The first and my favourite is Kem Trang Tien (35 Trang Tien), the oldest ice cream shop in Hanoi, and still going strong. After a hair-raising cyclo ride, weaving a hair’s breath away from oncoming cars, Trang, our trusty guide, stopped us at this local institution for a treat.
Located near the Opera House and a short trot from the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, it has little aesthetics to speak of and plenty of empty, sometimes greasy, open space. Two counters inexplicably far apart stood in the corners of this odd looking shop, one selling ice cream lollies on a stick, and another soft serve ice cream on a cone.
Trang explained that the shop was designed so that customers could drive all the way into the shop and up to the counter on the scooters and motor bikes, and buy the ice cream without once having to get off their vehicles. Hence the weird empty spaces within. What’s surprising too is that the shop becomes especially busy in winter when people enjoy the ice cream the most.
Kem Trang Tien makes their own ice creams in local Vietnamese flavours and sells nothing but. The ice lollies were recommended over the soft serve. Forget the chocolate flavour and go for the taro or coconut, or better yet, the glutinous rice ice cream or the mung bean. The rice ice cream made use of newly harvest grains, which exuded a subtle, fresh, green flavour with a slight, pleasing stickiness to it; the mung bean was lovely too – softly nutty, subtle and aromatic. Really good.
Another local favourite is Xoi Yen (35 Nguyen Huu Huan), a perpetually busy coffee shop on a street corner that is festooned with a great tangle of overhead electric cables. There is no enticing facade to speak of; it is entirely dominated by a messy open kitchen from where xoi xeo, its famous dish of glutinous turmeric rice, mung beans and fried shallots is prepared.
You’ll find the locals eating at the low tables along the walkway, but there is seating upstairs too if you want a more leisurely meal. Little English is spoken here, so it’s best to have a local friend help you along. As for the food, simple as it sounds, it is very tasty; add on an order of chicken or pork if you are particularly hungry. Locals flock here for breakfast as well as a quick lunch, and is quite an institution.
The final recommendation on my list of three is Koto Restaurant (59 Van Mieu Street). This can be accused of being touristy, but it deserves mention for the cause it supports — it is a not-for-profit restaurant that acts as a hospitality school for disadvantaged young Vietnamese.
Located near the Temple of Literature, the four-storey restaurant was crowded with mainly expats and tourists, but enjoyed ourselves here, with good food and very decent, inexpensive cocktails. We ordered the Vietnamese set menu and had a veritable feast — the banana flower and chicken salad, spring rolls, banana leaf grilled fish, and sweet and sour clam soup with pineapples and tomatoes were memorable. We added an order of banh xeo as well (truly delightful), and a stream of decently done classic cocktails, including two glasses of most enjoyable margarita.
The daughter had spent the morning measuring and studying horseshoe crabs with the Singapore Nature Society on Sunday a couple weeks ago. After picking her up at the Kranji mud flats, we were in the mood to do some ‘rural lunching’ ourselves, especially dressed as we were not for high end restaurants. Made a phone call to Orchid Live Seafood Restaurant and luckily they had space for three.
We’ve been there a few times before and it has never disappointed. Located at Green Valley Farms, the first nursery along Bah Som Pah Road, it is a complete kampong, back-to-the-70s experience. There’s no aesthetics whatsoever, and I’m not sure if I saw a signage at its front entrance. But it’s one of those places you are assured of good food, and the prices are equally palatable.
The star of the menu is the lobster porridge, made Teochew style — the rice is still whole and swimming in a sea of soup. In this style the stock is extremely important as it carries the flavour of the dish. Here it comes in a massive claypot with four lobsters, halved, cooked in it. They put it aside on a plate when they portioned out the porridge. The Boston lobsters were very fresh and the flesh nicely cooked and sweet. They were caught from the tank outside the restaurant minutes before. The porridge itself was good, rice quite tender, and the soup was really flavourful. Eaten together with the lobster and other dishes that came, we surprised ourselves by finishing the entire vat.
