Monthly Archives: October 2013

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

This is a guest post from our good friend Jo who came out to tour Vietnam with us. Take it away, Jo..

One of the things you’re Supposed To Do in Vietnam is Ha Long Bay, which has featured in several films – the one most people will probably have seen is Tomorrow Never Dies, that otherwise rather forgettable Brosnan Bond movie. It’s a vast area of tall karst (limestone) islands jutting out of the sea. It’s beautiful, and it attracts a lot of tourists. Every hotel in Hanoi advertises Ha Long tours and there are all sorts of options.

20131021-105838.jpgHa Long Bay

So we’d concluded, in doing our research, that we ought to see Ha Long Bay, but we were rather put off by the thought of hordes of tourists. However the ever-helpful Lonely Planet says that if you go to Cat Ba Island, you get to see pretty much the same scenery with far fewer people.

Cat Ba is reached through a long, but not too tedious, bus-bus-boat-bus trip which took about four hours. Our bus out of Hanoi was filled mainly with tourists, plus a few locals, and kept stopping as we left the city to cram yet more enormous parcels into the luggage lockers, deliveries for the city of Hai Phong. As we got into Hai Phong the bus stopped periodically for a very efficient off-loading of the goods. The whole thing was really well-organised, with only short waits as we transferred from one bus to another bus to the boat to another bus, and while long, it wasn’t at all tiring.

Hotpot and cannon

The town of Cat Ba is small, a bit developed and a bit touristy, but very quiet this time of year. After checking into the hostel we headed uphill for a view from Fort Cannon. Built in the 1940s by the Japanese it was then used by the French and Vietnamese. The view was a bit hazy and we felt the 50,000 dong (£1.47) charged for entry was a little steep, but we did have fun exploring the old bunkers and taking pictures of the cannon and old armament boxes.

20131021-105821.jpgDelicious seafood hotpot

Dinner in town, after a beer by the seafront, was destined to be seafood hotpot. We caved when one of the restaurant owners who’d previously talked to Julie as we got off the bus gave us his patter, and we were glad we did. We got a dish of broth flavoured with lemongrass, ginger and spring onions, some packet dried noodles, a plate of water spinach, another plate of cabbage and carrot, a plate of clams and one of fish, squid and prawns. You cook the raw food in the hot broth as it bubbles away on a hotplate. It was utterly delicious, even when a small bug jumped out of the water spinach and committed suicide in the broth – anyway, by that point we were stuffed.

Lan Ha and Ha Long Bays

In the morning we were up early for our day’s tour out to Ha Long Bay and the closer Lan Ha Bay, which has much the same sort of formations. It was a windy day – further south, we later discovered, Central Vietnam was being battered by Typhoon Nari – but we got on the boat and chugged out into the harbour. Just before we exited, through a channel between two rocks, it was starting to get a bit rough and a couple of big waves came crashing over the open bows of the boat. The pilot promptly turned around and they called for a bigger boat.

20131021-105831.jpgFishing boat coming back through the channel

Once on board the bigger boat, our group of 20 spread out on the upper deck and off we went again. She rocked and rolled for about half an hour before it got calmer and more sheltered, and about that time the scenery went from “oh, that’s nice” to “wow”. We cruised through the karsts for perhaps two hours, past floating fishing villages and waving at passing fishermen, moving from Lan Ha to Ha Long.

20131021-105900.jpgFloating village scenes

The group was a mixed one; there were a couple of Yorkshire blokes, a nice English couple, some crazy Italians, a French and Israeli couple, two German lads and a young Vietnamese couple. The Vietnamese girl astounded me and Julie by appearing in properly high heels, though she had also managed to pack a bikini for the watery parts of the trip.

Just before lunch we pulled up – with a couple of tries – next to a karst island, and scrambled ashore into a cave in the middle of the rock. I would not recommend flipflops for caving, but there were some spectacular stalactites and stalagmites hidden in the darkness.

