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The Mystic East - a tale of hot food, hot weather, airmiles and imodium.

The Mystic East - a tale of hot food, hot weather, airmiles and imodium.

Dec 12th, 2016, 09:21 AM
  #21  
 
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Lovely! Can't wait to read about Vietnam.

BC
bookchick is offline  
Dec 12th, 2016, 10:02 AM
  #22  
 
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I love your descriptions, I feel like I was there with you.
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Dec 13th, 2016, 08:51 AM
  #23  
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Thanks again - just making a start on Vietnam now...
RM67 is offline  
Dec 13th, 2016, 09:30 AM
  #24  
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Day 7 : Saigon

I had a last quick breakfast at the Thannattee – just toast, fruit and tea really - Tommy was sufficiently underwhelmed by what had been on offer the past two days not to bother coming down, so I left him packing. There weren’t enough tables in the restaurant and I had to sit in reception with my toast but it was probably a good thing as it stopped me lingering too long.

We checked out and asked reception to call us a cab – they helpfully (or unhelpfully – you decide!) informed us that they had a free shuttle service that runs people to the airport and when we said ‘oh great we’ll take that’ they said ‘no, you have to book in advance’. Which left us thinking well call a bloody taxi then like we asked – they didn’t, so we just shoehorned ourselves into the hotel shuttle when it came round. I apologise now to the other passengers who were inconvenienced by us squashing ourselves on but if we hadn’t we would have missed our flight.

Most of day 7 was taken up with onward travel as we had two flights in actual fact – one from Chiang Mai back to Bangkok, then a second straight onto Ho Chi Minh city, which I shall henceforth refer to as Saigon as it is quicker to type. There is nothing much to say about these except that they went smoothly, with a very quick and easy transfer at Bangkok (on foot, adjacent terminals) and we think we saw the Mekong Delta from the air and it was huge and we were impressed.

After getting some cash and buying a sim card at Saigon airport we grabbed a taxi for the transfer to our next hotel, Paradise Saigon Boutique. The hotel was quite modern and non-descript on the outside but had decent rooms, a huge bed with USB charger ports in the headboard(!)and a smallish bathroom with a shower. There was a bar downstairs in the foyer, a nice restaurant on one of the higher floors that did excellent food, and the reception area had a strange but effective canopy of glass parasols across the ceiling which looked quite mid-century modern. The staff were very helpful and friendly and there were bell boys or whatever you call them operating the lifts.

We headed out for a bite to eat (it was evening by the time we arrived) and found a bbq type restaurant not too far away – I think it might have been called TNT - where we had pulled pork – or rather I did (Tommy had beef brisket), and very nice cornbread, and fries – except they were actually crinkle chips like you’d buy at the supermarket and reheat in the oven, which we found amusing as it was quite a pricy place by Vietnamese standards. After the meatfest and on our way back to the hotel we stopped at a little café for coffee. I have to say now that we totally fell in love with Vietnamese coffee in all its many incarnations – hot, cold, with condensed milk, black, egg coffee, cheese coffee and so on, but more on that later.

We were probably the oldest people (40s) at this café, which was quite young and funky, with lots of students pulling up and leaving on mopeds. We sat outside at comically low tables on tiny chairs that were arranged in a huge tangle on the pavement. Every time someone new came along they had to weave their way through the chaotic seating to find an empty spot, staff occasionally rushing out to help rearrange furniture and people. It was good coffee and it bode well for future imbibing
RM67 is offline  
Dec 13th, 2016, 07:30 PM
  #25  
 
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I feel like I'm right in the thick of it all. This is wonderful, and I'm lapping up every scene.
muskoka is online now  
Dec 14th, 2016, 05:43 AM
  #26  
 
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You do a great job of painting a picture, RM. I can see the river again in Chiang Mai. The lanterns and floating candles must have been pretty incredible.

Have to get reading and catch up on Saigon now. We love VN, sure to go back, and we've never been that far south. So very useful!
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Dec 15th, 2016, 06:41 AM
  #27  
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Day 8: Saigon

The day started with a great breakfast at the Paradise Saigon. Alongside the usual bacon, eggs, fried potatoes, pancakes, Asian pork dishes, fruit, pastries, breads and yoghurt there were slices of cake and even little pots of home made crème caramel. Tommy was appalled at my selection which he said looked more like pudding than breakfast - I didn't care, and even went back for seconds of the crème caramel The restaurant was at the top of the hotel and had oblique city views, staff gliding serenely between tables topping up cups of tea and coffee as everyone ate.

