Category Archives: vietnam

Alliance Françaises of the World, pt. 5: Hanoi, Vietnam

The Alliance Française in Hanoi is a fancy place.

It’s in an Art Deco building, and has within it classrooms, an expensive café, an art gallery area, and a TV that plays FRANCE5 MONDE or something similar at all times. Students attempt to do their homework beneath the screen.

The library is on the second floor, and is quite nice– except for the magazine and newspaper section. The newspapers are years old, and often the magazines are as well. If you are aching to read an issue of Le Monde from some random date two years ago, they may have a gently used copy available at this location. Similarly, while the magazines are neatly ordered, the subscriptions for many of them expired years ago. I’m not sure who is super-interested in old copies of Sciences & Vie and prefers a ragged copy to just looking online, but again, this is the place to come.

You will find many Vietnamese students studying French within the library, constantly looking up words and cramming. One young fellow wanted to practice his French with me. I did so, but he couldn’t understand anything I said in French. He was then disappointed to learn that I wasn’t French, and recoiled when I told him my age.

BONUS: Open Saturdays, and the famous rice ice cream shop is a couple blocks over.


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lotus embryo tea

I am not too big a fan of herbal tea, or of any tea for that matter, unless it is full of sugar and/or milk (this is where the Turks, Indians, et al really provide enlightenment to the world). I drink my fair share of tea, but I just find it lacking in some way. When I find half-decent tea, then, that can be drunk straight, without sugar and so on, ye shall hear of it.

I bought some herbal tea at Lucky Supermarket in Phnomh Penh recently, the branch on Sihanouk. Lucky Supermarket is the only ‘Western-style’ supermarket in Cambodia- there is another place called something like ‘Phnomh Penh Market’ that is like 7-11, but I’ve never seen anyone go in or out of them. In any case, Lucky, being the only Western supermarket, attracts a crowd of affluent foreigners, overpaid NGO workers, wealthy diplomats, local servants buying things for their masters, Mormon missionaries from America, scraggly French welfare-fed hippies, various pensioned European retirees, Japanese and Korean embassy staff, Australian gap-yearers, and so on. They come to bask in the air-conditioned glory and admire the wide aisles and array of products, which range from 25-cent Thai ramen to $9 boxes of Froot Loops. The French especially, being a people who adapt poorly to foreign cuisine, are often found stocking up on shockingly expensive imported French goods; the British are also often spotted paying outrageous rates for cheese, an imported luxury item throughout southeast Asia. Upon my arrival in Cambodia, I asked one of my hosts, the inimitable Tilly-T, what the attraction was at ‘Lucky’, and he replied “hassle-free shopping”, by which he meant that prices were marked on the items and the cashiers were not short of change. I eventually came to frequent Lucky often enough, mostly because they sell vegetarian ramen and their pineapple is superior to that sold by the roving fruit-sellers.

However, you do have to be prepared to deal with a most tiresome cohort while shopping there, and many of Lucky’s practices are a bit strange: they hire bored, zoned-out girls to stand next to the alcohol displays, perhaps believing it encourages sales. They have a frozen section, but the freezer’s lowest setting hovers at room temperature, meaning they have row after row of imported Malaysian melted ice cream and popsicles. Finally, their pricing structure is bizarre (see this blog, complaining when two smalls are cheaper than one large– this is fairly common throughout Cambodia– i.e., it’s cheaper to buy four half-liter bottles of water than it is to buy one 1.5-liter bottle! The reasoning behind this I’ve not yet discovered).

In any case, one day I was in the mood for tea, and I discovered a type of tea on the shelves in Lucky that I have taken quite a liking to. I bought it for two reasons- one being that it didn’t have caffeine, being herbal tea and me being alarmingly sensitive to caffeine- and secondly, it was the cheapest tea there. On arriving home, I took a closer look at it and discovered it was from Vietnam, at which my host, an ardent Cambodian nationalist and protectionist, grew red and angry.

I was also pleased to discover it was from Da Lat, one of the nicest cities in Vietnam, and I brewed up a steamy, fragrant cup forthwith.

