Friday, 24 April 2015

Vegan Adventuring in Nha Trang // A Love Story Between Me and A Sandwich

Nha Trang ended up being a weird one for me; I'd planned a stop there on my travels down the coast of Vietnam because I'd heard that the beaches were great but it was super windy the whole time I was in town which meant that the beach was a total no-go. The waves were crazy high (like Brighton in mid winter) and the wind was whipping up the sand which is always a less than fun experience. Because I couldn't book Nick and I onto an earlier train we had to make the most of our three days in town and so we decided to try as many of Nha Trang's vegan eateries as possible. Our first stop was Bo De where we immediately delved into some steamed buns. 

Now I love steamed buns every which way, faux bbq pork, crispy veggies and beans, mushrooms... any variation that I've tried I've loved. These were no exception which was extra great because Nick doesn't like veggies in a bun so I got to eat both of them. Score! 

They were perfection, perfectly steamed dough, crisp peppery vegetables and to top it off they cost 8000 VND / 25p / 37¢. Complete madness. It blew my mind how cheap the vegan food in Vietnam was. We also tried the Pho which was excellent (and stupidly cheap of course) and I couldn't resist and side of salt and pepper tofu which was delicious but you can't really go wrong with deep fried tofu, salt and pepper. 

The second stop on our foodie tour of the city was Banh Mi Chay, a little veggie banh mi stand at the side of the road near the beach. This is also where the tour stopped because I basically fell in love with this sandwich and ate it for every single meal until we had to leave. 

The bread itself was perfectly light and crispy due to it being made with a mix of wheat and rice flours and it was stuffed full of so much deliciousness that it made me question why on earth I'd never eaten a banh mi before. First the bread is spread with the banh mi sauce which is kinda like a spicy hoisin, then in go lettuce, crunchy pickled veggies and plenty of coriander followed by strips of cucumber and sliced tomato and finally four kinds of fake meat - a wheaty faux pork, a wheaty faux chicken and some kinda baked soy loaf and then a handful of crisp, sweet sesame soy protein.

I am absolutely not exaggerating when I say that this was the best sandwich of my life and damn, I've had some good sandwiches (The Picard and this Croque Monsieur spring to mind) in my time on this planet! I, of course, had to omit the flavourful sauce once I realised what was going on with it's spice level but this was still the most excellent sandwich in the world. I would not eat a terrible sandwich six times in two days. I would also have bought all of her crispy soy protein and eaten it with a spoon because OMG it was the absolute best. 

If you're ever in Vietnam I would urge you to get to Banh Mi Chay and buy yourself a sandwich or six. They're vegan by default although the stall does have butter and cheese available. The lovely woman running this place doesn't eat that stuff though so if you need an extra push to make the journey to Nha Trang go and support a rad vegan making rad sandwiches. Oh and the sandwich costs 10,000 VND / 31p / 46¢ which, although we paid more each time (this sandwich has to be worth at least £1 of any western travellers money), my mind is still officially blown that you can get an outstanding sandwich for so little cash.

Two thumbs up!

Between sandwiches and despite the beach being a bust we did manage to find some fun things to do to entertain ourselves in-between sandwiches. We visited two excellent photography galleries, DDK Black and White Art Photo Gallery and Long Thonh Art Gallery. The photographers were present at both as they're work / gallery spaces which was cool. I liked getting a little peek into the life of a pro photographer. If I had more disposable income or any walls I would have loved to invest in some amazing photographs of Vietnam but those aren't the life decisions I'm making right now and I already have enough art waiting for me in storage. We also passed some time at the pool on the roof of our hotel and with a spot of ten pin bowling. We would have checked out the cinema but the only thing on was Fast and Furious 7 and no, just no.

Nha Trang will be a must visit spot for me when I re-visit Vietnam one day, that sandwich was just so, so great that I'm going to have to eat it again. Luckily my friend Liz from Cooking the Vegan Books claims to have managed to whip up a version of The Sandwich in her own kitchen after also falling for it during her time in Nha Trang. I hope to be availing myself of the recipe next time I have a kitchen and decent stockpile of ingredients to work with!

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Vegans Explore Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An is part world heritage site and part beach holiday destination which, for me, is a pretty damned great combination. After getting sick in Hanoi, mainly exploring cities on the way down the coast and a couple of back to back travel days, I chose An Bang beach as our first stop in Hoi An. I was in need of some maxin' and relaxin' and I'd read that it was the quieter and prettier of the two beach options. We took the free bikes offered to us at the hotel and rode a slightly challenging 3km to the beach. Cycling, or even walking, on Vietnamese roads is always a challenge because traffic lights seem to be more of a suggestion than a rule and if the place somebody's going is on the other side of the road than the one they're technically meant to be driving on then that's the route they'll be taking. To add a little more fun to our journey there was also some road resurfacing going on which meant cycling on a single lane gravel track for about 1/2km which was definitely challenging. Needless to say we arrived at the beach suuuuper ready to relax.

