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Crocodiles on mopeds and other tales from Hanoi

The crazy street life of Vietnam's second city


View North East Vietnam 2012 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Last year's brief visit to Hanoi left a strong impression, even though Jen and I weren't able to make the most of our time there. Arriving straight from the Himalayas, we were tired and preoccupied by lists of errands. We arranged excursions to take us out of the city, thinking we would prefer the tranquillity of the coast and countryside to rubbing shoulders with millions of Vietnamese. It was probably the right decision at the time but it left me feeling short-changed by Hanoi. So we did the obvious thing - we went back.

Returning less than a year later felt like a homecoming rather than a holiday. Not only were we reunited with our cycling chums, David (Painted Roads tour leader), Phong (local guide) and Eddie (impossible to categorize), but we instantly fell in love with the city all over again. Hanoi casts its spell in unexpected ways. The guidebooks may try to talk up its tourist sites, but it's not the prospect of puppets, pagodas or pickled propagandists that excites me. Instead, it's the pulsating bustle of Hanoians going about their daily business in the enchanting Old Quarter. This is the beating heart of the city, an inside-out place where everything happens on the street. Ladies in shimmering blouses and stilettos revving their mopeds; pensive groups of men hunched over their cờ tướng boards on street corners; flower sellers weaving their bicycles between uniformed schoolchildren; street food vendors stirring, frying, serving and smiling. With so much life on show, we were keen to brush up on our street photography.

A motorcyclist stops to check his phone on the busy road along Hoan Kiem Lake's east side

A motorcyclist stops to check his phone on the busy road along Hoan Kiem Lake's east side


Parents coming to collect their children in Hanoi cause a traffic jam outside the school gates

Parents coming to collect their children in Hanoi cause a traffic jam outside the school gates

The Old Quarter was our base for the few days we spent in the city. Here, we watched Hanoi wake up, go to work, take coffee, exercise and go to sleep. A great many hours were spent at the street café opposite our hotel, sipping glasses of bia hơi and watching the city pass us by. At other times I would go off to explore, walking the streets morning, noon and night in search of the unexpected. Despite venturing no more than a mile from the hotel, my senses were thoroughly overwhelmed.

At first light, the street vendors begin to appear. Every morning, an estimated 10,000 of them - mostly women - converge on Hanoi from the surrounding rural provinces, as they have done for centuries. They bring fresh produce from their farms, but it’s not just fruit and vegetables they sell. I passed one lady whose bamboo baskets had been transformed into mobile ponds full of splashing turtles. Fresh ingredients are very important in Vietnamese cuisine, so the street vendors fulfil the same role as a Tesco Express would in the UK.

These women are amongst the poorest people in the city, earning around US$2 a day. Worse still, their earnings can be confiscated by the overzealous police, who increasingly enforce local laws which place restrictions or even outright bans on street selling. I have since discovered that the British government has recently provided funding for a project to improve the lives of Hanoi's street vendors.

My attempt to go undercover in Hanoi falls short of the mark

My attempt to go undercover in Hanoi falls short of the mark


One of the many women who travel to Hanoi on a daily basis to earn a meagre living as a street trader

One of the many women who travel to Hanoi on a daily basis to earn a meagre living as a street trader


A street vendor completes a sale at one of Hanoi's many food markets

A street vendor completes a sale at one of Hanoi's many food markets

Hanoi’s street cafés are a local institution enjoyed by city folk and foreigners alike. Space is at a premium in the Old Quarter, so the clientele sit on child-sized plastic chairs out in the street and conduct high-volume conversation over the noise of passing mopeds. Many cafés serve the aforementioned bia hơi, a weak home brew costing around 8,000 dong (25p) a glass. The quality can vary but at that price, who's complaining?

Others are purveyors of Vietnamese-branded coffee, a distinctive beverage filtered slowly into the cup and mixed with condensed milk. The connoisseur’s choice is cà phê Chồn or “weasel coffee”, the world’s most expensive variety. The coffee beans have passed through the digestive tract of an Asian palm civet (a weasel-like animal) which supposedly takes the bitter edge off the taste. A rather bizarre fact which begs the obvious question: who discovered it?

A smoker with his glass of bia hoi at a street café in Hanoi

A smoker with his glass of bia hoi at a street café in Hanoi


A newspaper seller cycles past a Hanoi café in the city's Old Quarter

A newspaper seller cycles past a Hanoi café in the city's Old Quarter

To the south of the Old Quarter lies Hoan Kiem Lake, the spiritual heart of the city. I wrote a blog article last year which discussed the famous giant turtle which inhabits the lake, a creature so rare it seems destined to join the dodo on the path to extinction. There were no turtle sightings on this occasion, but our lakeside walks offered up a number of equally extraordinary visions.

