Thursday, May 26, 2011

Vietnam: Remnants From A Stricken Land

I got up early and then went back to bed again, and then eventually got up and caught a taxi to the War Remnants Museum to see the sort of conditions Ngo Van Toai was held in. Well, about a mile short of there. I got fed up sitting in traffic, so I walked the rest of the way with my T-shirt stuck to my back in the midday smog.

I got lost, and then there was a cloudburst so I scurried for shelter under the porch of a posh-looking hotel. I asked a porter for directions, and was looking at my scrunched-up map when a loud, irritating Aussie, dressed in the international sex tourist kit of shorts, vest, and money belt, butted in.

He was looking for the museum too. I tried to get rid of him, and sat on a step as the deluge continued, hoping he’d wander off. But he continued to strike up conversation.

“I was only going to the museum to shelter from the rain,” he said looking up at the sky. “What else can you do on a day like today?”

He was soon eyeing one of the club signs. “Karaoke AND massage bar,” he leered. “Wonder what happens in there...”

“Maybe you get a singing masseur?” I shrugged.

Thankfully, a receptionist with good English appeared and asked me where I wanted to go.

“I think that’s a polite way of asking us to move on,” said the Aussie.

Us? He’d definitely said “us”.

I told him that I’d head down to the museum later, and pretended to walk round the corner, and watched as he slouched off in the bucketing rain. I left it for 30 minutes, worried I’d bump into him in one of the torture exhibits.

The first thing you see when you go into the War Remnants Museum (it used to be called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes until officials finally got fed up with the complaint letters) are a collection of US helicopters, tanks and planes.

They’d polished them up so much, they gleamed like muscled beasts of the apocalypse. Round the side, past the bins, was the rusty North Vietnamese stuff – two tins connected by a piece of string, and a World War One starting pistol.

A Dutch couple walked past me, smoking small cigars. “Oh lovely,” the woman said, pointing at an A-1 Skyraider (below) that had been used to drop napalm and phosphorus bombs on starving villagers.

I’d read a lot about the museum’s propaganda, but I was still surprised how blatant it was. One of the exhibit rooms was called “Historic Truths”. There wasn’t even an attempt to get any balance in there, but I suppose history is written by the victors. When you compare it with the hundreds of war films America’s Hollywood PR agency has pumped out, and the US still calling the war to this day “the Vietnam War” despite the fact that it engulfed all three countries – Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam – that had formed French Indochina, it’s a drop in the ocean.

An all-enveloping, digital smog of an ocean that will no doubt leave Americans in 100 years thinking they single-handedly saved the world from speaking German, defeated terror, and helped Mel Gibson kick the English out of Scotland.

There was no mention of the atrocities carried out by the North Vietnamese Army, or the way it had backed the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of up to two million people, or its invasion of Cambodia – an invasion that much of the world saw as a greater evil than the Pol Pot regime it overthrew.

In every fact box and poster, Vietnam was portrayed as a victim of America’s Goliath might. There were statistics of the number of aircraft and tanks the Americans had given to the “Saigon Puppet Government”, together with the money the US had spent on the war compared with World War Two and the 1950-53 Korean War, but no mention of North Vietnam’s capabilities or the Soviet billions.

A large area was devoted to the tortures inflicted in Con Dao Prison on Phu Quoc island. I thought about Toai and what he would have endured in his years there. Burning in the relentless sun, day after day in a tiger cage.

It was shocking and extremely depressing to read the victims' stories, and I left the place feeling strangely guilty that I had never been through similarly grotesque experiences. I’d never suffered true hunger, or seen my loved ones shot in front of me, let alone been guillotined, or had live snakes shoved down my trousers.

I felt dreadfully inadequate, and as I say, extremely lucky to be living in an age when I was far more likely to be bitten to death by a shark than forced to sit under a drip with my scalp shaved, so that every drop of water soon felt like a hammer blow.