After a few hours lying on the sand engrossed in a book (this one if you're interested) and hopping into the water to cool off occasionally dusk started creeping across the sky and we decided it was probably best to leave rather than to end up cycling home in the dark. It would also have been a shame to miss these gorgeous dusk views.

Hunger soon struck and we decided to check out the Hoi An branch of Karma Waters. Despite having a hankering for another of their hot dogs I decided Pho would be a better bet. Whilst it was good it wasn't anywhere near as good as either the hot dog or the bowls of Pho we'd been dining on at backstreet veg places during the preceding weeks.

We also tried the banana pancakes, a ubiquitous snack amongst other egg and dairy eating travellers, which we were yet to try. We were left almost wishing that we hadn't because they were quite solid and whilst the mango jam perked them up they definitely weren't a fave'. They definitely looked like the ones we'd seen at non-vegan street stalls in Hoi An though so they were good in that they made us stop wondering whether we were missing out.

The breakfast at the Vaia Hotel where we were staying was okay, bread, jam and juice followed by a fruit plate. I should't really complain because the bread was excellent but I was usually starving about two hours later and I definitely wished I hadn't run outa peanut butter!

The beach had been so great the day before that after scoping out the weather forecast we decided to go back and get our lounge on for a full day. We took a picnic of crackers, peanut butter, seaweed snacks, Oreo's and fruit, splashed out on some sun loungers and spent the day skipping in and out of the waves. Perfection.

Again we headed back before dusk because of the scary cycling sitch' but that meant we hit the hotel just in time for happy hour where all guests get a free mojito or glass of sangria. Fun!

After our slightly disappointing dinner at Karma Waters the previous night we decided to find somewhere a little more authentic for our evening meal. We took a walk to Tam Quang Minh and said yes when they asked us if we liked to eat soup. 

Saying yes was such a great decision because these steaming bowls of Pho were some of the most delicious I've eaten in Vietnam. Fake meat, super flavourful broth, loads of herbs and lime. Yum.

We went back the next day and they asked if we liked rice... of course we said yes again. This wasn't quite as delicious as the Pho but as it cost around £1 for both of our meals I wouldn't even consider complaining. The mock meats were wonderful, one had a delicious sweet and sticky sauce and the other was kinda caramelised and had a little crunch to it. I would totally eat whole platefuls of both! I also enjoyed both mine and Nick's aubergine whilst he ate both portions of spicy cabbage. Teamwork!

Feeling suitably relaxed by a couple of back to back beach days we decided to get up early on our third morning to set about some proper sightseeing. Hoi An's old town is delightfully charming. The gorgeous French colonial style buildings sit side by side with Japanese edo era architecture which is a contrast that I loooove.

Apparently this is the only Japanese bridge in the world that has a Buddhist temple halfway across. It's also guarded at one end by a pair of dog statues and at the other by a pair of monkey statues - cute.

In fact everything about Hoi An is cute, the buildings, the lanterns, this puppy...

We took advantage of our hotel's free bicycles again during our days exploring the old town and we headed out in the morning during the hours when it becomes a walking and cycling only area. This is a wonderful idea that I think almost any city could implement and it would add to the joy of exploring. Being able to cycle or walk without worrying that I'd be knocked over by a scooter at any moment made it much more fun although of course dawdling tour groups made cycling without a bell amusing / mildly irritating.

We refuelled with juice at riverside spot Fusion Cafe more than once during our explorations, it was definitely a good people watching spot and the apple, lime and mint juice was excellent. I think that juice combo might be one of my favourite discoveries of the trip, it's a little like a non-alcoholic mojito.

One place I was excited to dine at was Minh Hein Vegetarian which was excitingly within cycling distance of the old town. Minh Hein is probably Hoi An's most famous veggie spot. They make veganised versions of a lot of traditional dishes including Cao Lau, a regional noodle, (faux) pork and greens dish, and White Rose. 

White Rose are dumplings so-called because they look like white roses and whilst they usually contain shrimp or pork these were, of course, the vegan version. I also ordered the fried aubergine with garlic and Nick ordered a spicy tofu dish because it's literally the only way to stop me stealing his food! I kid. Kinda.

