Sunday 7th December, 2014
Although we are staying at a beautiful resort in Hoi An, breakfast is an extremely light affair as we are starting the day early with a tour of the local street vendors as well as meandering around the local markets. All through our time in Central Vietnam, it has been constantly raining but today we are greeted with some sunshine and blue skies which immediately lifts my spirits.
Our guide Huy takes us to an area just outside the Old Quarter where lots of families are gathered together to enjoy their own breakfast before starting the day. The stall is rather busy so we walk in and find the next available seat, watching everyone eating and enjoying the fare. Eventually a few spots start to free up and Kylie and I are able to sit together and start eating the dishes that Huy has ordered for us. Accompanied by large, fresh baguettes and sliced cucumber and onion, we grab a spoon and dig in. The first dish is a wet curry consisting of braised beef, fresh herbs and vegetables, not unlike a massaman curry although extremely delicious and even better with fresh bread to mop up the liquid. Unfortunately it was introduced as a curry and not its local name so I can’t add any more information, although I will say that I could have kept eating this if the second dish hadn’t arrived at the table.
The second dish, which I think might be Dong Opla which is essentially an egg dish, with fresh pork meat, cured pork and chilli as it’s main components. Served hot, the egg yolk cooks in the curry although again, the baguette comes in handy. A wonderful start to our morning tour, but we still had a few hours of eating ahead of us.
Only a few metres further down the same street, we duck into a small alley to try a dish that reflects Hoi An’s Japanese influence, with thick tumeric-coloured Udon noodles, crispy rice crackers, eggs, shrimp, crushed peanuts and grilled meat called Mì Quảng. The thick noodles add quite a lot of substance to the dish, making it dangerous to eat more than a couple of spoonful’s despite its wonderful, fresh flavour.
Directly across the road, we arrive at a very special cart to meet Hoi An street food royalty, Madam Khanh, the Banh Mi Queen looking resplendent and regal in her high chair (or throne?) and pearls.
I’m slightly concerned about the quality of the pate in the cart window – it kind of looks like it has been there since 1972 – but nevertheless Kylie and I head into the restaurant area behind the cart and eagerly wait for Madam Khanh to prepare our Banh Mi.
Slightly unique to our previous Banh Mi tasting experiences, Madam Khanh uses kimchi and generous portions of sweet chilli sauce in her sandwiches making it crunchy, spicy and sour all at the same time. Extremely tasty and delicious, the sweet chilli does linger on the palate, making it impossible to taste the aged pate.
Still at Madam Khanh’s, we order a Vietnamese iced coffee (Ca Phe Sua Da) and Huy has arranged for two servings of coconut rice and mung bean to be brought to our table for Kylie and I to enjoy. It was tempting to sit for a while and continue to enjoy the warm sunshine but it was time to resume our tour.
Passing by a vendor grilling pork over hot coals, Huy purchases a small container to taste on our way to the next destination.
A few minutes later we arrive at a busy road with a street vendor selling a Black sesame soup. Although this dish has a soup-like consistency, it is actually a popular Asian dessert made with white rice, toasted black sesame seeds, sugar and water. Looking somewhat like tar, the soup was quite sweet and delicious and very easy to digest. I could have gone back for another bowl as it was that tasty, despite the interesting appearance.
Huy then leads us to a local neighbourhood market, Cho Hoi An to look at the fresh produce on sale for the morning, stopping every now and then to either buy new kitchen utensils cheaply (my current obsession), take photos or try another food sample. Even the skinned frogs are starting to look familiar as we wander through the meat and poultry stalls.
Across from the market, Huy purchases Banh It La Gai, a small cake with jelly-like outer casing and a distinctive black colour which comes from the boiled leaves of a thorn leaf plant that is commonly found in the central part of Vietnam. Inside the gelatinous cake is sticky rice, sugar and banana leaf.
Our car arrives at the market to take us to the nearby Tra Que village, to visit a working farming community and walk around the herbs and vegetables being cultivated there. The market gardens are not too dissimilar to the one that we had visited in the North with the same ordered and manicured landscape of coriander, lemongrass, mint and basil. Huy leads us to a small museum displaying artefacts depicting how a family in the community used to live and work their allotment.
