March 2008

Scarcely back in Bangkok and we are jetting off again. This time to the Andaman Coast of Thailand with Alexander’s sister. We’ll be spending the next couple of days kayaking amongst karst islands, taking boat trips through mangrove forests and spending time catching up on some much needed sun-time.

So expect some more posts about lovely northern Vietnam soon and about our trip to sunny Krabi and Koh Phi-phi!

At around nine Sunday evening we board the overnight train heading for Lao Cai. We were to spend the night in a six-berth ‘hard’ sleeper. I was concerned for my comfort at first, but it turned out the cramped berth was not all that bad and after Alexander got one of our fellow travelers to turn of the music he was playing for all on his phone we had a fairly comfortable rest.

We arrived at Lao Cai just after five the next morning, a pleasant chill in the air. After some initial waiting for our minibus to fill up we finally started the slow drive up the mountain pass to Sapa, a scenic ninety minute journey, passing terraced rice paddies and local villages on the way.

Sapa was a bit of an old hill station back in the day, where homesick colonialists came to soak up the cool mountain air. Today it draws throngs of tourists curious to see the ethnic minorities from the surrounds come and peddle their wares in town, or adventurous hikers. Or, in our case, people who miss icy cold weather.

And that is exactly what we got as we stepped of the minibus. I was instantly deeply satisfied with the idea of spending a whole day and night here and often saying “I’m freezing!”

Sapa is spectacular. It is surrounded by high mountains and deep valleys, covered in villages, terraced farmlands and rice fields. Mist and clouds hung over much of the valley and area, which made seeing Vietnam’s highest mountain, Fan Xi Pan, impossible. But the views from town were still mighty impressive.

After checking into a hotel and a very hot shower we bundled up and strolled around town. Everywhere we went we were hassled by good-humored Hmong and Red Dzau ladies to buy hand stitched blankets or bags and silver. They are very persistent and would follow us around for long distances, tugging at our arms and saying “Looky-looky. You buy something for me?” I’m usually easily bothered by touts and people bothering me with their goods, but these ladies never failed to make me giggle with their persistence and simple and confusing English questions.

We went for lunch at Baguettes et Chocolate, a restaurant training less-fortunate youths for the hospitality industry. For dessert we enjoyed little chocolate and wine tarts; which reminded us both of the recent HHDD challenge I hosted. Afterwards we went back to the hotel for an afternoon nap.

I awoke much later to find that thick blankets of fog were rolling into town. Within minutes the whole town was covered and it became almost impossible to see to the other side of the street! I made my way to a bakery across the street and picked up some hot chocolate and a chocolate roll to enjoy in bed.

Much later we again ventured out into the foggy streets to a restaurant where a warm fireplace invited us in for dinner.

After a breakfast of warm beef pho we enjoyed coffee at a very informal little shop in an overgrown orchid garden. The menu consisted of pretty much only coffee, ranging from numbers one to nine. I asked the proprietress what nine was and she answered that it was very good Vietnam coffee. We ordered. We were not disappointed.

The coffee was thick and rich with a cocoa aftertaste, which was slightly enhanced by adding a little bit of fresh milk. We slowly sipped, while enjoying the garden.

Later we wandered through the local fresh produce market, admiring all the wonderful things on sale an trying some local snacks.

Upstairs from the wet market is a dry market where some Hmong and Dzau ladies sell blankets, bags, skirts and silver. I bought some fabric and Alexander a Hmong blanket.

Much later, after perusing through his shopping bag, a Red Dzau lady insists that he buys from her as well. “You buy Hmong, now you buy for Red Dzau. Looky, Red Dzau all hand make, I make, by hand. Hmong, looky, machine!” Even though I can see almost equal parts hand and machine work in both I decide to make her happy and a buy an embroidered bag.

At six in the afternoon, the whole town again disappearing behind drapes of fog, we get back on a minibus, heading for Lao Cai this time. This time we got berths in a four-sleeper, with a much more comfortable mattress and it is not long after the train pulled away that the steady rocking and comfortable bed make me drift off.

It’s just after five the next morning when we arrive back in dark and atmospheric Hanoi. This time the city is just waking up, and from the station we head straight to a pho corner for steamy bowls of chicken pho for breakfast.

A little while ago I mailed a parcel to my friends Gabi and Kevin in Taiwan. I can now reveal to you the contents of the parcel…

It was a diaper tube. They just had a baby and I wanted to give them something to carry all his baby-undergarments in. The bag is tube-shaped and has some inner pockets of the same fun fabric as the lining. I’m not sure if it is at all practical as I have never even looked at a diaper bag before, but I suggested that if that is not the case I am sure they can let little Aidan crawl around in it!

