Bánh Mì in Vietnam: Sandwich of the Gods

The great thing about a sandwich is the beauty that lies within. Between those two, thick fluffy yet crusty slices of bread, could lie anything. Absolutely anything. If you want to munch on crushed anchovies and marmite smeared inside a crusty granary roll you can. And nobody will probably even know. The sandwich holds all secrets.

In Vietnam the sandwich has continued to do an excellent job in surprising, impressing and to be quite frank, amazing me. Strictly speaking of course, it is not a ‘sandwich’, it’s a baguette. Now I don’t want to get all ‘colonial’ on you – I am more than aware of the destruction, death and damage caused by the French colonial years in Vietnam – but man, they left the baguette. And that must surely be seen as a silver lining of sorts.

It goes by the name of Bánh Mì here – and no, it doesn’t sound like it is written. Vietnamese is a tonal language – the words are sung as if they are musical notes on the bars of a great composition. I on the other hand can’t sing or even talk in high notes, which leaves me with little more than a blank face or two when I start singing for my Bánh Mì.

But trust me, these little baguettes are worth persisting for. They are normally sold in a fairly innocuous-looking cart of sorts, which will often reveal a woman in her mid 50s furiously cutting sideways into the crusty baguettes with a seemingly blunt knife. Welcome to the Bánh Mì cart.


You will see pots of unidentifiable ingredients – odd shapes and colours of what I have since discovered is ham, alongside sliced chillis, eggs, vats of meat juice and tomatoes. The woman will look at you increasingly mystified as you try to sing for your Bánh Mì. She sells nothing else so eventually will raise an eyebrow and sing “Banh Mi” back to you, which of course you think sounds exactly the same as what you were saying.

But she is the Bánh Mì boss so you smile sweetly and nod enthusiastically as she begins her work. First the bread is stabbed length-wise down the baguette before a vat of, what I still think is, Mayonnaise is smeared across the soft, fleshy inside. Next comes a generous slab of pate that coats the mayonnaise nicely.

Upon the thick bed of pate and mayonnaise the ‘ham’ is then placed, which can be white, pink, or something in between. And then it starts to become a bit of a blur as things are just thrown in, as if flying out of the little metal tubs that line the cart’s shelves. Chilli, coriander, fish sauce, green things, red things, pickled carrots. You know the creation is nearly complete when your smiling Bánh Mì master turns to the sizzling sunny side-up fried egg behind her and lifts it straight from the pan into your heaving baguette.

It is wrapped up in paper or cling film, held together by an elastic band and costs you the equivalent of 50p.

banh mi

Sometimes you can just eat your Bánh Mì then and there – just stand in the same spot as the cart and tuck right into the gooey, crusty goodness. But sometimes you need to take it carry it home, sinking under the weight of its own filling, and lie it on a plate and prepare yourself for what comes next.

By this point the piping hot egg has seeped through the pate, soy sauce, mayonnaise and meat – turning it into an almost pie-like sandwich. The crust retains its crunch, but the inside turns into a delectable warm mush of eggy, meaty, herby goodness with an incredible chilli after-bite.


Serving Suggestion: Best enjoyed with an ice-cold bottle of Bia Saigon, available from all good retailers for about 30p.

It is Vietnam in a sandwich. It’s everything that a sandwich should be. And it knows it – it seems to almost proudly brag about the weight and sheer weirdness of its fillings as it is placed in your hands. It is after all, a sandwich that will quite literally have you singing for your supper.

Fusion Maia, Da Nang, Vietnam: A Spa-tacular Breakfast

“Excuse me would you like some ice cream,” I hear over the sounds of crashing waves, interrupting daydreams of taking a bath in melted chocolate. I absentmindedly lift my hand to wave him off before suddenly remembering where I am.

For I am not on the local beach in Hoi An, Central Vietnam where women stroll the shores selling their wares, I am on a private beach at a luxury resort. There are no hawkers here.

Like that moment in a film when the dreamy music screeches to a dramatic hault, I open my eyes to find a smiling man offering me a little pot of creamy goodness.

“Cookies and cream,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. I thumped Kate (my old Uni buddy, new colleague and current travel partner) awake.

“Free cookies and cream ice cream,” I hissed. Two seconds later she was upright, spoon in mouth as the man made his way to the next lucky couple further down the beach.

“Bloody fabulous, I could get used to this,” I managed between mouthfuls of the deliciously cool cream as it melted in my mouth.

Welcome to Fusion Maia, Da Nang. And it’s not just the ice cream that’s free… So are the spa treatments. Yes, you heard me correctly – I am staying at an all inclusive spa resort.

I have learnt three things about myself as a direct result of this indulgence:

1) I have ticklish calves. I mean seriously, it is acceptable for feet to be ticklish but legs – really?! It felt nothing short of inappropriate to giggle my way through the leg part of my all-over body massage.

2) Even more horrifying – apparently I have a ticklish forehead. There I am surrounded by incredible smells enjoying a luxurious facial and the poor man goes to touch my forehead and the giggling starts up again.

3) My feet aren’t ticklish – I was so pleased about this that I did not just have one foot massage but two, as if to prove just how hardy my stumps are. Yes, they did very well. I was proud of them.

But Fusion Maia is so much more than just having your body parts tickled (all day every day), as wonderful as that is.

As we walked down the long driveway covered in greenery and bamboo shrubbery, we instantly felt a little bit calmer. As we stepped inside the airy reception area, we instantly felt welcomed (by a very charming man who we kind of wanted to invite for dinner), and as we entered our private pool villa, we instantly knew we never wanted to leave.

Fusion Maia pool villa


Fusion Maia pool villa


fusion maia vietnam


fusion maia bathroom

Every villa here has a private pool, perfect for late night plunges after a gin or three.

Fusion Maia private pool

Meanwhile the main pool offers the stunning backdrop of Da Nang beach.


And it was all rather wonderful. Kate and I were still working (which means running around inspecting other handsome hotels) but somehow coming back to all of this made it feel a little less like work and well, a little more like paradise.

But then we had breakfast and suddenly I was not just in Paradise. I was floating in the clouds on a golden, pastry encrusted throne wearing a crown of tropical fruit. It was magical.