20131021-105844.jpgInside the cave

Lunch was a feast of rice, fish and some pretty good spring rolls. Shortly afterwards we got the chance to work it all off with a spot of kayaking. Sadly, they had no one-man kayaks so I had to manoeuvre a two-man by myself. We loved this bit of the day, kayaking through arches in the rock with bats squeaking over our heads. Then there was a swimming stop, where I failed to jump off the edge of the ship but Andrew, encouraged by one of the Yorkshire men, leapt off the very high stern into the warm green water.


We cruised home, happy, coming into port past an enormous floating village – a town, really, with canals separating the floating houses.

Scooting round Cat Ba

On day two the wind had got up even more. With most of the day to use up before the bus we planned to get back to Hanoi, we rented scooters for a tour of the island.

While Andrew has a proper bike licence and has ridden big motorbikes in the past, my scooter experience consists of tootling very slowly around Aitutaki in the Cook Islands a few years back, and Julie had never been on one before. It turned out we were basically borrowing people’s personal scooters – I had one which belonged to the hostel receptionist – which just added to the nerves. They spent a while showing us how to start and brake, and fiddling with the dodgy battery on mine, before waving us off.

Actually once we’d got through town and the random people stepping or turning out in front of us it was pretty easy riding, with the traffic predominantly two-wheeled save for the odd bus or truck. By the time we made our first stop Julie and I were feeling much more confident.

That stop was at Hospital Cave, built by the Vietnamese with help from China in the 1960s. It acted as a hospital and hide-out for the Vietnamese forces, and as well as a first-floor network of concrete bunker-like rooms there’s a huge second-floor cave, with space for a cinema and a small swimming pool, and a third floor we weren’t taken to by our guide. It was a bit bare and damp, but you can imagine the claustrophobia of being hidden away there from the American bombing.

20131021-105910.jpgInside and outside Hospital Cave

Then we continued on our way, doing a loop inland and then back along the coast, via ‘butterfly valley’ – in fact there are lots of stunning butterflies everywhere on Cat Ba, from small yellow and blue ones to enormous, velvety-black specimens. Sadly the really big ones never sat still for long enough to have their photograph taken.

We stopped for lunch in a small village, randomly picking a place with a sign outside it. The family seemed a bit surprised at suddenly having three Western customers, but set to and delivered us three bowls of (instant) noodle soup with mystery meat and a bowl of the herbs you put in soups here. None of us could decide what the meat was; it was vaguely liver-y but also fatty.

20131021-105917.jpgInstant noodle soup

With a little more petrol in the tank (though not quite enough, I had to top up by buying a water bottle full on the way home) we decided to head back up our original road and then carry on north as far as that road went. It was a good idea – the scenery was stunning, through deep valleys of bush-covered karst, out to the sea at the end of the road.

20131021-105926.jpgThe road north

20131021-105935.jpgAt the end of the road

We ended our Cat Ba stay with another bus-boat-bus-bus combo, only this time with far more locals than tourists. The Haiphong – Hanoi leg was slightly crazy. We were ushered on to the bus at the side of the road without even being allowed to put bags in the luggage compartment, so we all piled bags on an empty double seat. But then more people got on. And more. The conductor pushed bags into laps and set out little plastic stools in the aisle, and at various points en route to Hanoi more people would get on and off. At journey’s end, we were nabbed by a taxi driver with a rigged meter who tried to charge us three times the going rate for the trip to the train station, and there we waited for the overnight to Dong Hoi. But that’s another blog.

Sa Pa, Vietnam

As we had just over a week before our friend Jo arrived to join us travelling south through Vietnam, we decided to head north-west to the once small hamlet of Sa Pa. Nowadays it’s a bustling hillside town full of hotels, hostels, restaurants, and knock-off North Face shops. Rumour has it they’re planning two 5-star hotels, a golf course (in this terrain?!), and a helipad. That’s progress, I guess.

We took the “hard sleeper” overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, and a hotel transfer for another hour up and down the twisty hills. In China, hard sleeper means there are six people in your compartment – compared to four in soft sleeper class – but in Vietnam, hard sleeper means a worn in 1inch-thick mattress over a solid metal frame. We found it wasn’t as uncomfortable as it sounds, and we got a pretty decent nights kip.


