Both personal and romantic voyage, celebrity chef and TV presenter Bobby Chinn sets off on a return journey to Southeast Asia in the hope of showcasing this unique region to his girlfriend and
re-connecting with this spiritual land.
Words by Bobby Chinn
We started talking internally about Hanoi, the city where I spent almost 20 years of my life. From there, spilling over into tales of my misadventures in Saigon, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and of course, Bangkok. Humorous and emotional yarns of my days spent in Southeast Asia; often skint, cooking for cash.
It was a jolly jaunt down old memory lane. Alia smiled and nodded, the polite gesture of someone who loves you, listens to you, but in reality, doesn’t understand what you are talking about.
I was jabbering on for a few hours—or perhaps it was days—and then it occurred to me—like a thunderbolt! Let me show you. A return trip to Southeast Asia. Re-visit my old stomping grounds; see the people and eat the food—ohhhh man, the goi cuon and the cao lam… yes! Get my teeth stuck into mi quang! Yeah, it’ll be a return to my spiritual home, with my girlfriend in tow… on a romantic mission.
Our itinerary was loose. It was better this way. I have friends, connections, favourite dishes, favourite restaurants throughout the region, far too much to cram into a few weeks. Anyway, this wasn’t about high-fiving old acquaintance and getting sloshed in grotty dive-bars. So, where would go?
I was forced to be picky. Still, knowing that everything in that part of Asia is extraordinarily beautiful, so was happy to go about our time at a languid tourist’s pace, taking everything in and re-establishing my bond with the region—and the food! Yeah… the food! I’m going to bang on about the food quite a bit. Be prepared.
Alia and I wanted a respite from London, to tear ourselves away from the big city—and my gruelling filming schedule in the Middle East—so we sort out comfort and calm, and arrived firstly, at the Amansara Resort in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
I don’t need to sell Aman to you, their resorts are renowned the world over for high-end luxury and the very best in service. I’ve roughed-it and indulged during my travels, yet this was five-star and some. And who doesn’t like kickin’ it back every once and a while; room service, a fully-stocked mini bar, a rainmaker shower and perfectly ironed bed sheets.
Once a residence for guests of King Sihanouk, Amansara is a masterpiece of 1960s New Khmer architecture; set within the Nui Chua National Park. The restoration to the building was a significant step forward into modernity—with the additions of a curvilinear pool and monochrome minimalism evident throughout—while remaining rooted in its image from the once-mighty Khmer empire. With much of the infrastructure remaining and in pretty good nick, it must be said, it’s no wonder the ruins are UNESCO-protected. And so, we started with the ruins.
Amansara has a fleet Jeeps and custom-fitted remorks—Cambodian tuk-tuks—so we hopped on board and travelled out to Angkor Wat and surrounding temples and ruins. We drove through narrow lanes and passed stilted villages, many with rustic and colourful double-storied houses. The water levels had receded, and the long stilts looked like giraffe legs, pegged into the mud. Acres of paddy fields rolled out for miles, disappearing in the distance and women wrapped in colourful scarves paddled small boats on the little water flowing inland.
As we passed through makeshift villages, Alia and I received a thousand smiles. Children especially seemed particularity pleased to see us, and revealed their wide-beamed grins. The elderly snoozed in rocking hammocks and naked toddlers splashed in puddles.
In the jungle-covered ruins of the Khmer Empire, our Amansara guide walked us through the hanging bush and verdant terrain, leading us towards the ancient stone carvings. This isn’t a Cambodia I’m familiar with. It’s all proper Tomb Raider stuff!
The Khmer were great builders, filling the landscape with monumental temples, huge reservoirs—called baray—and long canals; used to transport the sandstone blocks from mountainside quarries upriver to Angkor—all new knowledge I’ve stolen from our Amansara guide! I’m lost for words, something that rarely happens!
Back at the resort, post-bubble bath and power nap—Amansara is build for this kind of stuff, they do all of the foreplay for me—we dined outside, under pergola-shaded tables. The menu makes it clear that dishes are created around Cambodian-centred cuisine, using ingredients unique to the region and emphasising contrasting flavours. Much of my culinary knowledge of the area is rooted in Vietnam and knowledge acquired from long and deep, late-night conversations with Chef David Thompson; however, there are overlaps, and many Vietnamese dishes are also typical in Cambodia.
Cambodian dishes usually contain less chilli and sugar than Vietnamese, and in Phnom Penh and parts of the southern region, the food is more Thai-leaning. Vietnamese flavours are high on herbs and spices, with the frequent use of lemongrass and lime.
