Travel / Vietnam/Cambodia

Travels in Indochina: Fresh Bread’s dos and don’ts plus recommended reads

It’s been a bit quiet on the blogging front aside from a few scheduled posts because Mr Behemoth and I have been travelling in South East Asia for the last month, mainly Vietnam but also Cambodia.

I’m mindful that this is a blog devoted to food (like its creator) so over the next few posts I’ll be sharing my food experiences with you all but also imparting some travel tips of wisdom should you decide to go check Indochina out for yourselves (highly recommended!).

Without further ado, to whet your appetite (omg i made a food blog funny) I present the not so definitive list of dos and don’ts when eating in SE Asia:

Do forget that advice your mother yelled just as the car door slammed and you were dumped unceremoniously outside the airport terminal: eat salads, eat ice, eat street food! Honestly, everywhere on the tourist trail (in Vietnam at least) is safe. Cambodia, well, I’m not going to lie, the ancient Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” did overtake me for about a day, but… if you don’t do the abovementioned eating and drinking, you will miss out on at minimum:

  • iced Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk;
  • sour spicy bitter sweet AND salty papaya, banana blossom, lotus root or green mango salads (ie dressed with nuoc cham) with beef or prawns or pork, peanuts;
  • the joy of a freshly made banh mi baguette as it drips several unidentified sauces down your body and splashes on the footpath below.
Vietnamese Iced Coffee

Vietnamese coffee percolating, sweet milk down the bottom, ready to be poured over ice.

Don’t assume the above is the same for Western food though. It stands to reason that people know how to keep fresh the familiar produce and food that they cook and eat with every day. Hamburger patties are another matter, as Mr Behemoth found out to his detriment (and newfound relationship between the toilet bowl and his head) when ordering an “Aussie burger” in Sapa. Any time I’ve ever got sick overseas it’s been from Western food (Pasta (how?!) in Mexico; pepperoni pizza in India – ordering that was particularly idiotic of me). If you’re travelling for a long time (above three weeks is my personal limit) you will eventually crave some familiar food. I’m not saying don’t eat it, but consider your surroundings, maybe find an expat-run joint…

Do eat street food and food found in curbside restaurants. It’s filling, delicious and practically costs nothing. I have a friend working in Hanoi; she has lived there for a year and owns no plates or cutlery as it’s easier and cheaper to eat out! Pro-tip: the nicer the chair, the more expensive your meal will be. Wrapping our six foot frames (six foot plus in Mr B’s case) up onto those tiny plastic stools is challenging… but achievable.

Saigon Ho Chi Minh City Street View

Look at that street. Ripe for the eating.

Don’t freak out when crossing the road against a near constant flow of motorcycles, cars, buses, bicycles, scooters etc. The basic principle is walk slowly, although every nerve ending in your body is screaming with the thought, “RUN!”. Walk slowly so that the scooters can see you and go around you. Don’t make erratic movements. The above applies to all manner of vehicles except buses, which will run you down without a moment’s hesitation. Evade and run! PS: traffic lights appear optional. We found Hanoi traffic scarier (read: less polite) to pedestrians than HCMC!

Do, if you’re a reader like I am, consider reading one or more of the following books (I read ’em all, and more, in the month; that being said I am one of those incredibly lucky people that don’t get carsick and can read the entire six hours of a bus trip). You will be offered them, pirated, in markets and from the back of motorbikes, on hostel book swap shelves and in bookshops.

French Indochina

A Dragon Apparent (Norman Lewis) is a travelogue by a British writer who toured French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) in the 1950s. It’s interesting as it depicts a time when the grip of the colonial power on its Cochinchina was slackening. He also visits Viet Minh territory. An evocative read.

The Quiet American (Graham Greene) is of course a well known classic set in Saigon (mainly) during the Franco-Vietnam war. It’s on school reading lists; to give you the Cliff’s notes version it’s about the withdrawal of the French, the coming of the Americans, and Vietnamese independence, writ small in the love triangle at the centre of the book and large in the events playing out around them.

Cambodia

The Killing Fields – eyewitness account of the final days of Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge took power and threw everyone into agrarian cooperatives, killing 1 in 5 of the Cambodian population as they did so. This is the book of the 1984 movie which I plan to watch now I’m home.

First They Killed My Father (Loung Ung)  – a personal family memoir on the Khmer Rouge years (which is also on school booklists in Australia). Heartbreaking and if you are prone to crying while reading books, this and the above one will do it to you. The sequel, Lucky Child, describes the aftermath and her adolescence as a refugee dealing with her nightmarish past.

If you have read The Killing Fields and want more, River of Time(Jon Swain) is a great read and a more personal reflection of his time in Indochina (he also reported on Saigon and the Vietnam War). Jon Swain was one of the other journalists working and reporting from Phnom Penh before it fell to the Khmer Rouge.

Vietnam

The Girl in the Picture (Denise Chong) tells the story of the girl wounded by napalm and captured in the most famous photograph of the Vietnam war. It’s a fascinating account of her childhood and adulthood as an unwilling mouthpiece for the Vietnamese government until she defected to the West. It can get a little enthusiastic towards about her conversion to Christianity from Cao Daoism, which for me was the weakest part of the book (really, so it wasn’t her fighting spirit and strength of character that got her through but swapping religions?), but this is a minor quibble.

The Sorrow of War (Bao Ninh) is a reflective book based on the experiences of one of the Northern Vietnamese soldiers. It chronicles his loss of innocence as he is one of the very few survivors of his battalion, and the aftermath (sorrow) of the war as he tries to pick up his damaged life back in Hanoi. The language and story skirts around, jumping from time to time, scene to scene, but is a nice change of literary pace if you’ve read all the above…

Whew!

I didn’t really mean this post to devolve into a series of book reviews (especially since you could probably find the exact same titles in the Lonely Planet Vietnam edition!), but never fear: coming soon are more detailed posts on my trip including cooking classes, local specialties, Tet (Lunar New Year), better photos and more!

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One thought on “Travels in Indochina: Fresh Bread’s dos and don’ts plus recommended reads

  1. Pingback: Travels in Indochina: Fresh Bread's dos and don'ts plus … | Tour Cambodia

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