Without question, one of the things I was most looking forward to about visiting Southeast Asia was the food. Although I enjoy seeing a YAFTE as much as the next guy (that's short hand for Yet Another Fucking Temple, by the way), being on vacation means good food and drink as much, if not more, than schlepping around the Vietnamese outback staring at old things. So, without further ado, here's a quick rundown of where we ate:
The Duxton, Saigon: My favorite breakfast of the trip by far, the Duxton had a huge spread of all kinds of delicious things, including fresh fruit, pain au chocolat, pho, Singapore noodles, char siu bao, shui mai, and excellent Vietnamese coffee. Because my daily breakfast is so small and so boring - either granola or toast with honey, plus coffee - it's a great luxury to hit an all you can eat breakfast buffet and one of my great pleasures while on vacation.
Pho 24, Saigon: Our United flight from Hong Kong to Saigon was delayed by nearly eight hours, which meant that we arrived at our hotel just after sunrise (instead of the originally scheduled 10 pm). The day's tour started right on schedule at 08:00, which meant that we found ourselves having a hard time coping with the heat and chaos of Saigon. At lunchtime, our guide stopped at a busy public market and gave us directions to a pho joint across the street where Bill Clinton had eaten, but two minutes in the market and I gave up, asking that they drive us over to the fancy Malaysian-built air conditioned mall we'd passed earlier in the day. Good call: a modern food court (with Popeye's chicken, even) was much more tolerable than a hot, questionably sanitary pho joint. I had "shaky beef" with a Pepsi, which was just fine: mildly spicy, good quality beef over rice, served by a young Vietnamese man who both wanted to practice his English and receive a large cash donation as he'd come from a poor family.
Highlands Coffee, Saigon: After lunch, we stopped by Highlands Coffee - think the Starbucks of Vietnam - and had traditional Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk, which was stronger, richer, and sweeter than any version I'd had before. Tasty! I also badly misjudged the size of their moon cakes; we had one - black sesame I think - and they served it cut into four tiny pieces with four forks. Cute! Also: tasty.
Temple Club, Saigon: I can't really remember the rest of that Saturday; I think we probably passed out asleep shortly after returning to the hotel in the late afternoon. I do however remember heading out for a walk in the late evening to find drinks, which we did: this resulted in two ridiculously OTT cocktails served in a lovely, air conditioned room filled with trendy European tourists. This also marked the first can of 333 beer, which was OK.
7-11, Saigon: On the way back to the hotel, we grabbed snacks. Those triangular sandwiches on white bread seem to be ubiquitous around the world, and they're pretty tasty and cheap, so what the heck. Add in multiple cans of good, cheap beer and mystery salty snacks and you're picnicking in style without the hassle, time, and cost of eating in a tourist restaurant.
Life Resort, Hoi An: After another amazing breakfast at the Duxton, we flew to Da Nang and drove to Hoi An, a sleepy ancient trading town on the coast. Jet lagged, we gave up and ate lunch at the hotel, which was just fine: I had grilled German sausages and potato salad. Nothing special, but pretty cheap and the beer was cold. Afterwards, everyone fell asleep for about eighteen hours. Breakfast at the hotel was okay; annoyingly, they wouldn't allow you to start eating until 30 minutes after the posted opening time, which is lame if you're jet lagged, but the breakfast itself was fine. Good pho, half-decent fruit, mystery pineapple juice that seemed to have separated in the serving container, and okay pastries.
Cargo Club, Hoi An: This place had just what we needed: an air conditioned place to sit after walking around Hoi An for five hours. Very, very Western, it reminded me of a generic European café. I enjoyed Coke with Cuban rum and a BLT, theoretically a bad idea in terms of food safety, but Vietnamese standards of hygiene seemed overall exceptionally high; I didn't wind up with any GI issues on account of fresh produce, which was a real relief given the ubiquity of fresh ingredients in Vietnamese cooking.
The Mermaid, Hoi An: Later on that evening, we walked back through Hoi An in a torrential downpour to have dinner at The Mermaid, which is a single-room restaurant that opens out onto the street very close to the public market. The rain outside cooled things down, as did the huge fans mounted to the walls; we also enjoyed huge bottles of La Rue beer. The food was fantastic, absolutely everything I had hoped for from a Vietnamese restaurant, moderately spicy, utterly fresh, and a lot of fun. Adam had some incredible stuffed squid; me, I had a couple of noodle dishes that were not greasy and absolutely stacked with thick slices of roasted garlic. Delicious.