Dragging ourselves down to Hoan Kiem at dawn, we found the paths and parks had been taken over by a small army of exercising Hanoians, all stretching, pumping and burning. Around the lake swarmed an anticlockwise wave of joggers and power-walkers, whilst in a public square nearby, impromptu classes were being held for aerobics, salsa, ballroom, tai chi and, my favourite of all, laughter yoga. Perhaps they were laughing at the committed fitness fanatic who was attempting to target all his major muscle groups whilst sat on a park bench.

Laughter yoga is the latest craze sweeping Hanoi

Laughter yoga is the latest craze sweeping Hanoi

In the evening, another swathe of the population descends on the lake’s leafy promenades. The exercisers are now a minority, but this only seems to encourage exhibitionist tendencies, judging from the shirtless men performing chin-ups on lampposts and five-minute headstands at the very edge of the water. Meanwhile, young lovers stroll hand in hand and wedding photographers fuss over their subjects as they contrive to maximise the romantic potential of the scene. Quite what the turtle makes of it all, I can only wonder.

Ly Thai To park is floodlit at night, providing a perfect stage for skateboarders, breakdancers and rollerbladers

Ly Thai To park is floodlit at night, providing a perfect stage for skateboarders, breakdancers and rollerbladers


Performing your yoga routine at the water's edge adds an element of danger!

Performing your yoga routine at the water's edge adds an element of danger!

The action has spread to the nearby square, where the painted lines of badminton courts are being put to good use. There are no racquets to be seen, however, for the game of choice is played with the feet. The Vietnamese call it đá cầu and have made it their national sport, but it originated as jianzi in China. The standard is (literally) very high, with some unbelievable agility on show as the players leap at the net to smash the shuttlecock down into the opponent’s forecourt with their feet.

Despite all the activity on show, the Vietnamese revert to type when it comes to road transport: everyone and everything travels by motorbike. In Bangkok airport’s duty free zone I came across a neat little book called Bikes of Burden, a photo journal from across Vietnam showing an amazing variety of cargo being transported on bikes, from furniture to scaffold frames, carpets to water tanks and livestock to ornamental goldfish. We kept an eye out for unusual bikes of burden ourselves and found the Hanoians more than lived up to expectations. My favourite was a giant cuddly crocodile toy about the same size as the rider. Sadly there’s no photo to prove this – I obviously wasn’t snappy enough.

Crocodile! Snappy! Ok, I’ll get my coat.

A typical scene in the Old Quarter, where all manner of goods are transported by motorbike

A typical scene in the Old Quarter, where all manner of goods are transported by motorbike


A bamboo ladder would be a challenge to carry by oneself, but a passenger helps to balance the load

A bamboo ladder would be a challenge to carry by oneself, but a passenger helps to balance the load

Posted by Chris Parsons 13:03 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people food markets bikes vietnam hanoi photography Comments (3)

Food blog #4: Cooking doesn't get tougher than this


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

What do you get if you cross Masterchef with Ray Mears? You might be thinking of a strange TV survival challenge in which the contestants have to keep John Torode and Greg Wallace alive in the jungle by feeding them Michelin-star bush meat, berries and roots. In our case, the answer was the ever-cheerful Kiem, our guide in the tropical jungle of Thailand's Khao Sok National Park. On the second day of our tour, he gave us a masterclass in jungle cuisine. We had journeyed by boat to a tributary of the Cheow Lan Reservoir, and then on foot upstream. This involved a fair amount of bush-whacking, stream-crossing and leech-dodging. By the time Kiem announced that we had reached our lunch spot, our clothes were sticking to us, and on our exposed skin the leeches were doing the same.

Kiem finds his rice steamer

Kiem finds his rice steamer

First task: collect your bamboo. You don't have to go far, for it grows everywhere in the jungle. The bamboo is not for eating, it's much too valuable for that. Its first use is as fuel for the fire, which is Bin's responsibility (Bin is our boat boy and Kiem's sous-chef). Whereas Mears would waste hours rubbing sticks together and blowing into kindling, there's none of that malarkey here. Kiem and Bin are both smokers, and the fire is soon burning merrily.

Packing the rice parcels into the bamboo

Packing the rice parcels into the bamboo

Next: get the rice on. It's washed, parcel-wrapped inside large leaves and stuffed inside a length of green bamboo with a little water. The top is sealed and it's placed upright on the fire. Hey presto, one rice steamer!

Tying on the marinated chicken with an expert touch

Tying on the marinated chicken with an expert touch

Time to crack on with the first of our three dishes today: barbecued chicken. Kiem fumbles deep in his rucksack and, in a flourish, produces a bag of chicken portions that have been marinated in spices overnight. Now all we need is a skewer to hang the meat on over the fire. Kiem reaches for the bamboo again. A thin cane is split lengthways over most of its length and the split ends are tied together with bamboo twine to hold the chicken pieces securely.

