the best pho doesn’t have a recipe

I usually find it hard to pinpoint my “favourite” things… Those who know me know that anything I happen to like is my “favourite”… but I do think one of my favourite things about travelling in Asia is the food. And no, this surely isn’t a very controversial opinion otherwise every city in the word wouldn’t have a Chinatown, and one of the most popular cuisines here in Australia wouldn’t be Thai food, and the grooviest foodie streets wouldn’t be strewn with Vietnamese restaurants. Here in Adelaide, the turnout to festivals like OzAsia or IndoFest would probably be lower if our foodie culture didn’t exist.

Anyway… let’s talk about a great passion (or obsession, whatever) of mine right now – Asian soups. I cooked a Tom Yum last night, and I love a good Laksa, but I’ve been trying to perfect pho lately. During this process I’ve learned something: you can’t “perfect” the recipe.

When I got home from the latest jaunt to Vietnam, I scoured the internet for a good pho recipe. A lot of them had star anise in them, which I hate, and they just didn’t taste right (I honestly don’t recall eating one that tasted of star anise over there, but here it’s quite common). I’m discovering that making it to taste, rather than following strict guidelines, is working much better. Then you serve it all up with lots of extras to add in (basil, fresh chilli, fish sauce, lime) and mix it all up until no-one’s bowls taste the same.

So what I want to know from everyone is: do you rely on recipes? Do you make a good pho? And if you do, what are the real essentials in your opinion? Okay… GO!

my most recent attempt at homemade pho

my most recent attempt at homemade pho


three cute little vietnam-isms

1. happy room

this is where you go when you need to relieve yourself. It has a rating system just like a hotel: a five star happy room is spotless and has plenty of toilet paper and anti-bacterial soap (and you can flush the toilet paper without clogging the toilet); a one star happy room has water/other watery substances everywhere and you have to squat (obviously this is a western rating system). A one star happy room is gross and makes you reconsider whether you really need to go. A no-star happy room is for the desparate; someone’s already vomited everywhere. These can be found at most nightclubs.

2. happy place
A happy place is a big roadstop-type place with at least two-star happy rooms and the chance to order decent food. The best meal I’ve eaten so far on this trip was the pho bo (beef noodle soup, the national dish) at the happy place somewhere between Can Tho and Chau Doc.
3. Doing The Business.
You do the business when you make any kind of transaction involving money, however it’s usually reserved for when you have a little shanty-like house on the river and you run a small shop out the back. When you open your shop, you are Doing The Business.

vietnam take two… now with added bonus cambodia!

Well here it is folks… the itinerary for my upcoming trip to Vietnam and Cambodia for work. I can’t wait to see how the region has changed in the six years since I was there last but also, how I have changed. When I first travelled to Vietnam, I had never been overseas. Suffice to say, I’ve done a lot of growing up in the years since and learned many things.
My pursuits will most likely be more historical this time too and I’m excited to gain more understanding of the tourism industry as a whole in these too fantastic countries. Of course, I wll be updating as we go. Exciting!

