A tiny new born baby monkey suckles, gently framed in his mother’s arms. Snapped this morning, sitting on a ledge near the entry to Suluban Beach, Bukit Peninsula, Bali.
Thanks Darma for the great drive around the Bukit.
A tiny new born baby monkey suckles, gently framed in his mother’s arms. Snapped this morning, sitting on a ledge near the entry to Suluban Beach, Bukit Peninsula, Bali.
Thanks Darma for the great drive around the Bukit.
Many of you will know that I am enamoured with Balinese culture and its people. This love affair grows stronger with each visit, despite the fact that, like many others, I find some aspects of foreign tourism in Bali very disturbing. The best way to avoid seeing the ugly side of tourism is to by- pass particular districts, as well as becoming more receptive to the local culture, religion, ritual, history and the country’s social economic issues.
Here’s my current list of gripes:
Don’t get me wrong. Tourism, on the whole, has been good for the Balinese. Over the 37 years or so of visiting Bali, I’ve noticed huge improvements, with access to electricity, education and clean water providing the Balinese with a much improved lifestyle. In my chats with some of the locals recently, they have told me that they have more skills now and no longer want to work in industries such as fishing and building, these jobs being carried out by low paid migrants from Java and Madura. The tourist industry is now central to the Balinese economy ( 3.7 million visitors in 2014) as it is to other countries such as Italy ( 48.6 million in 2014 ) and Greece ( 22 million in 2014). Take tourism away and the Balinese economy would collapse.
After a twenty-one year absence from the commercial and congested strip of tourism that gives Bali a bad name, with Seminyak at its epicentre, I visited the area two days ago, in the interests of research and in the hope that things may have improved in that district. My notes from that journey are not worth repeating and no photos were taken. Enough said.
For Bali lovers, see also my posts from 2015.
A sleepy hollow by day, Jimbaran Bay turns into a frenetic dining spectacle by sunset, as tourist buses, mini vans and taxis descend on the place, disgorging passengers onto the broad sandy stretch for a big night out eating barbecued fish. It’s amusing to watch.
At around 5pm, smoke begin to rise along the fringe of the bay as restaurants light their coconut shell charcoal fires. The front row tables are dragged out to the sandy berm, the demarcation line for each restaurant. Front row sunset seats are apparently sought after: we are happy sitting back a few rows, under a shady umbrella, a cold Bintang beer in hand, watching the madness unfold before us.
Each narrow restaurant can be accessed from the beach or from the back lane running behind the buildings on the shore. What looks like a confusing enterprise is well-managed in typically Balinese fashion with different coloured tablecloths signifying each enterprise. There isn’t much point in reading all the menus, they are generally all the same. Each place offers barbecued platters of fish and seafood at various prices, depending on your appetite or greed. More expensive platters will include lobster. The Bintang beer prices are standard but the wine price differs enormously. I do like a drop of Two Islands wine, a cooperative wine venture between Australia and Bali, so I know which one I’ll choose.
It is probably best to avoid the places with very long tables joined together. This indicates the restaurant specialises in tour groups.
After the glorious sunset fades, the umbrellas are removed and tea light candles appear on all the tables. The wandering minstrels appear but fortunately for us, they favour large groups.
It is probably best to choose what is known here as a Packet which is a meal deal of fish and seafood, at various prices and sizes, as well as a small serve of acar (a pickled salad), some steamed kangkung, rice and a small serving of fruit. If you choose your own fish, be prepared for an amusing experience. The scales are totally rigged and some of the fish looks a little water-logged. But by the time they are gutted, basted in spicy sauce and barbecued on hot charcoal, you won’t know the difference.
The best way to guarantee a great seafood meal is to buy your own fish at the Pasar Ikan, the Jimbaran seafood market and take it to a restaurant up that way, where they prepare and grill it for you at a very reasonable price. This assumes you are staying locally for a while and feel confident in buying fish, as well as having a little Bahasa Indonesian under your belt. The Jimbaran Fish Market provides fish and seafood for all the major restaurants and resorts in Bali.
6 AM. Jimbaran Bay. Small pyres of leaf litter and debris burn, smoke mixing with heat haze, as women languidly rake. A tourist walks briskly along the water’s edge while local men sit alone and quietly gaze at the horizon. Old wooden boat dollies stand along the sand, sentries lying in wait for boats to arrive. Loyal dogs sense their masters’ return. I also sit on the sand and enjoy this window of tranquility and inertia. Sleep still lingers.
A small jukung, a brightly painted Balinese fishing boat, arrives at the water’s edge after a night fishing out from the bay. Although jukung may seem simple in the eyes of the foreign traveller, there is an underlying symbolism associated with these fishing boats: they are constructed following a strict set of religious guidelines.
