Saigon When It Sizzles – 2 (And a bit about Hanoi)

It’s hot!

“For Saigonese, Christmas also offers a rare opportunity to enjoy the feeling of chilly air. The greenhouse effect has reduced the time when the termperature in Saigon drops to its low point of 18C from about a week to only a few days.” Saigon Business News – December 2006

Well it doesn’t look like the deep freeze will be setting in over the next day or two – it’s been 30-32C the past two days.


The scooter is the transportation of choice in Saigon – scooter outnumber cars about 3 to 1. The buzz of Vespa engines at times sounds like a squadron of very angry, very large hornets planning to attack. And as the Rex is located in the heart of the old city that sound is constant from 0530 until 2359! At first the thought of trying to cross a busy intersection gives raise to panic if not outright terror – and at night the sight of a pair of compact headlights coming at you can be hypnotizing. Then you realize that it is a well-choreographed ballet – drivers are very adept at weaving there way around moving cars, trucks, buses and pedestrians. Laurent says its a hell of a lot safer than Beijing!

Hanoi addendum: We just spent an hour in a cyclo – a bicycle-powered rickshaw – going through the 36 streets of old Hanoi. The noise of scooter horns, reeving motors and the smell of exhaust tended to take the joy out of the adventure. Still don’t know how they do it – saw a couple with papa driving, momma on the back and the baby squashed between them! And nobody is wearing a helmet. Our guide explain that if you wear a helmet it’s difficult to recognize friends or talk on the cellphone. Okay!

PHO – not just for Breakfast

Who the hell wants bacon and eggs when you can have a bowl of rice noodles, chicken and herbs swimming in hot broth. It’s the national dish of Vietnam and though here in the south its a breakfast treat, you can have it for lunch and dinner. Vendors sell it on the street, there are glossy PHO24 fast food chains everywhere and the most upscale restaurant features it. I’ve made it at home a few times and it really is one of those one-dish meals that’s quick and easy for that weekday meal.

The beauty is that almost anything can be added to it: beef, pork, tripe (oh yeah!), deep fried onion, basil leaves, coriander stocks, hot pepper slivers, lime juice – the possibilities are endless. It’s healthy, it’s economical and it’s good – but not good enough to have for breakfast lunch and dinner. Below I’ve included the recipe I’ve used from Cook’s Illustrated for anyone who wants to try it at home.


December 6-7

For a few shots of the past few days click on the date link and watch the sideshow (it’s not necessary to sign in as a member.)

PHO – the Beef Version

Serves 4

8 ounces thick rice noodles

For Broth
5 cups low-sodium chicken broth
4 medium cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
2 inch piece fresh ginger , peeled, cut into 1/8-inch rounds, and smashed
2 cinnamon sticks (3-inch)
2 star anise
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon granulated sugar

For Soup
12 ounces sirloin steak , sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch strips
Ground black pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cups bean sprouts (about 5 ounces)
1 jalapeño chile , sliced thin
2 scallions , white and green parts, sliced thin on an angle
1/3 cup loose-packed fresh basil leaves , leaves torn in half if large
1/2 cup loose-packed fresh mint leaves , leaves torn in half if large
1/2 cup loose-packed fresh cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons chopped unsalted roasted peanuts
lime wedges
Deep Fried Onions (optional)
Tomato wedges (optional)
Adding herbs and other flavoring elements at the last minute creates a soup with many clear, distinct tastes.

1. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Off heat, add rice sticks, and let sit until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and distribute among four bowls.

2. Bring all ingredients to boil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low; simmer partially covered to blend flavors, about 20 minutes. Remove solids with slotted spoon and discard. Cover and keep hot over low heat until ready to serve.

Assembling the Soup
3. Season steak with salt and pepper. Heat oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add half of steak slices in single layer and sear until well-browned, 1 to 2 minutes on each side; set aside. Repeat with remaining slices.
4. Divide the noodles and sprouts among the bowls
5. Add the steak, then ladle in the broth.
6. Sprinkle on the remaining ingredients and serve immediately, passing lime wedges separately.

Note: Cooked chicken or pork can be substituted for the beef.

