Lots of goings-on in December! After we managed to leave our Southeast Asian jet lag fog behind, we started off by trying to make the Vietnamese sour soup in our own kitchen. It turned out pretty well! Plus searching for ingredients at the Asian market was fun.
One of the first weekends in December Jon, Alex, and Sam came over to help decorate our Christmas tree. It turned out looking beautiful. Afterwards we all went out to lunch.
George and I celebrated our birthdays on December 8 at Albatross in Danville. I forgot to take pictures. The restaurant turned out to be quite an albatross!
Before Christmas Sarah spent four days making a Panettone and it turned out pretty much like the one we had in Florence last year. So delicious!
Unfortunately on Pilat Eve many of us were sick. Sarah was just starting to get over her bad cold and I had just caught it. Sam was sick too and Ryan stayed home with him. We had some delicious bites but saved the singing for Christmas Day at Jonathan and Ryan’s. I did make an annual favorite, rum cake!
On Christmas morning John, Sarah, and I exchanged gifts and had our traditional breakfast, bagels and lox with Schneider Weiss beer.
Later on we went to Jonathan and Ryan’s for Christmas dinner. Jon did a fabulous job cooking a a prime rib roast, mashed potatoes, death by broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and I brought along creamed spinach and John made gravy. After dinner we all sat around and sang Christmas carols following the bouncing ball on YouTube.
I spent the rest of December trying to recuperate from my cold so New Year’s Eve was a quiet affair. We made a scallop dinner for ourselves and were in bed by 10 P.M.
The last day of our trip and Bangkok is on the schedule. We have decided not to go on the excursion. We just cannot imagine a two to three hour trip each way on the bus. The temperatures today are supposed to be in the mid-90s with lots of humidity. I am still coughing from my cold and John is toured-out. We will have to visit Bangkok another time when we feel up to it.
It is lovely being on the ship without all the other people. Yesterday we could not find a seat for lunch but today we have the dining room pretty much to ourselves. Wish we still wanted to eat cruise food!
Update: 11/30/19. We are home having spent 26 hours in transit bus riding, waiting and layover, two plane rides (and the rigmarole associated with air transportation), and the car ride home. We each slept about 20 minutes over that 26 hours.
On the way to the Bangkok airport, Thailand looks much more developed than Vietnam and Cambodia. As we drive along the modern highways the terrain is flat with palm trees and little lakes and waterways. It looks a lot like Florida! There are communities of apartments which appear to have air conditioners. There is a lot of commerce and industry. I regret not seeing Bangkok on Thursday but do not regret missing the excursion. There has to be a better way to visit!
Here are three pictures of a fabulous statue in the Bangkok airport. It was so enormous that I had to take all three. It is called the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Based on a Hindu story, the Devas (demons) formed an alliance with the Asuras (gods)to jointly churn the ocean for the nectar of immortality and to share it among themselves. A mountain was brought as a turning point and a serpent was twisted around it to rotate the mountain. Vishnu, the chief Hindu god, sits on top of the mountain to stabilize it
Would I do this particular Viking trip again? No. I think this is mostly because the ports where Viking docked were mostly so far away from the things you wanted to see that we were scrunched on buses for hours, usually around 4 hours round trip. A 6.5 hour excursion was actually only 2.5 hours of actual experience. Trust me, an Asian bus is more suited to smaller Asians than tall and wide Americans.
On the other hand, it was an unforgettable experience. From sparkling Hong Kong with its fabulous setting, its clean, beautiful high rise towers, and wonderful every night harbor light show to Cambodia’s sad squalor we got to see four unique countries. The people were lovely. They were full of kindness and smiles for us which is amazing considering the fact that their history with outsiders from the Vietnam war to the massacre of the Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge and now the impingement of China in Hong Kong has been devastating to them.
