Vietnam Culinary Discovery – Day 12, Ho Chi Minh City

Wednesday 10th December, 2014

And finally we reach Day 12, the last day of the Vietnam Culinary Discovery tour. The day’s itinerary reads:

Today you will be transferred to the airport for your ongoing flight.

I have extended my stay in Ho Chi Minh City while Kylie has an airport transfer booked in the late afternoon, so at last we have a whole day to shop and explore HCMC on our own and at our leisure.

Our first destination is to head back towards the enormous Ben Thanh Market to shop for souvenirs and Christmas gifts. All throughout our trip, in addition to the culinary lessons, market tours and street food experiences, we have also eaten at a variety of restaurants. Often during our dining adventures, Kylie and I have admired the unique crockery or table accessories and wondered where we could purchase something similar as a memento of our time in Vietnam. As much as I love cooking, I also enjoy entertaining and creating wonderful food for my family and friends, so in addition for my hunt for kitchen equipment, I’ve been looking for something from Vietnam to showcase at my next dinner party.

Fortune appeared to be on our side and on the way to market, we just happened upon a store selling uniquely crafted homewares, exquisite crockery and cooking accessories. I had a lot of fun shopping for beautiful things, with the added bonus that everything was very reasonably priced and also individually wrapped to ensure that my purchases got home safely. Definitely worth a visit if you are on the lookout for something special to remember your visit.

Funnily enough, after our wonderful shopping experience at Authentique, the visit to the market was rather short-lived which now left us wondering, “Where to next?”. Not far from the market is the Fine Arts Museum, housed in two majestic colonial-style buildings with original 1920s architecture, parquetry floors and decorative stained glass. The museum is extensive with an excellent collection of modern and contemporary art in many different forms. The outdoor café in the courtyard was an ideal location to take a break mid-way during our wanderings and enjoy an iced coffee break.

We still have an entire afternoon to amuse ourselves, so Kylie and I walk across the city in search of the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens, taking a few wrong turns here and there, but it’s all part of the experience. The zoo is quite expansive and is actually one of the oldest zoo’s in the world. It was literally feeding time at the zoo when we walked into the reptile enclosure and watched two very, very large snakes were making short work of a couple of rabbits for lunch. All the enclosures looked a little tired and dated, but they were also relatively clean and accessible. While the animals inside the cages may be dangerous, be on the lookout for people approaching you for money behind the barriers.

It’s time to head back towards our hotel to ensure we arrive in time for Kylie’s departure. All the walking has made us a little more agile than usual so we still have another hour up our sleeve, which prompted the idea to explore the famous Caravelle Hotel and enjoy one last tipple before going our separate ways.

The Caravelle Hotel which was beacon of design when it opened in 1959, also served as headquarters to journalists and diplomats during the Vietnam War. According to my guidebook, “Reporters would joke that they could cover the entire war without leaving their seats at the rooftop bar”, which is a site of historical importance that Kylie and I are intent on locating.

We arrive well before the 4pm Happy Hour kick-off, however the bar staff were extremely obliging and content to make us cocktails at discounted prices which is very generous. Queue the exotic drinks and stunning scenery, the sun was about to set on our amazing holiday.

At the beginning of the trip, I was expecting a small group tour and was a little apprehensive to find out that there were only two participants and that we would be room-sharing together for the duration of the trip. I’m extremely blessed to have met and made a new friend who enjoyed food, fun and travel as much as I do and who made my trip memorable for all the right reasons. Thanks Kylie!

And lastly a big thank-you to Insider Journeys for creating a tour that truly showcases the best of Vietnam and allows visitors to discover the heart and soul of a country through its cuisine. Now for the diet …

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 11, Ho Chi Minh City

Tuesday 9th December, 2014

This morning’s activity is a market tour and our final hands-on culinary lesson at the Saigon Cooking Class. Kylie and I arrive early at the well known Ben Thanh Market to meet our guide from the cooking school, Khang, and the rest of the class participants.

Khang leads our group through to the live fish market to introduce us to the different types of fish and seafood that are native to southern Vietnam. As we progress through the stalls, there are trays of crabs that are sitting perfectly still in neatly assembled rows. To the naked eye, they seem to be either dead or asleep until your hand moves towards them and suddenly their claws break ranks and lunge for your fingers. Kylie was having a lot of fun playing with one particular crab and thankfully her reflexes were still fairly sharp as he was extremely feisty and very much alive.

