Archive for the 'Com Binh Dan' 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.

Saigon Zoo

I initially titled this post “Seeing Animals, Eating Animals,” but changed it because it sounded so very unappetizing and after all, this blog is all about being palatable. Everyone seems to love to hate on the Saigon Zoo for one reason or another, but take it from a girl whose hometown is San Diego (site of the World Famous San Diego Zoo), the place isn’t too shabby. The animals seemed well fed and their environs weren’t terribly cramped (with the exception of the alligators). To be perfectly honest, The Astronomer looked far hungrier than any of the animals we saw during out visit. Zing!

The face of a happy Vietnamese elephant. The animals in the zoo are accustomed to being fed by visitors so they come really close to the parameters, which was very good for viewing the texture of the elephants’ skin.

A local boy tried to feed the elephants Vietnamese JELLO (thach). Using my best Thuy Tonnu impression, I lectured the boy on the importance of not feeding animals human food.

A deer-like creatures with very large ears. It’s a little frightening how close I got to some of the animals.

After wandering for a bit, it was time for snack! The park is dotted with food stands and deep-fried meat on a stick appeared to be the zoo’s specialty. The Astronomer ordered the fried pork dumplings on a stick with hoisin sauce. Eating animals in between seeing animals was sort of difficult for me to reconcile, but The Astronomer had no qualms about it. He commented that the texture was nice and crispy.

The petting zoo reminded me of the NOFX album cover for “Heavy Petting Zoo,” especially with that odd monkey statue in the center. The grossest sight during our visit occurred here—while one goat was pissing, another met the stream with its goatee. We laughed a bit, but then wanted to vomit.

Uno hippo. Which reminds me of one of the greatest T-shirts ever made…


The alligators were packed to the max and hardly moved. At one point we thought that they might be fake, but then one moved and then we knew for certain that they were the real deal.

The monkeys had the coolest pad in the zoo. They’re located on an island with lots of trees and are able to swing about without barriers. If you look closely, there are two black monkeys and a yellowish one dangling in the background.

Two rhinos.

My favorite picture from my visit! Even at a very public place like the zoo, the locals make sure to have their daily siesta. Do you love it?

The Astronomer could not resist a plate of com suon nuong on our way out of the zoo. How awesome would it be if all the theme parks in America served Vietnamese-style grilled pork chops? So awesome.


With my days in Saigon winding down, I made a list of foods I had to eat before bidding this fair city farewell. I’ve been indulging in my favorite foods throughout my stay, so the bulk of the list consisted of items I’ve been hesitant to try.

Americans are pretty open minded about food, but have yet to embrace bugs like the folks in Southeast Asia. Kids in these here parts (especially in Thailand) are rewarded with bugs in the same way Western kids are given candy for a job well done. The thought of returning back to America and not having the option of eating bugs struck me as kind of sad, so I bit the bullet and sought out some silk worms (nhong).

The deed was done at a com binh dan joint on Mai Thi Luu Street in District 1. We arrived at 10 AM because I came by on a different day at 1 PM and they were fresh out of nhong. I ordered a small plate along with a plate of rice.

According to the chef, the silkworm carcasses are stir-friend in cooking oil along with fish sauce and scallions to bring out their natural goodness. She also informed me that this is a northern delicacy and that the Saigonese usually don’t find it palatable.

Stir-fried silkworm carcasses taste a lot like dried shirmps (tom kho), but with an extra spurt of guts/moisture. The fish sauce adds a bit of saltiness that enhances the overall flavor, but to truly make them appetizing, it would take a village.

Silkworms—they’re okay, but miles from delicious.

Bunches of Lunches: Cơm Trưa

One of the luxuries of Vietnam is being able to dine out for nearly every meal due to the low cost of food. On average, The Astronomer and I each spend approximately $1-$1.50 per meal depending on the eatery and what we order. Although a part of me misses cooking up a storm, it’s easier and far more delicious to frequent restaurants and street stalls rather than bargaining, buying, and preparing raw ingredients in Saigon.

For the most part, The Astronomer and I have avoided eating out for breakfast because we prefer chomping on cereal and PowerBars in our apartment to eating hot soups street-side. However, lunch is a completely different story.

Here are some snapshots from lunchtime outings during the past few weeks:

August 3, 2007—While exploring our ‘hood during a rainy Saturday morning, we stumbled upon a friendly man dishing up goi du du kho bo (green papaya salad with beef jerky, basil, and fish sauce vinaigrette – 5,000 VND) and goi coun (spring rolls with pork, vermicelli noodles, herbs, lettuce, and mam nem dipping sauce – 6,000 VND). The green papaya salad was spectacular, especially the spicy jerky. The spring rolls, on the other hand, contained a bitter herb that was overwhelming. We also weren’t fans of the potent anchovy and pineapple dipping sauce.

August 6, 2007—A mechanic pointed The Astronomer and I to the Banh Canh Cua eatery. We shared a bowl of the restaurant’s siganature dish, banh canh cua (13,000 VND), and a sampler plate of the restaurant’s offerings that included banh beo, banh nam, banh bot loc, and banh ram it (10,000 VND). The banh canh was very different from my family’s version due to the employment of fresh noodles, which contributed to a thicker and starchier broth. The sampler platter was terrific!

August 9, 2007—Around the corner from our office is an outdoor restaurant serving worker’s lunches. We’ve eaten here twice mainly due to proximity. The rice is often too dry and the flies buzzing around quickly kill an appetite. On our first visit, The Astronomer had the braised fish and a fish patty, while I had tofu stuffed with ground pork and an omelet. Our lunch plates include a small bowl of soup with mustard greens, which The Astronomer hates but I rather like. The food here isn’t stellar, but it’s definitely decent and inexpensive at 15,000 VND per person.

August 11, 2007—My grandma’s younger sister, Ba Sao, invited The Astronomer and me to her house for lunch the other weekend. She prepared her famous egg rolls, thit kho, braised fish with tomatoes and turnips, and bi coun (spring rolls with shredded pork and lettuce). Everything was delicious! The Astronomer probably ate twenty egg rolls and the braised fish rocked my world. I hope to learn a few recipes from her during my year in Vietnam.

August 12, 2007—There’s no such thing as a bad bowl of pho in this country! This random pho joint called Pho Bac Ha is located off the uber-busy CMT 8. The Astronomer ordered the pho ga (15,000 VND), while I had the pho bo (12,000 VND). Nothing super special here, just a solid bowl of pho.

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