Here's a photo you can almost smell

Here's a photo you can almost smell

Now, it's time to prepare the serving dishes and plates (the only crocks in this jungle have big eyes and big teeth). For this we turn to - yes, you've guessed it - bamboo again. Sections of green bamboo are cut above and below adjacent joints, then split in half lengthways. This takes advantage of the fact that a thin membrane of fibres grows across the stem at each joint, so the chopped up pieces form hollow half cylinders – perfect for dividing up the grub.

Raw material for the plates and dishes

Raw material for the plates and dishes


Kiem's wok, one of the few nods to modern technology

Kiem's wok, one of the few nods to modern technology

Dishes two and three are a sweet and sour pork curry and stir-fried vegetables. Unfortunately nobody has yet learned how to make a bamboo wok, so Kiem has to cheat. When each dish is ready, it's transferred to the serving plates. The only remaining task is for us to get to the grub before the wee jungle beasties do! Every dish is a winner, but the prize goes to the barbecued chicken, which was finger lickin' good.

Dishing up the sweet and sour pork

Dishing up the sweet and sour pork


Succulent chicken straight from the fire

Succulent chicken straight from the fire


Jungle lunch is served

Jungle lunch is served

But we're not done yet. There's fresh fruit for afters: the remainder of the pineapple used for the sweet and sour curry (eaten with bamboo cocktail sticks) and rambutans, fruit that looks like it was brought to earth from Mars.

The afters, rambutan and pineapple

The afters, rambutan and pineapple

All this gluttony was thirsty work, and for a quenching drink, Kiem returned us to the bamboo. Within each jointed section is a small quantity of water – the older the bamboo stem, the sweeter and fresher the water tastes. To get at this precious liquid, Kiem cuts a hole a few inches above a joint, and we suck it out through a straw (made from bamboo, naturally).

Bamboo, the plant that keeps on giving

Bamboo, the plant that keeps on giving

So as you can see, the humble bamboo is worth its weight in gold. Next time you forget your pressure cooker or your fine bone china when you go into the jungle, you'll know just what to do.

Before we headed back to the boat, Kiem showed us his party piece: the bamboo gun. He placed a long stem horizontally on top of the fire and told us to wait. The fire heats the water in the bamboo immediately over the flames, causing it to boil and pressurize the sealed section. Eventually the pressure rises so much that it explodes with a loud BANG, causing every animal within half a mile to flee. Hang on though, aren't we supposed to be wildlife spotting this afternoon? D'oh!

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:06 Archived in Thailand Tagged food jungle cooking curry Comments (0)

The Eliminator Route

Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep

Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep

Although this is somewhat belated (we've been busy finding the middle of nowhere), I thought I should bring you right up to date on our most recent cycling endeavours.

We spent the festive period in Chiang Mai province in the cooler North West of Thailand, and after Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and three days of non-stop eating, I was itching to get back in the saddle. So, on the 22nd December, while Chris went to talk to the animals [see blog Chris goes to the zoo (again)] I booked myself onto Route 6X: The Eliminator Route. This was described by Chiang Mai Mountain Biking as

The ultimate cross country challenge, for only the strongest and most fit XC riders.*

At 40km long, the route promised to circumnavigate the entire Doi Suthep National Park along the mountain range crest, and crucially, included uphills. Perfect, I thought. What better way to work off the countless thai green curries? The following day at the morning briefing, I was instructed to don elbow pads, knee pads, cycling gloves, a helmet, and carry at least three litres of water and a couple of cereal bars...an ominous sign? At this juncture, I should point out that I was now slightly anxious about my choice of route, but still hopeful that many a weekend spent attempting to stay on down "technical" descents in the Peak District would work in my favour. I figured that the absence of beach material on the single track would also be an enormous advantage. I then prayed to Buddha that I wouldn't be found out.

We, and several other groups on the intermediate and beginner rides, were deposted at the top of the Doi Suthep mountain by jeeps. I was joined in the hard core group by three other victims: Laurent, Steve and John as well as our guide for the day: Jay. Now Jay was something else entirely. Jay was pint-sized, but on a bike, larger than life. It woudn't have surprised me to learn that he also slept on his bicycle from the way he rode. He disappeared off down the track into the jungle on one wheel (his front wheel being surplus to requirements of course). He reminded me of our ski instructor, Remy, in La Plagne: every fallen tree / mound of earth / major drop / boulder was seen as an opportunity to gain air time. Fortunately, the same wasn't expected of us.

