28 May 2015

Food Glorious Food in Hanoi

As you'll know, if you read my blog regularly, we recently went on a holiday to Vietnam with the first stop being Hanoi. Of course, whilst we were there we needed to eat and naturally being in Vietnam we wanted to eat lots of delicious Vietnamese food. My husband has penned a post about some of the best food we sampled. If you like what you read you can find him on Twitter, @AskSirStamford 

The first day we were in Hanoi we had a walk around the old quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake. We also got tickets to see the Water Puppet show the next day, which was an amazing show by the way, (more on that in an upcoming blog post), after booking the tickets though we ended up in a bar called Le Pub. As it was just after lunch we had a look at the menu and hoped to order some nosh. I had not eaten on the aeroplane as Singapore Airlines regional menu often offers rubbish, barely edible food. However, there was a problem, a power cut in the kitchen meant there was no food. A Halida beer and a glass of wine (actually three of each) had to suffice. On the way back to the hotel I decided to be very bold and order a bbq’d pork kebab baguette from a street vendor outside the pub (I have always shied away from such stupidity) and it was absolutely fabulously tasty, a little spicy, in a mild way, but with freshness from the coriander leaves bursting through with every bite of crispy doughy goodness. The meat itself was succulent, juicy and beautifully cooked, perhaps it was the electric fan used to control the heat or the glowing of the coals that helped.

This was part of the menu at Le Pub which unfortunately wasn't available when we visited, but what's a Special Facial Grilled Squid??

In the evening we ventured to a familiar restaurant, for me anyway, as I have been to Hanoi many times with a former employer and stayed in the hotel around the corner. Quan An Ngon is a famous restaurant, listed in all the guidebooks, it is essentially a series of hawker type stalls serving a vast variety of Vietnamese dishes, ranging from pho, to spring rolls to pancakes to everything (yup, Vietnamese menus are very extensive), although one orders from a menu at your table rather than going up to individual stalls. The day we went was slap bang in the middle of Tet (Lunar New Year in Vietnam) so the place was very busy and we had to wait for a table. I suggest you wait and don’t go to the restaurant across the road, it’s very ruff, as in barking. After we were seated the extensive menu was supplied, drinks ordered and the process of food decisions started. We eventually ordered fried spring rolls (we had these a lot over the course of the week), fresh spring rolls (rice paper rolls stuffed with prawns, noodles and salad), barbecued lemongrass pork ribs, beef in salt and chili (chunks of delicious beef dipped in salt, chili and lime) and a bowl of pho bo, I have had this every time I have been to this place. We also ordered a rice dish which never came or perhaps the waitress was trying to tell us it was not available, we could not work that bit out. The food was delivered promptly and was wonderful, flavoursome and very tasty.

Fried spring rolls
BBQ lemongrass pork ribs
Fresh spring rolls
Pho Bo
Beef in salt and chili

As one of the main courses did not arrive we decided to go to the bar around the corner for drinks and something else to eat. The Rooftop Bar is situated on the top floor (19th floor I think) of the Pacific Place building (next to the wonderful Movenpeck Hotel) and therefore offers stunning night time views across the city. To the north one can see the Flag Tower and Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place lit up like a Christmas tree or Chinese Lantern and the Hoan Kiem Lake area to the East (directions may be wrong, but sit on the outside terrace for these views). At the bar we ordered drinks, Hanoi Beer for me (always try to be environmentally friendly and consume the local ale upon my travels) and a wine for the blog owner. Looking at the menu it seemed to be tapas style with Vietnamese dishes. We ordered a platter, including spring rolls (we did eat a lot of these during the week), beef wrapped in asparagus and some French Fries (nod to the west). As we ate we drank in the aforementioned views before taking our jet-lagged Western heads, we'd only been back in Singapore one night before heading off to Vietnam following our trip back to the UK and those castle visits, back to the enormous hotel bed in the Metropole.

View from the Rooftop Bar across Hanoi

On Tuesday morning, after a fine sumptuous breakfast in the hotel, we visited the grave and working quarters of a former Vietnamese communist, Ho Chi Minh and decided to have a late lunch in a restaurant recommended by one of this blog owner's work colleagues. We had planned a visit to the Water Puppets that evening so would not have time for dinner before the show. After a few directional mishaps (I walked the wrong way down the right street) and a taxi ride, we arrived at the restaurant. It was called Au Lac House and was situated in a French style villa on a tree lined avenue, one could have been in Paris, except for the throng on mopeds and chaos of the street below. We were directed upstairs to the deserted veranda overlooking the busy bustling Hanoi street, if you fancied a feather duster there was a woman on a motorcycle selling them down below us. The tables at Au Lac were covered in tartan table cloths (a bit out of place, does the Auld Alliance stretch into former French colonies?) and were set for what promised to be a great meal. Orders were taken, drinks served and we sat back to watch the world go about its business on the street below.