The gorgeous lantern-adorned dining room was transformed with a huge buffet area in centre stage where chefs performed their magic on eggs and waffles and what-not, and where guests shuffled around in trance-like food comas.

I walked over slowly, thinking carefully about what I might want to eat. But then as I made my approach my mind started blurring – I saw chocolate croissants on top of yoghurts, sitting in roasted ham boats floating in rivers of cucumber juice. Yes cucumber juice. My mind, my mouth, my eyes didn’t know what to do. My hands started reaching out for things, trying to grab at pretty little pieces of food. I realised I had been holding my breath and I felt a little light headed.

There was only one thing to do. I forced myself to step away, breath deeply and sternly reminded myself I had a full hour for breakfast. There was no rush. I could have 10 courses if I wanted.

And so I did. I started with a fruit jelly. The tiny triangle of jelly (a perfect mouthful) broke away to reveal little chunks of fresh fruit that oozed in their juices. It sort of exploded in your mouth like one of those Fruit Burst sweets, albeit a posh one.


Then came the sweet, stewed muesli and passionfruit compote-topped yoghurt that tasted every bit as good as it looked. And dim sum. And passion fruit, which I will have you know made a surprisingly good combination.

Ribbet collage2

And then came the eggs benedict, a proud display of perfectly runny eggs on a thick chunk of smoked ham, alongside Kate’s spinach soufflé with salmon.



We were only about 40 minutes in at this point. Despite the breakfast buffet only having 20 minutes of life left in it, the long tables were still full to the brim of fresh fruit, jugs of smoothies, mini glass jars of homemade baked beans and the smoothest, creamiest peanut butter I’ve ever sampled.

Ribbet collage3

Try as we might, and try we did, the tables just never emptied. It was like the scene from the Lost Boys’ imaginary feast in Peter Pan. But amazingly, the tables stayed immaculate. After accidentally sloshing juice all over the juice bar, I returned 20 seconds later to find the stainless steel surface sparkling and shimmering once more.

All too soon it was time for the last round of the great feast. It was a tough choice to call.

With a whole section of homemade cakes and pastries and an already bulging belly I opted for a deliciously moist chocolate croissant and a macchiato to wash it down with.


But if you’re mentally racking up all the calories in my ‘best hotel breakfast ever’ (yes Fusion Maia wins the title), fret not. Because I was booked into the ‘super slimmer’ hip and stomach massage to ‘tone up’ before lunch. See, there’s really nothing they haven’t thought of. Apart from chocolate baths that is – I’m still on the look for one of those.

Travel Tips

Fusion Maia is on the beach in Da Nang and is just 30 minutes away from the centre of Hoi An (the resort runs shuttle buses to and from town throughout the day).

The resort has one, two and three bed villas, which radiate a chic minimalist, calming ambience. All villas have pools and prices start from about $390 per night in the off-season. To enquire about booking a trip to Fusion Maia or tailor-made holidays contact me at Fleewinter.

Disclaimer: I visited this resort as part of my research as a travel consultant. My views remain my own – and this blog remains my personal account of my travels – but every now and then I will tell you about some of my the very special places that I visit as part of my work.

Paradise Peak: Luxury Cruise in Halong Bay, Vietnam

There comes a time in every man’s life when he must be showered with rose petals. For Matty, it was not when he was crammed into a shared taxi in Uzbekistan, nor when traversing across the great deserts of Central Asia. No, no; his time arrived when we boarded our luxury cruise along Halong Bay in northeast Vietnam.

Being Vietnam’s premier tourist attraction, I’m sure many of you will have heard of Halong Bay, or perhaps even visited yourself. For those that haven’t – imagine a huge bay, stretching as far as the eye can see, pierced with incredible rocky islets covered in lush green shrubbery that jut out of the clear, calm waters. I don’t think there is anywhere else like it in the world.

sun deck paradise peak luxury cruise vietnam

Despite the throngs of tourists that visit, it has maintained something of a ‘forgotten land’ feeling and once let loose to explore for yourself on a kayak you can’t help but indulge in leisurely Christopher-Columbus-inspired-daydreams.

Halong Bay vietnam

I first visited Halong Bay seven years ago with my dear friend Carly (aka Waddles for reasons best not divulged here). We were backpacking and boarded a humble little boat for an awe-inspiring couple of days. I can’t remember much about the vessel but I knew I’d never forget the beauty of the bay – specifically kayaking to a desolate beach where Carly encountered a rather painful experience with a jellyfish that left 20 backpackers debating who should urinate on her leg. There were no rose petals.

But this time it was different. This time I was returning to review different boats to decide which ones to offer for the tailor-made holidays I will soon be creating in this corner of the world.

And that was exactly why we were walking onto a boat called Paradise Peak and why we were being showered with rose petals. Stepping onto the red-carpeted gangway, the petals were scattered from a balcony above us as we were handed our tropical welcome drinks.

Grinning a bit too widely as my name was called, I was introduced to my ‘personal butler’ who showed us to our cabin and, as it transpired, would be waiting on us for the next 22 hours. She was lovely and took my enthusiastic grinning in her stride.

‘Cabin’ really does not really do it any justice. A more appropriate word might be apartment. Or home.

Paradise Peak Superior Suite, Halong Bay Vietnam

We were staying in a superior suite cabin (there are only suites on this boat I hasten to add, daaaahling), and ours consisted of a large bedroom of dark teak wood and the comfiest bed of our trip to date (complete with goose down pillows and duvet), a small dining area that opened out to a private balcony with sun loungers, and finally, a bathroom that felt just as big again. Equipped with a huge rain shower and a large bath tub it was easy to forget you were still on a boat – until you looked out of the floor-to-ceiling windows and saw the dramatic landscape of Halong Bay slowly pass you by.

Paradise Peak bathroom

Paradise Peak Halong Bay luxury cruise Vietnam

Paradise peak luxury cruise halong bay vietnam



But it wasn’t just our extremely luxurious cabin on the boat that turned this short trip at sea into the journey of the lifetime. Nor was it the exquisite lunch I was served an hour later, featuring the biggest and juiciest oysters of my young (ahem) life to date. Although I must add that I will struggle again to enjoy oysters without the delicious ‘Vietnamese salt’ dish that came with them.

