Eating My Way Through Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia
A two-week, whirlwind tour of five cities (and one bay on a Chinese junk). Chef Jimmy Bradley eats his way through Southeast Asia.
So, what brought you to Southeast Asia? I took a short holiday with my friends Pam Norwood, Drew Wolf, and David Dubois. We wanted to go to a few cities — see markets, museums, architecture, go to the beach, go sailing, see historical temples, ride motor scooters, and eat, drink, and hang out with the locals.
How did you get there? We flew Emirates Air from JFK through Dubai to Bangkok. Then we flew Vietnam Air between the cities and Cambodia. The Emirates flights were great, A380 with flat seats — nice. The Dubai Airport really, really blows. Their claim to fame is the busiest duty-free shop in the world. Say no more. Oh, that and you have to travel a mile to catch your connecting flight. Nice job, airport planners. The rest of the journey were short flights and short rides to the hotels. It can be confusing, so you might want to hire someone to assist you with the airports and transportation.
1. Two days in Bangkok, Thailand. We stayed at the Oriental, toured the floating market, visited Buddhist temples, and hung out with locals.
2. Two days in Hanoi, Vietnam. We stayed at the Legend Metropole, went to markets, cafes, saw a water puppet show and the Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war camp.
3. One day and night on a Chinese junk, sailing Halong Bay fishing for squid and digging for clams for our dinner.
4. Three days in Hoi An, Vietnam. We stayed at the Nam Hai. Mostly going to the beach, working on a produce farm, riding motor scooters in town, and eating and drinking our faces off.
5. Two days in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We stayed at the Raffles Grand Angkor and saw Angkor Wat and Angor Thom, ancient temples in the jungle.
6. Two days in Saigon, Vietnam, at the Park Hyatt, touring the war museum, drinking fresh beer and iced coffee, eating banh mi, riding scooters, and hanging out with the locals at night in the cafes.
What did you know by the last day that you wish you had known on the first? That when someone is saying, "Hello, how are you?" (as Westerners do when we meet someone), the Vietnamese are actually saying "Have you eaten yet?" This is how you are greeted by almost everyone you meet. How cool is that? And what a great indicator of how seriously they take eating.
This was especially great: The fresh beer, or bia ho'i as it is called, and the small cafes on the streets in Hanoi. It's fresh beer made daily, and every locale makes their own. It’s like a German beer hall, only in Asia with Asian finger food. Wicked cool.
But this wasn't: The heat. It was hot, especially in the cities. Hot.
This was touristy and worth it: The Ancient temples in the jungle in Siem Reap, Cambodia — Angkor Wat and Angor Thom. It's hard to imagine building these temples filled with the most intricate carvings and details and joined together with no mortar in the tenth century in the jungle.
What's the local specialty? In Hanoi, it's the fresh beer, bia ho'i, and cafes. Also, fine linen, art, and great markets. In Halong Bay, it's the squid, hard-shell clams, and sailing. In Hoi An, it's tailor-made clothing, shopping in town, and farming outside of town.
In Cambodia, it was quite touristy in Siem Reap for the ancient temple. It felt like Cambodia was still recovering from the long and harsh civil war that took place until the 1990s. In Saigon, it's the nightlife, the motor scooters, great baguettes and banh mi, and museums. All over Vietnam, they make the best freshly brewed iced coffee served with sweetened condensed milk.
Let's talk about stuff.
1. Glad you packed: Sunglasses.
2. Wish you'd packed: Suntan lotion.
3. Didn't need: A camera. I used my phone the whole time. Very conveneint and easy.
4. Brought back: Scarves, linen cocktail napkins, hand-carved wooden bowls.
Speed round of favorites.
1. Meal: Morning Glory Restaurant in Hoi An. Great.
2. Neighborhood to explore: The coffee bars and clubs in Saigon where locals gather for music, food, and drink.
3.Site/place/thing you did: Sail on Halong Bay.
4. Cafe/casual hangout: The bia ho'i and cafes in Hanoi.
Were you there for the right amount of time? I was in each town no longer than three days and I would have liked to be in each for five days. It was hard to see it all and get to do everything desired in three days.
One thing/place you didn't get to visit, but wanted to: The beach in Thailand, the ancient city of Hue in Vietnam, the Golden Triangle, all of Burma. Next time.
Any surprises? The people in Vietnam were warm, kind, funny, and just lovely. We had a great time with them, telling stories and hearing about their culture, customs, and what America means to them.
You can't stop thinking about: The food. In fourteen days we ate in three different countries and many different towns and cities. And we never had a bad meal.
The Kodak moment: Which one? Sailing the private junk around Halong bay (and dinner under the full moon that evening)? The ancient temples of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat at sunrise in the jungle? The markets in Hanoi and Saigon? The small, old, colonial Indochine cafes that look like they have been in a time machine? The plate of ortolans (tiny birds served whole — head, bones, butt — you eat it all) served at lunch on our first day in a café on the street in Hanoi?
What's the best tip you'd give a friend who wanted to go? Go for longer than two weeks.
Would you go back? F. yeah, in half a second. If it were closer, I'd have a second home there. No joke. The price is right and the people are great. It's just so damn far away.