“When a fisherman decides to build a new boat he must first carefully choose the tree that will be used for its timber. The Balinese prefer to use the wood from the indigenous Belalu or Camplung tree, which is light, strong and ideal for boat building. Such a tree can only be cut down on an auspicious date in accordance to the ancient Balinese calendar and a special day is also sought for construction to commence. All members of the local fishing community offer their carpentry skills to construct a new jukung and this social interaction is a vital element of the Balinese Hindu culture.”
“The majority of jukung are built using a set of dimensions that are closely related to the owner’s personal body measurements. The Balinese strongly believe in harmonizing with the physical environment and spiritual world, thus human measurements are used in an effort to balance these invisible forces. Just like a human body, a jukung is not symmetrical. In fact, the bamboo floats that are attached to both sides and run from the bow to the stern are not even parallel. Yet this basic, but ingenious design gives the jukung a heightened degree of stability when out on the open seas.”
“Once the jukung has been fully constructed and brightened up with a bold coat of paint, it then undergoes a complex blessing ceremony. Offerings of rice, flowers and fruit are presented to appease the Gods and the jukung is sprinkled with holy water by a priest before it is considered seaworthy. The jutting bow is decorated with an image of the mythical Gajah Mina (elephant fish) with its fierce bulging eyes to ward off evil. The spirit of Gajah Mina is also thought to bear the power of night vision and guide the jukung through all sorts of weather conditions”¹
The men along the beach are roused into action: they move purposefully towards the boat. One man pulls the boat dolly into place while others gather alongside the bamboo side floats. The scene is now swarming with helpers: more men move towards the boat from distant points along the beach; the boat becomes a gravitational magnet. The fishing community have been waiting for this moment.
The boat is hauled onto the wooden sand trailer: more men arrive and the boat is pushed to a higher point along the shore.
The morning heat haze lifts as the sun rises: the men become more animated through shared activity and camaraderie. Pagi pagi ( early morning ) turns into pagi (morning). Another boat is about to turn up. There will be many more.
Selimat pagi , good morning to you dear reader from beautiful Bali.
Come to the centre of Ho Chi Minh City and walk down spacious Nguyen Hue Street which runs from the People’s Committee Building to the Saigon River. It is 60 meters wide and 900 meters long and is totally dedicated to pedestrians.
This may not seem remarkable unless you have travelled to Vietnam and attempted walking in the city. Footpaths or sidewalks are generally wide but are invariably cluttered with parked motorbikes and cars, street stalls, red plastic chairs, miniature pop up restaurants with small carts and barbecues, basketware and roosters in cages, parked or moving bicycles, laundry drying, the contents of shops, people sipping tea or playing cards, motor cycle repairs, renovating materials, broken bricks and uneven surfaces, making it necessary to walk along the road instead.
But then who walks in Vietnam? It is rare to see a pedestrian, other than the occasional loony tourist. The only other walkers are poor female vendors with long bamboo carrying poles full of fruit or other goods to sell, or an ancient shuffling grandmother.
Fifty years marks a significant milestone for all sorts of events, wars especially. Last week I met an Australian man, a Vietnam vet, who had come to Ho Chi Minh City with his extended family to take part in the Long Tan ceremonies. The battle of Long Tan took place on August 18 1966, on a rubber plantation not far from Saigon. The outcome of that battle, in terms of deaths and injuries, included 18 Australian deaths, with 24 wounded and 250 – 800 Vietnamese deaths (Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army) with 500-1000 wounded.
“245 Vietnamese bodies were officially counted on the battlefield. However, this was only recorded as the official count due to a deadline set by the Australian government. Importantly, many more bodies were found over two weeks after the battle but the official death toll was never adjusted. “¹
The Vietnamese are also mourning their losses this month and this year: small ceremonies are taking place throughout the country from north to south, though these are not newsworthy in the eyes of the international press. Some are public and loud, important to instill a sense of history in the Vietnamese youth: others are quiet and respectful, as they should be, and take place in Buddhist pagodas or simply in front of a family’s ancestral shrine.
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon- the city still happily goes by both names- is a surprisingly advanced city, a modern Asian Tiger. Wide boulevards, generous public spaces, landscaping, cleanliness and well designed buildings feature prominently in District 1, the central and oldest quarter of HCMC. It’s a relief to find wide footpaths that are pedestrian friendly, one way streets, traffic lights, at least in District 1, which makes walking a pleasure.
