Posted on October 26, 2023 in John's Current Blog, Uncategorized

Hanoi; October 26, 2023:

A fairly clear day in Hanoi, looking across West Lake

We’ve been gone from Cambodia for 8 months now and I miss it every day. Hanoi is a big, polluted city, and I’ve yet to get my bearings or make many friends. Folks flock to Southeast Asia expecting glorious landscapes and beaches, great weather, and delicious, inexpensive fare, but the reality does not always live up to those expectations. E. coli and Vibrio are common, and many holidays are plagued by travelers’ diarrhea. Dengue fever is rampant during the monsoon season (June-September). I’ve known a dozen people who have had it. It’s called “bonebreak fever” because of a nearly insufferable pain in one’s joints that often lasts two weeks (or longer if one does not hydrate constantly). It can cause severe rashes, blinding headaches, and high fevers. The virus that causes dengue is carried by diurnal Aedes mosquitoes (Ae. aegypti or Ae. albopictus) which should be easy to recognize because of their black and white stripes, but they are very small – only ¼” long. It’s the slightly larger, blood-sucking female that carries viruses – and not just dengue, but yellow fever, chikungunya, and Zika.

I have one friend, an athletic, healthy male, who lost 5kg of weight in as many days when he had dengue. He often bikes through jungles and mud puddles, where the mosquitoes lay their eggs, so I wasn’t surprised when he contracted the virus this summer, but symptoms do not show up for 6 weeks and the disease is most prevalent in cities. That’s because if an infected person – even someone with no symptoms – is bitten by a mosquito, the insect will carry the virus with it. While 2/3 of the Cambodian population was rural ten years ago, the urban population has grown by 10 million since 2012. Now 4 million people live in the cities. Hanoi has 10 million people, is the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and is suffering from too-rapid growing pains.

The Riverside in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh was much more to my style – and size. The entire country of Cambodia – the size of Iowa — has only 17 million people, and while over 80% of them live in rural settings, Phnom Penh has increased its population by 50% in the past few years, now spreading out for miles to encompass its 3 million inhabitants. What I think of as the city center includes four major neighborhoods (and I realize that this is a very expat-centric view): Daun Penh, the northern part of the main business district, featuring Central Market, Wat Phnom, Riverside, and various embassies, including the United States’; BKK1 (Sangkat Boeng Keng Kang Ti Muoy), home of many Western restaurants, an increasing number of high rise condo buildings, shopping outlets, and the Buddhist temple Wat Langka, in the shadow of which two popular alleys lined with restaurants and bars thrive with nightlife; Toul Tom Poung (the famous “Russian Market” area), with its rabbit warren of an enclosed market that includes vendors of live seafood, grilled frogs, gorgeous silks (both real and fake), tchotchkes, t-shirts, shoes, motorcycle parts, as well as tailors, tinsmiths, and electricians; and Tonle Bassac, where I lived in a gated community of wealthy Cambodians, Chinese, and expats. It’s as though I lived in a city of 200,00, with the amenities (and restaurants) of a much bigger metropolitan area.

I cite those neighborhoods because I could walk from one end of these central districts to the other. But I have a friend who lives southeast of Toul Tom Poung and who with her business partners recently opened their third restaurant, the ever-popular MALOOP which sits in an unusually verdant private park. Their restaurants are among my many favorites in the city, the likes of which I have yet to find in Hanoi. (More restaurants to follow, below.) Another friend lives out on the Mekong near Kdei Kandal Village. She rides her motorbike into town, which includes a ferry trip. It’s a good half hour to get to her house, but the quiet and view are worth it. (She keeps an apartment in town in case she is out late.) EVERYONE rides a motorbike of some kind. With a fake knee and a fake Achilles tendon, I’m not about to get on one, so I mostly ventured only to places where I could walk, though I often took tuktuks, the three-wheeled covered taxis that are cheap, fast, and efficient. I only took a car if I were going all the way across town, say, to the hospital which was beyond the city center, or if it were really pouring down rain.

The view from our house in Phnom Penh (before the developers came).

From our house on the Bassac (Phnom Penh lies in the Mekong Delta at the confluence of the Mekong, the Bassac, and the Tonlé Sap rivers), I could walk in twelve minutes to the wet market in BKK, where I bought most of my fruits and vegetables as well as cleaned frogs, pork shoulders, and freshly ground coconut. Around the corner was a supermarket, Thai Huot, that catered to westerners. I could pick up pasta and semolina, couscous, lamb from Australia and New Zealand, French butter, baking supplies, and yogurt. If I hadn’t found everything I wanted to make dinner after shopping at those two places, I could swing back by the big Japanese mall, Aeon, where there were ECCO and YVES ROCHER stores, as well as well-known electronics, clothing, and sporting good shops; more importantly, it had a supermarket with an excellent selection of seafood, much of it flown in fresh from Japan daily. It was a seven-minute walk home from the mall.

