There is something slightly mischievous about going to eat at a closed door restaurant – a sense of adventure. Thrill-seeking. It’s because you aren’t really visiting a restaurant, you are being invited into someone’s living room. That you don’t choose the menu, it’s put together for you. And that you don’t ask for the bill at the end, you leave a ‘donation’ in a little envelope on the desk by the front door.
My first experience of a closed door restaurant or supper club as many prefer to call it (though I think that sounds more smutty!) was in Buenos Aires where a large number of friends and I took over a couple’s little flat in Palermo. Since then, as I travelled through Asia, the excitement of trying another supper club waned as I didn’t come across any suggestions for similar experiences.
So when recently a colleague recommended a supper club in East London, I jumped at the chance to try it. The fact that it was Vietnamese in cuisine only heightened the anticipation. When recently people have asked which part of the world was my favourite to visit in the last year of travel, the answer has always been Vietnam. Other than the long, stunning coastline, the food in Vietnam really captivated my tastebuds. And besides, it’s the lengthy coastline in Vietnam which provides the copious quantities of seafood, which I totally fell in love with.
In the top three of all experiences in my life, is sitting on little plastic stools at the food section of Ben Thanh market in Ho Chi MInh city, surrounded by colourful vats of food and slithering fish being sold for wholesale. At this little stall, we’d point at this shellfish or that and wash it down with a glass of fragrant Dalat blanco.
Fernandez & Leluu live in London Fields and organise suppers a couple of times a fortnight. The house is narrow and when you enter it, you would be forgiven for thinking that there might only be a small gathering for the supper club. In fact, Leluu manages to fit 26 people in her narrow sitting room. Mind you, the crowdedness adds to the titillation of sitting next to strangers. You are invited to bring your own wine and Leluu points you to the seats she’d like you to take. There is a hint of seating arrangements as though you were at a wedding.
A couple of minutes after taking our seats and popping open the first bottle of the ‘Fat Bastard’ Pinot Noir (if you book to go here, I recommend you buy wine elsewhere as there is limited choice close to the supper club), a couple came and joined us at our table. Whether this really was deliberate on Leluu’s part or not, we were delighted to have the company of an energy trader and his Vietnamese girlfriend. It turned out that the Vietnamese girlfriend was in fact Danish-born and a budding shoe designer. The conversation flowed easily and the first course arrived.
By far my favourite course of the eight served this evening was this simple appetiser of fish cakes. These were served with radish leaves and a sweet chilli sauce to dip into. These delicious little morsels of food gave way to starters. First a puff pastry with creamed chicken, mushrooms and sweet peas – the French influence taken care of.
Then slices of barbecued pork with spiced vermicelli which we agreed lacked heat. Then other bits and pieces, which if I am honest, I am struggling to remember. As we went through the courses, we found they were tasty but sanitised for a Western palate. The flavours that stand out in Vietnamese cooking for me are lime, coriander and chilli – fresh and bursting on your tongue. Though I could tell that the food was prepared with care, it just didn’t have the zinginess I associate with Vietnamese cuisine.
In the middle of the courses, the Pho arrived. At our table, we had speculated whether this elephant would make an appearance. With a mixture of anxiety and trepidation I took the large bowl of soup from Leluu. The broth tasted like homemade chicken consomme and there was a large portion of noodles sitting in it with slices of cooked beef. The broth was tasty but lacked depth. A plateful of mixed leaves and herbs and more wedges of lime to add to the soup would have improved the dish greatly.
At this point, the sequence of courses took an interesting turn when we received a large bowlful of prawn crackers at the table with a salad of grated chicken, carrot and banana blossom. The crackers were crisp and spicy and really rather good. The salad I found to be really rather offensive to my palate – the texture of banana and chicken with grated carrot was vile.
We were feeling very full at this stage but managed to taste mouthfuls of the next couple of courses including goujons of steak wrapped in betel leaves and breathed a sigh of relief at seeing the last course arrive at the table.
A scoop of avocado and coconut ice cream served with a couple of cubes of melon. This dessert sounds a lot more exotic than it tastes. Perhaps it was the blandness of the dishes it followed which left me impartial to this last course. Perhaps I came with too high expectations. Given this was my first Vietnamese meal after visiting the country last year, it was most likely the latter.