We had ordered an appetiser platter, consisting of spring rolls (of course), in fresh and seafood variety, chicken wings and some little rice paper prawn pancakes. The mains were a plate of chili chicken cooked with lemongrass, kailan cooked in garlic and some mixed vegetable fried rice. All the food was excellent and tasty, but perhaps we ordered too much, another common theme of our Vietnamese trip.

Our veranda view at Au Lac House
Appetiser platter to start
Mixed vegetable fried rice
Kailan cooked in garlic
Chili chicken with lemongrass

Upon leaving we passed a fine looking drawing room, where one presumes a chap may have taken a cigar, back in the day. I decided to test my navigational skills again with a walk back to the hotel. On the way we passed a German beer hall where the activities on offer were obvious, Drinking or Drinking, or so the sign outside said. As recommendations go Au Lac House was excellent and I duly forward the sentiments and thanks through this blog.

In the evening we had arranged to go to see the Water Puppets at the main theatre on the lake, so a late dinner was needed after the show. After a wander and some hazardous road crossing in the dark, crossing roads is hard enough in daylight when one has a perception of the direction of the random traffic streams but impossible at night, we decided upon another rooftop bar, overlooking the lights of the Hoan Kiem Lake, near the island temple. The restaurant was on the seventh floor of the building that also housed many bars with similar views and was called Cau Go. We sat on the outside terrace and ordered food from the menu under iPhone and candlelight, including the usual fried spring rolls, chicken skewers, beef and ginger hotpot and streamed rice. The beef was sensational and the spring rolls were great and served in a novel and unusual little basket. In fact the whole meal was excellent until clearly wanting to close (it was about 9:30pm) the waiter arrived with the bill. The place blotted their copybook the next day / afternoon however when they wouldn’t serve just drinks as we needed to eat too, there was no option of just having a drink in the sunshine. We went back to Le Pub for drinks instead.

Evening view from Cau Go across the Hoan Kiem lake
Beef and ginger hotpot
Chicken skewers

On my first trip to Hanoi in 2012 a client took me to a wonderful restaurant in the Old Quarter of the town, called Green Tangerine, and I had been attempting to re-find the place, without success, ever since. I rediscovered it on my last trip to Hanoi in December 2014 and decided on our last evening there to give the place a holiday try-out. Green Tangerine is also located within an old French style villa, although those from Singapore may say that it is more of a shophouse type building, with a large terrace at the front, closed off from the road by the entrance, and further tables inside (and upstairs). The inside has a French café style bar, reminiscent of the bar in the British sit-com ‘Allo ‘Allo (listen very carefully I will say this only once). We sat inside and perused the menu, which could be described as modern French-Vietnamese fusion. There was also a set Vietnamese menu targeted at the mainly tourist clientele, the restaurant was expensive and therefore filled with Western non-locals which I assumed were tourists, like us. We chose the Vietnamese set menu option. Unfortunately, I neglected to take many pictures of the food as I was too busy eating it, perhaps that is a good sign as to the quality of the meal.

Interior of the Green Tangerine

We were supposed to be on a flight to Saigon at about 8pm on the Friday of our holiday, after having taken a trip to Halong Bay before leaving Hanoi (more on that soon). Whilst waiting for the car to the airport in the glorious Bamboo Bar of the Metropole Hotel and checking our emails and social media, after two largely unconnected days in Halong Bay, I received a mail from the airline (the only thing Jetstar Pacific did right all day) informing us that the flight was two and a half hours delayed. So after the airport transfer was re-arranged, the hotel in Saigon informed we decided to go for one last dinner in the city, a better option than the expected bowl of pho in the airport. 

When I was in Hanoi in November / December I had visited another French villa style restaurant around the corner from the hotel with colleagues and we decamped here for an early supper pre-airport. The villa was complete with a decaying Citroen in the drive and was very ornate. It was called the Ly Club and we were informed upon arrival that they were fully booked but we could have a table as long as we were out by 7:45pm (it was 6pm and we had a delayed flight to catch), fine, done, seated. Dinner was excellent, as most meals were in Hanoi and we even tried Vietnamese wine, with the red Merlot being perfectly drinkable to my non-cultured palate. The usual spring rolls were ordered along with a chili beef mince dish that was served with little fried rice cakes which were hand-held and topped with the sauce, these were brilliant and a little different to stuff we had had earlier in the week. We also had a roast chicken dish and some rice.