We had ordered the ‘Buddy Set’ menu at $118 for three. This included another of the restaurant’s star dish Steven Chicken, created by their chef, and deep fried, coated in a sweet tangy caramelised sauce. Combined with the crispness of the chicken and the moist flesh, it was excellent. Perfect with chilled beer on a hot afternoon.
The chilli mussels (or what we Teochews would call ‘dua tao’) came in way too much sauce but it was cooked just right, nicely tender and bouncy, and the sauce nicely balanced, slightly hot. It’s yet another signature dish here. Happily there was no grit in the mussels nor bits of broken shell, which sometimes plague such a dish. The sambal potato leaves we ordered was the only disappointment, as the leaves were old and fibrous. If not for that, it would have been a good one too. Dessert is old fashioned red bean potong ice cream hauled out from the freezer at the front door. I hear the cold crab, a Teochew delicacy, is worth trying here. That’s going down on my list for the next visit.
The charm with Orchid Live Seafood restaurant is its retro flavour. The carpark is a pitted concrete space up front which reminds me of the old restaurants of the early 70s when I was a kid. Cars just park wherever they find a space on the uneven ground. On the side, you’ll see old tyres and the odd swing amid weeds and greenery left to grow wild. At the restaurant, the bulk of the tables are al fresco under a wood-framed canvas canopy – again a totally ’70s set up. On cool evenings, that would make a fun place for dinner. (Positively broiling there in the afternoons.)
While they seem quite laid back, these guys are very proactive and even have several Father’s Day set menus going on. Service is polite and prompt too. Call ahead for reservations first, and it’s best to go with a larger group. (Orchid Live Seafood has another branch at Jln Kelutut, but this is where you go for the rural experience.) Highly recommended!!
If you’re looking for a new place to go for a weekend escape, away from the usual resorts and destinations that everyone else heads to, pen these three new holidays down on your to-do list.#1. A Private Pre-Dawn Tour of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is not exactly off the beaten track, but Anantara Angkor Resort gets you a unique view of the UNESCO Heritage temple like no other. Its Breakfast at Angkor Tour gets you special access into this stunning 9th century temple complex way before other tourists do. Start off at 4.30am from the hotel via private car or tuk-tuk for a local experience.
When you get there, a guide will escort you with flashlight in hand, into the temple grounds via a “secret back entrance” when it’s still dark. With no other tourist inside and before the sun is up, you can imagine what a mesmerizing experience that promises to be! The tour ends at the front of the temple when the sun rises — a great photo op — and the tourist hoards start streaming in. That’s when you head for your private breakfast in one of the more secluded temples nearby. There, you’ll be greeted by a personal butler waiting to serve a continental breakfast of pastries and fruits, while the guide tells you more about Siem Riep’s history and its surrounds. After breakfast, explore more temple ruins then head back to the resort. To get onto this tour, you’ll have to be a guest of the Anantara Angkor Resort of course. The tour is priced from about S$155++ and includes the English speaking guide, breakfast, a one-day ticket to the Angkor Archaeological Park and transport to and from the site. http://angkor.anantara.com/
#2. Immerse in the Landscape of ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’
Immerse yourself in the setting of ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ in Alila Anji, the luxury resort chain Alila’s first resort in China. This new resort will open 1 June. Located in Zhejiang province in China’s first national ‘ecological county’ — which promises pristine and sustainable environment — the resort is set in the hills overlooking a lake. Designed to resemble a traditional Chinese village, Alila Anji has only 74 rooms and villas, but is also family friendly, with a kids’ club to boot.
What do you do here? Visit the Anji Grand National Bamboo Forest where ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ was filmed, visit The Lingfeng Temple dating back to AD907, spend a day at a farm house to gather local produce and enjoy a farm-to-table culinary experience, or go tea picking followed by a picnic lunch in the plantation. Kids get to see Hello Kitty Land too, and adventurers can go white water rafting. The resort also has a spa to bliss out in and if you’ve got a special occasion to celebrate, the hotel can arrange a special dining experience like dinner in the bamboo forest or by the lake jetty just for two. Nice.
