Ben Thanh Night Market, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

This is definitely one of the cooler markets I’ve been to. I’d read a little bit about it online when I Googled “night markets in Ho Chi Minh City,” learning that there was a day market there, housed in sheds and mostly undercover, but it really came into its own at night. The regular market shuts down at around 6pm, and then the mayhem begins, which we learnt the hard way.

Sib and I left our hotel room at around 5.30pm, ready to eat our weight in street food (we’d heard it was pretty good there). We figured if the market started up around 6.30pm, we’d have an hour to find our way (without a map, relying solely on the lovely doorman’s instructions, vaguely pointed to us from the hotel lobby) and dawdle a little in the process. When we arrived, we found the day time market still open, so we took a quick wander around, stopping to purchase some green tea.

We became suddenly very aware of the fact that all of the stalls seems to be packing up at once, quite abruptly, and we were clumsy nuisances tripping over semi-collapsed trestle tables and garbage bags; we stumbled back out to the street, surveying our options. We decided to take a walk around the outside of the market to see if we could work out where this night market would be set up. What happened next was without a doubt one of the most comical, peculiar, preposterous thing I think I’ve ever seen. We looked up the street and saw a line of men and women running tents and pergolas down the street, in amongst the traffic!

IMG_4959As we watched on, we witnessed the set up of the night market; it was mental. Complete madness. I don’t know how else to describe it. One moment, the area was empty, a few minutes later, the marquees we’d seen being wheeled down the street at breakneck speed were up, being wired with lighting and cooking stations were being fired up. A few minutes later, hand bags and watches were starting to come out of large sacks, being carefully laid out. We were stunned. We’d never seen anything like it! We decided to go grab a cold drink at a café and wait another 30 minutes or so to give the market a chance to set up properly.
IMG_4963When we returned, it was ready. I really couldn’t believe the speed and efficiency with which it was all done – if I hadn’t seen it myself, I’d have never believed it. The market itself was pretty good – small, lots of stuff to appeal to tourists, handicrafts, clothing, designer knock offs and what not. But it was the food that was the best.

We stopped at what seemed to be the world’s most fabulous pop-up restaurant, a well oiled machine commandeered by the calmest kitchen crew I’ve ever seen, not the least bit phased by the ridiculous crown already lining up to be seated, and waiters dressed in smart waist coats.
IMG_4967We went with our favourite Vietnamese dish for dinner – bun cha. I had the roast pork. It was perfect.
20140707-152519-55519054.jpg

We weren’t planning on dessert, but when we saw this cart with 6 different types of sticky rice, we changed our minds and took home a little polystyrene tub with a small scoop of each to share, smothered in coconut milk. Just wow.
IMG_4971

Advertisements

Eat here: Rice Queen, Melbourne (Asian)

Rice Queen, Fitzroy, Melbourne
http://ricequeen.com.au/

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

After living on Smith Street for quite some time, late 2012 saw Rice Queen relocate to Brunswick Street, in a pretty big space that fills up pretty quickly for a weekend dinner. It’s a cute, kitschy, Asian-diner-with-a-DJ-booth-and-karaoke-room type of set up, serving up an array of food from every corner of Asia.

https://ordinarygirlextraordinarydreamer.com/

I’ve eaten here before, for lunch, and found the food to all be crazy spicy, which I didn’t enjoy much. I’m pretty crap with spicy food, and unfortunately you’re not really given much of a choice or opportunity to tone it down to a milder, more manageable level. But this visit was for one thing and one thing only: dessert!

It was my little sister and best friend’s birthday, and we had a bit of a trawl and eat around the Fitzroy/Collingwood area to celebrate the occasion (she, too, is a foodie – you can find her here on Tumblr!) As she’s gluten intolerant, we thought this dessert menu would be a pretty good one to sample from – we ordered a serve of the pannacotta and a serve of the black sticky rice to share between us.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

Silky smooth and deliciously coconutty without being overpowering, but the really special stuff was the berry compote. Dunno what it was, but my God it was amazing!

