A Taste of Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Min City is a huge city packed with people, buildings and motorized vehicles. The overwhelming volume of motorbikes at rush hour causes an involuntary jaw-drop and a test of faith while crossing the street. It seems the trick is to move slowly and steadily making eye contact with the oncoming drivers. If you do it right, they can accurately predict your walking speed and gracefully move around you. The number one rule is: DO NOT STOP. If you stop or change your speed unexpectedly, accidents are bound to happen or at the very least you will receive a good crusty (remember those? Middle school girls in my era perfected that scowling glare). The city is also home to the War Museum, dozens of interesting pagodas and a not-bad art museum. I could talk about those places and get myself and you really depressed writing about the war museum with its gruesome pictures of the destruction from bombs and impact of Agent Orange but I just can’t do it this time. I need a pick-me-up. Plus, the experience in Ho Chi Min City that caught our attention the most was, you guess it, food.

A bowl of noodle soup adorned with greens and bean sprouts
If you have never tried Vietnamese food GO DO IT. I am sure you can find a good restaurant in your city, especially one that serves the famous noodle soup called Phò (pronounced Phuh-uh). The herbaceous broth packed with soft rice noodles and meat (you choose beef, chicken or pork) is light and rich at the same time and is a perfect dish to dip your toe in the water before diving into the weirder, by US standards, flavors of Vietnamese food (I’ll let Jacob tell you about Balute, Google it and you’ll get some yummy images on your computer screen). Plus, Phò allows you to get involved with the creation of your dish by adding a squirt of lime, teaspoon of chili oil or pile of fresh Thai and Vietnamese Basil, mint and other greens. You can find Phò all over Ho Chi Min as they claim it originated there; we found a yummy one on a corner down the street from our hotel. You know you are in a good place when there are a lot of locals eating there too and they all look at you like you are an alien as you walk in and sit down.


In Vietnam, sometimes you find the best eats on the street and sometimes you find it by following the trail of tourists through review sites like Trip Advisor. Many avid travelers turn up their noses to Trip Advisor claiming the authentic experience is lost, which certainly can be seen in those restaurants around Vietnam who boast their trip advisor status with GIANT blown up pictures of the logo hanging beside their own sign. Perhaps it is true that some of these restaurants have lost their authenticity (especially those on the uber touristy backpacker streets) or perhaps using review sites is a way to find the new heartbeat in the city and the young budding chefs that are putting a modern spin on their hometown dishes.

One such place and my very favorite of all the food we tried in Ho Chi Min was at a restaurant called Mountain Retreat.Mountain Retreat Maybe it was because of their name (I needed a retreat from the city chaos by the time we went there) or the trail of red lanterns hanging down through the center of the twisting stairwell that took you up to their 5th floor digs. Maybe I loved it because it was filled with soft light from the bamboo basket light fixtures and the statues of the Buddha that were dotted throughout (you know I loved that). Ambience doesn’t always indicate that the restaurant will be special but creativity and vibe in the décor often means creativity in the food and this place did not disappoint. The Vietnamese people love their pork and you will find it in most dishes. At this restaurant we had BBQ pork ribs with a sticky lemongrass glaze. Vietnamese cuisine likes to find the perfect balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavors and these ribs rang with that harmony. We also got our first taste of a popular dish called Bańh Tráng which is grilled, crispy rice paper topped with green onions, herbs and yep, pork. On the street you can find them folded up for easier consumption but here it was served pizza style. They added toasty sesame seeds to their rice paper and the creamy drizzle of a sort of aioli sauce on top pulled it all together, once again achieving the coveted balance of the 4 S’s.

Little ChefAnother of my favorite entrees in Ho Chi Minh City was Bún Thįt Nuóng or BBQ pork noodle salad. We ate this at another spectacular restaurant called Propaganda but Mackenzie and I also learned how to make it during a cooking class we took together on one of our last days in the city. The thinly sliced pork is marinated in fish sauce (an ingredient found in most dishes), lemongrass, honey and garlic and is then barbecued over an open flame. The pork is then laid atop a bowl of rice noodles, Vietnamese basil, mint, shredded Morning Glory stems and other greens. Then the dressing, whose key ingredients include more fish sauce and kumquat juice, is poured on top. As you can imagine diving into this bowl of smoky sweet pork and fresh herbs with the snap from the kumquat juice will stop all conversation at the table until it is finished. Oh, how I miss you Ho Chi Minh!Bún Chà

If you like to cook at all, I highly recommend taking a cooking class. You don’t even have to travel to an exotic location to do it (although it is a great experience if you do). There is nothing like learning the ins and outs of your favorite foods by learning to cook them yourself. For instance, did you know there is little to no wheat in Southeast Asian cuisine? They don’t grow it so they don’t use it. Everything is made from rice except the bread for the Bánh Mí, which is made from potatoes. Oh, you can find some amazing pastries in Vietnam but that is the French influence from the days of their rule.

