A Beautiful Ending to a Short Trip

22 02 2010

Other than all of the heartache and pain that went on in Phu Quoc those many years ago, it is a tropical paradise with the most beautiful beaches and amazing accommodations at the more luxurious places. It’s an island about 15 km south of Cambodia and an hour plane ride from Saigon or two-hour ferry ride from Rach Gia. The seafood is the best here, especially at the Night Market. You can find a meal for two people at local restaurants including the Night Market for less than $5 USD! And any dish you choose will be amazing.

Long Beach on Phu Quoc Island

Of course, poverty still exists here. We visited a family who lives in pretty much a shack. The mother was cooking on the side of the street, while her 1-year-old daughter was playing next to the speeding cars and motorbikes. We walked inside to find her walls filled with paintings that her husband had painted, cement floors and a wooden bed with one sheet on it. Her kitchen was outside by the street. But, regardless of the situation, she and her daughter were happy. She and her husband sell the paintings for reasonable prices. Randy bought a painting for about $7 USD, which probably helped them out a lot, considering that the average family in Vietnam makes about $150 per month.

Apart from the realization of how the majority of Vietnamese live, Phu Quoc is a beautiful island with a large part dedicated as a National Forest. You can find deserted beaches or beaches with many people participating in a variety of water sports. I chose to refresh my SCUBA diving skills. It was my second time diving in an ocean. It felt great to get back in the gear and under the water again. I didn’t have time to finish my certification here, but it’s a great place to do it. The sights underwater weren’t that exciting where I had dived, but the waters weren’t too choppy and the current was pretty calm. The instructors are great and it’s relatively cheap to get certified in Vietnam. Click here to find a list of dive operations and more information about Phu Quoc.

SCUBA flag and the Vietnam flag

Lodging in Phu Quoc is hard to find if you want to find a place online during the peak season (December – February). Also, hotels and resorts will charge more during this time. But many places don’t have web sites, so it might be a better bet to just arrive in Phu Quoc and then find a place to stay.

Phu Quoc was the perfect place to relax. We spent about four hours at the massage salon on the first day! Our hotel didn’t have a massage salon, so we went to Phu Quoc-Saigon Resort to get pampered. Even though this was one of the nicer resorts, we got a great package deal for our manicure, pedicure, spa and sauna, full-body hour-long massage and facial. In the states, we would spend about $400 on something like this, but in Vietnam, you can get a relaxing, refreshing spa treatment for only $36! The women who work here do an excellent job. One lady gave us a manicure and pedicure and facial. And another lady gave us a calming body hour-long massage. We felt like royalty after the four-hour session. But, this wasn’t the last of it. We got another hour-long massage in Saigon for $10! I’m sure there are cheaper places that are just as good, though.

We definitely got star treatment in Vietnam. Although, I was afraid of everyone despising me because I cannot speak Vietnamese, I was wrong. I had only one encounter with someone who was slightly prejudiced, but that happens even in America. As a Vietnamese-American, it was great to visit Vietnam as a tourist. But having a father who didn’t instill in me the Vietnamese culture and a mother who was adopted during the war and deprived of her Vietnamese culture, I feel that it would be even greater to learn more and more about the Vietnamese culture, not only for my generation, but for the next. This is not the last you will hear about Vietnam from us. We will go back soon to discover more about the culture and its people, not only for my sake of knowing more about where my family is from, but for the next generation.





Good Morning Vietnam

18 02 2010

Being Vietnamese-American and going to Vietnam for the first time was truly a life-time experience, even if it was just for five and a half days. As we went through customs and the airport, we could feel the tropical climate and the hustle and bustle of a city trying to make something for itself. Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City is a city that is rising in tourism and as the world gets to know more of Vietnam’s history and culture, the more people will love it. The first thing that hits you when you leave the airport is the amazing amount of motorbikes! They come in all directions and it seems impossible to cross the streets. But, they’ll just go around you as long as you walk slowly. In addition to the massive number of motorbikes and their courtesy, the people are super nice, sometimes because they want to sell you something, but sometimes just because they are truly sincere and want to help you.

In a city of 7 million people, 3 million motorbikes pack the streets.

