Four of our favourite culinary experiences in Vietnam
Vietnam is not only about the history, culture, people and incredible scenery – a huge element of any journey is the simply sublime cuisine, and while globally available, experiencing these Vietnamese dishes in the country of origin elevates the flavour explosion to a whole new level.
A mix of influences from neighbouring countries allow for a combination of many unique techniques, approaches, ingredients and tastes, all linked by the Vietnamese love for powerful aromas, fresh herbs, rice noodles and seafood. My extensive travels from north to south enabled me to understand the regional variances, from the sweeter southern dishes to the saltier palates of the north, and the imperial flair and kick of spice in the central cities.
The food is a highlight in its own right and there are an overwhelming number of culinary experiences on offer, we have whittled these down to four of our absolute favourites:
1 A cooking lesson at Hai Ly Villa in Hanoi
Northern Vietnamese food bears the imprint of Chinese occupation, with comforting noodle dishes and mild flavours. While there is no better place than Hanoi’s Old Quarter to sample the local delicacies, for a chance to experiment yourself, we are able to arrange private cooking classes on the outskirts of the busy capital, at Hai Ly Villa, an ancient house built by a French architect. Meeting at nearby Ngoc Thuy, a vibrant market, we met our host and chef, Ms Bach Quy, for an introduction to the different ingredients. After gathering everything, we returned to the villa, where we started creating several traditional recipes – from Hanoi nem (spring rolls) and fresh glass noodle salad with shrimp to caramelised pork belly and more. The best part of the morning had to be feasting on our freshly prepared dishes in the peaceful gardens, surrounded by giant jackfruit and herbs galore.
2 The ultimate noodle experience in Ho Chi Minh
Look no further than a morning in the south of the city with food specialist, Linh. Gastronomy in the south is heavily influenced by the region’s abundance of herbs, colourful fruits and the freshest of fish. There is a certain tendency for dishes to be slightly sweeter in Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon), but Linh took us beyond the classics – such as pho and bánh mì – and immersed us in a whole other world of noodles. Weaving down narrow alleyways into local neighbourhoods, we slurped our way through some of the best Vietnamese street noodles, some of which I had never heard of before, for instance, bánh canh cua (a thick tapioca-based soup with crab and shrimp). When we’d had enough of noodles, there was no need to fear, as Linh guided us around the corner to a quiet shop serving Huáo specialties such as bánh bèo (literally ‘sizzling pancake’) and bánh ram-it (fried sticky rice dumplings, pork belly mung bean and shrimp). For the adventurous gourmet, this is the culinary experience.
3 A foodie experience with Summer in Danang
Originally a blogger and since featured in The New York Times, our friend on the ground, Summer, proudly introduces Central Vietnamese cuisine on a fun and scrumptious expedition known exclusively to locals. Danang-born Summer grew up sampling the balanced dishes unique to this region, where modest resources have been transformed into fare fit for an emperor. We wandered along tiny back alleys out of touch from the tourist crowd, dipping into some of the coastal city’s oldest restaurants, where recipes have remained unchanged over the centuries. Over bowls of steaming Mì Quảng, Summer explained her love of her country’s cuisine and the complex use of flavours in the platefuls we tried. Over the years, these discoveries have now fueled her passion to become the chef she is today, and if clients have the time, we would highly recommend dinner at Nén Restaurant, where she is the head chef.
4 A market visit and cooking class with Mr Thanh in Hue
There is much more to the Imperial City of Huế than immediately meets the eye, and on our recent trip, we discovered Mr Thanh, a local resident who is passionate about food. Having worked in a Vietnamese restaurant in the US, Mr Thanh returned to Huế with a much broader knowledge and palate, and an increasing interest in the balance of flavours. We first met him at the Dong Ba Market in central Huế, where we strolled through the authentic stallholders selling anything and everything from conical hats to seafood and textiles. Gathering our ingredients, we headed back to his family home, where we met his wife and daughter. Donning our personalised and hand-embroidered aprons, we commenced cooking. Refreshingly, there were no noodles on the menu here – instead, we learnt how to make a traditional, rich aubergine stir-fry dish, spiced pork-stuffed squid, and pork-and-lemongrass skewers with a peanut satay sauce. For a different take on Vietnamese cuisine, and a welcome break from the royal tombs of the UNESCO old town, this wonderful foodie experience is a must for any client.