The hotel is offering a special rate starting from about S$430 per night (minimum 2 nights’ stay) which gives you accommodation in the Lakeview room, daily breakfast, and one of four tour/curated experience inclusive of lunch and dinner. These four WKND Experiences include some of the activities mentioned above. This package — a very good deal by Alila’s regular pricing — is available for those booking from now until 31 August, for stays between 1 June to 31 Dec 2016. http://www.alilahotels.com/anji
#3. Padi Farming and Thai Culture for the Family
If you’re thinking of a family getaway, the luxury resort Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai offers a culturally rich weekend away. The highlight is a rice planting session for the family where you don traditional farmers’ clothing, hitch a ride to the rice paddies on the resident buffalo, learn about how to plant rice, and put the newfound knowledge into practice. Don’t worry, it’s just about an hour’s session, so you’re not put to much labour. But the kids will come back hopefully with newfound appreciation for the back breaking efforts by farmers who get the rice onto their dinner plates.
There’s also the craft village where you can try out basket weaving, traditional rice pounding, paper cutting and northern Thai music, cooking classes at the Dhara Dhevi Culinary Academy, and walking tours. There’s also plenty going on at the kid’s club to keep youngsters busy. Set in a century-old traditional Thai teakwood house, the club’s plethora of activities get kids experiencing the culture of Northern Thailand, such as Thai dancing, the Thai language, fan and umbrella painting, Sa paper and Lanna style flag making, even yoga and Thai boxing. The resort is offering a 4D/3N Family Getaway Package (about S$2,260++ from 1 May to 30 Sep 2016) including daily breakfast for 2 adults and 2 kids, a Thai set dinner for 2 adults and 2 kids at Le Grand Lanna, 60-minute spa session, Thai boxing or dance class for kids and a private rice planting class for the family.
We first laid eyes on Pingyao in a picture book about China late last year. The book listed 100 places in China to see within your lifetime, and a particular photo caught our imagination. It was of Pingyao, a UNESCO Heritage Site, hauntingly evocative with tight clusters of grey courtyard houses sporting elegant curved eaves and seductive with the promise of ancient Chinese history. We decided there and then that this 2,700 year old town was going on our bucket list.
Barely six months later, we were there, having first caught a flight from Singapore to Beijing, then a domestic flight to Taiyuan airport, followed by a 100km drive to our final destination. It was off the beaten track but well worth the trot.
Pingyao in Shanxi Province is special because it is the only complete walled city remaining in China. Inside the 12m thick city walls are mostly Ming and Ching Dynasty courtyard houses which are still inhabited today by its resident population of 20,000. Apart from the locals, it is crawling with domestic tourists, but you can count on one hand the number of international tourists. It gave us a sense of having ‘discovered’ a hidden gem yet to be found by the bulk of the world’s tourists….I’m sure they will descend soon enough.
It’s all about history here. The first thing you should do is get the three-day pass that gives you access to the museums. (This is sold at a central ticket booth in the middle of the town.) These would be the 19 sites around the city, including houses, ancient offices, and temples which have been turned into museums. The city wall counts as one on the list too. Not everyone of them is worth visiting, as we found out. But here are the things you have to see and experience:
#1. Walk the Wall
From street level, all the homes may be hidden from sight behind high walls; but up on the city walls, all of old Pingyao is spreads below you. It’s a picturesque sight: undulating roofs, private gardens and 300 year old courtyard houses spread out below, and you understand why it inspired the setting of Dreamworks’ Kungfu Panda II.
The easy 6km walk on the city walls bring you round the city along an impressively clean, broad walkway. But some sections of the wall is unprotected, and you could unwittingly step off the edge to plunge to your death below, so keep to the middle of the path and you’ll be perfectly fine.
Dioramas of ancient life in Pingyao have been installed in the little turrets along the wall, so look out for those. Around the six city gates, look at old artefacts on display, as well as the fascinating architecture planned to repel and defend. There is an ancient dungeon by one of the city gates. We couldn’t find it, though we may have been looking at the wrong places.