  • *They may as well have called it The Yorkie Route (It's not for girls)

The select few - hot but not yet eliminated!

The select few - hot but not yet eliminated!

The riding was fabulous. We rode straight through the jungle on single track, and the descents were not so technical as to find me out. It turned out that the knee pads were also useful for bushwhacking, so overgrown were some of the sections of track we "cycled". The tough part of the route was a half hour ascent, which included walking (Jay even got off his bike here) and a poisonous snake spotting, and landed us right at the top of the mountain ridge from where we had magnificent views. These were masked only by the sweat pouring into my eyes!

The hard work is over as I relax on the Doi Suthep ridge

The hard work is over as I relax on the Doi Suthep ridge

Banana trees and jungle

Banana trees and jungle

The jungle

The jungle

The rest of the ride was predominantly downhill through jungle, past plantations of tomatoes along tracks lined with banana trees. We cycled well through lunchtime and out the other side, eventually stopping at a farm, where a toddler handed us some much needed local sustenance: bananas. Her father watched on in sandles fashioned from tree trunks. We were well off the beaten track.

Lunch...

Lunch...

Our day ended at Huay Jung Thao Lake with beers and curry. All four of us arrived, fortunately uneliminated and unscathed, about an hour behind all of the other groups. They were suspiciously clean. We were caked in mud, sweat, and dust with the odd tree branch here and there: a fine day out!

A route perhaps better described as The Eliminator Route is the Samoeng Loop. This 100km loop to the west of Chiang Mai up the Mae Sa Valley to Samoeng is usually aimed at "bikers" rather than "cyclists", however, Chris and I were not to be deterred. We hired two Trek mountain bikes from an affable Aussie called Damien (and his slobbery golden retriever Lucy) at Spice Roads in Chiang Mai, and packed our bags for a two-day adventure.

Me and bike number 7 from Spice Roads

Me and bike number 7 from Spice Roads

We must have been suffering some kind of withdrawal symptoms from "undulations" (there weren't any in Cambodia) for the mere words "Coffee House" and "Hmong Lodge" enticed us off into the Mae Raem Valley around a 38km extension to the usual route. The coffee house and Hmong Lodge turned out to be a wild goose chase (closed in high season), but we were rewarded with a 1,000 metre "climb"** up to Hmong Nong Hoi village at 1,400m. We soon realised the pitfalls of Thailand, an infinitely more developed nation than our previous destinations: the roads were so steep that we spent most of the day in granny gear, unlike in Vietnam and Laos where the local vehicles simply woudn't have made it. The wild goose chase made lunch finding difficult. However, our stomachs were unconcerned - we were powered by cheese cake and tiramisu from Wawee Coffee in Mae Sa (yum).

  • **A "climb" (as distinct from an "undulation") was variously defined by our Redspokes group as an undulation of 4km or more; any hill that required the use of granny gear; any hill that Phong was not cycling - see blog Sunburnt, squiffy and saddlesore

Fuel for the Samoeng Loop

Fuel for the Samoeng Loop

We ended the day sipping beers and noshing on an excellent thai take out at the Forest Guest House, taking in a fabulous view across the Samoeng Valley, and a less fabulous serenade by some particularly bad karioke wafting up from a nearby thai wedding party.

Chains of mountains behind the Samoeng Valley

Chains of mountains behind the Samoeng Valley

The only way to finish the day

The only way to finish the day

The following day was a comparatively lazy day. Abandoned were the plans for 60km off-road before lunch: our legs had had enough and our stomachs hadn't. We breakfasted slowly on eggs, and put off the ascent out of Samoeng (500 metres up in 6km) a little longer by testing out the local strawberry juice (much sweeter than the strawberries were). We still had some serious work to do to get ourselves out of the mountains and back to Chiang Mai, including two major climbs totalling another 800 metres. Only another cake stop at Bon Banana would see us through! In a continuing theme we ended the day with the spare Chang beer from the night before, which tasted all the better for having been carried all the way from Samoeng. The only minor improvement would have been a trade-up to Beer Lao.

The only way forward

The only way forward

As I write this, we have now finally tested out the local "bikes". Apparently they haven't heard of bicycles in Koh Lanta, so we hired a moped and sped off round the island for a day. Fortunately I didn't have to ride up the 1 in 2 out of our hotel on my first ever moped outing. This was not a suitable challenge for a novice rider, and one of the hotel staff took pity on us. Mopeds don't inspire quite the same thirst as a bicycle, but they do make you lazy, especially when the sun is ablaze. You can tell by the well-fed look of the locals here (by comparison with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) that this is a place powered on petrol and curry.

Betrayal by "bike"!

Betrayal by "bike"!