I have never crossed borders overland before this trip and now I have done it twice! Into Cambodia from Vietnam a few weeks ago and yesterday into Thailand from Cambodia. The border between Vietnam and Cambodia was easy peasy. We were on a bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh and got off for less than ten minutes to show are passports and our faces to the border control and back on the same bus on the other side.
Travelling into Thailand from Cambodia was another story! We went from Siem Reap to the border town of Poipet and walked for 150 meters into the border town of Arranyapathet in Thailand on the other side. This time we had chosen to take a taxi to the border from Siem Reap because there is no through transport anyway.
We arrived at the Cambodia exit and there was a large crowd of people waiting to get their exit stamp. I don’t prize stamps, though they are quite nice to have, but unfortunately I needed one to then enter Thailand. So we waited with scores of other people wanting to get the heck out of Cambodia. After a while three immigration windows opened and e managed to get into more orderly queues. Luckily we found ourselves in a fast-moving one and within half an hour we had cleared Cambodia Immigration.
Now we had the 150 meters or so of no-man’s land to walk through to get to the other border. Many countries in SE Asia have a ban on gambling and the no-man’s lands between countries provide the perfect place where a gambler can go to spend money in seedy casinos. What I don’t understand is why if both border countries have ban on gambling do they allow it in a thin strip of land between them?
Walking past these joints, we reached an area where 50 – 70 people were queueing outside the border post. Part of the queue was under thin shade but as you moved along at snail pace you would sometimes find yourself standing in the bright mid-day sun. This was 34 degrees with the humidity feeling a lot hotter than that. The queue took more than an hour to reach the border post where we could get into the building and cool down. Now there was another queue but in the A/C this didn’t feel nearly as bad and when I reached the immigration official and took my hat off he nearly didn’t recognise me with my hair stuck to my scalp with the litres of sweat that had dripped off me earlier. But he smiled a broad smile and welcomed me into Thailand.
The entire process took a little over two hours but I expect we had picked a busy day without realising it because there were also lots of Cambodians and Thai crossing which took up some of the officials’ time also.
I was disappointed with the Vietnam – Cambodia crossing – it was too easy. I had always imagined it to be arduous enough to celebrate afterwards. This felt more like it. Reaching Bangkok a few hours later, we celebrated in the only style we know how – crab, shrimp, oysters and squid washed down with a bottle of Singha!
This was a visit suggested by Mr W – The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). I wasn’t against going but could have taken or left it. I am glad I went, though it turned out to be the most emotional visit to a tourist attraction in our travels.
Having been to the Imperial War Museum in London a few times, I expected the same sort of thing. That’s because not being very interested in military history, I hadn’t given a second thought to our visit. If I had, I would have guessed the massive difference between Britain and Vietnam, especially given the latter’s history. It was in my lifetime that the US war was ended in Vietnam. A war – which I learned from this museum – which destroyed lives so much more severely than I had imagined.
Whereas the Imperial War Museum has tones of courage, bravery and victory; the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh city is an account of suffering, misery, death and destruction. On three floors are laid out facts, photographs, relics and propaganda in equal measures. The most shocking and emotive turned out to be the middle floor. One half of the floor has an exhibition of photographs of journalists from many countries who recorded the atrocities during the war. The other half of the floor is also photographs, but of the aftermath – landscape and people destroyed by the after-effects of Agent Orange – a chemical sprayed liberally by the US army across Vietnam and some of Laos to make sure that the enemy couldn’t hide in the foliage – Agent Orange was a deforestation chemical which exterminated the landscape of all fauna.
But it’s the unintended effect of Agent Orange which will define the aftermath of this bloody war. I say unintended because I am guessing the US Army didn’t intend to have the same effect on it’s own soldiers. The 80 million litres of the herbicide sprayed on in the 1970s has had very long lasting effects – in fact to this day and will continue for some generations. People exposed to Agent Orange died or were maimed. Children of this people who lived are born with gross birth defects, pictures of whom hang on the middle floor of the museum. I have added a picture here – though there are thousands, if you google and you will find most more disturbing than this.
Reading on the web, I found much negative feedback about the museum , mainly by Americans calling it propaganda and one-sided. That as may be and I am sure the same is the case at every War Museum in the world, however photographs don’t lie. And it’s the photographs at this museum which are a horrific document of the tragedy which shock, disturb and bring burning tears to your eyes.
