting on a nice frock.

The Square 24, Street 24, Achasvar, Siem Reap

Lunch / brunch / coffee. Good coffee and virtuous lunching can be found at quite a few intimate little expat hangouts in town. Chickpeas, cherry toms, fried in dukkah, tossed with rocket and watercress, with a side of avocado was had at The Hive, along with vitalising juices. Also check out Sister Srey Cafe, a few minutes walk away, if you get the chance - I hear it's also good.

The Hive, 631 Psar Kandal Street, Behind Riviera Hotel, Siem Reap

Mangosteens. There was a spiffing welcome fruit bowl in the room at Sofitel Angkor. Bananas, mangoes, pear, rambuten, sapodilla, logan, and another new fruit discovery, deep purple mangosteen (below bottom right corner, left of image). Sweet and tart and fibrous white flesh within. Also the national fruit of Thailand. 

Found at local markets.

from top left: pumpkin and lemongrass soup, beef salad with lemongrass, chickpeas and dukkah, fruit and mangosteens

What to eat in the Phnom Penh..

Samlor korko & prahok ktis. Two standouts from one meal. 

Samlor korko is a favourite Khmer soup amongst the Cambodian people. Prahok (the ubiquitous Cambodian crushed salted and fermented fish paste, rarely absent in Khmer cuisine), a spicy kroeung (curry paste - galangal, turmeric, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, kaffir lime, chillies, shrimp paste, salt), river fish, pork, and a load of green fruit and veg: green papaya, green jack fruit, aubergine, leafy greens.

Prahok ktis is minced pork cooked with prahok again, pea aubergines, and yellow kroeung (curry paste). It's used as a dip and eaten with a load of raw veg. An aggressive dish, strong flavours. So very good, if you like that sort of thing. Which I very much do. 

La Rose Boutique Hotel & Spa, #164B, Norodom Blvd, Sangkat Tonle Bassac, Khan Chamkamon, Phnom Penh

Long bean and (raw) beef salad. Long beans are smashed up in a pestle and mortar, along with garlic, fish sauce, shallots, lime, sugar, tossed with herbs and raw beef. This place is in fact famous for it's Cambodian BBQ and is heaving each evening. There's a healthy mix of both local and western faces, and menus are also in English.

Sovanna Restaurant, Street 21 (next to La Rose Suites Hotel), Phnom Penh

Steamed squid. Cracking soft steamed squid with a lot of heat and a bucket load of lime; it made both my gums ache and my eyes water. This is a cafe and restaurant popular with the locals, and is pretty close to the Independence Monument if you get peckish during sightseeing.

Ratanakiri Restaurant, No. 123, Preah Sihanouk Blvd (274), Phnom Penh

Banana palm. Oh, I forgot to mention the dessert had at La Rose Boutique (above). So bloody simple. So freakin' good. Bananas cooked in a palm sugar, pineapple juice and coconut milk sauce. Flourish of cream. Went down barely touching the sides.

from top left: samlor korko soup, long been and beef salad, 'banana palm' dessert, prahok ktis, fiery steamed squid

Street food must-eats

Street food in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh..

I'm afraid I have no entries; this week is the first of these travels I haven't eaten any street food. I feel like I've failed as a food adventurer / food reporter, and I apologise. *small violin*

I put this down to three things. Firstly, I was put off the idea. I spoke to a few of people about the street food scene in Cambodia, to gather tips on where I should head, as I usually do. 

One lady, originally from the Philippines who's lived in Cambodia for the past seven years, says she wouldn't risk it. Whilst she's more than happy to eat street food in Vietnam and Thailand and her home country, she hasn't and wouldn't in Cambodia. "The hygiene standards on the street are really questionable here," she said. My gut has been as good as gold the past three months; I don't want this to change.

Another person I spoke to is a seasoned travel writer / blogger. He mentioned there isn't really much by way of a street food offering, and that what is there is a bit "iffy".

My second reason, is that unlike in Vietnam and India, I didn't really walk past anything that looked especially appetising. Nothing cried out to be scoffed or slurped. There was no what the hell is that, it smells great, this place is buzzing, I want in. And that should play a big part.

My third reason, and my really whimpish reason, is that I wanted to minimise my chances of unwittingly rocking up to a vendor selling skewers loaded with crisp fried tarantulas. Because they do eat them here (oh yes they do). And my fear of tarantulas is off the scale. And if I see one, alive or dead, pants will be soiled. Give me scorpions, crickets, snakes, cockroaches - literally anything else that creeps or crawls. But a deep fried tarantula is my deep-fried f*cking nightmare and it can f*ck right off, thanks very much.