If the first day of being in Cambodia was distressing, today is even more so. Our first stop is at a fishing village. Our guide tells us that most of the people in the countryside who are doing farming and the fishermen are uneducated. That must be nearly 80% of the people of Cambodia. The fishermen and their families look like they live in squalid, unsanitary conditions with the men going out at night to fish and returning in the morning and the women taking care of many children.
Our guide tells us that Cambodian people see the flies that are around the fish and produce in the markets are a good thing. He says if the food is not attracting flies then there must be something wrong with it. Considering that flies carry diseases, it is an odd concept. It also makes me wonder about the food we cooked yesterday!
Next we go to Independence Beach. This beach and its hotel were made famous when Jacqueline Kennedy came here in 1967 hoping to improve relations between Cambodia and the U.S. The sea looks inviting and there are benches to sit on. The garbage is a little less pronounced as this is the first place we have seen trash containers. We watch some young people enjoying the day. They go swimming in their street clothes. There are lots of tall buildings nearby. Most are unfinished. Our guide tells us that there have been problems with the Chinese construction. Inferior quality building materials have caused some of the buildings to collapse killing Cambodian people.
Our last stop is at a Buddhist complex. Traditionally becoming a monk was a way for poor boys to receive an education.
We see a demonstration of Cambodian dance, some large statues of Buddha, and a temple.
On the way back to the boat our guide, Senh, really unloads about what has happened to Cambodia and the Cambodian people. He talks about Pol Pot and the rise of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s. Pol Pot had a view of Cambodia as an agrarian socialist society. So he forcibly removed the urban population to the countryside to work or collective farms. Anyone who was considered an enemy of the Pol Pot government was killed. This included intellectuals, minorities, teachers, doctors, and certainly anyone who spoke English as they could be secret CIA operatives. These mass killings plus malnutrition and poor medical care killed between 1.5 to 2 million people, a quarter of the Cambodian people. With the approach of the 21st century Cambodia was devoid of a generation of people who could have helped the country to advance. They are still largely uneducated. Senh said that if you have no education then you do not even know what to dream about.
So we are feeling pretty sad about the conditions that these sweet, smiling people have to live in as we return to our fancy boat and have our dinner where we can send back any food that does not meet our standard and go to bed in a king size bed with clean sheets after we have seen the Cambodian people swinging in their hammocks. I think I will not post pictures of what we ate for dinner today.
Today we have a cooking class in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. I am expecting Cambodia to be a lot like Vietnam but it is far behind in development. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge basically wiped out, as in killed, a whole generation of people who were educated teachers, doctors, and professionals. So Cambodia is struggling to get back on its feet and is relying on Chinese investment to help. It looks like so far it has not helped enough.
Views from the bus –
Most of the roads are partly dirt due to construction or lack of maintenance. The bus has to go very slowly, probably about 20 mph or less. Then the bus driver cannot find the Don Bosco School where we are taking our cooking course and must make u-turns in the middle of the street with motorbikes and people everywhere. Finally we reach our destination and need to walk down a hot and dusty road to the school. Everything is set up for us to cook.
We are making two dishes, Fish Amok, which is fish in a curry paste steamed in banana leaves and Khmer meat pancake with sweet fish sauce. The parts we actually do are to make the curry paste, cook the meat, make a basket out of our banana leaves, cook the pancake, and make the fish sauce. Chef makes the batter for the pancake and steams the Fish Amok.
Making a little box out of the banana leaves is harder than you might imagine. You have to fold the banana leaves just so four times and secure it with toothpicks. We are all laughing pretty hard at our feeble attempts. John has made an unrecognizable box and mine is leaking the sauce that the fish is in slowly out the sides. They go into a big steamer.
We make a spicy fish sauce with spices and chilis and coconut milk. Then we cook a combination of pork and shrimp to put inside a rice pancake. With only minor conflagrations we cook the meat. No one cooks a successful pancake. Plus they did not tell us to put the meat into the pancake and roll it inside like an omelet. Mostly everyone’s pancakes just look like scrambled eggs.