I was going to wait until I was back to the comforts of my own home to announce the news, but that would have been cruel. So here she is, the winner of Hay Hay it’s Donna Day #18… Bron Marshall!

Bron’s coconut and lime tarts were a firm favorite amongst voters and it’s easy to see why.

They look stunning and they sound fantastic! And then Bron went one step further and made raspberry chocolate tarts with the leftover ganache.

Congratulations, Bron. There were some really beautiful, tasty and popular tarts in the round-up, but yours were definitely the most popular. A well-earned win!

Also congratulations on winning the opportunity to host round number 19 of HHDD! I’m still deciding on your prize, but it will be on its way soon.

Thanks again to Barbara for the contest, Joey for hosting the last time and everyone who participated and made this such a fun contest and all who voted.

After some initial delays at Suvanabhumi Airport we finally arrive at the friendly and quiet Noi Bai airport. We clear customs within minutes, pick up our luggage and meet the amiable driver who is taking us into town. Driving into the city he points out some hard-to-see landmarks in the dark while managing two cell phones, driving with his forearms and honking all the time.

The honking, we very soon realize, is omnipresent in Hanoi. Everybody does it and it comes across as very friendly, even polite.

After we check into the CityGate Hotel, which is literally right next to one of the impressive ancient remains of the old city gate we head out into the darkened streets searching for something to eat and our first taste of some local bear. And of course to enjoy the crisp night air, something I have been craving for weeks now.

I have a hard time forming an idea of where we are and what the city looks like. We are staying in the Old Quarter. The streets are narrow and sidewalks are covered with parked motorbikes, street eats and beer sellers. Though there is not much in the way of streetlights we can make out that we are surrounded by really old architecture. In the dim light we make out some of the old architecture and Alexander points out how the area has an almost medieval feel to it.

We make it into the busier night market area and find an informal street eatery where the owner serves us a hearty duck noodle soup. We sit down at the foot high stools and dig in. I notice that no-one finishes their meals, Alexander says he read that no one ever does, it is too much. I smile at the idea, I’m sure I will finish my bowl, but I get proven very wrong.

On the way back to the hotel we stop at a beer corner. Again we sit down on tiny stools and get served two bottles of Ha Noi beer. It’s not cold, but it tastes okay. We are entertained by the  cheerful chatter of other patrons and the interactions of the youthful wait staff, sitting on parked motorbikes and smoking cigarettes when not hauling around heavy crates full of beer or serving snacks to the other guests.

We make our way back to the hotel where the jovial manager is still awake, ensuring us that the big sign outside our room will be switched off in minutes. We should not worry about the light bothering us; it cost too much to keep it burning through the night. He repeats this to use numerous times and even demonstrates, laughing heartily all the time.

I wake up from a mad cacophony out on the alley. Scooter horns are blaring and loud music emanates from somewhere, followed by announcements by a man and woman. Someone is chopping repeatedly at something and the voices of people doing deals can be heard. I walk over to the little balcony and peer onto the street. Apparently we live on an alley of butchers. Carcasses line the street and the honking drivers are loading drums with pieces of meat to be taken to all kinds of kitchens all over the city.

No use trying to sleep anymore. We decide to go see the city in the daylight and find some breakfast.

Something we enjoyed regularly throughout Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam on our travels last year were the baguettes sold everywhere. You buy them fresh, filled with paté, cold cuts, cilantro and a variety of other things. We pick some up at the first stand we see serving them and enjoy it on a bench overlooking Hoa Kiem Lake in the centre of town. A much missed and very satisfying breakfast.

At a coffee shop with a third floor view over the lake and surrounding area I try an egg milk coffee. Never heard of it before and had to try it. It is exactly what the name says, as far as I could tell. Egg gets whipped up into a furious foam with either some sugar or condensed milk to create a rich and decadent foam over which coffee is poured. The coffee floats down to the bottom of the cup. To enjoy it, you stir the coffee through the egg milk and drink. It’s rich, weird, delicious and something I might try again.

We visit the Temple of the Jade Mount on an island on the lake where the taxidermied remains of a 2.1 meter long turtle, found in the lake, is housed. It is a strange sight. The island attracts quit a crowd of curious day trippers and tourists, devout worshippers, and young lovers.