Seafood lunch paradise peak halong bay

No, it was not any of that, as incredibly special as they all were. It was the staff and attention to detail that made it stand out – something no picture could capture.

As our seafood platter was placed down we were immediately offered help with our crab from our smiling waitress who instantly relieved my fears of causing a scene with the huge crab laid in front of me. A few minutes later, it was back on our table, beautifully prepared and ready to eat.


And then there was the beautifully prepared breakfast that was brought to the comforts of our cabin the next morning after an early kayak around the towering mountains of the bay.

breakfast paradise peak halong bay



The rose petals, somebody spraying our feet with water and handing us a cool, wet flannel and a glass of iced tea as we returned to the boat after every excursion, the fact the staff knew our names, the rain macs they carried on our excursions in case of a down pour. All of those little touches turned it from a beautiful floating hotel into something very special, incredibly personal and made me feel like the luckiest girl in the world.


But if there’s one thing even more beautiful than all of that, it’s Halong Bay itself. And swimming in the water and watching the rain drops bounce off the surface and fall down again.

halong bay

But it’s pretty cool to know you can go and step into your huge rain shower afterwards and tuck into a five-course asian fusion dinner. Yes, that is very cool indeed.

Travel Tips

Paradise Peak offers one and two night cruises along Halong Bay. We took the one night cruise and the itinerary included an option to see into a cave or float into a lagoon on the first day as well as 30 minutes kayaking – and a chance to try your hand at squid fishing after dinner. The next morning we were offered tai chi on the sun deck before breakfast, followed by a trip to an Oyster Farm and another 30 minutes of kayaking or swimming.

If you are interested in organising a trip through Vietnam or Cambodia, with a stay on Paradise Peak included, feel free to contact me at Fleewinter, a UK-based independent tailor made holiday company – www.fleewinter.com

Disclaimer: As a travel consultant, I receive special rates for going on trips like this. My views remain my own – and this blog remains my personal account of my travels – but every now and then I will tell you about some of my the very special places that I visit as part of my work.

Eating Dog in China

Dog. Now there’s a word that should never appear in the food section of any travel blog. Ever. It should also never be put next to words like casserole or soup. But unfortunately China breaks all the rules – and so, so will I.

Here’s the thing – I love dogs. We got our first dog when I was 10 and he looked like something out of an Andrex advert; tiny, golden and a right little scamp. He came from a little house in the country where a beautiful Golden Retriever had given birth to a litter of honey-coloured pups with oversized paws. He bounded playfully over to my brother and I, licking our hands. We didn’t choose him as such, he selected us.

We called him Hobbes. He slobbered a lot, which secretly distressed some of my friends in our teenage years when he decorated their favourite glittery jeans in his gloopy, white saliva and laddered their tights in one enthusiastic bounce. But they loved him really.

He was part of the family. He would sit by me when I was sick off school, he’d wait by the front door for my mum to come home from work every day and he’d play football/puncture footballs with my brother in the garden. He even brought home a pair of trainers in my dad’s shoe size from the woods one day. Nobody asked any questions, dad just wore them for the next two years.

It still makes me wince when I think of how he just fell to the floor one day after having an operation to remove a tumour. I walked into the house to find my parents wrapping him in a blanket, stroking his head, hours after he had stopped breathing. We mourned him for weeks. And today we still talk fondly of him, laughing at his silly old ways.

So when I got to China I was apprehensive about the dog meat situation. As a meat eater I questioned whether it was right to pick and choose between which animals you consume. Should one life be more precious than another, I asked myself.

But then I imagined eating dog and immediately felt guilty of cannibalism. Dogs are pets, one of the family. I could never eat one I concluded.

We occasionally saw it on the menu and I would shudder.


I reminded myself that my condemnation was a cultural one and tried to challenge it. After all, dog eating in China stems back to the years of the Cultural Revolution where people were starving to death during freezing winters and huge famines.

But now food is in abundance. And plenty of Chinese people have pet dogs.

I found myself desperate to understand the tradition and not judge, while at the same time wanting to scream at waiters: “How can you put this on the menu?” And make large (for a backpacker anyway) donations to dog protection charities in the country.

These thoughts circulated in my mind as I toured the country, while tasting and relishing almost every other dish on the menu. But then we did a cookery course.

It started off innocently enough. A trip to the market to buy all our ingredients… We smelt the herbs, squealed at tubs of eels and snails that had been freshly plucked from their shells in front of us and asked all sorts of questions.

“What’s that numbing spice that is in almost everything and completely anaesthetises your mouth?” Colourful pepper, we were told.

“Ooh – and those amazing thin, black mushrooms that are in almost every stir-fry,” we asked. Black ear, we were told. It’s a tree fungus don’t you know.


It was all going very well when suddenly we turned a corner and found ourselves in the meat section. Or live animal section, I should say.

Our guide-cum-food-teacher promptly left us to do “some shopping” after warning us that many people found this part of the market hard to deal with and was not for the faint hearted. There were chickens in cages and big fluffy rabbits behind bars, alongside ducks, geese and other clucking, squeaking creatures that would soon meet their end.


I was not particularly phased by that. I believe if you are a meat eater you should face up to the reality of what that means. So I kept walking. And then the live animal section became the abattoir and I had to remind myself to make peace with the choice I had made.

But then I saw the dogs. It all seemed to happen in slow motion in my mind – but in reality I think it was a less than a second.

First I saw the live dogs in cages behind the butcher and, I kid you not, for a split second I thought: “Ahh, she has her dog with her.” But before that sentence could finish in my mind, it was replaced by another – that this was no pet.

Then I saw what was hanging, gutted in front of me – undeniably the carcass of a dog. And then my eyes fell to her hands, which were viciously slamming a huge meat cleaver into the flesh on a table in front of her. A dog, I concluded.

And then my eyes fell to the ground, because I couldn’t look ahead anymore. And there, by her ankles, was a cage of cats. This time my first thought was no longer of pets.

I took a photo because I couldn’t not take one. I’m sure many of you will think that is strange, and I’m sure many of you may think that photo should certainly not be posted her here. And I did not want to upset or offend anyone so I have not copied it below, instead if you want to view my images, click here.

