Vietnam Culinary Discovery – Days 3 & 4, Hanoi – Halong Bay – Hanoi

Monday 1st December, 2014

This morning Kylie and I are up early to pack our overnight bags for our trip to Halong Bay and check out of our accommodation in Hanoi. It’s never a dull moment on our trip as Kylie points out that the sliced papaya on the breakfast buffet is captioned as “Watermelon Margarita” … if only my parents had made up exotic cocktail names for fresh fruit when I was younger, I might have eaten more of it.

Lost in translation ... Papaya is also known as "Watermelon Margarita" in Vietnam
Lost in translation … Papaya is also known as “Watermelon Margarita” in Vietnam

Being Monday morning, everyone seems to be out on the roads on their motorcycles trying to get to work or school. At first glance, the traffic in Hanoi seems to be utter chaos, but the more you look and concentrate, all the drivers seem to be doing an elaborate dance around each other, all aware of everyone’s movements and changing direction with impeccable timing.

With motorcycles being the primary mode of transportation in Vietnam, you see incredible things being carried or tied to the back of them – crates of chickens, bundles of baguettes, gas cylinders and even water buffalo!

Have water buffalo, will travel ... the things you can transport on your motorcycle in Vietnam
Have water buffalo, will travel … the things you can transport on your motorcycle in Vietnam

Our trip to Halong Bay is approximately 170 kilometres from Hanoi which in Vietnam equates to a four hour drive, although being accustomed to driving in rural Australia the maths doesn’t really compute in my mind until you comprehend the speed restrictions and the volume of traffic. Most of our journey passes through the Red River Delta agricultural area so there are lots of beautiful market gardens, fields and pottery villages to capture our attention. To break our trip we stop at the Humanity Centre which houses a school and workshop to enable students with disabilities arising from the effects of Agent Orange, to support themselves and their families by selling their own art and other handmade souvenir items. Time flies being in a shopper’s paradise but it’s impossible to resist the call of Vietnamese coffee available from the onsite café.

My favourite time of the day ... Vietnamese drip coffee with sweetened condensed milk
My favourite time of the day … Vietnamese drip coffee with sweetened condensed milk

En route to Halong Bay, our guide Giang is notified that all cruises in the area have been temporarily suspended by the Vietnamese Government since the previous day due to significant storm activity in the area, so we continue onwards with our fingers crossed that the bay will be re-opened shortly. Good fortune is on our side for just as we near the port of Hon Gai, the gateway to Halong Bay, Giang receives a call advising that all cruising operations have been given the all clear to recommence.

Excitedly grabbing our overnight bags, we walk along the long jetty to a small boat that will transfer us out to the larger junk boat that we will be cruising on for the next 24 hours. We spend the next hour checking out our accommodation and keeping out of the wind and rain that seem to have set in for the rest of the day.

As soon as we set off for Halong Bay, we retreat up to the main cabin for a delicious lunch consisting of multiple courses. The flavours of the fried fish dish evoke wonderful memories of my Baba’s cooking when I was much younger and I’m almost tempted to ask for a recipe to replicate at home.

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Vietnam’s greatest natural wonders, consisting of approximately 3,000 small limestone islands and formations. Late in the afternoon, our junk boat arrives at Bo Hon Island and we trek up to Hang Sung Sot, also known as the Cave of Awe to see the famous rock shapes illuminated with coloured lights inside the caverns.

Hiking is thirsty work and as the sun sets it’s time for a glass of red wine and a few rounds of cards while the onboard chefs are busily preparing the evening banquet. A couple of hours later our card tournament is put on hold to make way for another eight course meal: Pumpkin Creamy Soup, Russian Style Salad, Grilled Oyster “Huong Hai” Style, Fried Tiger Prawn with Green Bay Sauce, Huong Hai Fried Spring Rolls served with traditional fish sauce, Roasted chicken with honey, Steamed fish with tropical spice, Steamed rice, Stir-fried seasonal mixed vegetables and crème caramel. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to photograph the latter dishes as my mobile phone was commandeered for musical entertainment. I think the kitchen staff may have had a lot of time on their hands as most of the plates were decorated with elaborate cucumber designs but needless to say, the meal was absolutely delicious.

Tuesday 2nd December, 2014

Good Morning Vietnam! Our day started with a light breakfast before heading to Dao Titop, a small islet, to climb the four hundred-odd steps to the top and capture the stunning views of Halong Bay from the lookout. Although the rain had abated temporarily, the stone steps were wet and slippery, so it was slow going in some places but the spectacular vistas that greeted us at the peak made the steep climb seem trivial.

After taking a breather and as many photos as our mobile phones could manage, we made our descent back towards the boat and spent the rest of the morning packing our things before enjoying a leisurely brunch before arriving back into port.

Driving back towards Hanoi, we passed through the same rice paddy fields and villages as the previous day, but Giang had our driver pull over to allow us to visit a large garden and smell the fragrant coriander, mint and other herbs for ourselves. Everything was green, ordered and abundant as we wandered through the narrow pathways between allotments. A local farmer in a traditional conical hat was working in her small field of lettuce, getting ready for the next day’s market. The small field next to her also contained lettuce, but the allotment was beautifully decorated with Vietnamese mint around its perimeter.

Arriving back in Hanoi mid-afternoon, Kylie and I are in desperate need of some rest and recuperation after our early start to the day. As this is the last night in Hanoi and after talking up my enjoyable Cau Go Restaurant experience, Giang has booked us a table for the evening and another set menu to enjoy. With spectacular views of the city and Hoan Kiem Lake, we enjoy another delicious dinner of Shrimp and squid salad with mixed vegetables, Deep fried egg tofu with lemongrass and chilli, Deep fried squid in tamarind sauce, Boiled vegetables with chef’s sauce, Stewed pork in traditional pot with egg, Minced pork soup with vegetables, Steamed rice and Fried Banana.

There have been a lot of banquet-style restaurant dinners for the first couple of days of tour, however Hanoi is famous for its delicious and plentiful street food which we are going to immerse ourselves in tomorrow.

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.

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.