We wander the streets, looking for a spot where we can sit down and have some tea. An old man motions us over to his stools and I notice a tuoc lao. It is a water pipe, usually made from bamboo, in which people smoke regular tobacco. You put some tobacco into a hole down at the bottom and light it with dry sliver of wood, sucking in deeply as you do so. I’ve read about this custom and was curious to try. It’s been more than a year since I’ve even taken a drag from a cigarette, so I felt I could give this a go.

We sat down and I motioned to the old man that I wanted to try, he prepared some tobacco for me and hit me a piece of wood. I put the pipe to my mouth, inhaled, and filled my lungs with a bitter and strong cloud of smoke, exhaling in thick billowing puffs.

The head rush was instant and for almost I could not speak or think. The man poured me some super strong tea from an antiquated teapot and we sat with him and his two friends, slowly sipping the tea while enjoying the quiet kind of conversations people sometimes have by just nodding.

(Thanks to Alexander for the pictures of the City Gate, sandwich and coffee- for his account and more images go read Through the city gate)

In between everything else that’s been going on I’ve had some time to sew. Here is a sneak preview. I’ll be able to reveal more once I know my friend has received her package.

And now I really have to go. We’re leaving for the airport in 30 minutes and I (yes, me!) have not even packed yet!

And here it is, mere hours before I leave in search of cooler climes in Hanoi, the roundup for my HHDD challenge. The theme I chose was coconut chocolate tarts and I received some very lovely and delightful entries.

It seemed some of you had some difficulty with the tart shells and I have to admit even I ended up with a couple of broken ones after my first attempt, but everybody came out with there own creative and clever solutions and I think you all made big successes of your tarts. They look fantastic!

Okay, so let me entertain you with the rounds’ entrants.

First, Hay Hay it’s Donna Hay creator, Barbara at Winos and Foodies who created a dark and fruity tart combining very dark chocolate and fresh slices of mango. Some of her tarts broke, but she came up with a beautiful and creative way of serving even them. Go have a look here to read more about her tarts.

Suzana of Home Gourmets, who is not a big fan of dark chocolate, decided to use white and dark chocolate. Go read her entry to see how she created a hidden chocolate tart that looks and sounds delicious.

Prolific baker Tammy of (not so) Wee Treats by Tammy made the kind of tarts I fantasize serving her tarts with a good dose of caramel. To find out more about her decadence, click here.

Over at HomeMadeS, Arfi made what she named ‘tropo tarts.’ Doesn’t it sound cute and like something you’d like to try? She filled her tarts with chocolate and mascarpone with passion fruit. And if you are planning on making these tarts but nervous about the shell, try following her clever instructions here.

Coconut and lime tarts is what Bron created at her site, Bron Marshall. For more beautiful images and the full story on how she decided to fill her tart shells with marmalade and chocolate, look here.

My mother likes coconut and she loves Bounty candy bars. I am certain she would have loved Pam’s tarts at The Backyard Pizzeria. She very cleverly took the coconut out of the shell and put it right into the filling. And the result looks naughty!

Look at the tarts Annina of Anninas Food made. With the sprinkles they remind me of the porridge I had as a child, although I would have had no need for sprinkles if this was my breakfast. More pictures and her fun entry, here!

And here is the entry that had Alexander really interested. Over at Melody’s site Fruit Tart, she add a bit of flavor to the tart shells. Almond, mmm! She also used mini muffin tins, so in the end she had 24 tarts. Wish I thought of that to make them last longer. For her entry, hit this link.

And who can say no to these? Holly of Phe/MOM/enon made spectacular looking (and sounding) raspberry swirl tarts. And here there is also a surprise hidden under the white and purple swirl. Go here to find out what she did with hers.

As I started with the creator of HHDD’s entry I feel it is only fitting to end with the previous host’s (and sender of awesome goodies) entry. The highly entertaining cook and traveler Joey at 80 Breakfasts. She took inspiration from a very naughty sounding snack she learned to make in school to create tarts with a very decadent sounding filling, hidden under the chocolate (don’t you just love surprises, and there are a couple in this roundup!). Here is her entry and here is what hers looked like.

And now, voting can begin. So let me know which one of these winners (seriously, they are all fantastic) should be the overall winner by sending an email to Closing date for voting is next Friday, March 14 and the winner will be announced shortly after. Hopefully by the 16th. I will be traveling though and I might have some difficulty with posting, but I will try my best. If I do encounter any problems I will postpone announcing the winner until the 19th when I get back.

And off I go…

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