Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sayonara, Hanoi

I'll miss these colorful sunsets over Truc Bach Lake and West Lake from my balcony.

For the fifth time in seventeen years, I’m moving from Vietnam to a far-off shore. This time my destination is Akita, Japan, where I have a one-year work contract. The Japanese government has given me a three-year work visa, however, so I may end up in Japan long term.

I’ve been debating whether or not to retire this blog and start a new one, but I’m going to try to keep this one going. Akita, which is about 550 km (330 miles) from Tokyo as the crow flies, isn’t on most travelers’ lists of must-see destinations, but since it’s going to become my home for a while, I’m sure there will be plenty to share about this medium-sized city on the northwestern tip of Honshu, on the sea-edge of the Japanese Alps.

I’ve lately taken to Twitter, too, and like it for all the tailored news feeds I get and for timely updates on local goings-on. For anyone interested in “following” me on Twitter, feel free to do so. My account name is sapuche.

In the meantime, this will be my last blog post from Vietnam. I’m typing this on my flight to Japan, and expect to post it from an airport hotel in Tokyo. Tomorrow I arrive in Akita, and surely I’ll start blogging again soon.

Sayonara, Hanoi. Stay interesting. But please work on solving your traffic problems. And clean up Hoan Kiem Lake so your country’s emblematic turtle can live on for many years to come. I can’t wait to come back one day soon.

Approaching Tokyo by air. Mt. Fuji is rising through the clouds in the distance.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Monday, June 20, 2011

Short Getaway to Phu Quoc Island

Bai Sao Beach on Phu Quoc Island.

As part of my last trip in Vietnam (“last” is relative; I’ve lived in Vietnam five different times, so this is the fifth “last trip” I’ve made here), I headed south to Vung Tau and Phu Quoc. Much of what I saw and did in Vung Tau I did before on previous trips there, so I won’t post anything new about this pleasant coastal city—though I could mention a great seafood restaurant where I had sea cucumber salad and grilled oysters with cheese, among other memorable dishes. Maybe I'll squeeze that in on a later post...

Phu Quoc has an interesting history. Once belonging to Cambodia, the island has been absorbed into Vietnamese territory for a few centuries. The island served as a penal colony during French colonial times, housed a prison camp during the Vietnam War, gave safe haven to Republic of China soldiers for four years before they continued on to Taiwan, and was briefly taken by Khmer Rouge forces in 1975. Now, however, Phu Quoc is best known for its fish sauce, pepper, and seafood.

Aside from my interest in the island’s history, Phu Quoc has always been my favorite getaway in Vietnam, largely because it has empty, mostly unspoiled beaches, amazing seafood, and because the island is bigger than Singapore (especially outside the island’s main city of Dương Đông) one can spend hours exploring it on motorbike or bicycle. On this trip we opted for a motorbike, which cost under US$8/day to rent, and hit the main market, a fish sauce (nước mắm) factory, a pearl farm, a beachside restaurant, a stunning white-sand beach, and numerous dirt roads that took us through always interesting landscape.

The first time I came to Phu Quoc was in 2004, and in the intervening seven years a fair bit has changed. The downtown area is more crowded, the traffic is worse (but concentrated downtown), and tourism has slowly started to kick into gear. Driving here is fine, but the roads are bad and you have to share them at times with huge transport trucks and tourist buses. I hate to think of what motorbike and bicycle travel will be like in a few more years when road traffic on the island multiplies. The island’s big enough, though, and roads can be widened without displacing local inhabitants, that this hopefully won’t be an island-wide problem for many more years.

One of the more interesting places to visit, in my opinion, is Dương Đông market. Morning is the best time to go, especially to see fresh fish being sold, but it was extremely crowded when I went and whenever I walked on the market road I had to dodge traffic and breathe in noxious exhaust fumes. The fish selection here was possibly more varied than what I saw in Đồng Hơi, though in terms of scale this market was smaller. I was surprised to see the selection of sharks, stingrays, and a large dark green fish called cá bớp in Vietnamese (cobia, or sargeant fish, in English). Following are some photos of the market; as usual, I focused on the fish.

That dark green fish is cá bớp. And it is, I have to say, delicious. I just hope it's not endangered...

Sharks for sale. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how they're used in cooking.

