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Michael Nusair

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One of the more memorable things I’ve seen so far in Bangkok is an enormous temple complex dating from the 16th century called Wat Pho.

Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand

There are so many amazing buildings here.

Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand

Not to mention the statues.

Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand

And these weird pointy… things… I have no idea what these are.  They look quite nice, though.

Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand

Then of course there’s the most famous thing here: the reclining Buddha statue.

Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand

I don’t think the photos quite give you a sense of how big this thing was, but it was absolutely enormous.

Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand

They also had this thing in the same room with the statue where you could buy a small bucket full of coins, and then individually plunk them into various pots lined up along the wall.  I had no idea what this was for, so I didn’t do it.  I’m sure I missed out on a potential good luck bonanza.

A couple more pictures:

Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand

Obviously I wasn’t going to leave Vietnam without having pho.  I’m not a crazy person.

I didn’t know this before getting here, but there are actually two types of pho: there’s the beef version, called pho bo.  That’s the one that we’re more familiar with back home.  There’s also a chicken version called pho ga.

I tried both, of course.  Again, I’m not a crazy person.

First up is pho ga, the chicken version, which I had at a restaurant called Pho Lam Nam Ngu in Hanoi.

Pho in VietnamTopped with green onion and some sliced chicken, and served with a very generous amount of slightly mushy noodles, this was quite tasty.

It’s essentially the platonic ideal of a bowl of chicken soup; it had an exceptionally clean, simple (and delicious) flavour.  It’s tasty on its own, but once you jazz it up with a spritz of lime and a bit of the chili sauce they’ve got on the table, it really starts to sing.

Pho in Vietnam

I wish the noodles had been a bit firmer, but all in all this was a satisfying bowl of noodle soup.

The second restaurant was called Pho Gia Truyen.  It’s super popular.  The first time I showed up, the place was an absolute mad house; I came back the next day right when it opened, and there was still a line, but it was a bit more reasonable.

Pho in Vietnam

It’s packed for a reason.  The soup had such an intensely satisfying beefy flavour — with just enough spicing to compliment it but not get in the way — that I didn’t even bother putting any chili sauce or any of the other condiments on the table.  I didn’t want to mess with it.  It was perfection.

Pho in Vietnam

It was topped with a surprisingly generous amount of thinly-sliced beef; that beef was bananas.  It was super tender, with a shockingly rich flavour.  This was obviously some top-shelf stuff, because it tasted good.

Pho in Vietnam

The noodles were pretty great, too.  It’s easily the best bowl of pho that I’ve ever had.

Pho in Vietnam

I think I might have actually ruined pho for myself, because I’m never going to be able to find anything this good back home.  Oh well.

…And maybe the greatest sandwich I’ve ever had, period?  It’s right up there, that’s for sure.

Banh mi, for the unaware, is a Vietnamese sandwich served on a version of a baguette.  I’ve had a few since arriving in Vietnam.  They’re typically served in roadside stalls like this one.

Banh mi in Vietnam

Or this one.

Banh mi in Vietnam

That last one featured a banh mi that was filled with grilled meat patties.  It was quite tasty, but the patties were a bit too dry.

Banh mi in Vietnam

One of the better ones that I’ve had (up until the mind-blowing best ever that I’ll get to in a moment) is from a place called Banh My Lan Ong in Hanoi.

Banh mi in Vietnam

They’re famous for their freshly-made pate (you can even buy it in little plastic tubs from the restaurant), and rightfully so.  That pate is absolutely amazing; a little bit chunkier than the norm, with a very mild liver flavour that’s balanced perfectly by the pate’s unique spicing (it has quite a strong cinnamon flavour).

Banh mi in Vietnam

But the bread itself was a bit overly crunchy; one of the great things about a banh mi baguette is the very light, crackly exterior and the fluffy interior.  This one was aggressively crunchy — it’s the type of bread that’ll tear up the inside of your mouth if you don’t eat it carefully.

Banh mi in Vietnam

The greatest banh mi of all time, oddly enough, was a random discovery.  I was just walking around in Hanoi and saw a very impressive line for a place called Banh My Pho Hue; if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you know that I absolutely cannot resist a line for food.  And even if that had never paid off for me, it still would have been worth it a billion times over for allowing me to discover this place, because oh man.  Oh man, this sandwich.

Banh mi in Vietnam

It’s so simple: a slathering of butter, a heaping spread of pate, a little bit of pork floss, a few slices of cold cuts, and a few slices of plain cucumber.  There’s none of the pickled veggies or herbs that you find in a lot of other banh mi, and you don’t miss it.

You can add on a little bit of the zingy chili sauce they have on the side (and you should definitely do this), but other than that it’s a pretty basic sandwich.

Banh mi in Vietnam

The bread is ridiculous; it’s satisfyingly crispy on the outside, and fluffy as a cloud on the inside. You can eat this sandwich as aggressively as you want — you’re not going to cut your mouth.  And yet that outer crisp is still very much there, it’s just amazingly delicate.

Banh mi in Vietnam

The pate, like at Banh My Lan Ong, is a bit chunky, and absolutely amazing.  It’s easily the star of the show, and is complimented perfectly by the creamy butter, the cold cuts, the pork floss, and the fresh crunchiness of the cucumber.

It’s a simple sandwich, but all of the components are so delicious and work together so well that it’s a revelation.  If I were to list the top five sandwiches that I’ve ever eaten, it’d be on there for sure.

When I sat down to eat fish noodle soup (a Vietnamese dish called bun ca) at around eleven in the morning, I started to wonder: is this a mistake?  Maybe eating a potentially very pungent fishy soup for breakfast isn’t a great idea?