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

The sticky rice may not have looked particularly appetising, but it was the standout for both of us. It was warm and creamy and sticky and full of coconut. The sorbet was creamy, not icy, as sorbet can sometimes be. The pandan flavour was so unique and delicious.

Great dessert, will happily head back in for a sweet bite. It’s a cute space with gorgeous decor and a chilled out atmosphere, a little overpriced in my opinion and the service leaves a bit to be desired, but the food is pretty good. Worth a try!
Rice Queen Oriental Diner and Bar on Urbanspoon

Street food heaven: Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand

Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
(BTS stop: Thonglor)

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

If you’re into street food, particularly crazy, Asian, no-idea-what-that-is-but-I’ll-try-it-anyway street food, this is basically like going to heaven for the night. Close your eyes, let me paint you a picture…

You’ve just stepped off a nicely air conditioned train into the thick, warm, Bangkok air. It’s dark, it’s very quiet (this isn’t exactly in the middle of the tourist hub), and you’re not really sure where you should be going. You follow your map to the little street marked “Soi 38,” and you know you’ve arrived when the sudden burst of colour, sound, smells, movement and utter insanity hit you!

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

Although when we visited it was no where near as busy as it regularly is, due to the Bangkok Shut Down movement, it was still incredible. Little plastic tables with those adorable little plastic stools that so many of us associate exclusively with Asian street food ran the length of the street, and barely a single one without a bum on it. Whether they were set up in front of permanent stalls or little carts with gas burners temporarily propped up along side didn’t matter in the slightest – they were all absolutely packed with both locals and the few tourists who were brave enough to leave their hotels in the middle of a delicate time politically (a day before we arrived, an unarmed bystander was apparently shot not far from our hotel) – we’re not the type to wait anything out, so we threw ourselves right into the centre of it!

It was impossible to place the smells you were taking in – just as you thought you’d identified a whiff of ginger, your nose was smacked with a smell of seafood… or were your eyes watering a little because of the spice in the air? Did you just smell coconut? Or was that mango? The sounds: yelling of orders, laughing of friends over food, sizzling of hot plates coming out. It’s magical!

 

After walking the length of the street to suss out our options, we stopped at this little place – partially because I recognised their menu was basically all pork, partially because a few tables had just opened up as we were walking past. We ran in and jumped on two stools as a stream of people came in behind us.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

This adorable little guy was running his place like an absolute boss! The space was actually shared by three separate “restaurants,” and he made it his business to run around each and every table, pushing his food above the others (not hard, because no one else was making even a quarter of the effort he was), smiling at everyone, laughing like a kid, and making sure everyone knew what was on the menu. When it came time to order, I told him no need for a menu – just bring us whatever your favourite dish is! Could have been risky, I know, but when in Rome… This guy must have been doing this for the best part of his life, he clearly knows what’s good, and how on earth else can you possibly experience another culture without asking advice from a local?! You’ll get some handy hints from your guidebook, sure, but you can’t buy in book form experience!

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

I tell ya what, that experience has really opened me up to this style of dining in foreign places from now on – he nailed it! Noodles with pork 3 ways – won tons, BBQ pork and crispy pork belly. It was bloody magnificent and wouldn’t have cost any more than AUD$4.00, which is absurd. If I hadn’t asked for his recommendation, there’s no way I’d have known to order something like this – the foreign menu which I couldn’t read probably would have daunted me and I’d have looked for the most boring and plain thing on there. That is NOT the way to travel!

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

Encouraged after that win, we ventured on down the street until something caught husband’s eye – 10 chicken skewers with home made satay sauce for 80 baht. That’s around AUD$2.50, and it was way too good to pass up. We ordered a plate, and the lady running the show was so excited to have some visitors that weren’t either locals or there with a local, that she ushered us past her coals and cooking chicken, and into the back of her little store front, where her sons were working away threading more meat onto skewers. I took the picture below from the table she hastily set up for us, wondering what on earth we’d gotten ourselves into. She smiled at us the whole time, even brought out a little bowl of salad (lettuce, tomato, cucumber and chillies) while fresh skewers cooked away for us. She ladled a large spoon of her home made satay sauce into a bowl, rushed back to the chicken, and proudly presented them to us, with another big smile. Some times food truly is a universal language; even if you can’t understand each others’ words, we all understand the care taken to prepare a meal and the appreciation and enjoyment of it.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

