Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Great Breakfast Option Vientiane, Laos

Note: You can click on each image to see a larger version full size

We had a lot of "bests" in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos. Best experience hiring a tuk-tuk for a tour of the city, best side-walk pop-up bar, best attack by swarm of some mysterious bug while at a roof-top restaurant overlooking the Mekong River. But not much in the way of mind-blowing food experiences. Thankfully we were able to find decent veggie food at most small family owned/operated and brightly lit little joints along Fa Ngum Street that runs downtown along the Mekong. Here's what we found on our first venture out:

Stir fried thin rice noodles with veggies (left) and stir fried wide rice noodles with veggies and peanut sauce.

More fancier looking places didn't have much to offer us. At the fanciest place, when we ordered the spring rolls without chicken, we wondered what the meaty thing in them was that didn't seem to be tofu. They apparently assumed we wanted pork instead.

The morning we were leaving to cross over the Friendship Bridge back to Thailand, I was thrilled that we had happened upon Sabaidee Coffee when looking for a quick breakfast before our bus came.
Here's a map showing where it is, located at the intersection of Francois Ngin and and Fa Ngum streets.

The place is strictly cafe/bakery/sandwich shop, but the fact that it had the word "Vegan" on the menu, in English, made my day. The place isn't vegetarian, but it had a good number of vegetarian and vegan options.
I loved the stock clip art used here. With use of the rice flour, it looks like they'd be able to make pancakes gluten free, too.

I got this lovely avocado and tofu sandwich:

And Marya got this fruit and soy yogurt bowl and dragon fruit smoothy:
I was pleasantly surprised to see soy yogurt available anywhere in Southeast Asia. Some places that were otherwise completely vegan boasted making their own house-made yogurt from cows' milk. Once we didn't even get an explanation - we just got a little container of the stuff served with our vegan pho back in Saigon.

Though Sabaidee Coffee seemed somewhat a Westernized establishment, it was a welcome part of this leg of the journey, as for once in a long time we didn't have to ask so many questions about what was in the food.

The tuk-tuk driver we hired for half a day kindly waited for us as we toured the sites, bringing us to a total of 4 different historic places. You might find a tuk-tuk driver along Fa Ngum Street with a sign offering tours. Our guy was very nice and very honest.
The second place on the tour was the Patuxai, known for its resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe. The name Patuxai translates to "victory gateway".
After the Vietnam War, the US gave the city funds to build a new airport. The government of Laos decided to make this monument with the funds instead, thus its nickname the vertical runway.

The third stop on the trip was to the Buddhist temple Haw Phra Kaew, pictured at the top of this post. The site of the temple is 450 years old, but the temple itself had been destroyed several times, having recently been rebuilt in 1920. It is the former home to the Emerald Buddha, having been seized in 1778 during the war with Siam (now Thailand). It now resides in Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Bangkok, Thailand.

Haw Phra Kaew is across the street from Wat Si Saket, a two hundred year old temple at the intersection of Lan Xan and Setthathirat streets. Both were amazing.

And, of course, we went through our fair share of beer and more.
Like every other city we'd been to in Southeast Asia, there was never a shortage of beer. And they came in nicely sized 640 ml bottles.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fantastic Banh Mi in Nha Trang, Vietnam / My 100th Blog Post!

Welcome to my 100th blog post!!!
For my 100th blog post, I'm going to hold a contest. Details at the bottom of the page.

Note: You can click on each image to see a larger version full size

Marya is a serious beach fanatic, so when we were in Saigon, we decided to take a train up the coast to the beach town of Nha Trang.

The slow trains there made for a long trip, and I was getting quite peckish. A woman pushing a food trolley came down the aisle, and I figured there'd be no chance of being able to eat anything on it. As well, knowing only a few words of Vietnamese, none of which would be helpful in this situation, I was quite intimidated to even ask for the food and how much it would cost. I ended up summoning the courage, and with some pointing and other hand gestures, plus a lot of patience on the part of the food trolley lady, I managed to procure a tasty snack, shown below:
Sauteed morning glory, tofu, and rice with a squirt of soy sauce.

Once in Nha Trang, we ended up at the "Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring" staff pick for best hotel in the area: Pho Bien. We were not disappointed.
As you can see from this picture, the hotel lobby is also an internet cafe and scooter parking lot.

I'll say we really lucked out at this place. We got the best room in the hotel: on the top floor with a lovely patio and amazing view, for something in the area of $12/night. Plus, if you have them do your laundry, they'll conveniently dry it right there on your railing, 6 stories up.

The next morning, when we were headed out, we spoke briefly with the manager of the place, and noticed she was eating a banh mi sandwich. She must have sensed we were eyeing her food, and suggested we patronize the little food cart where she got hers. "We couldn't", we said. "We don't eat meat." She informed us that the cart was all vegetarian.
"I don't know", I thought, "that sandwich seemed awfully meat heavy."
The manager pointed in the direction of the cart, and we set out to find it.

Here' a map of where the hotel is and where we found the cart.

I'll say, we were skeptical up until the point we got to the cart and saw the words "Chay" and "Vegetarian" stenciled on the thing. I almost cried.

Banh mi refers to the bread itself, but has come to be known as a Vietnamese sandwich served on baguette, typically with a few different slices of meat, tomato, basil, cilantro, cucumber, pickled vegetables, hot pepper sauce, and vinegar.
These sandwiches had all that, but were vegan.

For the few days we spent in Nha Trang, it became our daily ritual. For lunch we would get a few banh mis, get some beer, and head to our roof to enjoy the view with the meal.
Over those few days we came to know the cart owner Thuy well, despite not being able to speak a common language. So thrilled were we with this discovery, we always tipped 100%. This was no big deal for us, of course. Each sandwich was 10,000 Vietnamese Dong, or $0.50US.

I was quite the happy boy. This was among the best food experiences of the trip. Though it's not all that uncommon in this part of the world, seeing someone taking a chance and selling vegetarian street food like that somehow gave me hope for the world.

This was the light fixture above the bed in our hotel. Anyone know what this is supposed to be?
Most accurate, or at least the most creative answer will win a recipe book! Post your comments below!
The most obvious answer: "It's a light fixture, duh." will not be accepted.
Contest ends April 5th!!!