Dinner in Vientiane

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It was around 9pm and, at that time in London, the restaurants are bustling, and in Madrid they are just starting to open. But in Vientiane they were already closing.

The lights were off in the first two I passed and, in the third, the waiters were stacking chairs on tables. There were still a few customers in the fourth, and I went in but was told that the kitchen was closed. After a couple of blocks, I started to wonder if I might have to go hungry that night.

But all over Southeast Asia – even, it turned out, in Vientiane – there are pop-up restaurants on patches of waste ground with grubby old picnic tables and grills made from half an oil drum. They have the look of a roadside cafe aimed at truckers and people with hangovers, but the worse they look, the better the food tends to be. It was very good at this one.

I had laap – the national dish – made with finely-chopped Mekong River fish ‘cooked’ with lime juice, as in ceviche, and tossed with sliced chilli, lemongrass, cucumber and an abundance of herbs: coriander, mint and Thai basil. It came with a bowl of sticky rice, as almost everything does in Laos.

I sat out until late in the warm night air with a couple of Beerlaos until a storm passed through and sent everyone scurrying under canopies.

The next night’s restaurant came recommended. Some reckoned it was the best in Vientiane, one of the best in Laos. It was French, but neither a relic of empire, nor made to look like it might be with a menu of cumbersome heritage dishes in a room a little too French to be real.

Tinay Inthavong learned his cheffing in France, at the Lycée Hotelier in Nice and the two-Michelin-starred Michel Sarran in Toulouse. His restaurant, L’Adresse de Tinay, would have worked well enough in either city, but instead he opened in Vientiane, reportedly after visiting on his honeymoon and deciding to settle there.

It is a bistro moderne, stylish without being snobbish, minimalist without looking corporate: white walls, big mirrors, designer chairs and a glass-fronted wine store. Front of house staff are friendly and efficient; there is no embarrassing fawning and they don’t give a damn what you wear.  The menu is a reassuringly short list of Modern French dishes cooked and presented as well as you would expect from a chef with Tinay’s CV.

An amuse bouche came with the aperitif: a tiny bowl of gazpacho with baguette croutons. Starter was a tuna tartare, main was « cassoulet ». As the quote marks implied, it was not the Languedoc classic but something much lighter and cheffier, complete with a fashionable foam, made with the same key ingredients: confit duck, a Toulouse sausage and white beans.

Much as I enjoyed discovering the local food of the region, the noodle soups, the chilli-spiked salads, the fish cooked in banana leaves, it was good to have a change, for one night, from street food carts and ramshackle restaurants, and while dinner at L’Adresse cost a lot more, it was still a bargain by European benchmarks.

© Richard Senior 2016

Laap image: By Basil Strahm [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Fall of Saigon, Revisited

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“Twenty years ago,” reckoned the far-left polemicist John Pilger in 1995, “Hanoi was a Trappist monk and Saigon was a whore with a hangover”.

Saigon, on 29 April 1975, was – as Pilger sketched it – a city of bar girls, street hustlers, opium-addicts, gamblers and black marketeers, but it was also a city of high-rise buildings, Western fashions and a comfortable middle class. Next day, it would fall.

The images of that day – forty-one years ago tomorrow – are among the most iconic of the late twentieth century: the overloaded helicopters struggling from the roof of the US Embassy, the desperate crowds outside, the tank busting through the fence of Independence Palace.

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The old embassy building, at 4 Lê Duẩn Boulevard, up past the colonial-era Notre Dame Cathedral and round the corner, was demolished in the late 1990s, after the Clinton administration restored diplomatic relations and the site was given back to the United States. The planters which used to surround it are still there.

After the years, the months, the weeks of anticipation, and the days of frantic withdrawal, the fall, when it came, was an anti-climax. No shots were fired, no resistance was offered. The demoralised soldiers of the ARVN, the South Vietnamese Army, stripped off their equipment and went home. Rows of helmets and boots lay along the side of the road.

The cameras were not even rolling when the tank burst through the fence around Independence Palace. It had to reverse out and do it again so the photographers could capture it for posterity.

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Independence Palace was a disingenuous name. South Vietnam only came into being as an attempt by the French to regain control of a colony over which Ho Chi Minh had asserted independence. The original palace was what had once been the colonial governor’s residence, but that was bombed in 1962 by dissident pilots in the South Vietnamese air force, sympathetic to Hanoi, who ironically destroyed its left wing.