I used to think that spring rolls were always those soft, fresh rolls filled with raw veggies but now I understand it is about the rSpring Roll Bundleice paper not whether it is fresh or fried. In my opinion, when fried, rice paper creates the best crisp of all the rolled and fried things that you can eat. If it is not made with rice paper then you are eating a Chinese influenced egg roll, which is made with a wheat-based wrapper. You can eat spring rolls in the classic way by picking them up and dipping them into that glorious sweet and spicy sauce (again, made with fish sauce). However, another choice is to ramp up the flavor by building a little bed for them first by diligently piling up herbs like Shisho leaf, mint and basil on top of a piece of green leaf lettuce. Then tie the whole package together with the green part of a green onion that has been blanched to make it pliable and THEN give it a dip and your whole spring roll world will be changed forever.

I could go on and on about the food we tried in Ho Chi Minh City like lotus stem salad with prawns or Bún Chà (another type of noodle soup and really is more from Hanoi than Ho Chi Minh). It was a great city to start us off on our food tour of the rest of the country. The cooking class gave Mackenzie a little bravery when trying weird dishes and made her a huge help when convincing her sister to eat something other than rice.   Crowds, chaos and cuisine that was our experience of Ho Chi Minh City and really a theme that ran through all of the cities we visited in the country of Vietnam.image

hot peppers

Eating in Costa Rica – Part 2

As one of our servers described, as a Costa Rican, he prefers milder food and isn’t very adventurous when he eats out in his home country or when traveling.  I am not sure if this is the reason that the food tends to feature few spices other than a bit of salt and the occasional pepper, but in general eating in Costa Rica was at times very disappointing and often a tad bland.  Our best bets were the restaurants that featured foreign cuisine or interestingly vegan/vegetarian cuisine. See below for more details about our dining adventures.


It was also very expensive on the whole.  We often kept costs of eating out low at most one drink each and we typically had the girls share a small side dish (papas fritas or patacones) along with one main dish.

Homemade patacones!

Kid’s menus are not typical in these areas and the amount of food was generally more than enough for our girls. Even with these tactics we averaged $43.34/meal when eating out.  If you ignore some of the anomalies, like the time we only had fries and four cokes, the total pushes nearly $50/meal to dine at a restaurant.

Recapping these numbers makes me miss our tiny kitchen in our cabina in Punta Uva.  A couple of days before we departed, they replaced our little burners with a small gas range.  With an oven, we could have been a tad more creative in our own home cooking and would have saved homemade casadoeven more.  As it was, we really did fantastic eating at home. Shopping nearly daily for just what we needed and using almost every bit of it went a long way to keeping our costs down.  On average, we spent $8.89/meal.  This included the cost of buying our water every day, a variety of snacks, a small cache of salt and spices and a few storage helpers to allow us to save leftovers in the fridge more easily.

I will post final budget numbers for Costa Rica after our last day there (we return for a day before flying to Perú), but here are some other numbers that might interest you:

  • Snacks/Fruit when out and about: $24.76 for the month (this is by no means all snacks…with two kids that snack constantly this just represents the times we bought things other than at the market)
  • Ice Cream on hot days: $35.45 for the month, about $9-10 for the four of us to indulge a bit.
  • Pipas frias (cold coconuts): $1.50-$2.50 each depending on vendor.
  • Total daily spent on food: $38.18
  • About $13/meal for a family of four. If your kids are older it will likely be higher.
Place Notes Total
Selvin’s Terrible food…the place itself was amazing. Cool lights, beautiful wood tables and chairs and tucked into the jungle just off the main road. Sadly the service was severely lacking. We have come to expect a slower pace than typical in the USA, but this stretched our patience. Then our food finally came…my steak was gristly and cooked poorly, chicken was dry and over-cooked, and the sauce was a salt bomb. The kids had the Sea Bass and this actually was very nicely cooked, but Mackenzie complained it was too lemony. I would say if you do find yourself here, stick with the seafood and avoid the Caribbean sauce. $60.57
Alice Ice Cream Bar Ice cream was very nice and the family running it is very friendly. An expat couple from New York provided great information about the Puerto Viejo area and a few words of advice about our next foray to Panama. As an added bonus, their 8 year old son asked Mack to play soccer with him. Amazing what 30 minutes kicking a ball (especially being allowed to do it in an unused corner of the restaurant) does for connecting two kids 🙂 $11.73
Bri Bri As Amy previously mentioned, we took a trip into an indigenous reserve to visit the Bri Bri people. As part of this a family shared a traditional homemade meal with us consisting of stewed fruits, vegetables and poultry of some sort. This concoction was served in a banana leaf bowl (a tad challenging to manage for the uninitiated) and a coconut cup with a lemony water. After we finished our meal, we sampled fresh handmade chocolates. This included a sample of the raw cacao fruit, a cluster of nuts covered in a slimy white flesh that tasted like jolly ranchers, and eating a fresh roasted cacao nut. Later we were also treated to a traditional hot cacao drink.  Delicious! N/A (Part of larger package)
Maxi’s This Caribbean style soda just off the beach in Manzanillo was a gem.  The food isn’t necessarily all that special, but coupled with the view and friendly staff it was very nice. It was recommended by many of our friends and family that had visited the area in years past. Reggae is thumping and the restaurant upstairs features great views of the water. The chicken was well cooked, with savory seasoning and a tasty side of rice and beans, plantains and cabbage salad. The fish version was ok, the fish was nicely cooked, but wasn’t a great fit with the rice and beans. The girls however loved their arroz con pollo! $56.30
Como en mi Casa A fantastic accident! I was first made aware of this locale by our Spanish teacher Matías and it caused me a bit of confusion. I had asked him if we could maybe have a lesson somewhere besides my kitchen and he suggested that we could go someplace…como en mi casa! I mistook that to mean “like my house” instead of the name of a restaurant. The menu is simple and features vegan, gluten free and vegetarian cuisine. The baked goods were fantastic, the organic local produce was amazing and the preparation was perfect. My Gallo Pinto featured perfectly fried eggs, flavorful rice and beans, fresh fruit and a delightful semi-hard cheese. Amy chose the Mediterranean sandwich and enjoyed every bite. The girls split the hummus snack and goat cheese platter (both of which I sampled). The staff is friendly and the owner brought the girls two organic gluten free chocolate cookies. When asked if the owner was nice, Mack replied, “Yes, cause she didn’t ask you first if we could have a cookie!” $34.29
Wandha We were stuck…last night in town, no food in our fridge and only a credit card to pay for dinner. After multiple strikeouts (no reservation, no we don’t take credit cards, no we are closed) we wound up at Wandha, a restaurant attached to Hotel Shawandha in the area of Punta Uva. This was a budget buster! they featured a kids platter of spaghetti bolognese that included a drink for $10 a plate. My corsair shrimp dish was tasty with a nicely spiced coconut curry and Amy’s steamed white fish was tasty and well prepared. Amy had a nice glass of wine and we shared a fantastic desert of chocolate mousse with ginger sorbet. The service was fantastic and the atmosphere was nice. A great place, but very expensive for anyone on a budget. $95.24

Eating in Costa Rica – Part 1

Eating in Costa Rica has been an adventure all its own.  Our cabina is equipped with a small outdoor kitchen.  We have a nice size fridge/freezer, small microwave, toaster, coffee pot and a two-burner stove. No oven, no dishwasher and generally poor lighting conditions at night.  Despite these challenges we have really done very well at preparing our own food.  We tend to buy enough food for a couple of days, keeping our fruits and veggies fresh and processed foods to a minimum.

Food prices in Costa Rica are generally comparable to those you would find in the US.  A loaf of non-white bread is about $2.50, eggs are about $3.50 for a carton of 15 free range eggs, $1 for a dozen tortillas and $1.50 for a 2 lbs bag of black beans.  Perhaps unexpectedly, local fruits are fairly inexpensive: about $1.50-$2 for the best pineapple ever, 60 cents for an avocado, and less than $1 for a large bunch of bananas.  Other items are extremely costly: Beer is $8-9 per six-pack (local beer only)*, cheese is $8-10/lb, and $6 for a small jar of peanut butter.  Additionally, we happen to be staying in the one region of Costa Rica where the tap water is not safe to drink.  We mitigate this cost by buying a large 19 L jug of water every 2 days for about $6 (smaller 6 L jugs are about $4-5 each).  We have found juice and yogurt to be VERY sugary (although the box says 100% juice, I’m not sure I believe it)

Eating out is even more expensive.  This is no different than at home…we often struggled with the work/life balance in this area.  Too exhausted after work, school and activities, we often ate out.  My middle certainly suffered the ill effects and so did our savings.  Here in Costa Rica, we haven’t indulged too much.  The costs are similar to what we payed in Colorado for a dinner for four (so far an average of about $35 per meal).  The difference is that now we are on an extremely tight budget: if we want to eat out, an excursion or event is likely out of the question or must be scaled back. Some of you may be reading this and thinking, “why did they have to go to Costa Rica to discover that?  I live it every day!” We were certainly blessed to not have this be an overwhelming concern in the States, but looking back we can see how this impacted us even beyond the obvious costs.