The tea in question is ‘trà tim sen’ in Vietnamese. I don’t really know any Vietnamese, but these all appear to be loan words or cognates: trà is cognate with tea, Tee, thé, شاي, çay, चाय, etc. ‘Tim sen’ appears to be (in my opinion) the vietnamization of the French tisane, or herbal tea. This particular tea is called ‘lotus embryo’- I’m not sure if that’s a real word or some sort of mistranslation, but in any case, it’s some part of a lotus seed (60%), ‘passifloracae’ (32%), and an unidentified ‘sweet herb’ at 8%. It does indeed have rather a sweet taste, or slightly sweet, and a sort of bitter taste at the same time. Overall, it’s quite nice.

The manufacturer is known variously as ‘Công Ty’, ‘Quang Thai’, and ‘Thai Bao’ (all are written on the box) and according to both the box and their website, said tea is “[u]sed as a daily beverage for metal tranquility, blood pressure balance. Good for insomniacs, hypertensive, palpitation persons”. I believe they must mean mental rather than ‘metal tranquility’, and I’m not entirely sure what’s meant by ‘palpitation persons’, but I surely fit into the insomniac category. The box recommends “2-3 bags/day”, though I rarely have more than one.

You can see the company’s website here, showing the tea in question and some other varieties I’d like to try, but be warned that a lot of the website is inexistent or filled with Latin placeholder text.

I might mention also that apparently the company has put up money for a large public flower garden near their production facility in Da Lat, and it appears to be quite pleasant (Vietnamese Wikipedia has a brief write-up on it) and I will have to make a stop to see it next time I am in Da Lat, me being a bit of a flower fan. Enjoy your tea and enjoy the flowers.

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Filed under cambodia, food & drink, vietnam

Vietnam update: food.

Normally when you read restaurant reviews, they’re full of nonsense that’s not relevant, such as decor, what types of wine were on a list, or what sort of livery the servants were wearing. I don’t really care too much about any of that. My concerns number but three:

1.) vegetarian

2.) taste

3.) price

I don’t care if the help salaamed me when I came in, or if there was a hair on the dish. I’m not worried about a cockroach on the floor or if the clock on the wall keeps the right time. I repeat, my concerns number but three:

1.) vegetarian

2.) taste

3.) price

All else is mere detail.

Let’s explore the veg restaurants of Vietnamese beachside resort Nha Trang! First, in the tourist quarter, there are all sorts of restaurants advertising vegetarian (or ‘vegetarien’) dishes: however, this is standard junk along the lines of pizza, pasta, salad. I can get that anywhere. I am concerned with something else.

AU LAC. (28C D. Hoang Hoa Tham, Nha Trang) This place has a menu, but the standard meal is rice-with-things-on-top. Usually you get two or three scoops of vegetables, and two or three scoops of fake meat. You would need two of such meals to fill up. Thankfully, you can order pho or some other soup as well. The rice dish does come with soup, usually a watery mung-bean soup. I’ve also ordered “mi”, a type of soup which the first time I got it was similar to Singapore ‘mee’, but every other time has been quite different. There is a serve-yourself cooler of iced tea and the noodle-boiling stove is coal-fired. There’s nothing special about the food here, but it’s cheap and vegetarian. It’s usually pretty hoppin’ and once in there was a group of rowdy Israelis. Prices: rice-with-stuff-on-top (they call it “ri”): 12,000 dong (60 cents), soup same price.

stuff on rice w/ mi, Au Lac

LAC VIET QUAN CHAY (D. Huynh Thuc Khang, Nha Trang). I was the only diner in this place, but it was midafternoon, so the locals were probably sleeping and the Russians were at the beach. The only thing they seemed to have was rice-with-stuff-on-it, more expensive than elsewhere at 15,000 dong (75 cents) but of better quality. Here they put some salady vegetables on the rice, and the actual stuff on a separate plate. They also give you an essentially tasteless dipping sauce and a side of cold soup, again of the mung-bean variety. They have a sign on the wall claiming to serve other food, but I saw no sign of that. I saw a wheeled banh-mimobile in the corner and asked if they served banh mi. The woman looked at me funny. I figured maybe they only wheeled it out at night and asked “tonight?” — the woman said “We close at 8:30, gets slow. You want to come back, ha ha!”– so I’m not sure about that one. They also have a serve-yourself water cooler. Rice plate: 15,000 dong.

