Vietnamese Coffee Popsicles and How to Cross the Street Without Dying

by Paulina Farro


the bug bites were many and the desperate attempts to relieve the itch were many

our favorite bar in sapa  had a thing for putting crazy straw sculptures in their drinks

 

    We landed in Ho Chi Minh city close to midnight, and after nearly 24 hours of travel , we sat under fluorescent lights next to other weary travelers waiting for our visas, fantasizing  about hot showers and nervously keeping our ears open for anything that even somewhat resembled our name. We did just hand over our passports and  cash in a country where we didn't know the language. Eventually, last-name-like sounds shouts came from the customs officials, and we were on our way. 

    After all of the congealed airplane food, the next morning's hotel breakfast of fried rice and stir-fried Pho best thing I’d ever seen. I thought I was looking at a fantasy food hologram that my delirium had cooked up. For the most part, in other countries, super sweet breakfasts such as waffles, doughnuts, pancakes or brightly colored cereals aren’t really a thing. No wonder I’m addicted to sugar; I really wish fried rice and stir-fried pho breakfasts were more popular. Its no surprise that breakfast is hearty, it has to be. Vietnam wakes up early- it’s not unusual to see food vendors hurrying along with their fruit or vegetable baskets or pushing their carts at five in the morning. I know this because jetlag does this weird thing to you where you’re so tired  yet you cant sleep at the same time and I was up very early every day. On our way out we popped into a cute coffee shop called at Cong Caphe - Bùi Viện, where the servers were dressed in vintage matching army green uniforms and the inside was lined with shelves of books.  Grab a seat outside, watch the city wake up, and drink the first of approximately 7,000 iced coffees with condensed milk that you will drink during your time here.

    I spent the weeks leading up to the trip worried about the most trivial thing: crossing the street (and keeping all of my body parts) . There are no traffic laws there really, and traffic lights are merely a suggestion.  I googled “how to cross the street in Vietnam” many times. My heart pounded each time I had to do it but after  several times you get the hang of it and it became clear that advice on getting to the other side of the road alive in Ho Chi Minh, or any big city in Vietnam, is just plain 'ole good life advice. Go steadily, go confidently, do not falter, do not stop, don’t be scared, don’t run, wear good shoes, and do not, under any circumstances, turn around and run back to the side of the street you came from.

    Most travelers decide not to  spend much time in Ho Chi Minh City and instead use it as a jumping off point for flights to other parts of the country. Our flight to Phu Quoc island wasn’t until the evening, and the 90 degree weather and one trillion percent humidity had us drenched in sweat by the early morning hours and we didn’t want to get too crazy with the itinerary. The pink church, Tan Dinh was the perfect choice as we could not resist seeing a building that was completely pink on the inside and outside. As we sat on benches to admire it, and my friend used what remaining water she had to give herself a nice little outdoor shower, we took a look around and noticed that none of the locals were sweating like pigs like us. Please, someone tell me their secrets.

    
    After a quick one hour flight to Phu Quoc island and a very long van ride in which the van driver honked a friendly hello to every vehicle we came across, we arrived at Peppercorn Beach Resort which is located on one of the most pristine beaches on the island. It is a little secluded from the main town, which made for a very peaceful stay.

 

    Pho Quoc probably sounds familiar because it’s name printed on most every bottle of fish sauce ever made. There are four large fish sauce distilleries on the island that are responsible for producing a bulk of the world's fish sauce. I wasn't able to take a tour which is unfortunate because I really wanted my hair to smell like fish for 6 months. I really do love fish sauce though. 

     On one of our days there, we arranged to be taken to the night market; only they dropped us off for the night market in the afternoon, and nothing had been set up yet. With not much else to do but walk around, we ended up wandering through streets lined with goods for sale, and passed the time and peering into baskets full of rambutans, cages of live chickens, and watching kids repeatedly jump off of a bridge and into the river fully clothed. As sunset neared, we noticed vendors hurriedly rushing towards the water, their arms full of what we could only hope was food. We followed them to stalls that were set up flush against the edge of the ocean, browsed the crabs and fish and clams nestled in piles of crushed ice and picked out dinner.

 

     Fully tanned with bellies full of beer, it was time to pack up and make our way off the island, because I guess you can’t just stay in one place for your entire trip and lazily drink and eat and read your entire vacation away. Or maybe you can in a place that is closer to home and has less to see. After a few hours on a plane, and an “American price” taxi that we were forced to take after being stood up by our hotel driver, we are in Hanoi.

