If there’s a city with a proud cafe culture, it is Hanoi. The locals are immensely proud of their local coffee, and sip it all day in their inimitable style. I wish Singapore was as proud of their own coffee – local coffee that is. (Yes, the one you brew in a sock, while wearing your blue striped pyjama pants.) In nooks and crannies, tucked deep inside narrow ‘tube houses’ or in the upper levels of old French colonial buildings are a hidden world of coffee joints. They are vibrant, happening places crowded with mostly young patrons, and few tourists. They aren’t easy to find, but our guide Trang of Hanoi Voyages brought us to a couple, having found out that we were ardent foodies.
Her favourite and a local institution is Cafe Giang (39 Nguyen Hu Huan) — pronounced ‘Jac’, with a soft ‘J’ — opened since 1946 and still going strong. You can easily miss its dark, distressed entrance way, dismissing it as an empty, derelict passage. But that’s because the action is deep down the narrow corridor, and up an even narrower staircase.
As you reach the top landing, suddenly sunlight pours down from a skylight and you’re in a lush, plant-filled landing, crowded with customers. In typical Vietnamese style, seats and tables are low. Don’t wait to be seated – just head to the nearest available.
Typical Vietnamese coffee is served here, so potent it’ll keep you up for the next few days of touring. And it’s good, believe me. ‘Gao’ until cannot ‘gao’. But what most people come here for is its egg coffee – a supremely thick coffee with condensed milk and an egg. It doesn’t sound particularly enticing initially, but you don’t really taste the egg much; it acts more like a thickener, and the texture is rich, ‘puffy’ and somewhat custard-like. It’s really thick, sweet and delectable; rich enough to be a dessert. Definitely a must-try for the food adventurer when visiting Hanoi.
Another delightful coffee joint we visited was Cong Caphe . A very successful local coffee chain, its name makes reference to the Viet Cong who fought the Americans and South Vietnamese in the American War (Americans calls it the Vietnam War). But it’s all about coffee and a fun experience at Caphe Cong, not propaganda or politics.
We visited the outlet at Ma May Street, which occupies a narrow colonial building, with a crumbling but still beautiful European facade. Inside, the cafe is decked out in vintage wooden furniture with clever details that play up the military/retro theme — a bucket or wok for a lampshade, a green leatherbound menu, retro photos and posters on the wall. It’s rather worn out and a little dusty inside, but that’s the look. We head to the upstairs balcony, with distressed walls as a backdrop, overlooking the street and a tangled mess of electric cables. It’s a quaint and atmospheric place to wind down after a day’s exploration.
Drinks here are typically Vietnamese in style given a modern yet authentic spin — a delectable mung bean smoothie with coconut milk, a rice smoothie, espresso with condensed milk, Vietnamese coffee and happily, even cocktails. Sit down, relax and let the sun set, casting the terrace in weakening light. With the mess below and the worn out walls around, there is something quite charming about this. And it’s a really nice way to soak in the local youthful pop culture of Hanoi, of which this cafe is very much a part.
If you have a thing for world’s first and engineering marvels then this is one trip that you would want to make this Summer, and have it ticked off the bucket list.
The Three Gorges Dam or the Sanxia Da Ba (三峡大坝) is the world’s largest hydroelectric dam created to both produce electricity and increase the Yangtze River’s shipping capacity as well as reduce downstream floods. A project that started construction in 1994, it was fully functioning from 2012 complete with five ship locks and fully completed with a ship lift in December 2015. See TEN interesting facts that you may want to note about the Dam project here before you book those tickets.
As for us, we were curious to see what a project that saw China relocating 1.24 million people in 2008 to achieve, costing them US$27.6 billion or RMB180 billion to construct-looked like in reality.
Getting there was easier than expected, there is a 3 hour train ride option from Shenzhen but we decided to fly domestic. So we took the train from Hong Kong to Shenzhen via Lo Wu. From there, boarded a 2 hour flight from Shenzhen’s Airport into Yichang.
Seeing the entire Dam and the expanse of land that is home to almost 360 million people is no mean feat and the most common way to fully appreciate it is to take a 4 to 6 day cruise and there are many cruise companies that arrange tours with English-speaking agents and guides.