Tommy was keen to see the War Remnants Museum so after breakfast, we headed off on foot, passing apricot-coloured government buildings flying ubiquitous red and yellow flags, colonial villas with wooden shutters and gardens full of palms, modern glass box offices, narrow old residential buildings with striped awnings over pot plant strewn balconies, and boldly coloured advertising hoardings dotted everywhere. The traffic was at least as intimidating as Bangkok, with giant swarms of mopeds encircling Japanese and Korean cars. It was already hot and sticky even at this relatively early hour.

The War Remnants Museum was fascinating. On the forecourt were planes and tanks left behind by the US or captured by the Vietnamese, and inside the main building, a lot of pictoral information about the war including photos of atrocities, Agent Orange related birth defects and elegant silver nitrate images of rice paddies and river gorges, serene before the outbreak of hostilities. There was even a small exhibition of posters from around the world pledging solidarity with the Vietnamese during wartime. It was a brief but moving visit.

A few minutes walk from the museum we stopped at Café Oto seating ourselves at one of tables along the pavement, with humidifiers pumping out a spray of cooling moisture overhead. Tiny lizards intermittantly ran up and down the exterior walls and round the door and window frames. We had iced coffee with condensed milk which was utterly delicious - I think I had three in fact, but it's not quite as excessive as it sounds because really it was only a single shot of espresso over a glass full of ice and just a smudge of milk. All the same, I got raised eyebrows from the proprieter at the third one. We sat people watching for a good while, discussing our next possible ports of call. Tommy let me decide and I eventually plumped for the Jade Emporer Pagoda. It wasn't the longest walk to the Jade Emporer Pagoda but it was so hot that we stopped en-route again for more cold drinks. One of our time-outs was in a funky modern café (high stools a bit like the thrones in Pan's Labyrinth, lots of polished concrete, and bottles of San Pelligrino in the chill cabinet) that was playing Christmas music which seemed incongruous in the humidity.

Escaping Walking in a Winter Wonderland we continued to head north toward the river and finally came upon our destination, through a gateway and into a coutyard, traffic noise diminishing almost instantly. The jade pagoda was not in fact jade at all, but scarlett. Inside the pagoda there were a number of chambers with oriental statues of warriors, dogs and horses, and a real dog lay snoozing in the pressing heat in one of the siderooms. People were lighting candles, and bowls of grey ashes with spent incense sticks were dotted about here and there, giving out a surprisingly fierce heat. Outside there were ponds full of carp and turtles. Both the ponds were being drained to be cleaned and we saw gasping fish in a few inches of water at the bottom and disgruntled turtles making their way up an escape ramp. We spent a little time sitting on the benches in the courtyard surrounded by ancient gnarled leafless trees, enjoying the break from the melee, before making our way back to the hotel.

I don't recall eating any lunch so I don't think we did, saving ourselves for a visit to the evening market that was just a couple of minutes walk from our hotel. That night, we circumnavigated the entire market looking for bahn mi, but there didn't appear to be any on offer. There was a decent looking seafood stall with tables set up out front, and tanks of blood cockles, and ice lined trays of scallops and lobstery looking things with their claws tied, but we weren't in a seafood mood. It didn't help that there were very few empty seats and we were too hungry by now to queue, so instead we plumped for a small restaurant on the road adjacent to the market, ordering from a photo menu. Over-ordering in fact - most of the dishes were a lot bigger then we expected, each being a full main rather than the asian style tapas we'd been anticipating. I had a vietnamese omlette which came stuffed with chicken and crab, and then a bahn mi (yay) with grilled pork and lovely crusty fresh bread and a ton of coriander, and Tommy had some sort of spring roll loaded with prawns and herbs, and belly pork with a dipping sauce. I know there was more but can't for the life of me recall what.