     Bright and early the next morning, we were stuffed into a bus for the 3.5 hour bus ride to Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay has very mixed reviews that depend on many factors such as weather, time of year, how crowded it is, personal heat and discomfort thresholds, etc. Glad we didn’t give in to the negativity that tends to plague trip advisor reviews. All I really need though is a seafood lunch on a boat, some beer or wine, and I’m pretty happy. The food was simple but tasty- fish, shrimp, squid, spicy tofu with vegetables, and rice. If you are vegetarian you get an completely off-white meal of consisting of French fries, plain noodles and rice ( a lot of Vietnamese food contains fish sauce, sorry vegetarians)

 

     We arrived back into Hanoi slightly behind schedule during peak traffic time. Growing more and more anxious that we would miss our night train to Sapa as each stop our bus made seemed to spit out everyone else but us, we rushed to the train without a second to spare and arrived at a  completely dark station. There were no signs or announcements of any kind, and the trains looked like shipping containers from the outside. A quick peek through a slit in one of the train window curtains revealed that the inside was much different, phew. There were a a couple of guys hanging around the train tracks, acting like they worked at the train station; they led us to the correct train so I could hardly consider giving them a small tip of a few dollars a “scam”. I’m not sure we would have figured things out in time without them.

      As we were settling into our bunks, a small french boy, already in his pajamas and smiling ear to ear, stopped by every train car and greeted everyone excitedly. As people shuffled in and out of their train cars with their toothbrushes in hand I realized something; this was just one wildly swaying, very rickety slumber party with a bunch of strangers. Before leaving, vendors try to sell us warm beer through the windows but I was too late with my money and the train started pulling out from the station, so I pull the covers over me, and I am grinning just as big as that little French boy as the train begins chugging along faster and faster .

    As the train slows down for its approach into Sapa, music crackles over the loudspeakers,  and the train attendant comes by with a coffee cart as you enter the lush green landscape of Northern Vietnam. 

Our hotel was built within the misty rice terraces in Lao Cai village just 15 minutes from Sapa town:


     So, at this point we had already been in Vietnam for several days, and still had not yet had a proper bowl of Pho. With the heat and humidity, a hot bowl of soup just didn’t appeal to us. I was very confused by the fact  that most restaurants in Sapa town catered to tourists who apparently would rather eat mediocre Italian or westernized food in Vietnam than actual Vietnamese cuisine. A detour down a less- touristy alley brought us to a restaurant where the locals seemed to be trying to tell us that we had wandered the wrong way, that we wouldn't find burgers or hot dogs in that neck of the woods; we went inside anyway. I ordered spring rolls from the surly owner, to which she barked “PHO GA!” in response.  I didn’t think anything of it until two steaming bowls of Pho Ga were thrust before us. Pho Ga was what she had, and Pho Ga was what I was getting.  Not a problem. If there’s one thing I had learned so far in the trip it was to just roll with it. What you ordered might not be coming or you might get something else.  Drinks were also out of the question and my friend had to leave the restaurant to buy us cans of cokes across the street but let me tell you, that was the best bowl of Pho we had the entire trip.

Our hotel had a little garden, as well as a ferocious ball of fluff, SamSam, who liked to oversee the vegetable picking for our meals and also the eating of the meals. Pretty sure he took a bite of my eggs one morning.

Banana flower salad with a mint lime vinagrette topped with crushed roasted peanuts from Paradise View restaurant in Sapa town:

Our favorite bar that we visited several times:

Hundreds of varieties of dried mushrooms to be found inside the stalls of the Can Cau market:

     After a night train out of Sapa, we  spent another day in Hanoi to start our long journey back to the US. Did you know that Uber on motorcycles is a thing? I discovered that they have UberMoto in many densely populated cities in Asia such as Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, and Hanoi after accidentally ordering one and seeing a little motorcycle icon coming to pick me up instead of a car. Great idea in theory but sharing a helmet- ewwwww. We headed to food street and pooled our remaining Dong (Vietnamese currency) together and spent every remaining cent on bahn mi’s, beers, and coffees with condensed milk.

 

     The perfect bahn mi  is all about the bread. It should be crunchy and golden on the outside and light and airy on the inside. Pate is a must, in my opinion, but I love liver. We said goodbye to Vietnam with a stop at the best spot in the city, BAHN MI 25 before heading to the airport. I really,really regret not taking some with me for the plane ride home.

 


RECIPE

 

     I keep a jar or two of condensed milk and a bag of Trung Nguyen coffee on hand at all times now because it makes the most delicious iced coffee. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t eat a spoonful of condensed milk every now and then. I call it "emergency dessert". You can drizzle some on your popsicles after they come out of the freezer  if you're feeling extra indulgent.