Progressing towards the meat market, Khang makes a classic declaration to the group, “In Asia, we eat everything moving”. I think we had worked that out when we saw the frogs at the market in Hanoi! To my right there is a stall selling every single part of a pig, from nose to tail, with each organ or body part neatly displayed for the passing customers to purchase.

Pig for sale, Market tour - Saigon Cooking Class, HCMC - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Pig for sale, Market tour – Saigon Cooking Class, HCMC – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

As we purchase ingredients required for the day’s cooking lesson, Khang explains how different products are made and where they are used. Our group heads further into the market, through the narrow alleys and passages to look at fermented vegetables, dried fish, fresh noodles and all manner of food available for sale.

Our market tour concludes and we make our way back cross town to the Hoa Tuc restaurant to prepare for the cooking lesson. The cooking school is held upstairs above the restaurant and is beautifully appointed with elegant furnishings, rich purple accents and Vietnamese kitchen wares available for sale. Just as we take our seats at the long bench, our market guide Khang reappears without his glasses and has now performed his own Clark Kent/Superman transformation into super Chef Khang.

The menu for Tuesday comprises of Fresh rice paper rolls with prawns, pork and rice noodles served with peanut dipping sauce; Green mango salad, baby spinach and BBQ chicken with satay;  and Fried rice with lotus seeds, prawns, chicken and vegetables in a lotus leaf and I’m excited that I finally learn firsthand how to create my own rice paper rolls.

This is the first cooking class where I get to be seated for the entire session and something that I could very much become accustomed to, especially as all the ingredients and their exact quantities have been already individually prepared and ready for use.

Before preparing the rice paper rolls, the first process is to prepare the peanut dipping sauce. Khang was extremely patient and clear with his instructions as he stepped us through each step involved in preparing the sauce. The novelty factor was using an Asian-style china soup spoon for all the measuring and stirring, and just like the chopsticks in the previous cooking class, these spoons are now part of my key kitchen utensils.

With the sauce prepared and pushed to the side, we set to work on preparing the prawn and pork rice paper rolls. Khang showed us how to soften the rice paper on the plate with wet fingers rather than soaking them in a bowl of water, and then demonstrated how to assemble all the ingredients together to create the end product, complete with chive decoration. For the next five minutes we prepared and perfected our own rolls. Typically, the first one was passable and the second one was almost restaurant quality. Once we had finished preparing our rolls, we moved to the dining table to enjoy our own handiwork. The dipping sauce was fantastic and the rice paper rolls were equally delicious – this dish is now going to be a staple at home.

It was tempting just to sit and continue eating all day but Khang enticed us back to our seats to start the next dish. Whilst we were eating, the kitchen elves had cleaned down our work stations and laid out a new set of ingredients to use. The next step in the process was to finely chop garlic, shallots and combine the satay paste to marinate the chicken. Once the marinade had been prepared, our bowls where whisked away for the meat to be barbequed while we set to work on the dressing for the salad.

Armed with our trusty Asian soup spoons, we measured out the ingredients required for the sweet and sour dressing, stirred to dissolve and set aside. Khang introduces the class to a new kitchen tool that will be used to “julienne” the green mango and carrot. We practice finely chopping the vegetables with the crinkle-cut blade to prepare the salad before adding in a few sprigs of watercress, Vietnamese basil, baby spinach, sliced shallots and chopped peanuts.

In the space of a few minutes, we had all assembled a very elegant salad to accompany our char-grilled chicken, which had now magically appeared on our plates. The only thing left to do was to head back to the dining table and consume our latest efforts. Yum!

Green mango salad with char-grilled chicken, Saigon Cooking Class, HCMC - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Green mango salad with char-grilled chicken, Saigon Cooking Class, HCMC – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

Whilst the menu so far seemed to be simple and easy to re-create, things took a more complicated turn when we returned back to our preparation stations. Our next dish was to prepare a Lotus fried rice in lotus leaf, which was essentially a dish that the King used to command to test his royal chefs. So far on our tour, the dishes we had been learning were all designed to impress future mother-in-laws only! Faced with small portable stoves and a large wok, we set to work cooking the fried rice aided by Khang providing the necessary instructions to ensure that the dish was created to an imperial standard.