Bun Ca Sam Cay Si in Hanoi, Vietnam

Well, it turns out it absolutely was a great idea, because the bun ca that they served at a placed called Bun Ca Sam Cay Si in Hanoi was phenomenal.

Bun Ca Sam Cay Si in Hanoi, Vietnam

The broth, in particular, was something special: it was mildly seafoody, with a zingy, almost sour flavour that was given some added depth thanks to the fresh herbs, particularly dill.

The chewy noodles and crispy veggies worked great together, and there was a very generous amount of fried fish chunks.

Bun Ca Sam Cay Si in Hanoi, Vietnam

They must have fried the hell out of those things, because they somehow managed to retain their crunchy exterior right down to the last piece.  And yet the inside was tender and flaky.  I don’t know how they did it, but it was pretty amazing.

I take back everything I said about crossing the road in China, because crossing the road in Vietnam is pure, unadulterated insanity.

The roads are constantly packed with scooters, and most crosswalks don’t have any pedestrian traffic lights.  Even if they do, here’s something that’s fun: there’s no countdown clock or flashing light to tell you when a pedestrian signal is about to turn red.  It just randomly switches over with no grace period, and if you’re in the middle of the road?  Too bad, here comes some cars.

Crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

And if there are no lights at a crosswalk and the road is a non-stop stream of scooters (and a lot of roads here are non-stop streams of scooters), then you basically just have to walk out into the fray and let the scooters weave around you.

It’s tremendously off-putting at first, though clearly all of the drivers here know what’s what — as long as you’re paying attention as you cross, it never feels particularly dangerous.  There’s something oddly satisfying about timing your crossing just right and watching as an army of scooters criss-crosses around you.

I wasn’t quite able to capture it, but I took a video of me crossing a fairly busy road. It’s extremely shaky and the framing is quite off — I had the camera to my side and wasn’t looking at the screen, because I didn’t particularly feel like getting walloped by a scooter — but it gives you a basic idea of what crossing the road is like here.

One of the more interesting things I’ve seen in Ho Chi Minh is the Independence Palace, the former home of South Vietnam’s president, right up until it was taken by North Vietnamese forces in 1975.

Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

You can basically just wander around the enormous building, where everything has been left the way it was in the ’70s.

Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

It’s a fascinating piece of history.  There’s an old movie theatre.

Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Including the projection room.

Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Plenty of offices.

Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

People lived here.

Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

It’s a bit eerie, and absolutely worth spending some time wandering around.

Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

 

There was something particularly depressing about eating at McDonald’s in Vietnam. I’ve only been here a few days, but it’s already clear that this country has some of the best food of anywhere I’ve visited so far. It kind of sucks to waste a meal on McDonald’s, but I’ve come this far. No point in turning back now.

The feeling of vague sadness was compounded by being surrounded almost exclusively by Western tourists. I don’t want to be the kind of traveller who judges the way that other people travel, but my hotel is near the main tourist-centric stretch of town, and I’ve seen some stuff. There are so many tourists that hang out at these cheesy-looking bars eating stuff like pizza or nachos, and it just makes me sad. The food here is so good.

But then blog or no blog, I’m in McDonald’s too, so I guess I’m part of the problem.

The menu here had a few interesting things, at least.

McDonald's in Vietnam

The first thing I tried was the pork and rice. This came with a small pile of rice with teriyaki sauce, a cut up pork patty, some veggies, and an egg. It was fine, I guess. I think you can get a pretty good idea of what this tasted like just by looking at the picture.

McDonald's in Vietnam

I had the curly fries on the side. There may as well be one factory that makes all of the curly fries for the entire planet, because they always taste exactly the same.

McDonald's in Vietnam

There were a few sauces other than the usual ketchup at the dispenser, which helped. I tried the chili sauce, the garlic chili sauce, and the mayo sauce, and they were all fairly tasty.

McDonald's in Vietnam

I had the Strawberry McFizz to drink, which was basically a strawberry soda with jam on the bottom. It was intensely sweet, but refreshing.

It’s amazing how vibrant and colourful the markets are here.

Market in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

I stumbled across this one while I was walking around the city; unlike the Ben Thanh market, which felt quite touristy, this one was clearly just a local market.

Market in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

There’s something very entrancing about wandering around a market like this and just taking in all of the sights (and sounds, and smells).

Market in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

There was a vendor selling a tropical-looking fruit (I looked it up, and I’m pretty sure it’s jackfruit). I figured I’d give it a shot.

Market in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

I wasn’t crazy about it. It had a mildly farty flavour that reminded me of a much, much less intense version of durian (durian, for the unaware, is a notoriously stinky tropical fruit that tastes like literal garbage. Not only is it the worst fruit I’ve ever had, it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten).

Market in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Thankfully it wasn’t quite as foul as durian — I was actually able to eat most of it — but it’s definitely not something I’d want to eat again.

Pho may be the thousand pound gorilla of Vietnamese noodle soups — it’s the one that pretty much every single person on the planet has heard of — but it’s certainly not the only one.

Take, for example, bun bo hue. I just had a bowl of it at Bun Bo Hue Nam Giao, and it made a strong case that there should be room in your life for more than one noodle soup from Vietnam.

It’s got a zingy, ever-so-slightly sour broth that’s really satisfying; it’s much more of a face-punch of flavour than the comparatively subtle pho.

Bun Bo Hue Nam Giao in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

It comes with various sausagey mystery meats that are all quite tasty, and a couple of plates worth of veggies and hot peppers to customize your bowl.

I should note that those peppers are inferno hot; I added most of them to the soup, which was probably a mistake. The peppers themselves were fiery little spice-bombs, and they quickly infused the broth with their intense heat. I have a fairly high tolerance for spicy foods, but even I found this to be a bit much.  I was getting pretty sweaty by the time I finished the bowl.