President Diệm, who had come to power in a free and fair election in which he secured 150,000 more votes than people entitled to cast them (despite advice to keep the result around 60%), commissioned a new building, but was assassinated before it was finished in one of the coups which punctuated South Vietnam’s short history.

From the outside, it could be a municipal swimming pool in a little-known provincial town; on the inside, it might be the headquarters of SPECTRE in one of the early Bond movies. It is open to the public and preserved much as it was on that morning in April 1975 when tanks bust down the fence. All that has really changed is the name. It is Reunification Palace now. That day, forty-one years ago tomorrow, is known here as Reunification Day. They refer to it as the Liberation, not the Fall. Since then, the city has officially been Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, but it is still, informally, Sài Gòn.

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The Fall did not lead to mass-executions, as the Saigonese had feared, although many were forcibly relocated to the countryside. ARVN soldiers and others associated with the old regime, over a million according to some accounts, were sent to re-education camps where most were ill-treated – some abominably – and over a hundred thousand died.

The old men you see peddling cyclos – tricycle rickshaws – around modern Saigon are likely as not to be ARVN veterans. I asked one and he confirmed it, but he did not want to talk about the war or re-education camps: he just wanted to talk about ‘girly bars’.

Vietnam is still nominally communist, but it is a long way from each according to his ability to each according to his needs. Saigon is the economic capital and still feels dramatically different from Hanoi. There are familiar names on the plaques outside the most impressive office blocks, names like Citibank, Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas, Allen & Overy, Mayer Brown, CBRE, Deloitte and Ernst & Young. There are Porsches and Ferraris parked nearby. There are men in sharp-tailored Armani and women in sharp-heeled Louboutins, and sharper than both is the contrast between the rich and the rest: sharper than I saw anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

It is hard now to think of Saigon as having fallen, or if you prefer, being liberated.

© Richard Senior 2016

A Railay Nice Place

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I jumped out of the longtail boat at the West Beach, where the luxury travellers stay, and walked through the jungle to other side of the island.

I had hoped to get accommodation here, in Railay, a small peninsula cut off from mainland Krabi by limestone cliffs; but there was nothing left at the cheaper end, so I had to settle for a bungalow in Nopparat Thara at the other side of Ao Nang. It was only a short boat ride away.

It was a peaceful walk through the jungle with the sound of the birds and red and black butterflies, as big as my hand, flashing by, and the occasional cave to nose around. Cicadas of some sort way up in the trees made an unworldly metallic sound, pa-poing, pa-poing, pa-poing.

It was trippy as hell, and that suited Railay East, where the trail emerged. There is still a hint, there, of the semi-mythical hippie retreat which grizzled old travellers reminisce about when they complain of how Thailand has been ruined in the last 20, or 30, or 40, or however many years have passed since the first time they went.

I felt overdressed, there, in a Beer Chang singlet and fake Havianas. The other travellers wore nothing but faded fisherman’s trousers and tattoos. Several had dreads and most had luxuriant beards – even the girls – and this was at least a year before everyone had a beard.

Hip hop and reggae wafted from the bars; ganja smoke wafted from everywhere. There is usually a subtle but strict segregation between travellers and Thais, unless they are working in the tourist trade or dating farangs; but in Railay East they all sat and smoked together.

It might have been a backpacker paradise, had the beach not been a disaster of mud, mangroves and pipes.

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walked through the jungle again to Phra Nang in the southwestern corner, where there is a lovely squiggle of beach framed by limestone karsts of bronze and grey overhung with trees.

It has supposedly been ranked among the top ten beaches in the world, but that is a bit meaningless because no one has been to them all. “The Ten Best…” is usually just the ten the writer knows about.  It was nice enough, though, to persuade me to stop, sit down on the sand and take it all in.

There were climbers on the karsts out in the bay, without ropes. It was a long way to fall if they slipped off a hold, but the sea below was deep enough to catch them. There were more climbers upside down on overhangs above the beach with instructors shouting encouragement from the ground. The more I watched them, the more I wanted a go.

But there was not much left of the afternoon by then. The sun slipped down and the light began to fade and I made my way back to the West Beach.  There was a long queue for the longtail boats, but a guy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out into the surf to a boatman – presumably his mate – whom he said was going to Ao Nang and would give me a lift.