The misty hills of Sa Pa. Somewhere out there is Mt. Fansipan – the highest point in Vietnam

½ Day trek to three local villages

Sa Pa is surrounded by small, local farming villages inhabited by diverse native peoples and our hotel organises easy-going downhill saunters through paddy fields to visit a few of them. The tour started by picking up other guests from 2 different hotels in town, and each time we also picked up what I can only refer to as a “hustle” of local H’mong women. When the tourists were sufficiently outnumbered, say 3 to 1, we set off towards the H’mong village, and the good-natured hustling began.


The local H’mong women, pleasantly pushy in their sales technique and won’t take “no” for an answer. If you’re persistent, they might let you off with a “maybe later?”

As we left Sa Pa, the clouds made good on their threat and a downpour ensued. Nothing could dampen the spirits of the locals and guides, and we were actually quite pleased to have them along as they helped us all through the slippier bits – their well-worn flip flips suddenly seemed more appropriate in the mud, paddy fields and streams than our western hiking boots which would need more than a quick wash in a puddle to get clean.


It was a little bit wet..


..which suited the pigs, ducks and water buffalo..


..but even in the rain, the scenery was fantastic

Maybe it was because of the rain and the slippery footing keeping our heads down, or more likely because I was deep in conversation with Frank – one half of a French couple we later had dinner with – but I missed the first two villages, Y Linh Ho and Lao Chay. Or maybe I saw them but I didn’t know it because we didn’t pass through them.

Before the last village of the trek, we reached the bottom of the valley and stopped for lunch. It’s safe to say we were all kind of dreading it a little bit, as we knew the assistance we’d received on the way down was going to be used to guilt-trip us into buying their lovely hand-made and embroidered wares. “You remember me, I helped you?”, “yes, thank you, but..” It took a lot of effort, but we politely resisted.

The final village of Tavan was more how I’d imagined the trek would be – we walked right through the middle of it and went inside a couple of the houses to see how the people live and work.


Clockwise from top-left: Lunch (the food was great); Ingenious use of water power to bash dry rice into rice flour; H’mong woman demonstrating pattern making with beeswax on hemp cloth; The famous deep indigo dye that stains their clothes (and hands); How they smooth the rough material with two stones and a balancing dance; The finished article

The trek ended with a surreal moment. As we crossed a footbridge to the car park to catch a lift back up into Sa Pa, we could hear music.. then we spotted a guy in a dinner jacket perched on a ledge miming to a ghetto-blaster. Neither of our guides knew who he was, so we don’t think we can say we’ve seen someone famous!


Vietnamese car park crooner

Full day cycling tour, Heavens Gate pass and the Love Waterfall

In stark contrast to the gloomy, torrential day before, we woke to blue skies and glorious sunshine. Perfect weather for a bicycle ride through the hills.


Dropped off at the highest pass, raring to go


Panorama of the view. Stunning

The valley views, stepped hillside and rocky cliffs whizzed by as we twisted and turned our way for 30km downhill towards Lau Chau. It was great fun on a bicycle – especially as it was nearly all downhill – but I’d love to do it again on a motorbike!

Our support driver met us for lunch in an otherwise empty family-run restaurant that had some over-dramatised, straight to obscure-cable-channel sequel of Jurassic Park playing in the background. After we’d had our fill of bad acting, dubious plot lines and tasty omelette baguette, our bikes were loaded into the car and we drove back up through Heavens Gate pass to a delightfully dilapidated old building that fronts a small park and a 1km walk to the “Love Waterfall”.

I’m sure everyone who enters the park wonders what, exactly, makes a waterfall a “Love Waterfall”.. does merely glimpsing it confer Cupidian emotions? Does one bathe in it for the effect? Is it a secluded spot for the act as well as the emotion? We were equal parts intrigued and apprehensive of what we might find..


Sa Pa’s Love Waterfall. Perhaps “Lovely Waterfall” might be a better name

It was secluded, and with the sun cutting through the falling water it was lovely. We like to think that’s what they meant by the name.