There was waterboarding too. Seeing it being used alongside seemingly far more mediaeval interrogation methods obviously shows how effective it is at freaking people out, and why it is such a favourite at Guantanamo. And it makes it even more bizarre to read how some politicians still insist it shouldn’t be classed as “torture”. I don’t know where they stand on the use of live snakes.

There were brutal methods going on elsewhere in Vietnam, particularly with the US military’s use of jungle-clearing Agent Orange. It was terrible to see photos of the mutations the toxic herbicide caused, particularly of infants and young children, and there were plenty of pictures of them. You couldn’t help wonder at the crazed minds that decided on that appalling campaign, deforesting huge areas of Vietnam, eastern Laos, and parts of Cambodia just to flush out the Viet Cong they couldn't find.

On the way out, victims of Agent Orange - Vietnam claims up to one million of its people have died or been left with serious birth defects from its use - were singing to raise money for their charity.

I left, bloated with sound bites from defected US pilots, draft-burning students, and world figures critical of Washington’s obsession with controlling tin and tungsten resources in Indochina to underpin the manufacturing growth it so craved.

Anyway as I say, it got me thinking about the USA’s napalming and bombing, and widespread use of chemical herbicides, and then I realised how hungry I was and stopped at a KFC on the way back.

My Zinger meal was extremely dry. The burger had obviously been sitting there for a while, so I went back to the counter and ordered two pieces of hot and spicy chicken because they hadn’t bothered to cook any of the original variety (no-one seems to buy it in Vietnam). It came with proper cutlery - I couldn't see them dishing those out at KFCs in Brixton.

I glanced at my plate. It said “finger licking’ good”. Not when the chicken is properly eaten with a knife and fork, I thought, and then went back to thinking about the atrocities of American imperialism again.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Cafe That Changed The Vietnam War

It’s hard to imagine a restaurant the size of Pho Binh was used to house 160 people, let alone launch an attack on American-led forces only 100 yards from the US military police barracks in Saigon. But that was the pivotal role played by the bustling eatery during the Tet Offensive in 1968, a turning point in the decade-long conflict.

The fact that the non-descript cafe is not easy to find only adds to its character. I must have asked ten people for directions, only to discover I had passed the place several times. All that differentiates it from the hundreds of other noodle joints in the former heart of Saigon is a couple of plaques that have seen better days.

It’s still a popular spot for tourists visiting Ho Chi Minh City, and the story is kept alive by the cleaner, who is only too delighted to tell tales of his comrades’ bravery during the Vietnam War, especially that of its owner, Ngo Van Toai (below).

Toai had bought the three-storey house – 7 Yen Do Street – in 1966, and with money from Viet Cong coffers turned it into an undercover command post to co-ordinate attacks deep within American-controlled territory. He lived a double life, smiling at the diplomats and US soldiers he cooked for every day at Pho Binh (it means “peace soup”) while City Rangers from the communist north planned deadly assaults against them in a room upstairs.

A month before the 1968 spring offensive, he was told to start secretly bulk-buying rice, wheat and other foods – enough to feed 200 people a month. On the first day of the Lunar New Year, commanders gathered and encouraged the guerrillas on their certain-death mission.

The co-ordinated strikes, including one on the US Embassy in Saigon, failed tactically, but they proved a great political coup for the north. Pictures of the Tet Offensive and aftermath were beamed into sitting rooms across the world, fuelling the peace movement’s arguments that the Americans could never win the war.

The noodle shop was raided, and Toai was arrested and tortured for 20 days but he did not “open his mouth even half a word”, the cleaner said. He was sentenced to life in the notorious Con Dao prison on Phu Quoc island, and released when the war ended in 1975. He died a few years later from ill health.

“I was not afraid of death,” the old soldier explained in an interview after his release. “I had offered my home to the revolution. I cared nothing for myself. I was willing to sacrifice.”