I jumped the queue and waded out until the water was up past my waist and grabbed the rail of the boat with both hands and vaulted in.

I planned to go back to Railay the next day but it was New Year’s Eve, and on New Year’s Day I didn’t feel like doing very much at all, and the day after that I left for Bangkok. I eventually went climbing in Laos, three countries later, and – much more recently – took it up seriously. I am at the climbing gym twice a week, now, when I am not travelling, and all because of that afternoon in Railay.

© Richard Senior 2016

Alms and the Monks: Luang Prabang

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The gong sounds at 5am and the monks rise and gather in the prayer hall and chant. As the sun comes up, they leave the temple and walk, barefoot, with alms bowls hanging from shoulder straps towards Sisavangvong Road.

Each of the city’s thirty-three temples disgorges its monks and novices and they converge on the main street and join the long line –a few hundred strong – of bright orange robes, shaved heads and alms bowls.

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The locals, and often Western travellers, kneel along the side of the road to await the procession, shoes slipped off respectfully. As each monk passes, he slides the lid from his alms bowl, wordlessly and without expression. A woman, making sure to keep her head below the monk’s as tradition demands, tosses in a ball of sticky rice and he slides the lid back on. The city is silent except for the padding of bare feet on the pavement and the scraping of the lids on the bowls.

Luang Prabang, with its fairytale name, is embraced by the mountains of northern Laos, and scored across by the broad Mekong River and the sinuous Nam Khan. It is the fourth largest city in Laos but that translates to the scale of a small town in Europe with half a dozen major streets and a population below 50,000.

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It is compact enough to see in a day, but absorbing enough to be worth staying for several. It is calmer even than Vientiane, but not so soporific. The main roads are lined with colonial buildings with porticos, balconies and shutters; the side streets with traditional wooden houses. Bougainvillea bushes explode over walls, palm trees stoop towards roofs.

The monks glide in and out of view. The smell of incense wafts from the temples. The gongs sound, the monks chant. There is a gentle thudding of drums, a clash of cymbals, a howling of lutes and plinky-plunk of xylophones.

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The swooping roofs of the temples are stacked three-deep and topped by horn-like finials formed into the shape of nagas*; the facades are gilded and intricately carved, and there are glass mosaics telling epic stories of birth and death, work and play, town and jungle, hunters and fishermen, elephants and tigers.

Luang Prabang is an established stop on the Banana Pancake Trail, and increasingly on the mainstream tourist trail, as well. But the Western interlopers have not taken over in the way that they have in Vang Vieng.

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There are agents all along on the main street, offering mahout training, bike tours and transport across the border to Thailand. But just a few steps away, there are buffalo sausages drying on racks, chickens scratching in the trash and street markets which make no concessions to tourists with raw fish laid out, right next to vegetables, on sheets on the road, smaller fish twitching in bowls of water and blood running down the street from the meat stall where every bit of the pig but the squeak is piled up for sale.

It is noticeable, though, that quite a few businesses are run by falang** as if they arrived, years ago, with a backpack and the idea of staying two or three nights but could never quite bring themselves to leave. It is that sort of place.

© Richard Senior 2016

*River serpent

**Loosely “Westerner(s)”. Cf. Thai farang and Khmer barang.

Eating up Vietnam #4: Huế

 

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Mr Cu is an excellent photographer. The walls of his restaurant, the Mandarin Café, are crammed with his shots of the people and places of Vietnam. He is a sociable chap, speaks good English, and makes a point of chatting to his customers. He gives them all a postcard of one of his photographs.

I stayed next door, in the cheekily-named Google Hotel, and stumbled into the Mandarin Café each morning for coffee and a bowl of the city’s famous noodle soup, bún bò Huế.  It is made with beef shank and pigs’ trotters simmered with lemongrass, onion and shrimp paste, then flavoured with fish sauce, sugar and a wallop of chilli powder, poured over round noodles and sprinkled with herbs.

Huế was Vietnam’s imperial capital, until the last emperor abdicated at the end of the Second World War, and there are restaurants across town offering elaborate, expensive, banquets of dishes which they claim were traditionally served to the imperial family, all arranged into the shape of peacocks, elephants and such like. It is impressive enough, but not really what I was there for. The street food interested me a whole lot more.