Why do I take any pictures when travelling? To record what I see, places I’ve been and capture a life and world that is alien to me.

And why do I keep this blog? For exactly the same reasons.

This was no different. In fact, I like to think that one day, when dog is off the menu forever, these photos will become nothing more than a little piece of historical evidence. An image of times gone by. And there is a growing movement to end dog eating in China so I like to think that hope is somewhat founded.

My first rule in travelling is to accept others’ cultures. Things are not wrong just because they may not seem right to you – and it is only when you accept these alien ways of life (even if you don’t agree with them) that you have any real hope of gaining an insight into other cultures.

But sometimes you just can’t accept them. The poverty in India, the lack of women’s rights in Afghanistan, dog eating in China. I can’t accept any of them and so I suppose I have broken my first rule.

But perhaps the second rule of travelling is to listen to your own beliefs and morals and challenge them to truly understand them. And then, if you still carry them in your heart, don’t ignore them.

So I’ve broken one rule and lived by another. Dog is off the menu for me. What do you think?

How to order a great (Chinese) meal in China

I’ve met plenty of people who have visited China and returned home a little disappointed.

They walk back into their local, order a stiff gin and tonic, and talk in dark tones about people spitting on the floor, the lack of dragons, people not abiding by society’s great leveller (the queue) and worse yet, the food not living up to expectations.

“You know China Town in Soho,” they ask. Everyone nods expectantly. “Well it’s NOTHING like that,” they reveal to the sounds of gasps of horror from around the table.

All sorts of ghastly tales then follow about eating mystery meat, strange broths and missing dogs.

Now I have been in China for less than one week but I can confirm the spitting is disgusting, the queues need working on and I’m still dragon hunting. The food, however, has been nothing short of fabulous.

I have come to the conclusion that the reason behind bad food experiences in the Middle Kingdom is purely because it is impossible to read the menu. Instead of pointing at the pretty but indistinguishable letters that say ‘Szechuan chicken’ you point at the equally pretty but unreadable letters that say ‘dog soup’. Easy mistake to make.

But I have a solution. Allow me to present the ultimate five step guide to ordering the best food in China*. Drum roll please.

Step one
Buy a ‘hard seat’ ticket for an unthinkably long train journey. We took one for the 26 hour journey between Kashgar and Turpan, which worked out just perfectly.


(The Mongoose, as pictured on the left eating a banana, was particularly impressed).

It is imperative the journey is both long, uncomfortable and full of small children and babies with no nappies on. You will be forced to get ‘close’ to those around you as the naked babies are passed around and your rubbish is thrown out of the train window by smiling strangers before you can say: “Wait no, save the world!”

Step two
Make a nice Chinese friend who can speak English. The above conditions will bring you together in a way that a posh, private ‘soft sleeper’ bed would just never do.

It is important your new friend is nice as you’ll be spending a bit of time with them from now on (see point three). We opted for a lovely girl called Jialil, who also went by the English name of Annie.


Obviously your friend does not have to be a girl, a boy would suffice, but we all know girls are more resourceful (see point four) and generally better than boys in every way so I recommend going down the female route.

Step three
Kidnap them. There are a number of methods for this but it is essential they do not feel like they are being kidnapped, perhaps let them believe you are inviting them to join you on your journey, or that you are in love with them. Whatever it takes.

Once kidnapped treat kindly.


See, we took Annie out to Gaochang old city and everything.

Step four
Now this is the big one, the whole reason you got on that filthy train carriage in the first place and kidnapped a nice Chinese woman. This is crunch time, it is time for step four: gently suggest your new friend chooses a spot for lunch and/or dinner and that they go through the menu and select the dishes for you.

We struck gold. Annie chose a grape-adorned cosy spot besides Grape Valley in Turpan. And while she ordered the food, I was fed juicy, sweet grapes. Heaven I tell you, heaven.


Step five
Eat. It is time to reap the rewards of your hard work. With any luck, your table will soon be covered in an array of lip-smacking, spicy, Chinese fare. We lucked out, in fact I will be so bold to say it was the best ‘local meal’ of the trip so far.

First up was a dish that we have come to know as Plov from our travels in Cental Asia, but goes by the name of shou zhua tan in this neck of the woods. A huge plate of fried rice with soft onions and sliced carrots tossed through it, topped with small pieces of tender lamb that fall apart in your mouth on first touch with the teeth. It works, as I’ve mentioned once or twice before.


Food shots should always be glamorous.

As we were swooning and groaning over the huge dish placed before us, with four spoons standing erect in the rice (I love being able to use that word now I no longer work for a newspaper), the second dish made its arrival.


I want to call this dish a ‘sort of black bean sauce-based green bean and chilli delight’ but that does not do it justice. Because, you see, it didn’t actually taste of black bean sauce (the kind that comes thick, sloppy and too rich in most Chinese takeaways back home) – but you just sort of knew this had black bean roots.

Let’s start at the beginning. The green beans were chunky broad beans, fried in a delicious marinade that saturated their skins in flavour and turned them wrinkly while retaining their crunch – all in the same bite. Tossed with tender slivers of beef, there was a ‘black bean’ flavour, a huge chilli sensation, a garlic kick and eventually my taste buds just sort of collapsed and stopped trying to figure out the ingredients. The Chinese call this dish jiang dou chao mou.

My chopsticks could not move fast enough. This is both a wonderful and terrible reality. Great for the digestion, not so great for the Guts in me. (Guts is an alter ego who rears her ugly head when good food is around, she creates a right scene, makes me eat like a pig and occasionally takes it to such lengths that I have to retire to bed for the evening. I fear she may have her hey day in China).

While my chopsticks were busy trying to answer to Guts’ endless demands, the next two dishes were delivered. Lamb kebabs and an egg and tomato dish. But this is lamb, tomatoes and eggs like they’ve never been seen before.

The kebabs (yang rou chuan), were heavily spiced but beautifully tender. Inevitably there was the typically Central Asian huge hunk of fat that sat on each kebab, inevitably pulled off by us and left on the side, but the rest of the meat was delicious.

And finally, the eggs and tomato: The dish I almost turned my nose up at when it was placed in front of me. “Eggs?!” I felt like crying, “I get eggs at home, take them away!” Fortunately Guts was more in control at this point so she just dug her chopsticks in and gobbled away.