As I sat down, where US soldiers had slurped noodles four decades before, the cleaner handed me two books. One was filled with photos and press clippings of Toai and his noodle shop, and the other was a visitors’ book, littered with observations that very little had changed in the last 40 years, and America was still involved in foreign conflicts far from its shores, this time in the name of crushing terrorism rather than communism.

The restaurant only offers two dishes – beef noodle soup or chicken noodle soup - just as it did for all those years when American forces ate there, not knowing they were just a few feet from the enemy. The cleaner pointed to the 62-year-old man making my noodles, and said he was Toai’s son. I could see the facial resemblance, and the pride in his eyes, but there was sadness too, and not just the sadness of a man who clearly has a lot to live up to.

He was cutting up meat on a wooden board. Near him were large joints of beef, covered in yellow fat that looked like melted candle wax. It was the same recipe and board his father used during the war. The cleaner prepared my chicken noodle soup, adding hoisin sauce, chilli, and lime juice, and scattering thorny coriander and basil leaves, before mixing it all carefully with chopsticks. A wide-eyed American tourist walked in and sat down behind me.

“Chicken or beef?” the cleaner asked.

I passed her the two books, and warned her about the anti-US language in one of them. She had that same slightly embarrassed look that many American travellers seem to share today when the subject of US foreign policy comes up.

When I’d finished my meal, the cleaner showed me upstairs. There was an airy kitchen out the back with steps leading up to what he called the “classroom”. It was a shrine to the Viet Cong guerrillas who had launched the attacks.

One photo showed the inner circle sitting around a small table, sipping tea and planning their bloodshed. The table was still there – despite long pleas from the communist government for it to be housed in the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.

The cleaner said he often takes pictures of tourists pretending to drink tea from the table, some of them American veterans who fought in the war, and want to make peace with their past.

In the far corner were mug shots of two women and two men, who had carried bombs into buildings and blown themselves up for the cause. He called them “heroes”. In front of a cabinet containing war medals, stood a photo of Toai in his military uniform.

“Police come many times, but they hide photo behind Buddha picture on wall, and they no look there,” he chuckled.

He showed me the narrow alley at the back of the building – so narrow the police never bothered looking there. It offered the only escape route out of the restaurant – a 30ft drop.

The rest of the three-floored building had served as sleeping rooms, but it was difficult to see how 160 people could have crammed in, even sleeping nose to foot.

As I sat there at the table, and wondered at the fear they must have felt knowing the horrific tortures that awaited them should they be caught, I imagined Toai downstairs boiling beef for his pho bo. It was ironic that Vietnam’s unofficial national dish, a meal created in the communist north, had played such a part in America’s humiliating retreat from South Vietnam.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Drinking Daiquiris If You’re Allergic To Rum

Anyone who regularly reads this blog (hi Mum) will know I’ve got a bit of a thing about smoothies. I go through stages, but out here in Saigon I’ve been having a smoothie for breakfast most afternoons.

Vitamin C is vitally important in the tropics. I was told that by an American I met in a bar who claims to have been a Navy Seal during the Vietnam War. He’s been living in SE Asia for the past 40 years, and helps run a charity clearing land mines now. Anyway, as we drank a few beers he kept devouring lime quarters, and was horrified when I told him I hardly ate fruit.

“You gotta eat fruit buddy. You ain’t got a rat’s chance out here without the fucking fruit, man” he said. “It’s the vitamin C - you’re body can’t store it. You need to keep stocking the shit up.”

He was an ex-forces agent who wades through jungle swamps with king cobra serum in a holster on one leg, and viper serum on the other, and has “fired every Goddamn weapon on this earth”, so I wasn’t going to argue with his knowledge of vitamins, or anything else for that matter. He told me fruit was the only way to prevent getting serious stomach problems and other infections in Asia, and that lime juice and fresh coconut juice were the best.

His basis for the healing powers of the latter seemed to be based on the fact he can’t drink rum without it. He said he’d always been badly allergic to rum, but a Thai business client persuaded him to drink it with fresh coconut milk one hot afternoon, and he was able to down six daiquiris.