With limited off days from school and work, we opted for the shortest way to see the Dam – via a Day Tour and got it arranged via the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Yichang (where we were staying). They recommended an English speaking tour guide, Christine who turned out to be a real gem. With a good command of English, knowledgeable, friendly and passionate about her job, she arranged a 2 day itinerary which included a day out on a tour boat down the Yangtze river and a second day out to see explore the Ba tribal village, one of the many small ancient villages that snake around the Yangtze.
Saw us getting on to a tour boat that would take us on a leisurely cruise down part of the Yangtze to cross the ship lock of the Gezhouba Dam, go inside the Dam area, view the museum, have lunch, and then take a bus back to Yichang.
Entering a SHIP LOCK – think of it as an elevator of sorts but this SHIP LOCK allows the vessel to sail in and brings you 22 metres down stream in 20 mins (about the rate of 1 metre per minute). The ship is literally “locked” into the contained area that you see ahead to prevent the water from rushing in and then carried down stream.
You can’t fly over the Dam because of security issues and you need special military permission to do that – so a bird’s eye view of how the Dam operates and comes together is pretty much out of the question. Thus, a visit to the Dam museum to look at the model of it and how it all works and comes together is mandatory.
We headed by bus to the catch another boat that would bring us to see the Ba Village, a tribe of people who have lived in the region for centuries and in a village built by the banks of the Yangtze River. After which we would catch a bus to eat at the famous cliff side Weng Restaurant, one of the only 8 cliff restaurants in the world.
Leaving the serenity of the Yangtze behind, we hopped on a tour bus back into Yichang city but not before stopping for dinner at the world-famous hanging Fang Weng Restaurant.
The most famous dish there is a fish dish in milky soup where the fish has a distinct gelatinous texture. Look out for our detailed review later.
Total cost for the 2 day itinerary – 500 RMB per person (inclusive the boat and bus transport and minus a tip for the guide, the meals, an Uber or what China calls a “didi” back to the hotel). Definitely a great way to spend a long weekend.
(This trip was my own personal holiday, paid fully by myself. Recommendations here are not paid for, simply that we want to share the great finds.)
From Shenzhen via a high speed train, Guilin is only about three and the half hours away. An easy escape, if you are looking for an easy weekend break, even if you are planning to travel out of Hong Kong, which was just our plan.
Why Guilin? This city or prefecture is situated on the west bank of the Li River and borders Hunan to the North. Its name ‘Guilin’ means “Forest of Sweet Osmanthus” as there are a large number of fragrant sweet osmanthus trees located in the city.
Does the landscape looks familiar? Well, take that RMB twenty dollar note and turn it around – that idyllic scene with the craggy mountains and the boat meandering through the river, really does exist – in picturesque Guilin. The above shot shows a slightly different angle but hey the boat’s there and the same mountainous peaks – well, almost.
So over the recent Halloween weekend, whilst revellers were carousing Lan Kwai Fong, we decided to head over to Shenzhen on Friday evening, stay the night at the border in Luo Wu and catch the High Speed Train (about a three and the half hour ride) the next morning from Shenzhen’s Main Railway Station straight into Guilin and then explore the Yang Shuo area from there.
TAKING THE HIGH SPEED BULLET TRAIN
I did not personally book the tickets as we got a tour agency to do it for us so I can’t share much details with you on the how and what to dos. But the High Speed trains can be booked and boarded at Shenzhen’s North Railway Station. I found this website that I am sharing – particularly helpful as it was in English. So if you are reading this and asking the ‘how’ question – look HERE!
Very modern, clean and comfortable, China’s high speed trains are comparable to the high speed bullet express trains that you get in Japan. There is a food car for snacks and drinks and rotating tables and plush seats that allow you to face each other. We must have been in second class seats as the toilets we encountered though clean, were strictly of the squat variety. I am sure that there are Western style toilets but these are possibly in first class or business class. Also make sure that when you book a seat, you have an actual seat and not a standing space, which they also sell.
Get your camera out and have your phone ready to snap scenic shots like these along the journey. All the pictures in this post were taken on my iphone 6 (plus-minus some reflections) which I thought turned out pretty decent.
GETTING A TOUR GUIDE
You can be brave and do the research on line – in which case, do use an online tour planner like this one or you can book one of these tours or google how to book a local English speaking tour guide – for a more free and easy plan.
We went with a local tour guide from a local tour agency and took his recommendations on where to go. Whilst Mr. Tour Guide was very well informed and resourceful, he also spoke only Mandarin, so I had to figure things out along the way. Good practice for my rusty Singaporean-standard Mandarin but in the end, we managed to figure it all out. Some of the places he recommended are mentioned below. The amazing thing – he managed to arrange it so that we could cover everything in a matter of 2 full days which was great if you have only a weekend ahead of you, that you need to maximise.