With the aid of Google maps, Tommy found a cocktail bar for us to finish the night in and we moved onto 'Shine' on Ton That Thiep for an array of mojitos, daiquiris and shorter drinks, served trendily in mason jars. The alcohol content in everything was high - we reckon free pour not measured - and there was a nice ambience with low lighting and decent music playing. Smartly dressed front of house girls bought occasional snacks and kept an eagle eye out to ensure nobody left without paying (we saw one customer being chased down the street after leaving without settling up). Then back to the Paradise Saigon after a relatively sensible number of drinks, as we had to be up fairly early the next morning for onward travel.

Photos attachedbr />
https://www.flickr.com/photos/494523...57677838228495
RM67 is offline  
Dec 16th, 2016, 03:24 PM
  #28  
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Day 9 and 10. Train Journey from Saigon To Hanoi

Partly due to my lack of enthusiasm for flying and partly due to the fact that it was meant to be very scenic, we took a train from Saigon to Hanoi for the next part of our trip.

We were a bit concerned about getting to the station in time for our earlyish departure (9am) having seen much of the city choked in traffic as we explored Saigon on foot, but actually on the day we were very lucky and had a trouble free taxi ride of no more than about 15-20 minutes. We arrived in time to do a quick bit of provision shopping (water, crisps, Oreos) before the train set off. Our sleeper compartment was very simply furnished with 4 bunks, 2 power points, a fixed table, a bin and some lights. The trains are ex-Japanese stock, I would guess 60s era, and although many have been refurbished I don’t think ours was one of the refitted ones. We had what was called a ‘soft sleeper’ for the 35 hour journey – basically that means the bunk has a mattress, pillow and coverlet.

The views from the train were wonderful. You initially spend about half an hour or so making your way to the outskirts of Saigon, seeing the familiar tall narrow houses with shops and stalls below, dozens of mopeds filling the streets, livestock being carried in crates on motorcycles, occasional churches and temples, and then the city finally gives way to countryside. In the south this meant agricultural land, pineapple, banana and sago palms grown in perfect straight lines, and unexpectedly, what looked to me like art deco houses or outbuildings in many of the fields with ziggurat rooves, and walls painted in ice cream colours of mint, pink, cream and lemon.

As we got further north the land became wetter, with bamboo-hatted workers toiling in rice fields, using hoes or casting seed in a somewhat biblical fashion. Buffalo drank at water holes or even swam in them. Everywhere there were buffalo there were also beautiful white oriental cranes. Further north still and the wetlands briefly became jungle – palms and wooden cabins replacing the pastoral scenes. For most of the journey mountains were also visible on one side of the train, or the other, or both. Occasionally we got close enough to the coast to see white sand beaches, fishing villages, and less aesthetically pleasing, refineries, rigs and power stations. Many muddy rivers were also crossed. Sometimes we caught sight of a sampan being slowly rowed or paddled along in the brown water below us.
Occasionally we passed stations where uniformed staff would feebly wave flags to mark our passage.

I thought the views were fascinating all the way from Saigon to Hanoi, and if this is not considered one of the world’s great train journeys, it really should be.

Every now and then staff came up and down the train serving coffee (your choice of hot or iced) and simple meals of chicken drumsticks, rice, cabbage and tofu – presented in prison style plastic trays. Another vendor had corn cobs which were cooked to order in a huge plastic bucket, and in the same vat of boiling water, something that looked like fishballs. For the less adventurous there were also occasional visits from a trolley with crisps and cans of Pepsi. It became a standing joke than whenever you fancied a Pepsi or some crisps and heard the rumble of the trolley it would inevitably be the guy with the corn or the prison chicken.

Sleeping was initially ok but the beds did feel a bit hard toward the end of the night and the aircon was so efficient we were both freezing by dawn. The people in the bunks above us changed a few times – one guy had the most horrendous cold and was sniffing and coughing and choking on phlegm all night above poor Tommy. He wasn’t there by morning so either got off during the night or died!

There was a little Vietnamese girl in the next cabin of maybe five or six and she kept coming to visit us. She was fascinated by everything we were doing and mimicked it. So when we were on our phones, she borrowed her mums phone and started playing with that, when Tommy was on his tablet, she again borrowed one from a family member, and when we took photos she started doing the same, sitting next to one or the other of us on our bunks. On some of her visits she came tripping in in her mums high heels. She also practiced her English on us, announcing ‘Hello Neighbour!’ every time she came into our cabin. Before her family got off she came rushing up to me in the train corridor where I was watching the view out of the grubby windows and threw her arms round my legs and hugged me. Other less welcome visitors included one of the concierge staff who found it necessary to sit down on the bunk pressed right against me when taking coffee orders. But in mitigation it was very very good coffee! Another cultural shock occurred when I visited the toilet at the end of the carriage, only to find a young man hosing down a large cardboard box over the loo, which presumably contained something live. I dared not ask what.