Ever since that conversation, I’ve been squeezing lime juice into my beer, and eating those bitter little oranges, and starting the day with what I am now convinced is the best smoothie in the world – mango and passion fruit. I was put on to it by a woman who runs a fruit stall (video above) at the end of the narrow alley that leads into the muggy catacomb where my hotel is regularly hidden.

There’s something nice about sitting on a plastic chair in the gutter, watching the world go by as you wait for your smoothie to be made. It brought back memories of Cartagena in Colombia. There are dozens of jugo sellers near the harbour, and it’s quite an event to sit at a bar and pick your fruit from big glass jars and see them whizzed into delicious shakes.

My favourite was always banana con leche, and it was so thick I didn’t need much else to eat for the rest of the day. There was always an old ship hand, dressed in rags, hanging round the stands, hustling tourists. “Banana, or...marijuana?” he’d whisper.

They make them the same way in Vietnam – blitzing fruit with ice, sugar and condensed or evaporated milk (just substitute strong coffee for fruit to make Vietnam’s famous iced coffee drink, ca phe da). But if you’re going for the passion fruit and mango you don’t need the milk and sugar – they’re creamy and sweet enough already.

To make it, peel a sweet mango by shaving the skin off away from you with a sharp knife. Then sit the fruit, so the widest part is in your palm, and make cuts downwards, then run the blade tight against the stone to remove the flesh. Cut two passion fruit in half, and using a spoon, scrape out the pips and juice. Put the fruit in the blender with crushed ice, and blitz for at least one minute to make sure it is properly smooth, then wander round hot, steamy streets and drink it through a straw. It’s the best thirst-quencher in the world after green Saigon poured over lumps of ice.

For More: Raw food smoothies
and live frog smoothies

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pho Bo: The Difficulties Of A National Dish

A tour of Ho Chi Minh City’s vibrant restaurant scene would not be complete without sampling Vietnam’s unofficial national dish, beef noodle soup (pho bo). And what better place to try it than Saigon’s arguably most famous beef noodle joint, Pho 2000, where Bill Clinton slurped noodles 11 years ago when he became the first US President to visit the country since the end of the Vietnam War.

I’d heard a lot about the place, and wanted to see how its food compared with the other beef noodle shops I’d eaten in – from street stalls in steamy, drain-scourged alleyways to characterless, air-conditioned outlets with brightly-coloured branding and laminate menus.

The restaurant – which bizarrely Lonely Planet readers rank as the TOP visitor attraction in Saigon, and the 27th in the whole of Asia – overlooks Ben Thanh Market, a sweaty cavern of fake good stalls not far from where North Vietnamese tanks arrived 36 years ago to spell a humiliating defeat of US forces.

Its refreshingly short menu (I’ve never liked the Asian custom of offering huge tomes with pages of dishes – it’s an almost apologetic attitude that seems to say: “Hopefully you’ll like one of our meals...”) is pretty much just beef stew noodles (pho bo sot vang), shrimp spring rolls (cha gio tom), chicken curry with bread (ca ry ga), and beef ragout with rice (com ragu bo), but I was there for the beef noodle soup.

The meal came with breath-taking speed, and that was another part of the canteen feel. The kitchen had been ripped out and replaced with US security money for Clinton’s visit, and the owners had obviously decided to keep up the hygiene standards, because even though the Soviet-style white and beige walls and fittings needed a good revamp, the place sparkled. Even the spoons were wrapped in plastic.

It continues to be a favourite with visiting dignitaries and Vietnamese leaders, and has long cashed in on its Clinton credentials. “Pho For The President” the restaurant frontage boasts. It’s a strange advert given the devastation caused by America’s offensive in Indochina, and the strong, anti-US propaganda pumped out in the nearby War Remnants Museum (once named the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes).

But what is far stranger is why a restaurant that regularly finds itself in such high company, and was presumably picked out for Clinton to showcase Vietnam’s gastronomic excellence and noodle-fused national identity, is so spectacularly average. I mean the US president wouldn’t just take visiting foreign leaders down to his local burger joint would he - even if he wanted to spin an all-American, man-of-the-people image.