So, in a nutshell, I bottled it. But this of course does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that there's no good street food to be had in these cities. You just need to know where to find them. 

My suggestion would be get guided by someone who knows the landscape, knows where's busy, reputable and safe, and can advise on what to seek out. There are a few street food tours available in the city which in retrospect, I really wish I'd done.

I shot it. I just didn't eat it.

Did you know?

Here's a silhouette highlighting the impossibly flexible fingers of a classical apsara dancer. This Cambodian art form is ancient, depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat dating back to the 12th century. 

Dancers maintain a taut posture, arched back and feet, flexed fingers. Movements are close, deliberate, flowing. Every position has its own particular symbolism – a finger pointing to the sky, for instance, indicates “today”, while standing sideways to the audience with the sole of the foot facing upwards represents flying. 

It takes six years for students to learn the 1500 intricate positions, and a further three to six years for them to attain the required level of artistic maturity.  

The Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh is responsible for training most of today's dancers who are chosen not only for aptitude and youth (they start as young as 7), but for the flexibility and elegance of their hands. 

It takes a lot of stretching to get fingers to bend like that, unaided.

My insider tips

What time of day to visit Angkor Wat. 

My suggestions would be either get there way before sunrise, or get there for early morning, depending what you're after.

Angkor Wat sunrise shot - I do like a sharp silhouette. You can tell I didn't have a prime position though. Those who did would have had the sun coming up between those three peaks, rather than way over on the side like minefg

Before sunrise. Do this only if you specifically want to take a snap of the sun coming up behind the temple, or you're just particularly set on witnessing it. The best position for your tripod, for that perfect image of Angkor Wat reflected in the lake just in front of it, you need to be there well before sunrise. 

Bear in mind it takes about 25 minutes to get a tuk tuk to the site from Siem Reap. Then you need to buy your ticket (queues are pretty short at this time, but still add a few minutes). Then your tuk tuk driver will take you as close to the temple as he can, then you need to walk the remaining 500m or so, in pitch black, along with hundreds of others (bring a torch). Then you need to find a good spot. So work backwards from what time sunrise is due (around 6.30am in March), take away a further 20-30 minutes to ensure you're the first one there, and you may as well not go to bed that night.

Then, once you are there, all smug with your prime position, you still need to wait for about an hour and a half before the sun actually comes up. It's a really early start and a lot of hanging around for one very specific image

We got there way before sunrise, and in retrospect, I wouldn't have bothered. Here are all the other people who also got there way before sunrise. Although to get those positions, they woke up a lot earlier than us.

sunrise seekers at Angkor Wat

Early morning. What I would recommend instead is turning up just before or after the sunrise, so maybe 6.30 - 7.00 am. Whilst everyone is hovering by the lake waiting for the sun to show itself behind the ancient building, the temple itself is entirely empty. Matt left me with everyone else and disappeared for an hour - he had Angkor Wat entirely to himself during that time and had a lot of fun pretending he was Indiana Jones, he tells me.

What people are waiting for isn't technically the sunrise. The sun would have already risen quite a bit before in that, it is above the horizon. They're waiting for the sun to rise above the height of the temple, for that specific image. So there's proper daylight to go exploring, and the early morning glow is nothing but magical for capturing some top images of the incredible architecture, and with no people in it. 

Then, when all the early risers have got their money shot and leave, you can take your own reflection shot with no one in the way, and so what if the sun isn't in it.

Angkor Wat, early morning light

Whether you go for sunrise or just after, early morning in general is a good shout. The site gets extremely hot by around 10.30 - 11.00. We were done with the three temples we wanted to see by around midday. By this time, people were physically melting, utterly depleted, soaking through three layers of clothing into their rucksacks.

You could also go towards the end of the day when both temperatures and the sun begin to dip (good light for photography at this time too), but I suspect this will be a lot busier than sunrise due to it's more sociable hour.

Ta Prohm.
Probably my favourite temple on the Angkor site from the ones we visited, where nature and ancient buildings have become one. 

The ruins at Ta Prohm have surrendered themselves to the tight and binding clutches of the Cambodian jungle. Great sprawling tree roots are intertwined through and around the architecture, and you can't help but feel like Indiana Jones as you pick through and scramble over the relics.

