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.

http://authentiquehome.com/

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.

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/vietnam/ho-chi-minh-city/sights/museums-galleries/fine-arts-museum

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.

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Attraction_Review-g293925-d317904-Reviews-Zoo_and_Botanical_Gardens-Ho_Chi_Minh_City.html

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.

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Attraction_Review-g293925-d4305638-Reviews-EON_Heli_Bar-Ho_Chi_Minh_City.html

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.

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g293925-d1122177-Reviews-La_Fourchette-Ho_Chi_Minh_City.html

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”.

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g293925-d3451261-Reviews-Wine_Bar_38-Ho_Chi_Minh_City.html

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.

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g293925-d1770187-Reviews-Lemongrass-Ho_Chi_Minh_City.html

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.

Vietnam Culinary Discovery – Day 9, Hoi An – Ho Chi Minh City

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.

Mì Quảng - Street food tour, Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Mì Quảng – Street food tour, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

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.

Coconut rice and mung bean, Street food tour, Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Coconut rice and mung bean, Street food tour, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g298082-d4308916-Reviews-Madam_Khanh_The_Banh_Mi_Queen-Hoi_An_Quang_Nam_Province.html

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!

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Attraction_Review-g298082-d2068091-Reviews-Tra_Que_Vegetable_Village-Hoi_An_Quang_Nam_Province.html

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.

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g298082-d1994933-Reviews-Bong_Hong_Trang_Restaurant-Hoi_An_Quang_Nam_Province.html

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.

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g293925-d1569216-Reviews-Hoa_Tuc-Ho_Chi_Minh_City.html

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.

Vietnam Culinary Discovery – Day 8, Hoi An

Saturday 6th December, 2014

A week has almost passed since our first cooking class in Hanoi, and this morning Kylie and I are excited to be able to experience our second class at the famed Ms Vy’s cooking school in Hoi An.

Our “Holiday Masterclass” is scheduled to start at 8.30am so we arrive early at the Market Restaurant and Cooking School and are treated to a special welcome drink before our class begins. I’ve been on culinary tours where you get a shopping list or bag to take to the market, however things got a little serious when we were each given a Vietnamese-style straw conical hat to wear as part of the market tour. On the short walk to the dock, a few local residents and fellow tourists were having a few laughs at our expense. When in Hoi An, I guess …

The tour starts with a short boat trip along the Thu Bon River to the Hoi An’s Central Market near the Old Quarter. Once at the market, our guide leads us to a small stall situated on the outskirts of the main building. Here our guide starts to teach us about the key elements of Vietnamese cuisine, as samples of differing spices and herbs are passed around the group for tasting. I’ve always been intrigued as to how chives and spring onions are expertly shredded and used as decoration for a number of Asian dishes, and within a matter of seconds the stall holder “splits” the morning glory herb using a kitchen tool called a “splitter”. She then used a stainless steel conical tool to demonstrate how to peel a carrot which is then fashioned into a decorative flower. As soon as I saw these utensils, I knew I just had to have them for my own kitchen, all for the bargain price of 90,000 VND ($5 AUD).

After the demonstration, we then head into the meat section of the market to look at the fresh produce, then past the noodles, towards the fish market and through more fresh fruit and vegetable stalls. The market was relatively quiet for a Saturday as it is a full moon day, which requires practising Buddhists to fast and make particular food offerings. On the way back towards the boat, our last stop is at a fruit stall to try fresh rambutan and other tropical fruit native to the area.

We arrive back to the Market Restaurant via the same route, return our conical hats and freshen up with a another cold drink. At this point, I thought we would be heading upstairs to commence our cooking lesson however our hostess asks us to follow her towards a stall inside the restaurant hall where we commence a special informative food tour which takes us on a unique tasting journey right around the entire perimeter of the ground floor, coupled with live cooking demonstrations. The Market Restaurant is quite a unique dining experience where popular street food and traditional Vietnamese cuisine is offered at different stations under one roof, resembling an upscale hawker style market or something akin to Sizzler, Hoi An style. The first stop is to watch rice paper being transformed into large crackers, where we take a sample and try some chilli paste that has just been prepared.