Arrival in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) :SQ 186 :18:45
Transfer Overnight in Saigon
Breakfast     Excursion to Cu Chi Tunnels
Never discovered by American forces, the CU CHI TUNNELS were an important Vietcong base during the American War. Stretching over 200 km, this incredible underground network, dug by hand out of hard laterite, connected command posts, hospitals, shelter and weapon factories. Today, you can walk through the area and learn about the day-to-day life of the VC, see the cleverly disguised entrances and elaborate booby-traps, and even venture inside the tunnels, some of which have been modified to accommodate tourists.
Sightseeing in Saigon
A vibrant metropolis, SAIGON teems with energy, activity and motion. Everywhere you look, you see the meeting of traditional and modern life. The emerging modern skyline stands cheek by jowl with colonial buildings and traditional temples. Outside on the streets, young professionals zip by on motorbikes, chatting on cellphones; inside the quiet temple courtyards, worshippers pray amidst clouds of incense.
Begin your tour into modern history with a tour of the REUNIFICATION PALACE. Formerly the Independence Palace of the South Vietnamese president, this 60s style building was famously stormed by tanks on April 30, 1975 signifying the fall of South Vietnam. It has been preserved in its original state, and the original tanks remain on display near the entrance gates.
Afterwards driving to the historic center to visit EMPEROR OF JADE PAGODA, one of Saigon’s most interesting pagoda. Proceed to pay a quick visit to the neo-Romanesque NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL and the CENTRAL POST OFFICE. Pass by the classic European-style landmarks such as the ornate CITY HALL (HOTEL DE VILLE), the old OPERA HOUSE (both may only be viewed from the outside).
Finally, end up at the central BEN THANH MARKET, where vendors display a vast array of goods and handicrafts, appealing to every taste. Overnight in Saigon
Breakfast      By vehicle from Saigon (city) to Ben Tre with excursion by boat trip on Mekong River
Journey to the Mekong Delta to Ben Luc and Tan An. Take a boat trip on Mekong River to TAN THACH (BEN TRE) where local handicrafts and sweets from coconut are produced. Enjoy fresh seasonal fruits, a performance of traditional songs, and observe the local life. Take a short ride on a horse carriage to a typical local house to taste some homemade honey-tea. Proceed by small sampan boats through the small canals and observe daily life along the riverbanks, stopping for a leisurely stroll.
By vehicle from Ben Tre to Can Tho     Arrival in Can Tho     Overnight in Can Tho
Breakfast    Excursion by boat to Cai Rang Floating Market
In the early morning, set out by boat to explore CAI RANG FLOATING MARKET, the biggest and most bustling of the Mekong Delta markets, which attracts fruit and vegetable vendors from all over the region. Buyers on smaller boats weave between the large barges selling wholesale produce. Each vendor advertises fresh samples of their wares on long poles that tower overhead above the colorful boats. Sail through the market, watching people haggle and trade, and possibly sample some of the fruit yourself. By 9 am, the activity has died down and it is time to return to the pier, after exploring some of the backwaters and canals.
By vehicle from Can Tho to Chau Doc
Sightseeing in Chau Doc with boat trip Embark on a boat to explore the bustling river life around Chau Doc, visiting the FLOATING VILLAGES, whose inhabitants live and work all their lives on the river. Stop at one of the typical houses, and see how they raise fish in nets directly under the house itself. Continue to the distinctive CHAM VILLAGE, on the other side of the river, with its thriving Muslim community. After returning to the town, continue by vehicle to SAM MOUNTAIN, which rises sharply from the surrounding rice paddies. Considered one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Vietnam, the mountain is dotted with pagodes and temples, many of them inside caves. Visit LADY CHUA XU PAGODA at the base and continue up shallow stairways along the mountain, visiting other pagodes as you ascend:
Tay An is an ancient pagoda with a mixture of Vietnamese and Asian architectural styles, the main temple has more than 100 statues each representing the power of Buddhism include Phat Thay Tay An (in the 19th century), who has been voted to be a member of the An Giang Buddhism Association. The solemnity and holiness of Tay An has become an invisible power, attracting a great number of monks and pilgrims.
Visit Lady Chua Xu Pagoda
LADY CHUA XU: this early 19th century pagoda sits at the base of Sam Mountain, and is famous for the legend of Lady Chau Xu’s statue. Story has it that the statue originally stood at the mountain peak. When Siamese soldiers attemped to steal the statue, it grew heavier and heavier until they were unable to carry it further – at that point, the pagoda was built. Overnight in Chau Doc
Breakfast        Transfer  On board the Tu Trang Speedboat from Chau Doc to Phnom Arrival in Phnom PenhTransfer from pier          Sightseeing in Phnom Penh