This sprawling park is located in the city center along the east coast of Lijiang River Guilin. There are several attractions within it so I don’t recommend you walk it. Instead 20 RMB gets you on one of these mini trams with a designated few stops so that you can get down and snap some souvenir shots.
The tram route takes you to see several famous sculptures of the Tang dynasty’s poets, philosophers and writers. One example is Tang Dynasty writer Liu Zongyuan (柳宗元) who wrote (訾洲亭记), a famous description of his impressions of the beautiful scenery in Zizhou, carved on this massive monument, for posterity to reflect upon.
Below, a statue of the same poet, Liu Zongyuan, who in his lifetime produced many poems, fables, reflective travelogues and essays, synthesizing elements of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The local belief is that good luck follows anyone who touches the tip of his beard, so yes .. do reach out and ah hem, stroke it!
ELEPHANT TRUNK HILL
Another drop off point within the Park, is a spot where you get a clear view of the Elephant Trunk Hill. Standing from a certain spot, this hill supposedly looks like a huge elephant stretching its trunk drinking water, hence the name – Elephant Trunk Hill. The hill has been the symbol of the karst landscape in the area and there is a cave eyelet that you can hike up to via a stone path that affords a good view of the surroundings.
Not quite finished with the Park, we were ushered further along to take a bamboo raft ride along the scenic and serene Li River to just enjoy the great weather and take in the sights. You can stop the boatman and take over the oars, if you want to pose for pics.
Much like the experience you get on the Venetian canals, the boat-man or woman croons a folk song and you are most welcome to join in if you can read from the book of lyrics on board the bamboo raft.
Along the way, catch sights of the locals washing veggies by the river …
Or see how the locals go fishing with Cormorants, a breed of birds that reaches into the water to catch a fish with their beaks and then skilfully deposits its catch into a waiting basket.
The Silver Cave is Guilin’s largest karst cave. Karst being a type of landscape that characterises this region. The cave is located in Maling Town about an hour plus from the city center of Guilin.
It takes about an hour to walk through this multi-level cave which apparently ascends up to 16 storeys and is divided into three main parts with 28 scenic stopping points. There are lots of stairs, so think of this as a bit of a hiking adventure where wearing comfy shoes is a must and ditch that heavy back pack. Carry as little as you can so that you are not weighed down and please do visit the loo before you get started.
The cave features crystal stalactites that extend from the roof of the cave and stalagmites that grow from the ground up. The inside of the cave is lit up by different colourful lights making these natural formations glitter like silver and diamonds hence its name, ‘Silver Cave’.
Below, one of the scenic spots inside the Silver Cave. This spot (direct translation from Mandarin to English) is called ‘Fairy Wonderland in a Jade Pool’.
WEST STREET, Downtown Yang Shuo
We ended up spending the first night in Yang Shuo Town (about 63 km North from Guilin) where there is a popular local and tourist street called West Street.
Yang Shuo’s West Street is located in the heart of the town and on a weekend the street is so packed that walking through its lanes is a challenge so watch your wallets as you wander through.
Above, note the many dessert and sweet stores demonstrating how local candy is made. There is also an array of shops selling souvenirs, paintings and calligraphy and traditional folk craft like embroidered silk, woven goods and embroidered shoes for women.
There are also restaurants, cafes and even bars with disco music blaring and lithe girls pole dancing.
LIJIANG RIVER BOAT RIDE
The highlight of any visit to Guilin and Yang Shuo is this 2 hour boat ride.
Expect breathtaking scenery that is completely photo worthy. You sail past different river bends, passing hills and formations that have been given names like the Spiral Snail Hill, the Lohan Hill, the Yellow Cloth Shoal into the vicinity of an ancient village with a history dating back 1,400 years, called Xing Ping, where you behold what is probably one of China’s most characteristic landscapes – what you see at the back of the RMB 20 note.
Sailing into the area is like suddenly morphing into a classical Chinese ink painting. Completely surreal!
Not short of photo opportunities, for a small fee you can snap a shot like this with a Cormorant sitting on the end of a bamboo pole that you carry, hat props and all.