#2. Rishengchang, China’s first bank
Pingyao was once a centre of commerce and it was home to bunch of insanely wealthy merchants who dealt in trade as banal as tofu, to fine silks and firearms. Being ever practical and sensitive to opportunity, someone set up a bank — China’s first — to support these people. The bank, Rishengchang, is now a museum of…well, the bank. Laid out just like courtyard house, walk through bank offices, the bank manager’s residence, the dining room and even accommodation provided (as a service) for privileged customers visiting town which have been recreated in fascinating detail. Rishengchang issued the world’s first cheque and it is on display there, too.
#3. The Tongxinggong Armed Escort Agency Museum
No, it’s not about gun-toting prostitutes but a security company which provided armed escorts to clients travelling with valuable goods or cash. One of the most fascinating museums, this evokes all the stereotypical images you’d have from kungfu movies — gentlemen pugilists who practiced their moves in hidden courtyards, and took on bandits with their kungfu moves. You see it all here, complete with their collection of weapons and fascinating photographs of corporate travel.
The dioramas that depict their lives are impressive. Don’t miss the re-created bedroom of the ‘Principal’ who slept over an underground vault containing clients’ money and goods, and the practice yard which kungfu paraphernalia. They must have been very successful as all the principals — the sifus of the agency — lived to a ripe of age, even for our standards.
#4. The ancient government buildings
This sprawling complex is essentially the tax man’s office and courthouse rolled into one. It also shows you the priorities, obligations and consequences of the state and ordinary peasant back then. After seeing this, you’ll be glad you weren’t living in those days.
Beyond the main entrance and in an expansive courtyard designed to awe the hapless peasant, you arrive first at the tax office (priority Number 1) followed by the bailiff’s (priority Number 2) and torturer’s office (Consequence Number 1) nearby. Right next door over a garden wall, and cynically next to a pretty rose garden is the dank, dark prison complete with wooden cage and stocks. Used until the 1960s, it has no doubt been cleaned up, but you get the idea of how miserable life was there. Across the rose garden lies the exhibition hall of torture instruments which I happily skipped (there were instruments for interrogation, punishment and execution) and wandered instead to the magistrate’s quarters nearby, ensconced in lush gardens a distance away enough not to hear the goings-on in the rose garden. It’s well preserved, and interesting architecture and the story it tells is definitely worth a visit.
#5. Pingyao’s main streets
Pingyao is a little town and completely walkable. Explore leisurely and take time to look at the architecture, peep into half hidden courtyards and stroll down the side lanes off the main thoroughfares to soak in the real Pingyao.
The main streets are equally fun, though all the shops are targetted at tourists now. Then again, they are nice shops of local brands selling modern, design forward bags, retro-inspired skincare, stationery and artisanal teas all stylishly packaged. There are some ‘antique’ shops too piled with bric-a-brac like old Chinese door knobs, figurines and weighing scales.
The streets are abuzz until pretty late at night. During this time, Pingyao looks very different too, as every main door is alight with red lanterns, which seem a cultural practice here. Bring your camera and tripod.
1. Book a flight to Beijing. The domestic flight from Beijing to Taiyuan can be bought online on ctrip.com. They don’t issue e-tickets though: your receipt would serve as the ticket to board. Buy first class — it’s inexpensive and it gives you some relative peace and quiet.
2. Book your return hotel transfer from Taiyuan Airport in advance. It is a long drive and you won’t want to call the hotel to send a car only you arrive to find yourself kinda stuck.
3. Bring walking shoes. Leave your heels at home. There’s no ‘fine dining’ in Pingyao. Just go casual.
4. Three days is all you really need.
5. It’s a family friendly place. Public toilets at the tourist sites are generally clean, and if you’re tired of walking, there are loads of electric shuttle ‘taxis’ that ply the streets. Hop on one and agree on a fee, or book one to bring you around for the day. Only if you don’t want to walk.