Two nights at the Xi Quan Homestay in Ta Phin

Once again blessed with great weather, we were met by Olivier, the co-owner of the excellent Xi Quan Homestay, and his neighbour MaMe, who would guide us on the 14km trek from our hotel in Sa Pa to Xi Quan & Olivier’s home in Ta Phin.


Our guide, MaMe, of the Red Dao people

The trek was more strenuous than the one on our first day, but maybe because it wasn’t raining we actually got to see more of the daily rural life.


Clockwise from top-left: Dyed fabric drying in the sun; Hens peck at the harvested rice; Using the wind to sift out the rice from the loose outer husk; Delivering hens to her daughter

The Xi Quan Homestay is very remote. It is possible to get a motorbike to the door (which isn’t saying much in Vietnam, I know), but the only thing we heard was the wildlife in the surrounding forest. For our only full day, we sat back in the tranquility of it all, and what better way to relax than a herbal hot-tub bath..

We’d seen photos of the herbal baths in Sa Pa – petals and flowers floating in large circular wooden tubs, sometimes overflowing with bubbles, so when the Homestay gave us the option of helping to pick the herbs we had visions of gaily skipping through the forest, woven basket in the crook of our arms, picking a multitude of colourful exotic flora like little Red Riding Hoods.


Clockwise from top-left: Xi Quan’s sister with machete in hand; Showing us a harvested green-leafed creeper; Selected forestry boiling on the stove, held down with a large pan of extra water

The reality was a lot more, erm, green. To our untrained eye, Xi Quan’s sister skillfully hacked at random creepers and brush like she was clearing a path, but each one had a very different aroma which she shared with us. We tried to help by offering to carry some of the bundled herbs, and she would appease us for a minute or two before gesturing for it back – there was no basket each, no colourful herbs to pick, and the terrain was too steep for skipping.

Back at her large house, she boiled up the collected greenery, and cordoned off a section of her kitchen with two old duvet covers to give us a little privacy for our very authentic herbal bath.


Us enjoying the Red Dao herbal bath. Couldn’t escape the thought that we were being cooked alive for dinner though

The water was hot, smelt great, and had the odd leaf in it. A perfect end to a day of doing very little!

Life on the street in Hanoi

Bars, restaurants and shops in Hanoi spill out on to the street to the extent that it’s often difficult to navigate your way along the pavement and you’re forced to walk in the road. We spent our first morning in Hanoi with a permanent adrenaline rush from trying to take in everything that was going on and safely cross the road through the hundreds of weaving scooters (the secret is just to step out and walk slowly without stopping or speeding up but it’s hard to fight your instincts to change speed when a motorbike is bearing down on you beeping its horn!). There’s so much going on that just walking the streets is as good as visiting more ‘normal’ tourist attractions.

20131018-160108.jpgMany of the shops in Hanoi’s Old Quarter are grouped together with similar businesses. Shoe shops take over the pavement on Hang Dau.

20131018-160124.jpgIndustry in the streets: woodworking to create carved shrines, welding in the metalworkers’ district, mobile key cutter

20131018-160138.jpgThis street stall seems to be devoted to bananas

20131018-160155.jpgDisplay of different kinds of noodles

20131018-160211.jpgBicycles laden with different goods are a common sight. Usually the vendor just pushes their wares – I don’t think it would be possible to actually ride most of these.

20131018-160231.jpgOutside a street cafe watching the world go by

20131018-160309.jpgAll kinds of food is available on the streets (clockwise from left): One night we ate Banh Trang Phong – it’s a bit like a pizza made on something akin to a rice flour poppadom, the most amazing spring rolls ever!, charcoal blocks are used to heat kettles for tea, napkins, chopsticks and chilli ready on the table

20131018-160246.jpgWe bought our first Bahn My (Vietnamese sandwich) from this friendly lady

20131018-160328.jpgIt’s true, they do eat dog in Vietnam. We didn’t stop at this stall…

20131018-160359.jpgAndrew enjoying a refreshing sugar cane juice in a street cafe…

20131018-160414.jpg…and a Bia Hoi (fresh beer) at our ‘local’

20131018-160427.jpgJulie and Jo discussing sightseeing plans over another glass of Bia Hoi

20131018-160440.jpgLots of street vendors ply their wares from these trays carried over their shoulder (called “quang ganh”)

20131018-160453.jpgThis lady persuaded Jo to try one out – she found it surprisingly heavy!