The next stage of our tasting journey takes us to the dumpling station where the group is shown how rice paper is made on a drum before someone is asked to volunteer and have a go themselves. Throughout the demonstration, a team of chefs are busily preparing a variety of different dumplings for the day’s trade and our group is invited to try the famous White Rose dumpling with a special fish sauce and other freshly cooked varieties of dumplings.

We continue onto the next station where chefs are making thick noodles from wet sheets of rice flour, effortlessly cutting the sticky dough into perfectly formed pieces. From the next stall, beef and betel leaves are being grilled over hot coals with the smoky aroma wafting towards us. Thankfully there are hot samples waiting for us to try when we arrive at the station. The next station is cooking baby crispy pancakes (Bánh căn) in hot oil where we are offered another sample in small dishes for tasting.

Continuing around the market we learn about how rice was traditionally ground in a stone mill to create rice flour before watching rice vermicelli being created through an industrial looking machine. At the next station, a woman is finely shredding green mango on a homemade wooden mandoline slicer before progressing across the stall to use a special kitchen tool to slice banana flower into edible pieces. With two-thirds of the market covered, we arrive at the dessert station to try candied coconut and ginger pieces as well as a delicious sample of steamed coconut pudding.

But wait … there’s more. We then sampled cooked pieces of root vegetables used in Vietnamese cooking before moving towards the next station, which resembled both a small delicatessen and bakery, housing baskets of fresh baguettes which could only mean that we were about to learn about Banh Mi. With slices of cured pork meat, fresh herbs, pickled vegetables shown around the group, the attendant at the stall made fresh Banh Mi for everyone to sample and enjoy.

Food tasting tour - Spicy Lemongrass Frog, Ms Vy's Market Restaurant and Cooking School, Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Food tasting tour – Spicy Lemongrass Frog, Ms Vy’s Market Restaurant and Cooking School, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

The last station of the food tour was a selection of traditional fare or Vietnamese worker’s cuisine. From steamed pots of pig’s brain to stir fried frogs, we were all encouraged to taste samples but unfortunately I seemed to be quite full from all the other tastings.

Now it was time to head upstairs, freshen up and prepare ourselves for the day’s cooking class. Kylie and I found a seat towards the front of the room and met our instructor, Lulu, who would be teaching us four Vietnamese dishes over the next couple of hours. Our individual cooking stations were rather unique with a large banana leaf doubling as a chopping board and all the condiments and utensils prepared and ready for our first dish which was a soup, Cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth.

We sat and watched Lulu demonstrate the preparation of the shrimp mousse, all the while listening to her funny insights on cooking for her in-laws and anecdotes from married life. It seems like most soups in Vietnamese cuisine are used as some sort of marriage-suitability test.

Once the shrimp mousse was prepared for the class, we started to prepare our soup broth by first gently poaching a couple of quenelles of prawn mixture. Once cooked, it was time to prepare the parcels using the steamed cabbage leaves at our station and the blanched spring onion to tie it all together. The parcels and vegetables simmered on the gas stove for a few more minutes and very shortly, we had created a very elegant and tasty dish worthy of any future mother-in-law’s palate. We were able to enjoy the soup immediately as our station was being cleaned and prepared for the next dish by our kitchen fairies.

Cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth - Cooking class, Ms Vy's Market Restaurant and Cooking School, Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth – Cooking class, Ms Vy’s Market Restaurant and Cooking School, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

The next order of business was to prepare the ingredients to create a marinade for our BBQ chicken and lime leaves dish.

It all seemed to be as relatively simple as throwing in the required quantity of ingredients into the bowl, mixing it all together with the plastic gloves provided, threading the chicken onto wooden skewers and watching it being whisked away and cooked for our enjoyment later.