Posted by jparsons 05:49 Archived in Thailand Tagged people food thailand cycling Comments (0)

Food blog #3: Un voyage gourmand en Vietnam et Laos

Fried grasshoppers

Fried grasshoppers

One of the highlights of our trip so far has been the things we have "consumed" en route. Our journey into Vietnam and Laos, with a cycling appetite to boot, only served to increase the appeal of the local delicacies on offer. To whet your appetite, here is our top 10 of some of the food items we mostly dared to try...

#10 Morning Glory
What is the story, I hear you ask...? Well this green vegetable, best described as a cross between spinach, broccoli and cabbage, turned up consistently on our plates throughout Vietnam and Laos. It was fried. It was in soup. It was in curry. It may even have made it into the spring rolls. After about a week of consistently appearing on our dinner table, it began to yield a morning glory groan from the group. It's not that we don't like it. But it's Morning Glory! Chris and I thought that we'd made our escape on a desert island off the coast of Cambodia, but what should we find at the one and only restaurant: a new combination: Morning Glory in Oyster Sauce!

#9 Peanuts, unripened
It sounds unlikely, but in a small village near Tu Le, some local women offered us unripe monkey nuts, in the shell. Curious, we acceped the kind offer...They are eaten whole, shell included, dipped in a sauce made from salt, lime, garlic and fresh corriander. They certainly made my taste buds zing, but had to be washed down abruptly with some local sweets!

#8 Cobra Wine (with full length cobra)
We happened upon this interesting tipple in Muong Lai: a large glass flagon of the strong stuff, complete with coiled cobra inside. According to Phong, our Vietnamese guide, this drink "makes you strong". He wasn't referring to cycling. At $500 for the whole flagon (including cobra) we could all think of cheaper ways to achieve the same effect... At Tu Le, we tried a less venomous alternative: Bee Wine. This was exactly as described above, except there was an entire graveyard of bees nestling at the bottom of this flagon. Oh, and you could purchase by the glass, mouthful of bees excluded.

A sticky end...

A sticky end...

#7 Roast Dog
So I was quietly ambling through a village south of Hanoi when I had my first encounter with dog (the kind which didn't involve being chased). Two of the said woofters were being roasted on an open fire at the side of the road. One of my cycling buddies (who shall remain nameless) later asked me how I knew it was dog. The only honest answer I could give was that it basically looked like one, with the fur singed off and a spit stuck up its arse. It was clearly a dog. Or should I say an 'ex-dog'. I later learned from David, our tour leader, that this must have meant that it was "dog time of the month". What he really meant to say was that for two weeks in the month the Vietnamese consider it bad luck to eat it, for the other two weeks it is good luck (this works the other way around for the dog of course). In Sapa, two of our group, David and John, joined Phong on an excursion to sample dog "five ways", or so it sounded from their descriptions of the feast. Fortunately I was held up in a pizza restaurant at the time, otherwise I would have taken my turn at exacting revenge! In case you're wondering, it tastes like chicken.

#6 Mekong Riverweed
This is a must for anyone travelling near the Mekong. I know it sounds unappetizing, but this is a genuinely tasty snack. Sold like paper, in A4 sheets in the local markets, it is then fried and sprinkled with sesame seeds. I got my first tasting courtesy of Chris Morfas' laotian pizza on our first night in Luang Prabang - thanks buddy! Yum!

#5 Tarte au chocolat
One of the advantages of travelling through countries the French invaded, is the quality of baked goods on offer, and the Baguette au Chocolate cafe in Sapa did a wicked line in patisserie. Our rest days from the bike were generally characterised by a need to forage for cake, and it didn't take Chris and I long to bring home one of these tarts! Delicious crispy pastry, with a goey chocolatey filling: so good it had the rest of the group drooling when I stopped to savour my purchase at one of our tea stops. I was guilt free though - those without cake had ridden straight past the shop that morning on a steep incline out of Sapa. The bike had wanted to stop, I had wanted to stop, and the tart was shouting my name!

[i]Tarte au chocolat!

Tarte au chocolat!

#4 Grasshoppers
Now we're getting to the business end of this blog entry. Phong introduced us to this local snack in Tu Le. Phong seemed to operate on a principle of "if it flies, it fries", and so I was somewhat surprised to find only grasshoppers on my plate that evening. One hopper would have been sufficient. But with a wry smile, Phong enthusiastically uptipped the bowl into mine, adding some serious crunch to my noodles. The only way I can describe the taste of a grasshopper is that there were notable overtones of the farmyard (thank you Oz Clarke). I passed on the opportunity for seconds.