On the banks of the Perfume River, in the shadow of Eiffel’s Trường Tiền Bridge, there is a bustling night market with food carts and picnic tables crowding the pavements. The grills smoke, the prawns sizzle, the vendors shout, the customers jostle, and the aromas fill the air. I ate banh khoai – happy pancakes – as I nosed round the stalls.

The batter is made with rice flour, a good pinch of turmeric, which turns it yellow, and sugar and carbonated water which help it to crisp up on the hotplate. It is stuffed, then, with prawns, pork belly, beansprouts, spring onion and shredded carrot and folded like an omelette.

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I happened upon a restaurant, the next day, a few blocks from the river, which looked run-down enough to be good and ordered nem lui, ground pork and pork skin mixed with garlic, sugar and fish sauce, shaped into sausages, skewered with lemon grass and grilled over charcoal.

It came with a pile of rice papers, lettuce leaves, herbs and cucumber slices and a deceptively complex dipping sauce made with hoisin and fish sauces, chopped pork liver, toasted peanuts and peanut butter. The idea is to force the meat off the skewer with your chopsticks, roll it and some of the leaves and vegetables in the rice paper, then dip it in the sauce.

I got so engrossed in poking about in the ruins of the imperial citadel that I forgot all about having lunch, but bánh bèo from a roadside stall kept me going until evening. These delicate steamed rice cakes are topped with a mixture of chopped prawns and crumbled dried shrimp, pork crackling and sliced spring onions and dressed with nuoc mam sauce, made with rice vinegar, fish sauce and sliced chillies.

Dinner, then, was cơm hến: a bowl of rice topped with tiny clams, sliced spring onion, julienned apple, crispy pillows of fried pig skin and a handful of herbs, served with a jug of clam broth to add to taste.

I had eaten well in Huế but could not help thinking, as I continued north, that I had only tried a small sample of its regional dishes. Never mind. There was Hanoi still to come.

© Richard Senior 2016

Eating Up Vietnam #3: Hội An

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We went first to the market to pick up ingredients. Women in silk trousers and conical hats sat surrounded by baskets piled high with limes, spring onions, garlic bulbs, leafy herbs and turmeric roots. Shoppers weaved between stalls on their scooters.

Back at the cooking school, Hanh gave us each a booklet of recipes and a job to do. I started shredding the unripe papaya, Scott did the same with the carrots and Melissa assembled a dressing sauce with the familiar blend of lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, garlic and chilli.

Every country in Indochina has a take on green papaya salad. The Thai version, som tam, is well-known in the West: the others, not. Vietnam’s món gòi đu đu, is similar but simpler and lacks the conflagration of chillies. Just coat shrimps with paprika and pan-fry fleetingly, then toss with shredded papaya and carrot, mint and sesame seeds in the dressing and garnish with peanuts and onion flakes.

Once the salad was prepped, we started on gỏi cuốn, or ‘fresh’ spring rolls. It was just an assembly job after we had shredded a cucumber and carrot and squeezed the liquid from each. Soften the rice papers briefly in water, dry them off, and roll them up with the shredded vegetables, shrimps, chopped mint and onion flakes, then serve with a dipping sauce.

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Richard, did you say goodbye water,” said Hanh, “because the rice paper still look wet”. I stopped, patted it dry some more, and continued.

We cooked aubergines, then, with a technique more commonly used for fish. Peel, quarter and briefly deep-fry the aubergines, then roast them in a clay pot with spring onions, paprika, sugar and soy sauce until it caramelises. Garnish it with chopped coriander and serve with rice on the side.

The phở was just about ready by the time the aubergines were on the heat. We made a simplified version of this well-known noodle soup with the stock extracted from beef bones furiously boiled for twenty minutes – it is better simmered for an hour or more – with sugar, ginger, coriander, star anise and shallots. We coated a beef fillet with chilli paste and sugar and left it to marinate while the stock was cooking, then sliced it and served it with beansprouts, mint and peanuts and the stock poured over the top.

Hội An has a noodle dish of its own which I like even better than phở. Cao lầu is made with pork shoulder marinated and roasted in the Cantonese way, flat noodles, a generous handful of leafy herbs and pillows of deep fried pork rind. They will tell you in Hội An that it can only be made with water from an ancient well in the town, which is obviously not true, but I never saw it on menus elsewhere.