The next dish, the classic Banh xeo, was a little more complicated to prepare with Lulu demonstrating how to prepare the batter mixture at the front of the class room before we lit up the gas burners again to create our crepes and fillings. It was fun to dispense with the traditional kitchen utensils and cook only with a set of wooden chopsticks. The tricky bit was turning the crepe over in the hot oil in order to create the half-moon shape, and then having to roll up the Banh xeo on a sheet of soft rice paper, but somehow all the effort paid off. Like most food, Banh xeo is best consumed when hot so as soon as we finished cooking and taking our obligatory photos, it was time to eat again.

Banh xeo - Cooking class, Ms Vy's Market Restaurant and Cooking School, Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Banh xeo – Cooking class, Ms Vy’s Market Restaurant and Cooking School, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

The last dish of the day was to make a Mango and prawn salad, to accompany our BBQ chicken for lunch. Lulu demonstrated how to use the Vietnamese vegetable peeler to first peel the green mango, and then using a knife to make lots of deep cuts into the mango, the peeler was then used again to create the thin julienned shards of mango to be used in the salad. It took a little bit of getting used to actually holding the mango in one hand and being familiar with the odd shaped peeler, but eventually I got there and was quite pleased with the mound of chopped fruit I had created for my salad.

Two hours seemed to fly by and suddenly our class was finished and it was time to head back down stairs to the market dining area and eat our BBQ chicken and salad. But before we left, Lulu gave everyone an envelope containing the recipe sheets and our very own Vietnamese peeler to take home as a gift.

We enjoyed our lunch immensely, accompanied by hot green tea, ice-cream and candied ginger and coconut to finish.

http://msvy-tastevietnam.com/the-market/

Young tailor preparing for full moon,  Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Young tailor preparing for full moon, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

Feeling extremely full, we had to head back to our tailor for our second fitting for the items that we had ordered the previous day. I think I was a little thankful that I was trying on a couple tops and not pants! While my tops were starting to take shape, there was still some more work to be done and another fitting was scheduled later in the evening.

The rest of the day was free for Kylie and I to do some shopping and enjoy the walking around the Old Quarter without our guide, and even to put our feet up and enjoy a Vietnamese coffee break. Ms Vy seems to have a monopoly of culinary enterprises in Hoi An, including a contemporary European-style café and patisserie called the “Cargo Club” which we decided to stop at and watch the world go by.

Old Quarter, Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Old Quarter, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

Much later that evening we regroup with our local guide and have our final fitting before heading out for happy hour and dinner. There are some fabulous restaurants in Hoi An with many of my friends recommending their favourite places to eat. I was hoping to try “Mango Rooms”, however Huy was quite insistent that we should try Mango Room’s sister restaurant, “Mango Mango”. Having experienced many facets of cuisine during our trip, I was looking forward to trying Vietnamese fusion cuisine.

Just as we arrived, owner and chef Duc Tram was just leaving to head towards his Mango Rooms restaurant across the river in the Old Quarter. Kylie and I were hoping that we would get the opportunity to watch Duc in the kitchen and ask about the inspiration for the Vietnam-Latin American-Japanese inspired menu, however he didn’t return to Mango Rooms for the evening.

Instead we went upstairs onto the balcony and were entertained by a few boys street performing outside in the rain over a few cocktails. The restaurant has a distinctive ambience contributed by the dim lighting and red accessories and accents within the main dining areas. After a while we moved inside to order dinner, deciding to share the following: Glorious Morning (morning glory, basil and tomato topped wth marinated anchovy in olive oils and herbs with balsamic dressing); A Geisha Fish (tempura pieces of red snapper in Japanese-Vietnamese style and tossed with green pepper, garlic and sesame seeds); Buddha Boogies (seasonal vegetables sautéed with garlic and fresh herbs, served with grilled eggplant, feta cheese and tamarind sauce) and Daisy’s Farm (mixed green, watermelon, orange wedges and apples topped with grilled duck tenders in balsamic orange dressing).