The museum also has a small restaurant called Waterwheel where we are given a refreshing drink of ginger and basil seeds to try along with intricate parcels of shrimp and mint tied together with chives as a snack. The shrimp parcels are amazing and look elaborate despite there only being three ingredients. Given the food we had already consumed during the morning, it was inconceivable that Kylie and I could eat more than one or two parcels, yet a whole tray appeared at our table.
Only a couple of people were working in the fields given that it is a Sunday morning, however one small woman came to a pool of water, walked into the well and filled two large watering cans of water placed as a yoke on her back, and proceeded to water her garden. I’ve done some serious Body Pump classes in my time, however my thighs and shoulders hurt from just looking at her carrying the heavy weight on her shoulders as she made repeat trips!
We leave the village and head back to Hoi An for one last restaurant visit and tasting at Bong Hong Trang Restaurant to see where the best White Rose dumplings are made (according to our guide). The restaurant is fairly simple in décor and as we grab a table inside, I can see a large communal table at the back where several young girls are sitting down making dumplings. I stood and watched for a while, thinking that it looked to be somewhat easy, so I grabbed a chair and some dough and attempted to make the rose shape myself but I found out the hard way that there is a lot of skill involved in making those things.
With my career in dumpling making now in tatters, I went back to our table and ate a few White Rose dumplings with a new found appreciation for the skill involved in preparing them. The dumplings are delicious and beautifully presented but at this point, I can’t eat any more food.
It’s time to pack up and leave Hoi An, make our way to the airport in Danang for the next leg of our tour, however we were unable to previously visit the Marble Mountains as scheduled due to the incessant rain, so Huy has revised our schedule to fit in a tour and some much needed exercise before our late afternoon flight.
Just as we arrive it starts to drizzle but it’s dry enough to make the walk safely. The caves within the Marble Mountains were used by the Viet Cong as a makeshift hospital, which are now home to shrines and small chapels. Incredulously, the US also used the summit for helicopter landings during the war. There are many well-preserved pagodas and Buddhist temples throughout the park with amazing architecture amongst the rainforest. It felt great just to walk and climb over the mountains to see the incredible views of the city below.
At this point in our trip, we were also meant to visit China Beach but Kylie and I opt for an early arrival at the airport and say goodbye to our Central Vietnam guide, Huy.
A short flight later and we arrive in Ho Chi Minh City and meet our new guide, Binh, who will be looking after us during our stay in southern Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh, HCMC or Saigon, call it what you will, the city feels vastly different from Central Vietnam – for one thing, it’s not raining, it’s warm and it has a distinct Western or modern feel about the city. As our car heads downtown towards the hotel, Binh help us find our bearings and where there are suitable places to eat for dinner.
Much later in the evening, Kylie and I take the opportunity to explore our new surrounds and enjoy the warmth of the evening air. After our experiences in Hoi An, the ability to choose our own restaurant for dinner is almost exhilarating. During our wanderings we found a popular restaurant called Hoa Tuc with a wonderful ambience and a lovely outdoor dining area. Hoa Tuc is a restaurant specialising in contemporary Vietnamese cuisine, and also runs the “Saigon Cooking Class” that Kylie and I will be participating in on Tuesday, so it’s almost like a mini-stakeout.
We are wanting something light but the menu is extensive with lots of delectable food. On the specials board, we choose the Pan fried fillet of Vietnamese snapper with sautéed pineapple and coriander in an effort to acquaint ourselves with the local fish and the Spicy char-grilled beef with kumquat, mustard sprout, lemongrass and white eggplant salad because it sounds like an authentic contemporary dish.
The cocktails on offer, as ever, are great. The salad was the first dish to arrive at our table and exceeded all expectations. The flavours were excellent and we made a mental note to ask for the recipe when we were scheduled to return in a couple of days. I’ve tried Thai eggplant but this is my first experience with white eggplant and it’s very similar to the apple or Thai variety.
The fish dish on the other hand wasn’t so wonderful but we came to the conclusion that it was also partly our mistake. The fact that it was on the specials board, coupled with the fact that it was Sunday, should have rung alarm bells but we were probably too tired to think strategically. The mass of sautéed pineapple was used to mask the flavour of fish no longer in its prime, so we took that experience as a lesson learned. Nevertheless, it was a great restaurant in a beautiful setting with good service.
Fed and watered, we went to bed looking forward to tomorrow’s adventure to the Mekong Delta.
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.