I was rewarded with what was essentially a richly seasoned omelette, dripping in the sweet juices of ripe tomatoes, salt, pepper and garlic. I might have licked my chopsticks a little too keenly.

Oh sorry, I sort of forgot I was writing a five-step guide then, I got a little lost in it all. But yes, I suppose that brings me to the end of the guide. Anyway I hope it is as successful for you as it was for me (and Guts), please excuse me for the time being… I have friends to make.

*Disclaimer: Some people just like dog broth and I can take no responsibility if your new friend is unfortunately that way inclined. Bad luck. Try again.

Coffeedelia, Almaty Kazakhstan

When I was growing up I always wished I had a more ‘normal’ name – like Laura, Sarah or Emma – something that was on the plastic badges at theme park gift shops. All I wanted was a big plastic Minnie Mouse sign that said ‘Delia’s room’ like my best friend Laura had.

I would eagerly rush to the gift shop on school trips, in vain hope that something would have my name on it. As all the other kids queued up, proudly clutching their ‘David’ warrior badge or something I would buy another pencil with some museum name on it.

I remember one year my mum got a carpenter at a garden centre to solder my name on a piece of wood to stick on my door. He drew a frog next to it. And that was as good as it got.

As I got older it became less of an issue, I enjoyed not having to identify myself with a surname – Delia is almost always enough. And as a journalist it’s actually quite nice to have a name that stands out.

But imagine my surprise, when walking down one of the main roads in Almaty, Kazakhstan, to see a coffee shop with my name on it. Coffeedelia. The five year-old who never got her plastic, glittery name badge came flooding back. I almost jumped on the spot while pointing at it excitedly, crying: “That says Delia. It’s called Coffeedelia it has my name, it has my name! We must eat here, we must drink here, I need a picture of me with THAT sign,” and so on.

Even Matty tweeted about The Big News.


Decked out in fluorescent, vivid lime green and bright orange, Coffeedelia feels like the kind of place that gives you a big, huge dollop of summer with your cappuccino. I was instantly drawn to the minimalist white tables outside and the slightly orange haze to the world that the large canopy provides.


The menu, decked out as a vintage magazine, was huge and it said my name on every page.


In fact, in addition to its fab name, there are so many things that Coffeedelia gets right it’s hard to know where to start. Excuse me while I make a brief list…

1) They serve alcoholic coffees – everything from Irish coffees to orange infused brandy coffees with a cheeky Baileys number in between.

2) Their selection of cold coffees is almost as extensive as their hot coffees and their tea list is simply ginormous.

3) They sell tea with vanilla syrup in it and whipped cream on top. Why not, I hear you cry.

4) They serve thin crust pizzas including one with spinach, mushroom and pesto on it. All coffee shops should sell this.

5) All pizzas are served with a bottle of Tabasco sauce on the side. Nothing short of genius.

6) They have a mouth-watering selection of cakes, eclairs, maceroons and ice creams.



7) Their toilets are beautiful, I hung around in there for a while. This is not weird. I’ve been travelling Central Asia for three months. I have not seen a nice toilet in three months. Coffeedelia has the best toilet in Central Asia. Fact.

8) It’s all so photogenic, so I got to eat, drink and take pictures. All my favourite things. Here’s some of my Instagram shots:


So after leafing through the menu for some time, it was decision time. Being early in the morning (well 10am) I opted for a Cappucino and the scrambled eggs breakfast.

We ventured inside to make our order. It operates an order-at-the-till-but-have-your-food-brought-to-you-by-a-waitress system. With dozens of staff around we ordered quickly and the drinks were so speedy that by the time I’d absorbed the funky interior and taken a few shots, they were already waiting for us.




The cappuccinos were spot on. The perfect blend of milk, froth and espresso, the medium sized drink (that felt more like a large) transformed the morning from a sluggish to a spritely one, in one steamyl sip. It was strong but not bitter. Just how The Mongoose likes his men.



Next up was the breakfast. I was tempted by the porridge with fruits that was only 500 Tenge (about £2) but somewhat craving the comforts of home, I ordered the scrambled eggs as it came with bacon, sausage, toast and fried tomatoes. Yes, I was getting a Central Asian fried breakfast. Matty opted for fried eggs but The Mongoose failed to even get out of bed so he was destined to a breakfast of fried dough on a bus later that morning.



I am sure three or four eggs must have been used in the production of my breakfast. Fluffy and scrambled, the eggs reached far and wide on my plate. With a generous smattering of pepper (from me) they were the perfect accompaniment to the salty, streaky bacon and juicy tomatoes.

The sausage was a frankfurter and while I had obviously been craving a coarse, Lincolnshire number (that just don’t exist on this side of the world), it was actually surprisingly good.

In fact the only disappointment was that I didn’t have room for dessert – I know, shame on me. But we did return for pizza and iced coffees (a wicked combination) the next day so all was not lost.

As we made our exit from our funky surroundings, to proceed with our self-guided walking tour of Almaty, I paused to thank Andrei, the owner.

“Why did you call it Coffeedelia?” I asked him.

“Because it’s like psychedelia,” he said glancing around at the deliciously psychedelic exterior.

Of course. Psychedelia. Now that’s something I really need to get on a badge.

Fact file

The verdict: Coffeedelia might just be the best coffee shop and cafe in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

The price: Almaty is an expensive city compared to elsewhere in Central Asia – but Coffeedelia is reasonable. We paid the same price for pizza here (160 tenge/£7) as we did at a street stall. Two breakfasts and two cappuccinos costs about 3,500 tenge (£14).

The directions: We caught the number nine electric bus to right outside its door on Kabanbay Batyr (just beyond the junction with Furmanov Street.) Check it out.

PS: Oh, and make sure you order the Dr Fredo Classic iced coffee… Vanilla syrup, cream and crushed ice, it is nothing short of divine.

Cyclone restaurant, Bishkek Kyrgyzstan: How to bribe your friends into buying you a Champagne dinner

I had been warned about bribery and corruption before coming to Central Asia. Travellers along the Silk Road regaled horror stories of being pulled over by police and being forced to pay $100 before they could get away.