To my mind, Mango Mango was extremely expensive and some of the dishes presented didn’t quite make the grade. The salad dish looked like it belonged at a family barbeque rather than at a restaurant table. The eggplant on the “Buddha Boogies” was not grilled but heavily smoked and burnt over a gas flame and the resulting flavour overwhelmed the rest of ingredients on the dish. The duck dish hit the mark on taste but failed on temperature and the fish wasn’t that memorable. In hindsight, it probably was a good thing that the chef had left the building.

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g298082-d1218436-Reviews-Mango_Mango-Hoi_An_Quang_Nam_Province.html

Ignoring the rain, we walked back home for a good night’s sleep to prepare for our final culinary adventure in Hoi An.

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 7, Hue – Hoi An

Friday 5th December, 2014

After an action-packed day in Hue, the morning’s itinerary is to leave the former capital of Vietnam and make our way north towards the beautiful city of Hoi An.

Our morning drive took us from the busy streets of Hue into farmland where water buffalo where grazing, and then suddenly the wetlands changed into coastal scrub and sandy beaches. After stopping for a photo opportunity at the point where the river meets the sea, our journey continued upward along the Hai Van Pass into rolling hills and green valleys. With views of the Vietnam’s third largest city Danang on the horizon, our local guide Huy led us up to a lookout which was previously occupied by US soldiers during the Vietnam War.

After a short coffee break, our drive continued along the mountain pass into Danang and then towards Hoi An. The first order of business when we arrived in Hoi An was lunch and Huy had arranged for Kylie and I to enjoy the tasting menu at Miss Ly Café.

Miss Ly’s is extremely popular with tourists and locals alike and has a wonderful old-world ambience. With exotic paintings adorning the walls and scented red roses on the lacquered wooden tables, the large open front entrance gave you the feeling of alfresco dining, despite being inside, with magnificent views of the activity on the street outside.

Kylie and I were made to feel extremely welcome and were encouraged to take photos of the busy kitchen, although the staff were in the middle of a busy lunch service. Miss Ly’s husband Nathan, who is originally from the US, chatted to us about the restaurant, the cuisine, life in Hoi An and answered many of our questions.

The first dish on the tasting menu was Fried Wontons, sautéed meat, shrimp, tomato, onion and sauce (Hoanh Thanh Chien) – a vibrant coloured dish, with a crispy fried wonton base and a sweet and sour topping, the wontons were extremely tasty and generous in size and flavour.

The Grilled Pork Spring Rolls in rice paper with fresh herbs and peanut (Thit Nuong) was the next dish to arrive at our table. The peanut sauce was deliciously thick and crunchy and a perfect accompaniment to the fresh spring rolls.

The third dish on the tasting menu was a famous Hoi An specialty, White Rose steamed shrimp in rice dumplings, with onion, lemon and chilli (Banh Bao). These dumplings are made with minced shrimp and got their name from the way they resemble a flower on the plate. Soft and silken in texture, the topping of deep fried shallots adds a crispy crunch, while the citrus and chilli provide balance in flavour. All I can say really is “Yum!”.

And the last dish served was the Cau Lau (Mi Cau Lau), thick noodles, with sliced roast pork, herbs, fresh greens and croutons. The croutons were actually small squares of pork crackling, decoratively placed on top of the sliced pork, with a dollop of chilli sauce on a bed of noodles and accompanying greens. The noodles and meat really gave some substance to this dish but it was also very enjoyable and excellent way to finish our degustation lunch experience.