Explore PHNOM PENH, a chaotic, energetic and always fascinating city. Graceful tree-lined boulevards and riverfront promenades are reminders of bygone eras; today they teem with life and activity, as motorcycles weave in and out of traffic, vendor hawk their wares, and pedestrians go about their business. Start your tour with an insight into Cambodia’s cultural heritage with a visit to the ROYAL PALACE, still the official residence of King Norodom Sihamoni and the adjacent SILVER PAGODA, also known as the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha. Continue to the elegant NATIONAL MUSEUM, which contains a comprehensive collection of Khmer Art. Finally, explore the modern-day city, visiting one of Phnom Penh’s two great markets, the CENTRAL MARKET, located in a distinctive domed Art Deco building, OR the sprawling RUSSIAN MARKET, a labyrinth of stalls selling everything from CDs and DVDs to silks, crafts, jewelry and more.
Visit the Russian Market (Tuol Tompong)
The sprawling RUSSIAN MARKET is a labyrinth of stalls selling everything from CDs and DVDs to silks, crafts, antiques, foodstuffs and more. An ideal place for browsing and bargain-hunting. Overnight in Phnom Penh
Breakfast         Excursion to the Killing Fields
Just outside Phnom Penh, in a peaceful rural setting, the KILLING FIELDS OF CHOEUNG EK provide a stark reminder of the atrocities under the Pol Pot regime. Thousands of people were killed here between the years of 1975 and 1978 and buried in mass graves.
Afternoon at leisure         Overnight in Phnom Penh
Breakfast    Transfer    Flight from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap.    Arrival in Siem Reap   Transfer     Sightseeing in Angkor     Visit Angkor Thom
The fortified city of ANGKOR THOM covers an area of 10 square km. Enclosed by a wall and wide moats, the city includes many of Angkor’s most popular sights. Enter by the monumental SOUTH GATE over a causeway lined on either side by statues of demons and gods, each carrying a giant naga. Continue to the TERRACE OF THE ELEPHANTS and the TERRACE OF THE LEPER KINGS, former spaces for public cermonies, both adorned with dramatic bas reliefs. Visit the ruined BAPHUON, ROYAL ENCLOSURE and PHIMEANAKAS before continuing to the mysterious BAYON TEMPLE. In this temple, one of the most popular and compelling in Angkor, explore the galleries of beautifully preserved bas reliefs and ascend narrow stairs to reach the central sanctuary, where you will find giant stone faces smiling enigmatically down at you from every angle.
Visit Ta Prohm
TA PROHM: one of the most popular attractions of Angkor as much of the jungle has not been cleared and it looks very much as most of the Angkor monuments would have appeared when European explorers first stumbled across them.
Visit a temple for sunset
Watch the sun set over the Cambodian countryside from the upper terraces of an ancient Angkorian temple.    Overnight in Siem Reap
Breakfast     Sightseeing in Angkor    Visit Banteay Srei Temple
Seemingly miniature in comparison to the other Angkor temples, BANTEAY SREI is considered to be the jewel of classical Khmer art. Built in pink sandstone, the walls are covered in exquisitely preserved carvings of unusual delicacy. Because of its small size, fairy-like atmosphere and extraordinary examples of Khmer sculpture, this temple is often a favorite with visitors.
Visit Banteay Samre
BANTEAY SAMRE is a mid-12th century temple dedicated to the god Vishnu.
Visit Pre Rup Temple
PRE RUP: built by Rajendravarman II (ruled 944 to 968), it consists of a pyramid shaped temple with the upper-most of the three tiers carrying five square shrines arranged as a quincunx. The name means turning the body and refers to the traditional method of cremation.
Visit Angkor Wat
The crowning jewel of Khmer architecture, ANGKOR WAT is the national symbol and the highlight of any visit to Cambodia. The largest, best preserved, and most religiously significant of the Angkor temples, Angkor impresses visitors both by its sheer scale and beautifully proportioned layout, as well as the delicate artistry of its carvings. To approach the temple, first cross the vast moat, continuing along a broad causeway lined with naga balustrades. As you enter the main building, ascend through a series of galleries and courtyard before reaching the central sanctuary, which offers beautiful views back over the causeway and across the surrounding countryside. On the way, stop to enjoy the intricate stonecarvings that adorn nearly every surface, with some 1,700 Apsaras, or celestial dancers, sculpted into the walls. Along the outer gallery walls run the longest continuous bas-relief in the world, which narrates stories from Hindu mythology, including the famous Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Angkor Wat is stunning at any time of the day, but sunrise and sunset are especially beautiful times to watch the play of light on the stones. Overnight in Siem Reap
Breakfast     Excursion to Tonle Sap Lake with boat trip at Me Chrey
Explore Me Chrey villages, located on Tonle Sap lake, an extraordinary lake swells up to seven times its original size during the monsoon season. Its ecosystem is one of the richest and most diverse in the region. This boat trip will explore the floating fishing villages and houses that live at the edges of the lake, passing submerged forests and fishing farms.
Note : Houses there are all floating houses, about 300 houses, from Jul to Feb, villagers living around the pagoda and from Mar to Jun, houses move out to the lake. School buildings at Me Chrey supported by a Mission of Mercy; NGO supports building the school at Mechrey
Transfer to Airport for your departure flight – MI 636 :18:25