The beef stock was so insipid, it reminded me of the tins of cheap consommé my granddad used to buy when I was a kid. Traditionally, the stock should be boiled down marrow bones with scorched onions and ginger, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, fish sauce and yellow rock sugar. But clearly no-one bothers. It tasted like water from the hot tap that had had a Tesco beef cube dunked into it for a few seconds.

The paper-thin slices of onion, spring onion greens, and slices of slow-cooked brisket, cut against the grain and feathered to the point of falling apart, were tasty enough. But sadly there was no option to have the raw beef version (pho bo tai) or indeed oxtail, tendon, tripe or meatballs.

It was perfectly alright, but bland, and I can see why Clinton ordered the chicken noodle soup (pho ga). I mean what do you do when you’ve picked out all the meat, and you’re left with a mountain of rice noodles that are extremely dull in flavour and texture, without a decent broth to help them down? The word samey doesn’t cover it.

But it must have been a difficult choice for the Vietnamese government to make, back in 2000. Choosing the closest thing Vietnam has to a national dish is fraught enough, but what about the garnishes? Small potatoes you might think, but people get very worked up about the thorny issue of leafy accompaniments.

Purists in the north – from where the dish originated – like it unadulterated, with just meat, noodles and a well-made broth. But by the time it had moved southwards with the Vietnamese who fled Communism when the country was split into north and south in 1954, the dish took on a more flamboyant identity.

There were rumours from the south, then disquiet and head-shaking. There were tales that chefs had started to serve it with side plates of sliced fresh chillies, bean sprouts, thorny coriander, Thai basil, and lime segments. Others said it came with other foul abominations, like bowls of hoisin sauce and chilli ketchup (below) to mix into the soup – and that’s how it’s served at Pho 2000, and every other noodle shop I’ve tried in Saigon and Phu Quoc. But this herby frivolity doesn’t go down well in the north, where they are still true to the original.

So what a potentially explosive photograph it might be to see Clinton sipping papaya juice while scattering basil leaves and other horrors over what is after all a northern dish. The gaudy baubles of Capitalism or the no-nonsense, no leafy extras of Communism?

And what about upsetting the Americans by choosing a dish so heavily influenced by cheese-eating surrender monkeys? Food academics accept pho bo came from the Hanoi area in the early 1900s, but in usual pointy-headed style, that’s where agreement ends.

There is some debate about whether pho (rhymes with dough) was a corruption of the French word for fire (feu) when French colonialists introduced pot-au-feu to Vietnam. But there is no denying that Gallic cooking shaped the dish – or that the French got the Vietnamese to start eating cows.

Traditionally with the classic French stew, the cooking liquor is drunk separately as soup, and the meat is heavily padded out with vegetables (substitute noodles), so you can see the influence. But it is the tradition of making the broth with charred onions and ginger that truly separates it from other Asian cooking styles – a nod to the French method of adding blackened onions to stock.

There was no question that it was French. And that’s why when I arrived in Saigon, I had memories of France and rich, velvety stews and soups. Sadly, it wasn’t so. I suppose I’ll have to wait for Paris’ 13th arrondissement Chinatown district for that. Or go up north...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ho Chi Minh City: Seafood And Caramel

I got an Air Mekong flight to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and then a taxi to the backpackers’ area in District One. An old woman led me down an alley to her hotel off Pham Ngu Lao, and then I hit the streets.

It was a strange feeling. Normally I’m quite happy on my own, but after two weeks of company on Phu Quoc island, loneliness crept in liked a wounded badger.

All I could think about was heading back to Sihanoukville. I missed the cooking and wanted to get back in the kitchen, but I still had two weeks left on my visa and was determined to see some of Vietnam. And in truth, I had no idea where I would be heading next.