We arrived in Hanoi about 8pm on Saturday night, tired and stiff, but full of memories of the 1000 mile journey north. Slightly unnervingly, we had to cross the tracks to exit the station, with the lights of an oncoming train visible in the distance(!), and our cases catching on the rails and slowing us down. Bypassing touts at the exit trying to direct us to the reputedly less reliable taxi firms, Tommy managed to find one of the recommended services like Vinasun which guarantee to use metered fares for tourists just as they do for locals, rather than on the spot arbitray rates.

Our next hotel was Essence D’Orient in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, and the area was quite literally buzzing when we arrived. The streets are pedestrianised at certain times, and cafes and bars let their clientele spill out into the roads when they are free of traffic. Everywhere was a riot of colour – shops selling silks, coffee beans, Chinese herbs, Christmas decorations, and pretty much anything else you can think of. We saw stalls selling pho, donuts on sticks, fried fish, and all manner of other culinary goodies. However being tired and grubby we decided to let exploring wait till morning and opted to spend the evening in our hotel.

Our room was really lovely – on the fourth floor with a big balcony overlooking the melee. When you shut the triple glazed door however, there was absolute silence – so the best of both worlds really; atmosphere when you wanted it, peace and quiet when you didn’t. We had a huge bed with a mattress topper (which was a revelation to both of us), high threadcount sheets, a silk throw, a small sofa, decent minibar, and even a hotel supplied laptop in case you had problems with the wifi. We ordered room service and within about 20 minutes tempura sea bass with tamarind, clam soup, chicken, rice, noodles, banana spring rolls and crème brulee were delivered to our door, together with two huge Singapore Slings. It was one of the best meals we had all trip. Although we’d only been in town about two hours we decided we liked Hanoi
RM67 is offline  
Dec 16th, 2016, 04:57 PM
  #29  
 
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I am loving your trip report RM67! I think it is about the best trip report I have ever read.

Your report of going to Doi Suthep reminded me of our trip there, during our second visit to Thailand, back in 1997 or 98. I became ill on our first day in Chiang Mai, not sure if it was the breakfast we had that morning at the hotel in Chiang Rai, or the lunch the day before in Chiang Rai, but I decided I was going to Doi Suthep anyway. We also caught one of those red songtaew, and we were the only passengers. I am prone to motion sickness on a good day, and on that day, feeling really sick, as we were winding up the mountain, I knew I was going to vomit. Neither DH nor I had a plastic bag, or anything for me to vomit in, so I ended up just hanging my head out the window and threw up down the outside of the truck. A lot. The driver, who saw me in his rear view or side mirror, just kept saying, quite loudly, "Ohhhhh, oohhh, oohhhh!" I felt terrible since it was clear he had just washed the vehicle, but I had no choice. We got to the top, walked around and saw what we were there to see, and when we were ready to go back to the hotel, the driver was there, standing with a bunch of other songtaew drivers, and they all just giggled and smirked at me. It was obvious he told them all about the crazy American who threw up all down the side of his vehicle! He did clean it by the time we came back. I spent the next few days pretty ill, and was actually rather ill for several months after getting home.

Anyway, your trip report makes me want to go back. We have been to Thailand several times since, but not back to Chiang Mai (or Chiang Rai for that matter) and would love to do so. We were also in Vietnam in 2000, and reading your report is making me want to return there soon as well.
laurieco is online now  
Dec 17th, 2016, 03:23 AM
  #30  
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Thank you Laurie. I really sympathise with your Songtaew ordeal because it is a very twisty road up Doi Suthep and if anyone isn't feeling 100% it's pretty much guaranteed they will feel poorly on it. Plus the taxis always stink of diesel. Both of us had intermittently mildly upset stomachs on the trip, though I am still convinced it was the heat rather than food or water in our cases, as it seemed worse on the most humid days and when we'd been out doing a lot of walking. It wouldn't put me off going back though - there are so many amazing things to see. I have more Hanoi, Halong Bay, and then back to Thailand for tropical island Koh Chang, before finishing off with a bit more Bangkok
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Dec 17th, 2016, 10:58 AM
  #31  
 
