Vietnam – a feast for all the senses

F&HE reader and contributor JENNY HANDLEY and her women’s investment club enjoyed a value-for-money gourmet tour of Vietnam.

By Jenny Handley

There are many ways of experiencing Vietnam – backpacking, on a bike, on a budget or in a boat. I opted to travel as part of a group of eight fabulous, funloving women. Our all-girl investment club called the Topless Ten (we play the share market with the aim of learning, and earning enough profit to travel together) decided that the beauty, beaches, culture, history and cuisine of Vietnam were perfect for our next trip.

Vietnam is in a class of its own, and it offers a rich and rewarding yet affordable gourmet experience. After landing in bustling Hanoi in North Vietnam, where crossing a road offers a new extreme sport, we dumped our empty suitcases at our hotel, Maison Hanoi in Silk Street, and soon became fodder for shopkeepers. The old quarter is demarcated into 36 streets that give you a good idea of how you will spend your dong, the local currency, which you convert by dropping three noughts and dividing by three to get the equivalent to the South African rand: 30 000 dong equals R10.

After some frenzied shopping we ventured out for a memorable massage, costing just U$8 each, as we needed to be in a state of real relaxation for the next extreme sport: being pedalled in a bicycle carrier for two through frantic traffic to reach Quan An Ngon for our first Vietnamese meal.

The restaurant is revered by locals and tourists alike for its vast array of traditional rural food, either enjoyed in the outside courtyard, where you choose from a variety of stalls, or inside in what feels a little like a beer hall. It was a fabulous start to a gourmet getaway… we ordered Banh Tom Ha Noi (crispy shrimp pancake), Banh Bao Chien Nhan Thit (deep-fried dumpling with pork), Banh Xeo (Vietnamese pancake) and Mi Xao Hai San (stir-fried egg noodles with seafood and vegetables), all for just R33 per person, including drinks.

On day two we enjoyed a half-day city tour that included a visit to a pagoda, the Literary Museum and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, before heading off for another tantalising feast at Kiti restaurant. Here we ordered Vietnamese spring rolls (already a firm favourite), Hue-style spring rolls, mango salad, pork with cashew nuts, noodles and vegetables plus drinks, for a total of 477 000 dong (less than R200 for the entire feast).

Lunch on day three, after discovering a third extreme sport – shopping – was at world-renowned Fanny’s Ice Cream Parlour. We decided on the chocolate fondue (239 000 dong) and sushi ice cream (109 000 dong). These exquisite works of art resemble the real thing, and we had great fun sampling what looked like wasabi, ginger and salmon, in delicate sorbets and ice creams. The chocolate fondue was a fitting finale to an ice-cream feast.

A quick flight to Da Nang, a warm greeting by our tour guide, and then a speedy bus ride took us to the town of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Central Vietnam that was untouched by the Vietnam War (known as the American War by the Vietnamese). With access to a river and the sea, it has a charm all of its own. The best time to visit is at full moon when the old part of the town turns off the lights and relies on beautiful Vietnamese lanterns to illuminate its uniqueness.

Our half-day walking tour of Hoi An was rounded off with a relaxing boat trip along the river, where we watched fishermen at work before heading back to our hotel for a G&T and a club sandwich that could have fed a family. After our daily massage at the spa, we took a fiveminute shuttle trip to the nearby village for dinner at Dao Tien, which proved to be a veritable treat.

We devoured tiger prawns with tamarind, grilled squid and plum sauce, fried noodles and seafood, and grilled fish in banana leaves. The establishment is owned and operated by a local husband and wife team: Viet Le Quoc is a five-star chef and Dao Thi Tien has extensive restaurant experience.

Proceeds from their recipe book, as well as 10 percent of the proceeds from their restaurant, go towards financing projects at the Better Living Foundation. Vietnamese food is largely influenced by their neighbours, so expect a taste of China in the northern regions and a touch of Thai in the centre. And whereas Chinese cooks use a wok, the Vietnamese prefer a slower and more simmering style of cooking.

Locals travelling from the north and south usually request less spice in their dishes, and while each region has its own distinctive style, there is an abundance of morning glory (water spinach) in all areas. This popular vegetable is an important source of calcium for the Vietnamese, who have very little dairy in their diet. The plant is also rich in iron. It is delicious and simple to use – just break the stems off and add it to stir-fries, soups and salads.

A lively and dynamic third generation chef and native of Hoi An, Trinh Diem Vy developed her passion for food in her parents’ and grandparents’ restaurant and noodle shops. She opened her first restaurant in 1992 after selling her wedding ring to finance it, and is about to open her fifth cookery school.

Trang, Miss Vy’s knowledgeable assistant, started the fun with an unforgettable traipse through the local fresh produce market, which opens at 4am daily and closes by noon. Fish and seafood, meat, live chickens, bugs, slugs and a kaleidoscope of beautiful vegetables are on display, all bartered for by women in their ubiquitous triangular straw hats.

My favourite fruit was the mangosteen, which is black and furry on the outside, and white and delicious inside, like a litchi. A close second was the small, red and hairy rambutan from Thailand, and the dragon fruit was popular, yummy and inexpensive, too. We learnt that the best way to choose the latter is by feel – the heavier ones are better and sweeter.

When choosing green mango for a salad, we were advised to use the ugly ones as they are not too ripe. They’re also regarded as a good substitute for starfruit. Our skills were put to the test with a menu of rice paper rolls, soup with cabbage leaf and shrimp parcels, barbecued chicken with lime leaves, green mango salad, and crispy Hoi An pancakes.

For four hours we watched, savoured and sweated, and then proceeded with our hands-on preparation from the ingredients laid out in front of us. Exclamations of delight were shared as the taste sensations exploded in our mouths. Miss Vy is very hands-on in her establishments, and we were easily tempted to visit her Cargo Club and Mermaid restaurants.

It is not often that the South African traveller leaves an international destination with a good taste in their mouths regarding expense. We left with bulging suitcases and happy memories, a piece of Vietnam in our hearts and the urge to return, preferably at full moon, with an empty stomach.

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