My tip for Ta Prohm is walk around the outer edges of it, rather than following the central route. We did this at around 10am and hardly came across another tourist - they were all in the middle, ushered there by their tour guides or just following the crowds. 

We came across some incredible looking spots and had all the time in the world to take pictures, selfies, and pretend I was Lara Croft (a lot of Tomb Raider was filmed at this temple, by the way), all without another person there.

Highlight / Lowlight

Highlight. I really did enjoy that cooking class. Probably because I haven't cooked anything beyond a pot of instant noodles for some time. It seems I've missed it.

Lowlight. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. War, genocide, extermination camps, human remains - all distressing terms to confront in a day. And whilst the experience of being there is no fairground ride, I think visiting is very important. Humanity must always prevail, and the only way to prevent history repeating is through education. So prepare to get upset, suck it up, learn about what happened, and pay your respects.

Next week

Very much looking forward to staying in a one place for a whole week. Specifically, 
Sihanoukville on the southwest Cambodian coast.


Siem Reap

Angkor temples

Phnom Penh

Related posts

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Week 12: VIETNAM - HCMC → Mekong Delta → HCMC

Image of the week: a trader makes his way to the floating market as the sun rises over the Mekong River.
Many more images at the end of post

Where in the world

A seven hour overnight train from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) where we stayed for four nights. Then a two day trip into and around the Mekong River with Water Buffalo Tours (overnight in the city of Ben Tre). 

Finally, dropped off back in HCMC, where we spent our last couple of nights in Vietnam, which included a fantastic night food tour with XO Tours.



We were warned in advance that to announce the arrival into HCMC at three in the morning, the train carriages blast out classical Vietnamese music to wake you up. Instead, I woke up to the sound of Matt playing Goodnight Saigon by Billy Joel out of his phone on repeat. I'm not sure which I would have preferred.

HCMC (formerly Saigon) is Vietnam at its most hectic. A chaotic coexistence of pulsating commerce and culture, it really needs at least a week to get beneath the skin; I guess I'll just need to return.

Be sure to visit the parks in the cool of early morning or late evening. You'll find dance troops, the elderly limbering up for a gentle jog, teams playing the shuttlecock game of jiànzi, musicians, small groups gathering for book club sessions under the shade of a tree - it's a lovely time of day and a great location to take respite.

There were a couple of times when we were moving through the city in the small hours of the morning, which sees it in a whole other light. The amount of people going for a run and performing tai chi by the water's edge at 4.30am, already up for breakfast crouching over a steaming bowl of noodles, or sitting drinking coffee with a few pals - all way before the sun has even thought about rising - was quite astounding to me. Such a great city for early risers. 

one of the parks in the cool of the evening

The War Remnants Museum is a must, but be prepared for an emotional onslaught. I wasn't, and I found the uncensored imagery (think children and babies..) and stories very distressing, which I suppose is the point. I wasn't the only one in there shedding quiet tears.

Another must when in HCMC is a tour with the fantastic ladies from XO Tours. They're the first all-female motorbike tour company in Vietnam, the only to  have accident insurance, and the The Foodie tour was totally excellent. 

You have your own driver that ferries you around (mine was called Hong and she was a total sweetheart), but there's a larger group (14 in ours) that follow the tour in total, with a really articulate and bubbly lead guide who gives a load of great insight at each stop. You drive through a number of different districts (not just District 1, which is cleaned up for the tourists), and as well as the food stops (see What to eat in HCMC below), there are additional stops to gain insight about the culture of Saigon.

Beer is included, there are a few fun silly games involving chopstick skills, you've giving a really handy book of Vietnamese phrases at the end, the lead guide takes pictures the whole evening and emails them to you after, and they keep ordering food as long as you keep eating. 

All in, it was a brilliant laugh and made my highlight of the week (see below).

Our two day / one night Experience Mekong Delta Tour with Water Buffalo Tours provided some wonderful photo opportunities (see images at the end of post). It's quite driving-heavy, with two early starts, but sleep is the sacrifice you have to make to witness spectacles such as the pictures below.

Highlights included a cycle through the palm trees and paddy fields of Tan Hoa village, marvelling at the array of produce at the local markets, the fantastic seafood lunch on Tan Thanh Beach (see What to eat in the Mekong Delta below), witnessing the sun rise over the Mekong and traders ferrying their wares to the floating market, and cruising through the creeks in an ethereal early morning light, complete with mists rising from the water. Quite a spectacle.