The restaurant scene here is undergoing a renaissance. Many expensive restaurants offer refined versions of Vietnamese cuisine, alongside the usual internationally acclaimed restaurants you would expect to find in a modern Asian capital city. Leading the way, in terms of modernising Vietnamese classic cuisine at an affordable price, is the restaurant Quán Bụi. The goal of the owner, Danh Tran, is to provide casual dining ,offering high quality Vietnamese food, with daily sourced healthy ingredients, in a stylish environment. Quán Bụi opened in 2011 and now has four branches around the city. We lunched at the relatively new branch at 39 Ly Tu Tong, district 1. It is situated on the second floor and is a little tricky to find.
Goi (salad) is a popular starter in Vietnamese cuisine. Goi generally consists of one main ingredient such as cabbage or morning glory and is topped by fried onions or peanuts then mixed with meat or seafood and herb leaves. The composition is then gently tossed with a dressing made from vinegar, sugar, spice and seasoning, as well as the all important ingredient, fish sauce, the ‘invisible enhancer’. Fish sauce is either incorporated in the dressing or comes as a side dish.
We begin with a mango and dried shrimp salad, a huge serve and a little different from the Thai version. The mango was grated, as in Thai papaya salad, but the fruit was riper, then tossed with rehydrated dried prawns, mint, nuts and jellied fish, the latter an intriguing element.
An unusual version of deep fried tofu arrives topped with crispy fried fresh coconut. The overall flavour is sweet, an unusual sensation in a main course, providing a counterbalance to the other bitter or spicy dishes. Mr T shoved some fresh chilli in the middle of his tofu cubes, a habit he picked up in Java, Indonesia.
The eggplant dish was described as chargrilled, and I was hoping for a smokier flavour in this dish, similar to the Thai version. Stripped of skin, the young green eggplants were grilled, then topped with fried nuts, herbs and dressing.
White or brown steamed rice are offered as an accompaniment. Washed down with a few beers, five Saigon beers to be precise, the total came to around VND 500,000/ AU$30. Expect to pay more for fish or meat based meals. Wine is by the glass or bottle and is imported. The serves are generous and the setting is stylish with enough ombra to suggest a hint of Graham Greene.
The chef is Thanh Cuong who won the Masterchef Vietnam series in 2015. I hope to try at least two more branches of Quan Bai before leaving Vietnam. This food is clean, beautifully presented and traditional with a modern twist.
Header photo taken from a wall in Quán Bụi, First Floor, 39 Ly Tu Trong, District 1, HCMC
Serpentine dragons and pulsating fluorescent halos, frightening gods like angry superman, spiraling Gaudi-esque architecture and over the top mosaics, it’s hard not to smile when visiting the Linh Phuoc Pagoda in the small town of Trai Mat, 8 kms north of the DaLat, Vietnam. Although a functioning Buddhist temple with a monastery on site, most visitors are overwhelmed by the audacity and playfulness of the design.
Funny, kitsch and impossible to photograph is the 49-meter-long winding glaze dragon covered in mosaics from 12,000 broken beer bottles. The main building is a seven-tiered-27-meter-tall-tower made from thousands of pieces of broken bowls. The winding staircases and columns are covered in colourful mosaics, reminiscent of Gaudi.
Life sized sculptures climb the exterior of the bell tower building, or sit and wave from a ledge or play the flute. The same sculptures may be seen from another angle from the internal winding staircase.
Built between 1949 and 1952, the religious site attracts many tourists who mostly arrive in buses. If you are staying in DaLat, the best way to get there is by the antique train, which leaves from Dalat station four times a day, and rattles through the countryside to the village of Trai Mat. Cost VND 125,000 pp return journey.
In a world where taste is becoming globalised, and where Kmart and Ikea churn out cheap and disposable faux versions of reclaimed wooden furniture, Edison bulbs and Ship Captain’s Lamps, metal high school lockers, Scandinavian furniture and industrial bits and bobs, it’s nice to travel in the land of red plastic chairs and Vietnamese kitsch. I’m waiting for that time when taste in decor, food styling and dress, becomes less regimented and less defined by the taste makers of the internet. The fine stylists I know and admire pay little attention to these trends: they are delightfully eccentric, and possess a real flair for an aesthetic based on individualism.
In an article found in the Guardian last week, ‘Same old, same old. How the hipster aesthetic is taking over the world’ Kyle Chayka puts it this way,
‘Taste is also becoming globalised, as more people around the world share their aesthetic aspirations on the same massive social media platforms, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or Foursquare, with their hundreds of millions or billions of users. As algorithms shape which content we consume on our feeds, we all learn to desire the same things.’
Coffee shops are,
‘a hipster reduction obsessed with a superficial sense of history and the remnants of industrial machinery that once occupied the neighbourhoods they take over.’
While travelling around Hôi An, Hue and Dálat over the last three weeks, I’ve become attracted to louder and more vibrant colours. The plates I collected as souvenirs are made of melamine and feature Quan Am, that androgynous looking Buddhist icon that is so prevalent in Vietnam. I am also attracted to courtyards and planting in pots, tiny economic outdoor kitchens as opposed vast, appliance cluttered designer spaces, tiny plastic stools instead of Tolix knockoffs, brightly coloured lanterns and mid century Asian clutter.