Shitty tourist restaurant, Hue: Our second guide in Vietnam was a moderately annoying woman named Tien, who in best China Tourist Agency style (that would be the state travel agency of the PRC) had that annoying habit of stranding us at businesses that were obviously there to sell you marginal goods at huge markups, splitting the profits with the tour company. Ugh. Without any warning or discussion, we were dropped off at some restaurant I didn't recognize, stuck in a stuffy room with chain smoking Spaniards. The food was pretty lame: eel that hadn't been deboned, hair on a couple dishes. Still, whatever: deep fry anything and at the very least it won't make you sick. The spring rolls were OK and the Hue style fried rice was fine. Everything else though can suck it.
DMZ Café, Hue: What can I say? We had beer. Huda beer was very good and very cheap, and the staff brought us free peanuts. Meanwhile, street vendors would stop in and try to sell us sunglasses. Fun! The food menu was weird: almost completely Western, with pizza combinations I didn't recognize. We didn't try anything. Oh, and Hue brand beer? Not so good.
Mercure hotel, Hue: We took a quick trip up to the top floor for sundowners. Sure enough, the view was spectacular, and the drinks were very, very girly. They were fairly priced, reasonably strong, and a good time was had. Bonus: Some English guy that had long since emigrated to NZ kept us entertained for a while, but we blew him off and went out to dinner.
Why Not? Bar, Hue: My God, this place was crazy. Dan ordered the nachos, which were pretty damn good - not Mexican, really, but kind of like tortilla chips with typical Vietnamese meat-fish sauce-garlic stuff on top of them, and really delicious. I had a couple of Vietnamese things that were just fine, and Chris ordered a pizza that was too cheesy to be really good. The amazing part of the evening started when a waitress named Ha Ha overheard Dan wondering if the nachos were served over rice crackers. She took great offense at this and started demanding he apologize - I couldn't tell if she was being threatening or trying to be funny or what! Bizarre. She then started demanding some of his nachos to prove Dan wrong, I think. She then got into a long conversation with Chris about his beard - "lazy!" she said - and then demanded half of his pizza. We were all stuck in that weird "is this happening? is this funny? should I laugh?" place while her conversation with Chris detoured into weird digressions into the use of beards as sexual organs... I was stunned. I was thankfully able to pay our bill to someone else, and we eventually left, watching Ha Ha eat Chris's pizza. Truly amazing.
Saigon Morin Hotel, Hue: Definitely the off season, this place was kind of sad. We had some overpriced beers in the courtyard and a moderately okay breakfast the next morning. Not bad, not great, and if I ever return to Hue I'll stay somewhere else. Colonial piles are fun and all, but the Mercure looked more comfortable, even if generic.
Tinh Gia Vien, Hue: We spent five hours here "learning" how to "cook," which thankfully mostly involved carving vegetables and watching attractive Vietnamese women prepare food for us. Yay. The food was tasty enough - the fried rice was truly of the Gods - but it became clear that Hue royal cuisine is much, much more about presentation than taste. I carved a pineapple into a lantern, stuck long toothpicks into it, and stuck spring rolls onto the toothpicks. It didn't make them taste any better than any other spring rolls in Vietnam, but dude. It was a LANTERN. It had fire in it. YAY.
Green Tangerine, Hanoi: I'd consider this to be the first misfire of the trip. We walked there from our hotel, which was a hair-raising experience: Hanoi traffic is FUCKING INSANE. We did make it, though, unlike those three English women we saw wandering in and out of traffic, dazed, clearly unable to cope with the chaos and heat. Anyhow: GT is a tourist restaurant par excellence, set in a beautiful building with ten people to greet you and absolutely no one to get you a fucking drink once you've been seated. Grrr. We did eventually get our panachés - beer and lemonade, which was perfect - but the menu was ridiculous. You know those 90s style fusion restaurants where every dish seems to have about five ingredients too many? Yeah, this was one of those places. We went with the "cheap" Vietnamese set menu instead, which was totally bland and boring. Vietnamese food without fish sauce, garlic, and chilies makes Howard Johnson's seem appealing. When Dan looked down at his main course, he just sighed and said "Ugh, Chun King." He was right. Even dessert was boring. Avoid.
Flower Garden Hotel, Hanoi: This hotel felt like a recently built Chinese tour group place that was already falling apart; I wasn't a fan, especially as the hallways were extremely hot. Still, the room was comfortable and they did bring me a huge bouquet of flowers for my birthday. Breakfast was served on the top floor - nice view - and was okay. There was a lackluster selection of Japanese things - those weird steamed egg cups - some fruit, some cereal, and woefully undercooked omelets, plus watery juice and extremely slow coffee service.
Highway 4, Hanoi: I celebrated my 41st birthday here and was not disappointed. Everything we ordered was universally excellent: the banana flower salad and stir-fried crickets were special treats, but the hill tribes smoked ham was my favorite. Excellent service and an English menu too. I'd gladly eat there again.