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There is a story, too, about bánh bao vac, or white rose as it is called on English menus. They say that the recipe is a secret, known only to one family which has handed it down the generations and supplies every restaurant in Hội An. It sounds to me like something they have made up for tourists. Surely any good chef could work out what was in it and try different quantities until it was right. But, again, I never saw it anywhere else but Hội An.

White rose is half a dozen rice flour dumplings, stuffed with shrimps, onions and seasoning, topped with deep-fried shallots and served with a sweet dipping sauce. They are much lighter than the Chinese-style dumplings you find all over Asia, and made me think more of tortellini. They are not exactly white and they look nothing like roses.

Cá kho tộ (fish in clay pot) is not a local dish. It is on menus throughout Vietnam. There are any number of variations but the basic idea is to roast snakehead fish, or similar, in a clay pot with a counter-intuitive caramel sauce. I ate it throughout Vietnam, but it was never quite as good as it was in the courtyard of a lovely restaurant overlooking the river in Hội An.

© Richard Senior 2015                     

Cao lầu image: By Dragfyre (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Eating Up Vietnam #2: Nha Trang

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In Nha Trang the hawkers were always there but I did not notice them anymore. They sold friendship bands, cigarettes, playing cards and everything else I could manage without.

But as I sat on the sand and gazed idly out at the South China Sea, I noticed a lady in a conical hat with a pot of cooked lobsters hanging from a yoke on her shoulder. I got up and followed her across the beach, caught up and asked her how much. “Hundred thousand Dong,” she said. Just under three pounds; four and a half dollars, US.

She segmented the lobster, so the meat was get-at-able with chopsticks, and halved a lime and squeezed the juice into a pot and stirred in pepper to make a simple dipping sauce. It was as much as the lobster needed.

I wandered over to the fruit vendor later in the afternoon, just as she was about to pack up, and I only wanted a pomelo, but she stuffed a bag with two of those, a dragon fruit, a couple of bananas half a dozen mandarins, and nearer a dozen rambutans. “No, no,” I said; “I can’t eat all this”.

Okay for tomorrow,” she insisted and forced the bag on me. I did my best with it that afternoon and finished the rest in the morning, sitting on the beach and peeling fruit with my Swiss Army knife.

Somewhere around midday, an old lady arrived and laid down her yoke and began to set out her stall. She lined up four pots, one filled with spiny lobster, a second with crabs, a third with tiger prawns and a fourth with sea snails, then shook ice onto platters and topped each with a little of the seafood and placed them on top of the pots. She lit the charcoal in a cast iron pan suspended from the yoke, laid a grill over it and let it burn until the charcoal glowed red and grey.

This time, I got a lobster, a crab, two tiger prawns and sea snails dotted with curry paste for my 10,000 Dong. For the same money in London, I would get a miserable sandwich from one of the corporate chains and the mayonnaise would splat on my shirt and ruin my mood. Even an old, small, cooked-from-frozen lobster would cost twice as much back home.

There are too many tourists in Nha Trang for the restaurants to be reliably good, but I found one on a quiet street a few blocks back from the beach, which was as dark and ramshackle as good restaurants tend to be in Southeast Asia, and had a menu of un-touristy dishes like stewed frogs with aubergine in turmeric broth. I ordered miến lươn trộn, which is sliced eel stir-fried in a hot wok and tossed with beansprouts, glass noodles, shredded mint and chilli then sprinkled with onion flakes.

I was done, then, with Nha Trang and went back to my hotel, collected my bag and got an overnight train heading north.

© Richard Senior 2015

Vientiane: the Small-Town Capital City

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Vientiane’s not exactly your giant metropolis, old boy,” said a repellent character in John Le Carré’s classic novel, The Honourable Schoolboy. The city is always there, in the background, referenced throughout, and a central character even spent time there, but somehow it never acquires three-dimensional shape.

It is much the same in real life.

Vientiane passed largely unnoticed by the outside world through the tragic, tumultuous history of Post-War Southeast Asia. It has none of the resonance of Hanoi, Saigon or Phnom Penh and little of their heritage, beyond the occasional colonial building, often derelict, overgrown, forgotten.