The fried aubergine with garlic also came with peanuts and no chilli which I was happy about - communication win. The aubergines in both Vietnam and Laos really are melt in your mouth delicious and I feel like despite there being so many different types and cooking methods aubergine dishes are always the ones I end up loving the most. The White Rose was tasty but I didn't ask for it without chilli because I'd read that the dipping sauce comes on the side, that's not the case at Minh Hien so after one delicious nibble I had to pass them over to Nick to polish off.

We also grabbed an order of Bánh Xèo to share because ever since Cici introduced us to them in Hanoi they've been up there with our favourite Vietnamese dishes. This version could have been better if the wrappers had been soaked properly but they were on the crunchy side which made them challenging to use.

Despite their slightly disappointing Bánh Xèo I would highly recommend visiting Minh Hien for their veganised local classics like White Rose, Cao Lau or anything with aubergine.

On our last night we finally made it to An Nhu Quan Chay which I'd heard about from Caryl and Paul at Vegan Food Quest who recommended the hot pot. Never one to deviate from a personal recommendation we dove right in.

The Hot Pot was filled to the brim with mushrooms, silken tofu, tomatoes, mushrooms and more mushrooms. I loved it. I was also pleased to see that it came with the fermented tofu that I'd fallen for in Hue. We threw in handfuls of greens and I ate far more than my half of the fermented tofu. I really wish I was eating this right now. I'm eating grapes. They aren't as good. I just added this spot to Happy Cow so that other veggies visiting Hoi An should be able to find it and eat delicious hot pot too!

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Hue to Danang, Vietnam

The journey between Hue and Danang only takes 4 hours so we hopped on a morning train and arrived by lunchtime. The scenery on the way down there was ridiculously beautiful especially when the tracks got super close to the coast. I spent plenty of time hanging out by the door in-between carriages marvelling at the view which also meant that I got to take a break from a) the slaughterhouse video they were showing on the communal TV (Seriously!!!! I literally couldn't believe it was happening!) and b) the man we were sharing a table with who had his dirty flaky feet on there for the whole journey. Ugh.

Bags all packed and ready to go.

We arrived starving (and happy not to be looking at that dude's feet any more) and walked straight to the nearest vegan place. One thing I always do before travelling to a new city is check the Happy Cow app and take screen shots of the details of three vegan friendly spots that are close to the station, port or airport so that I know where I can go if I'm too hungry to find a hostel or hit the hotel I've booked first. That way when you're wifiless you aren't also lost and hungry and if the one place you had your eye on is closed then you have backups.

Karma Waters have two locations, one in Danang and one in Hoi An, and we were excited to check it out. We started with fresh juices, carrot and apple for me and pineapple for Nick and neither of us could resist ordering the hot dog. I got mine with the pear and peanut salad and Nick chose the chips.

The hot dog was an excellent choice, the bread was super fresh and the dogs were flavourful but what really made it great was that instead of being topped with the ketchup and mustard listed on the menu there was a delicious caramelised onion and tamarind sauce spread inside the bun which we both loved. Normally I find such menu deviations annoying but it worked out super well in this case. My salad was pretty great too, it was covered in garlic, the slices of pear were nice and crunchy and the peanut dressing was delicious. It was also about a million times bigger than I was expecting which is always a win when food is concerned.

After we'd eaten and dropped our stuff off at the hotel we headed straight for the beach because that's just what you do in Danang. It's a weird city, there's the downtown area one side of the bridge which, from what we saw briefly on our walk, is full of cute independent cafe's and restaurants but if you read any western guidebooks they say theres nothing really over there for tourists and that it's not worth bothering with. Across the bridge to the east there's the touristy area which, as far as I can tell, is in the middle of some kinda high rise coastal development spree. There are no ATM's on this side but there are plenty of tourist focussed bars so that's useful. Not. The beach is perfectly pleasant and our favourite moment was when it hit about 4pm and hundreds of local people came flooding down to the shore for a dip, apparently this is a good time for a break if you work in the hotel / restaurant industry and I guess it's also when school's out for the day because there were tweens and teens everywhere.

After a while we were joined by an older gentleman who talked to us in Vietnamese for about half an hour. The only words we think we understood were sky and sand as they were illustrated with a lot of waving in the first case and throwing sand about in the second. Nick and I both left the beach that evening wishing that we weren't leaving the next morning. I'd have liked to explore the downtown area more because contrary to what the guide book says there seemed to be plenty worth looking at and exploring.