I know, I can hear what you are saying: things will change she gets home!
For the inspirational stylists in my life, Dianne, Barnadi, Rod, Maxine.
After my trip down pizza lane the other day, you might think that I had given up on local food. This is definitely not the case. Staying in Hue, Vietnam for nine days has given me a chance to sample many of the local dishes as well as frequenting a variety of restaurants, except for those owned by large hotels or glitzy palaces. My only rule when travelling is to avoid these places. We have eaten very well. A short list of restaurants appears at the end of this post in case you ever find yourself spending time in this relaxed and refined city. Although only around 145 km north of Hôi An, via the dramatic Hải Vân Pass, the city of Hue has its own regional dishes, although in some instances, one could say they are the same, same, and not very different. The locals swear that they are only to be found in Hue!
When I’m craving something sweet, I start munching on Kẹo Đậu Phụng, a peanut and sesame brittle treat. This double layered version, with ample toffee between the layers is a firm winner and can be found in Hue’s Dong Ba Market for 15,000VRD/Au 88c a piece. There is just a hint of residual smoky flavour left from the open charcoal cooking. Versions of this snack are probably found all over Vietnam- some come in flat rounds, others in square blocks.
Each restaurant in Hue seems to have a different take on the local dish, bánh bèo. Bánh bèo (literally “water fern cake”) is a small steamed glutinous rice cake in the shape of a disc. It features a dimple in the center which is filled with savoury ingredients including chopped fresh shrimp, spring onions, mung bean paste, crispy fried shallots or dried pork crackling, with a side dressing of fish sauce and rice vinegar. The best version in Hue can be found at Hanh, a little restaurant down a small lane, where they served these snacks in little pottery dishes. To eat them, you add a teaspoon of the dressing, then scoop out the paste with a spoon, fold the parcel in half and slide it down in one mouthful.
The vegetarian version at Lien Hoa Restaurant came steamed on a plate and was not so exotic in presentation but still made a fine starter. Lien Hoa is packed with locals on the weekend so time your visit with this in mind. The menu is exciting, cheap and radically different. The main challenge is to not over order. I want it all!! Below, the little nem rán or vegetarian spring rolls, differ from the usual: these seem light and airy, as if made from flaky pastry and resemble little sausage rolls. The small grilled banana leaf parcels contain glutinous rice stuffed with a tasty bean paste. The hot sauces and chilli add another dimension to each mouthful.
After a few days wandering around Hue, you begin to notice the prominence of vegetarian restaurants in this city. The key word to look for above restaurant doorways is Chay. They are scattered throughout the city, on both sides of the Perfume River, to serve the locals who have a strong tradition of eating vegetarian food twice a month as part of their Buddhist belief. Another feature of the local cuisine that sets it apart from others in Vietnam is the smaller serving size and refined presentation. They can often be more spicy than other regional foods, though chilli concoctions are generally served on the side. It is still mild compared with Thai food.
Banh Khoai is a crunchy rice flour pancake, not unlike a taco, made bright yellow with turmeric and extra-crispy due to sugar and carbonated water in the batter. It is a smaller and thicker version of the Banh Xeo, the version found in Hôi An discussed in my post here. The rice flour mixture ( there are no eggs used) is cooked in a frypan with ample oil, then stuffed with shrimp and pork belly or sausage, then when the pancake is crispy and golden on the bottom, spring onions and bean sprouts are added to the top. It is then folded and left to drain. The Banh Khoai is served with an abundant serving of lettuce, cucumber, mint, rau ram, coriander, perilla and a small pickle, along as a peanut sauce that is dark and a little challenging, given the touch of pork liver. To eat, break the crispy pancake into edible chunks, add to your serving bowl, cover with lots of herbs and lettuce, and then add a little peanut sauce. Eat with chopsticks, making sure you get lots of mint, which is the main counterbalance to the fried morsel. It is possible to ask for the meaty elements to be removed when you order Banh Khoai. We had them with prawn at Hanh Restaurant.
The Vietnamese have embraced a few French staples: not only the ubiquitous baguette, which can be found all over the country and on every street stall, but my favourite little dessert, creme caramel. Kem Flan can be found in most restaurants throughout Hue and is very much a local food. The bakeries across the river near the citadel churn out mini tubs of them daily. I ate a double whammy plate full at Hanh restaurant. They are baked on the premises daily and come with a huge slurp of passionfruit on top.
A few restaurant recommendations. Each one offers something delightful and not necessarily the food.
A few good Links on Vietnamese Food