Vietnam Culinary Discovery – Day 1, Hanoi

Saturday 29th November, 2014

Today is officially the first day of the Vietnam Culinary Discovery tour however the only activity scheduled for the day is to meet my local guide for welcome drinks and a tour briefing at 6pm followed by dinner at a local restaurant, so I have a whole day to explore Hanoi at my leisure.

Tomorrow’s activities include a cooking class in the morning followed by sightseeing in the Ho Chi Minh Quarter and visiting the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, otherwise known as the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. Flicking through my guidebook, there are a couple of monuments that I might not get a chance to see before I leave Hanoi, specifically the Temple of Literature.

With a map in hand, I walk a couple of kilometres through the back streets in the general direction of the Temple of Literature. When I get there, the museum is crowded with students who are having their graduation photos taken professionally with their classmates. I found out later that these students haven’t actually taken their final exams yet! Just like wedding photos in Vietnam, the pictures are taken prior to the actual event. It was fun watching groups rehearsing throwing their caps up in the air for the photo shoot, all the girls dressed up in traditional gowns and the boys looking dapper in their Western suits that they have hired for the day.

Across the road from the Temple of Literature is KOTO (acronym for “Know One Teach One”) which is an Australian-Vietnamese social enterprise training former street kids and disadvantaged youth in hospitality at its vocational centres, located in Hanoi and Saigon. There is a KOTO cookbook readily available in Australia that I recall seeing recently and which prompted me to go and see firsthand how the café operates, and to give the trainees someone to practice on.

I arrived at the café just before midday so I had my pick of tables, however within fifteen minutes tourist groups and other travellers were steadily flowing through the doors. The young man serving me was a little shy but eager to please, although I probably gave him a bit of a challenge with my soft voice and Aussie accent. The menu has a great selection of both Vietnamese and Western dishes but I didn’t come to Vietnam to order fish and chips so I opted for a green mango and prawn salad to combat the warm weather.

Green mango salad with prawns - KOTO Restaurant, Hanoi, Vietnam
Green mango salad with prawns – KOTO Restaurant, Hanoi, Vietnam

Lunch was certainly plentiful and nicely presented on a large white plate. The salad was crisp and light with lots of fresh herbs and vegetables, crunchy peanuts and a liberal use of finely chopped red chillies to provide a touch of heat. The prawns were lacking a bit of flavour and were a little soft in texture but otherwise it was delectable.

KOTO also offers cooking classes which I thought about doing given that I had the afternoon free, however 24 hours notice is required for bookings which now ruled me out of contention.

I got a little lost meandering through the streets in the afternoon, dodging motorbikes and trying to capture photos of street vendors in their conical hats. The lady with the fried treats wanted 500,000 VND($28 AUD) for a couple of doughnuts so I kept on walking much to her disappointment.

Just before 6pm, I wandered down to the hotel lobby to meet my local guide and the other tour participants. Giang, the local guide for Hanoi and the only female guide for Travel Indochina in Vietnam, introduced herself and then informed me that there was one other guest, who would also be my roommate, on this particular trip. Eeek! The last couple of tours had over forty guests, and whilst this was a small group tour limited to fifteen in number, the prospect of being on a relatively private tour was a little daunting. My tour companion was arriving later in the evening, so as dinner was included Giang offered to take me to a local restaurant for a welcome drink and more local fare.

A short distance away from the hotel, Giang led us into a small lift in a lobby off the street and through a series of stairs and then into an elegant dining space. The Cau Go Restaurant takes its name from the street where it is located and we were shown to the outdoor balcony area that overlooked Hoan Kiem Lake and stunning view of the city.

Tonight’s dinner was a seven course feast of contemporary Vietnamese cuisine consisting of Shrimp salad with green mango, Fried seafood spring rolls, Stewed “Hu” fish in traditional claypot, Clam soup with fennel, Sautéed broccoli with garlic, steamed rice and fresh fruit.

I was expecting a local beer and some rice noodle soup however the food, wine and ambience surpassed all expectations. The standout dish was the shrimp and green mango salad, which eclipsed the meal I had at lunch time. The prawns were succulent and the sesame seeds on the salad added another dimension of flavour and texture to the salad.

In our culture soup is usually served at the start of the meal, however in Vietnamese cuisine, the soup is brought out towards the end of the meal as a palate cleanser and to help with digestion. The subtle flavours within the seafood and fennel soup were refreshing and not too heavy on the stomach. It was truly a fabulous dinner and an exotic start to my culinary experiences in Vietnam.

Disclaimer: 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.

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