LONGTAN ANCIENT VILLAGE AND THE DRAGON POOL
Stepping into Longtan village is like stepping back into time. The village has been in existence since the Ming Dynasty and one of the four ethnic minorities – the Dong clan continue to live in this village and survive up to this day, as silver smiths.
Just before you walk to the village, you need to pass a deep ‘pool’ just in front of a hill that resembles the head of legendary dragon inspiring it’s name – Longtan (Dragon Pool), and the name for the area, thus called, Longtan Village.
Part of Dragon Pool has a silver dragon built to look like its floating on the water. This is a reminder of the legend of the supernatural dragon that once lived in the pool who could command thunder and rainfall.
More than fifty ancient dwellings built in China’s Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties still stand in the village, and part of the tour is an invitation into one of these ancient family homes to listen to a rather long history lesson about the customs and traditions of the town, its craft – silver smithing and the healing and restorative powers of silver. What follows and marks the end of this visit, is nothing less than a compulsory walkthrough their touristy silver shop where a bracelet starts at a price of RMB500 and no less.
FAMOUS LOCAL MUST-EATS
No visit is truly memorable till you try some of the local fare. The local must-eats are these two delicacies which almost every Guilin and Yang Shuo Chinese restaurant offer – Beer Fish and Guilin Mifen (a white rice vermicelli noodle that looks like laksa noodles). If yours is an adventurous palette, other exotic local specialties to sample are the Stuffed Snails, Lipu-style Taro Pork and the Lijiang Shrimp.
Above, the mifen noodles cooked with the beer fish, diced long beans, chilli and scallions. Not my favourite but a definite hit with locals.
Above, Beer Fish Alla Pomodoro. Takes some getting used to (in my case) but don’t let that stop you dropping by one of their local restaurants and trying it just so that you can at least say that you have tried one of Guilin’s much coveted culinary delicacies.
Get out the tissue boxes and the Awws .. the season of Auld Lang Synes is here! If you’re not feeling Christmassy maybe some of our favourite picks from the 2016 Christmas ads will put you in the mood!
And did you see the one made by the A Level student who totally deserves a job in a major creative company if he hasn’t already been offered one.
Like the selection – decide which others you like HERE!
Macau is to Hong Kongers what JB is probably to the foodie Singaporean and there is no doubt that its casinos are filled with top culinary brand names from around the world. But if you are there to just get a bit of your regular Macanese, Portuguese or Spanish fare, then here are a few of places that I venture to whenever I visit.
If you missed our earlier review – look for it HERE. The rstaurant is walking distance from the MGM Hotel and is a hit with locals.
My favourite thing to order here is the Clams that come in a thick creamy sauce, the African Chicken, the Gambas Style Garlic King Prawns and the Beef Short Ribs.
Theme these with a pitcher of their Sangria and for dessert, a helping of their homemade Serrandura which comes served like a slice of cake and their Chocolate Mousse and your visit is satisfyingly complete.
Note that on Public Holidays there is a 20% service charge!
Dom Galo Address: is at 32 Avenida Sir Anders Ljungstedt, Macau Telephone: (853)28751383
A very popular local restaurant, A Lorcha is an interesting nook that in my opinion serves the most delicious and authentic Portuguese food.
I like the ambience in this fairly small but cosy restaurant that has been decorated to look like the interior of a ship or an old Portuguese junk (known as a Lorcha vessel).
When there go for the Seafood Rice. Actually, all their rice dishes which come in porridge format are done really well because the broth is both hearty and flavourful and the ingredients are generous but this particular one, is a speciality for them.
They also have a very good Stewed Oxtail and their Fried Prawns with Garlic, Pig Ears in Coriander and Prawn Curries are highly recommended.
A delicious ending is their Serrandura which comes in an old fashioned ice cream glass. I just love the layers of fine biscuit crumbs that make this dessert, totally calorie-worthy!
Note that the place is closed on Tuesdays!
Address: Av. Almirante Sergio, no. 289 AA, G/F, Macau
Telephone: (853) 2831 3193 or (853) 2831 3195
I have to admit that its been some time since I last visited Fernandos simply because its slightly off the beaten track, location wise. But this place is a hit with the Macanese expats and locals alike and a reservation is highly recommended.
The place has a beach bar type atmosphere with a spacious outdoor area that doubles up as an alfresco bar for drinks whilst you wait for a table. Inside is spacious and the red-checked table clothes remind me of both an old style Italian restaurant and walking into Pizza Hut in the 1980s!