But I just never thought I was the sort of person to be dragged into that sort of business. Until I saw my prize, that was, glimmering and shining before my eyes, and I suddenly knew I would go to any lengths to get it.

You see, in true Hansel and Gretel style, I’ve sort of always left a trail behind me… of snotty tissues. They just seem to fall from my pockets, run out of my hands, jump from my lap. It’s not really my fault – just a combination of hayfever/allergies and some runaway tissues.

But The Mongoose and Matty took a dislike to my ingenious methods to ensure we never got lost.

“We’re in a bloody train carriage, we’re not going to get lost,” they would scream, pointing at my lovely white, soft, scrunched paper that was lying on one of their beds.

Eventually I gave in.

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll stop leaving snotty tissues around if you pay me.”

They looked up in surprise. They hadn’t expected that.

“Pay you?” Said The Mongoose with one eyebrow raised.

“Errrm yes,” I confirmed. “I will also accept a champagne dinner.”

They quietly nodded to each other.
“Fine, if you don’t drop a single tissue for two months we’ll treat you to a champagne dinner,” said Matty.

We shook hands. The deal was done. The bribery had been committed. When in Rome and all that… Actually, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure who was being bribed and who was the briber but either way I had a prize to claim.

I upped my game a few weeks later and demanded small fortnightly prizes for my efforts. This largely came in the form of chocolate, which was most satisfactory (I can heartily recommend Alpine Gold if you find yourself engulfed in some kind of chocolate bribery on this side of the world.)

And so as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months I became scrupulous about tissues. I even binned other people’s tissues in case they were accused of being mine. I was the mad woman walking down the street in Samarkand picking up dirty tissues from the floor.

But the more Central Asian food we ate the more determined I became to succeed – to get my posh meal out and pretend for one night only that I was not really a dirty backpacker. I could almost taste the Champagne.

As the night drew closer Matty and the Mongoose starting researching the best kebab holes in Bishkek, Kyrgzstan, claiming they had secretly found six tissues over the months so I would be taken to the sixth best kebab joint in town.

“They’re joking, they’re joking,” I told myself. But I became less and less sure each passing day.

Until finally the night arrived. I got all “dressed up” (aka wearing a boob tube with my everyday travelling skirt and battered Havianas), and was pleased to find the boys both wearing shirts they would not want to get kebab juice down. It boded well.

And so it was that we strutted out of the guesthouse (after queuing to use the loo) with the air of three people who were about to embark on an odyssey of good food.

The boys were still making mutterings about shashlyk kebabs as we made our first stop for the evening: Coffee Shop in Bishkek. And while there was coffee on the menu, the name is somewhat misleading. The place resembled more of a swanky bar with spirit-laden shelves on the back wall, shiny glass-topped tables and swallow-me-now leather booths to slide into.

And, to my amazement, there was GIN on the menu. Coffee shops around the globe – please take note, gin should always be an option alongside your Cappuccinos and Lattes. Hell, if you can have whiskey in your coffee you should definitely be allowed a gin chaser. Or two.

It had been almost three months since my last gin. That’s like 90-something gin free days. Not a sip. Not an iota. Not even as much as a sniff of a gin soaked slice of lemon.

“Gin?! Gin?!” I cried, stabbing the menu with my forefinger.

“They have Beefeater gin. For less than £1. And it’s a double measure.” The words just sort of flew out of me while the waiter looked on in amusement. Matty raised his eyebrows to the waiter and whirled his finger around his temple (doing his new favourite ‘she’s crazy’ imitation that unfortunately appears to cross all language barriers.)

The Gin arrived. It was served in tumblers, with a pot of ice and a bottle of tonic on the side so we could make the perfect mix (about 50:50).


As I held the ice cold glass to my nose and allowed the herby scent of the spirit to fill my airways I announced that kebab would be fine for dinner, I needed no further reward.


But a couple of gins later I found myself (somewhat reluctantly) being dragged off for dinner. We wandered down Chuy (the main street of Bishkek) and came to a stop outside an Italian restaurant called Cyclone with posh looking beige canopies hanging down over the alfresco seating area.

“Oooh, is this us?” I asked, taking in the polished wooden tables, leather-bound menus and heavy linen napkins. For a moment I felt like I was back home, reviewing a restaurant that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford for my local paper.

We were shown to our seats and while I perused the extensive menu of pizza, pasta and meat dishes, a glass of sparkling wine was poured to my right.


The boys glasses were filled too and as the three of us raised our bubbling flutes to the warm evening sky we toasted the demise of snotty tissues.

The menu was excellent with great variety and in the end we agreed to share a bruschetta and carpaccio to start, followed by Penne alla Matriciana for The Mongoose and I, while Matty chose the spinach and chicken fettuccine.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get much better, a bottle of Chianti was ordered. I hasten to add we have not had decent European wine since leaving Paris on day one of the trip.

The food shortly followed and our Western-Food-Deprived stomachs almost doubled over in pleasure at the sight of the starters alone.

(Bit of both on my plate).

Served on crusty triangles of toasted bread, the bruschetta’s tangy, peppery tomato topping caused my tongue to quiver in delight. That happens to everybody else too, right?!

Meanwhile, the Carpaccio was dressed in a lime infused, slightly sweet dressing on a bed of crunchy lettuce and topped with huge swathes of mature Parmesan shavings. The raw meat absorbed the flavours around it, and almost melted in the mouth on the first bite. I might have spooned up the juices left on the plate once the meat had disappeared. Terrible behaviour.

The mains did not let the side down. I normally steer clear of creamy dishes in Italian restaurants but Matty’s chicken and spinach dish proved me wrong. Rich and peppered with garlic, the sauce was thick and flavoursome – almost as if it had been minced with mushrooms before being tossed together with the fettuccine.

The Mongoose and I were just as pleased with our own penne pasta, which was peppered with good quality thick bacon slices (no fat), chunks of onion and a healthy smattering of Parmesan. The thick, rich tomato sauce clung to the al dente pasta rather than drenching it. Naturally we had asked for extra chilli and the chef had generously obliged, leaving us with chilli-induced running noses.


As I blew my nose heavily, I gave a satisfied sigh to my empty plate before screwing up my tissue and absentmindedly placing it on the table.