Even the familiar soundtrack of the region, the howling scooters, the cacophony of horns, the too-loud music, the shouting vendors, is strangely muted. The tuk-tuk drivers let you pass without hustling for business. No one follows you down the street, revising their prices for the trinkets you have already declined. You are not constantly offered sex, drugs and spring rolls.

There is a handful of splendid temples, but I am not sure they would have merited more than a polite glance if I had gone the other way round and seen Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang first. There is, as well, the notorious ‘vertical runway’. The United States, desperate to keep Laos from going communist, sent funds and materials to build an airport, but instead the royalist government built a massive triumphal arch: a Buddhist Arc de Triomphe. Laos went communist anyway.

I was out at eight to explore the city. I had run out of things to see by lunchtime. Once I had reserved a seat in a minibus out of town next morning, there was nothing to do but to go to the National Museum. It is in one of the best of the surviving colonial buildings, once the French Colonial Governor’s residence, and – with depressing predictability – it is due to be torn down any day soon to make room for a hotel.

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It had the forlorn air of small-town museums run by old ladies, with a few real treasures bulked out with maps and models and the sort of stuff which clutters up garden sheds.

The first floor is devoted to modern history, which here – in one of the few remaining Marxist-Leninist states – is weaved into a coherent narrative of revolutionary struggle. The bitterness is undisguised, but understandable too.

Laos has spent much of its history having indignities done to it by more powerful states. It has been sacked, invaded, colonised, administered, bullied, propped up, used as a proxy and had 270 million cluster bombs dropped on it by a faraway superpower for fear that another superpower might acquire it as an ally. Forty years on, Lao children still routinely lose arms and legs when they happen upon one of the 80 million which failed to explode.

French colonial rule is represented by paintings in the style of First World War propaganda, showing snarling soldiers clubbing women to death with rifles and dropping babies down wells. Rusting guns and faded flags commemorate “The fighting to liberate the connty [sic] against the American Imperialists and the puppet soldiers from 1954-63”.

The tabloid language might have been copied straight from the museums in Hanoi and loses the story some of the force it would have if it were just told straight. It is probably for the good that a lot of the captions are along the lines of:

“The weapons with which the carbon farming was Imperialist US.”

And

“The weapons caron farming as you guard leader in the time from.”

With this as a benchmark, you have to applaud the tuk-tuk drivers on the street outside for advertising trips to the “Fendship Bedge,” the “Fiendship Brege” and the “Freshdip Brig”.

None is quite Friendship Bridge, but you can at least understood what they mean.

© Richard Senior 2015

Night Bus to Bangkok   

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They told me that the trains were all fully-booked, but I had heard that before in Thailand.

It usually just means that you have to go out the station and down a side street to an agent who will – for a price – get a ticket biked over from goodness knows where. But the crowds who had flocked south to spend New Year’s Eve on the beach were now going home and, this time, the trains really were fully-booked. All that the fast-talking agents could offer was a seat on the VIP Bus.

A minibus collected me from Nopparat Thara in the middle of the afternoon and dropped me at the interchange in Krabi Town, where a confusion of travellers sat hugging their backpacks with fluorescent dots on their singlets.

Buses came and buses went. The staff shouted, flung their arms in the air and darted about. Travellers got up, looked around uncertainly, and hurried to the bus, but most were turned back because their fluorescent dots were not the right colour.

Orange was the wrong colour several times, until, eventually, a bus came to take me as far as Surat Thani on the opposite coast, where I arrived in a tropical storm. The rain drummed on the tin-sheet roof as I waited; water advanced across the floor. Travellers lifted their feet and hoisted their backpacks onto spare seats.

The VIP bus was a big six-wheeled, double-decker coach with luridly airbrushed flanks, similar to the one below. There were no frills beyond reclining seats and curtains to pull across the windows.

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I could no more sleep on a bus than compose a piano concerto, but that was okay because I had a pile of books for the journey. Then the driver turned off the roof lights and I flicked the switch for the reading lamp and nothing happened. Twelve hours, then, of lampposts, signs and crash barriers.