Phong, our grasshopper man

Phong, our grasshopper man

#3 Silkworms
Of the weird things I've eaten, this comes pretty far up the list. As Phong waggled one of these in front of my nose in Tu Le, I recoiled in horror: this was becoming a bush tucker trial for only the hardiest of the group, would I survive? Silkworms look like witchetty grubs, and in my imagination this one was already crawling down my throat. After a moment to let my stomach settle, and make an objective decision, I thought 'what the hell' and gave one a try. Fried silkworm tastes a lot better than it looks. It is the texture of a soft-ish jelly bean, and is a lot less "farmyard" than the hoppers.

#2 Beer Lao
No blog of mine on conspicuous consumption could be complete without mentioning this old favourite. Beer Lao was the perfect way to quench a cyclist's thirst on a hot day, and also one of the few straightforward ways I found to understand the relative spending power of Dong and Kips (beer has its uses...) It was great for group bonding, and is now being sorely missed in Cambodia! However, when combined with a bicycle and the merest of "undulations" Beer Lao also had a tendancy to lead to the debilitating condition known as "beer legs", reducing performance (on the bike) by upwards of 50%... As a footnote to this particular entry, I have just spent the evening with Chris Morfas in Siem Reap where we managed to find genuine bottles of Beer Lao. Never has a beer tasted so good, and the reminiscing gone on so long (apologies to the restaurant staff at the Khmer Kitchen).

By far the best thirst quencher of the trip so far

By far the best thirst quencher of the trip so far

#1 Lao Lao
So good they named it twice! Those on our trip will know why this is number 1...It looks like water, tastes like water, comes in a water bottle, and like water comes hangover free (Dominique and I tested this theory on an entire bottle of the stuff one night, and woke up the following morning unscathed. We think). But this where the resemblance ends. At anywhere between 5 and 10 times the strength of a Beer Lao, Lao Lao is efficient stuff, leading one to become swiftly and seriously squiffy. It was the forger of some great friendships, and comedy moments, but drinker beware: it can lead to "crambling". Let the good times roll!

A not so innocent bottle...

A not so innocent bottle...

What happened today Dominique?
This morning you hardly did speak
Perhaps you should vow
To stay off the Lao Lao
And no crambling for the rest of the week

Dominique and I get squiffy

Dominique and I get squiffy

Posted by jparsons 04:28 Archived in Laos Tagged food vietnam laos cycling Comments (1)

Food blog #2: Chris's cake countdown


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

#10: Cherry Sponge, Elgin Hotel, Darjeeling
A straightforward Victoria sponge, thinly sliced, served with shortbread biscuits. Cake a little on the stale side, but bonus points are awarded for style. Served at your armchair by deferential waiters in Raj-era uniforms, plus the cake was replenished for free.

#9: Chocolate Brownie, Braga Bakery
A fine establishment on the Annapurna Circuit but capable of much better fare than this. The brownie was generously proportioned, but more of a chocolate sponge, and a dense, dry one at that. Jen speaks highly of their chocolate cake though.

#8: Chocolate Apple Crumble, Nilgiri View Restaurant, Jomsom
A local speciality in an area famous for its apple orchards. Nothing wrong with the apples here, nor the crumble topping, but rock-hard pastry base and chocolate layer were like an unwelcome guest at a party.

#7: Chocolate Brownie, Xanadu Hotel, Jomsom
We sniffed out this gem of a place on a pudding hunt. Two chocolate apple crumbles in one afternoon seemed excessive so we both opted for the brownie. Again, more of a sponge cake texture, but this time delightfully light and fluffy, served warm and topped with roasted nuts. Marked down for tiny portion size - I could have eaten two.

Mingma's "Happy Trek" cake

Mingma's "Happy Trek" cake

#6: Phurbar's Chocolate Cake, Lokpa, Nepal/Mingma's "Happy Trek" Cake, Sachen, Sikkim
It's traditional on the final night of a camping trek for the cook to produce his piece de resistance: a huge cake. We had two fine examples in Nepal and India, both so good that it's impossible to separate them. Phurbar and Mingma both score highly for the surprise value and skill in baking on a camping stove, as well as the delicious taste and texture.

#5: Opera Cake, Banjyan Cafe, Pokhara
I was sold on the window display, and this masterful cake did not disappoint. Like something served up at a Viennese gourmet cafe, this was a complex creation with alternating layers of vanilla sponge and creamy mocha filling, topped with dark chocolate marbled icing.

The cake connoisseur approves of the Gangapurna Hotel's concoction

The cake connoisseur approves of the Gangapurna Hotel's concoction

#4: Apple Crumble, Gangapurna Hotel, Yak Kharka
Once tasted (in my case, in March 2007), never forgotten. Still as good as ever - an amazingly deep filling of apple and cinnamon topped with delicate crumble. Served in meal-sized portions - this could finish off your trekking for the day. Jen reports that their chocolate cake is a winner too.