My mood wasn’t helped by the appalling congestion. Ho Chi Minh City is an idiotic maelstrom of chaos just like every other Asian city that views pedestrians as the bottom of the food chain. Traffic priority is based solely on the size of your vehicle, and you need 360-degree vision just to cross the road.

There are no enforced street laws - mopeds ride on the pavement, the wrong way down one-way streets, in fact the wrong way down every street. The Vietnamese clearly hate walking just as much as the Cambodians and Thais, and mopeds are seen as a status symbol. Everyone who walks wants a moped, and everyone who has a moped wants a car, and you’re left with the sad realisation that the world will never be free of its addiction to gasoline – not when it’s only a dollar a litre anyway.

It makes you appreciate capitals like London, which have embraced pedestrians and cyclists. In Ho Chi Minh City, all you see is row after row of moped drivers, their faces covered in masks. It’s like a million bank robbers have taken over the city.

View Larger Map

Sometimes it takes you ten minutes to cross a road. And even when the pedestrian lights are green, it doesn’t mean it’s safe to cross – moped drivers sail through red lights as gamely as street walkers, so the only way forward is to take your life in your hands and dodge your way across packed roads as though you’re in some weird Frogger game.

And to make matters worse, you can’t judge the width of each moped because they could be carrying anything from 50 durian fruit to a family of six in the side-saddle position. Suddenly, a moped smashed into a taxi and shed its crates of beer. I’d been standing there waiting to cross just a few moments earlier, until I got bored and decided to carry on walking up my side of the street.

But I’m glad to say the traffic, as appalling as it is, is made up for by the food. The way they do seafood, for instance, is fantastic. You pick the crabs, and scallops, snails, winkles, mussels, clams, and other assorted molluscs, and then the stallholder weighs them on fixed scales and quotes you a price, scalping you accordingly, if you’re a wide-eyed tourist.

Thankfully, they don’t cover the seafood in peanuts like they do at every fish restaurant on Phu Quoc. Instead, they simmer it in caramel sauce, which I thoroughly recommend trying (you can make the caramel sauce by simmering half a cup of sugar with a little water until the liquid is brown, then add some fish sauce and ground pepper to taste, and cool completely before using).

The stallholder fried finely diced garlic and a smattering of red chilli in vegetable oil until the garlic was lightly browned, then added cracked, cooked crab claws and raw shellfish and tossed them over a medium heat. She added a ladle of caramel sauce, and a knob of butter, and continued to toss the seafood around in the wok (above). She covered it for a minute for the molluscs to steam open, and then added some greens, and served it on a metal plate with a side dish of sea salt, Kampot pepper, chopped chilli and lime juice.

The taste was incredible. The lime cut the sweetness, and the sticky caramel coated the shells and gave them a lip-smacking, shell-sucking unctuousness that went brilliantly with green label Saigon beer poured on chunks of ice. I’ve since learned to eat crabs like the Vietnamese, and crunch up the claws, shell and all. It’s a messy business, but a brilliant way to pass an hour people watching.

Then I met a couple of Filipino girls in the street. One of them had seen the scallop shell round my neck and wanted to know all about it. We sat down at a street bar and bought some beers, and I told them about my love of cooking, and they invited me round to their home for lunch the next day, saying they would cook me a Filipino meal.

I met them at a noodle shop and we caught a taxi to their uncle’s house. He was a large man, draped in gold, and his sole conversation was money. He wanted to know just how expensive it was in the UK, and nodded enthusiastically when I told him how much a coffee costs, or how much hotels are. Then he started asking whether I had a house, and how much it was worth, and tried to fix me up with one of his nieces.

The interrogation continued as we sat down to eat mongo (above), fried fish, and prawns that you dipped in chopped garlic and vinegar (below). They said it was traditional for Filipino families to eat mongo on Fridays, and it really was a tasty dish – stewed mung beans, onion, tomato, prawns, and chunks of bitter cucumber.