Lac Viet Etc. meal

AN LAC. (55 D. Ngo Gia Tu, I think). More rice-with-stuff-on-it. Nothing special here. In fact, I thought I smelled sewage during the whole meal; it turned out to be something on the plate. It was like mashed stinky tofu. I like stinky tofu, but this stuff was no good. I did eat it all, though. There were also some Indian-looking Muslims eating in there. Nothing special. Rice dish: 12,000 dong.

(my motorbike's sixth one over, the white one)

BANH MI CHAY cart (east end of Thap Ba, east of Po Nagar). Outside of one of the temples on this street are two carts selling banh mis (aka Vietnamese sandwiches). Of course, you can get these on any corner in Viet Nam, but always with tinned meat and other gristly things. Imagine my surprise to see two banh mi carts, both with CHAY in giant letters on them! You get about 5 kinds of fake meat, mint, some sweet sauce, a number of crunchy things, pickled things, etc, in your demi-baguette. Absolutley delicious! They sell this crap in Seattle (veg banh mi) and the ingredients are: raw, floppy tofu, mayonnaise, and a sliced mild pepper. Oh wow! I’ll take this local version any day. Top notch! One of the ladies running the cart will let you sit in her chair and eat while locals walk by and stare at you and make comments in Vietnamese, if your experience is anything like mine. Sandwich: 10,000 dong (50 cents).

Pay attention Seattle, these are the REAL ingredients!

Honorable mention: CAY TRUNG CA fruit-shake cart on unknown road. Sorry, find it yourself. “Mix” is what they gave me, 10,000 dong (50 cents). There are tables with plastic chairs you can sit on. It’s on the side of the road. Iced tea is at each table too. In “A-Mart”, the local tourist market, they are hawking “fruit shake, no sugar no milk!” when you walk in. I want sugar, I want milk. This roadside stand gives you all that!

BONUS: I’ve been carting a bag with me for about 14 years. I got it in 1997 or so from the REI in Spokane on Monroe. I hauled it every day to college and to grad school. I took it to nearly every state in the U.S. and a good chunk of Canada. I’ve taken it to dozens and dozens of countries. It has gone with me to Taiwan, Palestine, Croatia. It’s made many, many trips to France, to India, to Italy, to Turkey. Well, two years ago one of the zippers stopped working and last year in Thailand the other became quite tempermental. This led to my bag bursting open on the streets of Bangkok and my toothbrush flying out– a taxi drove over it, and the dude got out to apologize! Anyway, I finally got it fixed today after passing a sign advertising clothing repair in an alley off of D. Hung Vuong. The fellow fixed it up good as new after about 45 minutes, and asked for $1.

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sights of religious sites


enjoying a break from palm callouses

When you rev the old Yamaha “Nouvo” (no, that’s not an Italian typo; it’s really “Nouvo”) and kick up a little dust on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, you’re bound to end up in some interesting and colourful locales. Admittedly, I don’t really know the route of said trail and just sort of drive around in any random direction until I see something of interest, but when I do, you can be sure I let You The Reader know about it.

So it was the other day when I saw an imposing and gaily decorated structure up on a hill. I drove to it and found it was a temple. My curiosity knows no limits, and with a hop and a jump I found myself within the structure’s stately walls and columns. It was there that my curiosity turned to glee- for it turned out I was in a Cao Dai temple!

Cao Dai temple

I was already slightly familiar with this strange Vietnamese religion, for a vegetarian restaurant whose meals in delight in whilst in Saigon is run by Cao Dai adherents- vegetarianism is a precept for Cao Daists “10 days a month”. However, from such solid foundations as vegetarianism, the religion takes a serious of silly and strange beliefs as the rest of it- the most striking of which hits you in the form of a 15-foot tall painting as you walk into the temple. It is a depiction of French author Victor Hugo, he of ‘les Miserables’ and ‘the Hunchback of Notre-Dame’! Indeed, he is one of the three great saints of their religion, according to the wall plaques.

les pas trop miserables: Hugo and friends

The presence of three saints

There are said to be other great saints, including William Shakespeare, Jesus Christ, Julius Caesar, Muhammed, Pericles, Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur, and some others (some Cao Dai sects recognize Lenin as a great saint; others don’t– the official website does, though). Some of these historical figures gave their approval from the afterlife via Taoist seances, one reads. Their symbol is a big eye, like that seen on a dollar bill; within the temple they sit on blue cushions. It is also said they believe there are 72 inhabited planets, and Earth is #68. An unknown source claims:

“It is said that even the lowest citizen on planet 67 would not trade place with a king on 68 and so forth.”

