How strange it felt to board the train at the familiar Town Hall station in bustling Sydney, and then step off about an hour later and feel I'd landed in the thick of a market at home in Borneo. The smells and sights were all so familiar. But no, we were in Cabramatta, about thirty kilometres south west of Sydney and home to one of Australia's biggest Vietnamese communities.
I felt lucky to be on this day out with my partner in crime, Lorrie Graham, also exploring for her own blog, but to be shown around by my cousins who've spent the last few decades in the area and know it like the back of their hand.
The train pops you out right opposite John Street, which is the shopper's artery of Cabramatta so I can't recommend a better way of getting here, unless you'd like to negotiate highway traffic and cramped parking decks. ...
The group of us women, six of us in all, strolled up John Street at a leisurely pace, no real plan in mind, but it soon became apparent that a coffee would help start the morning off very
What better place to have an iced Vietnamese coffee than at Café Xúa.
Cousin pointed out the well dressed women as we sipped on coffees, and I immediately took pleasure in noticing the well coiffed, prettily clothed women out and about on their daily business. Slick and smooth men in smart jackets and dark shades, younger women in slouchy lounge wear but looking cooly chic, and cute clothed babies and toddlers chubby with well fed love and attention.
Perked up nicely on the sugar and caffeine hit, we made our way up past numerous juice bars- this must be a great favourite in the community, as there were many. But hardly a kale or carrot in sight; instead more exotic flavoured juices on offer from rows of dragon fruit, ambarella, soursop, durian and sugarcane. Cousins shared a
durian and avocado juice which they declared creamy and deliciously sweet, while I took a happy trip down memory lane with a bright green ambarella juice- sour and sweet and tangy. It reminded me of the giant tree in my childhood garden which I'd climb for the fruit, and inevitably give myself a stomach ache eating way too many at a time.
We turned into Freedom Plaza (situated right off the middle of John Street, you can't miss it with the guardian lions) and came upon the cheerily named New Good Luck Butchery, and a variety of fabric stores strung down one side. I made a mental note to stop back in at Kaysone Sweets across the plaza after lunch- its hand painted sign board looked most compelling. Hardware, electrical goods (Tiger brand rice cooker is the very best of them- did you know?), and coolie hatted vendors squatting on the pavements amongst green seedlings and saplings of veggies and herbs for sale. Was I really not back home in SE Asia somewhere?
Running off the plaza on both sides are a myriad arcades, each crammed with more stalls of fresh produce, little girl wedding-like dresses of chiffon and lace, big girl underwear shops touting colourful lingerie including underpants with padded bottoms (a first for me), goldsmiths, beauticians galore offering peels, nips and tucks, coffee shops and fresh cakes and snacks.
We stopped here and there, admiring arrays of plasticware, piles of the greenest herbs and shallow buckets of silvery diamond shaped pomfret from Malaysia. Vendors smiled and answered questions patiently; I really sensed a pleasant camaraderie between the shoppers and vendors. Unlike the stress the bustle of a crowded market usually brings, here, people seemed more relaxed, and genuinely good humoured.
After a conferring of cousins, it was decided we would eat at Dong Xanh Restaurant, known for their more seafoody flavoured soups of Bún Māng Vit and Bun Riêu Cua.
Our larg bowls arrived with dark broths soured by fish pastes and chilli, and accompanied by
mountains of crunchy bean sprouts and green herbs to dunk. Large bright prawns, slow cooked duck, curls of squid and eggy noodles swirled around chopsticks and soup spoons as we abandoned conversation to tuck into all this deliciousness
Phu Quoc in the middle of John Street and the popular go-to for pho, DIY rice paper rolls, Vietnamese pancakes and other classic dishes was going to have to wait for another visit.
Staggering away, you could say we were slightly less on course for the rest of the afternoon.
We still did stop in at Kaysone, where I bought sticky
rice and banana cakes wrapped in leaves to take home. The kind shopkeeper filled a separate container with sweet coconut cream, and then another one of crushed peanuts, and carefully packed a bag for me to take, explaining exactly how I should eat the cakes. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I grew up eating them and had a very good inkling of how to consume said morsel. One last purchase was the ubiquitous fried dough sticks called quây which are SO good for dunking in a coffee. I made Lorrie take one home to try.
After many hugs and kisses to bid each other adieu, I silently blessed the station's proximity so I could sink back in a seat on the train again and marvel at the lovely kaleidoscope of sights and sounds, the cheery people, the fun fashion and the wonderful food that was on offer at Cabramatta.
When can we go again?
4 John Street
Ph: 02 87102365
Dong Xanh Restaurant
Hong Kong Shopping Plaza
5 99/97 John Street
Phu Quoc Restaurant
11/117 John Street
Ph: 02 97242188
4/59-61 Park Road
Pho Tau Bay
12/117 John Street
Ph: 02 97264583
Viet Hoa Hot Bread
107 John Street
Ph: 02 97282518
(Famously open 24 hours for all your banh mi cravings....)
*Thank you to my lovely Roberts cousins and friend Phyu Phyu for being excellent tour guides ! *