Archive for the 'Banh Cam' Category

Soaked in Sapa

After five days in Hanoi, The Astronomer and I packed up our bags and headed to Sapa, a frontier town and district in Lào Cai Province in northwest Vietnam. Sapa is home to many ethnic minority groups such as H’mong, Dao and Tay.

Even though The Astronomer and I bought our train tickets as soon as we arrived in Hanoi, they were sold out of soft sleeper seats on the evening we were hoping to depart. Rather than endure a sleepless night on a hard sleeper, we opted to travel during the day. We left Hanoi before the sun rose and arrived in Lao Cai eleven hours later.

The train’s barred windows made us feel like we were trapped in a cage, but the picturesque and lush scenery was still enjoyable through the metal. The fresh mountain air was also a treat for our much-abused lungs.

The night before we boarded the train to Sapa, I was worried that we wouldn’t have anything to eat during our lengthy trip. My worrying was for naught because food and drink vendors were hawking up a storm throughout our voyage with vendors seemed to be hopping on and off the train at nearly every stop. Around lunch time, The Astronomer purchased a pre-assembled container of com binh dan (worker’s lunch) that had rau muong luoc (boiled morning glory), cha (pork forcemeat), two soggy cha gio (egg rolls), rice and tofu. The food wasn’t anything special, but it filled The Astronomer’s pit, which was all he really wanted.

The Astronomer fueling up and hydrating.

When we arrived at the train station in Lao Cai, a hired hand picked us up in a van and drove us to our hotel. It was raining during our drive up the mountain, but we didn’t think much of it. I went on a run as soon as we arrived, and for dinner we dined at our hotel’s restaurant due to the bad weather. The restaurant served a mixture of Vietnamese and Western cuisine. I ate a hamburger.

The following morning, we woke up to low visibility and lots of rain. The Astronomer and I were hoping to trek in the hills and zoom around town on a motorbike, but it wasn’t in the cards on this day.

Since trekking and zooming were out of the question, we decided to eat some hill people’s food and shop for colorful, hand-crafted gifts for our families.

As we headed to the marketplace, we spotted this woman grilling under an awning. After checking out her offerings, we decided to indulge in some grilled meats on a stick and sticky rice in bamboo (com lam). I returned a few days later to try a grilled egg, which ended up tasting just like a regular hard boiled egg.

Here she is brushing our meats on a stick with slick coat of oil to keep it from burning.

The meat on a stick was laced with lemon leaves and tasted nice and smokey. The Astronomer was so enamored that he ordered another. The hearty com lam warmed us up and hit the carbohydrate spot. We dipped the rice in a mixture of sesame seeds and salt.

Our next course were sweet and salty Vietnamese doughnuts filled with mung bean paste—banh cam (or banh ran for Northerners).

After a bit of shopping, we were ready to eat some more. The Astronomer ordered bun cha—grilled pork patties soaked in a vinaigrette with pickled carrots and daikon served with fresh herbs and vermicelli rice noodles. This version was all around inferior compared to those we ate in Hanoi, Saigon and America. Something tells me it’s hard getting fresh noodles in these here parts.

I went for another order of com lam. The grill master at this joint removed the rice from the bamboo to grill. As a result, the sticky rice was much smokier and had a crispier texture. Lovely, lovely.

The following three days were kind of a blur. We woke up to low visibility and an abundance of rain each and every day we were in Sapa.  The relentless precipitation due to tropical storm Kammuri caused terrible flooding and mudslides all over the surrounding area, which made it impossible for us to get down the mountain. Even though our situation was bleak, tourists hoping to head back to Hanoi via train were in worse shape because the tracks were seriously damaged.

After way too many days of doing nothing and eating sad western fare, The Astronomer and I were dying to move on to our next destination—this trip to Sapa was clearly a bust. Before heading down the mountain, we rolled up the legs of our pants, slipped on some flip-flops and headed into town to chow on hill people’s food one last time. We ordered the usual com lam and meat on a stick.

As well as a plate of sauteed chayote with carrots. All three items were excellent, but we were mentally ready to blow this Popsicle stand.

A gloomy day at the market.

The weather was so gray that even the peaches looked sad.

More clouds, more rain, more low visibility.

The Astronomer and I eventually hired a driver who owned a military jeep to drive us down to Lao Cai. The rain finally stopped about half way down the mountain and we were able to take in some gorgeous sites.

The beautiful rice terraces of Sapa. We asked our driver to drop us off at the Lao Cai/Heiku land border. After clearing customs, we crossed the border into China and eventually made our way to the Beijing Olympics. I can’t wait to experience Sapa without the interference of a relentless tropical storm.

Eating in District 4


The Astronomer and I have taken a good number of friends and gas•tron•o•my readers on food tours of District 4, but never took ourselves on one until last Saturday.

While we usually stick to Ton That Thuyet Street, also known as the “corridor of temptation,” we decided to venture into unchartered waters on this trip. I started off the tour with a cool hunk of Vietnamese JELLO from my regular dealer, while the Astronomer dug into a bowl of bun thit xao (10,000 VND). The Astronomer has eaten countless bowls of bun thit nuong, but this was his first bowl of its sister dish.

What sets bun thit xao apart from its well-known sibling is how the meat is prepared. Rather than grilled, these slices of lemongrass marinated pork are pan-fried with tomatoes and onions. The Astronomer liked this dish just as much as his old standby.