Not far from here, and also downtown, is the Khải Hoàn Fish Sauce Factory—one of several fish sauce factories on Phu Quoc.

It can't be comfortable sitting atop plastic bottles of fish sauce...

They offer brief tours in very limited English, but if you speak Vietnamese you’ll get a much more detailed explanation of how the factory makes its fish sauce. Also, be forewarned that the factory seriously stinks. After twenty minutes here I grew not to mind the smell so much, but in the beginning the stink was hard to deal with. We’re talking air suffused with fish in varying stages of lengthy fermentation.

What kind of fish? Anchovies! They buy tons of anchovies (okay, and apparently other varieties of small fish) from local fisherman, who come right up to the water-side dock of the factory and sell them their catch directly.

In case you're wondering what this gray mass is, it's the fish used to make fish sauce. You wouldn't want to get pushed into this mass, either, as you'd sink to the bottom of a 10-ft-tall barrel and have to swim to the top through 3 tons of fermenting fish.

The fish are then pressed and left to ferment, and the waste product, rather than being thrown away, is sold mainly to local fish farmers who feed it to their own fish stocks. It’s not what I’d call a big operation, but this brand can be bought all over Vietnam.

You can sample and buy the factory's different products. That is, if you can get the workers to stop playing games on their cell phones and not whine like babies when you ask them to help you. I eventually found a nice member of the staff to help me; hopefully you will, too.
Also downtown, and just down the road from several hotels such as Saigon-Phu Quoc Resort, is Cau Dinh Temple. Situated atop a rock jutting out into the Gulf of Thailand, one has a beautiful southward view of the beach as well as a northward view beyond the mouth of the Dương Đông River and the beaches along the shore there. The temple is famous for the whale bones it contains, and attracts seafarers and followers of Vietnam's "whale cult." There’s also a nightmarket within walking distance from Cau Dinh Temple, where you can sample local seafood.

Phu Quoc dogs are famous for the line of raised fur along their backs. And no, it doesn't mean they're angry.
I'm not sure why three of these four kids were fishing with their motorcycle helmets on, but I readily admit I don't understand Vietnamese culture as well as I probably should. 
Another place worth going to is Sao Beach, on the southern tip of the island. The beach extends a few kilometers, to Khem Beach, which is also pretty spectacular, but Sao Beach is better set up for tourists to make use of (though it’s not yet what I’d call touristy). There’s an amazing, inexpensive beachside seafood restaurant here, where we ordered cồi biên mai (grilled surf clams, I think) and mực hấp gừng (ginger steamed squid).

Cồi biên mai

Mực hấp gừng

A cute puppy struggling to lick some seafood grease off of a plate. It soon gave up and collapsed on the beer-wet ground and started snoring.

Also, if you drive a motorbike here you can park it in the restaurant’s lot and spend however long you’d like on the beach and in the ocean. The white sand here is powdery soft, there’s no trash, and the water is shallow and clear for dozens of meters out into the bay. We waded into the warm water after lunch, and quite a few tiny green fish approached us and actually nibbled on the skin along our shoulders and back. We didn’t feel them at all, but they weren’t the least bit afraid of us.

During previous visits to Phu Quoc I’ve stayed at Saigon-Phu Quoc Resort and Bo Resort, but this time we opted to stay at Mango Bay (near Bo Resort, on Ong Lang Beach, but separated from it by an unscalable outcrop). Mango Bay is a fairly basic, mostly no-frills eco-resort on a large tract of oceanfront land.

You'll want to keep your eyes peeled for great mounds of cow poop. Or, as the Vietnamese call them, bôm bò (cow bombs).

It’s a popular place for foreigners (and roaming cows), and there were a fair number of Vietnamese who stayed here as well, which was nice to see.

It’s a pleasant place to spend a few relaxing days, but I must say that the food here was expensive (~$10/plate) and not all that good.

I also have to say that the bungalows were overpriced. We paid $54/night for a fancified hut without A/C or Internet access, and more freaky insects and arachnids than you’d ever want to have to deal with on holiday. I even got bit by a hand-sized spider, of which there were many in and around the bungalow, that had somehow found its way inside the mosquito-net-enclosed bed in which I slept. Don’t even ask about the variety of poisonous millipedes crawling all over the floors of the outdoor shower and bungalow’s interior. Of course, the resort can't protect guests against every creepy-crawly thing in a creepy-crawly-filled environment, but at least now you know that you may encounter them here.