These were probably the best satay chicken skewers I’ve ever had. They were made using the absolute freshest chicken, which was evident when it didn’t take much effort to bite into them and reveal the soft, white meat under the caramelised shell. The sauce was magnificent too. I was grateful that I’d remembered the Thai word for “thank you,” because never had it felt so appropriate to use as then. She could have easily given us our meal on a paper plate and sent us on our way, but she took the time and care and effort to make us feel at home, and that’s exactly how it did feel – no fancy restaurant, it felt like home.

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

So, there we sat, in the back of a chicken skewer stall, taking it all in – the smells, the noises, the atmosphere… it was one of the best nights I’ve ever had! After the chicken, it was down with another plate of coconut sticky rice with fresh mango (dead set, I ate my weight in this stuff), and back to the train to take us home.

In the picture below, I couldn’t help but think as I looked down on it all from the elevated train platform, how lucky the people of Bangkok are to have such a wonderful institution in their city, and how much other cities would really benefit from an informal place to eat and meet – it’s a beautiful and universal thing to have a special place where families steeped in their own cultures can share their food with strangers, making them all feel warm and welcome, and like they’re at home, even on the other side of the world, even when sitting on plastic stools on the side of the road to share a meal when they may otherwise at home be in a fancy restaurant.. THAT is what I love about travel, the opportunity to experience this  : )

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

Eat here: Nong Ploy Restaurant, Koh Samui, Thailand

Nong Ploy Restaurant
157/19 av2 | Chaweng beach road, Ko Samui 84320, Thailand

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

To be completely honest, when I first stumbled on this place in September 2012, on a work sponsored trip, I didn’t even think to find out what it was called, as I didn’t think it’d be possible to ever find it again; while the rest of the group was either at the bar drinking, or in their rooms taking a nap while waiting for the torrential rain to stop, I decided to be an idiot, go out in the rain, and find something to eat that wasn’t hotel crap. I wondered down the main street, then down an alley way, then another, then back to the main street, and so on for about 15 minutes, as the rain was easing. My stomach started grumbling and I decided to stop at the next place I saw. This was it. Thai food for 40 baht a plate? That’s about AUD$1.30. I’d have been crazy not to!

I ordered the pad thai, and it was unreal! I told my husband all about it when I got home, that I got amazing prawn pad thai for $1.30 down an alleyway in Koh Samui. He laughed and shook his head – standard lunacy to be expected of me.

 

ANYWAY, fast forward to January 2014, and husband and I (along with one of his mates) are in Koh Samui. My second trip, the boys’ first. I fondly recall my rainy stumbling to the wonder that was that “little place with the park bench seating and bright pink table cloths.” Let me preface this next bit by saying that I have NO sense of direction what so ever. Give me a map and throw me in the middle of Rome, I’ll find you the quickest path from A to B, no worries. But ask me to get from my house to the milk bar around the corner from memory, I have no freakin idea. So when I told the boys I wanted to head in the general direction of where I thought this place may be, my husband laughed, but indulged me – after all, we were in Koh Samui and had no where we needed to be!

Cue random meandering, a few false alarms at alleyways that looked kinda maybe sorta familiar, and then giving up and walking into a place that looked decent because we were so bloody hungry. I dragged my feet behind the boys, feeling dejected, when I finally looked up. Holy crap, the place I was looking for was right next door. I (pathetically) squealed a little and ran straight over, leaving the embarrassed boys to deal with the waiter who had menus in hand (sorry!).

 

Everything was still exactly as I remembered it, which is why you should eat there if you find yourself in Koh Samui and can manage to find it! The food is insanely cheap and ridiculously delicious, there were quite a few locals eating there, it’s got that relaxed beach-side, picnic-style, box-of-tissues-instead-of-napkins kind of vibe, and it’s the quintessential Asian street food experience, in a restaurant setting!

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

P.S. hopefully this helps anyone visiting..

Untitled