It has been great fun learning about Cambodian cuisine. The people are so lovely and sweet that it makes you so sad for the situations they live in. We especially wonder about our female tour guide. What kinds of hard times did she have to go through to get educated. She tells us that most of the girls in the country side are uneducated and marry around 16. They cannot go to school because it is not safe for them to walk to school and the Buddhist monks do not teach girls. How hard must it have been for our tour guide.
Later we have dinner at the Chef’s Table. It is the same as the dinner we had a couple days earlier. I have a better picture of the apple dessert though. It is really yummy and is constructed out of thin layers of caramelized apple into the shape of an apple.
John seems almost better today but I am still going through a lot of tissues and feeling sort of miserable. We have breakfast in the room where I get a totally uncooked sausage. It is red, raw inside. Yuck! That is two culinary mishaps so far on this trip. What’s up with that!?
Today is a day at sea so we have nowhere to be. While I nap John goes to a culinary demonstration which turns out to be tiramisu. I have actually made tiramisu once with a recipe that Sarah gave me. It turned out well. I really don’t intend on ever making one again so I don’t feel bad about missing the demonstration. John also spends some time looking at the art around the ship using the Viking Art Guide App.
Around noon he comes back to get me for trivia. The topic is movies. I know one answer out of 15. John only knows a few. We are carried by the rest of the team and score a somewhat respectable 12 which is definitely a losing score. I feel like a movie dummy.
After looking at the lunch offerings in the World Cafe we decide to go down to The Restaurant which is open for lunch on sea days. Lunch is much fancier at The Restaurant than at the World Cafe.
In the afternoon I catch up with writing posts for my blog. I had gotten two days behind. Even though John takes lots of notes, once a few days have passed I have trouble remembering everything we did. It will be easy to remember what I did today because it was basically nothing. I am not going to post these entries to social media since they are mostly just about what we ate. John and I find it interesting to post all our culinary delights but most people just find it boring.
As the afternoon wears on we run into a line of thunderstorms. We go to the Explorer Lounge where we can see the lightning in action! Later we go to dinner at “The”.
As we are leaving dinner people are streaming into the Star Theater for a presentation by Patrick Roberts who is a violinist. He plays mostly pop tunes with a prerecorded backup orchestra (that is too loud.) He does do a creditable performance of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. We enjoy our evening.
Today we are supposed to have another tour of the Ben Thanh market except this time we go around with an herbalist/doctor. John is still recovering from his cold and mine is in full swing. So we decide to stay on the ship, nap, and try to recover.
In the early afternoon the ship leaves Ho Chi Minh City and is on route to Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Tomorrow will be a day at sea and another chance for us to recuperate. We leave via the Soai Rap river which empties into the South China Sea. We see aquaculture farms and rice paddies along the way.
After spending the afternoon doing nothing we have dinner at The Chef’s Table where we have the menu – La Route des Indes.
After dinner we hurry back to our room for another night of healing sleep.
NOTE: Along with John I have also caught a cold. Because I need to take colds seriously, we have cancelled our excursion for 11/24, and 11/25 is a day at sea. This gives us two days to try and get well before we visit Cambodia. I probably will not have much to write about for those two days.
If you enjoy bus rides than this is the cruise for you. Today, especially, the ratio of time on the bus to time actually seeing something interesting is especially poor. Our excursion of six hours included about one hour and fifteen minutes of seeing something interesting. Since our boat is docked an hour away from the city, that is two hours sunk in just going back and forth. Driving in Ho Chi Minh City is especially tedious because there is so much traffic. And this is on Saturday when there is less traffic.
We finally reach a temple, Jade Pagoda, to see. It is a combination Buddhist/Hindu place built in 1900. Our guide suggests we go in and put our hand on our hearts and make a wish. Our guide, along with the majority of Vietnamese, does not belong to any organized religion. I find it uncomfortable to be making wishes and taking pictures where people are worshipping. Our guide does not come in with us so other than the Buddha we have no idea what we are looking at. This took up 20 minutes of our non-bus time. Some of the statutes in the Jade Pagoda –
Now we crawl along in the traffic while the guide points out a couple of things. Here’s the Opera House.