Interior of Ly Club

Glasses of red and white Vietnamese wine

Our trip, from a food perspective, could not have begun better and there was only more to come in Ho Chi Minh!

Read about what we did when we weren't eating in Hanoi here and here.

19 May 2015

Red Dot Roaming - Haw Par Villa MRT - West Coast Park

No doubt the fact I decided my next Red Dot Roaming would be from Haw Par Villa MRT would naturally suggest I visited the same named Haw Par Villa which is right on the station's doorstep. Well I'd already visited there sometime ago (it's well worth a visit if you haven't been) so this time I decided to walk a little further and explore West Coast park. I live on the doorstep of East Coast park and regularly spend time there so I was keen to explore here a little more and my Red Dot Roaming gave me the perfect opportunity to do just that.

I have to admit though that on first arriving at the park I was a little disappointed, it certainly isn't as big as East Coast park and initially just seemed to be a noisy stretch of land between the busy West Coast Highway and the port. The only novel and slightly random aspect being this dog wash that I stumbled upon. Sadly no one (or no dog) was making use of it when I was there. Anyone seen anyone using it ever?

I carried on walking though and after going through an underpass beneath the busy road things started to improve. Here the park opened up a lot more and wasn't such a narrow stretch of land. There were paths taking you in various directions as well as various designated areas for different activities, including a spot where you could go camping. There were lots of people taking advantage of this with their tents pitched.

The port to my left (above) and the West Coast Highway to my right (below)

I kept on walking around the various paths passing dog walkers, people riding bikes and using rollerblades, it certainly seems to be a well used park especially as my visit was on a week day. This was nice to see as many other parks have seemed quite empty during the week. Eventually I got to the water edge which was mainly rocks but there was a small bit of beach too. Here I had a view back to the port, of various yachts, the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club have their base there so I guess these were linked to that and a few smaller more basic boats in the shallower water. There were a number of families enjoying the park here and several children playing in the shallow water and on the tiny piece of sand. Whilst the view with the port in the background may not be conventionally beautiful it was surprisingly peaceful down there and nice to stop awhile and listen to the children playing, people chatting and watch the boats and yachts out on the water.

After taking a break to watch the world go by for a time I eventually decided to head back towards the MRT station. As I was walking back I saw what proved to be the highlight of my visit to the park, my first snake in the wild in Singapore. When we visited Siem Reap last year we saw one in the bushes right outside our hotel room and whilst, I know there are plenty in Singapore, they had so far proved allusive to me here.

I almost did not see this one too and in fact nearly trod on it but out of the corner of my eye I saw something moving besides me and there it was at my feet. Whilst I was a little dumbstruck and I have no idea what type of snake it was, I was also very excited and yes I managed to get a short video of it just to prove I really did see it! Can anyone confirm what kind of snake I saw? (I've since had it confirmed that I saw a Paradise Tree snake)

The highlight - spotting my first snake in the wild in Singapore

Footage of the snake

So my visit to West Coast park concluded on a bit of a high for me personally and overall the park ended up being a lot better than I thought it was going to be. I still think East Coast park has the edge but maybe having lived so close to it my whole time in Singapore I am just biased. Either way though it was great to visit a different area, another park and see another part of Singapore that I hadn't before.

Haw Par Villa MRT is on the Circle Line (CC25)

If you missed any of my previous Red Dot Roaming posts check them out here

10 May 2015

Hanoi - a Mausoleum, a Palace and a Museum

After our flying visit to the UK to see family and our couple of day trips to Lancaster and Bodiam castles whilst there, we returned to Singapore for just one night before jetting off to Vietnam for the week. This was my first visit and my husband had only been there for work previously so we were both very excited! The trip began with us flying to Hanoi for a couple of days.

Our base for our stay there was the Metropole hotel, an amazing old Colonial style hotel right up there in the league of the grand old hotels of Asia, a place for stepping back in history. We were truly spoilt for our few days there enjoying everything that a good hotel has to offer. Certainly somewhere I'd recommend if you are planning a visit.

The first place on our visit list was to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum complex. We initially didn't intend to go inside the mausoleum and view the body of Ho Chi Minh but we quickly realised we couldn't get to the other parts without doing just that. The first part of the complex taking you to the mausoleum was quite heavily patrolled by guards and we didn't fancy trying to drop out of the queue once we'd joined it. So we stayed in the queue, which thankfully was moving at a steady pace, filed around the grounds and eventually entered into the mausoleum.

