Usually when we travel we stay in places with cooking facilities so that we can do our own cooking. This has not been feasible in SE Asia because we have stayed mostly in hotels. Even finding cooking ingredients can be a problem as grocery stores are few and far between. The ones that we have found carry a small selection of packaged items and an even smaller selection of fresh produce and meat. Most people buy their food in the market.
“Buy local” isn’t just a slogan in SE Asia, it is a necessity. A poor country can not afford imported items. Refrigeration is expensive and a luxury. So people shop daily and eat what is fresh and available in the market. When we find food in the market, sometimes we don’t know what it is, sometimes we know what it is but don’t know what to do with it and sometimes we are reluctant to eat meat and fish that have been outside in a hot climate most of the day. Make no mistake, we know very well that what we are eating in restaurants is coming from the same market.
Eating in restaurants takes away the stress of preparing food but adds its own stresses. Selecting a restaurant was a bit of an issue at the beginning of the trip. In most of the places we have been, restaurants are plentiful and our kids will eat almost anything. But we often found ourselves arguing about which restaurant to eat at so we developed a system whereby each of us takes a turn picking the restaurant. Kasenya suggested we do this from tallest to shortest, but the order changed part way through the trip when we discovered that Devin is now taller than Dave. We typically only eat two meals a day, plus snacks, which minimizes the time and hassle of eating as well.
Breakfast is the most problematic meal of the day. People in SE Asia tend to eat noodle soup (pho) for breakfast. We have done this a few times and the soups are amazingly good, but its not likely something we will make a habit of. Some restaurants cater to Western tastes and offer a breakfast menu with omelettes and baguettes. Breakfast cereal is unheard of and milk is only available in UHT (tetra pack or bag) form even though it referred to as “fresh” milk. Cheese usually means Laughing Cow cream cheese.
Sweetened condensed milk is available everywhere. When you order Vietnamese coffee you get a glass of very strong coffee with about an inch of sweetened condensed milk in the bottom. Tea can be served this way as well, but if you don’t order “Lipton” tea specifically, you will get Vietnamese tea which is a type of green tea and never has milk added.
In many cases people have a restaurant in the front of their property and live in the back. Sometimes this simply means that they put a few Rubbermaid chairs and tables out on the sidewalk every day. Often it is the same group of locals that gathers to eat.
We have seen a few restaurant kitchens, usually on our way to the bathroom, and it is amazing what can be done with a couple of burners a sink and a counter top. As with most North American restaurants, the kitchens are not that clean. Dishes are often washed on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant with cold water. But soap is never spared and dishes are meticulously scrubbed.
At the beginning of the trip we were quite careful about adhering to common travel advice: don’t eat fresh vegetables or have drinks with ice. We still drink only bottled water, but have eaten anything and everything. We often eat at food stalls or buy food from mobile vendors. We are very adventuresome eaters and expected to be sick at least once because of the food but so far this hasn’t happened. We were also certain to get vaccinated against food borne diseases.
Menus are a bit of an issue in SE Asia. Most have some English on them and sometimes there is a Vietnamese menu and a separate English menu. In this case what is on offer is not the same. Typos in menus are rampant. We have seen “hambuggers” and “streaks” on a few menus. Also the same item may be completely different at two different restaurants. You never know if rice with chicken means the rice and chicken are separate or mixed. All of this adds to the adventure.
The oddest restaurant scene we encountered was in Yuanyang China, where we were eating our meal at a table near the front of a restaurant. A young woman came from the back with a chicken and started plucking it right in front of us where the dishes are done. No doubt about the freshness of the chicken on that menu.
Bissky Dziadyk Family
Travelling the world as a family since 2008.
In September 2008 our family embarked on a four month journey through South East Asia. Traveling with a child who uses a wheelchair presented its challenges, but following the Mekong River through China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam with a wheelchair was truly an adventure.
When we move beyond our fears and embrace our dreams, the Universe has an odd way of not only supporting us but giving us more opportunities than we ever imagined. Embarking on a journey with an open heart we can not help but be changed forever by the experience. Indeed it would be a waste to return untouched in the spiritual realm.
September: China (Beijing, Xi’an,Kunming, Yuanyang)
October: Northern Vietnam (Hanoi, Halong Bay) and
Laos (Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane)
November: Southern Vietnam (Hue, Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong Delta)
December: Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampot and Sihanoukville).