Up a creek towards the floating market, in spectacular early morning light
sunrise over the Mekong River

The best things I ate this week

What to eat in HCMC..

Hu Tieu noodle soup. Roaming the streets for dinner, we came across this place. There was a lot of activity, with people constantly pulling up in mopeds to order some to take home, nearly ploughing into the girl in the bloody way taking pictures. They make hủ tiếu noodle soup. 

We had a cute little studio apartment while we're in HCMC. So we made like so many of the locals and ordered it to go. Better for you than a Saturday night pizza. We left on foot as opposed to two wheels though - not an honorary Vietnamese just yet. 

At 62 Truong Dinh Street, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1

Pizza. After almost five weeks of eating barely any, the wheat craving I had been trying to ignore culminated in a feverish online search for a good pizza place in town one evening this week. There's one in the Japanese quarters - they make their own cheeses up in the highlands of Da Lat and use traditional Neapolitan-style ovens. 

We walked in at 5.30 and were asked if we had a reservation - they were fully booked. They managed to squeeze us in though, and the bread craving was duly appeased. Plus, a rather splendid burrata.

At Pizza 4P's, 8/15 Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1 

from top left: the hu tieu noodle place, taking it away to eat at home, the noodle making station, a very good pizza

Then there was the stuff we scoffed thanks to the ladies on the XO Food TourWhat's also great about these guys (apart from the gushing above) is that they don't just take you for pho and banh mi which so many other tours do - it's far more interesting than that.

Bun bo Hue noodle soup. The place to get this noodle dish in HCMC. The owners are from Hue, so theirs is pretty authentic. 

The main difference between pho and bún bo hue is the former is with a chicken and beef stock, the latter is pork and beef, spicy, and with a strong lemongrass presence. Also with shredded banana blossom, bean sprouts, garlic ginger and chilli mix.

At Bún bò Huế Đông Ba 110A Nguễn Du

Table-top BBQs. The ladies informed us that BBQ is one of the most popular meals locals want when they eat out. The city is such that certain areas specialise in certain things. Massages, clothes, Chinese food - you name it.

For BBQ, you need District 8 (there are 24 districts in total). I can't recall what particular restaurant we went to (there was a lot of beer), but head to the area and you won't go wrong. Goat is the most popular meat. Also beef, prawns, frogs, sparrow, quail, okra, and the rest.

In District 8 

Seafood. Whilst District 8 will cook you meat over coals, District 4 is the place to go for seafood. Crabs, clams, scallops - fill your boots.

In District 4  

Longan fruit. I've loved discovering the exotic fruits of Asia. A new one for me we had on the tour was longan, also known as 'dragon's eye' - you can totally see why (see pic below). It's a cousin of the lychee.

from top left: bun bo hue noodle soup, table-top BBQ's in Distrit 8, BBQ aftermath with all of the beer, sparrow, logan fruit, crab in District 4

What to eat in the Mekong Delta..

Catfish. Lunch on the first day of the Mekong Tour with our guide from Water Buffalo Tours had us stop off at a seafront restaurant on Tan Thanh Beach. One of the most abundant fish from the river is catfish. There was sour catfish soup with tamarind, pineapple, vegetables. And ca kho to - caramelised catfish cooked with soy and pepper in a clay pot. Also grilled prawns, okra - all the seafood from the surrounding waters.

Then there was dessert, which was a glorious plate of exotic fruits purchased by our guide from a local market. Mango, custard apples, rambuten. And another new one for me, sapodilla. Which is a fruit that tastes like cake. And caramel. 

The seafront on Tan Thanh Beach, Mekong Delta

Street food must-eats

Street food in HCMC..

Mi viet tiem. Fresh yellow noodles with gorgeous marinated duck, falling away from the bone. I think it was the only time we had duck in Vietnam, actually. This bowl was around £2.50 - pretty pricy for street food. We pushed the boat out for our final meal in Vietnam. 

You'll find this place on the eastern extreme of Phan Van Han street, at the busy junction - it's one of the most popular noodle haunts in the area. If you want the duck, get there early as they run out quickly. The whole menu reads pretty well - do try more.

At Luong Ky Mi Gia, Phan Van Han Street 

During my research, I stumbled across this very comprehensive guide to street food in Saigon from someone who's spent a lot more time there than I. I would have worked my way through this lot if I was there longer.