Here, Cambodian tastes are elevated by the use of kroeung—a Cambodian word for spice pastes—and are shown in the form of a banana blossom chicken salad and a terrific quail egg soup. I’m right at home with this style of cooking, and nostalgia kicks in. I find food like this plays a prominent role in my memory and I’m sent scurrying through time, back to the 1980s when I first visited Cambodia as a skinny kid with funny hair, tucking into the likes of amok trei and bai sach chrouk.
We slept a solid eight hours, a luxury we’re rarely afforded back home. Breakfast was outside at Amansara’s Village House outpost, overlooking the Angkor moat. The black coffee is dynamite and alerted my senses, helping me to kickstart the day! The Nom Ben Chock—noodles in a fragrant light curry— for breakfast was first-rate and high on morning spice, lip-smackin’ stuff!
A few hours lazing by the pool is followed by a market tour, a morning activity I would often start my day with back during my time in Vietnam. The fruits on display remind me just how expansive this region is for produce and my girlfriend and I indulge in mushy mangos, sweet popping lychees and swoon over the wonderful mangosteens. Squid arrives moments from the boat and freshwater fish from the Tonlé Sap and Mekong are stripped and laid out to dry, some skewered and partnered with mango, ready to be grilled.
Returning to base, Amansara staff offer us a sunset boat cruise along the Mekong. Floating down river, we pass the stilted villages again with their houses, schools and churches bobbing on the water. We paddle through a mangrove forest and back out into light, peering over the edge and into the muddy Mekong, hoping to spot life; maybe a giant catfish or a colour-changing thorny frog, perhaps if we’re lucky, an Irrawaddy Dolphin.
Morning yoga takes place on a floating Pavilion and a blissful massage from the extensive selection of “Wellness Immersions” prepares me before departing. We leave Amansara, and Cambodia—clear-headed and jelly-legged—for Vietnam.
I love Vietnam! The whole country has seeped into my soul. To have this opportunity to showcase it my girlfriend is something special. There is a great energy here that I tapped into years ago and I still feel the vibrant excitement: the smiles, the laughter, the positivity. I feel this great sense of being alive in Vietnam.
We spend a few days exploring Hanoi, navigating the alleyways and street stalls in the Old Quarter. I forgot just how thrilling the city is, and how fast the mopeds whizz by, but then just as quickly, an old lady on a rickety bicycle wobbles past.
There’s greenery among the brick and cement, with nurseries selling potted plants and florists amassing great swaths of multicoloured blossoms. If you need a pot, you’ll find it here. A plastic stool, sure. A frying pan, you bet. A refrigerator, yeah sure! Everything is here; displayed and advertised in splashes of colour. I watch it all unfold, breath it all in… ah, happy, happy, hectic Hanoi. It’s good to be back!
With tranquillity being the objective of our journey, it wasn’t long before we left the hustle and bustle of Hanoi for the Amanoi Resort, on the country’s scenic coastline. Perched along a coastal ridge with views of the sea, Amanoi was designed by Brussels-born architect, Jean-Michel Gathy, the self-described “spoiled kid of the hotel industry.”
The drive is spectacular! We ascend to the top of the mountain, overlooking the stunning coast. Surrounded by forests, the resort looks out across the wild blue waters of Vinh Hy Bay—one of the hidden gems of Vietnam.
Upon arrival, we’re greeted with a refreshing cocktail and cool towels to wipe away the tourist dirt. My attention though is soon stolen by the view and the infinity swimming pool—I’ll be bombing into that later, I thought!
We have a tour of the Amanoi grounds—ahhhh, peace, finally! All natural, nothing contrived. It’s beautiful throughout, lush, contemporary, a place I’d very happily call home. They promote a strong philosophy towards eco and sustainable and staff inform us of their efforts to educate guests with this approach, steering them towards a sense of inner peace and rejuvenation.
Look, I’ll admit, I have a bit of a Jekyll & Hyde complex: I’m all for the quiet and the tranquility, but just as quickly, my mind can kick into overdrive and I’m thinking, planning, working, seeking adventure! I enquire with staff—service is always cheering, always helpful, always humble—about a mountain hike and snorkelling, after which we take dinner on the beach, beneath the stars.
A visit here—return for me, the first time for Alia—is truly rewarding, in all of the right ways! The food, service, and hospitality is unrivalled. This swank luxurious setting and the efforts of the Amansara Resort and Amanoi Resort make it almost impossible to leave—why on earth would you want to, anyway? Ah, life is calling. Work is banging down the door. My phone is starting to ring again. The shadow of responsibility is dark, but oh, man, is this the life!