Chef Sopheavy Chea with the dishes she served Peace Corps staff at our house in Phnom Penh

But if I really wanted to eat seafood, I’d go to my friends’ restaurant NESAT, which features a vast array of fish and shellfish, driven up daily from the fishing village Kampot on the coast. The food there is so fresh, so simply, perfectly prepared, that I always steered out-of-town visitors there. We also had our friend Sopheavy, the chef, cater two staff meals at our house. With her partners, she owns a third restaurant, KININ, which is very popular among expats who appreciate the modern fusion cooking. Both are located close to Russian Market. Sopheavy’s brother Sokny has the best sandwich shop in town, NUTTY BAKERY, across the street from NESAT. He was the chef at KININ for several years. He bakes his own bread and makes the relishes that adorn the sandwiches, as well as offering several of his delectable desserts.

Just about every restaurant and shop in Phnom Penh will deliver, so I often had heavier items such as cases of beer and tonic water delivered. Via the GRAB app, you can hire a tuktuk or a car to go anywhere in the city (and beyond) or have anything from your prescription drugs (though you don’t need a prescription!) to propane tanks to caviar delivered. There’s a wine shop, one of several that I frequented, next to the Thai Huot. All of them would deliver my purchases free of charge.

Me picking up nom poupea chien to take to a party

I cooked most of our meals, but we had our favorite restaurants (and restaurateurs) and some street foods we adored as well. One of my favorites was a vendor of “nom poupea chien,” which literally translates as stuffed fried bread. A delicate turnover filled with a light mixture of pork and fresh herbs then fried twice (once at a lower temperature, then again just before serving), it was hands-down my favorite street food in Phnom Penh. I once attended a party where there would be 30 people, so I had the vendor make me 60 of them. I placed a brick covered in aluminum foil in the oven and got it hot as hell, then lined a cooler with a towel, then the hot brick, then went to pick up the turnovers which I layered in the cooler with crumpled aluminum foil between the layers. They stayed warm and crisp for an hour and when I arrived at the party, I placed hot ones on a serving tray and walked around, offering them with a napkin. They were almost as big a hit as the ham biscuits that I usually make take to social gatherings.

A typical dinner party chez nous

We had a group of us that gathered often on the weekends to cook and dine and swim together (several of us had pools). There were Khmer friends, several Americans, an Eritrean and his Canadian wife, an Indian and her Italian husband, a Mauritian family, and several Eastern Europeans, French, Swedish, Belgian, Spanish, Pakistani, and other Asians as well. Our core group was usually 8 to 10 people. Because several of us spoke Italian, it became known as our domenicale (Sunday). The Italian made tiramisù, the Indian made butter chicken, I fried fish or chicken, the Deputy Chief of Mission (who had served in Italy) grilled bistecca fiorentina, and the French made gougères. Everyone brought luscious wines.

I miss it so. And I miss those wines. Here in Hanoi, imported wines are taxed at 100%. Guigal Côtes du Rhône, my house wine for 40 years, costs $46/bottle here. I could buy it for $22 in Phnom Penh. You should be able to find it for less than $17 in the States. I also miss the restaurants, especially my beloved French and Italian favorites.

Celebrating at La Ferme with our Pakistani- and Indian-American friends Maryam and Saptarshi

LA FERME DE BASSAC was my home away from home. I had lunch there at least twice/month. Owned by two Frenchmen, they began with a farm and catering business (I’ve had them cater cocktail parties — extraordinary hot and cold canapés and service) but bought a restaurant where they offer nearly all the French bistro classics daily. Their deli case Is filled with prime cuts of meat, confit duck and lamb, imported cheeses, quiches and pissaladières, as well as their varied charcuterie which they make with their organically raised heirloom breed of hogs and which is offered throughout the city in other restaurants as “house made.” They will cut a steak for you then charge you $6.50 to cook it for you to your liking, served with two sides. Their pastry case displays the classics as well, including the best chocolate tart I’ve ever had. Their sea bass with beurre blanc is one of the best dishes in town. Their soups, both hot and cold, are flawless. And I always find it hard to decide which version of the beef tongue to order. I have never been disappointed. Thierry, the farm and restaurant manager, is a great guy.

Steak-frites at Bouchon

BOUCHON is a wine bar in a renovated French colonial villa where they often have live music. Bertrand, the chef, offers mostly small dishes, but also a perfectly roast half chicken or steak frites. They import their own wine and store it properly. I drank up nearly all of their remaining 2010 Bordeaux. It’s another place I always take out-of-towners, for the food, the music, the atmosphere, and the great wine list. You can sit inside at a coveted table or on bar stools, or outside on the verandah or in the courtyard where Bertrand is often grilling. There’s also the old-school ARMAND’S THE BISTRO where I had excellent steaks and classic service. Another French bistro-style restaurant that occupies the covered roof terrace of a nondescript building near the US Embassy is AU MARCHÉ. The breezy space is run by Camille, who tolerates my poor French. The daily menu features but four appetizers and four main courses, but they are lovely renditions of French favorites.