In terms of food, I remember the Suckling Pig, the Roasted Chicken, the Chorizo served with olives, the Sangria and their sugary donuts being outstanding. The bitch was the after dinner task of finding a taxi back to civilisation but apparently there is a bus stop that takes you back to civilization although I am rather unsure where exactly it stops.
Fernando Address: 9 Hac Sa Beach, Coloane Macau Telephone: (853) 2888 2264
Casa De Tapas
I consider Casa De Tapas one of my favourite Tapas restaurants in this part of the world. Almost every dish is amazing (to me at least) and the place is usually fully booked on the weekends.
The restaurant is located in an old Macanese house in Taipa Village and is actually run by a group of Spanish chefs. Expect well presented favourites like their Mozarabic Grilled Lamb presented on stone slates with delightful sauces, grilled vegetables and condiments.
Their Spanish Style Potatoes filled with paprika and topped with apple mayonnaise, theRoast Suckling Pig, Charcoal Grilled Black Angus Beef, Paella and Iberico Pork are all must-orders.
There also is a good selection of cheese, a good wine and innovative cocktail list.
Casa De Tapas Address: Rua dos Clérigos No.9, Taipa, Macau
Phone: (853) 2857 6626
Bar Celona Tapas & Rice
Found this place on my most recent visit to Macau. If you are a Trip Advisor fan, you will note that Bar Celona ranks Number 3 on the list of top restaurants in Macau.
Another smallish restaurant, it is accessible by taxi and located off the Hotel belt. We got lost as our Taxi did not quite know where to stop us but the Restaurant Manager was lovely. He walked out to the road to get us and two minutes later, we were seated and ready to order.
Owner Antonio, hails from a Hotel F&B background and together with a Spanish Chef decided to open their own little piece of tapas heaven in a less touristy location in the hope of keeping the prices reasonable.
I was impressed by the Lobster promotion that they had on which included a Lobster Risotto with a free jug of Sangria. I narrowly missed the chance to order the last lobster for the evening so I settled for the Paella instead which turned out to be amazing!! The broth used to cook the paella had a lovely, hearty and rich texture that almost tasted like they had used beef stock rather than chicken although the rice was slightly too crunchy (which I personally liked but may not be everyone’s favourite).
I also had an amazing Tomato and Salmon Starter and an absolutely juicy and pink cut of Grilled Pork which was served with a side of mustard and definitely the evening’s highlight.
If you are a Sardine fan, try theirs which is deep fried in batter and was crispy and light so much that you might just mistake to for a plate of white bait! The Sangria was also excellent!
Note: Have the restaurant number handy if you hail a cab to get there. It is not easy to find and the staff can give your cab driver instructions if you are lost. Kudos to the staff for their excellent service, helpful recommendations and yes, at the end of the meal, you can rely on them to hail a cab back for you.
Bar Celona Tapas & Rice Address：Rua da Venceslau de Morais, No. 16, Edif. Industrial Fu Tai Res-Do-Chao B, Macau
Tel: (853) 2872 1084
It seems that every major Hotel in Macau, these days, needs a compelling draw for tourists. With a long weekend ahead of us last month. I headed over from Hong Kong to Macau to spend a night in Asia’s Las Vegas.
The agenda was mainly to eat at some of my favourite restaurants and to visit the three newly opened attractions – the Eiffel Tower replica at the Parisian and the SkyCab at the newly opened Wynn Palace. We also popped by to see the special Golden Reel Rideat the Studio City Hotel and Complex that opened late last year.
If you are inspired to visit after reading this, do just note that the attractions listed here are all pay-to-play attractions and entry is not included in the respective Hotel room rates.
Make It To The Top of the Macau Eiffel Tower
Forget the gruelling plane ride to France, the newly opened Parisian Hotel along the Cotai Strip is where you can expect to recreate the romance of the whole European experience … well almost.
The Macau Eiffel as it is fondly referred to, was constructed to half the scale of the real thing and has 6000 light bulbs to keep it lit up at night. There are speakers around its base around the hotel grounds that play music to create the ambience.
Also from inside the Hotel, you can join the long queues for a fee, you can take a lift up to the Observation Decks on levels 7 and 37 to get a bird’s eye view of Macau city and watch the Light Show with music, daily – every 15 minutes from 7:30pm – 10:00pm.
Inside the Hotel, an amazing Dome that quite rivals the Cathedral domes that you would expect to see in France and Europe.