Ho Chi Minh mausoleum

The mausoleum was constructed between 1973 and 1975 and stands in the centre of Ba Dinh Square, this was where Ho Chi Minh read the Proclamation of Independence in 1945 leading to the independence of Vietnam. The building was inspired by Lenin's mausoleum in Moscow and I have to say isn't the most beautiful building I've ever seen. It apparently also goes against Ho Chi Minh's last will request which was to be cremated. If you want to visit there are strict rules about clothing and and the use of mobiles, taking of photography etc. Be prepared to hand your camera in (if you have a larger one) you get a ticket to collect it on the other side, dress conservatively and maintain respect whilst you are inside the mausoleum. This was my first experience of seeing an embalmed body, I didn't really know what to expect but I wasn't blown away by the visit if I'm honest. You file into the mausoleum in a line and walk around the glass case where he is lying. His body is heavily guarded, there's no time really to stop (not that you can take photos or anything) and then before you know it you are outside again.

As soon as you leave here the military presence lessens and you have more freedom to walk where you want to. Here too you can also take photos of the outside of the mausoleum. From there we went to see the Presidential Palace, a beautiful building built between 1900 and 1906, originally to house the French Governor-General of Indochina. The building has an unsurprisingly European look to it and with the sun shining on it the day we visited looked truly lovely. Ho Chi Minh refused to live there when independence was achieved in 1954, instead eventually opting to live in a stilt house which is also in the grounds. Non-Vietnamese visitors have to pay to enter the grounds where the palace and other buildings are but unfortunately you can't really get a lot closer to the palace than in my photo below. You also can't go into the palace which I thought was a pity but it is now used for Government meetings so that is the reason why, but still a bit of a shame.

Presidential Palace

From viewing the palace you can then go and view a garage where Ho Chi Minh's various cars are displayed. Although Ho Chi Minh didn't live in the Presidential Palace he did live firstly in the former electrician's quarters behind the building. Here, through some glass panelling in the building, again you can't go in, you can get a glimpse of the simple style that Ho Chi Minh chose to live in whilst living and working there from 1954 to 1958.

The path that leads from the palace around the carp pond in my photo below to the stilt house is known as 'mango alley' due to the numerous mango trees here. The stilt house is claimed to have housed Ho Chi Minh from 1958 until his death in 1969. The design of the stilt house is based upon traditional houses from the Vietnamese north west. It is said this reminded him of the houses he took refuge in from the French whilst still a revolutionary. The stilt house is pretty small and only has two rooms in it with no bathroom and again is very simple in its decor with only a few personal items of Ho Chi Minh's there.

From here we passed the One Pillar Pagoda, a Buddhist temple regarded as one of Vietnam's most iconic temples. This was built by Emperor Ly Thai Tong who reigned from 1028 - 1054. It was designed to represent a lotus blossom, a symbol of purity, rising out of a sea of sorrow.

As you are leaving the mausoleum complex you approach the Ho Chi Minh museum. So we decided to end our visit to this part of Hanoi by taking a look in there. The museum is divided into various sections, including one about Ho Chi Minh and another about Vietnam's struggles and victories. Whilst there is information in English to read I admit that some parts of the exhibits and the symbolism contained within them were a little hard to follow and make sense of. I guess you probably need a greater understanding of Vietnam's history then I possess to fully make sense of it all.

Vietnamese flags outside the Ho Chi Minh museum

After our busy and interesting morning we decided we needed to eat so headed off to find something. On the way we passed the Flag Tower in my photo below which was built in 1812. This was part of the Hanoi Citadel, the former residence of Vietnamese monarchs, much of this was destroyed in the late 19th Century but a few parts such as this tower remain. 

We'd barely scratched the surface of Hanoi on our first day there but it was a great start to our holiday. I couldn't wait to see more!

If you want to read more about our visit to Hanoi, check out my husband's post about some of the delicious food we had here and my post on the rest of our time in Hanoi, here.

Flag Tower

03 May 2015

Tulipmania 2015

The other weekend we popped along to Gardens by the Bay to take a look at this year's Tulipmania display. Now in its third year this has become a regular feature on their calendar of events and never fails to disappoint. 

The theme this year centres on story telling (a theme that will run across the year in future displays at the gardens) focusing specifically on fairy tales with famous stories featured such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel to name a few. 

Here are just a few photos from our latest visit. Plus check out my posts of the previous years displays.

Planting Tulips for Tulipmania
Tulips in Bloom at Tulipmania
Tulipmania is Back for 2014!

Tulipmania is on now until the 10 May 2015. Entrance charges to the Flower Dome apply. The dome is open from 9am to 9pm daily. 
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