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g298082-d1090864-Reviews-Miss_Ly_Cafe-Hoi_An_Quang_Nam_Province.html

Having finished our lunch, Kylie and I checked into our accommodation at the Ancient House Resort and prepared ourselves for an afternoon walking tour of Hoi An’s Old Quarter. The beautiful coloured silk lanterns hanging from the trees along the streets, and the distinctive architecture of the Old Quarter, influenced by Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, French and British traders and colonists was unique and captivating.

The first stop on our walking tour was a visit to the House of Quan Thang, a merchant house built by a prosperous trading family from China. Further into the Old Quarter, our visit continued into the House of Tan Ky which is an authentic representation of a traditional dwelling from the 18th century.

Wandering around the waterfront and through the old alleys and streets, our education of Chinese architecture and influence in Hoi An continued at the Cantonese Assembly Hall, with the tour culminating at the historic Japanese Covered Bridge.

Japanese Covered Bridge, Old Quarter, Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Japanese Covered Bridge, Old Quarter, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

Hoi An is also famous for its tailors and the opportunity to have custom-made clothes purchased cheaply. Our Travel Indochina itinerary included a visit to a particular tailor and whilst Kylie came well prepared to have a few garments made, I wasn’t quite so sure but nevertheless I was happy to go inside and have a look. Whilst everyone says there is no pressure to have anything made, after casually wandering around the store for twenty minutes my hostess sat me down at a laptop and started showing me designs on the internet. After another ten minutes of internet browsing, I suddenly came across a design for a top and somehow my indifference disappeared and I morphed into a fashion designer, directing the staff on the fabric, detail and cut that I wanted from my outfit. Once we had both finished being measured up, another appointment was scheduled for the following day for our first fitting.

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Attraction_Review-g298082-d3162331-Reviews-Aobaba-Hoi_An_Quang_Nam_Province.html#REVIEWS

Silk lanterns, Hoi An - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Silk lanterns, Hoi An – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

By the time we had finished and found our local guide patiently sitting outside, it was early evening and Huy was keen for us to go and have dinner at another little local restaurant nearby, literally just around the corner from the tailor.

Barely 6pm, we were the first guests to arrive for dinner at Serene Garden Restaurant, located in an outdoor courtyard decorated with ornate lanterns and leafy tropical plants, the restaurant had a wonderful ambience and an impressive outdoor kitchen and barbeque area. Kylie pointed out that chef on the grill was wearing a “Travel Indochina” cap which gave us a laugh and certainly piqued my interest. When our guide came back to check up on his guests, we found out that another guide who works for the company had recently taken ownership of the restaurant.

Although we weren’t overly hungry, we ordered the Banana Flower salad to share, also wanting to try something from the special barbeque menu, we selected the Lemongrass Calamari and Chicken Skewers. The handcrafted ceramic rice bowls and plates on our table were beautifully designed and almost sent me on quest to find something similar to bring home as a souvenir.

Our dinner didn’t take too long to arrive and looked as great as it smelled. All the dishes were extremely delicious and beautifully presented and to our great surprise, despite having a few alcoholic drinks and a couple of meals, it was also extremely cheap. I think I was quite happy with Travel Indochina’s “recommended” restaurant choice after our experience at Serene Garden.

http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g298082-d7095023-Reviews-Hoian_Serene_Garden-Hoi_An_Quang_Nam_Province.html

Although the rain had now started again, it was now a perfect opportunity to enjoy a walk along the waterfront and watch the beautiful paper lanterns float along the water’s edge before heading back to our hotel.

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 6, Hue

Thursday 4th December, 2014

Today is essentially our one and only opportunity to discover the highlights of the former imperial city of Hue, which served as Vietnam’s capital from 1802 to 1945. We have an action-packed day filled with sightseeing and enjoying the cuisine particular to Central Vietnam. Unfortunately the change in geographic location also means a change in weather so our local guide is insistent that we bring an umbrella at all times.