The boys looked down at it, frowning.

“I’ll stop if you buy me a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon,” I offered.

Watch this space folks. Ahem.

How to Ruin a Good Cuppa Tea

Now I don’t want to alarm you but I have some disturbing news. Maybe take a seat, pour yourself a stiff drink and take some deep breaths.

The picture above is of a cup of tea.

I know, I know, I can already hear you screaming: “What? How? What pollution is this before my eyes? What sadist is responsible for such a creation? How was this allowed to happen? WTF?”

Just keep breathing, it’s not going to get any easier I’m afraid.

Allow me to set the scene. We are travelling along the Wakhan Valley of Tajikistan, a beautiful and remote area of huge, towering mountains and glistening lakes, and the previous night, after some arduous trekking, we had eaten a strange meal of frankfurters, spaghetti, garlic and onions.

Now it is the morning and in the same hotel we are served rice pudding for breakfast (which makes for a surprisingly good start to the day) alongside the regular green tea. Tea here comes green or black, but never with milk. The green tea is fabulous and we have been known to drink pots of it, one after the other, like it’s Stella or something.

But then suddenly out of nowhere, our driver Deesh was poured a cup of what looked like English breakfast tea with milk. I stared in fascination, instantly craving the Saturday Guardian, and a bacon butty to go with it.

But then he did something I will never forgive him for. Never.

He added spoonfuls of yak butter. And salt.

He put yak butter and salt in his tea. And then he stirred it.

And then he drank it.


This is the said madman.

Somewhat unconsciously, I let out a small cry of horror and started shaking my head furiously. I think I murmured: “No, no, no, no, no,” repetitively as I searched his face for some explanation, some reason, for his absurd behaviour.

But instead of any justification, I just heard laughter from the local women around me, who were also stirring their buttery tea.

And just when I was at my most vulnerable, trying to take it all in, I was unknowingly poured a cup of the filth myself. Butter and salt were added before I had time to say: “Milk, no sugar please,” and the bread was pushed my way.

I looked to Deesh, in disgust, for some guidance. He ripped off some bread and dunked it in his tea – all nonchalant as if it was a bloody Rich Tea or something.

I bravely tore a piece off myself, muttering oaths to Yorkshire Tea under my breath, and dunked.


I brought the sloppy bread to my mouth and bit down.


The warm, wet bread dissolved too easily in my mouth, overloading my tastebuds with a greasy tea flavour that tasted neither of tea nor butter.


Note: This is not the tastebud equivalent of drinking a cup of tea with a slice of buttered toast.


It tastes more like bread that has been slobbered on by a dog before being drizzled in dripping.


But I knew, to really know what this “local delicacy” was all about, I would have to drink it in its pure, defiled form straight from the porcelain cup.




And quite frankly, it was alarming.


It was downright dirty.


It horrified me to my core.


The subtle flavours of tea were washed out by a greasy, buttery sensation that stuck to my teeth and the roof of my mouth like glue.


So I should have just brushed my teeth and left it at that. But I wanted to ruin your day too.

(PS Picture credits go to the Mongoose who took great pleasure in documenting the ghastly affair).

Food and Drink in Central Asia

I’ve delayed writing this post for some weeks… in the hope that things would improve.

As previously mentioned on here, I have been known to travel places purely based on their cuisine – namely India and Thailand – which saw me leave south east asia a stone heavier after three months of scoffing my way across the region.

But there is no chance of that happening here. Well actually that’s a lie, I’m approaching 30, there’s every chance I will put on a stone – but I just won’t have had quite as much fun doing it this time round.

The truth of the matter is Central Asian food just isn’t that great. It’s full of dead-animal-flavoured-meat and huge chunks of fat that appear in all manner of substances. And it pains me to write this because I wanted to love the food here – I wanted this trip to be another worldwide eating odyssey.

Take this short story, for example:

We were staying at a beautiful family homestay in the Nurata mountains, Uzbekistan. The place was a delight, we spent our mornings ambling across the surrounding mountains and our afternoons drinking tea on a tepchan sitting over a gurgling stream and playing with the lambs that roamed the gardens.



And then suddenly one evening, as the sun was sinking in the sky, we heard the desperate, dying bleats of a sheep, quickly followed by one of the girls carrying its head by its ears down to the stream where we were sitting, leaving a trail of blood and guts as she walked. She meticulously pulled all the brains out, washing them thoroughly in the running water before returning to the house with the sheep’s skull tucked under her left arm, and carrying the brains in a bowl.

That night much ceremony was made over dinner. Following the usual meat broth of potatoes, carrots and mutton, we were told to wait for a ‘special’ dish that was still being prepared. There was a wedding at the house the next day and this dish seemed to create quite a buzz among the family, as if it marked the beginning of celebrations.

About two hours later, after we were quite full and almost ready for bed ourselves, it finally made its appearance. A huge plate of what looked like spaghetti bolognaise was placed in front of us, and while trying to erase the sound of the sheep’s dying bleat from my ears and quickly checking the lamb I’d been playing with was still alive, I politely tucked in.

It tasted of dead animals. The strong stench of cooked flesh reached my nostrils before the fork got anywhere near my mouth. I stopped breathing through my nose and bravely gulped it down. Grainy pieces of unidentifiable meat ground in my teeth before I had the sense to swallow without chewing. I tried to eat some of the wet, limp pasta instead but that too had absorbed the taste of death, like a Chameleon that had spent too long in a graveyard.

The Mongoose took one for the team and ate more than the rest of us could bring ourselves to look at. For this dish, beshbarmak, is a real honour and it would have been a disgrace to leave it untouched. It took us all a few days to eat meat without recounting the horrors of that night.
This is, of course, an extreme. Not every dish has been quite so bad. Some have even been good.

So, in case you are planning a trip to this neck of the woods and are wondering what is in store for you, or are just curious and want to feel smug about your dinner of bangers and mash tonight, here is my comprehensive guide to Central Asian food and drink:


The staple food here is kebab. And I have to say that most kebabs have been very, very good. Matty has even compared them to that of Victoria Kebabs on Mansfield Road, Nottingham, where he would end most nights back home in a sweaty-meat-infused state with chilli sauce dribbling down his chin. High praise indeed.