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Fabulous report, RM67. Vietnam was a revelation for me. I would go back just to do the train ride.
Treesa is offline  
Dec 17th, 2016, 11:12 AM
  #32  
 
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that train journey does indeed sound wonderful, RM, though I'm not sure about clambering over the track at the end!

keep it coming!
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Dec 18th, 2016, 10:12 PM
  #33  
 
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Golden report. The details were fabulous.
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Dec 20th, 2016, 05:11 AM
  #34  
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Thank you all again and apologies for the lack of updates in the past few days - busy at work. Here is the next set of photos - these are all from Hanoi, possibly our favourite city of the entire trip. More ramblings to follow soon

https://www.flickr.com/photos/494523...57674113697044
RM67 is offline  
Dec 20th, 2016, 07:28 AM
  #35  
 
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Fascinating scenes on the photos, RM. Hope you're having a good time.
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Dec 20th, 2016, 03:29 PM
  #36  
 
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Hanoi became our mutually agreed upon favourite city, anywhere, on our last trip. Love it. Really enjoyed seeing your pictures as a reminder. They show a nice slice of life without just sticking to the well known sites... and the streets are the best bit about Hanoi.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same for our overnight train time, (Ninh Bihn to Hue). Lets just say, it wasn't pretty.
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Dec 20th, 2016, 05:54 PM
  #37  
 
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Wonderful photos!
muskoka is online now  
Dec 20th, 2016, 06:56 PM
  #38  
 
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ttt so I can read later, love your reports!
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Dec 21st, 2016, 05:34 AM
  #39  
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Day 11: Hanoi

We didn’t take breakfast at the hotel on our first full day in Hanoi, preferring to head out for a bite to eat once we were up and showered. Essence ‘D’Orient was only about two or three minutes walk from Hoan Kiem, a picturesque lake in the city centre, and this was the area we made for. At the head of the lake we came across The Note, a tiny café on two floors serving very good french style pastries and a variety of vietnamese and western coffees. I had a pain au chocolat and coffee, and Tommy had an egg coffee which was fabulously creamy – the top is a bit like zabaglione – and a pastry and some tiramsu. The tiramisu although decadent-sounding was very light and airy and not at all naughty but really delicious (I know because I nicked a bit). We ate on the first floor having navigated some twisty stairs, in a small room where the walls were covered in post-it notes. It seemed everyone who had every visited had left a note or a doodle, and there were blank post-its on the table so you could add your own musings if you wanted to. Tommy’s coffee also came with a handwritten note attached which said, somewhat fittingly, ‘Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer’. I wouldn’t let him stick it on the wall but told him to take it home as a souvenir. The manager came upstairs to chat to us – a really lovely guy – asking where we we from and taking a photo of us on his phone and offering to take ‘selfies’ for us in return.

Leaving The Note we decided to circumnavigate the lake anticlockwise. It was a Sunday morning and everyone was out enjoying the calm of the traffic-free streets. We passed waterside restaurants and smart hotels, then at the far end of the lake saw the famous turtle pagoda, built on a small grassy island, and named after the turtles which supposedly inhabit the lake but are now rarely seen. Tommy bought donuts on a stick from a very persistant vendor and she shovelled a whole load into a plastic bag over-generously. We soon found out why – they were stale! I laughed quite hard until Mr M pointed out that he’d paid for them with 100,000 dong that he’d borrowed from me!

Carrying on further round the lake, on the east side we came across an entire area devoted to children’s activities – balloon sellers, tiny motorised cars for hire, and those funny things that look like a segway but without anything to hold on to. Small children were expertly whizzing around on the handle-less segways like rocket-powered ice skaters, whilst the even younger ones drove mini fire engines or teeny pink porsches erratically. A group of youths in gowns and mortar boards were assembling near the lake to have their graduation photos taken. Further along, some young women in long satin dresses were posing by the water in what looked like a fashion shoot. At the top of the east side of the lake was a red wooden bridge that lead to another small island – Jade Island – where there was a temple dedicated to philosophers – The Temple of The Jade Mountain. We didn’t go in due to the large crowds but we did cross the bridge and get far enough to see the stone entrance gate, wooden buildings beyond with higgeldy piggeldy red tiled rooves, and delicate smoke curls eminating from the incense burners dotted here and there.