TERRAZZA is an upscale Italian eatery where chef Sandro and his niçoise wife Roxy serve both classic and innovative fare. They also have a deli where you can buy prosciutto, coppa, Italian cheeses, breads, and condiments. I have run into my friend Pier Luigi, a wine rep, there several times. He and Sandro grew up in the same little town in Liguria but were a couple of years apart and never knew each other, though Sandro was a good friend of Pier Luigi’s brother! Having lived in Liguria myself, I nearly broke into tears when I saw the classic salad of the Riviera (condigion in Ligurian dialect) on the menu. They are known for their meter-long pizzas, and I do love their food, but the best pizza I had in PP was at LIMONCELLO, near the Peace Corps office, where their outdoor, genuinely wood-fired oven produced the crisp Neapolitan style crust that I crave. (I never cared for the Japanese style pizza at Pizza 4P’s, a high-end Vietnamese chain that is very popular. I do buy their fresh mozzarella.) Here in Hanoi, in our expat neighborhood, a young man from Arizona (whose father is Turkish), is doing it right at his pizzeria, SOL, but that’s for a different essay.

Sitha having lunch at a small Thai restaurant he took me to.

Another high-end Italian restaurant is GREEN PEPPER, where we have had lovely meals, but it is New York expensive and I’m not sure why. The best ragù di agnello I had was at LUIGI, just west of Russian Market, not far from the offices of CELLIERS D’ASIE, where my friend Sitha Pich has turned me on to some marvelous vintages. I got to know lots of food and wine professionals in Phnom Penh, and I just haven’t connected that way here. We live in an inner-city suburb filled with expats. There are international restaurants, but the kitchen staffs seem to all be Vietnamese, and I don’t speak their (very complicated) language.

One of my favorite restaurants in Phnom Penh, LUNA: FOOD IN PROGRESS, was run by the chef Armando Bonadonna, but COVID saw him move down to Kampot on the coast, where a remarkable food scene has evolved. Also for another essay.

The central dome of the Art Deco Central Market

There is excellent Khmer food – and DON’T FAINT! – I prefer the cooking of Cambodia to what I have had in Vietnam. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve had some delicious Vietnamese meals both here in Hanoi and down in Hoi An (Vietnam has three major regions, North, Central, and South, and they all have their own cuisines). But I prefer the freshness of the Mekong Delta cooking, the vast variety of wild herbs and greens that are included, and the proper use of salt, which Hanoian cooks seem to disdain. NESAT is my favorite seafood restaurant, but I also love to go to Central Market and eat grilled whole mackerels or squid. I’ve bought fresh fish there as well, though my friends at NESAT are always willing to sell me seafood.

Soursop sorbet with basil seeds, cured yam bean (jicama), cucumber, meringue, dragon fruit, and cilantro at Cuisine Wat Damnak

There are several upscale Khmer restaurants that I recommend, among them KRAVANH, also in a beautiful restored colonial villa, just two doors down from BOUCHON. Their soups and salads are truly remarkable. It is run by Sophie, whose daughter cooks at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris. SOMBOK is a fancy dining spot across from Riverside Park where the award-winning women chefs present updated versions of Khmer classics. I like to go for their traditional breakfast of duck noodle soup. Chef Joannès Rivière’s CUISINE WAT DAMNAK, which opened its Phnom Penh site in 2021 after his highly lauded Siem Reap restaurant had closed because of COVID (it’s now reopened), is not to be missed. The first Cambodian restaurant to be named among Asia’s 50 best, it continues to garner awards for its innovative use of little-known ingredients. Rivière has said, “Cambodian food has changed my cooking style in many ways. The idea of mixing meat and fish, the idea of over or under cooking something on purpose, or even the idea of doing an entire meal without dairy, has changed my way of running a kitchen.” A delightful multi-course meal.

These are by no means the only places we frequented in our four years in Phnom Penh. Our Uruguayan friend (who was reared in Sweden) has a fun, eponymous tapas bar called CASA DIEGO in bustling Bassac Lane, where there are several themed bars and a hip young crowd. There’s a good Greek restaurant there as well. Not far away, another lane near Wat Langka is lined with stylish pubs and ethnic restaurants, the French fusion BISTRO LANGKA among them. It’s small and very popular and you’ll definitely need reservations there.  There are Mexican and Indonesian and Malaysian and Vietnamese and Thai restaurants throughout the city, but none were my favorites.

Several of the posher hotels have good dining. The best Chinese food I had in town was at FU LU ZU in an outbuilding of the Sofitel. Their dim sum buffet is one of the best deals in town. I also like the casual restaurant in the grand old Raffles (Hotel Le Royal), LE PHNOM 1929, a brasserie style French restaurant with the requisite seafood tower, an excellent burger, Veal Paillard, Dover Sole, prime cuts of meat, and an eclectic wine list not found elsewhere in the city.

Phnom Penh was so much more manageable. I could walk everywhere or be anywhere in a tuktuk in 20 minutes, max. Hanoi is huge. There are plenty of restaurants in our neighborhood, including a decent French bistro, superior Indian cuisine, a marvelous local snail restaurant, a Ukrainian restaurant, and even two Egyptian spots. Plus several good Italian places, including the aforementioned pizzeria. But most of the better restaurants are downtown. A half hour in a cab. It’s no wonder I cook most of our meals.