#3: New York Cheesecake, Roadhouse Cafe, Kathmandu
A taste of pure heaven when I first tasted it 3 years ago, the anticipation this time round was almost unbearable. Still very good - creamy, excellently flavoured filling and a Buttery Biscuit Base (copyright Greg Wallacewww.youtube.com/watch?v=IfeyUGZt8nk) - but it sadly failed to live up to the hype. Still one of the best things about Kathmandu though.

#2: Chocolate Brownie, Cafe Concerto, Pokhara
The combination of warm brownie and ice-cream is hard to beat and this came with caramel sauce too! The brownie had the perfect melt-in-your-mouth consistency and the ice-cream was top drawer. Jen reckons the Roadhouse Cafe version, served on a sizzling plate, is even better, and that's saying something.

#1: Apple Pie, Braga Bakery
The quintessential Annapurna Circuit dessert, perfected over decades of experimentation. Generous crusty pastry (the best I have ever tasted in Nepal) and a filling that bursts with apple and cinnamon flavours. Somebody should fly Mr Kipling to Nepal to show him the meaning of "deep-filled". Too good to share (sorry Jen).

Posted by Chris Parsons 21:11 Archived in Nepal Tagged food india nepal Comments (0)

Food blog #1 - a subject close to my stomach

As I sit thinking what to write, I'm in a small stone hut high up in the tiny "village" of Kyang (3,800m). I say "village" because all the villagers have deserted and gone to Nar or Phu for the summer, so it's more of a ghost village really. There is one small tea shop, which is where we are camped for the night. I'm warming myself on the wood stove while the hut owner fries some potatoes to go with our daal bhat (lentils, curry and rice). This will be the first of many daal bhats this week, as this is the national dish, eaten twice daily, and we have now trekked beyond the land of menus, spaghetti and apple pie.

On request a large helping of chilli has just gone into our potatoes, together with the cabbage. When you're trekking, food is one of the most important preoccupations of the day. We have progressed from having our own cook, Phurbar, in the Tsum Valley, where fried everything was the order of the day, to eating as the locals do. In the Tsum Valley, I'd never eaten so many chips or had such a longing for a plate of daal bhat . The only compensation was the occasional treats which substituted the neverending fried food, like pizza in Rainjam and chocolate cake in Lokpa. These were items of food we later dreamed about as the trek became more remote!

But at high altitudes it's difficult to beat a good daal bhat. It is not like the greasy Indian curries you find at home, and is therefore easier to digest at altitude. It also comes with an "all you can eat" clause. If you've ever seen a porter who has carried 30kgs up a mountain tuck into his own personal mountain of daal bhat it becomes clear why most Nepalis choose to eat nothing else. On our 10-day Tsum Valley trek alone, our porters carried and consumed a massive 150kgs of rice!!!

Ram with a valuable pressure cooker full of rice

Ram with a valuable pressure cooker full of rice

A plate of nutritious daal bhat
Is in no danger of making you fat
But I hadn't reckoned
On eating a second
Nor twice in one day, come to that.

No food blog would be complete of course, without a section on local delicacies. These are loosely defined as whatever is produced when Ram emerges from a smoky shack with a handful/cupful/bowlful of something suspicious and a triumphant "Here, try this!" The trek started well with some delicious samosas outside Arughat Bazar. Other wonders have included pickled cabbage and spicy dried mutton. You could tell when anyone had a mouthful of the latter, as they were still chewing it 15 minutes later!

En route to Ganesh Himal Base Camp (3,900m) we stopped at a yak herder's hut with a fire in the middle of the mud floor. I sat down by the fire to warm up, surrounded by huge drums of off-smelling milk. This turned out to be curd, which was offered to me in a soup bowl to gulp down. I took a small spoonful which swilled around my mouth like loose jelly, and I was on the verge of spitting it out when I realised that it tasted a bit like yoghurt. Still, seconds were not on the cards!

Vats of yak curd at a yak herder's hut in the Ganesh Himal

Vats of yak curd at a yak herder's hut in the Ganesh Himal

Milk develops into all sorts of forms in Nepal, including something called chirpi. This is a step on from curd. The moisture from the curd is extracted, and the remaining mild, cheese-like substance is then piped onto a large mat in big swirls and dried in the hot sun. You can then break off bits and eat them as a snack. I tried some but couldn't discern what it tasted of - not much was the conclusion! Once again, I didn't return for seconds.