20131018-160509.jpgIt’s even possible to get a haircut on the street! Andrew paid 25,000VND (about £0.70) for this trim.

20131018-160522.jpgIt seems as if nearly everything in the Old Quarter is delivered by motorbike. Many of the loads made us gasp at how precarious or heavy they seemed to be.

20131018-160536.jpgI have no idea how well this rider was able to corner with four full beer kegs on board!

20131023-081958.jpgScooters rule the road day and night, and the streets are full of closely parked scooters

Managing our photos on the road

As I’m sure you would expect, we take a lot of photographs. How many? Well, in the past 6 months we’ve saved almost 21,000 – an average of about 115 photos, or 62 photos each, per day.

That takes up 76.2 gigabytes of storage, which includes the odd short video. If we average it out given our numbers above, it means we need about 430 megabytes of storage per day of travelling, or to put it another way.. we’re generating 3 gigabytes of digital memories per week. Wow. Having just worked that out, that figure shocks me too!

Being the geek and designated IT support for the trip, I did a lot of research before we left into how other people manage their digital media when they travel for long periods of time. The solutions are varied and at times ingenious, but I didn’t find one that satiated my paranoia for data loss and didn’t involve carrying extra equipment that could get lost, busted or stolen.

Here’s the solution I came up with, and some observations about how well it’s been working so far..

Photo Management Diagram

Our photo management solution


We decided to bring an Apple iPad mini each with us, and this decision was partly based on the Apple Photo Connection Kit which allows the easy transfer of photos from our digital cameras onto the iPads[1], and from there we can review, edit, and upload them.

But upload them where? Cloud storage is fine for a couple of gigabytes as the likes of Flickr, Dropbox, SkyDrive, Google Drive, Amazon, Azure et al have free starter packages, but I knew we’d quickly need more than the free allowance, and over two years or more it worked out more costly than.. buying our own cloud..


The Synology DS411slim – our personal cloud. Loaded with 4x 2TB laptop-size hard drives

I am already a fan of Synology Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices, and having owned a single-disk box for a little over 4 years it was time to upgrade – I needed more space and I also wanted some peace of mind in case a disk decided to stop working.

Synology NAS boxes come with an excellent web-browser based management interface that works well on the iPad, as well as a suite of free mobile apps for specific features, such as DSphoto+ for uploading and tagging photos.

Our Solution

We’ve got 5 SDHC memory cards between us, (1x 4GB, 2x 8GB, 2x 16GB), but in reality we only use one each which we try to have at most 3 days worth of pictures on. Typically every night or every other night we’ll copy them onto the iPad minis, review, delete or enhance them (crop, rotate, etc), then connect to the Synology NAS box back home and upload them[2].

Once the photos are copied back home, we keep them on the iPads until we’ve blogged about the place they were taken, or until our iPads are full and we need the space – it’s easy to retrieve the odd photo if we need to.

The Synology box is tucked away in a corner at my parents’ house, and I set up their broadband router to forward the necessary ports, and to register itself with a free dynamic IP service so we can always reach it.[3]

Every couple of months or so, I instruct the Synology box to copy the latest photos, videos and tags/captions to an external 3TB USB drive that Mum and Dad plug in at my behest, so we have an offline backup as well.


I cannot fault the Synology box at all, and I’m in good company. It’s small, quiet and while it can take some time to generate photo thumbnails, that’s not a issue for us. It sends me emails when it has recovered from power outages or when backups have completed.

