Food on a Crowded Island: Vietnam and the Philippines

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Cultivate member and erstwhile West Oxford resident Joel Lazarus  is away on a year-long sojourn in Singapore with his family. So much is he missing the VegVan that he’s decided to stay in touch in blog format. This is the fifth in his series in which he tucks into the social and environmental dimensions of how this small, crowded island feeds itself.

Dear reader,

Please forgive the delay of this latest despatch from Singapore. June is school holiday season in Singapore, so the Lazarus family has been on its travels. Therefore, this month’s blog reads more like a (less conventional) food travel blog than the usual food-centred social critique of Singapore and the world beyond.

So, come with me on a vicarious voyage to Vietnam and the Philippines. I want to share with you some of the culinary pleasures we experienced and what we learned about the production and consumption of food in these two places. The insights gleaned were limited, but still interesting and illuminating, I think…


In early June, we flew to Hanoi and spent a few days in this crazily busy city before taking an overnight train and staying several nights in the Topas Ecolodge, a small resort 18km outside the colourful town of Sapa in the heart of the mountains near China.

I’ve never experienced traffic like Hanoi. The endless stream of motorcyclists seem to speed up with irritation whenever a pedestrian is foolish enough to try to cross the street! Yet, we somehow came out unscathed and really enjoyed ourselves, particularly at the water puppet theatre, Lenin Park, and the Old Quarter in general.

Hanoi traffic

I have to say, though, that I was a bit disappointed with the food. My wife and I found the food a little bland compared to the wonderful Cambodian spring rolls, curries, and soups we enjoyed in Siem Reap in February. Perhaps, being a little risk averse with young kids, we visited more sanitised foreigner-friendly places. Our favourite meal in Hanoi was at a cute little cafe called La Place. Check out the drinks! Our fave was definitely the lychee cooler!

La place drinks Our lodge in the mountains

Off to Sapa! The mountains here are beautiful. There are various ethnic minority groups in that region, including the Red Dao, Hmong, and Tay. Lia, my eldest daughter, and I went off on a walk with the persistent Dao ladies who won’t give up till you buy a handmade bag or hat from them.

Sapa is rice country. Vietnam is one of the largest rice exporters in the world. At the time of our visit, however, the rice terraces did not look anywhere near as lush as the photo below. It hadn’t rained for several weeks and things were getting worrying. Many terraces and paddy fields looked bone dry at a crucial growing time.

Sapa rice terraces

The people here remain profoundly rooted to the land and livestock. Tellingly, the words the Dao ladies taught us were their words for ‘buffalo’, ‘pig’, and ‘duck’. Incidentally, when you see for yourself how so many pigs, ducks, and chickens are herded together and transported on motorbikes, you understand how Vietnam was the source of the global Avian Flu pandemic a few years back.

Unsurprisingly, very much of what we ate up there was very locally produced. Sapa’s market was a real sight for hungry eyes as we enjoyed the beauty of the bounteous local produce.

Sapa market 1 Sapa spices

Overall, though slightly disappointed, we still love Vietnamese food – its joy is found in its combination of simple, fresh ingredients with aesthetic creativity as epitomised by the raw spring roll!

Camiguin Island, Philippines

In late June, we visited the tiny island of Camiguin. Camiguin is a tiny island just off the north coast of Mindinao with a circumference of just 64km. Its 70,000 inhabitants almost all live around the coast since the island is dominated by Mt Hibok-Hibok (so good they named it twice) – a volcano that last erupted in 1951 to devastating effect.


Camiguin has it all – volcanoes; hot springs (our fave); cold pools; waterfalls; amazing tiny islands offshore with empty, pristine beaches; wonderful coral reefs teeming with colourful sea-life. Just snorkelling alone allowed us to see huge starfish, cute clownfish, and giant clams (2metres!).

Camiguin is famous for its ‘lanzones’ – a lychee-type fruit that’s apparently deeelicious. Unfortunately, we arrived too early. Each October, the islanders gorge themselves silly on lanzones non-stop over the course of a two-week fiesta! Nevertheless, we did our fair share of gorging on pineapple, mango, and watermelon. Indeed, my wife Rajeka did, toward the end of our week there, confess that she was getting tired of watermelon juice! In response, I paraphrased Samuel Johnson, substituting London for watermelon juice!

Tropical breakfast

My impressions of life on Camiguin for local people were relatively positive. Yes, people were living simple, often very hard lives, and almost all would certainly be classified as poor in material terms. Yet, what we noticed was that all the houses, schools, and other buildings were kept so clean, there was a palpable sense of warm and close community, and that no one looked hungry. The danger here is to romanticise the ‘good life’ of the supposedly poor, simple islander, to impose our limits on their ambitions and aspirations. I found this attitude in the managers of the ‘Ecolodge’ we stayed with in Sapa. Poverty is poverty, and it is unacceptable. Suffice to say that we left Camiguin with positive emotions overall.

As for the staple, rice again. Sadly, in stark contrast to rice-exporting Sapa, the island imports most of what it needs. What was most startling was learning from the French owner of the villa in which we stayed how local people had lost so much of their traditional agricultural knowledge. He attributed this loss of knowledge to the Filipino experience of American colonisation. At the turn of the 20th century, the Philippines was turned over by the ailing Spanish to the emergent US. The Americans ultimately succeeded in brutally quashing the Filipino popular resistance movement in a long conflict in which it is estimated that over 200,000 Filipinos were killed. It turned its attention to ‘civilising’ the ‘savage’ Filipinos.

As a colony, the Philippines was expected to produce raw materials for the growing American economy, and, crucially, to serve as a consumer market itself for American exports. Hence the undermining of local agriculture (and manufacturing) by using US government subsidies and state and corporate power to overpower local producers and create dependence on foreign (especially American) imports. This, it seems, is the historical legacy that has left local farmers in Camiguin dependent on local agricultural imports and on the copious use of fertilisers too, I noticed. Tellingly, these days, the islanders seem way more dependent on Chinese imports.

Our host described Filipino food as the ‘poor cousin of Asian cuisine’, and, on the whole, we’d be hard pushed to tell you a Filipino dish we enjoyed. Perhaps that’s because it’s simple, meat-based fare, and we’re all veggies. However, the kids did enjoy the ‘pastel’ – caramel-filled cakes – a Spanish legacy, I guess.

Camiguin environmental signOur memories of Camiguin will primarily be of its wonderful people and incredible nature. It is a testament to its people that the Island remains really clean. They seem really environmentally conscious, with posters and signs relating to environmental issues and climate change everywhere. They’ve even banned plastic bags!

Overall, we feel truly privileged to have visited these two wonderful destinations. I hope that my words and photos have offered some sense of the natural and culinary pleasures we enjoyed in both places.

Now I’m back in Singapore. Five blogs to go (with visits to Japan and Laos planned too) before we head home in December. I’m going to try to bring you news of biotechnological innovations, as well as brighter news from Singaporeans trying to affect positive change on the culture of food production and consumption here.
Thanks for reading