Café Goethe, Hanoi: Intrigued by a New York Times article about döner kebap banh mi, I was hoping to find it here... and didn't. Instead, we found a lovely, upscale, jam-packed happening lunch spot with an extremely German menu. We sat in a room with a Vietnamese language specials board and ordered the thing that included "banh mi," which turned out to be classic Vietnamese beef stew, which was delicious enough. After lunch, I wandered around the premises looking for the fabled döner kebap stand, which looked like it hadn't been used in years... and then they fired it up in preparation for the afternoon snacking crowd. Thankfully, I was able to buy a couple before leaving for the Ho Chi Minh Museum, and they were amazing: easily the best $1 sandwich I've ever had. Delicious. So: If you do go here, don't go at lunch, but after lunch, and look for the cart out front - they don't serve the d. k. b. m. in the café, only from the cart out front.
Indochina Sails, Ha Long Bay: Hey, it's a tourist boat. Be prepared for dumbed down Vietnamese food, but at least it's a buffet so you can have a lot of it.
Lucky Café, Hanoi airport: If you're flying out of Hanoi, you really, really want to eat before
clearing Immigration: the prices on the other security are double, triple, even quadruple what they are in the publicly accessible areas of the terminal. Lucky Café had good Internet access, $5 foot massages, at least one roach on the floor under our table, cold beer, and a perfectly acceptable "California" sandwich. Cheap, too.
3 Nagas, Luang Prabang. At first, I experienced sticker shock after Vietnam, but prices were of course absolutely reasonable considering the amazing food. We ordered a selection of different traditional Lao foods, all of which were tasty and thankfully far spicier than anything in Vietnam. Most remarkable, though, was the hyperattentive service - in a country like Laos, it's apparently cheap to hire lots of employees, so you'd better get used to several waitstaff hovering nearby refilling your beer every time you take a sip. Beerlao, by the way? Tasty. The dark stuff is even better. We stayed at this hotel, and I can't recommend it highly enough: truly luxurious and keenly priced to boot. Breakfast was one of the best of the trip, with either Lao rice pancakes stuffed with spicy meat (tasty) or various French pastries on offer, both with fresh fruit, wonderful coffee, and friendly service.
L'Elephant, Luang Prabang. We sat on the outside patio, cooled by fans, and enjoyed their Lao tasting menu
, which included the absolute spiciest thing I ate on the trip: some kind of almost-gritty ground chili paste that was heavenly and painful. High points for me were the sticky rice (kind of a purple color, and served in a small basket) and the mixed vegetables - that's exactly the kind of thing that sounded lame but which turned out to be delicious. I don't know what I was so happy to see cauliflower again, but everything was fresh and prepared in a light sauce that was undeniably French but also not out of place in Laos. Seriously, between these two restaurants I could happily spend a week in Laos doing absolutely nothing.
Nest, Siem Reap: This is an amazing space, a large outdoors plaza covered in white fabric sails to protect against rain and sun, with comfortable seating and fans everywhere to keep you cool. It felt like it could have been in Los Angeles. I had an amazingly strong mai tai and their Cambodian tasting menu, which was heavenly, right down to the grilled mango and sticky rice. Beers were cheap and cold, and the only off note was the LED-infested tank cover on the toilet (I think that was supposed to be stylishly modern). After surviving the oppressive heat of Angkor Wat, it's a wonderful thing to be able to relax in a clean, stylish, cool place with wonderful food. I know it's decadent and Western of me, but hey. I like being on vacation.
La Maison d'Angkor, Siem Reap: This hotel would be perfect for individual travelers. The manager is an affable French guy who knows everyone who can help you out, from tour guides to local cooking schools. He even had tuk-tuks on call for guests; $5 gets you anywhere in town and back, no problems. Breakfasts were modest, with good coffee, juice, pastries, and eggs served in vast quantities. We also had lunch here; food was just fine, reasonably priced, and tasty.
Sugar Palm, Siem Reap: Recommended by the manager at La Maison, this place is an absolute must if you're looking for good Cambodian food. I decided to splurge on a bottle of steely, acidic West Australian chardonnay that wasn't overpriced at $25, which was a nice counterpart to the rich, heady spices used in their salads and mains. The coconut milk curries were amazing, as were the barbecued pork skewers. Really, really good stuff, well priced, and well worth seeking out.
Bougainvillier Restaurant, Phnom Penh: I don't think anyone really loved this place, but I was fine with it. We had a cheap set lunch that included all you can eat appetizers and desserts, plus one main dish. I had entrecôte with fries, which was just fine considering the logistical challenges of sourcing good beef in Phnom Penh, and enjoyed the île flotante served afterwards. However, I also managed to get some gristle stuck between my teeth in a way I've never experienced before and spent much of the meal trying to get it out with a toothpick (no dice). The rest of the gang ordered fish, magret de canard, and beef Burgundy style, all of which looked good indeed considering the price and location. It may not be Paris, but it was good for what it was.