A bird’s eye view from one of the Hotel’s shopping floors shows the palatial ground floor layout with a fountain in the middle of the lobby that changes colours.
Do you feel like you are in Europe yet?
And if you think that’s not enough to go check it out, note that the Parisian also has two other attractions on it’s grounds – the Aqua Pool and Qube Kingdom.
We took the SkyCab at the Wynn Palace Hotel only because it looked just amazing from ground level. In terms of construction and we had heard that this is the only cable car that can turn a corner without a mid-station which is supposed to be a bit of an operational fete.
The Wynn Skycab makes a total of 6 turns with 2 stations because it operates in an unidirectional configuration. You have to be inside one of these to experience the turn which feels a bit like you the way you would at Disneyland sitting in one of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups but of course, with turns that are not as sharp and abrupt.
There are two towers built in the form of a golden dragon and all the cabins taking passengers in a loop around the hotel are equipped with a custom audio system and are fully air conditioned.
Although it was a short ride that cost about MOP$100, the SkyCab gives you a bird’s eye view (a bit like a Bond movie) over the top of the Hotel’s restaurants, its Performance Lake and the Hotel pool where you can catch bikini clad sunbathers.
Inside the Hotel, there are an equal amount of distractions to oogle at. A stunning floral and circus theme some with movable installations confront you with a riot of colour in almost every public area.
World-renowned designer, Preston Bailey whose work is on display at the Wynn in Las Vegas has some sensational sculptures that are completely instagram-worthy.
Even the small kiosks that sell cakes and snacks are resplendant in design detail.
The food …
The Cafe interiors …
Even the floor tiles …
Nothing boring or sleepy about this amazing fantasy Palace.
The Performance Lake that the Wynn is well known for also comes alive with its water performance, best viewed in the evening complete with lights and dancing water.
The Chinese have always considered the number 8 a lucky and auspicious number. Well, at recently opened Studio City Hotel, you can get on the world’s highest figure-8 Ferris wheel for a view of the city from 130 meters up in the air.
Born from an epic Hollywood-inspired tale of two asteroids careering through Studio City’s main façade, the story is that they crashed through the facade leaving a perfect “8” shaped hole.
In reality, the Golden Reel is a panoramic architectural spectacle suspended at 130 meters between two Art-Deco hotel towers. Within the wheel, are 17 spacious cabins, each able to seat up to 10 people.
I did not have time to visit the Batman Dark Flight attraction which is also within the Hotel. This is DC Comics’ first Batman 4D flight simulation ride and offers the latest flight simulation technology and the very best in audio design and visual graphics pitting Batman in a race to save Gotham City against his arch enemies.
The Hotel interior carries through the dark flight-Gotham City dimly lit feel and theme.
For the kid’s and magic show enthusiasts, there is also a theatre attraction called The House Of Magic with daily magic shows and performances
And another one for the kids, a Warner Brother’s Fun Zone which has a 40,000 sq foot playground packed with play experience areas and themed play areas featuring all the popular Warner Bros., DC Comics and Hanna-Barbera characters.
Shrouded in secrecy and isolated from the world, North Korea exudes an air of mystery. Hardly anything is known about the country except media stories about their dear leader, Kim Jong Un – his unrivalled cult-style of governance that has bred a nation of adoring people who hang on to his every command. And yet, amidst the uphoria of living in utopia, stories have emerged about defectors who have risked it all to leave everything and everyone behind – to start anew. Most recent are defection reports about a senior North Korean official in London and 13 restaurant staff in Ningbo, China.
Apparently there are 130 state-owned North Korean restaurants in 12 countries. Most are in China, but they can also be found in Russia, Dubai, Malaysia, Cambodia, Mongolia and Vietnam.
In Shanghai over the weekend and curious about the hype, I decided to visit one of these elusive North Korean state-owned restaurants and here’s what I discovered:
Not One But Three Such Restaurants In Shanghai!
There are apparently three North Korean restaurants in Shanghai (Pudong, Changning and Xuhui). The one I went to was called Pyongyang Koryo and this was the one located at the Tong Mao Hotel in Shanghai. You won’t find this listed on Shanghai’s Trip Advisor nor will you find a link to the restaurant’s website. Our visit to the place felt like a very covert trip to discover something revered or forbidden which probably added to my overall fascination.
