Vietnam Culinary Discovery – Arrival, Hanoi

Throughout the long months of working continuous fourteen-hour days over the end-of-financial-year period, I fought off the winter blues by dreaming of a food-cation somewhere in another part of the world, preferably one with a warm climate. Thinking about where I could go on holiday, Vietnam sprang to mind having never been there before and I began searching Google in earnest for tours within that country. My web browser came across a 12-day tour offered by Travel Indochina aptly named Vietnam Culinary Discovery which included three cooking classes, market tours and street food tours in a journey encompassing the major cities of North, Central and South Vietnam and its diverse and unique cuisine. It seemed like a wonderful blend of food, culture and history so I booked the last trip available for this year.

All entries regarding the Vietnam Culinary Discovery tour within this blog reflect my own personal insights and experiences throughout my holiday and I was solely responsible for meeting all travel expenses incurred.

Friday 28th November, 2014

Whenever I join a tour, I try to arrive a day before the scheduled start date in order to get my bearings and have an opportunity to see and discover things that a new city has to offer and do some of the activities that are not usually included in the tour. I arrived in Hanoi in the early afternoon and was met at the airport by a representative from Travel Indochina. The first thing that signalled my arrival in Hanoi was the multitude of motorbikes on the road and the incessant “beep beep” that drivers use to signal to each other that they are in their proximity.

Having settled into my hotel located within the Old Quarter of Hanoi, I decided to venture out and check out the surroundings and get some exposure to the sunshine that I had been longing for. I like to think of myself as an experienced traveller and I have been to other parts of Asia but attempting to cross the road in Hanoi was a challenge! I stood at the side of the road for a full five minutes try to summon up the courage to cross over before a local resident came along and when they started to step out in front of the traffic, I was right behind them.

My first destination was to walk around the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake which lies in the heart of Hanoi and which has a special and mythical significance to the Vietnamese people. Having explored the lake and its bridges and temples, I found an outdoor café with a marvellous view of the island and decided to try my first Vietnamese iced coffee. One sip and I was totally hooked – strong, dark roasted coffee with a splash of sweetened condensed milk and ice cubes, it was absolutely delicious and disappeared in a matter of seconds.

My friend Mez (who also moonlights as my travel agent) recommended that I should see a water puppet show in Hanoi and as this was my last “free” night in Hanoi, it was realistically the only opportunity that I would get to see a performance. From the café I could see the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre nearby but I was bit apprehensive of having to cross the road again, especially now that the traffic had doubled due to peak hour.

I summoned up some courage and walked slowly and steadily across the road, feeling totally relieved when I made it across successfully. Set to the music of a traditional Vietnamese orchestra, the water puppetry performance was intriguing with mythical stories of dragons and other magical creatures.

One of the great things that Travel Indochina does is to give you a welcome pack which includes a map of Hanoi and the location of recommended cafés and restaurants which offer local culinary specialities. Not far from my hotel was the original restaurant that serves the famous Hanoi speciality of Cha Ca: turmeric fish, pan fried and served with dill, rice noodles, peanuts and nuoc cham dipping sauce.

I had to cross a few streets to get there and with my confidence growing with each step, I found Cha Ca La Vong on the other side of the Old Quarter at 14 Cha Ca Street – apparently the dish was so popular that the name of the street where it was first served was changed to Cha Ca.

Thankfully Cha Ca is the only dish on the menu at this restaurant, so as soon as I found a small table upstairs, the waiter brought over the sign with this information and the price so that I didn’t need to practice my non-existent Vietnamese language skills. For 170,000 VND (approximately $10 AUD) this dish is considered to be relatively expensive for a local speciality but I was keen to try it. Looking around me, the restaurant was popular with the local residents so I was in good company.

The waiter brought out my accompaniments of dill and spring onion, vermicelli rice noodles, coriander, fish sauce and peanuts and then came back with a hot sizzling pan of bite-sized fish pieces coated in turmeric and curry powder on a gas burner. Somewhat a little out of practice with my chopstick skills, the waiter grabbed the bowl of spring onion and dill and threw it into the sizzling pan with the fish and mixed it all together. After a minute my small rice bowl was laden with noodles, the cooked fish and herbs, crunchy peanuts and sauce. It all looked simple but was extremely tasty and with lots of flavour, and the best bit was that I could fill up my little bowl again and have some more until all the fish was gone.

Cha Ca La Vong, Hanoi, Vietnam
Cha Ca La Vong, Hanoi, Vietnam

Thoroughly full and ready to call it a day, I wondered back through the Hanoi Night Markets and caught a glimpse of more delicious street food on offer, but happy to save that experience for another day.

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