With the rice pushed to one side temporarily, the hard work was yet to come. Khang demonstrated the next stage of the process by lining a bowl with the lotus leaf and then filled the bowl with the fried rice mixture. Flipping the bowl over, the rice was wrapped in the rest of the lotus leaf to form a small parcel. If I thought that part was tricky, armed with scissors I needed to cut holes into the lotus leaf to be able to form a decorative bowl and expose the fried rice inside before decorating with lotus petals.

And we’re finished! After all that exertion, it was time to assume our royalty positions and eat our rice, which tasted great especially with the addition of the lotus seeds, although I’m not sure where I can source them back home in Melbourne. In between mouthfuls, our passionfruit dessert which had been kindly prepared for us, was served for our enjoyment. It truly was a feast fit for a king.

Chef Khang rematerialised to present us with a booklet which included our recipe sheets and a personalised message. It was such a great morning and a fun and memorable cooking class. Having now undertaken three classes in Vietnam, it was satisfying to know that we had now learnt several new recipes to add to our culinary repertoire which we could perfect in our kitchens back home.

We have already spent two nights in HCMC but have yet to see the key monuments, so the focus of our afternoon activity will be a city tour. Our first stop is to visit the Reunification Palace which is of significant historic importance in Vietnamese history. If this building could talk it could tell a few hair-raising stories about its occupation by the French, followed by the Japanese and then by the King of South Vietnam until the events of 1975 saw a dramatic conclusion to his reign.

While Binh was somewhat apologetic for the 1960s décor inside, I thought I had (stylishly) stepped back in time with lavish furniture and elaborate chandeliers in the key meeting rooms – almost like a retro version of “The West Wing”. The whole tour was fascinating, including visiting the basement which served as a bunker and communications centre during the war.

This year will mark the 40th anniversary since the end of the Vietnam War and the next stop on our city tour is a very sobering visit to the War Remnants Museum. The grounds of the museum display tanks and aircraft used in the war, whilst inside there are some very graphic images and heartrending stories shown inside the various galleries, I was thankful for the opportunity to visit and to learn more about that period of time.

After the visit to the museum concludes, the tour takes a European perspective and we continue towards the city centre to visit the impressive Notre Dame Cathedral, which is the largest church ever built in the French empire. Built with materials imported from Marseilles, the church is extremely beautiful and if you close your eyes slightly you really do feel like you are in Europe.

Metres away from the cathedral, lies the General Post Office which is just as impressive. The building was design by French architect Gustave Eiffel so it was elaborate in both detail and grandeur. Such a shame I don’t send postcards anymore!

We were within walking of our hotel which is where we bid adieu to our local guide Binh as today is our last guided day in Vietnam. Although we only had Binh’s company for a couple of days, we really enjoyed his humour and affable manner.

As soon as Binh was out of sight, Kylie and I set off across town to locate a distinctive building that stands out against the city skyline. With impressive views of Ho Chi Minh City, what better way to enjoy our final Happy Hour in Vietnam by watching the sunset from the 52nd floor at the EON Heli Bar. Using the tall building as our beacon, we arrived in time to secure a table with a stunning view and watch the sun set over Saigon.

Kylie and I are responsible for sourcing our own dinner again and ever since arriving in Vietnam, I’ve been wanting to indulge my Francophile fantasies and experience Vietnamese-French fusion cuisine. La Fourchette is a small, French bistro that is included in Insider Journey’s list of recommended culinary discoveries in HCMC, and has an unique interior that is reminiscent of a Parisian establishment despite being in a suburban Asian street.

Kylie and I make ourselves comfortable with a bottle of Beaujolais and look over the extensive menu – there are so many dishes that it takes a little while to decide what to order for our dinner in Vietnam. Selecting a cross-section of hot and cold dishes we chose Tuna tartare with wasabi and sesame seeds; Smoked duck salad with red capsicums; Veal shoulder cooked with tomatoes, white wine, olives and spices; and Fresh fried salmon fillet with leeks fondue.

Dinner was superb with generous-sized dishes, great service and a relaxed ambience. I couldn’t resist trying the Flambee bananas in rum with vanilla ice cream to finish off our evening.

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.