As The Astronomer finished up his noodles, a vendor selling pickled fruits and green mangoes rolled our way. During a conversation with my mom a few months back, she mentioned that green mangoes dipped in fish sauce were a divine treat that I needed to try. I ordered half a mango (2,000 VND), which the vendor sliced up and served with a cup of sugary fish sauce with chilies.

While I can’t say I prefer this combination over ripe and juicy mangoes eaten straight up, the intermingling of tart, sweet, spicy and salty flavors were very good.


The fish sauce dip was syrupy thick, spicy and contained a heap of undissolved sugar to mellow out the sour mango.


Next, I went for a super-tall cup of sương sa hột lựu (3,000 VND), which is a variety of che that contains black beans, green tapioca strands, pomegranate seeds, agar agar, coconut milk and crushed ice. Although seemingly harmless, the hefty cup of che filled me up quite a bit.


In between bites, we saw a statue of an angel viciously stabbing something or another. Yikes. I thought angels were peaceful beings…


The Astronomer ducked into an awning-covered stall selling bun dishes and cha gio for his second and third course. The cha gio (2,000 VND each) were surprisingly crisp for having sat around for awhile. The rice paper wrapping was golden and blistered, while the innards were porky and well-seasoned. I detected some taro root in the mush of innards as well. Mmm, just like Bà Sáu‘s.


He followed up the two cha gio with another bowl of bun. This time around, it was bun thit bo la lot (14,000 VND). Bo la lot are savory morsels of grilled meat wrapped in betel leaves. Each bite is slightly sweet and very fragrant.


Who has two thumbs and loves noodles and grilled animal protein drenched in nuoc mam? The Astronomer!


While exploring the hidden alleyways in District 4, we found a giant “rock cave,” also known as a nativity scene. It was connected to a rather impressive Catholic church complex undergoing renovations.


While my heart doesn’t skip a beat for doughnuts the way The Astronomer’s does, banh cam (1,000 VND) still has a very special place in it. We bought two and happily scarfed them down while zigzagging through our ‘hood.


This little doggy is chillin’ in a pile of brand new hangers.


Even though we were both quite stuffed at this point on the tour, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sample bánh ít trần (5,000 VND). This dish is a savory version of one of my all-time favorite desserts, che troi nuoc. Bánh ít trần are medium-sized tapioca balls stuffed with mung bean paste, topped with scallion oil and pickled carrots and daikon, and served in a sweet fish sauce with coconut milk.

All of the usual Vietnamese food suspects are present and accounted for—sweet, sour, salty, sticky, chewy and awesome.


As we neared home, I spotted a vendor selling goi cuon (fresh spring rolls) for 1,000 VND a piece, which is ridiculously cheap even by Vietnam standards. The Astronomer ordered two to see if they were any good. Although they were missing the quintessential boiled shrimps, these spring rolls were not the least bit shabby.


For my final course, I ate some xoi gac (gac fruit sticky rice – 2,000 VND) that I procured earlier. Although I’m not one-hundred percent certain, I’m pretty sure the vendor uses actual gac fruit rather than coloring because I sometimes find gac seeds in my xoi. However, the color does strike me as a bit artificial. The crushed peanuts atop the xoi are a tasty touch.

Even though The Astronomer and I have lived in Vietnam for quite some time, we’re still floored by how inexpensive delicious food is. Our afternoon food tour of District 4 set us back $3. That’s crazy business.

Bánh Cam

Oh. Dang. Just look at them…

Bánh rán is a deep-fried glutinous rice ball from northern Vietnamese cuisine. In Vietnamese, bánh means “cake” and rán means “fried.”

Its outer shell is made from glutinous rice flour, and covered all over with white sesame seeds. Its filling is made from sweetened mung bean paste, and scented with jasmine flower essence. Traditionally, the filling should be separated from the shell so that if one shakes the bánh rán, one can feel the filling rattle against the inside of the shell.

Bánh rán is very similar to a Chinese fried glutinous rice ball called zin dou (煎道), which is a standard pastry in Cantonese cuisine and Hong Kong cuisine. The Chinese version is generally slightly sweeter and does not have jasmine essence, and uses fillings such as lotus paste or black bean paste.

In southern Vietnam, a similar dish, called bánh cam, is nearly identical to bánh rán, but does not contain jasmine essence. A further difference is that for bánh cam the filling does not need to be separated from the shell. In Northern Vietnam bánh cam is different from bánh rán as it is traditionally eaten with a sugary syrup that is poured over the pastry.

While The Astronomer does the bulk of the donut eating in our relationship, I do have a few favorites. I first spied the gooey and sweet bánh cam on my morning run down Ton That Thuyet Street in District 4. Even though the donuts looked mighty inviting glistening in the sun, I couldn’t bring myself to eat one mid-run. Aside from the 4 X donut at Swarthmore, donuts and running just don’t go hand in hand.

I tried bánh cam two weeks ago on a Christmas shopping trip in District 5. The donut dealer sold her goods for 2000VND a pop, which I thought was a fine deal until I discovered that the vendors in District 4 only charged 1000VND. Insanity!

The caramelized sugar glaze atop the freshly fried dough is what makes this donut especially delightful. Unlike the light and fluffy trans-fat ridden donuts in America (i.e. Krispy Kremes), these are a bit on the dense side, so eating more than one is too much goodness for one day.

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