ten things I learned as a first-timer in Vietnam

The first time I ever left Australia was when I was 18. I had been itching to head to Vietnam after studying it’s history in School. My travelling companion said “can’t we just go to New Zealand?” but I was determined to try something a bit riskier. Well…

1.       Never watch Bangkok Hilton before backpacking through Asia
Thanks Mum for the terror it instilled, which led me to using five different kinds of padlocks PLUS those zip tags with the codes on them… then going through my stuff at the carousel to make sure there was nothing in my bags I needed to flush.
2.       Forget your personal boundaries
I walked into Bến Thành markets in Ho Chi Minh City, backpack still on, fresh off the plane, just killing time waiting to be able to check into my hotel. At the first t-shirt stall I looked at, a lady came up to me and grabbed my boobs while crying “WHY SO BIG?!” I thought it was a one-off, but no. It happened pretty much every day. By the end, I have to say I was flattered.
3.   Vietnam has weather, too
Just because the picture in the brochure shows Halong Bay as a sunny place with girls in bikinis jumping off the top of the junk boat into beautiful emerald-green water doesn’t mean that when you get there it won’t be 8 degrees with pea-soup fog. It’s called winter. It’s a thing that hapens sometimes. 
4.       Just close your eyes and GO!
If you wait for a break in the traffic, you’ll never get across the road. If you change pace as you walk, or try to dodge someone on a scooter, you will hit someone. Guaranteed. So just close your eyes, say your ‘hail mary’s, and walk.
5.       If you’re a clean freak, don’t travel during Tet
All the rooms were dirty, because you don’t want to sweep out all the good luck when you sweep out the dirt. So cleaning takes a back seat in the lead up to the Vietnamese New Year. BYO thongs/jandals/flip-flops.
6.       Look up and live
We have this saying in Australia, which basically means watch out for power lines, but never has this been more appropriate than on the streets of Hanoi. I have a nasty habit of watching my feet as I walk (probably because I trip so often!) and nearly walked in to several live power lines which were dangling at neck height. I’m 5’1 so… yeah, they were hanging pretty low.
7.       Just because a red sign says KFC, doesn’t mean it’s anything like back home.
Walks like a chicken, looks like a chicken… or not. Probably goes “woof”. And on that note…
8.       For the un-initiated, eating dog can make you sick.
And not just because the idea of it turns my stomach. Even when you think you’ve eaten beef (like me) you’ll still probably get sick.

9. Rice wine isn’t for everyone…
But it is for me! Party up, Vietnam style… Just don’t eat the scorpion at the bottom.
10.   There’s no place like home
After two weeks, I was ready to come home. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. Back in my own bed, I slept better than I ever had before. But after a few days, I regretted feeling that way and was dying to go back. I put my rose-coloured-glasses on, declared it the best place ever, and booked for the next journey.
Streets of Saigon, Vietnam 2008