Cao Dai temple interior, showing celestial blue sitting-pillows

Some members of the pantheon

The Great All-Seeing Eye

Workers repairing the structure or something

I also came across an eight-story tall pagoda at a Buddhist temple elsewhere; this one had a vegetarian restaurant attached. I was the only diner. They served cold rice and stir-fried vegetables which tasted like butane and some pepper-broth soup. Midway through the lady came over and said “Eating salad” and gave a plate of cut-up lettuce and onions. She also gave me a cellophane-wrapped cookie. Cost of meal: $1.

At this temple, you could climb the pagoda, and there were plaques there claiming that a mystical aura of light was seen hovering over the pagoda for a little while a few years ago. There were yellowed photos of stunned onlookers shielding their eyes and gazing at the top of the pagoda. I didn’t see any aura, personally.

A few other photos to enjoy, from the last few days…

Vietnamese is easy, it's just English backwards...



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report from Viet Nam: Da Lat

Well, it turns out that WordPress, like Facebook, is blocked in Viet Nam. (I switched the blog from Livejournal to WordPress after some Russian oligarchs bought Livejournal and ran it into the ground with heavy-handedness and ad-flooding; it seems I can’t win, though). As a result, I’m doing some convoluted rerouting via Polish IP addresses in order to post this; let’s hope it works. I thought I’d send you all a photo post this time, with a few words for those that don’t like my attempts at photography.

Do you remember back in the 1960s and 70s when American reporters in Viet Nam shocked us into life, bringing what was going on in that country right into America’s living rooms? Well, that’s what I’m doing with today’s post.

Main square, Da Lat

Xuan Huong Lake

street scene, Da Lat

street scene, Da Lat

Central Market, Da Lat

Kid on some steps, Da Lat

In any case, I’m in Da Lat (Đà Lạt, properly), in south Viet Nam, up in the hills. While it’s been about 95+ degrees in Saigon, here we find a nice 60 degrees or so. As a result, it’s not all that popular on the foreign tourist trail: people who come to Viet Nam want sun and beaches, I believe, and cold mountain places don’t really appeal to this brand of fun-loving tourist. The town is heavily on the domestic tourist trail, however; the Vietnamese come here to experience drastic climate change, coo at the pine trees, eat produce not available elsewhere in Viet Nam, and do romantic things. They dress up in scarves and big jackets, though it’s only 60 out. It’s a bit like the Indians in Shimla- and there’s a further similarity; Da Lat was a summer escape for the colonial French, as Shimla was to the colonial British in India. So the French built a number of chateaux here and there, and some of the locals, usually the 70+ crowd, still go about in berets– I saw three or four of them today. One fellow, aged about ninety, sitting on a park bench, wearing dark glasses and a beret, told me “Bonjour!” with a cough.

There’s not all that much to see in Da Lat, so I like it just fine. It’s the sort of town I end up in and can’t see much reason to leave. It’s got most of what I need, and is minus the sweltering heat found elsewhere in the land. Here are a few things in Da Lat, with photos.

CRAZY HOUSE. This is the ‘Hang Nga Crazy House’. A wealthy woman, daughter of the successor to Ho Chi Minh, Hang Nga by name, has been building this house for about the last twenty years. It features a number of Disneyland-esque caves, stairways, unfinished concrete, steps to dead ends, funny little rooms, and the like. It’s the top attraction in Da Lat, and is particularly popular with Russians: the woman, Nga, got a PhD in architecture from Moscow University, likely in the days of close ties between the USSR and Viet Nam; one assumes this place is in all the Russian guidebooks as the place is overloaded with Russians and the Vietnamese give guided tours in Russian. The French also like it; there are French newspaper articles here and there taped to the walls calling the place “insolite” and “delirant“. You can also stay in some of the little chambers for the night, but the rates start at $25 and go up to hundreds, all the while tourists wandering about taking photos. It is comparable to the Nek Chand Rock Gardens in Chandigarh, Punjab. Entry: $1.75