Here in Costa Rica we have found a much better paradigm.  Amy and I now cook together…what used to be a debate is now a partnership.  We clean up after each meal together too, otherwise we pay the price of a million fruit flies, ants and wasps in the morning.  We often cook simple food for dinner such as our version of Casado (rice and beans with some form of protein) or pasta, fresh fruits and veggies.  Lunches are generally sandwiches with more fruit and breakfast is cereal and/or eggs.  One of my favorites is taking the leftover rice and beans from the night before and frying an egg to break over the top of it.  Our kids have taken to this new mode too.  They are constantly “starving” (snack foods are crazy expensive) so they have been willing to try many new things.  Fresh made guacamole, various rice and bean concoctions and squash casserole are just of few of the former “gross” foods they now trying and generally loving.


Place Notes Total
Pita Bonita This place was worth every penny. It is a hundred meters down the road from us in Punta Uva. Amazing fresh hummus, great falafel and spectacular kabob accompanied by super fresh pita bread that I couldn’t stop eating. The owner, Elan, is an Israeli expat who moved to the area for a new way of life. He was very helpful and friendly. $50.00
Jungle Love The ambiance was fantastic (except for Mack throwing a pouting fest that resulted in her spilling her very full banana batido, a fresh fruit “shake”, all over the table). We were tired and all a little out of sorts. We had been in Punta Uva about a week by this time and needed a bit of comfort food so we decided that it was a great pizza night. The pizza was fair, but having had many amazing pies and slices over the years I may be a bit slanted. For me, the sauce was a tad sweet and the crust was a little too biscuit-like. The toppings were fantastic: fresh garlic, sautéed spinach, delicious mushrooms and a slightly spicy sausage were a winning combination. We ordered a large and a medium pizza and had enough leftovers for a nice lunch (although reheating pizza without oven is a challenge). $42.74
Pan Pay This bakery and restaurant was recommended by our Spanish teacher. It is located near the beach in Puerto Viejo on the north end of town. The place was small and the server was impatient with our lack of Spanish. It might have just been the woman helping us as others appeared very friendly. The girls loved the Batidos here and my Pinto Gallo with Tocineta (rice and beans mixed with bacon and eggs) was awesome. The girls had Bocadillos with Queso and Tocineta. Not bad, but not amazing. $19.81
Soda Chino A Chinese influenced soda in Limón. This place served chop suey alongside the traditional casados popular in sodas across Costa Rica. We only had fries and four cokes…don’t think the food would have been great based on what we saw. $10.67
Wok and Roll We took a drive to Turrialba, a mountain valley dominated by an active volcano. It was cloudy, so the only eruptions we saw came from the backseat as Quinn was carsick multiple times on the winding mountain roads (she started the day in a dress, upon arrival in Turrialba she changed into pants and a t-shirt purchased in town, ended the day naked, poor girl). We chose an eatery featuring Chinese food because Mackenzie likes it so much. It was a pretty good option, with nice kid friendly dishes and an amazingly friendly staff. Amy and I shared the Singapore Noodles (one of my favorites) and it was very well prepared. This was a pretty expensive place, but it is close to the main square. $40.00
Punta Mona Center
for Regenerative Design
& Botanical Studies
“An 85 acre off the grid, beach front, family owned,
environmental education center,
botanical collection, permaculture farm
and eco-lodge, dedicated to regenerative ways of living.” The vegan fair was amazing, a squash dish with hearts of palm, garlic, coconut milk and coconut oil; Kale and lentils with savory mushrooms; fried plantains with guacamole. Amy and I enjoyed it immensely and it was about $10 per person. I am not sure if you can arrange to simply eat there on your own, but our tour guide Omar arranged the lunch for us after a kayaking tour.

*A former colleague of mine was certain I was crazy for going on a trip where alcohol may be out of the question because it is such a budget buster.  She suggested that I mitigate the cost by forming a GoFundMe. Well Mindie, here it is: Buy me a Beer