Hoi An, a charming ancient city on the central coast of Vietnam, is a foodie’s haven. The menu goes way beyond the ever popular banh mi and pho. It’s time to try something new! Three local dishes I had for the first time in my life were cao lau, white rose dumplings and fried wontons (not the Chinese version). They were all delicious but it was the cao lau that I ate multiple times during my 5-day stay here. Wonder why?! It is because cao lau is truly unique to Hoi An and you can’t make this dish elsewhere without a native ingredient, unless you literally bottle it yourself.
Cao lau is a noodle dish with meat topped with fresh greens, bites of fried wonton, and the desired amount of spicy sauce. The noodles have a unique taste and a chewy texture. These flat noodles are yellowish and much denser than the average rice noodles because they are made with the water from Ba Le Well, the town’s ancient Cham water source. Cao lau is as core to the diet of the Hoi An people as croissants are to the French. You can find a bowl of Cao lau at every street corner, but the best was found at Miss Ly’s restaurant.
I was so impressed by this true example of the “earth-to-table” practice continuing for centuries in Hoi An! Following google maps, I set out to find this well. A posted sign pointed me down a little alley leading to the Ba Le Well.
The Ba Le well is a cold water well that is authentically preserved. It was built around the 10th century. It was constructed specifically as a vertical prism with a square bottom and built with big bricks. The well bottom was paved with a frame of four thick iron-wood boards that have two functions of protecting its bottom and filtering its water. Apparently the local inhabitants still use its water for their daily activities, as well as for cooking Hoi An specialties.
Taking a private mud bath is a luxury everyone can afford in Vietnam! Today, I went to i-resort in Nha Trang, located in the south central coast of Vietnam for my first soak in the mud. Most mud baths are commonly shared with others so you got to wonder about the sanitation of this communal practice. I was thrilled when I discovered that i-resort offers individual bath tubs that are built into the hillside, and each tub is filled with wet mud from a hose right before your soak. Now I can relax knowing the mud is clean!
For 350,000 dongs (approx. $15 US), you get 20 minutes in your own private warm mud bath and unlimited use the hot mineral pools. The amenities of the hot springs resort are similar to those in Europe. The use of a locker and a towel are included in your fee.
There’s a spa onsite if you wish to book a massage. Of course, I couldn’t resist a 50-minute full body massage for 300,00 dongs (approx. $13). The spa was beautiful with tropical decor and the quality of the massage far exceeded my expectation. Prior to my massage, I was even offered a lemongrass orange scented steam that was built into the shower inside the treatment room. When in Asia, you just can’t judge the quality by the price alone.
Like most firsts, my mud bath in Vietnam will always be special and memorable. This positive experience will lead me to seek out more bath muds during my travels to enrich my spa experience collection.
Finding good vegan food while traveling in developing countries appears to be a bit easier than ever before! With growing interest in veganism, more restaurants are advertising vegan options to attract travelers. Although meat is often used sparingly in many Southeast Asian cuisine and vegetable dishes are abundant, there’s no guarantee that you can find vegan suitable meals when you step into a Cambodian restaurant. If you are a pure vegan, don’t forget fish sauce and shrimp paste are wildly used in many vegetable dishes in Southeast Asia.
During my last 3 days in Cambodia, I ate in 3 very different styles of vegan restaurants that were all fantastic. The first and most notable one was Chamkar Vegetarian Restaurant in Siem Reap. The food, the setting and the hospitality were all fabulous. Since this is not a TripAdvisor review, I will only focus on the great food that I discovered. Once I learned that the owner/chef, Nicolas, is French it became clear that French cooking techniques were infused into his dishes. The attention to detail that I love in French cuisine was on full display with the presentation of food as well. They claimed to use locally sourced fresh ingredients such as fresh coconut and I could truly taste the difference. The authenticity of the Khmer cooking with a French twist would be my best description of the food at Chamkar. We had several dishes: Ratana’s spring rolls, Wedding day dip, Mad Eggplant Lovers (Grilled eggplant and loofah in coconut milk sauce and holy basil), Rediscovering Tofu (Stuffed tofu), and Chocolate cake with ice cream, drizzled with dark chocolate sauce. It’s impossible to pick one favorite dish but the one I would cook at home is the classic Cambodia dish, Mad Eggplant Lovers, which is so fitting for my daughter and me. Nicolas was kind enough to share his recipe (see below) with me when I asked so I hope you will enjoy it too.
The second restaurant was Masala Dosa Street Kitchen, in Phnom Penh, serving a variety of nutritious dosa. Mmm….Indian street food in Cambodia, how odd, right? Surprisingly, this was a hit! The menu offers many international fusion flavors, such as Szechuan Dosa and Tom Yum Dosa. I chose to try the Eryngii mushroom & coconut cream dosa and it did not disappoint. Dosas are made with lentils & rice, naturally fermented, so no starch, no gluten, high protein and low fat. According to the owner, with roots in India, his mission is to create the healthiest food possible based on Ayurvedic principles. I highly recommend trying this restaurant for an extremely heathy and inexpensive meal.
The third restaurant was Vibe Cafe, serving high caliber vegan food that you might find in California. It is definitely not a cultural experience but a welcome treat if you’ve been away from home for an extended period of time. For a brief moment, I forgot I was in Phnom Penh until I looked out the widow and saw the poverty on the back streets of the cafe. The food and drinks are all freshly crafted creatively and super yummy but be prepared to open your wallet just a tiny bit wilder. I had the Nourish Sandwich there because I was really missing some wholemeal bread after eating white rice and rice noodles daily for the past couple weeks. The sandwich had a beetroot hummus spread, filled with roasted pumpkin and almond feta, which created a tasty combination of flavors that made me wonder why anyone would need meat or cheese in their sandwich. If you want to try some of the recipes, you can find Vibe Cafe’s cookbook on Amazon.com.
I was truly inspired by the food I had in these 3 restaurants and can’t wait to expand my vegan cooking repertoire when I get home in a couple weeks.
Grilled Eggplant and loofah in coconut milk sauce and holy Basil
Ingredients for 1 serving
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp Chili paste
1 tsp Palm sugar 1
Salt to taste
1/2 Tbsp Soy sauce
100 ml Coconut milk
50 g Loofah (may substitute with zucchini)
1 handful Bean sprout
1 handful Holy Basil leaf
1 handful Long parsley
1 Tbsp Fried Shallot
1 Tbsp Toasted Coconut
First toast the dried coconut in a pan on low heat. Stir it constantly in order to prevent burning. Stop fire when the color is getting golden brown.
Put the eggplant on the grill ( BBQ or gas) for 5 min turn over after 2 min. Remove from fire when the skin is slightly burned. Cool down for a while.
Meanwhile prepare the other vegetables. Chop onion finely. Peel the loofah and cut in slice.
Heat vegetable oil in a pan then fry onion for 1 min. Add loofah, chilli paste, palm sugar and stir again, then add coconut milk and salt. Peel the eggplant and cut into bite size then add eggplant, bean sprout and stir 30 seconds (add little water if too thick). At the end, stir in Holy basil for few second
Remove the pan from the heat, transfer to a plate and serve immediately topped with deep fried shallot, shredded long parsley and toasted coconut.