Back on the mainland we spotted a large theatre on the road adjacent to the lake which offered water puppet shows, planning to come back later on in our trip, and also a large slightly more modern building with staggered outdoor terraces (a bit like a cruise liner) that provided great views all the way up the lake and served coffee and patesserie. We nipped in here for iced coffees on one of the upper terraces, though unfortunately the seats with the best views of the lake were all taken. There was still plenty to see on the road below us though (fruit vendors carrying wooden poles with metal pans suspended from either end, piled high with papaya or oranges, toy dogs running furiously to keep up with their owners, old women standing around in their moped helmets for all the world as though they were Philip Treacy’s latest creation). It was actually a chain I think – called Highland Coffee - but a zillion times better than Costa or Starbucks. Or maybe it just felt like it because we were somewhere exotic and colourful and balmy.

I fancied lunch by this stage, so suggested a place I’d read about on Trip Advisor – Bahn Mi 25. Tommy looked it up on Google Maps and it turned out to be only aboout 500-600 meters away, back in the old quarter, so off we went. Bahn Mi 25 was a small kiosk with some streetside seating. You placed your orders at the kiosk window, then sat down and waited for your food to be prepared. Waiting with us were a mix of tourists, sunburnt, and carrying backpacks and copies of Lonely Planet, and locals, on their lunchbreak doing their accounts at low tables, with bamboo-handled oriental teapots and earthenware beakers set before them. The bahn mi arrived wrapped in brown paper bags but we were allowed to sit and ‘eat in’ anyway. Mine was pork and Tommy’s was honey roasted chicken. (I could have had pate with mine too but declined). They both came with coriander and a light coleslaw-like salad in small but very fresh, very crusty baguettes, and there were bottles of chili sauce on the table if you wanted a more firey hit. Again the owner was lovely, coming to chat with us as we were leaving and shaking hands with Tommy.

After this we made our way back to the hotel for a brief siesta - but there was one more stop for booze en-route. The hotel was literally just a few meters from an area known as ‘beer corner’, where several roads intersected, with a multitude of bars and pubs at the junction. We found one bar with first floor seating on a sort of jerry-built wooden platform which wobbled when you walked on it, but was a great vantage point for watching everyone coming and going on the street below. I had Pepsi and Tommy had various beers as rickshaws passed back and forth and more fruit traders wandered slowly along, carrying their heavy yokes.

Our evening comprised a revisit to the lake to see the turtle pagoda and Jade Island bridge all lit up – both looked beautiful, with white lights on the red wooden bridge, and lasers shooting skyward from the pagoda (much more tasteful than it sounds – honest!). Then back to the old quarter for our evening meal. We’d spotted a restaurant diagonally opposite our hotel and decided to eat there as it always looked pretty busy and we took that to be a good sign. Actually, it turned out that there were two adjacent restaurants, not one, and I think we unwittingly picked the slightly less stellar one because the food was a bit hit and miss. Sitting at low outdoor tables elbow to elbow with other customers we worked our way through some very good salt and pepper chicken which looked like wings or legs that had somehow been flattened and grilled on skewers, some good fried rice, and some average belly pork and beef pho. Poor Tommy has been on an almost eternal quest to find a decent pho with real depth of flavour to the broth. This wasn’t it!

I can tell from my Flickr photos (is it bad that I can’t actually remember unaided?!) that there was some cocktailing next. I think it may have been at the Prague Pub, which was just round the corner from our hotel and the restaurant with the meh pho. We sat outside (we love people watching) and Tommy had a variety of different czech beers, entirely for research purposes you understand, and I had a Singapore Sling. I love Singapore Slings and I do know this was a good one – I use them as a barometer of a pub or bars cocktail-making ability before ordering anything else. I can’t remember what I had next – it may have been more of the same or it may have been Mai Tais. I do know we went back home to bed at a reasonable hour because next day we had to be up earlyish for a trip to Halong Bay!
RM67 is offline  
Dec 21st, 2016, 06:01 AM
  #40  
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Thanks again for all your kind comments
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