It had been cooked by their aunt, who ran a restaurant in the Philippines. She told me how Filipino food is heavily influenced by Spanish food from its colonial past, and it reminded me of some of the rustic, lentil stews you get in Spanish villages.

As soon as the meal was over, the girls blitzed the washing up and then grabbed their fake Gucci bags and sunglasses and ushered me out of the house. They kept apologising for their uncle’s questions as we sat at a bar and drank coffee. Then they quizzed me about their love problems. I don’t why they were asking me – they clearly saw me as some kind of agony uncle and wanted to get a male perspective on their latest dramas. I told them men should never be trusted. What else could I say?

That night I bought a chicken doner kebab. There was grease smeared all over the plate like candle wax. I thought about complaining, but the Turkish owner was a strange man wearing sunglasses even though it was midnight. I wasn’t going to take any chances. It would be terrible to criticise a blind man’s washing up.

The next day I went for a wander through the park, and in typical Communist style, there was a list of rules and regulations. Rule three stipulated visitors should not “be drunk, play gamble, participate in fortune telling and other evils” and “not tease animals”. It was quite a list.

I sat down on a bench in the baking heat. An old woman was asleep in the shade. A police officer on a moped drove up and beeped his horn until she got up. Clearly, even sleeping wasn’t allowed. But there was nothing about motorbikes. Not even the palm-shaded sanctuary of the park was free from mopeds.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Phu Quoc: Black Pepper And Pearls

I’ve just spent a blissful two weeks living in a beachside bungalow on Vietnam’s largest island Phu Quoc, a place famed for its world-beating fish sauce, black pepper, and pearls. It all started with a late night conversation in the bar, when Rodney and Josh asked if I wanted to go there with them.

The fang-shaped island – which was briefly captured by the Khmer Rouge during the Vietnam-Cambodia war in the 70s - is only a short boat ride from Sihanoukville, or at least it should be. But because it’s owned by Vietnam (an issue still hotly contested by Cambodians, who call the island Ko Tral), you have to travel for hours overland to the border crossing at Ha Tien, and then get a ferry from there, meaning the journey takes about seven hours instead of two.

View Larger Map

They are talking about opening up a ferry route direct from Sihanoukville soon, but anything involving the foot-dragging Cambodian government often takes years to arrange. For instance, there’s an international airport already built in Sihanoukville, but due to squabbling between foreign investors and Khmer officials, it’s been standing there empty for years. It’s incredible when you think that the only plane in the city sits under a hangar in the middle of a Russian-owned nightclub, called imaginatively enough Airport.

Josh said he was hoping to persuade his wife Loung to go with us. But he’d been warned that Khmers aren’t good travellers. The vast majority of the population have never been abroad – and are deeply distrustful of foreign food. Tom told him when he took his Cambodian girlfriend to Vietnam, she’d hardly eaten anything in eight days.

You wouldn’t think the Khmers would be so picky when you see them tucking so readily into raw duck foetus, fried tarantulas, boiled snakes, and frogs stuffed with oranges. But it’s not that Vietnamese food is so different, it’s just that the Cambodians view their sworn enemy as a marauding demon race who eat pickled babies and other unspeakable meats, a view shared almost as enthusiastically by the Thais, and find absolutely everything to do with them hard to stomach.

Josh and Rodney said we’d be leaving on the Thursday, and over the next two nights I taught Akara how to make the kebabs, and the night before I left I made a new batch of chicken for her. Then we headed off on a white knuckle taxi ride to the border. I was the only one with a Vietnamese visa. The others said you didn’t need one as long as you told the immigration officers you were only going to Ha Tien. They said no-one ever checked your visa on the boat to Phu Quoc.

On the way, we almost hit a cow and two cyclists as the driver overtook on blind bends and threw his Toyota over the red dust roads with one thumb permanently fastened to the horn. We stopped in Kep-sur-Mer, a former colonial retreat for the French elite later obliterated by the Khmer Rouge, and had breakfast at the crab market.