The DSphoto+ mobile app for iOS has, largely, been fine. There have been two updates in the past 6 months that prevented us connecting and therefore uploading photographs, but Synology respond to feedback and have been quick to remedy the problems. That said, we have found it to be very unstable on iOS7, so now we don’t switch to other applications – we just leave DSphoto+ front and centre.

The iPad minis have been great. They’re excellent for reviewing photos, and the battery life is fantastic. iOS7 is not without issue though, and the Photos app resets or crashes too often for our liking, as we tend to switch between applications quite a lot. I suspect iOS7 is a bit too resource hungry for our 1st generation iPads, though I fully expect Apple will remedy this over the next couple of months once they’ve reviewed the myriad crash reports.

Overall, our backup strategy is working well with the single proviso that it obviously requires wifi internet. The only place that’s been a problem so far was Mongolia, where the internet is either non-existent, or it’s patchy and slow. We were almost 3 weeks behind backing up our photos and were onto our 2nd SD cards by the time we arrived in China.

How do you backup your photographs and other digital stuff? Do you have any suggestions, comments or improvements I could make to our strategy or process?

[1] yes, digital cameras can be connected to Android tablets with USB On-The-Go (OTG) cables, and Julie was very taken with the Asus built Google Nexus 7 – especially as it was half the price of the iPad mini. I’ve also seen a few Microsoft Surfii on our travels, but they’re too big and heavy for our purposes.

[2] I had originally planned to use SSH and tunnels to make the connection to the Synology box, but having read about restricted internet access in China, I installed the VPN server package on it almost as an afterthought just days before we left, and it is by far the easiest way to connect to it. The initial setup on the iPad took less than a minute, connecting takes 3 taps (Home button, Settings, VPN), and all the Synology mobile apps work without additional ports or tunnels. And we have a VPN to get around country-level firewalls or local ISP snooping. Just because I’m paranoid..

[3] I use for free dynamic IP address, only because they’re explicitly supported by both the broadband router and the Synology software. Their recent policy change for free accounts that requires logging in to their website every month is an annoyance though.
Edit: Dyn ceased their free dynamic IP offering, so I switched to No-IP – sure, I have to log in to my account every month to maintain it, but they send an email to remind me!

Street Eats and Market Tour, Hanoi

We read quite a few travel blogs and have noticed recently that other travellers take food tours to get to know the cuisine of a new place – for example here and here. This sounded like a great idea to us and so before we arrived in Vietnam we did some research and found that the Hanoi Cooking Centre runs a half day Street Eats and Market Tour which sounded like just what we were after.


We were told to arrive at 9am with an appetite when we would meet our guide and the rest of the group. Our guide, Huế, is head chef at the Cooking Centre and was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Vietnamese food. The rest of our group consisted of an Australian mother with her teenage son and a German/Canadian couple who live in China and their two young children (aged about 2 and 4).

Phờ and Green Tea

First stop was just across the road for the classic Vietnamese dish of noodle soup, phờ. Andrew went for the beef and I decided on chicken. Huế told us that the beef stock was prepared by first soaking the beef in cold water for 2 hours and then cooking it really slowly, usually overnight, to extract the full flavour from the meat and bones. The chicken stock doesn’t take quite as long but neither is allowed to boil to ensure the soup is translucent.

With the phờ we had green tea prepared from fresh leaves.

20131013-222447.jpgPhờ (clockwise from top left): preparation area, squeezing lime into the chicken phờ, not much leftover, beef phờ topped with garlic and chillis


To give us a bit of a breather before the next course, Huế took us to the local market to see the different foods on offer. Similarly to the markets that we saw in China and Hong Kong, everything was very fresh with live fish and lots of crisp greens.

20131013-223742.jpgShopping from the back of your scooter is common practice in Hanoi, Huế showing us a banana flower which is made into a tasty Vietnamese salad, This butcher worked cross-legged from her block!