Perhaps the most dangerous of Nepalese delicacies is the chilli pepper. Our cook Phurbar had an enormous jar of preserved chillis reserved for the porters to eat with their daal bhat. This is not westerners' food, but a pick-me-up in the evenings, especially when you're camping in freezing temperatures at 4,000m. Anyway, I was offered one of these delicious looking chillis. Thinking they would be the strength of Tesco's Finest, I popped one straight into my mouth, much to the consternation of Ram and the others in the food tent. Gasps and cries of "Not all at once!" made me spit it out before it was too late. It turns out that you are supposed to nibble delicately at the chillis. Not even our hardened porters dared chew one of these babies whole! So I duly followed suit and spent the next 15 minutes blowing my nose and wiping away the tears...

On the pepper front, we also tried fresh peppercorns. When I say fresh, I mean straight off the tree. They were growing near Rachen Gompa in the Tsum Valley. They are harvested in October and November, but they can still be eaten earlier. They are small red berries - you peel the skin off and then go for it. A strange sensation then ensues. Your tongue produces large amounts of saliva, and this lasts for about 20 minutes. Straight off the tree, peppercorns taste peppery hot, but fruity at the same time. For me, I prefer the dried version every time!

Also on the list of 'never to try again' goes packet chicken from Tibet. In Chhokhungparo a packet was shoved under my nose with the innocent sounding "Would you like some chicken?" I was greeted with a packet of pasty, wobbling wattle accompanied by a claw poking out the other side. I politely declined. Tibetan Tea is also on this list. Among the ingredients are yak butter, salt and milk. It tastes a bit like soup but without the vegetables or chicken, and there's not a smidgen of tea in sight.

One of the best surprises and most entertaining activities was shelling beans in Lho. Chris and I thought we'd help out with dinner preparations. All the locals muck in, usually to peel potatoes or chop garlic, on the proviso that approximately 5-10% reaches the helper's stomach before the plate! Anyway, I picked up a pod and popped it open to find that the beans inside were pink! Chris then opened another to find blue beans. Not just any old blue mind, think blue smarties! It turns out that Nepalese beans are really exciting... and come in all colours. The lady running the kitchen was so amused at our delight at the multi-coloured beans that she added a special portion to our fried potatoes that evening. I'm sorry to report that when cooked they return to a dull brown colour. However, they did taste good. For the record, the colours they came in were black, green, white, purple, bright blue, bright pink, white with pink spots, purple with pink spots and cream. Who said food prep was dull!

On the subject of strangely coloured food, Chris also discovered that porridge turns blue when iodine-treated water is added to it. This was valuable porridge too, as it was needed to power Chris up the Thorung La pass. There was great relief when on stirring, all returned to normal...

An evening's entertainment

An evening's entertainment

Posted by jparsons 00:19 Archived in Nepal Tagged food trekking nepal Comments (0)

Trekking in a winter wonderland


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

We have just arrived in the small village of Braga on the 30th day of our epic trek in the Nepal Himalaya. Rejoice, for the Internet has reached these parts and we can give you an update on our travels - just a brief one, mind, as the web doesn't come cheap at 3,500m!

Once again Nepal has given us more of everything. More incredible mountain scenery, more heart-warming hospitality, more gompas, more bites (leaches, mosquitos, and bed bugs), more cranky yaks, more veg-fried potatoes, more daal bhat dinners and more near-death experiences on the local buses than you can shake a broken Leki pole at.

For the first 15 days of our trek, we were accompanied by a retinue of Nepali staff carrying camping and cooking equipment and food: Ram, our guide, Phurbar, our cook, Dharma, the assistant guide and seven porters.

For the past fortnight, we have been staying in teahouses, acccompanied by Ram and a single porter, Sinkhada, who has been carrying both our heavy backpacks.

Suffice to say the trekking has been wonderful so far, and we have made it this far with bodies largely in tact and most of our gear still functioning. We have been busy preparing lots of juicy blog articles for you, so as soon as we get back to civilisation proper, we will be posting regluar updates.

But first the trekking continues! With two 5,000m passes under our belts, we were due to attempt a third as we trekked up to Tilicho Lake, this time without guide or porter. However, we awoke this morning to find a winter wonderland outside our lodge, and snow still falling. The Tilicho trek requires perfect conditions, so we have had to change our plans. We are now sitting it out in Braga to see what the weather does. If it clears we will cross the Thorung La pass for the second time in 5 years. If not, we have to trek down the valley and catch the bus back to Kathmandu. On the bright side, we have have just gorged ourselves on chocolate cake and apple pie, at the same bakery in Braga we first discovered in 2007.

Winter arrives early in Ngawal

Winter arrives early in Ngawal

Apple pie and chocolate cake never tasted so good

Apple pie and chocolate cake never tasted so good

Jen and Chris

Posted by Chris Parsons 22:46 Archived in Nepal Tagged food trekking nepal Comments (0)

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