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 10, Ho Chi Minh City – Mekong Delta

Monday 8th December, 2014

Today we are heading to the Mekong Delta to explore the agricultural heart of Vietnam. The skies are blue and the sun is shining, so I am excited about what the day ahead entails. Making our way outside the city, we have a scheduled visit to the Binh Tay Market in the Cholon district of HCMC. Cholon, which literally means “big market”, has been home to Chinese merchants and traders for many centuries and is essentially still a huge emporium predominantly selling wholesale goods.

Binh, our guide, takes us through the narrow market alleys and lanes to show us spices and other food specialities that are available for sale. Eventually we head into an area where stalls are selling a variety of kitchen equipment that is extremely cheap when compared to what is available back home in Melbourne, so Binh helps me to look for a couple of items that I’m interested in for my own kitchen cooking adventures.

Once I’ve finished shopping, it’s a two hour drive south from HCMC to our destination so en route we take a Vietnamese coffee break at a roadside stop that looks more like a holiday resort, obviously purpose-built to accommodate the throngs of foreign tourists visiting the region each day, but a beautiful oasis nonetheless.

This is a truck stop? Mekong Delta - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
This is a truck stop? Mekong Delta – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

We eventually arrive at a city with a small port to meet our boat that is patiently ready and waiting for us. It was a little precarious trying to jump across to our boat in thongs but Kylie and I made it safely, and perched ourselves in the front seats to enjoy the view and journey.

I literally felt like a queen as we moved along the mighty river, gliding past a myriad of canals and tributaries of the Mekong by boat with my feet outstretched in the glorious sunshine.

After half an hour of cruising, our boat pulls into the riverbank to visit a brick factory. The river is the life blood of Vietnam which sustains many forms of fishing, farming and transportation commerce. I initially thought that our culinary tour would include a visit to a floating market but instead our visit took us to places rarely accessible by the tourist buses. Kylie and I were able to look inside the giant beehive kilns to see where the bricks were fired after being formed with plentiful clay from nearby rice paddy fields. The leftover rice husks from the farms are then used to constantly fuel the furnace to extreme temperatures. It was fascinating to see how each industry sustains another.

The Mekong is also known to the Vietnamese as the “coconut kingdom” with thousands of people living amongst approximately 40,000 hectares of coconut trees. Our next stop along the river was to visit a another type of factory where farmers sell their coconuts to a middle man or “processor” who will transform the harvested coconuts into other types of products. Unfortunately on the day of our visit, the coconut economy took a turn for the worse and the processor couldn’t afford to take the coconuts without incurring a substantial loss. Nevertheless, the husband and wife team who process the coconuts demonstrated how the coconut flesh is separated from the hard fibrous shell – the juice is used to make coconut jelly; the white flesh is utilised to make coconut milk, or to make oil from which they make candy, or cooking oil or perfume. The coconut fibres are used for building materials while the brown coconut skin chopped off the flesh are used for fertiliser. We were able to taste a range of coconut candy made onsite but the cocktail of young coconut juice that we were given to enjoy on the boat ride, diminished my desire for more coconut products.

Coconut processing factory, Mekong Delta cruise - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Coconut processing factory, Mekong Delta cruise – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

Back on the boat we continued our journey down a small canal with our skipper occasionally diving overboard into the murky water to clear the propellers of debris. Eventually we came at a large bridge that signified that we had arrived at a village. Pulling into the village, Kylie and I left the boat and walked up to the bridge. Binh was showing us a tamarind tree, when all of a sudden I felt someone pinch my bottom from behind. Turning around to give the culprit a piece of my mind, all I could see was a small elderly woman grinning up at me. Apparently I had a nice tush and according to Binh, she was just showing her appreciation as this was a gesture commonly used in Vietnam!

Beware of the arse grabbing granny!, Mekong Delta cruise - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Beware of the arse grabbing granny!, Mekong Delta cruise – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

As we continued walking into the village, we visited another small business where some women were weaving mats from reeds that have grown along the Mekong and then dried. The mats are commonly used in houses as relief from the constant heat. Outside the workshop, a tuk tuk was waiting for us to drive us to our special lunch destination.

I was so excited to be on a tuk tuk that I sat right up the front. The driver put his foot down and I couldn’t help enjoying the feeling of the wind rushing by my face. Flying through the village and towards the rice paddy fields, we suddenly veered onto a small path in a field and sped into the vegetation where we eventually arrived at another small village where we would be having lunch.

Kylie and I arrived at a large outdoor dining area where we were seated and immediately treated to a banquet lunch that had been prepared from local produce. Our first course was a delicious tasting fried, crispy crab followed by chicken and sweet corn soup. Shortly thereafter, a very interesting looking local Elephant Ear fish arrived at our table where it took centre stage until someone came to our table and started to prepare rice paper rolls for us with the filleted fish. The fish, which is similar to grouper was moist and extremely tasty. I was thinking that the fish was the main course, but shortly thereafter we were served cooked prawns with a special spice mix. I’m constantly amazed by the hospitality and quality and quantity of food offered to us. A huge dish of lemongrass chicken cooked in the claypot, with rice and stir fried morning glory was the next course. Despite the heat of the day, a hot meal was welcome with tender chicken falling apart and subtle hints of lemongrass flavour. Thankfully, fresh fruit was the last dish to cleanse the palate and finish off the meal.

Funnily enough, our boat was waiting for us right behind the restaurant, and so we started the journey back along the river to rendezvous with our car. We start the slow journey back to HCMC and arrive back at our hotel in the late afternoon but with plenty of daylight still left in the day to get acquainted with the Western-style shopping centres and the stylish souvenir shops along the famous Dong Khoi Street. There is only so much shopping two girls can handle, and somewhere throughout our wanderings Kylie and I found a great little wine bar to rest our weary legs and enjoy a happy hour beverage. The Argentinean chardonnay on the specials list was excellent for only 60,000 VND ($3.60 AUD) per glass and put paid to the notion that wine is too expensive to enjoy in Asia. I recommend checking out “Wine Bar 38”.

Travel Indochina provide a great brochure of culinary discoveries in Ho Chi Minh City and with the freedom to chose our own evening entertainment, Kylie and I thought that we would try “Lemongrass” for dinner which was just around the corner from the wine bar. The previous evening the restaurant was quiet, however on this evening it was extremely busy which is always a good sign. Set in an old French colonial building, Lemongrass seems to be a popular destination for large tour groups and so we followed suit and ordered one of the set menu’s with a number of local specialties that we hadn’t yet tried in Vietnam such as lotus stem salad. The food was good and plentiful although the restaurant is primarily catering for the tourist market and is priced accordingly.

I honestly thought that when I booked my trip to Vietnam, that the visit to Halong Bay was going to be the highlight but little did I know that a journey to the Mekong Delta would be so memorable and fun, arse pinching and all. This day was indeed my favourite day of the whole tour.

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.