Wooden, ramshackle restaurants were perched on the narrow beach (above). They were so near, they often flooded at high tide. Nothing had been built in Kep for years - it was definitely the water getting closer. Families were dragging crab pots like sledges over the coarse sand to position them 100 yards out for the tide change. Boys were spear fishing near the rocks as long-tailed fishing boats waited for dusk. A woman knelt over a bucket as she picked through hundreds of small crabs.

It was only 10am but the restaurant barbecues were already lit, grilling sumptuous seafood as fresh as your hat. A group of Cambodian fishermen were sharing a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label and singing in one corner. They’d probably just got back from a night on the waves.

I ordered a plate of grilled prawns. They came with a side dish of sea salt and lime juice mixed with the local Kampot pepper, an incredibly aromatic spice long prized by chefs in Europe. Two years ago, it became Cambodia’s first product to be awarded Geographical Indicator (GI) status like champagne and Melton Mowbray pork pies. But just 30 years before that, the country’s pepper farms were all but destroyed by Pol Pot, who ordered his black-clad automatons to turn the palm-shaded vineyards into rice fields.

As we left town, we saw more bombed out villas and I imagined what the place must have looked like before the war. It took at least an hour going through customs. A sour-faced official kept grilling me about why I had a visa for Vietnam and my travelling companions didn’t. He clearly knew they were heading to Phu Quoc. Eventually his tone changed and he pulled out a wad of notes from his pocket and asked if I wanted to change some money.

We descended from the ferry into chaos on a long narrow pier crammed with motorbike taxis. We rented three beachside bungalows, surrounded by cashew nut, water apple and star fruit trees. It was incredible waking up and picking a mango for breakfast.

It soon turned out Josh had the whole trip planned out in irritating detail. He said that night we’d head down the coast to a pearl farm owned by a few antipodean friends of his.

“They’re big drinkers” he kept saying. “They’re definitely big drinkers.”

He said expats often converged there on Friday nights and it was traditional for everyone to bring something to barbecue. I knew what was coming next.

The market was a seething, fishy circus, and mopeds battled with pedestrians and stall holders along the narrow street. I bought 2kg of pork shoulder, tomatoes, onions, garlic, chilli, coriander and limes to make kebabs. Then Josh remembered something.

“We need a banana for the monkey,” he said. “We can’t turn up without a banana for the monkey.”

The pearl farm was a stunning place, overlooking a deserted beach. The pearl boys were as tough as Josh had described. They were enormous men with huge, barnacled hands. But then they had to be. They had hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of pearls growing in the sea, and had an armoury of shotguns and high-powered spear guns to ward off pirates.

The monkey devoured the banana in seconds, but I didn’t get too close. It looked friendly enough, but they kept it on a leash because the last one had bitten someone’s ear off. It was best friends with a small ginger cat. One of the pearl boys picked up the cat and put it next to the monkey. It immediately began cuddling the cat, and they sat there quite happily for a few minutes. The monkey had brought it up as a kitten and would carry it up trees until it got too big to lug around.

We all gathered near the oyster beds to watch the sunset (below), and then there was a power cut and I had to prep the pork kebabs under torch light. It was an almost impossible task, and it was only the bluntness of the machete that stopped me losing a finger.

They told me they had a different method for producing pearls. Normally farmers nucleate the oysters by cutting opening the hinge and inserting a piece of grit, but they inserted a small pearl to speed up the harvesting process, which can take up to five years. Some of the necklaces they had on display in the museum were priced at $15,000 (£10,000).

We dug into the kebabs, and shared a huge red snapper between us, but there were no oysters to be had. We drank from pint glasses as rum bottles were passed around the table, and soon I was sitting in a brain-fogged haze, looking out at the dark sea and wondering at the undiscovered, man-eating leviathans it contained, while being mauled to death by worryingly-large mosquitoes. Scores of squid boats were anchored in a long northerly line. There were so many out there, their lights looked like a distant motorway at night – a memory far removed from the tranquility of that mosquito-filled, island paradise.