Travel has been a lifelong passion of mine, and several years ago I established a travel bucket list — with Vietnam at the top.At long last (and after several diversions), I traveled to Vietnam on a photography tour in April. I discovered and enjoyed an amazing country, people and cuisine.After a long but comfortable flight via Seoul, we started our two-week trek in Hanoi. The modern day capital of Vietnam maintains the mystery and charm of past centuries. We visited highlights such as the American War Museum and Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, including the gardens of his former residence. We also went to a simple two-room Stilt House situated within a peaceful parklike setting, with a serene lake stocked with the largest koi I have ever seen.
Hanoi exudes an air of elegance comprised of charming public spaces, lakes and tree-lined boulevards. The famous Dong Xuan Market provides street after street of merchants that sell everything from food to herbal medicines, hardware, household items, clothing and more. Since most of the merchants live in the back or upper floors of their shops, life simply happens before your eyes (as people visit, drink tea, and watch the world go by — and someone is always cooking).
Vietnam is a haven for those who love shopping, and especially for market fans. Street markets are inherent to the Vietnamese culture and lifestyle of the country where one can buy almost anything. What to buy? Pearls, local lacquered handicrafts, silk clothing (have something made especially for you), local art paintings (check out the Golden Fish Gallery in Hoi An Old Town … www.titingallery.com), traditional Vietnamese hats and lanterns.
Not long after arriving, my very first local culinary experience was pho — a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, rice noodles herbs, and meat. It was prepared and served at our hotel along with North American- and continental-style fare at breakfast. I was hooked at first bite, and thus began the culinary part of my adventure.
I have enjoyed Vietnamese food for years as we are fortunate to have many amazing Vietnamese restaurants right here in London and southwestern Ontario, but there is nothing like eating a cuisine in its home country. Later that morning, during our visit to the Yen Phu flower market, I discovered the exotic and delicious jack fruit. From there I made it my mission to try and enjoy at least one new dish every day, which turned out to be a very easy goal to accomplish.
In Hanoi, we enjoyed lunch at a unique local restaurant called KOTO (which stands for Know One, Teach One — learning should be passed on, and knowledge is there to be shared). KOTO was created by a Vietnamese-Australian in Hanoi over 10 years ago with the opening of a hospitality and life skills training centre for disadvantaged youth. Today, KOTO runs two restaurants (including Pots & Pans, where we enjoyed yet another amazing dining experience), an online bakery, cooking classes and a catering service. Here are just a few of their delicious and unforgettable menu items: Chicken Wrapped in Pandan Leaves; Prawn on Sugar Cane (one of Vietnam’s popular dishes); Non Du Du — Green Papaya Salad with Roasted Beef.
Another unique Vietnamese experience we immediately discovered upon setting foot outside our hotel, is how to cross the road … and this applies to any busy road in Vietnam! I had heard that the traffic was chaotic. But what I found is that it is also an intricate dance of people, bicycles, motorbikes and cars. They move in a controlled state of chaos, magically gliding through the streets and intersections, for the most part unscathed. Our guide advised us to walk calmly and slowly when crossing any street in Vietnam, in order to get to the other side without bodily injury — the drivers would simply go around us. A bit unnerving at first. The trick is to look straight ahead and pray. Obviously it worked as all members of our group made it home safe and sound!
En route to our next stop, Ha Long Bay, we stopped to observe and photograph traditional garden plots made up of neatly mounded rows of vegetables, rice and herbs, growing in fertile rich soil, carefully tended by hand to perfection. The (wannabe) artist side of me liked the neatly arranged plots like an artist’s canvas consisting of different shades of green.
Once in Ha Long City we embarked on an overnight cruise aboard a very comfortable and traditional Vietnamese junk. Hanoi was a bustling and exciting city; Ha Long Bay provided tranquility. For the next 24 hours we were treated to one of the natural wonders of the world, an open-air geological museum. The museum consists of approximately 1,600 monolithic islands and several enormous limestone caves. A community of around 1,600 people lives on floating houses in Ha Long Bay, sectioned into four quaint fishing villages. All share this idyllic setting with numerous species of birds and monkeys.
Next stop, after a short flight, was Hue. Here we experienced a leisurely boat ride down the Perfume River (during autumn flowers from orchards upriver fall into the water giving the river a perfume-like aroma, hence the name) stopping to visit the majestic Tomb of Emperor Min Mang, the last Emperor of Vietnam.
In the quiet countryside outside of Hue, we were treated to a surprise private luncheon at The Boi Tran Gallery and Garden, owned by a renowned Vietnamese artist. This artist opens her home and gardens to special tour groups and local functions, providing the opportunity to sample fine local Vietnamese dining. Our gracious host and owner Boi Tran has recently been featured on an episode of Antony Bourdain’s food and travel show Parts Unknown.
The one item that stood out (although the entire culinary experience was unforgettable) was the refreshing and almost addictive welcome punch made from fresh fruit that had been fermented in cider vinegar.
We continued south by land, over scenic mountain roads along the coastline and through the Hai Van Pass, the dividing line between north and south Vietnam, to reach the beautiful city of Hoi An. It’s a perfect stop for any culinary enthusiast; cooking lessons are offered at several local restaurants, especially in the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage designated site. Amidst the preserved pagodas and temples was my favorite part, the Central Market. This bustling all-day market is busy throughout the day, but it’s best to arrive first thing in the morning. From fresh fish to live ducks and chickens, rows and rows of fresh Vietnamese vegetables and fruit, it’s no wonder that this market also offers delicious restaurants and tempting food stalls at every turn.
I decided to try cao lầu, a Vietnamese dish made with noodles, pork, and local greens only found in the town of Hoi An … and ended up enjoying two bowls.
Another short flight brought us to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the largest city in Vietnam. Before venturing into this bustling city, we travelled to the Mekong Delta to visit Can Tho and sailed through the Floating Market. The Floating Market is made up of large barges and small colourful boats selling wholesale fruit and vegetables. There we were treated to a local delicacy, Elephant Ear fish. Not attractive to look at, it is a delicious and indigenous fish of the Mekong Delta, and is enjoyed by the locals eaten in a rice wrap with fresh vegetables.
Once in Ho Chi Min City the highlight was a four-hour evening Vespa tour. The tour brought us to five local districts where we were treated to everything from local pancakes to Vietnamese coffee and a selection of finely prepared frog legs and various shellfish. Although our courageous host led us through thick and thin, he stopped at the frog legs.
Finally we wrapped up our trek with three days in Cambodia, visiting the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. To our surprise, we ended the culinary part of this tour enjoying margaritas and enchiladas at a local Mexican restaurant situated right in the heart of the market in Siem Riep.
It was a remarkable experience, and one I will always cherish. Chao mung and adios, until our next adventure!