Crazy House

Crazy House

Crazy House hotel room

Top of Crazy House

Wall at Crazy House

VEGETARIAN FOOD. Very good vegetarian food can be found here. None of it seems particularly Vietnamese; it seems like the typical Chinese-style stuff, heavy on the fake meat, so I am very happy indeed. It’s also in the way we often see in Taiwan, or Thailand I suppose, with lots of different dishes that they pile on top of rice.

The first place is in the central market, second floor. Rice with many things on top. I’m not sure of the name of the place, but if I go back I’ll check. They give you soup along with your meal, and are pretty nice. The woman there spoke good English, wanted to know why I was traveling alone, and hoped I found a good wife one day. Excellent meal to be had at this place. 30,000 dong ($1.50).

In Central Market (sorry - shooting under florescent light)

Delightful veg dishes

The second place is called “Au Lac“, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it must be French, but it has Vietnamese diacritics on it. I looked it up and it is apparently the name of an ancient Vietnamese kingdom. They are nice people too, and they have two outlets. The food is not quite as good as at the other place, but it’s cheaper, and you get a free pot of tea, which must be hibiscus or chrysanthemum or jasmine or something; it has a real smell about it. This is a top-notch restaurant. It’s also of the things-on-top-of-rice style, though there’s also a menu. The things on rice cost 18,000 dong (95 cents). I’ve also had pho there.

Half-eaten meal at Au Lac

delicious food at Au Lac

people that run Au Lac

Owner of Au Lac

CAFES. There are a couple of good ones I visited today. The first, Cafe Tung, was a place that was right out of the 50s, and that the guidebook said was “popular with Saigonese intellectuals”. Given that we are about nine hours from Saigon, it’s hard to see why the intellectuals would come so far. It’s like a place in Minneapolis that’s a favourite of Seattleites. In any case, I got typical Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk, but I got confused as it wasn’t already made for me and I had to ask a fellow intellectual at another table to help me. What confused me was you get a pot of tea for free with coffee in Vietnam, and I couldn’t figure it out. Anyway, the coffee was nothing special, but there was a nice atmosphere– however, I was astounded to hear what Vietnamese intellectuals are listening to these days– Soft Hits!  I heard while in there Lionel Ritchie ‘Hello’, George Michael ‘Careless Whispers’, the Titanic song, the Jets ‘You Got it All’, Air Supply ‘All out of love’, Chicago ‘You’re the inspiration’, Styx ‘You know it’s you, babe’, Kool & the Gang ‘Cherish’, Elton John ‘It’s No Sacrifice,’ the Escape Club “I’ll be there” (I actually appreciated this one- a lost gem) and the Bee Gees ‘How Deep Is Your Love’, and I’m not entirely sure that all songs were by the original artists. There’s also a Mona Lisa reproduction hanging on the wall (such being very popular in Vietnam). Price: 15,000 dong (80 cents).

iced coffee and tea, Cafe Tung

Next we have a more working class, open-air cafe, Cafe Trang. This one seems to be popular with grimy labourers, and is of the little-plastic stool variety. No music was present, but a TV was on inside. There were a few women there as well, and lots of smokers. You can watch traffic go by. Overall, also a nice place. I got espresso there, and it came, of course, with a pot of tea. Top place. Cost of espresso and pot of tea: 5,000 dong (30 cents).

Tea at Cafe Trang

OTHER THINGS. That’s really all there is here. I visited the Catholic cathedral as well; within mass was going on and they were chanting in a Buddhist style. However, after what I took to be the Gospel, they launched into a piano-led hymn that could best be described as tone-deaf honkytonk; I inched out the back door at that point.

Catholic cathedral, Da Lat

cathedral area

cathedral lions

Here are some more photos of Da Long.

long live something

They have their own Eiffel Tower here in Da Lat

Streets of Da Lat

street sellers

Signs of a colonial past: an electrical substation from the 1920s bearing the insignia CEE (Compagnie des eaux et d'électricité de l'Indochine)

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