Here is the Post Office built by the French.
We stop for five minutes to take a picture of the reunification palace.
Interestingly our guide,who is a young woman, says that there are still a lot of people in South Vietnam (she refers to South Vietnam as if it were still a country) who are angry that North Vietnam took over the South. She also says that the Americans did not lose the war. They just gave up. She also told us that South Vietnamese and maybe all Vietnamese hate China and Chinese people and especially Chinese tourists. She says the Chinese are rude and crude. She gives us examples of bad behavior.
Then we ride around a block a couple of times so she can show us where the iconic picture of South Vietnamese trying to get on to the last U.S. helicopter was taken. She says it was not on the roof of the U.S. Embassy but on the roof of the C.I.A. Building. We cannot see what she is referring to.
Then we go to a wood lacquer workshop where art is made by inlaying pieces of wood, eggshells and other things. There is a short presentation and then a “buying opportunity.” They have western toilets and there is some weak air conditioning so we are pretty happy about that.
Our last stop is at the Banh Thant market which we saw yesterday. John and I walk in. It is crowded and very hot. We walk out. John stops at the men’s room while I wait outside. Unfortunately it is a place for sex workers to be standing. We all side eye each other. I move to another spot. John comes out and we spot our bus. We are early but the bus is air conditioned and quieter so we are happy to get aboard.
After this we go back to the ship. We take showers. Neither of us is feeling well but we go for dinner and cobble together a dinner out of four starters – shu mai, summer rolls,spicy prawns, and pho. It is quite enjoyable.
I am really glad that we have cancelled our outing for tomorrow and that I have two days to try to kick this cold before we land in Cambodia and have our Cambodian Cooking School excursion.
Today we take the bus into Ho Chi Minh City (hereafter indicated by HCMC or Saigon) to meet with a local chef, go to the enormous Ben Thanh market, and then make our way to the Saigon Cooking School. At the school we will prepare a three course meal for ourselves and eat it! But first a few words about HCMC.
Saigon is nothing like Hue. It is modern and bustling. The traffic is monumental. No one seems to pay much attention to the traffic laws. The prices in the market are inflated about 70% and you are expected to bargain the seller down. (Not my favorite way of shopping so we buy nothing.) It is a big city of 10 million people hustling to get by. It is not clean. Due to the extreme heat and humidity and very little air conditioning people sit out on the sidewalk if they can find space between the motorbikes.
We meet our chef outside the market and she takes us inside to talk about the various fruits and vegetables that we will use.
After our visit to the market we take a short drive over to the Saigon Cooking School where there are cookers and ingredients for each of us. We put on our aprons and get to work. It is all quite comprehensive and we use a real propane cook top. I manage to set my towel on fire. The first dish we make is sour soup with prawns. We cut up all the vegetables and cook it ourselves!
The ingredients to our sour soup with prawn are water, elephant ear stem, okra, prawn, bean sprouts, tomato, pineapple, tamarind paste, rice paddy herb and saw tooth coriander, sugar, fish sauce, salt chopped garlic and cooking oil. We sit down to eat our creation.
Now the chef expects us to move a little faster. I really have almost no time to take pictures. Finally I give up with the picture taking and just concentrate on the cooking and getting my phone out of harm’s way. Our next course is lotus stems salad with prawns and pork, goi ngo sen. The ingredients are sugar lemon juice, fish sauce, long chili, garlic for the dressing and pickled white radish and carrot, fresh lotus stems, pickled lotus stem, prawns, lean pork, onion, Laksa leaves, peanuts, fried shallots, and deep fried lotus roots. We have a tool to cut the carrots into fancy julienne and a peeler which is much more difficult to use than my OXO one.