Did you know?

Learnt loads of interesting titbits this week, most of it insight from the lovely ladies at XO.

Cholon. Saigon's Chinatown area is called Cholon and it's one of the biggest Chinatown's in the world. It's also home to Binh Tay Market (a bit more on that below), which we're told sells all manner of both legal and illegal things. An example of the latter, monkey brains. Those Chinese really do eat anything.

Cao Dai mass
Cao Dai. Also known as Caodaism. It must be one of the most recently established religious movements, founded in 1926 in southern Vietnam. 

It's one that combines Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism and Islam. 

They believe all the gods worshipped by different religions are in fact the same single God. And so all religions 'are one'. And so we should probably all just get along a bit more. Which sounds quite attractive.

We witnessed noon mass at the Cao Dai temple in the town of Cai Lay on the second day of our Mekong tour with Water Buffalo Tours

Privacy for couples. Due to lack of space and lack of money, homes in Saigon often house three, sometimes even four generations. For the couples living in them, if they want some 'privacy' and can't afford a hotel room, they rent a lounger by the river.

Behind a gas station, in amongst the bushes that line the water, there are a load of loungers, in pairs. You only need to buy a drink to be able to spend the whole night on one. This is the place young couples go for some alone time. If you pull up and shine your headlights, you'll get a lot of abuse. There's a separate more discrete alleyway, also with loungers, for the screamers.

Balut. If you watch Karl Pilkington's An Idiot Abroad, you'll remember the episode in China and his reaction to watching a local eat balut

This is a developing duck embryo (so, a fertilized egg) that is boiled and eaten in the shell. The result is part hard-boiled egg, part duck foetus, complete with veins, the beginnings of feathers and a feet, a head etc.

The thought of it is quite appalling, but it's a popular street food snack in SE Asia, especially the Philippines which is where it's called balut. In Vietnam, it's actually trung vit long

The girls on the XO Tour will take you to a place that does them, if you fancy trying it. No one was brave enough on ours. Even the girls themselves were recoiling in disgust. 

I like to think I'm an adventurous eater, but I'll need a few more introductions before balut becomes something I can envisage putting in my mouth.

My insider tips

Ben Thanh Market. Specifically there to sell stuff to tourists at high prices. Even though it's referenced in a lot of guide books, the girls at XO tell us the vendors buy the products from the massive and much cheaper wholesale Binh Tay Market in Cholon (Saigon's Chinatown), mark up the cost by a factor of at least four, then sell it to tourists. 

Those who've haggled 40% off think they've got a good deal, but no. Either make your starting point 25% of their asking price and bring them down from there, or go to one of the other markets.

Here's a good guide to the authentic HCMC markets.

Highlight / Lowlight

Highlight. This was definitely the XO Tour. It was a totally terrific night zipping around Saigon through the hectic streets in the cool of the evening on the back of a moped, with great company, great insight and great food stops. 

Really exhilarating, and without doubt the best way to see the city. There was beer, laughter, and my driver Hong was fantastic. Everyone who visits HCMC should take a tour with these lovely ladies.

Lowlight. Thanks to two early starts in a row during the Mekong Tour, still reeling from the 4am arrival in Saigon on the overnight train, and being sleep deprived in general, we spent one of the days in HCMC in bed. Which always feels like a waste. But if I've learnt one thing during these travels, it's that not setting an alarm needs to happen occasionally to allow the body to catch up.

Next week

Five weeks in Vietnam comes to an end, and it was fantastic. Onwards to Cambodia.

Here's a collage of some of the great eating we had here, in celebration. Vietnam, you will see me again.



Mekong Delta Tour with Water Buffalo Tours


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Week 2: INDIA - Bangalore → Mysore → Wayanad → Kochi
Week 3: INDIA - Kochi → Allepey → Kollam → Madurai
Week 4: INDIA - Pondicherry → Chennai → Mumbai
Week 5: INDIA - Varanasi → Udaipur → Jaipur → Delhi

Week 6: TAIWAN - Taipei

Week 7: CHINA & VIETNAM - Hong Kong → Hanoi
Week 8: VIETNAM - Sapa → Hanoi → Ha Long Bay → Hanoi
Week 9: VIETNAM - Hue → Hoi An
Week 10: VIETNAM - 6 day / 5 night motorbike tour from Hoi An to Da Lat
Week 11: VIETNAM - Da Lat → Nha Trang

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