Off The Beaten Track
There are only a handful of articles about the restaurant which I have tagged links to above. Otherwise, it is not an easy find as you can’t simply google it as there is no website. The staff at the restaurant according to this CNN article are not even aware that other similar restaurants exist or even if they are, they are unable to give you details and locations. There are also no facebook pages, trip advisor mentions and even the Hotel that it is located at does not even list it on it’s official website.
The Tong Mao Hotel is a four star typical Chinese-style hotel, located in Pudong, slightly off the beaten track and oddly surrounded by austere office buildings. The Hotel website only recommends their Chinese and Western restaurant and not their North Korean tenants – strange, because the first thing that you see after passing through the Hotel’s revolving doors – is the more casual Pyongyang Cafe on the left. Climb up the stairs and at a discreet corner, is the main Pyongyang Koryo restaurant.
Stuck In Time
Just walking into the restaurant is a step back into a time warp spiralling back (not even to the 80s which would have been acceptable) but more like going all the way back to the 50s. My parents would probably recognise that era, as none of us reading this would have even been born then.
Strangely, it is not the ambience or the dated decor that is the giveaway. It is the fact that every staff member that you encounter there looks like one of the actresses in the old video tapes of the weepy Chinese TV serials from the 70s that your parents refuse to throw away. Except that the look is even more dated than that – from the hairstyles of the serving staff who wear their hair tied back into a single braided ponytail (even when dressed in Western attire on stage) to their style of makeup (heavy foundation, fair two-way caked faces themed with bright red lipstick against jet black hair), their choice of glittery hair accessories and the very unflattering 1980s office girl white pumps with heels.
Stepping into the restaurant, you almost get this feeling that you’re the real outsider – completely out of place and dressed strangely with your highlighted wavy tresses, boho sling bag, frayed denim jeans with rips in the knees, off shoulder Summer blouse, strappy sandals and the latest iPhone in hand.
Don’t mistake my comments – the girls are stunning. Way above average. These are not your short, stubby Aunties serving you. Almost every waitress was young (definitely in their early 20s), tall, slim and willowy. All educated, well mannered and soft-spoken, graceful and able to speak fluent conversational Mandarin.
Small Talk But No Photos
We found out that the girls are all from elite North Korean families. The one that served us shared politely that she has worked at this restaurant for one and the half years and all of them are University graduates who consider this their duty and only opportunity to work and serve their country by sharing their culture and food.
I complimented her on her mandarin which was probably better than mine and she replied graciously and coyly that she had to take the initiative to study it on her own before coming over and after she came over to China she had lessons. She brushed up her understanding and accent picking it up along the way from speaking daily to customers. She added humbly and with a gracious smile, “顾客足是我们的老师”！- “the customers are our teachers”.
As the orders were taken and the food started arriving, another crew of girls came out from the kitchen entrance and behind stage to set it up. I took out my mobile phone to snap a few pictures. Our waitress quickly placed her hand at the back of my phone camera and firmly said, “no photos!” bringing our attention to the sign board above us that read – NO PHOTOS.
Of course, a meal at this restaurant would not be complete without a few stolen shots so when she disappeared to get our orders, I quickly snapped a few, just in time, before she hurried back. Throughout the rest of the meal and performance, the same girl stood politely about 2 metres behind me, at a discreet corner of the restaurant, keeping a watchful eye on my phone.
An All-Girl Crew
Strangely we saw very few men in the restaurant. No male Manager just a slightly older ‘host’ who must have been only in her 40s, standing mostly at the door and making the announcements on stage later.
Perhaps the men were sitting amidst the crowd, posing as customers but were actually minders watching out for rowdy and possibly drunk customers but their presence was not obvious. At most there may have been a male cook inside the kitchen but otherwise, this was strictly an all-girl crew. The performers who took to the stage also took on male roles when required, which was even stranger.
We heard that the girls stay in the Hotel (yes, upstairs) and they are seldom allowed out and that they do not get paid or if they do, the amount is for pocket money as everything from food and lodging to basic necessities are provided by the State. Free time is allowed but limited and strictly monitored. The waitress I spoke to shared that she expects that most restaurant postings would be for a minimum of 2 to 4 years before they return to their homelands.
Korean Food But Just Not The Way You Are Used To Eating It
The food – hmm – let’s just say that you should not expect your South Korean BBQ. You don’t DIY at these North Korean restaurants.