Our last dish is chicken stew in a clay pot with ginger, basil and coconut juice or ga kho gung. This takes quite a bit of cooking and pressing of the tamarind paste. This is where I set my kitchen towel alight but smother it so quickly that no one notices. They are really busy chopping and stirring and trying not to get burned or set their own towels afire. So we are dealing with sharp knives, a really hot propane flame, and a clay pot that you cannot touch unless you are using your towel (which puts it really close to the open flame.) Chef tells us to concentrate!!
Our chef whose name is maybe Ugen or maybe some thing else compliments us on a job well done and says we have all graduated from The Saigon Cooking School. Yay! She gives a folder with our recipes and a coaster to commemorate our day.
It has been a long day of learning and cooking and we arrive back at the boat about 7 hours after we left. Everyone is pretty tired out but happy that we had this experience.
We experience fairly rough seas overnight which I find difficult to sleep through. So I am pretty sleepy this morning. But there is no time for laggards and we soon are on a bus to go and try the “Tastes of Hue.” The plan is to meet with a local chef and go through a market learning about the different foods in Vietnamese cuisine and then walking back to her house for a luncheon that she has prepared for us. We originally thought we were going to get a cooking class but that will have to wait for another day.
Our excursion is 6 hours long. One thing they don’t tell you in the blurb about the excursions is how long you are going to be on the bus. They just say “after a ride through the Vietnamese countryside, you will arrive in Hue…” Today’s ride is nearly 2 hours long each way. On the ride to Hue we see a different face of Vietnam. It is poor and rural. Both on the ride and in Hue we are surprised by how Third World Vietnam is.
Vietnam is mostly agricultural with rice paddies everywhere still plowed by water buffalo. Most of the housing is built behind whatever business the locals can drum up—a cafe or restaurant, karaoke bar, spare parts for machines, hair salon. The people we see are cultivating a garden, watching their children, or just sitting around. It is much poorer than we imagined.
The traffic is somewhat chaotic with motorbikes dashing to and fro. Anyone who hesitates has lost the edge to get through an intersection. Our bus is enormous next to the rest of the traffic so for us the locals give way. We de-bus and meet our chef host, Hoang Thi Nhu Huy, a renowned chef and cookbook author specializing in royal Hue cuisine. First she walks us through the market describing the different foodstuffs.
I have to admit that I am somewhat put off by the smells and the fact that I see a large roach crawling among the dried noodles in a package. I am glad when we exit the market and proceed to Madame Nhu Huy’s house for lunch. And what a lunch it is! Obviously she has been cooking for days to put together this feast. We sit at communal tables and Madame Nhu Huy comes around to explain each dish and drink.
John, who has taken prodigious notes throughout the meal, has become a favorite of Madame Nhu Huy. She is so excited when he stands up and is so much taller than she. She insists on a picture with him and her assistant wants one too. She is a teacher and thinks that maybe John is one too because of his notes. The Vietnamese people are very friendly and affectionate.
Now it is back on the bus for the ride back. I immediately fall asleep until we get to our rest stop which is at a cafe on a small lake. It has western bathrooms which is the main reason why we stopped there.
When we are get to the ship and are back in our room the phone rings and it is from the kitchen. The head chef wants to meet with us. We set up a meeting at 5:30 PM. The head chef, Eslam from Turkey, wants us to know he is so sorry for the bone incident yesterday, are we okay, and what can he do to make it up to us. He tells us he would do this for any guest but I think maybe they are afraid that we will sue or something. Can he make us special lobster or a special dessert? I ask if he can move up our 9 PM reservation at the Italian restaurant to 8 PM. Of course, no problem and we will get a special dessert plus we can have reservations at any of the specialty restaurants on any day we want. We feel a little embarrassed. The main reason we said anything about the bone was to alert them about it not to get anything special.
When we get to the restaurant, Manfredi’s at 8 PM, they are falling all over themselves to be nice. The restaurant manager says they have been looking forward to our visit and take us to a table by the window himself. The head chef comes over to make sure we are happy and we get quite a delicious special dessert.