Someone told us there was another market a few minutes away from Ben Thanh Market which had a number of surplus stores with lots of ex-military clothing and paraphernalia. This obviously piqued a particular fellow traveller’s interest so we went along, crossing highways with mad traffic and snaking our way through the narrow alleyways with little daylight filtering through into south of De Tham. All around Dan Sinh market are specialist stores selling thick wires, electrical cables and all sorts of other similar things that I don’t know the names of.
We found a tiny entrance way into the market and jumped in and luckily we found ourselves at the right end of it as we were surrounded by military green. At one point I though I’d lost Craig but dressed in his favourite colour green, he blended into all the camouflage around us. There were medals and belts; flasks and canteens; hats and boots; helmets and swiss army knives. There were lots of uniforms – mainly US but also some Viet Cong. Many had a red or a yellow star on them.
Craig found a tiny stall with some old US navy watches and we looked through, deciding on one, haggling and then walking away. Usually there will be lots of vendors selling the same thing but when we looked, we found only one other stall selling old watches and they quoted twice the price we started at the other stall. Tails between our legs, we returned to haggle further and if not to our original target, I got her down to halfway between her last quoted and our target. They know when you return for something that you really want it! Procurement skills always fall by the wayside when you have an eager-to-buyspouse in tow I guess! He is very happy with his new purchase and even has his strap from the old Marines days belted into it!
Situated in between the centre of Ho Chi Minh city called District 1 and the backpacker’s area called Den Tham is a famous indoor market called Ben Thanh Market. The place sells absolutely everything under the sun! Clothes, costume jewellery, make up, shoes, handbags, nick-nacks like fans, umbrellas etc. When you are past this lot you come to the centre area of this huge covered market where there are two dozen food stalls all competing for the punters walking past smelling and salivating at every type of food. Beyond the food stalls and towards the back of the market are
the fresh fish, meat and vegetable stalls. In theory, you can turn up at the front of the market naked, dress and adorn yourself, fill your belly, do the weekly grocery shopping and exit through the back door after a couple of hours!
These days, the market is too focussed on tourists so going through the clothes and nicknack stalls is like being searched by Homeland Security at a US border. The stalls are in narrow lanes with their vendors stood outside and they all touch you and call out at you. We soon found a wider central aisle which leads into the centre and hence the most interesting part of the market – the food stalls!
Having finished the plate, I couldn’t help myself and ordered a small portion (I got 20!) of the medium sized snails cooked in pork fat. These were something else, not like the French have them where they cook for longer. These beauties
were flash cooked in spitting hot pork fat. At Cua Dai beach, we were given rough plant stems to tease our cockles out with but at Ben Than Market they had their own tool – similar to the one French use – to weedle out the snail with. As the snails were perfectly cooked (French ones come out quickly from their shells as they are smaller and cooked for longer so disengage with the shell inside), they put up a fight coming out and again it took a few to get the knack of it.
Next day for lunch we went back to the same stall and shared a crab and a plate of clams. Then we stared again at the scores of different types of shells and snails and decided to have the mixed platter with a few of every kind thrown in. Mostly these are grilled right on top of a small earthenware grill (similar to angeethi in India). Another conch shell was cooked with rice flour and coconut which made it look like porridge and I wondered whether Heston Blumenthal got his snail porridge idea from here!
Later still, we decided to walk around the fresh fish market to see where our food was bought. In our flip flops, we were unsuitably attired for a place which is overflowing with fish innards and juices Most of the workers wore wellies. We had to wash our legs up to our knees to get rid of some of the smell and stuff from our legs later!
The stalls are small and all sell one type or another of fish, shellfish, snakes and frogs. We walked through the market wide-eyed watching people sat on a stool, nonchalantly picking out a live frog from a basket and pulling it’s neck apart to kill it before in one swift movement, pulling off it’s entire skin.
At another stall, a woman sat running a blade down the length of a snake, disembowelling the creature. Everywhere there was a din of work going on, people selling, people purchasing, types of food I have never even imagined! But it was all a happy clatter, and we thoroughly enjoyed every visit to Ben Thanh Market!