Rice Pancake Rolls and Essence of Water Bug

After a brief taxi ride to Hanoi’s Old Quarter we arrived at a traditional rice pancake roll restaurant. The pancakes are made from rice flour, are as thin as French crêpes and are cooked with steam rather than the frying that we’re used to. We tried two types filled with chicken and pork, both were sprinkled with dried fried shallots and were very tasty. Huế left us to munch through the pancakes before reappearing with a saucer and what looked a dead cockroach, oh dear it looked like we were going to be thrown into the deep end of Asian cuisine… He explained that it was a kind of water bug and asked who wanted to try it. None of us looked keen, but peer pressure might have pushed us into it if he hadn’t offered an alternative – the bug is squeezed into a sort of essence which we could add to our dipping sauce to try. It tasted surprisingly like a strong almond essence, I’m not sure that it necessarily enhanced the pancakes, but it wasn’t unpleasant either.

20131013-223847.jpgThe rice pancake chef was rather glamorous

20131013-223907.jpgHovering tentatively over the dipping sauce with added insect…

Green Rice with Banana

I missed Huế’s explanation of the green rice which we bought from a street vendor, but according to

It is freshly harvested sticky (glutinous/sweet) rice that’s been toasted to bring out its delicate flavor

I did however hear that it’s seasonal and so we were only able to try it as it is autumn.

20131013-224038.jpgGreen rice with banana, we found the flavour reminiscent of dried fruit

West Lake Prawn Cakes

A definite highlight of the day, these prawn cakes are made from a sweet potato batter and whole prawns. Originally the prawns came from West Lake in Hanoi city hence the name, but the waters are no longer as clean as they were and the shellfish is now sourced elsewhere. They are fried in three pans of oil of varying temperatures to ensure their crispness and non greasy texture. The dipping sauce was made from fish sauce, lime juice, green papaya, carrot and …. Huế told us that Vietnamese eat the prawns with heads, shells and all (it’s good calcium for their dairy-light diets) so we tried them that way and found that it just added extra crunch!

We expressed our liking for these early on and, as everyone else was slowing down as they filled up, Huế force fed us the last of them (arms twisted behind our backs obviously…) by dropping them into our dip bowls. I know, it’s a hard life…


20131018-114917.jpgUs enjoying the prawn cakes

Bún Chả

The next street restaurant on the itinerary sold bún chả. Bún refers to the noodles, long, thin rice vermicelli, and chả is the barbecued meat served with it. The noodles come cold (and handily pre-chopped with scissors) and the meat is slices of pork belly and little patties of pork meat served in the ever present dipping sauce. The stand we ate at cooked the meat on bamboo skewers giving it a lovely smoky flavour.

20131018-114932.jpgBún Chả (clockwise from top left): menu, barbecued meat, noodles and meat served separately, tucking in


After all that it was time to see whether we had room for pudding. Ché is a traditional Vietnamese dessert made from a mixture of beans, jelly, tapioca, corn and fruit topped with coconut milk or condensed milk. The stalls are a bright display of the different ingredients and despite the unlikely sounding combination we found the ché to be tasty and sweet enough to give us a sugar rush!

20131018-114947.jpgColourful Ché stand

20131018-115016.jpgAndrew’s ché

Bia Hoi

We had understood that the tour would end with dessert so when Huế called a taxi after we’d finished our ché our stomachs groaned. Fortunately we were now entering the liquid part of the tour and as everyone knows there’s always room for beer! The taxi took us to a traditional Bia Hoi bar, common throughout the city and usually with small plastic tables and tiny stools occupying the pavement outside. The beer is ‘fresh’ and served straight from the keg into glasses which are roughly half a pint. It’s only about 3% alcohol so it’s light and easy to drink on a hot day.

20131018-115028.jpgI thought that my photo wasn’t straight until I realised that the glass leaned to one side! Typically the glasses used in Bia Hoi bars are made from this slightly green, bubbly glass

Vietnamese Coffee

The last stop on our route was a traditional coffee house. Vietnamese coffee is strong and usually served with condensed milk which means that it’s also sweet. The stuff served by our guesthouse for breakfast is not really to my taste but the blend at 80 year old Cà Phê Duy Trí was much smoother and the condensed milk had been frothed to create something akin to the latte art that is often seen in fancy coffee shops at home.