The food (even BBQ items) is all cooked in the kitchen and served to you. So forget the little plates of garlic, kimchi, seasoned nuts that arrive when you are at the South Korean eateries. Also forget the delicious pork ribs dripping with melted cheese, and the lovely egg dip that swims around the side of the hot plate as you barbecue your meat.
In terms of fashionable food and cooking style – North Korean restaurants are strictly traditional. Probably a menu of what you would have expected to eat in South Korea in the 60s. There are though, some interesting specialties that we tried that you might want to order if you venture there.
This is a Black Rice rolled up and sliced like sausages. Very good. It tasted like glutinous rice with a hint of chestnut and perhaps some pork.
Barbecued prawns – these were pretty much like the usual barbecued fare but I liked the fact that there were big and meaty and well seasoned.
Not quite bulgogi but this marinated beef dish was pretty tasty and cooked in the kitchen and then brought out with a side plate of veggies that you have to order to wrap them in.
The tuna sashimi was chilled and very fresh but not quite my thing although very colourful and appetising with that little orchid embellishment on the left corner.
KTV North Korean Style
The entertainment is perhaps what sets aside a North Korean restaurant from its neighbour in the South. Dinner comes with a show which starts about 730pm for the first seating. You are requested to arrive and be seated at 645pm if you are booked for the first set. Yes there are two seatings to presumably maximise profits. The North Korean restaurants largely operate not as a form of cultural exchange but more as a means to bring foreign currency back into their economies.
I am stumped just trying to describe the show. The show starts with a ‘cool rocker-chick’ (pictured above) getting on stage and picking up her electric guitar.
Ms ‘DPRK rocker chick’ (lets call her that for now) is fully made up and has hair braided behind her head into a tidy ponytail with glittery rhinestone style clips at the side. She is wearing a black tight dress that even Joan Jett would cringe at as its made of a lace top half with three-quarter sleeves and a princess cut bust line in front. The look is complete and resplendant with panty-hosed legs and white pumps with heels.
She picks up her electric guitar (Hard Rock Cafe – NOT!) and we are off to a rousing start (K-pop NOT!). I have to confess I have never heard Korean folk songs played on an electric guitar and after a few chords she is joined by an accordian player and someone on the electric keyboard and another girl on drums. It was like attending a rock concert on another planet. Behind the two musicians, off stage is a large screen TV playing silent footage of montages and homeland scenes of North Korea.
An emcee of sorts appears in a flowery gown on stage. I actually liked their beautifully embroidered and brightly coloured native costumes and truth be told, if they had stuck to that, the whole experience would have been less bizarre!
An emcee comes onstage and introduces the performance and welcomes everyone in high pitched mandarin. The show is about an hour long. From Korean folk songs, the repertoire expands into a few popular Chinese songs (again songs from the 70s all about wholesome friendships and young love) and then the floral bouquets make their debut.
Plastic flowers wrapped in tulle and cellophane in large bouquets that look like they have been around for some time are given to the female members of the audience. I got a bouquet which they took back afterwards as it was a prop and just ‘part of the show’.
The children are given smaller bouquets and encouraged to go up on stage to award them to the singers after each performance amidst the rowdy clapping. The music gets louder and louder and then it breaks into dancing.
You realise that there are more performers on stage and some of them were serving food earlier on the floor but have now got into fancy costumes. 3 such girls get on stage to do a tap dance followed by 3 more who come up to stage performing a folk dance with pots that they skilfully balance on their heads and then proceed to whirl around with on stage at dizzying speeds.
After this, people celebrating engagements or birthdays get invited on to stage to pose under a flower canopy held up by the performers. They get serenaded to with a mix of Korean and Chinese love songs that I don’t quite recognise.
The show ends with a carousing song and dance. Head bands with rosettes and leis are handed out to members of the audience. Everyone joins in from Ms ‘Rock-Chick (see above left in picture) to waitresses.
Expect to join in or get dragged onto stage, yes kids, adults and all – no exclusions. Definitely not for spoil sports or the faint hearted. Think ‘Ring Around The Roses’ done on stage – yes, in a circle!
At the end of dinner and the show, the bill is presented and the same waitress hastens towards us to ask us if we enjoyed ourselves and to get some feedback on the food. I have to say that the training and the service is close to excellent here. Probably way beyond what you would get at any other restaurant in China.
A senior waitress or lady host says goodbye at the door and we hurry out .. back into the black night .. a little stupified at what we had just experienced .. amazed that for that two hours, we were given a tiny glimpse and taste into the secret world of North Korea.