As for the food, if there is one word that describes Vietnamese food, it is ‘fresh.’ Everything from the pho, banh mi, seafood, coffee and che is full of flavors like lemongrass, pepper, mint and more. Vietnam’s history is something to discover more and more about, not only because of the war, but because this is where my family is from and where they have some story about the war. In school, we only learned about the Vietnam War, which is what Americans called it. We didn’t learn about the other side of the war that the Vietnamese call the American War. Visiting Saigon and Phu Quoc for the first trip to Vietnam was the right choice because of what we learned. I hope that you enjoy reading the next few posts almost as much as I enjoyed visiting Vietnam.

Like I mentioned, Vietnamese food is FRESH. It is filled with herbs, spices, vegetables, meat or seafood and their staple ingredient – fish sauce (nước mắm). I had fogotten how much I liked Vietnamese food. I didn’t realize how priviledged I was to have that type of food when I was younger, until now. I never knew what I was eating, I just knew that it was good. Now, I know what the food is called, but sometimes I don’t know what it’s made of. So, some of the information I get comes from the Internet.

I loved having pho almost everyday in Vietnam. Pho is a famous dish in Vietnam and around the world. It’s made of rice noodles in a beef broth, with your choice of how much bean sprouts, lime, basil, hoisin and sriacha sauce you’d like. They have chicken and seafood too, but beef (Pho Bo) is the way to go. Another snack or dish that I missed was Banh Mi, which is a baguette filled with thinly sliced carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, mayonaise and meat or tofu. It’s definitely a sandwich that was influnced by the French.

Vietnam's most famous dish, pho

Vietnamese seafood is the best in the world. Korean seafood is different because it usually has a kimchi taste to it. But I prefer Vietnamese seafood, which has more of a fresh, herb and black pepper taste. The best seafood in Vietnam is on Phu Quoc Island. The clams at the Night Market were amazing! The Vietnamese make a dipping sauce with shellfish such as clams, shrimp, prawn, crab and crawfish. The sauce is simply made of black pepper and salt with lime juice. It tastes perfect with shellfish!

Hot pot with baby shark, fresh vegetables and clam at the Night Market in Phu Quoc

Other dishes that are worth trying are Banh Xeo (the Vietnamese version of a crepe filled with fresh vegetables and pork), Bún thịt nướng (Vermicelli with grilled pork or fried spring rolls) and of course spring rolls, fried or fresh. Vietnamese coffee blows away other types of coffee. Its strong taste and sweet condensed milk stirred together and poured in ice make it the perfect drink for a warm morning or sweltering afternoon. But for an even more refreshing drink, try che. Everyone makes their che different. It’s usually made of red or soy bean in a coconut milk and crushed ice. Sometimes, it will have jellies, other fruit or some sort of custard.

But, one of our favorite eating experiences involved a bit of an adventure. Although this ‘restaurant’ is tucked away from District 1 and all of the other restaurants and hotels, this special chef is known for her homemade soups. She was featured on the TV show, “No Reservations,” with Anthony Bourdain. She is known as the “Lunch Lady.” It’s people like her who make the country a better place. She makes her culture speak through her cooking. She’s like a mother or grandmother who spends countless hours preparing a meal from love.

There was no exact address for her restaurant, which in Vietnam is sometimes outside with plastic chairs and tables and considered street food. But this street food was something different, with full service and the best soup in town. We had a small map that we found online and headed toward the area in search of this legend. As we got closer toward the area we asked a few locals where she was located and they knew exactly who we were talking about. Her stand was tucked away in a small alley. This was definitely off the beaten track. Her customers were everyday locals who crave the “good stuff.” This is the type of place where hardly ever see travelers. As soon as we located her stand, her face lit with a huge smile, welcoming us to sit down and try her food. She is an amazing woman who truly has a gift. Anthony Bourdain said that she was one of his favorite street vendors in Vietnam.

The Lunch Lady's Saturday Special - Banh Canh

She often puts a spin on traditional Vietnamese food making her own unique dish. When we went on a Saturday and she prepared a classic Vietnamese dish called Banh Canh. But instead of a pork-base broth she added her own spin with a crab-based seafood broth. The dish included fish cakes, succulent shrimps, thinly sliced shallots, onions, peppers, and a few quail eggs. Anyone who loves food could see the love that she put into this food.

This was one of the best dishes that we had in Vietnam. We highly recommend trying the Lunch Lady’s soup. If you’re limited on time in Vietnam, make sure you make time for the Lunch Lady. Just make sure that you get there after 11am and before 1pm. For someone being so famous, she charges less than 18,000 VND per plate, which is equivalent to $1 USD. Despite her popularity she refuses to raise her prices.