Sweet Stories from South-East Asia

I was thinking about my various travels recently, with the idea of perhaps putting together a post along the lines of my ‘Top 10 Desserts from Around the World”. However, as I thought back to my South-East Asia adventure in late 2008 – a 29-day Intrepid tour looping Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia- I realised that most of my memorable dessert-ish moments from that trip don’t really fall onto a list like that. Some, I can barely remember the details to even begin a recommendation. Others are simply little travel happenings that rather made the dessert memorable. These are the ones I’ve written about here. They may not be truly reflective of a country’s traditional cuisine – but they are nevertheless the stories that have stuck with me!

(I apologise for the lack of any photos. Seems twenty-year-old Terri hadn’t quite developed the foresight to photograph such things!)

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An Ice-Cream Miracle | Vientiane, Laos

It was on this South-East Asian trip that I discovered what would come to be a recurring craving whilst traveling – simply a delicious, refreshing ice-cream. As things go, ice-cream was not particularly easy to come by in many places I visited on this trip. I tried as best I could, however, and this actually led to some fun little expeditions. The pinnacle of such ice-cream ventures was that of the Lao captial, Vientiane.

Some fellow travelers and I had spent the day exploring the city by bike, and the sweltering afternoon sun prompted a decision to search for a frozen treat. We trawled the surrounding streets, but the sun was getting hotter and the ice-cream situation was looking dire; there’s only so long you can drag around your friends in such a seemingly futile pursuit.

That’s when I heard it. A faint yet distinct tune rang through the quiet neighbourhood we were staying in. Slowly, it edged closer and closer, until the tinny music took form in the shape of a lone Lao man pedalling a bicycle with a big ol’ freezer tacked onto the front.

(This is when I first suspected I may have very mild superpowers in the ability to manifest my dessert destiny.)

In an otherwise completely deserted street, we dove into this man’s makeshift ice-cream cart like kids on Christmas morning. In being unable to read the local language, it was always a bit of a gamble choosing ice-cream flavours in South-East Asia – but I lucked upon a chocolate Paddle Pop type ice-cream filled with condensed milk. I’m not sure whether it was actually one of the greatest ice-creams I’ve tasted in my life (I’m a sucker for condensed milk!), or the whole magical-ice-cream-bicycle-man-appearing-out-of-nowhere-at-precisely-perfect-moment phenomenon merely amplified it to godly proportions – but I even today I crave that chocolatey, condensed milk wonder a lot.

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Sweet Milk | Vientiane, Laos

It would be the very night of the Ice-Cream Miracle that I would continue my apparent condensed milk crusade. My tour group visited a wonderful restaurant in Vientiane called Makphet, which trains and staffs street kids and at-risk youth in the kitchen and front of house. Run by Friends-International, the organisation also has restaurants in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia and I highly recommend supporting this cause if you find yourself in the area.

As we were prompted to order our beverages at Makphet that night, I was excited to find ‘Ice Coffee Lao with Sweet Milk’ beaming up at me from the menu. Yes, the wording was a little strange – though I naively put this down to a Lao-English translation thing. The weather was still sweltering and I could think of nothing better than a refreshing, cold iced coffee – something I hadn’t seen on a menu in Thailand or Laos so far on my trip. Now, a typical Australian iced coffee is a delightful concoction of milk and coffee, a scoop or two of vanilla ice-cream and a generous serving of whipped cream atop. What arrived at my table was something very, very different.

I was given a tall glass of cold, black coffee. Ice cubes bobbled and clinked at the top around a straw that stood totally upright in the centre of the glass. This apparent magic was in fact due to the inch of condensed milk that lined the bottom. As a strictly white-coffee drinker and yet a total floozy for all things condensed milk, I was torn between two worlds. And it wasn’t just any black coffee, either. It was strong black coffee. But in that Lao restaurant in that Lao heat, it was perfect. Icy cold, simultaneously super bitter and super sweet – it wasn’t the last time I had that style of iced coffee whilst on my South-East Asian trip! The style is actually more renowned as a Vietnamese beverage, which was quite convenient given it would be my next destination…

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World Heritage Listed Chocolate Mousse | Hoi An, Vietnam

One thing I hadn’t been expecting before visiting Vietnam (mainly because I was rather naive and did like, zero research before this trip) was the French influence. Colonised by France in the mid 1800s through to the 1950s, footprints of French culture remain in modern Vietnam by way of language, architecture and cuisine. I was, of course, delighted by the cuisine part – not least because of the French-style bakeries that proffered all the croissants and crepes a girl could ask for.

The Vietnamese patisserie that stole my heart, however, was that of The Cargo Club in Hoi An. Situated on the South Central Coast of Vietnam, Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as such has been conserved in all its old-world enchantment. My tour group stayed here for three days, and every single one of those days I visited The Cargo Club with a few similarly seduced travelers. The restaurant is a large, two-storey colonial building by the riverside and (lucky for me) has wholeheartedly embraced all things dessert – and in fact has become hugely renowned for it.

The one dessert that blew us all away was the chocolate mousse. I actually can’t even remember what it looked like (and this is why we take photos of our food, people!) – I just know it was one amazing little piece of chocolate paradise that had us coming back for more. Literally. Every day. The life of an obsessive dessert-lover can sometimes be a lonely one when journeying afar; fellow travelers aren’t always quite as keen to venture on a quest simply for something sweet. The Cargo Club was definitely not one of those cases. As much as I’m willing to seek out a treat myself, sitting down in Vietnam with a group of people sharing the mutual appreciation of a table-full of chocolate mousse and other sugary delights is a wonderful memory!

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  • http://northmelbournelife.wordpress.com hannahbfoster

    Makes me want to visit Asia now! And also just eat chocolate mousse! Thanks for a great post Terri :)