Foreign Correspondents Club, Phnom Penh: Overpriced, dirty toilets, and an amazing view of the riverfront. I had a fresh coconut (not bad, not great), some beer, and random appetizers, all of which were just OK. Good service, but you don't go for the food, just for the view.
Unnamed restaurant, Phnom Penh: I forgot the name of this place, but this was classic backpacker grub. Pizzas and cheap Khmer food, $3 a dish, seemed moderately clean, friendly service. I stuck with the fried rice, which was OK.
Amanjaya Pancam hotel, Phnom Penh: One of the best hotel rooms I've ever enjoyed, with powerful AC and a great view, plus a bathroom so big you could get lost in there. The hotel breakfast was just fine, another Franco-American mishmash of eggs, pastries, and good coffee. In a huge, chaotic, rumpled city like PP, it's a wonderful thing to be able to enjoy luxury like this. I can't imagine any other hotel in town being any better, not even the Raffles.
Dairy Queen, Phnom Penh airport: OMG, what a blast. $2 Oreo Blizzards? Yes please, especially after visiting the Killing Fields. True Western decadence.
Asia Hotel, Bangkok: Home of the Calypso ladyboy cabaret, every single restaurant in this hotel looked depressing; it reminded me of an unrenovated Intourist hotel in Minsk circa 1994. After wandering around the hotel for a while, we eventually gave up and ate at the "Western style" cafeteria, which turned out to have really good pad thai and Mussulman curry at very reasonable prices. The only drawback? You have to listen to a Thai Elvis impersonator at overly high amplification levels during your meal.
The Dusit Thani, Bangkok: Huge international breakfast buffet with fantastic Bircher muesli, good coffee, and a wide spread of things ranging from Chinese dim sum to what I can only assume was natto (based on the smell alone). Really superb omelets and excellent pastries. Second only to the Duxton, really.
Sala Rim Naam, The Oriental, Bangkok: We wound up here coincidentally for a buffet lunch on Friday. I didn't want to leave. Everything you could possibly hope to experience by way of Thai food was here, all served by the most wonderfully friendly staff you could imagine. Every time you'd pause and stare at something, one of them would come over, explain what it was, and more likely than not prepare you a plate of it. I ate so much that I'm embarrassed to think about it. They had fresh mangosteen, desserts of every imaginable variety, fried rice with crab meat, four different curries... They had bright purple chicken dumplings, sweet-savory rice desserts with coconut milk, sesame, and spring onion, pandanus, petits fours, four kinds of rice... I'd go back to Bangkok just to eat here again. It was seriously good.
Dusit Gourmet, Bangkok: The Dusit Thani also has a delicatessen in the hotel. Late in the evening, they apparently discount the baked goods they sell; we paid half price for bacon onion quiche (amazing) and a few other things. The macarons they sell are fantastic, too. If you're staying here, head over to the 7-11 a block west to stock up on beer, but stop here for the sandwiches and tarts.
Maya, Millennium Hilton, Bangkok: This was the great dining fail of the trip, unfortunately. A local avant garde dance school teamed up with the Hilton to create an evening's entertainment mixing Thai food and live performance, which sounded great - but wasn't. It started off well, with a cocktail made of Thai holy basil, strawberries, and sparkling wine, plus tasty appetizers and intriguing dancing, but... it quickly fell apart. This place has real pacing problems: it will take you three hours to get out of here, at least two of which is spent watching some really boring dancing while waiting for your next tiny morsel of food to arrive. Totally disappointing, but at least it wasn't a ripoff at around $50.
Unnamed restaurant at the River Kwai: Sorry, but this is tourist trap central. This was home to terrible, watery green chicken curry. Yark.
Food court, MBK Center, Bangkok: When you enter, you're given a card that the different stalls scan to ring up your food. After seeing this place, I wish we'd eaten here: it had everything you could possibly want at great prices, including amazing looking Indonesian food. I truly regret not having had the mie goreng here. Next time I'm in Bangkok, I'm definitely headed back here.
Benjarong, The Dusit Thani, Bangkok: Supposedly one of the better Thai restaurants in Bangkok, this was more miss than hit. Slow service, and they served the wrong dish entirely as my main. However, the mixed dessert tray made me extremely happy. Hint: Order the draft Singha, not the bottled version. It's $3 cheaper and tastes better.
ANA lounge, Narita airport, Tokyo: Best. Noodles. Ever. Also: all you can drink Suntory whisky, fun beer machines, Japanese alcohol tasting bar (I have no idea what that stuff was other than the plum wine), and fussy English tea sandwiches. Recommended.