First up are the shashlyk kebabs – minced meat moulded on sticks almost like skinny hamburgers. They are peppered with onions and spices, often juicy, rich in flavour and – in my opinion – the safest bet when it comes to kebabs.


I think having my hair tucked into my sunglasses really offsets the meat in this snap.

And then there are the shisha kebabs – chargrilled chunks of succulent meat, served hot off the barbecue (word of warning – these often come layered with chunks of fat between the pieces of meat.)


(And in other news Matty has a beard!)

And finally there are the donar kebabs (shudder). But actually even these filthy-abnormal looking lumps of meat, that turn vertically before hot grills, are good here. I know, I never thought I’d say it.

So in short, if you like kebabs, this is the region for you. The kebabs here are great and cheap, you can easily ‘dine out’ on kebabs, salad and bread for about £1.50.

Big in Turkmenistan, these pastry parcels of minced meat and fried onions are surprisingly tasty. Almost like a superior Cornish Pasty, the pastry is thin and crispy and the filling is rich in flavour. Wash down four or five of these with a couple of bottles of the local brew and dinner’s sorted.

Like giant pasta parcels of minced meat and onions, these vary from the very, very bad to the very, very good. In Georgia they go by the name of Khinkali – the dumpling is light, oozing with rich juices and good meat. In Turkmenistan we found the dumplings were thick and rubbery and the meat was littered with small pieces of bone and fat. It’s a gamble… And one I can’t always be bothered to take.

The national dish of Uzbekistan is a tasty, if not heart-stopping, combination of deep fried rice and meat that on reflection, could easily be responsible for putting on an extra stone on this trip. It varies from region to region, but tends to include rice, carrots and either lamb or beef.


When we saw it being made, the meat and carrots were deep fried in a huge vat of oil. The rice was boiled separately before being added to the meat pan to soak up the oil. The dish will leave the plate ringed in a rich, orange oil and is not for the calorie counter, but it is bloody good and surprisingly moreish.

This dish of minced meat stuffed in peppers is a firm favourite for me. Often piled into skinny green peppers, the meat is similar to that found in the Samsa but it’s nice to have a vegetable accompaniment for a change.

Fruits and Salads
If you are a vegetarian – be warned, meat comes with everything. Lumps of beef have been found swimming in my mushroom soup and even my puréed lentil soup, nothing is safe.

Most soups look like this.

On the other hand Central Asia is blessed with an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables so if you’re happy to head to the bazaar and put together your own lunch or dinner, you’ll be spoilt for choice. The tomatoes are giant and juicy, the cucumbers fresh and crunchy and the melons are so good it would be wrong to not get a daily fix. The apricots and plums are often so succulent you feel like you need to eat them over a sink or a bowl.


Breakfast… Tajik bazaar style.

Salads of tomatoes and cucumbers often accompany many of the dishes I’ve mentioned here – oh, and most things are also scattered with a generous sprinkling of dill, for better or worse.



Street side snacks of deep fried meat or potato pies, or even just deep fried bread are readily available but often disappointing, lacking in much flavour other than that of the old oil they have been cooked in.

Alternatively you can pick yourself up some ‘dried yoghurt balls’, which taste like an unsuccessful experiment of leaving a pint of milk out over the summer months. For a more vivid, and horrifying, description of this delicacy please see Matty’s blog post here.


Expect lots of individually wrapped sweets to be served with tea at all times. Disturbingly, some say ‘Shrimp’ on them but fret not, they are not remotely fishy tasting.


However, the snack to satisfy all of the greatest snacking desires, will surely be that of the fresh bread and biscuits that are readily available across the region. Both justified previous entries in their own right, so click on the links for more details.

Drink in Central Asia
Whether you’re after a can of Coke, a bottle of beer, or a slug of vodka you will never have far to look. If it’s a Diet Coke or water that you fancy, you may have to search a little harder.

Entire fridges of Coca Cola, Fanta and Sprite are testament to the wide, gold-toothed grins of Central Asia, while apparently anything with the word ‘diet’ in its title seems to be unmarketable here. I am trying to come to terms with my Diet Coke addiction as I type.

As for alcohol in Central Asia, it is surprisingly plentiful. Despite the large Muslim population, vodka is drunk like water and beer consumed with a robust, healthy attitude. Wine on the other hand should be avoided. After a determined effort to get to know Uzbek wine, I can only urge you to stay away.

The beer is often weak (between 3% – 4%) but after much experimentation, this Uzbek bottle gets the prize for the Best Beer in Central Asia. A picture that the Mongoose has carried around on his phone for the last three weeks, flashing it to every waiter that passes our table.


I feel the need to add a slight disclaimer, in that this has been written after spending about six weeks in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. I still have Kyrgzstan and Kazakhstan to see – and much more of Tajikistan yet. So perhaps I will discover a culinary delight that will leave my mouth watering and enthusing simultaneously. And trust me, you will be the first to know about it if so.

But in the meantime, I would like to conclude that Central Asian food, while not all bad, is definitely not worth putting on a stone for.

World in Pictures: Uzbekistan – Amazing Tiles and Yum Bread

When I mentioned I was in Uzbekistan to my friend Treebeard (her name is another story but for now I’ll allow you to believe she looks like a tree and has a beard), I got an excitable message in reply: ‘UZBEKISTAN!!! Enjoy the amazing tiles and more yum bread…”

Treebeard is the only other person I know who has visited this delightful little country, nestled between Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In fact it is one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world. But that’s enough of the facts, back to amazing tiles and yum bread.

At the time when I received this message I had not been in the country long and had spent much of that time largely been confined to the desert, hunting out a shrinking sea (that obviously does not connect to an ocean) and frankly had no idea what she was talking about. And then I left the desert and wow, the abundance of delicous hot, crusty, melt-in-your-mouth bread hit me like a sack of… bread.

And the turquoise and blue tiles that decorate the mosques, minarets and medrassas across the evocative cities of Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara, caught me unaware like a magpie starved of diamonds. I should probably be telling you some fascinating tales of the impressive history of these cities, that are at the very heart of our Silk Road journey, but I think the pictures may just do it better.

So here’s to the amazing tiles, yum bread and much more of Uzbekistan…




















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