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.

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.