Our arrival in Hanoi fell upon possibly the most flavourful time of the year in Vietnam, one week before the lunar new year. New year is a huge celebration in Vietnam and the run up sees the Vietnamese scurrying around trying to pay off all debts, cleaning frantically and heading back to their families for this national holiday. Many sources suggest avoiding visiting Vietnam during this period as places close for up to two weeks and prices are hiked up, however we seem to have reaped the benefits. For example, on a cruise on Ha Long Bay where only 7 of the 24 rooms where taken on board, we enjoyed both the crew’s attentiveness to their small audience and infectious excitement for their upcoming holiday, the relative quietness at tourist spots and, of course, new year itself – watching the fireworks from a rooftop terrace over the Saigon River.
History – Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon
Vietnam is a country with a fascinating and heartbreaking history, ravaged by attacks from China, France and the US as well civil war between the North and the South. Although emerging victorious and independant to the world there is still a feeling of a North South divide which the government is still trying to balance to this day (for example if the Communist Party leader is from the North the Prime Minister will be from the South) and the locals in the south still refer to HCMC as Saigon. If you ever visit Saigon make sure you visit the War Remnants Museum. The mood was jovial as we entered the museum with a bunch of other tourists (possibly due to the street vendor selling beers to backpackers in the queue) and we admired the chinooks, fighter jets and the iconic Huey helicopter but the fun stopped there. The exhibition on war torture left me feeling physically sick, the depictions of the horrors of the US involvement rendered the tourist crowd respectfully silent and the Agent Orange exhibition was so heartwrenching it was enough to make you question your faith in humanity. Not a pleasant experience but just as important as the more pleasurable ways of learning about a country.
In order to avoid inaccuracies (and losing your attention!) I will steer clear of discussing war and history in any detail, however our trips to the Cu Chi tunnels was too good to miss sharing. Firstly because we avoided the several expensive options of getting there (luxury speed boat, air-conditioned coach etc) and took the public bus (number 13 from HCMC bus station in District 1 to Cu Chi Bus Station – around 60 mins and 7,000 dong/£0.22 then number 79 to the tunnels – around 45 mins and 6,000 dong/£0.19). The buses were far from luxurious but ran regularly, were easy to take with the added bonus of enjoying the rural scenery as we got further away from Saigon and a bit of real local life (although James continues to get stared at everywhere we go but I think he quite likes it!)
There are 250km of tunnels which run on three levels underground, the deepest going to 12 metres and were dug by hand for the locals to shelter during the war. The construction is ingenious with long, hollow bamboo camoflaged as termite mounds used to let in air, escape routes to the river and defence mechanisms such as tiny sections of tunnel to prevent the GIs getting through (they were larger and carried more arms than the underfed Vietnamese) and spikey bamboo booby traps.
The ticket for entry included a tour guide with a brilliantly dry sense of humour who targetted James as the first person to try getting down into the tunnels, needless to say he didn’t fit but managed to get into the larger entrances created for GI sized tourists! Traveller tip: tours organised from Saigon are either morning or afternoon so arrive around midday to avoid the big coach parties.
Mekong Delta, Cu Chi
Landscape – Ha Long Bay
We touched on a tiny selection of what Vietnam has to offer during our trip but what we did see was breathtaking. James’ favourite city so far is Hanoi – click here for his photos. The highlight for me has got to be Ha Long Bay. Roughly 3 hours driving from Hanoi the Bay along with the lesser visited Bai Tu Long comprise of approximately 3,000 tiny islands and has been an inspiration for many films such as James Bonds, Pan and Avatar. My research lead me to understand that Ha Long Bay could only be done on a budget if you wanted a party boat day trip – beer, beer, beer followed by jumping off the boat. As we wanted to spend a little more time in the bay and the temperature was 15°C with wind chill we decided to board the opulent Dragon Legend for two nights at sea. The cruise was a treat we allowed ourselves in place of spending any money on presents and celebrations over Christmas and new year and I have never got more bang for my buck, as they say. As I mentioned above the boat was only about a quarter full so we were able to eat most of our meals with the other 12 passengers and, in particular, make friends with the lovely Jesse and Kay from Adelaide. In just under three days we packed in kayaking (twice!), squid fishing, tai chi on the top deck, a candle lit dinner in a cave, a cookery class (Vietnamese Spring Roll recipe HERE) and trips to floating fishing villages and a pearl farm. I also spent quite a bit of time just staring in wonder at the scenery as we glided through the islands.
Food – Everywhere!
Another joy of travelling to a new country is discovering the local cuisine. On every corner and along every street there is food in some form or other, whether it’s a noodle soup cart, a barbeque street kitchen or fresh vegetables and meat and seafood (I am talking live chickens, eels, frogs and crabs). The flavours are more subtle, at first, than Thai cuisine and a lot of pepper is used in dishes. I say “at first” as most places will serve your food along with tiny dishes of fish sauce, pickled garlic, fresh chillies, peanut sauce, fried shallots, fresh herbs and lime wedges to add to your soup or dip your spring rolls and meatballs in, and this is what brings the dish to life.
Our first taste of Vietnamese food was breakfast in Hanoi – pho. Pho is a broth served mainly for breakfast although you can eat it anywhere and at anytime in the cities. The dish is a wonderfully warming combination of rice noodles, slices of meat (usually beef), delicate onions, ginger, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fish sauce and fresh coriander and I must confess that one day I had pho for all three meals! What’s more every place serving pho makes it slightly differently so there is plenty of variety and no two phos are ever the same. I’ll be trying to recreate this for breakfast when I am back, that’s pho sure.
My favourite meal so far was at a street kitchen in Hanoi which only served Bun Bo Nam Bo, a beef and lemongrass noodle salad, although it to me it is halfway to being a soup. I had it without the beef and I didn’t feel I was missing out at all. There is so much going on with this dish – glass noodles, marinated meat, oyster sauce, lemongrass, garlic, pickled vegetables, crispy fried shallots, roasted peanuts, green salad leaves, fresh coriander, mint and bean sprouts – I’d go back to Hanoi in a second for another bowl!
Although meat features heavily in the cuisine, thanks to the Buddhist population there are plenty of vegan options (which I have no beef with!) Upon the excellent recommendation of food writer Calvin of http://www.savorsaigon.com/ I dragged chicken and pork fanatic James to Saigon Vegan http://www.saigonvegan.com/ The menu is Vienamese style and interestingly many of the traditional dishes, such as spring rolls (both fresh and fried) did not need to be adapted to be classed as vegan. Crispy fried eggplant/aubergine and okra are tasty starters if you are spring rolled out and I finally got to try bitter melon which I had stir-fried with onions and soft tofu (Khổ qua xanh xào hành đậu hủ) – it was well worth the wait!
Banh mi – literally meaning “bread” – is as ubiquitous as pho. The baguette looking rolls are much lighter with a thinner crust than their French cousin but are one of the most conspicuous influences left over from the French colonial era. Sandwiches are commonly made with paté and pickled vegetables.
And finally I couldn’t possible close without mentioning Vietnamese coffee. Hot water drips through ground coffee and is drank quite short with or without a dollop of sweetened condensed milk. James and I are close to addicts. Another equally delicious variation is to top the coffee with egg beaten smoothly with condensed milk.
Our recipe for Spring Rolls is HERE – until then thank you for reading!