The Tay Bac Hotel managed to whip us up a pretty decent vegan breakfast before we left for Hoi An and my Vietnamese pal Cici tells me that these are Bánh Bèo which are a type of steamed rice flour pancake. Traditionally they'd be made with shrimp /prawn / fish sauce but the hotel veganised them with soy sauce and peanuts. I was also pleased to see steamed sweet potato on the breakfast buffet and as we just got in there before breakfast ended I ate it all so that it wouldn't go to waste.

We booked a car to get to Hoi An when we were in Hue which we slightly regretted because it turned out to be quite a lot more expensive than a taxi would have been. Still it was really easy and if you're going to get ripped off whilst travelling I don't think getting scammed for a tenner is too bad... I probably can't find it within myself to be that annoyed about it because I used to spend that much on nail polish and I think the dude running the car company probably needs £10 more than I needed more nail polish. Also this way we were able to stop at the Marble Mountains on the way which was fun. It was a really clear day so we went up in the elevator to check out the pagodas and were able to see for miles around.

I'm really glad we decided to stop overnight in Danang rather than grabbing a cab from the train station to Hoi An as soon as we got there, it gave us a chance to check out somewhere new even though it was a flying visit and our afternoon at the beach felt like a great peek into local life. 

I'm currently in Ho Chi Minh City but my time in Vietnam is coming to an end this afternoon when I hop on a plane back to Thailand. There's still more Vietnam to come on the blog though, I just started writing about Hoi An (spoiler alert: I loved it) and then I have posts on Nha Trang and, of course, Ho Chi Minh City to come. I've also started working on my Travel Talk for Vida Vegan Con which is (slightly terrifyingly) only 6 weeks away now so do leave a message in the comments or drop me an e-mail if you have any burning vegan travel questions or issues that you'd like me to try to cover.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Cherish Hotel in Hue, Vietnam

After a not so comfortable delayed 16 hour day train from Hanoi our arrival in Hue was a breath of fresh air. We sped to the hotel in five minutes in a taxi and despite the fact that we were scheduled to arrive at the reasonable time of 8pm the front desk staff at the Cherish Hotel happily checked us in well past 10. We booked our City View Deluxe Double at the Cherish Hotel via Agoda for £21 so to say that I was somewhat surprised and overjoyed when I saw the room would be an understatement. It really did look like the pictures online! I happily collapsed into our super comfy double bed and awoke refreshed and ready to explore the city.

Photograph courtesy of the Cherish Hotel management team

Because we'd arrived so late and were a little dazed from our epic train journey both Nick and I forgot to mention our dietary requirements to the front desk staff upon check in. I always recommend this as it gives a hotel some time to prepare something for you if they're so inclined. After scoping out the options on offer at the Cherish's frankly enormous buffet station I piled up as much mango as I felt polite taking and located the restaurant manager to ask some pressing questions about whether there was fish sauce in the veggie fried rice.

The answer was of course yes but after a discussion about what we could and couldn't eat restaurant manager Michael, we were on first name terms pretty fast, said he was going to pop to the kitchen and make us something. He came back a little while later with a whole plate of veggie fried rice, no egg, no fish sauce, and even insisted on serving it to us at the table.

We were pretty impressed at this point as usually you have to spend a whole lot more before anyone's going to go out of their way to make you a special vegan breakfast. 

The next morning Michael was happy to see us again as he'd made us something else special for breakfast! Vermicelli with vegetables with a side plate of sautéed courgette and mushrooms. I might have used the word hero that morning! 

He was also excited to chat with us and practice his English and recommended that we visit DongBa Market where we could get an idea of where the locals shop. We went immediately after breakfast and had a great morning wandering around marvelling at the sheer amount of dissimilar things being sold alongside each other. You really can buy anything at DongBa Market, from tools to clothes and from industrial kitchen equipment to jewellery. It's definitely a must visit spot in the city and I wasn't surprised to read that it's the biggest commercial centre in Hue province.

On our last morning when Michael popped up again to tell us that he'd made us some noodle soup with vegetarian broth my mind was kinda blown. This was a delicious and filling start to the day and I was beginning to wish that we were staying here forever! 

The view from the Cherish Restaurant isn't too shabby either and whilst we didn't have dinner there I'm sure that with a little advance notice they would be able to prepare an amazing vegan meal for you. 

I really can't recommend this the Cherish Hotel highly enough, the staff went above and beyond, the food was wonderful and I loved getting to stay in 4* luxury for a bargain price. 

As I mentioned in my last blog post Hue was the tipping point between me enjoying exploring Vietnam and really starting to fall for it. The wide Perfume River and it's cosmopolitan south bank dotted with eateries including the veggie and very vegan friendly Bo De was a joy to amble along and I adored the afternoon I spent exploring the Imperial City.