A FOODIES TOUR OF VIETNAM by GAIL BEGBIE

GAIL BEGBIE joined with friends to have a totally indulgent holiday in Vietnam.  Gail lived and worked in Vietnam for many years.  In  her story she uses the Vietnamese name of Viet Nam.  Gail described the back street restaurants and the delicious food so well I could almost taste it.  Her insider knowledge is worth noting down to get the best restaurant experience in Vietnam.

Pictured below are:

1.  Rabbit with wasabi served with 3 risottos and passionfruit in rice wine and forest mushrooms.

2. Carpaccio of scallops with roasted garlic and coriander dressing on beetroot, mango and pineapple.  Duck mousse with cognac and Grand Marnier with parmesan cheese mousse.

Hoi An Hedonism with Gail and Friends – 

It has been more years than I will admit to since I had the opportunity to live in a coastal town in central Viet Nam. It was an experience that I was lucky to get and I have since jumped any time I get to share a part of those experiences with friends or family. Don’t get me wrong, so much of Viet Nam is under constant development that such infrequent visits would never allow you to be an expert but that is part of the charm.

Vietnamese Green Tangerine Restaurant
Vietnamese Green Tangerine Restaurant

The most recent opportunity came through friends working in a far flung Expat enclave in Laos, while at the same time I was living the island life in the Pacific. This meant although Viet Nam offers amazing cultural encounters, on this trip we were seeking indulgences, exotic food, fashion and fun, such hedonistic pleasures said to be ripe for the picking in the orient. You have to love the flashes of cultural meld that have come through Viet Nam being the crossroads of Indo China for centuries. The Vietnamese have survived even thrived in spite of all the history that has collided within their borders. This is so strongly featured in the food that is on every corner but also tucked away in the grand old mansions found down rambling lanes.

Rabbit with Wasabi

Some of these taste experiences can only be introduced through local knowledge, little cafes that look like a street side house with only the number of motorbikes entangled in front, or an open frontage with a never ending stream of people shoe horned in at numerous small tables, to give the game away. These are family restaurants often there in one guise or another for generations, their reputations built on a single recipe that has been perfected and kept close. One such establishment my friends and I savoured, made a slow cooked pork clear soup so thick it was a stew. Served with the lightest crisp bread, banh, rolls to soak up the dregs of the broth from the deep bowls. Half the dish’s appeal was in the heady aroma, it was strangely perfect with a cold beer. A community experience not just a meal, you were a regular and went with friends.

Another experience that should never be missed in Viet Nam are the famous street food stalls. You can find the popular ones by watching the locals, freshness is everything in Vietnamese food with most households going to the markets twice a day. Popular street food stalls with a high turnover are the way to go and the night market, Ben Thanh in Saigon, is an easily accessible version of street food, and also a fun immersion in the noise and crowd.

A slightly more leisurely approach to sampling the huge variety of regional specialities highlighted at the well-established restaurant Quan An Ngon. A restaurant called delicious, which it truly delivers on, it is situated within a rambling old trading villa and its courtyards, just down from the reunification Palace. The food is tasty, while some dishes on the extensive menu may not appeal to our palates, it is a good introduction to the variety of foods found in Viet Nam. The atmosphere is bustling and you can order plate after plate of little things to share and sample, banh xeo, beef in loc leaf, shrimp on sugar cane skewers. The patrons are interesting too, large local families, businessmen, expats and uninitiated tourists.

Carpaccio of Scallops

To prevent spending the holiday in airports or on trains I chose a three stop plan for Viet Nam and then a visit to our friend’s current home port in Vientiane, Laos. As such our second stop was Hoi An, accessed through Da Nang, the old town being one of my favourite indulgences. Hoi An has been a trading Port for centuries, the original old town with it narrow lanes perched along the river is UNESCO Heritage listed. I think it is the people watching from the cafés and restaurants that allow you to appreciate the town. It is so important after walking the lanes for tailors and excellent silversmiths, where you can bring your own ideas, to just stop, relax and watch the place. Enjoy the moment, don’t race back to a hotel oasis or beach chairs, which Hoi An and nearby Da Nang offers endlessly, or at less not all the time.

Hoi An Markets
Hoi An Markets

The surrounding old town is still a populous Vietnamese town going about daily life and is a must to visit. There are still the fishers in dugout canoes or the blue-eyed larger fishers plying the river and sea beside the Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area of the Cham Islands. We took time to sit and watch local life in both the Mango Rooms on Bach Dang and Mango Mango on Nguyen Phuc Chu placed on either side of the river canal. Returning to Viet Nam Chef Duc Tran’s has combined a modern Vietnamese menu along with a delicious cocktail list to sip at sunset as the heat of the day leaks away allowing the night streets to liven up. This is also a great place to continue the hunt for the perfect fresh spring roll with all the myriad herbs that make each bite a delight.

View from the  Mango Mango Restaurant Gail Mango Mango

Another restaurant which is well situated near the canal is Seedlings on Nguyen Phuc Chu, one of the restaurants that was set up to assist local youth to develop employment skills and opportunities. The staff are charming, the dishes were as pretty to the eye as to the taste buds. The fresh spring rolls may have been the best we had all trip and it was well worth the visit.

Our time in Hanoi had to include several highlights which included the Art Galley as for me it sums up the political versus the artistic conundrum that is the Vietnamese with their complex history. It is not something I expect to solve but you need to be aware of the country’s history to glimpse of the way of life here. The next thing may not be art but I can never resist a visit to Viet Nam Quilts, now Mekong Quilts as they work in Cambodia as well. Beautiful hand-made pieces enable local women to stay in their home villages while supporting themselves and children.

A very different experience could be visit to a popular Bia Hoi garden bar, with all the festive enthusiasm that fresh brewed beer can bring to an event. This is best experienced with a big group. The courtyard and bar of the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi should probably be experienced just for the history that happened there and the people that have visited over the years.

Restaurant wise in Hanoi it had to be the Green Tangerine a popular eatery that well deserves its reputation for food.  It is situated in the lovely courtyard of a 1928 Villa which is found in the Old Quarter. Try the pho if at all possible, this is what good technique and fresh herbs do best. Rabbit, pigeon, duck, salmon all on the menu with combinations that start titillating while still on the menu. My mouth waters just remembering the evening. Seriously.

The second restaurant must be Didier Corlou’s La Verticale offering French style with the passion of Vietnamese spices. A more formal setting and all the little quirks and flairs that French restaurant cooking delivers, mixes of texture, tart contrasts and spicy surprises. The spices found finely balanced within the dishes and for purchase also featured combinations such as Hanoi 5 spices containing Star anise, cinnamon, black cardamon, pepper and ginger. Choose from coriander seeds pickled, 15 year old fish sauce or Nuoc mam, and the delicate salt collected from good Nuoc mam. So many of the ingredients used are sourced from the regions renowned for products such as the Cat Ba wild forest honey or pepper from Phu Quoc Island. The locals have always sought out regional delicacies and we could learn a lot if we listen, the Vietnamese have taken their food seriously for generations untold.