A short drive from outside the city, the first stop of the day is to visit the royal tomb of Khai Dinh, the second last emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. This mausoleum is built with a combination of European and Vietnamese architectural styles and is quite impressive in its grandeur. Huy, our local Travel Indochina guide, recites the history of the site and the relatively short life of Khai Dinh. The interior of the tomb is uniquely decorated with mosaics that have been created with glass from champagne and beer bottles, as well as pieces of broken china from Vietnamese crockery and cutlery.

Our education in Hue’s history continues with a visit to the iconic seven-story Thien Mu Pagoda, or Heavenly Lady Pagoda, including its beautiful garden surrounds and a sneak peak at the monk quarters at the back of the temple.

The rain has started to set in as we commence our tour of the Hue Citadel and Imperial City so our architecture briefing and exterior photographs are kept to a minimum as we seek shelter inside the palace. Kylie and I spend the next hour or so learning about the history of the Imperial City, the Nguyen emperors and life at court, and then wandering through the restored buildings, including the impressive Royal Theatre.

A fantastic morning exploring the best sights of Hue and suddenly it’s time for lunch. Huy lives in the neighbourhood behind the Imperial City and is keen to take us to a local family-owned restaurant to try a local specialty, Bánh bèo chén.

Bánh bèo chén are delicate rice cakes cooked in small, shallow dishes topped with minced shrimp and pork crackling or a pork fat crouton. I distinctly remember watching Luke Nguyen prepare this dish in one episode of his culinary journeys based in Hue, so after I got over the initial excitement of actually sampling a dish that I’ve seen being prepared on television, I crouched down beside our “chef” and started pouring the rice flour mixture into the small dishes too.

Our little party were the only customers at the restaurant which is located at the front of a small residential house, so we literally made ourselves at home at a small plastic table and braced our stomachs for the upcoming feast.

The bánh bèo chén shortly arrived at the table and after the obligatory photo opportunity, our guide demonstrated how we should eat the dish. Sprinkling a little fish sauce over the top, Huy used a teaspoon to lift the steamed rice cake from the dish and eat it whole. I didn’t need to be shown twice how to eat food, so I grabbed a dish for myself and repeated the process. Yum! With the rain pouring outside, I thought I was in foodie heaven sitting undercover devouring these little delicacies. The rice cakes were firm yet smooth to taste, with the pork crouton adding a bit of crunch to the texture. The salty fish sauce gives the dish a little extra flavour and helps moisten the steamed dumpling.

I would have been happy if that was the only dish on the menu, however Huy also ordered a few more Hue bánh dishes for Kylie and I to enjoy. Also on our table was Bánh nậm, another specialty from the central region, which are rice dumplings topped with shrimp, pork and spring onion, and then steamed in banana leaves.

Unfolding the hot parcels to reveal the steamed dumpling inside was as much fun, as consuming the dish itself. A little more substantial than the bánh bèo chén, you use a spoon to scoop the steamed dumpling away from the banana leaf and mix to combine the topping with the base, so that the flavour is evenly distributed. Delicious! In hindsight, these might have been my favourite bánh of the moment.

The next Hue specialty was Bánh bột lọc lá which are dumplings made from tapioca flour that also contain shrimp and pork and are also enclosed and steamed in banana leaves. A little more visually spectacular than the other dumplings, the tapioca starch becomes translucent when cooked to reveal the whole shrimp and prawn pieces inside.

And yet another dish arrived on the table. Similar to a dish we tried in Hanoi, cha heo can be described as cured pork meat wrapped in a small mound of banana leaves. Just when I thought that there were more than enough dishes to sustain Kylie and myself for the afternoon, the Bánh ướt, the final dish arrived.

Bánh ướt, Hue - Vietnam Culinary Discovery
Bánh ướt, Hue – Vietnam Culinary Discovery

Bánh ướt, loosely translated as “wet cakes”, are thin sheets of rice noodles, topped with Vietnamese basil, bean sprouts and fried shallots. The wet texture and fresh ingredients was a change from the meat dumplings and were quite filling on their own. Lunch at this small family restaurant was a rare treat and unfortunately I can’t find the name of the place on TripAdvisor to share other than it is located at 109 Le Huan, Hue and the words “Quan 109” are at the top of the outside sign.