Cook’s Illustrated

Saigon When It Sizzles

It was a long haul but finally got here after 36 hours of travelling. Smooth flights, not a ripple so only had to take two of those little brown pills! However there was a moment or two of panic just as we were landing in Ho Chi Minh – We almost touched down and next thing we were up going up and around again for second approach. Apparently a “small flap problem” according to the Pilot. United is flying old 747s into HCMC from Hong Kong and call me cynical but I had the feeling that both the Chief Steward and Pilot may have flown in there a couple of decades ago in a different capacity! But I must must be getting better at this flying thing, Laurent only has light bruising on his right arm.

I was totally wiped when we arrived but the ride into town gave me second wind so after we arrived at the Rex Hotel we had to have a nightcap on the Rooftop Garden Bar . It definitely has atmosphere and as long as the Celine Dion wannabe wasn’t contriving to delight us even the music had a 70s style to it.

The Adventure Begins….

Well by tomorrow at this time I will be about 2/3 of the way across the Pacific. I leave at 0730 from Ottawa with a connection in Toronto – 16 hours and 23 minutes later I should be landing in Hong Kong. After a quick shower, massage and nap I’ll be meeting Laurent and we’ll head out to Ho Chi Minh City, getting there around 2230 local time. I figure by the time we check into the legendary Rex Hotel I will have been on the go 36 hours – and won’t I just be a joy.

Fortunately my Doctor has given me a few little brown pills that he assures me should help settle the total anxiety which accompanies everyone of my airborne adventures. Its hard to believe I worked for an airline for 33 years!

Our friend Blake is looking after Reesie but Mr Reese has been looking at him like he was Uncle Pervy offering him candy in the school yard. I’m sure that once he has Blake trained to rub his tummy in exactly the right way and has convinced him that human food is indeed good for dogs, everything will be fine.

So for the next 30 days we will be taking cooking classes, trekking near the old colonial summer capital of Sapa, cruising Halong Bay in a Chinese junk, chugging through the countryside in an Orient Express-style train and generally seeing as much of Vietnam as we can without doing the “if this is Hue it must be Tuesday” routine.

I will be trying to post as often as possible including a picture album but I’m not taking a laptop with me so it may be a bit difficult. However there will definitely be a Christmas post from Hong Kong.

The Lottery

Today is World AIDS Day and I was hoping to write something inspirational and thoughtful. Then I remembered a piece I read last year in EVERYTHING IS NOT REAL, a blog that has been sadly discontinued. Christopher could write frivolous, naughty, nasty, informative and touching. His entry for World AIDS Day last year moved me immensely. As I know I could not write anything as appropriate to the day I am taking the liberty of reproducing it.

December 1, 2005

I have lottery fantasies.

I dream about being able to buy fast cars and designer clothes until they come out of my ears. I want houses in London, New York, East Hampton and Rio. I want to be able to travel first class and work out at The Third Space and get reservations at Annabel’s just because of who I am. I want to be able to take hot dates on tours of the National Gallery. When it’s closed. Because I’m one of it’s biggest benefactors.

Needless to say, twice a week, I am disappointed.

This morning, on the way to work on the tube, I was reading a Times article, written by Annie Lennox, about the millions and millions of people in Africa who are suffering with HIV and AIDS, and dying, and how the governments of the richer nations, such as the one I live in, have pledged support over an eight year period. And how they absolutely must stay committed to this goal.

One of the kids she spoke to on a recent trip to Africa was dying of AIDS. But before he got sick he lost his mother, father, brothers, sisters and pretty much everyone else he cared about to the same disease. He was totally alone in the world. With no hope. And certainly no dreams of fast cars or a nice comfortable house, anywhere. And that shit isn’t even near the important stuff.

There are approximately 6,450,000,000 humans on Earth.

Most of them are not 33 year olds who have careers which afford them access to guest lists to the best clubs and bars the city has to offer. They don’t have friends who will stick with them no matter what (and slip them Jil Sander dress shirts every now and then.)They don’t have housemates who have Thai cuisine prepared and ready to eat when they arrive home. They don’t have comfortable beds to sleep in at night.


When I think about it I kinda did win the lottery.

About 33 years ago


Most of us can say the same thing. If you haven’t already done so please click on the red ribbon and light a candle.