The resort's beach is clean and pretty, but only part of it is consistently calm enough for swimming. Ong Lang Beach is great for long walks, too; bring your shoes if you want to climb over the rocks that separate the various stretches of beach.

I feel comfortable recommending Mango Bay, though there are probably better options on Phu Quoc for the price.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Oishi Restaurant (West Lake, Hanoi)

Well, as my time in Vietnam draws to a close, I’m thinking of retiring this blog to focus on my home-to-be: Japan. In fact, if I have my druthers one day, I’ll find a way to live half the year in Vietnam and half the year in Japan (with a few weeks or months in the U.S. thrown in for good measure). But right now I’m getting ready to move to Akita, Japan, on a one-year contract, and since I don’t expect I’ll be able to travel much outside Japan anytime soon, I think I may concentrate on raising one of the offspring of this blog – Japan Tastes Good. Either that, or I’ll take another break from blogging and concentrate on my immediate concerns of getting adjusted to a new country, culture, and language, as well as a new job.

In the meantime, and with Japan on my brain, I’ve got another Japanese restaurant in Hanoi to recommend highly.

Oishi Restaurant is not easy to find on a first attempt. It’s tucked away at the end of a winding road in West Lake, and sits quietly between several tennis courts, a hotel and pool, and an international school. The location is actually very nice—with all the old, towering trees, it’s bathed in shade during the day and is an oasis of quiet on summer nights when West Lake's cicadas and frogs are at their noisiest.

Walking into the restaurant, you’d be forgiven for imagining that the prices here are going to be high—or at least higher than most Japanese restaurants in Hanoi—but this isn’t the case at all. Oishi has a very polished, modern interior, and manages to function well as a high-quality restaurant with fewer staff than most of its competitors around the city.

The sushi chef, who hails from Osaka, is extremely nice and comes to Oishi with more than twenty years of restaurant experience in Japan. (He's new to making sushi, but he seems to do a good job if it!) He doesn’t speak much English, but if you know some Japanese he’s more than happy to make conversation while he goes about creating your sushi.

I’m including photos of two of the meals I had at Oishi. The first one is admittedly nothing exotic—a tempura lunch set special, which included a potato croquette starter, miso soup, white rice, pickled veggies, green tea, and fruit for dessert—but I have to say it was some of the best tempura I’ve had in Vietnam. And for only $7, it can’t be beat.

The potato croquette starter. This alone satisfied completely.

I’ve had the ramen lunch set here, too, which is fantastic, and I’ve ordered sushi delivered to my home in Truc Bach, which luckily is within their delivery zone, but it’s a particularly nice experience to come here with friends for dinner. The menu is extensive—one friend complained it was too large—but easily navigated. The sushi options are simple but numerous.

We started off with an eel and cucumber salad, thinly sliced grilled pumpkin, and a plate of fried onions and assortment of mushrooms.

After that we went for the sushi. Perhaps it was because of the heat, but amazingly we didn’t come with our normal appetites. Normally we would order four or five types of sushi, but tonight we just went with two: a tuna roll (the pieces of which were large and the portions of tuna more than generous) and an order or pressed mackerel (the best mackerel sushi I’ve had in Vietnam). For four people our bill, including beer and sake, came to $53.

If they had legs, I'd expect them to start kicking them Rockettes-style on their long tray.

One thing that stayed with me about the restaurant was its Japanese graciousness. I was with a party of four one night when suddenly the skies unleashed a downpour. We were the last customers to leave, but we had walked there from a house about one kilometer away. The restaurant called us a taxi, but none came. (It's hard to get taxis in the rain in Hanoi.) Finally, the restaurant gave us four brand new Japanese umbrellas—the price tags were still attached—and told us to take them home. We promised to bring them back the next day, but the sushi chef and his staff waved off this suggestion and said we could keep them. We protested, but they protested more vigorously, and in the end we walked off in the rain with four umbrellas we hadn’t arrived with.

Oishi Restaurant is located at Tô Ngọc Vân, Tây Hồ, Hà Nội. Tel: 04-37186626. Fax: 04-37186616. Web: Hours: 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. - 9 p.m. (or later).

Stumble Upon Toolbar