One of the highlights of this particular tour when compared to other similar group tours to Vietnam, is that Travel Indochina include visits to not-for-profit organisations such as the Spiral Foundation’s “Healing the Wounded Heart Shop”, where local deaf and mute workers make and sell products that have been made from recycled materials. Our guide gave us a crash course in sign language so that we could communicate a few greetings and what country we had come from. When we arrived at the centre, we met the director who explained what the organisation was about and how they provide work for disabled artisans. Kylie and I were then introduced to two resident artisans, who helped us to make our own rings from electrical wire to keep as a souvenir. As we wandered around the gift shop afterwards, there were framed photos of famous celebrities such as George Clooney and Angelina Jolie holding their own purchases, so we were obviously in good company.

http://hwhshop.com/?page_id=28

That evening we met our local guide again to enjoy the local Hue cuisine. Huy took us to a popular Hue restaurant, called “Hong Mai” that specialises in Bánh khoái , otherwise known as “happy pancake” or “Hue pancake” and Nem lui, aka “Hue lemongrass skewers”.

The Bánh khoái was the first dish to arrive at our table and I was salivating at all the wonderful fresh ingredients inside the pancake as well as its perfectly formed crispy exterior. Banh khoái is a essentially a Vietnamese rice flour crepe cooked on one side in oil until crispy, filled with prawns, pork belly, pork sausage, egg, bean sprouts and spring onion and then folded in half to make it “smile”. Cut into quarters the pancake is also accompanied with fresh herbs, chilli and slices of star fruit for contrasting flavour. I loved the crispy texture of the pancake and the filling was moist and full of flavour. This experience is definitely one of my favourite food memories although with the amount of oil and heat required to make a crispy crepe, I think I will limit my Bánh khoái consumption to restaurants only.

The lemongrass skewers is another Hue favourite that I saw Luke Nguyen prepare on his culinary journey to Central Vietnam on SBS one dark winter’s evening. Made with minced beef and pork, the meat is shaped around stalks of lemongrass and cooked on a chargrill, giving the meat a smoky aroma and flavour. The skewers are traditionally served with a “secret” dipping sauce which is made with glutinous rice flour, sweetcorn flour, peanut butter, hoisin sauce, pork liver, black pepper, fish sauce, sesame seeds, sugar and water. I sampled some of the accompanying sauce and although it wasn’t too bad, I swear I could detect some of that liver flavour!

When our skewers arrived, Huy demonstrated how to create a rice paper roll by removing the meat from the skewer and adding some of the fresh ingredients on our table. The wraps were easy to create but I preferred to enjoy the lemongrass skewers on their own.

Having enjoyed another Hue culinary adventure, we grabbed our umbrellas and rain coats and slowly walked back to our hotel along some of the back streets. Along the way, Huy came across a 100,000 VND note lying on the street so Kylie and I were treated to Chè dessert at a nearby street vendor.

Just like our experience in Hanoi, there were several large pots filled with all manner of weird and wonderful substances. Huy ordered two desserts to try, Taro and coconut milk and Fried pork in tapioca in sugar syrup. Taro is a starchy root vegetable with a unique purple colour, so the Taro and coconut milk dessert had thick and creamy texture, mixed with broken ice and coconut milk and was unusually delicious.

The Fried pork in tapioca in sugar syrup was also a rather unusual mixture but actually quite sweet to taste. The pieces of fried pork were enclosed in clear tapioca balls, so to the naked eye they almost looked like large eyeballs floating in a glass of iced water. The sweet syrup was made with sugar, water and pandan leaves and was really quite tasty. Fried pork wouldn’t be my usual choice for dessert but this weird concoction wasn’t half bad.

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.