It was sometime around midnight, I think, when we pulled into the services with dozens of similar buses, all heading north to Bangkok and beyond. I threaded between them and went inside, then realised I had no idea which bus was mine. I had a feeling it was red, but it might have been blue, unless that was the one I had taken to Surat Thani, and I thought it was somewhere around halfway down the third, or fourth, or possibly fifth, line of buses, but several had come and several had gone in the meantime. I blundered from bus to bus, looking for clues, and found mine largely by chance. It was yellow.

Hours later, when I was about the only passenger still awake, we pulled into a lay-by behind a van, and I could see people milling about and hear conversation and lockers being opened and shut but could not work out what was happening. I thought it was the police, then I thought it was hijackers, then we set off again and I thought no more about it.

At something to five, I spotted tuk-tuks and temples and then the roof lights came on and the woman doled out hot towels and we stopped and the doors hissed open.

The bus was supposed to run to Khao San Road, the main street of the backpacker ghetto, but the place we stopped looked alien to me in the pre-dawn gloom through the fog of a sleepless night. I was mobbed by tuk-tuk drivers clamouring for business when I tried to get my bearings, so I ducked down an alley between rows of closed shops and came out into another road and tried again to work out where I was.

What street’s this?” I asked another traveller.

Khao San Road, man.”

I had walked down it dozens of times, but from early in the morning to late at night, it had always been crowded with travellers and hawkers and tuk-tuks and taxis and big neon signs and bustling bars; and now in the silent early hours, with everything shut and the lights all off and the travellers sleeping and tuk-tuk drivers busy with buses arriving a block away, it was an altogether different street.

I checked into a guesthouse and opened my backpack and saw that the string I never bother to fasten had been neatly tied in a bow, and I worked out, then, why we had stopped in the lay-by.

© Richard Senior 2015

Bus image: By Flying Pharmacist (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Eating up Vietnam #1: Saigon

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There was a phở shop on the corner down the street from my guesthouse with open sides and wobbly tables on the pavement outside. I sat at one and ordered phở tái, which the menu translated as “beef soup noodle with half-done beef,” and a Bia Saigon and watched the street vendors pushing carts and carrying yokes and the xe-om* riders hustling for business and a guy slowly pedalling around the block and shaking a rattle which sounded like a maraca. It puzzled me what he was trying to sell and I stopped him, later, and asked. “Lady massage,” he said, “you want?”

The beer came first, then a big plate of herbs, another of bean sprouts and a third with sliced chillies and quartered limes; then a tray of condiments: hoi sin and chilli sauces in squeezy bottles, dark soy sauce in a jug and thick chilli paste in a ramekin. Then came the phở: a great steaming bowl of broth extracted from beef bones, ox tail, flank steak, charred onions and ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and cloves, poured over flat rice noodles and strips of rare beef, and garnished with sliced spring onions.

I ate phở often as I travelled through Vietnam, elsewhere in Saigon, in Hoi An – where I learned how to make it – and finally in Hanoi; but it is different and better in the South and best at the phở shop on the corner down the street from my guesthouse.

On every other street in Saigon, in the Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker area, to the north around the museums and to the east in amongst the modern corporate blocks, there are vendors selling bánh from carts. They are sandwiches, in essence, French in inspiration, Vietnamese in execution. Take a classic baguette, but made with rice flour and lighter than normal, slather it with mayonnaise and hot chilli sauce, then stuff it with shredded, pickled carrot and daikon, sliced cucumber, coriander leaf and some combination of pâte, roasted belly pork, fromage de tête and Vietnamese sausage. I had bánh again and again in Saigon and never got bored of it because each vendor does it differently.

If not bánh for lunch, then spring rolls. That can mean one of two things in Vietnam, and neither is much like the stodgy, finger-sized snacks served in Anglo-Chinese restaurants. There are gỏi cuốn, or ‘fresh’ spring rolls, with shredded carrot and cucumber, chopped mint, onion flakes and cooked prawns rolled in a moistened rice paper and served as it comes; and there are chả giò, or fried spring rolls, with minced pork, shitake mushrooms, diced carrot and cellophane noodles wrapped in a moistened rice paper and deep-fried to a texture like filo pastry. Both are served with a dipping sauce with lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, chilli and garlic.

Noodles soups, rice papers, an abundance of herbs, sharp flavours used judiciously. The menu changes as you travel through Vietnam but the same themes recur: always the same freshness, always the same lightness.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Motorcycle taxi

Image: By Hiển Chu (flickr user “chuhien”) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons