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.

Vietnam Culinary Discovery – Days 3 & 4, Hanoi – Halong Bay – Hanoi

Monday 1st December, 2014

This morning Kylie and I are up early to pack our overnight bags for our trip to Halong Bay and check out of our accommodation in Hanoi. It’s never a dull moment on our trip as Kylie points out that the sliced papaya on the breakfast buffet is captioned as “Watermelon Margarita” … if only my parents had made up exotic cocktail names for fresh fruit when I was younger, I might have eaten more of it.

Lost in translation ... Papaya is also known as "Watermelon Margarita" in Vietnam
Lost in translation … Papaya is also known as “Watermelon Margarita” in Vietnam

Being Monday morning, everyone seems to be out on the roads on their motorcycles trying to get to work or school. At first glance, the traffic in Hanoi seems to be utter chaos, but the more you look and concentrate, all the drivers seem to be doing an elaborate dance around each other, all aware of everyone’s movements and changing direction with impeccable timing.

With motorcycles being the primary mode of transportation in Vietnam, you see incredible things being carried or tied to the back of them – crates of chickens, bundles of baguettes, gas cylinders and even water buffalo!

Have water buffalo, will travel ... the things you can transport on your motorcycle in Vietnam
Have water buffalo, will travel … the things you can transport on your motorcycle in Vietnam

Our trip to Halong Bay is approximately 170 kilometres from Hanoi which in Vietnam equates to a four hour drive, although being accustomed to driving in rural Australia the maths doesn’t really compute in my mind until you comprehend the speed restrictions and the volume of traffic. Most of our journey passes through the Red River Delta agricultural area so there are lots of beautiful market gardens, fields and pottery villages to capture our attention. To break our trip we stop at the Humanity Centre which houses a school and workshop to enable students with disabilities arising from the effects of Agent Orange, to support themselves and their families by selling their own art and other handmade souvenir items. Time flies being in a shopper’s paradise but it’s impossible to resist the call of Vietnamese coffee available from the onsite café.

My favourite time of the day ... Vietnamese drip coffee with sweetened condensed milk
My favourite time of the day … Vietnamese drip coffee with sweetened condensed milk

En route to Halong Bay, our guide Giang is notified that all cruises in the area have been temporarily suspended by the Vietnamese Government since the previous day due to significant storm activity in the area, so we continue onwards with our fingers crossed that the bay will be re-opened shortly. Good fortune is on our side for just as we near the port of Hon Gai, the gateway to Halong Bay, Giang receives a call advising that all cruising operations have been given the all clear to recommence.

Excitedly grabbing our overnight bags, we walk along the long jetty to a small boat that will transfer us out to the larger junk boat that we will be cruising on for the next 24 hours. We spend the next hour checking out our accommodation and keeping out of the wind and rain that seem to have set in for the rest of the day.

As soon as we set off for Halong Bay, we retreat up to the main cabin for a delicious lunch consisting of multiple courses. The flavours of the fried fish dish evoke wonderful memories of my Baba’s cooking when I was much younger and I’m almost tempted to ask for a recipe to replicate at home.

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Vietnam’s greatest natural wonders, consisting of approximately 3,000 small limestone islands and formations. Late in the afternoon, our junk boat arrives at Bo Hon Island and we trek up to Hang Sung Sot, also known as the Cave of Awe to see the famous rock shapes illuminated with coloured lights inside the caverns.

Hiking is thirsty work and as the sun sets it’s time for a glass of red wine and a few rounds of cards while the onboard chefs are busily preparing the evening banquet. A couple of hours later our card tournament is put on hold to make way for another eight course meal: Pumpkin Creamy Soup, Russian Style Salad, Grilled Oyster “Huong Hai” Style, Fried Tiger Prawn with Green Bay Sauce, Huong Hai Fried Spring Rolls served with traditional fish sauce, Roasted chicken with honey, Steamed fish with tropical spice, Steamed rice, Stir-fried seasonal mixed vegetables and crème caramel. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to photograph the latter dishes as my mobile phone was commandeered for musical entertainment. I think the kitchen staff may have had a lot of time on their hands as most of the plates were decorated with elaborate cucumber designs but needless to say, the meal was absolutely delicious.

Tuesday 2nd December, 2014

Good Morning Vietnam! Our day started with a light breakfast before heading to Dao Titop, a small islet, to climb the four hundred-odd steps to the top and capture the stunning views of Halong Bay from the lookout. Although the rain had abated temporarily, the stone steps were wet and slippery, so it was slow going in some places but the spectacular vistas that greeted us at the peak made the steep climb seem trivial.

After taking a breather and as many photos as our mobile phones could manage, we made our descent back towards the boat and spent the rest of the morning packing our things before enjoying a leisurely brunch before arriving back into port.

Driving back towards Hanoi, we passed through the same rice paddy fields and villages as the previous day, but Giang had our driver pull over to allow us to visit a large garden and smell the fragrant coriander, mint and other herbs for ourselves. Everything was green, ordered and abundant as we wandered through the narrow pathways between allotments. A local farmer in a traditional conical hat was working in her small field of lettuce, getting ready for the next day’s market. The small field next to her also contained lettuce, but the allotment was beautifully decorated with Vietnamese mint around its perimeter.

Arriving back in Hanoi mid-afternoon, Kylie and I are in desperate need of some rest and recuperation after our early start to the day. As this is the last night in Hanoi and after talking up my enjoyable Cau Go Restaurant experience, Giang has booked us a table for the evening and another set menu to enjoy. With spectacular views of the city and Hoan Kiem Lake, we enjoy another delicious dinner of Shrimp and squid salad with mixed vegetables, Deep fried egg tofu with lemongrass and chilli, Deep fried squid in tamarind sauce, Boiled vegetables with chef’s sauce, Stewed pork in traditional pot with egg, Minced pork soup with vegetables, Steamed rice and Fried Banana.

http://caugovietnamesecuisine.com/

There have been a lot of banquet-style restaurant dinners for the first couple of days of tour, however Hanoi is famous for its delicious and plentiful street food which we are going to immerse ourselves in tomorrow.

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.