Stay here: The DoubleTree Hilton, Melbourne

DoubleTree by Hilton, Melbourne
270 Flinders St, Melbourne CBD
http://doubletree3.hilton.com/en/hotels

Playing tourist in your own city is seriously underrated. A lot of Melbourians, especially those who work in the CBD, avoid the city at all costs on weekends. I was the opposite. The longer I worked in the city, the more I discovered and the more I fell in love with it. While it’s definitely not a hidden treasue, the DoubleTree Hilton is a perfect tourist-at-home night away spot.

 

Service and amenities include:
– 24 hour business and fitness centres
– a generous 12pm check out
– WiFi (not free, unfortunately)
– luggage storage
– laundry service
– safety deposit boxes
– hotel restaurant
– parking (AUD$30 per night)
– accessible rooms
– tea & coffee making facilities
– complimentary (and a little bit fancy) toiletries from Crabtree & Evelyn
– HDTVs
– walk-in showers

Being literally a stone’s throw from Flinders Street Station, it couldn’t be more accessible, and rates start from around $180 per night for two people (for a lead in, interior rooms); a little extra will upgrade you to a city view room or a Flinders Street Station view.

And the best part? If you’re staying there, you can feel free to ask for a complimentary DoubleTree Hilton chocolate chip cookie. At any time.

 

Tea time: Ippodo Tea, Tokyo

Ippodo Tea
Kokusai Building, 1F, 3-1-1 Marunouchi Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo
http://www.ippodo-tea.co.jp/en/

 

It was around 9am on my last day in Tokyo, and it was raining. My plan to head back to Kagurazaka for the morning went down the drain along with the rain water; I decided to take my umbrella out and explore closer to the hotel. I ended up in the basement level of Isetan Department Store, which also, apparently, food heaven. $400 bento boxes, French baguettes, Italian cured meats, 500 different types of noodles, animal shaped cookies, the most stunningly intricate cakes… Oh, and tea, coffee, wine, sake, beer… oh my God! I settled on a gorgeous little rice lunch box and a matcha cookie sandwich, and trotted happily back out into the rain. Eating my delicious lunch on my hotel bed, I was pretty happy with the week I’d had in Tokyo. There was just one more thing I really wanted to do, and that was to visit a tea house.

Tucked away behind the main retail area of IPPODO’s store was their Tea Room; there were quite a few different green teas on offer, which all came accompanied by a traditional Kyoto sweet to compliment that specific tea (the store was originally opened in Kyoto, but another was opened in Tokyo a few years later, as well as another in New York). I’d tried matcha and gyokuro and many types of sencha before, and would have happily had any of them again, but noticed one of my favourite teas on the menu – genmaicha. It’s a unique blend of green tea and roasted brown rice. Genmaicha originated with poorer families who used to add the rice to their tea in order to make it last longer and therefore save a bit of money, as well as using it to cover up the taste of often stale tea. Properly done genmaicha is amazing; it’s got the lovely green tea taste, with the nuttiness of the roasted rice.

I enjoyed my pot, which I learnt could be re-filled up to three times if the following points were observed:
– use all of the tea provided (12g, I believe).
– use boiling water.
– pour into the pot, cover, count to 10 and then pour.
– do not let it brew longer than 10 seconds the first time, or it’ll have a bitter taste.
– empty the pot COMPLETELY into your cup – you don’t want to leave any water in there, or it’ll make the next brew bitter.
– leave the lid askew while drinking that first cup so the leaves can breathe.
– you’ll only need to count to 5 on the following refills.

And my sweet? A delicate little wafer flower filled with sweet red bean paste. Perfect match with the tea.

The teahouse itself was beautiful – simple, unassuming and very peaceful. And my tea set only cost around AUD$13.00 – it was the perfect way to end not only the night, but the entire trip.

Late night street food in Bangkok

 

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I’m pretty sure when “normal” people are asked about the best meals of their lives, they’re usually going to talk about fancy restaurants in big cities, celebrity chefs, exceptional, knowledgeable and courteous service, caviar and truffles and expensive wine, maybe even a beautiful view of some gorgeous beach landscape. If you ask me, the first I’ll probably think of will be a dodgy looking, street-side vendor, under a motor-way overpass, on the back streets of Bangkok.  If you haven’t worked it out yet, I’m not “normal.”

We were in Thailand in January2014, while the city was in the midst of the “Shutdown Bangkok” political movement. It wasn’t ideal. A lot of the markets and street food vendors I’d remembered so fondly from a previous visit were either not operating, or doing much shorter hours than usual. The protestors were peaceful, and as such, really didn’t hinder our movements around the city. On our last night in Bangkok, we set out for one of the night markets I’d visited last time I was there, and after a few wrong turns, we finally found it. Only to discover that perhaps a scant 10% of the regular vendors were operating. And no street food to be seen.

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We decided to keep walking until we found somewhere that looked good for dinner; we’d never forgive ourselves if our last meal in Thailand was a Thai-by-numbers, made-for-tourists event. Inevitably, because our Thai isn’t too crash hot and I did my best navigating a Thai map with Thai street names, wrong turns were taken and we just kept walking in the general direction of our hotel. We ended up on what seemed to be much quieter streets without really realising how we got there, but we just kept walking. Until we found this place. It was PACKED. I vividly remember an older lady sitting in the gutter, washing out dishes by hand, and pouring the dirty water from the buckets down the street before re-filling them from the hose that lay next to her.

We took a seat on the squat plastic stools, and were handed two plastic menus. We ordered a bit of everything; papaya salad, stir fried greens in oyster sauce, pork fried rice and BBQ beef.

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There we were: on the side of a dark street in Bangkok, late at night. There were women manning enormous woks over my left shoulder, with bright orange flames licking the sides.  A few plastic menus, sticky with various sauces, being passed around and shared. Locals and a few other travellers sharing the space and enjoying their meals. And this little lady, sitting in the gutter, just kept on robotically cleaning the dishes.

The food was good. Amazing, actually. I’ve been to restaurants where I haven’t eaten beef than tender and well cooked. How they managed to get that much flavour into vegetables with oyster sauce is beyond me. The food was delicious. But good food clearly isn’t the only thing to consider when thinking about your best ever meals.

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A quick guide to Vietnam’s street food!

Vietnam has some of the best street food in the world – its fresh, delicious, and insanely cheap. You can’t eat anything bad there, but here are some of the dishes I’d recommend getting your hands on when you visit Vietnam.

 

Banh Xeo
Vietnamese pancakes/crepes that are made slightly differently in different regions – my favourites were the ones made in Hoi An, as they were a bit thicker. Generally make with pork and shrimp, filled with bean shoots, and served with fresh herbs and a dipping sauce. Amazing.
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Bun Cha
A pile of rice noodles, fresh herbs, freshly fried spring rolls and whatever meat they decide to serve you. You’ll also get some delicious sweet and sour sauce with a side of chilli so you can decide how hot you want it!20140707-153052-55852691.jpg

 

Banh Cuon
Steamed rice rolls/crepes filled with usually pork and prawn, and topped with tasty deep fried shallots and garlic, accompanied by the standard pile of fresh herbs and dipping sauce.
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Banh Mi
Vietnam’s famous baguettes, usually filled with some sort of pork, fresh coriander, chili and pickled cucumber, but they can take on other forms too, like the triangular one with Kewpie mayo I got at a market in Hoi An, below. I tried a few different versions over there, and regardless of the other variables, they were probably the best breads I’ve ever eaten.
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All-you-can-eat vendors
Places like Bale Well in Hoi An that provide basically a table spread of food for a tiny cost (around AUD$4 or $5 per person) are not only great value, but a fantastic way of trying out a heap of different things! Look out for tables full of food and happy people!

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Sticky rice
This is one of my absolute favourites to eat – generally available in both sweet and savoury (below we tried sticky rice with black beans, chickpeas and mung beans) varieties, there is no better way to end the night that a scoop of sweet sticky rice swimming in coconut milk and topped with a fresh mango!

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Donuts
Donuts seem to be quite popular in Vietnam. Whether on a stick and coated in soft sugar, or freshly fried and filled with coconut or banana, they’re all delicious. The ones I tried all had soft, tasty dough, with just enough “crunch” to bite into. Really lovely and cheap to pick up while walking through markets.

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Bakery cakes
Thanks to the French, there are a ton of gorgeous little bakeries with beautiful, delicate cakes and pastries in the windows. My favourites were these small coconut treats, that were basically a pastry crust with a cakey filling and topped with a little sprinkle of sesame seeds.

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Eat here: Bún Chà Dac Kim, Hanoi

Bún Chà Dac Kim
1 Hang Manh, Hanoi, Vietnam

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My sister and I were picked up from Hanoi’s airport by a lovely young lady and her driver, who took us to our hotel. On the drive over, we talked the whole way, asking each other question after question. Her English was fantastic, and we found out she had a good friend in Sydney, which gave her a good opportunity to practice. We asked her for her recommendations on the things she thought we should see and her favourite places to eat – she proceeded to write out a double-sided notebook page for us!

We told her our favourite Vietnamese dish was bun cha – a huge smile spread across her face and she started to furiously scribble onto the page again, telling us this was her favourite food too, and she’d give us the address of her pick for the best place to get it in the city. Once she dropped us off at the hotel and we got a few photos taken together and exchanged email addresses, we dumped our suitcases in our room and prepared to head back out and find us some bun cha.

It took a little while, but eventually we found the street name. The ridiculous amount of people massed out the front indicated we were in the right place. Once it was clear that we were interested, we were quickly ushered in without a word from the lady. It looked like a little shop front that was already full and couldn’t possibly accommodate us; we were then sent up two flights of stairs and to the end of a communal table.

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Without a word being exchanged, we pointed to a nearby water bottle and held up two fingers (we were aiming for 2 bottles of water, and we had them within 60 seconds), then settled down to survey our surroundings. Shoulder to shoulder, sardine-tin dining with miniature street side plastic stools and a crazy, market-style atmosphere. It was perfect. We’d no sooner taken in the full 360 degree view than looked down at the pile of food that had materialised in front of us. Much like the fabulous experience we had at Bale Well in Hoi An, it appeared that AUD$5.00 got us a bottle of water each as well as all we could eat bun cha.

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Pickled vegetables, a veritable mountain of noodles, half a garden worth of fresh herbs, fresh spring rolls and god knows what kind of meat wrapped in leaves and swimming in undoubtedly the best broth either of us had ever had.

So there we sat, looking at each other over the small plastic trestle table, simultaneously bursting out into laughter. We could not believe it! From what started as a “I wish we could just go to Vietnam and eat our way around the country!” We had actually made it a reality! We were sitting in a little nondescript street side shanty, three stories above Hanoi, eating the most spectacularly delicious spread of food! If you’re in Hanoi, take down this address and ask someone for directions!

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